Tag Archives: spacecraft

For the first time, spacecraft catch a solar shockwave in the act

Solar storm found to produce “ultrarelativistic, killer electrons” in 60 seconds.

By Jennifer Chu


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – On Oct. 8, 2013, an explosion on the sun’s surface sent a supersonic blast wave of solar wind out into space. This shockwave tore past Mercury and Venus, blitzing by the moon before streaming toward Earth. The shockwave struck a massive blow to the Earth’s magnetic field, setting off a magnetized sound pulse around the planet.

NASA’s Van Allen Probes, twin spacecraft orbiting within the radiation belts deep inside the Earth’s magnetic field, captured the effects of the solar shockwave just before and after it struck.

Now scientists at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, the University of Colorado, and elsewhere have analyzed the probes’ data, and observed a sudden and dramatic effect in the shockwave’s aftermath: The resulting magnetosonic pulse, lasting just 60 seconds, reverberated through the Earth’s radiation belts, accelerating certain particles to ultrahigh energies.

“These are very lightweight particles, but they are ultrarelativistic, killer electrons — electrons that can go right through a satellite,” says John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “These particles are accelerated, and their number goes up by a factor of 10, in just one minute. We were able to see this entire process taking place, and it’s exciting: We see something that, in terms of the radiation belt, is really quick.”

The findings represent the first time the effects of a solar shockwave on Earth’s radiation belts have been observed in detail from beginning to end. Foster and his colleagues have published their results in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Catching a shockwave in the act

Since August 2012, the Van Allen Probes have been orbiting within the Van Allen radiation belts. The probes’ mission is to help characterize the extreme environment within the radiation belts, so as to design more resilient spacecraft and satellites.

One question the mission seeks to answer is how the radiation belts give rise to ultrarelativistic electrons — particles that streak around the Earth at 1,000 kilometers per second, circling the planet in just five minutes. These high-speed particles can bombard satellites and spacecraft, causing irreparable damage to onboard electronics.

The two Van Allen probes maintain the same orbit around the Earth, with one probe following an hour behind the other. On Oct. 8, 2013, the first probe was in just the right position, facing the sun, to observe the radiation belts just before the shockwave struck the Earth’s magnetic field. The second probe, catching up to the same position an hour later, recorded the shockwave’s aftermath.

Dealing a “sledgehammer blow”

Foster and his colleagues analyzed the probes’ data, and laid out the following sequence of events: As the solar shockwave made impact, according to Foster, it struck “a sledgehammer blow” to the protective barrier of the Earth’s magnetic field. But instead of breaking through this barrier, the shockwave effectively bounced away, generating a wave in the opposite direction, in the form of a magnetosonic pulse — a powerful, magnetized sound wave that propagated to the far side of the Earth within a matter of minutes.

In that time, the researchers observed that the magnetosonic pulse swept up certain lower-energy particles. The electric field within the pulse accelerated these particles to energies of 3 to 4 million electronvolts, creating 10 times the number of ultrarelativistic electrons that previously existed.

Taking a closer look at the data, the researchers were able to identify the mechanism by which certain particles in the radiation belts were accelerated. As it turns out, if particles’ velocities as they circle the Earth match that of the magnetosonic pulse, they are deemed “drift resonant,” and are more likely to gain energy from the pulse as it speeds through the radiation belts. The longer a particle interacts with the pulse, the more it is accelerated, giving rise to an extremely high-energy particle.

Foster says solar shockwaves can impact Earth’s radiation belts a couple of times each month. The event in 2013 was a relatively minor one.

“This was a relatively small shock. We know they can be much, much bigger,” Foster says. “Interactions between solar activity and Earth’s magnetosphere can create the radiation belt in a number of ways, some of which can take months, others days. The shock process takes seconds to minutes. This could be the tip of the iceberg in how we understand radiation-belt physics.”

Source: MIT News

Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Begins First Stages of Pluto Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently began its long-awaited, historic encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is entering the first of several approach phases that culminate July 14 with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”

The fastest spacecraft when it was launched, New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. It awoke from its final hibernation period last month after a voyage of more than 3 billion miles, and will soon pass close to Pluto, inside the orbits of its five known moons. In preparation for the close encounter, the mission’s science, engineering and spacecraft operations teams configured the piano-sized probe for distant observations of the Pluto system that start Sunday, Jan. 25 with a long-range photo shoot.

 

 

Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter. Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

The images captured by New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will give mission scientists a continually improving look at the dynamics of Pluto’s moons. The images also will play a critical role in navigating the spacecraft as it covers the remaining 135 million miles (220 million kilometers) to Pluto.

“We’ve completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto over the next few months to refine current estimates of the distance between the spacecraft and the dwarf planet. Though the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until May, mission navigators will use the data to design course-correction maneuvers to aim the spacecraft toward its target point this summer. The first such maneuver could occur as early as March.

“We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it,” said Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “The flyby timing also has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto – which these images will help us determine.”

The “optical navigation” campaign that begins this month marks the first time pictures from New Horizons will be used to help pinpoint Pluto’s location.

Throughout the first approach phase, which runs until spring, New Horizons will conduct a significant amount of additional science. Spacecraft instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits, including measurements of the high-energy particles streaming from the sun and dust-particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to Pluto, this area, the unexplored outer region of the solar system, potentially includes thousands of similar icy, rocky small planets.

More intensive studies of Pluto begin in the spring, when the cameras and spectrometers aboard New Horizons will be able to provide image resolutions higher than the most powerful telescopes on Earth. Eventually, the spacecraft will obtain images good enough to map Pluto and its moons more accurately than achieved by previous planetary reconnaissance missions.

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit:

www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

Time to Wake Up: Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto. Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to “wake” the spacecraft from electronic hibernation on Dec. 6, when the probe will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

New Horizons Set to Wake Up for Pluto Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft comes out of hibernation for the last time on Dec. 6. Between now and then, while the Pluto-bound probe enjoys three more weeks of electronic slumber, work on Earth is well under way to prepare the spacecraft for a six-month encounter with the dwarf planet that begins in January.

“New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space – nearly three billion miles from home – but its rest is nearly over,” says Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “It’s time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history.”

Since launching in January 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation – about two-thirds of its flight time – spread over 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014 that ranged from 36 days to 202 days long.

In hibernation mode much of the spacecraft is unpowered; the onboard flight computer monitors system health and broadcasts a weekly beacon-status tone back to Earth. On average, operators woke New Horizons just over twice each year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments, gather science data, rehearse Pluto-encounter activities and perform course corrections when necessary.

New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation for NASA. Not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

Ready to Go

Next month’s wake-up call was preprogrammed into New Horizons’ on-board computer in August, commanding it come out of hibernation at 3 p.m. EST on Dec. 6. About 90 minutes later New Horizons will transmit word to Earth that it’s in “active” mode; those signals, even traveling at light speed, will need four hours and 25 minutes to reach home. Confirmation should reach the mission operations team at APL around 9:30 p.m. EST. At the time New Horizons will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just 162 million miles – less than twice the distance between Earth and the sun – from Pluto.

Time to Wake Up: Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto. Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to “wake” the spacecraft from electronic hibernation on Dec. 6, when the probe will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
Time to Wake Up: Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto. Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are preparing to “wake” the spacecraft from electronic hibernation on Dec. 6, when the probe will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

After several days of collecting navigation-tracking data, downloading and analyzing the cruise science and spacecraft housekeeping data stored on New Horizons’ digital recorders, the mission team will begin activities that include conducting final tests on the spacecraft’s science instruments and operating systems, and building and testing the computer-command sequences that will guide New Horizons through its flight to and reconnaissance of the Pluto system. Tops on the mission’s science list are characterizing the global geology and topography of Pluto and its large moon Charon, mapping their surface compositions and temperatures, examining Pluto’s atmospheric composition and structure, studying Pluto’s smaller moons and searching for new moons and rings.

New Horizons’ seven-instrument science payload, developed under direction of Southwest Research Institute, includes advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector (designed and built by students at the University of Colorado) and two radio science experiments. The entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs.

Distant observations of the Pluto system begin Jan. 15 and will continue until late July 2015; closest approach to Pluto is July 14.

“We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” says Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at APL. “New Horizons might have spent most of its cruise time across nearly three billion miles of space sleeping, but our team has done anything but, conducting a flawless flight past Jupiter just a year after launch, putting the spacecraft through annual workouts, plotting out each step of the Pluto flyby and even practicing the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft. We are ready to go.”

“The final hibernation wake up Dec. 6 signifies the end of an historic cruise across the entirety of our planetary system,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “We are almost on Pluto’s doorstep!”

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is the principal investigator and leads the mission; SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

Source: JHUAPL

MAVEN Completes Commissioning And Begins Its Primary Science Mission

The MAVEN spacecraft completed its commissioning activities on November 16 and has formally begun its one-year primary science mission.  The start of science is actually a “soft start”, in that the instruments started making science measurements beginning almost as soon as we were in orbit, and some instrument calibration activities will be continuing throughout the mission.

Spacecraft commissioning, in what the MAVEN team called its “transition phase”, included adjusting the orbit to get into its science orbit, deploying the booms that hold a number of the instruments away from the spacecraft, ejecting the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) instrument cover, turning on and checking out each of the science instruments, and carrying out calibration activities for both the spacecraft and the instruments.  This period also included the close approach of Comet Siding Spring, which whizzed by Mars at a distance of only ~135,000 km on October 19.

During this transition phase, we were able to get some early science observations.  We made observations from MAVEN’s initial 35-hour capture orbit immediately after the large Mars Orbit Insertion maneuver on Sept. 21.  From this capture orbit, which took the spacecraft to much higher altitudes than our science-mapping orbit will, we used the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument to observe the extended clouds of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen surrounding the planet.  These “coronae” extend out to more than ten planetary radii, and this orbit allowed us to make measurements of the clouds’ spatial extent to higher altitudes than we can during the primary mission.  We also took time off from commissioning to observe the comet and to take before and after observations of the Mars atmosphere to look for changes.  IUVS and NGIMS observations both revealed a tremendous quantity of metal ions that came from cometary dust that entered the atmosphere.  Their presence was unexpected, in that the nominal models of the paths taken by dust grains, calculated prior to the comet passage, indicated that no dust would make it all the way to Mars.  We’re certainly glad that we took precautions to protect us from dust during the encounter!

During science mapping, the spacecraft will carry out regular observations of the Martian upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and solar-wind interactions.  MAVEN will observe from an elliptical orbit that gets as low as about 150 km above the surface and as high as 6000 km.  The nine science instruments will observe the energy from the Sun that hits Mars, the response of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, and the way that the interactions lead to loss of gas from the top of the atmosphere to space.  Our goal is to understand the processes by which escape to space occurs, and to learn enough to be able to extrapolate backwards in time and determine the total amount of gas lost to space over time.  This will help us understand why the Martian climate changed over time, from an early warmer and wetter environment to the cold, dry planet we see today.

From the observations made both during the cruise to Mars and during the transition phase, we know that our instruments are working well.  The spacecraft also is operating smoothly, with very few “hiccups” so far.  The science team is ready to go!  Of course, standing behind the science team are literally hundreds of engineers who designed, built, tested, and integrated together the spacecraft and the science instruments, and who operate the spacecraft daily (and, when called upon, even in the middle of the night).  The MAVEN team consists of researchers at the University of Colorado, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, University of California at Berkeley, Lockheed Martin, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as colleagues at numerous other institutions who participated in developing the flight hardware and in doing the science analysis.  Space exploration is a “team sport”, and the success of the whole team allows us to do our science.

With the formal start of our science mission, we’re on track to be able to carry out our full mission as planned, and the science team is looking forward to an incredibly exciting year!

Bruce JakoskyMAVEN Principal Investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

Source: NASA