Planetary Science

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Goes for Early Stow of Asteroid Sample

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Grey Hautaluoma / Alana Johnson
Headquarters, Washington

Nancy Neal Jones
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Erin Morton
University of Arizona, Tucson

This illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft stowing the sample it collected from asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20, 2020. The spacecraft will use its Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm to place the TAGSAM collector head into the Sample Return Capsule (SRC).
Credits: NASA/University of Arizona, Tucson

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is ready to perform an early stow on Tuesday, Oct. 27, of the large sample it collected last week from the surface of the asteroid Bennu to protect and return as much of the sample as possible.

On Oct. 22, the OSIRIS-REx mission team received images that showed the spacecraft’s collector head overflowing with material collected from Bennu’s surface – well over the two-ounce (60-gram) mission requirement – and that some of these particles appeared to be slowly escaping from the collection head, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM).

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Citizen Scientists Discover Dozens of New Cosmic Neighbors in NASA Data

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In this illustration, the small white orb represents a white dwarf (a remnant of a long-dead Sun-like star), while the foreground object is its newly discovered brown dwarf companion, spotted by citizen scientists working with a NASA-funded project called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld/Acknowledgement: William Pendrill

Using a NASA-designed software program, members of the public helped identify a cache of brown dwarfs – sometimes called failed stars – lurking in our cosmic neighborhood.


We’ve never met some of the Sun’s closest neighbors until now. In a new study, astronomers report the discovery of 95 objects known as brown dwarfs, many within a few dozen light-years of the Sun. They’re well outside the solar system, so don’t experience heat from the Sun, but still inhabit a region astronomers consider our cosmic neighborhood. This collection represents some of the coldest known examples of these objects, which are between the sizes of planets and stars.

Members of the public helped make these discoveries through Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, a NASA-funded citizen science project that is a collaboration between volunteers and professional scientists. Backyard Worlds incorporates data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2010 and 2011 under its previous moniker,WISE. Data from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the facilities of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab were also instrumental in the analysis.

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Two Bizarre Brown Dwarfs Found With Citizen Scientists’ Help

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This artist’s concept shows a brown dwarf, a ball of gas not massive enough to power itself the way stars do. Despite their name, brown dwarfs would appear magenta or orange-red to the human eye if seen close up. Credit: CC byWilliam Pendrill 


With the help of citizen scientists, astronomers have discovered two highly unusual brown dwarfs, balls of gas that are not massive enough to power themselves the way stars do. 

 Participants in the NASA-funded Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project helped lead scientists to these bizarre objects, using data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2009 and 2011 under its previous moniker, WISE. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is an example of “citizen science,” a collaboration between professional scientists and members of the public. 

Scientists call the newly discovered objects “the first extreme T-type subdwarfs.” They weigh about 75 times the mass of Jupiter and clock in at roughly 10 billion years old. These two objects are the most planetlike brown dwarfs yet seen among the Milky Way’s oldest population of stars. 

 

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Mar’s Solar Conjuction — What Is It & What It Means

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Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

 

 

This animation illustrates Mars solar conjunction, a period when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. During this time, the Sun can interrupt radio transmissions to spacecraft on and around the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The daily chatter between antennas here on Earth and those on NASA spacecraft at Mars is about to get much quieter for a few weeks. 

That’s because Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun, a period known as Mars solar conjunction. The Sun expels hot, ionized gas from its corona, which extends far into space. During solar conjunction, this gas can interfere with radio signals when engineers try to communicate with spacecraft at Mars, corrupting commands and resulting in unexpected behavior from our deep space explorers. 

 

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For InSight, Dust Cleanings Will Yield New Science

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Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

 

This is NASA InSight’s second full selfie on Mars. Since taking its first selfie, the lander has removed its heat probe and seismometer from its deck, placing them on the Martian surface; a thin coating of dust now covers the spacecraft as well.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The same winds that blanket Mars with dust can also blow that dust away. Catastrophic dust storms have the potential to end a mission, as with NASA’s Opportunity rover. But far more often, passing winds cleared off the rover’s solar panels and gave it an energy boost. Those dust clearings allowed Opportunity and its sister rover, Spirit, to survive for years beyond their 90-day expiration dates.

Dust clearings are also expected for Mars’ newest inhabitant, the InSight lander. Because of the spacecraft’s weather sensors, each clearing can provide crucial science data on these events, as well – and the mission already has a glimpse at that. 

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NASA’s Opportunity Rover Mission on Mars Comes to End

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DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown / JoAnna Wendel
NASA Headquarters, Washington

 

Artist’s Concept of Rover on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University


One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet. 

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

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NASA’s Cassini Data Show Saturn’s Rings Relatively New

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

JoAnna Wendel
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC


An artist’s concept of the Cassini orbiter crossing Saturn’s ring plane. New measurements of the rings’ mass give scientists the best answer yet to the question of their age. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The rings of Saturn may be iconic, but there was a time when the majestic gas giant existed without its distinctive halo. In fact, the rings may have formed much later than the planet itself, according to a new analysis of gravity science data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. 

The findings indicate that Saturn’s rings formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago. From our planet’s perspective, that means Saturn’s rings may have formed during the age of dinosaurs. 

The conclusions of the research – gleaned from measurements collected during the final, ultra-close orbits Cassini performed in 2017 as the spacecraft neared the end of its mission – are the best answer yet to a longstanding question in solar system science. The findings were published online Jan. 17 in Science.

 

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Scientists Finally Know What Time It Is on Saturn

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

JoAnna Wendel 
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

 

A view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016 as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice. A year on Saturn is 29 Earth years; days only last 10:33:38, according to a new analysis of Cassini data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Using new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers believe they have solved a longstanding mystery of solar system science: the length of a day on Saturn. It’s 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds. 

The figure has eluded planetary scientists for decades, because the gas giant has no solid surface with landmarks to track as it rotates, and it has an unusual magnetic field that hides the planet’s rotation rate.

The answer, it turned out, was hidden in the rings. 

 

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NASA’s InSight Places First Instrument on Mars

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Jia-Rui Cook / Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

NASA’s InSight lander placed its seismometer on Mars on Dec. 19, 2018. This was the first time a seismometer had ever been placed onto the surface of another planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s InSight lander has deployed its first instrument onto the surface of Mars, completing a major mission milestone. New images from the lander show the seismometer on the ground, its copper-colored covering faintly illuminated in the Martian dusk. It looks as if all is calm and all is bright for InSight, heading into the end of the year.

 

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NASA Satellites Spot Young Star in Growth Spurt

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Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

This illustration shows a young star undergoing a type of growth spurt. Left panel: Material from the dusty and gas-rich disk (orange) plus hot gas (blue) mildly flows onto the star, creating a hot spot. Middle panel: The outburst begins – the inner disk is heated, more material flows to the star, and the disk creeps inward. Right panel: The outburst is in full throttle, with the inner disk merging into the star and gas flowing outward (green). Credit: Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

 

An adolescent star in the midst of a dramatic growth phase has been observed with the help of two NASA space telescopes. The youngster belongs to a class of stars that gain mass when matter swirling around the star falls onto its surface. The in-falling matter causes the star to appear about 100 times brighter. Astronomers have found only 25 stars in this class, and only about half of those have been observed during an outburst. 


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