Saturday, May 11, 2019

Courtesy of NASA/JPL

Martian Dust in the Wind

It’s no secret that dust storm on Mars can have devastating affects on technology. We all remember that it was a global dust storm that caused the end of Opportunity. Still, it is also the Martian wind that cleans the solar panels of the rovers and landers. The same wind that kicks up all the dust on the Red Planet’s surface is what kept both Spirit and Opportunity running well past their initial expiration dates.

Known as dust clearings, these are also expected for the newest inhabitant of Mars, the InSight Lander…but with a twist. The craft’s weather sensors will provide crucial science data every time this type of cleaning happens. In fact, the mission has already had a glimpse of this.

On Sol 65 (February 1st), InSight detected a passing wind vortex (dust devil). While InSight’s cameras weren’t able to snap an image of this vortex, the lander’s two large solar panels did experience very small “bumps” in power. This equated to about 0.7% on one panel and 2.7% on the other. This suggests that a tiny amount of dust was, in face, lifted from their surfaces.

In the cases of Spirit and Opportunity, dust-clearing wind gusts occasionally boosted power by as much as 10%, leaving the solar panels visibly cleaner. And while this wasn’t the case for InSight, the recent event has given scientists their first measurements of wind and dust as it interacted “live” on the Martian surface. Since InSight is the first solar-powered lander to include meteorological sensors that are recording around the clock, these dust cleanings could provide valuable information for the design of future solar-powered missions, as well as how these winds sculpt the landscape.

Engineers regularly calculate how much dust is covering the panels (dust factor) when analyzing InSight’s solar power. While they aw no change in the dust factor around the time of this passing vortex, they did see a clear increase in electrical current, which suggests the wind did lift a small amount of dust.

The instruments aboard InSight that are key to measuring these cleanings are collectively known as the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Suite (APSS). During the first vortex event, APSS measured a steady increase in wind speed and a sharp drop in air pressure. These are signature signs of a passing dust devil. When the wind direction changed by about 180°, this indicated that the dust devil likely passed directly over the lander. APSS also measured a peak wind speed of 45mph (20 meters per second), as well as the biggest air pressure drop ever recorded by a Mars surface mission: 9 pascals, or 13% of ambient pressure. This pressure drop suggests that there may have even been stronger winds that were too turbulent for sensors to record.

“The absolute fastest wind we’ve directly measured so far from InSight was 63mph (28 meters per second), so the vortex that lifted dust off our solar panels was among the strongest winds we’ve seen,” said InSight participating scientist, Aymeric Spiga of the Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory at Sorbonne University in Paris. “Without a passing vortex, the winds are more typically between about 4-20mph (2-10 meters per second), depending on time of day.”

What’s really interesting is that the dust lifting happened at 1:33pm local Mars time. This is consistent with dust devils seen here on Earth. On both planets, the highest levels of dust devil activity are usually seen between noon and 3pm when the intensity of sunlight is strongest, and the ground is hot compared with the air above it.

InSight landed on November 26, 2018 in Elysium Planitia, a windy region on the Martian equator. Since then, each of InSight’s dinner-table sized solar panels has gathered a thin layer of dust which has caused a 30% fall in power output. This is due not only to the dust but to the fact that Mars is moving farther from the Sun in its orbit. Daily operations aboard the lander require roughly 1500 watt-hours per sol, and right now the panels are producing about 2700. So, while the mission’s power engineers are still waiting for the kind of dust cleaning that Spirit and Opportunity experience, they still have ample power incase they don’t see one for a while.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Courtesy of NASA/JPL

InSight Captures Stunning Martian Sunrise

Sol 145, or on the Earth calendar, April 24th, the NASA InSight Lander caught this striking image of a Martian sunrise! Taken around 5:30am local Martian time, this image is available as both “raw” and color-corrected. While you can see more detain in the raw version, the color-corrected more accurately shows how the human eye would see this stunning view.
Because Mars is farther away than the Earth is, the Sun only appears about two-thirds the size in the Martian sky compared to how we see it from home.

But this is not the first time InSight has captured this event. Its camera took practice shots of sunrise and sunset on March 2nd and 10th. And InSight is not the first lander to take such photos, either.

“It’s been a tradition for Mars missions to capture sunrises and sunsets,” says Justin Maki, InSight Science Team Co-Investigator and Imaging Lead at JPL. “With many of our primary imaging tasks complete, we decided to capture the sunrise and sunset as seen from another world.”

And indeed, the first mission to send back such images was Viking 1 on August 21, 1976. Then Viking 2 captured a sunrise on June 14, 1978. Since then, SpiritOpportunityand Curiosity have all captured pictures and video of both the sunrise and sunset on Mars.

Given the number of European partners involved in support and instrumentation for the InSight Lander, we can expect to see much more exciting science to come!

If you want to learn more about the InSight mission and those involved, you can do so by visiting their website.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Credit: NASA

NASA Investigation Uncovers Cause of Two Mission Launch Failures

NASA’s Taurus XL was due to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in 2009 and the Glory Mission in 2011. Sadly, both launches met with failures. The investigation into these failures has taken a few years to complete. But on April 30, 2019, NASA finally publicized its findings.

NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) investigation ended up involving NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, as well as the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The cause of the failures was found to result from faulty materials provided by aluminum manufacturer, Sapa Profiles, Inc (SPI). The DOJ’s effort resulted in the resolution of criminal charges and civil claims against SPI, which resulted in an agreement to pay $46million to the US Government and other commercial customers. This stems from uncovering a scheme by SPI that included falsifying thousands of certifications for aluminum extrusions to hundreds of customers.

“NASA relies on the integrity of our industry throughout the supply chain. While we do perform our own testing, NASA is not able to retest every single component. That is why we require and pay for certain components to be tested and certified by the supplier,” said Jim Norman, NASA’s Director for Launch Services. “When testing results are altered and certifications are provided falsely, missions fail. In our case, the Taurus XLs that failed for the OCO and Glory missions resulted in the loss of more than $700million, and years of people’s scientific work. It is critical that we are able to trust our industry to produce, test, and certify materials in accordance with the standards we require. In this case, our trust was severely violated.”

NASA suspended SPI from government contracting and further proposed SPI for government-wide debarment. This exclusion from government contracting has been in effect since September 2015 and was set up in order to protect the government supply chain. NASA has further proposed debarment for Hydro Extrusion Portland, a company formerly known as SPI.

“Due in large part to the hard work and dedication of many highly motivated people in the NASA Launch Services program, we are able to close out the cause of two extremely disappointing launch vehicle failures and protect the government aerospace supply chain,” said Amanda Mitskevich, LSP Program Manager. “It has taken a long time to get here, involving years of investigation and testing, but as of today, it has been worth every minute, and I am extremely pleased with the entire team’s efforts.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars 2020 Will Be Able to Phone Home

The place: Spacecraft Assembly Facility High Bay 1 clean room at JPL.
The date: April 19, 2019.

Mars 2020 engineers and technicians working to prepare the high-gain antenna for installation on the rover’s equipment deck. This antenna will be articulated so that it can point directly at Earth in order to uplink or downlink data and instructions.

JPL is working hard to complete construction of the Mars 2020 rover for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. JPL will also manage the operations of the rover once it lands on the Red Planet’s surface.

If you’d like to learn more about this mission, click here.