Has Phoenix… Died?

Could this be the end of Phoenix? (NASA/JPL)
The end of the line? (NASA/JPL)

Late on Tuesday, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander entered “safe mode.”

Before this, NASA scientists were working to conserve power by shutting down non-critical systems. By powering down instrumentation such as the heaters that warm Phoenix’s robotic arm, valuable energy was hoped to be saved, perhaps giving the lander some extra time to carry out its final experiments before complete loss of sunlight as Mars’ northern hemisphere enters winter. But it seems that a possible dust storm and the falling temperatures (down to -96°C) may have caused a low-power fault, triggering the precautionary safe-mode.

Although scientists were optimistic about communicating with its on board systems, to send commands to bring Phoenix back online, it seems time (and energy) has run out…
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The Pessimism About Modern Space Flight

Epic fail? I think not (<a href='http://current.com/items/89164753_epic_fail_rocket_carrying_three_satellites_crashes_into_pacific_ocean'>current.com</a>)
Epic fail? I think not (credit: current.com, edit: Ian O'Neill)

On September 28th, Elon Musk proved he wasn’t a dreamer and blasted the world’s first commercial rocket — Falcon 1 — into Earth orbit. SpaceX have put their previous launch failures behind them, rightfully filing them under “learning curve.”

The team at NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission control have started to switch off instrumentation on the robotic lander after five months of astounding science (even after surviving the “7-minutes of terror” on May 25th, finding proof of water, overcoming technical issues and multiplying our understanding of the chemistry on an alien planet). Plus the armada of satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Oh yes, and those crazy rovers that just keep on rollin’.

The New Horizons Pluto mission has just passed its 1000th day on the epic journey to Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt. The Cassini probe is still doing its mission orbiting Saturn (since 1997). Oh, and the European Venus Express doing its quiet cruise around Earth’s evil twin planet.

The International Space Station is still going strong, proving on every day that passes that humans can live in space (no matter how difficult it is, we can do it, months at a time — but we need to work harder at zero-G plumbing!). Other nations are pushing into space too; China carried out its first spacewalk in September, India blasted its first lunar mission into space last week and the Japanese lunar orbiter just broke the bad news that there ain’t no ice in them thar craters

…lest not forget the robust Russian Soyuz space vehicle, having just reached its 100th flight!
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IBEX Will Spread its Wings Today

Probably one of the coolest missions designed to study the termination shock (the region of space where the solar wind and interstellar medium interact) located a little under 100 AU from the Sun, will be launched today (Sunday). The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) will be carried into space on board a Pegasus rocket installed under a L-1011 carrier aircraft from the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific (about 2500 miles from Hawaii in the direction of Australia). Out of interest, the aircraft will take off from the same region that SpaceX use to send their Falcon 1 rocket (and first ever commercial orbital vehicle) into space…

IBEX inside the Pegasus launch vehicle before transport from Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 11th (NASA)

The termination shock is a mysterious region of space as yet to be explored. Although Voyager 1 and 2 passed through this point, it is of critical importance to astrophysicists to measure the temporal and spatial changes at the boundary between the Solar System and the rest of interstellar space, as my previous Universe Today article explains:

In 2004, Voyager 1 hit it and in 2006, Voyager 2 hit it. The first probe flew through the termination shock at around 94 AU (8 billion miles away); the second measured it at only 76 AU (7 billion miles). This result alone suggests that the termination shock may be irregularly shaped and/or variable depending on solar activity. Before the Voyager missions, the termination shock was theorized, but there was little observational evidence until the two veteran probes traversed the region. The termination shock is of paramount importance to understanding the nature of the outer reaches of the solar system as, counter-intuitively, the Sun’s activity increases, the region beyond the termination shock (the heliosheath) becomes more efficient at blocking deadly cosmic rays. During solar minimum, it becomes less efficient at blocking cosmic rays. – Excerpt from IBEX Mission Will View the Final Frontier of the Solar System

So how will IBEX aid astrophysicists? It will count energetic neutral atoms (or ENAs for short) originating from the turbulent interaction region of the termination shock and build up a distribution of where the ENAs come from.

The Pegasus launch system in action (Univ. of Colarado/NASA)
The Pegasus launch system in action (Univ. of Colarado/NASA)

Scientists have known for a long time that neutral atoms appear to be generated at the termination shock. The solar wind carries energetic charged particles (or ions, mainly protons) into the far reaches of the heliosphere which eventually encounter interstellar neutral atoms. It is important to keep in mind at this point that any interstellar ions trying to get into the heliosphere are swept aside as the Solar System carries on its merry way through the galaxy; the heliospheric magnetic field deflects them. Therefore, only neutral interstellar particles are allowed in.

As the solar wind protons interact with the interstellar medium at the termination shock, they collide with the interstellar neutral atoms. When this happens, a mechanism known as charge exchange occurs. Electrons are ripped from these neutral interstellar atoms, creating very energetic neutral hydrogen atoms (i.e. 1× solar wind proton + 1× interstellar neutral atom electron). These ENAs are then blasted away from the point of charge exchange in a straight line (as energetic neutral atoms are not deflected by magnetic fields).

IBEX will be ideally placed to detect these ENAs whilst it orbits Earth so a better idea about termination shock dynamics can be gained. So, IBEX is set for launch on Sunday at 1:48 pm EDT during an eight minute launch window on board an aircraft-launched Pegasus rocket. I can’t wait for the results it will return, IBEX will, quite literally, paint a picture of how our Solar System interacts with the interstellar medium…

For more information on IBEX:

Original source: NASA

Hubble Malfunction Pushes Atlantis Service Mission into 2009

Hubble malfunction forces NASA to delay Atlantis launch until January (Hubblesite.org)
Hubble malfunction forces NASA to delay Atlantis launch until January (Hubblesite.org)

The fifth and final service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is to be postponed until January as a mystery malfunction on Saturday crippled the observatory’s ability to transmit data to Earth. The STS-125 mission was set to launch in two weeks so essential upgrades to Hubble could be carried out, but Space Shuttle Atlantis will have to be stood down from her Cape Canaveral launch pad until NASA engineers can get to the root of the malfunction…
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The Shuttle Could Fly Beyond 2010

Could the Shuttle be revived until 2015? (NASA)
Could the Shuttle be revived until 2015? (NASA)

Whether you are surprised by this news or not, it is a big development for the future of NASA. An internal email within the space agency has instructed staff to begin preliminary planning for a feasibility study into extending the life of the Space Shuttle fleet until 2015. This isn’t a one year extension, this isn’t just one extra flight, this is a full five year extension beyond the scheduled decommissioning date set by NASA.

This email, although downplayed by NASA sources, appears to show a U-turn in the political climate behind the agency’s closed doors. So what prompted the decision to commence a feasibility study? Could the Shuttle be safely flown after 2010?
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US Practices Retroactive Computer Protection: NASA Hacker to be Extradited

Gary McKinnon being interviewed via phone by Jerry Pippin (jerrypippin.com)
Gary McKinnon being interviewed via phone by Jerry Pippin (jerrypippin.com)

Gary McKinnon, a British computer analyst, has failed in his appeal against extradition to the US. McKinnon is accused of accessing 97 US military and NASA computers during his search for information about a possible US government conspiracy to cover up the existence of UFOs. According to the Glasgow-born 42 year old, the computers he accessed were totally unprotected and surprisingly easy to hack. However, the US government says his actions were malicious and the biggest breach of US government computers of all time. McKinnon’s activities allowed him access to 16 NASA computers between 2001 and 2002.

For the record, it is my opinion that McKinon is the victim of his own curiosity. He most certainly is not an organized terrorist wanting to bring down the US government. What’s more the UK has tough laws that he can be prosecuted by, so why is he being extradited to a country where he has never set foot before? Having followed this unfolding story for some years, I feel compelled to mention it on Astroengine.com. This man should not be extradited. The apparent ease at which this individual walked into NASA networks is astonishing; it’s not McKinon that needs to be taken to court, it’s NASA’s Internet security experts who need to be taken to task…
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Computer Worm Infects International Space Station

The ISS crew are currently trying to purge on board computers of the W32.Gammima.AG worm (NASA)
The ISS crew are currently trying to purge on board computers of the W32.Gammima.AG worm (NASA)

International Space Station (ISS) software security has been brought into question after on board systems were infected by a computer virus earlier this month. This is possibly the first time that a computer in space has played host to a malicious piece of software code, intended to seek out installed online gaming software and then transmit sensitive information it to an attacker. Although the virus in question, known as the W32.Gammima.AG worm, is pretty harmless (after all, I don’t think the astronauts on board play many online games), the infection comes as a surprise. Why hasn’t the ISS got sufficient anti-virus software installed? How did this security breech pass unnoticed until now? The space station may have narrowly dodged the bullet on this one, as if the worm was a little more virulent, there aren’t many network managers between here and low Earth orbit to find a quick solution to the problem…
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The NASA Rocket Failure – Routine Access to Space Still Not Available, But We’re Getting Closer

Moment of detonation: the ATK ALV X-1 rocket and $17 million NASA payload scrubbed in an instant (Explorer Fish)
Moment of detonation: the ATK ALV X-1 rocket and $17 million NASA payload scrubbed in an instant (Explorer Fish)

Early yesterday morning an Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV X-1 rocket launched from NASA’s launch facility at Wallops Island, VA. However, only 27 seconds and 11,000 feet into the flight, a launch anomaly prompted the range safety officer to hit the self-destruct button. According to sources, the ALV X-1 was a new type of launch vehicle costing $17 million (including NASA payload).

The ALV X-1 rocket is a sub-orbital design, otherwise more commonly known as a sounding rocket. Intended to carry instrumentation into the atmosphere, rather than into orbit, the ALV X-1 would complete a parabolic flight path, delivering the payload at a predetermined altitude to carry out experiments and parachute to Earth. At 5am Friday morning, this obviously didn’t happen.

It would seem that regardless of whether spaceflight is initiated by private enterprise, established space agency or Middle Eastern government, the challenges are the same, nobody has risk-free, routine access into space…
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Confirmed! The “Phoenix Affair” Was a Storm in a Teacup

It's a storm. A storm in a teacup.
Its a storm. A storm in a teacup. Source: Photoshop Contest, Artist profile

It was a breaking story that held so much promise: Phoenix uncovering something more “provocative” than discovering water in the search for the “potential for life” on Mars. Unfortunately it would seem the source for Aviation Weekly’s report was either inaccurate or overly enthusiastic (unless NASA really is covering something up, but I really doubt it). It turns out that Friday’s news was more of a pre-emptive scramble to get some incomplete science into the public domain. Phoenix had actually found perchlorate in a MECA sample and the mission scientists were trying to find supporting evidence with one of the TEGA ovens. This is was what caused the delay according to NASA; Phoenix HQ did not want to make a public announcement about this potentially toxic substance until they had corroborative data from a second experiment. Sensible really. However, in the aftermath of the weekend’s frenzy that glittered with conspiracy theories and excitement, Phoenix scientists have vented their frustration at having to disclose incomplete science in an announcement forced by a misunderstanding, rumours and allegations of cover-ups…
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Phoenix Discovery Could be Proof that Life Cannot Thrive on Mars

The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)
The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)

Oh dear. It’s the possible result that 23% of Astroengine readers (who voted that they wanted Phoenix to find “A strong indicator for the presence of organic compounds” as of August 5th, 3am) did not want to see. According to Phoenix mission control, recent analysis by the MECA instrument on board the lander appears to have discovered something bad hiding in the Martian soil. Perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance appears to have been detected just under the icy top-layer of the surface, possibly hindering the development of life (certainly the possibility of current life, perhaps past life too). Over the weekend the Internet exploded with reports that we were on the verge of a major discovery, leading to some reports indicating Phoenix had discovered life on the planet (nah, couldn’t happen). However, there were more grounded theories that further evidence for organic compounds may have been found or there was something more compelling than the discovery of water. But no, it looks like the forthcoming press conference (Tuesday, 11am) might have some bad news for us. A chemical that would actually halt the development of life may have been unearthed, possibly hindering the future of manned exploration of the Red Planet…
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