Space News May 2018

Rhiannon Williams 2018-05-12

This time spacefans, we’re celbrating the successful launch of NASA’s InSight mission, a long awaited return to the Moon, and rocks where they shouldn’t be!


On May 5th 2018, the InSight lander successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard an Atlas V rocket. It will arrive at the red planet this November for its scheduled two year mission to give us some ideas as to what is going on beneath the surface of Mars.

“The United States continues to lead the way to Mars with this next exciting mission to study the Red Planet’s core and geological processes,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I want to congratulate all the teams from NASA and our international partners who made this accomplishment possible. As we continue to gain momentum in our work to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, missions like InSight are going to prove invaluable.”


“The Kennedy Space Center and ULA teams gave us a great ride today and started InSight on our six-and-a-half-month journey to Mars,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “We’ve received positive indication the InSight spacecraft is in good health and we are all excited to be going to Mars once again to do groundbreaking science.”

The mission team are currently making sure that all systems are go for a hopefully safe landing

“Scientists have been dreaming about doing seismology on Mars for years. In my case, I had that dream 40 years ago as a graduate student, and now that shared dream has been lofted through the clouds and into reality,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

The InSight lander will be looking to see how the planet’s crust is affected by any activity at its core and see how heat from its interior flows, and how the planet wobbles, to help scientists understand more about Mars’ early to present history and to build a fuller picture as to how the innermost planets formed.

“InSight will not only teach us about Mars, it will enhance our understanding of formation of other rocky worlds like Earth and the Moon, and thousands of planets around other stars,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “InSight connects science and technology with a diverse team of JPL-led international and commercial partners.”

Earlier Mars missions attempted to have a peek into its inner workings, but failed to poor design, as in you can’t really expect a seismometer to work effectively if its off the ground and subject to wind. The surface featues of Mars have been extensively mapped to a point we probably know more about it than we do about Earth! We do however need to know a lot more about its inner workings. Even this mission will only give us a snapshot as you need a lot more than one seismometer to get a full picture, but it’s a very welcome start!

“InSight will help us unlock the mysteries of Mars in a new way, by not just studying the surface of the planet, but by looking deep inside to help us learn about the earliest building blocks of the planet,” said JPL Director Michael Watkins.

I for one hope it arrives safely! The following video shows the difficulties about how much precision is involved.


Another part of the InSight launch were two cubesats hitching a ride on the Atlas rocket in order to stalk the lander and essentially allow us to figure out we can use them effectively.

“Both MarCO-A and B say ‘Polo!’ It’s a sign that the little sats are alive and well,” said Andy Klesh, chief engineer for the MarCO mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the twin spacecraft.

“We’re nervous but excited,” said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO’s project manager. “A lot of work went into designing and testing these components so that they could survive the trip to Mars and relay data during InSight’s landing. But our broader goal is to learn more about how to adapt CubeSat technologies for future deep-space missions.”

While the lander has defined scoence goals, these cubesats are an experiment in themselves.


This is certainly a thing myself and my department are fully behind for many reasons, not just how much we still don’t know about our Earth/Moon system, but also how, ideally, by having an established base there will help our exploration of not just the Solar system, but also anywhere else we chose to go in the future. Moon Base alpha should most definitely be a thing!

“We’ll draw on the interests and capabilities of U.S. industry and international partners as American innovation leads astronauts back to the Moon and to destinations farther into the solar system, including Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Our successful investments with a strong and continually growing U.S. space industry in low-Earth orbit allows us to focus on lunar activities. We’ll leverage commercial capabilities for these small payload deliveries, and CLPS missions will play an important role in our expanding and sustainable lunar exploration strategy.”

We have a lot to gain scientifically for going back to our biggest satellite scientifically and it’s been far too long in my opinion!


The Kuiper belt as we know is a fascinating place, full of wonderment and astonishment for anyone who followed the stunning discoveries by New Horizons as it flew by Pluto. The early Solar system was a lively and often violent place with stuff being flung everywhere as planets argued with each other using gravity as their superpower, we’re looking at you Jupiter! The other gas giants were no less guilty, so its should no come as a surprise that as technology advances that we will discover more anomalies. By anomalies, I mean ‘Unexpected rocks’, so a team of scientists from Belfast found a rock that shouldn’t be where it is.

Credit: This artist’s impression shows the exiled asteroid 2004 EW95, the first carbon-rich asteroid confirmed to exist in the Kuiper Belt and a relic of the primordial solar system. This curious object likely formed in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and must have been transported billions of kilometers from its origin to its current home in the Kuiper Belt. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

“The reflectance spectrum of 2004 EW95 was clearly distinct from the other observed outer Solar System objects,” explains lead author Seccull. “It looked enough of a weirdo for us to take a closer look. It’s like observing a giant mountain of coal against the pitch-black canvas of the night sky,” says co-author Thomas Puzia from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. “Not only is 2004 EW95 moving, it’s also very faint,” adds Seccull. “We had to use a pretty advanced data processing technique to get as much out of the data as possible.”Given 2004 EW95’s present-day abode in the icy outer reaches of the Solar System, this implies that it has been flung out into its present orbit by a migratory planet in the early days of the Solar System. While there have been previous reports of other ‘atypical’ Kuiper Belt Object spectra, none were confirmed to this level of quality,” comments Olivier Hainaut, an ESO astronomer who was not part of the team. “The discovery of a carbonaceous asteroid in the Kuiper Belt is a key verification of one of the fundamental predictions of dynamical models of the early Solar System.”

To translate: it’s very dark, its mineralogy states it’s from the inner Solar system in its formation and was exiled to its present position. I’m certain we will find a lot more of these as we get better at it.

If you are lacking brain food, I highly recommend reading the background story to the 2015 Pluto flyby written by the mission scientists Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons, it’s an excellent book that is currently living in my backpack. It’s very accessible and a great way to start random conversations with strangers while travelling if you know what I mean.

See you next time spacefans!



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