Connect with us

Science

After Arecibo, NASA isn't sure what comes next for planetary radar – Space.com

Published

 on


Arecibo Observatory’s massive radio telescope has collapsed; with it has gone a crucial tool in understanding asteroid risks to Earth — and it would take a serious government initiative to replace.

Before the facility sustained irreversible damage in a series of cable failures this year, Arecibo Observatory was Earth’s most powerful planetary radar system. Astronomers can’t use radar to discover new asteroids, but the data that these systems provide can give scientists the details about an object’s size, shape and location they need to better and more quickly evaluate the threat that individual asteroids might pose to Earth. 

“This is a hard thing to have to take [down] an iconic facility like this that’s provided so much for the radio astronomy and planetary radar community over so many decades; it’s really sad to see,” Lindley Johnson, who leads NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said during a virtual meeting of NASA’s Planetary Advisory Committee held on Nov. 30, the day before the structure collapsed. “It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but I think it really comes down to, it’s time to really get moving on investing in a new planetary radar capability.”

Related: Losing Arecibo’s giant dish leaves humans more vulnerable to space rocks, scientists say

But that’s easier said than done. There are two key complications at play when it comes to investing in planetary radar capability.

One is bureaucratic: Planetary radar has to be done from Earth’s surface. And while NASA leads the country’s asteroid-focused work, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) heads the federal government’s ground-based observations, as it does Arecibo Observatory; NASA merely paid for observation time on the radar system. With the sole exception of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, all of the agency’s observing facilities are in space.

(This is also complicated. Technically, the world’s other planetary radar facility, at Goldstone in California, is run by NASA, but that’s because its primary duty is to communicate with spacecraft traversing the solar system. The radar facility recently completed an upgrade and is back to normal observations, although it has a less flexible schedule than Arecibo did and can’t see objects as far from Earth.)

Related: Losing Arecibo Observatory would create a hole that can’t be filled, scientists say 

“The way our agencies are tasked, ground-based observations are the responsibility of NSF,” Lori Glaze, who leads NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during the same meeting. “It’s not in NASA’s purview.”

A second complication is the cost. A radar beam as powerful as Arecibo’s requires both a powerful transmitter and a massive radio dish, neither of which is cheap. 

Taken together, the challenges mean that NASA would likely need to work out agreements with one or more government counterparts before a new planetary radar system comes online.

“This kind of thing really takes a partnership of agencies,” Johnson said, adding that Arecibo itself traced its roots to a Department of Defense-led partnership. Something similar could rev up planetary radar, he said. “We do definitely have an opportunity and an interest in partnering with the U.S. Space Force on a more capable radar system.” The military branch is interested in the technology as a way to track satellites between Earth and the moon, he added.

Related: Arecibo isn’t the first radio telescope to unexpectedly fail. Here’s what we can learn from Green Bank’s collapse.

A reduction in planetary radar doesn’t strike at the heart of NASA’s planetary defense system, which focuses on discovering and tracking relatively large asteroids that come relatively close to Earth. Spotting such objects relies on facilities that detect optical and infrared light and scan large swaths of the sky regularly enough to notice when a new, fast-moving dot appears against the background of stars.

Radar can’t do that; it requires that scientists have a good idea of precisely where the object they want to study is, so that they can point the narrow radar beam precisely enough to bounce off the object. Instead, planetary defense experts use radar to more quickly plot an object’s orbit farther into the future and to determine characteristics of the object like its shape and density that might affect attempts to deflect an asteroid if it does appear to be on course to impact Earth.

“As far as planetary defense and NEO [near-Earth object] observations are concerned, it’s only a slight negative impact,” Johnson said of the loss of Arecibo’s radar system. “It doesn’t affect our discovery rate of near-Earth objects at all, it only has some impact on the opportunities we have to characterize these objects.”

Radar data of an asteroid dubbed Phaethon captured by Arecibo Observatory in December 2017. (Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/NSF)

Nevertheless, radar data is nice to have — and definitely the sort of thing Johnson would want for the planetary defense community.

Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia was already planning to add radar capability to its primary radio dish before the loss of Arecibo, scientists say, although the system, like that at Goldstone, won’t replicate Arecibo’s specific skills. And even that new capability would build on an existing facility, rather than starting from scratch, which comes with both benefits and risks.

“In a perfect world, I would pursue a new planetary radar capability,” Johnson said, even before Arecibo’s final collapse. “Trying to keep these old facilities going — they are high maintenance.”

But new capability wouldn’t mean a copy of Arecibo’s iconic dish, he emphasized. “It’s really time to be looking at the next generation of planetary radar capabilities,” he said, in particular hypothesizing that an array of dishes may be a more appealing approach now than Arecibo’s single massive dish.

“Technology has moved on since the 30, 40 years ago that the radar capability was installed at Arecibo,” Johnson said. “We need to take advantage.”

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

Let’s block ads! (Why?)



Source link

Continue Reading

Science

In Iceland, Testing the Drones That Could Be the Future of Mars Exploration – Atlas Obscura

Published

 on


On February 18, 2021, if all goes to plan, NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Mars. While it’s poking around, looking for signs of past habitability, Ingenuity—a tiny, experimental solar-powered helicopter hitching a ride on its underside—will try to demonstrate the possibility of flight on another world for the very first time. We may be looking at the future of exploration on the Red Planet.

Back here on Earth, others are already looking beyond Ingenuity. A next-generation NASA-funded Mars mission concept, the Rover-Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network or RAVEN, is about to be put through its paces in a gauntlet like no other. The project will pair an autonomous rover with specialized drones and be sent across a 32-square-mile lava field in Iceland as a test run for a future on Mars.

Interplanetary rovers are technological marvels, but they’re stuck to the ground. Drones, in one form or another, are the next evolutionary step, and they will be used for more than just reconnaissance. With scoops and drills, eventually they will “go somewhere the rover can’t go, and bring something back,” says Christopher Hamilton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and lead researcher on RAVEN.

Hamilton launching a drone in Iceland.
Hamilton launching a drone in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

There’s no mistaking the impact drones are having on science right now. During the prolific eruption of Hawai‘i’s Kīlauea volcano in 2018, the government authorized the largest peaceful deployment of drones in American history. Spearheaded by longtime drone advocate Angie Diefenbach, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory, they were used to film lava fountains up close, track the slithering progression of molten rock, and even help people escape their homes in the dead of night.

Today, the U.S. Geological Survey has a dedicated drone program, catching up with universities across the world that are using them to reach inaccessible or dangerous places for scientific research. “It’s the age of the drones,” says Diefenbach. “We’re going to do so many cool things.”

Not long ago, the most advanced drones “were all in the hands of the military,” says Gordon Osinski, a planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario and RAVEN team member. Now you can buy pretty capable ones online or at your local computer store. Bit by bit, he says, drones “are changing how we do fieldwork on Earth. And I think it’s definitely going to do the same for other planets.”

Drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of Martian landscapes, just as they do in Iceland.
Drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of Martian landscapes, just as they do in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

Scientists are getting very good at piloting drones down here, but flying on Mars is going to be tougher. The air density is a fraction of Earth’s, so any mechanical aviators will need to push a lot more of it to get any elevation—hence Ingenuity’s test run. While engineers grappled with this challenge at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in 2014, the Bárðarbunga volcanic system in Iceland erupted. Between August 2014 and February 2015, it spilled enough lava to easily smother Manhattan, making it Iceland’s largest eruption in 230 years.

The lava flow, as it cooked ice and water trapped below, developed a hydrothermal system with hot springs that became home to many happy microbes. By 2021, things had cooled, but vestiges of those bastions of life still exist, creating an environment similar to what researchers hope to be able to identify on Mars. To the tune of $3.1 million, NASA agreed with Hamilton that it would be a great place to test the next generation of automated Mars explorers, and RAVEN was born.

There are two components to RAVEN. The first is the rover. Courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency, it’s comparable to Curiosity in capability and design. It can be remotely operated by a human, (on Mars there would be several minutes of delay between commands and action) but it’s also able to navigate the land all on its own.

Christopher Hamilton with the RAVEN rover.
Christopher Hamilton with the RAVEN rover. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

The real innovation of the project will be in its cargo. The drone is a carbon fiber hexacopter, capable of flying for around 35 minutes and up to a distance of three miles, carrying about 20 pounds of scientific equipment. It will act as the more technologically capable rover’s field assistant.

A camera will be one key instrument, but for more than just aerial photographs. It can take several different photographs of the same surface feature, and then send them to the rover, where heftier processors will make true 3D maps of terrain—“a full virtual rendering of the environment around the drone and rover,” says Hamilton. These, in turn, will help it navigate precisely and speedily around the area.

The drone will also use a visible to near-infrared spectrometer, which looks at radiation coming off the ground to identify any interesting minerals or substances. But the drone has another killer app.

[embedded content]

NASA is laser-focused on bringing pristine Mars rocks back to Earth. Perseverance will dig up and cache 43 pen-sized rock samples that, through a series of upcoming NASA and European Space Agency missions, will be brought to Earth by 2031. While this robotic Rube Goldberg machine plays out, RAVEN will be testing a new way to grab samples in Iceland.

“My favorite part of RAVEN is the Claw,” says Hamilton. This refers to a scoop, or a series of scoop designs, that will be attached to the drone. Rocks of interest will be picked up and flown back to the rover, where the rover’s chemical-interrogating technology will see if the rock is fascinating enough to go visit the site where it came from, either to see the original context or get a bigger sample.

Scientists are looking to use that same concept for their Earthbound drones too. “The most exciting bit was to see the Claw attached to it, because that’s exactly where I’d like to go in the next year, for the [U.S. Geological Survey] at least,” says Diefenbach, for applications here. “That made me pretty excited.”

The team’s engineering partner, Honeybee Robotics, is coming up with drill designs, too, to pull out small cylindrical cores or grind rock into powder that can be vacuumed up and flown to the rover.

Steam blowing off Iceland's Holuhraun lava field.
Steam blowing off Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

This year, RAVEN’s hardware is being manufactured and software is being coded while its hardware is manufactured. The games will begin in summer 2022, when the rover and drones arrive at Bárðarbunga volcano’s Holuhraun Lava Field.

The actual first test of the equipment reads like the instructions of a practical final exam. An operations team unfamiliar with the site, which will include students, will use satellite imagery to determine where best to “land” the rover and drones. They will issue commands to both vehicles and, within a set amount of time measured in Mars-days, then characterize the environment’s geology and identify potentially habitable or once-habitable pockets of it. In addition to testing RAVEN’s technology, the test will determine if a team new to the site will be able to identify the most astrobiologically areas to study—just as a future rover-drone Mars mission will have to. “I can’t participate in the science planning for our team, because I have the answer key,” Hamilton says, since he already knows the site, and the areas with the best potential for exploration. After the trial ends, and the team compares notes, they’ll run it back in summer 2023.

Hamilton can picture the time where RAVEN, or something like it, is deployed on Mars for real. By that stage, he says, “there is the possibility that the rover would be an astronaut.” Imagine that, not science fiction but real: spacefaring scientists, flying drones over Martian volcanoes, searching for alien biosignatures in the hazy light of the distant sun, the Earth (and Iceland’s lava fields) a bluish dot in the sky.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)



Source link

Continue Reading

Science

How a Vancouver photographer captured this epic night shot of The Lions | News – Daily Hive

Published

 on


At only 20 years old, Vancouver photographer Liron Gertsman already has an impressive resume.

His work has been featured in some of the largest museums across the world, including the Natural History Museum in London and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

And while his latest work may be closer to home, it features worlds far beyond our own.

“There is so much to see if you can get outside on a clear night and look up at the sky,” he told Daily Hive. “Stargazing is a fantastic pandemic activity.”

But beyond just simply “gazing” at the stars, Gertsman recently captured this stunning photo of the North America and Pelican Nebulae in what’s known as the Cygnus region of the night sky, above The Lions on the North Shore.

Liron Gertsman

Describing it as “one of the most ambitious” photos he’s ever attempted, Gertsman shared how it all came, from planning and execution to the final product.

“I first imagined this photo a few months ago,” he said. “While running virtual simulations on my computer, I was astonished to see that the North America Nebula, a huge cloud of gas over 2200 light years from Earth, would align perfectly with The Lions, if I was in the right place at the right time.”

However, he also realized that capturing the photo would require that he take the picture from a “heavily light-polluted” area.

As such, Gertsman said he “wasn’t convinced” that the image he was trying to capture was even possible.

The other factor putting doubt in his mind was the typical wet weather Vancouver receives during the winter months.

“This is a rainforest, and clear skies can be very rare in winter,” he said.

After waiting for a few months, Gertsman was rewarded for patiently biding his time, as the opportunity presented itself on the night of January 21.

“I would be battling a 62% illuminated moon, but given the rarity of the clear night, I decided to attempt the image,” he said.

The attempt included waiting in the cold for three-and-a-half hours, and gathering long exposure data on the nebulae as it moved across the sky, until it was directly above The Lions.

The final image includes two hours of exposure time, taken without movement of his tripod.

As for his setup, Gertsman said he used a full-spectrum modified Canon 6D and a Canon 100-400mm lens at 200mm, mounted on a SkyWatcher star tracker. He also used three filters:

First, one that allows visible light to pass through but extends further than normal to the 656nm H-alpha wavelength emitted by nebulae. This data, he explained, was important for “gathering accurate colour.”

Second, an H-alpha filter, which selectively allows the 656nm wavelength of the nebula through while blocking out most moonlight and light pollution.

Third, a normal visible light filter, to gather natural colours for the foreground.

These images were combined, stacked, and stretched in post-processing to create this final image.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)



Source link

Continue Reading

Science

How to watch NASA preview its Perseverance Mars rover landing – CNET

Published

 on


An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover deploying a supersonic parachute before landing on Mars.


NASA/JPL-CalTech

NASA is just weeks away from landing a shiny new robot on the surface of Mars. This Wednesday it’ll break down for us the process of setting the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover on the surface of the red planet.

Perseverance is due to land in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, the first artificial object to land on the surface since the Mars Insight lander in 2018 and the first rover since Curiosity touched down in 2012.

Perseverance carries a number of science instruments to help look for signs of ancient life on our neighboring world, to collect samples that will be returned to Earth and to test some technologies for future Mars missions.

Also, it has a tiny helicopter.


Now playing:
Watch this:

How NASA’s Mars helicopter could change the future of…

5:20

Robots have spent years rolling around Mars, which is pretty cool, but for the first time NASA will use a small helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, to try flying around the planet.

Several leaders from the Mars 2020 Perseverance team will be on hand Wednesday to discuss the mission and run through what landing day will look like.

The briefing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET, and you can watch it all live right here.

Follow CNET’s 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar. 

Let’s block ads! (Why?)



Source link

Continue Reading

Trending