NASA Moves Forward With Europa Clipper Mission


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NASA is moving ahead with one of its most ambitious upcoming missions. The Europa Clipper has cleared a major bureaucratic hurdle, allowing the agency to begin final design and construction of the spacecraft that will explore the icy moon of Jupiter. The mission will begin to take shape over the next few years before it launches on something. NASA originally intended to use the Space Launch System (SLS), but it may need to rethink that in light of recent delays. 

Europa has been a subject of much research ever since the Voyager probes snapped photos of the moon during their flybys in the late 1970s. The surface is covered with dark streaks called lineae, which may indicate a subsurface liquid ocean. Assuming there is liquid water under the icy crust, Europa could have several times more water than all the oceans of Earth. Tidal heating from Jupiter’s gravity could keep that ocean liquid and allow life to develop. 

NASA has the Juno probe in the Jovian system right now, but it’s not designed to study the moons. The Europa Clipper would be the first mission to focus on a moon other than the one orbiting Earth. While Europa Clipper won’t land on the surface, it will make more than 40 close flybys of the moon, probing it with a suite of nine instruments to analyze the planet’s magnetic field, temperature, and more. Europa occasionally ejects plumes of water vapor into space, and Europa Clipper could analyze the chemical composition of the water if it manages to fly through one.

EuropaFeature

All NASA missions have to go through a labyrinthian approval process that begins with the preliminary design. Only after passing independent review does a project get to final design and construction. That’s where Europa Clipper is now. NASA has given the go-ahead for the team to begin designing and building the spacecraft that will fly in space. There’s another review phase before the mission can continue to assembly, testing, and launch. That’s a few years off, though. 

NASA’s announcement of the mission’s new status does not make mention of how it will launch the spacecraft. The preliminary design called for Europa Clipper to fly on the SLS, which NASA had hoped to have done several years ago. With SLS development still inching along, it’s not certain the rocket will be ready in time for the 2023 or 2025 launch windows. There has been talk of using a smaller commercial rocket, but it would take longer to get the probe to Europa aboard one of those vehicles. 

Even if it takes a little longer to reach Europa, the aliens (if they exist) will still be waiting for us. We’re looking forward to more updates on the Europa Clipper going forward.

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Watch live as NASA astronauts spacewalk to install a new automated docking ring on the ISS – gpgmail


NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan are setting out today to perform the installation of a new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the International Space Station that will provide another way for futuer crew craft flown by commercial providers to bring astronauts to the orbital research platform.

This is the second IDA to be installed in the ISS, and the actual spacewalk itself is set to happen at 8:20 AM ET, with astronauts spending the time until then getting all suited up. This docking adapter came up on SpaceX’s CRS-18 resupply mission, which went up in July. The adapter will provide automated docking procedures for a number of future crew spacecraft, including Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and it’s a standard that’s intended to be used with any other commercial craft to be developed with the aim of reaching the ISS in future, too.

The two IDAs and their use are a big part of NASA’s plan to commercialize the ISS and essentially open the platform for business, with the aim of gaining private sector support for both its use and the development of an eventual successor, since the existing ISS is actually quite a bit past its intended mission lifespan.


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NASA confirms mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its icy oceans – gpgmail


NASA has confirmed a mission to Europa, one of the Moons of Jupiter, will indeed happen. The mission was initially explored starting in 2017, with the space agency looking for reports on how it might proceed, and now NASA has said it will go ahead and move to the key stop of finalizing mission design, which will then lead to actually building the spacecraft that will make the trip, and the science payload it’ll carry on board.

The goal of the mission, which is codenamed ‘Europa Clipper,’ is to find out whether the icy natural satellite orbiting Jupiter could sustain life, and also explore whether it might be colonizable or habitable. Plus, we’ll definitely learn a lot more about Europa with an up-close-and-personal exploration.

Europa is the one of 79 known moons orbiting the gas giant, and is the six-largest in the entire solar system. It’s a bit smaller than our own, and has a crust that is composed primarily of water ice. Some scientists believe that it could have a water ocean just underneath that ice curst, however, and that if said ocean exists, it might be among the likelier places in our solar system to find life.

NASA’s goal for this mission is to launch it as early as 2023, though it’ll need its SLS launch system to be ready to make that happen. The extended timeline allows for a launch-ready state by 2025, which seems a bit more realistic given the current state of affairs.


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Curiosity Spots Unexpectedly Complex Martian Rock


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NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen a lot of rocks. In fact, that’s almost all it sees on the surface of Mars. Recently, the rover spotted a rock so strange that the team decided to move in for a closer look. The so-called “Strathdon” has dozens of sedimentary layers squished together, a geological quirk scientists didn’t expect to see on Mars. This points to a potentially complicated and watery past in the region explored by Curiosity. 

Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, setting up shop in Gale Crater. Its goal was to make its way to nearby Mount Sharp and roll up the slope, examining the geology on the way. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014. The team has made numerous pit stops along the way to the summit in order to take a closer look at interesting regions. Currently, the rover is puttering around in an area called the “clay-bearing unit.” In the distant past, it was most likely home to streams and lakes, the only remnants of which are clay mineral deposits. 

While exploring the clay-bearing unit, Curiosity happened upon a strange boulder partially buried in the ground — the Strathdon. The rock formed from many layers of compressed sediment that had hardened into a brittle, wavy mass. It’s a stark contrast from the flat layers of lake sediment Curiosity has seen elsewhere on Mars. 

Strathdon as seen from 4 inches away.

Curiosity approached the Strathdon, taking a close-up mosaic image for scientists back on Earth to examine. The team speculates that the structure of this boulder means the clay-bearing unit has a much more complex and dynamic geological history than anyone expected. A combination of flowing water and wind could be responsible for the existence of this formation. This region might have been quite hospitable to life many eons ago, but Curiosity can’t say for certain — that’s for the next rover to find out. 

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is being assembled at JPL as we speak. It has a robotic arm, wheels, and some of its many, many cameras. The still-unnamed rover uses the same chassis as Curiosity, but it will carry instruments that are better able to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet. The launch is scheduled for next summer when Earth and Mars are lined up for an easy journey. Mars 2020 will join Curiosity on the surface in February 2021.

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New Analysis of Kepler Data Finds Hundreds of New Exoplanets


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The Kepler Space Telescope ended its wildly successful planet-hunting mission last year, but it’s still making discoveries from the grave. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has since taken up the planet-hunter banner, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s on the same level as Kepler. The gap between the probes just got wider, too. A new analysis of data from Kepler has revealed hundreds of potential new exoplanets. 

Kepler launched in 2009 on a three and a half year mission to find distant worlds. NASA is used to missions operating long past their expected lifespan, but Kepler started experiencing issues in 2012. The spacecraft used the transit method of detecting exoplanets — it watched stars for telltale dips in brightness as planets passed in front of them. That meant Kepler had to remain pointed at the same region for long periods of time, but two of its four reaction wheels failed by mid-2013. 

NASA was able to restore Kepler to partial functionality in 2014 by stabilizing it with photons reflecting off its solar panels. This “K2” mission yielded more data and exoplanets, but much of that data is “messy” and hard to interpret. Enter, Ethan Kruse of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Kruse and his team devised a new method of processing the K2 data using Quasiperiodic Automated Transit Search (QATS) and EPIC Variability Extraction and Removal for Exoplanet Science Targets (EVEREST). The processing helps reduce the noisy arcs and curves in the K2 data. The result is many, many new exoplanet signals. 

NASA's K2 balancing act

NASA’s K2 balancing act gave the spacecraft a new lease on life after two unexpected reaction wheel failures.

This is not the first analysis of K2 data, so not all of the 818 planets detected in the study are new. However, an impressive 374 of the signals have not been detected previously. Of those, 154 are what’s known as reciprocally transiting planets. That means they transit their stars from our perspective on Earth, and Earth does the same from those planets. So, there could be alien astronomers running a similar experiment wondering if Earth supports life. The data points to worlds of various sizes from super-Earths to gas giants, and there are 87 multi-planet systems. 

Currently, all the objects listed in the new analysis are mere “candidate” exoplanets. Another team will have to go and check each signal to confirm. In the future, astronomers may be able to use the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope to take a closer look at some of these planetary systems. For now, most of the verification will take place at large ground-based observatories.

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NASA’s Space Launch System May Have Set Back Orbital Refueling by a Decade


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NASA has been working on the Space Launch System (SLS) as a replacement for the Space Shuttle for a decade, and the project has already consumed $14 billion in funding. It’s not exactly a secret that pure political will has kept the SLS going, but there may have been some casualties along the way. A former United Launch Alliance (ULA) engineer has chimed in on Twitter to tell an anecdote about how the SLS smothered the development of orbital refueling. 

Ars Technica reporter Eric Berger had just posted a string of tweets about opposition to refueling depots in congress back when the SLS program picked up steam. Then, former ULA manager George Sowers replied with his perspective. According to Sowers, his ULA advanced programs group had published several papers on the use of orbital refueling depots. He claims his team demonstrated that pre-existing commercial rockets could do the job of something like the SLS. The key was a platform being developed at ULA called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES. 

In 2011, ULA wanted to test ACES in space to show that it could serve as a refueling depot to get rockets to more distant locations. Sowers said Boeing (which operates ULA along with Lockheed Martin) was incensed by his team’s push for refueling depots. Boeing was, and still is, the primary contractor on the SLS launch vehicle. A shift toward cheaper refueling technology could cost it a juicy government contract.

Sowers says Boeing executives tried to get him fired, but his direct managers held the line. However, ACES was quietly shelved. Around the same time, Berger reports that Alabama Senator Richard Shelby told NASA, “No more f—ing depots.” His home state is home to Marshall Space Flight Center and stood to benefit greatly from SLS development. 

ULA says ACES is still on its roadmap, but that could mean any number of things. We do know that NASA is taking another look at orbital refueling. As part of its new lunar push, the agency has partnered with multiple firms on new technology. Among them is SpaceX and its orbital refueling ambitions. SpaceX needs to develop advanced technology to transfer fuel in orbit for future Starship missions, and NASA wants a piece of that. 

Meanwhile, the SLS could launch on an uncrewed test mission as soon as next year. The launch has been pushed back a few times already, so it’s just as likely the rocket won’t fly until 2021.

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TESS Finds Potentially Habitable Super-Earth Just 31 Light Years Away


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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has only been scanning the skies for about a year, but it has already identified several new candidate exoplanets. As astronomers were working to confirm one recent sighting, they happened upon something unexpected. That solar system, known as GJ 357, hosts not one but three exoplanets. What’s more, one of those planets is a super-Earth in the habitable region of the star. 

TESS uses the transit method to spot exoplanets with its array of cameras, similar to the dearly departed Kepler satellite. It can scan multiple stars at the same time, watching for the telltale dips in light that indicate an exoplanet has passed in front of its host star. That’s what TESS saw in GJ 357, which is only 31 light-years away. To confirm the existence of the exoplanet dubbed GJ 357 b, astronomers used ground-based telescopes to measure the star’s radial velocity. This alternative method looks for tiny changes in light caused when a star “wobbles” in response to the gravity of orbiting planets. 

The team confirmed GJ 357 b, but they also found two more exoplanets now known as GJ 357 c and GJ 357 d. GJ 357 is a small M-type dwarf star, which is 40 percent cooler than the sun. GJ 357 b orbits the star in just 3.9 days and is 22 percent larger than Earth. The surface equilibrium temperature (a measure of solar radiation only) is 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius), ruling out life as we know it. GJ 357 c is a bit farther out, but still too hot for life. It’s 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits ever 9.1 Earth days. The temperature here is 260 degrees F (127 degrees C).

Astronomers are most interested in GJ 357 d, which sits near the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone with a 55.7-day orbit around the star. It’s 6.1 times more massive than Earth, meaning it could be rocky or gaseous. If it’s a rocky planet, it would be about twice as large as Earth. 

According to the team, GJ 357 d has an equilibrium temperature of  -64 degrees F (-53 degrees C). That sounds too low to be even potentially habitable, but this is only a measure of solar radiation. Earth’s equilibrium temperature is -1 degree F (-18 degrees C), but the atmosphere increases the surface temperature. GJ 357 d gets about as much solar radiation as Mars, and a sufficiently dense atmosphere could allow liquid water to flow on its surface. Astronomers around the world plan to take a closer look at this nearby super-Earth over the coming years.

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NASA taps SpaceX, Blue Origin and 11 more companies for Moon and Mars space tech – gpgmail


NASA has selected 13 companies to partner with on 19 new specific technology projects it’s undertaking to help reach the Moon and Mars. These include SpaceX, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, among others, with projects ranging from improving spacecraft operation in high temperatures to landing rockets vertically on the Moon.

Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin will work with NASA on developing a navigation system for “safe and precise landing at a range of locations on the Moon” in one undertaking, and also on readying a fuel cell-based power system for its Blue Moon lander, revealed earlier this year. The final design spec will provide a power source that can last through the lunar night, or up to two weeks without sunlight in some locations. It’ll also be working on further developing engine nozzles for rockets with liquid propellant that would be well-suited for lunar lander vehicles.

SpaceX will be working on technology that will help move rocket propellant around safely from vehicle to vehicle in orbit, a necessary step to building out its Starship reusable rocket and spacecraft system. The Elon Musk-led private space company will also be working with Kennedy Space Center on refining its vertical landing capabilities to adapt it to work with large rockets on the Moon, where lunar regolith (aka Moon dust) and the low-gravity, zero atmosphere environment can complicate the effects of controlled descents.

Lockheed Martin will be working on using solid-state processing to create metal powder-based materials that can help spacecraft deal better with operating in high-temperature environments, and on autonomous methods for growing and harvesting plants in space, which could be crucial in the case of future long-term colonization efforts.

Other projects will tap Advanced Space, Vulcan Wireless, Aerogel Technologies, Spirit AeroSystem, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Anasphere, Bally Ribbon Mills, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Colorado Power Electronics and Maxar; you can read about each in detail here.

NASA’s goals with these private partnerships are to both develop at speed, and decrease the cost of efforts to operate crewed space exploration, as part of its Artemis program and beyond.


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NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite finds three new worlds – gpgmail


NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a planet-seeking satellite that launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last April, has found three new worlds that orbit a nearby dwarf star that is both smaller and cooler than our own Sun.

The newfound planets range in size and temperature, but are all bigger than Earth and with a higher temp on average — which are calculated only based on their distance from the star they orbit, and its energy output, without factoring in any atmospheric effects since it’s not yet known whether they have atmospheres at all. At the low end, there’s TOI 270 d, which has an average temp of 150 F — almost three times Earth’s own.

Both TOI 270 d, the farthest from its own system’s central star, and TOI 270 c, its nearest neighbor, are thought to be primarily gaseous and most closely resemble Neptune in our own Solar System. These aren’t really equivalent, however, as they’re much smaller, and researchers at NASA say they’re actually more likely new types of planets not seen anywhere in our own local solar backyard.

The planets overall are interesting to researchers because they are all between 1.5 and just over 2 times the size of Earth, which is actually an unusual size for planets to be when considered overall. The TOI 270 system is also pretty much perfectly positioned for study by the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, so it presents a great opportunity for future research once that space-based observatory gets up and running in 2021.


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NASA’s TESS Spots 3 New Exoplanets in Rare Solar System


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The Kepler planet-hunting satellite is long gone, but NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is just getting started. This satellite has spotted a few exoplanets early in its mission, and the most recent batch includes some extremely weird worlds along with yet another super-Earth. The super-Earth is scorching hot, and the others are cooler. However, they’re not ice worlds like Neptune.  

All three planets orbit a star called TOI-270, which sits roughly 73 light-years away. TOI-270 is about 40 percent smaller than the sun and one-third cooler. Still, the smallest of the three planets (TOI 270 b) orbits close enough to the star (every 3.4 Earth days) to be inhospitable to life as we know it. It has an equilibrium surface temperature of 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). It’s only 25 percent larger than Earth and has 1.9 times the mass, so scientists believe it’s a rocky object. 

The other two planets are chilly, and they don’t appear to have any analogs in our solar system. TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are 2.4 and 2.1 times larger than Earth, respectively. They most likely have a mass between five and seven times that of Earth. These planets orbit closer to their star than Earth does to the sun — 5.7 days for TOI 270 c and 11.4 days for TOI 270 d. However, the cooler temperature of TOI-270 means they’re much less extreme. 

The TESS spacecraft.

Most of the gas giants we detect in other solar systems are either so-called hot Jupiters or ice giants like Neptune. TOI 270 c and TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are fascinating because they’re a middle ground between the two. TOI 270 c is toasty, but not as warm as a hot Jupiter at 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). TOI 270 d is not exactly cozy at 150 degrees Fahrenheit (67 degrees C), but that’s potentially habitable for very robust forms of life. Again, these are equilibrium temperatures, which is based only on the energy it receives from the star. The real temperature could be higher or lower. 

Astronomers consider the TOI-270 system an ideal place to learn more about planetary evolution. We don’t have planets like TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d in our solar system, so they could have much to teach us. Perhaps the most exciting thing about TOI-270 is its location in the sky. It will be in the James Webb Space Telescope’s field of view for over six months when it’s launched. Astronomers will be able to gather a huge amount of data about this distinctive solar system, and that could change the way we understand planetary development.

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