NASA is carefully and wisely setting a by-the numbers stage for the potential loss of the Mars Science Laboratory.
It may be lost already. It has disappeared from the screen!
Here is the number one risk, an X class solar flare, a coronal mass ejection that nothing mechanical can withstand. It is a possibility. But the possibility is reduced by the 40 days left on the MSL mission.
Without explanation, however, the MSL has been removed from the display of CME threats provided by NASA. We can still see Mars, earth and the other satellites. But the MSL has disappeared. Look at these two.
Here is yesterday: Well we can’t show it to you now. But we will find it and you will see the MSL is one of the key targets in this solar storm display.
Here is today from Marsnow.info:
If you image displays, and it doesn’t on demand, you will notice that red cube that identifies the location of the MSL, which is very close to the red Mars orb, is now longer displayed. Why?
It may be that the solar storm is approaching X level so that either the spacecraft is at risk or has been destroyed or the Mars surface is at risk, with the atmosphere damaged so substantially that the landing plans will not work, or the solar storm will damage the earth satellite system, constraining communication.
Whatever the reason MSL has disappeared from the solar threat watch scenario previously presented by NASA. Here is an option that NASA has offered today, through a back channel.
Stellar Flare Blasts Exoplanet
June 28, 2012: An international team of astronomers using data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has made an unparalleled observation, detecting significant changes in the atmosphere of a planet located beyond our solar system.
The scientists conclude the atmospheric variations occurred in response to a powerful eruption on the planet's host star, an event observed by NASA's Swift satellite. The stellar flare, which hit the planet like 3 million X-flares from our own sun, blasted material from the planet's atmosphere at a rate of at least 1,000 tons per second.
This artist's rendering illustrates the evaporation of HD 189733b's atmosphere in response to a powerful eruption from its host star. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope detected the escaping gases and NASA's Swift satellite caught the stellar flare. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
"The multiwavelength coverage by Hubble and Swift has given us an unprecedented view of the interaction between a flare on an active star and the atmosphere of a giant planet," said lead researcher Alain Lecavelier des Etangs at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics (IAP), part of the French National Scientific Research Center located at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.
The exoplanet is HD 189733b, a gas giant similar to Jupiter, but about 14 percent larger and more massive. The planet circles its star at a distance of only 3 million miles or about 30 times closer than Earth's distance from the sun, and completes an orbit every 2.2 days. Its star, named HD 189733A, is about 80 percent the size and mass of our sun.
Astronomers classify the planet as a "hot Jupiter." Previous Hubble observations show that the planet's deep atmosphere reaches a temperature of about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,030 C).
A movie from the Goddard Space Flight Center explores the planet-blasting stellar flare. Play it
HD 189733b periodically passes across, or transits, its parent star, and these events give astronomers an opportunity to probe its atmosphere and environment. In a previous study, a group led by Lecavelier des Etangs used Hubble to show that hydrogen gas was escaping from the planet's upper atmosphere. The finding made HD 189733b only the second-known "evaporating" exoplanet at the time.
The system is just 63 light-years away, so close that its star can be seen with binoculars near the famous Dumbbell Nebula. This makes HD 189733b an ideal target for studying the processes that drive atmospheric escape.
"Astronomers have been debating the details of atmospheric evaporation for years, and studying HD 189733b is our best opportunity for understanding the process," said Vincent Bourrier, a doctoral student at IAP and a team member on the new study.
In April 2010, the researchers observed a single transit using Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), but they detected no trace of the planet's atmosphere. Follow-up observations in September 2011 showed a surprising reversal, with striking evidence that a plume of gas was streaming away from the exoplanet at 300,000 mph. At least 1,000 tons of gases were leaving the planet's atmosphere every second.
This turn of events was explained by data from Swift's X-ray Telescope. On Sept. 7, 2011, just eight hours before Hubble was scheduled to observe the transit, Swift was monitoring the star when it unleashed a powerful flare.
"The planet's close proximity to the star means it was struck by a blast of X-rays tens of thousands of times stronger than the Earth suffers even during an X-class solar flare, the strongest category," said co-author Peter Wheatley, a physicist at the University of Warwick in England. After accounting for the planet's enormous size, the team notes that HD 189733b encountered about 3 million times as many X-rays as Earth receives from a solar flare at the threshold of the X class.
These findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. Swift is operated in collaboration with several U.S. institutions and partners in the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Japan. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages both missions.
Here is another set of options NASA has offered through another back channel:
Six reasons the Mars Science Laboratory 'Curiosity' could fail before its mission begins from Catholic Online!
• By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
• Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
#1. Human error - Whether it's failing to convert imperial units to metric or sending the wrong command to the craft, humans probably represent the greatest threat to the mission. Humans are an essential component in any space mission. No matter how automated and autonomous a spacecraft is, human interaction is always necessary at some point, and to err is quintessentially human.
In fact, most of the above failures are the result of human mistakes, or a lack of understanding. Sadly, errors in human judgment aren't limited to unmanned missions tens of millions of miles away. The losses of shuttles Challenger and Endeavour were at least
Exploration of the Red Planet is fraught with hazard.
The Mars Science Laboratory, a.k.a. Curiosity, is about to touch down on Mars. On earth, NASA scientists and researchers are waiting the event, set firmly for August 6, with bated breath. And they have good reason to be a bit nervous; slightly more than half of all attempted Mars missions have ended in failure for reasons as simple as a mix-up between metric and imperial units.
Here are six reasons why the Curiosity mission could fail before the science even starts.
#6. Bad weather - Scientists on Earth have a hard enough time predicting Earth weather, and it's all the more difficult to predict weather on a planet millions of miles away. Mars is notorious for long, cold winters and dust storms that can blanket the entire planet. While the mission is scheduled to land during a good weather period, anything can happen. Previous landers have suffered reduction in capability due to dust coating their solar panels. The already feeble sunlight cannot penetrate a very thick layer of dust, which is the eventual doom of all solar-powered Mars rovers.
However, Curiosity has its own internal power supply so it will not need to worry about dust storms cutting off its electricity. Still, static charges, extra-cold weather, and fine dust particles can still wreak havoc on the craft, especially over the long term. Unfortunately, bad weather is the least of Curiosity's worries.
#5. Getting stuck - The surface of Mars is sandy and rocky which makes it difficult for rovers to move on the surface. The most famous example is the Mars Spirit rover, which despite its amazing success, eventually got stuck on the planet and engineers were unable to free the craft. Scientists have a good idea how to drive on Mars and choose their routes meticulously. In addition, Curiosity has much larger wheels than its predecessors, making successful maneuvers more likely. However, the possibility remains that the lander could get stuck. And getting stuck could put an early end to a very expensive mission.
#4. Instrument failure - Should Curiosity safely land, the mission won't be out of danger. The possibility of hardware or software failure remains a concern. Several missions to Mars have suffered instrument failures. While the most common instrument failure seems to be failures of communication equipment, scientific instruments can fail too. A failed boom or probe or a broken instrument can kill at least one key component of a scientific mission. The more instruments there are, the more complications, and the more possibility of breakage, and Curiosity is packed with instruments.
Other famous examples include the failure of Skylab's solar panels to deploy properly and the mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope. Luckily in those cases, astronauts were able to intervene directly and conduct repairs. That won't be possible for Curiosity.
#3. Communications failure - The distance between Earth and Mars varies greatly (between 36 and 250 million miles!) Earth regularly catches up to, then overtakes and leaves behind the red planet as both orbit the Sun at different periods. The Martian year is almost 687 Earth-days long. As the separation between the two planets changes, so does the amount of time needed to communicate with the orbiters and landers there. Messages can arrive in as little as three minutes or take as long as 22.
In addition to distance, the both planets are rotating with craft frequently passing behind Mars (from our perspective) and being unable to communicate. In fact, any number of dynamic factors can interrupt communications.
Communications failures claim space missions from time to time. At least seven of the 49 attempted Mars missions have been lost due to communication difficulties that couldn't be overcome. A number of other satellites sent into space have also been lost because of communication problems.
A number of things cause these failures, but the extreme nature of space is certainly a factor. Although satellites are built to withstand the harsh space environment, a number of things can go wrong. The extreme forces of launch, the deep freeze of space, or blasts of solar radiation can break, freeze, or fry electronics. The impact of landing can be worse than expected and something can come lose. Or get stuck. The most famous example of this was the Galileo mission to Jupiter. The orbiter's high-gain antenna became stuck and never fully deployed. Luckily, engineers were able to come up with a solution by repurposing the satellite's low-gain antenna to transmit scientific data. While speculation abounds, nobody will likely know the real reason why the antenna became stuck.
Until Curiosity is on the ground transmitting data, communications failure is a real possibility.
#2. Surface crash - Not counting the probes that failed to even attempt landings because of various problems, five of the 49 previous missions have ended in a man-made impact crater on the surface of Mars. The precise nature of each crash remains unknown but all can partially ascribed to human error in judgment. And if manned spacecraft can be lost just miles above the surface of the Earth, imagine a lander that's so far away it takes several minutes to communicate with it.
The Curiosity rover is certainly a well designed, quality built, and carefully managed mission. The best and brightest minds have labored over how to land a fully functional scientific laboratory on Mars and how to conduct scientific experiments to help unlock the secrets of the Red Planet. If any mission enjoys strong odds of success, it is this one. However, lest we be emboldened too much by hubris, it is important to remember that other, carefully crafted and less ambitious missions have failed.
Until we have the hard data and images in our hands and the science is complete, it will be premature to declare success. In the meantime all we can do is hope and trust that this multimillion dollar project provides a return on investment paid in knowledge and understanding beyond our greatest imaginings.
Life on Mars? These scientists say 99 percent yes!
Learn more about the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity from the official JPL/NASA website!