Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory | GRAIL

Grail Mission Logo

While many of you were partaking in New Year’s celebrations, engineers and other specialists at NASA were also celebrating; albeit, something a bit different.

NASA launched the twin GRAIL-A/GRAIL-B spacecrafts from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on September 10, 2011, on a nearly 4-month journey to the Moon. 1(footnote below) On December 31 and January 1, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B — respectively — completed their journey into lunar orbit.

Artist's Rendition of Grail Mission

Image credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech

At this point in the mission, the mirror-twin GRAIL spacecraft are maneuvering themselves into a flying formation that will place them on a near-polar orbit, 34 miles (55 km) above the Moon’s surface. While the craft are currently completing an orbit approximately every 11.5 hours, over the coming weeks controlled burns will reduce that time to just under 2 hours.

From there, the science begins. In March, GRAIL begins its task of creating a comprehensive and detailed map of the Moon’s gravitational field. This will provide tremendous insights into the internal structure of our natural satellite, from core to crust. It will also reveal the history of the Moon’s episodes of heating and cooling. Understanding this thermal evolution takes us a step closer to fully understanding the Moon’s origin and the processes it undertook over the past 5 billion years, to make it what it is today. This new knowledge will extend our understanding not only of the Moon, but the other rocky inner solar system planets as well.

 

Grail heading towards the Moon

Photo credit: NASA/Darrell McCall

For the kids; our future.

Both spacecraft contain a camera called GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students). MoonKAM is installed solely for education and public outreach, being led by Sally Ride (the first American woman in space, but of course you knew that) and her Sally Ride Science team. GRAIL MoonKAM is designed to engage middle school-aged students from across the nation. Students will be able to target areas on the surface of the Moon, submit their requests to GRAIL MoonKAM, and then receive photos of the target area to be studied in the classroom.

In addition to GRAIL MoonKAM, beginning in October of last year students were also able to enter a contest to choose new names for the spacecraft. So if the names, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B aren’t particularly exciting to you, the new names are expected to be revealed later this month.

 

I’m excited to see what GRAIL reveals about our nearest interplanetary neighbor. The Moon still harbors a number of puzzling mysteries, and there’s a good chance that GRAIL might shed some light onto their answers. GRAIL is a comparatively short mission, expected to conclude around early June of this year; so, our new data and understanding will be coming to us soon. After decommissioning is finished, the GRAIL orbiters will be smashed into the Moon’s surface, in true NASA fashion.


To read more about GRAIL, check out the following links:

GRAIL press kit (.pdf)

MIT’s GRAIL page

Sally Ride Science GRAIL MoonKAM page

NASA mission page

  1. When NASA is sending people to the Moon, we do it in 3 days. It is safer for our astronauts and easier to plan for, but it comes at a month greater fuel cost. With spacecraft such as GRAIL, we can save a few bucks and take our time.

The Things We've Flung At Mars

Here is one great graphic. It depicts nearly every dedicated mission that humans have, or have attempted to, send to Mars.

Mars Exploration Family Portrait

Click image for larger version, or visit the source for an even larger version/ (Credit: Credit: Jason Davis / astrosaur.us)

The image creator, Jason Davis, explains how he decided which missions should be included:

I only counted missions that had Mars as the end destination. Additionally, multi-craft missions only count once — unless two landers were sent on two different rockets. Represented in the center of the poster across the planet’s surface are all of the successful landers.

The Planetary Society also has the image available as a poster in their store. (Buying the poster from them not only gets you a cool poster, but supports an important group as well.)

Kepler Finds First Earth-Sized Planets

NASA just announced that the Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-sized planets outside of our solar system.

The planets, Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f,  while Earth-sized and thought to be rocky, are not believed to be habitable. They are much too close to their Type G star, Kepler-20, and too hot to retain liquid water.  Kepler-20e has a radius about 13% smaller than the Earth, making it just slightly smaller than Venus, and whips around Kepler-20 in a mere 6.1 days. Kepler-20f has a radius 3% larger than that of the Earth, with its year being a still fast 19.6 days.  The Kepler-20 system is approximately 1,000 light years from Earth.

Read the NASA release for even more details.

The Kepler mission is playing out like the fairy-tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. By that, I mean that we’re closing in on those planets that are “just right” for harboring life. We’ve discovered large planets inside the habitable zone that lacked a rocky surface (Kepler-22b) and gas giants not unlike Jupiter. Today, we’re finding Earth-sized planets with a rocky terrain. We’re getting ever so close to discovering those “Goldilocks” planets, with the size, composition, and being within the habitable zone, that allow them to be habitable.  And with more than 2300 candidates out there still waiting to be verified by Kepler, and Kepler’s current rate of discovery, I believe the announcement of a goldilocks planet is just around the corner.

Earth-class Planets Line Up

ANOTHER Kepler Announcement Tuesday

Kepler Mission Logo

Kepler Mission logo

Kepler keeps on Kepler-ing on.

Earlier this year, I mentioned that the Kepler mission team was about to make an announcement the following day about a new discovery. The following day, the Kepler team announced the confirmation of a 9th exoplanet. Then, just earlier this week, I posted about Kepler’s 28th confirmed discovery, Kepler-22b. Kepler-22b was exciting, as the data reveals that it exists within the habitable zone of its host star.

Well, Kepler is set to make another announcement tomorrow!:

NASA’s Kepler Announcing Newly Confirmed Planets

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. — NASA will host a news teleconference at 1 p.m. EST, Tuesday, Dec. 20, announcing new discoveries by the Kepler mission.

Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Although additional observations will be needed to reach that milestone, Kepler is detecting planets and possible candidates with a wide range of sizes and orbital distances to help scientists better understand our place in the galaxy.

We’ll check back in tomorrow to learn what new and exciting discovery Kepler has for us.

*UPDATE: The press conference starts in 1pm (EST); you can listen to it live at this link: http://www.nasa.gov/news/media/newsaudio/index.html

Kepler-22b: Things Are Beginning to Look Familiar

At the beginning of this year, we were excited to help break the news of the 9th planet confirmed by the Kepler spacecraft. Not even an entire year later, Kepler is up to 28 confirmed planets and more than 2000 more candidates waiting to be studied and potentially verified!

Last week, the Kepler mission had a very exciting announcement: Kepler-22b became the first exoplanet to be located within the habitable zone.

So let’s take a look at this exoplanet. Kepler-22b has a radius around 2.4 times that of the Earth. It is located 587 light-years from Earth, orbiting a star not so much different than our own. Though Kepler-22b’s host star — Kepler-22 — is slightly smaller and cooler than the Sun, Kepler-22b orbits closer than the Earth does to the Sun, compensating for the difference. Kepler-22b’s mass and surface composition is still unknown.
Kepler Diagram
(Diagram showing a comparison between our solar system’s habitable zone with Kepler-22’s. / Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
So, we have a planet not too much larger than the Earth (though we don’t know its composition or mass), orbiting a star not too much smaller/cooler than our Sun, in the so-called habitable zone. What are the chances of life? First, we have to remember that while the Earth sits in our solar system’s habitable zone, so does Mars, Ceres, and sometimes Venus, and those are hardly bodies that appear to be very conducive for life (though, I think the book on Mars still has many pages to be read). But, then there’s the Earth, that Goldilocks planet within Sol’s habitable zone; life flourishing.

So. Not only is Kepler looking in the right places but it is finding what it is looking for, and proving quite able to find out just how rare planets like our own might be. At 587 light years from Earth we won’t be sending a probe to Kepler-22b to do reconnaissance anytime soon, but this discovery does fuel our imaginations, fill our minds with knowledge, and inspire us to carry on looking. At the very least, it proves just how capable the Kepler spacecraft is and just how amazing the mission truly is.

Hope Dims For Phobos-Grunt

It’s being reported that the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, is publicly recognizing the dwindling possibility to regain contact and control of its latest Mars (Mars’ moon, Phobos, actually) mission, Phobos-Grunt. Phobos-Grunt launched on November 9 and made it into Earth orbit; however, it failed to fire its engines that would have sent it on its way to Mars’ moon Phobos.

According to the BBC:

Engineers have tried in vain to contact the spacecraft, and Roscosmos deputy head Vitaliy Davydov said the situation now looked very grim.

“One should be a realist,” he was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

Later, another Russian news agency, Interfax, quoted Davydov as saying that Phobos-Grunt might fall from orbit anytime between late December 2011 and February 2012.

This is unfortunate news on a couple of fronts. First, losing the mission to Phobos is tremendously disappointing. The research that would have been gained from that mission would have been remarkable. The second reason this situation is particularly unfortunate is that it’s not quite known what kind of consequences Earth might face when Phobos-Grunt drops out of orbit and comes crashing back down to Earth. It is currently holding quite a bit of fuel — the fuel that would have taken it to Phobos — and the design of fuel tanks often allows them to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere more successfully than other spacecraft components.

To be certain, both professionals and amateurs alike will be keeping their eyes on Phobos-Grunt and crunching the numbers to try and ascertain what might happen within the next few months if — and it is seemingly highly likely at this point — it comes back down to Earth.

Any developments will be reported here.

And Curiosity is Off!

Screencap of MSL launch

At around 10am EST (7 PST) this morning, the Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity rover, lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The powerful Atlas V rocket had no hesitation after it ignited and propelled the MSL off of the launchpad. Within a few minutes, the MSL was in orbit. 44 minutes after launch the spacecraft separated from the rocket putting it on a trajectory to reach Mars in August of 2012.

Good travels, Curiosity!

Mars Science Laboratory

Curosity on Mars - Artist's concept

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


As you most likely know, we’re just a day away from the planned launch of the Mars Science Laboratory. Curiosity is scheduled to launch on Nov. 26, 2011, at 10:02a.m. EST (7:02a.m. PST) for an eight-month, 570 million kilometer (354 million mile), trip to the red planet. Curiosity will launch from on top of an Atlas V rocket, one of the largest rockets currently available for interplanetary travel. The launch window exists from now until December 18, 2011, but as of today the current weather forecast shows a 70% chance for good weather come launch time.

NASA will be providing coverage of the launch both online and on NASA TV, with launch coverage beginning at 7:30am EST (4:30am PST).
Check out this video for an animated look at some of the mission milestones. (The animation is very cinematic and has what sounds like a Jason Bourne-themed score.)

Stay tuned to 46BLYZ.com for future coverage of the Mars Science Laboratory.

First Ever Image From Orbit Of Mercury

Following insertion into Mercury’s orbit on March 17, Messenger has finally sent home the first images ever recorded from within the orbit of our innermost planet.

You’ll want to click this image for the full-size version:

First image ever captured from within the orbit of Mercury

First image ever captured from within the orbit of Mercury / Source: Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

JHU/APL
Early this morning, at 5:20 am EDT, MESSENGER captured this historic image of Mercury. This image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about the Solar System’s innermost planet. Over the subsequent six hours, MESSENGER acquired an additional 363 images before downlinking some of the data to Earth. The MESSENGER team is currently looking over the newly returned data, which are still continuing to come down. Tomorrow, March 30, at 2 pm EDT, attend the NASA media telecon to view more images from MESSENGER’s first look at Mercury from orbit.

Currently, Messenger is the commissioning phase of the mission and is testing out its various equipment and instruments. In a few days, it will begin its year-long primary mission which will answer questions about the formation and composition of the smallest and innermost planet in our solar system.

NASA Messenger Makes History Today

Artist depiction of the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury.

Artist depiction of the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. / Source: NASA / JHU/APL


Today, at about 4:45 AKDT (8:45 EST), NASA’s Messenger will become the first spacecraft to enter Mercury’s orbit. Messenger launched on August 3, 2004 and will undertake a plethora of scientific tasks, including studying the chemical composition, geology and magnetic field of Mercury. It should increase our understanding of Mercury’s geological history, investigate the presence of a liquid outer core, and determine why Mercury’s Northern and Southern poles are highly-reflective to radar (the hypothesis is ice!).

NASA will broadcast a live webcast of the event: http://mfile.akamai.com/7111/live/reflector:22179.asx?bkup=22194 (streaming media link) beginning at 8:457:55pm EST.

The first few days in orbit, the orbital commissioning phase, will focus on ensuring that the spacecraft systems are all working well in the harsh thermal environment of orbit. By March 24, Messenger’s instruments will be activated and checked out, with the science portion of the mission commencing on April 4.

For more information about the mission:

NASA Messenger Mission Page
Ice on Mercury
Messenger Page -Johns Hopkins University – Applied Physics Laboratory