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Solar sails rely upon pressure exerted by sunlight on large surfaces. Get the sail closer to the Sun and not surprisingly efficiency increases. A proposed new mission called Mercury Scout aims to take advantage of this to explore Mercury. The mission will map the Mercurian surface down to a resolution of 1 meter and, using the highly reflective sail surface to illuminate shadowed craters, could hunt for water deposits. 

Unlike conventional rocket engines that require fuel which itself adds weight and subsequently requires more fuel, solar sails are far more efficient. Light falling upon the sail can propel a prob across space. It’s a fascinating concept that goes back to the 1600’s when Johannes Kepler suggested the idea to Galileo Galilei. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st Century that the Planetary Society created the Cosmos 1 solar sail spacecraft. It launched in June 2005 but a failure meant it never reached orbit. The first successfully launched solar sail was Ikaros, launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency it superbly demonstrated the feasibility of the technology. 

Artist's illustration of IKAROS. Credit: JAXA
Artist’s illustration of IKAROS. Credit: JAXA

It has been known since 1905 that light is made up of tiny little particles known as photons. They don’t have any mass but while travelling through space, they do have momentum. When a tennis ball hits a racket, it bounces off the strings and some of the ball’s momentum is transferred to the racket. In a very similar way, photons of light hitting a solar sail transfer some of their momentum to the sail giving it a small push. More photons hitting the sail give another small push and as they slowly build up, the spacecraft slowly accelerates.

Mercury Scout will take advantage of the solar sail idea as its main propulsion once it has reached Earth orbit. The main objectives for the mission are to map out the mineral distribution on the surface, high resolution imaging down to 1 meter resolution and identification of ice deposits in permanently shadowed craters. The solar sail was chosen because it offers significant technical and financial benefits lowering overall cost and reducing transit time to Mercury.

To propel the Mercury Scout module, the sail will be around 2500 square meters and 2.5 microns thick. The material is aluminised CP1 which is similar to that used in the heat shield of the James Webb Space Telescope. The sails four separate quadrants unfurl along carbon fibre supports and will get to Mercury in an expected 3.8 years. On arrival it will transfer into a polar orbit and then spend another 176 days mapping the entire surface.

To enable the entire planet to be mapped the the orbit will have to be maintained by adjusting the angle of the sail. In the same way the captain of a sailing ship can sail against, or sometimes into wind by adjusting sail angle and position so the solar sail can be used to generate thrust in the required direction. 

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Data from the Mercury Atmosphere and Surface Composition Spectrometer, or MASCS, instrument is overlain on the mosaic from the Mercury Dual Imaging System, or MDIS. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Unlike other more traditional rocket engines whose life is usually limited to fuel availability, the solar sail is limited by degradation in sail material. Its life expectancy is around 10 years. Additional coatings are being explored to see if the life of the sail can be extended further.

Source : MERCURY SCOUT: A SOLAR SAIL MISSION TO THE INNERMOST PLANET

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Juno Reveals a Giant Lava Lake on Io

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NASA’s Juno spacecraft came within 1,500 km (930 miles) of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Io in two recent flybys. That’s close enough to reveal new details on the surface of this moon, the most volcanic object in the Solar System. Not only did Juno capture volcanic activity, but scientists were also able to create a visual animation from the data that shows what Io’s 200-km-long lava lake Loki Patera would look like if you could get even closer. There are islands at the center of a magma lake rimmed with hot lava. The lake’s surface is smooth as glass, like obsidian.

“Io is simply littered with volcanoes, and we caught a few of them in action,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton during a news conference at the European Geophysical Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria. “There is amazing detail showing these crazy islands embedded in the middle of a potentially magma lake rimmed with hot lava. The specular reflection our instruments recorded of the lake suggests parts of Io’s surface are as smooth as glass, reminiscent of volcanically created obsidian glass on Earth.”

This animation is an artist’s concept of Loki Patera, a lava lake on Jupiter’s moon Io, made using data from the JunoCam imager aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft. With multiple islands in its interior, Loki is a depression filled with magma and rimmed with molten lava. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Just imagine if you could stand by the shores of this lake – which would be a stunning view in itself. But then, you could look up and see the giant Jupiter looming in the skies above you.

Juno made the two close flybys of Io in December 2023 and February 2024. Images from Juno’s JunoCam included the first close-up images of the moon’s northern latitudes. Undoubtedly, Io looks like a pizza – which has been the conclusion since our first views of this moon, when Voyager 1 flew through the Jupiter system in March 1979. The mottled and colorful surface comes from the volcanic activity, with hundreds of vents and calderas on the surface that create a variety of features. Volcanic plumes and lava flows across the surface show up in all sorts of colors, from red and yellow to orange and black. Some of the lava “rivers” stretch for hundreds of kilometers.

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Io’s sub-Jovian hemisphere is revealed in detail for the first time since Voyager 1 flew through the Jupiter system in March 1979, during the Juno spacecraft’s 58th perijove, or close pass, on February 3, 2024. This image shows Io’s nightside illuminated by sunlight reflected off Jupiter’s cloud tops. Several surface changes are visible include a reshaping of the compound flow field at Kanehekili (center left) and a new lava flow to the east of Kanehekili. This image has a pixel scale of 1.6 km/pixel. Credit : NASA/SwRI/JPL/MSSS/Jason Perry.

Juno scientists were also able to re-create a spectacular feature on Io, a spired mountain that has been nicknamed “The Steeple.” This feature is between 5 and 7 kilometers (3-4.3 miles) in height. It’s hard to comprehend the type of volcanic activity that could have created such a stunning landform.

Created using data collected by the JunoCam imager aboard NASA’s Juno during flybys in December 2023 and February 2024, this animation is an artist’s concept of a feature on the Jovian moon Io that the mission science team nicknamed “Steeple Mountain.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Speaking of volcanic activity, two recent papers have come to a jaw-dropping conclusion about Io: this moon has been erupting since the dawn of the Solar System.

All the volcanic on Io is activity is driven by tidal heating. Io is in an orbital resonance with two other large moons of Jupiter, Europa and Ganymede.

“Every time Ganymede orbits Jupiter once, Europa orbits twice, and Io orbits four times,” explained the authors of a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, led by Ery Hughes of GNS Science in New Zealand. “This situation causes tidal heating in Io (like how the Moon causes ocean tides on Earth), which causes the volcanism.”

However, scientists haven’t known how long this resonance has been occurring and whether what we observe today is what has always been happening in the Jupiter system. This is because volcanism renews Io’s surface almost

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Artemis Astronauts Will Deploy New Seismometers on the Moon

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Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Apollo astronauts set up a collection of lunar seismometers to detect possible Moon quakes. These instruments monitored lunar activity for eight years and gave planetary scientists an indirect glimpse into the Moon’s interior. Now, researchers are developing new methods for lunar quake detection techniques and technologies. If all goes well, the Artemis astronauts will deploy them when they return to the Moon.

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Fiber optic cable is the heart of a seismology network to be deployed on the Moon by future Artemis astronauts.

The new approach, called distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), is the brainchild of CalTech geophysics professor Zhongwen Zhan. It sends laser beams through a fiber optic cable buried just below the surface. Instruments at either end measure how the laser light changes during the shake-induced tremors. Basically Zhan’s plan turns the cable into a sequence of hundreds of individual seismometers. That gives precise information about the strength and timing of the tremors. Amazingly, a 100-kilometer fiber optic cable would function as the equivalent of 10,000 seismometers. This cuts down on the number of individual seismic instruments astronauts would have to deploy. It probably also affords some cost savings as well.

A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.
A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.

DAS and Apollo on the Moon

Compare DAS the Apollo mission seismometer data and it becomes obvious very quickly that DAS is a vast improvement. In the Apollo days, the small collection of instruments left behind on the Moon provided information that was “noisy”. Essentially, when the seismic waves traveled through different parts of the lunar structure, they got scattered. This was particularly true when they encountered the dusty surface layer. The “noise” basically muddied up the signals.

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The layout for the Apollo Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment for the Apollo 17 mission. Courtesy Nunn, et al.

What DAS Does to Detect Quakes on the Moon

The DAS system stations laser emitters and data collectors at each end of a fiber optic cable. This allows for multiple widely spaced installations that measure light as it transits the network. The cable consists of glass strands, and each strand contains tiny imperfections. That sounds bad, but each imperfection provides a useful “waypoint” that reflects a little bit of the light back to the source. That information gets recorded as part of a larger data set. Setting up such a system of
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Ice Deposits on Ceres Might Only Be a Few Thousand Years Old

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The dwarf planet Ceres has some permanently dark craters that hold ice. Astronomers thought the ice was ancient when they were discovered, like in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions. But something was puzzling.

Why did some of these shadowed craters hold ice while others did not?

Ceres was first discovered in 1801 and was considered a planet. Later, it was thought to be the first asteroid ever discovered, since it’s in the main asteroid belt. Since then, our expanding knowledge has changed its definition: we now know it as a dwarf planet.

Even though it was discovered over 200 years ago, it’s only in the last couple of decades that we’ve gotten good looks at its surface features. NASA’s Dawn mission is responsible for most of our knowledge of Ceres’ surface, and it found what appeared to be ice in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs.)

New research shows that these PSRs are not actually permanent and that the ice they hold is not ancient. Instead, it’s only a few thousand years old.

The new research is titled “History of Ceres’s Cold Traps Based on Refined Shape Models,” published in The Planetary Science Journal. The lead author is Norbert Schorghofer, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

“The results suggest all of these ice deposits must have accumulated within the last 6,000 years or less.”

Norbert Schorghofer, senior scientist, Planetary Science Institute.

Dawn captured its first images of Ceres while approaching the dwarf planet in January 2015. At that time, it was close enough to capture images as good as Hubble’s. Those images showed craters and a high-albedo site on the surface. Once captured by Ceres, Dawn followed a polar orbit with decreasing altitude. It eventually reached 375 km (233 mi) above the surface, allowing it to see the poles and surface in greater detail.

“For Ceres, the story started in 2016, when the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited around Ceres at the time, glimpsed into these permanently dark craters and saw bright ice deposits in some of them,” Schorghofer said. “The discovery back in 2016 posed a riddle: Many craters in the polar regions of Ceres remain shadowed all year – which on Ceres lasts 4.6 Earth years – and therefore remain frigidly cold, but only a few of them harbor ice deposits.”

As scientists continued to study Ceres, they made another discovery: its massive Solar System neighbours make it wobble.

“Soon, another discovery provided a clue why: The rotation axis of Ceres oscillates back and forth every 24,000 years due to tides from the Sun and Jupiter. When the axis tilt is high and the seasons strong, only a few craters remain shadowed all year, and these are the craters that contain bright ice deposits,” said lead author Schorghofer.

This figure from the research shows how Ceres' obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.
This figure from the research shows how Ceres’ obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.

Researchers constructed digital elevation maps (DEMs) of the craters to uncover these facts. They wanted to find out how large and deep the shadows in the craters were, not just now but thousands of years ago. But that’s difficult to do since portions of these craters were in deep shadow when Dawn visited. That made it difficult to see how deep the craters were.

Robert Gaskell, also from the Planetary Science Institute, took on the task. He developed a new technique to create more accurate maps of the craters with data from Dawn’s sensitive Framing Cameras, contributed to the mission by Germany. With improved accuracy, these maps of the crater floors could be used in ray tracing to show sunlight penetrated the shadows as Ceres wobbled over thousands of years.

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