In 2024, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper, the long-awaited orbiter mission that will fly to Jupiter (arriving in 2030) to explore its icy moon Europa. Through a series of flybys, the Clipper will survey Europa’s surface and plume activity in the hopes of spotting organic molecules and other potential indications of life (“biosignatures”). If all goes well, NASA plans to send a follow-up mission to land on the surface and examine Europa’s icy sheet and plumes more closely. This proposed mission is aptly named the Europa Lander.
While no date has been set, and the mission is still in the research phase, some significant steps have been taken to get the Europa Lander to the development phase. This past August, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California tested a prototype of this proposed landing system in a simulated environment. This system combines hardware used by previous NASA lander missions and some new elements that will enable a mission to Europa. It also could be adapted to facilitate missions to more “Ocean Worlds” and other celestial bodies in our Solar System.
Since the 1970s, when NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 probes flew past Jupiter and its system of moons, scientists have been eager to get a closer look at Europa. Several missions have visited Jupiter since, including the NASA-ESA Ulysses probe, which flew past the system in 1992 and 2004. This was followed by the CassiniHuygensprobe that made a flyby in 2000 on its way to Saturn and the New Horizons mission that buzzed the system on its way to the Trans-Neptunian region. However, only two missions have traveled to the system and remained there to study Jupiter and its satellites: the Galileo (1995-2003) and Juno space probes (2016-present).
Thanks to data obtained by the Voyager probes, scientists began to speculate that a liquid ocean might exist beneath Europa’s icy shell. Using planetary models, they further theorized that Europa (and the other Galilean Moons) experienced tidal flexing in its interior resulting from interactions with Jupiter’s powerful gravity. This, they speculated, could lead to hydrothermal activity at the moon’s core-mantle boundary, providing the necessary heat and chemical energy for life. Subsequent missions have only reinforced this suspicion by detecting plume activity, carbon dioxide, and mineral salts on the moon’s surface.
Creating a Europa Lander that can navigate the challenging terrain requires an advanced approach, which NASA engineers are addressing by adapting elements that have worked in the past. This includes the architecture used for the “sky crane” landing system used by NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, which relied on parachutes and retro rockets to slow their descent and a pulley system to lower them onto the surface. This system was tested in a simulated environment at NASA’s JPL at Caltech on August 17th and 18th, the highlight of which can be seen in the video above.
The JPL engineers created a simulated propulsive descent stage for their prototype that kept the Europa Lander steady as four bridles lowered it. The Lander has four legs, each of which has a four-bar linkage mechanism that controls the leg’s pose before and during landing. Each leg is preloaded downward with a constant force spring to help them rearrange and compress the surface they encounter as they slowly touch down on the surface. This allows the legs to conform passively to whatever terrain they encounter while providing extra traction and stability during and after the landing event.
The underside of the Lander has a belly pan (similar to a skid plate on an automobile) that resists sheer motion and protects the Lander from potentially harmful terrain. Once the belly pan contacts the surface, sensors trigger a mechanism that locks the legs’ rotary joints. At this point, the legs become responsible for maintaining stability and keeping the lander level as the bridles are unloaded. If the belly pan does not encounter terrain during touchdown, sensors in each leg can also declare touchdown. In this case, the belly pan will be suspended above the terrain, and the Lander will be supported only by its four legs.
Artist’s concept of a proposed Europa lander spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
What was not filmed is the phase after
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The International Space Station Celebrates 25 Years in Space
NASA recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the International Space Station (ISS) with a space-to-Earth call between the 7-person Expedition 70 crew and outgoing NASA Associate Administrator, Bob Cabana, and ISS Program Manager, Joel Montalbano. On December 6, 1998, the U.S.-built Unity module and the Russian-built Zarya module were mated in the Space Shuttle Endeavour cargo bay, as Endeavour was responsible for launching Unity into orbit that same day, with Zarya having waited in orbit after being launched on November 20 from Kazakhstan.
“I cannot believe it was 25 years ago today that we grappled Zarya and joined it with the Unity node,” said Cabana during the call from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Absolutely amazing.”
While this milestone marks 25 years since the first two ISS modules were attached, it would be another two years until the ISS had a crew, Expedition 1, which arrived at the ISS in November 2000 and stayed until March 2001, beginning an uninterrupted human presence on the ISS that continues today. During the two-year period between the first mating and Expedition 1, the Russian-built Zvedza module was attached to the Unity and Zarya modules on July 26, 2000, after launching from Kazakhstan two weeks earlier. Assembly of the large modules of the ISS would continue until 2021 when the Roscosmos-funded Nauka module was attached in July 2021.
Now in its final configuration, the ISS is approximately the size of an American gridiron football field consisting of 8 solar arrays that provide the station’s power while maintaining an average altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles). Its massive size consists of a pressurized module length along the major axis of 67 meters (218 feet), a truss (primary body) length of 94 meters (310 feet), a solar array length (measured along the truss) of 73 meters (239 feet), and a total mass of 419,725 kilograms (925,335 pounds).
Artist rendition of the ISS compared to an American gridiron football field. (Credit: NASA)
Image of the ISS taken by SpaceX Crew-2 mission on November 8, 2021 after it successfully undocked from the ISS Harmony module. (Credit: NASA)
Ever since the 3-person Expedition 1 crew first took command of the ISS, a total of 273 individuals from 21 countries have visited the orbiting laboratory and have been comprised of trained astronauts and private visitors. From most visitors to least, the following visitor countries include the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Great Britain, Israel, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Netherlands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden.
“One of my favorite aspects of the International Space Station is the international part of it,” said NASA Astronaut and Expedition 70 Flight Engineer, Jasmin Moghbeli, during the call. “We each bring our unique perspectives, not just from our different nationalities, but also our different backgrounds. I think we’re definitely strengthened by the international partnership. It’s just like gaining redundancy when you have multiple partners working together. It’s stronger and more resilient to any sort of problems or obstacles that come our way and so it definitely makes us stronger. And I think that’s why we have had the International Space Station up here for 25 years now.”
Starship | Second Flight Test
On November 18, 2023, Starship successfully lifted off at 7:02 a.m. CT from Starbase on its second integrated flight test.
While it didn’t happen in a lab or on a test stand, it was absolutely a test. What we did with this second flight will provide invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship.
The test achieved a number of major milestones, helping us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary. The team at Starbase is already working final preparations on the vehicles slated for use in Starship’s third flight test.
Congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on an exciting second flight test of Starship!
Follow us on X.com/SpaceX for continued updates on Starship’s progress
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For its Final Trick, Chandrayaan-3 Brings its Propulsion Module to Earth Orbit
On August 23, ISRO’s Vikram lander detached from its propulsion module and made a soft landing near the Moon’s south pole region. The lander then deployed its Pragyan rover, and for two weeks the endearing little solar-powered rover performed marvelously, detecting water ice and characterizing the makeup of the lunar regolith before succumbing to the darkness and cold of the lunar night.
But since the rover mission ended, the propulsion module that brought it to the Moon has made a detour, performing a series of complex maneuvers that took it from a tight lunar orbit back to Earth orbit. This was possible because the module still had more than 100 kg of fuel, allowing scientists to conduct additional maneuvers and experiments.
Right now, the propulsion module (PM) is orbiting Earth at an altitude of 115,000 km (71,500 miles), well above geostationary orbit. ISRO said the mission team decided to use the available fuel in the propulsion module to derive additional information for future lunar missions. More specifically, this demonstration gave them the chance to test mission operation strategies for a future sample return mission.
A graphic of the Chandrayaan-3 lander separating from the propulsion module. Credit: ISRO.
The PM has had a busy and productive mission. While in lunar orbit for about a month, it wasn’t just taking it easy. After the separation of the lander, the PM operated an on-board experiment, the Spectro-polarimetry of HAbitable Planet Earth (SHAPE) payload, designed to observe the Earth. Specifically, this instrument also provided scientists and engineers experience for future missions and research as its purpose was to study habitable planet-like features of Earth. These observations will be used by ISRO for future studies of exoplanets. Additionally, there was a special operation of the SHAPE payload on October 28, 2023 during the solar eclipse.
But because the spacecraft had such a precise orbit injection and optimal burn maneuvers, the amount of leftover fuel meant the engineers could do even more with the PM than originally expected. The PM was commanded to execute an orbit-raising maneuver at the Moon and then perform a Trans-Earth injection burn, which placed the PM in an Earth-bound orbit.
ISRO said the first orbit raising maneuver at the Moon was performed on October 9, 2023 to raise apolune altitude to 5,112 km from 150 km. The Trans-Earth injection (TEI) maneuver was performed on October 13, 2023, and as its orbit was slowly raised, the PM made four Moon flybys before departing Moon on November 10.
Currently, propulsion module is orbiting Earth with an orbital period of nearly 13 days, at 27 degrees inclination. Because of this high orbit, ISRO said there is no threat of close approach with any operational Earth orbiting satellites.
ISRO said these extra operations allowed them to plan and execute trajectory maneuvers to return from Moon to Earth, as well as develop software to plan and validate the maneuvers. They also planned and executed a gravity assisted flyby between two celestial bodies and, most notably they avoided an uncontrolled crash into the Moon’s surface at the end of the life of PM, which met the requirements of creating no debris on the Moon.
Will its current high geostationary orbit be the Chandrayaan-3 PM’s final trick? Who knows? The resourceful engineers might figure out another way to make use of this multi-purpose spacecraft.
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