NASA’s Psyche mission began eight weeks ago when it launched from the Kennedy Space Center. While it won’t reach its objective, the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, until 2029, the spacecraft has already travelled 26 million km (16 million miles.) During that time, it’s already had its share of success as it ticks off items on its checklist of tests.
Now, we have our first images from Psyche. And while they don’t show us anything about its eventual target, they give us a behind-the-scenes look at how complex spacecraft prepare themselves as they cruise toward their destinations.
When spacecraft like Psyche are launched, they’re ensconced in the nose of the rocket that carries them. All eyes are on the rocket and its successful launch. But once they separate from the rocket, they’re on their own and mission engineers monitor them carefully, powering up systems and checking scientific instruments according to a precise checklist.
Psyche has already streamed back some data and powered up scientific instruments. Now its twin cameras are operating, and we have our first images. They’re starfield images used to tell Psyche where it’s at in space. Psyche’s imaging system sent back a total of 68 images, all from the constellation Pisces. The image data will verify that the spacecraft is following thruster commands properly, allow mission personnel to verify that telemetry is working, and also allow images to be calibrated.
These images are like a newly-commissioned telescope’s first light.
Jim Bell is an astronomy professor at Arizona State University and the Psyche Imaging team lead. “These initial images are only a curtain-opener,” Bell said in a press release. “For the team that designed and operates this sophisticated instrument, first light is a thrill.”
Psyche will take opportunistic images of other bodies along its journey. These images also give mission operators a chance to test and verify the spacecraft’s imaging system in preparation for its rendezvous with the asteroid Psyche.
“We start checking out the cameras with star images like these, then in 2026, we’ll take test images of Mars during the spacecraft’s flyby,” Bell said. “And finally, in 2029, we’ll get our most exciting images yet – of our target asteroid Psyche. We look forward to sharing all of these visuals with the public.”
We don’t have any great images of Pysche. Most of the images are artist’s illustrations based on scientific data. They can only give us an indication of what it actually looks like.
All of our images of Psyche are illustrations based on scientific data. We’ll only get a good look at it when NASA’s Psyche finally rendezvous with the asteroid in 2029. Credit: Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech
Spacecraft cameras often employ a system of filters to make them more versatile and scientifically productive. Psyche’s imaging system is a multispectral imager made of two identical cameras that provide redundancy in case there are any problems. The cameras have a system of filters that helps Psyche determine the nature of the asteroid’s topography, composition, and geology. Imager data will also build 3D maps of the asteroid’s surface.
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Japan’s New H3 Rocket Successfully Blasts Off
Japan successfully tested its new flagship H3 rocket after an earlier version failed last year. The rocket lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center on Saturday, February 17, reaching an orbital altitude of about 670 kilometers (420 miles). It deployed a set of micro-satellites and a dummy satellite designed to simulate a realistic payload.
With the successful launch of the H3, Japan will begin transitioning away from the previous H-2A rocket which has been in service since 2001 and is set to be retired after two more launches. Several upcoming missions depend on the H3, so this successful test was vital.
The launch came after two days of delays because of bad weather. The H3 rocket, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is now set to become the main launch vehicle of Japan’s space program. The rocket’s first flight in March 2023 failed to reach orbit, which resulted in the loss of an Earth imaging satellite.
The successful launch and deployment of the satellites was a relief for JAXA and members of the project. A livestream of the launch and subsequent successful orbit insertion showed those in the JAXA command cheering and hugging each other.
“I now feel a heavy load taken off my shoulders,” said JAXA H3 project manager Masashi Okada, speaking at a press briefing after the launch. “But now is the real start for H3, and we will work to steadily improve it.”
H3 stands about 57-meter (187-feet) tall and is designed to carry larger payloads. The two microsatellites were deployed approximately 16 minutes and 43 seconds after liftoff. They included an Earth observation satellite named CE-SAT-IE, developed by Canon Electronics, and TIRSAT, an infrared Earth observation instrument that will observe the temperature of the Earth’s surface and seawater.
“We feel so relieved to be able to announce the good results,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said at the briefing. Yamakawa added that the main goals of H3 are to secure independent access to space and allow Japan to be competitive as international demand for satellite launches continues to grow. “We made a big first step today toward achieving that goal,” he said.
An image sent back by a mini-probe shows Japan’s SLIM lander on its side on the lunar surface. (JAXA / Takara Tomy / Sony Group / Doshisha Univ.)
The successful launch comes after two other recent successes for JAXA last month where the H-2A rocket successfully placed a spy satellite into orbit, and just days later JAXA’s robotic SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) made the first-ever precise “pinpoint” Moon landing – although unfortunately the lander came down on its side. However, during the final stages of the descent two autonomous rovers were successfully deployed: a tiny hopping robot and the other designed to roll about the surface. Both have sent back pictures and can continue exploring and sending back information even if SLIM cannot be operated.
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European Satellite ERS-2 to Reenter Earth’s Atmosphere This Week
One of the largest reentries in recent years, ESA’s ERS-2 satellite is coming down this week.
After almost three decades in orbit, an early Earth-observation satellite is finally coming down this week. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Remote Sensing satellite ERS-2 is set to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on or around Wednesday, February 21st.
Trail Blazing Mission
Launched atop an Ariane-4 rocket from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on April 21st, 1995, ERS-2 was one of ESA’s first Earth observation satellites. ERS-2 monitored land masses, oceans, rivers, vegetation and the polar regions of the Earth using visible light and ultraviolet sensors. The mission was on hand for several natural disasters, including the flood of the Elbe River across Germany in 2006. ERS-2 ceased operations in September 2011.
Anatomy of the reentry of ERS-2. ESA
ERS-2 was placed in a retrograde, Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit, inclined 98.5 degrees relative to the equator. This orbit is typical for Earth-observing and clandestine spy satellites, as it allows the mission to image key target sites at the same relative Sun angle, an attribute handy for image interpretation.
ERS-2 tracks and ice floe. ESA
The Last Days of ERS-2
Reentry predictions for the satellite are centered on February 21st at 00:19 Universal Time (UT)+/- 25 hours. As we get closer, expect that time to get refined. The mass of ERS-2 at launch (including fuel) was 2,516 kilograms. Expect most of the satellite to burn up on reentry.
The orbital path of ERS-2. Orbitron
For context, recent high profile reentries include the UARS satellite (6.5 tons, in 2011), and the massive Long March-5B booster that launched the core module for China’s Tiangong Space Station in late 2022 (weighing in at 23 tons).
ERS-2 in the clean room on Earth prior to launch. ESA
ESA passed its first space debris mitigation policy in 2008, 13 years after ERS-2 was launched. In 2011, ESA decided to passively reenter the satellite, and began a series of 66 deorbiting maneuvers to bring its orbit down from 785 kilometers to 573 kilometers. Its fuel drained and batteries exhausted, ERS-2 is now succumbing to the increased drag of the Earth’s atmosphere as we near the peak of the current solar cycle.
Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years
The solar cycle has been reasonably well understood since 1843 when Samuel Schwabe spent 17 years observing the variation of sunspots. Since then, we have regularly observed the ebb and flow of the sunspots cycle every 11 years. More recently ESA’s Solar Orbiter has taken regular images of the Sun to track the progress as we head towards the peak of the current solar cycle. Two recently released images from February 2021 and October 2023 show how things are really picking up as we head toward solar maximum.
The Sun is a great big ball of plasma, electrically charged gas, which has the amazing property that it can move a magnetic field that may be embedded within. As the Sun rotates, the magnetic field gets dragged around with it but, because the Sun rotates faster at the equator than at the poles, the field lines get wound up tighter and tighter.
Under this immense stressing, the field lines occasionally break, snap or burst through the surface of the Sun and when they do, we see a sunspot. These dark patches on the visible surface of the Sun are regions where denser concentrations of solar material prohibit heat flow to the visible surface giving rise to slightly cooler, and therefore darker patches on the Sun.
A collage of new solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope, which is a small amount of solar data obtained during the Inouye’s first year of operations throughout its commissioning phase. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)
The slow rotation of the Sun and the slow but continuous winding up of the field lines means that sun spots become more and more numerous as the field gets more distorted. Observed over a period of years the spots seem to slowly migrate from the polar regions to the equatorial regions as the solar cycle progresses.
To try and help understand this complex cycle and unlock other mysteries of the Sun, the European Space Agency launched its Solar Orbiter on 10 February 2020. Its mission to explore the Sun’s polar regions, understand what drives the 11 year solar cycle and what drives the heating of the corona, the outer layers of the Sun’s atmosphere.
Images from Solar Orbiter have been released that show closeups of the Sun’s visible surface, the photosphere as it nears peak of solar activity. At the beginning of the cycle, at solar minimum in 2019, there was relatively little activity and only a few sunspots. Since then, things have been slowly increasing. The image from February 2021 showed a reasonably quiet Sun but an image taken in October last year shows that things are, dare I say, hotting up! The maximum of this cycle is expected to occur in 2025 which supports theories that the period of maximum activity could arrive a year earlier.
Understanding the cycle is not just of whimsical scientific interest, it is vital to ensure we minimise damage to ground based and orbiting systems but crucially understand impact on life on Earth.
Source : Sun’s surprising activity surge in Solar Orbiter snapshot
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