NASA’s Europa Clipper Builds Hardware, Moves Toward Assembly

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit: NASA)

Jupiter’s moon Europa may have the potential to harbor life. The spacecraft will use multiple flybys of the moon to investigate the habitability of this ocean world.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Europa Clipper, NASA’s upcoming flagship mission to the outer solar system, has passed a significant milestone, completing its Critical Design Review. During the review, experts examined the detailed design of the spacecraft to ensure that it is ready to complete construction. The mission is now able to complete hardware fabrication and testing, and move toward the assembly and testing of the spacecraft and its payload of sophisticated science instruments.

(more…)

NASA Funds Research on Nuclear-powered Solar Sails to Quickly Explore Outer Planets

A nominal layout of a solar sail vehicle with a central payload and avionics unit, supported by a distributed APPLE power system with the number and area of units scaled to mission power need (not to scale). (Credits: E. Joseph Nemanick)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE)
E. Joseph Nemanick
The Aerospace Corporation
Santa Monica, Calif.

The Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration (APPLE) is an enabling architecture for deep solar system missions on low mass, fast transit space platforms. We explore an alternative vehicle architecture that integrates a long-lived, peak power capable, rechargeable, and modular power system with solar sail propulsion, and examine the new missions this architecture enables.

(more…)

Comet Makes a Pit Stop Near Jupiter’s Asteroids

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope snapped this image of the young comet P/2019 LD2 as it orbits near Jupiter’s captured ancient asteroids, which are called Trojans. The Hubble view reveals a 400,000-mile-long tail of dust and gas flowing from the wayward comet’s bright solid nucleus. (Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Olmsted/STScI)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — For the first time, a wayward comet-like object has been spotted near the family of ancient asteroids.

After traveling several billion miles toward the Sun, a wayward young comet-like object orbiting among the giant planets has found a temporary parking place along the way. The object has settled near a family of captured ancient asteroids, called Trojans, that are orbiting the Sun alongside Jupiter. This is the first time a comet-like object has been spotted near the Trojan population.

(more…)

How Were the Trojan Asteroids Discovered and Named?

This is a view of the inner solar system in a Jupiter-rotating reference frame. The camera begins at viewpoint oblique to the ecliptic plane, then moves up to a top-down view. Clusters of Trojan asteroids appear behind and ahead of Jupiter in its orbit. (Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio)

By David Dezell Turner
Southwest Research Institute

BOULDER, Colo. — On Feb. 22, 1906, German astrophotographer Max Wolf helped reshape our understanding of the solar system. Again.

Born in 1863, Wolf had a habit of dramatically altering the astronomy landscape. Something of a prodigy, he discovered his first comet at only 21 years old. Then in 1890, he boldly declared that he planned to use wide-field photography in his quest to discover new asteroids, which would make him the first to do so. Two years later, Wolf had found 18 new asteroids. He later became the first person to use the “stereo comparator,” a View-Master-like device that showed two photographs of the sky at once so that moving asteroids appeared to pop out from the starry background.

(more…)

NASA Issues RFI for Europa Clipper Launch

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a blow to Space Launch System (SLS) backers, NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) for the October 2024 launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter that will search for signs of life on Jupiter’s enigmatic, ice-covered moon Europa.

It’s a clear sign that NASA is seeking commercial alternatives to launching the spacecraft on SLS. Congress had previously mandated by law that Europa Clipper’s orbiter and a follow-up lander be launched on the massive rocket. However, the most recent spending law stipulated that NASA should use SLS if one is available.

(more…)

NASA’s Juno Mission Expands Into the Future

This view from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft shows two storms merging. The two white ovals seen within the orange-colored band left of center are anticyclonic storms – that is, storms that rotate counterclockwise. The image was taken on Dec. 26, 2019. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Tanya Oleksuik, © CC BY)

The spacecraft, which has been gathering data on the gas giant since July 2016, will become an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA has authorized a mission extension for its Juno spacecraft exploring Jupiter. The agency’s most distant planetary orbiter will now continue its investigation of the solar system’s largest planet through September 2025, or until the spacecraft’s end of life. This expansion tasks Juno with becoming an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons – with multiple rendezvous planned for three of Jupiter’s most intriguing Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

(more…)

NASA Extends Juno & InSight Planetary Missions

Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, the agency’s quest to seek answers about our solar system and beyond continues to inform those efforts and generate new discoveries. The agency has extended the missions of two spacecraft, following an external review of their scientific productivity.

The missions — Juno and InSight — have each increased our understanding of our solar system, as well as spurred new sets of diverse questions. 

(more…)

NASA Perseveres Through Pandemic to Complete Successful 2020

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 2020, NASA made significant progress on America’s Moon to Mars exploration strategy, met mission objectives for the Artemis program, achieved significant scientific advancements to benefit humanity, and returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States, all while agency teams acted quickly to assist the national COVID-19 response.

(more…)

Potential Plumes on Europa Could Come From Water in the Crust

This illustration of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa depicts a cryovolcanic eruption in which brine from within the icy shell could blast into space. A new model proposing this process may also shed light on plumes on other icy bodies. (Credit: Justice Wainwright)

Scientists have theorized on the origin of the water plumes possibly erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Recent research adds a new potential source to the mix.


PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Plumes of water vapor that may be venting into space from Jupiter’s moon Europa could come from within the icy crust itself, according to new research. A model outlines a process for brine, or salt-enriched water, moving around within the moon’s shell and eventually forming pockets of water – even more concentrated with salt – that could erupt.

(more…)

Europa Glows: Radiation Does a Bright Number on Jupiter’s Moon

This illustration of Jupiter’s moon Europa shows how the icy surface may glow on its nightside, the side facing away from the Sun. Variations in the glow and the color of the glow itself could reveal information about the composition of ice on Europa’s surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

New lab experiments re-create the environment of Europa and find that the icy moon shines, even on its nightside. The effect is more than just a cool visual.


PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — As the icy, ocean-filled moon Europa  orbits Jupiter, it withstands a relentless pummeling of radiation. Jupiter zaps Europa’s surface night and day with electrons and other particles, bathing it in high-energy radiation. But as these particles pound the moon’s surface, they may also be doing something otherworldly: making Europa glow in the dark.

(more…)

Senate Appropriations Committee Sticks a Fork in NASA’s 2024 Moon Landing Plan

Artemis Gateway (Credit: Thales Alenia Space/Briot)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks as if the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon in 2024 is expiring at about the same time as the administration itself. The fatal blow is being struck by Congress, not the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has released a fiscal year 2021 funding bill that includes $1 billion for NASA to Human Landing System (HLS) that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. The amount is far short of the $3.2 billion that NASA has said is needed for HLS to keep the 2024 landing on schedule.

(more…)

Airbus to Bring First Mars Samples to Earth: ESA Contract Award

ERO will reach Mars orbit, capture orbiting samples launched from the Red Planet and bring them back to Earth. (Credit: Airbus)
  • A new decade of European exploration – to the Moon and Mars
  • Airbus to design and build the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) for Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign
  • ERO will reach Mars orbit, capture orbiting samples launched from the Red Planet and bring them back to Earth

TOULOUSE, 14 October 2020 (Airbus PR) – Airbus has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) as prime contractor for the Mars Sample Return’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) – the first ever spacecraft to bring samples back to Earth from Mars. Mars Sample Return (MSR) is a joint ESA-NASA campaign and the next step in the exploration of Mars. ERO and the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) are the two main European elements of MSR, both are set to be designed and built by Airbus.

A manipulating arm, referred to as the Sample Transfer Arm (STA), that will transfer the samples from the SFR to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), is the third European contribution to the MSR program. The value of the ERO contract is €491 million [$574.8 million].

(more…)

A “Flight” Over Jupiter

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — This video uses images from NASA’s Juno mission to recreate what it might have looked like to ride along with the Juno spacecraft as it performed its 27th close flyby of Jupiter on June 2, 2020.

During the closest approach of this pass, the Juno spacecraft came within approximately 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) of Jupiter’s cloud tops. At that point, Jupiter’s powerful gravity accelerated the spacecraft to tremendous speed – about 130,000 mph (209,000 kilometers per hour) relative to the planet.

Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created the video using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam instrument. The sequence combines 41 JunoCam still images digitally projected onto a sphere, with a virtual “camera” providing views of Jupiter from different angles as the spacecraft speeds by.

The original JunoCam images were taken on June 2, 2020, between 2:47 a.m. PDT (5:47 a.m. EDT) and 4:25 a.m. PDT (7:25 a.m. EDT).

JunoCam’s raw images are available for the public to peruse and process into image products at https://missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam/processing. More information about NASA citizen science can be found at  https://science.nasa.gov/citizenscience and https://www.nasa.gov/solve/opportunities/citizenscience.

More information about Juno is at https://www.nasa.gov/juno and  https://missionjuno.swri.edu.

Image credit: Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
Image processing by Kevin M. Gill © CC BY
Music by Vangelis

IG Audit: NASA Planetary Program Faces Major Financial, Managerial Challenges

Dragonfly flying over the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) faces a series of managerial, financial and personnel challenges as it prepares to conduct a series of ever more ambitious missions to the moon and planets, according to a new audit by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG).

(more…)

New Gears Can Withstand Impact, Freezing Temperatures During Lunar Missions

Andrew Kennett (left) watches as Dominic Aldi (right) uses liquid nitrogen to cool a motor integrated bulk metallic glass gearbox prior to shock testing it. The motor and gearbox are inside the frosty metal “bucket” that contains the liquid nitrogen. The tooling, including the “bucket” is designed to be mounted both vertically (shown) and horizontally on the cube for testing the motor and gearbox in three orientations. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Many exploration destinations in our solar system are frigid and require hardware that can withstand the extreme cold. During NASA’s Artemis missions, temperatures at the Moon’s South Pole will drop drastically during the lunar night. Farther into the solar system, on Jupiter’s moon Europa, temperatures never rise above -260 degrees Fahrenheit (-162 degrees Celsius) at the equator.

(more…)