The Cosmic Mirror

of News events across the Universe

Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer, Skyweek - older "Mirrors" in the Archive - and find out what the future might bring!

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Update # 152 of October 16th, 1999, at 12:30 UTC
Most items posted "live" from Oct 11...15 from the
31st Annual Meeting of the DPS in Abano Terme, Italy

Galileo survives Io encounter, carries on

At 4:06 UTC on Oct. 11, NASA's Galileo spacecraft completed the closest-ever flyby of Io. Despite intense radiation from Jupiter's radiation belts, Galileo remained in contact with ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. There was an electronic glitch about 19 hours before arrival in a memory cell, and Galileo went into a safe mode, but it was 'freed' just 2 hours before the encounter, and ample close-up data were collected. The only instrument not fully operational was the PPR radiometer (because of the memory problem), otherwise good images( with up to 7 meters resolution!), spectra etc. are expected - they are now being downloaded and will be presented to the public in mid-November. (News conference by T. Johnson at the DPS on Oct. 13th)
Press Release, NASA Science News and JPL Universe.
Fly by coverage from ABCNEWS ( advance coverage), BBC,, ExploreZone, SpaceViews.

The best and the second-best image of Neptune

obtained from the ground with adaptive optics (AO) were published on October 15th within just a few hours - but unfortunately the best image (taken with the Keck telescope) was simply presented at a science conference without much ado, while the other one (from the 5 meter Hale telescope) was put out in a flashy press release. Both images represent the state of the art of AO (that removes part of the turbulence of Earth's atmosphere with a mirror system deformed at high speed), but the Keck has simply twice the diameter of the old Hale - thus its Neptune image (shown during a talk at the DPS Meeting) is sharper than the Hale picture which incidentally shows almost the same face of the planet, with several bands and a bright cloud at about 45 degrees Southern latitude. (Talk by B. Macintosh at the DPS Meeting on Oct. 15, 1999 vs. a Cornell Press Release of Oct. 15, 1999)

The Keck AO Neptune pictures, more early results and the The Keck AO Page.
The Cornell Press Release on the Hale pictures.
AO is here to stay: Several striking AO pictures shown at the DPS Meeting demonstrated the power of this technology - some near-IR views of Jupiter's moon Io, e.g., were almost as detailled as images with the NIMS instrument by Galileo from within the Jovian system! (Talk by J. Spencer on Oct. 15 etc.)

Ongoing volcanism on Mars?

The almost complete lack of impact craters on some lava fields on Mars - revealed by images from the Mars Gloval Surveyor - demonstrates that these pieces of the Martian surface are only a few million years old, says a new analysis. And since there is no reason to assume that the geological activity of Mars has stopped just before humans began to investigate it, one can conclude that Mars' volcanoes are merely dormant now (no active ones have ever been spotted by spacecraft) and that the activity could resume at any time.

The age of lava flows can be judged from the number of craters on them: The longer a surface is exposed in the solar system, the more hits it receives. While much of the surface of Mars is heavily cratered and billions of years old, there are a few lava flows with with less than 1% as many craters as e.g. the region on our Moon where Apollo 11 once landed. By comparing impact rates on the Moon and Mars one can conclude that the youngest Martian lava flows date not from Mars' early or middle history (as was assumed) but from within the last one percent of Martian time. (Press Release at the DPS Meeting by W.K. Hartmann)

In other Martian news from the DPS Meeting:
Evidence for a past Martian ocean from impact crater shapes - impact craters on the bottom of Earth's oceans look different than craters on the continents, and the same effects may have been spotted in some of Mars' ancient craters. This could indicate that there was once a widespread shallow sea. (Press Release by J. Ormo)
Evidence for a volatile reservoir just below the surface in the Solis Planum region of Mars has been deduced from another aspect of impact crater shapes. In this region South of the Valles Marineris craters as small as 3 km show fluidized ejecta patters while that normally takes craters of at least 6 km diameter: That indicates that ice-rich material here lies only 300 (instead of 600) meters below the surface. (Talk by N. Barlow on Oct. 14, 1999)

Lunar Prospector vanished without a trace - so let's try it again!

It's now offical: The large observing campaign of the deliberate crash of the Lunar Prospector into a potentially ice-filled crater near the Moon's South Pole has seen exactly nothing. The telescopes in space and on the ground detected neither an instantaneous impact plume nor water vapor nor hydroxyl. But the Texas astronomers who had organized the effort had known from the beginning that it was "a high-stakes gamble" and that only a positive result would have meant something and would have proven that there is indeed water ice on the Moon.

The negative result proves nothing as there are half a dozen other explanations for the non-detection of any effects that don't force one to conclude that there is no ice. So - let's try it again, the Texans say: While there are no more lunar orbiters waiting to crash, one could as well send old communications satellites from their high Earth orbits to the Moon, for more controlled impacts. And natural meteoroids are hitting the Moon with high energy as well (they're tiny but much faster than the Prospector's 1.7 km/s): The coming Leonids will be an interesting test. (Talk by D. Goldstein at the DPS Meeting on Oct. 13th)

Press Release and more details from Goldstein et al. + NASA Science News. and the Texas impact page.
News coverage from BBC, ABC,, InSCIght, ExploreZone and SpaceViews.

A related story:
Radar images of ice spots on Mercury with 1.5 km resolution have been obtained with the upgraded Arecibo radio telescope - they show even details of the ice distribution inside many craters near the pole. (Talk by M. Slade at the DPS Meeting on Oct. 13th)

Bold NASA visions for future solar system missions

were laid out in front of the attendees of the DPS Meeting by Carl Pilcher from NASA Headquarters: For the next version of the big 'Roadmap' for space science that is being drafted every 3 years, NASA is already thinking beyond the next generation of spacecraft such as the Europa Orbiter or Mars Saple Return. All these missions are taken for granted in the new document (that isn't finished yet, so what we got was a rare sneak preview) - and here is what'll come next:
  • In the Outer Planets Program that so far consists of an Europa Orbiter, the Pluto-Kuiper Express and the Solar Probe we can expect
    • an Europa lander as a technology demonstration of future subsurface access;
    • a Titan Explorer Mission in which a payload on a balloon or an aircraft investigates the surface and atmosphere of the Saturnian moon in greater detail than Huygens will in 2004; and
    • a Neptune Orbiter Mission that - having reached Neptune after 10 years - will include multiple flybys of Triton.
  • The Mars Surveyor Program will continue beyond the first sample return missions with
    • subsurface exploration, both with a synthetic aperture radar from orbit and by landers that dig up to 100 m deep;
    • "robotic outposts" for wide-area exploration and sampling in three dimensions; and
    • an "Earth-Mars Internet" with comsats of increasing power to really connect the two planets - enabling e.g. 1 MB/s video rates.
  • The Discovery Program will be continued with the strategic goal of "opportunism" in the best sense: Whenever there is an opportunity to advance our exploration of the solar system with new technologies for a moderate price, it will be done (no missions beyond the current 8 are mentioned because the ideas come all from competitions).
  • A fourth class of missions under the title "To build a Planet" will come for important missions that fit under neither of the three other roofs. Early candidates are
    • a comet nucleus sample return mission (that has the highest priority here);
    • a Venus sample return mission (that would spend only 90 minutes on the surface); and
    • a Saturn ring observer, hovering just 3 kms over the rings.
  • The New Millennium Program will be re-cast as completely technology-oriented, with science results as a bonus at best. The technologies tried out here for the first time will then be employed in the missions of the other four categories. Despite the much-hated cancellation of the ST-4/Champollion mission, a comet landing could still become part of the NMP.
And how much of all of that will become reality in the next 15 to 20 years (serious work on most of the missions mentioned would start around 2006)? That's something even Pilcher cannot answer... (Speech on October 12th, 1999)

NASA Space Science Homepage.
The old strategic plan.

NASA FY2000 budget - the Conference Report is in

After one more week of confusion, especially regarding the size of the cuts space science will still have to endure, the House of Representatives and the Senate have given their final approval now to the conference committee's version of the NASA budget, although with some minor last-minute changes: SpaceViews. Here is what NASA HQ reports about the consequences for space science of the cuts that remain in the $60m range. And NASA officials warn already: The same problems that "suddenly" came up this year will return every year now, until the dreaded budget caps are gone.

Russia's planetary science to make a comeback?

Phobos, asteroid sample returns pondered by RAKA

Three years after the loss of the Mars'96 mission (see Update # 19) all but killed Russia's ambitious efforts in planetary exploration, a Russian scientist surprised the international community gathered in Italy for the world's major planetary conference on October 12th with detailled plans for a sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos - and at least the studies had gotten financial support from the Russians space agency RAKA. To actually fly would require about 120 million $, though - something the Russian government with its huge budget problems couldn't commit to yet.

The mission - that would launch in 2004 and bring back Phobos samples by 2008 - is anything but a reflight of the ill-fated Phobos missions of the 1980's. As the U.S. and lately Europe, Russia is going for "faster, cheaper and (hopefully) better" space science as well now. Instead of hoisting 6-ton mega-spacecraft on expensive Proton rockets, the new mission would use the cheaper Soyuz or even a Molniya rocket and would employ solar-electric propulsion (SEP). Furthermore the design is so flexible that very similar spacecraft could be sent to asteroids (Fortuna in particular) as well. Stay tuned... (Talk by M. Marov, Keldysh Inst., at the DPS Meeting on Oct. 12th)

Homepage of the Russian Space Agency. (?)
Homepage of the Keldysh Institute and the FAS Page about it.
An accomplishment of Phobos 2: TermoSkan and results.

An asteroid with a 'day' of less than 10 minutes?

There seems to be a new record for the fastest-rotating asteroid that's being held by the recently discovered 1999 KY26 (see Update # 141 sidebar of story 4). Its 11 minutes might have to make way for 1999 TY2, discovered just days ago and observed with the Arecibo radar on October 5th, 1999. While the radar echoes haven't been turned into images yet, their enormous Doppler broadening is already hinting at a rotation period of less than 10 minutes. (Talk by M. Nolan at the DPS Meeting on Oct. 12th, 1999)

JPL asteroid radar homepage.
Independent confirmation of the high rotation speed - visual light curve gives P=7.1 minutes: Ondrejov Page.

A related story:
How asteroids cause extinctions is reviewed by ExploreZone.

Unprecedented wave of discoveries of sungrazing comets

They are all fragments of a big comet that broke up thousands of years ago, they approach the Sun to just a few solar radii, and they hardly survive this ordeal: the "sungrazing comets" from the "Kreutz group". Before the SOHO spacecraft was launched, only about 25 members of the group were known (10 discovered from the ground, another 15 by the early solar space observatories Solar Max and Solwind) - but now the discovery rate has risen to more than 3 comets per month!

From 1996 to 1998 visual inspections of the images from SOHO's coronagraphs as well as an automated system looking for characteristic objects had led to 53 discoveries or 1.9 per month, but now there are new detections all the time - 31 alone in the first 9 months of 1999. The Kreutz fragments come in clumps, and we seem to live in a special era. Most of the comets never get brighter than 4th magnitude, then they fade again while approaching the Sun further - and none of the SOHO comets has ever survived its perihelion deep in the corona. (Poster by D. Bieseker at the DPS Meeting)

SOHO Sungrazers Homepage.
Another SOHO comets and sungrazer site.
The famous double graze of 1998 and a Press Release.
SOHO Homepage.
Comet fragmentation and the origin of the Kreutz group.

Deep Space 1's extended mission: a dead and a dusty comet

are the targets that the unusual spacecraft will go for in 2001, now that the primary technological mission has ended (see Update # 143 story 2) - and now the focus is on science. No spacecraft has visited a cometary nucleus since the pioneering Vega and Giotto spacecraft of 1986, and the next visits planned are only in 2003 (CONTOUR at Encke), 2004 (Stardust at Wild 2) and 2005 (Deep Impact at Tempel 1): The opportunity to inspect two more (and two vastly different) nuclei is causing some interest - and in one case even amateur astronomers could get involved again, just like in the 80's. But don't expect live TV from the encounters like when Giotto met Halley: Downlinking all the images will take about 4 days each time.
  • Former comet Wilson-Harrington will be encountered on January 15th, 2001: This object is listed as an asteroid (4015) since only once did it show cometary activity - it had an ion tail when it was accidentally photographed in 1949 during the first Palomar Sky Survey. For some reason the nearly totally dead body (of about 3 km diameter) had set free a cloud of molecules, without even forming a coma. In 2001 it will only have 12th magnitude: Not much to see even in a bigger telescope. Since there is no more activity, DS1 will aim for a close flyby at perhaps 10 km distance.
  • Comet Borrelly however will be an object of about 8th magnitude when Deep Space 1 arrives on September 20th, 2001. This is a "moderately active" comet producing lots of dust and behaving identically at every apparition; DS1 will likely keep 100 km distance from the nucleus. At the moment the comet still far from its perihelion and should have 24th mag., but in the weeks leading up to the encounter it should have reached 9th to 8th magnitude - a simple target for a possible observing campaign for amateurs, just like the International Halley Watch in the mid-80's.
Ground-based observing support is essential for the success of DS 1's extended mission anyway: not just to put the spacecraft data (obtained with rather moderate instruments) into context but also to accomplish the encounters in the first place. The AutoNav system that must find and track the targets needs accurate photometry of them so that a mishap like last July doesn't repeat: Although DS1 'found' asteroid Braille, it couldn't lock onto the dark and ill-illuminated object well enough to take high resolution pictures. (Workshop on groundbased support for the mission at the DPS on Oct. 14, 1999)

Deep Space 1 Homepage.
CONTOUR and Stardust Homepages; for Deep Impact see the next article.
NASA comet missions at a glance - the only other approved comet flight is ESA's Rosetta.

Scientific results from DS1's primary mission

are scarce as testing the 12 technologies on board was much more important: There was, e.g., hardly any time to calibrate the MICAS camera and spectrometer (something that will take place in earnest only starting this November, to be ready for the comets). Nonetheless a few results were reported at a special session of the DPS Meeting:
  • Spectra of the Planet Mars in the IR show the expected absorption features of carbon dioxide, plus two more - probably from sulfates.
  • The size of asteroid Braille could be measured from the only existing pictures from some distance to 2.15+/-.39 x 1.00+/-0.26 km. The albedo is 30+/-5 %.
  • Braille's IR spectrum now looks less similar to Vesta's and more similar to Apollo's - Braille belongs probably to the type Q.
The flyby distance to Braille has turned out to be 27.3 km: While the AutoNav achieved about 200 km precision in deep space, at the actual target the quality has jumped to 13 km. (Various talks at the DS1 session on Oct. 13, 1999)

Deep Impact will brighten comet from 12th to 6th magnitude!

The modelling so far consists mainly of back-on-the-envelope calculations, but the scientists from the newly selected NASA mission "Deep Impact" (see Update # 139 lead story) are confident: When the 500 kg copper impactor crashes into the nucleus of comet P/Tempel 1 on July 4th, 2005, the comet's brightness will rise within minutes from 12th to 6th, perhaps even 5th magnitude! And it will stay that bright for hours, days perhaps. The reason: The coma will suddenly be full of dust, increasing the reflecting surface by many orders of magnitude. Deep Impact (no relation to the movie of the same name, which the scientists hate anyway) promises to be the most entertaining mission of the next decade... (News Conference by Mike A'Hearn at the DPS Conference on Oct. 11, 1999)

UMD Press Release on Deep Impact's selection (from July).
Homepage at UMD. (Nothing on yet.)
Deep Impact Homepage at Ball Aerospace. (Not active yet.)
In other news from the past week

Gamma Burst, Astrometry satellites selected as next MIDEX missions

And the winners are ... the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer ("Swift") and the Full-sky Astrometric Mapping Explorer (FAME) have been selected as NASA's Medium Explorer mission #3 and 4 (see Update # 120 story 3 for the candidates). Swift, scheduled for launch in 2003, will fly three telescopes to study gamma-ray bursts. The telescopes, sensitive to gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet and visible light, will be able to study gamma-ray bursts within seconds after their outbursts, also yielding highly precise sky positions.

FAME, planned for a 2004 launch, will measure the position and brightness of 40 million stars in the galaxy with a precision of just 50 microarcseconds, far exceeding the capabilities of ESA's pioneering Hipparcos satellite. FAME's data will allow astronomers to really calibrate the Cepheid distance scale and to indirectly detect extrasolar planets and dark matter, based on their gravitation effects on stellar motions.

Swift Homepage and Press Release.
The name is not an acronym, by the way, but refers to the adjective - and a group of quick birds related to the hummingbirds (the Apodidae and Hemipronidae families in the Avian order Apodiformes, to be exact).
Related to Swift: A big GRB conference is to open - NASA Science News.
FAME Homepage and Press Release.
News coverage from SpaceViews, CNN,

First Ikonos image released

Space Imaging on Oct. 12th released the world's first high-resolution commercial satellite image of the Earth. The one-meter resolution black-and-white image of Washington, D.C., collected by the IKONOS satellite, has unprecedented clarity and detail for commercial space imagery. The image showcases part of the Mall area in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Space Imaging Newswire.
News coverage from BBC,, TeachersNet, SpaceViews, MSNBC.

SeaLaunch performs first commercial launch!

A Russian rocket has launched an American TV satellite from the SeaLaunch platform floating in the Pacific on October 10th, opening a new chapter in commercial spaceflight. The Zenit lifted off at 03:28 UTC. The charge for each launch is $40m, according to Sea Launch.

News coverage of the launch from Florida Today, CNN, BBC, ABC, Space Daily,, and SpaceViews.

Mega-merger creates European aerospace giant

German aerospace group DASA and France's Aerospatiale-Matra plan to merge to create Europe's largest aerospace company and the world's third largest with annual sales of 21 billion euros. The new company "EADS" will even be #1 in the world in rocket launches (through Ariane) and several satellite building fields: DaimlerChrystler Homepage, Space Daily,

Two crews train for another Mir mission

The primary crew comprises Sergei Zaletin and Alexander Kaleri, a representative of the Energia rocket and space company which owns the commercial rights to Mir: BBC.

Mir is slowly leaking and dropping, but neither problem should cause the station to crash or become uninhabitable: ABC, MSNBC,

Another Zvezda delay, said to be due to Russian software trouble:

Only 3 shuttle launches this year - "We're not going to fly until we're ready to fly": Florida Today.

China still expected to launch astronauts this year - this is now almost official: CNN, Fla. Today.

Eclipse pendulum experiment yields strange results

The analysis of tons of data collected during the August eclipse creeps along, with some anomalies being claimed: NASA Science News. An assessment one month earlier: ABC. Reports from an Austrian site: Wuchterl's page.

Next MPL trajectory correction scheduled

for Oct. 20 after confidence in navigation is restored: Status, Background of the MCO disaster becomes clearer: Space Daily. MPL will not lose science despite MCO loss, JPL says:, Fla. Today.

Hollywood's new love affair with Mars - at least 3 productions are under way:

  • Bright rings found around sunspots spell trouble for conventional models of turbulent diffusion: UCAR Press Release, ScienceDaily. Plus an update for the solar maximum from NASA Science News and reported by
  • Australian plans for a mega-radio telescope (a new design for the SKA): CSIRO Press Release, BBC story.
  • Five years ago Magellan burned up in the atmosphere of Venus:

  • Launch pad at Cape Canaveral blown up after serving many science missions: CNN, ABC,, SpaceViews.
  • PicoSat debuts in November, a preview of how tiny satellites would operate in constellations: Space Daily.
  • China launches two Brazilian satellites for Earth observation and science: SpaceViews.

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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer
(send me a mail to!), Skyweek