The Cosmic Mirror
By Daniel Fischer
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Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust

Transit of Mercury was an impressive show e.g. in Europe!
Splendid skies in many parts of Europe, Africa and Asia have provided for fine views of May 7th's transit of Mercury: The best pictures came, of course, from a 1-meter telescope on La Palma, others can be seen at AIP, Merkurtransit, Gudensberg, VdS, SpaceWeather, WAA, GONG, Dierick, Astronomie.de, Salzgeber (animated), TRACE, AstroSurf (!), SOHO [APOD], ESO, Mira, Hannover, AstroDe, Murner, Guido, CarlKop, Nelkenbrecher, Radebeul, Jena, Munich, Singer, Zollern-Alb, Ayiomamitis, Nehru Planetarium (India) and Zayed Univ. (UAE); more links in this collection. Plus coverage by S&T, BBC, CNN, SC, ZDF. The whole event actually lasted over two days, with Mercury also visible in SOHO's LASCO C2 images in front of the corona: hi-res real-time images eg. from May 6 at 14:46 and 20:30 UTC, from May 7 at 0:06, 22:30 and 23:06 UTC and from May 8 at 2:54 and 9:54 UTC. Advance press releases: ESO, NASA, ESA, GSFC, Uni Jena. More websites: Espenak, SOHO, NSO, ALPO, ISS, PopAstro, Vigyan Prasar, Merkurtransit.de, Astro Mainz, Hannover, Backhaus and WAA. Advance coverage: S&T, PlanetQuest, SC (earlier), CNN, Rtr, NZ and RP (früher). Plus a paper by Halley himself and a strange painting from 1914 ...
Update # 254 of Friday, May 9, 2003
Asteroid sample return mission MUSES-C has launched! / 'Neuschwanstein' proof of heterogeneous meteorite streams ? / Dramatic Soyuz return

The first asteroid sample return mission is under way!

An M V rocket has launched Japan's MUSES-C spacecraft on May 9 to meet the 500-meter asteroid # 25,143 (formerly known as 1998 SF36) in 2005 - and in 2007 a container with samples will come back to Earth and will be picked up somewhere in Australia. Through this mission, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) intends to establish the technology to bring back samples of an asteroid's surface to earth - however small the sample amount may be, as it will enable detailed analysis on Earth, its scientific significance is enormous. The main objective of the MUSES-C mission is to acquire and verify the leading-edge technology required for such a sample-return mission. MUSES stands for "Mu Space Engineering Spacecraft" (a space engineering spacecraft launched by a Mu rocket) and "C" means "the third".

MUSES-A, the first of the MUSES series, was called HITEN and was launched in 1990, targeting technologies such as a swing-by using the moon's gravity. MUSES-B was called HALCA and was launched in 1997: It presently plays an active part in ISAS' missions as a VLBI (Very-Long Baseline Interferometry) satellite in radio wave region. MUSES-C will arrive at the asteroid in the summer of 2005. After staying in close proximity to the asteroid for about 5 months and performing scientific observations and sample collections, it will depart from the asteroid and return to Earth in the summer of 2007. The full flight will take about 4 and half years. The MUSES-C mission employs a high-performance electric propulsion engine, which is continuously activated for the flight to and from the asteroid. When returning to Earth, a reentry capsule will separate from the spacecraft and plunge into the atmosphere.

There are 4 major space engineering tasks in the MUSES-C mission: Electric Propulsion, Autonomous Navigation Technique, Technique of Collecting Samples from an Asteroid and Returning to Earth. The electric propulsion engine to be used by MUSES-C first ionizes the propellant, Xenon, by microwave, then accelerates the ions in a strong electric field and expels them at high speed. For navigation close to the asteroid the spacecraft is equipped with highly autonomous functions that enable it to decide each move on its own by measuring the distance to and the shapes of the asteroid surface. In order to successfully descend on a candidate-landing point, MUSES-C not only uses an artificial target called Target Marker that is released from the spacecraft to the surface, but also adjusts its position by processing the images sent from the camera and keeping an eye on landmarks.

After arriving in the vicinity of the asteroid, the spacecraft will hover at about 10 km altitude to collect the data of the asteroid. It will investigate the asteroid's physical dynamics including dimensions, shape, topographic data and rotation axis and period as well as surface composition and structure using ONC, LIDAR, X-ray spectrometer and infrared spectrometer. These data not only enrich the data obtained from samples, but also help select the sampling sites. A small jump robot, MINERVA, which was developed by ISAS, is also used to move around and explore the surface of the asteroid. The MUSES-C spacecraft will approach and stay near the asteroid for about five months, with autonomous navigation and guidance using ONC and LIDAR. After constructing a 3D model of the asteroid while the two months of the global mapping phase, MUSES-C project team will decide a landing point considering some constraints.

To land upon and gather fragments from the surface of the asteroid, the spacecraft has optical autonomous navigation, guidance and control system, which employs ONC and LIDAR above 100 m altitude. For the measurement of the relative position and attitude to the surface in the final landing phase under 100 m altitude, ONC, LRF and a Target Marker (TM), which is an artificial target and released at about 100 m altitude, are used. FBSs are also used for obstacle detection. Touch down is detected by another LRF which measures the distance between LRF and the sampler horn and a bullet is fired. Just after sampling, the spacecraft will lift off immediately and autonomously re-establish three-axis attitude and safe position. Contrary to many news stories, by the way, this is not the first sample return mission flown since the finally Apollo Moon landing in 1972: In 1976 the Soviet Union's Luna 24i brought back yet another sample from the Moon!

The homepage, an ISAS Press Release and coverage by New Sci., Plan. Soc., ST, Mainichi, Yomiuri 2, 1, SN, BBC, AP (earlier), Rtr, AFP (earlier, still earlier), Welt.

Sampling our natural satellite

NASA has recently asked expert teams to start shaping proposals for a robotic effort to dig, stash, and dash select lunar samples back to Earth: SC.

The next celestial attraction: a lunar eclipse!

During the night of May 15/16, a total lunar eclipse will be visible, best from the Americas: Espenak page, ASP and S&T Press Releases and more previews by Ast., CSM and SC (earlier).
British campaign against light pollution launched - the call is for better downward-pointing street lighting: BBC, Guardian.

Mars Express launch moved forward to June 2

Just before midnight on 2 June (23:45 local time, 19:45 CET) a Soyuz rocket will lift off from Baikonur, and Mars Express will be on its way: ESA News [ESA Science News], Ast., SN, BBC, AFP, NZ. Joint U.S.-Russian Mars exploration planned: BBC, AFP. Gully controversies: Dsc., ABC.
Rosetta in danger of cancellation? The ESA science boss may just be bluffing, in advance of crucial meetings: ST. Defueling can begin: Memo.

GALEX opens cover

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer successfully opened its telescope cover May 6th: Status. The mission: CSM.
SIRTF launch now planned for August 27 - several of its Delta 2's nine strap-on solid rocket boosters will be replaced: SN. Future space telescope technologies: SC.
Hubble emerges from safe mode - the HST resumed scientific observations late on April 30, more than a day after a gyroscope failure: New Sci., FT, ST, NZ.

"Neuschwanstein" proof of heterogeneous meteorite streams ?

When a bright bolide shocked Germans on April 6, 2002, the calculated orbit had turned out to be shockingly close to the one of another bolide seen and photographed on April 7, 1959 (see Update # 236 story 3) - but when a meteorite from the 2002 event was discovered it turned out to have a completely different composition. To some meteoriticists that meant that the extreme similarity of the orbital elements was a coincidence after all - but to those researchers who run the current European Fireball Network which led to the discovery of the "Neuschwanstein" meteorite, the case is rather evidence for "a heterogeneous stream" of meteorites which the Earth has been exposed to at least twice. "Taking 200 sets of orbital elements of established 'meteorite candidates' as a basis," Spurny & al. write, "we estimate that the chance of finding two meteorites among these 200 with orbits matching as well as those of Pribram and Neuschwanstein is one in 100,000."

Therefore, they conclude, "this paired meteorite fall is probably not a coincidence, and implies that the two recovered samples are members of a 'stream' of similar objects. The existence of such meteorite streams was previously postulated on the basis of observed grouping of fireballs, Earth-crossing asteroids, and historical meteorite falls. From the known fireball detection efficiency of the European Fireball Network (the cameras have monitored an area of 106 km2, 3 hours per day over the past 40 years, on average), and the separation of the two meteorite orbits in space, we estimate that the stream should contain about 109 meteoroids of comparable size. [...] In the light of the different classifications of the two meteorites (Pribram is an H5 ordinary chondrite, Neuschwanstein an EL6 enstatite chondrite), a common primordial parent body for the two objects is most unlikely," however.

Furthermore, "the cosmic-ray exposure ages of Pribram and Neuschwanstein differ significantly - 12 Myr and 48 Myr, respectively. Both these ages, which are believed to represent the time span from the release of the meteoroid from the interior of a parent body to its encounter with Earth, are significantly longer than the typical survival times of meteoric streams. [...] Though none of the orbits of previous fireballs matches the orbits of Pribram and Neuschwanstein exactly, we find several fireballs that could be tentatively associated with the pair" - including the famous "Glanerbrug L-LL chondrite [...] which fell on 7 April 1990 in the Netherlands, and whose orbit was recovered from visual observations. Judging from the atmospheric behaviour of these fireballs and from the chemistry of Glanerbrug, we see large structural variety, suggesting that objects in the 'Pribram stream' vary greatly in their chemical composition, structure and ages."

The full paper and coverage by BBC, AFP, Welt, NZ, BdW.

Meteorites rained on Earth after massive asteroid break-up

Using fossil meteorites and ancient limestone unearthed throughout southern Sweden, marine geologists have discovered that a colossal collision in the asteroid belt some 500 million years ago led to intense meteorite strikes over the Earth's surface: Rice Press Release, BBC, SciAm, SC, NZ.
Damage from the Chicago meteorite rain (see Update # 251) to a home can be seen in an APOD.

Potassium a missing heat source in planetary cores?

In 1971 it was theorized that radioactive potassium in the core could supply additional heat to run Earth's magnetic field - now there is experimental evidence for this idea: Univ. of Minnesota PR, NSU, NZ.

50 years ago the Miller experiment was published

The first attempt in 1952 to simulate primitive earthly conditions that produced the basic building blocks of life kick-started research on its origin on Earth: SD.

The crucial foam firing tests have begun!

On May 8th the crucial experiments at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas have finally begun in which pieces of foam are fired at actual space shuttle orbiter wings, in order to recreate the events of January 16 during Columbia's launch. The initial experiments are admittedly unrealistic, though: The test stand was built before the actual impact location on Columbia's left wing had been nailed down. Experiments to recreate the Jan. 16 event as closely as possible will not begin until June. So far small pieces of foam have been fired at the wing underside of the orbiter prototype Enterprise, causing only minor damage. In other STS news, NASA has chosen a new shuttle program manager. And in ISS/Soyuz news the reason for the incident during Soyuz TMA-1's return on May 4 is still being investigated, with a software bug more likely than astronaut error. NASA, by the way, has not been invited to join the investigation ...

Posted earlier

The CAIB now has a working hypothesis

but the Investigation Board "has not reached any final conclusions and has not determined the cause of the loss of the shuttle and crew," according an announcement on May 6. While it would make sense that the foam impact during launch played a key role, this crucial link in the chain of events has not been established yet! And so no fewer than ten "analyses and testing [are] underway to refine the details of the scenario: 1) Completion of RCC and tile impact testing at Southwest Research Institute. 2) Aerothermal analyses to correlate off nominal heating trends in left fuselage sidewall and left Orbiter Maneuvering System (OMS) pod heating that were observed in the MADS data. 3) Instrumentation wire burn-through arc jet tests and thermal analyses to support the timing of observed instrumentation failures. 4) Instrumentation circuit analyses or testing to confirm the failure signatures observed in the data.

5) Hypersonic wind tunnel testing and aerodynamic analyses to explain aerodynamic roll and yaw moments observed in flight data. 6) Thermal analysis of RCC panel 9 clevis and spar temperature sensor responses to support or refute flight data. 7) Gas flow and heat transfer calculations internal to the wing to support the MADS sensor readings in and around the wheel well. 8) Arc jet testing and/or analysis of previous arc jet testing to determine feasibility of RCC erosion observed in several key pieces of RCC panel 8/9 debris. 9) Continued forensic testing and analysis of significant recovered debris. 10) ET dissection and cryopumping tests." So the detective work is anything but over, and the "board's final report will be issued [only] later this summer," perhaps in late July: That would be just in time for congressional summer recess.

Posted still earlier

Dramatic return for Expedition 6 as new Soyuz capsule misses landing zone!

"It's a lot scarier than landing on an aircraft carrier," U.S. astronaut Ken Bowersox said after having been picked up in the middle of nowhere in Kasachstan, together with the other two ISS Expedition 6 members - after their Soyuz capsule had veered off course during its return from the station on May 4, eventually coming down 460 km from the expected landing zone. This was out of range for the air vehicles that normally meet returning Soyuzzes and often spot them even before touching ground. When the Soyuz - with which there hadn't been communication - was finally found 2½ hours later, Bowersow, Pettit and Budarin had already managed to climb out on their own, waving to their rescuers.

An investigation into this rather unusual landing mishap has now been launched: This was the first of a new generation of Soyuz vehicles, the TMA series, which was expected to be more comfortable etc. While the shuttles are grounded (and the Shenzhous aren't in manned operations yet) they are mankind's only means for travelling to and from space - and the only way for the two-person Expedition 7 to come home in October. By then the Soyuz TMA problems should be solved and the shuttle program already in the middle of its recovery. In other shuttle news it has now been determined that there was no way the Columbia crew could have been saved, even if the fatal damage to the orbiter's wing had been known before Feb. 1. And ... some worms have survived the crash and continued to reproduce in their enclosure which was retrieved later in the debris.

The CAIB Statement, many illustrations regarding the working hypothesis, a transcript of CAIB's April 29 PC (parts 1, 2, 3), the presentations by Tetrault and Barry, recent pictures of debris at KSC (1, 2, 3) and of the nematode worms, a NASA Release on the new manager, the Plan. Soc. on recovering GOBBSS, an ISS Status Report, ISS On-Orbit Status, a landing preview, Pettit's final thoughts in orbit and how Apollo-like ships could help out as ISS CRVs.
Coverage of May 9: SN, FT 2, 1, WP, AFP, AP 2, 1, UPI 2, 1, Rtr, ST 2, 1, Dsc. May 8: SN 2, 1, AFP, UPI, SC, FT, Guardian, ARRL, Wash. Times, Collect Space, SD, ZEIT. May 7: New Sci. 2, 1, WP, BBC, AFP 2, 1, RP, NZ. May 6: SN, New Sci., FT 3, 2, 1, AFP 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ST, WP, FT, Rtr, AP, SC, NZ 2, 1. May 5: WP, AFP, BBC, Rtr, FT 4, 3, 2, 1, Guardian, SpaceRev, IOL, ARRL, Welt, NZ.
May 4: SN (earlier), FT, Rtr ( earlier), CNN, BBC 2, 1, AFP (earlier, still earlier, even earlier), AP, UPI, WP, ST, SR, Welt, RP. May 3: SN, AFP. May 2: ABC, BBC, CNN, FT 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, AFP, Philly, HT, ST, SD. May 1 & late April 30: SN, Dsc, FT 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, AP 2, 1, Rtr 2, 1, UPI, SC, NZ.

Science Committee Democrats unconvinced of Orbital Space Plane rationale

While NASA defended its Orbital Space Plane plan at a hearing as a program that will provide "multiple benefits," the non-NASA witnesses all expressed varying degrees of skepticism and concern about NASA's approach: a Press Release and another one.

GSLV-D2 launched successfully

The second developmental test flight of India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV, was successfully carried out on May 8, 2003 from Satish Dhawan Space Centre: ISRO Press Release [SR], SN, ST, BBC, SC, Rtr, AFP.
Japan plans joint space test with France this month aimed at developing a shuttle-style spacecraft: Rtr.

Team Encounter teams up with NASA

for mutual support in solar sail work: Press Release, SC.
The Prometheus program progresses with the first competitive technology procurement funded wholly by the new nuclear NASA program: NASA Release, SC.

HST mosaic of Helix nebula released

for Astronomy Day - both ACS images and groundbased material were used: HST and ESA HST Releases, APOD, Ast.

Young stars in the halo of M 31 have been discovered - surprisingly - thanks to a deep HST image that also shows countless background galaxies: HST Release, S&T, Ast., BBC, NZ.

Merging galaxies make for striking HST image - a dusty spiral galaxy and a bright elliptical galaxy in deep interaction: HST Release, Ast.

Cosmology with distant supernovae alone

can yield results practically as good as analysis of the WMAP data, say Tonry & al. in a very long paper. Omega-m = 0.3±0.1 - without priors: a paper by Feldman & al. How population III stars reionized the Universe and thus can explain more of the WMAP data: MPA note.

New subatomic particle found - mysterious quark blend hints at what holds atoms together: NSU. Particle physics and cosmology: a long lecture by Ellis - and an Introductory overview of modern cosmology by Gumjudpai.

High Velocity Clouds are shredded galaxies, not primordial stuff, Parkes observations show: CSIRO Press Release.

New Look at Satellite Data Supports Global Warming Trend

A new analysis of satellite data collected since the late 1970s from the lowest few km of the atmosphere indicates a global temperature rise of about 1/5 Kelvin between 1979 and 1999 - this is at odds with previous analyses that show virtually no warming in the satellite record over the 20-year period: UCAR Release.

An x-ray image of Stephen's Quintet shows what an intruding galaxy has done: Chandra picture.


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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer
(send me a mail to dfischer@astro.uni-bonn.de!), Skyweek