The Cosmic Mirror
By Daniel Fischer
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A German companion - only available here!
Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust

Chinese-European science mission to launch on Dec. 27!
"Double Star" re-uses numerous experiments from Cluster: ESA Press Release, BBC, AFP.
Update # 267 of Thursday, December 25, 2003
Posted in part from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany
Mars Express in orbit, Beagle silent / SIRTF now "Spitzer" / First science from Stardust

Mars Express healthy in orbit -
and don't count out Beagle yet!

Such was the word when the Mars Express arrival media event at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, ended after 10 (!) hours: Exactly as planned the X-band telemetry reappeared, and within seconds mission control knew that the orbiter had made it fine thru the stresses of insertion. And since Beagle 2 had been almost cancelled so many times over the years, only to make one magical comeback after another, ESA's science director David Southwood told the Cosmic Mirror that he is still rather optimistic that tonight's observing run with the Jodrell Bank radio telescope will get a signal from the lander. After all the technical conditions should be considerably better then than they were during the very first Odyssey overflight. Only when even Mars Express - which can start to listen for Beagle signals in early January - fails to hear it as well, ESA would be willing to concede defeat, Southwood said.

Posted at 7:35 UTC on Dec. 25 from ESOC

Beagle didn't call Odyssey -
but Express is in a near-perfect orbit

It has been announced at 6:34 UTC that the Mars Odyssey orbiter has not picked up anything from the Beagle 2 landing site during its overflight - which does not mean it's over as there could be numerous reasons for the contact failure. Perhaps Beagle's transmitter had just the wrong temperature (causing a frequency shift out of Odyssey's range), perhaps the antenna was misaligned, or the lander is tilted a bit too much? Now it's Jodrell Bank's turn tonight (22:00 to 0:00 UTC), and on Friday and Saturday there are more opportunities for contact by both Odyssey and Jodrell Bank and even with a Stanford radio telescope.

Now back to the good news of the night: The Cosmic Mirror has just been told by Mars Express' Flight Operations Director Alan Smith that, according to the Doppler data measured so far, the orbit is within ½ Percent of what was hoped for! Europe is in orbit around another planet for the first time, and this has already been celebrated by numerous high-ranking guests here, including Germany's minister for research, ESA's DG who thanked everyone involved for "this beautiful day" and the chairman of the board of Germany's space agency for whom this all was "ein Faszinosum ..."

Posted at 5:25 UTC on Dec. 25 from ESOC

Mars Express is in orbit around Mars!

Only seconds after it was expected, the S-band carrier from Mars Express was picked up by the 70-meter antenna of the Deep Space Network at Goldstone in California! This means that - in all likelyhood - the orbit insertion burn was a full success and that the s/c has also performed an attitude control maneuver to point back at Earth. It will still take until about 8:40 UTC, though, until full X-band telemetry is re-established via the HGA. Meanwhile Mars Odyssey should have passed over Beagle 2 on the surface, hailed it and perhaps recorded a call-sign (and perhaps even some images). Those would reach Earth only after at least ½ hour, though - stay tuned ...
Posted at 3:45 UTC on Dec. 25 from ESOC

Mars Express should be in orbit and Beagle 2 down, but ...

... we don't know yet! That there would be no communications with the lander until 5:15 UTC the earliest was known for some time, but flight controllers had expected to see a carrier signal via the future orbiter's S-band transmitter during the 34-minute engine burn that should have commenced at 2:47 UTC. However a mistake in planning was made and Mars Express is transmitting through the wrong of two antennae! The doppler measurement had been planned for only a few weeks, and the lack of signal is no problem for the mission whatsoever - it just adds even more drama to it. If the burn was successful, the signal should finally be heard when Mars Express emerges from behind Mars and the antenna transmitting is then pointing towards Earth. That should take place at 4:11 UTC, and within minutes it should be clear that Mars Express made it.

Much more should be known after 8:40 UTC, though, when the main dish is pointing towards Earth again and full telemetry is available. By then we could also have learned already from Beagle 2 - when a first communications session through Mars Odyssey works, around 5:15 UTC. A call sign and even a first picture could be transmitted then. If not, the next chance is at approx. 22:45 UTC when the Jodrell Bank radio telescope could listen to the call signal (but nothing else). Then it's Mars Odyssey's turn again, tomorrow morning. (This report and the subsequent ones were sent from the Mars Express main control center at ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany.)

Posted on December 20

Beagle 2 is now on his own, racing towards Mars

Early on December 19 ESA's Mars Express has flawlessly released the Beagle 2 lander that it has been carrying since its launch on 2 June this year. Beagle 2 is now on its journey towards the surface of Mars, where it is expected to land early in the morning of 25 December. At 8:31 UTC, a crucial sequence had started to separate the Beagle 2 lander from Mars Express. As data from Mars Express confirm, the pyrotechnic device was fired to slowly release a loaded spring, which gently pushed Beagle 2 away from the mother spacecraft. An image from the on-board visual monitoring camera (VMC) showing the lander drifting away became available later that day. Since the Beagle 2 lander has no propulsion system of its own, it had to be put on the correct course for its descent before it was released.

For this reason, on 16 December, the trajectory of the whole spacecraft had to be adjusted to ensure that Beagle 2 would be on course to enter the atmosphere of Mars. This manoeuvre, called 'retargeting', was critical: if the entry angle is too steep, the lander could overheat and burn up in the atmosphere; if the angle is too shallow, the lander might skim like a pebble on the surface of a lake and miss its target. One day after releasing the Beagle, Mars Express adjusted its trajectory again so that it won't hit the surface, too. The next major milestone will now be the manoeuvre to enter into orbit around Mars: This will happen at 2:52 UTC on Christmas morning, minutes before Beagle 2 is expected to land on the surface of Mars - where in early December a significant dust storm had begun - at 2.54 UTC.

Beagle News, the Mars Express Status and 'live reports' from ESOC (in German) from Dec. 25 by Dittié.

ESA Press Releases of Dec. 25, 24, 19 [alt.], 17 and 15, a PPARC Press Releases of Dec. 25 and 19, a Beagle and an OU Press Release of Dec. 25, Science@NASA on Beagle 2, a TU Wien PM on M.Ex. software, a JPL Feature on how the MER will phone home, Cornell Releases on the RAT, living a 24-hour day, some MER maneuvers and sundials on Mars, an UA PR on both missions and a BNSC PR on Mars after Beagle.

Coverage of the Mars missions - and the dust storm - of Dec. 25: BBC, New Sci., Guardian, FT, AP, AFP 3, 2, 1, Xinhua 2, 1, CNN, VOA, Austr., ST 2, 1, RP, NZ. Dec. 24: Ast., BBC, FT, RP, Welt, NZ. Dec. 23: NSU, WP, USA Today, The Age, RFERL, VOA. Dec. 22: BBC 2, 1, USN&WR, SC, RP, ZEIT. Dec. 21: AFP, Indep.
Dec. 20: BBC, Guard., Indep., Scotsman, Telegr. (editorial), FT, NZ. Dec. 19: SN, New Sci., S&T, BBC, AFP (earlier), FT, SC, ST, NZ, RP, Welt. Dec. 18: Plan. Soc., CSM, NZ. Dec. 17: S&T, Ast., New Sci., BBC. Dec. 16: BBC 2, 1, PA, APOD, SC, ST, NZ. Dec. 15: Rocky Mtn. News, ST, SpaceRev. Dec. 14: FT (sidebar), Guard., Indep., Telegr. Dec. 12: Nat'l Geogr.

The Aurora Roadmap

is already looking several decades ahead to a time when humans will leave their footprints in the red sands of Mars: ESA Release. Russia still dreaming about Phobos sample return mission: Novosti.
Another X-ray image of Mars, this time from XMM-Newton: ESA News. Mars ice age ending? NASA PR.

SIRTF is now the "Spitzer Space Telescope"

On Dec. 18 NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility has been renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope, in honor of the late Dr. Lyman Spitzer Jr., one of the 20th century's most distinguished scientists. Spitzer's pioneering efforts to put telescopes in space led to two successful space missions, among them the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA also released the telescope's first dazzling observations on that day - which easily match typical HST views in beauty. They show a glowing stellar nursery; a swirling, dusty galaxy; a disc of planet-forming debris; and - thanks to a sensitive spectrometer - organic material in the distant universe, thus demonstrating the power of the telescope's infrared detectors to capture cosmic features never before seen.

The telescope was launched August 25, 2003, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The Spitzer Space Telescope uses state-of-the-art infrared detectors to pierce the dense clouds of gas and dust that enshroud many celestial objects, including distant galaxies; clusters of stars in formation; and planet forming discs surrounding stars. It is the fourth of NASA's Great Observatories, a program that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory which probe(d) the Universe in visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. So far, the Spitzer Space Telescope is working extremely well, and NASA is confident that it "will soon be making major discoveries."

NASA Releases on the new name [SN] and the first results [JPL], CfA, Cornell, Princeton and U of A Press Releases and the Cornell Chronicle - plus a new Homepage, with access to the stunning first images, and a Spitzer bio! Earlier: Harvard Gazette.
Coverage by S&T, Ast., SN, Wired, Dsc., Pioneer Press, CNN, FT, Rtr, SC, ST, RP.

India to launch Israeli space telescope

ISRO and the Israel Space Agency have agreed to include the Tel Aviv University Ultra Violet Experiment, TAUVEX, on board ISRO's GSAT-4 satellite planned for launch in 2005: ISRO Press Release. Earlier: AFP.

First science from 'Stardust': interstellar grains made from quinone derivatives?

While the main task of NASA's Stardust mission is to collect dust from the coma of comet Wild 2 (coming January 2nd) and to return the samples to Earth, a secondary objective is the collection of some interstellar particles as well. During the long cruise since the launch in 1999 (see Update # 121) there have been attempts at times to not only collect these particles shooting through the solar system but also to study them in-situ with the German CIDA experiment on board the spacecraft - and now the first results are in! 45 particle impacts have been recorded in total, about a third of them worthy of further study: CIDA is a time-of-flight mass spectrometer, and the interpretation of the complicated mass spectra downlinked to Earth is anything but simple.

What the CIDA scientists could do so far is to systematically exclude numerous classes of particles that would have been obvious candidates: The particles CIDA captured are neither minerals nor metals nor pure carbon. The main constituents of the particles are clearly organic, with a large oxygen and a low nitrogen content, and they are no PAHs, amino acids or nucleobases. Instead they seem to be partly condensed aromatic and quinoid compounds: quinones are any of a class of aromatic yellow compounds including several that are biologically important as coenzymes or acceptors or vitamins. And the mass spectra delivered by CIDA resemble those one would also get from biological quinoenzyme cofactors. Could interstellar dust have played a catalytic role in the origin of life? Certainly a premature conclusion, but the CIDA scientists find it at least "tempting to speculate" ... (Krueger & al., Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 18 [2004] 103-111)

The homepage of Stardust and homepages of CIDA at FMI, von Hoerner & Sulger and NASA.
A very detailled Pressemitteilung (in German) about CIDA science, written by yours truly, a JPL Feature on navigating to Wild 2, Wash. Univ. and PPARC [SR] Press Releases and AW&ST, Oregonian and RMN stories on the upcoming encounter, and a paper by Westphal & al. on the extraction of complete hypervelocity impact events from aerogel collectors.
Quinone dictionary entries from Die, CancerWeb, Bartleby, Real and Chemie.

Carbon ions in a comet tail

have been seen for the first time - and similar charged particles have been measured in the light from a nearby star, Beta Pictoris, which is surrounded by a dusty disk: New Scientist.

STS/ISS/Manned Space Update

Coverage of Dec. 24: SC. Dec. 23: ST. Dec. 22: SpaceRev, Dec. 20: FT. Dec. 19: AD, Science. Dec. 18: SC.
Dec. 17: WP, AFP, SC, ST 2, 1. Dec. 16: FT 2, 1, WP. Dec. 15: FT, SR. Dec. 14: AP. Dec. 13: AFP, ST 2, 1. Dec. 12: New Sci., BBC, CNN, FT, SC, ST.
1st powered flight of SS1 breaks sound barrier: Scaled PR [SD], BBC, SC, ST. Pictures of landing mishap: SC. Allen is the mystery backer: SC, ST. NASA to delay X-37 test: AW&ST, SC, ST.

Solar flares imaged at 0.2" resolution

As last October's solar flares blossomed into a coronal mass ejections, scientists at the National Solar Observatory used a new set of instruments to record the sharpest-ever images of the heart of the storms: NSO Press Release [SN].

Another impressive picture story from the Nov. 23 eclipse as seen - mostly clouded out - from the icebreaker: Makepeace report. More airborne reports: Ferrer, ABC. A series view from space: PhotoJournal. The eclipse as a philatelistic event: McLachlan.

Earth's magnetic field has weakened by 10%

over the past 150 years, raising the remote possibility that it may collapse and later reverse, flipping the planet's poles for the first time in nearly a million years: AP.

Earth climate reconstruction over millenia: GSFC Release.

Asteroid occulted bright star over Europe

Bad weather thwarted many observing attempts but some saw a 6 mag. star disappear for a few seconds or just a fraction of a second: a list of results ("chords" draws a crude picture) and erste Ergebnisse. More previews: CZ, AstOcc pages.

Geminids suffer from Moon this year but are usually pretty bright: S&T, SC, DiamBack, RP. Saturn opposition ahead: Science@NASA.

Pre-telescopic sightings of the crescent of Venus? They exist, says an old, long and controversial article.

A huge data base on GRBs

has been created here and is introduced by Quimby & al. Meanwhile a list of all well-known GRBs has been growing here while the GRB discoveries by Integral are described by Mereghetti and, as usual, Kundt doubts the standard model ...

A Chandra picture of supernova remnant N63A with fine detail: Chandra Release.

Controversial galaxy cluster study claims Omega-M close to unity

Flying in the face of basically all cosmological insights of the past 6 years, French astronomers claim to have learned from XMM observations of distant galaxy clusters that the mass density of the Universe is close to one (and thus Omega-Lambda close to zero): papers by Lumb & al. and Vauclair & al., an ESA Press Release and coverage by Ast. and PhysWeb. Strangely enough, counts of distant galaxy clusters were (once?) a key argument in favor of Omega-M << 1 - see e.g. Update # 68!

"Dark Energy" hailed as Breakthrough of the Year 2003 by Science magazine - they don't doubt its dominance ...

Gravitational lens with large separation of images supports nonbaryonic dark matter - all previous cases could have been explained in principle also with just baryonic matter in the lensing foreground galaxy cluster: a paper by Inada & al., another big one by Oguri & al., SDSS and MPG Press Releases and an NZ story.

Cosmic color shifted from blue to beige

With stellar populations evolving over cosmic time, the overall color of the Universe has changed quite dramatically, deep VLT observations show: ESO Press Release, Guardian.

Most distant galaxy with furious star formation found, spawning of the equivalent of 1,000 Suns per year: NRAO PR. Minuscule galaxy, less than one hundreth the size of the Milky Way, that may be one of the early building blocks of larger galaxies: Subaru PR.

Measuring Cepheid distances with the parallax method has become possible thanks to the HST's Fine Guidance Sensors: McDonaldsObs PR. Lorentz invariance of space confirmed with astronomical measurements: GSFC Release [NASA], SC.

  • Three nice galaxies images with the VLT when the astronomers had nothing else to do: ESO Press Release.
  • SMART has now fired its ion engine for 1000+ hours, consuming 16.7 kg of Xenon: Dec. 23 and 16 Status.
  • SNOE reentry slips a few days but should happen within days: Ast.
  • NASM annex open to the public since Dec. 15: SpaceRev (plus a gallery), CollectSpace, WP, CNN.


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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer