How did the Red Planet get all of its clouds? LASP scientists may have discovered the secret: just add meteors.
Astronomers have long observed clouds in Mars’ middle atmosphere, which begins about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface, but have struggled to explain how they formed.
Now, a new study, published on June 17 in the journal Nature Geoscience, examines those wispy accumulations and suggests that they owe their existence to a phenomenon called “meteoric smoke”—essentially, the icy dust created by space debris slamming into the planet’s atmosphere.
For more than four years, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has explored the mysteries of the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere. More recently, the spacecraft has gotten up close and personal with that same expanse of gas.
Earlier this year, MAVEN dipped into the highest reaches of Mars’ atmosphere over a two-month “aerobraking” campaign, using the resistance there to slow itself down in space and shift the dynamics of its orbit.
Those maneuvers ushered in a new era for MAVEN and for LASP, which leads the overall mission and the science operations for MAVEN, and built two of its instruments.
In one of the spacecraft operations centers inside LASP’s Space Technology Building, a woman’s calm voice pipes in over a speaker:
“Loss of signal, MMS-4,” the voice reports.
The room looks like a smaller version of the NASA flight control centers that show up in every space movie. The announcement is a routine cue that one of the four spacecraft that make up the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission has finished its latest round of transmitting data back to Earth.
Often the first person to hear such alerts isn’t a grizzled mission control veteran, but rather a CU Boulder student. That’s because LASP employs student “command controllers” to help operate the space missions under its supervision.
NASA will soon have new eyes on the Sun. Two miniature satellites designed and built at LASP are scheduled to launch later this month on Spaceflight’s SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The new missions—called the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2 (MinXSS-2) and the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM)—will collect data on the physics of the Sun and its impact on life on Earth.
These “CubeSats,” which are smaller than a microwave oven, are set to blast into a near-Earth orbit alongside more than 60 other spacecraft. According to Spaceflight, SSO-A is the largest dedicated rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date.
On its last orbits in 2017, the long-running Cassini spacecraft dove between Saturn’s rings and its upper atmosphere and bathed in a downpour of dust that astronomers call “ring rain.”
In research published today in Science, LASP research associate Hsiang-Wen (Sean) Hsu and his colleagues report that they successfully collected microscopic material streaming from the planet’s rings.
The findings, which were made with Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer and Radio and Plasma Wave Science instruments, come a little more than a year after the spacecraft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere. They stem from the mission’s “grand finale,” in which Cassini completed a series of risky maneuvers to zip under the planet’s rings at speeds of 75,000 miles per hour.
Today, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft celebrates four years in orbit studying the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet and how it interacts with the Sun and the solar wind. To mark the occasion, the team has released a selfie image of the spacecraft at Mars.
MAVEN’s selfie was made by looking at ultraviolet wavelengths of sunlight reflected off of components of the spacecraft. The image was obtained with the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument, built at LASP, that normally looks at ultraviolet emissions from the Martian upper atmosphere. The IUVS instrument is mounted on a platform at the end of a 1.2-m boom (its own “selfie stick”), and by rotating around the boom can look back at the spacecraft. The selfie was made from 21 different images, obtained with the IUVS in different orientations, that have been stitched together.
NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, instrument powered on and opened its cover to scan the Earth for the first time, resulting in a “first light” image of the Western Hemisphere in the ultraviolet. GOLD will provide unprecedented global-scale imaging of the temperature and composition at the dynamic boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.
The instrument was launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on Jan. 25, 2018, onboard the SES-14 satellite and reached geostationary orbit in June 2018. After checkout of the satellite and communications payload, GOLD commissioning—the period during which the instrument performance is assessed—began on Sept. 4.
Team scientists conducted one day of observations on Sept. 11, during instrument checkout, enabling them to produce GOLD’s “first light” image. Commissioning will run through early October, as the team continues to prepare the instrument for its planned two-year science mission.
The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has selected LASP Director Daniel Baker as its 2018 William Bowie Medal recipient. AGU’s highest honor, the William Bowie Medal, is given annually to one honoree in recognition of “outstanding contributions for fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research.”
Baker is one of 33 individuals to be recognized this year for their dedication to science for the benefit of humanity and their achievements in Earth and space science. Baker will receive his award during the Honors Tribute at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting, which will take place on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
After three weeks of hard work, nine aspiring young scientists sat eagerly around a table and watched robots they created complete a racecourse. The students, aged 11 to 15 years old, had spent many hours assembling, computer coding and programming their robots to steer around a tabletop course drawn onto paper.
This hands-on learning experience is part of the Institute for Modeling Plasma, Atmospheres, and Cosmic Dust (IMPACT) Junior Aerospace Engineering Camp, a summer program offered by LASP’s Office of Communications and Outreach (OCO).
Now in its fifth year, the NASA-supported program is held at Casa de la Esperanza, a housing community and learning center in Longmont, Colorado, designed to support agricultural migrant workers and their families. The IMPACT camp is one of several educational services that the facility offers to residents.
Science fiction writers have long featured terraforming, the process of creating an Earth-like or habitable environment on another planet, in their stories. Scientists themselves have proposed terraforming to enable the long-term colonization of Mars. A solution common to both groups is to release carbon dioxide gas trapped in the Martian surface to thicken the atmosphere and act as a blanket to warm the planet.
However, Mars does not retain enough carbon dioxide that could practically be put back into the atmosphere to warm Mars, according to a NASA-sponsored study led by LASP Associate Director for Science Bruce Jakosky. Transforming the inhospitable Martian environment into a place astronauts could explore without life support is not possible without technology well beyond today’s capabilities.
Researchers at CU Boulder will soon set their sights on the heliosphere, a massive bubble in space that surrounds our solar system and shields it from incoming radiation.
NASA’s recently announced Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, which is slated to launch in 2024, will hover close to one million miles from Earth where it will observe the outermost edges of the solar system—the limits of our Sun’s influence on space.
LASP will play a major role in the nearly $500 million mission by leading IMAP’s scientific operations and designing an instrument that will fly on the spacecraft, detecting tiny particles of dust that flow through space.
LASP-led research has discovered microbes living in a toxic volcanic lake that may rank as one of the harshest environments on Earth. Their findings, published recently online, could guide scientists looking for signs of ancient life on Mars.
The team, led by LASP planetary scientist Brian Hynek, braved second-degree burns, sulfuric acid fumes, and the threat of eruptions to collect samples of water from the aptly-named Laguna Caliente. Nestled in Costa Rica’s Poás Volcano, this body of water is 10 million times more acidic than tap water and can reach near boiling temperatures. It also resembles the ancient hot springs that dotted the surface of early Mars, Hynek said.
The Costa Rican lake supports living organisms—but only one. Hynek and his colleagues found microbes belonging to just a single species of bacteria in the lake water, a rock-bottom level of diversity.
NASA has powered on its latest space payload to continue long-term measurements of the Sun’s incoming energy. The LASP-built Total and Spectral solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1), installed on the International Space Station, is now fully operational with all instruments collecting science data.
TSIS-1 was launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 15, 2017. After a two-week pause, the instrument suite was extracted from the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule and integrated onto its permanent home on the space station.
A NASA-funded CubeSat, built and operated at LASP, will study the inner radiation belt of Earth’s magnetosphere, providing new insight into the energetic particles that can disrupt satellites and threaten spacewalking astronauts.
The $4 million Cubesat: Inner Radiation Belt Experiment (CIRBE) mission, tentatively slated for a 2021 launch, will provide some of the first advanced resolution of one of Earth’s two Van Allen belts, a zone that traps energetic particles in the planet’s magnetic field. This powerful radiation, known to physicists since the late 1950s, poses a hazard to solar panels, electronic circuitry, and other hardware onboard spacecraft traveling at and beyond low-Earth orbit.
A LASP instrument package designed to help scientists better understand potentially damaging space weather launched successfully aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite on Thursday, March 1, 2018.
Built at LASP, the instrument suite known as the Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) is the second of four identical packages that will fly on NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R Series (GOES-R). As part of the NOAA weather forecasting satellite series, EXIS measures energy output from the Sun that can affect satellite operations, telecommunications, GPS navigation, and power grids on Earth.
UPDATE: SES-14 in good health and on track despite launch anomaly
NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) instrument, designed and built by LASP, launched today from Kourou, French Guiana aboard SES-14, a commercial communications satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space. GOLD will investigate the dynamic intermingling of space and Earth’s uppermost atmosphere—and is the first NASA science mission to fly an instrument as a commercially hosted payload.
Space is not completely empty: It’s teeming with fast-moving charged particles and electric and magnetic fields that guide their motion. At the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, the charged particles— called the ionosphere—co-exist with the upper reaches of the neutral atmosphere, called the thermosphere. The two commingle and influence one another constantly. This interplay—and the role terrestrial weather, space weather and Earth’s own magnetic field each have in it—is the focus of GOLD’s mission.
How long might a rocky, Mars-like planet be habitable if it were orbiting a red dwarf star? It’s a complex question but one that NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission can help answer.
“The MAVEN mission tells us that Mars lost substantial amounts of its atmosphere over time, changing the planet’s habitability,” said David Brain, a MAVEN co-investigator at LASP. “We can use Mars, a planet that we know a lot about, as a laboratory for studying rocky planets outside our solar system, which we don’t know much about yet.”
At the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 13, 2017, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Brain, also a professor in the CU Boulder astrophysical and planetary sciences department, described how insights from the LASP-led MAVEN mission could be applied to the habitability of rocky planets orbiting other stars.
A solar instrument package designed and built by LASP to help monitor the planet’s climate is now set for launch Dec. 12 (no earlier than 11:20 AM MT) aboard a SpaceX rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The instrument suite is called the Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1) and was designed and built by LASP for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The contract value to LASP is $90 million and includes the instrument suite and an associated mission ground system in the LASP Space Technology Building on the CU Boulder East Campus Research Park.
A team led by LASP scientists, engineers, and students has been selected to build a tiny orbiting satellite to study the evaporating atmospheres of gigantic “hot Jupiters”—distant gaseous planets orbiting scorchingly close to their parent stars.
To date more than 100 gas giants have been discovered orbiting very close to their parent stars, said LASP planetary scientist, Kevin France, principal investigator on the four-year, $3.3 million effort funded by NASA. France and his colleagues believe the new study of hot Jupiters—some of which are so close to parent stars they orbit them in a matter of days—will help planetary scientists better understand the evolution of our own solar system.
The University of Colorado Boulder’s cross-campus Grand Challenge initiative this week announced the selection of three new additions to its portfolio starting this fall. The call for proposals, which was announced in June, funded one large research initiative at approximately $1 million per year and two smaller projects at $250,000 per year, each for at least three years. LASP will collaborate on the research initiative and on one of the two smaller projects.
The selections augment the current Grand Challenge portfolio, building on the accomplishments of Earth Lab, Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing (IRISS), the university’s space minor, and the Center for the Study of Origins.
LASP planetary scientist Larry Esposito has been eying the fabulous rings of Saturn for much of his career, beginning as a team scientist on NASA’s Pioneer 11 mission when he discovered the planet’s faint F ring in 1979.
He followed that up with observations of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s rings from the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft, which carried instruments designed and built at LASP. Now, as the principal investigator for the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, Esposito and his Cassini colleagues are feeling a bit somber as the mission nears its end. The spacecraft has run out of fuel and will disintegrate in Saturn’s dense atmosphere early on the morning of Sept. 15.
LASP has joined forces with universities and space agencies from around the world in an international effort to design and build small satellites as a way to train future scientists and engineers.
The project, known as the International Satellite Program in Research and Education (INSPIRE), so far involves seven nations—the U.S., France, Taiwan, Japan, India, Singapore and Oman—says Project Manager and LASP engineer Amal Chandran.
The aim of INSPIRE is to establish a long-term academic program for developing a constellation of small satellites and a global network of ground stations, Chandran explains.
A solar instrument package designed and built by LASP, considered a key tool to help monitor the planet’s climate, has arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a targeted November launch.
The instrument suite is called the Total and Spectral solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1) and was built for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The contract value to LASP is $90 million and includes the dual instrument suite and an associated ground system to manage TSIS mission operations.
Deep in space between distant stars, space is not empty. Instead, there drifts vast clouds of neutral atoms and molecules, as well as charged plasma particles called the interstellar medium—that may, over millions of years, evolve into new stars and even planets. These floating interstellar reservoirs are the focus of the NASA-funded CHESS sounding rocket mission, which will check out the earliest stages of star formation.
CHESS—short for the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph—is a sounding rocket payload that will fly on a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket late in the night on June 26, 2017. CHESS measures light filtering through the interstellar medium to study the atoms and molecules within, which provides crucial information for understanding the lifecycle of stars.
NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars led by LASP and the University of Colorado Boulder will hit a happy milestone on Saturday, June 17: 1,000 days of orbiting the Red Planet.
Since its launch in November 2013 and its orbit insertion in September 2014, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) has been exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars, said LASP associate director and CU Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator of the mission. MAVEN is bringing insight into how the sun stripped Mars of most of its atmosphere, turning a planet once possibly habitable to microbial life into a barren desert world.
Humans have long been shaping Earth’s landscape, but now scientists know we can shape our near-space environment as well. A certain type of communications—very low frequency, or VLF, radio communications—have been found to interact with particles in space, affecting how and where they move. At times, these interactions can create a barrier around Earth against natural high energy particle radiation in space. These results, part of a comprehensive paper on human-induced space weather, were recently published in Space Science Reviews.
“Our recent work with the LASP Van Allen Probes instruments has shown compelling evidence that the radiation belts are quite subject to human-made waves emanating from ground-based radio transmitters. Thus, humans have not only been affecting the oceans and atmosphere of Earth, but have also been affecting near-Earth space,” said Dan Baker, LASP director and co-author of the paper.
A LASP-built instrument that will provide unprecedented imaging of the Earth’s upper atmosphere has been successfully installed on the commercial satellite that will carry it into geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above the Earth.
The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission, led by the University of Central Florida (UCF) and built and operated by LASP, features a collaboration with satellite owner-operator SES Government Solutions (SES GS) to place an ultraviolet instrument as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite.
Toting an ultraviolet instrument designed and built by LASP, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made the first of 22 dives between the rings of Saturn and the gaseous planet today, the beginning of the end for one of NASA’s most successful missions ever.
Launched in 1997 and pulling up at Saturn in 2004 for the first of hundreds of orbits through the Jovian system, the Cassini-Huygens mission has fostered scores of dazzling discoveries. These include in-depth studies that date and even weigh the astonishing rings; the discovery of methane lakes on the icy moon Titan; hot water plumes found squirting from the moon Enceladus; and closeup views of the bright auroras at the planet’s poles.
A multimillion dollar CU-Boulder/LASP instrument package expected to help scientists better understand potentially damaging space weather is now slated to launch aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Designed and built at LASP, the instrument suite known as the Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) is the first of four identical packages that will fly on four NOAA weather satellites in the coming decade. EXIS will measure energy output from the sun that can affect satellite operations, telecommunications, GPS navigation and power grids on Earth as part of NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R Series (GOES-R).
Today, the LASP-led MAVEN mission has completed one Mars year of science observations. One Mars year is just under two Earth years.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft launched on Nov. 18, 2013, and went into orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2014. During its time at Mars, MAVEN has answered many questions about the Red Planet.
A bread loaf-sized satellite, designed and built by University of Colorado students, has been collecting data since its deployment from the International Space Station on May 16 and is providing observations of the sun at unprecedented wavelengths and resolution.
The Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS)—a 30cm x 10cm x 10 cm, 3-unit satellite—is the first ever science CubeSat launched for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and has already met its minimum mission science criteria for data and observations.
Wearing latex gloves and focused expressions, a group of middle school students gathered around a large cardboard tube recently at the CU Boulder Engineering Center then carefully began wrapping it in fiberglass. All the while, an undergraduate with the CU Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (CU SEDS) organization explained how rockets are designed and built.
Soon, these same students will travel to southern Colorado to launch a rocket they helped assemble as part of a CU Junior Aerospace Engineering Camp. This camp, in particular, brought students to campus from Casa de la Esperanza, a housing community in Longmont for agricultural workers and their families.
A group of LASP scientists and students are anxiously awaiting the arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter July 4, a mission expected to reveal the hidden interior of the gas giant as well as keys to how our solar system formed.
Launched in 2011, the spacecraft is slated to orbit Jupiter’s poles 37 times roughly 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) above its cloud tops to better understand the origin and evolution of the largest planet in the solar system. Scientists hope to determine if Jupiter has a solid core, measure the planet’s magnetic fields, hunt for water vapor and observe the polar auroras.
Three planetary scientists from LASP and five University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) students are part of the Juno mission.
A team of LASP scientists, led by University of Colorado physics professor Mihály Horányi, has conducted laboratory experiments that may bring closure to a long-standing issue of electrostatic dust transport, explaining a variety of unusual phenomena on the surfaces of airless planetary bodies, including observations from the Apollo era and the recent Rosetta mission to Comet 67P.
Satellites provide data daily on our own planet, our sun and the universe around us. The instruments on these spacecraft are constantly bombarded with solar particles and intense light, not to mention the normal wear and tear from operating in space.
If it were a car that’s a few years old, you would take it to the mechanic for a tune-up to make sure it continues running smoothly. However, with a spacecraft it’s not that easy. Thus, scientists may turn to calibration flights to make sure the instruments are kept up to snuff and providing validated data.
One such flight will be the Extreme UltraViolet (EUV) Variability Experiment, or EVE, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, to observe the sun from a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket at 3:02 p.m. EDT May 25 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The bread loaf-sized Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) CubeSat will be deployed from an airlock on the International Space Station (ISS) at 4 a.m. MDT on Monday, May 16, beginning its journey into space where it will study emissions from the sun that can affect ground-based communications systems.
The NASA-funded MinXSS, designed, built, and operated by University of Colorado Boulder students and faculty at LASP and CU-Boulder’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department (AES), will operate in Earth’s orbit for up to 12 months. The CubeSat will be deployed from the ISS via a special deployer designed by NanoRacks, LLC.
The MinXSS will observe soft X-rays from the sun, which can disrupt Earth’s upper atmosphere and hamper radio and GPS signals traveling through the region. The intensity of the soft x-ray emissions emitted from the sun is continuously changing over a large range—with peak emission levels occurring during large eruptions on the sun called solar flares.
Planetary scientists are a step closer to understanding changes in the puzzling jets of gas and dust grains observed shooting into space from cracks on the icy surface of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.
First observed in 2005 by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it orbited the ringed planet, the plume is coming from a subterranean, salty ocean beneath the moon’s surface. The latest observations with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now at Saturn by a team including Larry Esposito, LASP planetary scientist and University of Colorado Boulder professor, indicate at least some of the narrow jets there blast with increased fury when the moon is farther from Saturn.
A LASP-led and University of Colorado Boulder student-built instrument riding on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft found only a handful of dust grains, the building blocks of planets, when it whipped by Pluto at 31,000 miles per hour last July.
Data downloaded and analyzed by the New Horizons team indicated the space environment around Pluto and its moons contained only about six dust particles per cubic mile, said LASP planetary scientist and CU-Boulder Professor Fran Bagenal, who leads the New Horizons Particles and Plasma Team.
“The bottom line is that space is mostly empty,” said Bagenal. “Any debris created when Pluto’s moons were captured or created during impacts has long since been removed by planetary processes.”
To the casual onlooker, the space between the stars is benign and inactive. However, this space, also called the interstellar medium, is very active and contains the raw materials for future solar systems.
On February 21, 2016, the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph (CHESS) will fly on a NASA suborbital sounding rocket on its second flight in two years to study the atoms and molecules in the interstellar medium.
LASP Director, Dan Baker, has been elected Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) for its class of 2016. AIAA Fellows are elected based on their notable and valuable contributions to the arts, sciences or technology of aeronautics and astronautics.
In addition to his role as LASP director, Baker is a faculty member in the departments of Physics and Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Baker, who chaired the National Research Council’s 2012 Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics, is currently involved in a number of NASA missions, including the MAVEN mission to Mars, the Van Allen Probes mission, and the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission.
AIAA is the largest aerospace professional society in the world, serving a diverse range of more than 30,000 individual members from 88 countries, and 95 corporate members. The induction ceremony for the new Fellows will take place at the AIAA Aerospace Spotlight Awards Gala on June 15, 2016 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.
Scientists involved in NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which is being led by the LASP team at the University of Colorado Boulder, have identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet Mars is today.
MAVEN data have enabled researchers to determine the rate at which the Martian atmosphere currently is losing gas to space via stripping by the solar wind. The findings reveal that the erosion of Mars’ atmosphere increases significantly during solar storms. The scientific results from the mission appear in the Nov. 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.
LASP director Daniel Baker has received the 2015 Shen Kuo Award from the International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy (IAGA), the top award for interdisciplinary achievements given every four years by the organization.
Baker, a University of Colorado Boulder Distinguished Professor, was presented with the award at the 26th General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) held in Prague in the Czech Republic. IAGA is a constituent organization of IUGG and is dedicated to advancing, promoting and communicating knowledge of the Earth system, its space environment, and the dynamical processes causing change.
Mars turned cold and dry long ago, but LASP-led research at the University of Colorado Boulder has unveiled evidence of an ancient lake that likely represents some of the last potentially habitable surface water ever to exist on the Red Planet.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Geology, examined an 18-square-mile chloride salt deposit (roughly the size of the city of Boulder) in the planet’s Meridiani region near the Mars Opportunity rover’s landing site. As seen on Earth in locations such as Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, large-scale salt deposits are considered to be evidence of evaporated bodies of water.
In 1930, an object smaller than our moon was discovered, labeled the ninth planet from the sun, and named Pluto at the suggestion of 11-year-old British girl Venetia Burney. The name was adopted because it was thought to be fitting as Pluto is the Roman God of the Underworld who is able to make himself invisible.
Invisible no longer.
After a nine-year journey of 3 billion miles, a piano-sized, power-packed NASA spacecraft has an upcoming date with history that some University of Colorado Boulder students, faculty and alumni wouldn’t miss for the world.
If planets had personalities, Mars would be a rock star according to recent preliminary results from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. Mars sports a “Mohawk” of escaping atmospheric particles at its poles, “wears” a layer of metal particles high in its atmosphere, and lights up with aurora after being smacked by solar storms. MAVEN is also mapping out the escaping atmospheric particles. The early results are being discussed at a MAVEN-sponsored “new media” workshop held in Berkeley, California, on June 19-21.
The moon is engulfed in a permanent but lopsided dust cloud that increases in density when annual events like the Geminids spew shooting stars, according to a new study led by LASP scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The cloud is made up primarily of tiny dust grains kicked up from the moon’s surface by the impact of high-speed, interplanetary dust particles, said CU-Boulder physics Professor and LASP research associate Mihály Horányi. A single dust particle from a comet striking the moon’s surface lofts thousands of smaller dust specks into the airless environment, and the lunar cloud is maintained by regular impacts from such particles, said Horányi.
By Fran Bagenal, CU-Boulder Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and New Horizons co-investigator
I admit that I love giving presentations on New Horizons to public audiences. It’s the killer combination of Pluto and space exploration. Everyone digs it. The best are astronomy clubs—just bursting with enthusiasm. And my favorite group of all time is the Rocky Mountain Star Stare (RMSS). Based in Colorado Springs, RMSS meets every year on a piece of land close to the Colorado–New Mexico border that is far from city lights. The trek is worth it—the Milky Way blazes across the sky.And these guys have brought along the most amazing astro-geek equipment.
An instrument to be designed and built at LASP has been selected to fly on a NASA mission to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, which is believed to harbor a subsurface ocean that may provide conditions suitable for life.
The LASP instrument, known as the SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA), will be used to measure the composition of solid particles released from Europa’s surface due to meteoroid bombardment. The instrument also will be able to measure the properties of small, solid particles believed to be spewing from a hidden ocean within the moon, said University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor of Physics, Sascha Kempf, who will serve as principal investigator on the project.
Watching the sun is dangerous work for a telescope. Solar instruments in space naturally degrade over time, bombarded by a constant stream of solar particles that can cause a film of material to adhere to the optics. Decades of research and engineering skill have improved protecting such optics, but one crucial solution is to regularly recalibrate the instruments to accommodate such changes.
In mid-May, the seventh calibration mission for an instrument on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, will launch into space onboard a sounding rocket for a 15-minute flight. The instrument to be calibrated is called EVE, short for the EUV Variability Experiment, where EUV stands for extreme ultraviolet. EVE’s job is to observe the total energy output of the sun in EUV light waves. The calibration mission is scheduled to launch on May 21, 2015, on a Terrier-Black Brant suborbital sounding rocket around 3 pm EDT from White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
A mission to study dynamic changes in the atmosphere of Mars over days and seasons led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) involves the University of Colorado Boulder as the leading U.S. scientific-academic partner.
Known as the Emirates Mars Mission, the project is being designed to observe weather phenomena like Martian clouds and dust storms as well as changes in temperature, water vapor and other and gases throughout the layers of the atmosphere. The CU-Boulder part of the mission will be undertaken at LASP.
The mission will be headquartered at and controlled from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, which is affiliated with the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology. According to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of Dubai, the new Mars probe will be named Hope.
The University of Colorado announced today that it has awarded a five-year contract to SES Government Solutions (SES GS), of Reston, Va., to host a NASA-funded science instrument on board SES-14, a communications satellite to be stationed over the Americas.
The Global-Scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission, a NASA Explorers mission led from the University of Central Florida and built and operated at the University of Colorado (CU-Boulder), will collaborate with SES GS to place a science instrument on a commercial satellite as a hosted payload. This is the first time a university and a commercial spacecraft operator have teamed to host a NASA science mission. At a cost of roughly 10% of a traditional science satellite, working with a communications satellite represents the most cost-effective way to reach geostationary orbit.
NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury, carrying an instrument designed and built at LASP, is slated to run out of fuel and crash into the planet in the coming days after a wildly successful, four-year orbiting mission chock-full of discoveries.
The mission began in 2004, when the MESSENGER spacecraft launched from Florida on a 7-year, 4.7 billion mile journey that involved 15 loops around the sun before the spacecraft settled into orbit around Mercury in March 2011. LASP provided the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS), which has been successfully making measurements of Mercury’s surface and its tenuous atmosphere, called the exosphere, since orbit insertion.
LASP Director and University of Colorado Boulder Distinguished Professor, Daniel Baker, was awarded the Vikram A. Sarabhai Professorship and Prize for 2015, which honors internationally distinguished scholars and is named for the founder of India’s space program.
As part of the award, Baker traveled to the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, in February to work with scientists and students and give seminars and lectures. His primary research interests include the study of physical and energetic particle phenomena in the plasma of planetary magnetospheres.
The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission, part of the NASA Explorers Program, passed a rigorous examination on March 5th at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, enabling the mission to move into the final design and fabrication phase.
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has observed two unexpected phenomena in the Martian atmosphere: an unexplained high-altitude dust cloud and aurora that reaches deep into the Martian atmosphere.
The presence of dust at orbital altitudes from about 93 miles (150 kilometers) to 190 miles (300 kilometers) above the surface was not predicted. Although the source and composition of the dust are unknown, there is no hazard to MAVEN and other spacecraft orbiting Mars.
Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission, led by LASP and University of Colorado postdoctoral researcher, Sean Hsu, have found that microscopic grains of rock detected near Saturn imply hydrothermal activity is taking place within the moon Enceladus.
This is the first clear indication of an icy moon having hydrothermal activity—in which seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust, emerging as a heated, mineral-laden solution. The finding adds to the tantalizing possibility that Enceladus, which displays remarkable geologic activity including geysers, could contain environments suitable for living organisms.
The results were published today in the journal Nature.
After a decade-long voyage through the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons mission is scheduled to fly by Pluto in July 2015, carrying with it the LASP-built Student Dust Counter (SDC). The New Horizons mission also involves LASP scientists and CU-Boulder students, who await data from the unprecedented approach and close encounter of the dwarf planet and its five known moons.
In preparation for the July encounter, LASP Office of Communications and Outreach staff recently traveled to two rural Colorado communities and delivered Pluto-related programming to students and their families. Accompanying them was Fran Bagenal, LASP planetary scientist, CU-Boulder professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, and New Horizons mission co-investigator. Bagenal served as the New Horizons and Pluto science expert during the school visits and gave public presentations to both communities.
LASP will serve as the Science Operations Center for a NASA mission launching this month to better understand the physical processes of geomagnetic storms, solar flares and other energetic phenomena throughout the universe.
The $1.1 billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission will be comprised of four identical, octagonal spacecraft flying in a pyramid formation, each carrying 25 instruments. The goal is to study in detail magnetic reconnection, the primary process by which energy is transferred from the solar wind to Earth’s protective magnetic space environment known as the magnetosphere, said LASP Director Daniel Baker, Science Operations Center (SOC) lead scientist for MMS.
Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) Director, Dan Baker, was appointed a University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at a Board of Regents meeting on November 20th. Baker is one of six faculty members within the four university campuses to receive the award this year and takes a place among the 79 faculty members who have earned this distinction since its inception in 1977. Nominations for the award were made by a committee of current Distinguished Professors, reviewed by university president, Bruce Benson, and voted for approval by the Board of Regents.
Selection criteria are based on outstanding contributions of university faculty members to their academic disciplines, including creativity and research, teaching or supervision of student learning, and service to the university and affiliated institutions. Baker, director of LASP for two decades, was recognized for his leadership in the space science community and influence on space policy at the federal level. Baker was also lauded for enabling hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students to conduct authentic research at the lab.
Two NASA and one European spacecraft, including NASA’s MAVEN mission—led by LASP—have gathered new information about the basic properties of a wayward comet that buzzed by Mars Oct. 19, directly detecting its effects on the Martian atmosphere.
Data from observations carried out by MAVEN, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft revealed that debris from the comet, known officially as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, caused an intense meteor shower and added a new layer of ions, or charged particles, to the ionosphere. The ionosphere is an electrically charged region in the atmosphere that reaches from about 75 miles (120 kilometers) to several hundred miles above the Martian surface.
Using the observations, scientists were able to make a direct connection between the input of debris from the meteor shower to the subsequent formation of the transient layer of ions—the first time such an event has been observed on any planet, including Earth, said the MAVEN research team.
NASA has awarded a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder, which includes LASP scientists, more than $7 million to study aspects of the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The team, led by CU-Boulder Professor Alexis Templeton of the geological sciences department, will be researching what scientists call “rock-powered life.” Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy, that, when released through the interaction of rocks and water, have the ability to power living systems on Earth as well as on other planets like Mars, said Templeton, principal investigator on the effort.
In New Mexico on the morning of Aug. 18, a high-altitude balloon successfully carried the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS) instrument to an altitude of 123,000 feet, above most of the Earth’s atmosphere, to reach space-like conditions and demonstrate new technologies for acquiring high-accuracy science measurements of the Earth.
Scientists use outgoing shortwave radiance, or the amount of sunlight scattered from Earth’s surface and atmosphere and reflected back toward space, as one of the key metrics for studying our planet’s dynamic climate. Watching these radiances over time helps researchers monitor and better understand the causes of environmental changes and global warming.
The importance of Mars exploration and how the aerospace industry partners with university researchers to advance one of Colorado’s leading economic sectors will be featured at a free program Monday, Sept. 8, in south Denver.
Aerospace leaders will discuss the importance of Mars exploration and the role of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN mission, the involvement of Colorado companies in space exploration and the value of public/private partnerships involving university-based research. Speakers will include Jim Green, director of NASA planetary science; Nick Schneider, MAVEN co-investigator and professor in the CU-Boulder Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences; Guy Beutelschies, space exploration systems director, Lockheed Martin; Jim Sponnick, vice president of Atlas and Delta programs, United Launch Alliance; and Patrick Carr, vice president and general manager of command, control and communications systems, Exelis.
A NASA-funded miniature satellite built by University of Colorado Boulder students to scrutinize solar flares erupting from the sun’s surface is the latest example of the university’s commitment to advancing aerospace technology and space science through strong partnerships with industry and government.
The $1 million Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS), led by CU-Boulder faculty in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, recently was selected by NASA for launch in January 2015 from the International Space Station.
At the conclusion of a highly successful 130-day mission, the NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is planned to impact the surface of the moon on April 21, 2014. LADEE carries the Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX), which is the latest in a series of dust detectors designed and built at LASP.
A new study led by LASP research scientist Stuart Robbins indicates that volunteer “citizen scientists” counted lunar craters at rates comparable to professional scientists. Using images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, volunteers for CosmoQuest, which contributes real science data to NASA missions, analyzed the high-resolution photos of the Moon for impact craters. Robbins and his co-authors then compared the volunteers’ results to those of eight professional planetary crater-counters.
The MAVEN spacecraft and all of its science instruments have completed their initial checkout, and all of them are working as expected. This means that MAVEN is on track to carry out its full science mission as originally planned.
The mission is designed to explore Mars’ upper atmosphere. It will determine the role that escape of gas from the atmosphere to space has played in changing the climate throughout the planet’s history. MAVEN was launched on November 18, 2013, and will go into orbit around Mars on the evening of Sept. 21, 2014 (10 p.m. EDT).
After a 5-week commissioning phase in orbit, during which it will get into its science-mapping orbit, deploy its booms, and do a final checkout of the science instruments, it will carry out a one-Earth-year mission. It will observe the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere, determine the rate of escape of gas to space today and the processes controlling it, and make measurements that will allow it to determine the total amount of gas lost to space over time.
A LASP-led mission that will investigate how Mars lost its atmosphere and abundant liquid water launched into space on November 18 at 11:28 a.m. MST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft separated from an Atlas V Centaur rocket’s second stage 53 minutes after launch. The solar arrays deployed approximately one hour after launch and currently power the spacecraft. MAVEN now is embarking on a 10-month interplanetary cruise before arriving at Mars next September.
MAVEN is set to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket Nov. 18. The two-hour launch window extends from 1:28 to 3:28 p.m. EST. Liftoff will occur from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.
Launch commentary coverage, as well as prelaunch media briefings, will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.
The following is a list of MAVEN launch-related briefings, events, and activities.
Haiku recognized in the LASP-led MAVEN message-to-Mars contest were announced today on the Going to Mars campaign website. Haiku authors from around the world—including Palestine, India, Australia, and Europe—entered the contest. The top five winners—all those whose haiku received 1,000 votes or more—include popular British blogger Benedict Smith and well-known American poet Vanna Bonta. Other entries receiving special recognition include MAVEN team selections in categories ranging from haiku specifically about MAVEN to humorous haiku.
The MAVEN mission is inviting people from all over the world to submit their names and a unique message online. Participants’ names and the top-voted messages will be burned to a specially-designed DVD and sent to the Red Planet aboard the MAVEN spacecraft, scheduled to launch in November, 2013.
The LASP-operated NASA Kepler spacecraft has discovered two planetary systems that include three super-Earth-sized planets in the “habitable zone,” where the surface temperature of a planet may sustain liquid water.
LASP scientist and CU-Boulder Department of Geological Sciences Assistant Professor, Brian Hynek, led a recent study detailing the earliest history of the development of the Tharsis volcanoes on Mars. The Tharsis region, one of the most prominent features on Mars, covers one quarter of the planet, rises 10 km above the surrounding flatlands, and has had near-continuous volcanic activity for roughly 4 billion years.