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Update January 2019

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern
Science & Nature

Asteroid-circling spacecraft grabs cool snapshot of home


This image captured on Dec. 19, 2018, by a camera on the Osiris-Rex spacecraft shows the asteroid Bennu, top right, about 27 miles (43 kilometers) from the spacecraft, and the Earth and moon, bottom left, more than 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin Space via AP)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) - An asteroid-circling spacecraft has captured a cool snapshot of home.

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft took the picture days before going into orbit around asteroid Bennu on New Year’s Eve.

The tiny asteroid - barely one-third of a mile (500 meters) across - appears as a big bright blob in the long-exposure photo released last week. Seventy million miles (110 million kilometers) away, Earth appears as a white dot, with the moon an even smaller dot but still clearly visible.

Osiris-Rex is the first spacecraft to orbit such a small celestial body, and from such a close distance - about a mile (1,600 meters) out.

Next year, Osiris-Rex will attempt to gather some samples from the carbon-rich asteroid, for return to Earth in 2023.

Osiris-Rex launched from Florida in 2016.

First private Israeli lunar mission will launch in February

SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub, left, inserts a time capsule into the SpaceIL lunar module, an unmanned spacecraft, that is on display in a special “clean room” where the space craft is being developed, during a press tour of their facility near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. SpaceIL and the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries plan to launch their unmanned spacecraft to the moon early in 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Isabel Debre

Yehud, Israel (AP) - An Israeli nonprofit last month said it has pushed back the launch of what it hopes will be the first private spacecraft to land on the moon until February.

Officials from SpaceIL and its project partner, the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, announced that the landing craft, dubbed “Beresheet,” or Genesis, will ship in February to Florida. Propelled by a SpaceX Falcon rocket launch, the robotic lander will then commence its months-long voyage to the moon. It had been slated to launch last month.

SpaceIL said it had no control over the launch’s delay, and that SpaceX, the private space exploration company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, notified them that its rocket will now lift off in February 2019 without providing an explanation.

Israel Aerospace Industries manager Opher Doron stressed that the small craft, roughly the size of a washing machine, faces a “difficult, arduous journey” because it will have to make several orbits before touching down on the moon. Upon landing, the craft is to relay photographs and collect data about the moon’s ever-changing magnetism for research by Israel’s Weizmann Institute and NASA.

On Monday, SpaceIL representatives presented a time capsule that will accompany the spacecraft to the moon.

The capsule, in the shape of a DVD, holds pictures of the Israeli public, interpretive drawings by Israeli children and other pieces of national memorabilia, including stories of Holocaust survivors.

“We hope that far in the future, when travel to the moon is as common as trans-Atlantic travel, that children will be able to understand the lives of their Israeli ancestors through this archive on the moon,” said SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub.

A crowd of Israeli reporters, clad in sanitized white coats, burst into applause as Winetraub fastened the capsule to the underbelly of the craft.

SpaceIL was founded in 2011 and originally vied for Google’s Lunar Xprize, which challenged private companies to try to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon.

But the $20 million competition was scrapped by the tech giant earlier this year when it became clear none of the five companies would meet a March deadline.

SpaceIL has vowed to continue the mission and hopes that its ambitious $95 million project, largely funded by South African-Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn and other donors, will spur a new wave of commercial missions to the moon and jump-start new companies.

Israel would become the fourth country to land a craft on the moon, after the U.S., the Soviet Union and China.

China begins first surface exploration of moon’s far side

In this photo provided on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, by China National Space Administration via Xinhua News Agency, Yutu-2, China’s lunar rover, leaves wheel marks after leaving the lander that touched down on the surface of the far side of the moon. (China National Space Administration/Xinhua News Agency via AP)

Ken Moritsugu

Beijing (AP) - A Chinese space rover has explored the lunar terrain in the world’s first mission on the surface of the far side of the moon.

Jade Rabbit 2 drove off a ramp on Thursday night, January 3, and onto the soft, powdery surface after a Chinese spacecraft made the first-ever soft landing on the moon’s far side. A photo posted online by China’s space agency showed tracks left by the rover as it headed away from the spacecraft.

“It’s a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation,” Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the Lunar Exploration Project, told state broadcaster CCTV, in a twist of U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous comment when he became the first human to walk on the moon in 1969. “This giant leap is a decisive move for our exploration of space and the conquering of the universe.”

Previous moon landings, including America’s six manned missions from 1969 to 1972, have been on the near side of the moon, which faces Earth. The far side has been observed many times from lunar orbits, but never explored on the surface.

China’s space community is taking pride in the successful landing, which posed technical challenges because the moon blocks direct communication between the spacecraft and its controllers on Earth. China has been trying to catch up with the United States and other nations in space exploration.

“The landing on the far side shows China’s technology is powerful,” said He Qisong, a space expert at the East China University of Science and Law in Shanghai.

While China’s space program still lags America’s, He said “China has already positioned itself at least as good as Russia and the European Union.”

The news cheered people on the streets of Beijing on Friday, many of whom said it showed that China can now achieve or even surpass what the United States has done.

“I think this is very good evidence that we are now able to compete with the Americans,” said energy company employee Yao Dajun. “You can get on the moon and so can we - I think this is very good. It means our science and technology ability is getting stronger and the country is becoming more powerful.”

The news inspired dreamier thoughts for advertising employee Shang Yuegang. “Probably after some years ordinary people like us can also travel up there to take a look,” he said.

The Chinese rover has six powered wheels, allowing it to continue to operate even if one wheel fails. It has a maximum speed of 200 meters (220 yards) per hour and can climb a 20-degree hill or an obstacle up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) tall.

The surface is soft and it is similar to that when you are walking on the snow,” rover designer Shen Zhenrong of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said on CCTV.

Exploring the cosmos from the far side of the moon could eventually help scientists learn more about the early days of the solar system and even the birth of the universe’s first stars. The far side is popularly called the “dark side” because it can’t be seen from Earth and is relatively unknown, not because it lacks sunlight.

Named for Roman god of war, Mars isn’t very kind to visitors


This composite image made from a series of June 15, 2018 photos shows a self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in the Gale Crater. The rover’s arm which held the camera was positioned out of each of the dozens of shots which make up the mosaic. A dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) - Mars has a nasty habit of living up to its mythological name and besting Earth when it comes to accepting visitors.

NASA’s InSight is the latest spacecraft to come calling, with every intent of digging deeper into the planet than anything that’s come before.

“We’ve had a number of successful landings in a row now. But you never know what Mars will throw at you,” said Rob Grover, lead engineer for the landing team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This image made available by NASA shows a map of the landing sites for current and past NASA missions to the planet Mars. (NASA via AP)

Landing on Mars is always risky, Grover and other experts stress at every opportunity.

The numbers back him up. Only about 40 percent of all missions to Mars - named after the Roman god of war - have succeeded.

“Going to Mars is really, really hard,” NASA’s top science mission official, Thomas Zurbuchen, told reporters earlier this week. “As humanity, the explorers all over the world, we’re batting about 50 percent - or less.”

The United States is the only country to successfully operate a spacecraft on the Martian surface. InSight represents NASA’s ninth attempt to put a spacecraft on Mars; only one effort failed.

The last one - NASA’s Curiosity rover - is still on the move after six years, with more than 12 miles (20 kilometers) on its odometer. The space agency’s older, smaller Opportunity was roaming around up there until June, when a global dust storm knocked it out of service. Flight controllers haven’t given up hope yet that it will be revived.

Humanity’s nearly 60-year history of trying to get to Mars includes attempts to fly past the red planet for picture-taking without stopping, as well as the vastly more complicated efforts to put spacecraft into orbit around the red planet and to actually land.

NASA’s Mariner 4 performed the first successfully flyby of the red planet in 1965, sending back 21 photos.

Mariner 9 made it into orbit around Mars and beamed back more than 7,000 photos.

And NASA’s Vikings 1 and 2 not only put spacecraft into orbit around Mars in 1976, but on the surface, too. The twin Vikings were the first successful landers on Mars from planet Earth.

The 1990s weren’t as kind for NASA. A humiliating English-metric conversion screw-up doomed the Mars Observer in 1993. Another U.S. orbiter later was lost, as well as a lander and two accompanying probes meant to penetrate the surface.

Despite decades of trying, Russia, in particular, has had lousy luck at Mars.

The then Soviet Union was the first to attempt a flyby of Mars, in 1960. The spacecraft never reached Earth orbit. After more launch failures and flight mishaps, the Soviets finally got a pair of spacecraft into Mars orbit in 1971 and got back real data. But the companion landers were a total bust.

And so it’s gone for the Soviets/Russians through their most recent attempt with China in 2011. The daunting goal was to land a spacecraft on Mars’ moon Phobos to collect and return samples, and to put a second spacecraft into orbit around Mars. Neither made it out of Earth orbit.

Europe also has been snake-bitten at Mars, as has Japan.

While the European Space Agency has satellites working around Mars, both of its landing attempts have flopped. Just two years ago, its lander hit the surface so fast, it dug out a crater. Japan’s sole Mars spacecraft, launched in 1998, didn’t make it into orbit.

India, meanwhile, has been operating a satellite around Mars for four years, its first and only shot at the red planet.

There’s a heavy European presence on NASA’s InSight. Germany is in charge of the mechanical mole that’s designed to burrow 16 feet (5 meters) into the Martian surface to take underground heat measurements, while France directs the lander’s quake-monitoring seismometer.

On the surface, Curiosity is the only thing operating on Mars. Currently in orbit: U.S. Odyssey since 2001, Europe’s Mars Express (2003), U.S. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006), U.S. Maven (2014), India’s Mangalyaan orbiter (2014) and Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (2016).


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Asteroid-circling spacecraft grabs cool snapshot of home

First private Israeli lunar mission will launch in February

China begins first surface exploration of moon’s far side

Named for Roman god of war, Mars isn’t very kind to visitors