Posts Tagged ‘comets’

Dawn’s Journey: A Power Trip

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Dawn's solar arrays are folded to fit inside the nose cone in preparation for launch
The Dawn spacecraft’s solar array wings — pictured here in a folded position in preparation for launch — span 19.7 meters (nearly 65 feet) and are designed to keep the spacecraft powered even as it ventures further from the sun into the remote asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Megalodawniacs,

Powering its way through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn continues on course and on schedule for its 2015 appointment with dwarf planet Ceres. After spending more than a year orbiting and scrutinizing Vesta, the second most massive object in the asteroid belt, the robotic explorer has its sights set on the largest object between the sun and Neptune that a spacecraft has not yet visited. This exotic expedition to unveil mysterious alien worlds would be impossible without the probe’s ion propulsion system.

Ion propulsion is not a source of power for this interplanetary spaceship. Rather, the craft needs a great deal of power to operate its ion propulsion system and all other systems. It needs so much that…

We crave power!!

The ion propulsion system is power-hungry. The process of ionizing xenon and then accelerating it to high velocity consumes a significant amount of electrical power, all of which is provided by the spacecraft’s huge solar arrays. With these two wings and its ion tail, Dawn resembles a celestial dragonfly. But this extraterrestrial odonate is a giant, with a wingspan of 19.7 meters (nearly 65 feet). When it was launched in 2007, this was the greatest tip-to-tip length of any probe NASA had ever dispatched on an interplanetary voyage. (Some such spacecraft have had flexible wire-like antennas that reach to greater lengths.) The large area of solar cells is needed to capture feeble sunlight in the remote asteroid belt to meet all of the electrical needs. Each solar array wing is the width of a singles tennis court, and the entire structure would extend from a pitcher’s mound to home plate on a professional baseball field, although Dawn is engaged in activities considerably more inspiring and rewarding than competitive sports.

To sail the ship to its intended destination, navigators plot a complex course on the solar system sea. The thrust delivered by the ion engine depends on the power level; higher power translates into higher (but still ever so gentle) thrust. The farther Dawn is from the luminous sun, the less power is available, so the thrust is lower. Therefore, to keep it on its itinerary, mission planners need to know the thrust at all times in the future. It would not be a recipe for success to propel the spacecraft to a position in space from which it could not achieve enough thrust to accomplish the rest of the carefully designed journey to Ceres.

To formulate the flight plan then requires knowing how much power will be available even as the probe ventures farther from the sun. Engineers make mathematical predictions of the power the solar arrays will generate, but these calculations are surprisingly difficult. Well, perhaps some readers would not be surprised, but it is more complicated than simply reducing the power in proportion to the intensity of the sunlight. As one example, at greater distances from the sun, the temperature of the arrays in the cold depths of space would be even lower, and the efficiency of the solar cells depends on their temperature. In 2008, the operations team devised and implemented a method to refine their estimates of the solar array performance, and that work enabled the deep-space traveler to arrive at Vesta earlier and depart later. Now they have developed a related but superior technique, which the faithful spacecraft executed flawlessly on June 24.

The only way to measure the power generation capability of the arrays is to draw power from them. With the ion thrust off, even with all other systems turned on, the spacecraft cannot consume as much power as the arrays can provide, so no meaningful measurement would be possible.

In typical operations, Dawn keeps its solar arrays pointed directly at the sun. For this special calibration, it rotated them so the incident sunlight came at a different angle. This reduced the total amount of light falling on the cells, effectively creating the conditions the spacecraft will experience when it has receded from the sun. As the angle increased, corresponding to greater distances from the brilliant star, the arrays produced less power, so the ion engine had to be throttled down. (The engines can be operated at 112 different throttle levels, each with a different input power and different thrust level.)

Engineers estimated what the maximum throttle level would be at each of the angles as well as the total power all other systems would consume during the test and then programmed it so the ion propulsion system would throttle down appropriately as the solar array angle increased. Of course, they could not know exactly what the highest throttle level at each angle would be; if they did, then they would already know the solar array characteristics well enough that the calibration would be unnecessary. Fortunately, however, they did not need to determine the perfect levels in advance. The sophisticated robot is smart enough to reduce by a few throttle levels if it detects that all systems combined are drawing more power than the solar arrays generate.

Under normal circumstances, the spacecraft doesn’t need to adjust the ion throttle level on its own. Engineers know the solar array performance well enough that they can predict the correct setting with high accuracy for a typical four-week sequence of commands stored onboard. It is only for the much greater distances from the sun in the years ahead that the uncertainty becomes important. In addition, during regular operations, if the spacecraft temporarily needs to use more heaters than usual (more than 140 heaters are distributed around the ship, each turning on and off as needed), thereby increasing the power demand, its battery can make up for the difference. That avoids unnecessary throttle changes.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Rocks and Stars with Amy: This Asteroid Inspected by #32

Monday, November 15th, 2010

By Amy Mainzer

Rocks and Stars with Amy

Over the course of the nine months we’ve been operating WISE, we’ve observed over 150,000 asteroids and comets of all different types. We had to pick all of these moving objects out of the hundreds of millions of sources observed all over the sky — so you can imagine that sifting through all those stars and galaxies to find the asteroids is not easy!

We use a lot of techniques to figure out how to distinguish an asteroid from a star or galaxy. Even though just about everything in the universe moves, asteroids are a whole lot closer to us than your average star (and certainly your average galaxy), so they appear to move from place to place in the WISE images over a timescale of minutes, unlike the much more distant stars. It’s almost like watching a pack of cyclists go by in the Tour de France. Also, WISE takes infrared images, which means that cooler objects like asteroids look different than the hotter stars. If you look at the picture below, you can see that the stars appear bright blue, whereas the sole asteroid in the frame appears red. That’s because the asteroid is about room temperature and is therefore much colder than the stars, which are thousands of degrees. Cooler objects will give off more of their light at longer, infrared wavelengths that our WISE telescope sees. We can use both of these unique properties of asteroids — their motion and their bright infrared signatures — to tease them out of the bazillions of stars and galaxies in the WISE images.

Image of the first near-Earth asteroid discovered by WISE
The first near-Earth asteroid discovered by WISE (red dot) stands out from the stars (blue dots). The asteroid is much cooler than the stars, so it emits more of its light at the longer, infrared wavelengths WISE uses. This makes it appear redder than the stars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA |   › Full image and caption

Thanks to the efforts of some smart scientists and software engineers, we have a very slick program that automatically searches the images for anything that moves at the longer, infrared wavelengths. With WISE, we take about a dozen or so images of each part of the sky over a couple of days. The system works by throwing out everything that appears again and again in each exposure. What’s left are just the so-called transient sources, the things that don’t stay the same between snapshots. Most of these are cosmic rays — charged particles zooming through space that are either spat out by our sun or burped up from other high-energy processes like supernovae or stars falling into black holes. These cosmic rays hit our detectors, leaving a blip that appears for just a single exposure. Also, really bright objects can leave an after-image on the detectors that can persist for many minutes, just like when you stare at a light bulb and then close your eyes. We have to weed the real asteroid detections out from the cosmic rays and after-images.

The data pipeline is smart enough to catch most of these artifacts and figure out what the real moving objects are. However, if it’s a new asteroid that no one has ever seen before, we have to have a human inspect the set of images and make sure that it’s not just a collection of artifacts that happened to show up at the right place and right time. About 20 percent of the asteroids that we observe appear to be new, and we examine those using a program that we call our quality assurance (QA) system, which lets us rapidly sift through hundreds of candidate asteroids to make sure they’re real. The QA system pops up a set of images of the candidate asteroid, along with a bunch of “before” and “after” images of the same part of the sky. This lets us eliminate any stars that might have been confused for the asteroids. Finally, since the WISE camera takes a picture every 11 seconds, we take a look at the exposures taken immediately before the ones with the candidate asteroid — if the source is really just an after-image persisting after we’ve looked at something bright, it will be there in the previous frame. We’ve had many students — three college students and two very talented high school students — work on asteroid QA. They’ve become real pros at inspecting asteroid candidates!

This is a screenshot from the WISE moving-object quality assurance system, which helps weed out false asteroid candidates.
This is a screenshot from the WISE moving-object quality assurance system, which helps weed out false asteroid candidates. The top two rows show an asteroid candidate detected in 16 different WISE snapshots, at two different infrared wavelengths. The lower rows show the same patch of sky at different times — they let the astronomers make sure that stars or galaxies haven’t been confused for the asteroid. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Meanwhile, the hunt continues — we’re still trekking along through the sky with the two shortest-wavelength infrared bands, now that we’ve run out of the super-cold hydrogen that was keeping two of the four detectors operating. Even though our sensitivity is lower, we’re still observing asteroids and looking for interesting things like nearby brown dwarfs (stars too cold to shine in visible light because they can’t sustain nuclear fusion). Our dedicated team of asteroid inspectors keeps plugging away, keeping the quality of the detections very high so that we leave the best possible legacy when our little telescope’s journey is finally done.

Comets and Life On Earth

Monday, August 17th, 2009
Donald Yeomans
Donald Yeomans

With the recent discovery of the amino acid glycine in the comet dust samples returned to Earth by the Stardust spacecraft, it is becoming a bit more clear how life may have originated on Earth. Water is a well-known ingredient in both comets and living organisms, and now it appears that amino acids are also common to comets and living organisms. Amino acids are used to make proteins, which are chains of amino acids, and proteins are vital in maintaining the cell structures of plants and animals.

Amino acids had previously been identified in meteorite samples, and these samples are thought to be the surviving fragments from asteroid collisions with the Earth. So now it appears that both comets and asteroids in the Earth’s neighborhood, the so-called near-Earth objects, delivered some of the building blocks of life to the early Earth.

Asteroid Eros - Mosaic of Northern Hemisphere
Asteroid Eros - Mosaic of Northern Hemisphere. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
› Full image and caption

Impacts of comets and asteroids with the early Earth likely laid down the veneer of carbon-based molecules and water that allowed life to form. Once life did form, subsequent collisions of these near-Earth objects frustrated the evolution of all but the most adaptable species. The dinosaurs checked out some 65 million years ago because of an impact by a six mile-wide comet or asteroid off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Fortunately, the small, furry mammalian creatures at the time were far more adaptable and survived this impact event. Thus, present day mammals like us may owe our origin and current position atop Earth’s food chain to these near-Earth objects, one of which took out our dinosaur competitors some 65 million years ago.

Today, most of the attention directed toward near-Earth objects has to do with the potential future threat they can pose to life on Earth. However, the recent Stardust discovery of a cometary amino acid reminds us that, were it not for past impacts by these objects, the Earth may not have received the necessary building blocks of life, and humans may not have evolved to our current preeminent position on Earth. While giving thanks to these near-Earth objects, we still need to make sure we find the potentially hazardous comets and asteroids early enough so we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs.

For more information on near-Earth objects, see: