March 30, 2020

28.03.10- Messenger Spies High-Energy Solar Neutrons.

After a considerable hiatus, solar cycle 24 is now well under way. And this time, NASA has a key observing platform in the inner solar system; the Messenger spacecraft, bound for an insertion to orbit Mercury in March, 2011. In the intervening time, scientists at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona have been busying the spacecraft by monitoring the Sun from close proximity. On New Year’s Eve, 2007, the spacecraft was at about half an Astronomical Unit (A.U.) from the Sun when it had the unprecedented opportunity to study high-energy neutrons ejected from a massive solar flare. Unlike 1 minute bursts recorded in near-Earth orbit, Messenger was able to track and record these neutron bursts for 6 to 10 hours. This was accomplished by use of NASA’s Neutron Spectrometer aboard the spacecraft. From this, scientists have predicted a “decayed feedstock” of resulting protons from the flare in the 30 to 100 million electron volt range. Messenger could also clear up a long standing mystery; why do some coronal mass ejections produce huge numbers of energetic protons, while others emit relatively few? This puzzle is of more than casual interest; radiation from CMEs has damaged orbiting satellites in the past, and is of prime concern for space based astronauts. Once Messenger is in permanent orbit about Mercury, it will also have a prime vantage point to monitor the Sun close up for a year uninterrupted. And just in time for a peak in the solar maximum!

07.11.09:Attack of the Lunar Rovers!

NASA plans to send new hardware back to a familiar place; the Moon. Specifically, scientists at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona are studying the hugely successful rover activities on Mars to see if they can be emulated in a low-cost fashion on the Moon. It isn’t generally known that much of the Moon is largely unexplored from a ground-level perspective; the early unmanned Surveyor-style landers in the 60′s were stationary, and the Apollo astronauts were restricted to nearside, equatorial landing sites. Intelligent lunar rovers would allow for extensive surveys of unexplored areas such as the South Pole Aitken Basin, one of the largest impact basins in the solar system. Rovers could also scout out future manned landing sites as well as search for that treasure of treasures; water. Unlike the Martian rovers, the signal round trip is negligible, thus allowing for near real-time control. So, when might we see this new breed of lunar robots? Well, NASA has unofficial plans to place its first rover in 2014. The Chinese however, may beat us to tasting lunar dirt with the Chang’e-3 mission in 2013…who will win the battle of the 21st century lunar rovers? Stay tuned!