Mission’s end for “Oppy”

Opportunity's Tracks on Mars - Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity’s Tracks on Mars – Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

February 12, 2019 — One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.”

Artist's Concept: Spirit & Opportunity Mars Rovers. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s Concept: Spirit & Opportunity Mars Rovers. Image Credit: NASA

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – “Perseverance Valley.”

“For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues – both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the clean rooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape.”

Click here for more on NASA’s Mars rovers!

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“Looking for the Dark” at the CAA’s Monthly Membership Meeting: February 11

John Ruhl, Ph.D. Photo Credit: CWRU

John Ruhl, Ph.D. Photo Credit: CWRU

The Monday, February 11 meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association, will feature John Ruhl, Ph.D., Professor of Physics and Cosmology at Case Western Reserve University, as guest speaker. In his talk, “Looking for the Dark,” Dr.Ruhl will describe the latest findings from two new and unique projects designed to utilize gravity waves and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation to search for the mysterious Dark Energy that is causing our universe to expand!

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks. Meeting programs are open to the public,

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A fleeting moment in (astronomical) time

Image: ESO 1902a Credit: ESO

The faint, ephemeral glow emanating from the planetary nebula ESO 577-24 persists for only a short time  — around 10,000 years, a blink of an eye in astronomical terms. ESO’s Very Large Telescope captured this shell of glowing ionized gas — the last breath of the dying star whose simmering remains are visible at the heart of this image. As the gaseous shell of this planetary nebula expands and grows dimmer, it will slowly disappear from sight. An object much closer to home is also visible in this image — an asteroid wandering across the field of view has left a faint track below and to the left of the central star. And in the far distance behind the nebula a glittering host of background galaxies can be seen. Credit: ESO

 

An evanescent shell of glowing gas spreading into space — the planetary nebula ESO 577-24 —  dominates this image. This planetary nebula is the remains of a dead giant star that has thrown off its outer layers, leaving behind a small, intensely hot dwarf star. This diminished remnant will gradually cool and fade, living out its days as the mere ghost of a once-vast red giant star.

Red giants are stars at the end of their lives that have exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores and begun to contract under the crushing grip of gravity. As a red giant shrinks, the immense pressure reignites the core of the star, causing it to throw its outer layers into the void as a powerful stellar wind. The dying star’s incandescent core emits ultraviolet radiation intense enough to ionize these ejected layers and cause them to shine. The result is what we see as a planetary nebula — a final, fleeting testament to an ancient star at the end of its life.

This dazzling planetary nebula was discovered as part of the National Geographic Society  — Palomar Observatory Sky Survey in the 1950s, and was recorded in the Abell Catalogue of Planetary Nebulae in 1966. At around 1400 light years from Earth, the ghostly glow of ESO 577-24 is only visible through a powerful telescope. As the dwarf star cools, the nebula will continue to expand into space, slowly fading from view.

This image of ESO 577-24 was created as part of the ESO Cosmic Gems Programme, an initiative that produces images of interesting, intriguing, or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes for the purposes of education and public outreach. The program makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for scientific observations; nevertheless, the data collected are made available to astronomers through the ESO Science Archive.

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January 20 – 21: Total Lunar Eclipse

Photo: Total Lunar Eclipse Sequence, February 2008

Total Lunar Eclipse Sequence, February 2008. – Images and Composite by Lynn Paul

Exciting News: A total lunar eclipse will take place January 20 – 21 and our area will be able to view the entire event, IF we are fortunate enough to have clear skies!

On the night of January 20, 2019 Earth’s shadow will cross the face of its Moon and viewers across North America will be treated to a total lunar eclipse. We, in Northeastern Ohio, are in luck this time as the entire eclipse will be visible to us given clear enough skies, of course.

Image: January 2019 Total Lunar Eclipse Timing - Credit: TimeAndDate.com

January 2019 Total Lunar Eclipse Timing – Credit: TimeAndDate.com

As the penumbral phase of the eclipse begins, at 9:36 PM, viewers will see the Full Moon gradually dimming, entering the lighter outer portion of Earth’s shadow. At 10:33 the partial eclipse begins and the disk of the Moon will show a dark, curved area expanding across its area. As the Moon moves deeper into shadow it will continue to darken until begin to glow a copper-red until at totality, 11:41 PM, Luna will hang colorfully in our star-sprinkled sky as totality begins — the time the Moon is fully within the darkest portion of Earth’s shadow, known as the umbra. Maximum eclipse is reached at 12:12 AM (Jan. 21) and totality ends at 12:43 AM.

As the eclipse ends, the process reverses until in the wee hours of Monday, the Full Moon will brightly shine again. Click here for more information from TimeAndDate.com.

NOTES: A telescope is not necessary for your enjoyment of this wondrous natural phenomenon, just go outside and look up! Binoculars or a small telescope may give a more detailed view but are not required. A lunar eclipse is completely safe to watch — it’s moonlight — so you need no special glasses or vision protection.

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January 14 Meeting: New Horizons at Ultima Thule

Image: Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object.

Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Kai Getrost, CAA member and member of the NASA MU69 Occultation Team, will be program presenter at the January 14 meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). Getrost will discuss the latest news about what we’ve learned, how we got there, and how he was involved in the mission on three science trips to South America.

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The successful January 1 flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69/Ultima Thule came after extensive work by the scientists and technicians running the New Horizons mission. Largely unknown, invisible to the public, were efforts on the part of others to accurately locate the spacecraft’s target of opportunity subsequent to Pluto. Teams of astronomers were dispatched with portable telescopes and computers to observe and time occultations of stars by the invisible (it’s only about 20 miles long and is 4 billion miles away) target object; the exact location and improved orbital information of Ultima Thule was derived from those observations. Occultation refers to the moment the light from a distant star is blocked by an object nearer the observer.

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks. Meeting programs are open to the public.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

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InSight Mars lander’s first “selfie”

 Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is NASA InSight’s first selfie on Mars. It displays the lander’s solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. The spacecraft used a camera on its robotic arm to take its first selfie – a mosaic made up of 11 images. This is the same imaging process used by NASA’s Curiosity rover mission, in which many overlapping pictures are taken and later stitched together. Visible in the selfie are the lander’s solar panel and its entire deck, including its science instruments. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the latest news and much more information on the InSight lander’s mission and science, click here!

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Voyager 2 enters interstellar space

Image: This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

The most compelling evidence of Voyager 2’s exit from the heliosphere came from its onboard Plasma Science Experiment (PLS), an instrument that stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980, long before that probe crossed the heliopause. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled predominantly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble – the heliosphere – that envelopes the planets in our solar system. The PLS uses the electrical current of the plasma to detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of the solar wind. The PLS aboard Voyager 2 observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles on Nov. 5. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has left the heliosphere.

“Working on Voyager makes me feel like an explorer, because everything we’re seeing is new,” said John Richardson, principal investigator for the PLS instrument and a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Even though Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012, it did so at a different place and a different time, and without the PLS data. So we’re still seeing things that no one has seen before.”

In addition to the plasma data, Voyager’s science team members have seen evidence from three other onboard instruments – the cosmic ray subsystem, the low energy charged particle instrument and the magnetometer – that is consistent with the conclusion that Voyager 2 has crossed the heliopause. Voyager’s team members are eager to continue to study the data from these other onboard instruments to get a clearer picture of the environment through which Voyager 2 is traveling.

“There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.

“Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.”

While the probes have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won’t be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun’s gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and to extend to about 100,000 AU. One AU is the distance from the Sun to Earth. It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it.

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