Today’s Tidbits: June 11, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: June 11, 2018

Here are’s tidbits for June 11, 2018:  NASA MSFC Director Todd May is retiring; NASA releases lunar payloads RFI; Mars rover Opportuity hunkering down in dust storm.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

NASA MSFC Director Todd May is Retiring

Todd May, Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, announced today that he will retire on July 27.  He has a 27-year career at NASA and became Center Director in 2016.  He is held in very high esteem throughout the space community.  Among his many prior positions at NASA he was manager of the Space Launch System from 2011-2016; MSFC’s associate director, technical, from 2008-2011; and deputy associate administrator for space science at NASA HQ from 2007-2008.

NASA Releases Lunar Payload RFI

The lunar near side (which always points toward Earth) taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University. Published Oct. 20, 2017.

NASA released a Request for Information (RFI) today seeking responses on the availability of payloads that could be delivered to the lunar surface as early as next year.  It is part of NASA’s new Lunar Discovery and Exploration program managed by the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at a projected funding level of $200 million per year.  That money would be used to contract with commercial companies to deliver payloads to the Moon through Commerial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts.

NASA held an industry day for potential CLPS providers on May 8, 2018 and expects to release a Request for Proposals this summer (a draft is already out).  Now it needs the payloads to go on them.

The RFI is posted on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) website.  Responses are due June 27, 2018.   U.S. industry, universities, non-profit organizations, NASA centers and other government agencies are encouraged to reply. []

Opportunity Rover Hunkering Down in Dust Storm

NASA’s tenacious rover Opportunity is caught in a massive dust storm on Mars.  Unlike its larger cousin, Curiosity, Opportunity is solar- powered.  Its batteries need to be recharged by solar panels mounted to its body.  If the solar panels become covered or the Sun can’t penetrate through the dust , the Sun will not be able to recharge them and the rover could die of the cold.

That is what probably happened to Opportunity’s sister, Spirit. One of its six wheels malfunctioned and the rover got stuck in sand.  It could not extricate itself despite many attempts by its human operators back on Earth.  Hence as winter arrived, it could not adjust its position to point the solar panels toward the Sun and it lost power.  Spirit and Opportunity have small radioisotope heater units (RHUs) that can keep their systems warm for a short amount of time, but it wasn’t enough.

Opportunity’s fans here on Earth — including JPL’s Bobak Ferdowsi (“Mohawk Guy”) — want everyone to send warm thoughts towards Mars, hoping it will help.

Curiosity is nuclear-powered so does not need to worry about dust from a power supply standpoint. It has a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) instead of an RHU.  As their names imply, RHUs generate heat only, while RTGs turn that heat into electricity.  The heat is produced by the natural decay of plutonium-238.  RTGs require much more Pu-238 than RHUs plus other equipment.

Curiosity has stolen most of the Mars headlines since it landed in 2012.  Just last week, scientists revealed that Curiosity discovered organic molecules in ancient Martian rocks and seasonal variations in methane concentrations in the atmosphere.  Neither is proof that life exists or existed on Mars because both can be produced either by geological or biological processes.  Still, it is one more step in the lengthy scientific process to establish Mars’ habitability.

Meanwhile, Opportunity has continued its studies of Mars’ Perseverance Valley, quite a distance from Curiosity.  Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs), landed in January 2004 and had only a 90-day design lifetime.  Spirit lived for just over 6 years, sending its last transmission on March 22, 2010.  Opportunity is still chugging along — at least as long as its solar panels can recharge the batteries.  NASA reports that the ongoing dust storm is much worse than one the rovers survived in 2007.

A dark, perpetual night has settled over the rover’s location in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. The storm’s atmospheric opacity — the veil of dust blowing around, which can blot out sunlight — is now much worse than a 2007 storm that Opportunity weathered. The previous storm had an opacity level, or tau, somewhere above 5.5; this new storm had an estimated tau of 10.8 as of Sunday morning. — NASA []

Another NASA spacecraft, InSight, is on its way to Mars.  If all goes well, it will be the eighth successful U.S. landing on the Red Planet following Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity.  Another U.S. lander, Mars Polar Lander, failed.

Emily Lakdawalla of the The Planetary Society created this map showing the various landing sites of past, present and planned U.S, Russian, and European Mars landers and/or rovers.  The Russian (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6) and European (Beagle 2, Schiaparelli) probes were not successful.  Nor was the U.S. Mars Polar Lander, as noted above.  ExoMars is a European/Russian probe scheduled for launch in 2020.

Credit: Emily Lakdawalla, The Planetary Society. Landing sites overlaid on Mars image from NASA/JPL/USGS.

These are only landers.  Many other probes have been sent to fly-by or orbit Mars. NASA has three operational spacecraft orbiting Mars right now:  Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and MAVEN.  Europe has two:  Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).  India has one:  Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

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