Today’s Tidbits: October 28, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: October 28, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for October 28, 2021: Juno reveals more about Jupiter’s atmosphere; VIPER lunar rover passes milestone review; NASA seeks input to transition SLS to a sustainable, affordable Exploration Transportation System. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Juno Reveals More About Jupiter’s Atmosphere

NASA’s Juno spacecraft continues to reveal more and more about the atmosphere of Jupiter. Launched in 2011, Juno reached Jupiter in 2016 and became the first spacecraft to circle its poles, providing a brand new look at the largest planet in the solar system.

The data has been full of surprises from the start, showing giant cyclones at both the north and south poles. Scientists knew Jupiter’s atmosphere was turbulent. The Great Red Spot is a cyclone (actually an anti-cyclone that spins counter-clockwise) that has been observed from Earth for two centuries, but the number and characteristics of these vortices are only coming to light now.

NASA announced today that scientists have used the data to create a 3D view of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Principal Investigator Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute said “we’re starting to put all these individual pieces together and getting our first real understanding of how Jupiter’s beautiful and violent atmosphere works – in 3D.”

Image from Junocam processed by citizen scientist Brian Swift showing layers in Jupiter’s clouds.

The storms are taller than expected and extend below the cloud tops — below the depth where sunlight warms the atmosphere. For example, the depth of the Great Red Spot is about 300 miles (500 kilometers) below the cloud tops.

The Juno mission has a “citizen scientist” component where anyone can suggest areas to be imaged by the Junocam camera on the spacecraft and process the images sent back. Bolton highlighted a number of them today that not only illustrate the atmosphere’s dynamic nature, but seem like works of art.

Juno completed its primary mission earlier this year, but NASA extended it until September 2025. Bolton said during a media teleconference that will give them 40 more orbits of the planet. The solar-powered spacecraft is exposed to a great deal of radiation in its polar orbit and although it is still healthy now, he’ll keep his fingers crossed that it lasts that much longer.

VIPER Lunar Rover Passes Key Milestone

NASA’s first robotic lunar rover has passed its Critical Design Review, a key milestone signalling it is ready for construction to begin.

Artist’s concept of VIPER. Credit: NASA/Daniel Rutter

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will be delivered to the Moon’s South Pole in 2023 through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA is building the rover, but is purchasing the transportation services from a commercial provider, Astrobotic. VIPER will arrive at the Moon on Astrobotic’s Griffin lander. Astrobotic also arranges for the launch and chose SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

After rolling off Griffin, VIPER will search for water ice on the Moon to begin creating a global water resource map. It is part of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024 and initiate an era of sustainable lunar operations that includes resource extraction and utilization. Water is needed to support human outposts and can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen for other uses.

NASA has sent robotic rovers to Mars, but this will be its first on the Moon. The only rovers NASA has had on the Moon so far were operated by Apollo astronauts. No other country has sent astronauts to the Moon, but the Soviet Union sent two robotic rovers in the early 1970s and China has two there now, one of which is still operational (Yutu-2).

NASA Seeks Input to Transition SLS to Sustainable, Affordable “Exploration Transportation System”

As the first launch of NASA’s Saturn V-class Space Launch System (SLS) nears, the agency has released a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input from industry on how to make SLS and its associated ground systems more affordable for the long term future.

NASA has not officially said how much an SLS launch will cost, but in 2019 the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) pegged it at $2 billion each.

The RFI wants ideas on how to transition SLS into a “long-term (30 years or more) national capability that is a sustainable and affordable system for moving humans and large cargo paylods to cis-lunar and deep space destinations” for NASA and others — an Exploration Transportation System (ETS).

“This model assumes the current government-owned and government-led system will be moved to industry. While NASA will retain at least government purpose rights to intellectual property of the system; industry will produce, operate and effectively ‘own’ the system.”

NASA would be an anchor-tenant, guaranteeing to buy one crewed flight a year “for the next 10 or more years.”

Congress directed NASA to build SLS in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act after President Obama cancelled the Constellation Moon/Mars program that was underway during the George W. Bush Administration. Over the past decade, however, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have announced plans to build their own “heavy lift” rockets. SpaceX is already conducting test flights of prototypes of its reusable Starship system. SLS critics argue these commercial ventures will be significanly less costly than SLS especially since they are reusable and SLS is not.

What ideas industry will have in response to the RFI to make SLS competitive will be interesting to see.

NASA will hold a virtual forum to discuss the RFI on November 10 at 11:00 am Central Time (12:00 pm Eastern).  Responses to the RFI are due on January 27, 2022.

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