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First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

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Xplore works with gravity-lens telescope team

Solar sail
An artist’s conception shows Xplore’s advanced solar sail for NASA’s Solar Gravity Lens Focus mission. (Visualization by Bryan Versteeg, SpaceHabs.com / via Xplore)

NASA has awarded a $2 million grant to the Jet Propulsion LaboratoryThe Aerospace Corp. — and Xplore, a Seattle-based space venture — to develop the design architecture for a far-out telescope array that would use the sun’s gravitational field as a lens to focus on alien planets.

The Phase III award from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, would cover two years of development work and could lead to the launch of a technology demonstration mission in the 2023-2024 time frame.

Xplore’s team will play a key role in designing the demonstration mission’s spacecraft, which would be launched as a rideshare payload and propelled by a deployable solar sail.

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Put your name on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover

Members of the public who sign up to have their names sent to Mars will get a souvenir boarding pass to print out as well. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Image)

Space fans have been sending their names to Mars and other extraterrestrial destinations for more than two decades, and it’s that time again: From now until Sept. 30, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is taking names for the Mars 2020 rover mission.

All you have to do is type your name and location into an online form on NASA’s website and hit the “Send” button. You’ll instantly get the opportunity to print out or save a souvenir boarding pass, listing more than 300 million miles’ worth of faux frequent-flier award points.

Once all the names pass muster, they’ll be handed over to JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory to be etched onto a silicon chip with an electron beam. Each line of text will be a mere 75 nanometers wide — which is less than a thousandth the thickness of a human hair.

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Get a 360-degree view of Mars lander’s testbed

InSight lander
Engineers test a replica of NASA’s InSight lander as it lifts a wind shield with its robotic arm, under Mars-style illumination in a testbed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (NASA / JPL via YouTube)

When NASA’s InSight lander touches down on Mars in November, its handlers already will have had lots of practice operating its cranelike robot arm — thanks to an InSight knockoff sitting in a plot of simulated Martian grit back on Earth.

The Mars-style testbed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is the focus of a newly released 360-degree video clip.

JPL’s scientists and engineers use the testbed, set up in a facility known as the In-Situ Instrument Lab, to simulate the terrain in which Mars probes might find themselves.

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Ceres’ pyramid gets its close-up

Image: Ceres' pyramid
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The mountain, located in the southern hemisphere, stands 4 miles (6 kilometers) high. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

NASA’s mission to that other dwarf planet, Ceres, has delivered a fresh bird’s-eye view of one of the asteroid’s most mysterious features: a cone-shaped, 4-mile-high “pyramid” mountain whose sides are covered with bright material.

The Dawn mission’s principal investigator says those shiny sides may be connected to Ceres’ other big mystery: the bright spots that shine out from the mini-world’s dark surface.

“The bright material on the mountain and in the bright spots are probably the same material,” UCLA’s Christopher Russell told GeekWire in an email. “How the material got on the sides of the mountain and also in the bottom of the craters is unknown.”

Which begs the question: What is that stuff?

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