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Enigmatic Europa gets its extreme closeup from Juno

Over the course of a brief two-hour opportunity, NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a rare close look at Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that’s thought to harbor a hidden ocean — and perhaps an extraterrestrial strain of marine life.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, but this week brought the best opportunity to look at Europa, which is the prime target for investigation by NASA’s Europa Clipper probe in the 2030s.

On Sept. 29, the orbiter buzzed over the moon’s surface at a velocity in excess of 52,000 mph (23.6 km per second), and at an altitude of 352 kilometers (219 miles).

That’s as close as any spacecraft has come to Europa since the Galileo orbiter’s 218-mile flyby in 2000.

Juno view of Europa
This image from NASA’s Juno spacecraft shows an area of Europa’s surface north of the equator. The prominent pit seen in the lower half of the image might be a degraded impact crater. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS)

The spacecraft’s JunoCam imager is designed mostly for public engagement purposes — and over the past six years, image-processing fans have helped NASA bring stunning pictures of Jupiter to the public. Now they’re doing much the same for JunoCam’s photos of Europa.

In the first image sent back by the spacecraft, focusing on an area near Europa’s equator known as Annwn Regio, you can make out the trademark ridges and troughs of Europa’s icy shell. The cracks in the ice are thought to be caused by the tidal forces that are generated as Europa orbits Jupiter.

Scientists expect to use JunoCam’s data to produce some of the sharpest views of Europa seen to date, with a resolution of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) per pixel. And that’s not all: Other instruments captured data on Europa’s ice shell structure, its surface composition, its ionosphere and the moon’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

“It’s very early in the process, but by all indications Juno’s flyby of Europa was a great success,” principal investigator Scott Bolton, an astrophysicist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a news release. “This first picture is just a glimpse of the remarkable new science to come from Juno’s entire suite of instruments and sensors that acquired data as we skimmed over the moon’s icy crust.”

Candy Hansen, a mission co-investigator who’s in charge of JunoCam planning at the Planetary Science Institute, said the new imagery will give scientists a better idea of what’s bubbling up on Europa.

“The science team will be comparing the full set of images obtained by Juno with images from previous missions, looking to see if Europa’s surface features have changed over the past two decades,” Hansen said. “The JunoCam images will fill in the current geologic map, replacing existing low-resolution coverage of the area.”

Those closeups — plus readings from Juno’s Microwave Radiometer — could point to areas where Europa’s surface ice is thinner, and where liquid water may exist in shallow subsurface pockets. That’ll help researchers plan for the Europa Clipper mission to come.

This week’s Europa encounter came a year after Juno made a close flyby of Ganymede, another ice-covered moon of Jupiter (and the largest moon in the solar system). The spacecraft is scheduled to make close flybys of Io, the most volcanically active world in the solar system, in 2023 and 2024.

This report was published on Universe Today with the headline “Mysterious Europa Gets an Extreme Closeup From NASA’s Juno Probe.” Licensed for republication under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Universe Today

NASA and SpaceX will look into giving Hubble a big boost

NASA and SpaceX say they’ll conduct a feasibility study into a plan to reboost the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope to a more sustainable orbit, potentially at little or no cost to NASA.

The plan could follow the model set by last year’s Inspiration4 mission, an orbital trip that was facilitated by SpaceX and paid for by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman as a philanthropic venture. Isaacman, who is now spearheading a privately funded space program called Polaris in cooperation with SpaceX, says he’ll participate in the feasibility study.

“We could be taking advantage of everything that’s been developed within the commercial space industry to execute on a mission, should the study warrant it, with little or no potential cost to the government,” Isaacman said at a news briefing.

If the six-month feasibility study turns into an actual mission, a spacecraft could be sent up to Hubble to lift the telescope from its current altitude of 330 miles to the 370-mile orbit it was in when it was deployed in 1990. Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that could add another 15 to 20 years to the telescope’s life.

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NASA’s DART probe hits the bull’s eye on an asteroid

Ten months after NASA’s DART spacecraft was aimed at a mini-asteroid, the probe hit the bull’s eye today in a practice round for planetary defense that got an assist from engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

DART — an acronym that stands for “Double Asteroid Redirection Test” — was designed to find out how much impact a projectile could have for diverting a potentially threatening asteroid away from Earth.

In this case, the object posed no actual threat. DART’s target was Dimorphos, an asteroid the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid that’s in orbit around a half-mile-wide asteroid called Didymos. Both celestial bodies are on a path that ranges out beyond Mars’ orbit and comes close enough to Earth’s orbit for study. At the time of today’s impact, the double-asteroid system was nearly 7 million miles from our planet.

The mission team clapped and cheered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland as near-real-time imagery from the spacecraft’s DRACO camera showed Dimorphos looming larger in the metaphorical windshield. The DART spacecraft body, which NASA says weighed about 1,260 pounds and was roughly the size of a vending machine, struck the mini-moon at an estimated velocity of 14,000 mph.

“Oh, fantastic!” Lori Glaze, the director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said as the camera went dead. “Now is when the science starts.”

After the impact, APL director Ralph Semmel joked about the spacecraft’s destruction. “Never before have I been so excited to see a signal go away,” he said.

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NASA decides to roll its moon rocket back to safety

With Hurricane Ian bearing down on the Florida coast, NASA has decided to move its multibillion-dollar Space Launch System moon rocket to safety.

For days, NASA and weather forecasters had been watching the storm take shape in the Caribbean Sea, and they made advance preparations for a rollback from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Over the weekend, mission managers decided not to proceed with a third attempt on Sept. 27 to launch the 322-foot-tall, 5.7 million-pound rocket on NASA’s Artemis 1 round-the-moon mission. And today they decided to go ahead with the rollback.

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NASA ‘encouraged’ by tanking test for moon rocket

NASA says it achieved all its objectives during today’s launch-pad rehearsal for fueling up its giant Space Launch System rocket for an uncrewed round-the-moon mission known as Artemis 1 — but will have to review the data, check the weather and get final approvals before going ahead with plans for a Sept. 27 liftoff.

The test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida was meant to verify that hydrogen fuel leaks encountered during the past month’s launch attempts were fixed. A hydrogen leak did crop up today during the process of filling the SLS rocket’s tanks with super-cooled propellants. “Engineers were able to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the planned activities,” NASA said afterward.

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Universe Today

Neptune and its rings glow in Webb Telescope’s portrait

The first picture of Neptune to be taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals the latest, greatest details of the ice giant’s atmosphere, moon and rings in infrared wavelengths.

Some of those details — for example, faint bands of dust that encircle Neptune — haven’t been brought to light since the Voyager 2 probe zoomed past in 1989.

“It has been three decades since we last saw those faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” astronomer Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist on the JWST team who specializes in Neptune, said today in a news release. Neptune’s brighter rings stand out even more clearly.

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Orbital Reef space station wins role in sci-fi movie

The commercial space station that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has a hand in building, known as Orbital Reef. will be getting some Hollywood-level product placement years before it’s due to go into operation.

Blue Origin and the other partners in the Orbital Reef project today announced a cross-promotional deal with Centerboro Productions to portray the space outpost in an upcoming sci-fi movie titled “Helios.” The announcement was timed to coincide with this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Paris.

The movie is set in 2030, which is around the time Orbital Reef could become a reality — assuming that the funding from NASA and from commercial partners continues to flow.

“The film will tell the story of a spaceship, the Helios, and its crew during their urgent mission to the International Space Station,” a plot synopsis reads. “When a massive solar flare hits the station, it is up to astronomer and former NASA astronaut Jess Denver and Air Force Colonel Sam Adler to team up and save humanity.”

Orbital Reef is to be featured as a next-generation space station that serves as a critical resource for the Helios crew.

“We teamed up with Blue Origin to give moviegoers a thrilling but realistic depiction of the future of living and working in space and a coordinated response to a space weather emergency,” Patricia A. Beninati, who’s one of the film’s producers and writers as well as the president of Centerboro Productions, said in a news release.

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Spaceflight makes a launch deal with German startup

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. and Rocket Factory Augsburg, a German launch startup, say they’ve signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for Spaceflight’s Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles to ride on the RFA One rocket.

In an announcement made today at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris, the companies said they’re targeting mid-2024 for their first launch.

Spaceflight Inc. handles pre-launch logistics and arranges for payloads to be sent into orbit on other companies’ launch vehicles. Rocket Factory Augsburg, or RFA, joins a list of Spaceflight launch providers that also includes SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Northrop Grumman and Europe’s Arianespace consortium.

RFA, plans to launch its three-stage, 100-foot-tall rocket from facilities in French Guiana, Britain and other locales, starting in 2023. Eventually, RFA intends to conduct launches on a weekly basis.

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Microsoft and SpaceX ramp up satellite cloud access

With SpaceX’s help, Microsoft is taking the next step toward merging cloud computing with available-anywhere satellite connectivity.

Today Microsoft announced the start of a private preview for Azure Orbital Cloud Access, which lets users link up with the cloud in a single hop from virtually anywhere via SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.

For now, the preview is limited to Microsoft Azure’s government customers. But Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft strategic missions and technologies, said “we are currently working toward general availability and commercial expansion.”

“That timeline will be determined by the evolution of our work with our private preview customers and customer feedback,” Zander told GeekWire in an emailed response to questions.

Today’s announcement, timed to coincide with the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, comes nearly two years after Microsoft announced that it was teaming up with SpaceX on satellite cloud access.

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Five spaced-out designs for the Bezos Learning Center

The design selection process for the Bezos Learning Center planned at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum may sound a bit like “America’s Got Talent” for architects — but the $130 million prize is well beyond game-show proportions.

That’s how much money Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is giving to have the 50,000-square-foot center built as an addition to the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s part of Bezos’ record-setting $200 million donation for the National Air and Space Museum’s renovation, which was announced last summer.

The Bezos Learning Center would feature activities that inspire students to pursue innovation and explore careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and math — or STEAM, for short. The Smithsonian stressed that the center wouldn’t just focus on aerospace, but connect to all of the institution’s museums.

In January, the Smithsonian put out the call for design firms to submit proposals for the center, which would replace a pyramid-shaped restaurant that was built on the museum grounds in 1988 but ceased operation in 2017. Last week, museum planners unveiled five design proposals. The architects behind the proposals are identified only as Firm A, Firm B, Firm C, Firm D and Firm E.