NASA Selects Flying Mission to Study Titan for Origins, Signs of Life

Dragonfly flying over the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR)  — NASA has announced that our next destination in the solar system is the unique, richly organic world Titan. Advancing our search for the building blocks of life, the Dragonfly mission will fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn’s icy moon.

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NASA Selects Johns Hopkins APL to Lead Mission to Saturn’s Exotic Moon Titan

Artist rendering of Dragonfly on Titan’s surface. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

LAUREL, Md. (JHUAPL PR) — It sounds like science fiction: fly a robotic rotorcraft over the dunes of an alien moon. But NASA is giving a team led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, the opportunity to turn this idea into space exploration reality.

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Tethers Unlimited Aims to Put SPIDERs on Mars

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

During the 1970’s, David Bowie sang about Ziggy Stardust and the spiders from Mars. If Tethers Unlimited has its way, the Red Planet will be crawling with them.

Earlier this month, NASA selected the Bothell, Washington-based company for a small business award to work on its Sensing and Positioning in Deep Environments with Retrieval (SPIDER) surface exploration system.

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NIAC Award: Bioinspired Ray for Venus Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration

Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration (Credit: Javid Bayandor)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program
Phase I Award: Up to $125,000 for 9 Months

BREEZE- Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration
Javid Bayandor
State University of New York

The Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration (BREEZE) combines inflatable structures with bio-inspired kinematics to create a highly efficient flier to explore the Venus atmosphere. This flier would take data while below the main cloud layer at approximately 50 km and re-charge using solar panels in the middle atmosphere at approximately 60+ km.

Tensioning cables would control the volume to allow the craft to rise and fall in the atmosphere. The bio-inspired kinematics will maximize flight efficiency while allowing a so-far unattained degree of control for a small inflatable flier in the upper atmosphere of Venus.

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NIAC Award: Ripcord Innovative Power System

Ripcord Innovative Power System (Credit: Noam Izenberg)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program
Phase I Award: Up to $125,000 for 9 Months

RIPS: Ripcord Innovative Power System
Noam Izenberg
Johns Hopkins University

Descent probe or lander power is a key resource for planetary exploration, and is a particular challenge where solar power is difficult to utilize efficiently and alternative power sources are expensive, risky, or complex. Short duration, battery powered probes have successfully landed and returned data from the surfaces of cloud-shrouded Venus.

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Dust Storms on Titan Spotted for the First Time

Artist’s concept of a dust storm on Titan. (Credits: IPGP/Labex UnivEarthS/ University Paris Diderot – C. Epitalon & S. Rodriguez)
PARIS (NASA PR) — Data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed what appear to be giant dust storms in equatorial regions of Saturn’s moon Titan. The discovery, described in a paper published on Sept. 24 in Nature Geoscience, makes Titan the third Solar System body, in addition to Earth and Mars, where dust storms have been observed.

The observation is helping scientists to better understand the fascinating and dynamic environment of Saturn’s largest moon.

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Seeing Titan with Infrared Eyes

The moon Titan in infrared. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA/JPL/Caltech PR) — These six infrared images of Saturn’s moon Titan represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far. The views were created using 13 years of data acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument on board NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The images are the result of a focused effort to smoothly combine data from the multitude of different observations VIMS made under a wide variety of lighting and viewing conditions over the course of Cassini’s mission.

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Busek Company Selected for NASA Funding to Develop Spacecraft Advanced Propulsion

Busek Company will develop advanced CubeSat propulsion and Hall Effect thrusters (HETs) with the help of NASA funding.

The space agency has selected the Massachusetts-based company for five Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 awards. The contracts are worth up to $125,000 apiece over 13 months.

The three proposals focused on CubeSats and small satellites include:

  • a low impulse bit electrospray thruster control system;
  • a compact high performance plasma propulsion system (CHPPPS); and,
  • an iodine-compatible photocathode for RF ion thrusters.

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NIAC Phase I Awards Focused on Moons & Asteroids

Graphic depiction of MIDEA: Meteoroid Impact Detection for Exploration of Asteroids (Credit: Sigrid Close)

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently awarded 25 grants for the development of visionary new technologies. Here we’re going to take a closer look at three Phase I awards focused on the exploration of moons and asteroids.

Shapeshifters from Science Fiction to Science Fact: Globetrotting from Titan’s Rugged Cliffs to its Deep Seafloors
Aliakbar Aghamohammadi
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

SPARROW: Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds
Gareth Meirion-Griffith
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Meteoroid Impact Detection for Exploration of Asteroids (MIDEA)
Sigrid Close
Stanford University

Each award is worth up to $125,000 for a nine-month study. Descriptions of the awards are below.
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NASA Invests in Shapeshifters, Biobots & Other Visionary Technology


WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA is investing in technology concepts that include meteoroid impact detection, space telescope swarms, and small orbital debris mapping technologies that may one day be used for future space exploration missions.

The agency selected 25 early-stage technology proposals that have the potential to transform future human and robotic exploration missions, introduce new exploration capabilities, and significantly improve current approaches to building and operating aerospace systems.

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A Look Back at the Space Year That Was

Total solar eclipse photographed from NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream III. (Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

I realize it’s a bit late, but here’s a look back at the major developments in space in 2017.

I know that I’m probably forgetting something, or several somethings or someones. Fortunately, I have eagle-eyed readers who really seem to enjoy telling me just how much I’ve screwed up. Some of them a little too much….

So, have at it!  Do your worst, eagle-eyed readers!

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NASA Invests in Concept Development for Missions to Comet, Saturn Moon Titan

CAESAR (Comet Astrobiology Exploration SAmple Return) spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA has selected two finalist concepts for a robotic mission planned to launch in the mid-2020s: a comet sample return mission and a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore potential landing sites on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

The agency announced the concepts Wednesday, following an extensive and competitive peer review process. The concepts were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in April under a New Frontiers program announcement of opportunity.

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NASA Receives 12 Proposals for Solar System Exploration Missions


WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA has received and is reviewing 12 proposals for future unmanned solar system exploration. The proposed missions of discovery – submitted under NASA’s New Frontiers program – will undergo scientific and technical review over the next seven months. The goal is to select a mission for flight in about two years, with launch in the mid-2020s.

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NASA Selects Honeybee Robotics for Six Small Business Awards

The green oval highlights the plumes Hubble observed on Europa. The area also corresponds to a warm region on Europa’s surface. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft (Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS)

Honeybee Robotics will begin developing new technologies that would allow a lander to drill into the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and collect samples for analysis with the help of a pair of NASA small business awards.

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The Year Ahead in Space

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.

A New Direction for NASA?

NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.

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