A Roundup of Recent Work

It’s been a busy few weeks. Here are a few recent pieces I have had written, and snippets of each.

Neptune’s Moon Triton Is Destination of Proposed NASA Mission
(The New York Times)

Visits to the outer solar system are usually conducted as NASA flagship missions that cost billions of dollars, like the recently concluded Cassini mission to Saturn or the Europa Clipper spacecraft set for launch in the 2020s.

While these projects have produced significant achievements, smaller, less pricey missions also might advance planetary science. On Mars, for instance, no single spacecraft did everything, but in aggregate and over time, the robots sent there revealed the planet’s watery past and set the stage for future astronauts.

That’s why the scientists behind Trident proposal, which will be formally presented to NASA later this month, are seeking support under the agency’s highly competitive Discovery program, for missions that are supposed to cost less than $500 million.

Europa Mission Gets New Instrument to Look for Signs of Habitability
(Scientific American)

NASA is changing one of the key scientific instruments on Europa Clipper, its next major mission to the outer planets of the solar system, and has brought in a scientific luminary to lead it, project leaders announced today. Clipper is set to orbit Jupiter and study Europa, the icy Jovian moon, across multiple flybys. Earlier this month, NASA headquarters terminated the mission’s ICEMAG magnetometer instrument, citing overruns in its estimated budget. The move left the spacecraft without an essential tool to study Europa’s interior ocean, where astrobiologists hope extraterrestrial organisms might be found.

Margaret Kivelson, a professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, will lead the effort to develop a simplified magnetometer to replace ICEMAG. The instrument will measure Europa’s magnetic field and gather data on the ocean’s depth and salinity. Kivelson previously led the magnetometer team on the spacecraft Galileo, which orbited Jupiter in the 1990s. She is credited with discovering the ocean beneath Europa’s ice shell.

How NASA’s Opportunity Rover Made Mars Part of Earth
(Smithsonian)

MER came in the aftermath of failed mission proposals by Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis; Larry Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Steve Squyres, a professor at Cornell University. Each of the three had been beaten by David Paige of University of California, Los Angeles, whose ill-fated Mars Polar Lander was selected for flight by NASA.

“During an [American Geophysical Union] meeting, I stopped Steve in the hall,” says Arvidson. “I said, ‘I’m a pretty sore loser. How about you?’ And that was the start.” Arvidson, Squyres and Soderblom merged their various teams and set about writing a joint proposal to get a rover on the Martian surface.

NASA Considers a Rover Mission to Go Cave Diving on the Moon
(Smithsonian)

Once it reaches the bottom of the pit, Kerber says, Axel would explore the cavern floor, providing humanity’s first close look at the subterranean realms of the moon. The rover would carry six times as much tether as it needs, so however far the bottom of the cavern is, Axel should be able to descend deeply enough to discover what waits below.

“The bottom of the pit is total exploration. We have enough time to just see what the heck is down there. We are thinking a monolith,” Kerber jokes, “or a big door covered in hieroglyphics.”

The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx

Earlier this year, I covered the rocket launch of OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft that will visit an asteroid, study it, collect a sample, and return to Earth. My account of the launch has been published by The Week. I really do think it's the best thing I've ever written and I hope you enjoy. Here is a little snippet:

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It's not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It's like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It's not the flamethrower's discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn't billow. It's all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It's a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

You can read the whole story here.

NASA's Spaceship Factory

Last week I visited NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to view the newly-built Orion pressure vessel. I found the whole thing to be a deeply moving experience, and a glimpse of the kind of future we all want desperately for our grandchildren, and for the human species. I am very proud of this essay that came out of the event. It's published at Mental Floss, and I hope it finds a good audience. A little sample:

Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world's greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it's all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep 'em firing!

Read the rest here.