Preparing for Vega-C

At the end of 2019 Vega-C will be launched from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana increasing performance from Vega’s current 1.5 t to about 2.2 t in its reference 700 km polar orbit, with no increase in launch costs.

Vega-C's first stage is based on the P120, the largest single segment carbon fibre solid-propellant rocket motor ever built. It was successfully tested in July 2018. Its development relies on new technologies derived from Vega’s current first stage P80 motor. Two or four P120C motors will also be used for the liftoff boosters on Ariane 6.

Vega-C’s 3.3 m diameter fairing will accommodate larger payloads such as Earth observation satellites of more than two tonnes, and ESA’s Space Rider reentry vehicle.

The Vega launch pad and mobile gantry are being modified to accommodate Vega-C leading into a period when launch facilities will accommodate both vehicles.

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Banking on exploration

Participants of the Pangaea geology field training course take a break at the riverbed during week two of the 2018 course in the Italian Dolomites. Designed to train astronauts and future explorers on planetary formation and detecting signs of life, the course combines classroom lectures with field trips to sites of geological interest.

Led by European geologists, this year’s participants ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and ESA science expert lead Aidan Cowley studied geological processes, how to read rock formations and tools available to researchers before moving out into the field to put their knowledge into practice.

After exploring one of the best-preserved impact craters in Germany, the crew took on the Bletterbach canyon in the Italian Dolomites.

Over 10 billion tonnes of rock were transported by ancient rivers to this valley since the end of the glacial age some 18 000 years ago. The multi-coloured layers of rock that make up the eight kilometre long and 400-m deep canyon forge has much in common with the sedimentary processes found on Mars.

Geologists have unearthed crystallised white gypsum in the area, a rock-like mineral found after an abundance of water evaporates. This same mineral has been detected on Mars and points to flowing water under the surface.

Digging into the layers of the Bletterbach canyon reveals the footprints of prehistoric reptiles as well as plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Following the thread of life on Earth in a region that shares many similar qualities to the martian surface is invaluable to unravelling the mystery of life on Mars.

Pangaea’s last stop will be the alien landscapes of Lanzarote, Spain, in November. This is one of the best areas on Earth to understand the geological interactions between volcanic activity and water – two key factors in the search for life.

Follow the Pangaea course on social media and keep up to date with field activities via the blog.

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Frosty crater on Mars

This image shows the south-facing rim of a pit crater at 68°S in the Sisyphi Planum region of Mars. It is a colour composite made from images acquired on 2 September 2018 by the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, CaSSIS, onboard the joint ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, when the southern hemisphere of Mars was in late spring.

Most striking are the bright residual carbon dioxide ice deposits on south-facing slopes of the crater. In colder months carbon dioxide and some water vapour freezes on the surface. Then, as the Sun gets higher in the sky again, the ice sublimates away, revealing the underlying surface.

This particular crater is known to have active gullies – small, incised networks of narrow channels at the rim of the crater that are associated with debris flows. Ice-rich landslide-like flows of material down-slope can be seen in this image – perhaps related to the ‘defrosting’ of the ice as the seasons change.

Seasonal changes of ices and frost on Mars is one aspect of the ExoMars orbiter’s mission being discussed this week at the European Planetary Science Congress, a major European annual meeting on planetary science, this year hosted by the Technische Universität Berlin Germany.

The image measures 20 x 8 km and the resolution is 4.5 m/pixel. North is 45° on the upper left. The image was taken at 07:22 AM local solar time and assembled from the RED, PAN and BLU filters.

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Comet 21P in cursory close approach

Something small and green recently flittered across our skies. On 10 September, comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner made its closest approach to the Sun in 72 years — 151 million km from our star and just 58.6 million km away from Earth (about a third of the distance from here to the Sun).

Discovered in 1900, this small comet reappears every 6.6 years. At just two km in diameter, 21P’s cometary tail contains a stream of ‘cometary crumbs’, and as Earth moves through this stream of debris it creates the Draconid meteor shower which peaks every year around 8 October.

Comets are leftovers of the formation of the Solar System, and while they are typically less dense than asteroids they pass Earth at relatively higher speeds, meaning the impact energy of a comet’s nucleus is slightly larger than that of a similar-sized asteroid.

Although no comet is conclusively known to have impacted Earth, there are many proponents of the theory that a fragment of Comet Encke — a periodic comet that orbits the Sun every 3.3 years — resulted in one of the most well-known impact events in our planet’s history.

In 1930, the British astronomer F.J.W. Whipple suggested that the Tunguska event of 1908 — in which an explosion over Eastern Siberia Taiga flattened 2000 square km of forest — was in fact the result of a cometary impact.

No impact crater was ever found, and glowing skies were reported across Europe for several evenings after the event, both supporting the notion that a comet, composed of dust and volatiles — such as water ice and frozen gases — could have been completely vaporised as it smashed into Earth’s atmosphere leaving no obvious trace.

In order to better understand the risk that asteroids and comets pose to our planet, we need to better understand their orbit and composition. Missions such as Rosetta — the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus — play a vital role in deepening our understanding of the objects in our Solar System that could pose some risk. ESA’s planned Hera mission to a binary asteroid to test asteroid deflection will be an important step in doing something about them.

#PlanetaryDefence

This stunning image was taken on 9 September 2018 by Greg Ruppel, at his robotic observatory in Animas, New Mexico. For more of Greg’s images of Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, and more, visit his website.

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Iris flight trials for safer air traffic

Iris's objective is to make aviation more efficient through a new satellite-based air–ground communication system for Air Traffic Management.

Iris is a partnership between ESA and Inmarsat that provides the satellite technology for the so-called Single European Sky ATM Research programme, which aims at boostingthe safety, capacity and performance of Air Traffic Management worldwide. 

Currently, aircraft are tracked by radar when over land and in coastal areas, and flight paths are negotiated by radio. However,due to the expected substantial increase in air traffic in Europe, the radio frequencies currently used for ATM communications will be under significant capacity stress in the next 5-10 years.

Iris will relieve pressure on these ground-based radio frequencies by supplementing them with satellite data links, andallowingaircraft trajectories to be optimized with regard to longitude, latitude, altitude and time. This means less cancellations and delays, and flights that are more cost-effective and fuel-efficient.

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Northeast Ethiopia

The Copernicus Sentinel-1B satellite takes us over Semera in northeast Ethiopia. Semera is a new town with a population of just over 2600 and serves as the capital of the Afar region. The region spans an estimated 270 000 sq km, from close to the border with Eritrea towards the capital of Addis Ababa.

We can see the regional capital in the top right of this false-colour image, with the larger urban centre of Dubti just south of the town. Both are found in the Great Rift Valley, which lies between the Ethiopian Plateau and the Somalia Plateau.

The landscape of the Afar region is characterised by desert shrubland and volcanoes, particularly in the north. In this image we can see differences in altitude represented in the variations in colour. The left part of the image is dominated by yellow, signifying changes in vegetation found at higher altitudes. Two lakes, Hayk Lake and Hardibo Lake, are shown in the bottom left.

South of Dubti we can see the Awash River, which flows into the northern salt lakes rather than into the sea. Salt trade is typical of the area, whilst cotton is grown in the Awash River valley. Maize, beans, papaya and bananas are also cultivated in the Afar region. It is thought that 90% of the region’s population lead a pastoral life, rearing animals such as camels, sheep and donkeys.

Dallol, to the north of Semera in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, is frequently cited as one of the hottest inhabited places on Earth. Lying 125 m below sea level, with temperatures in the spectacular hydrothermal fields averaging 34.4 °C year-round, and the area receiving just 100–200 mm rainfall a year, conditions are thought to be amongst the most inhospitable in the world.

Sentinel-1B was launched in April 2016, carrying an advanced radar instrument to provide an all-weather, day-and-night supply of imagery of Earth’s surface. Along with Sentinel-1A, which was launched in April 2014, the mission benefits numerous services, including monitoring land-surface for motion risks and mapping to support crisis situations.

This image, which was captured on 5 April 2018, is also featured on the Earth from Space video programme.

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Preparing for fueling

The BepiColombo Mercury Transfer Module and Mercury Planetary Orbiter being prepared for chemical propulsion fueling.
The transfer module will use both ion propulsion and chemical propulsion, in combination with gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury to bring the two science orbiters close enough to Mercury to be gravitationally captured into its orbit. There, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter will use its small thrusters to deliver JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter into its elliptical orbit around Mercury, before separating and descending to its own orbit closer to the planet.

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Preparing for fueling

The BepiColombo Mercury Transfer Module and Mercury Planetary Orbiter being prepared for chemical propulsion fueling.
The transfer module will use both ion propulsion and chemical propulsion, in combination with gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury to bring the two science orbiters close enough to Mercury to be gravitationally captured into its orbit. There, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter will use its small thrusters to deliver JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter into its elliptical orbit around Mercury, before separating and descending to its own orbit closer to the planet.

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Preparing for fueling

The BepiColombo Mercury Transfer Module and Mercury Planetary Orbiter being prepared for chemical propulsion fueling.
The transfer module will use both ion propulsion and chemical propulsion, in combination with gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury to bring the two science orbiters close enough to Mercury to be gravitationally captured into its orbit. There, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter will use its small thrusters to deliver JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter into its elliptical orbit around Mercury, before separating and descending to its own orbit closer to the planet.

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