Monday, August 24, 2015

Outer Planet News

NASA's Outer Planet Analysis Group is currently meeting to hear the agency's current plans and to provide the feedback of the scientific community on those plans.

Today's presentations brought two pieces of news.  First, in preparation for its Decadal Survey that will prioritize mission from 2023 to 2032, NASA has asked the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to review options for mission to Uranus and Nepture.  The expectation is that following the large (Flagship) 2020 Mars rover and mid-2020 Europa missions, exploration of these planetary system will be the next priority for large missions.  Any missions would likely arrive at these planets a decade or more after their launch.

The second piece of new was that NASA has selected two new planetary CubeSat missions.  One will orbit and study the Moon.  The other will stay in Earth orbit to be a micro-gravity laboratory to study the interactions of particles that eventually led to the formation of the planets.

I've placed copies of the slides from the meeting below.  As I find out more details, I'll do dedicated posts in the future.  All slides are from Jim Green's presentation; he's the head of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reviewing the Discovery Mission Proposals

Ralph Lorenz  at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab is a planetary scientist with a keen sense of wit.  He's written a story for Space Review on the joys of reviewing the 28 Discovery mission proposals submitted to NASA.  Its worth a read both for the insights into the effort required to develop these proposals as well as the writing style.

Lorenz has a long list of solid contributions to mission design and planetary science.  He's also taken the lead on some fun investigations such as the dynamics of Frisbees and why rocks seem to move on their own across the Death Valley.  

As for the size of Discovery mission proposals, one proposal's principal investigator has shared with me a section of his team's proposal.  From the table of contents, the body of the proposal is 120 pages with another 285+ pages of appendices.  I am in awe of the effort the planetary community has put into producing 28 of these proposals.  That's an investment of what is likely a few tens of millions of dollars between them for a competition that will have a single winner.

Lorenz also brings up a problem that the number of proposals produce.  So many scientists and engineers are directly involved with or are otherwise associated someone on a proposal team that it likely is hard to find a large pool of qualified reviewers.  I talked with a lead on a proposal from a few years back.  He told me that the comments received on his proposal suggested the reviewers weren't experts in the area of study proposed.  All the leading figures in the field were on his proposal team and therefore couldn't be reviewers.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

MERLIN: The Creative Choices Behind a Proposal to Explore the Martian Moons

Imagine that you wanted to explore a world in our solar system and had the budget to actually fly a mission.  Would you chose to orbit your world and make measurements across your world?  Would you chose to land and make much more detailed measurements but only within the few square meters assessable from your lander?  For scientists proposing missions to NASA, these are very real tradeoffs they have to make.

A scientist who’s leading a proposal to explore the two small moons of Mars and I have been chatting on e-mail.  He has shared the reasoning that led his team to pick particular choices on how their mission, if selected by NASA, would be implemented.  Those choices are quite different than those selected by two other teams proposing missions to these moons.  It’s an insight into the creative thinking process that leads to the basic decisions about what kind of mission would best answer a science team’s questions.

Every few years, NASA holds a competition for its Discovery program, its cheapest class of planetary missions.  Teams compete for $450 million in funding available to design, test, and build their spacecraft.  (NASA pays for the launch and operations of the mission separately.)  The competition to select the 13th Discovery mission is in progress.  The tight budgets mean that missions can’t do everything and instead must be carefully focused.  Achieving great science requires creativity.

Phobos as viewed by NASA’s Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Credit: NASA-JPL/CALTECH

The two tiny moons of Mars have been favorites for proposers in several Discovery competitions, although none have been chosen by NASA to fly.  In the current competition with a total of 28 proposals, three teams have proposed missions to explore Mars’ two small moons.  Why so much interest in these two tiny bodies?  There is the mystery of their origin.  Are they captured asteroids (in which case their color suggests they may be rare primitive bodies)?  Are they material left from the formation of Mars?  Or are they material blasted into orbit from asteroid strikes on Mars’ surface?  Any of these choices makes them interesting scientific targets.  (See this article or this article for background on the scientific debate about these moons’ origin.)  A second reason for the interest is that these moons may serve as initial targets for human exploration as we build the skills and technologies to enable missions to the surface of Mars.  It also doesn’t hurt that Mars and its moons are relatively easy to reach.

We’ll look at one of the three proposals in depth, but first let’s look briefly at the other two proposals.  A word of caution, however.  Because so much more detail will be provided for the third mission proposal, it would be easy for us to say, of course, it is the obvious choice.  However, if we had equal detail on those other missions and their tradeoffs on science, complexity, and cost, then we’d likely be left scratching our heads and saying this is a tough choice.

The Phobos and Deimos and Mars Environment (PADME) would be a small spacecraft that would orbit Mars and make 16 flybys of Phobos and 9 of Deimos.  The craft would carry a suite of cameras that would take images with resolutions as small at 2.8 centimeters to study fine scale features and the processes that formed them.  During the flybys, a neutron spectrometer would remotely measure surface composition while a mass spectrometer would directly measure the composition of surrounding dust particles ejected from the surface.  Tracking the radio signal during flybys would provide information on the gravity field and therefore the interior structure of the moons.

The Pandora mission, in contrast, would orbit both of the moons for extended studies at each.  The Pandora spacecraft would use cameras, an infrared spectrometer, and gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers to remotely image the surface and study the composition as well as use radio tracking to study the interior structure by mapping the moons’ gravity fields. 

The mission that we will examine in some detail, the Mars-moons Exploration, Reconnaissance, and Landed Investigation (MERLIN) makes a different set of tradeoffs.  The MERLIN team proposes to carry just a camera, a simple dust counter, and its radio tracking system for remote studies done during flybys past Deimos and in orbit around Phobos.  Its remote sensing studies of these two small worlds would be less comprehensive than either PADME or Pandora's.  However, the MERLIN spacecraft would land twice on Phobos in areas that appear to have different compositions (the so called blue and red materials).

The proposed MERLIN spacecraft design with its instruments. Credit: MERLIN team/JHU-APL

In my emails with Scott Murchie, the principal investigator for MERLIN from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, I asked him why his team chose to undertake the added complexity of designing a spacecraft for both remote studies and landings.  Their choices hinge on two factors.  First, instruments that can be placed directly on or just above the surface of a world can make more precise composition measurements than those made by a spacecraft during a flyby or in orbit about a world.  Second, more precise studies of the interior can be made from a spacecraft on the surface of a small body than from flybys or in orbit. 

A key goal for any mission to the moons of Mars is to make composition measurements that are accurate enough to relate them to meteorites found on Earth that have been studied in exquisite detail and therefore distinguish between the different possible origins of these moons: the outer solar system if these are primitive asteroids, the bulk material that formed Mars if these are fragments left over from that planet’s formation, or similar to the composition of Mars’ surface if these moons formed from material blasted into Mars orbit by asteroid strikes. 

We have meteorites from a wide range of asteroid types, our moon, and from the surface of Mars.  From those meteorites, scientists can study the chemistry and hence the formation of these bodies in detail.  However, for most asteroids and the moons of Mars, all we have are measurements of color or spectral measurements that often don’t uniquely tie these bodies to specific types of meteorites.  (An exception is the unique spectra of the asteroid Vesta and a specific group of meteorites that almost certainly come from it.)

The teams proposing PADME and Pandora argue that measurements made from flybys or in orbit would be sensitive enough to measure the composition in sufficient detail to tie these moons uniquely to one of the meteorite analogs and therefore determine their origin. 

The MERLIN team decided to forgo richer composition measurements from flybys or orbit because of what is known as the mixed pixel problem.  To explain this point, I’ll use an analogy.  This past spring I was on a beach that from eye level appeared to be covered by a uniform tannish sand.  However, when I scooped up the sand in my hand, I could see that many of the individual grains of sand were red, white, or black although most were brown.  However, those fine composition distinctions were lost when my remote sensing instruments – my eyes – scanned across the beach.  At the resolution I could see standing, the colors of the individual grains mixed together. 

Similarly, spacecraft that flyby or orbit these moons will see average compositions for each of their instrument pixels, which will see detail down to a few centimeters in images and at poorer resolutions for other instruments.  The MERLIN team believes that much of the story on how these two moons were formed and evolved are contained in the detail on the much finer scale of individual grains of surface material.  Only a lander can see this detail.

To examine Phobos on a grain-by-grain basis, the MERLIN spacecraft will carry a microscopic imaging spectrometer.  This instrument will be placed just above the soil and will image it in sufficient detail to see individual grains.  Whereas a normal camera measures just three colors for each pixel, this instrument will take full spectra that measure many “colors” in for each pixel.  From the spectra, scientists will study the minerals present in each grain.

Examples of the detail and spectroscopy the MERLIN microscopic imager would perform.  Credit: MERLIN team/JHU-APL

By landing on Phobos, the MERLIN team also plans to make much more detailed measurements of the elements that make up this moon than can be done remotely.  The spacecraft will carry one instrument, an alpha particle x-ray spectrometer (APXS) that only can be used when it is placed directly in contact with the surface.  (All of NASA’s rovers on Mars have carried versions of this instrument.)  A second instrument, a gamma-ray spectrometer, also will measure the elemental composition.  Both PADME and Pandora will carry versions of this instrument, but their sensitivity is limited by how close they can get and how long they can measure a particular location from flybys or orbit.  MERLIN’s instrument will be able to stare from very close range at the same small spot for months at each landing site. 

The MERLIN spacecraft on the surface of Phobos.  Credit: MERLIN team/JHU-APL

In his emails, Murchie explained the advantages that he believes landing provides.  “The minerals most diagnostic of origin are carbonates, olivine, and organics. These are all minor phases and could only be seen as individual grains. MERLIN does carry an imaging spectrometer. It is a microscopic imaging spectrometer on the arm that will distinguish individual grains, and its [spectral] wavelength range covers absorptions due to all these phases.”

“Very closely similar meteorite analogs are also distinguished by small differences in abundances of volatile elements, especially carbon, sulfur, zinc, manganese, and hydrogen. MERLIN's APXS on the arm measures sulfur, zinc and manganese, and maybe carbon. The landed gamma-ray spectrometer gets a very strong signal because it's not limited by time within one [Phobos] body radius, the usual limitation on the signal to noise ratio for gamma rays. It sits on the surface for months and gets very sensitive measurements of carbon, hydrogen, and sulfur. Between the two investigations we'll measure 20 elements which is far more powerful than the three to eight measurable from orbit to distinguish proposed compositions.”

“The imaging spectrometer will map hydrogen at the grain scale so we can see if it is linked to specific minerals and intrinsic to the moon, or a surface coating painted onto everything by the solar wind. The microscopic imaging spectrometer and landed stereo imager will together do a phenomenal job of measuring particle size and texture.”

“Most important is the arm. We'll use it to scrape away surface soil, measuring regolith strength, and see how the surface has been altered and what fresher soil looks like. Finally the APXS measures volatile elements at 100's of microns depth; the gamma-ray spectrometer measures them at ~10 cm depth. Comparing the two measurements will show how space weathering has depleted volatile elements.”  (Space weathering, the change in surface composition by exposure to the space environment, is a particularly nasty problem for studying asteroids.  It alters the top few microns of the surface, potentially changing its color and spectra.  Since this topmost surface is what we can most easily see with remote sensing instruments, this can lead to incorrect composition assumptions and misidentification of analog meteorite types.)

Another way the MERLIN mission would differ from its competitors is in how it would study the interior of Phobos.  All three missions will use the tracking of the spacecraft’s radio signal to measure the gravity of these two moons and hence how their mass is distributed internally.  These studies can more precisely be done from orbit than from flybys.  PADME would do flybys of both moons, Pandora would orbit both, and MERLIN would flyby Deimos and orbit Phobos.

MERLIN’s landings on Phobos would enable an additional investigation into that moon’s interior.  As bodies rotate about their axes, they also wobble slightly, which is technically referred to as libration.  These tiny oscillations can be sensitive measures of the distribution of mass within a body.  Murchie writes, “By landing, we are able to do a very, very robust measurement of Phobos' libration that will do a superb job of measuring internal density heterogeneity. Another important discriminator of origin.”  (You can see the effects of libration by spinning raw, soft boiled, and hardboiled eggs.  Their different interiors cause them to spin and wobble quite differently.)

In mission design, there rarely are free lunches, and the MERLIN mission takes on additional complexity that its competitors do not.  It must be able to function both as a highly capable spacecraft and a fully functional lander.  The latter requires, among other things, that the spacecraft be able to track its descent, have batteries that will keep the spacecraft functional during nights on the surface, and an antenna that can track Earth from on the surface. 

One of the team’s approach to managing the overall mission complexity is to use existing instrument designs for most of the scientific payload.  The spacecraft’s main camera that will image Deimos and Phobos during flybys and orbit is a simplified version of the camera used on the Mercury MESSENGER orbiter.  The cameras used on the surface will be a copy of the 2020 Mars rover’s color Hazcam cameras.  Murchie told me, “two of the instruments are flight spares, and three are really cheap.  Their power comes from getting close.”

As for the landing itself, “Landing on Phobos is the easiest landing of any planetary body. There is no Mars-like entry, landing, and descent. - We land at a few centimeters per second, taking so little fuel that we do a practice down to 100 m, then a few weeks later land for real, and if needed there is plenty of fuel for a third landing. It's not 7 minutes of terror, it's 70 minutes of boredom. But there is enough gravity that the spacecraft weighs enough for "normal" (albeit snail-like) operation. No need for harpoons. We call it landing in the Goldilocks zone (of gravity). 

After the bounce the Philae lander did when it tried to land on a comet, another small body, I asked Murchie about this.  “Gravity is about 2 orders of magnitude higher on Phobos [than on the comet]. Philae landed in a free fall, and bounced because its harpoons (required for the low gravity) failed to deploy. MERLIN on the other hand has a controlled descent to negate the terminal velocity, landing at less than 10 cm/s. The landing gear absorb most of what little shock there is. We've analyzed the bejeepers out of the landed configuration. With regard to bounce, we've looked at that and on account of Phobos' much higher gravity, spacecraft design, and controlled descent, bounce is expected to be less than 7 cm. Yes centimeters. Further, we target one of several dozen areas with low regional slope. We've modeled landing on a surface in one of these areas that has a block abundance like those measured on Phobos, Eros, or Itokawa, using a NASA-developed autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology - the probability of landing with a stable orientation is much greater than 99 percent.”

In the end, it appears that NASA has three good proposals to explore the Martian moons.  All three would address the key questions of composition and internal structure that should reveal the origin of these moons and much about the nature of small rocky worlds.  While this post has emphasized the unique traits of the MERLIN proposal, each of the other two have their unique strengths, too.  

There is no single or right way to explore the Martian moons.  PADME offers simplicity and low cost.  Pandora offers a thorough reconnaissance from orbits of both worlds.  MERLIN offers in-depth analysis of two and possibly three landing sites on Phobos but only flybys of Deimos.  These three very different proposals emphasize the creative aspect of designing planetary missions.  

Within the tight budget of a Discovery mission, no mission can do it all.  Each of these three teams had to make choices about which measurements to emphasize and which to forgo.  Behind almost every description of a real or proposed Discovery planetary mission, you will see the creative act of deciding how to meet tough scientific goals within a tight budget.

NASA’s managers expect to pick finalists in September for further study from among the 28 Discovery proposals that were submitted to explore worlds ranging from Venus to Saturn’s moon Enceladus.  These (typically three) semifinalists will be those that combine both the absolutely best science with the most solid technical proposals.  We will learn then if the choices made by the MERLIN team, or the other Martian moon teams, provided the right combination of both.  

Selection of the final mission should come late in 2016 with the mission to launch by the end of 2021.

Friday, August 7, 2015

List of 2020 Rover Landing Sites Narrow

Following this week's workshop on potential sites for the 2020 rover landing, the list has narrowed to eight candidates.  The journal Science has a nice article summarizing the outcome.  If you'd like to peruse the presentations from the workshop, they are available here.  Jezero Crater won the vote among scientists at the workshop, but there are plenty of other favorites that have returned from the list of candidates considered for the Curiosity rover and in consideration for the 2018 ExoMars rover: NE Syrtis, Eberwalde, SW Melas, Nili Fossae Trough, and Mawrth.  The biggest surprise for me was that the second most popular site was to return to the Columbia Hills explored by the Spirit rover to further examine its hydrothermal vents.

These eight semi-finalist sites will be further studied leading to a workshop in 2017 where the list will be narrowed to four and eventually to the one site where the rover will land and explore.  The advocates for each of these sites now will work to put together the evidence to make their site the eventual selection.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Correction: No descent camera on the Mars 2020 rover

Since I published my short update on the Mars 2020 plans, I've learned that the current plans for the mission do not include a descent imager.  As a result, there currently will not be the equivalent to the descent movie made for the Curiosity landing.  I apparently misunderstood a point on an earlier presentation I read.

The project engineers are still evaluating a Terrain Relative Navigation system to guide the rover to a safe landing.  That system would require a down looking camera.  I have not heard whether that camera would make movies or record still images for later analysis or release to the public.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Update on NASA Mars Rover Plans

Corrections: Since original post, I've learned that there currently is no plan to include a descent imager to record the landing as was done for the Curiosity rover. I also accidentally used an image showing the cameras on the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity instead of Curiosity, and this has now been corrected.

The second in a series of meetings to select the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover is in progress.  At these meetings, the project's engineers describe the engineering capabilities and constraints on the mission and scientists describe their favorite sites for the rover to explore.  Final selection of the landing site is several year away, but these meetings are good ways to catch up on the current plan for the mission.  You can find all the presentations for this meeting here.

The Mars 2020 rover will be the sixth rover on Mars following the tiny Sojouner rover in 1997, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (the latter still going strong), the Curiosity rover now at Mars, and the European-Russian Mars 2018 ExoMars rover.  Each succeeding rover becomes more progressively focused on exploring the past and present habitability of the Red Planet.


The Mars 2020 rover will carry a new generation of instruments to explore Mars.  I covered these in some depth when the instrument selection was announced last year (see here).

A single slide provides an update on the mission's development.  The top half of the slide provides details that essentially mean that the engineering is progressing smoothly and advancing from one stage to the next.  The news begins with the rover systems/project update.

This mission will carry a new camera to record the landing.  the Mars 2020 rover will carry a camera to look upward to record the deployment of the parachute.

The Curiosity rover carried on the bottom of the rover body to look down and shoot a movie of the descent and landing (for a refresher on that movie, see here).  Currently, there is no plan to have a similar camera for the 2020 rover (but see below).

The location of the navigation and hazard detection cameras on the Curiosity rover.  On the 2020 rover, the Mastcam-Z cameras will replace the Mastcam cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

Hazcam image taken shortly after Curiousity landed on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH
In addition to the two stereo zoom science cameras (the Mastcan-Z cameras), the 2020 rover will carry a number of engineering cameras used to plan rover traverses and to look for hazards.  On the Curiosity rover, these cameras take black and white images.  On the Mars 2020 rover these cameras will take color images and have improved resolution.

Curiosity selfie taken taken by its MAHLI microscopic imager.  Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH
The Curiosity rover carries a microscopic camera that is also able to focus to infinity enabling it to examine the rover's wheels as well as take selfies.  On the 2020 rover, there won't a dedicated microscopic instrument, but two instruments include microscopic cameras.  One of these in the SHERLOC composition instrument will be upgraded from its initial design to one similar to that carried by the Curiosity rover.

The final instrument news is that the ground penetrating radar unit, RIMFAX, is now formally a part of the instrument compliment follow an engineering assessment on whether it could be accommodated within the rover. 

The last remaining major engineering design question that I'm aware of is whether or not the 2020 rover's descent system will include a Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) system.  If included, it would use descent images to calculate the rover's position relative to a map stored on board to allow the descent stage to steer the rover to a safe landing spot.  Many of the most interesting scientific sites have just a few, relatively small safe spots within landscapes of more challenging terrain.  Including this capability would open more sites to the mission for consideration.  The project has yet to decide on whether it will include this capability.  If the TRN system is added, then there will be a camera to image the descent.  I haven't heard whether these would be still images or movies or whether they would be saved for later analysis and release to the public.

One of the primary goals for the 2020 rover will be to cache samples for a future mission to collect and place inside an ascent stage (essentially a small rocket) that would carry the samples to Mars orbit for collection by another spacecraft that would return them to Earth.  A slide shows three concepts for these follow on rovers and landers.  Two would carry the ascent stage in a tube on a large rover.  A third concept would have the ascent stage on a stationary lander and use a small fetch rover to collect and return the cached samples.  This follow on mission is not yet approved or funded, and may follow the 2020 rover by a number of years if it is flown.