ESA’s Jupiter-bound Probe Hits Antenna Snag

While the few minutes it takes for a spacecraft’s booster rocket to claw its way out of Earth’s gravity well might be the most obviously hazardous period of the mission, an incredible number of things still need to go right before anyone on the ground can truly relax. Space is about as unforgiving an environment as you can imagine, and once your carefully designed vehicle is on its way out to the black, there’s not a whole lot you can do to help it along if things don’t go according to plan.

That’s precisely where the European Space Agency (ESA) currently finds themselves with their Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) spacecraft. The April 14th launch from the Guiana Space Centre went off without a hitch, but when the probe’s 16 meter (52 foot) radar antenna was commanded to unfurl, something got jammed up. Judging by the images taken from onboard cameras, the antenna has only extended to roughly 1/3rd its total length.

An onboard view of the antenna.

The going theory is that one of the release pins has gotten stuck somewhere, preventing the antenna from moving any further. If that’s the case, it could mean jiggling the pin a few millimeters would get them back in the game. Unfortunately, there’s no gremlins with little hammers stowed away in the craft, so engineers on the ground will have to get a little more creative. Continue reading “ESA’s Jupiter-bound Probe Hits Antenna Snag”

Jupiter’s Moon Io Could Play Host To Life

It was many years ago now when David Bowie asked if there was life on Mars. Since then, we’ve concluded there isn’t, much to everyone’s disappointment. That left scientists the world over to start looking elsewhere for new lifeforms for us to talk to, conquer, or play bridge with. Or perhaps more likely, look at under a microscope.

The latest candidate for hosting nearby life is Jupiter’s moon, Io. Let’s take a look at what makes Io special, and what we might hope to find there.

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NASA’s Lucy Stretches Its Wings Ahead Of Trojan Trek

The good news about using solar power to explore space is there are no clouds to block your sunlight. Some dust and debris, yes, but nowhere near what we have to deal with on planets. The bad news is, as you wander further and further out in the solar system, your panels capture less and less of the sunlight you need for power. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will be dependent on every square inch, so we’re happy to hear technicians have successfully tested its solar panel deployment in preparation for an October 2021 launch.

An animation of Trojan asteroids and inner planets in orbit around the Sun.
Trojan asteroids (in green) orbit the Sun ahead of and behind Jupiter.

Lucy’s 12-year mission is to examine one Main Belt asteroid and seven so-called Trojans, which are asteroids shepherded around the Sun in two clusters at Lagrange points just ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit. The convoluted orbital path required for all those visits will sling the spacecraft farther from the sun than any solar-powered space mission has gone before. To make up for the subsequent loss of watts per area, the designers have done their best to maximize the area. Though the panels fold up to a package only 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick, they open up to an enormous diameter of almost 24 feet (7.3 meters); which is enough to provide the roughly 500 watts required at literally astronomical distances from their power source.

Near-Earth asteroids are exciting targets for exploration partly because of the hazards they pose to our planet. Trojan asteroids, thought to be primordial remnants of the same material that formed the outer planets, pose no such danger to us but may hold insights about the early formation of our solar system. We’re already eagerly anticipating the return of OSIRIS-REx’s sample, and Hayabusa2 continues its mission after so many firsts. An extended tour of these farther-off objects will keep us watching for years to come. Check out the video embedded below for Lucy’s mission overview.

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Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Hacking When It Counts: The Pioneer Missions

If the heady early days of space exploration taught us anything, it was how much we just didn’t know. Failure after failure mounted, often dramatic and expensive and sometimes deadly. Launch vehicles exploded, satellites failed to deploy, or some widget decided to give up the ghost at a crucial time, blinding a multi-million dollar probe and ending a mission long before any useful science was done. For the United States, with a deadline to meet for manned missions to the moon, every failure in the late 1950s and early 1960s was valuable, though, at least to the extent that it taught them what not to do next time.

For the scientists planning unmanned missions, there was another, later deadline looming that presented a rare opportunity to expand our knowledge of the outer solar system, a strange and as yet unexplored wilderness with the potential to destroy anything humans could build and send there. Before investing billions in missions to take a Grand Tour of the outer planets, they needed more information. They needed to send out some Pioneers.

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Budget Astrophotography With A Raspberry Pi

New to astrophotography, [Jason Bowling] had heard that the Raspberry Pi’s camera module could be used as a low-cost entry into the hobby. Having a Raspberry Pi B+ and camera module on hand from an old project, he dove right in, detailing the process for any other newcomers.

Gingerly removing the camera’s lens, the module fit snugly into a 3D printed case — courtesy of a friend — and connected it to a separate case for the Pi. [Bowling] then mounted he camera directly on the telescope — a technique known as prime-focus photography, which treats the telescope like an oversized camera lens. A USB battery pack is perfect for powering the Pi for several hours.

When away from home, [Bowling] has set up his Pi to act as a wireless access point; this allows the Pi to send a preview to his phone or tablet to make adjustments before taking a picture. [Bowling] admits that the camera is not ideal, so a little post-processing is necessary to flesh out a quality picture, but you work with what you have.
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Listening To Jupiter On A DIY Radio

By Jove, he built a radio!

If you want to get started with radio astronomy, Jupiter is one of the easiest celestial objects to hear from Earth. [Vasily Ivanenko] wanted to listen, and decided to build a modular radio receiver for the task. So far he’s written up six of the eight planned blog posts.

The system uses an LNA, a direct conversion receiver block, and provides audio output to a speaker, output to a PC soundcard, and a processed connection for an analog to digital converter. The modules are well-documented and would be moderately challenging to reproduce.

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