Wednesday, March 13, 2019

NASA Is Finally Funding a Mars Sample Return Mission, But Details Are Slim

President Donald Trump's NASA budget request for the 2020 fiscal year includes funding for a Mars sample return mission that could launch as soon as 2026, the space agency's chief Jim Bridenstine said today (March 11). The mission would fetch rock samples packed up by the agency's Mars 2020 rover and bring them back to Earth for study in terrestrial labs. Such a mission has frequently been discussed, but not typically included on a budget request for the agency; NASA's concrete timeline for Mars science missions to Mars has always fizzled out after the Mars 2020 rover mission. This year's budget request was billed as "Moon to Mars" and highlights components necessary for human space exploration, first in the context of the moon and then of Mars. "The moon is the proving ground; Mars is the horizon goal, and it requires an all-of-the-above approach," Bridenstine said during a news conference held today to unveil the budget request.  According to the budget proposal, NASA aims to spend $109 million in 2020 on "future Mars activities," much of that centered on early development work on a sample-return project, NASA's Deputy Chief Financial Officer Andrew Hunter told reporters in a teleconference today. That funding level would increase by hundreds of millions of dollars in subsequent years to continue the mission's development, he added. Related: The Boldest Mars Missions in History The agency has yet to release many details about the Mars sample return mission, which is nestled within a $2.6 billion budget request for planetary science as a whole for fiscal year 2020, which begins in October 2019 and listed to potentially launch by 2026. (Mars mission launches are typically timed to match the point when the planets are closest together, so missing this window would likely cause a two-year delay.) The budget documents released so far do not include breakdowns for individual missions. The budget also fully funds the Mars 2020 mission, Bridenstine said during the news conference. That mission is scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020 and land Feb. 18, 2021. It includes not just the sample-caching rover, but also a helicopter designed to navigate Mars' thin atmosphere. That mission is easier to design than a sample-return mission, which must lift off Mars despite the planet's strong gravity and navigate back to Earth. No space agency has yet accomplished that feat at a planet — only at the moon and smaller bodies. The president's budget request does not represent the funding NASA will actually receive; final appropriation amounts are determined by Congress. Email Meghan Bartels at or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

Asteroid Bennu, target of NASA's sample return mission, is rotating faster over time 

IMAGE: This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km). The image... view more  Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona WASHINGTON -- In late 2018, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft arrived at Bennu, the asteroid it will be studying and sampling over the next several years. Now, new research in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters shows Bennu is spinning faster over time - an observation that will help scientists understand the evolution of asteroids, their potential threat to Earth and if they could be mined for resources. Bennu is 110 million kilometers (70 million miles) away from Earth. As it moves through space at about 101,000 kilometers per hour (63,000 miles per hour), it also spins, completing a full rotation every 4.3 hours. The new research finds the asteroid's rotation is speeding up by about 1 second per century. In other words, Bennu's rotation period is getting shorter by about 1 second every 100 years. While the increase in rotation might not seem like much, over a long period of time it can translate into dramatic changes in the space rock. As the asteroid spins faster and faster over millions of years, it could lose pieces of itself or blow itself apart, according to the study's authors. Detecting the increase in rotation helps scientists understand the types of changes that could have happened on Bennu, like landslides or other long-term changes, that the OSIRIS-REx mission will look for. "As it speeds up, things ought to change, and so we're going to be looking for those things and detecting this speed up gives us some clues as to the kinds of things we should be looking for," said Mike Nolan, a senior research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is the lead author of the new paper and the head of the OSIRIS-REx mission's science team. "We should be looking for evidence that something was different in the fairly recent past and it's conceivable things may be changing as we go." The OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to bring a sample of Bennu to Earth in 2023. Understanding Bennu's rotational change could help scientists figure out what asteroids can tell us about the origin of the solar system, how likely it is for asteroids to pose a threat to humans and if they could be mined for resources. "If you want to do any of those things, you need to know what is affecting it," Nolan said. Detecting a change In order to understand Bennu's rotation, scientists studied data of the asteroid taken from Earth in 1999 and 2005, along with data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. It was when they looked at the Hubble data that they noticed the rotation speed of the asteroid in 2012 didn't quite match their predictions based on the earlier data. "You couldn't make all three of them fit quite right," Nolan said. "That was when we came up with this idea that it had to be accelerating." The idea that the rotation of asteroids could speed up over time was first predicted around 2000 and first detected in 2007, according to Nolan. To date, this acceleration has only been detected in a handful of asteroids, he said. The change in Bennu's rotation could be due to a change in its shape. Similar to how ice skaters speed up as they pull in their arms, an asteroid could speed up as it loses material. Nolan and his co-authors suggest the reason for the increase in Bennu's rotation is more likely due to a phenomenon known the YORP effect. Sunlight hitting the asteroid is reflected back into space. The change in the direction of the light coming in and going out pushes on the asteroid and can cause it to spin faster or slower, depending on its shape and rotation. The OSIRIS-REx mission will determine Bennu's rotation rate independently this year, which will help scientists nail down the reason for the increase in rotation. Since spacecraft will never visit the vast majority of asteroids, the measurements will also help scientists learn how well ground-based measurements are able to understand these far-away objects. "By testing these predictions in a few cases, we will significantly improve our confidence in predictions made for other objects," the study's authors write. The measurement of Bennu's acceleration rate combined with the arrival of OSIRIS-REx at the asteroid gives scientists a great opportunity to validate the new study's results and test theories about the YORP effect, said Desiree Cotto-Figueroa, an assistant professor of physics and electronics at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao, who was not involved in the new study. "This is a great opportunity, in general, having this measurement and having the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx there observing this asteroid to help us better understand this effect, which is a dominant mechanism in the evolution of asteroids," she said.
 ### Founded in 1919, AGU is a not-for-profit scientific society dedicated to advancing Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity. We support 60,000 members, who reside in 135 countries, as well as our broader community, through high-quality scholarly publications, dynamic meetings, our dedication to science policy and science communications, and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as many other innovative programs. AGU is home to the award-winning news publication Eos, the Thriving Earth Exchange, where scientists and community leaders work together to tackle local issues, and a headquarters building that represents Washington, D.C.'s first net zero energy commercial renovation. We are celebrating our Centennial in 2019. #AGU100 Authors: M.C. Nolan: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA; E.S. Howell: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA; D.J. Scheeres: Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA; J.W. McMahon: Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA; O.Golubov: V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, Kharkiv, Ukraine; and Institute of Astronomy of V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, Kharkiv, Ukraine; C.W. Hergenrother: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA; J.P. Emery: Earth and Planetary Science Department, Planetary Geosciences Institute, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA; K.S. Noll: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Solar System Exploration Division, Greenbelt, MD, USA; S.R. Chesley: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA; D.S. Lauretta: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA.

NASA is finally going to study Moon samples it gathered 50 years ago 

NASA has been to the Moon several times, but it’s been a while since the last visit. When astronauts explored the lunar surface during the Apollo missions they hauled back a whole bunch of Moon material for scientists to study back on Earth. With decades having passed since the last manned Moon mission you might assume that any lunar samples NASA gathered back then had already been thoroughly studied by eager researchers. Well, you’d be wrong, and now after sitting for some 50-or-so years in storage, NASA is now releasing the lunar material samples to a number of research teams that were begging for the opportunity. Related stories Scientists found moving water on the Moon NASA's deep space launch system is 'coming together' SpaceX's Crew Dragon just made history, splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean The samples from the Apollo 17 mission, which have been in secure storage at NASA since 1972, weigh just under two pounds. The rock and dust may still be hiding some secrets that a new generation of scientists could reveal. Six of the chosen research teams will get access to this material, which has never even been exposed to Earth’s air. “By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.” NASA has made it clear that it plans on returning the Moon sooner rather than later, and it’s not alone. Other space agencies from around the world are in the process of planning their own manned Moon missions, so we may soon have a whole lot more lunar material here on Earth to sift through. In the meantime, however, vacuum-sealed surface material is hard to come by. Sign up for BGR's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Trending Right Now: NASA is finally going to study Moon samples it gathered 50 years ago See the original version of this article on

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