This week in space: The future of NASA, the ESA diagnosed its Mars probe failure, and setbacks while resupplying the ISS

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A Russian Progress spacecraft was lost six minutes into its resupply flight to the ISS on Thursday. NASA was live broadcasting at the time, and social media reports emerged of an explosion over Tuva, Russia at about the same time that ground control lost telemetry from Progress MS-04. It wasn’t manned, but it did have more than 2.6 tons of cargo onboard, including food, oxygen, a science payload and even some personal items for the crew aboard the Station. But the ISS crew is all fine, they’re not out of supplies, and there’s another resupply flight scheduled for next week.

President-elect Trump wants to cut NASA’s climate research budget, and shouldn’t do so. Climate science deals with more than just anthropogenic climate change. Weather is the local, short-term manifestation of our climate. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, from which the Weather Channel and local news channels get their weather information via the National Weather Service, is tightly linked to NASA’s climate sciences division. NOAA doesn’t have its own fleet of satellites. It gets its NWS satellite data by contracting with NASA to use NASA’s eyes in the sky. NASA pays for those Earth-observing satellites using climate-sciences money.

The ESA is pretty confident that a software error brought Schiaparelli down. The lander crashed onto the Martian surface on 19 October, just over a minute before it was supposed to make a comfortable touchdown. Everything went fine up until the rotational, inbound equivalent of max Q, whereupon Schiaparelli’s Inertial Measurement Unit became confused and got stuck. It output data as if that maximum inertial measurement had lasted longer than the spacecraft anticipated — about a second — and that garbage output made the navigation systems think Schiaparelli was somehow below the Martian surface, instead of two miles up and still in freefall. Calamity ensued. The landing thrusters fired, but only briefly, and Schiaparelli dropped out of the sky, leaving a big ugly splotch instead of a science sortie. But all has not been lost. Schiaparelli was a relatively small part of a larger, multi-part Mars science mission. Its parent spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter, is still doing science and it’s still alive. It will finish its series of experiments on the Martian atmospheric chemistry, and will also serve as a communications hub for the upcoming ExoMars 2020 rover.

Image taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Petr Horálek, at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Image taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Petr Horálek, at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Bless the ESO scientists for showing the public the gorgeous images grabbed by their observatory in the Atacama Desert. There’s always something striking to see. Earlier this week they released an image showing the waning crescent moon being distorted into a crazy, snaky shape by the refraction of light through the Earth’s atmosphere, optically thickest near the horizon. Looking out over the Pacific from the desert, different layers of air that had different temperatures and humidities all had a slightly different effect, creating the wiggly moon they saw.



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