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X-37B orbital test vehicle concludes sixth successful mission


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    • By NASA
      On Feb. 22, 2024, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander captures a wide field of view image of Schomberger crater on the Moon approximately 125 miles (200 km) uprange from the intended landing site, at approximately 6 miles (10 km) altitude. Credit: Intuitive Machines NASA and Intuitive Machines will co-host a televised news conference at 2 p.m. EST Wednesday, Feb. 28, from the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to highlight the company’s first mission, known as IM-1.
      The lander, called Odysseus, carried six NASA science instruments to the South Pole region of the Moon as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, and Artemis campaign. The IM-1 mission is the first U.S. soft landing on the Moon in more than 50 years, successfully landing on Feb. 22.
      The news conference will air on NASA+, NASA Television, and the agency’s website
      Learn how to stream NASA TV on a variety of platforms, including social media.
      Participants in the news conference include:
      Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator, Exploration, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters in Washington Sue Lederer, CLPS project scientist, NASA Johnson Steve Altemus, chief executive officer and co-founder, Intuitive Machines Tim Crain, chief technology officer and co-founder, Intuitive Machines Media interested in participating in person must RSVP no later than 11 a.m. on Feb. 28. To participate by telephone, media must RSVP no later than one hour before the start of the news conference. Submit either request to the NASA Johnson newsroom at 281-483-5111 or jsccommu@mail.nasa.gov. The agency’s media accreditation policy is online.
      For more information about the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, visit:
      https://www.nasa.gov/clps
      -end-
      Cheryl Warner / Karen Fox
      Headquarters, Washington
      202-358-1100
      cheryl.m.warner@nasa.gov/ karen.c.fox@nasa.gov
      Nilufar Ramji / Laura Sorto
      Johnson Space Center, Houston
      281-483-5111
      nilufar.ramji@nasa.gov/ laura.g.sorto@nasa.gov
      Josh Marshall
      Intuitive Machines, Houston
      jmarshall@intuitivemachines.com
      View the full article
    • By NASA
      5 Min Read The CUTE Mission: Innovative Design EnablesObservations of Extreme Exoplanets from a SmallPackage
      Fig 1: Artist’s concept of the CUTE mission on-orbit. CUTE has been operating in a 560 km sun-synchronous orbit since September 2021. Credits:
      NASA Of the approximately 5,500 exoplanets discovered to date, many have been found to orbit very close to their parent stars. These close-in planets provide a unique opportunity to observe in detail the phenomena critical to the development and evolution of our own solar system, including atmospheric mass loss and interactions with the host star. NASA’s Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE) mission, launched in September 2021, employed a new design that enabled exploration of these processes using a small spacecraft for the first time. CUTE provides unique spectral diagnostics that trace the escaping atmospheres of close-in, ultra-hot, giant planets. In addition, CUTE’s dedicated mission architecture enables the survey duration required to characterize atmospheric structure and variability on these worlds.
      Atmospheric escape is a fundamental process that affects the structure, composition, and evolution of many planets. It has operated on all of the terrestrial planets in our solar system and likely drives the demographics of the short-period planet population characterized by NASA’s Kepler mission. In fact, atmospheric escape ultimately may be the determining factor when predicting the habitability of temperate, terrestrial exoplanets. Escaping exoplanet atmospheres were first observed in the hydrogen Lyman-alpha line (121nm) in 2003. However, contamination by neutral hydrogen in both the intervening interstellar medium and Earth’s upper atmosphere makes obtaining high-quality Lyman-alpha transit measurements for most exoplanets very challenging. By contrast, a host star’s near-ultraviolet (NUV; 250 – 350 nm) flux is two to three orders of magnitude higher than Lyman-alpha, and transit light curves can be measured against a smoother stellar surface intensity distribution.
      This knowledge motivated a team led by Dr. Kevin France at the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics to design the CUTE mission (Fig 1). The team proposed the CUTE concept to NASA through the ROSES/Astrophysics Research and Analysis (APRA) Program in February 2016 and NASA funded the project in July 2017. The CUTE instrument pioneered use of two technologies on a small space mission: a novel, rectangular Cassegrain telescope (20cm × 8cm primary mirror) and a miniature, low-resolution spectrograph operating from approximately 250 – 330 nm. The rectangular telescope was fabricated to accommodate the unique instrument volume of the 6U CubeSat form factor, an adaptation that delivers approximately three times the collecting area of a traditional, circular aperture telescope.  The compact spectrograph meets the spectral resolution requirements of the mission while using scaled down component technology adapted from the Hubble Space Telescope.
      Fig 2 – Image of the CUTE science instrument, including rectangular telescope and miniaturized spectrograph, mounted to the spacecraft bus. Credit: CUTE Team, University of Colorado This novel instrument design enables CUTE to measure NUV with similar precision as larger missions even in the more challenging thermal and pointing environment experienced by a CubeSat. In addition, the CUTE instrument’s NUV bandpass enables it to measure iron and magnesium ions from highly extended atmospheric layers that ground-based instruments cannot access. The CUTE science instrument is incorporated into a 6U Blue Canyon Technologies spacecraft bus that provides power, command and data handling, attitude control, and communications. This CubeSat platform enables CUTE to observe numerous transits of a given planet. The spectrogram from the CUTE instrument is recorded on a UV-optimized commercial off-the-shelf charge-coupled device (CCD), onboard data processing is performed, and data products are relayed to a ground station at the University of Colorado.
      Fig 3 –Graduate student Arika Egan (center) and electrical engineer Nicholas DeCicco (left) install CUTE into the LANDSAT-9 secondary payload dispenser at Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: CUTE Team, University of Colorado CUTE was launched as a secondary payload on NASA’s LANDSAT-9 mission on September 27, 2021 into a Sun-synchronous orbit with a 560 km apogee. CUTE deployed from the payload dispenser (Fig 2) approximately two hours after launch and then deployed its solar arrays. Spacecraft beacon signals were identified by the amateur radio community on the first orbit and communications were established with the ground station at the University of Colorado the following day. On-orbit commissioning of the spacecraft and instrument concluded in February 2022 and the mission has been conducting science operations since that time.
      As of February 2024, CUTE is actively acquiring science and calibration data (Fig 3), and has observed between 6 and 11 transits of seven different exoplanetary systems. Data downlink efficiency is the primary factor limiting the number of targets observed over the course of the mission. CUTE light curves and transit spectroscopy are revealing extended NUV atmospheres on some planets (Fig 4) and potential time variability in the atmospheric transmission spectra of others. For example, observations of the ultra-hot exoplanet, Jupiter WASP-189b, indicate a highly extended atmosphere. Magnesium ions are observed to be gravitationally unbound from the planet, which is evidence for active escape of heavy elements in this system. CUTE data are being archived by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI).
      Fig 4 – Flight data from CUTE showing raw CCD observations (top) and calibrated one-dimensional spectra (bottom). Image credit: France et al (2023) Fig 5 – CUTE NUV transit light curve of the ultra-hot exoplanet, Jupiter WASP-189b. This light curve was created from three separate transit visits to the planet. Image credit: Sreejith, et al (2023) CUTE successfully demonstrated the use of a non-circular telescope and miniature spectrograph design for small space missions, an approach that has been subsequently adopted by several NASA and international mission designs, including NASA’s new Monitoring Activity from Nearby sTars with uv Imaging and Spectroscopy (MANTIS) mission. CUTE’s demonstration of sub-1% NUV precision has shown that the precision achieved by large UV astronomy missions can also be achieved by a CubeSat. In addition, student training and early-career mentorship have been key ingredients to CUTE’s mission success. So far, over 20 early career students and professionals have trained and participated in CUTE activities—ranging from science to engineering to operations.
      PROJECT LEAD
      Professor Kevin France, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics/University of Colorado
      SPONSORING ORGANIZATION
      Astrophysics Division Astrophysics Research and Analysis Program
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      Seedlings germinating for the APEX-09 C4 Space investigation. Pubudu Handakumbura Sensing the Sea
      The ocean significantly affects the global climate. A technique called Global Navigation Satellite System reflectometry (GNSS-R), which receives satellite signals reflected from the surface of Earth, shows promise as a way to monitor ocean phenomena and improve climate models. Killick-1: A GNSS Reflectometry CubeSat for Measuring Sea Ice Thickness and Extent (Nanoracks KILLICK-1) tests using this technique to measure sea ice. The project supports development of space and science capabilities in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, by providing hands-on experience with space systems and Earth observation. More than 100 undergraduate and graduate engineering students participated in the project.
      “The most exciting aspect of this project is that students have the opportunity to launch a mission into space,” said Desmond Power, a co-investigator with C-CORE of Canada. “It is also exciting to build a tiny satellite that does different things, including contributing to our knowledge of climate change.”
      GNSS-R technology is low-cost, light, and energy efficient. Its potential applications on Earth include providing data for weather and climate models and improving the understanding of ocean phenomena such as surface winds and storm surge.
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      “Our MRS on an Astrobee free-flying robot will create 3D maps inside the space station,” said Marc Elmouttie, project lead with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. “The technology combines multiple sensors, which compensates for weaknesses in any one of them and provides very high-resolution 3D data and more accurate trajectory data to understand how the robot moves around in space.”
      The technology could be used for autonomous operation of spacecraft with minimal or no human occupancy where robots must sense the environment and precisely maneuver, including the lunar Gateway space station. Other uses could be to inspect and maintain spacecraft and for autonomous vehicle operations on other celestial bodies. Results also support improvements in robotic technologies for harsh and dangerous environments on Earth.
      Project Lead Marc Elmouttie with the MRS hardware housed in an Astrobee robot. NASA Placement of Particles
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      Quantum dots are tiny spheres of semiconductor material with the potential to convert sunlight into energy much more efficiently. Conducting these processes in microgravity provides insight into the relationship between shape, charge, concentration, and interaction of particles.
      The investigation is supported by NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which partners with government, higher education, and industry on projects to improve a research infrastructure and research and development capacity and competitiveness.
      A capstone student assembles part of the Nano Particle Haloing Suspension hardware.University of Louisville Download high-resolution photos and videos of the research mentioned in this article.
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