This 6 m-wingspan unmanned aircraft is supported in mid-air within ESA’s Hertz radio-frequency test chamber, as if suspended in flight, to check it can maintain contact with its controller through satellite links.
This is the focus of ESA’s ESTARR project – Electronically Steered Antenna Array in the Wing of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft – which is investigating the feasibility of steerable low-cost array antenna in the drone’s wings.
Designed for oil, gas and mineral prospecting, pipeline surveying and border patrols, the drone will spend most of its time operating far from its controller, often in areas with no communications infrastructure. To ensure the legally mandated link between the remote pilot and the drone, a satellite data relay service must be used.
The array must electronically sweep its beam rapidly to counteract any movement of the drone, and maintain the all-important control link with space, without any aerodynamic or electronic interference with the functioning of the drone itself.
Testing was performed in ESA’s metal-walled Hybrid European Radio Frequency and Antenna Test Zone at the Agency’s technical centre in the Netherlands, shut off from all external influences for radio testing. Its internal walls are studded with radio-absorbing ‘anechoic’ foam pyramids, preventing any distorting radio signal reflections, while also absorbing noise.
Expedition 52 flight engineers Paolo Nespoli of ESA, left, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos, and Randy Bresnik of NASA answer questions from the press outside the Soyuz simulator ahead of their final Soyuz qualification exam, on 7 July 2017 at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Star City, Russia. The crew are preparing for launch with a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur on 28 July.
Paolo Nespoli will be heading to space for a third time. His mission, named the Vita mission, is part of a barter agreement between NASA and Italy’s ASI space agency involving ESA astronauts. Vita stands for Vitality, Innovation, Technology and Ability. In Italian, “vita” means “life”, reflecting the experiments that Paolo will run and the philosophical notion of living in outer space – one of the most inhospitable places for humans.
The international Cassini spacecraft has completed half of the 22 dives between Saturn and its rings before concluding its mission on 15 September. Cassini has been exploring the Saturnian system for 13 years, and has been making a series of ‘grand finale’ orbits since 22 April, taking the spacecraft into previously unexplored territory.
The image shown here was captured on 7 June, on the approach to the eighth dive. It is a raw image taken with the wide-angle camera and shows the planet, its rings, and a projection of Saturn’s shadow onto the inner rings.
Each of the 22 elliptical orbits takes about six and a half days to complete, and sends the spacecraft diving through a 2 400 km wide space at speeds of 121 000–126 000 km/h.
As well as returning stunning images, the dives are enabling unique data to be collected that will help scientists solve mysteries regarding the mass of Saturn’s rings and the planet’s rotation rate. In the final five orbits the spacecraft will also dip down to directly sample Saturn’s upper atmosphere.
Following the last orbit, the spacecraft will make a distant flyby of Titan that will alter Cassini’s trajectory one final time, sending it into a controlled plunge into the planet’s atmosphere to conclude this incredible mission.
The Cassini–Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and ASI, the Italian space agency.
A third prototype of the AstroPlant citizen science initiative made its debut at the Border Sessions festival in the Netherlands last week. The desktop greenhouse allows people to help collect data on potential crops to grow in space.
Just as agriculture revolutionised human settlements on Earth, it will also be a game changer in space. But first we need data.
The Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative team, or MELiSSA for short, has been working for over 27 years to create ecosystems for astronauts. They are finetuning how microrganisms, chemicals, catalysts, algae and plants interact to process waste and deliver unending supplies of oxygen, water and food.
To help speed the process, the team is recruiting citizen scientists with the AstroPlant initiative. The idea was conceived at the Border Sessions conference in 2016 to ask home-gardeners, schools, urban farmers and other enthusiasts to nourish seeds selected by the MELiSSA team.
Last April, more than 40 participants across Europe brainstormed the prototype and other aspects of the initiative, including hardware design, user interface and business development. The third prototype presented to the Border Sessions audience last week is the result.
AstroPlant is a plant lab fitted with sensors that track the entire growth cycle. Air and water temperature, humidity levels and leaf temperature, among other statistics, are uploaded via an app along with other user-collected data. The MELiSSA team then analyses the crop data for its potential to be grown in space.
A crowd funding campaign is planned for September to fund a set number of kits for interested participants. The initiative hopes eventually to have AstroPlant kits set up in secondary schools as part of its educational goals.
Border Sessions is an annual technology conference and year-round lab bringing together various partners to advance new ideas and experiments.
If you are interested in getting involved with the AstroPlant project or if you would like more information send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The image shows part of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt flat in the world.
Occupying over 10 000 sq km, the vast Salar de Uyuni lies at the southern end of the Altiplano, a high plain of inland drainage in the central Andes. Some 40 000 years ago, this area was part of a giant prehistoric lake that dried out, leaving behind the salt flat.
Salt from the pan has been traditionally harvested by the local Aymara people, who still predominate in the area. But the Uyuni is also one of the richest lithium deposits in the world, at an estimated 9 million tonnes.
The geometric shapes in the upper left are large evaporation ponds of the national lithium plant, where lithium bicarbonate is isolated from salt brine. Lithium is used in the manufacturing of batteries, and the increasing demand has significantly increased its value in recent years – especially for the production of electric-car batteries.
The surrounding terrain is rough in comparison to the vast salt flat. In the lower right we can see the 20 km-wide alluvial fan of the Rio Grande de Lípez delta.
On the whole, the Salar de Uyuni is very flat, with a surface elevation variation of less than 1 m. This makes the area ideal for calibrating satellite radar altimeters – a kind of radar instrument that measures surface topography. ESA’s CryoSat and the Coperncius Sentinel-3 satellites carry radar altimeters.
This image, also featured on the Earth from Space video programme, was captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-2B satellite on 17 May 2017.
May and early June were busy months for NASA’s Cassini orbiter, as a series of complex link-ups with ESA and NASA stations supported ‘radio science’ as part of the mission’s Grand Finale.
In radio science, specialists analyse the signals transmitted by Cassini to Earth to extract important information on how gravity affects the craft’s motion or how matter through which the signals travel affects them.
Cassini is focusing on probing Saturn’s interior by mapping the planet’s gravity to an unprecedented level of detail, and determining the rings’ total mass to help understand how they formed.
This striking image was taken by Cassini’s two cameras. It is possible to see the outer edge of the Encke Gap in the outer portion of Saturn’s A ring. The uneven patterns in the ringlet appear and disappear through the gravitational influence of moon Pan, orbiting in the gap.
Cassini is providing insight into how and when the rings formed, as well as their relation with Saturn and its moons. The team working on these new fundamental measurements is all European.
The observations require a meticulous sequence of contacts with ground stations, making use of five NASA Deep Space Network antennas plus ESA’s Deep Space Antennas at Malargüe, Argentina, and New Norcia Australia. Some of these link-ups with Cassini will run for over eight hours.
BepiColombo seen at ESA's test centre on 6 July 2017.
ESA's Mercury spacecraft has passed its final test in launch configuration. To prepare for the harsh conditions close to the Sun, the spacecraft have undergone extensive testing both as separate units, and in the 6 m-high launch and cruise configuration.
IC 342 is a challenging cosmic target. Although it is bright, the galaxy sits near the equator of the Milky Way’s galactic disc, where the sky is thick with glowing cosmic gas, bright stars, and dark, obscuring dust. In order for astronomers to see the intricate spiral structure of IC 342, they must gaze through a large amount of material contained within our own galaxy — no mean feat! As a result IC 342 is relatively difficult to spot and image, giving rise to its intriguing nickname: the “Hidden Galaxy”.
Located very close (in astronomical terms!) to the Milky Way, this sweeping spiral galaxy would be among the brightest in the sky were it not for its dust-obscured location. The galaxy is very active, as indicated by the range of colours visible in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, depicting the very central region of the galaxy. A beautiful mixture of hot, blue star-forming regions, redder, cooler regions of gas, and dark lanes of opaque dust can be seen, all swirling together around a bright core. In 2003, astronomers confirmed this core to be a specific type of central region known as an HII nucleus — a name that indicates the presence of ionised hydrogen — that is likely to be creating many hot new stars.
Week In Images
3-7 July 2017