This week, scientists at the European Planetary Science Conference (EPSC) in Nantes, France are busy with the mysterious crater structures and fascinating views of the multifaceted dwarf planet Ceres. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is involved in the NASA Dawn mission and, among other things, is responsible for the mapping and naming of regions and striking surface features, in collaboration with the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Shaped like a rubber duck – this was the talk upon the discovery of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko's surprising shape in July 2014. Scientists were amazed at the celestial body's extraordinary shape, which was revealed by the European Rosetta spacecraft.
Gas and dust streams from the ‘neck’ of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Since its arrival at the comet, Rosetta has observed jets of gas and dust. Numerous gas eruptions have been observed originating from the ‘neck’ of the comet. Using the measurements performed by the VIRTIS spectrometer, it has been possible to recognise a day/night cycle of cometary activity and identify the mechanism responsible.
The north face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps is legendary; mountaineers consider the steep walls of the 1800-metre drop to be a difficult and challenging climb. But 326 million kilometres from Earth, the sheer cliffs of the Eiger find their match on the dwarf planet Ceres, where at some points, the wall of the Occator crater towers precipitously at a height of almost 2000 metres.
Nine seconds is not a lot – those who are nine seconds late for an appointment are, so to speak, on time. But when it comes to the rotation of a planet around its own axis, nine seconds is not insignificant. On Mercury, this means that a spot at the equator would, in four years, not be where one would expect it to be; it would have shifted by 700 metres.
For the next few weeks, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) :envihab research facility will be home to 12 men in good health, aged between 20 and 45 years. The men are test subjects for a long-term bedrest study – they will be confined to bedrest for two months with two weeks of experimental investigations and tests. Their beds will be tilted at an angle of six degrees below the horizontal, so that their bodily fluids shift towards the upper body; the bones and muscles in their lower part of their bodies will lose strength as a result of the lack of movement. “In this way we simulate the effects of microgravity on the human body,” says Edwin Mulder, leader of the study and a scientist at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, about the study, which is being carried out by DLR on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). “Our volunteers are, so to speak, terrestrial astronauts.” Half of the test subjects will undergo reactive jump training several times a week, which involves lying on a specially positioned training device. “We want to see whether this very intensive training can be an effective countermeasure to the deterioration of the bones and muscles.”
The lower the Dawn space probe flies over the dwarf planet Ceres with its on-board camera, the more puzzling – and exciting – the celestial body appears. “Some of the things we are seeing have never been seen anywhere else in the Solar System,” says Ralf Jaumann from the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “Except for on Earth.” Dawn is now looking down onto the surface of Ceres from an altitude of just 1470 kilometres. The first images acquired from its High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) show a ‘pyramid’ with unusual landslides, unstable crater walls and chains of mountains. “We can only speculate about these things at the moment.” Where the bright stripes along the pyramid-shaped mountain come from and whether the surface of the dwarf planet is comprised of different materials are questions that the planetary researchers are still trying to answer.
For weeks, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has been active, hurling dust and gas into space – but it will not reach the closest point to the Sun in its orbit, the perihelion, until 13 August 2015 at exactly 4:03 CEST. It will take another six-and-a-half years to get this close to the Sun once again.
On 12 November 2014, as the Philae lander slowly descended onto Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the first instruments on board began to take measurements. Philae touched down three times during the first ever landing on a comet, scraped against a crater rim, and finally arrived at the unforeseen landing site, called Abydos, at 18:31 CEST.
Acting on behalf of the NASA Dawn mission team, researchers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) chose 17 of approximately 150 fertility deities to name the most prominent craters on Ceres, which they presented to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). These names were chosen because the dwarf planet bears the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture.
The new crew on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) – cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and astronauts Kimiya Yui and Kjell Lindgren – will be carrying a compact piece of luggage on board the Soyuz spacecraft. The KONTUR-2 joystick developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is setting off to its new destination. Upon arrival, Kononenko will be responsible for working with the device and in August will operate the ROKVISS (Robotic Components Verification on the ISS) robot installed at the DLR Robotics and Mechatronics Center using the remote control. What makes this special? The cosmonaut will not only see a camera image of the robot sent up from the ground, he will also, at a distance of over 400 kilometres, feel precisely what the robot back on Earth touches. This is enabled by a mechanism in KONTUR-2 that detects exactly how strongly it touches another object, as well as other metrics. The telepresence experiment is designed to give its operator the impression of being on-site at the laboratory – and not in orbit around Earth.
On 9 July 2015 at 19:45 CEST, Philae reported back to the team at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Lander Control Center (LCC) – only to then go back to 'silent mode'. Since then, the team has been working hard to get back in contact with the lander and operate it to conduct scientific measurements.
The Philae lander communicated with the Rosetta orbiter again between 19:45 and 20:07 CEST on 9 July 2015 and transmitted measurement data from the COmet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission (CONSERT) instrument. Although the connection failed repeatedly after that, it remained completely stable for those 12 minutes.
After a nine-and-a half year journey, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft will fly past the dwarf planet Pluto – approximately 4.8 billion kilometres from Earth – at 13:50 CEST on 14 July 2015. This is the first time that the former 'ninth planet' in the Solar System will receive a visitor.
At 13:28 CEST on 2 July 2015, the alarm in the Wünsdorf forest fire centre went off. Smoke had been seen rising from the forest district in Baruth. The German Meteorological Service had previously raised the risk of forest fire to the highest alert level. In the past, employees of the Brandenburg state forestry office sat in the cramped towers – 100 steps above the ground – using binoculars as they scanned the horizon for signs of forest fires during the hot summer months.
The German Aerospace Center's (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) mobile rocket base MORABA launched the MAPHEUS-5 high-altitude research rocket at 06:55 CEST on 30 June 2015, carrying four DLR experiments on board. The 12-metre-high, two-stage rocket took off from the Swedish Esrange Space Center and ascended to an altitude of 253 kilometres – taking only 74 seconds to reach a state of microgravity lasting over six minutes, which was used to conduct experiments from the fields of material physics and biology.
For 28 hours, six subjects will remain lying down and tilted at 12 degrees so their heads are lower than their legs. At times, they live and sleep in a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere. With the 'SpaceCOT' study, researchers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and the US National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) are investigating how the human brain and eyes are affected by the shift of body fluids towards the head as well as the increased carbon dioxide content in the air.
Despite a new trajectory for Rosetta and a reduction of the distance between the orbiter and Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 200 to 180 kilometres, contact with the Philae lander remains irregular and short. After the initial contact on 13 June 2015, Philae has reported to the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Lander Control Center (LCC) in Cologne a total of six times.
Today, Mars appears bone-dry and dusty – but new analyses of Istok crater provide evidence of periodic flows of debris from its walls into its interior. "What is surprising is that it must have happened reasonably often," explains Ernst Hauber, a planetary researcher at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR).
The team at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) received data from the Philae lander for the third time on 19 June 2015. Between 15:20 and 15:39 CEST, Philae sent 185 data packets.