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All About Science – On Running Out of Fuel



IN SPACE, no one can hear you scream when the fuel gauge hits empty.

IN SPACE, no one can hear you scream when the fuel gauge hits empty.

Most of us have been there: You are mowing the lawn, and your lawn mower stops, or you are driving along (and haven’t been paying attention to the gauge) and your car sputters and stops.

You have run out of fuel necessary to complete the task. And, while these events are a temporary inconvenience and may be frustrating at the time, there is usually a pretty quick remedy. Get your space fuel can and trudge to the local gas station and get a fill-up.

But, what if you are in space?

There isn’t a local gas station where you can go and get a refill. What happens then? The mission goes dark. This is exactly what has happened to the Kepler and Dawn probes.

On October 30, NASA announced that the Kepler space probe was being retired because it is out of fuel. The Kepler space telescope was launched on March 6, 2009. It has spent more than nine years in space. Its first mission was “to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems,” essentially it was to look for Earth-like planets residing in the habitable regions. More simply put, we are trying to answer the question is there life beyond our planet.

In May 2013, technical difficulties struck, and put an end to the mission. It wasn’t out of gas, but it couldn’t perform as it was originally designed. So, the mission controllers, put on their thinking-caps and figured out what could be done, and set on a new observing mission called K2. The targets of observation were driven through the Guest Observer Program and utilized the features of the telescope that were still working.

During the 9.6 years, Kepler has collected 678 gigabytes of scientific data, observed 530,506 stars, confirmed 2,662 planets, and documented 61 supernovae.

To date, this information has resulted in 2,946 scientific papers. And, while it has stopped communicating, the last pictures from the telescope arrived on October 31, it is anticipated that that further analysis of the information and data provided will lead to additional discoveries and scientific papers.

Also out of gas is the Dawn probe. Dawn missed scheduled communication sessions on October 31 and November 1.

Apparently, after conducting some checks and determined that it had run out of the fuel used for pointing its antennae toward Earth and its solar panels toward the sun. Dawn was on a mission to observe the two most massive bodies, Ceres and Vesta, in the main asteroid belt. According to NASA, Ceres was the first object discovered in the main asteroid belt and was initially classified as a planet, but later classified as an asteroid, and now is grouped with Pluto as a dwarf planet. Ceres is approximately 585 miles across and comprises about 35 percent of the asteroid belts total mass.

In comparison, Pluto is about 1,400 miles wide, or 2/3 the width of Earth’s moon. (Note: NASA indicates that there are five dwarf planets in our solar system, Pluto, Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris are located in Kuiper Belt outside the orbit of Neptune. It was the discovery of Makemake and Eris that spurred the reclassification of Pluto to the status of dwarf planet.) Vesta is the brightest asteroid in the sky and can occasionally be seen with the naked eye. Vesta is approximately 329 miles in diameter.

Dawn spent 11 years in space. It was the first space mission to orbit two destinations. It set a record for using solar-electric propulsion, 25,700 mph. The key findings, according to NASA, included confirmation that Vesta is the parent of the HED (howardites, eucrites, and diogenites) meteorites.

This confirmed that there is a connection between samples that we have here on Earth and a singular event that occurred on an object in space.

The instrumentation on Dawn allowed scientists to link these meteorites to an event that created the large south polar basin on Vesta. And, on Ceres, Dawn discovered that it once was an ocean world were water and ammonia reacted with silicate rocks. Dawn found organic molecules on Ceres and reviled that it is still geologically active (or at least was very recently).

In NASA’s November 1, the Principle Investigator Carol Raymond at JPL probably summed up the what most scientists are thinking about given the news that both Dawn and Kepler are now quiet.

“In many ways, the legacy is just beginning,” Raymond said.

The data sets will be deeply mined. And, they have left us with more questions.

Editor’s Note: This is a series of science-related articles by author Frankie Wood-Black, Ph.D., REM, MBA, to appear in the Mid-Week section of the Ponca City News. The author currently runs her own environmental consulting firm based in Ponca City, Sophic Pursuits Inc., and also serves as a Physics Instructor and the Director for Process Technology at Northern Oklahoma College.

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