A launch, a mission resurrection, and a rare mineral

By on September 24, 2019 in

Today is a slow news day, but it’s not a no news day. We bring you coverage of the HTV-8 resupply mission to the ISS and the resurrection of the NEOcam mission in a weird not-exactly-still-NEOcam kind of way. We round things out with the discovery of a new mineral trapped in a diamond.

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Links

HTV-8 Resupply mission to ISS

NEOcam Resurrection

New Mineral Goldschmidtite

Transcript

Today is a slow news day, but it’s not a no news day. We would like to start with the happy news that HTV 8 has successfully launched on it’s way to the International Space Station. This robotic space craft is carrying 4-tons of belated supplies. This mission was originally scheduled to take off on September 10, but a fire on the launch pad directly below the spacecraft led to a delay to make sure there was no damage to the mobile launch platform or potential risk to the space craft. As you can guess from today’s launch, everything is well. In addition to carrying food and other consumables, this mission also carries including six lithium-ion batteries and a prototype Sony laser-communications system. The batteries will be replace the aging batteries on the P6 solar panels, and will be installed later this year. The P6 solar panels are the large panels farthest from the main habitat areas and are located on the right in images where the crew areas are below the panels.

From one robotic craft we now jump to another. I am now going to break our normal habit of not covering spacecraft until they are nearing launch. Yesterday, there was an unprecedented announcement from NASA that a mission that had previously been proposed and funded for initial design phases is being brought back, but brought back in a way that doesn’t put the original mission in the hands of its original planners. The mission I’m talking about is NEOCam, a scientific mission designed to find and identify near earth objects that are potentially hazardous to our planet’s health. In both 20120 and 2015, NEOcam, under the guidance of principal investigator Amy Mainzer, was granted funds to develop the technologies needed to make this mission a success, but their 2016 proposal for a 2021 launch was rejected and the mission plans went into spacecraft purgatory. NEOcam, at that point was a science mission planned under NASA’s Discovery mission funding line. That’s the same science funding line that supported Dawn, Kepler, and MESSENGER.

Yesterday, however, something really weird happen. NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen announced that a NEOcam like mission is going to be funded through NASA’s planetary defense budget, which is $150 million a year and funded the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission that will launch in 2021. This NEOcam like mission, isn’t actually NEOcam. Instead of being lead by Amy Mainzer, it is being managed out of JPL. Instead of being a science mission it is a planetary defense mission. All that said – this new mission builds on the technologies and plans created by Maizner’s team. In the announcement, Zurbuchan said there will be rolls for the NEOcam team in the new mission, but it is unclear what those roles will be, or even if they will be funded or advisory. At this stage anything is possible, however, unless the costs of the mission are greatly increased, it is hard to imaging that the NEOcam team members roles will be what they were when they ran the mission.

This is all very confusing right now, and I’m not sure anyone really knows how to feel. This is a dead mission brought back to life, which is super exciting. At the same time, it’s hard to see the dreams of one team handed over to someone else to make real. This is a story we’re going to be watching closely.

Our final story of the day is one I almost missed, and I’d like to thank Mika McKinnon for bringing it to my attention. She mentioned off-handedly that the rarest mineral on Earth is only 1 grain in size. In an article published in the American Mineralogist, scientists discuss a single grain trapped in a diamond. Found in South Africa’s Koffiefontein pipe, a massive mine operated by deBeers, this grain was a massive imperfection to a jewelry and the find of a lifetime to scientists. This grain is estimated to have formed from materials in the Earth’s mantel at a depth of more than 100 miles. According to PhD student Nicole Meyer, “Goldschmidtite has high concentrations of niobium, potassium, and the rare earth elements lanthanum and cerium, whereas the rest of the mantle is dominated by other elements, such as magnesium and iron. For potassium and niobium to constitute a major proportion of this mineral, it must have formed under exceptional processes that concentrated these unusual elements.”

In general, the only way we can study the composition of the Earth at great depths is to study inclusions in diamonds. These imperfections are where the science is.

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