Exploring VERITAS, one of NASA’s new missions to Venus

Selected as a finalist alongside three other missions for NASA’s next Discovery program missions in… The post Exploring VERITAS, one of NASA’s new missions to Venus appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.

Exploring VERITAS, one of NASA’s new missions to Venus

Selected as a finalist alongside three other missions for NASA’s next Discovery program missions in February 2020, the Jet Propulsion Lab’s VERITAS mission was chosen by NASA as one of the agency’s next two planetary research missions on June 2, 2021.

VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy), like the European Space Agency’s recently announced EnVision mission, will use a set of specially designed instruments and radars to fully map the surface of Venus in high definition.

A full, high definition map of Venus’ surface will allow scientists to understand Venus’ past, present, and future tectonic, geologic, volcanic, interior, and chemical history. Additionally, comparing data from past and present Venus orbiters and landers will allow scientists to see if any environmental features have changed.

VERITAS will carry two instruments: the Venus Emissivity Mapper (VEM) and the Venus Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (VISAR). VERITAS will also carry the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 as a secondary payload. The first Deep Space Atomic Clock launched on the Falcon Heavy STP-2 mission in June 2019.

The VEM will map the surface emissivity of Venus. To do this, it will map the surface using six spectral bands in five atmospheric windows. Mapping the surface in this way will allow VERITAS to see through the immensely thick clouds of Venus’ atmosphere.

The second of VERITAS’ instruments is the VISAR, which will generate global topography data sets with 250 meter horizontal by 5 meter vertical accuracy. Using this and synthetic aperture radar imaging, VISAR will create the first planetary active surface deformation map. The synthetic aperture radar will have 30 meter resolution with a targeted resolution of 15 meters.

Artist’s impression of radar on VERITAS peering below the planetary cloud layer to create high-resolution maps of Venus’ surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL.Caltech)

VERITAS will be operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. NASASpaceflight spoke with with the principal investigator of the VERITAS mission, Dr. Suzanne Smrekar, to discuss VERITAS and its mission to Venus.

“Scientifically, I’ve been compelled to study Venus for all of these decades since then because it really is our twin. It’s Earth’s twin,” Dr. Smrekar said. “Before Magellan, people thought Venus would have plate tectonics, and it would just be much more Earth-like than it is. So in our solar system, there are no two planets more similar than Earth and Venus.”

“And even given all the hundreds of Earth-sized exoplanets we’re finding, no two planets are so more similar than these two, or at least not more similar to the Earth. So there are just amazing questions that we can pursue.”

However, for Dr. Smrekar, Venusian plate tectonics is what grabs her attention.

“It controls pretty much everything that goes on on the surface of the Earth. And it may have had some huge influences on how life began to flourish on the Earth. It certainly influences the atmosphere, the oceans. It’s basically the engine that drives things on the Earth,” Dr. Smrekar said when discussing plate tectonics.

“Why doesn’t Venus have it? And Venus may have conditions that are allowing it to take sort of the first step towards plate tectonics. And all that history is long gone on our planet. So for me, that’s kind of the compelling question. If I can understand how planets have plate tectonics, the role it plays in shaping climate, that would be fantastic for me.”

To understand plate tectonics, though, we first have to understand how the surface of Venus looks and functions. VERITAS will help planetary geologists understand the surface, which will in turn allow scientists to theorize and look for signs of Venusian plate tectonics.

Some surface features could give clues to how Venus formed as well as its evolution path. With the instruments onboard VERITAS, the spacecraft will map the surface, and scientists can then use the map to identify what surface features are present — and how they got there.

“One of the compelling, or one of the super-obvious things we have to do first is investigate the impact craters. On most of the other rocky planets, we can use those craters to date individual areas because there’s so many of them. Venus doesn’t have enough craters to do that.”

“But it has a super-important story to tell us.”

“Right now we can see that about 80% of these craters have dark floors in radar. So that means they’re smooth. Why? Is that volcanism that’s filling those craters. Is it dust that’s gotten in there, entrapped like we see on Mars? That is a really important first-order question. Because what we want to do is unravel the history of volcanism,” Dr. Smrekar said.

So how did these dust-filled craters form? Dr. Smrekar already has her theories.

“Some people think that [Venus] catastrophically resurfaced. That it had this massive pulse of volcanism, or maybe the lithosphere got cycled back into the interior in this massive event. Which would be completely unEarth-like,” noted Dr. Smrekar. “People have modeled that it could have had +/- 100 °C temperature changes on the surface if you had a kilometer of volcanism covering the entire planet in a relatively short amount of time.”

“So by looking at how those craters are filled and looking for more craters, I’m sure that we’ll see — I predict, I can’t say I’m sure, but I predict — that we will see deformed craters on these so-called tesserae regions, these relatively old, maybe continental-crust-like features.”

Additionally, VERITAS teams will be looking for impact basins in the maps the orbiter generates. Impact basins are common on planetary bodies, and they are sometimes revealed with topographic maps. Impact basins can also be revealed, although barely, in gravity data.

“On other planets, especially Mars, we’ve seen a ton of impact basins that are buried, and we just kind of see their hint in the topography, a remaining hint, and in the gravity data. So we’ll be looking to see, does Venus have huge, buried impacts like the other planets or not? If it doesn’t, that’s really saying that that surface has been active for a very long time.”

Like impact basins, some tectonic activity can be revealed in topographic maps.

“We can see a lot of tectonic activity in image data, but there are some processes that are very likely to be revealed in the topography. Like the San Andreas fault, if it were on the surface of Venus today, we wouldn’t see its expression in the topography. And that’s kind of a big question. How is the surface deforming? We see evidence of lots of faults, so clearly it’s cold enough, strong enough to have brittle deformation happening.”

Artist’s impression of active volcanoes on Venus, including a potential subduction zone. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Peter Rubin)

“Are we going to see features that are different in how they deform? Are we going to see features that are kind of analogous to plate boundaries? And of course subduction, that’s a big question for me too,” Dr. Smrekar said.

As is evident, VERITAS will focus largely on the surface of Venus. To do this, the VEM and VISAR instruments must see through the clouds using three observation bands to remove the signature of the Venusian clouds.

However, VERITAS will not be tasked with throwing the kitchen sink at Venus in terms of the instruments it must bring.  That task will be left to the DAVINCI mission (which has dropped the “+” from the end of its name), VERITAS’ fellow Discovery program selection winner.

While some of that cloud removal data will be useable but scientists seeking to better understand out neighbor’s atmosphere, VERITAS itself will not seek to study the Venusian atmosphere directly.

With the two instruments VERITAS will carry, the spacecraft will map the surface of Venus in a variety of wavelengths and techniques, including mapping infrared emissions. Mapping infrared emissions from the surface allows VERITAS to understand volcanic emissions and what rock type is in certain surface areas, as well as other environmental processes.

The first question VERITAS hopes to investigate using this process is if Venus has — or had — the equivalent of Earth’s continental crust.

“On Earth, our ocean, the seafloor is basaltic, and the continental crust is… granitic,” Dr. Smrekar said. “So the seafloor has much more iron. And in the past, continents have been around for billions of years, for the most part. And we know that they form when massive amounts of basalt melts in the presence of water.”

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Flight Readiness Review gives green light for Starliner OFT-2

NASA and Boeing have finished the agency Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the second Orbital… The post Flight Readiness Review gives green light for Starliner OFT-2 appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.

Flight Readiness Review gives green light for Starliner OFT-2

NASA and Boeing have finished the agency Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. OFT-2 will demonstrate the changes made to the Starliner spacecraft following the first OFT mission, which was conducted in December 2019.

Flight Readiness Review

OFT-2 is the third flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, following the pad abort test and the first OFT mission. This mission will demonstrate the changes made to Starliner after the partial failure of the first OFT mission, which was cut short due to multiple software issues during flight.

After undergoing many changes, Boeing made the decision to re-do OFT. The Starliner spacecraft underwent several software changes, a multitude of software testing, and one major hardware change to the docking system. A new cover was added to the nose of the Starliner to protect the docking port from the dangers of reentry, similar to the nose cone of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

With the hardware and software changes completed and the Starliner now integrated with the Atlas V rocket, there were two critical pre-launch steps. The first, which was just completed, was the Flight Readiness Review, or FRR.

The OFT-2 Flight Readiness Review is conducted at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center – via NASA

The FRR is a meeting between Boeing, NASA, United Launch Alliance, Roscosmos, JAXA, and other International Space Station partners where they discuss the status of Starliner’s systems. The teams presented technical in-depth assessments, ensuring that the spacecraft, ISS, and launch vehicle are ready to support Starliner’s flight. 

The FRR has historically been the most important “go” for launch by NASA to launch a mission. Previously a major part of Space Shuttle campaigns, these reviews are now conducted for all Commercial Crew Program (CCP) missions.

The OFT-2 FRR marked one of the shortest Commercial Crew Program FRRs to date, lasting under a day, finishing at ~2:30 PM EDT (18:30 UTC).

After the review, the teams declared that Starliner is go to launch to the ISS at 2:53 PM EDT (18:53 UTC) on July 30. Roughly 24 hours after launch, the Starliner spacecraft will dock to the forward port on the ISS’s Harmony module, which will mark the first time that the Starliner has docked to the ISS. There is a backup launch window on August 3.

As with any FRR, a number of issues were discussed and closed out. The major focus of the FRR was on the lessons learned from the first OFT mission and the changes made to the vehicle. This included closing out all 61 flight software corrective actions identified by the independent review board, as well as all 19 communication system actions.

In addition, the Boeing team is flying the spacecraft in a configuration as close to the crewed configuration as possible. This includes the abort system being armed for the entire ascent, the first time Starliner’s abort system will be armed during a flight. Furthermore, the vehicle will be flying with crew displays, minor modifications to the wiring of the spacecraft, and other minor changes.

Starliner will undergo its Launch Readiness Review on July 27, where a final go will be given for launch. After the LRR, the Atlas V rocket and Starliner spacecraft will be rolled out to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for launch.

OFT-2 launch

United Launch Alliance (ULA), the launch provider for the OFT-2 mission, has been readying the Atlas V N22 launch vehicle ready for the mission. The “N22” is the configuration of the Atlas V for Starliner missions. The “N” in the N22 means there is no payload fairing on the vehicle. The first “2” is the number of Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60 solid rocket boosters (SRBs) being used on the Atlas V first stage. The last “2” means the number of RL-10A-4-2 engines being used on the Centaur second stage. 

The Atlas V Common Core Booster (CCB) being used for this mission is AV-082. It was delivered in June 2019 to Atlas Spaceflight Operation Center (ASOC) at CCSFS, when it was originally intended to support the Crewed Flight Test (CFT). Two years later, it was moved to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) and lifted vertically to support OFT-2. On July 6 and July 8, the twin AJ-60 SRBs were mated to the Atlas V booster.

The Centaur second stage is rolled out for stacking atop AV-082 – via ULA

The Centaur second stage was placed into the Delta Operations Center (DOC) for its own processing. On July 15, the Centaur upper stage, which was mated to the Starliner Launch Vehicle Adaptor (LVA) and interstage, was lifted on top of the Atlas V booster. There it was mated to the Atlas V booster, competing the Atlas V rocket, save for the Starliner spacecraft.

Starliner OFT-2 UPDATES
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  • OFT-2 is using Spacecraft 2 which, like AV-082, was originally supposed to be used for the Boeing CFT mission. It underwent final cargo loading and then began fueling in early June. Starliner will carry 200 kg of pressurized cargo up to the ISS, and will bring 260 kg back to Earth.

    Starliner was ready for mating three weeks later. The spacecraft was moved from Boeing’s Commercial Crew & Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) to the SLC-41 Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) on July 17. Then it was mated to the LVA on top of the Centaur.

    On July 21, teams conducted an end to end testing campaign of the Starliner spacecraft. These tests included communication through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) and communication through mission control. On July 22, the ULA and Boeing teams tested all communication between the Starliner spacecraft and the Atlas V launch vehicle. On July 23, the teams will conduct a mission dress rehearsal.

    The launch of OFT-2 is currently set for July 30 at 2:53 PM EDT (18:53 UTC). Like other ISS missions, it will have an instantaneous launch window to loft Starliner to orbit. 

    The Atlas V first stage ascent will last approximately four and a half minutes. Six seconds after booster engine cutoff, the Atlas and Centaur will separate, and the twin RL-10 engines will ignite. The Centaur will burn for around seven minutes to place Starliner on a sub-orbital trajectory. This is done to provide a safe abort zone in the event of an issue with the spacecraft’s propulsion systems and also to reduce the number of solid rocket boosters needed for launch.

    Starliner will separate from the Centaur four minutes after the RL-10 engines shutdown. From there, Starliner will start an orbital insertion burn about 17 minutes after Centaur separation. Then, Starliner will begin orbit raising burns to catch up with the ISS. After reaching the orbiting lab, it will dock to IDA-2 on the Harmony module. 

    Starliner lands at White Sands at the conclusion of the first OFT – via NASA

    To make room for Starliner, on July 21, undocked from IDA-2 and relocated to IDA-3. Starliner will take Endeavour’s previous spot on the orbiting lab.

    Starliner’s arrival will follow a very busy time at the ISS: on July 24, Roscosmos launched the new Nauka ISS module for the Russian segment. The Progress MS-16 spacecraft will undock with the Pirs module on July 24 to make room for the Nauka module. 

    The OFT-2 mission will last about six days, with undocking taking place on August 5. Once its time at the ISS is complete, Starliner will land at the White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) and begin refurbishments for a future flight to the ISS.

    The Starliner’s next flight after OFT-2 is CFT. It will carry NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore, Michael Fincke, and Nicole Mann for Starliner’s first crewed mission. That launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than late 2021.

    (Lead photo via NASA)

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