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Asteroid 2012 DA14, as large as an Olympic swimming pool, has raced past the Earth at a distance of just 17,200 miles – the closest ever predicted for an object of that size.

The asteroid passed far closer even than the geosynchronous satellites that orbit the Earth, but there was no risk of impacts or collisions.

Its closest approach was at 19:25 GMT.

For regions in darkness, it should remain visible until about midnight through good binoculars or a telescope.

The asteroid’s arrival was preceded by a damaging meteor event in Russia on Friday – but indications from the meteor’s path suggest that the two events are entirely unrelated – just a “cosmic coincidence”, as Alan Fitzsimmons of Queens University Belfast said.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 has raced past the Earth at a distance of just 17,200 miles

Asteroid 2012 DA14 has raced past the Earth at a distance of just 17,200 miles

Asteroid 2012 DA14 orbits the Sun in 368 days – a period similar to Earth’s year – but it does not orbit in the same plane as the Earth.

As it passes – at 17,450 mi/hr – it will come from “under” the Earth and return back toward the Sun from “above”.

The asteroid passed directly over the eastern Indian Ocean, making for the best viewing in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia.

But keen viewers everywhere used several live streams of the event on the internet, including a feed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.

2012 DA14 was first spotted in February 2012 by astronomers at the La Sagra Sky Survey in Spain – once a fairly small-scale, amateur effort to discover and track asteroids that has in recent years become a significant contributor to our knowledge of these “near-Earth objects”.

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NASA’s Curiosity rover is preparing to scoop its first sample of Martian soil.

The vehicle, which landed on the Red Planet in August, has driven up to a pile of sandy material that mission scientists have dubbed “Rocknest”.

This weekend, the robot will dig into the ground with its clamshell-shaped trowel, with the aim first of cleaning the mechanism of earthly contamination.

Later, it will repeat the task and deliver an aspirin-sized measure of sand to onboard labs for analysis.

NASA engineers have cautioned that the whole process will be long and drawn out. The machinery involved is complex and the team says it needs time to learn how best to operate it.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will very likely be stationary at Rocknest for a couple of weeks while the scoop tests are carried out.

And, as with some of the earlier science experiments conducted by the rover, the scoop results – when they come – are expected to be fairly mundane. The sand is very probably just the product of weathered basalt, the ubiquitous volcanic rock on Mars’ surface.

The team is more concerned about getting its sample handling procedures right than making significant new discoveries.

A key objective of the first excavations will be to thoroughly clean the internal mechanisms of the robotic arm tool that does the digging.

It is called Chimra, or Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis.

Although assembled in ultra-sterile conditions at NASA, this tool will still have acquired an oily film deposit in Earth air that would contaminate the rover’s lab analysis results if left in place. By running several scoops through the handling system, Curiosity can scrub the film from Chimra.

“We effectively use it to rinse our mouth three times and then spit out,” explained Daniel Limonadi, the Curiosity surface sampling phase lead at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“We will take a scoop bite, we will vibrate that sand on all the different surfaces inside Chimra to effectively sand blast those surfaces, and then we dump all that material out; and we rinse and repeat three times to finish cleaning everything out.”

Once this procedure is complete, a tiny sample will be delivered to the onboard labs, Sam and CheMin, to run chemical and mineralogical analyses.

The sand will be severely shaken and sieved to make sure only fine-grained material, less than the width of a human hair in diameter, reaches the instruments.

The team will be mindful of the extreme difficulty a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix probe of 2008, had in getting material to go through its sample handling system.

“Phoenix had a relatively uncontrolled drop off capability; they had just the one scoop and that scoop had to do everything,” said Daniel Limonadi.

“We use gravity and vibration to get things into little parts of Chimra that make very controlled volumes of portions for us to drop off.”

The rover has now driven at total of 484 m (of about 1,590 ft) since its 6 August landing on the floor of Gale Crater, a huge depression on Mars’ equator.

It still has about 176 m to travel to get to a location dubbed Glenelg, a place satellite images have indicated is a junction between three different geological terrains.

It is at Glenelg where Curiosity will really get down to the business of investigating past environments in Gale.

Last week, scientists announced the robot had taken pictures of rocks that were clearly deposited in fast running water. The theory is that the rover is sitting at the head of an ancient alluvial fan where a network of streams cut across the crater floor billions of years ago.


Curiosity rover has only been on the surface of Mars seven weeks but it has already turned up evidence of past flowing water on the planet.

The robot has returned pictures of classic conglomerates – rocks that are made up of gravels and sand.

Scientists on the mission team say the size and rounded shape of the pebbles in the rock indicate they had been transported and eroded in water.

Researchers think the rover has found a network of ancient streams.

The rocks, which were described in a media briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, were likely laid down “several billion years ago”. But the actual streams themselves may have persisted on the surface for long periods, said Curiosity science co-investigator Bill Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley.

“We would anticipate that it could easily be thousands to millions of years,” he told reporters.

Curiosity rover has already turned up evidence of past flowing water on Mars

Curiosity rover has already turned up evidence of past flowing water on Mars

Satellites at Mars have long captured images of channels on the planet’s surface that were cut by some kind of flow, assumed to be liquid water. Curiosity’s discovery at its landing site in the equatorial Gale Crater provides the first real ground truth for those observations.

By luck, the rover just happened to roll past a spectacular example of the conglomerate. A large slab, 10-15 cm thick, was lifted out of the ground at an angle.

“We’ve named it Hottah,” said rover project scientist John Grotzinger. The name refers to a lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The team is using names from this region to catalogue objects at Gale.

“To us it just looked like somebody came along the surface of Mars with a jackhammer and lifted up the sidewalk that you might see in downtown LA at a construction site,” he joked.

Scientists are now studying the images of the pebbles in the rock. The sizes and shapes will give them clues to the speed and distance of the ancient water flow.

The discovery site lies between the northern rim of the crater and the huge mountain that rises up from its central plain.

Previous orbital imagery of the region had hinted there might have been a water feature there. Curiosity’s conglomerates support that hypothesis.

The current interpretation is that the rover is sitting at the head of an alluvial fan of material that washed down through the crater wall and across the plain, cutting many individual streams. Researchers even think they can identify the particular valley at the rim where the water entered the crater, and they have named it Peace Vallis.

There is an eagerness also to study the chemistry of the conglomerates because that will give an indication of the nature of the water – its pH value, for example – and that will provide some clues as to what the environment at the time might have looked like.

At the moment, the rover is heading towards a location dubbed Glenelg. Scientists think this will give them the best access to the rocks of interest.

NASA’s $2.6 billion mission touched down on the Red Planet on 6 August (GMT).

Much of the time since then has been spent commissioning the immensely complex, six-wheeled machine and its suite of 10 instruments.

Curiosity is funded for one Martian year (two Earth years) of study. It will try to determine in that time whether past environments at Gale Crater could ever have supported microbial life.


Just two weeks after landing its Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA has announced it will send another robot to the planet in 2016.

The InSight spacecraft will be a static lander that will carry instruments to investigate Mars’ deep interior.

Scientists say this will give them a clearer idea of how the rocky planets formed – the Earth included.

InSight beat two other proposals in a competition to find NASA’s next relatively low-cost mission.

This so-called Discovery class of endeavor is cost-capped at $425 million (345 million euros), although that figure does not include the rocket to launch the spacecraft.

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

It will be led from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The design of the lander leans heavily on the successful Phoenix probe put on the Red Planet in 2008. But although the 2016 venture will look very similar, it will carry very different instrumentation.

A seismic experiment will listen for “marsquakes” and use this information to map the boundaries between the rock layers inside Earth’s neighbor.

It will determine if the planet has a liquid or solid core, and provide some clues as to why its surface is not divided up into tectonic plates as on Earth.

Just two weeks after landing its Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA has announced it will send InSight robot to the planet in 2016

Just two weeks after landing its Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA has announced it will send InSight robot to the planet in 2016

Key components of this package will come from France and the UK.

InSight will also push a German-built thermal probe into the surface to gauge Mars’ temperature profile. This will reveal how the planet is cooling.

JPL will provide the two cameras on InSight and a robotic arm.

It will also deliver another sensor that will very accurately determine the degree to which the planet wobbles on its axis.

All the data combined will inform researchers about the internal state of Mars today and how it has changed through the eons.

“This is science that has been compelling for many years,” said John Grunsfeld, who heads up NASA’s science division.

“Seismology, for instance, is the standard method by which we’ve learned to understand the interior of the Earth – and we have no such knowledge for Mars.

“This has been something the principal investigator (JPL’s Bruce Banerdt) of this mission has been trying to get to Mars for nearly three decades, and so I’m really thrilled that this is now at a mature stage where he has been able to propose something that fits within the cost and schedule constraints of the Discovery programme.”

It is clear from surface features that the Red Planet was much more geologically active in the past. The remains of the largest volcano in the Solar System – Olympus Mons – can be seen on Mars.

When and why this activity waned remains to be established, but it is an issue that plays directly to the question of life on the planet.

Earth retains an atmosphere and water at its surface because of the protective magnetic field generated in its liquid iron/nickel core.

At some point, Mars lost its global magnetic shield and that allowed the stream of particles billowing away from the Sun – the “solar wind” – to strip away the planet’s atmosphere, leading to the loss also of its surface water. This change may have stifled any chance for life to establish itself on Mars.

NASA is currently basking in the success of its Curiosity rover, which landed on the planet two weeks ago. That mission, by comparison, is costing $2.5 billion (2 billion euros).

The space agency says the InSight selection was made before the six-wheeled vehicle touched down and so was not influenced in any way by recent events.

The outlook for American Mars scientists now looks considerably brighter than it did at the beginning of the year.

Back in February, they were told NASA’s budget for Red Planet exploration would be cut back sharply; and many feared that if Curiosity was lost during its risky landing, they might not see another US-led Martian lander for perhaps 10 years.

InSight – Mission to Mars’ interior

• Launch window: 8-27 March 2016

• Landing: 20 September 2016

• Destination: Flat equatorial plain

• Mission length: Two Earth years

• Cost: $425 million cap (without rocket)


Images of the surface of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover as it made its historic descent yesterday have now been released.

NASA has provided almost 300 thumbnails from a sequence of pictures that will eventually be run together as a color hi-def movie.

Visible in the timelapse is the heatshield discarded by the vehicle as it neared the ground.

It was the crane that finally settled the robot on to the surface.

A signal confirming the Curiosity rover had landed on Mars was received here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 05:32 GMT (22:32 PDT Sunday).

Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science laboratory (MSL) – put down in a deep equatorial depression known as Gale Crater.

Pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (Mardi), even in their thumbnail form, have now allowed engineers to work out Curiosity’s precise position on the planet – a latitude of -4.5895 and a longitude of 137.4417.

Pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (Mardi), even in their thumbnail form, have now allowed engineers to work out Curiosity's precise position on the planet

Pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (Mardi), even in their thumbnail form, have now allowed engineers to work out Curiosity's precise position on the planet

The full set of high-resolution pictures from Mardi will take some weeks to downlink.

The mission team has also got its best view yet of Mount Sharp, the 5.5 km-high peak sitting in the middle of Gale.

This comes from a hazard avoidance camera mounted on the lower-front of the vehicle.

Ordinarily, hazcam pictures are very wide-angle in view and therefore distorted, but image processing software has been used to correct the geometry.

The mountain is the ultimate destination for this $2.5 billion mission.

Satellite data has indicated that sediments at the base of Mount Sharp were laid down in the presence of abundant water.

Curiosity, with its sophisticated suite of 10 instruments, will study those rocks to try to determine if ancient environments on Mars were ever favorable for life.

Released earlier on Monday was a spectacular shot acquired not by the rover but of the rover. This came from one of the US space agency’s satellites at the Red Planet – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

MRO played a key role in Monday’s landing by recording telemetry from the robot as it approached the ground.

But NASA also tasked it with trying to get a picture of the new arrival. The rover is seen when still inside its protective shell.

Moments after this image was acquired, the vehicle would have dropped out of the capsule to ride its rocket-powered crane to the base of the crater. The resolution in the picture is such that it is even possible to pick out the discarded heatshield.

The mission team is now in its first full day of Martian operations (Sol 1). One of the key activities will be to deploy Curiosity’s high-gain antenna. This unit will allow the vehicle to talk direct to Earth, in addition to relaying data via satellites like MRO.

Another action planned for Sol 1 will be to get a color shot from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (Mahli).

This camera is mounted on the rover’s tool-bearing turret at the end of its robotic arm. The picture, which should be released on Tuesday, will provide the most detailed view of the rover’s surroundings to date.

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The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet, NASA says.

The NASA robot’s flight trajectory is so good engineers cancelled the latest course correction they had planned.

To be sure of touching down in the right place on the surface, the vehicle must hit a box at the top of the atmosphere that is just 3 km by 12 km.

“Our inbound trajectory is right down the pipe,” said Arthur Amador, Curiosity’s mission manager.

“The team is confident and thrilled to finally be arriving at Mars, and we’re reminding ourselves to breathe every so often. We’re ready to go.”

Curiosity’s power and communications systems are in excellent shape.

The one major task left for the mission team is to prime the back-up computer that will take command if the main unit fails during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) manoeuvres.

The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet

The Curiosity rover remains perfectly on course to make its Monday (GMT) landing on the Red Planet

Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory – has spent the past eight months travelling from Earth to Mars, covering more than 560 million km.

The robot was approaching Mars at about 13,000 km/h on Saturday. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touch-down, gravity will have accelerated it to about 21,000 km/h.

The vehicle is being aimed at Gale Crater, a deep depression just south of the planet’s equator.

It is equipped with the most sophisticated science payload ever sent to another world.

Its mission, when it gets on the ground, is to characterize the geology in Gale and examine its rocks for signs that ancient environments on Mars could have supported microbial life.

Touch-down is expected at 05:31 GMT (06:31 BST) Monday 6 August; 22:31 PDT, Sunday 5 August.

It is a fully automated procedure. NASA will be following the descent here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The rover will broadcast X-band and UHF signals on its way down to the surface.

These will be picked up by a mix of satellites at Mars and radio antennas on Earth.

The key communication route will be through the Odyssey orbiter. It alone will see the rover all the way to the ground and have the ability to relay UHF telemetry straight to Earth.

And mission team members remain hopeful that this data will also include some images that Curiosity plans to take of itself just minutes after touching the ground.

These would be low-resolution, wide-angle, black and white images of the rear wheels.

They may not be great to look at, but the pictures will give engineers important information about the exact nature of the terrain under the rover.

A lot has been made of the difficulty of getting to Mars, and historically there have been far more failures than successes (24 versus 15), but the Americans’ recent record at the Red Planet is actually very good – six successful landings versus two failures.

Even so, NASA continues to downplay expectations.

“If we’re not successful, we’re going to learn,” said Doug McCuistion, the head of the US space agency’s Mars programme.

“We’ve learned in the past, we’ve recovered from it. We’ll pick ourselves up, we’ll dust ourselves off, we’ll do something again; this will not be the end.

“The human spirit gets driven by these kinds of challenges, and these are challenges that drive us to explore our surroundings and understand what’s out there.”

The mission team warned reporters on Saturday not to jump to conclusions if there was no immediate confirmation of landing through Odyssey.

There were “credible reasons”, engineers said, why the UHF signal to Odyssey could be lost during the descent, such as a failure on the satellite or a failure of the transmitter on the rover.

Continued efforts would be made to contact Curiosity in subsequent hours as satellites passed overhead and when Gale Crater came into view of radio antennas on Earth.

“There are situations that might come up where we will not get communications all the way through [to the surface], and it doesn’t necessarily mean that something bad has happened; it just means we’ll have to wait and hear from the vehicle later,” explained Richard Cook, the deputy project manager.

This was emphasized by Allen Chen, the EDL operations lead. His is the voice from mission control that will be broadcast to the world during the descent. He will call out specific milestones on the way down. He said there would be no rush to judgement if the Odyssey link was interrupted or contained information that was “off nominal”.

“I think we proceed under any situation as though the spacecraft is there, and there for us to recover – to find out what happened,” he said.

“That’s the most sensible thing to do. There are only a few instances I think where you could know pretty quickly that we’d be in trouble.”


Paul K. Martin, NASA’s inspector general, has told US lawmakers that hackers gained “full functional control” of key agency’s computers in 2011.

Paul K. Martin said hackers took over Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) computers and “compromised the accounts of the most privileged JPL users”.

He said the attack, involving Chinese IP addresses, was under investigation.

In a statement, NASA said it had “made significant progress to protect the agency’s IT systems”.

Paul K. Martin’s testimony on NASA’s cybersecurity was submitted to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

In the document, he outlined how investigators believed the attack had involved “Chinese-based internet protocol [IP] addresses”.

He said that the attackers had “full system access” and would have been able to “modify, copy, or delete sensitive files” or “upload hacking tools to steal user credentials and compromise other NASA systems”.

Paul K. Martin, NASA's inspector general, has told US lawmakers that hackers gained "full functional control" of key agency’s computers in 2011

Paul K. Martin, NASA's inspector general, has told US lawmakers that hackers gained "full functional control" of key agency’s computers in 2011

Paul K. Martin outlined how the agency suffered “5,408 computer security incidents” between 2010 and 2011.

He also noted that “between April 2009 and April 2011, NASA reported the loss or theft of 48 Agency mobile computing devices”.

In one incident an unencrypted notebook computer was lost containing details of the algorithms – the mathematical models – used to control the International Space Station.

NASA said that “at no point in time have operations of the International Space Station been in jeopardy due to a data breach”.

Paul K. Martin said NASA was a “target-rich environment for cyber attacks”.

He said that the motivation of the hackers ranged from “individuals testing their skill to break into NASA systems, to well-organized criminal enterprises hacking for profit, to intrusions that may have been sponsored by foreign intelligence services”.

But while Paul K. Martin criticized aspects of NASA’s cybersecurity he noted investigations had resulted in “arrests and convictions of foreign nationals in China, Great Britain, Italy, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Turkey, and Estonia”.

NASA said it was working to implement the security improvements Paul K. Martin suggested in his testimony.

However the chairman of the congressional subcommittee, Rep. Paul Broun, quoted in an online report of proceedings, said: “Despite this progress, the threat to NASA’s information security is persistent, and ever changing. Unless NASA is able to constantly adapt – their data, systems, and operations will continue to be endangered.”