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Australia from Space: Part 3

Lake Acraman seen from space

Lake Acraman sits inside the eroded ruins of an ancient impact crater in the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. Presently about 20 kilometres wide, the original crater could have been up to 85 or 90 kilometres across. It is thought to have formed during the impact of a large meteoroid about 580 million years ago.

AFTER ANTARCTICA, AUSTRALIA IS THE DRIEST continent on Earth, and is largely covered by desert. But even the desert sometimes gets rain, as witnessed by the salt lakes spread throughout the landscape. Although usually dry, they very occasionally can receive water, often as runoff from higher ground.

These amazing images of the Australian ‘outback’were taken by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli during his stay aboard the International Space Station.

Lake Cadibarrawirracanna seen from space

According to Wikipedia, Lake Cadibarrawirracanna has the distinction of having the second-longest official place name in Australia. This salt lake is found within the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia. Woomera was once a very active rocket launch facility in the 1950s and 1960s. The name Cadibarrawirracanna means 'stars dancing on water'.

Lake Frome seen from space

Another salt lake is Lake Frome, also in South Australia. An ephemeral lake, it spends most of its life dry but sometimes fills with water. According to indigenous Australian Dreamtime mythology, the Rainbow Serpent Akurra drank all the water in the lake.

Lake Noondie seen from space

Lake Noondie, another salt lake, is located in the remote Murchison area of Western Australia.

Terrain near Lake Willis seen from space

This looks like an amazing piece of artwork, or maybe stained tissue cells under a microscope. In fact, what we see here is the dramatic red landscape near Lake Willis in Western Australia.

Red sand dunes in Western Australia, seen from space

Another apparent artwork, this time red sand dunes in outback Western Australia. Fuffy white clouds show there is some moisture in the air.

Earlier Australia from Space pictorials:

Australia from Space: Part 1

Australia from Space: Part 2

Adapted from information issued by ESA / NASA.

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Australia from space

Astronaut photo of the Petermann Ranges

The Petermann Ranges span 320 kilometres from eastern Western Australia into southwestern Northern Territory. The Range has been classified as a site of National Significance and lies within the proposed Katiti-Petermann Indigenous Protected Area.

THESE AMAZING IMAGES of selected landmarks in Australia were taken by European astronaut Paolo Nespoli during his current six-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS circles the globe in every 91 minutes, with different parts of our planet’s surface visible underneath each orbit as the Earth rotates.

Astronaut photo of Prominent Hill Mine

Prominent Hill Mine is a gold, silver and copper mine in northwest South Australia. Currently owned and operated by OZ Minerals, sale of the mine to the Chinese company Minmetals Australia Pty Ltd was blocked by the Australian Government on national security grounds…the mine is located within a high-security military area.

Astronaut photo of Mount Conner

Mount Conner is a flat-topped mountain in the Northern Territory, rising 300 metres above ground level (or 859 metres above mean sea level). It is thought to be part of the same sub-surface rock substrate that lies beneath the more famous Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata-Tjuta (the Olgas).

Astronaut photo of Lake Gairdner

Lake Gairdner is a huge salt lake in central South Australia, about 450 kilometres northwest of Adelaide. It is approximately 160 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide, and in some places the salt deposits are over a metre thick. When flooded, it is deemed the fourth-largest salt lake in Australia, and it has hosted numerous land speed record attempts.

Astronaut photo of Queensland's Sunshine Coast

Queensland's Sunshine Coast is an expanse of coastline north of Brisbane that takes in the towns Noosa Heads, Maroochydore and Caloundra.

Images courtesy ESA / NASA.

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Japan’s asteroid mission to land Sunday

Artist's impression of Hayabusa making contact with asteroid Itokawa

An artist's impression of Hayabusa making contact with asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

  • Japan’s Hayabusa mission to an asteroid
  • Hopefully bringing back rock samples
  • To land in Australia on June 16

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) expects the sample return capsule of the agency’s technology demonstrator spacecraft, Hayabusa, to boomerang back to Earth on Sunday night, June 13 (Australian time) Australia’s remote Woomera Test Range in South Australia.

The capsule, along with its mother ship, visited a near-Earth asteroid, Itokawa, five years ago and has logged about 2 billion kilometres (1.25 billion miles) in its remarkable mission of exploration.

Launched May 9, 2003, from the Kagoshima Space Centre, Uchinoura, Japan, Hayabusa was designed as a flying test bed. Its mission: to research several new engineering technologies necessary for returning planetary samples to Earth for further study.

With Hayabusa, JAXA scientists and engineers hoped to obtain detailed information on electrical propulsion and autonomous navigation, as well as an asteroid sampler and sample re-entry capsule.

The 510-kilogram (950-pound) Hayabusa spacecraft rendezvoused with asteroid Itokawa in September 2005. Over the following two-and-a-half months, the spacecraft made up-close and personal scientific observations of the asteroid’s shape, terrain, surface altitude distribution, mineral composition, gravity, and the way it reflected the sun’s rays.

An image of asteroid Itokawa

Asteroid Itokawa is about 450 metres long, and is covered with boulders large and small.

On November 25 of that year, Hayabusa briefly touched down on the surface of Itokawa. That was only the second time a spacecraft has descended to the surface of an asteroid (NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous-Shoemaker spacecraft landed on asteroid Eros on February 12, 2001). Hayabusa was the first attempt to sample asteroid surface material.

The journey home

The spacecraft departed Itokawa in January 2007. The road home for the technology demonstrator has been a long one, with several anomalies encountered along the way. But now the spacecraft is three days away from its home planet, and the Australian government, working closely with JAXA, has cleared the mission for landing.

A team of Japanese and American navigators is guiding Hayabusa on the final leg of its journey. Together, they calculate the final trajectory correction manoeuvres Hayabusa’s ion propulsion system must perform for a successful homecoming.

To obtain the data they need, the navigation team frequently calls upon JAXA’s tracking stations in Japan, as well as those of NASA’s Deep Space Network, which has antennas at Goldstone, in California’s Mojave Desert; near Madrid, Spain; and near Canberra, Australia. In addition, the stations provide mission planners with near-continuous communications with the spacecraft to keep them informed on spacecraft health.

The spacecraft will be travelling at 12.2 kilometres per second (27,290 miles per hour) when it reaches a very specific target point 200 kilometres (120 miles) above the Earth. At that point it will start to enter the atmosphere, with the heat shield of the sample return capsule glowing from atmospheric friction.

Landing in Australia

The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) in South Australia is managed by the Department of Defence and is the largest land-based test range in the world. Defence is providing crucial support to JAXA for Hayabusa’s re-entry and recovery.

Hayabusa's shadow cast upon Itokawa

Hayabusa took this image of its own shadow being cast upon asteroid Itokawa.

Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said this was a great example of Australia’s ongoing contribution to international space programs.

“Australia is proud to support Japan in this world-first expedition,” Senator Carr said.

“The Australian Government is investing $48.6 million in the Australian space sector through its new Space Policy Unit and Australian Space Research Program.”

“The Space Policy Unit is the central point of contact and coordination for all civil space activities, including fostering links with international space organisations. The return of the Hayabusa is one of the many activities the unit is supporting.”

“Australia’s contribution to this exciting space project will be significant,” Senator Carr said.

Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner said: “Australian authorities will assist JAXA in ensuring the recovery of the spacecraft on its return and are working closely with their Japanese counterparts on the proposed path and landing of Hayabusa.”

“This has been an historic mission. It is the first time a spacecraft has made contact with an asteroid and returned to Earth. Australia is closely involved in the project and our support is vital.”

Map of South Australia showing Hayabusa's landing site

Hayabusa's landing site is the remote Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia.

“This highlights once again the valuable contribution that the Woomera Prohibited Area can make to Australia’s national security, Defence capability and our international relationships,” Senator Faulkner said.

High-flying studies

“This is the second highest velocity re-entry of a capsule in history,” said Peter Jenniskens, a SETI Institute scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre.

“This extreme entry speed will result in high heating rates and thermal loads to the capsule’s heat shield. Such manmade objects entering with interplanetary speed do not happen every day, and we hope to get a ringside seat to this one.”

Jenniskens is leading an international team as it monitor the final plunge of Hayabusa to Earth using NASA’s DC-8 airborne laboratory, which is managed and piloted by a crew from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre.

The DC-8 flies above most clouds, allowing an unfettered line of sight for its instrument suite measuring the shock-heated gas and capsule surface radiation emitted by the re-entry fireball.

The data acquired by the high-flying team will help evaluate how thermal protection systems behave during these super-speedy spacecraft re-entries. This, in turn, will help engineers understand what a sample return capsule returning from Mars would undergo.

Artist's impression of the re-entry of Hayabusa's sample return capsule

Artist's impression of the re-entry of Hayabusa's sample return capsule over the Australian desert.

The Hayabusa sample return capsule re-entry observation will be similar to earlier observations by the DC-8 team of NASA’s Stardust capsule return, and the re-entry of the European Space Agency’s ATV-1 (“Jules Verne”) automated transfer vehicle.

Soon after the sample return capsule touches down on the ground, Hayabusa team members will retrieve it and transport it to JAXA’s sample curatorial facility in Sagamihara, Japan.

There, Japanese astromaterials scientists, assisted by two scientists from NASA and one from Australia, will perform a preliminary cataloguing and analysis of the capsule’s contents.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JAXA.

South Australia’s ring of mountains

Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia

Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, is a made of two mountain ranges that join up.

  • Mountain ranges seen from space
  • Flinders Ranges in South Australia
  • Example of a “pound” or rock enclosure

Pound is an old English term for a livestock enclosure usually surrounded by stone walls. Geologists use the term for rock formations that resemble such enclosures on a massive scale, and one of the best examples of a pound is Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus on the NASA/USGS Landsat 7 satellite captured this natural-colour image of Wilpena Pound and its surroundings. Wilpena Pound and nearby mountains appear in shades of beige, brown, grey, and green. Although the area is semi-arid, pine trees grow naturally throughout much of Wilpena Pound. Areas of bare, pale soil appear as patches of tan in the middle of the pound.

Wilpena Pound is roughly 17 by 8 kilometres (11 by 5 miles), and the floor of the pound is 8 by 4 kilometres (5 by 2 miles). The centre of this feature is the valley floor from a mountain range that long ago eroded away. While the relatively soft rocks in the centre of the pound succumbed to wind and rain, the surrounding walls are made of erosion-resistant quartzite.

Although the pound may appear to be surrounded by a single mountain range, it is actually enclosed by two ranges—an eastern range and a western range connected to each other by Rawnsley Bluff in the south. On the northern perimeter of the pound is St. Mary Peak. Rising to a height of 3,825 feet (1,166 meters), St. Mary Peak is not only the highest peak at Wilpena Pound, but also highest peak in the Flinders Ranges.

See the full-screen version of the image here.

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Text adapted from information issued by Michon Scott, NASA Earth Observatory.