Archive for January, 2020

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B image acquired on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2658 tasks.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Curiosity continues to function normally on Mars. We are at a very interesting point with potential changes in rock chemistry,” reports Susanne Schwenzer, a planetary geologist at The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.

“That always gets the geochemists like me to sit up and pay extra attention. But we don’t always get it our way, because other investigations are just as important,” Schwenzer adds.

Engineering judgements

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A recent two-sol plan with the third day being a soliday, did not make it any easier as scientists awaited Curiosity engineering judgements on the rover’s overall power – and the power available was not enough to get it all done.

“In a case like this, careful considerations are required regarding what observations are specific to the location or the time, and which ones could wait for the next plan,” Schwenzer explains.

For one, the environmental group gave up an observation to make it all fit, but retains the crater rim extinction and the full tau observation.

Bedrock: two different types

“From a geochemist’s perspective the most interesting part of the story at the current location is that we see two different types of bedrock. One is characterized in the images by a smoother appearance and veins in it. This type is the primary focus on the plan. But there is nodular bedrock, too,” Schwenzer explains.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The robot’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) has the smoother bedrock in reach and will measure the target “Rannoch Moore” as an evening investigation and “Sauchiehall” as an overnight, long duration target after use of the Dust Removal Tool (DRT).

In the plan, Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) was to document both targets.

Chemistry and Camera ( ChemCam) will investigate “Rannoch Moore” in conjunction with APXS, and has the targets “Janetstown,” also on smoother bedrock, and “Glenalmond” on the nodular version, Schwenzer points out.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Excellent view

“At our current location, we have an excellent view of several buttes and the Geenheugh pediment. This is reflected in a very busy plan for Mastcam. The Greenheugh pediment and Tower Butte are images together in a 19×4 mosaic, but there are two more observations with mosaics on Western Butte and the trough feature in front of us,” Schwenzer says. “This will allow for detailed analysis of the sediments, but also aid the upcoming drives. Exciting times at a very interesting location!”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager photo produced on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Regarding the rover’s environmental sensor activity, a sunset tau, and Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) and Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) measurements as well as post-drive imaging complete this very busy plan.

In addition to all the observations, Schwenzer notes that Curiosity is set to drive 164 feet (50 meters)…uphill!  “I am sure Curiosity is happy and ready for a recharging soliday after this plan!”

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2657, January 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Contact Paradox – Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Keith Cooper, Bloomsbury Publishing; 2020; Hardback; 336 pages, $28.00.

Space journalist Keith Cooper takes on a set of assumptions regarding the on-going and perplexing search for other starfolk.

This is a well-written, well-researched, and a must read that spotlights the saga of SETI, how it has evolved over the decades and what outcomes may be looming in the future. More importantly, the reader will find this book challenging suppositions…and grappling with the ramifications if SETI succeeds.

In eight chapters, Cooper takes on such heady topics as the altruism assumption, messages from Earth, technosignatures, 21st century SETI, and possible societal consequences of contact.  

The author writes: “SETI is not just a search for aliens. It’s also a search for ourselves. We project out hopes and fears, our history and our expectations about the future of humanity onto what we think extraterrestrial civilizations might be like.”

Cooper offers the reader a balance of thought-provoking views and opinions, not only his own, but tapping into the thoughts of leading figures in SETI and related fields.

Taking into account the escalating number of exoplanets being discovered – yet we remain faced with silence from the stars — you’ll find an absorbing, first-rate read in The Contact Paradox.

This book also includes a glossary and a healthy resource of further reading suggestions tied to each chapter.

For more information on this book, go to:

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Left B Camera image taken on Sol 2655, January 24, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is wrapping up Sol 2655 tasks. 

Here’s a selection of new imagery taken by the robot:

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Left B Camera image taken on Sol 2655, January 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 2655, January 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2654, January 24, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2654, January 24, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2654, January 24, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera Remote Micro-Imaging (RMI) photo taken on Sol 2655, January 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Mars Hand Lens Imager photo produced on Sol 2654, January 24, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars Hand Lens Imager photo produced on Sol 2654, January 24, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Road map

Meanwhile, A new map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 2654 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (January 24, 2020).

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up.

From Sol 2645 to Sol 2654, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 128.88 feet (39.28 meters).

Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 13.54 miles (21.79 kilometers).

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

DLR sample carrier containing bacteria and fungi during its nine-hour journey into the stratosphere.
Credit: NASA


Late last year, astrobiologists let loose a “zoo” of microorganisms that traveled by high altitude stratospheric balloon for nine hours – a journey up to 19 miles (30 kilometers) above the Earth.

At this altitude, the shielding effects of Earth’s atmosphere are greatly reduced, and the temperature, radiation and pressure are akin to the conditions found on Mars.

The astrobiologists were from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt), the DLR.

The DLR scientists took part in a NASA program called “Microbes in Atmosphere for Radiation, Survival and Biological Outcomes Experiment” or MARSBOx for short.

Preliminary findings

The results of that September 2019 trip are under analysis by a DLR team. The preliminary biological findings are now available.

The MARSBOx sample holder containing dried mould spores (left) and bacteria (right).
Credit: DLR

“These show that most of the bacteria have been killed, with the strong ultraviolet radiation proving to be particularly problematic for them,” points out a DLR statement on the MARSBOx flight. Only a few staphylococci – human pathogens – survived the journey. In contrast, mould spores survived better under the extreme conditions in the stratosphere.

Some of the organisms underwent testing outside the protective troposphere for the very first time.

Survival properties

Ralf Möller, a microbiologist at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne, explains: “In order to proliferate, moulds form spores that are highly resistant to extreme conditions such as dryness and radiation. In addition, fungi have very efficient protective mechanisms against radiation, such as strong black pigmentation and effective DNA repair.”

MARSBOx sample carrier back with the DLR microbiologists.
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

Although many bacteria have properties that are similar to this, Möller adds that the mould spores are much more resistant to the extreme Martian conditions than the bacteria that the DLR team tested.

“The results demonstrate how important it is to continue with research into microorganisms,” Möller says, “particularly fungi, and their survival properties in space, not least in the interests of the health of astronauts on long-term missions to space stations and, later, to habitats on the Moon and Mars.”

Earth orbiting research lab – the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: NASA

Major test campaign

Bacteria and fungi are part of nature and human life. Whether they live on the outside of our bodies – on our skin – or inside us,

Many species of bacteria and fungi are harmless. Some are even useful. On the other hand, there are also varieties that can be dangerous to humans and cause serious diseases. These pose invisible dangers to space travelers on space stations or on future journeys to outposts situated on other worlds, such as Mars.

Issues of “planetary protection” must also be considered. If landers, rovers or other space vehicles carrying bacteria or fungi set down on planets and celestial bodies, they could contaminate the surface.

Investigations into microorganisms under space conditions are ongoing.

For example, as early as summer 2020, samples for a major test campaign will be transported to the International Space Station (ISS) to investigate how they are affected by microgravity conditions in the short and long term.

A new report looks at the yearly reentry of large numbers of satellite constellations, noting that they can pose a significant hazard to people, both on the ground and in aircraft.

But how great are the risks we face?

The assessment — Large Constellation Disposal Hazards – has been authored by William Ailor of The Aerospace Corporation and issued by the group’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy. Ailor is a Technical Fellow with the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California.

Random reentries

This first-order appraisal of potential risks to people and aircraft from random reentries of large numbers of satellites from large constellations in low Earth orbits shows that risks to aircraft posed by small debris surviving a reentry might be a major problem facing owners of large constellations, with worldwide risk of an aircraft striking a reentering debris fragment on the order of once every 200 years.

One object that survived reentry of an Iridium satellite has been discovered on the ground. Debris hat survived reentry of Iridium satellite on October 11, 2018.
(Photo courtesy Kings County Sheriff’s Office)

Furthermore, the report explains that hazards to people on the ground from larger debris objects will also be a significant problem, with expectations as high as one casualty every 10 years.

Debris survival

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/Center for Space Policy and Strategy

The report adds that spacecraft components and features could be designed to have fewer large and small fragments survive, but only limited hard data on actual debris survival currently exists.


Given that hundreds of satellites per year from very large constellations could reenter, designers might find it difficult to eliminate many small fragments hazardous to aircraft and to verify whether proposed mitigation techniques perform as desired.



For a copy of this informative report, go to:

China’s Mars Orbiter, Lander, Rover effort.
Credit: China Aerospace Technology Corporation

China space officials have announced the month of this year’s launch for the country’s Mars orbiter/rover/lander: July.

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, this is the first time the country disclosed the launch month of its Mars exploration program.

China’s Mars mission elements.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

The Mars probe mission will be sent to the Red Planet by the Long March-5 Y4 carrier rocket. That booster recently completed a 100-second test for its high thrust hydrogen-oxygen engine, which is the last engine examination before final assembly.

In an earlier China Global Television Network (CGTN) story, Ye Jianpei, chief scientist of Space Science and Deep-space Exploration with the Chinese Space Technology Academy, said: “The mission is going smoothly. If no surprise, the Mars explorer is going to be launched in 2020, and land before 2021.”

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Triple tasks, one mission

The mission is designed to examine the Red Planet’s atmosphere, landscape, geological and magnetic characteristics, which could provide clues to the origin and evolution of Mars and the solar system, Ye said.

“Mars exploration is very innovative. If it proves to be a success, it will be the world’s first time a country completes the three tasks in one mission,” Ye added.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will collect and cache samples for later retrieval.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Multiple Mars launches

If all goes well, China’s Mars explorer will have company.

The favorable Mars opposition launch window in 2020 is the target for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars lander mission (now facing parachute test issues); NASA’s Mars 2020 mega-rover (near ready to be shipped to Florida); as well as the UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter.

Mars landing simulation facility, making use of a tower nearly 460 feet (140 meter) in height.
Credit: CGTN

Test facility

Late last year, China unveiled a simulated Mars landing facility, making use of a tower nearly 460 feet (140 meter) in height, a testing structure situated at Huailai County, Hebei Province, north China. The six pylon tower facility included a servo system and a Martian surface simulation area.

The experiment simulated the gravity of Mars, about one-third of the gravity on Earth, to test the design of the lander, according to China Central Television (CCTV).

Testing facility for China’s Mars lander.
Credit: CGTN

Ambassadors and diplomats from 19 countries including France, Italy and Brazil, as well as representatives from the European Union, the African Union and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization were invited to watch the experiment, said CCTV.

China’s Mars rover.
Courtesy: James Head

Landing procedure

In an earlier Xinhua news agency story, Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of China’s first Mars exploration mission, said in order to simulate the landing procedure under the gravitational acceleration of Mars demanded construction of the facility.

A red platform in the middle of the pylons is fixed by 36 steel cables. Through precise control, Xinhua reports, the platform is able to simulate the Martian gravitational environment.

On the ground underneath the pylon tower, engineers created slopes and craters to mimic the environment of the Martian surface.

China’s Mars landing regions.
Courtesy: James Head

Touchdown regions

According to Xinhua, the test verified the procedures including the lander’s separation with the main body of the spacecraft from a height of 230 feet (70 meters), and then hovering at 67 meters above the surface, searching for a safe landing spot, and then descending to 20 meters above the surface in an obstacle-avoiding mode.

Regarding the selection of China’s robotic Mars landing site, a recent briefing from James Head of Brown University explained that two regions have been identified that represent a wide array of scientific sleuthing, including appraising possible habitats of life.

For a look China’s Mars exploration program, go to this embedded CGTN video at:

Also, go to this China National Space Administration (CNSA) video at:

Go to this video for a preview of China’s mission to Mars:



Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo acquired on Sol 2648, January 17, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2653 tasks.

Curiosity has regained its knowledge of orientation to proceed with arm activities and mobility and is ready for science once more, reports Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “And a very full science plan was made!”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2648, January 17, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Much of that plan was recycled from last Friday’s intended plan, including contact science with the robot’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on bedrock targets Moffat Hills and Trossachs.

Mosaic of Western Butte

Guzewich also reports that there was a plethora of Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) targets, a Mastcam mosaic of Western Butte, Mastcam multispectral images on Trossachs, and environmental movies to search for clouds and dust devils while also documenting atmospheric dust levels.

This Hazcam image shows Curiosity’s arm extended out to perform an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) analysis of the bedrock. Curiosity has to know the exact angle of every joint to move safely. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 2648, January 17, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Also planned was a rare measurement with APXS to measure the argon abundance in the atmosphere, Guzewich adds.

Argon variation

“Approximately 25 percent of Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere condenses on the winter polar ice cap, while trace gases like argon do not,” Guzewich explains. “This leads to seasonal variations in the relative fraction of argon to carbon dioxide in the air. APXS can measure this argon variation by simply turning on and looking at the sky while the arm is stowed. Seeing argon vary through the year is akin to watching Mars breathe!”

Credit: Image design by Tim Warchocki. Images courtesy of NASA (Earth) and Tim Warchocki (asteroid and stars).
Credit: Space Studies Board/National Research Council



The roughly 44 mile (70 kilometers) in diameter Yarrabubba impact structure in Western Australia has been radiometric age dated to 2.2 billion years old, making it Earth’s oldest recognized asteroid impact structure.

That determination extends the terrestrial cratering record back greater than 200 million years.

Research led by Timmons Erickson from NASA Johnson Space Center and Curtin University in Australia, along with his colleagues, has been published in Nature Communications.

Extraterrestrial bombardment

In an introduction to their research, the team explains that extraterrestrial bombardment flux is speculated to have had major consequences for the development of Earth’s surface environment. “However, the terrestrial impact record is fragmentary, principally due to tectonics and erosion and is progressively erased into the geologic past when, conversely, the bombardment rate was larger than today,” they note.

Map of the Yarrabubba impact structure and sample localities.
Credit: Erickson, et al.

Yarrabubba is a recognized impact structure located within the Murchison Domain of the Archaean granite—greenstone Yilgarn Craton of Western Australia. The research paper notes that no circular crater remains at Yarrabubba; “however, the structure has an elliptical aeromagnetic anomaly consisting of an even, low total magnetic intensity domain.”

The roughly 12 mile (20 kilometer) diameter magnetic anomaly has been interpreted to represent the remnant of the deeply buried central uplift of the structure, which is consistent with an original crater diameter of 44 miles (70 kilometers), they report.

Time of impact

These results establish Yarrabubba as the oldest preserved impact structure on Earth.

Furthermore, Erickson and colleagues suggest the 4.3 mile (7 kilometer) wide asteroid that shaped the Yarrabubba impact site could have been covered by a continental ice sheet at the time of impact.

The slam-bang result was spewing water vapor into the atmosphere and potentially warming Earth’s climate on a global basis. The research team applied numerical simulations to tease out the possible effects that a Yarrabubba-sized impact may have had on climactic conditions.

In their paper, the scientists say the findings “prompts further consideration of the ability of meteorite impacts to trigger climate change.”

To read the full paper – “Precise radiometric age establishes Yarrabubba, Western Australia, as Earth’s oldest recognized meteorite impact structure” – go to:

Core module of China’s first space station.
Credit: CGTN/Inside Outer Space screengrab


The core module of China’s first space station has reached the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Monday, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMCEO).

Credit: CGTN/Inside Outer Space screengrab



Named “Tianhe” — meaning harmony in the sky — the core is the management and control center of the space station. It is 54 feet (16.6 meters) long, with a maximum diameter of 14 feet (4.2 meters) and a launch mass of 22.5 tons.

Credit: CGTN/Inside Outer Space screengrab



Guidance, navigation and control

According to China Global Television Network (CGTN) and Xinhua news services, the core module can host three astronauts and do long-term missions in orbit. It will manage guidance, navigation and control for the entire space station. To date, it is the largest spacecraft developed by China and is able to support various space science and technical experiments inside and outside the capsule.

The module also contains a non-habitable service section and a docking hub.

Credit: CGTN/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Robotic arm

Tianhe-1’s debut also featured engineers from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) to showcase the operation of a robotic arm to help station occupants to grab, hold and move objects.

Credit: CGTN/Inside Outer Space screengrab


A Long March-5B booster is scheduled to arrive at the Wenchang space launch site in early February. The mission is expected to be carried out later in 2020. This would be followed by a series of launches for other components of the space station, including two space labs, which will dock with the core module.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

New-generation spacecraft

In a related story, China’s new-generation piloted spacecraft is ready for a test launch, said the China Manned Space Engineering Office on Monday.

A test ship arrived safely at south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center on Monday.

According to CCTV, the orbit height of the unpiloted test flight will be about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) – an altitude never reached by China’s Shenzhou series manned spacecraft.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Greater heat resistance

“The new spacecraft uses new heat-resistant material and structure, which is only a third in density compared to the Shenzhou spacecraft, but the heat resistance is three to four times greater,” said Huang Zhen, chief assistant designer of the new manned spacecraft.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

“We also upgraded our control on the return trip, which means we will further improve the accuracy of the landing point, and at the same time make sure the astronauts can withstand the impact,” Huang told CCTV.

The test ship will be launched by the Long March-5B rocket. There will also be verification on a new landing method using grouped parachutes and airbags, as well as reusability-related technologies.

A China Global Television Network (CGTN) detailing the core module and China’s space station plans can be viewed here at:

For a CCTV video on China’s new spaceship, go to:


This Hazcam image shows Curiosity’s arm extended out to perform an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) analysis of the bedrock. Curiosity has to know the exact angle of every joint to move safely. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 2648, January 17, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover just entered Sol 2652. The robot has an “attitude” problem.

“Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation. Some knowledge of its attitude was not quite right, so it couldn’t make the essential safety evaluation,” reports Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist at University of California Davis.

“Thus, Curiosity stopped moving, freezing in place until its knowledge of its orientation can be recovered,” Sumner adds.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2648, January 17, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recovery plan

“Curiosity kept sending us information,” Sumner continues, “so we know what happened and can develop a recovery plan.”

Curiosity engineers did build a plan to inform Curiosity of its attitude and to confirm what happened. “We want Curiosity to recover its ability to make its safety checks, and we also want to know if there is anything we can do to prevent a similar problem in the future. This approach helps keep our rover safe,” Sumner notes.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo acquired on Sol 2648, January 17, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Body awareness

Sumner explains the situation:

“Knowing where our bodies are helps us move through the world. We know if we are standing or sitting, if our arms are out or by our sides (or for some people, not there at all). This body awareness is essential for staying safe.”

“Rovers also need to know where their bodies are relative to their surroundings. Curiosity stores its body attitude in memory, things like the orientation of each joint, which instrument on the end of its arm is pointing down, and how close APXS [Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer] is to the ground. It also stores its knowledge of the environment, things like how steep the slope is, where the big rocks are, and where the bedrock sticks out in a dangerous way.”

Safety checks

“Curiosity evaluates this information before any motor is activated to make sure the movement can be executed safely. When the answer is no – or even maybe not – Curiosity stops without turning the motor. This conservative approach helps keep Curiosity from hitting its arm on rocks, driving over something dangerous, or pointing an unprotected camera at the sun. These safety checks require an accurate knowledge of the rover position within its environment and are an essential part of good engineering practice. They have kept Curiosity safe over the years.”