Archive for May, 2017

Artist impression of the Schiaparelli module with parachute deployed.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

A European Space Agency (ESA) and industry inquiry into last year’s crash-landing of the ExoMars Schiaparelli module on the Red Planet has concluded that conflicting information in the onboard computer caused the descent sequence to end prematurely.

According to a just-released final report, the Schiaparelli demonstrator was very close to successfully landing on Mars at the planned location.

Six-minute descent

The Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module separated from its mothership — the now orbiting Mars, Trace Gas Orbiter — as planned on October 16, 2016 and coasted towards Mars for three days.

Much of the six-minute descent onto Mars on October 19 went as expected: the module entered the atmosphere correctly, with the heatshield protecting it at supersonic speeds. Sensors on the front and back shields collected useful scientific and engineering data on the atmosphere and heatshield.

Schiaparelli’s heatshield was equipped with a variety of sensors designed to take measurements as the module entered the atmosphere. The Combined Aerothermal and Radiometer Sensors Instrument Package, COMARS+, used sensors on the back heatshield to measure pressure, temperature and heat flux. System sensors on the front shield were monitored by the data housekeeping system.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Real-time telemetry

Telemetry from Schiaparelli was relayed to the main craft, which was entering orbit around the Red Planet at the same time – the first time this had been achieved in Mars exploration. This real-time transmission proved invaluable in reconstructing the unfolding chain of events.

At the same time as the orbiter recorded Schiaparelli’s transmissions, ESA’s Mars Express orbiter also monitored the lander’s carrier signal, as did the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope in India.

Root causes

In the report, the following root causes for the mishap have been identified:

– Insufficient uncertainty and configuration management in the modeling of the parachute dynamics which led to expect much lower dynamics than observed in flight;

– Inadequate persistence time of the craft’s inertial measurement unit (IMU) saturation flag and inadequate handling of IMU saturation by the guidance, navigation and control (GNC) hardware;

– Insufficient approach to Failure Detection, Isolation and Recovery and design robustness;

– Mishap in management of subcontractors and acceptance of hardware.

Planned descent sequence of Schiaparelli Mars lander.
Credit: ESA

Spin rate

Also noted in the report is an unexpected evolution of the spin rate of the Entry, descent and landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) with no apparent links to the landing failure. The root cause of this anomaly is believed to be linked with uneven degradation of thermal blankets during entry and a possible slight twist in the parachute riser after deployment.

Within this report general recommendations to avoid such defects and weaknesses have been established and specific recommendations for the ExoMars 2020 lander mission have also been established.

To read the full report — EXOMARS 2016 – Schiaparelli Anomaly Inquiry — go to:

All the obstacles in spaceflight can theoretically be broken down in to subsets of risk.

Whether personal risk, programmatic risk, financial risk or professional risk, these are the things holding back individuals and organizations from accomplishing goals.

What does this mean for Mars and how can we overcome it?

Next steps

I was pleased to sit down with Jake Robins, the host and producer of WeMartians Podcast.

Credit: National Geographic/WeMartians Podcast

We explored the topic of risk and discussed what steps must be taken next to continue towards the objective of putting people on the Red Planet.

The WeMartians Podcast delves into all aspects of the exploration of Mars, including robotic/human spacecraft and rocket engineering, planetary science, astronomy and other upcoming technology. The episodes are research-supported and feature topical audio clips and special guests.


The WeMartians Podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play Music.

Find it in your favorite Podcatcher app.

Go to:

Episode 24 – Risks and Rewards (feat. Leonard David)

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1703, May 21, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has just begun Sol 1705 duties.

Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California reports that Curiosity is continuing to make progress towards Vera Rubin Ridge along the Mt. Sharp ascent route.

In the planning of two sols — Sol 1705 and Sol 1706 – the script calls for remote sensing science on the bedrock in front of the robot, including Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) observations of targets: “Turtle Island,” “Stony Brook,” and “Dike Peak.”

Fracture fills

“Turtle Island is typical Murray bedrock, Stony Brook has an interesting dark streak running through it, and Dike Peak is a neat looking block with dark colored fracture fills,” Fraeman notes. “We will complement these observations with Mastcam documentation imaging.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1703, May 22, 2017.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The plan then calls for the rover to take a short drive and perform post-drive imaging, as well as a ChemCam Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) observation.

Challenging terrain

On the second sol of the plan, Fraeman explains, “Curiosity will be focused on taking atmospheric observations, including a dust devil search and images of the crater rim and sky above us.”

“We didn’t drive as far as we thought we would over the weekend.  Software onboard Curiosity sensed the rover was struggling to travel over the challenging terrain more than we had anticipated, so it ended the drive early,” Fraeman notes.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo taken on Sol 1702, May 21, 2017. MAHLI is located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Fraeman adds that she spent a shift looking at the Navcam and Hazcam data to understand what about the terrain was causing problems, and thinking about new paths to take that would still get the rover to the desired locale.

“I’m optimistic about our new drive route,” Fraeman concludes, “and I’m very glad we have six-wheel drive to help us climb this mountain!”

Curiosity Mastcam Right image acquired on Sol 1702, May 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New map

A new map of Curiosity’s traverse across Mars through Sol 1700 has been issued by JPL.

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1700 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (May 20, 2017).


Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 1 kilometer (~0.62 mile).

From Sol 1698 to Sol 1700, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 98.00 feet (29.87 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 10.24 miles (16.48 kilometers).

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


Flyability drone is unleashed in Cucchiara cave.
Credit: ESA

Cave divers have been utilizing a drone to explore caverns – a technology that could be a valuable plus in future exploration of lava tubes on Mars.

The drone was tested during the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills course (CAVES-X1) expedition. ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano took part in the caving expedition.

The scientific outing was organized by La Venta Association and the Commissione Grotte Eugenio Boegan and took place in the La Cucchiara caves near Sciacca, Sicily.

Drone dives into icy crevasse.
Credit: Flyability

Hard-to-reach spaces

Using a Flyability drone, the hardware can probe hard-to-reach spaces. The drone deliberately bumped into walls to learn how to navigate and to map tight areas that are too dangerous for humans.

ESA’s course coordinator, Francesco Sauro, an experienced caver and field geologist, said the drone used its thermal camera to map how the cave continued all the way to an unexplored area featuring water, impossible to reach for humans. “These tests will help us understand which technologies can be used in future exploration of lava tubes on Mars, for example,” he added in an ESA press statement.

Credit: Flyability

ESA’s strategy sees humans and robots working together to explore and build settlements on planetary bodies.

Nine flights

Within the caverns of Sicily, temperatures can rise to 37°C, making the exploration in darkness even more difficult.

The drone was launched into a 100 m-high vertical tunnel.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano with the Flyability team flying the drone in the Cucchiara Cave.
Credit: ESA–N. Russo

Two operators  — one for the cameras and one for the drone itself — searched deep into the tunnel for hot spots and mapping never-seen-before areas. The thermal camera allowed the operators to pinpoint areas where temperatures are estimated to be higher than 40°C – circular conduits that are now earmarked for future exploration.

Inside the abyss, hot and cold air currents mix and form condensation so high it resembles continuous rain in the shaft. Despite these difficult conditions, ESA reports that the drone performed flawlessly over its nine flights.

For more information on the Flyability drone technology, go to the company’s website at:

Close-calls in the cosmos. A new appraisal of civil traffic control is to be undertaken by the FAA and the Department of the Defense.
Credit: Naval Research Laboratory (NRL)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of the Defense are embarking on a pilot program to define the pathway forward on Space Traffic Management and what functions may be better suited for a civil agency.

This joint-appraisal is to start this summer, likely in the August time frame.

Funding details are expected in the forthcoming White House FY18 Defense budget request.

The pilot program was discussed during last week’s Fiscal Year 2018 Priorities and Posture of the National Security Space Enterprise before the House Committee on Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee.


Lieutenant General David Buck, Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command, testified May 19th that the military recognizes that some Space Traffic Management (STM) tasks are not central to their military mission. Those tasks include things like debris mitigation and providing conjunction data messages to satellite operators.

“As part of the pilot program, I anticipate a small footprint of FAA representatives working side-by-side with our space operators this year,” Buck noted in written testimony.

Earth orbit is a junkyard of human-made space clutter.
Credit: Space Junk 3D, LLC. Melrae Pictures

Buck said that the FAA sees this “as a real opportunity to do things that are more like air-centric,” he told lawmakers, such as establishing norms of behavior and establishing patterns of safety in space flight.

“They [the FAA] see some goodness in this and they are anxious to take on specific aspects of the Space Traffic Management mission,” Buck added.

Safe space operations

The FAA’s George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, has previously outlined a Civil Space Traffic Management System (CSTMS).

The CSTMS would consist of the hardware, software, data and communications connectivity, and personnel that are needed to accept and process observations, create and maintain a catalog of space objects, perform safety-related analyses, and develop and distribute safety-related products and services.

The mission of the CSTMS would be to enhance the safety of space operations, and to preserve the space environment, Nield said March 30 during a Symposium on Space Situational Awareness, held in Washington, D.C. The meeting was organized by the Universities Space Research Association and the Space Policy Institute.

A CubeSat is deployed from the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA


Congested space

During that March meeting, Nield defined the challenges ahead. “Space is becoming more congested. Cubesats and other small satellites are being launched with increasing frequency. There are near-term plans for ‘Mega-constellations,’ with hundreds or even thousands of satellites,” he pointed out.

The Department of the Defense attempts to keep track of objects in space, “but they would like to be able to focus on national security issues, rather than on the safety of civil and commercial space operations,” Nield said.

However, there are no universally-accepted “Rules of the Road” for space operations, Nield said. “An increase in the number of collisions in space,” he said, “could put astronauts and critical national security spacecraft at risk, and even make some orbital regimes unusable for future operators.”

The crowded space environment may look like this a decade from now, with proposed mega-constellations.
Credit: Center for Space Policy & Strategy

Safety services

In his remarks last March, Nield said that the joint FAA and Department of Defense pilot effort is designed to demonstrate the ability of the FAA to provide orbital safety services as part of a Civil Space Traffic Management System.

Key steps in the process include being able to:

  • Accept and process observations
  • Compute orbital parameters and generate at least a partial catalog of space objects
  • Analyze and assess potential conjunctions
  • Generate collision avoidance warnings as required

Data produced during the pilot program will be compared and validated with Department of Defense data.

Important questions

In carrying out a pilot program, the FAA’s Nield explained, it could answer a set of important questions:

  • In terms of completeness, accuracy, and timeliness, how would the products and services from an FAA-managed Civil Space Traffic Management System compare to those currently available from the Department of Defense (DoD)?
  • What are the potential benefits of using observations from non-DoD sources, either instead of, or in addition to, the data currently being used by the DoD?
  • Can innovative analysis techniques be used to decrease uncertainty and cut down on “false alarms” for potential collisions?
  • Is it possible to increase transparency of the data and the process, while still protecting classified and/or sensitive national security information?


Central to preparing for the early colonization of Mars, why not first take up a seat at the Waterville Opera House in central Maine? Not only that, there’s a casting call for future Martians.

“One Way Trip To Mars-a rock opera” premieres at the Waterville Opera House August 24-27.

Emotional rollercoaster

The show is rooted in contemporary science and features 21 original songs by Maine-based songwriters Peter Alexander and Johannah Harkness and is accompanied by an “Art & Science Fair.” This fair involves students using the arts to explore the many areas of science involved in space travel and establishing a human colony on Mars.

Those tunes tell a fictional story about Paolo, the first human chosen to fly a solo, one-way mission to establish a human colony on Mars.

According to the opera’s website: “The show takes audiences on an emotional rollercoaster, from Paolo’s exuberance at being chosen for the mission, to his coming to grips with the reality of forever leaving behind his wife and everything he loves on earth. When catastrophic events on Earth — from nuclear terrorism to climate change and global war, cause communication links with Mars to go down — Paolo is left alone in the universe.”

From there the story accelerates to its dramatic conclusion, the website adds.

First flight

“One Way Trip to Mars” has had first flight as a multi-media concert on the main stage of the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath during the fall of 2016.

The show has been re-worked by dramatist and director Dennis St. Pierre as a fully-realized piece for musical theater and opens in a world premiere at the Waterville Opera House in Waterville, Maine at the end of August.

Credit: Waterville Opera House




A second round of auditions to play leading parts in the opera’s premiere will be taking place May 26 & 27 in New York.


For more information on auditions, go to:

The Rock Opera is similar in style to Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Ziggy Stardust, Chess, The Great Comet.

More information about this innovative show can be found at:

Credit: Center for Space Policy & Strategy


Today’s House hearing on Fiscal Year 2018 Priorities and Posture of the National Security Space Enterprise was held by the House Committee on Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

The witnesses and their prepared testimony:

  • Lieutenant General David Buck, Commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command

  • Robert Cardillo, Director, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

  • John Hill, Performing the Duties of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy

  • General John Raymond, Commander, Air Force Space Command

  • Betty Sapp, Director, National Reconnaissance Office

To view this very informative hearing, go to:


Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image taken on Sol 1699, May 17, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity continues towards Vera Rubin Ridge with a drive of 157 feet (48 meters), reports Michael Battalio, an atmospheric scientist from Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

The NASA Mars rover is now in Sol 1700 and has been performing touch-and-go activities using its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on “Ripple Pond,” a typical member of the Murray formation, Battalio adds.

Mastcam and Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) is set to follow up with observations of Ripple Pond.

Titled layers

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1698, May 17, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity’s Mastcam will next target “Rhodes Cliff,” Battalio notes, “which is especially interesting as it is tilted to show the Murray formation layers.”

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1698, May 17, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Following these observations, Curiosity is slated to drive and capture standard imaging for targeting in the weekend plan.

After the drive, ChemCam will perform an automated Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) activity to measure bright patches of outcrop.

Dusty atmosphere

Two measurements of dust in the atmosphere of Mars are to be captured by Mastcam on Sol 1700.

Tau image taken by Curiosity’s Mastcam Left camera on Sol April 18, 2017 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One measurement will determine the optical depth vertically (tau), and a second will determine the amount of dust towards the direction of the crater rim (line-of-sight).

Optical depth describes the amount of light attenuated (scattered or absorbed) above Curiosity, Battalio explains. An optical depth measurement, or tau, is defined as the logarithm of the ratio of the transmitted energy flux through some layer of the atmosphere to the received energy flux.

Atmospheric profile

“By looking directly at the Sun with Mastcam, the amount of energy reaching the surface can be determined. This is the transmitted flux through the entire atmosphere,” Battalio adds. Combined with an estimate of the incident energy from the Sun at the top of the Mars atmosphere from satellite observations (the received flux), he says, a reliable measurement of the optical depth for the entire atmosphere can be made.

The second dust measurement – a line-of-sight extinction (LOS), does a similar calculation to the tau, except horizontally instead of vertically.

Dust devil movie

On Sol 1701, the robot’s Navcam will capture a supra-horizon cloud movie and will perform an independent LOS measurement for comparison to the Mastcam measurement.

Finally, a dust devil movie will be taken around local noon. Normal Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) and Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) measurements as well as several Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) passive measurements and one DAN active will be captured, Battalio concludes.


Credit: U.S. Air Force



At the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, the testimony and discussion centered on military space organization, policy, and programs.

The bottom line: “Space will be contested…it is now warfighting domain.”



Witness list

Hearing witnesses from the U.S. military were:

— Heather A. Wilson, Secretary Of The Air Force

— General David L. Goldfein, USAF Chief Of Staff Of The Air Force

— General John W. Raymond, USAF, Commander, Air Force Space Command

— Lieutenant General Samuel A. Greaves, USAF, Commander, Space And Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command

Key themes

In a prepared document, jointly authored by the key witnesses in the hearing, several themes were voiced:

Space is no longer a sanctuary. Most on-orbit capabilities are now vulnerable to America’s most challenging potential adversaries.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

  • For decades the United States has enjoyed unimpeded freedom of action in space. This benign environment allowed us to operate satellites for intelligence collection, missile warning, weather monitoring, communications, and precision positioning, navigation, and timing in support of all military operations for all of the services, without thinking about how to protect these systems. That environment no longer exists.
  • Space is no longer a sanctuary. Most on-orbit capabilities are now vulnerable to America’s most challenging potential adversaries.
  • Space will be contested in any conflict. Potential adversaries understand the advantage derived from space and view U.S. reliance on space as a vulnerability they can exploit. Near-peer competitors will offset any U.S. military advantage derived from U.S. space systems and continue to pursue capabilities to degrade or destroy them.
  • In response to increasing challenges in the space domain, the Air Force is fully committed to increasing resilience and deterrence as they retain a competitive advantage over strategic competitors. The Air Force has made tremendous advancements towards unifying efforts for efficiency as a resilient and responsive leader in the space domain—but much work remains.
  • In 2017, the Air Force will finalize a family of space warfighting Concepts of Operations, identify capability gaps, continue a posture transition to increase deterrence, and ensure the U.S. can fight and win a conflict that either starts or extends into space, and strengthen support to Combatant Commanders.
  • The Air Force must prepare to survive and fight in space so that other joint forces can deploy and achieve their objectives within a complex and dynamic battlespace.

To view the entire statement, go to:


Credit: NASA

On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space was staged by The Atlantic on Tuesday, May 16th.

The Atlantic event surveyed a shifting landscape of new technologies, exploring the cosmos by gathering experts on the growing space industry and the future of space and extraterrestrial travel. This informative event was underwritten by Hewlett-Packard.

Where will the next space race take us, what are the challenges facing the mission and what do we need to know, build and create to get there?

Video postings

The Atlantic has posted a set of video presentations, showcasing the event speakers that included:

— Senator Ted Cruz, (R-TX); Chairman, US Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness

— Robert Lightfoot, Acting Administrator, NASA

— Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration

— Michael Lopez-Alegria, Principal, MLA Space LLC; Former Astronaut, NASA

— Chris Carberry, CEO and Co-Founder, Explore Mars, Inc.

— Robert Zubrin, Founder, Mars Society

Launchpad segments

Welcome to On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space by AtlanticLIVE


The Future for NASA / On the Launchpad

by AtlanticLIVE


Making the Checklist / On the Launchpad

by AtlanticLIVE


Making the Mission to Mars Compute: Underwriter Perspective

by AtlanticLIVE


The Tools for the Task / On the Launchpad

by AtlanticLIVE


The View From The Hill: Senator Ted Cruz / On The Launchpad

by AtlanticLIVE


Preparing the Body and Mind / On the Launchpad

by AtlanticLIVE

To view these seven videos, go to: