Archive for February, 2021

Russia’s Luna-25 Moon lander.
Credit: RSC Energia/Roscosmos


Russia is readying its return to the Moon – the launch of the robotic Luna-25.

“For the first time in 45 years, we are to resume exploration of the Moon. In October, the first descent module will be launched from the spaceport Vostochny, Roscosmos corporation CEO Dmitry Rogozin told Russian President Vladimir Putin last Saturday during a briefing on the corporation’s performance in 2020.

Roscosmos corporation CEO Dmitry Rogozin, discusses future space exploration plans with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Credit: Roscosmos

“More automatic lunar probes will follow. Lastly, a manned program will begin,” Rogozin told Putin.

Luna-25 testing

Acoustic tests of the automatic station Luna-25 were recently conducted at the Scientific and Production Association named after S.A. Lavochkin (part of Roskosmos). Lavochkin is the developer of the lunar-bound spacecraft.

Lunar hardware undergoes testing.
Credit: RSC Energia/Roscosmos

Within the acoustic chamber, the probe was exposed to sound waves in a wide frequency range that mimics forces that will act on the spacecraft during its boost phase from Earth.

After a series of tests, NPO Lavochkin engineers carried out a complete visual inspection of the interplanetary vehicle. Luna-25 has successfully overcome these loads, according to Lavochkin.

A Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) topographic map of the southern sub-polar region of the Moon showing the location of Boguslawsky crater [from Ivanov et al., 2015]via NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LROC) website at Arizona State University.

South pole landing

The Luna-25 spacecraft is part of the Luna-Glob project of NPO Lavochkin. The craft is a small demonstration landing station for testing basic soft landing technologies in the circumpolar region and conducting contact studies of the Moon’s south pole.

Luna-25 spacecraft is to be Soyuz-boosted moonward in October 2021. It will reportedly soft land near the lunar south pole at the Boguslavsky crater.

A portion of a new geologic map of the interior of Boguslawsky crater, proposed site of the next Russian mission to the lunar surface [Ivanov et al., 2015] via NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LROC) website at Arizona State University.


Russia is rebuilding a multi-pronged return-to-the-Moon program, one that kick-starts a 21st century round of outreach to Earth’s extraterrestrial neighbor.

There’s a lot riding on success of this Russian rekindling of lunar exploration. For more information, go to my Scientific American story on Russia’s re-launch into exploring the Moon.

“Luna-25 Lander Renews Russian Moon Rush – The former front-runner in the lunar space race aims to rekindle its exploration after nearly half a century.”

Go to:

Chinese President Xi Jinping met space scientists and engineers involved in the Chang’e-5 lunar mission at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Monday. Xi inspected specimens from the Moon brought back by the return sample mission.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab


Chinese President Xi Jinping met space scientists and engineers involved in the research and development of the Chang’e-5 lunar mission at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Monday. Xi inspected specimens from the Moon brought back by the return sample mission.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab


The successful Chang’e-5 lunar mission retrieved about 4 pounds (1,731 grams) of samples. Its lander-ascender combination successfully touched down on the near side of the Moon on December 1, collecting samples from both the lunar surface and beneath.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects Chang’e-5 lunar sample return capsule. Zhang Kejian, Director of the China National Space Administration advises President Xi about the mission.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

The ascender later rocketed the specimens off the Moon for transfer to an orbiter/returner for transport back to Earth.

A return capsule containing the lunar collectibles landed in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in the early hours of December 17.



Go to this CCTV video at:

Curiosity Mast Camera Left image taken on Sol 3036, February 19, 2021.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 3038 duties – and is in “don’t forget me mode” – now joined on the Red Planet by NASA’s Perseverance robot at Jezero Crater.

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

Curiosity has returned new imagery from its Gale crater locale. Here’s a representative sample showing the rover’s surrounding views:

Curiosity Mast Camera Left photo taken on Sol 3036, February 19, 2021.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B photo taken on Sol 3037, February 20, 2021.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 3037, February 20, 2021.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager photo produced on Sol 3037, February 20, 2021.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


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


China is pressing forward on construction of the country’s own space station. To do so, multiple classes of Long March boosters are to be utilized.

First up is lofting the station’s core module, the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou-12 piloted spacecraft.

According to China Central Television (CCTV) rendezvous and docking as well as relevant in-orbit verifications of key technologies are scheduled to be completed this year.

China’s space station expected to be completed around 2022.
CMS/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Zero error launch windows

“This is the first time that we will launch multi-type Long March rockets to build a manned space station. The carrier rocket Long March-5B will launch the core module of the space station. Then the Long March-7 carrier rocket will launch the cargo spacecraft. Later, the Long March-2F carrier rocket will carry our astronauts to our space station,” said Mou Yu, director of the General Design Department of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

Mou emphasized in a CCTV interview that the launch vehicles used require a high reliability of the pre-launch preparation work for the dynamical and control systems “and the zero error in the launch window.”

To piece together the space station, China will successively launch the Tianhe core capsule, Wentian and Mengtian lab modules. In addition, four Shenzhou crew-carrying spacecrafts and four Tianzhou cargo spacecrafts will also be launched to establish a rotation of astronauts to work on the space station and supply goods to sustain station operations.

Credit: China Military Online

Meanwhile, China’s space tracking ship Yuanwang-3 set sail on Saturday for the Pacific Ocean from a port in east China’s Jiangsu Province for upcoming maritime monitoring missions.

Yuanwang-3 is a second-generation Chinese space tracking ship. It has undertaken more than 90 maritime tracking and monitoring tasks for spacecraft, including the Shenzhou spaceships, Chang’e lunar probes and BeiDou satellites.

Chang’e-5 descent stage seen just before sunset on February 7, 2021.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


NASA’s powerful LROC imaging system on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has produced a new photo of China’s Chang’e-5 descent stage sitting on the basaltic plains of Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) on the Moon.

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar mission was a successful multi-phase affair involving an orbiter, a lander, an ascender, and a returner spacecraft to haul back to Earth lunar samples, doing so on December 16th.

Box indicates Chang’e-5 lander on the basaltic plains of Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) on December 2, 2020. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University 

The Chang’e-5 descent stage was left behind on the lunar surface after the ascent stage blasted off on December 3, 2020.

NASA’s LRO passes over the Chang’e-5 landing site (43.0576°N, 308.0839°E) about once a month, each time with different illumination. Over the next two months the lighting will be optimal for stereo images from which a detailed topographic map of the landing site can be made, according to Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) at Arizona State University.


Dormant period

Meanwhile, China’s farside Moon landing mission, the Chang’e-4, has once again entered a dormant period of time within the Von Kármán crater exploration zone.

Chang’e-4’s farside landing zone.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Plunged into lunar night temperatures, both the lander and Yutu-2 rover have switched into dormant mode: 1:30 p.m. Friday (Beijing Time) as scheduled, and the Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2) rover, at 1:48 a.m. Friday, according to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The lunar day and night cycle each equal 14 days on Earth.

Good condition

According to the CNSA, the Chang’e-4 mission has been operating on the farside of the Moon for 778 Earth days as of Saturday.

China’s farside rover images Chang’e-4 lander in the distance.


During that stretch of time, the Yutu-2 rover has wheeled itself across the lunar landscape roughly 2,142 feet (652.62 meters). The rover is in good condition, and all scientific payloads are working normally, said CNSA.

The Yutu-2 mobile machinery has exceeded its three-month design lifespan, becoming the longest-working lunar rover on the Moon.

Movement of the Chang’e 4 rover, Yutu-2, captured in NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s LROC images.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Chang’e-4 headed for the Moon on December 8, 2018, making the first-ever soft farside touchdown on January 3, 2019 within Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

New map

A new Yutu-2 map has been produced by Philip Stooke of the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Geography, and Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.

Credit: Philip Stooke

“Everything is based on Chinese mapping up to the 26th night, with only the crudest estimate for the 27th day, but we know it was supposed to go southwest to look at a rock and we have an overall distance of 24 meters for the day’s drive,” he told Inside Outer Space.  “I think the hope now is that an ejecta block from the basalt area to the west (or excavated from the basalt under the current ejecta surface) will turn up so they can get its composition.  So they will look at every decent sized rock they see.”

Real image shows Perseverance rover being lowered to the floor of Jezero Crater by the Skycrane. Rocket engines kicked up streaks of dust during the touchdown.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Newly released imagery from NASA’s Perseverance rover mission captures milestone minutes at the start of its journey.

A high-resolution still image is part of a video taken by several cameras as NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. A camera aboard the descent stage captured the image.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Wheel of Perseverance rover. Image includes rocks that may be of volcanic origin.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



In addition, several images in color were released, taken by the robot sitting in Jezero Crater.

Caught on camera! NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera system image of Perseverance rover mission on parachute prior to touchdown within Jezero Crater.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used its powerful HiRISE camera system to capture a stunning image of Perseverance on its descent to the Martian surface.

“HiRISE was approximately 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Perseverance at the time of the image and traveling at about 3 kilometers per second (6,750 mph),” explains Shane Byrne of the HiRISE team at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The extreme distance and high speeds of the two spacecraft were challenging conditions that required precise timing and for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to both pitch upward and roll hard to the left so that Perseverance was viewable by HiRISE at just the right moment.”

Perseverance rover deposits select rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on Mars’s surface for future missions to retrieve and bring back to Earth for detailed study.


From the “you don’t say!” department of NASA space price tags, exploring the Red Planet is an expensive undertaking.

A new infographic from Statista offers a snap shot of NASA missions to Mars, revealing that the Perseverance rover remains the 7th most costly spacecraft in the history of the space agency’s planetary exploration program and the third most pricey Mars mission.

Credit: Statista


NASA expects to spend $2.7 billion on the project according to research from The Planetary Society, the Statista graphic shows, a figure that is expected to ascend to $2.9 billion when inflation adjustments are included at the end of its lifespan. The spacecraft itself accounted for the lion’s share of the funding at $2.2 billion while launch services came to $243 million. Two years of prime mission operations are expected to add a further $200 million.

NASA Viking missions to Mars of the 1970s.
Credit: NASA


Rack ‘em, stack ‘em

“Despite that seemingly hefty price tag, Perseverance remains the 7th most expensive spacecraft in the history of NASA’s planetary exploration program and the third most expensive Mars mission,” Niall McCarthy of Statista explains.

The just-landed rover trails NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 orbiter/lander missions of the 1970s, as well as the Curiosity rover which experienced cost growth after missing its original launch window.

“All four Mars projects remain among the most expensive missions ever undertaken by NASA,” the Statisa infographic background explains.

Ancient Jezero Crater is depicted in this artistic view, replete with shoreline of a lake that dried up billions of years ago.

As the full-stop destination of NASA Perseverance’s journey from Earth to Mars, the mega-rover is slated to set down within Jezero Crater – a lake in the Red Planet’s ancient past, a place that sports a shoreline that dried up billions of years ago.

On ancient Mars, water carved channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins.

Wheeling itself around that aeon-aged geological site, scientists are eager to visit its shoreline because it may have preserved fossilized microbial life, if any ever formed on Mars.

Illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover exploring inside Mars’ Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) feature believed to an ancient lake-delta system in a hunt for signs of past microscopic life.

False positives

Here on Earth, life has been found to have evolved in some of the most extreme environments. But what about Mars?

New research suggests that organic biomorphs may be better preserved than microorganisms in early Earth sediments. However, experiments show the record of early life on Earth could be full of “false positives.”

That’s the topic of a recent research paper that cautions about encountering “fools gold” in appreciating the task of identifying fossil microorganisms that are among the oldest traces of life on Earth.

“The objects we described in the paper — “organic biomorphs” — are quite small, in the micrometer size range, just like bacteria, The current rover missions, including Perseverance, are not equipped to see objects that are this small,” explains Julie Cosmidis, co-author of the paper and an associate professor of geobiology within the Department of Earth Sciences at the prestigious University of Oxford in England.

Perseverance rover deposits select rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on Mars’s surface for future missions to retrieve and bring back to Earth for detailed study.

Sentiment about sediment

“The only way we will be able to observe biomorphs or actual fossil bacteria on Mars is to wait for returned samples,” Cosmidis told Inside Outer Space. “Chemically, the biomorphs are made of organic matter. The presence of organic matter in Mars sediment has already been demonstrated. We don’t know whether this organic matter is biogenic [resulting from the activity of living organisms] or not.”

Cosmidis added that the kind of biomorphs described in their research paper cannot form on Mars today. That’s because Mars now is lacking the key chemical needed for their formation: sulfide. The biomorphs are indeed formed by reacting organics with sulfide.

On the scene. NASA’s new robotic Mars explorer, the Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Evidence for interactions

“But we now have evidence that sulfide was present on early Mars: past missions have shown that ancient Mars sediments record evidence of sulfur redox cycling, including the presence of sulfide,” Cosmidis points out. There’s an abundance of organosulfur compounds in ancient Martian sediment, which is again evidence for interactions between organics and sulfide – and that is exactly the type of reaction that produces the biomorphs. 

“So, I think these biomorphs could have formed on early Mars, but what I don’t know is whether or not they could have been preserved in Martian sediments until now,” Cosmidis adds.

Meteoritic Mother of Invention and controversy: The Mars rock, ALH84001.
Credit: NASA

It is the opinion of Cosmidis that it is very important that Mars scientists find out, and also how to better discriminate biomorphs from “real” fossil bacteria, “if we want to avoid repeating the ALH84001 fiasco once we have returned samples.”

Allan Hills 84001 (ALH84001) is a fragment of a Martian meteorite recovered here on Earth. The specimen has been the subject of a debatable scientific claim that it contains the vestiges of ancient life indigenous to Mars.

Jezero Crater – home base for Perseverance rover.




Meanwhile — and if successful in its landing and wheeling about — what will the Perseverance rover discover at Jezero crater?


For access to the instructive paper – “Organic biomorphs may be better preserved than microorganisms in early Earth sediments” – go to:

Credit: NASA

Water is the elixir of life. On Mars, utilizing subsurface frozen water ice can help prolong future human exploration of the Red Planet.

New research spotlights potential buried ice deposits to support the selection of human landing sites in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars.

The work is an output of the Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) project of the Planetary Science Institute. 

Credit: Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) project

Orbital datasets

SWIM researchers have integrated orbital datasets from several NASA spacecraft – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Global Surveyor – also tapping into new data-processing techniques.

The lowdown of their ground work is quantifying the consistency of multiple, independent data sources with the presence of ice on that distant world.

The research – “Availability of subsurface water-ice resources in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars” – has just been published as a Perspective in the journal, Nature Astronomy.

Buried ice deposits

“The goal of SWIM is to provide maps of potential buried ice deposits to support the selection of human landing sites. Ice is a critical resource that has many uses, like the generation of water for human consumption, growing plants for food, and for the generation of methane fuel and breathable air. But the most important is to provide fuel for the return trip home to Earth,” said Gareth Morgan, a Planetary Science Institute senior scientist and lead author of the new research paper.  

Two views of the northern hemisphere of Mars (orthographic projection centered on the north pole), both with a grey background of shaded relief. On the left, the light grey shading shows the northern ice stability zone, which overlaps with the purple shading of the SWIM study region. On the right, the blue-grey-red shading shows where the SWIM study found evidence for the presence (blue) or absence (red) of buried ice. The intensity of the colors reflect the degree of agreement (or consistency) exhibited by all of the data sets used by the project.
Credit: Gareth A. Morgan, et al.

SWIMing in data

The SWIM team focused on a significant portion of the northern hemisphere of Mars, finding that broad regions of the mid-latitudes, equatorward of the present-day northern ice-stability zone, exhibit evidence for ice. The detected ice is buried at depths ranging from a few centimeters to about 1 kilometer, explains a PSI statement.

“We provide a hemispheric perspective of ice distribution to support initial landing-site studies and enable the community to explore the range of Martian terrains that host ice,” Morgan said.

According to the paper, “composite ice-consistency maps indicate that the broad plains of Arcadia and the extensive glacial networks across Deuteronilus Mensae match the greatest number of remote-sensing criteria for accessible ice-rich, subsurface material situated equatorwards of the contemporary ice-stability zone.”

Candidate impact site with possible ice exposure within Arcadia. Imaged by NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Ice-exposing impacts

The validity of the team’s ice consistency methodology and map products was shown when the team compared their results with the locations of fresh, ice-exposing impacts that have recently been detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. For instance, the ejecta blankets of impact craters in eastern Utopia Planitia, including the 100-km-diameter Mie crater, though the most southern (roughly 35 degrees N) elevated “Ci” (ice consistency) values are correlated with glacial features within Deuteronilus Mensae.

As new impacts are detected, the team will continue to compare them to the SWIM maps.

Missing piece of the puzzle

As the paper notes, safely delivering humans to Mars and ensuring their survival requires many other considerations beyond tapping into local water resources, such as landing-site safety and solar/thermal specifications.

That said, the SWIM work is diving into a vital missing piece of the puzzle for human-mission planners: the location and properties of available water-ice resources.

Credit: NASA

“The good news is that Mars is an icy planet. The challenge is locating ice at a latitude that is conducive for a human landing site,” Morgan said. Earlier studies, he points out, have shown that ice buried within 10-feet (3 meters) of the surface should be stable in the current climate at latitudes above 50 degrees in each hemisphere. However, these regions are colder and subject to long seasons of extended night. Lower latitudes are warmer, have a manageable length of night and lots of solar radiation for power generation.

“In a nutshell, SWIM is all about reconciling the need for ice with the need for plenty of sunshine,” Morgan said.

To access “Availability of subsurface water-ice resources in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars,” go to:

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

How to tame that “seven minutes of terror” the NASA Perseverance Mars mission will experience during its plunge through the Martian atmosphere?

Part of the answer comes early in the deep dive to the Red Planet thanks to the Mars Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation 2, or MEDLI2 for short.

Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is expected to pierce the thin Martian atmosphere on February 18 at around 12,500 mph, producing skyrocketing temperatures of 2,370°F before the spacecraft’s parachutes unfurl and aerodynamics slow the descent.

Ejection of ballast before entry into Mars’ atmosphere will offset the aeroshell’s center of gravity and creates lift that is used to guide this hardware through roll control and autonomous steering.

MEDLI2 is integrated into the Mars 2020’s heat shield and backshell. That instrument suite is designed to assess the spacecraft’s aerothermal, thermal protection system and aerodynamic performance during entry, descent and landing (EDL). Moreover, data collected will help improve future Mars lander missions – including those transporting humans to the surface.

MEDLI2 sensors are installed on the Mars 2020 heat shield and back shell prior that will protect NASA’s Perseverance rover on its journey to the surface of Mars.
Credit: NASA

Two-part aeroshell capsule

The Mars 2020 aeroshell measures about 15 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter, compared to just less than 13 feet (4 meters) for the Apollo capsules. Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado has designed and built every aeroshell flown by NASA to Mars – but none as large as the Mars 2020 aeroshell.

The biconic-shaped backshell is half of the large and sophisticated two-part aeroshell capsule. It is covered with super light ablator, a cork/silicone thermal protection system that was created by Lockheed Martin and originated with the NASA Viking Mars landers in the 1970s.

David Scholz was Lockheed Martin’s principal engineer for the Mars 2020 aeroshell. “The particular material used on Mars 2020 is called SLA-561V, with the S-L-A standing for ‘super light ablator.’ It was developed for Viking all the way back in the 1970s and has been used on numerous heatshields and backshells since then,” he said.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sensor system

MEDLI2 sensors are installed on the Mars 2020 heat shield and back shell. They will measure the environment surrounding the spacecraft and the performance of thermal protection system material during the atmospheric entry phase of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission.

There are three types of sensors that comprise MEDLI2: thermocouples, heat flux sensors and pressure transducers. A data acquisition and signal conditioning unit (the Sensor Support Electronics Unit) records the heating and atmospheric pressure experienced during entry and through parachute deployment, and the harnessing between the sensors and the Sensor Support Electronics unit.

MEDLI2 builds on the first MEDLI suite, which flew on NASA’s Curiosity rover mission that landed in August 2012. That instrumentation is again being applied to the heat shield, but in a different configuration to better measure the flow characteristics.

This time instrumentation is being installed on the backshell as well to collect measurements of the heating and the surface pressure to aid in reducing the large uncertainty applied to the current predicted results.

Future humans to Mars expeditions will tap into entry, descent, and landing data collected earlier by robotic landers.
Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

Making certain about uncertainties

“Uncertainties in our ability to model and predict the performance of an entry vehicle and the associated thermal protection system mean that large margins (100% to 200%) need to be included in our predictions to ensure the entry vehicle can survive the worst case conditions,” said Henry Wright, MEDLI2 project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

MEDLI2 is a Game Changing Development project led by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate with support from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate.

The project is managed at NASA Langley and was implemented in partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.