Archive for April, 2022

Credit: NASA

Bringing home the goods from Mars – what’s your view?

NASA and the European Space Agency are planning to use robotic Mars orbiter and lander missions to collect samples now being gathered by NASA’s Perseverance rover, busy at work on the Red Planet.

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.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

These samples, securely isolated inside an “Earth Entry System” using a layered “container within a container” approach, could be brought to Earth in the early 2030s.

The Earth Entry System would then be transported to a specialized MSR sample receiving facility.

NASA is requesting public comment on the scope of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the agency’s proposed Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign.

Comments will be accepted through the mail and online through Monday, May 16, 2022.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is also hosting two virtual public meetings about the proposed program at 3 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, and 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, 2022, at:

https://jpl.webex.com/meet/msr

Utah landing site

The public meetings will include briefings about the status of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process for the proposed program, as well as its purpose and scientific goals.

Meetings will also cover why the Utah Test and Training Range operated by the U.S. Air Force is the proposed landing site for the samples, and what planners are doing to ensure safe and secure return of the samples – a topic known as backward planetary protection.

NASA will consider all comments received during the scoping process in the subsequent development of the MSR Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is currently scheduled to be released for public comment later this year.

Additional information on the agency’s National Environmental Policy Act process and the proposed NASA-ESA MSR program is available online.

Go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nepa-mars-sample-return-campaign/

https://mars.nasa.gov/msr/


For those people who have any comments to post in the Federal Register — pro/con regarding returning Martian samples directly to Earth — the comment period ends shortly.

Just hit the blue ‘Comment” button on the following document link below: National Environmental Policy Act; Mars Sample Return Campaign, at:

https://www.regulations.gov/document/NASA-2022-0002-0001

Curiosity’s location as of Sol 3458. Distance driven on this sol: 17.16 miles/27.62 kilometers.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

 

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at Gale Crater is now performing Sol 3459 duties.

While angular, pointy rocks have damaged the rover’s wheels since early in its mission, sometimes the wheels damage rocks as the rover drives over them, reports Ken Herkenhoff, a planetary geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Sometimes Curiosity’s wheels damage rocks as the robot drives over them. As seen especially at the upper left side of this image, the bedrock was scraped and fractured by the rover during the Sol 3456 drive.
This image was taken by Left Navigation Camera on Sol 3456, April 27, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bedrock was scraped and fractured by the robot during a Sol 3456 drive.

“Unfortunately, that drive did not complete as planned, but the tactical team took advantage of the situation by targeting observations of the freshly-exposed rock surfaces.” Herkenhoff adds.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 3459, April 30, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scrape mark

A new plan calls for the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) to be placed on a scrape mark named “Cow Head” to measure its elemental chemistry, then the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) was slated to take a full suite of images of the same target.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 3458, April 29, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“MAHLI will also take some images of a rock fragment ‘Orton Scar’ that was broken off a bedrock slab. Hopefully textural details will be more visible on these fresh faces than on the nearby undisturbed, dustier rocks,” Herkenhoff notes.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 3458, April 29, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Outcrop close-ups

Researchers will also take advantage of Curiosity’s new location to take Mastcam images of Maringma Butte, as the rover is closer to that outcrop than expected.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 3458, April 29, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

“Mastcam will also acquire multispectral sets of images of the Cow Head and Orton Scar contact science targets. Navcam will search for dust devils and characterize the dustiness of the atmosphere toward the north before the rover drives again,” Herkenhoff reports.

After the drive and the typical post-drive imaging, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) was to again acquire a twilight image of the ground behind the left front wheel.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 3458, April 29, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Dusty Zhurong rover.
Credit: CNSA

 

China’s Zhurong rover has worked on the surface of Mars for more than 300 days.

The Tianwen-1 mission is the country’s first interplanetary outing, probe sending back a large amount of data, and is ready for more international cooperation on Mars, says a chief designer of the probe.

In May 2021, China’s Mars probe Tianwen-1 successfully landed on the Red Planet, then dispatched the Zhurong robot explorer.

Lander and Zhurong Mars rover.
Credit: CNSA/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Communication test

After its landing, the Mars rover successfully completed an in-orbit relay communication test with the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Mars Express, laying a foundation for further international cooperation.

Zhurong sent test data to Mars Express over a distance of approximately 4,000 kilometers. The communication lasted 10 minutes.

Peng Song, deputy director designer of the Tianwen-1 probe.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Mars rover Zhurong sent test data to Mars Express. Mars Express received the data and forwarded it to the European Space Operations Center (ESOC). The ESOC then forwarded the data to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. “The data relay communication link verification test proved that the Tianwen-1 team and the Mars Express team are capable of conducting international cooperation in this field,” Peng Song, deputy director designer of the Tianwen-1 probe, told China Central Television (CCTV).

Credit: CNSA

Data analysis results showed that the relay communication equipment interfaces of Zhurong and ESA’s Mars Express matched and conformed to international standards, and the contents of the transmitted data were complete and correct.

China’s Zhurong rover wheels to the south, clearly shown in this June 11 image acquired by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Travel route

Zhurong has driven more than 6,233 feet (1,900 meters) southward from its landing point on Mars and will keep its effective momentum to travel further south to obtain scientific data.

“We have some high-interest objects in the south. Zhurong finished exploring a sand dune and some rocks in the vicinity. Its travel route is generally based on the scientific purposes,” Peng said.

Meanwhile, the Tianwen-1 mission orbiter continues to orbit around the red planet conducting tests of its own, which is tasked with taking high resolution pictures of typical landforms on Mars, including craters, volcanoes, canyons and dry river beds.

Credit: China National Space Administration (CNSA)/China Media Group(CMG)/China Central Television (CCTV)

Winter season

Additionally, the Zhurong rover is prepared for tiding over dusty weather in the upcoming winter season on the Red Planet.

“So far everything looks safe and sound. But the dust could affect the power generation of the solar wings, because the dust is bound to reduce the efficiency of the power generation, which could lead to a shortage of energy,” said Peng.

Tailored measures

To tackle the frequent sandstorms in winter, the designers have designed four tailored measures for Zhurong.

“The first is that the battery pieces installed in the solar wings are made of a special material called superhydrophobic material, which, like a lotus leaf can let the water drops falling on it slip, makes it easier for the dust to be blown off,” said Peng.

Complex terrain of rocks, impact craters and sand dunes.
Credit: CNSA

Zhurong’s solar wings also have directional tracking of the sun. Although the sun is lower in winter, the rover’s wings, like those of a sunflower, will shift as the sun rises to maximize solar energy absorption.

The third measure is that the rover can conserve energy and reduce energy consumption by changing their working patterns in windy and sandy weather.

If all the first three measures fail to solve the energy problem, the rover will go into dormancy until the dust clears, when it will wake up automatically and resume work, according to Peng.

Credit: Iceland Space Agency

Of all places on Earth, Iceland is turning out to be a cold, but nearby testing zone for spacesuits, habitats and off-world terrain vehicles.

But why there and what’s ahead in chipping away at research ideas that can furnish humanity a leg up on re-planting footprints on the Moon and start plotting out Mars habitation?  

Embarking upon the future of off-planet exploration is the Iceland Space Agency.

The CHILL-ICE project is constructing a lunar-analogue habitat inside a lava tube in Iceland. (Image credit: CHILL-ICE)

While Iceland does not have a government agency for space, nonetheless, there’s a growing list of research projects underway, as well as progress in nurturing a space sector in the country.

Please go to my new Space.com story – “Iceland emerging as popular practice site for moon and Mars exploration” at:

https://www.space.com/iceland-moon-mars-research-site

 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

High-tech leftovers from the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars have been imaged by the space agency’s Ingenuity helicopter.

Taken during the rotorcraft’s 26th flight over Mars on April 19th, images show the Perseverance’s backshell (left of center), supersonic parachute (far right) – all caught on camera from an altitude of 26 feet (8 meters).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During the Feb. 18, 2021, landing of Perseverance the parachute and backshell were jettisoned at about 1.3 miles (2.1 km) altitude.

The parachute and backshell continued to descend and impacted the ground at approximately 78 mph (126 kph).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Engineers working on the Mars Sample Return program requested images be taken from an aerial perspective of the components. They may provide insight into the components’ performance during the rover’s entry, descent, and landing.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artwork depicts CAPSTONE spacecraft in a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon.
Credit: NASA/Advanced Space

Rocket Lab is slated to launch in May a pathfinding cubesat mission that supports NASA’s Artemis return-to-the moon program.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment — mercifully called CAPSTONE for short — tips the scales at a modest 55-pounds. This microwave-oven sized spacecraft will be lofted from New Zealand aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket and the launch provider’s Lunar Photon upper stage.

Jeffrey Parker, chief technology officer of Advanced Space (left) explains the CAPSTONE mission to U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper over a full-size model of the spacecraft.
Credit: Advanced Space/Jason Johnson

 

The launch window is between May 3-May 15.

For more details on this important mission, go to my new Space.com story — “Little CAPSTONE cubesat ready to launch on big moon mission next month” – at:

https://www.space.com/capstone-cubesat-moon-mission-launch-may

 

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Technicians have unloaded China’s Shenzhou-13 spacecraft on Tuesday, removing items carried to space, weighing over 73 kilograms, including numbers of experimental equipment and instruments.

Engineers of the China Academy of Space Technology took objects out of the return capsule. Among them are crop seeds brought to the space for biological experiments, which is a tradition of China’s spaceflight missions. Along with the seeds, commemorative stamps and paintings by Hong Kong teenagers were retrieved, reports China Central Television (CCTV).

There are also two 8K ultra-high-definition cameras, which the three taikonauts of Shenzhou-13 used to record their six-month stay in the space station and images of the Earth. The footage is to be used to make a documentary about China’s space program by the China Media Group.

Other objects will be transferred to other institutions of the country.

Notaries at the site registered the information of every object taken out of the capsule and verified them one by one.

China’s longest spaceflight

After the return capsule was transported back to Beijing, engineers tested the equipment in the vehicle, verifying the spacecraft’s technical status to evaluate its operation in space.

Packing up for return to Earth – Shenzhou-13 crew.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

On Oct 16, 2021, the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft transported the three taikonauts — Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu — to the Tiangong space station for a six-month stay (183 days), the longest-ever duration in the country’s human spaceflight program.

The return capsule of the Shenzhou-13 piloted spaceship touched down at the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia on April 16.

Shenzhou-13 crew members.
Credit: CNS/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Over the past six months, the three taikonauts completed multiple tasks, including carrying out two extravehicular activities, conducted two live science lectures, also with making a number of sci-tech experiments and fulfilling application projects.

The Chinese taikonauts also used manual tele-operation equipment for the first time to steer a cargo craft to dock with the space station.

“To make use of the performance margin of the flights of Shenzhou-13 manned spacecraft, we conducted more than 10 experiments of scientific value and social benefit. They mainly involve space breeding, space biological experiments and space culture,” said Lin Xiqiang, spokesman of China Manned Space Program and deputy director of China Manned Space Agency.

Go to video of the unpacking at: https://youtu.be/NQhQoc_GkHQ

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China will start engineering development of the fourth phase of its lunar exploration program this year, according to a senior official of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), as reported by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The Chang’e-6, Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 lunar probes will be launched successively, and the country will endeavor to make breakthroughs in key technologies and build an international lunar research station, Wu Yanhua, CNSA’s deputy director, told an online launch ceremony for the 2022 Space Day of China on Sunday.

Wu said the Chang’e-6 will take samples from the far side of the Moon.

Furthermore, China is planning to set up a satellite constellation around the moon to provide communication and navigation services.

Artist’s view of China/Russia International Lunar Research Station to be completed by 2035. Credit: CNSA/Roscosmos

Moon research station

The main goal of the fourth phase is to carry out scientific exploration on the Moon’s south pole and set up a fundamental type of lunar scientific research station.

The fourth phase will be carried out in three steps, with the Chang’e-6, Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 probes being launched before 2030.

Go to this video that spotlights the next set of Chinese Moon probes at:

https://youtu.be/8GdUOVbIMbo

Also, go to this video that details China’s Chang’e and Yutu lunar machinery at:

https://youtu.be/EmrU28aPK18

Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Yet another space causality of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine is the European Space Agency’s withdrawal of cooperation on Russia’s reactivation of Moon exploration.

But what are the ripple effects of this move?

Go to my new Scientific American story:

“Europe Cancels Joint Moon Missions with Russia – Russia will move forward with lunar exploration without its European partners,” at:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/europe-cancels-joint-moon-missions-with-russia/

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

The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office has published an annual Space Environment Report.

A bottom line: humankind’s behavior in space is improving but is still unsustainable in the long term.

On one hand, Earth is encircled by spacecraft carrying out important work to study our changing climate, deliver global communication and navigation services and help us answer important scientific questions.

Credit: ESA

However, spacecraft orbits are churning with deadly fragments – fast-moving pieces of defunct satellites and rockets trapped in orbit – that threaten our future in space.

Key findings

Several of the key findings of the 2022 report include:

  • More satellites are being launched today than ever before. This is driven by the increasing number and scale of commercial satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit.
  • Most, but not all, rocket bodies launched today are safely placed in compliant disposal orbits or removed from low-Earth orbit before they can fragment into clouds of dangerous debris. But active satellites today still have to dodge out of the way of objects that were launched decades ago and have since broken into fragments.
  • Not enough satellites are removed from heavily congested low-Earth orbits at the end of their lives.
  • Technological advances are improving our ability to spot and track smaller fragments of space debris.

Not enough effort

“While we may be more responsible with what we launch today, our current efforts are not enough,” the report explains.

Earth clutter. This artist’s view shows the broad scope of space debris circling the planet, hundreds of miles above sea level, at the same height where low-Earth orbit satellites operate. The spatial density of debris objects increases at high latitudes. Note that the size of the debris elements in this image is greatly exaggerated compared to the size of Earth.
Credit: European Space Agency.)

“If we don’t significantly change the way we use launch, fly and dispose of space objects, an ‘extrapolation’ of our current behavior into the future shows how the number of catastrophic in-space collisions could rise,” the report adds.

Long term, the report concludes, this could lead to a Kessler Syndrome. That’s a situation in which the density of objects in orbit is high enough that collisions between objects and debris create a cascade effect, each crash generating debris that then increases the likelihood of further collisions. “At this point, certain low-Earth orbits will become entirely inhospitable.”

For more information on ESA’s Space Environment Report 2022, go to:

https://www.sdo.esoc.esa.int/environment_report/Space_Environment_Report_latest.pdf

Also, an informative video detailing space debris can be viewed at:

https://youtu.be/X9aqfIAJrJo