Archive for June, 2022

Curiosity Mast Camera (Mastcam) Left photo acquired on Sol 3512, June 23, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at Gale Crater is now performing Sol 3514 duties.

“Drill success!” reports Ken Herkenhoff, a planetary geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Our first drill attempt since last November was successful!”

The new drill hole is surrounded by drill tailings as expected. This is one of several times in Curiosity’s mission, Herkenhoff adds, that drilling had to be re-designed to overcome an anomaly, again requiring lots of careful planning and testing using nearly identical drill hardware at JPL. “Kudos to the anomaly resolution team and thanks for all the good work that enabled the capability to drill again!”

Drilling is required to acquire samples of rock and deliver them to the laboratory instruments, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite and Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) inside the rover.

“So this is a day of celebration for the MSL science team,” Herkenhoff notes.

Curiosity Mast Camera (Mastcam) Right image taken on Sol 3512, June 23, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Portion characterization

“But before any sample can be delivered to CheMin or SAM, we have to see the results of the drill sample portion characterization that was planned last Wednesday,” Herkenhoff explains. “These results will not be relayed to Earth in time for planning Sols 3514 through 3516, so this weekend’s plan includes many remote sensing and environmental observations, including more Mastcam and Navcam images of the terrain east and west of the rover at various times of day to improve the sampling of observational geometries needed to constrain the photometric behavior of the surface materials.”

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 3513, June 24, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Such photometric observations are useful in determining the scattering properties and roughness of the rocks, soil and dust on the surface.

Sedimentary structures

Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) will also be busy, with the Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) rasters planned on each sol, of targets “Magna Brava” (local bedrock), “Rio Uraricoera” (a vein), and “Wiapri” (a dark rock).

Mastcam will document the LIBS spots on each of these targets, Herkenhoff adds, and on the morning of Sol 3514 will acquire a 12×2 stereo mosaic extending the coverage of sedimentary structures at Marbura Hill and a multispectral observation of disturbed soil at “Kamana.” That afternoon, Navcam and Mastcam will examine the properties of dust in the atmosphere and Mastcam will acquire two more stereo mosaics, of “Amacuro” and “Deepdale.”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 3513, June 24, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dust, dust devils and clouds

On Sol 3515, Mastcam and Navcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere and Navcam will search for dust devils and clouds more extensively than usual, as additional time and power are available this weekend.

Navcam will search for clouds before dawn and Mastcam will measure the amount of dust above the rover later the next morning. Navcam will search again for clouds and dust devils later that sol.

“The rover will wake up before dawn again on Sol 3517 to allow Navcam to search for clouds,” Herkenhoff reports. “Later than morning, Mastcam and Navcam will measure atmospheric dust content before Navcam searches for clouds one more time.”

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this view of layered, flaky rocks believed to have formed in an ancient streambed or small pond. The six images that make up this mosaic were captured using Curiosity’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on June 2, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) will also monitor the environmental conditions through the weekend plan.

“So MSL [Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity] will be busy,” Herkenhoff concludes, “while we wait for news of the sample portion characterization!”

As always, dates of planned rover activities are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screengrab


That Earth-circling U.S. military X-37B robotic space drone is closing in on a new long-duration record.

The Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) is also called USSF-7 for the U.S. Space Force, and was launched on May 17, 2020 by an Atlas-V 501 booster and is winging past 770 days.

Flight of a previous record-holder was OTV-5 that spent nearly 780 days on-orbit.

Encapsulated X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for U.S. Space Force-7 mission, now in Earth orbit.
Credit: Boeing

Onboard experiments

While the Boeing-built robotic space plane’s on-orbit primary agenda is classified, some of its onboard experiments were discussed pre-launch.

One experiment onboard the space plane is from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), an investigation into transforming solar power into radio frequency microwave energy. The experiment itself is called the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module, PRAM for short.

X-37B handout.
Credit: Boeing

Along with toting NRL’s PRAM into Earth orbit, the X-37B also deployed the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several experiments on orbit.

In addition, two NASA experiments are tucked onboard the space plane to study the effects of the space environment on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food.




OTV-6 is the first to use a service module to host experiments. The service module is an attachment to the aft of the vehicle that allows additional experimental payload capability to be carried to orbit.

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4 is seen after landing at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on May 7, 2017.
Credit: U.S. Air Force courtesy photo

Earlier flights

Here’s a roster of X-37B missions showing the increasing duration of flight time.

OTV-1: launched on April 22, 2010 and landed on December 3, 2010, spending over 224 days on orbit.

OTV-2: launched on March 5, 2011 and landed on June 16, 2012, spending over 468 days on orbit.

OTV-3: launched on December 11, 2012 and landed on October 17, 2014, spending over 674 days on-orbit.

OTV-4: launched on May 20, 2015 and landed on May 7, 2015, spending nearly 718 days on-orbit.

OTV-5: launched on September 7, 2017 and landed on October 27, 2019, spending nearly 780 days on-orbit.

As to when and where OTV-6 will return to a wheels-stopped landing is anybody’s guess.

OTV-1, OTV-2, and OTV-3 missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while the OTV-4 and OTV-5 missions landed at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Post-landing of OTV-5 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Courtesy Photo 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

Overseeing operations

The X-37B program is flown under the auspices of a U.S. Space Force unit called Delta 9, established and activated July 24, 2020.

In a description of Delta 9, current as of September 2020:

“Delta 9 Detachment 1 oversees operations of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an experimental program designed to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Space Force,” according to a fact sheet issued by Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

Delta 9 unit emblem.
Credit: U.S. Space Force

“The mission of Delta 9 is to prepare, present, and project assigned and attached forces for the purpose of conducting protect and defend operations and providing national decision authorities with response options to deter and, when necessary, defeat orbital threats,” the fact sheet explains. “Additionally, Delta 9 supports Space Domain Awareness by conducting space-based battlespace characterization operations and also conducts on-orbit experimentation and technology demonstrations for the U.S. Space Force.”

Vehicle features

Boeing, as the space plane maker, notes that the vehicle features many elements that mark a first use in space, including:

  • Avionics designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions.
  • Flight controls and brakes using all electro-mechanical actuation; no hydraulics on board.
  • Built using a lighter composite structure, rather than traditional aluminum.
  • New generation of high-temperature wing leading-edge tiles and toughened uni-piece fibrous refractory oxidation-resistant ceramic (TUFROC) tiles.
  • Advanced conformal reusable insulation (CRI) blankets.
  • Toughened uni-piece fibrous insulation (TUFI) impregnated silica tiles.

Air Force X-37B space plane.
Credit: Boeing

According to a Boeing fact sheet, “the X-37B is one of the world’s newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft, designed to operate in low-earth orbit, 150 to 500 miles above the Earth. The vehicle is the first since the Space Shuttle with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis. This United States Air Force unmanned space vehicle explores reusable vehicle technologies that support long-term space objectives.”

At first designed to fly 270 days per mission, Boeing adds that “the X-37B has set progressive records for time on orbit during each of its five previous missions.”

Credit: Kevin Fetter




Go to this June 25, 2022 video of OTV-6 flying overhead, taken by Canadian skywatcher Kevin Fetter. “Nice to have a clear sky again, after a few cloudy one’s,” he says.

Video at:

CAPSTONE over the Moon’s North Pole. After arrival at its cis-lunar destination, CAPSTONE will begin its 6-month-long primary mission. The mission will validate a near rectilinear halo orbit’s characteristics by demonstrating how to enter into and operate in the orbit.
Illustration credit: NASA/Daniel Rutter


NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat mission is set for its Moon-bound departure to demonstrate a unique orbit for future NASA Artemis missions.

Liftoff from the Rocket Lab launch facility in Mahia, New Zealand atop the firm’s Electron booster is now set for Monday, June 27, 2022 at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (10:00 UTC).

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket sits on the pad at the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand for wet dress rehearsal ahead of the CAPSTONE launch.
Credit: Rocket Lab


The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Equipment (long space-speak for CAPSTONE) is to head for cislunar space – the orbital area near and around the Moon – and demonstrate an innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology.

Orion spacecraft pulls up to Gateway.
Credit: NASA

Gateway outpost

The destination for this microwave oven-size CubeSat is a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), the orbit of choice planned for Gateway, the multipurpose outpost for long-term lunar missions as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

The Gateway in lunar orbit is where astronauts will transfer between the Orion piloted spacecraft and the lander on regular Artemis missions.

Gateway will remain in orbit for more than a decade. In that time it provides a place to live and work, and support long-term science and human exploration on and around the Moon.

CAPSTONE team members install solar panels onto the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment – at Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. in Irvine, California.
Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart

Key players

CAPSTONE is commercially owned and operated by Advanced Space in Westminster, Colorado, on behalf of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Other key players for CAPSTONE include:

  • Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., a Terran Orbital Corporation: Spacecraft design, development and implementation, hardware manufacturing, assembly, testing and mission operations support.
  • Stellar Exploration: Propulsion subsystem provider.
  • Space Dynamics Lab (SDL): Iris radio and navigation firmware provider.
  • Orion Space Solutions (formerly Astra): Chip Scale Atomic Clock (CSAC) hardware provider necessary for the 1-way ranging experiment.
  • Tethers Unlimited, Inc.: Cross Link radio provider.

Six days after launch, the Rocket Lab Photon upper stage will release CAPSTONE into space for the first portion of the spacecraft’s solo flight.

After a four-month journey to the Moon, CAPSTONE will test the dynamics of the NRHO for at least six months.

Live launch coverage will begin at 5 a.m. Eastern on NASA Television, at:

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Late last year, sky watchers reported that a rocket body was heading towards a lunar collision, destined to make its demise on the Moon.

On March 4, 2022 that hardware smacked into the Moon near Hertzsprung crater.

Now thanks to the sharp-shooting NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, the results of that grand slam have been spotted: a double crater roughly 92-feet (28 meters) wide in the longest dimension.


“The double crater was unexpected and may indicate that the rocket body had large masses at each end,” reports Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for LRO’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, at Arizona State University in Tempe.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

“Typically a spent rocket has mass concentrated at the motor end; the rest of the rocket stage mainly consists of an empty fuel tank. Since the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the double nature of the crater may help to indicate its identity,” Robinson adds.

No other rocket body impacts on the Moon created double craters.

Craters formed by impacts of the Apollo S-IVB stages: crater diameters range from 35 to 40 meters in the longest dimension.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Apollo upper stage craters

The four Apollo SIV-B craters that struck the Moon were somewhat irregular in outline (Apollos 13, 14, 15, 17) and were substantially larger than each of the double craters.

The maximum width of 95 feet (29 meters) of the double crater of the mystery rocket body was near that of the S-IVBs, Robinson reports.


Artist’s impression of DSCOVR on the way to L1 atop its Falcon 9 upper stage in 2015.
Credit: SpaceX


Miss and hit predictions

First thought to be a SpaceX upper stage, it was later tagged by Bill Gray of Project Pluto as a leftover from China’s Chang’e 5-T1 lunar mission in 2014.

Gray says that before the actual March 4 impact he had computed a prediction for the impact location, as had the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Those predictions differed by about 5 miles (8 kilometers) “which didn’t really surprise either off us,” Gray says in an email. “Their position was close enough to mine, and mine to theirs, to be consistent with the data we had.”

The actual impact location was uncertain, mainly because last observations were made about four weeks before impact. “After that, the object was too close to the Sun in the sky to be able to point a telescope at it.” Gray added. “The telescopic observations were of good quality and gave us an excellent idea of what the trajectory was at that time.”

Gray noted that the problem was that spacecraft and space junk are gently pushed by sunlight, in a way that depends on how the objects are oriented as they tumble end over end. It’s a small push, he said, but over the four weeks, observers knew it could push the object miles one way or the other,  in a poorly-determined direction. 

Read the rest of this entry »

This illustration shows a concept for multiple robots that would team up to ferry to Earth samples collected from the Mars surface by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is pressing ahead on the agency’s long-sought robotic Holy Grail mission – rocketing back to Earth pieces of Mars. This fast-paced, multi-billion dollar endeavor is dedicated to hauling back planetary particulars from the Red Planet to our world in the early 2030’s.

A Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign is now being orchestrated by NASA and the European Space Agency, a multi-spacecraft enterprise that’s already underway as NASA’s Perseverance rover wheels away on the Red Planet at Jezero Crater. It is busily gathering choice specimens for eventual conveyance to Earth.

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.

While having our planet on the receiving end of aeon-aged Mars memorabilia, plausibly containing Martian life, that viewpoint is deemed “low risk” in terms of ecological and public safety. But that risk is not zero.




Go to my new Scientific American story – “Controversy Grows Over whether Mars Samples Endanger Earth” – at:

Credit: NASA


NASA’s Artemis return to the Moon program has gotten a power boost – in the form of a lunar fission surface power system.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have chosen three design concept proposals for a fission surface power system design that could be ready to launch by the end of the decade for a demonstration outing on the Moon.

A trio of awards have been issued by the Department of Energy and NASA. One of those selected was IX, a joint venture between Intuitive Machines and X-energy, a contract to conduct a one-year study to mature the design of a Fission Surface Power (FSP) solution that will deliver at least 40 kWe power flight system to the Moon by 2028.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

Contract awards

The contracts call for initial design concepts for a 40-kilowatt (kWe) class fission power system planned to last at least 10 years in the lunar environment.

The Phase 1, 12-month contracts were awarded to:

  • Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland – The company will partner with BWXT and Creare.
  • Westinghouse of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania – The company will partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne.
  • IX of Houston, Texas, a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy – The company will partner with Maxar and Boeing.

Battelle Energy Alliance, the managing and operating contractor for Idaho National Laboratory, led the Request for Proposal development, evaluation, and procurement sponsored by NASA.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its Right Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. This image was acquired on June 13, 2022.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU


The Perseverance rover at Jezero Crater has reached layered and weirdly eroded rocks at the edge of the ancient delta deposit. 

“They get even weirder, with an obviously unnatural feature in one of them that sometimes disappears,” explains Mars Guy (Planetary scientist, Steve Ruff, at Arizona State University in Tempe).

Credit: Mars Guy










Get the full story by going to Episode 63 of Mars Guy at:

A composite image of Mars and its two moons, Phobos (foreground) and Deimos (background).
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


Mining asteroids in the future would benefit from using Mars orbit as a base from which to access Main Belt Asteroids (MBAs) – asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter.

As a result, a growing economy that utilizes space resources or large scale exploration missions will likely find Mars orbit convenient.

The stable platform and modest gravity afforded by Phobos – one of two moons of the Red Planet — would make it a natural first choice. “Once Mars orbit has a profitable economy, with high value trans-shipments, the Martian surface may also become an economically valuable outpost. This value may then stimulate settlement.”

That’s the view of the Center for Astrophysics (CfA)|Harvard & Smithsonian astronomers Martin Elvis, Jonathan McDowell, and past Harvard undergraduate Anthony Taylor.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover used its Mastcam-Z camera system to shoot video of Phobos. This is still from that video.

A walk in the PARC

The trio developed PARC, short for Python Asteroid Rendezvous Code. This problem solving code culls out maneuver schemes to rendezvous with any known asteroid from either Earth or Mars orbit given a specified launch date and time of flight.

PARC was used to investigate whether Phobos-like orbits around Mars at altitudes of roughly 5,592 miles (9,000 ​kilometers) are more energetically favorable and useful locations from which to dispatch missions to MBAs. Phobos orbits about six thousand kilometers from the surface of Mars.

The results show potentially very significant reductions to the costs of exploration. Known MBAs are much larger than near-Earth objects (NEOs), so the total mass that is accessible is larger by roughly 10,000 times the accessible mass in NEOs.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Convenient and advantageous

The upshot of their investigation is that hundreds of thousands of MBAs are available for in-space mining purposes.

Whether or not a mission ultimately makes financial sense, the CfA statement adds, “depends on many other factors, but the authors demonstrate that the concept of a launching and then returning to an operations center based in a Phobos-like orbit, or even on Phobos itself, is relatively convenient and advantageous.”

They add that profitable large-scale mining from Martian orbit could also lead to routine access to the Martian surface.”

To access the paper – “Phobos and Mars orbit as a base for asteroid exploration and mining” – go to:

Credit: Sierra Space

Add Spaceport America in New Mexico to be on the receiving end of an incoming Sierra Space Dream Chaser, a winged commercial spaceplane.

Spaceport America and Sierra Space of Broomfield, Colorado announced today the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) about the southern New Mexico site being a compatible runway where Dream Chaser could land.

Other sites include the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and airports and landing sites in Huntsville, Alabama, Oita Airport, Japan, and Spaceport Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

Credit: Sierra Space

Dream Chaser is a multi-mission space utility vehicle designed for transporting crew and cargo to and from low Earth orbit destinations, including the International Space Station (ISS).

Commercial runways

The spaceplane is currently under contract with NASA for seven commercial resupply missions to the ISS providing cargo delivery, return and waste disposal services. The vehicle can deliver up to 12,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS at a time.

Aerial view of New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Credit: Spaceport America

“It is the only commercial spacecraft capable of low-g Earth return to compatible commercial runways worldwide, allowing immediate access to high value payloads. Dream Chaser is set to launch in 2023,” states a Sierra Space statement.

According to Sierra Space, the new MOU outlines the two organizations’ mutual pursuit to increase Spaceport America’s capabilities and demand for Dream Chaser reentry at the spaceport.  “As a result, in line with their shared vision, both parties will pursue a Part 433 reentry site operator’s license for Spaceport America from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).”

Go to this video showing the Tenacity Dream Chaser being built at:

Tenacity Dream Chaser under construction.
Credit: Sierra Space/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Life in Space – NASA Life Sciences Research During the Late Twentieth Century by Maura Phillips Mackowski, University of Florida Press (May 2022); 375 pages; Hardcover: $35.00.

This well-researched, well-written, and meticulously documented account of a somewhat concealed side of NASA offers a revealing look into the agency’s research in the space life sciences – and opportunities unfulfilled. 

The book consists of 10 chapters, such as “Working in the Space Environment,” “Radiation and the Science of Risk Reduction,” “Design and Redesign: The Many Space Stations of NASA,” and “The Vision for Space Exploration.” There is also an extensive and in-valuable notes/reference section that is priceless.

In the introduction, the author says upfront: “Space life sciences had to struggle for an acknowledged and appreciated place at the Agency’s table, principally because NASA was formed purposely as an evolution of a predecessor engineering research agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).”

Mackowski has written a bold story about NASA’s ambitious space life science program, but more importantly, why it is essential if dreams of lunar outposts and planting footprints on Mars are to become historical “done that” checkmarks in the future.

NASA’s space shuttle program brought with it a more diverse astronaut corps – gender, age, and nationalities. “This created a broader pool of human test subjects, making space research more applicable to Earth medicine. It also presented new challenges as the Agency worked to equip and maintain flight crews and manage programs carrying out increasingly ambitious research,” Mackowski writes.

The reader will find new insight into one opportunity lost and still lost-in-space – a high-tech centrifuge and work on artificial gravity. Keeping astronauts healthy, the author explains, meant re-looks into old ideas of artificial gravity, based on decades of learning about the medical impacts of microgravity.

A fascinating read is available on details dealing with troublesome radiation and risk reduction steps. “Fortunately for NASA’s life sciences budget, radiation was a danger no one knew much about but everyone wanted to understand,” the author points out.

This book is a significant volume of history, but also underscores what the future holds in carrying out productive life science research and what investigations are missing-in-action.

The volume builds upon the excellent quality of Mackowski’s research and writing in the past. She is a research historian based in Arizona and author of Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight.

In publicizing this work, take note of a comment from John B. Charles, retired chief scientist of NASA’s Human Research Program: “Mackowski’s research is exhaustive, her analysis is spot-on, and her conclusions give us pause as we consider when and if to send our fellow humans deeper into space on longer missions with greater risk and less support from Mission Control than ever before.”

For more information on this book, go to: