A Mars Namaste and taxis to the space station

CuriosityIt’s been a busy couple of weeks on and around Mars and with space exploration in general. This being the case, I’m going to be tagging some of the other items of potential interest to the end of this Curiosity update.

On September 24th, Curiosity obtained its first sample of rock gathered from the foothills of “Mount Sharp”, or Aeolis Mons as it is more correctly named. The sample was taken from a rock in the area dubbed “Pahrump Hills”, an uprising within the initial transitional zone between what is regarded as the floor of Gale Crater and the material making up the huge mound of “Mount Sharp” located at the centre of the crater.

The rover officially arrived within the area of interest on September 19th, and conducted surveys of its surroundings and a potential candidate area was selected for sample gathering. On September 22nd, an initial “mini drill” test operation was carried out on a rock surface in the target area, dubbed “Confidence Hills”, to assess its suitability for sample gathering.

A mosaic of images captured by Curiosity's Mastcam showing the Pahrump Hills area the rover is currently investigating (foreground) and the Murrary formation, a near-term destination, beyond
A mosaic of images captured by Curiosity’s Mastcam showing the Pahrump Hills area the rover is currently investigating (foreground) and the Murray formation, a near-term destination, beyond – click any image for full size

As noted in a previous update, “mini drilling” operations are used to test a potential target for a range of factors prior to actually committing the rover’s drill to a sample-gathering exercise, the intention being to ensure as far as possible that nothing untoward may happen which may damage the drill mechanism or adversely impact future sample gathering work.

The September 22nd mini drilling was important for two reasons; not only was it intended to assess the suitability of the target rock for sample gathering, it also marked the first time the drill cut into what is essentially “new” and “softer” material compared to previous drilling activities, and it was doubly unclear as to how the drill or the rock might react.

The bore hole image from the September 24th sample-gathering at “Parump Hills”. A “merged-focused product” combining a set of images captured by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) from just 2 centimetres above the hole, it show the bore cut by the rover’s drill and surrounding tailings which, interestingly, don’t share the same distinctive light gray colouring seen with samples gathered on the crater floor. The hole is 1.6cm across and about 6 cm deep. The images were taken on September 24th, 2014, during the 759th Sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars

The sample-gathering drilling took place on September 24th, PDT (Sol 759 for Curiosity on Mars) and resulted in cutting a hole some 6 centimetres (2.6 inches) deep into the target rock and the successful gathering of tailings. “This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada following the operation. “This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth.”

Curiosity is liable to stay within the “Pahrump Hills” area for a while prior to moving up onto the Murray Formation above it, which is regarded as the formal boundary area between “Mount Sharp” and the crater floor, and as such is designated a target of particular interest. As a part of its studies of “Pahrump Hills”, and as well as gathering an initial rock sample, the rover has been surveying the rocks in its immediate surroundings with other instruments including the ChemCam laser system and the high-magnification Mars Hand Lens Imager camera, also mounted on the robot arm.

Of particular interest to the science team have been a series geometrically distinctive features on the rock surface. These are thought to be common to the Murray formation mudstones, and are believed to be the accumulations of erosion-resistant materials. They occur both as discrete clusters and as dendrites with formations arranged in tree-like branching. By investigating the shapes and chemical ingredients in these features, the team hopes to gain information about the possible composition of fluids at this Martian location long ago.

Another merged-focused image from MAHLI, showing accumulations of erosion-resistant materials in the “Pahrump Hills” area on the slopes of “Mount Sharp”. Similar features on Earth form when shallow bodies of water begin to evaporate and minerals precipitate from the concentrated brines. The width of the image covers about 2.2 centimetres, and it combines a series of images captured on September 23rd, 2014, during Curiosity’s 758th Sol

Currently, the sample gathered from the “Confidence Hills” are held within CHIMRA, the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis system, in the rover’s robot arm. This is a mechanism that allows sample material to be graded by the size of the tailings by passing them through a series of sieves as the robot arm is vibrated at high rates, producing multiple samples which can then be delivered in turn to the rover’s onboard science instruments for detailed analysis.

Of Mavens and Moms

September has seen two new arrivals at Mars, adding to the growing armada of vehicles orbiting the planet.

The first of the new arrivals to enter orbit was NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission) vehicle, which has a planned primary mission duration of a year. Initially a part NASA’s Mars Scout programme, aimed at delivering low-cost missions (e.g. costing less than US$485 million, excluding the launch vehicle) to Mars, MAVEN has outlived that particular programme, which was cancelled in 2010. The aim of the mission is to determine the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space and gain insight into Martian climate evolution. As such, it has four primary objectives:

  • Determine the role that loss of volatiles to space from the Martian atmosphere has played through time.
  • Determine the current state of the upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the solar wind.
  • Determine the current rates of escape of neutral gases and ions to space and the processes controlling them.
  • Determine the ratios of stable isotopes in the Martian atmosphere.

Launched on November 18th, 2013, MAVEN commenced its orbital insertion around Mars on September 21st, PDT, achieving its initial orbit ready to commence a six-week commissioning phase of the mission on September 22nd. This will see the vehicle’s suite of instruments checked-out and cleared to begin the year-long primary science mission, while the vehicle undergoes final orbital adjustments to reach its science orbit. This will be a eliptical orbit which at periapsis, or the lowest point, will see MAVEN “deep dip” into the tenuous Martian atmosphere five times, dropping to altitudes of just 125 to 150 kilometres (77 to 93 miles) above the surface of the planet.

Artist’s impression of MAVEN in orbit around Mars (Image: Lockheed Martin via the BBC)

Commenting on the orbiter’s arrival at Mars, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said, “As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet. It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”

The second orbiter mission to arrive safely at Mars did so just two days after MAVEN, on September 24th, 2014. The Mars Orbiter Mission is an ambitious undertaking by India, which serves as both a platform for Mars science and a technology demonstrator for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which becomes the fourth space agency to reach Mars after Russia, NASA, and the European Space Agency. As such, it is already a remarkable demonstration of India’s prowess as an emerging space faring country, which only undertook its first relatively deep space mission – that of the lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1- in 2008.

With a cost of somewhere between US $74 million and US$91 million (including some US$21 million is feasibility studies), this is also a remarkably cheap interplanetary mission, with the Indian government couching it in terms of costing the 1.2 billion population of India just a bus ride apiece.

Artist's impression of India's Mars Orbiter Mission vehicle - the main body of the vehicle is around the height of a man
Artist’s impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission vehicle – the main body of the vehicle is around the height of a man

The primary science objectives for the mission are focused on the Martian atmosphere and on surface studies, all of which should complement existing research ongoing efforts through other missions and add to our volume of knowledge concerning Mars. In all, five instruments are carried aboard the vehicle, all of them developed by India’s growing technology and science sector. They comprise:

  • A Lyman-Alpha Photometer (LAP) – a photometer that measures the relative abundance of deuterium and hydrogen from Lyman-alpha emissions in the upper atmosphere. Measuring the deuterium/hydrogen ratio will allow an estimation of the amount of water loss to outer space.
  • Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) – will measure methane in the atmosphere of Mars, if any, and map its sources
  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) – is a quadrupole mass analyser capable of analysing the neutral composition of particles in the exosphere
  • A Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) – will measure the temperature and emissivity of the Martian surface, allowing for the mapping of surface composition and mineralogy of Mars
  • The Mars Colour Camera (MCC) – will provide images in the visual spectrum, providing context for the other instruments.

The primary mission for MOM – which is also referred to as Mangalyaan (or “Mars-craft” from the Sanskrit मंगल mangala “Mars” + यान yāna “craft, vehicle”), is anticipated to be six months.

NASA Confirms Next Generation Crewed Vehicles for ISS Support

September 16th 2016 saw NASA confirm its final choice of crewed launch vheicles to support missions to International Space Station (ISS).

There had originally been four contenders for contract to ferry crew and their associated materiel to and from the ISS, which will commence in 2017, and if all goes according to plan, will end America’s reliance on the Russian Soyuz space vehicle as a crew transfer vehicle. The four contenders were  Blue Origin with a conical craft simply called the Space Vehicle (subsequently dropped by NASA in late 2012), the Space Systems division of Sierra Nevada Corporation, which offered the futuristic Dream Chaser, SpaceX, with its Dragon V2 vehicle recently unveiled in a blaze of publicity, and Boeing, with their capsule-based CST-100 vehicle,

The four contenders for the ISS crew support contract (clockwork from top left): Sierra Nevada's DreamChaser; Blue Origin's Space Vehicle; Boeing's CST-100 and Spacex's Dragon V2 (images courtesy of Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, Boeing and SpaceX)
The four contenders for the ISS crew support contract (clockwork from top left): Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser; Blue Origin’s Space Vehicle; Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 (images courtesy of Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, Boeing and SpaceX)

Of the four, SpaceX were perhaps the most high-profile contender, having already won a share of the contract to operate uncrewed resupply vehicles to and from the ISS (and which are helping pave the way for Dragon to offer a fully reusable space launch system), so the selection of the Dragon V2 craft as one of the two preferred choices for hoisting crews between Earth and the ISS probably came as no surprise to most space pundits.

Boeing’s CST-100 (which means “Crew Space Transportation” and “100 kilometres” – the official altitude boundary that marks the “beginning” of space), has been developed in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace, founded by hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow. It is somewhat similar to NASA’s own Orion crewed space vehicle which is scheduled to undertake its first flight in December 2014, but is of entirely different heritage.

The US$6.8 billion contract for supporting the ISS is being split between Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX (2.6 billion). Under the terms of the contract, at least one of the vehicles must be flying to the ISS by 2017, with both companies being required to fly between two and 6 missions in total, with each mission carrying four astronauts apiece.

A comparison between the space shuttle, NASA upcoming Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which will undergo its first launch in December 2014), SpaceX’s Dragon, Boeing’s CST-100 and SNC’s Dream Chaser. Note that solar panels for Orion, Dragon and CST-100 are not shown (image courtesy of americaspace.com)

Unlike the space shuttle, which tended to make short stopovers at the ISS lasting no more than 8-16 days, both the CST-100 and Dragon V2 are designed to remain docked at the space station for up to a year at a time. With a total crew capacity of seven apiece, they therefore offer an assured means of returning ISS personnel to Earth in an emergency, thus allowing the potential from crew numbers at the station to be increased (crews for the most part being limited to 3 at present, except during periods of hand-over or personnel change, this being the maximum capacity of the Soyuz vehicle).

Despite the US$6.8 billion price tag (plus initial development funds granted to the various contenders in the programme), using commercial launch vehicle vendors to support ISS operations has allowed NASA to refocus its own efforts on more far-reaching goals, such as a possible return to the Moon and human missions to Mars, through the development of the Orion crewed vehicle and its associated luanch vehicle, the SLS.

Outside of their NASA obligations, but the CST-100 (which, like the Dragon V2, is designed to be reusable) and the Dragon can potentially be used for a range of low Earth orbit activities. SpaceX, for example, intend to fly two DragonLab orbital science missions in 2016 and 2018.

All images and video courtesy of NASA / JPL unless otherwise stated.

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