Space Sunday: the sand dunes of Mars and flying to the ISS

CuriosityThe Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, continues to climb the flank of “Mount Sharp” (formal name: Aeolis Mons), the giant mount of deposited material occupying the central region of Gale Crater around the original impact peak. For the last three weeks it has been making its way slowly towards the next point of scientific interest and a new challenge – a major field of sand dunes.

Dubbed the “Bagnold Dunes”, the field occupies a region on the north-west flank of “Mount Sharp”, and are referred to as an “active” field as they moving (“migrating” as the scientists prefer to call it) down the slops of the mound at a rate of about one metre per year as a result of both wind action and the fact they are on a slope.

Curiosity has covered about half the distance between its last area of major study and sample gathering and the first of the sand dunes, simply dubbed “Dune 1”. During the drive, the rover has been analysing the samples of rock obtained from its last two drilling excursions  and returning the data to Earth, as well as undertaking studies of the dune field itself in preparation for the upcoming excursion onto the sand-like surface.

While both Curiosity and, before it, the MER rovers Opportunity and Spirit have travelled over very small sand fields and sand ripples on Mars, those excursions have been nothing like the one on which Curiosity  is about to embark; the dunes in this field are huge. “Dune 1”, for example, roughly covers the area of an American football field and is equal in height to a 2-storey building.

"dune 1" in the "Bagnold Dunes", imaged here by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is roughly 300 metres across and as tall as a 2-storey building. The image is in false color, combining information recorded by HiRISE in red, blue-green and infrared frequencies of light.

“dune 1” in the “Bagnold Dunes”, imaged here by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is roughly 300 metres across and as tall as a 2-storey building. The image is in false colour, combining information recorded by HiRISE in red, blue-green and infra-red frequencies of light.

While the rover will not actually be climbing up the dune, it will be traversing the sand-like material from which it is formed and gathering samples using the robot arm scoop. This is liable to be a cautious operation, at least until the mission team are confident about traversing parts of the dune field – when Curiosity has encountered Martian sand in the past, it has not always found favour; wheel slippage and soft surfaces have forced a retreat from some sandy areas the rover has tried to cross.

Study of the dunes will help the science team better interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago, and also understand how wind action my be influencing mineral deposits and accumulation across Mars.

On Earth, the study of sand dune formation and motion, a field pioneered by British military engineer Ralph Bagnold – for whom the Martian dune field is named – did much to further the understanding of mineral movements and transport by wind action.  Understanding how this might occur on Mars is important in identifying how big a role the Marian wind played in depositing concentrations of minerals often associated with water across the planet, as opposed to those minerals accumulating in those areas as a direct consequence of water once having been present.

A mosaic of images taken on September 25th, 2015 (Sol 1,115) captures by the right lens of the rover's Mastcam system. .The view is toward south-south-west and reveals the "Bagnold Dunes" as a dark band across the middle of the image, blending with mesas beyond them

A mosaic of images taken on September 25th, 2015 (Sol 1,115) captures by the right lens of the rover’s Mastcam system. .The view is toward south-south-west and reveals the “Bagnold Dunes” as a dark band across the middle of the image, blending with mesas beyond them

Next NASA Rover to Have its Own Drone?

In January I wrote about ongoing work to develop a helicopter “drone” which could operate in concert with future robot missions to Mars. Now the outgoing director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has indicated the centre would like to see such a vehicle officially included as a part of the Mars 2020 rover package.

Weighing just one kilogramme (2.22 pounds) and with a rotor blade diameter of just over a metre (3.6 feet), the drone would be able to carry a small instrument payload roughly the size of a box of tissues, which would notably include an imaging system. Designed to operate as an advanced “scout”, the drone would make short daily “hops” ahead of, and around the “parent” rover to help identify safe routes through difficult terrain and gather data on possible points of scientific interest which might otherwise be missed and so on.

Since January, JPL has been continuing to refine and improve the concept, and retiring JPL Director Charles Elachi has confirmed that by March 2016, they will have a proof-of-concept design ready to undergo extensive testing in a Mars simulation chamber designed to reproduce the broad atmospheric environment in which such a craft will have to fly. The centre hopes that the trials will help convince NASA management – and Congress – that such a drone would be of significant benefit to the Mars 2020 mission, and pave the way for developing drones which might be used in support of future human missions on the surface of Mars.

Rosetta Asks…

The European Space Agency’s comet mission Rosetta continues to study comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, seeking to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our solar system – including whether or not comets may have been responsible for transporting the very earliest building blocks need for life to arise on the primordial Earth some 4 – 3.5 billion years ago.

As a part of the project, ESA, in association with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been making and releasing a series of short videos entitled Rosetta Asks…, which summarise findings from the mission in around 2 minutes. On November 5th, Rosetta Asks… focused on this question of whether or not comets may have played a role in kick-starting life on Earth, by summarising the mission’s findings so far

SpaceX Receives ISS Crewed Mission Order from NASA

NASA has placed its first order for a US commercial launch vehicle to lift a crew to the International Space Station.

Following the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA opted to hand over the task of carrying crews to the ISS from US soil and returning them to the Earth to the private sector, leaving itself free to focus on deep-space human missions such as to cislunar space and, possibly in the 2030s, to Mars.

Elon Musk unveils a mock-up of the Dragon V2 capsule in May 2014. SpaceX now has their firs NASA contract to fly a crew to the ISS aboard the vehicle, probably in 2018

Elon Musk unveils a mock-up of the Dragon V2 capsule in May 2014. SpaceX now has their firs NASA contract to fly a crew to the ISS aboard the vehicle, probably in 2018 (image: SpaceX)

Two companies eventually secured contracts to build the craft to fly crews to / from the space station: SpaceX and NASA’s long-term partner Boeing; a decision which itself was controversial when made at the end of 2014.

At the end of May, 2015, NASA confirmed it had awarded the very first contract to fly humans to the ISS via a private sector space vehicle to Boeing and their CST-100 Starliner. On November 20th, the US space agency added to this by placing a similar order with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is developing the Dragon 2 crewed vehicle as an enhancement of their existing Dragon cargo launcher. All told, the two companies are liable to be awarded at least 4 orders apiece for ISS flights through until 2024.

The order in which the contracts has been given in no way indicates which company will actually be the first to a fly a crew; that decision won’t be taken by NASA for some time to come. The initial launch is expected to come towards the end of 2017; however, it currently appears as if the first launch of either a Dragon 2 or CT-100 Starliner is unlikely to occur until well into 2018.

Boeing's CT-100 Starliner launch system to carry crews to and from the ISS - each vehicle is designed to make up to 10 flights

Boeing’s CT-100 Starliner launch system to carry crews to and from the ISS – each vehicle is designed to make up to 10 flights (image: Boeing)

for the last several years, congress has repeatedly refused to allow NASA to have all of the requested budget allocation for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) programme which is partially funding the Dragon 2 / CT-100 Starliner development programmes. This has led to the development cycle for the programme being slowed down, initially pushing back the initial planned launch of the first CCtCap vehicle from 2015 to 2017.

As a part of the NASA FY 2016, the agency requested some US $1.2 billion for its share of CCtCap development, but both Houses in Congress denied the request, instead ordering NASA to redirect some US $360 million of the CCtCap funding into the agency’s own Orion / Space Launch System programme, despite the fact it doesn’t actually need any additional funding.  This decision will further impact on the CCtCap development cycle and most likely result in launch dates being further revised.

As it is, the decision by Congress has already forced NASA to its bets and enter into a further contract with Russia costing some US $490 million (that’s US $130 million more than they requested for the CCtCap programme) for 6 seats aboard the Soyuz spacecraft, currently the only vehicle in service capable of flying crews too and from the ISS, for the 2018 / 2019 period.

All images / video NASA  / JPL, unless otherwise indicated

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