Space update: seeking planet X, examining comets and sifting sand

CuriosityNASA’s Curiosity rover has been sampling the sands of the “Namib Dune” the vehicle has been studying / circumnavigating for the last few weeks as it studies an extensive dune field which is slowly making its way down the slopes of “Mount Sharp” on Mars at the rate of about a metre per year.

“Mount Sharp”, more formally called Aeolis Mons, is the huge mound of material gathered against the central impact peak of Gale Crater. It forms the rover’s primary mission target in its quest to better understand conditions on Mars down through the ages, and to look for areas which at some point in the planet’s past, may have had all the right conditions – minerals, chemicals, water, heat, shelter, etc., – which might have allows life to arise.

The dune field on the north-east flank of “Mount Sharp” is of considerable interest to scientist, as it is the first genuine dune field to be studied on another world, and obtaining a clearer understanding of how the Martian wind moves sand could lead to a clearer picture of how big a role the wind plays in depositing concentrations of minerals often associated with water across the planet, and by extension, the behaviour and disposition of liquid water across Mars.

Tracks on a sand dune: this image from Curiosity's front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Hazcam) shows the rover's tracks on the same of "Namib Dune" as it starts sample gathering
Tracks on a sand dune: this image from Curiosity’s front Hazard Avoidance Camera (Hazcam) shows the rover’s tracks on the same of “Namib Dune” as it starts sample gathering

On January 12th, the rover reached a target area for sample gathering dubbed “Gobabeb”, and even this presented a challenge. Curiosity had to manoeuvre up onto the dune, and then turn in place in order to start sample gathering operations. This meant a cautious approach to the location, initially “scuffing” the sand to obtain and indication of its depth and composition (loose firm material). After this the rover gently edged onto the sand and deployed the robot arm to use its small scoop in only its second major sample gathering exercise, which took place on January 14th.

The sand gathered by the operations well be sorted within the CHIMRA system inside the robot arm, which uses a series of sieves to divide the sand grains by coarseness. Once sorted, the samples are delivered to the rover on-board chemical and analysis systems  – ChemMin, the Chemical and Mineralogical laboratory and SAM, the Sample Analysis at Mars suite – for examination.

A second sample of sand was gathered on January 19th, and is currently awaiting processing.

CHIMRA – the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis device attached to the turret at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm, processes samples acquired from the built-in scoop (red) and the drill, which is not shown but is also part of the turret. CHIMRA also delivers samples to the analytical lab instruments inside the rover. Two paths to get material into CHIMRA are shown (the scoop delivers material to the location marked at the bottom, and the drill deposits material to the sample transfer tube shown at top). Also marked are the location of the vibration mechanism used to shake the turret and cause the sample to move inside CHIMRA, and the portion box (yellow) from which the material processed through a sieve is delivered to the analytical lab instruments.

Europe Joins Dream Chaser

In my last Space Sunday report, I covered the news that Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) will be joining SpaceX and Orbital ATK in supporting US work to delivery supplies to, and remove waste from, the International Space Station.

As a part of a new contract which commences in 2019 and runs until 2024, the expected end of ISS operations, SNC will utilise an unmanned cargo version of its Dream Chaser “mini shuttle”, which is based on a lifting body design, to carry up to 5 tonnes of material to the space station. Now Europe has officially joined SNC as a strategic partner.

The Drem Chaser Cargo, bult by SNC, and the International Berth and Docking Mechanism, to be supplied to SNC for Dream Chaser flights by the European Space Agency
The Dream Chaser Cargo, built by SNC, and the International Berth and Docking Mechanism, to be supplied to SNC for Dream Chaser flights by the European Space Agency

SNC and Europe have been looking at options for Dream Chaser development since SNC lost out to SpaceX and Boeing to supply the crewed version of Dream Chaser to NASA for ferrying crews back and forth between the ISS and US soil. Confirmation that NASA will be using Dream Chaser for the resupply flights means that ESA can nor push ahead with developing an International Berthing and Docking Mechanism (IBDM) for Dream Chaser.

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