At precisely 11:50 UTC (7:50am EDT) an Atlas 5 rocket thundered into near-perfect skies over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying aloft NASA’s Mars 2020 on the first stage of its 7-month trip to the red planet.
The launch marked the last of the “big three” missions to launch during the 2020 opportunity, following on the heels of China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter / lander / rover mission and the UAE’s Hope orbiter mission. Carrying the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter drone, Mars 2020 is the most scientifically complex of the three missions, and potentially set to be the longest running of all three: providing it doesn’t fall foul of any major issues, Perseverance (Or “Percy” as some have dubbed it) could be operational on Mars for 12-14 years, thanks to its nuclear power supply.
In the days leading up to departure, there had been concerns the attempt might have to be postponed thanks to the approaching Tropical Storm Isaias, but on the morning of the launch, conditions couldn’t have been better. There was, however, some pre-launch excitement on the other side of the United States, where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in (JPL) – mission control for the mission once en route to Mars, was lightly shaken by a local 2.9 magnitude earthquake just 30 minutes prior to lift-off.
Just under 2 minutes after launch, the Atlas V dispatched its four strap-on boosters, allowing the core stage to continue towrds low earth orbit. Less then 2 minutes later, with the vehicle at an altitude of 392 km, the payload fairings were jettisoned, exposing the payload to space. The Centaur upper stage then commenced its “chill down” phase, readying its motor for operation once the Atlas core stage had detached.
BECO – Booster Engine Cut-Off – came 4 minutes and 20 seconds after launch, the core stage separating to allow the Centaur commence its work with and initial engine burn to further raise the vehicle’s orbit around Earth before the RL-10 motor was shut down and the reaction control system (RCS) was fired a number of times to set the stage and the payload rotating along their longitudinal axis, a move designed to ensure the payload would be spin-stabilised during its cruise to Mars.
This part of the journey started some 90 minutes after launch, on the “night” side of Earth relative to JPL. As this point, the RL-10 re-ignited, pushing the Centaur and its payload into a Trans-Mars Injection (TMI) orbit around the Sun before the two separated. As there was no “live” video of the separation, mission managers had to wait for NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) and Deep Space Network (DSN) on the ground to acquire a direct signal from the payload and its cruise “bus” to confirm they were safely on their way.
This TMI engine burn ensured Mars 2020 would cross the orbit of Mars, but it would do so before the planet reached the same point in space. This was because had both been on a course to intercept Mars, the Centaur booster would crash into the planet, potentially contaminating it. Instead, Mars 2020 will make two mid-course engine burns from the motors on its cruise “bus”, shifting its trajectory onto that will intercept the planet, leaving the Centaur to fly harmless by.
As well as searching for signs of ancient microbial life and advancing NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability, Mars 2020 will also form the first half of a sample return mission – as I’ve previously noted, it is equipped to leave up to 23 sealed sample containers on the surface of the planet, at least one of which may be retrieved by a future NASA/ ESA sample return mission, although such a mission has yet to be formally approved by either agency. In addition, Perseverance carries with it experiments geared towards learning more in preparation for the future human exploration of Mars.
The first of these forms a part of the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) instrumentation. Primarily designed to seek organic compounds on Mars, SHERLOC also contains five small pieces of material that might be potentially used in the outer layers of a future Marts spacesuit. These will be monitored to see how well they deal with possible corrosion by Martian dust and atmosphere under the effects of solar radiation. As a part of its duties, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyser (MEDA) will also study the nature of Martian dust so engineers can make better decisions about materials to be used in spacesuits and surface equipment.
Then there is MOXIE – the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment – designed to produce oxygen out of the carbon dioxide that makes up 96% of the Martian atmosphere.
The idea has its roots in the 1996 Mars Direct mission profile developed by Robert Zubrin and David Baker. They recognised that the biggest encumbrance to a mission to Mars was the amount of fuel required to both get a crew to Mars and then bring them back to Earth. To reduce this, they proposed using the Martian atmosphere to produce both oxygen and methane that could be used to fuel the vehicle a crew would use to return to Earth – massively reducing the mass of a mission. The same technique could also be used to provide a human crew with additional oxygen supplies and fuel for surface vehicles once they get to Mars.
MOXIE is a more modest idea, designed to produce just oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. It’s a proof-of-concept designed to produce 22g of oxygen (O2) per hour with >99.6% purity continuously for around 1230 hours. If successful, it could pave the way for a much large nuclear-powered unit to be delivered to Mars that could be used to produce a large volume of stored oxygen that could be used to produce the atmosphere for a human outpost on Mars and as the oxidiser for powering Earth return vehicles. As with the Mars Direct proposal, the system could be extended to also produce Methane fuel.
Mars 2020 is now en route to Mars in the “cruise” phase of the mission, during which it will study interplanetary space. The next tense moment for the mission comes on February 18th, 2021, when the craft arrive at Mars, and Perseverance and Ingenuity enter the “seven minutes of terror” of the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) phase, which should culminate in both being safely delivered to Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars.
A Dragon Comes Home
Sunday, August 2nd, 2020 saw the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission make its return to Earth. Launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 30th, 2020 (see: Space Sunday: how to fly your Dragon) carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the mission was intended to confirm the SpaceX crew dragon vehicle is ready to commence regular crew-carrying flights too and from the space station.
Since then, the vehicle has been docked at the ISS, allowing Hurley and Behnken work as a part of the Expedition 63 crew rotation. In particular, Behnken carried out four EVA space walks alongside of Expedition 63 commander Chris Cassidy, marking them as the third and forth US astronauts after Michael Lopez-Alegria and Peggy Whitson to have completed 10 EVAs during their careers.
Undocking came at 23:35 UTC (19:35 EDT) on August 1st, 2020, 19 hours ahead of the planned splashdown, although concerns about Tropical Storm Isaias initially meant that the undocking might have been delayed to avoid rough weather and seas in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola, Florida.
Following departure from the ISS the Dragon vehicle, comprising the capsule Endeavour and its service module (called the “trunk” by SpaceX) that provides long-duration power, life support and primary propulsion, raised itself up and over the ISS to allow it to “drop behind” the space station in their relative orbits prior to dropping down into a lower orbit. This formed the first of several flight manoeuvres that placed the vehicle in the correct orbit before the crew took a meal and had a sleep period.
Final preparations for the re-entry and splashdown commenced just shy of an hour before the vehicle started its descent into Earth’s atmosphere on August 2nd, with the unclamping of the “claw” mating capsule to trunk and relaying power, fluids and atmosphere from one to the other, allowing the capsule to separate from the trunk, which was left to burn-up in the upper atmosphere. Flying free, the capsule then flipped itself over to point its nose in the direction of flight once more. This facilitated the opening of the nose cap to expose the four forward-facing Draco engines.
The latter were then used in a 11-minute de-orbit burn that placed the vehicle on a path of descent into the denser layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. Immediately following this, and still under automated control, Endeavour re-oriented itself to put its heat shield pointing into the direction of travel as the nose cone cover closed and latched. This started a 20-minute descent phase through the upper atmosphere unless Endeavour reached a point where plasma generated by the increasing friction against the atmosphere reached a maximum, blacking out all communications for a 6-minute period.
By the time the blackout ended, Endeavour had reduced its velocity from some 28,000 km/h to just 640 km/h, slowing the capsule to a point where its two drogue chutes could be deployed, stabilising the vehicle in its descent and allowing the four main ‘chutes to be deployed. These slowed the capsule during its final couple of kilometres of descent to just 25.6 km/h, allowing it to splash down precisely on target off the coast of Pensacola.
SpaceX recovery teams using fast motor boats were quickly on the scene and proceeded to carry out checks on the vehicle and the air around it to ensure it was not venting toxic gases while others chased down a recovered the main and drogue parachutes. Check-out operations on the capsule, which is designed to float upright on the water, was somewhat impeded by idiots trying to get close to it in their own power boats, but the support crew were able to rig Endeavour with a recovery harness as the main recovery ship, the Go Navigator, approached in readiness to lift the capsule aboard.
This was achieved using the a-frame hoist at the stern of the ship, which lifted Endeavour out of the water and onto a special “nest”, a platform that could move the capsule to the crew egress area, an operation completed less than 30 minutes after splashdown. – in less than 30 minutes after splashdown. Opening the vehicle’s hatch, however was delayed as a result of small traces of potentially toxic Nitrogen Tetroxide fuel vapours from the engine burns remaining in the service space of the capsule where things like the propellant tanks, etc., reside. To avoid risk, this area needed to be purged before the astronauts could exit the vehicle.
This meant it was a further 30 minutes after splashdown that Bob Behnken, the mission pilot, and mission commander Doug Hurley could be lifted from the the capsule and transferred to the ship’s medical area, where NASA flight surgeons carried out a post-flight medical. After this, both men were given time to adjust back to Earth’s gravity, take a show, get into more relaxed clothing than their pressure suits. They then transferred to a helicopter that rendezvoused with Go Navigator to fly them to Pensacola Naval Air Station and onward transfer to Ellington Field Joint Reserve base and the Johnson Space Flight Centre to be reunited with their families.
Endeavour, meanwhile, will be taken back to SpaceX facilities where it will be refurbished and prepared for the second operational Crew Dragon flight, following NASA’s change of mind and allow SpaceX to re-use their capsules for multiple crewed flights to the ISS. In the meantime, the first operational flight of Crew Dragon is set to fly NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover, together with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the ISS in September 2020.