Space Sunday: more from Mars and recalling a NASA legend

A CGI model of the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance on the surface of Mars. Credit; NASA

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has passed its first month on Mars, an event marked by the science and engineering teams continuing to check out the rover’s systems  and instruments as the rover continues its initial drive within Jezero Crater.

So far, all of this has been going exceedingly well. We’ve had no major technical issues. We’ve had no major technical issues.

– Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist

Currently, the mission team are preparing to deploy the Ingenuity drone helicopter ahead of for a series of proof-of-concept flights. This has involved driving the rover short distances to locate a suitable area in which to deployed the helicopter, which is stored under the rover.

So a location was found during the past week, and on Sunday, March 21st, Sol 30 for the rover on Mars, the command was sent to eject the cover that projected the delicate helicopter during the rover’s arrival on Mars. The release of the cover was filmed by the WATSON imager on the rover’s robot arm, with raw colour and black and white images issued by NASA a few hours after the cover had been dropped.

Two images of captured by the WATSON imager on the Mars 2020 rover robot arm show fore-and-after views, one in black-and-white and the other in colour, of the detached protective cover for the Ingenuity helicopter droner. The helicopter can be seen stowed and attached to the rover’s belly at the top of each image. Credit: NASA/JPL

The next stage will be for the rover to move clear of the cover so the helicopter itself can be deployed, before the rover backs away even further to expose the drone to clear air. It’s not clear when this deployment will take place, but NASA will be holding a special briefing on Tuesday, March 23rd at 17:30 UTC at which members of the helicopter and rover team will discuss progress with the mission and what will be involved in the helicopter deployed and flight operations  commence. The briefing will by available on NASA TV and YouTube, with questions being accepted via social media using #MarsHelicopter.

The first flight won’t be made any earlier than the first week of April, but it will be filmed by the rover using its high-resolution Mastcam-Z systems, and an attempt will be made to record the sound of the drone flying. In all, five flights of the helicopter are anticipated, after which Perseverance will commence its own science mission.

As things stand, this will be a two-phase mission, the first being an exploration of the inflow delta created by the water that once flowed into the crater to form a lake. In particular, the rover will be looking for evidence of past life in the sediments and rocks. Along the way, it sell select a spot to deposit up to 10 samples it has gathered during its studies, which my be collected by a future sample-return mission.

The second phase will see Perseverance may its way out of the crater to examine the crater rim and the plains beyond. Here again, it will select a location to deposit up to 28 samples that may be gathered by a future sample-return mission.In all, both phases of the mission – which will be subject to change depending on discoveries made along the way – are expected to take around 7 years to complete and will see the rover cover some 35 km.

In the meantime, the rover’s microphones have been busy; as I reported in  my last Space Sunday, one has recorded the sound of the Martian wind. More recently, NASA has released a recording on the rover’s EDL (Entry, Descent. Landing) microphone capture of sounds of the rover driving on Mars.

Those expecting some high-tech sound of purring electrical motors and so on as depicted in sci-fi films are liable to be disappointed by the strange mix of bangs,clunks and thuds recorded as the rover’s aluminium wheels and its spring suspension deal with the uneven terrain. Two recordings were released, one at 16 minutes in length, and a 90-second “cleaned up” recording, that is embedded below.

If I heard these sounds driving my car, I’d pull over and call for a tow. But if you take a minute to consider what you’re hearing and where it was recorded, it makes perfect sense.

– Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Mars 2020’s EDL Camera and Microphone subsystem.

One of the reasons the sounds seem to be odd is because the EDL microphone isn’t designed to record the the sound of the mobility system directly, rather it is picking the sounds up through the body of the rover.

Glynn Lunney

Glynn Stephen Lunney may not be a name familiar to many interested in human space flight, but he was one of the legends of NASA, and who sadly passed away at the age of 84 on March 19th, 2021.

Born in November 1936 in the coal city of Old Forge, Pennsylvania, Lunney was encouraged by his parents to seek a career away from the mines. An early interest in flight and model aeroplanes led him to engineering in college, form where he enrolled at the Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, to study aerospace engineering, the centre at that time forming part of the US  National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

Graduating in 1958 with a Bachelor of Science degree, Lunney remained with the NACA as a researcher in aerospace dynamics at Lewis. He was thus one of NASA’s very first employees when on July 29th, 1958 President Eisenhower signed it into existence, subsuming the NACA into it in the process.

Lunney’s prowess in the fledgling field of space flight was immediately recognised, and he was transferred to Langley Research Centre, Virginia, where in September 1959, and aged just 21, he became the youngest member of the Space Task Group, the body given responsibility for the creation of NASA’s human space flight programme.

Glynn Lunney “in the trenches” (as the rows of consoles at mission control were called at the time) of the mission simulation centre, 1966. Credit: NASA
As a member of the Flight Operations Division, Lunney was one of the engineers responsible for planning and creating procedures for Project Mercury, America’s first manned space programme. Here he was a major part of the team that wrote the first set of mission rules by which both flight controllers and astronauts operated, and he also became the second man to serve as the Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO), responsible for controlling the trajectory of the Mercury spacecraft and planning adjustments to it.

Such was Lunney’s quiet assurance, professionalism and engineering skill, he was one of three men selected by Christopher C. Kraft, the hands-on head of mission operations, to join him in becoming the first generation of Flight Directors responsible for managing all of NASA’s space flights, the other two being John Hodge and the legendary Gene Kranz. Together, these for men did much to establish the protocol  and procedures required for human space flight at that time, and they also oversaw the design and implementation of the first two Mission Operations Control Rooms which were to become famous as “mission control” in the Apollo era.

Lunney (seated, foreground) walking his team through the process of transferring guidance and navigation data from the Apollo 13 command module to the lunar module,  1970. Credit: NASA

Although only 29 when selected by Kraft, Lunney was, in addition to his responsibilities as a Flight Director, charged with overseeing the testing of core elements of Apollo flight hardware, including the launch escape system, and the first uncrewed flight test of the the Saturn V launch vehicle.

Lunney was particularly respected for his ability to absorb and retain information, running through scenarios and options much faster than any of his colleagues. This was especially important in the wake of the Apollo 13 explosion in  1970, with the vehicle en-route to the Moon.

While Genz Kranz and his White flight team tend to get all of the credit for successfully guiding the astronauts through the crisis and getting them back to Earth, it was actually Lunney who orchestrated the entire process of powering-up the lunar module, transferring the flight guidance and navigation data to its computer and  getting the Apollo 13 crew and critical equipment into the module within a very short time frame, whilst also leaving the command module in a condition whereby it could hopefully be powered up later. In doing so, he largely steered his team by using his own innate knowledge of systems aboard both craft.

Following Apollo 13, and whilst still a Flight Director, Lunney was assigned to the work that would become the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), actually co-drafting the technical agreement between the US and Russia that formed the basis of that project. Initially serving as technical director for the US part of the project, in 1972 he was appointed as its overall manager, not only co-ordinating and managing all of the US aspects of the mission – which saw an American Apollo command and service module dock with a Russian Soyuz vehicle in 1975 – but in also building the US-Russian relationship required for the mission to go ahead.

Dr. Glynn Lunney in his official portrait, 1971. Note the model of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project vehicles behind him. Credit: NASA

After ASTP, Lunney transferred to the shuttle programme, initially as manager of the Shuttle Payload Integration and Development Programme, ensuring NASA and the shuttle could meet the requirements of delivering government (including classified) and commercial payloads to orbit. Again, his managerial and technical prowess saw himself promoted to overall manager for the shuttle programme in 1981.

Lunney opted to retire from NASA in 1985, joining Rockwell International in California, overseeing the division building US global positioning system satellites. He  later transferred back to Houston with the company as President of the Rockwell Space Operations Company, which provided support for flight operations at Johnson Space Centre.

While Lunney was based at Houston, Rockwell joined with Lockheed Martin to form United Launch Alliance (ULA), which took over a lot of NASA’s expendable booster operations (as well as supplying the boosters to the agency), and he was appointed Vice President and Programme Manager for ULA’s space flight operations division, a position he held until he retired in 1999.

Following retirement, Lunney kept up his passion for sailing for a time prior to switching to golf as a means to relax.

Throughout his career,  Lunney was the recipient of multiple awards and honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in the Apollo 13 rescue operation. In 2001, his youngest son, Bryan was appointed to the position of a NASA Flight Director for shuttle / International Space Station operations, marking him and his father as the first and only multi-generational flight directors to have served the agency.

Glynn Lunney passed away after several years of dealing with leukaemia. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn Kurtz Lunney and his children, Jennifer, Glynn Jr., Shawn, and Bryan.

 SLS Hot Fire Test Success

On March 18th, 2021, NASA successfully complete a full hot Fire test of the first core stage of its new Space Launch System (SLS) booster.

The test, designed to confirm the overall design of the core stage is ready for flight, came two months after the first such test an January if this year was aborted following an automatic shut-down of the four RS-25 engines after just 67 seconds.

For this test, engine ignition occurred at 20:37 UTC, and saw all four of the core stage motors running for a total of 8 minutes and 20 seconds, and undergoing a series of throttling and gimballing (rolling / swivelling the engines to direct their thrust) tests to simulate the full dynamics of engine use during the time the core stage will be under powered flight.

A cloud of steam rises from the test stand at Stennis Space Centre during the hot fire test of the four engines on the first SLS core stage. It is created by the exhaust from the engines striking the water cascading from the stand’s sound suppression system that is designed to prevent sound waves deflecting back up into the stand and damaging the vehicle. Credit: NASA

The four engines used in the test originally flew as a part of space shuttle operations – they are a part of a batch of 16 such engines that have been refurbished and upgraded for the first four SLS flights. Once all 16 have been used, vehicle launches will switch to brand new RS-25 motors.

The results of the test are still being assessed – but if it is declared successful, which seems likely, it clears the way for the core stage to be transferred by water to Kennedy Space Centre, where it will be mated with the first two SLS solid rocket boosters and SLS upper stage in preparation for its launch  as the carrier of the Artemis-1 mission that will fly an uncrewed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on an extended mission to cislunar space and then back to Earth.

Artemis-11 is currently targeting a late 2021 launch; however there are significant chances it will slip into 2022 should problem arise during the final vehicle integration and systems testing phase of flight preparations.

SpaceX Mini-Update

Despite anticipation on the part of pundits, SpaceX starship prototype SN11 did not take flight during the past week. After delays to the static fire engine test the week before, a test had been due to take place at the start of this week, but was aborted just as two of the pre-burners in the Raptor motors ignited.

SN11 awaiting its flight. Credit: Jack Beyer /

It’s now anticipated the static fire test will occur towards the start of the coming week, with a potential flight for SN11 to follow later in the week or the upcoming weekend.

In the meantime, company has released a “re-cap” video of the SN10 flight. While this stops before the post-landing explosion that destroyed the vehicle, it does clearly show one of the Raptor engines used in the landing phase giving off a green exhaust plume, indicative of it actually consuming its own copper innards as a result of a lack of fuel flow.

Further plans have also been released by the company that reveal the first Super Heavy booster, number BN-1, which had just completed vertical stacking, will not be used in flight tests. Instead, it will be used for fuel tank pressurisation tests to confirm the integrity of the vehicle under cryogenic loads. This testing will likely take place between the SN11 test flight and the flight of SN15, which is completing stacking and integration ready for flight.

Super Heavy BN-1 with the upper section being mated to the lower – note the worker on the hi-lift for a sense of size. Credit: Elon Musk

This means the first Super Heavy booster to possibly fly might be BN-2, later in the year. SN15’s flight is also likely to be the last of the medium-altitude tests for the starship prototypes; SN16 through SN18 are liable to fly much higher.

This has lead to more speculation among pundits that such is the current rate of churn at Boca Chica, if the SN16 through SN18 flights are successful, SpaceX may well skip further flight tests with SN19 and SN20 (both currently under construction, and move directly to an orbital flight attempt in July using Super Heavy booster BN-2 and starship SN20.

Frankly, this appears to be terribly ambitious for a number of reasons. In the first place, it would mean attempting an orbital launch when construction of the extensive facilities required for such an operation have only recently re-started after an extended pause, and will need time to be completed and tested.

More particularly, given any flight of BN-2 will potentially end up with the vehicle being lost, it would mean the orbital attempt will come after just one Super Heavy flight; it is likely that SpaceX would want to obtain more experience in launching such a behemoth before taking on an ambitious stacked flight to orbit.

Also, it has been previously indicated that Super Heavy, which its huge cluster of Raptor engines, is liable to have a significant environmental impact which has just to be fully assessed, so again, even if the initial test flight of an unladen (other than fuel) starship didn’t require the use of all 28 Raptor motors on the Super Heavy, its by no means clear that clearance for the launch will have been given by July.