Space Sunday: flights and MOXIE on Mars, ISS news

A comparison of the altitudes reached by Ingenuity during its first and second flights. Via NASA / JPL / iGadgetPro

Ingenuity, the small drone helicopter that forms part of the Mars 2020 mission, completed its 2nd successful flight on Mars on Thursday, April 22nd, 2021 (mission Sol 61), just days after become the first powered vehicle from Earth to lift-off and fly on another planet (see: ). And in keeping with the promise from the flight and engineering team, the second sortie was a  little more ambitious than the first.

Lifting-off at 09:33 UTC, the helicopter rose to an altitude of 5 metres before hovering and then transitioning into a controlled sideways flight covering a distance of around 2 metres before again coming to a halt. It then hovered in place, rotating itself to point its on-board colour camera in several different directions before transitioning back into horizontal flight to hover over its landing site and then descend to a safe landing.

In all, the light lasted 52 seconds, and was watched by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, parked some 64 metres away on “Van Zyl Overlook”. During the flight, Ingenuity used  its black-and-white camera to image the ground beneath it. Also – in another first – the helicopter took the first image of the surface of Mars captured by an operating aerial vehicle in controlled flight. The image clearly shows the tracks left by Perseverance as it manoeuvred around “Wright Brothers Field”, the location where Ingenuity is being tested.

An image from Ingenuity captured on April 22nd showing tracks left by Perseverance, note the helicopter’s shadow at the bottom of the image, and the landing feet visible top left and top right. Credit: NASA/JPL

While not overly dramatic in terms of manoeuvrings, the second flight paved the way for the third of five flights, which took place in the early hours on Sunday, April 25th, commencing at 05:31 UTC.

In this flight – for which data was still being received as this article was being prepared – Ingenuity rose to a height of 5.2 metres, hovered, and then flew a distance of some 50 metres downrange at a maximum speed of 2 metres / second (7.2 km/h). Following a further hover, the helicopter than returned uprange to again land at “Wright Brothers Field”. As with the 2nd flight, Ingenuity was able to use both its black-and-white and colour cameras, which have been received by NASA JPL and published.

Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing. With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.

– Dave Lavery NASA program executive for Ingenuity, Washington DC

A further image captured by Ingenuity, this time during its April 25th 50-metre downrange flight. Credit: NASA/JPL

The April 25thflight was the longest yet, lasting 80 seconds. It now in turn paves the way for the last two in the pre-planned sequence of five initial flights in the coming days, and potentially opens the door for flights beyond those, if both are successful.

The video below compares Ingenuity’s first and second flights using animations of frames captured by the Mastcam-Z system on Perseverance. Note that the “side-to-side blinking” at the end of the video is a repeated showing of images captured by the left and right cameras of the Mastcam-Z system (which can also be used to produce stereoscopic images).

Perseverance also made history on April 22nd, by turning a sample of the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. Using the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment ( MOXIE), a unit roughly the size of a car battery, the rover produced an initial 5 grams of  oxygen – the equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut carrying out normal activity, as explained in the video below.

Five grams is an impressive, but small amount;  however, when running at full output, the MOXIE test-bed should produce around 10 grams per hour. More particularly, when scaled-up to a one tonne unit, MOXIE could produce 25 tonnes of usable oxygen over the course of several months.  That’s enough to help fuel a vehicle from the surface of Mars and back into orbit.

And this is why MOXIE is important. A major part of the mass required for a human mission to Mars is the oxygen and fuel feed stock the crew will need both to survive some 500 days on Mars and to power the vehicle that must lift them back up to orbit (and / directly back to Earth). That adds up to a lot of payload mass that has to be carried to, and landed on, Mars. So, if a good proportion of that mass could be removed from the equation, then human missions to Mars become a lot less payload intensive.

This idea was first put forward in the late 1990s by Drs. Robert Zubrin and David Baker as a part of the Mars Direct mission concept. In that idea, they postulated not only producing oxygen using the Martian atmosphere, but also methane fuel. Their idea meant that potentially, 112 tonnes of fuel and oxygen could be produced on Mars ahead of each crewed mission – enough to fuel their return vehicle to Earth and provide a reserve for use during their stay on Mars, all for the cost of lifting around 6 tonnes of hydrogen to Mars.

The Mars Direct proposal used hydrogen as as a feed stock to produce both oxygen and methane that could be used to fuel the Earth Return Vehicle a crew would use travel back to Earth. Credit: Zubrin & Baker / Pey

NASA’s goal is more modest, with the focus currently only on oxygen production; fuel such as liquid methane would still have to carried to Mars from Earth and suitably stored – although there is no reason why a broader use of ISRU – In-Situ Resource Utilisation, as the process is called – to produce oxygen and fuel could not be tested in the future. On Earth, using a NASA research grant, Zubrin proved the basic concept he and Baker developed (which in turn uses 19th century chemistry) actually works, producing oxygen, methane and water using just carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

China Names Their Rover

Mid-May should see China place its first lander / rover combination on the surface on Mars. A part of the Tianwen-1 mission that arrived in Mars orbit ahead of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, the rover has up until recently remained unnamed.

However, on Saturday, April 24th, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced the rover will now be called Zhurong after the god of fire and of the south, and an important personage in Chinese mythology and Chinese folk religion (also known as Chongli).

An artist’s impression of Chinese Zhurong rover on Mars. Credit: CNSA

The name was selected following a national competition of the kind NASA has used for the naming of its Mars rovers. It was seen by CNSA as being particularly apt as the Chinese name for Mars is Huoxing, or “fire star” – so it’s the god of fire on the fire star.

Roughly the size of NASA’s Wars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit, although slightly heavier, Zhurong carries panoramic and multispectral cameras, instruments to analyse the composition of rocks and ground-penetrating radar to also investigate subsurface characteristics. It  will most likely set down on Utopia Planitia, a Martian plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: flights and MOXIE on Mars, ISS news”

In memoriam: Robin Sojourner

Robin (Sojourner) Wood November 24th, 1953 – April 19th, 2021
It is with a heavy heart that we must report that Robin (Sojourner) Wood passed away after an extended struggle with cancer (phyllodes tumours). She will be remembered for a long history of artwork and instruction.

With these words, Marianne McCann broke the news that one of Second Life’s long-time residents, Robin Sojourner – Robin Wood in the physical world – had passed away.

Robin was, without a doubt, one of the kindest, warmest and most giving hearts in all of Second Life; she never failed to have time for anyone who needed it. Whether it was simple conversation, the need for support, advice on creativity, assistance with solving a problem, or anything else, Robin would never fail to assist. A talented creator both inside and outside of the platform, she always had encouragement and advice for those wishing to express themselves creatively in-world by offering easy-to-follow tutorials via her website and You Tube, as well as providing both practical advice and a range of products and free resources via  Livingtree island, her Second life home.

Then an now: Robin’s original 1LI prim chair and her recent mesh 1 LI creation: a stool draped with one of her quilt designs.  Credit: Bernard Drax

A former teacher, Robin always enjoyed being creative, so much so that during her career she became a noted painter / illustrator, whilst her diverse interests led her into the field of writing, publishing numerous books on a range of subjects,  including stories and fiction, as well as producing essays and thoughts through her blog and website.

Robin came to Second Life in 2004 during a search for a means of artistic and creative expression after fibromyalgia severely impacted her ability to paint and draw. Within the platform, she found the ideal solution.

Not only did Second Life offer an intriguing set of capabilities for creative expression, it also allowed her to work with her arms properly supported by her desk and chair. One aspect of fibromyalgia is that it can result in severe pain, notably in muscles and joints such at the shoulders, elbows and arms, particularly if they have to be raised for lengthy periods without any support, as is the case with painting. In addition, it allowed her to bring all her years of learning various 2D and 3D graphics applications together as a means to enhance her creativity.

One of the aspects of Second Life Robin always appreciated is the fact that it is a “melting pot” environment that allows anyone to (re)discover their innate creative abilities when the physical world so often encourages us to “self-edit” them away from an early age, in the false assumption that “creativity” is somehow exclusive. This was something she noted with considerable thought in a 2013 World Makers video about her, stating in part:

One of the things that has always excited me about Second Life is that people who have no idea that they are creative come into Second Life and find out that they can create things. We are all taught somewhat early that creativity is “reserved” for the creative types and they are “special” and there are only a few of them – and it’s just not true. All of us can be creative.

– Robin (Sojourner) Wood, via World Makers (2013)

Robin’s store on Livingtree Island – a wealth of creativity and support for residents and creators alike

As a part of this outlook, Robin was always quick to embrace the significant changes we’ve seen within the platform over the years. She was one of the first to adopt mesh into her creative output and to offer tutorials and videos on making quality mesh items. Similarly, she quickly folded materials and other emerging capabilities into her work as and where appropriate.

This outlook also put Robin in a position where she could – with a wry sense of humour – offer truths about the general negative ballyhoo and foot-stomping that so often comes immediately after any change made to the platform.

[With] every single thing that has ever happened in Second Life people have yelled, “It’s the end of Second Life as we know it!” And in fact it is – because it keeps getting better!

– Robin (Sojourner) Wood, via World Makers (2013)

Robinton, Masterharper of Pern (oil, 1980) gained worldwide recognition for its depiction of one of Anne McCaffrey’s most-loved characters from her Dragonriders series. So much so that McCaffrey purchased the original from Robin to hang in her home.

Not only did Robin believe there is potential in all of us to be creative, she demonstrated it in very practical means, notably to her students.

As an accomplished painter and illustrator, her work has graced the covers and pages of numerous books and publications, and is utterly captivating in its style and depth. But rather than just show her works as an established artist, Robin never avoided showing her early efforts whilst learning her crafts, noting that if students and children could see how her work progressed from humble origins to incredibly rich and established pieces she went on to produce, then they might think, “if she can do this, why shouldn’t I?”

Robin’s belief that Second Life is a melting pot also extended to pushing back against the general false dichotomy often found within and without the platform that engaging in it is a matter of “either / or”. From outside of Second Life this can be expressed in views that really, you should be doing something “better” with your time; from within the platform, it can frequently be found in the idea of keeping “SL and RL entirely separate”.

Yet, as Robin demonstrated throughout her time as a Second Life resident, while we might not always see our avatars as being part of us, they are nevertheless a natural conduit of all of our ability to express ourselves and engage with others; our thoughts and outlook inform our avatars, and they in turn inform those around us – just as with our physical world interactions.

Similarly, our engagement with Second life can be as much a part of our physical lives as going out to socialise with friends in a park or through video calls, or going into the garden and spending a couple of hours tending to the flowers there – and be just as personally fulfilling.

Robin and her partner Michael with one of the quilts Robin would design via computer and then create in both Second Life and the physical world, illustrating the reality that the platform can be as positive a part of someone’s life as something like gardening. Credit: Bernard Drax

In addition to her creativity, Robin’s interests were wide-ranging, incorporating Wicca, tarot – she authored two books on the latter and also designed The Robin Wood Tarot, a set of tarot cards published by Llewellyn Worldwide in 1991 -, community and societal issues including LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and politics. She also wrote numerous books, including The People of Pern, co-authored with Anne McCaffrey herself – although I admit my personal favourite being The Theory of Cat Gravity.

Not even a diagnosis of phyllodes tumours (a form of breast cancer which can be particularly aggressive, requiring a full range of treatments – excision followed by radiation therapy / chemo therapy / further revision surgery) initially prevented Robin from creating and supporting others.  In particular, she wrote a series of blog posts on her condition in the hope of encouraging those also suffering from phyllodes / breast cancer / cancer  to seek treatment in it various forms, and what to expect from it.

Sadly, given the aggressive nature of phyllodes it can have a high rate of recurrence, and this is what happened with Robin, who suffered a relapse in mid-2020, and succumbed to the cancer on Monday, April 19th 2021.

To honour and remember her, there will be a memorial gathering for all who knew or encountered Robin to attend. This will be on Sunday, April 25th, 2021, commencing at 18:00 SLT.  Those attending will be encouraged to share their memories and stories about her.

With thanks to Marianne McCann

For those unable to make the memorial, Livingtree Island will remain open for a time under the care of Marianne McCann and Pygar Bu, and an invitation is extended to visit and to follow the luminaria path that has been set out in personal reflection.

To Robin’s partner Michael, their family and all who knew Robin as a relative or friend, I offer my deepest condolences. As Marianne notes, Robin will be long remembered for all of her time in Second Life, and will be deeply missed.

As  a mark of Robin’s life and philosophy, I’ll close by including her 2013 interview filmed as a part of the Drax Files World Makers series.

With thanks to Marianne McCann.

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