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.

Proxima Centauri’s Mega-Flare

Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star and our nearest stellar neighbour, just 4.25 light years away, is home to two exoplanets, one of which – Proxima Centuari b orbits the star within its habitable zone, the distance at which it could potentially support an atmosphere, liquid water and the essentials for life. However, as I’ve previously noted in these pages, the chances of such planets supporting life is somewhat negated by the violent nature of their parents: red dwarfs are prone to violent outbursts.

Just how violent has now been revealed. Through several months of 2019, some 40 ground and space-base telescopes monitored Proxima Centauri continuously. In doing so, they witnessed one of the most violent stellar flares we’ve ever recorded within our galaxy. So violent, in fact, that in the ultraviolet spectrum, the star brightened by 14,000 times more than its normal luminosity.

Lasting 7 seconds, the mega-flare occurred on May 1st, 2019 and came as a significant surprise, and could radically alter the way scientists think about solar radiation and alien life. The surprising aspect of the flare is that it emitted a massive amount to millimetre radiation and radio waves – the first time this has ever been recorded using a flare event – in fact, prior to witnessing the Proxima Centauri event, scientists didn’t know stars could emit millimetre radiation.

An artist’s impression of the Proxima Centauri mega-flare.

The presence of such radiation in the flare points to the stellar activity by Proxima Centauri and other red dwarf stars – which account for the vast majority of stars in our galaxy and the most frequent parents of exoplanets – being far more violent and disruptive than previously thought.

As such, because their planets must orbit so close to them in order to be within their habitable zone, and red dwarf stars blast them with flares so frequently, the Proxima event means it is far less likely that the planets could retain their atmospheres for long (in cosmic terms) – and that even if they did, the levels of radiation washing over them will make it very hard for any life to survive for very long.

International Space Station News

It is getting a little crowded aboard the International Space Station at the moment.  On April 24th, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour  docked with the station less than 24 hours after its launch from Kennedy Space Centre.

On board were NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough along with Thomas Pesquet (ESA / France) and Akihiko Hoshide (Japan / JAXA).  Together they brought the total number of personnel aboard the station to 11 – the largest continent of astronauts at the ISS since the US space shuttle was retired.

The Dragon crew were the first to go through a new training process designed to accelerate crew preparations for both flights aboard the Dragon vehicle and time on the station. Until now, training for individual missions has taken up to three years for a crew, and the new procedures reduce this to around a year. The aim is to be able to launch crews to the station at a much higher  cadence than in the past, allowing R&D and science programmes on the ISS to be accelerated.

The mission was also the first to launch using both a previously-used Dragon vehicle – Endeavour was used for the original Demo-2 crew flight in 2020 and a previously-used Falcon 9 booster – until recently, NASA had stipulated that all crews must fly on brand-new launch vehicles. This booster had been previously used to fly the 4-person Crew-1 mission to the ISS – and who formed part of the crew waiting to greet their Crew-2 colleagues.

The Crew-2 personnel in the black shirts with the remaining crew aboard the ISS during a NASA press briefing following their arrival on the ISS. Credit: NASA

The arrival of the Crew-2 mission has brought about a significant change in how accommodation on the station is handled. The main habitation module on the station can only comfortably accommodate 6 personnel – and seven at a pinch. In the days of the shuttle, large crews split their accommodation between the ISS and the shuttle, which offered its now accommodation / sleeping facilities in the mid-deck.  Crew Dragon has no such capability, and the Russian Soyuz even less-so.

To overcome this, NASA has implemented another acronym: CASACrew Alternate Sleep Accommodation (and “coincidentally” Spanish for “house”). It sees temporary sleeping facilities created in various modules throughout the station , including unused airlock spaces.

The arrival of Crew-2 comes at a time when the future of the ISS faces a new unrest. Earlier in April Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, announced Russia would no longer support ISS operations beyond the end of 2024.

It’s not the first time Russia has stated such an intent; in 2014, Rogozin – a noted Putin hardliner and at that time Russia’s deputy prime minister – stated Russia would not support ISS operations beyond 2020. His statement was linked to increased US and international sanctions due to Russian actions in the Ukraine and elsewhere. That threat receded when Russia agreed to extend their  commitment to the ISS until at least 2024. Then in 2018, when the US Congress agreed to ensure the ISS would continue to receive US funding until 2030, Russia appeared to be in agreement.

The current threat of withdrawal from the ISS has also been made against a backdrop of increased US / Russian tensions again related to Russian activities related to the Ukraine and because of US anger over their interference in two Presidential elections. This and mixed statement from Russian officials makes it hard to judge how serious the latest threat of withdrawal is.

NASA’s new Administrator, Bill Nelson, could be facing a headache dealing with Russia’s threatened 2025 withdrawal from ISS operations

On the one hand, following Rogozin’s statement, Russian officials appeared to back away from the idea of any pull-out, indicating that Russia was still committed to the ISS, including plans to launch additional modules for the station, starting with the of the Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) later this year.

However, in March, Roscosmos signed an agreement with China to develop a joint  / international lunar base near the south pole of the Moon. such and undertaking is going to be expensive, so  withdraw from the ISS will save Russia some US $15 billion a year from 2025. Further, during that announcement, Rogozin stated Russia will not be a partner in the US-led Lunar Gateway project, which has been seen as a loosening of US / Russian cooperation in space – although the Gateway will retain the ability for Russian vehicles to dock with it.

More particularly, and in opposition to other statements made after Rogozin’s announcement about withdrawing from the ISS, Yuri Borisov, the current Russian deputy prime minister, stated on April 18th that not only would Russia would be pulling out of the ISS, a new power module that should be destined for launch to the ISS in the mid-2020s is to be re-purposed to form the core module of a new Russian space station to be completed by 2030.

NASA meanwhile has said little on the subject, other than they continue to enjoy a “very, very, really strong relationship with Roscosmos and Russia on the ISS.” But if Russia were to exit the ISS partnership, it would put the future of the station in jeopardy. As such, resolving any perceived issues in the US / Russian partnership is liable to be high on the list of priorities for the Biden Administration’s newly-appointed NASA Administrator (and former astronaut-turned-politician) Bill Nelson.

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