Space Sunday: selfies, missions, budgets and rockets

Zhurong and its lander. Credit: CNSA

You would be forgiven for thinking the banner image for this update is an artist’s impression of China’s Zhurong rover and its lander on Mars. But you’d be wrong – the image really was taken on Mars.

It is part of a batch of images the China National Space Administration (CNSA) have released charting the recent activities of their rover on the Red planet, and they are as remarkable as anything seen with the US rover vehicles, with others showing panoramic views around the rover and shots of its lander vehicle.

The Zhurong lander, part of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission., as seen from the rover vehicle at a distance of some 6 metres. Credit: CNSA

Captured on June 8th, the image of rover and lander was taken by a remote camera originally stowed in Zhurong’s belly, and which had been safely deposited on the surface of Mars some 10 metres from the lander, allowing mission control to remote capture the unique sight of a rover and its lander side-by-side.

Zhurong has now completed the first third of its initial 90-day mission on Mars, and is well into its survey of its surroundings within Utopia Planitia. In addition to the high-resolution cameras, used to produce these images, the rover is fitted with a subsurface radar instrument, a multi-spectral camera and surface composition detector, a magnetic field detector and a weather monitor.

A 360 panorama of the Zhurong landing site, captured by the Chinese rover prior to is descent from the back of its lander. Credit; CNSA

Ahead of the images released by CNSA, NASA released their own image of the Chinese rover and lander as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter  from an altitude of around 400 km.

Taken on June 6th, three weeks after Zhurong touched-down, the image clearly shows green-tinted lander (a result of the image processing, not the actual colour of the lander) sitting between two areas of surface material discoloured by the thrust of the lander’s outward-angled descent and landing motors. Zhurong itself can be seen a short way south of the lander, within the eastern arc of discolouration.

Captured by the HiRISE imager on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 6th, this image shows the Zhurong lander surrounded by surface material discoloured by the lander’s rocket motors, with the rover sitting just to the south. Credit: NASA/JPL

And turning to NASA’s surface mission on Mars (specifically Mars 2020): on June 8th, the Ingenuity helicopter completed a 7th flight, this one error-free.

Lifting off at around 12:34 local mean solar time (roughly 15:54 UTC on Earth) proceeded south during the 63-second flight, covering a distance of around 106 metres before touching down at a new location.

Ingenuity captured this image of its shadow passing over the surface of Mars on June 8th, 2021 during its 7th flight. Credit: NASA/JPL

In difference to the 6th flight on May 22nd, which saw the helicopter encounter some anomalies (see: Space Sunday: Martian Clouds, Lunar missions and a Space Station), the seventh flight was completed with incident, once again raising confidence that the helicopter will be able to continue flying several more times.

Overlaid onto an image be NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are the routes for the first and second science sorties to be made by Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now regarded as fully commissioned, Perseverance has put its duties as caretaker-watcher for Ingenuity largely behind it, as is now driving south and away its landing zone on its way to study a 4 square kilometre of crater floor, where it will examine two very different geological units and collect samples for analysis and for storage and possible return to Earth as part of a future mission.

“Crater Floor Fractured Rough” is a region of ancient bedrock, whilst “Séítah” (Navajo for “amidst the sand”) presents a mix of bedrock overlaid with more recent ridges and also sand dunes. The rover will perform a gentle loop through these areas, visiting “Crater Floor Fractured Rough” first then travelling through the ridgelands and then back up through “Séítah S” and Séítah N”, before heading for its next target, an area dubbed “Three Fours”.

ESA Looks to Venus and the Outer Planets

The European Space Agency has announced its goals for the next several decades in terms of robotic exploration of the solar system and cosmic science.

Announce on June 10th, the EnVision mission will carry a suite of spectrometers, sounders and a radar to study the interior, surface and atmosphere of Venus. The target launch period is May 2032, with the vehicle arriving in orbit around Venus in August 2033, where it will use the planet’s upper atmosphere to aerobrake into its final science orbit over a 3-year period, before commencing its four-year primary mission. It  is expected to cost around 500 million Euros.

ESA plans to further extend our knowledge and understanding of Venus with the EnVision mission, due to launch in 2032. Credit: ESA

While there has been no coordination between NASA and ESA in terms of mission selection, EnVision’s science mission is highly complementary to the two NASA missions – VERITAS and DAVINCI+ – also recently announced, covering aspects of Venus science they do not. Further, ESA will be flying science packages on VERITAS, and NASA will be providing the synthetic aperture radar for EnVision.

EnVision is the fifth M-class mission ESA has selected as part of the Cosmic Vision program. The first, Solar Orbiter, was launched in February 2020, and three others are in development: Euclid, a mission to map dark matter and dark energy to launch in 2022; Plato, an exoplanet search mission launching in 2026; and Ariel, an exoplanet characterisation mission launching in 2029.

In addition To EnVision, ESA intends to spend the next several decades developing  missions to follow after the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, that will help assess the habitability of the icy moons in the outer solar system and seek any biosignatures they may have. At the same time ESA intends to support further science endeavours aimed at increasing our understanding of our own galaxy and the likely state and development of the early universe.

China Rolls-Out Shenzhou-12; NASA ordered to re-think HLS Approach

China rolled out a Long March 2F rocket on Wednesday, June 9th in preparation to send the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and three astronauts to their new Tiangong space station.

The Long March 2F rocket was vertically transferred to its pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in readiness for the mission, although ,the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) has yet to confirm a date / time for the launch or the names of the three-man crew.

Shenzhou-12 atop a Long March 7F booster rolls towards the pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. Credit: China state media

Shenzhou-12 will involve a series of technical verification tasks related to the performance and function of the Tianhe core module of the space station, and will include extravehicular activities using EVA suits delivered by the Tianzhou-2 resupply vehicle launched on May 29th (UTC), and which is currently docked at the station. The mission will be China’s first crewed mission in more than four-and-a-half years and just the seventh overall; it is also planned to be the longest to date, the crew expected to remain aboard the station for 3 months.

In the US on June 8th, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, designed to bolster research and development activities, with an eye toward competing with China. It authorises funding increases for DARPA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and establishes a new technology directorate at the NSF.

Key to NASA is the bill’s requirement that the agency select a second company to compete for the Human Landing System (HLS), required for America’s return to the Moon with human missions, and to do so within 60 days.

This requirement preserves SpaceX’s position in already having a HLS development contract, but opens the door to the consortiums lead by Blue Origin and Dynetics respectively -both of whom were surprisingly curt out of the programme by NASA in April – , as well as other companies to participate in HLS over the next decade.

The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, S. 1260, re-opens the door for the consortiums led by Dynetics (shown above) and Blue Origin to potentially be selected alongside SpaceX in development of Human Landing Systems to meet NASA’s lunar ambitions. Credit: Dynetics

The decision saw Senator Bernie Sanders (D Vermont) continue his (inaccurate and frankly idiotic) claims the Bill was little more than a “Bezos Bailout”, entirely missing the point that the money will in fact go to a number of organisations and secure multiple jobs regardless of whether or not NASA selects the proposal lead by Blue Origin.

Commercial Systems Round-Up

Blue Origin

The first passenger-carrying, sub-orbital flight of Blue Origin’s New Shephard vehicle will take place on July 20th, the 52nd anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. On board will be company founder Jeff Bezos and his brother, Mark, as well as other to-be-named crew members.

Also flying will be a yet-to-be-named winner of an auction of one seat aboard the vehicle. The winning bidder paid US $28 million for the seat, with a further $1.68 million buyer’s premium on top of that. The money will go to Blue Origin’s non-profit foundation, Club for the Future, which has the goal of inspiring future generations to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Blue Origin founder and world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos will be aboard the first crewed flight of the New Shephard sub-orbital vehicle, due to lift-on on July 20th, 2021. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Following launch, the New Shepard capsule will be carried to a height of around 67 km altitude before separating from its launcher, the booster moving aside to continue to apogee before commencing a semi-powered return to Earth and landing.

Meanwhile, the capsule will continue ballistically to around 100 km altitude, passing through the  Kármán line, the generally (but not universally) accepted boundary separating Earth’s atmosphere from outer space, thus qualifying those aboard as astronauts, and then return to Earth and land under parachutes. The entire flight should last around 12 minutes for the crew in the capsule, including 2-3 minutes experience of micro-gravity.


SpaceX is pushing ahead with their attempt to make a semi-orbital flight with their starship / Super Heavy combination, with the latter seeing some announced design changes.

In  particular, it has been indicated that while initial Super Heavy boosters will be equipped with 28 Raptor motors – 16 vacuum engines and 12 sea-level thrust engines – operational Super Heavy vehicles will have 32 motors – 16 of each. This will give the booster enough thrust to lift 7,500 tonnes off the launch stand – that’s the same lifting power of two Apollo-era Saturn V rockets, and more that enough to lift a fuelled starship carrying 100 tonnes of cargo to the edge of space.

Currently, the first flight-ready booster, BN2 (formerly BN3) is being assembled in the High Bay at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility, sharing the building with starship SN16. With the onus now on orbital flights, it’s no longer clear if / when SN16 may itself fly.

Elsewhere, SpaceX have been putting core elements of the Super Heavy to the test. A  partial section of a booster, called BN2.1, is being used for cryogenic pressurisations test. Using inert liquid nitrogen, these have seen the tank  filled and pressurisation to above the levels operational tanks will experience during launch, in order to test the integrity of the design. At the same time, stress tests are being prepared for a trust puck unit.

The SpaceX “Starbase” Boca Chica launch facilities: to the right, the Starship altitude test launch stands (both empty and with a yellow crane between) and their associated fuel farm; to the rear left is the orbital launch facilities, where the huge launch support tower is being assembled alongside the Super Heavy launch table; foreground left: the under construction tank farm for the orbital launch facilities. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography, via What About It.

The trust puck is the part of a rocket on which all the motors are mounted, and which transfers the stress of engine thrust into the overall frame of the rocket, allowing them to be dissipated in the surrounding air during ascent.  The test rig will subject a puck to simulate thrust pressures to ensure the design does not fail.

Providing all this and the construction  / assembly of the orbital launch facilities proceed smoothly, SpaceX hope to make the first orbital attempt in July. If this goes ahead, it will see BN3 lift starship SN20 on its way to orbit, before the booster makes a return to Earth to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, if all goes well – and that a very far from certain for any part of the flight – , SN20 will then complete 3/4s of an orbit before attempting an atmospheric entry and control descent to “soft land” (aka “splashdown”) close to Hawaii around 80-90 minutes after launch.

Relativity’s 3D Printed Heavy Launcher

Relativity Space, the innovative Californian space start-up that is developing the world’s first entirely 3D-printed rocket (including its engines – see: Space Sunday: 3D Printed Rockets; PI for a planet and solar cycles) has announced ambitious plans to develop a fully-reusable medium lift launcher capable of delivering 20 tonnes to orbit – and have it flying by 2024.

A time-lapse image of a fuel tank for the Relativity Terran-1 rocket being constructed using 3D printing techniques. Credit: @thesheetztweetz

Given that the first of the company’s Terran-1 rockets – capable of lifting a far more modest 1.25 tonnes to orbit – will not make its first flight until later this year, the goal for the heavy lift vehicle, called Terran-R, would appear to be terribly ambitious. However, the company has been developing a considerable amount of experience in 3D printing fabrication, and are confident they can achieve their goal.

At a planned 6 m height and some 4.9m in diameter, Terran-R will be in the same class of launcher as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 – although as 2-stage vehicle with aerodynamic upper stage, it currently resembles Super Heavy / Starship back when that system was referred to as BFR – Big Falcon Rocket.

Comparing the Terran-1 (l) with the proposed Terran-R and SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: Marcus House
It also appears to be using technologies similar to those first developed by SpaceX to ensure the reusability of the vehicle’s two stages. Using their 3D printing capabilities, Relatively Space believe that then will be able to churn out a new Terran-R every 60 days, if needed