Space Sunday: balloons to space, Mars movies and alien water clouds

Space Perspective: balloon rides to (almost) the edge of space (see below). Credit: Space Perspective

Virgin Galactic is now very close to commencing passenger-carrying sub-orbital flights with their SpaceShipTwo vehicle after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) updated the company’s existing launch licence which had previously restricted them to only flying a crew and “non-deployable” payloads aboard the vehicle.

The updated licence was awarded on June 25th, after the FAA had completed a review of the May 22nd SpaceShipTwo test flight, the first such flight to be flown from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s base for commercial operations in the United States.

The granting of the licence doesn’t mean passenger flights will be commencing immediately, however. The company has three more test flights to complete, some of which will see them flying additional crew aboard the vehicles to help gain further experience in flying with a full compliment of people on the vehicle. One of these flights is liable to include Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson.

We’re incredibly pleased with the results of our most recent test flight, which achieved our stated flight test objectives. Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.

-Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive, Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity drops clear of the MSS Eve carrier aircraft at the start of the May 22nd test flight over New Mexico, data from which led to the FAA updating the company’s licence to fly the craft. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The price of a ticket for a 90-minute flight with Virgin Galactic is estimated to be US $250,000 – although this figure was first given in 2014, and may have changed in the interim, and the company hopes to bring the cost down to around US $40,000 within a decade. In the meantime, the likes of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga and Leonardo DiCaprio are said to be among the rumoured 700 initial bookings.

Given the additional test flights, Virgin Galactic will probably not start fare-paying flights until after Blue Origin has completed its first passenger flight. This is due to take place on July 20th, the 55th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, and will include one individual (yet to be named) who has paid US $28 million to be a passenger (see: Space Sunday: selfies, missions, budgets and rockets).

VSS Imagine, the first of of the SpaceShip III vehicle Virgin Galactic plan to operate, was rolled out on 30rh March, 2021. It will be followed by VSS Inspire, currently under construction. These are an updated design of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle the company has been flying to date, but have yet to be test flown. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Nor are space vehicles alone to be used for high altitude tourism. Space Perspective, a relatively new space tourism company, being founded in 2019, has confirmed it plans to offer flights of up to six hours in duration and to a maximum altitude of 32 km starting in 2024 using a balloon and capsule system.

The nature of the flights mean passengers will not experience a micro-gravity environment during the flight, but they will travel high enough to clearly see the planet’s curvature, and their experience will be a lot more sedate and with greater comfort.

This is because ascents will be at a gentle 20km an hour, thus taking 90 minutes to reach their maximum altitude,  and the capsule will offer comfortable couches, room to move around, a bar and provide wi-fi connectivity with the ground. Once at altitude, the balloon will remain aloft for around 2 hours, prior to commencing a descent, splashing down close to a support ship that will lift the capsule out of the water to allow the passengers disembark, prior to them being returned to shore.

How Space Perspective plan to operate their balloon flights. Credit: Space Perspective

Space Perspective first announced their plans over a year ago, and on June 18th, they carried out a test flight of their Neptune One scale prototype capsule over Florida. In a 6-hour 39-minute flight, the capsule, slung beneath a helium balloon, lifted-off in the early morning, rising to a maximum altitude of over 33 km.  After two hours, and in what mirrors planned operational flight, it then descended over the Gulf of Mexico to splash down 80 km off the coast of Florida, where it was recovered by ship.

This test flight of Neptune One kicks off our extensive test flight campaign, which will be extremely robust because we can perform tests without a pilot, making Spaceship Neptune an extremely safe way to go to space.

– Taber MacCallum, Co-CEO, Space Perspective

As well as passengers, Space Perspective plan to offer room aboard the capsule(s) for those wishing to carry out high-altitude studies of the atmosphere and weather.

An image released by Space Perspective and captured by a camera aboard their Neptune One scale prototype, some 33 km above the surface of Earth. Credit: Space Perspective

Hubble Still Down as Glitch Proves Hard to Resolve

NASA is continuing to diagnose a problem on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). As I noted in my previous Space Sunday report, the primary payload computer stopped responding on June 13th, causing the science instruments to enter a “safe” mode. At the time, it was believed the problem was caused  by a fault with one of the computer’s four 64 Kb read/write  memory modules. however, and as I reported, an attempt to switch to using one of the other memory modules was unsuccessful.

As a result, further tests were carried out on June 23rd / 24th, with mixed results. On the one hand, they revealed that the core elements of the computer and its back-up, including the memory modules, have no significant issues. However, the tests also showed attempts to write data to any of the memory modules from either computer were failing.

NASA continues to try to diagnose the Hubble space Telescope’s recent issues. Credit: NASA

This tends to suggest the problem lies outside of the payload computers, so plans are being drawn-up to test other systems.

Chief among these are the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the primary power regulator circuits. The CU/SDF relays command through HST to specific systems and instruments, and also reformats data from the science instruments ready for transmission to Earth, while the main power regulator should deliver a consistent voltage to systems and instruments. If either are subject to issues, then they can trigger a switch to safe mode operations, as has happened. If the root cause can be traced to either, NASA will test the back-up and attempt a switch-over.

Mars Update: More from Zhurong and InSight in Trouble

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has released further images and video footage of its Zhurong lander and rover on Mars, together with audio of the rover driving off of the Lander.

On June 25th, CNSA issued a video of the rover’s surroundings on Utopia Planitia, which included some images that had been released a couple of weeks ago. It shows the flat extent of the plain on which the mission has landed, panning to reveal the back shell (mis-labelled by Physics Insight in the video as the heat shield) and parachute of the descent system, as well as the lander.

Then in the early hours of June 27th (UTC), CNSA released a video featuring still shots taken as the rover was deploying to the surface of Mars on May 22nd, 2021, overlaid with sounds recorded during the deployment process, the majority of which were generated by the rover’s electric motors and the friction of the wheels on the ramp and the ground.

More particularly, this video also shows the Zhurong rover in motion on Mars (without audio, as the camera has no microphone), initially as it reverses away from the wi-fi remote camera it deployed onto the surface in early June, and a wide-angle view of the rover positioning itself close to its lander in preparation for the “selfie” I featured in  my June 13th Space Sunday report.

One of the reasons there is a delay in images and video from the mission being released is due to the fact that unlike the US Mars missions, Zhurong only has one means to relay data back to Earth and receive instructions from mission control: the Tianwen-1 orbiter. This is currently on a high-altitude 8.2 hour orbit around Mars, and only passes over Utopia Planitia once a sol (Martian day), slowing down the transmission of data. By comparison, the US rovers can use NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance, MAVEN and Mars Odyssey orbiters, and even communicate via Europe’s Mars Express and TGO missions, if required.

This image from the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, taken on June 11th, shows the Zhurong rover (large dot at the bottom of the picture) as it continues to drive away from it’s lander sitting in the midst of ground discoloured by is landing rockets. Credit: NASA

Elsewhere on Mars, the news is not so good, as NASA has announced its InSight mission lander may have less than a year of operational life left to it.

Originally touching down in Elysium Planitia of Mars in late November 2018, the lander has been carrying out atmospheric, surface and sub-surface research. It’s original primary mission was 90 sols, but this was extended through to the end of 2022. However, dust build-up on the lander’s  two large-area solar panels is now affecting the lander’s ability to convert sunlight into electrical power.

It had been hoped that seasonal weather changes would help “clean” the panels through dust devils rolling over the lander – as had been the case with NASA’s solar-powered Sprit and Opportunity rovers. Unfortunately, such phenomena haven’t been as frequent in the region where the lander is located as had been hoped. Most recently, NASA has resorted to manual attempts to try to remove the accumulating dust, such as by “shaking” the solar panels via the mechanism used to deploy them. Unfortunately, these attempts have only produced temporary or marginal increases in power generation.

A computer simulation of InSight deploying its solar arrays. After 2.5 years on Mars, these are now so dust-laden, the lander is starting to experience serious power generation issues. Credit: NASA

With aphelion approaching when Mars is furthest from the Sun and the lander will therefore need all the power it can generate simply to keep itself warm, decisions are now being made on which systems can be turned off in the hope of reducing energy consumption. However, even with savings, it is believed the lander could reach a point where it can no longer generate sufficient power for operations by April / May 2022.

Neptune’s Cousin May Have Water Clouds

TOI-1231 b is a Neptune-like exoplanet discovered in 2021 as a part of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. It orbits an M-class Red Dwarf star some 90 light years away every 24.2 terrestrial days at a distance of around 0.1288 AU (1 AU  = the average distance of the Earth from the Sun). It’s been causing a lot of interest, as data indicates it has a substantial atmosphere – one that has been a little hard to quantify in terms of its composition.

A simulation of TOI-1231 b, as created by the NASA Eyes on Exoplanets app

Despite its nearness to its parent star, TOI-1231 b is a temperate world with an average atmospheric temperature of around  60°C – which is far warmer than we experience here on Earth, but is far cooler that most large exoplanets orbiting close to their own stars.

However, what is particularly interesting about the planet is the the data suggests its atmosphere could be rich in water vapour and may even have water clouds forming within it. If this is true, it doesn’t mean TOI-1231 b might bear life, but it will confirm that free water molecules can exist more widely in the galaxy.

This has made TOI-1231 b a prime target for further analysis, with time already booked – subject to issues being fixed – with the Hubble Space Telescope to look at the planet in detail.  It has also been earmarked as a candidate for study by the James Webb Space Telescope, once operational. So doubtless, more is to come on this intriguing planet.