Space Sunday: rovers, rockets and telescopes

An image of a ridge line on the flank of “Mount Sharp” (Aeolis Mons) captured by MSL rover Curiosity on Sol 3167 (July 4th, 2021). A CGI model – to scale – of the rover has been superimposed on the image to show how the rover’s climb up the ridge might appear to someone watching it. Credit: NASA/JPL with additions by Seán Doran

Rovers on Mars continue to been busy as they trundle around the planet. While it has been there the longest, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity has been somewhat out of the news, courtesy of it’s sister Perseverance and China’s Zhurong. However, it has recently re-grabbed the science news headlines thanks to a couple of studies.

Methane blips have pinged on Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) six times since the rover landed in Mars’ Gale crater in August 2012. These events have been seen as important, because methane is the by-product of two processes that share equal interest to scientists, because one is the result of organic processes – life – and the other, though inorganic in nature, points to geological activity closely tied to the presence of liquid water, a vital ingredient for past or present life as we know it to thrive.

A critical factor with methane is that once exposed to sunlight, it breaks down over a period of just 300-330 years, so for Curiosity to be able to detect it, it must have come from a relatively recent source – one that still may be active. The problem until now has been to locate that source – or even confirm Curiosity’s findings.

The European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter, part of the ExoMars mission, and currently studying Mars. Credit: ESA

The best placed tools for doing the latter are aboard the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), but to date, TGO has been unable to detect any methane within Gale Crater. The could either be because there isn’t any methane to be found, or the minute amounts  – just 10 parts per billion (10 ppb) – is too small and too localised for TGO to accurately detect from orbit, and Curiosity just happens to be sitting practically on top of it.

In one of two reports released in June, members of the MSL’s extended science team they have pin-pointed the source location for the methane, and that the rover happened to arrive in Gale Crater at a point extremely close to it.

This was done by treating each point of detection as a discrete packet of methane, then calculating the wind speed and direction at the time it was detected. This allowed them to trace the parcels back through time to their possible points of emission. By doing this for all of the different detection spikes, they were able to triangulate regions where the methane source is most likely located- and one of them is just a few tens of kilometres to the north-west of “Mount Sharp” and Curiosity’s area of exploration.

Sadly while tantalisingly close to the rover, the point is still well outside of Curiosity’s route of exploration.

MSL Curiosity, imaged by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, on April 18, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

A second study coming out of Curiosity’s science data suggests that a process has been at work on Mars that has been both eradicating evidence for possible past life on Mars – and creation conditions in which new life might arise.

In short, when reviewing the result of samples taken of ancient mudstone, a sedimentary rock containing clay, taken from two points just 400 metres apart and believed to have both been laid down some 3.5 billion years ago. Both should have been very similar in nature, rich in clay, an important element in the search for life, as it is both created in the presence of water and is an excellent medium for storing microbial fossils. However, one of the samples contained just half the anticipated amount of clay minerals in comparison to the other, but a much higher concentration of iron oxides –  the compounds that give Mars its rusty hue.

The researchers behind this discovery believe it is the result of one of the two areas of mudstone being exposed to brine: salty water that leaked into the mineral-rich mudstone and effectively leached the clays and other minerals out of them, effectively eradicating both the geological and possibly the biological record that might otherwise be present in the deposits. Given that evidence of potentially brine-rich outflows have been found elsewhere on Mars, this study suggests this process might be common to regions of the planet believed to have once housed bodies of water, possibly destroying any evidence of past life.

However, the process – called diagenesis – is not all bad news. While it may well help erase any record of past organic activity from parts of the surface or Mars, it may also have triggered new life processes under the surface, the salty water being a source of potential energy that could help kick-start new organic processes.

Image of the “Raised Ridges” that Ingenuity captured on its ninth flight. Credit – NASA / JPL

The findings of both of these studies are being used to inform the science mission of NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, allowing the science team to apply what has been found in Gale Crater to Jezero Crater, to better direct that rover towards places of interest.

“Percy”, to use the nickname for NASA’s latest Mars rover is also being assist in finding places of interest – and the best route to them – by the Ingenuity helicopter. This has now completed its 9th flight , during which it acted directly as an aerial scout for the rover, including the “Raised Ridges”, a feature that suggests it may one once had a water channel beneath it. Ingenuity has also identified a dune field that could result in “Percy” becoming bogged down – as happened with the MER Spirit rover in 2009/10 – ending its mission.

What is particularly fascinating about this work is that the information gathered by Ingenuity can be fed back to Perseverance and used by its auto-drive system to identify local hazards – rocks, etc – the rover can then navigate itself around without having to “‘phone home” for assistance from the Earth-based driving team.

Ingenuity’s view of the “Séítah” dune field on it’s ninth flight. Part of the helicopter’s landing gear can be seen on the left side of the screen. Credit: NASA / JPL 

Meanwhile, China’s Zhurong rover is now 2/3rds of the way through its initial 92-day / 90 Sol mission. During that time, the rover has travelled a total of 450 metres, and on July 12th, 2021, it arrived at a special point of study – but one that is neither geological nor meteorological / atmospheric, the rover’s primary science interest.

Instead, the rover had arrived at the impact / landing point for the backshell and parachute that had helped it to reach the ground safely. Following it separation from these during descent, the rover had moved away from it under the power of its lander’s rocket motors ready to make a soft landing. The backshell and parachute continued downward to eventually land some 350 metres from the lander / rover.

Studying both the backshell and parachute helped engineers understand how well both handled the descent through the Martian atmosphere, something that can help inform future missions. At the same time, the rover imaged raised mounds in the region, which could be inverted impact craters or possibly small volcanic domes or other features could be the result of tectonic activity – their nature has yet to be made clear (one of which has been incorrectly labelled as a “outflow delta” in the video below).

New Shepherd Crew Ready to Fly

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021 should see the first fare-paying flight of Blue Origin’s sub-orbital New Shepard rocket system. Aboard will be four passengers: billionaire and Blue Origin founder / CEO Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, aviatrix Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk (whom I wrote about here), and a passenger who is flying for a undisclosed sum paid as a part of a fund-raising auction Blue Origin held for the final seat on the flight.

That passenger will be 18-year-old student Oliver Daemon. Between them, he and “Wally” Funk will represent the youngest and oldest people to fly into space. However, Daemon is not the original passenger slated to make the trip. That individual – still unnamed by Blue Origin – paid a total of US $29.5 million (including auction costs) to be a part of the flight, but a “scheduling conflict” means they had to withdraw, and will now fly aboard a later New Shepard flight.

Oliver Daemon gained the seat as a result of his father Joes, the founder and CEO of Somerset Capital Partners, and who also participated in the seat auction on behalf of his son. 82-year-old Funk, meanwhile – as I’ve previously reported – was personally invited by Bezos to join the upcoming flight in recognition of her outstanding career as an aviator and as one of the best-scoring members of the so-called “Mercury 13”, the unofficial First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATS).

The New Shepherd “crew” due to fly on July 20th, 2021. From left: Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, Mary “Wally” Funk and Oliver Daemon. Credit: Blue Origin

Their flight will come just over a week after billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, made a crewed flight aboard his SpaceShipTwo vehicle VSS Unity on Sunday, July 11th – however, that flight did not feature any fare-paying passengers. The New Shepard flight will be a lot shorter – from lift-off to landing, it should last around 10-12 minutes, compared to the hour or so (including a climb to altitude under the wing pylon of its carrier aircraft) flight of VSS Unity – but those aboard will experience the same amount of time in micro-gravity, and they’ll actually go higher than Virgin Galactic flight, passing through the Kármán line, the altitude of 100 km that is widely – but not exclusively – regarded as the edge of space (in the United States, an altitude of 80 km is regarded as the edge of space).

The flight will also differ from the Virgin Galactic flight in that the New Shepard rocket and capsule do not require a dedicated flight crew – the vehicle operates on a fully automated basis, overseen by a flight team on Earth. Whilst Blue Origin are confident of this approach, some have voiced concern over how passengers who will receive just two days of flight training might react on future New Shepard flights, should there be any kind of issue / incident with the vehicle.

The cabin of a New Shephard capsule, including the “big” windows Jeff Bezos has pointed to as being a selling point over the 17 smaller round windows on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip vehicles. Credit: Blue Origin

I hope to have a full report on this flight once it has taken place. In the meantime, Blue Origin has started disbursing the money raised through the seat auction to various organisations. On July 14th, the company announced an initial US $1 million had been given to each of 19 organisations, including the National Space Society, Challenger Centre, the Planetary Society,  the International Astronautically Federation, the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation. The rest of the funds raised are expected to be disbursed through Blue Origin’s Club for the Future’s own projects and activities. In addition, it has been announced that Bezos is to donate US $200 million of his own money to the Smithsonian Institution, the largest donation to that institution since it was founded by James Smithson in 1846.

Billed as “the world’s largest museum, education and research complex”, the Institution will divide the donation between two projects, with US $70 million going to renovate the National Air and Space Museum. The remaining US $130 million being used to support the creation of a new education centre (to be called the Bezos Learning Centre), at the Smithsonian’s flagship museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Hubble’s Operations Restored

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has resumed science operations after an internal apparent fault with the primary payload computer caused the telescope to move all instruments into a safe mode.

As I’ve previously reported, investigations and tests following the initial issue suggested that the problem lie not with the payload computer, but rather with other systems which must be used by both the primary and secondary payload computer systems.

In particular, suspicion fell on the primary Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the primary power regulator circuits, and earlier in July the decision was made to switch the back-ups of these systems – but only after an updated step-by-step procedure for handling the switch-over had been written and validated in ground tests.

Hubble’s science systems are once again fully operational. Credit: NASA

Those procedures and tests were completed at the start of the week, and after further review, the transition to the backup hardware started on July 15th. By July 16th, the back-up systems were up and running, allowing the engineering team to start bringing Hubble out of its safe mode, a process completed on July 17th, at which point the telescope’s science systems were switched over to their fully operational state.

The outage is one of the longest in HST’s 31-year history, raising concerns about the telescope’s overall operational condition – it was last serviced more than a decade ago in 2009, and there is currently no means for it to be further services by astronauts. However, despite these concerns, NASA and the European Space Agency, their partners in the project, are confident that HST will be able to maintain science operations for the foreseeable future, and options are being looked at to keep some of its instruments operating through until at least 2030.