Space Sunday: Mars, Starliner woes, accusations & spacesuits

Things have been getting a little rocky – pardon the pun – for the US rover missions on Mars of late.

On August 5th (Sol 164 for the mission) the Mars 2020 mission had been expected to recover its first sample from within Jezero Crater, some of which would be subject to analysis and the rest held for future deposit on the surface of Mars to be retrieved by a future NASA / ESA sample-return mission.

All seemed to go well with the operation – Perseverance deployed its robot arm and used the drill to cut some 7cm into the selected target rock, dubbed “Paver Rock”, a part of the “Crater Floor Fractured Rough” region of the crater floor. However, data received by mission managers after the drilling operation have been completed revealed the tube to be empty.

Gathering samples with Perseverance is a lot more complicated that with Curiosity. In particular, rather than the drill gathering a sample within itself, it is designed to hold a sample tube, which has to be delivered into the bit, and then removed from it and transferred into the rover’s body. Following the drilling operation, part of the process involves extending a probe into the sample tube to confirm it contains material – and it was lack of any return from this probe that alerted the mission time that the sample attempt may have failed.

This enhanced-colour image from the Mastcam-Z instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover shows sample tube inside the coring bit after the Aug. 6 coring activity was completed. The bronze-coloured outer-ring is the coring bit. The lighter-coloured inner-ring is the open end of the sample tube. Credits: NASA/JPL

The lack of data lead to checks on the sample gathering systems, and a detailed examination of the bore hole and the detritus around it using two of the other instruments on the turret – SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) and Watson (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering). These examinations revealed something unexpected and a first for sample gathering operations on Mars.

In short, SHERLOC and WATSON revealed that as the drill bit cut into the rock, it produced a powder so fine, it could not be held within the the sample tube inside the drill bit, and as the bit was withdrawn the gathered material simply fell back out, joining excess material within the hole and the detritus surrounding it.

As a result, the mission team have opted not to make a second attempt at sample gathering with the current target rock. Instead, the rover is to be directed on to its next target, a rock formation in the “South Seitah” region of Jezero Crater, which it will reach in early September.

This image taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover on Aug. 6th, 2021, shows the hole drilled in a Martian rock as a part of the rover’s first attempt to collect a sample. It was taken by one of the rover’s hazard cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL

Meanwhile, half a world away, Curiosity is celebrating the ninth anniversary of its arrival on Mars. The first of NASA’s nuclear-powered Mars, Curiosity has been continuing its journey of discovery within Gale Crater, although some of the findings made as a result of the data gathered have recently been subject to new evaluation by the University of Hong Kong, leading to some interesting conclusions.

In has long been presumed that the major factor in the formation of Gale crater’s landforms has been water in the form of a series of shallow lakes that laid down sedimentary clays and similar over time, with wind playing a much later role in things, such as sculpting “Mount Sharp”, the large mound at the centre of the crater  – and discoveries made by the rover throughout its sojourn through the crater and up “Mount Sharp” have tended to support this view. However, the UHK study suggests that the roles may have been reversed – that while the crater was once the home of water, the dominant factor in the development of the landscape within the crater was in fact the wind.

A view across Gale Crater, as captured by the Mastcam system on NASA’s MSL rover Curiosity

The conclusion was reached after an extensive study of Curiosity’s findings in the search for elements considered “mobile” – which are indicative of water being present in their deposit, and elements that are “immobile”, which are not water soluble, and which are generally formed in dry regions, where winds play a significant role. The UHK study, led by Dr. Jiacheng Liu suggests that immobile elements exist in much higher concentrations at high levels in the rock than would be the case if water had been present during their formation.

This doesn’t mean the crater was never the home of a lake; rather, Dr. Lui suggest that Curiosity has been studying overlays much of the evidence for the ancient lakes, and was largely form by wind action depositing layers of material over time, which were then compressed into layer and then further sculpted by the wind, rather than water-based sedimentation later sculpted by winds. He also suggests that the “mobile” elements the rover has found may not be the result of water-base depositing within the crater, but were rather created elsewhere on Mars, and again carried into the crater by windows a dust storms.

If correct, this is important because while it does challenge the idea that water did play a role early in the history of Gale Crater, it does tend to confirm the idea wind and atmosphere played an equally important role in its history, which in turn always for a more varied picture of the geological history of the surface of Mars to be built up, one potentially far more diverse and active then previously believed. to be the case.

Boeing Returns Starliner to Factory for Fixes

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, designed to transport crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from US soil, now looks like it wouldn’t be able to complete its second test flight until 2022.

The flight – called OFT-2 for “orbital flight test 2” had been due to lift-off on August 3rd. However, as I reported last time around, the launch was postponed after it was discovered valves designed to control the vehicle’s thruster system has all fused in their “closed” position, resulting in the launch attempt being cancelled and the orbiter and its Atlas 5  being rolled back to the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, where Boeing hoped to effect repairs.

Boeing technicians attempt to repair valves in the propulsion system on the CST-100 Starliner in the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The valve issues have now forced an extended delay to the vehicle’s OFT-2 mission. Credit: Boeing

While 9 of the 13 valves were fixed, four remained stuck, and it was discovered the cause of the problem appeared to be nitrogen tetroxide (NTO), used as thruster propellant, permeating Teflon seals in the valves to react with moisture, creating nitric acid that fused the valves shut. This, and the four remaining stuck valves prompted Boeing to announce that the capsule would be returned to their facilities where a more extensive review of the situation can be carried out, both to repair the remaining valves and determine why the NTO permeated the valve seals – something not seen in testing, and hoe moisture accessed the valves.

It is not clear how long this review will take, or whether it will require further changes to be made to the flight test vehicle to prevent any recurrence. However, the launch schedule at Canaveral Space Force Station means there a very few slots into which a further attempt at launch could be slipped before the end of the year, and Boeing have been talking in the review taking “several months” to complete.

Rocky NASA / Roscosomos Relations Continue

In 2018, the IISS suffered a small-scale loss of pressure. It was not the first such event, and it never put the crew at risk. However, investigations into the cause eventually uncovered a small hole in the skin of the orbital compartment of Soyuz MS-09 crew vehicle docked at the station. This hole was subsequently repaired by the cosmonauts on the ISS, and the vehicle ultimately made a successful return to Earth.

The cause of the hole – around 2mm across – has never been fully explained, although it seemed to many it was likely the result of a error being made during the vehicle’s assembly. However, not long after the situation, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin started to point fingers, suggesting the hole was the result of attempted sabotage by one of the non-Russian crew then aboard the ISS. This claim has now resurfaced.

Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor – accused by a “High ranking official” at Roscosmos of attempting to sabotage Soyuz HS-09 in 2018, the accusation seen as a means of deflecting attention away from criticism of the recent “Nauka incident”. Credit: NASA

On Thursday, August 12th, Tass published an article quoting a “high ranking official” at Roscosmos – possibly Rogozin himself – that the hole on MS-09 was the result of attempted sabotage – and the report pointed a finger at the only woman on the crew at that time: NASA astronaut Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor, who was serving as the Expedition 56 Flight Engineer.

To give credence to the claim, the report breaks with a long-standing NASA protocol of not commenting on astronaut health issues by revealing that on her return to Earth, Dr. Auñón-Chancellor had to be treated for a blood clot in a vein in her neck; the insinuation here being that the condition caused her to have a breakdown whilst on the station, resulting in her sabotaging the Soyuz in order to force a return to Earth. Auñón-Chancellor has denied the claim, and has been joined by NASA senior management from Administrator Bill Neilson on down in rebutting the Tass report.

Serena is an extremely well-respected crew member who has served her country and made invaluable contributions to the agency, and I stand behind Serena — we all stand behind Serena and her professional conduct and I did not find this accusation credible.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Soyuz MS-09 docked with the ISS in 2018. The hole piercing the hull lay within the circular orbital module / airlock, circled. Credit: NASA

Overall, the accusation would appear to be a retaliation for continued criticism over the recent “Nauka incident”, which a newly-docked Russian module at the station fire its thrusters to push the station into a slow rotation that took some time to correct (see here and here for more), and likely the result of a failure on the part of Russian ground controllers to correctly “safe” the module’s propulsion systems.

However, whether intended as a deflection or not, the the article stands in stark contrast to recent US claims that the Russian / American space partnership is healthy. And if the comments did come from Rogozin, they will be the latest in a series of remarks he has made in his two tenures in leading Roscosmos that appear to be intentionally aimed at straining US / Russian relations.

In 2014, Rogozin threatened an end to Russian cooperation on the ISS as a result of annoyance with US management of the station, and in 2020, he summarily rejected an invitation by America for Russia to join the Artemis programme, indicating Russia would rather work in partnership with China. More recently, he has suggested that Russia could abandon the ISS altogether after 2024, and instead concentrate on a new space station – and that as part of this, Roscosmos might repurpose one of the modules they are fabricating for the ISS to form the core of their new station, allowing it to commence operations “by 2030”.

NASA Lunar Spacesuits “Won’t be Ready” for 2024

The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) spacesuits that NASA astronauts will need to walk on the Moon won’t be ready form operational use until 2025, further ending any idea of a US return to the Moon by the end of 2024.

The new suit has been in development since 2007, but has encountered a number of design challenges over the years, as well as encountering technical and funding issues. To date, just over one-third of the funds needed to develop the suit have been awarded to NASA, and in 2020 it had to undergo a complete redesign in order to remove a further 10 K from its overall mass.

A mock-up of the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) lunar spacesuit being revealed in 2019. The actual suits won’t be ready for use on a lunar landing mission until 2025. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

With the impact of the CIVID pandemic also impacting work on the suit, the NASA IG reports that in practical terms the suit cannot be ready for lunar use until early-to-mid 2025.

And the suit isn’t the only element of the Artemis programme unlikely to meet the 2024 deadline; as reported in these pages, it is highly unlikely the Human Landing System (HLS), the vehicle that will deliver crews to the surface on the Moon and return them to orbit, will be ready within the next three years, whilst the Space Launch System – required to launch crew-carrying Orion vehicles to the Moon – is seeing its test flights slip back in their project time frames.