Space Sunday: roving on Mars, Starship flights, and suing NASA

A view across Gale Crater from “Mount Sharp”, captured by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity rover on July 3rd, 2021, Sol 3,167 for the mission). The dark band of rippled material in the middle-ground of the image is a dune field of volcanic sand. Credit: NASA/JPL

It’s now nine years since NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity arrived on the Red Planet. To celebrate, the rover is about to enter a new phase of exploration as it continues to climb the slopes of “Mount Sharp” (more correctly, Aeolis Mons), the 5 km high mound that rises from the centre of Gale Crater.

Through July and August, the rover has been passing through a “transitional field” between a region on the mound that is dominated by the presence of clay minerals and one dominated by sulphates. While doubt has recently be cast on how large a role water has played in the crater’s (and particular “Mount Sharp’s”) formation, the change from clay minerals to sulphates is nevertheless important, as it marks a point where very different processes were at work on Mars as a result of the planet’s changing climate.

The rocks here will begin to tell us how this once-wet planet changed into the dry Mars of today, and how long habitable environments persisted even after that happened.

– Abigail Fraeman, MSL deputy project scientist

This is an area the MSL science team have been anxious to reach; roughly 460 metres above the crater floor where the rover landed in August 2012, it has been a target for Curiosity since before the rover arrived on Mars, as it could hold the key to the impact of climate change elsewhere on Mars where it is thought water may once have been present.

The transition between environments comes as Curiosity celebrates nine years of operations on Mars. To mark this NASA recently released a video of images captured by the rover during July, as it approached the transitional area. Because it is currently winter within Gale Crater, a time when the amount of dust in the tenuous Martian atmosphere is especially low, the images used in the video are exceptional clear and detailed images that even reveal the crater walls in detail, even though they are over 70 km away.

Another rover with cause to celebrate is China’s Zhurong rover, currently operating on Utopia Planitia. Somewhat smaller than the NASA rover, Zhurong arrived on Mars at the start of an initial 90-sol (92 day)mission are a part of China’s TIanwen 1 interplanetary mission. Since its arrival, the rover has been moving south from its lander vehicle, carrying out a range of science operations.

China has perhaps not been as pro-active as NASA in their social media output on the mission, but Zhurong has performed exceptional well, returning some 10 gigabytes of data to mission control on Earth whilst travelling almost a kilometre, visiting other elements of the mission along the way, such and the backshell and parachute that protected it through entry into the the Martian atmosphere and helped to decelerate in its descent ready for landing. So well, in fact that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has announced the mission is to be extended through a second 90-sol period.

The rover has most recently reached an area believed to have once been the shoreline of ancient coastal waters in the region, marking it as a particular area of scientific interest. In particular, the rover is being directed to drive to a feature described as a “groove” just over 1.6 km from its current position.

Hopefully, by providing data on this area for our scientists, we can get a deeper understanding of the geology of Mars, and then even see if we can find evidence of the existence of an ancient ocean in Utopia Planitia. If it is possible for us to see from the top to the bottom [of the groove], or if there are disparities of rock types and compositions, we could learn about what has happened in its geological history. So, this is what we’re going to focus on in the near future

– Liu Jianjun, chief designer of the Tianwen 1 ground application system

A recent image release by CNSA via CCTV (China state television) show the view make along Zhurong’s route south, captured by the rover’s black and white navigation cameras. Credit: CNA / CCTV

Meanwhile, in Jezero Crater, NASA’s ingenuity Mars helicopter drone has completed its 12th – and most challenging – flight.

On August 16th, 2021, the helicopter took off on a reconnaissance flight again in support of the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance.  The flight was one of the longest to date, with Ingenuity covering over 450 metres and lasted 169 seconds over terrain, dubbed  “Séítah South”, regarded as “risky” due to its varied nature.

Flying over Séítah South carries substantial risk because of the varied terrain. When we choose to accept the risks associated with such a flight, it is because of the correspondingly high rewards. Knowing that we have the opportunity to help the Perseverance team with science planning by providing unique aerial footage is all the motivation needed.

– From the Ingenuity flight log

The flight saw the helicopter return to the “round trip” approach seen in initial flights, travelling out over a region where, if it had been forced to make an emergency landing, could have resulted in it suffering damage or loss, and then back again. The route was selected so as to allow Ingenuity recorded the terrain in sufficient stereoscopic detail  that mission planners might determine a route into the terrain for Perseverance. and have the rover drive itself safely to specific points of interest.

Taking the rover into  “Séítah South” is regarded as riskier than flying Ingenuity over it, but the region is also full of intriguing rocks that the science team believe the risk is worth the potential returns.

During the 12th flight of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, the craft overflew an area of rough terrain called “Séítah South”, and while manoeuvring, the helicopter managed to capture an image of the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance from a distance of around 1/2 a kilometre, NASA later released this enlarged image of the rover as seen by Ingenuity. Credit: NASA/JPL

Currently, Mars is approaching a period of solar conjunction – meaning it is on the far side of the Sun relative to Earth, and about to pass “behind” the Sun as seen from Earth, and event that happens once every two years. During this period, and the time leading up to it an immediately after it, ionized gas radiating out from the Sun’s corona can interfere with radio signals between Earth and vehicles operating on the surface of Mars or in orbit around it, increasing the risk of miscommunications and possible damage to, or loss off, those vehicles.

To avoid this, the fleet of spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars from the USA, UAE, Europe and China will be order to enter “safe” modes during the first two weeks of October, shutting down all major operations until such time as communications can be safely resumed. At the same time, the rovers active on the surface of Mars will switch to autonomous modes of operation, reducing their science operations until such time and full communication between them and the orbits spacecraft and the spacecraft and Earth can be re-established.

Starship Orbital Launch in September?

Following the brief stacking of Starship 20 and Booster 4 that will be the focus of the first attempt to get the massive new SpaceX carrier vehicle to orbit (see Space Sunday: the Ups and Downs of Space Vehicle Development), Elon Musk tweeted that the launch attempt could be just “weeks” away, something which has had some pundits pointing to a launch before the end of September. However, this is fairly unlikely.

For one thing, and despite the huge amount of progress made since the initial stacking of the two vehicles on the orbital launch platform on August 6th, there is still a massive amount of work to be done in getting fuelling and other mechanisms in place ahead of the first launch – all of which will have to be tested and safety certified.

August 9th: the Starbase orbital launch facilities captured by Maxar Technologies’ WorldView-3 satellite orbiting at an altitude of 620 km. Credit: Maxar

On top of this, Booster  4 has to go through a pre-flight regime of cryogenic and fuelling tests and some and a static fire test, all of which likely required a completed launch platform and table. Starship 20 also requires similar tests, but these can be carried out at the existing sub-orbital launch pads, and indeed, the vehicle was mounted on Pad B in readiness for testing on August 17th.

However, the biggest barrier to any launch attempt is that of Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approval. Musk actually alluded to this in his “weeks” tweet by adding “pending regulatory approval”, and this is actually a much bigger deal than some SpaceX fans might realise.

The FAA is responsible for all safety and other environmental issues related to space launches – this includes all of the assorted launch infrastructure as well as launch vehicles themselves. As such, the new launch facilities at Boca Chica have been subject to an ongoing FAA review / assessment – and SpaceX hasn’t helped in this process at all.

After spending time on a hard stand at the orbital launch facilities where its thermal protection tiles were inspected, and new ones installed or damaged one replaced, Starship 20 was moved to the sub-orbital launch stands where it was lifted onto Pad B on Tuesday, August 17th, 2021, presumably so it will be ready to start cryogenic load tests in the near future. Credit: BocaChicaGal /

Take the huge launch support tower that will be used to both support Starship / Super Heavy launches and (eventually) capture operational boosters and Starships on their return to Earth (I’ll have more on this in an upcoming Space Sunday that looks at Starship / Super Heavy operations in detail). This tower has been erected entirely without any FAA approval. As such, the agency has warned SpaceX is putting itself at the risk of being ordered to change the tower’s design – or even to dismantle it and start over – as a result of the review.

This is admittedly something of an unlikely eventuality, but even if the FAA don’t have significant objections to the launch site and its infrastructure, they cannot immediately issue approval for the first launch: under current regulations, the assessment must remain open to public comment for 30 days following publication. It must then go through a final review – and only then can any approval for a launch be given. This potentially means the earliest any launch attempt can be made will be some time in October.

Blue Origin Halts NASA HLS Development. Again

NASA’s plans for returning humans to the Moon have once again hit something of a roadblock, one that is again courtesy of Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin.

The SpaceX Starship HLS: work halted courtesy of Blue Origin. Credit: SpaceX / NASA

As I’ve previously reported, in April NASA announced the contract for the development of the Artemis Programme Human Landing System (HLS) – the vehicle that will carry crews to and from the surface of the Moon – was to go to SpaceX. At the time, the decision was controversial  for a number of reasons, procedural and technical, and both Blue Origin and Dynetics complained to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in terms of the former – that NASA had not acted in accordance with its own procedures.

These objections halted all work on HLS development through until August, when the GAO reported that while NASA had cur some corners, to allow SpaceX to participate in the contract competition, the agency was nevertheless well within its rights to determine where and how many contract(s) should be awarded for initial HLS development.

There the matter might have rested – Dynetics certainly indicated its team would press on with their HLS / cargo lander design (perhaps the most capable of the three) with a view to securing future HLS / cargo lander contracts. Blue Origin, however, has opted to litigate the matter.

On August 13th, Bezos’ company filed a suit against NASA in the US Court of Federal Claims, which addresses monetary claims made against the U.S. government and has jurisdiction wherever protests are made in response to GAO reviews. At the same time, Blue Origin also opted to enter into a public war of words with SpaceX over the complexity of the latter’s Starship HLS approach by drawing attention to issues previously mentioned in these pages: the fact it will take multiple Starship / Super Heavy launches just to deliver the SpaceX HLS vehicle to the Moon (although Blue Origin opted to over-egg this, doubling the number of launches SpaceX must make from 8 to 16) and the issue of how to get crews and cargo on the vehicle the 30-ish metres down the side of it to the surface of Mars.

However, Twitter spats aside, the filing has meant NASA has again halted all HLS work for a further period of 2.5 months, through until November 1st., in the hope the issue can be settled rapidly. But this is far from certain; oral arguments on the matter are to be put to the judge by Blue Origin and the US Department of Justice (representing NASA as a federal government agency) on October 14th, and while a rule might come from these arguments, it is equally possible the judge might order an extensive process of discovery and review before considering any findings – and this could halt HLS work for several months beyond November, something NASA is steeling its to face.

2 thoughts on “Space Sunday: roving on Mars, Starship flights, and suing NASA

    1. A lot of people comment on the similarities between parts of Mars and various deserts; not surprising given the similar environmental processes at work down the aeons. The major visual difference is that, as a rule, at some point in deserts on Earth, particularly those of a more rocky nature rather than the dune seas of places like the Namib or Sahara or Gobi, etc. (or a high altitude desert like Atacama), some form of vegetation can oft make its presence seen, but Mars is obviously always desolate in that respect.


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