Space Sunday: Mars wake-ups, SpaceX and NASA updates

Looking over Utopia Planitia – a panoramic image captured by the mastcams on China’s Zhurong rover ahead of its period of “hibernation” during the October 2021 conjunction. Credit: CNSA/PEC

The 2021 Earth-Sun-Mars conjunction that saw Earth and Mars on opposite sides of the Sun, interrupting all communications between the two, is now over. This means that the multi- national missions on and around the red planet (America, Europe, the UAE, and China) are switching back from automated activities to more regular operations.

China’s Tiawen 1 orbiter and their solar-powered rover surprised mission controllers by calling home earlier than had been anticipated, to report that they are resuming science operations after their enforced semi-hibernation. The wake-ups come in advance of a change in both missions that will be taking place in early November.

At that time, the Tianwen 1 will switch to a new mission phase, a global mapping and analysis of the Martian surface and subsurface with its suite of seven science instruments. This will reduce the opportunities the orbiter has to act as a communications relay for the rover from once a day to once every few days. To help fills the “gaps” when Tianwen 1 is unable to act as a relay, Europe’s long-running Mars Express orbiter is going to attempt to step up to the plate and relay communications between the rover and Earth – pending the outcome of several communications tests to take place at the start of November.

Another view across Utopia Planitia returned by Zhurong. Credit: CNSA/PEC

Down on Mars, the Zhurong rover had covered 1,182 metres from its landing platform before going into stand-by mode for the solar conjunction. Since waking up, it has resumed its trip south in Utopia Planitia, and is approaching the end of its second 90-sol period of operations, opening the door for a re-assessment of its science targets. Of particular interest to Chinese scientist are a series of “mud volcanoes” and features that may have been formed by movements of subsurface water and ice, where Zhurong’s ground-penetrating radar is expected to provide “fundamentally new perspectives” on potential subsurface Martian water ice, that might be applied to any development of past life on Mars and on the use of sub-surface water by future crewed missions.

For NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, the end of the conjunction means a resumption of flight operations following tests to run its contra-rotating propellers at high-than-usual RPM to counter the thinning density of the atmosphere in Jezero crater as winter approaches.  This flight was initially scheduled for as early as Saturday, October 23rd, but at the time of writing had yet to be confirmed as having taken place.

Meanwhile, NASA has released a new video showcasing many of the sounds of Mars that have thus far been recorded by Ingenuity’s companion on Mars, the Perseverance rover.

“Percy” carries two off-the-shelf microphones, one mounted on it hull, the other on cover on the camera mounting frame located at the top of its instrument mast. Since the rover’s arrival on Mars, both microphones have been used to record a range of sounds both of Mars and of the rover and Ingenuity operating on the planet.

One of the two microphones mounted on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. Located on the moveable camera / imager housing at the top of the rover’s mast, this microphone is somewhat directional in nature. Credit: NASA/JPL

The Mars 2020 mission is the first to Mars to carry microphones that allow us to listen to the planet – but their inclusion is not merely due to idle curiosity. Listening to the sounds of the planet and the rover can reveal a lot, as mission scientist Nina Lanza, one of those behind the microphone project, explains:

First, we can learn about the atmosphere by understanding how sound propagates through it. We can also listen to the sounds of rover analyses on rocks and learn about rock material properties from that. And finally, we can also listen to the sounds the rover makes to help better understand the state of our instruments.

– Nina Lanza, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Analysis of the sound picked-up from Ingenuity’s rotors, for example, has revealed that sound propagates through the Martian atmosphere a lot different to how it had been believed. Changes in the sound the rover makes during driving and other operations could also help give an early indication of possible problems / mechanical issues, making the microphones invaluable.

SpaceX Update

With the public hearings into the Federal Aviation Authority’s draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) report on the SpaceX “Starbase” production, test and launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, now completed, SpaceX continues to push ahead with preparations for its first Starship  / Super Heavy test flight and other work critical to that, and future Starship / Super Heavy launches.

The tank farm that will store and deliver propellants and other consumables to the launch facilities has seen the last of its vertical tanks and their concrete sheathing installed. At the same time as this work was progress, a set of horizontal tanks, thought to be intermediary tanks that may be used to hold propellants, etc., when detanking boosters between things like static firs tests, arrived for installation at the farm.

The Starbase tank farm showing the new horizontal tanks being installed, with the final sleeve for one of the upright tanks waiting to be lifted into position. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

The launch facility itself has most recently seen the assembly and installation of the gigantic “Mechazilla”, the extraordinary mechanism that will both lift Super Heavy boosters onto the launch table and stack Starships on top of them (as well as being able to remove both from the launch facilities) and  – eventually – actually “catch” returning boosters and Starships, allowing (in theory) both to be rapidly turned around and re-used whilst eliminating the need for either to have complicated and heavy landing leg systems.

“Mechazilla” will achieve this by travelling up and down the launch support tower on three rails whilst having a “head” that can rotate around three side of the tower, and two huge “chopstick” arms than can open and close around a Super Heavy or Starship vehicle, allowing it to raise or lower them – and eventually catch them as they make a (hopefully) precision return to Earth that brings them down alongside the launch support tower.

The massive system will not be used for the first orbital flight attempt with Booster 4 (currently on the launch table) and Starship 20, but may be used in an attempt to catch Booster 5 (currently under construction as the “next generation” of Super Heavy vehicles)  when that launches in 2022. However, captures of Starship vehicles will not be seen for some time.

A rendering of “Mechazilla” and the QD arm mounted on the Super Heavy / Starship launch support tower at Boca Chica. Credit: Owe BL, with additional annotations

Also during the past week, Starship 20 has completed a series of static fire tests of its Raptor engines – including the first firing of a Raptor vacuum engine integrated into a Starship vehicle, and the first joint firing of a vacuum engine and a sea-level motor. Some of the vehicle’s heat shield titles were blown off during the tests, but otherwise the firings were viewed as successful.

Such is the progress at Boca Chica that Elon Musk has indicated the company will be ready to make that first orbital flight in November, pending regulatory approval. However, it would seem unlikely this would be granted in time for a November launch. The review period for the PEA doesn’t close until November 1st, and the public hearings mentioned above drew strong feedback both in support of, and against SpaceX’s expansion of the Boca Chica facilities, with the latter focused on already noticeable environmental issues.

The static fire test of a Raptor single vacuum engine and a single Raptor sea-level motor, marking the first time the both types of motor, integrated into a Starship, have been test fired. Credit: BocaChicaGal /

After November 1st, the FAA will require time to complete its report, incorporating all of this feedback and a separate report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even if the report is positive, it still has to be reviewed and digested by the arm of the FAA responsible for granting launch licences. Given that November is something of a “short” month in the US due to the Thanksgiving holiday, it seems doubtful the FAA would complete all this work and grant a licence to SpaceX for Super Heavy / Starship flights by the end of the month.

NASA Update

Lucy Lock Problem

As I reported in my previous Space Sunday update, NASA has launched its Lucy mission to chart a total of 8 asteroids, seven of them in the Trojan clouds that orbit the Sun both in advance of, and behind Jupiter.

Following that update, NASA reported the vehicle had suffered a slight problem: while both of its 7-metre circular solar arrays successfully deployed following separation from its launch vehicle’s upper stage, one has failed to lock into its deployed position.

The Lucy spacecraft (silver, left), with one of its 7 metre diameter solar arrays unfurled during ground testing. Credit: NASA

While the arrays are generating power and the issue is not current mission-critical, Lucy has been order to enter a “safe” mode while the situation is evaluated. This means the deployment and powering of the vehicle’s science platform has been delayed, the hope being a further attempt can be made to get the recalcitrant array to properly lock into position during the upcoming week.

Artemis 1 Fully Stacked, Launch Window Set

On October 21st, NASA engineers completed the stacking and integration of an Orion capsule onto the first flight capable Space Launch System (SLS) rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.

The uncrewed Orion and its launcher are due to become the Artemis 1 mission when launched, marking the first time SLS has been launched whilst sending the Orion vehicle (the second flight for the vehicle type)  on an extended trip around the Moon and back to further test its systems as the first of three flights that will culminate in the first human landing on the Moon since 1972.

The Orion capsule (under the protective shroud of its launch escape system) and its service module bearing the European Space Agency (responsible for supply the service vehicles) is mated to, and integrated with, the upper stage of the first SLS rocket. Credit: NASA

NASA had hoped the mission could be completed before the end of 2021, but assorted delays with the SLS vehicle topped off by restricted working requirements as a result of SAR-CoV-2 in 2020, meant a launch in 2020 could not be realistically be achieved, even though the agency clung to it. However, following the stacking of the 98-metre tall rocket and payload, it was confirmed that Artemis 1 launch will now take place some time between February 12th and February 27th, 2022, with the primary date to be confirmed following further testing of the stack, including a roll-out to the launch pad and a full “wet” dress rehearsal.

NASA Must Select Second HLS

The Senate Appropriations Committee has issued a draft appropriation bill for NASA’s 2022 fiscal year, awarding the agency with US $24.83 billion – a little more than NASA requested, whilst less than the US $25.04 billion the House bill contains. However, it marks a hotting-up of a war of words between government and agency.

In April, NASA award a single contract for the development of its Human Landing System (HLS) for ferrying crews between lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface to SpaceX. At the time, the agency cited budget limitations forced on them by Congress as a reason why it couldn’t issue a second contract, as originally indicated.

The original three contenders for NASA’s HLS – Dynetics, SpaceX and Blu Origin’s “National” team. With SpaceX currently contracted, NASA may be forced to award a second vehicle development contract. Credit: the respective companies / teams

However, in its budget summation, the Senate committee point out that while the agency indicated it would require $4.4 billion for HLS development in 2022, it only requested US $1.95 from Congress (hoping to gain a further US $5 billion from the multi-trillion Reconciliation bill). So, with the 2022 draft budget, the committee is increasing HLS funding US $100 million, with a stipulation that the agency must award a second HLS contract – and provide Congress with a detailed plan of HLS development between 2022-2026 no more than 30 days after the bill is enacted.

This is  liable to music to Blue Origin’s ears. As one of the competing bidders for a HLS contract, they are currently seeking a judicial review of NASA’s decision to grant SpaceX the current contract in a further attempt to force the agency to fund their Blue Moon system (itself perhaps as questionable in terms of practicality as the SpaceX Starship HLS), so the committee’s statement might be seen as a means by which they can persuade a judge to find in their favour – assuming the case continues forward.

Space Adventure Drop SpaceX Flight

Space Adventures, the private company offering space tourism flights, has dropped plans to fly four fare-paying passengers on a high-altitude Crew Dragon flight – but has not ruled out revisiting the mission concept in the future.

Yusaku Maezawa, due to fly with Space Adventures on a Soyuz vehicle to the ISS in December 2021, and theoretically on a SpaceX Starship flight around the Moon in 2023. Credit: Forbes

The company signed an agreement with SpaceX in February to utilise a Crew Dragon vehicle on a 5-day trip around Earth to take place some time between late 2021 and mid-2022; but since then, few updates on the flight have been forthcoming. In the interim, the Inspiration4 private flight has taken place, achieving many of the goals that had been outlined for the Space Adventures flight. It is not clear if this influenced the Space Adventures decision or other factors played a role; however, the company has confirmed the option to use a Crew Dragon vehicle has now expired, but they may look at the idea again in the future.

Space Adventures made its name flying a series of private astronauts to the ISS between 2001-2009, taking advantage of open seats that were available on Soyuz missions during the shuttle era; an option that vanished after the shuttle was retired. However, the company announced in May 2021that it had acquired a dedicated Soyuz flight to the International Space Station. The Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft will launch on December 8th carrying Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant, Yozo Hirano, along with professional astronaut Alexander Misurkin. The spacecraft will spend 12 days at the station before returning to Earth.

Maezawa is also planning and funding a  flight around the Moon aboard a SpaceX Starship vehicle. Called Dear Moon, the flight would carry Maezawa and a number of artist passengers and “inspire the artists in their creation of new art, which will be presented some time after their return to Earth, he hopes this project will help promote peace across the world.” Currently that flight is targeting a 2023 launch date, but will likely slip, assuming it does in fact go ahead.

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