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).

Continue reading “Space Sunday: rovers, rockets and telescopes”

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.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: balloons to space, Mars movies and alien water clouds”

Space Sunday: selfies, missions, budgets and rockets

Zhurong and its lander. Credit: CNSA

You would be forgiven for thinking the banner image for this update is an artist’s impression of China’s Zhurong rover and its lander on Mars. But you’d be wrong – the image really was taken on Mars.

It is part of a batch of images the China National Space Administration (CNSA) have released charting the recent activities of their rover on the Red planet, and they are as remarkable as anything seen with the US rover vehicles, with others showing panoramic views around the rover and shots of its lander vehicle.

The Zhurong lander, part of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission., as seen from the rover vehicle at a distance of some 6 metres. Credit: CNSA

Captured on June 8th, the image of rover and lander was taken by a remote camera originally stowed in Zhurong’s belly, and which had been safely deposited on the surface of Mars some 10 metres from the lander, allowing mission control to remote capture the unique sight of a rover and its lander side-by-side.

Zhurong has now completed the first third of its initial 90-day mission on Mars, and is well into its survey of its surroundings within Utopia Planitia. In addition to the high-resolution cameras, used to produce these images, the rover is fitted with a subsurface radar instrument, a multi-spectral camera and surface composition detector, a magnetic field detector and a weather monitor.

A 360 panorama of the Zhurong landing site, captured by the Chinese rover prior to is descent from the back of its lander. Credit; CNSA

Ahead of the images released by CNSA, NASA released their own image of the Chinese rover and lander as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter  from an altitude of around 400 km.

Taken on June 6th, three weeks after Zhurong touched-down, the image clearly shows green-tinted lander (a result of the image processing, not the actual colour of the lander) sitting between two areas of surface material discoloured by the thrust of the lander’s outward-angled descent and landing motors. Zhurong itself can be seen a short way south of the lander, within the eastern arc of discolouration.

Captured by the HiRISE imager on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 6th, this image shows the Zhurong lander surrounded by surface material discoloured by the lander’s rocket motors, with the rover sitting just to the south. Credit: NASA/JPL

And turning to NASA’s surface mission on Mars (specifically Mars 2020): on June 8th, the Ingenuity helicopter completed a 7th flight, this one error-free.

Lifting off at around 12:34 local mean solar time (roughly 15:54 UTC on Earth) proceeded south during the 63-second flight, covering a distance of around 106 metres before touching down at a new location.

Ingenuity captured this image of its shadow passing over the surface of Mars on June 8th, 2021 during its 7th flight. Credit: NASA/JPL

In difference to the 6th flight on May 22nd, which saw the helicopter encounter some anomalies (see: Space Sunday: Martian Clouds, Lunar missions and a Space Station), the seventh flight was completed with incident, once again raising confidence that the helicopter will be able to continue flying several more times.

Overlaid onto an image be NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are the routes for the first and second science sorties to be made by Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now regarded as fully commissioned, Perseverance has put its duties as caretaker-watcher for Ingenuity largely behind it, as is now driving south and away its landing zone on its way to study a 4 square kilometre of crater floor, where it will examine two very different geological units and collect samples for analysis and for storage and possible return to Earth as part of a future mission.

“Crater Floor Fractured Rough” is a region of ancient bedrock, whilst “Séítah” (Navajo for “amidst the sand”) presents a mix of bedrock overlaid with more recent ridges and also sand dunes. The rover will perform a gentle loop through these areas, visiting “Crater Floor Fractured Rough” first then travelling through the ridgelands and then back up through “Séítah S” and Séítah N”, before heading for its next target, an area dubbed “Three Fours”.

ESA Looks to Venus and the Outer Planets

The European Space Agency has announced its goals for the next several decades in terms of robotic exploration of the solar system and cosmic science.

Announce on June 10th, the EnVision mission will carry a suite of spectrometers, sounders and a radar to study the interior, surface and atmosphere of Venus. The target launch period is May 2032, with the vehicle arriving in orbit around Venus in August 2033, where it will use the planet’s upper atmosphere to aerobrake into its final science orbit over a 3-year period, before commencing its four-year primary mission. It  is expected to cost around 500 million Euros.

ESA plans to further extend our knowledge and understanding of Venus with the EnVision mission, due to launch in 2032. Credit: ESA

While there has been no coordination between NASA and ESA in terms of mission selection, EnVision’s science mission is highly complementary to the two NASA missions – VERITAS and DAVINCI+ – also recently announced, covering aspects of Venus science they do not. Further, ESA will be flying science packages on VERITAS, and NASA will be providing the synthetic aperture radar for EnVision.

EnVision is the fifth M-class mission ESA has selected as part of the Cosmic Vision program. The first, Solar Orbiter, was launched in February 2020, and three others are in development: Euclid, a mission to map dark matter and dark energy to launch in 2022; Plato, an exoplanet search mission launching in 2026; and Ariel, an exoplanet characterisation mission launching in 2029.

In addition To EnVision, ESA intends to spend the next several decades developing  missions to follow after the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, that will help assess the habitability of the icy moons in the outer solar system and seek any biosignatures they may have. At the same time ESA intends to support further science endeavours aimed at increasing our understanding of our own galaxy and the likely state and development of the early universe.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: selfies, missions, budgets and rockets”

Space Sunday: Martian clouds, lunar missions and a space station

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds during the twilight period on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and colour corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. The clouds are drifting over “Mont Mercou,” a cliff face that Curiosity has been studying on “Mount Sharp”. Credit: NASA/JPL

Clouds are rare on Mars, but they can form, being typically found at the planet’s equator in the coldest time of year, when Mars is the farthest from the Sun in its oval-shaped orbit. However, in 2019 – a year ago in Martian terms – the Mars Science Laboratory team managing NASA’s Curiosity rover in Gale Crater noticed the clouds there forming earlier than expected.

With the onset of winter in the region earlier in 2021, the MSL team wanted to be ready in case the same thing happened, training the rovers cameras on the sky around “Mount Sharp” to catch any evening cloud formations that might appear as the tenuous atmosphere cooled towards night-time temperatures.

Clouds moving over Mount Sharp, as captured by Curiosity on March 19th, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

What resulted are images of wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting Sun, some of them shimmering with colour. Visible through both the black-and-white lenses of the rover’s navigation cameras and the high-resolution lenses of the Mastcam system, the pictures captured by Curiosity might easily be mistaken for high-altitude clouds here on Earth.

And high altitude is precisely the term to use for this clouds. Most clouds on Mars largely comprise water vapour and water ice. They tend to occur some 60 km above the planet, although they can occur much lower – the massive shield volcano of Olympus Mons, for example, has oft been images with cloud formations around its  flanks, the product of differing atmospheric temperature regimes on the slopes.

However, the clouds seen by Curiosity are believed to be far higher than 60 km in the Martian atmosphere, and are thought to be largely composed of frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice). They occur during the twilight hours – although the mechanism that gives rise to them is not fully understood; but they are thin enough for sunlight to pass through them, catching the ice crystals and causing them to shimmer for a time before the Sun drops below their altitude, causing them to darken. This effect gives them their name: noctilucent  (“night shining”) clouds.

These clouds are best seen in the black and white images captured by the rover’s Navcams, as shown here. However, there is a second form of clouds best seen via Curiosity’s Mastcam colour images. These are iridescent, or “mother of pearl” clouds, rich in pastel colours.

Mother of Pearl clouds spotted by Curiosity in March 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

They are the result of the cloud particles all being nearly identical in size, something that tends to happen just after the clouds have formed and have grown at the same rate. The colours are so clear, were you able to stand on Mars and look at the clouds, you’d see the shades with your naked eye, and they are another part of the beauty of Mars.

Ingenuity Hiccups During Sixth Flight

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity encountered some trouble on its sixth flight – the first flight of its extended mission  – on May 22nd.

The flight should have seen the helicopter climb to a height of 10 metres, then fly some 150 metres south-west of its starting point to reach a point of interest where it would travel south for 15 metres, imaging the terrain around and below it for study by scientists on Earth, before making a return to a point close to where it lifted-off.

This image was taken from the height of 10 metres by NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its sixth flight on May 22, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

The flight was designed to be the first specifically targeted at testing the helicopter’s ability to be used in support of ground operations on Mars, offering the mission team the chance to determine if the area images might be worth a future foray by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

However, 54 seconds into the flight, Ingenuity suffered a glitch that interrupted the flow of images from its navigation camera to its onboard computer. This meant that each time the navigation algorithm performed a correction based on a navigation image, it was operating on the basis of incorrect information about when the image was taken, leading to incorrect assumptions about where it was and what it should be doing.

This lead to Ingenuity pitching and rolling more than 20 degrees at some points during the flight as it struggled to return to its landing zone, post-flight telemetry revealed the helicopter experienced some significant power consumption spikes. However, it maintained its flight and  executed a safe landing just 5 metres from the intended touch-down point.

In a very real sense, Ingenuity muscled through the situation, and while the flight uncovered a timing vulnerability that will now have to be addressed, it also confirmed the robustness of the system in multiple ways. While we did not intentionally plan such a stressful flight, NASA now has flight data probing the outer reaches of the helicopter’s performance envelope That data will be carefully analysed in the time ahead, expanding our reservoir of knowledge about flying helicopters on Mars.

Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot.

Making the Moon a Busy Place

It’s starting to look like the Moon is going to be a terribly busy place. NASA’s Artemis programme is gathering pace in several areas – despite a degree of in-fighting among the principal US contractors – Russia and China have signed an accord that is liable to see them operating in the lunar south pole regions alongside the US-led mission (although the two will remain separate mission entities), whilst Canada and Japan have announced missions to the Moon as a part of the overall Artemis framework, and NASA is seeking ideas from lunar rover vehicles.

The in-fighting revolves around NASA’s April announcement that SpaceX will be granted a sole contract to develop the HLS – Human Landing System – the vehicle that will place humans on the surface of the Moon and return them to orbit. It was a contentious decision; the US agency had previously indicated that two contracts for HLS would be granted, with three players involved: a team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, a team led by Dynetics, and the late-comer to the party, SpaceX.

The three proposals for NASA’s Human Landing System vehicles that had been under consideration for the Artemis programme. Left: the Dynetics lander / ascent vehicle; centre: the modified SpaceX Starship NASA has opted for; right: the National Team’s descent / ascent modules. Credit: NASA

There were several leading reasons for the decision – including the matter of cost. However, both Dynetics (potentially with the most flexible approach to HLS) and Blue Origin raised objections with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which ordered NASA to cease any financial support to SpaceX (worth a total of US $2.9 billion) to the SpaceX effort until it has completed an investigation.

The US Senate has also weighed-in on the subject, with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, adding an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act which forms the backbone for financing the Artemis programme, requiring NASA put a further US $10 billion into HLS – whilst Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) went the other way by calling for the cancellation of the entire HLS programme, wrongly characterising it as the “Bezos Bailout”, and so doing what he does best; creating further division and confusion.

As it is, the GAO will release its findings on the matter in August, and while it is hard to ascertain the impact of the delay, it would likely further diminish NASA’s chances of achieving the original goal of a return to the Moon by the end of 2024.

NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope has been targeted for continued financial support by the Biden administration, potentially ending ill-conceived attempts by the previous administration to axe the project.  Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre / CI Lab

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Martian clouds, lunar missions and a space station”

Space Sunday: China, Mars and the Drake Equation revisited

A colour close-up captured by China’s Zhurong rover via its high-resolution cameras as they look over the rear deck, showing the main communications relay and one of the unfolded solar arrays. This image was captured before the rover deployed from its lander. Credit: CNSA

China’s Zhurong rover has commenced operations on the surface of Mars. The rover, which is slightly larger and heavier than NASA’s MER rovers Spirit and Curiosity, arrived on the surface of the planet on May 16th atop its lander vehicle (see: Space Sunday: China on Mars, JWST and a space tourist).

Since that time, the rover has been put through its first battery charging cycle after unfolding its solar panels, and then entered an initial telemetry-based check-out and commissioning phase that saw some of its core systems powered-up in readiness to commence operations, with similar checks being carried out on the lander.

An infographic on China’s Zhurong rover via AFP, with original material via CNSA and Chinese state media

This meant that it was not until May 19th that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) released the first images taken by the rover’s camera systems.

The first images to be released were those captured by Zhurong’s hazard avoidance cameras, which – and like their American counterparts – operate primarily in black and white. In particular, these images showed that the lander vehicle had successfully deployed the ramp Zhurong needed to descend onto the planet’s surface from the back of the lander.

The black-and-white images were followed by colour pictures captured by both the rover’s hazcam system and its high-resolution imaging system which is, again like US designs (and the upcoming EuroMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, mounted on a mast located on the rover’s forward section and capable of taken images of all of the rover’s surroundings.

China’s Zhurong (l) and America’s Perseverance (r) in a comparison image by CNSA

China has been fairly close-lipped about the lander and rover – although the entire Tiawen-1 mission is seen as an “international” mission by Chinese authorities -,  only releasing images via social media, etc., after the fact, with little or no fanfare beforehand. This meant it was Twitter snoops who first spotted the rover had actually deployed from this lander vehicle some time in the early hours of Saturday, May 22nd, UTC.

Andrew Jones was one of the first to spot CNSA images that showed the rover had rolled off the lander. However, CNSA quickly followed-up with more images captured by the rover, some of which were colour, and others were put together to form a “video” of the deployment process.

Andrew Jones was one of the first to spot China had announced Zhurong had driven off of its lander.

Now it is on the surface of Mars, Zhurong is expected to operate for a primary mission period of 90 sols (93 days) – which is likely to be extended if the rover completes that mission successfully. It will explore the area around its lander, using both it and the Tianwen-1 orbiter as communications relays, while carrying out research into the Martian weather and climate, and surface and sub-surface conditions.

The return of the first images from the rover sparked an appeal to the US Congress from NASA’s new Administrator, Bill Nelsen, who asked for a boost to the agency’s funding so that it might better manage deep space research and the planned return to the Moon in the face of the growing competition from China.

A colour picture from Zhurong’s hazcams as it roles down the ramp from the lander on May 22nd. Credit: CNSA

It has not all been smiles and roses for China, however. As  I previously reported, the country can in for international criticism for failing to handle the uncontrolled return to Earth of the 23-tonne core stage of the long March 5B core stage used to lift the Tianhe primary module of the country’s new Tiangong space station. Following up from that mission, China had planned to launch its first mission to Tianhe on May 19th.

This was to be the Tianzhou-2 automated resupply vehicle. A fully automated, 13-tonne vehicle, Tianzhou-2 was supposed to make an automatic rendezvous  and docking with Tinahe in advanced of the first crewed mission to the fledgling space station, which is due to occur in June, 2021; however, the launch was scrubbed as a result of “technical issues”. Initially re-scheduled for lift-off on Thursday, May 20th, the launch was again postponed, and has now been pushed back until Friday, May 29th.

A Chinese Long March 7 rocket carrying the Tianzhou-2 cargo ship rolls out to a launch pad at the country’s Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on Hainan Island. Credit: CASC.

When Tianzhou-2 does eventually lift-off atop its Long March 7 booster, it will be carrying 6.5 tonnes of equipment and supplies for the first crew to visit Tianhe, and consumables for the station itself, and will remain docked through the 3-month period of the Shenzhou-12 crewed mission. During the crew’s visit, Tianzhou-2  will perform a set of automated undocking, free flight and rendezvous / docking manoeuvres as rehearsals in readiness for when the station’s science modules are launched.

Tianzhou-2 will depart Tianhe ahead of the Shenzhua-12 crew. The station will then be visited by a further automated res-supply vehicle and the Shenzhou-13 crew, over late 2021 / early 2022, for the Chinese are calling the “Critical Technology Validation Phase” of the station’s commissioning, verifying it is ready for the launch of the two science modules. These will take place in 2022, paving the way for full operations to commence from 2023.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: China, Mars and the Drake Equation revisited”

Space Sunday: China on Mars, JWST and a space tourist

An artist’s impression of the Zhurong rover unfolding its solar arrays shortly after its lander touched down on Mars. Credit: New China TV

On Saturday, May 16th, 2021, China became only the second nation in the world to successfully land a rover on the surface of Mars.

The 240-kg Zhurong rover touched down on the dunes of southern Utopia Planitia a few minutes after midnight, UTC (19:00 US Eastern on Friday, May 15th), some nine minutes after the lander and rover combination entered the Martian atmosphere.

The two form a part of the Tianwen-1 (Heavenly Questions) mission, operating alongside the mission’s titular orbiter, which arrived in Mars orbit in February this year. For the three months since that event, the orbiter has, as part of its overall mission, been surveying Utopia Planitia – a location first visited in the 1970s by NASA’s Viking 2 mission – in order for mission managers to confirm the best touch-down point for the lander / rover combination.

Following their separation from the Tianwen-1 orbiter, the lander and rover entered the Martian atmosphere protected by a heat shield and aeroshell, to commence an Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) very similar in nature to US Mars surface missions.

The CNSA mission control during the Zhurong lander. Credit New China TV

While China has successfully landed missions on the Moon – Chang’e 5 with its surface rover is still operating – a landing on Mars is far more complex in nature, simply because of the presence of an atmosphere that, while tenuous, nevertheless interacts with a vehicle to increase the potential for things going wrong.

However, Zhurong (named for a god of fire and of the south), completed the first part of its descent successfully, using the frictional heat generated be entry into the atmosphere to slow itself to a point where a supersonic parachute could be deployed by the aerodynamic backshell, which in turn triggered the jettisoning of the heat shield, exposing the lander / rover.

Approaching the ground, Zhurong deployed its landing legs whilst still attached to the aeroshell, prior dropping clear. once free, the lander’s rocket motor fired moving it clear of both the aeroshell and the parachute. As well as continuing to slow the craft in its descent, the rocket motor and the lander’s reaction control system worked with a downward-looking radar scan for potentially harmful surface obstacles, the motors then steering the craft away from them. The main motor then continued firing as the vehicle descended over its landing site, cutting out a couple of metres above the ground to let the lander make a soft, unpowered touchdown.

Carried out entirely autonomously, the landing appears to have been a complete success, although China has yet to confirm the precise time of touch-down or the overall status of the lander and rover. Following landing, the rover deployed its solar panels in order to commence charging its systems, while the mission control team work to carry out initial checks of the rover and prep its camera systems to take a complete a panoramic image of the landing area – although at the time of writing, images from the lander / rover had yet to be confirmed as being received.

Zhurong is roughly the size of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers  and like them, is solar-powered, although it is around 55 kg heaver. It carries a payload of six science instruments, including a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument for analysing surface elements and minerals, panoramic and multispectral imagers, a climate station, magnetometer and a ground-penetrating radar.

With an initial primary mission period of 90 sols (around 93 terrestrial days), the mission aims to return data on potential water-ice deposits, weather, topography and geology, complementing science carried out by missions from other space agencies. Given the nature of Mars missions and China’s record on the Moon with Chang’e 5, should the rover survive the initial primary mission period, its work on Mars will likely be extended.

James Webb Tests Mirror a Final Time, but Launch likely to be Delayed

The James Web Space Telescope (JWST) unfolded its massive mirror for the final time whilst on Earth in a last test before it undergoes preparations for launch.

The 6.5 metre diameter mirror is a complex mechanism made up of 18 hexagonal sections, 12 of which form the main part of the mirror and the remaining six form two fold-out elements on either side. For launch, the mirror is folded down against the main sun shield that will protect it from the heat and light of the Sun once it is in space., and the two flanking sections folded back against it.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

The May 11th test saw the entire telescope supported by a special crane to simulate zero gravity, allowing engineers to run the software that will control the mirror’s unfurling using 132 individual actuators. These actuators raise the mirror, then unfold the side panels before gently bending or flexing the 18 individual mirror segments to align and focus them on the telescope’s secondary mirror that directs the light caught by the primary into the instrument aperture at the centre of the primary.

Following the deployment test, the mirror was returned to its folded and stowed position. Later this year, the 6.5 tonne 20 x 14 metre telescope will be stowed in a climate controlled shipping container for a 2-week trip to the European rocket facility at Kourou in French Guiana. Once there, it will be integrated into the payload fairings of a European  Ariane 5 rocket ready for a launch currently planned for the end of October.

That is, if the Ariane 5 cleared for launch.

Normally one of the most reliable launch vehicles on the market, the rocket has been grounded after the two last launches suffered issues with the payload fairing separation process – although the payloads from both flights were successfully place in orbit. Investigations into the issues are still in progress, but Arianespace has two launch commitments ahead of JWST, and so it is likely at the telescope’s launch will be delayed – the last in a long series of delays for JWST, all of which will hopefully mean that once it has been launched, the telescope will go on to be highly successful, operating in a halo orbit around the Lagrange L2 position on the opposite side of Earth compared to the Sun, and some 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: China on Mars, JWST and a space tourist”