Space Sunday: ExoMars, a magic movie and a “forbidden planet”

A model of the ExoMars rover, Rosalind Franklin, in the ROCC Mars Yard. Credit: ESA

When it comes to Mars rover missions, eyes tend to be firmly on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity vehicle and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

However, if all goes according to plan, come 2021, Curosity and Mars 2020 will have a smaller European cousin trundling around Mars with them, thanks to the arrival of ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin. While the rover isn’t due to be launched for just over 12 months, the European Space Agency (ESA) take two further steps towards the mission in June 2019.

At the start of the month, ESA inaugurated the Rover Operations Control Centre (ROCC) in Turin, Italy. Designed to be the hub that orchestrates all operational elements supporting Rosalind Franklin once it has been delivered to the surface of Mars by its Russian-built landing platform, ROCC is one of the most advanced mission operations centres in the world.

This is the crucial place on Earth from where we will listen to the rover’s instruments, see what she sees and send commands to direct the search for evidence of life on and under the surface.

– Jan Wörner, ESA’s Director General

As well as providing communications with the rover, data processing, and science and engineering support, the ROCC boasts one of the largest “Mars Yard” sandboxes currently available. Filled with 140 tonnes of Martian analogue soil, it offer a range of simulated terrains similar to those the rover might encounter within its proposed landing site. Such simulation capabilities will allow Earth-based teams to carry out a wide range of activities  using the rover’s Earth-bound twin before committing to particular courses of action, or to help assist the rover should it get into difficulties on Mars.

Use of such environments is not new; NASA uses an assortment of indoor and outdoor Mars Yards to help support their static and rover surface operations on Mars. However, the ROCC Mars Yard is somewhat unique in its capabilities.

For example, as ExoMars has a drilling system designed to reach up to 2 metres (6 ft) below the Martian surface, the ROCC Mars Yard includes a “well” that allows rover operators to exercise the full sequence of collecting Martian samples from well below the Martian surface. This well can be filled with different types / densities of material, so if the Rosalind Franklin gets into difficulties in operating its drill, engineers can attempt to replicate the exact conditions and work out how best to resolve problems.

The “well” in the ROCC Mars Yard, as seen from underneath, allowing the ExoMars rover mission team rehearse the full range of sample gathering operations. Credit: ESA

And while it is not part of the main Mars Yard, ROCC rover operations will be assisted by a second simulation centre in Zurich, Switzerland. This 64-metre square platform can be filled with 20 tonnes of simulated Martian surface materials and inclined up to 30-degrees. Engineers can then use another rover analogue to see how the rover might – or might not – be able to negotiate slopes.

For example, what might happen if the Rosalind Franklin tries to ascend / descend a slope covered in loose material? What are the risks of soil slippage that might result in a loss of the rover’s ability to steer itself? What are the risks of the surface material shifting sufficiently enough that the rover might topple over? What’s the best way to tackle the incline? The test rig in Zurich is intended to answer questions like these ahead of committing the Mars rover to a course of action. In fact, it has already played a crucial role in helping to develop the rover’s unique wheels.

Both the Mars Yard and the Zurich facility will be used throughout the rover’s surface mission on Mars, right from the initial deployment of the rover from its Russian landing platform (called Kazachok, meaning “little Cossack”).

With the Mars yard next to mission control, operators can gain experience working with autonomous navigation and see the whole picture when it comes to operating a rover on Mars. Besides training and operations, this fit-for-purpose centre is ideal for trouble shooting.

– Luc Joudrier, ExoMars Rover Operations Manager

The Mars Yard can also simulate the normal daytime lighting conditions on Mars. Credit: ESA

June will see the new centre commence a series of full-scale simulations designed to help staff familiarise themselves the centre’s capabilities before commencing full-scale rehearsals for  the rover’s arrival on Mars in March 2021.

Meanwhile, in the UK – which carries responsibility for assembling the rover – Rosalind Franklin is coming together. The drill and a key set of scientific instruments—the Analytical Laboratory Drawer—have both been declared fit for Mars and integrated into the rover’s body. Next up is the rover’s eyes – the panoramic camera systems. Once integration in the UK has been completed, the rover will be transported to Toulouse, France, where it will be put through a range of tests to simulate its time in space en route to Mars and the conditions its systems will be exposed to on the surface of Mars.

The targeted landing site for Rosalind Franklin is Oxia Planum, a region that preserves a rich record of geological history from the planet’s wetter past. With an elevation more than 3000 m below the Martian mean, it contains one of the largest exposures of clay-bearing rocks that are around 3.9 billion years old. The site sits in an area of valley systems with the exposed rocks exhibiting different compositions, indicating a variety of deposition and wetting environments, marking it as an ideal candidate for the rover to achieve its mission goals.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: ExoMars, a magic movie and a “forbidden planet””

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Space Sunday: Moon, Mars, and abort systems

Lockheed Martin: trying to assist NASA in putting humans back on the Moon in 2024. Credit: Lockheed Martin

On Tuesday, March 26th, Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to accelerate plans to send humans back to the Moon, moving the planned first landing from 2028 to 2024. That presents an incredibly short time frame for the US space agency, given all that needs to be done.

Rather than going to the Moon directly – as with Apollo in the 1960 through 1972  – NASA’s plans for a return to the Moon require the establishment of an orbital facility around the Moon – the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway – plus the development of the vehicle to get to and from it (the Orion MPCV), and a vehicle to get from it to the surface of the Moon and back. This, coupled with trying to develop a completely new and complex launch vehicle – the Space Launch System – capable of putting all this hardware where it needs to be, means NASA has a huge mountain to climb to achieve their goal and maintain things like operating the International Space Station – and will need a lot of funding to achieve it, something which doesn’t as yet seem to be forthcoming.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is a complex idea, potentially equalling the ISS in requirements – and development / construction time frame, making it improbable that it would be ready in full for 2024 lunar landing. Credit: NASA

As it is, the SLS, as recently noted in these pages, has yet to fly, and has seen a number of programmatic changes in order to try to meet a time frame that was already tight before Pence give his March directive. Following the announcement of the shift to a 2024 landing, NASA actually wavered over using it, mulling the idea of using a commercial launch system instead (the Delta IV Heavy is capable of launching the Orion, for example) before deciding they would push to use SLS. However, in doing to, the agency then suggested they could cut the “green run” test of the SLS first stage, potentially shaving 6 months from the development / flight schedule for the first launch.

Viewed as a crucial pre-flight test, the “green run” would see the completed first stage shipped from the Michoud Assembly Facility, Louisiana, to the Stennis Space Centre, Mississippi, where its four RS-25 engines would be fired for eight minutes, simulating the actual flight of the vehicle prior to upper stage separation. It has been regarded as a crucial test, intended expose the untried first stage to the full force of a simulated launch to gather vital data on the stage performance and to see how the entire assembly stands up the rigours of launch and what might need to be re-worked, etc. The suggestion was that NASA skip it in favour of individual tests of the four RS-25 motors – potentially shaving 6 months off the SLS development schedule.

But on April 25th, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) met to discuss this idea and strongly advised NASA not to avoid the “green run”.

There is no other test approach that will gather the critical full-scale integrated propulsion system operational data required to ensure safe operations. Shorter-duration engine firings at the launch pad will not achieve an understanding of the operational margins, and could result in severe consequences. I cannot emphasize more strongly that we advise NASA to retain this test … as NASA evaluates different paths to potentially accelerate the EM-1 flight, it cannot lose sight that the ultimate objective of that flight is to mitigate risk and provide a clear understanding of the risk posture prior to the first crew flight.

– Patricia Sanders, ASAP Chair

The ASAP as recommended NASA doesn’t skip the “green run” integrated test of the SLS core stage – which adds pressure to meeting a 2024 lunar landing time frame. Credit NASA

NASA has yet to formally respond to the recommendation, but it would seem unlikely they’d go against the ASAP. This potentially means that SLS will be unlikely to make its first uncrewed flight – Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in 2020, and the ripples may spread further, affecting the time line for the first crewed test of SLS and Orion, and on onwards towards affecting the 2024 goal.

Another issue is that of how NASA will actually get to and from the Moon’s surface. Originally, the agency planned a “two-step” approach to lunar lander development: issue a procurement notice for the development of a lunar lander ascent vehicle, designed to lift a crew off of the Moon tat the end of their say, and a second notice for the transfer and descent stages of the vehicle – presumably allowing different companies to work on the various elements.

To assist NASA in the 2024 goal, Lockheed Martin has re-vamped its Moon lander into a two-stage vehicle, the upper ascent / command module of which will utilise elements from the Orion MPCV craft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

However, on April 26th, NASA altered the procurement notice to seek proposals for a fully integrated lander vehicle. The idea is to speed-up the lander’s design and development and potentially reduce issues of integration of elements built by different contractors.

Certainly, one company that could benefit from this switch is Lockheed Martin, prime contractors for the Orion vehicle, and potential major supplier of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), the lunar space station seen as a pre-requisite to any crewed landings on the Moon. They first  announced their concept for a fully integrated lunar lander in October 2018, and on April 10th, 2019, the company outlined changes to both their lunar lunar and LOP-G designs in response to the push for s 2024 landing.

The revised Lockheed Martin lunar lander with the ascent / command module mated to the descent / landing stage. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Under their October 2018 plans for a lunar lander, Lockheed Martin proposed building a single, fully reusable vehicle, a 62 tonne (when fully fuelled) behemoth capable of taking 3 or 4 astronauts and a tonne of equipment to / from the lunar surface (by comparison, the Apollo lunar module weighed 16.4 tonnes fully fuelled).

This giant vehicle would support stays of up to 14 or 15 days on the lunar surface, prior to the entire vehicle returning to the LOP-G where the crew would use the Orion to fly back to Earth, while the lander refuelled itself from supplies shipped to the LOP-G and stored there.

However, such a vehicle presupposes the availability of a fully operational LOP-G, and there is simply no way such a facility could be designed, built, launched, assembled in lunar orbit and tested ready for operational use by 2024. This being the case, Lockheed Martin is now proposing a semi-reusable 2-stage lunar lander modelled along the same lines as the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module – although again, much larger.

In the revised design, the new lander would comprise a large descent and landing stage, only carrying sufficient fuel to get the complete vehicle onto the surface of the Moon and carrying various equipment lockers and bins. This would be topped by a combined command / ascent module that will would employ a modified version of the European-built Orion Service Module, complete with main motor and power generation systems, as its lower half. This would serve to propel the module and crew back up to the LOP-G at the end of a surface mission. The command section at the top of the module would include elements from the Orion vehicle for flight control, a dedicate lunar surface command deck and the necessary living space for a crew of around 3 for 14-15 days on the Moon.

Making the lander semi-re-usable means the Lockheed Martin do not need a fully operational LOP-G to support the fully re-usable version of their lander. Instead, a “bare necessities” LOP-G could be placed in orbit around the Moon  – little more than a propulsion / power module and a docking adaptor – in order for lunar missions to commence. These could then proceed whilst the LOP-G is itself built-out to accommodate more advanced missions.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Moon, Mars, and abort systems”

Space Sunday: exoplanets and Mars missions

An artist’s impression of Proxima-b with Proxima Centauri low on the horizon. The double star above and to the right of it is Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: ESO

In 2016, astronomers reported their discovery of a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri (see: Space Sunday: exoplanets, dark matter, rovers and recoveries). Since then, the debate has swung back and forth on the potential of it being suitable for life.

While the planet – called Proxima-b – lies within it’s parent star’s habitable zone, there are, as I’ve previously reported, some significant barriers to it being a potential cradle for life. In particular, red dwarf stars are volatile little beasts (Proxima Centauri is just 1.5 times bigger than Jupiter), with their internal activity convective in nature. This tends to give rise to massive stellar flares that can bathe planets orbiting them in high levels of biologically harmful radiation. In addition, many planets discovered orbiting red dwarfs are so close to their parent as to be tidally locked – always keeping the same face towards their sun. This means they are liable to extremely hostile conditions: high temperatures on one side, freezing cold on the other, with the region around the terminator liable to violent weather – assuming they have an atmosphere; over longer periods of time, the onslaught of X-ray radiation and charged particle fluxes from their parent star can literally strip away any atmosphere, unless a planet can replenish it fast enough.

This latter point is the conclusion reached by a team of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland in reference to Proxima Centauri b in 2017 (see: Space Sunday: Curiosity’s 5th, Proxima b and WASP-121b), although they were working largely from computer modelling.

The Earth-sized Proxima-B and its parent star

However, all that said, if Proxima-b does still have an atmosphere, then a new study conducted by researchers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) suggests life might have got started on Proxima-b, and might even still exist there.

In essence, the team from CSI examined the levels of surface UV flux that planets orbiting M-type (red dwarf) stars like Proxima-b would experience and compared that to conditions on primordial Earth. At that time, some 4 billion years ago, Earth’s surface was hostile to life as we know it today, thanks to a volcanically toxic atmosphere and the levels of UV radiation reaching the surface from the Sun; however it is believed the it was the period when life first arose on Earth.

In particular, the team modelled a range of possible surface UV environments and atmospheric compositions of four nearby “potentially habitable” exoplanets: Proxima-b, TRAPPIST-1e, Ross-128b and LHS-1140b. These models showed that as atmospheres become thinner and ozone levels decrease, more high-energy UV radiation is able to reach the ground – which was to be expected. But when they compared the models to those developed for Earth as it was 4 billion years ago, things got interesting: the exoplanet models suggest that the UV levels they experience are all lower than the Earth experienced in its youth, when the first (pre-oxygen) life is believed to have existed – suggesting that despite their harsh conditions, life might have gained a toehold on them.

With Proxima-b this is particularly interesting, as it is liable to be somewhat older than the Earth, possibly by as much as 200 million years. This means there is a possibility that if simple life arose there early enough after the planet’s formation, it might well have had enough time to adapt to the development environment as atmospheric conditions changed, and thus survived through to current times.

The news from Proxima Centauri doesn’t end there. A team of researchers from the University of Crete and the Observatory of Turin has found possible evidence of a second planet orbiting the star.

Proxima Centauri b was identified using two instruments operated by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, which recorded “wobbles” in Proxima Centauri’s spin as a result of planetary gravitational influences. One of those instruments, called HARPS, has been the focal point for the team claiming there’s evidence for a second planet orbiting the star. By studying data gathered over the last 17 years, they believe they have found sufficient evidence to suggest a second planet could be affecting the star’s spin.

The team estimate that this second planet could have a mass approximately six times that of Earth, putting it in the category of a super-Earth / mini Neptune class of planet in terms of potential size, and that it likely orbits its parent at a distance of approximately 1.5 AU (1.5 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun) once every 5 terrestrial years. . At such a distance, it’s likely that the surface temperatures of the planet is likely to be around -230oC.

Confirmation that the new planet does actually exists is now required – hence the research time offering their report for further peer review.

Curiosity Samples Clay on Mars

Curiosity has been on the road for nearly seven years. Finally drilling at the clay-bearing unit is a major milestone in our journey up Mount Sharp.

– Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson

With these words, issued in a press release on April 11th, the Mars Science Laboratory team announced a major goal for Curiosity rover had been achieved.

While it may seem are to believe, despite seven years on the surface of Mars, and with multiple drilling samples obtained, gaining a direct sample of clay rock has proven elusive. While the rover has previously sampled clay deposits and the minerals they contain, these have been contained in samples of mudstone the rover has sampled, rather than from an actual layer of clay.

“Aberlady” and the sample drill hole, April 6th, 2019. Credit: NASA/Caltech/MSSS

The primary goal for the mission is to determine whether Mars ever have the right conditions for microbes to live. It’s a question that can be answered by sampling the planet’s soil, air, and rock and carefully analysing it. This goal was actually met in the first several months of the rover’s time on Mars while it was still exploring the crater floor, but the more evidence Curiosity can gather, the clearer our understanding of past conditions in Gale Crater and on Mars become.

In this, clays play an important role. They form in water, a key requirement for life, and can act as repositories for chemical and minerals that might be indicative of conditions suitable for past life. This particular sample of clay came from a rock formation on the side of “Mount Sharp” dubbed Aberlady, which Curiosity drilled on April 6th, 2019.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: exoplanets and Mars missions”

Space Sunday: the little rover that could

MER Opportunity: the modest rover that cast a huge shadow to fit its larger-than-life perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

It is therefore that I am standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude, that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete. For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes.

– Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

These words, spoken on February 13th, 2019, marked the official end of the longest running rover mission thus far to another planet.

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 metres (1,100 yards), the Mars Exploration Rover (REM) Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, it travelled more than 45 km (28 mi) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

Across a decade and half, Opportunity – or “Oppy” to its fans – captivated people’s imaginations around the globe, and while it  became somewhat overshadowed by its much bigger cousin, Curiosity, from 2012 onwards, “Oppy” nevertheless broke the ground for the surface exploration of Mars, together (for a time, at least), with its sibling rover, Spirit.

The MER rovers, Spirit and Opportunity and their instruments

From the outset, the MER programme was a daring one: to place two vehicles on the surface of Mars, capable of self-driving across the surface and carrying out a range of scientific tasks. At the time it was conceived, Mars was known to be a notoriously difficult target to reach: for some reason over one-third of the missions intended to reach the Red Planet failed. Some were lost shortly after launch; others failed whilst en route; other experienced upset or failure on arrival. Indeed this Hence why the MER project had two rovers: if one fell afoul of the Great Galactic Ghoul, the other would survive.

To pave the way for the rovers, NASA undertook the Pathfinder mission in the late 1990s. This comprised a Mars lander complete with a very small-scale (just 65 cm / 2.2ft in length) rover called Sojourner. While both the lander and the rover carried science instruments and carried out worthwhile science, a major element of the mission was to test the entry, descent and landing system the MER mission would use: a completely loopy sounding mix of parachutes and a cocoon of air bags designed to rapidly inflate around a payload just before it reached the surface of Mars and protect it and it bounced its way to a resting position before deflating, the payload automatically righting itself in the process.

The Pathfinder airbag system, very similar to the system used by the MER programme, on test at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, June 1995. Credit: NASA/JPL

In many respects, the Pathfinder mission (the lander from which are later renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honour of the great planetary scientist, humanitarian, global thinker and Mars exploration advocate, Carl Sagan) was the MER’s mission lucky charm.

Not only did the mission prove the landing system, necessary because “conventional” retro-rocket landing systems would have massively increased the complexity and cost of sending large rovers to Mars, both lander and rover operated far beyond their anticipated life spans: the lander for 9 months (compared to an anticipated 85 days) and the rover for 85 days (rather than the anticipated 7 days. Incidentally, it Sojourner was the first Mars mission to employ a form of VR: the “driver” on Earth would wear a set of 3D goggles that visualised the rover’s surroundings digitally, so a path to be mapped using a special “driving” system. The driving commands would be saved and later transmitted to Mars as a batch of commands the rover would then execute).

April 15th, 2003: Opportunity, with solar panel already folded and drive system collapsed, is prepared for enclosure within the petals of its landing system. Credit: NASA/JPL

The MER rovers were launched in June (Spirit) and July (Opportunity) of 2003, and arrived on Mars on January 4th and January 25th, 2004, respectively, just after Europe’s Mars Express mission had arrived in Martian orbit at Christmas, 2003. The landings were fraught with concerns: the UK’s Beagle 2 lander, delivered to Mars by Mars Express, had arrived on the planet on Christmas Day 2003, but all attempts to communicate with it had failed.

Obviously, the EDL systems for both landers worked perfectly. Spirit landed in Gusev crater, originally thought to be a dry lake bed. However, the rover’s findings disproved this, revealing the crater to be largely filled with natural debris. In all, Spirit operated on a mobile basis for almost 5 years and 4 months before it became bogged down in a “sand trap” on May 1st, 2009. When attempts to free it failed, the rover became a static station until it stopped communicating in March 2010. NASA then spent 14 months attempting to re-established contact before declaring Spirit’s, mission was at an end on May 24th, 2011.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the little rover that could”

Space Sunday: Mars, Uranus and Neptune

The ExoMars Rover Rosalind Franklin, 2018. Cedit: EADS Astrium UK

It’s been a mission almost 20 years in the making, but it finally has a vehicle name: the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars rover is now officially called Rosalind Franklin.

In 2001, ESA announced the goal of landing a large rover vehicle on Mars in 2009 as a part of its Aurora programme for the human exploration of the Red Planet. As an optional programme, Aurora allowed ESA member states to determine which elements they would like to support. In 2005, the UK’s EADS Astrium indicated it would undertake the design and construction of the rover, then referred to as ExoMars.

Over the next decade plus, ExoMars as a whole underwent numerous changes in scope and capability. Some of these changes were driven from within ESA. For example, in order to meet initial launch requirements using a Russian rocket, the rover was scaled down to just 180 kg. However, this left it was just 6 kg for the science payload, prompting a move to using a more powerful Ariane launcher, allowing for a larger rover and science payload – but at twice the price of a Russian launch.

Other changes came about through external influences. In 2009, ESA signed an agreement with America’s NASA, which would have seen the a joint ESA / NASA mission, with the US agency taking responsibility for the rover (renamed the Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher, or MAX-C) and ESA producing the lander and an orbiter – the Trace Gas Orbiter. Less than a year later, MAX-C was scrapped in favour (once again) of a large 600 kg European rover.

The ExoMars rover over the years. Top left: 2007 (credit: Jastrow). Bottom left: 2009 (credit: Mike Peel) and 2015 (credit: Cmglee)

Then in 2011 NASA withdrew from the agreement, forcing a further reassessment of the rover and the ExoMars project overall. In 2013, ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos signed an agreement that would see a revised ExoMars mission  – the rover and the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) – flown atop two uprated Proton rockets in 2016 and 2018, with the first launch featuring the TGO, which arrived in Mars orbit in October 2016. The second would be the rover mission, intended for launch in 2018.

The switch back to using a Russian launch vehicle meant the rover had to go through a further redesign in order to shed 290 kg of mass. By 2016, all of this left the ExoMars project breaking through its budget cap of €1 billion. In order to secure the required €1000 million needed to complete the project’s development and launch costs, the launch would have to be pushed back until 2020. It is currently slated for lift-off on July 25th, 2020 and arrive on Mars on March 19th, 2021.

Rosalind Franklin. Credit: Jewish Chronicle Archive / Heritage-Images

The rover’s name has been given in honour of Rosalind Elsie Franklin (July 25th, 1920 – April 16th, 1958), an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. Although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognised posthumously.

Her name was one of 36,000 submissions by citizens from all ESA Member States, following a competition launched by the UK Space Agency in July 2018. It was selected by a panel of experts before being officially announced by UK astronaut Tim Peake on Thursday, February 7th, 2019 at an event in Stevenage UK, where the rover has been built.

Rosalind Franklin is one of science’s most influential women, and her part in the discovery of the structure of DNA was truly ground-breaking. It’s fitting that the robot bearing her name will search for the building blocks of life on Mars, as she did so on Earth through her work on DNA.

– Alice Bunn, international director of the U.K. Space Agency

In a slight tweak on the usual convention – most spacecraft named in honour of a person are referred to by the individual’s last name – the rover is already being referred to simply as “Rosalind” (although in fairness, its prototypes and test units have also been known by first names, such as “Bruno”).

Once on Mars, the rover will be the first of its kind to combine the capability to roam around Mars and to study it at depth. To do this, it is equipped with a drill capable of reaching down two metres (6ft 6in) below the surface, gather samples for analysis using a set of instruments collective called the Pasteur Suite, searching for evidence of past – and perhaps even present – life buried underground, where water is known to be present and where harsh solar radiation cannot penetrate. In addition, the rover has a suite of instruments to study the atmosphere, examine the sub-surface environment with radar to locate areas to drill for samples, identify deposits of water ice, etc. Further, ESA is currently considering including a small “scout” rover, designed to identify areas of soft sand, etc., where Rosalind might get stuck trying to traverse.

Rosalind will be delivered to the surface of Mars by a 1.8 tonne landing platform built by Roscosmos. This will use a combination of parachutes and retro-rockets to achieve a soft landing. The current primary landing site for the rover is Oxia Planum, a large plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars, which contains one of the largest exposures of clay-bearing rocks on the planet which are roughly 3.9 billion years old. These are rich in iron-magnesium, indicating water played a role in their formation. The area comprises numerous valley systems with the exposed rocks exhibiting different compositions, indicating a variety of deposition and wetting environments, making it an ideal subject for exploration.

Hubble Reveals Dynamic Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune

As well as studying deep space, the Hubble Space Telescope routinely keeps its eye on the planets of the solar system. In doing so, it has uncovered a new mysterious dark storm on Neptune and provided a fresh look at a long-lived storm circling around the north polar region on Uranus.

 A Hubble image of Neptune taken in September 2018 showing the latest storm vortex in the northern hemisphere. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and A. Hsu (University of California, Berkeley)

The latest images of Neptune from Hubble show a large, dark storm in the planet’s northern hemisphere. It is fourth and latest mysterious dark vortex captured by Hubble since 1993. Prior to this, two other storms were spotted by Voyager 2 in 1989 as it flew by the remote planet. A study led by University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate student Andrew Hsu estimates that the storms appear every four to six years at different latitudes and disappear after about two years.

The current storm was spotted by Hubble in September 2018, and is estimated to be 10,880 km (6,800 mi) across. It is accompanied by white companion “clouds”, similar to those seen with previous vortices. Similar to the pancake-shaped clouds that appear when air is pushed up over mountains on Earth, these while formations are thought to be the result of the vortices perturbing the lower reaches of the atmosphere and diverting it upward, causing gases to freeze into methane ice crystals. The long, thin cloud to the left of the dark spot is a transient feature that is not part of the storm system.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars, Uranus and Neptune”

Space Sunday: Mars,the Moon and space hotels

It has been some time since my last Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover report, so it’s time to play catch up with Curiosity, and take a look at what is happening with Opportunity.

For the last 16 months, Curiosity been engaged is studying “Vera Rubin Ridge”. Originally seen as a measn for the rover to traverse from one area of interest on “Mount Sharp” to another, the ridge became a point of interest itself when the rover imaged a rock formation that could fill a gap in the science team’s knowledge about the mound’s formation.

At the time the rock formation was noticed, engineers had been in the process of trying to overcome a issue with the rover’s drill that had prevented its use for several months. A potential work-around had been tested on Earth, so investigation of the rock formation offered the opportunity to test the updated drilling approach. Curiosity was therefore ordered to reverse course in the hope the tests would be successful and a sample of the rock could be gathered.

While successful, this was actually complicated – the issue with the drill feed mechanism also meant that the usual means of sorting samples post extraction had to be abandoned in favour of a new approach. However, the initial success meant Curiosity could resume drill-based sample gathering and analysis, marking the start of period of exploration around the ridge area – albeit it one interrupted by the 2018 global dust storm. In December 2018, this work concluded with the rover collecting its 19th overall sample on Mars, at a location on the ridge called “Rock Hall”.

Since then, the rover has been completing its work on the ridge, which included taking a “selfie” on January 15th, comprising 57 individual images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the end of its robotic arm. At the ed of January, Curiosity said farewell to “Vera Rubin Ridge”, resuming its traverse southward towards the “clay bearing unit” it was originally heading to when it stopped at the ridge in September 2017.

The January 2019 “selfie” taken by Curiosity Sol 2291 at the “Rock Hall” drill site, located on “Vera Rubin Ridge”. Note parts of the robot arm have been removed from the completed image due to the fact it would appear in multiple locations in the completed image. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS.

At the same time, the science team for the rover released a paper revealing a new mystery about “Mount Sharp” and showing how instruments aboard the rover were re-purposed to allow it to be made.

As I’ve previously reported, previous studies of “Mount Sharp”- more correctly called Aeolis Mons, the 5 km (3 mi) high mound at the centre of the crater – suggested it was formed over two billions years, the result of repeated flooding of the crater laying down bands of sedimentary deposits, some of which were blown away by wind action, others of which settled. Over the millennia, these layers were sculpted by wind action within the crater, until only the central mound was left.

However, this type of water-induced layering should have resulted in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp being heavily compressed; but measurements of the local gravity environment of the terrain Curiosity has been driving over in its ascent up “Mount Sharp”, indicate the layers of the lower slopes are less dense than thought, meaning it is relatively porous. This indicates they were not buried under successive layers as had been thought, and thus some other process must have given rise to the mound.

The measurements were obtained by re-purposing the accelerometers Curiosity uses as a part of its driving / navigation system. Normally, these are used to determine its location and the direction it is facing with enormous precision. But, through a subtle piece of reprogramming, engineers were able to turn them into a gravimeter, allowing Curiosity to measure local gravity every time it stopped driving, and with massively greater precision than can be achieved from orbit.

An image captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overlaid with part of Curiosity’s path, including the Bagnold dunes in Gale Crater and up the slopes of Mount Sharp via the Murray Formation. Credit: NASA/JPL

Given the results tend to dispel the idea that water action was primarily responsible for filling the crater with sediments subsequently added to and shaped by wind action, it’s been proposed that “Mount Sharp” has been formed almost entirely as a result of Aeolian (wind-driven) sedimentation. This would leave the layers forming the mound a lot less dense in comparison to layers laid down and built up as a result of water action and settling.

However, this doesn’t entirely explain why the mount was formed, and further study is required before it can be said with certainty that wind played the core part in building and sculpting “Mount Sharp”. In the meantime, the re-purposing of Curiosity’s accelerometers is another example of the flexibility found within NASA’s robot explorers, as Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist, noted in response to the new information.

There are still many questions about how Mount Sharp developed, but this paper adds an important piece to the puzzle. I’m thrilled that creative scientists and engineers are still finding innovative ways to make new scientific discoveries with the rover.

– Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist.

New Plan to Contact Opportunity

It is now seven months since communications with NASA’s other operational Mars rover, Opportunity, was lost as a result of the planet girdling dust storm that ran from late May until around the end of July 2018, and which forced the rover to go into a power saving safe mode as there were insufficient sunlight for its solar cells to recharge its batteries.

In late August, ith the skies over Opportunity clearing of dust, NASA initiated an attempt to nudge “Oppy” into trying to resume contact with mission control using what is called the “sweep and beep” method. This involved sending a series of wake up commands throughout the day, then listening for the “beep” signal that would indicated “Oppy” had received the signal and was once again awaiting commands, allowing attempts at recovery to commence.  Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

NASA’s MER rover Opportunity (MER-B) arrived on Mars in January 2004. Contact was lost in June 2018 as a result of a major dust storm on the planet. Since August 2018, attempts to re-establish communications with the rover have been unsuccessful. Credit: NASA/JPL

Originally, it had been intended that if no response was received in  45-day period, NASA would switch to a purely passive means of listening out for “Oppy” in the hope the rover might send a message. But on January 25th, 2019, the space agency indicated they would be taking a different tack.

The new approach means that the “sweep and beep” approach will be continued, but slightly differently. In order to account for the possibility that Opportunity has both and off-kilter clock and both of its primary X-band communications systems, the outward commands designed to nudge a simple “beep” response from the rover will be replace by a command for it to switch away from using its primary communications system(s) to it secondary, the hope being that it would allow the rover to respond, and enable a more detail assessment of Opportunity’s condition to be made.

This effort is expected to continue for “several weeks” before NASA will again reassess the likelihood of re-establishing contact with the rover. However, a new threat is in the offing for Opportunity as winter starts to settle in the hemisphere where it is operating; if its solar panels are not working efficiently, the exceptionally low winter temperatures could damage it beyond recovery.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars,the Moon and space hotels”