Tag Archives: MSL

Space Sunday: celestial harmonics, breathing air and singing for Pluto

July 14th: Jupiter with Io, Europa and Ganymede as seen by Juno after the craft had finished its critical orbital burn to slip into a 53.5 day orbit around the giant planet

July 10th: Jupiter with Io, Europa and Ganymede as seen by Juno after the craft had finished its critical orbital burn to slip into a 53.5 day orbit around the giant planet on July 4th. Credit: NASA/JPL / SwRI / MSSS (click and image for full size)

The banner image, captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, might look like the one I used in my last Space Sunday update, but there is one important difference. The images used last time around had been captured by Juno on June as it approached the Jovian system on June 29th, five days before the craft had to complete a critical engine burn whilst almost scraping the planet’s cloud tops, to place itself in an extended orbit around Jupiter. The image above was captured on July 10th, as Juno headed away from Jupiter, having successfully completed the manoeuvre.

At the time the picture was captured, 17:30 UTC on July 10th, 2016, Juno was already  4.3 million kilometres (2.7 million miles) distant from the planet, and heading away from it at a relative velocity of 18,420 km / hour (11,446 mph) and decelerating under the influence of the Jupiter’s gravity.

Juno's flight around the poles of Jupiter and it's position on July 10th, as seen by the NASA Eyes application

Juno’s flight around the poles of Jupiter and it’s position on July 10th, as seen using the NASA Eyes simulator (click for full size)

Juno’s imaging system – JunoCam – had, along with other major systems aboard the craft, been shut down prior to the July 4th engine burn, both to conserve power – Juno had to turn its solar panels away from the Sun during the burn manoeuvre, limiting the available electrical power – and to protect them through the initial passage through Jupiter’s tremendous radiation fields. It wasn’t until July 6th that the instruments were all powered back up, and after testing them, the July 10th exercise was the first opportunity to have a look back at the Jovian system.

Juno will keep travelling outwards from Jupiter until the end of July, slowing to a relative velocity of just 1,939 km/h (1212 mph), before it starts to “fall” back towards the planet, making a second close flyby on August 27th. At this time, the craft will pass just 4,142 km (2,575 mi) above the Jovian cloud tops at a speed of 208,11 km/h (129,315 mph). More importantly, all of vehicle’s science instruments will remain powered-up, and JunoCam in particular should gain some stunning images of Jupiter during this second close pass.

To celebrate Juno’s arrival around Jupiter, NASA released a time-lapse video of the Jovian system as seen by the approaching spacecraft. It begins on June 12th with Juno 16 million km (10 million mi), and ends on June 29th, when JunoCam was shut down and Juno was 4.8 million km (3 million mi) distant.

Made possible by Juno’s high angle of approach into the Jovian system, it is the first close-up view of celestial harmonic motion we’ve ever had. Also, the 17-day duration of the movie means we see Callisto (flickering very faintly) make a full orbit around Jupiter, and get to see Ganymede, Europa and Io (counting inwards towards the planet) each experience eclipse as they pass through Jupiter’s shadow. Note that the flickering exhibited by the moons is an artefact of JunoCam, which is optimised to image bright features on Jupiter, rather than capturing the (relatively) dim pinpoints of the distant moons as they circle the planet.

Curiosity Resumes Operations as 2020 “Sister” Takes Shape

In my last update I reported that NASA Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, had entered a “safe” mode on July 2nd.  On July 9th, the mission team successfully recovered the rover from this safe mode – a precautionary state the rover will set for itself should it detected an event which could damage its on-board systems – and then subsequently returned Curiosity to a fully operational status on July 11th.

The cause of the problem lay in  a glitch in one of the modes by which images are transferred from the memory in some of the rover’s camera systems to its main computers. This generated a data mismatch warning, prompting the rover to active its “safe” mode and call Earth for assistance. Use of this particular data transfer mode between the identified camera systems and the computers is now being avoided in order to prevent a repeat of the problem.

Meanwhile, NASA’s next rover mission – designated Mars 2020 at present, as it will launch in the summer of that year to arrive on Mars in February 2021 – is taking shape. The basic vehicle will be based on the Curiosity class of rover, but will carry a different science suite and have somewhat different capabilities.

A CAD image of the Mars 2020 rover: visibly similar to MSL's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA

A CAD image of the Mars 2020 rover: visibly similar to MSL’s Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA

In particular, the new rover will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare Martian rocks and soil samples which can be stored in sample tubes. About 30 of these sample tubes will be deposited at select locations, so that they might be collected by a possible future automated mission and returned to Earth for direct analysis for evidence of past life on Mars and possible health hazards for future human missions.

Two science instruments mounted on the rover’s robotic arm will be used to search for signs of past life and determine where to collect samples by analysing the chemical, mineral, physical and organic characteristics of Martian rocks, while a suite of advanced camera systems will be housed on the vehicle’s mast. As with Curiosity, Mars 2020 will carry a comprehensive meteorological suite for monitoring the Martian environment and weather, together with a ground penetrating radar system for determining what is going on under the rover’s wheels.

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Space Sunday: of Jupiter, Titan and Mars

 “NASA did it again!” an elated Scott Bolton, Principal Investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter, announced on the night of Monday July 4th / Tuesday July 5th. He was speaking shortly after the Juno space craft, having travelled 2.8 billion kilometres (1.7 billion miles), achieved an initial orbit around the largest planet in the solar system, becoming one of the fastest human made objects ever built.

“We are in orbit and now the fun begins, the science,” he added during the post-insertion press briefing. “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done! That’s my claim. I am so happy … and proud of this team.”

Solar powered Juno successfully entered a polar elliptical orbit around Jupiter after completing a must-do 35-minute-long firing of the main engine known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion or JOI. The vehicle approached Jupiter over the planet’s north pole – an orbit which will afford some unique views of Jupiter and its system of rings and moons in the coming months.

Due to the time delay, some 48 minutes for a one-way signal, Juno completed the insertion burn entirely on autopilot and, for this initial pass through the planet’s radiation belts, with many of its more critical systems powered-down as a precaution and to preserve battery power – the manoeuvre meant Juno had to turn its solar panels away from the Sun, limiting its ability to generate electrical power for all of its systems.

This image was captured by Juno on June 29th, 2016, and was the final picture taken by the vehicle's camera prior to major systems being shut down as a precautionary move while the craft made an it's initial approach over Jupiter's north pole. Visible and labelled are the Galilean moons, which today form just 4 of the 53 named moons orbiting the planet

This image was captured by Juno on June 29th, 2016, and was the final picture taken by the vehicle’s camera prior to major systems being shut down as a precautionary move while the craft made an its initial approach over Jupiter’s north pole. Visible and labelled are the Galilean moons, which today form just 4 of the 53 named moons orbiting the planet

As I reported last week, the do-or-die burn of the Leros-1b engine had to be carried out flawlessly if the spacecraft were to achieve and initial orbit around Jupiter. By the time it started at 20:18 PDT on Monday July 4th (04:18 UT, Tuesday July 5th), Juno had already accelerated to an incredible 250,000 kph (156,000 mph) relative to the planet, as a result of Jupiter’s massive gravity well, and the 35-minute engine burn was designed to reduce this huge speed by just 1,939 kph (1212 mph).

As tiny as this velocity change might sound, it meant the difference between Juno simply whipping around Jupiter to be thrown back out into deep space and being trapped in a 53.5 day orbit are the planet by that same enormous gravity well. In October 2016, a further 22-minute burn of the Leros-1b will reduce this orbital period to just 14 day, allowing the primary science mission to commence.

Scott Bolton (with arms raised) celebrates Juno's orbital insertion burn with members of the mission team (l to r) Goeff Yoder, Diane Brown, Rick Nybakken, Guy Beutelschies, and Steve Levin Credit: AP Photo / Ringo H.W. Chiu

Scott Bolton (with arms raised) celebrates Juno’s orbital insertion burn flanked by members of the mission team (l to r) Goeff Yoder, Diane Brown, Rick Nybakken, Guy Beutelschies, and Steve Levin Credit: AP Photo / Ringo H.W. Chiu

That mission is all about peering far beneath Jupiter’s banded clouds for the first time and investigating the planet’s deep interior with a suite of nine instruments. The hope is that Juno will probe the mysteries of Jupiter’s genesis and evolution, and by extension, how we came to be. Or, as Scott Bolton phrased it, “The deep interior of Jupiter is nearly unknown. That’s what we are trying to learn about. The origin of us.”

Life on Titan Without Water?

Further out in space and orbiting Saturn, is massive Titan, another of the solar system’s enigmas. Examined by the NASA Cassini space vehicle and (briefly) by the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander, Titan is fascinating for a number of reasons, including the fact it is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere rich in minerals and hydrocarbons.

Huygens revealed Titan has a very mixed surface environment, complete with hydrocarbon seas, lakes and tributary networks filled with liquid ethane, methane and dissolved nitrogen. This surface is also very young; while Titan has been around since very early in the solar system’s history – some 4 billion years – the surface environment is estimated to be somewhere between 100 million to 1 billion years old; suggesting geological processes have been and are at work.

Titan's structure (via wikipedia)

Titan’s structure, which includes a subsurface liquid water ocean sealed beneath a mantle of ice just below the moon’s thin trust (via wikipedia)

All of this   – particularly the thick atmosphere (which has a comparable density to that of Earth), the presence of hydrocarbon rich liquids (which also fall as rain) – has caused many astronomers and planetary scientists to speculate that Titan might have all the prebiotic conditions necessary to kick-start life. The only thing which has been seen as potentially mitigating this is the absence of surface water.

However, a team of scientists from Cornell University, New York, led by Dr. Martin Rahm, has proposed that condition on Titan are such that it might support life even without the presence of water.

An image of Titan's surface, as taken by the European Space Agency's Huygens probe as it plunged through the moon's thick, orange-brown atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona

An image of Titan’s surface, as taken by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe as it plunged through the moon’s thick, orange-brown atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona

Specifically, the team has been examining the role that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) might have on Titan. This is an organic chemical, which although poisonous to life today, is seen in some circles as a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids, and thus a basic building block in the development of organic compounds which in turn might give rise to life.

In particular, hydrogen cyanide is the most abundant hydrogen-containing molecule in Titan’s atmosphere – although it is missing from the moon’s surface – and has some unique properties. It can, for example, react with itself or with other molecules to form long chains, or polymers. One such polymer is called polyimine, which is capable of absorbing light of many wavelengths and might therefore as as a catalyst for photochemically driven chemistry, some of which might be prebiotic in nature and which might in turn give rise to more complex organic reactions.

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Space Sunday: minerals, ice, rockets and capsules

CuriosityNASA’s Curiosity rover has resumed its long, slow climb up the slopes of “Mount Sharp”, the 5 km high mound abutting the central impact peak of Gale Crater on Mars.

For the last few months, the rover has been easing its way over what is called the “Murray Formation”, a transitional layer marking the separation points between the materials deposited over the aeons to create the gigantic mound, and the material considered to be common to the crater floor. Named in honour of the late co-founder of The Planetary Society, Bruce Murray, the formation comprises a number of different land forms, which the rover has been gradually examining.

On June 4th, 2016, Curiosity collected its latest set of drilling samples – the 11th and 12th it has gathered since arriving on Mars – on the “Naukluft Plateau”, a further region of sandstone within the Murray Formation, similar to the area dubbed the “Stimson Formation”, where the rover collected samples in 2015.

The Murray formation extends about 200 metres (650ft) up the side of "Mount Sharp". Starting at the "Pahrump Hills" below "Murray Buttes" in late 2014, Curiosity is about one fifth of the way across the region, spending extended periods examined various features within the formation. Credit: NASA JPL

The Murray formation extends about 200 metres (650ft) up the side of “Mount Sharp”. Starting at the “Pahrump Hills” below “Murray Buttes” in late 2014, Curiosity is about one fifth of the way across the region, spending extended periods examined various features within the formation. Credit: NASA JPL

The aim is to carry out comparative geology between the two sites to determine whether or not their formation is related. The “Stimson Formation” sandstone strongly suggested it has been laid down by wind after the core slopes of “Mount Sharp” had been laid down by sedimentary processes the result of Gale Crater once being home to s huge lake, but which had then been subjected to fracturing by the passage of water. These bands of fractured sandstone have become more prevalent as the rover has continued up through the “Murray Formation”, so it is hoped that by obtaining samples from “Naukluft Plateau”, the science team will gain further understanding of precisely what part water played in the evolution of the slopes of “Mount Sharp” after the lake waters had receded.

The HiRise imaging system on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured the the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau in May 2016 (credit: NASA/JPL / University of Arizona)

The HiRise imaging system on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau in May 2016 Credit: NASA/JPL / University of Arizona

Since completing the drilling operations, Curiosity has turned south, and is now climbing the mound “head on”, rather than gradually zig-zagging its way upwards.

The MSL rover has also provided geologists with another surprise. In mid-2015, the rover collected samples from a rock dubbed “Buckskin”. Reviewing the analysis of the minerals in the samples, as discovered by Curiosity’s on-board laboratory suite, scientists have found significant amounts of a silica mineral called tridymite.

“On Earth, tridymite is formed at high temperatures in an explosive process called silicic volcanism. Mount St. Helens, the active volcano in Washington State, and the Satsuma-Iwojima volcano in Japan are examples of such volcanoes,” said Richard Morris, a NASA planetary scientist at Johnson Space Centre. “The tridymite in the Buckskin sample is thought to have been incorporated into “Lake Gale”  mudstone as sediment from erosion of silicic volcanic rocks.”

The find is significant because although volcanism did once take place on Mars, it has never been thought of as being silicic volcanism, which is far more violent that the kind of volcanism associated with the formation of the great shield volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge and other regions of Mars. So this discovery means geologists may have to re-think the volcanic period of Mars’ early history.

China Launches Long March 7

Saturday, June 25th saw the inaugural launch of China’s Long March 7 booster, a vehicle I wrote about back in April 2016. The launch was also the first from China’s fourth and newest space launch facility, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre, located on Hainan Island, the country’s southernmost point.

The Long March 7 is a core component to China’s evolving space ambitions. Classified as a medium lift vehicle, it can carry around 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO), it will operate alongside China’s upcoming heavy lift launcher, the Long March 5. This craft will be capable of lifting around the same payload mass directly to geosynchronous orbit, and around 25 tonnes to LEO. Both vehicles will play a lead role in China’s plans to expand her explorations of the Moon, establish a permanent space station in Earth orbit by 2022, and reach Mars with automated missions.

China's Long March 5 (l) and Long March 7 (r) next generation launch vehicles

China’s Long March 7 (right) launched on it inaugural flight on Saturday, June 25th. The bigger Long March 5 (left) is due to launch later in 2016. Credit: China state media

The inaugural launch of the Long March 7 took place at noon GMT on Saturday, June 25th (20:00 local time). It carried a Yuanzheng 1A upper stage and a scale model of China’s next generation crewed orbital vehicle into an orbit of 200 km (120 mi) by 394 km (244 mi) as confirmed by US tracking networks.

Yuanzheng is an automated “space tug” China has used numerous times to deliver payloads to their orbits, and is capable of re-using its engine multiple times. It is most often used to boost China’s communications satellites into higher orbits.

The sub-scale capsule was used to carry out an atmospheric re-entry test to gather data which will be use to further refine and improve the re-entry vehicle which will form a part of China’s replacement for its ageing, Soyuz-inspired Shenzhou crew vehicle. This unit returned to Earth, landing in a desert in Inner Mongolia on Sunday, June 26th, after orbiting the planet 13 times. Also aboard the vehicle was a “cubesat” mission to test a navigation system, and a prototype refuelling system.

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Space Sunday: back to Mars with NASA and SpaceX

CuriosityIt’s been a while since there has been any major news from NASA’s Curiosity rover as it explores “Mount Sharp” in Gale Crater.

The last time I covered the rover’s activities, it was investigating a series of sand dunes which are slowly descending down the slopes of “Mount Sharp” as a result of a combination of gravity and wind action.

This work was completed in March, when the rover resumed its progress up the flank of the mound, climbing onto “Naukluft Plateau”, a roughly flat area cut into the side of “Mount Sharp” where aeons of wind erosion has carved the sandstone bedrock into ridges and knobs which were thought could offer a challenge for the rover in terms of wear and tear on the wheels.

The plateau lay between the rover and the next major area of scientific interest for the mission, so the drive team have been edging the rover across the rough terrain in the hope of reaching smoother ground on which it can continue upwards without exposing its six aluminium wheels to risk of severe damage.

 "Naukluft Plateau", which Curiosity has been traversing since March 2016, shown in close-up, revealing how the surface has been shaped and scoured by the wind over the aeons. In the distance can be seen the rim hills of Gale Crater

“Naukluft Plateau”, which Curiosity has been traversing since March 2016, shown in close-up, revealing how the surface has been shaped and scoured by the wind over the aeons. In the distance can be seen the rim hills of Gale Crater. This image was captured om April 4th, 2016, the rover’s1,302nd Sol (Credit: NASA / JPL)

The roughness of the terrain on the plateau had raised concern that driving on it could be especially damaging to Curiosity’s wheels, as it is very similar to terrain the rover crossed in 2013 while en route to “Mount Sharp”, resulting in visible damage to some of Curiosity’s wheels, punching holes and tears into the aluminium, and prompting the mission team to undertake extensive tests on the wheels and their performance following such damage, using a duplicate of the rover here on Earth.

Because of the previous damage caused to the wheels, Curiosity was instructed to periodically image the condition of its wheels during the drive, a process which slowed progress but also revealed any damage being caused was not accelerating beyond what was projected to occur.

“We carefully inspect and trend the condition of the wheels,” said Steve Lee, Curiosity’s deputy project manager. “Cracks and punctures have been gradually accumulating at the pace we anticipated, based on testing we performed at JPL. Given our longevity projections, I am confident these wheels will get us to the destinations on Mount Sharp that have been in our plans since before landing.”

This image taken on April 18th, 2016 (Sol 1,315) by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover's robot arm revels areas of damage on Curiosity's centre left wheel, the result of periodically traversing very rough terrain since the rover arrived on Mars in 2012

This image taken on April 18th, 2016 (Sol 1,315) by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s robot arm revels areas of damage on Curiosity’s centre left wheel, the result of periodically traversing very rough terrain since the rover arrived on Mars in 2012 (Credit: NASA / JPL)

In particular, the mission team is watching for breaks or tears which damage the zig-zag treads – called grousers – on the 50cm / 20 in wheels. If three of these grousers are significantly broken, Earth-based tests suggest the damaged wheel will have reached about 60% of its serviceable life.

However, since Curiosity’s current odometry of 12.7 km (7.9 mi) is about 60 percent of the amount needed for reaching all the geological layers planned in advance as the mission’s science destinations, and no grousers have yet broken, the accumulating damage to wheels is not expected to prevent the rover from reaching those destinations on Mount Sharp.

“Naukluft Plateau” is a part of the larger “Stimson formation” which includes a fracture area the rover reached a late April. Dubbed “Lubango”, the area was the target for the rover’s 10th drilling and sample gathering campaign, which was completed on Sol 1320, April 23rd, 2016.

“We have a new drill hole on Mars!” reported Ken Herkenhoff, a MSL science team member, when reporting on the sample gathering in an MSL update on April 28th.

After transferring the cored sample to the CHIMRA instrument for sieving it, a portion of the less than 0.15 mm filtered material was successfully delivered this week to the CheMin miniaturized chemistry lab situated in the rover’s body, which is now analysing the sample and will return mineralogical data back to scientists on earth for interpretation.

“Lubango” was selected for sample gathering after it had been determined following examination using the ChemCam laser and spectrometer,  that it was altered sandstone bedrock and had an unusually high silica content.  To complement the analysis of “Lubango”, the science team has been using the rover’s camera systems to locate a suitable target of unaltered Stimson bedrock as the 11th drill target.

“The colour information provided by Mastcam is really helpful in distinguishing altered versus unaltered bedrock,” MSL science team member Lauren Edgar explained in describing the current work. One possible target, dubbed “Oshikati” has been identified.

A white-balanced telephoto view of Gale Crater's rim, as seen from the flank of "Mount Sharp"

A white-balanced telephoto view of Gale Crater’s rim, as seen from the flank of “Mount Sharp” (Credit: NASA / JPL)

The ChemCam laser has already shot at the “Oshikati” to gather data for an initial analysis of the rock and assess its suitability for drilling operations. If all goes according to plan, Curiosity should make an attempt to gather samples from the rock on Sunday, May 1st.

SpaceX To Launch NASA-Supported Mars Mission in 2018

On April 27th, SpaceX announced it plans to launch an automated mission to Mars in 2018 as a part of a new space act agreement the company has signed with NASA. This will see the US space agency provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to an automated landing of a SpaceX vehicle on Mars, and provide scientific support for the mission.

an artist's impression of Red Dragon arriving on Mars (credit: SpaceX)

An artist’s impression of Red Dragon arriving on Mars (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX will undertake the mission using Red Dragon, an automated version of the Dragon 2 capsule vehicle which will enter service in 2018 to fly crews two and from the International Space Station.

Red Dragon has been on the drawing boards at SpaceX almost since the inception of the Dragon 2 programme. Designed to be launched atop the upcoming Falcon 9 Heavy launcher, due to enter operations later this year, it is specifically intended to carry science payloads almost anywhere in the solar system, and could potentially deliver as much as 4 tonnes of cargo to the surface of Mars (that’s  the equivalent of delivering 4.5 Curiosity rovers to Mars in one go).

The 2018 mission is primarily intended to look at using a purely propulsive means of achieving a soft landing of a heavy vehicle on Mars. While parachutes could, in theory, be used to help slow a vehicle’s descent through the Martian atmosphere, recent NASA tests of the kind of large-scale “supersonic” parachutes required to slow large space vehicles during their descent haven’t proved overly successful during comparable testing at high altitude on Earth.

The Falcon 9 Heavy, which could lift scientific payloads aboard the Dragon 2 carrier vehicles almost anywhere in the solar system - compared to the current Falcon 9 (Credit: SpaceX)

The Falcon 9 Heavy, which could lift scientific payloads aboard the Dragon 2 carrier vehicles almost anywhere in the solar system – compared to the current Falcon 9 (Credit: SpaceX)

Dragon 2 has been specifically designed so that a series of 8 rocket engines – called Super Draco motors – are embedded in the base of the vehicle. These can be used both as a launch abort system – firing a crew clear of a malfunctioning rocket during lift-off –  and as a means of the vehicle achieving a “soft landing” on land rather than splashing down in the ocean (although the Dragon 2 is capable of this as well).

On Red Dragon, these super Draco motor allow the vehicle to slow itself down through its descent through the tenuous Martian atmosphere, and then act as a final cushioning break as the craft comes into land. Tethered tests here on Earth have already demonstrated Dragon 2 is fully capable of maintaining a hover until the thrust from the engines, and these tests will be expanded upon during the run-up to the mission.

The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavour, funded entirely by SpaceX. NASA will not be contributing to the cost of the mission, but will be providing Earth-side logistical support and a suitable science payload of around 1 tonne. The exact nature of this payload will be defined in the future,  but will likely include a diverse range of instruments which might be used to further characterise the Martian atmosphere, study and Martian weather and soil, and image the surface of Mars. Both SpaceX and NASA will share the data gathered during what is referred to as the EDL phase of the mission – the Entry, Descent and Landing. NASA will also supply a scientific payload for the flight.

Red Dragon marks the first phase of an ambitious programme SpaceX will be announcing in September, but which has been under development for about the last 6 years, for undertaking human missions to Mars in the 2020 / 2030s. I’ll have more on this later in the year.