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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Nina Lanza, Los Alamos National Laboratory

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

SpaceX Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars wake-ups, SpaceX and NASA updates”

Space Sunday: transporting a telescope, NS-18, Lucy and China

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), shown with the central segment of its gold mirror just visible above the compressed solar shield, housed within the inner casing and support structure of STTARS, is lowered towards the base of the container. Credit: Northrop Grumman / NASA

How do you ship a telescope several thousand kilometres without damaging it? You pack it in a special carry-case. How do you transport it in conditions that allow it and its ultra-sensitive components to remain completely clean with a strictly controlled environment? You ship it in a very special case. How do you do all this with a telescope that is 20 metres in length, 14 metres across and weighs 6.5 tonnes?

You get a really big special case – which is precisely what NASA has done with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). They call it STTARS – the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea, and it is pretty much as remarkable as the telescope itself.

Weighing 76 tonnes, STTARS is 33.5 metres in length, 4.6 metres wide and 5.5 metres high. It was built specifically to handle the shipping of various JWST components around the United States and bring them together at the Northrop Grumman assembly and integration facilities at Redondo Beach, California. And now it has been used to ship the completed telescope the 9,500 km California to the launch site in French Guiana.

STTARS, carrying the JWST, en route to Seal Station, California. Credit: NASA

STTARS is more than just a container. It is an ultra-clean, hermetically sealed environment designed to minimise all vibrations and G-forces that reach the telescope and its sensitive instruments during transport, while holding them in an atmosphere that is strictly regulated and allows for the presence of no more than 100 airborne particles greater than or equal to 0.5 microns in size within it. For reference, half a micron is just one hundredth of the width of a human hair!

To achieve this, STTARS also had to be built in an ultra-clean environment, and before each use it is subjected to a highly-detailed “cleaning” using high-intensity ultra-violet light to both locate contaminants so they can be removed, and to kill off microbes. Following installation, the unit is connected to a dedicated heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system that maintains temperature, humidity and pressure precisely as the telescope experienced them within Northrop Grumman’s clean room. In addition, it contains special mounts and dampeners designed to hold the telescope securely and isolate it as much as possible from bumps and other forces when being moved around.

Even so, moving STTARS around still takes considerable care. For example, the 35 km drive from Northrop Grumman’s facilities the port at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach in preparation from the journey to French Guiana was performed at an average speed of just 10-12 km/h to avoid undue bumps, and potholes along the route had to be repaired in advance. The journey was also carried out at night to both minimise traffic disruption and the amount of traffic vibration affecting STTARS and its cargo.

Once at Seal Beach, STTARS was carefully transferred to the MN Colibri for the trip to the European Spaceport – air transport having been ruled out both because of the amount of vibration and stress it could place on JWST, and because the 96-km journey from airport to spaceport in French Guiana would require the reinforcing of several bridges in order to support STTARS weight.

Built as a roll-on – roll-off (Ro-Ro) freighter by Maritime Nantaise, the MN Colibri is in fact a highly specialised vessel ideal for transporting JWST. Commissioned by the European Space Agency, it is also used to transport Ariane and Soyuz rockets and their cargoes from Europe and Russia and elsewhere in the world to the European Spaceport. Not only is she fitted with the kind of specialist equipment needed by sensitive HVAC systems, etc., she has the unique characteristic of being able to adjust her trim whilst at sea to reduce things like vessel roll to minimise the stresses placed on her cargo. Even so, travelling at an average 15-16 knots, her journey down the coasts of the United States and central America and through the Panama canal to Port de Pariacabo, Kourou, roughly 15 km by road from the space centre, took almost a month, the vessel arriving on October 12th.

The use of the MV Colibri meant that at no point did STTARS have to be transferred off of its transporter, again minimise vibration or other shocks being transmitted to the telescope (as well as reducing the risk of any form of unforeseen loading / unloading accident), allowing its special transporter and support equipment to been driven on to the vessel (with the assistance of a barge, purely due to the layout of the docks), be secured, and then driven off again for the journey to the space port, where it arrived on October 13th.

Over the next two months, JWST will be unpacked and given a careful check-up. It will then be prepared for launch, being mounted on its launch adaptor and Ariane upper stage, enclosed within its payload fairings and then integrated with the booster itself. Providing all goes according to plan, the telescope is due to be launched on December 18th, 2021.

Blue Origin NS-18

Wednesday, October 13th saw Blue Origin complete the 18th successful flight of their New Shepard sub-orbital system.

Aboard NS-18 were Blue Origin’s President of Mission & Flight Operations Audrey Powers, fare-paying passengers Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of the Earth-observation company Planet, and Glen de Vries, co-founder of the medical software company Medidata Solutions, and invited guest, actor William Shatner.

A camera mounted at the top of the New Shepard booster captures the capsule rising ahead of it following separation (l). And a high-resolution camera images the separated booster and capsule from Earth (r). Credit: Blue Origin

In the process, Mr. Shatner – best known for his roles at Captain James T. Kirk, police officer T.J. Hooker and eccentric lawyer Denny Crane – became the oldest individual to date to fly into space at 90 years of age – a record he could well hold for some time – and Chris Boshuizen became the first full Australian national to become an astronaut (not counting those who have flown space missions under dual nationality).

The live stream of the launch revealed that the company has been somewhat stung by the essay co-written by 21 current and past employees and recently published by The Lioness that cites safety and other concerns: the initial part of the live stream sounded more like an attempt to rebut the charges made than an attempt to cover the launch and flight.

NS-18 crew (l to r): Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner and Chris Boshuizen, share a moment holding on to the central table aboard their capsule as they experience micro-gravity. Credit: Blue Origin

Overall, the flight was, from an observational standpoint, uneventful. The vehicle lifted-off smoothly as scheduled, then climbed up through 57 km, where main engine cut-off (MECO) occurred. Moments after this, the capsule separated from the booster, and both continued to rise under their own inertia and in tandem, the capsule above and to one side of the booster to avoid collision.

Apogee was reached at 107 km, and the fall back to Earth began. At this point, the two parts of the New Shepard vehicle became more distanced from one another, the pencil- line booster, kept upright by deployable fins, dropping more-or-less vertically through the air, the rounded form of the capsule generating more air resistance and so falling at a slightly slower rate. This meant that the booster, re-firing its BE-3 engine at 1.2 km above the ground to ease itself into a touch-down, ended its forth flight before the capsule had got as far as deploying its parachutes.

Blue Origin NS-18 drifts towards landing under its three main parachutes. Credit: Blue Origin

The initial deployment of the capsule’s drogue ‘chutes at just under 2 km altitude, shaved 100 km/h from its descent speed  – from around 320 km/h to 221 km/h  – in 12 seconds, bringing the capsule down to a speed where the three main parachute could deploy, slowing the capsule a a fairly “gentle”22 km/h prior to touchdown.

Following his egress from the capsule, it was clear that Mr. Shatner had been profoundly affected by the flight and the site of Earth from space, as he talked in very emotional terms to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (who initially and sadly appeared more interested in grabbing some champagne than in paying attention) about understanding the real fragility of the Earth, something which has remained his core point of discussion during interviews in the days following the flight.

In this, Mr. Shatner’s experience was perhaps a step apart from his fellow passengers, who – as with those of the MS-16 flight – seemed more interested in the “fun” of micro-gravity than in pondering deeper thoughts. We often – perhaps glibly – say that flying into space is a “life changing” experience; but William Shatner articulates this perhaps in a way we can finally understand, as he does the sheer fragility of our world  and its thin envelope of life-giving atmosphere. I would that more – particularly those in power – could share in his experience and realisation.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: transporting a telescope, NS-18, Lucy and China”

Space Sunday: strange worlds, telescopes and rockets

An image of GW Orionis, a triple star system with a mysterious gap in its surrounding dust rings. UNLV astronomers hypothesize the presence of a massive planet in the gap, which would be the first planet ever discovered to orbit three stars. The left image, provided by the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA) telescope, shows the disc’s ringed structure, with the innermost ring separated from the rest of the disc. The observations in the right image show the shadow of the innermost ring on the rest of the disc. UNLV astronomers used observations from ALMA to construct a comprehensive model of the star system. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), ESO/Exeter/Kraus et al.

GW Orionis is a triple star system roughly 1,300 light years from Earth sitting within an extended protoplanetary disc that surrounds all three. This disc has been intriguing astronomers for the last decade, and now a team believe they have evident that the disc is home to at least one planet.

Systems of multiple stars bound by gravity are believed to be at least as common within our galaxy as single-star systems (like the Sun), and as such have oft been depicted as the home of worlds with exotic skies (think Star Wars and Tatooine’s iconic binary sunsets). But if correct, this will be the first time we have discovered a planet occupying a circumtriple orbit.

Using observations from the powerful Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, a team of astronomers set out to analyse the extended dust ring surrounding the three stars and they orbit their common centre, only to discover that rather than being fairly uniform, the dust ring has a substantial and persistent gap within it.

After running through a wide range of simulations to explain the gap, including trying to find some bizarre form of “gravitational torque” imposed on the disc by the three stars, the team resorted to Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is likely the most correct. In this case, and as several of their models demonstrated, the most consistent means to create such a gap in the disc is to plonk at least one large planet, around the size of Jupiter, into it.

It’s really exciting because it makes the theory of planet formation really robust. It could mean that planet formation is much more active than we thought which is pretty cool.

– Jeremy Smallwood, study lead author

In fact, such is the size of the gap, it is conceivable that it might be home to several planets – all of which are far too faint and too distant to be directly observed, but some of which might be Earth-sized solid bodies. This doesn’t mean they might harbour life, but they would make for a fascinating study.

Further work is to be conducted in an attempt to confirm the team’s findings and possibly refine their model of this complex system.

NASA Round-Up

SLS Launch “Likely” to Slip to 2022

As I’ve noted in a number of Space Sunday updates recently, the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket has increasingly looked like it will slip back into 2022, the result of a number of programmatic slippages that, together with restricted working practices introduced by NASA during a good part of 2020 to deal with the SARS-CoV-2 situation, have resulted in most / all of the “spare” time built into the programme to handle unanticipated delays being been eaten up.

Speaking on September 30th, 2021, NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana noted that while the agency was not committed to a specific launch date other than “late 2021” for the mission – called “Artemis 1” and intended to fly an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon and back in an extended flight – it will now “more than likely” see it slip into early 2022.

An unusual view of the first SLS stack inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Centre. A mass simulator on top of the rocket will soon be replaced by the Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

The vehicle stack of core stage, upper stage and solid rocket boosters have just completed a series of “modal tests” within the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. These involved subjecting the stack to a range of vibrations and shaking it to determine the full range of frequencies and vibrations it will experience during launch and ascent in order to programme the flight software and navigation systems so they can be correctly responded to, and an deviance from the “norms” identified and dealt with.

These tests should have been completed in August 2021, paving the way for the Orion capsule and its service module to be mated with, and integrated into, the rocket. This work is now scheduled to commence on October 13th. After that, the entire stack will be rolled out to Launch Complex 39B for a wet dress rehearsal in which the core stage is loaded with propellants in a practice countdown that stops just before ignition of the four main RS-25 engines. Following the test, the rocket will roll back to the VAB for final reviews and pre-launch preparations, before taking a final ride to the pad ready for launch.

Space Telescopes Update

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the next great space-based telescope, remains on course for a December 18th, 2021 launch. However, the observatory continues to be a source of controversy.

JWST is named for James E. Webb, the second NASA Administrator to be appointed, and the man who saw the agency through the Mercury and Gemini programmes – the latter critical to the Apollo lunar landings – between 1961 and 1968. However, prior to that, he served as Undersecretary of State from 1949–1952, a period which saw the “Lavender Scare”, when many LGBTQ people were driven from roles in government service – a fact that recently (and somewhat belatedly, given the life-time of the programme) has given rise to calls for the telescope to be re-named.

JWST with its primary mirror folded, undergoes a final testing in deploying its boat-like Sun shield earlier in 2021. Nasa has quietly stated that despite objections, the telescope will not be re-named. Credit: NASA

NASA had said it would look into the matter, but this week – without formal announcement or indication of precisely how it did so – leaked word via National Public Radio in the United States that it has conducted “an investigation” and found “no cause” for the telescope to be renamed. The decision and the manner in which NASA has handled it have heaped scorn upon the agency by those who launched the campaign and who signed a petition on the matter forwarded to NASA – many of whom are from the science and astronomy communities.

Elsewhere, the next space-based telescope NASA will launch after JWST – the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST) – has received both good and bad news.

The good news is, the telescope successfully passed its critical design review, signalling that all developmental engineering work is now complete, and it can move on to the assembly and testing of the telescope itself.

A next-generation observatory, the NGRST will peer across vast stretches of space and time to survey the infrared universe. Thanks to the mission’s enormous field of view and fast survey speeds, astronomers will be able to observe planets by the thousands, galaxies by the millions, and stars by the billions. As such, it is very much an heir to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) on which parts of it are based, and entirely complimentary to the work of JWST.

An artist’s rendering of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in space. Credit: NASA

The bad news is that the telescope – which the Trump Administration repeatedly tried to cancel despite its real-time low cost thanks to its use of “spare” HST elements – has now genuinely started to incur cost overruns. These are the direct result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in 2020 as a result of the restrictive working practices NASA had to implement to protect their employees, together with disruption of critical supply chains also as a result of the pandemic. These have already caused a US $400 million increase in the telescope’s estimate US $3.9 billion cost, and further increases are now expected – although there is sufficient leeway in the NASA 2021-2022 budget to meet the added costs and the estimated 7-month delay so far incurred in the telescope’s development.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: strange worlds, telescopes and rockets”

Space Sunday: Mars, Starship and a meteor that flattened a city

September 10th, 2021: after successfully gather two samples from the rock dubbed “Rochette” (seen in the foreground, the bore holes clearly visible), the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance paused for a “selfie” using the WATSON imager mounted on the robot arm turret. Credit: NASA/JPL

It’s getting interesting on Mars. Jezero Crater, the home of the Mars 2020 mission is going through a change in seasons, bringing with it a drop in atmospheric density that is proving challenging for the Ingenuity helicopter, which recently completed its 13th flight.

The little drone was designed to fly in an atmosphere density around 1.2-1.5% that of Earth, but with the seasonal change, the average afternoon atmospheric density within the crater – the afternoon being the most stable period of the day for Ingenuity to take flight – has now dropped to around 1% that of Earth. This potentially leaves the helicopter unable to generate enough lift through its rotors to remain airborne.

The solution for this is to increase the rate of spin within rotors to something in excess of their nominal speed of around 2,500-2,550 rpm. However, this is not without risk: higher rpm runs the risk of a significant increase in vibrations through the helicopter that could adversely affect its science and flight systems. Also, depending on the wind, it could result in the propeller blades exceeding 80% of the Martian speed of sound. Sound this happen, the rotor would pick up enough drag to counter their ability to generate lift, leading to a mid-flight stall and crash.

To better evaluate handling and flight characteristics, therefore, the flight team are going back to basics an re-treading the steps taken to prepare Ingenuity for flight. This will see the propellers spun to 2,800 rpm with the helicopter remaining on the ground. Data gathered from this test will be used to make an initial assessment of blade speed required to get Ingenuity off the ground – believed to be somewhere between 2,700 and 2,800 rpm, and make an initial assessment of vibration passing through the helicopter’s frame. After this, it is planned to carry out a very simple flight: rise to no more than 5 metres, translate to horizontal flight for no more that a few metres, then land. Data from this flight – if successful – will then be used in an attempt to determine the best operating parameters for Ingenuity going forward.

The power of Perseverance’s camera: The lower image shows a true colour view of a feature dubbed “Delta Scarp”, captured by the rover’s MastCam Z system from a distance of 2.25 km. The upper picture shows details of the feature, as captured from the same distance, using the rover’s SuperCam instrument.. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the meantime, the Perseverance rover is continuing its work. Following the successful gathering of its first ample, the rover has been further revealing the power of its imaging systems, Mastcam Z and SuperCam, the two camera system mounted on its main mast.

Designed for different tasks, the two systems nevertheless work well together to provide contextual and up-close images of features the rover spies from distances in excess of 2 km away, allowing science teams to carry out detailed assessments before sending the rover to take a closer look. Also, in the wake of the sample gather exercise at the rock dubbed “Rochette”, NASA have provided a general introduction to two more of the rover’s instruments, which are mounted on the turret at the end of the rover’s robot arm. Catch the video below for more.

At the same time, and half a world away, the InSight mission Lander, despite suffering a severe degrading of its power capabilities as dust continues to accumulate on its circular solar arrays, has detected a  powerful Marsquake less than a month after detecting two equally powerful quakes originating at two different point under the planet’s surface.

All three were the latest in a long like of Marsquakes – also called “tumblors” – that have revealed much about the planet’s interior in the almost three years since InSight placed its seismometer on the planet’s surface, including the fact its core is larger than had been believed. The vast majority of the tumblors thus far detected have originated in the  Cerberus Fossae region of Mars, some 1,600 km from the lander. However, on August 25th, a quake measuring 4.1 magnitude was recorded with an epicentre just 925 km from the lander whilst marking it as the most powerful tremblor Insight had recorded (the previous record holder measure 3.7 – five times less powerful).

Captured in July 2021, this image shows InSight’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument dome on the surface of Mars. This is the instrument that has been recording tremblors on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

But then on the same day, a second quake was detected, hitting 4.2 magnitude, marking it particularly powerful, given its epicentre was calculated to be 8,600 km from the lander, and possibly focused within Vallis Marineris, the “Grand Canyon of Mars. This was matched on September 18th by a further 4.2 magnitude quake – epicentre currently unknown. But what made this tremblor remarkable was its duration – almost 90 minutes! (By comparison, the longest recorded duration of an quake on Earth is under 5 minutes.) Exactly why and how such an event should or could last so long is unknown, and has the InSight science teams scratching their heads.

Did a Cosmic Event Give Rise to the Biblical Legend of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Tall el-Hammam was – up until 3,600 years ago – a thriving centre of life and commerce for an estimated 8,000 people. Located close to the Dead Sea in what is now modern day Jordan, the valley it occupied lay some  22 km west of the city of Jericho and was one of the most productive agricultural lands in the region before being practically deserted for some 500-700 years, the soil inundated with salts to the extent nothing would grow.

The location of the city has been subject to archaeological study since 2005, and researchers there have been struck by the curious nature of what little remains of the city: foundations with melted mud brick fragments, melted pottery, ash, charcoal, charred seeds, and burned textiles, all intermixed with pulverised mud brick and minerals that can only be produced under extremes of temperature and / or pressure. The more the city’s ruins were uncovered, the more the evidence pointed to some terrible calamity having befallen Tall el-Hammam and its surroundings, prompting the archaeologists to call in experts from the field of astronomy, geology, and physics. Their research has lead to the conclusion that the city was practically at the epicentre of a “cosmic airburst”.

Moment of detonation: an artist’s (rather mild) interpretation of the moment a 50m diameter chunk of rock travelling at 61,000 km/h detonated in the skies above Tall el-Hammam, Jordan, 3,600 years ago in a 15 megaton blast that obliterated the city in seconds. Credit: Allen West and Jennifer Rice, CC BY-ND

In short, 3,600 years ago, a piece of rock probably 50 metres across slammed into the atmosphere at 61,000 km/h. It survived the initial entry and fell to an altitude of approximately 4km above Tall el-Hammam before air resistance finally overcame its integrity. The result was a  15 megaton explosion that instant drove air temperatures to around 2,000ºC, enough to instantly flash-burn textiles, wood and flesh, and melt everything from swords and bronze tools to pottery and mud brick.

Seconds later, the shockwave from the explosion struck the city. Travelling at 1,200 km/h, it utterly pulverised what was not already aflame. Roughly a minute after the explosion, that same shockwave rolled over the city of Jericho, probably demolishing a good portion of its defensive wall and the buildings within it. That same shockwave also impacted the Dead Sea, potentially lifting vast amounts of salt water into the air, which rained back down over the valley, rendering it infertile for the next few hundred years, until rainfall could wash the salts out of the top soils.

The evidence for the cataclysm comes in multiple forms, from the melted pottery and mud brick through the clear evidence the city was pulverised in a manner that left a clearly defined “destruction layer” within the ruins, to the fact that within those ruins are deposits of shocked quartz, which are only formed when grains of sand are compressed with of force of 725,000 psi, and microscopic diamondoids, produced when carbon materials (e.g. plants, wood, etc.), are simultaneously exposed to massive extremes of temperature and pressure, and are a hallmark of ancient impact sites around the world.

A satellite image of the Middle East, showing the location of Tall el-Hammam on the northern coastal area of the Dead Sea. Satellite image via NASA

The ruins bring home the very real risk posed by near-Earth objects as they zap around the Sun, crossing and re-crossing Earth’s orbit. That a cosmic object also brought about the destruction of a small city and its 8,00 inhabitants raises the question of whether someone witnessed the event (obviously from many kilometres away) or its aftermath, and the telling and re-telling of the tale of destruction eventually morphed into the Biblical tale Sodom and Gomorrah, the two “cities of the plains” of the Dead Sea (and therefore potentially close to the site of Tall el-Hammam), supposedly destroyed by God in a rain of fire and rock falling from the sky.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars, Starship and a meteor that flattened a city”

Space Sunday: Inspiration4 and Chinese flights

A time-lapse image of the Inspiration4 launch captured from Cape Canaveral Space Force Centre south of Kennedy Space Centre, tracing the rocket’s curved ascent to orbit. Credit: unknown

The SpaceX Inspiration4 has completed the first non-professional astronaut flight into space, carrying aloft four people aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience, The second completed Crew Dragon vehicle, Resilience was used in the first operational SpaceX crew mission – Crew-1 – that flew to the International Space Station (ISS) in November 2020.

Intended as a fund-raising effort in support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with the goal of raising US $200 million to expand the hospital’s childhood cancer research programme; and along the way the flight set some significant milestones, including being:

  • The first flight crewed by civilians who had not been put through the full spectrum of astronaut selection and training routines.
  • The first “all rookie” crew (none having flown into space previously) since China’s Shenzhou 7 in 2008, and the first NASA all-rookie crew since STS-2 in 1981 (Joe Engle, the commander of that flight had earned his USAF astronaut wings flying the X-15, but the mission marked his first trip into orbit, and so considered a NASA rookie).
  • The highest-orbiting US crewed space mission since STS-125 in 2009, reaching an orbital apogee of 585 km (or around 185 km higher than the ISS), and the fifth highest crewed mission to orbit the Earth overall (the highest apogee of 1,368 km being reached by Gemini 11 in 1966 – and Inspiration4 actually overlapped the 55th anniversary of that mission).
  • The first orbital flight of a crewed US vehicle not to dock with the ISS since STS-125.
  • The first time two Crew Dragon vehicles have orbited the Earth simultaneously, with the Endeavour currently docked at the ISS as part of the Crew-2 mission, and the first time three Dragon vehicles have been in space at the same time, with the uncrewed Dragon CRS-23 mission also docked at the ISS.
  • The first time Crew Dragon has operated in “free flight” with a crew without any docking with the ISS.
  • The largest contiguous window ever flown in space (the cupola, protected during launch and re-entry by the capsule’s hinged nose cone.

The mission also helped set a new record for the most people orbiting the Earth at the same time, with 14 split between this mission (4), the Chinese Shenzhou-12 mission and the ISS (7) – although the Chinese crew were o their way back to Earth when Inspiration4 launched, landing on September 17th.

An external camera on the hull of Resilience captures an image of the exposed cupola. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX

The mission launched at :02:56 UTC on Thursday, September 16th, 2021 (20:02:56 EDT, Wednesday, September, 15th, 2021 in the US), atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster making its third launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. Ten minutes after lift-off, the booster was back on Earth, having successfully seen Resilience on its way to orbit (still attached to the rocket’s upper stage), before performing a “boost back” manoeuvre and a landing on the SpaceX autonomous drone ship Just Read The Instructions.

Aboard the Resilience were:

  • Jared Isaacman (38), a billionaire entrepreneur and businessman, who founded Shift4 Payments and Draken International, a private air force provider. He underwrote the flight and provided US $100 million for the fund-raising effort (Elon Musk has stated he’ll donate a further US $50 million). He is an experienced jet pilot qualified to fly military aircraft (including jet fighters). He served as the mission’s commander.
  • Sian Proctor (51), the eldest member of the crew and a geology professor and science communicator with unique ties to the US space programme: her father was a NASA engineer during the Apollo programme, and in 2009 she was one of 3,500, people who applied for one of nine places as an astronaut candidate, making it through to the last 47 from whom the 9 were selected. Her interests in space also saw her serve as a member of the mission control team for HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation), a remote research facility on the slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii. She won the Inspiration4 entrepreneurial competition to come up with an idea for the best use of Isaacman’s SHIFT4 platform, and served as the mission pilot. Her presence on the flight made her only the 4th African-American woman to fly into space, and the first to take the role of a mission pilot.
  • Hayley Arceneaux (29), a physician’s assistant at St. Jude’s. A a child she suffered from bone cancer, and received treatment at St. Jude’s receiving treatment that include the replacement of a length of leg bone with a prosthetic. She became an unofficial member of “staff” at the hospital during her long-term treatment, and in adult life returned to work at the hospital in a professional capacity. She was select for the mission by the hospital to both represent it and to serve as an inspiration to children receiving cancer treatment there. She served as the mission’s medical officer, becoming the youngest American to go into orbit, the first paediatric cancer survivor to fly into space, and the first person to fly to space with a prosthetic.
  • Christopher Sembroski (42) an American data engineer with a BSc in aeronautics. He served in the US Air Force, and currently works for Lockheed-Martin. An amateur stargazer, he has also volunteered as a Space Camp counsellor helping to conduct simulated space shuttle flights and in support of STEM-based teaching. He entered the Inspiration4 sweepstake for the final seat on the mission – but was awarded the seat after a close (and unnamed friend) won the seat and then gave it to him.
From left: Isaacman, Arceneaux, Sembroski and Proctor during a livestream with St. Jude’s Hospital patients, carried out from orbit. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX / St. Jude’s Hospital

While Isaacman and Protor fulfilled the roles of mission commander and mission pilot, Resilience flew in a fully automated mode. This allowed them, together with Arceneaux and Sembroski, to complete a highly-compressed training regime based on that given to qualified astronauts using the Crew Dragon vehicles to fly to / from the ISS. This training encompassed lessons in orbital mechanics, operating in a microgravity environment, stress testing, emergency preparedness training, and mission simulations.

Following the shutdown of the Falcon’s second stage motor, crew member Hayley Arceneaux produced the mission’s “fifth” crew member from a pouch in her space suit in the form of a plush doll puppy intended to represent the golden retriever assistance dogs at St. Jude’s, and which, tethered so as not to drift around too much, served as the mission’s “zero-gee” indicator. Following this, as the vehicle reached orbit, the hinged nose of the capsule opened to expose the cupola that had been fitted in place of the vehicle’s docking mechanism, which has been removed as Resilience would not be docking with the ISS.

A keen stargazer and photographer, Chris Sembroski is caught by the external camera on Resilience as he takes a photograph of Earth. Credit: Inspiration4 / SpaceX

After reaching orbit, the mission appeared to go quiet, with almost 24 hours passing before word was heard directly from the crew. In an age when we are used to more-or-less continuous livestreaming during ground-breaking missions (ironically very much fuelled by SpaceX’s own coverage of their missions), the silence promoted some social media speculation that something had gone awry with the mission.

However, the silence was simply down to the fact that as a privately-funded mission, how much (or little) of the time in space was livestreamed was the choice of Isaacman and the crew – and they elected to spend the first 24 hours in space in a combination of acclimatising themselves, appreciating and sharing in their unique situation, and in carrying out several of their planned experiments. A further practical reason for not livestreaming the entire flight is that the Inspiration4 mission is also working with Time Studios and Netflix on a documentary about the flight called Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, the final episode of which will air later this month and likely feature footage from the flight.

With the Earth “above” her, Hayley Arceneaux talks to Earth. Credit: C. Sembroski / Inspiration4

In terms of science, a key part of the mission was to serve as a pathfinder flight for research into “ordinary” people flying into space, albeit on a limited basis, given the brevity of the mission.

To this end, the crew carried with with a range of experiments In this, the mission included a wide range of in-flight health experiments arranged by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medicine, and which included measuring fluid shifts, recording ECG activity, blood oxygen levels, heart rates, etc., taking ultrasounds and carrying out microbe sample research. All of the experiments were

In addition, the crew also extended the inspirational aspect of the mission and its ties with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, by conducting a video conference with children at the hospital who are being treated for cancer.

I just want you all to know that we’re doing this for you. We are thinking about you so much, I wanted to tell you that I was a little girl going through cancer treatment, just like a lot of you. If I can do this, you can do this, and I’m so proud of each and every one of you.

– Hayley Arceneaux to children with cancer being treated by St. Jude’s Hospital

A low-resolution airborne thermal image of Resilience, surrounded by plasma, as it enters the denser part of the atmosphere. Credit: SpaceX

After some 70 hours in space, Resilience commenced its return to Earth on September 18th. This commenced with the capsule separating from its trunk – the lower service module that provided power and life support during the orbital phase of the mission, followed by a 15-minute burn of its de-orbit motors as the vehicle approached the Pacific coast of the central Americas, causing the vehicle to start to drop into the denser part of the atmosphere as it continued onwards towards the Gulf of Mexico.

At 80km altitude, the vehicle entered a period of maximum plasma interference, interrupting all communications with the ground for a period of 4.5 minutes. Re-entry slowed the vehicle from 28,000 km/h to around 560 km/h, exposing the crew to up to 5G in the process. Once travelling at 560 km/h, the vehicle’s twin drogue parachutes deployed, further slowing it to 192 km/h over a period of about a minute, allowing the four main parachutes to deploy. These then slowed the craft through the final two kilometres of descent, allowing it to splashdown off the coast of Florida at a “gentle” 24 km/h.

Splashdown occurred at 23:06 UTC (19:06 EDT) on September 18th, and marked the first time a US crewed space vehicle has splashed down in the Atlantic ocean since Apollo 9 in March 1969 (both the SpaceX Demo-2 and Crew-1 missions splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico). Support boats from the recovery vessel Go Searcher were immediately on the scene, their crews working to both “safe” the capsule and prepare it for lifting aboard the recovery vessel.

With support boats racing towards it, Resilience is captured a split second before splashdown by photographer John Kraus aboard the recovery ship Go Searcher. Credit: Inspriation4
Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome to planet Earth. Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us, and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them. Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity — and congratulations.

– Kris Young, SpaceX Space Operations Director, mission control, California, following the Inspiration4 splashdown

The recovery operations took some 40 minutes, and included further checks on the vehicle once it was aboard Go Searcher, prior to the side hatch being opened and the crew allowed to egress. Hayley Arceneaux exited first, followed by Proctor, Sembroski and Isaacman. They were escorted to the medical facilities on the recovery ship for an initial check-up and a wash and change of clothes before taking a helicopter to Kennedy Space Centre to undergo further post-flight checks.

With its return to Earth, Inspiration4 has potentially paved the way for more civilian flight opportunities aboard Crew Dragon vehicles, if of a more space tourist style – both Axiom and Space Adventures have contracted with SpaceX to fly fare-paying passengers into space, with Axiom taking them to the ISS, and Space Adventures offering four seats aboard a Crew Dragon free-flying orbital flight similar in format to Inspiration4.

The Inspiration4 crew – Hayley Arceneaux , Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski – after their return to Earth. Credit: Inspiration4

In the meantime, the Inspiration4 mission will continue to raise funds for St. Jude’s Hospital through the sale by auction of a series of items carried on the flight, including NFTs, collectibles and personal items such as artwork created by Sian Proctor during the flight.

Chinese Crew Returns Home As Space Station Supply Mission Readied

September 17th saw the Chinese 3-man crew of Shenzhou 12 make a successful return to Earth after a 3-month stay aboard China’s nascent Tiangong space station.

Commander Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo touched down inside the designated landing zone near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia, at around 05:34 UTC, and were quickly met by the recovery teams who “safed” the capsule before helping all three out for a Russian-style seated photo-op (the seats to prevent any accidents as the crew started to get reacquainted with gravity in their bulky pressure suits).

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo – are seen after exiting their Shenzhou capsule after landing in n the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia on Sept. 17th, 2021 to end a 92-day mission to China’s Tianhe module, the first piece of the Tiangong space station. Credit: CMSE

During their 92-day stay in orbit, the crew did much to ready the Tianhe-1 core module of the new space station in preparation for it to receive additional science modules in the coming 18 months. In particular, they verified Tianhe 1’s regenerative life support systems are running smoothly, carried out the installation of equipment both inside the module and on its exterior, and which had been carried to the station by the automated Tianzhou 2 re-supply vehicle ahead of their flight to the station, as well as carrying out research and experiments.

The universe is so vast, beautiful and fascinating. I was fortunate and happy to have the chance to fly up into the sky again and take a spacewalk on our own space station.

– Chinese tiakonaut Liu Boming

At the same time as Shenzhou-12 was departing Tianhe-1 on Wednesday, September 15th in preparation for its 2-day return to Earth, China rolled out what will be the 4th of 11 missions to complete their new space station.

Mounted on a Long March 7 launch vehicle, the Tianzhou 3 re-supply vehicle is expected to depart the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in Hainan, China, some time on Monday, September 20th, for an automated flight and docking with Tianhe-1. It will carry about six tonnes of cargo and consumables to the module ahead of the next planned crew mission. The latter mission, Shenzhou 13, is due to launch in mid-October and will see a crew of three spend 6 months at the station.

A Long March 7 rocket topped with China’s Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft rolls out to its launch pad on September 15th, 2021, and is expected to launch on Monday, September 20th, 2021. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office CMSE)

Prior to the mission Tianzhou 3 arriving at Tinahe-1, the Tianzhou 2 module will detach itself from the aft docking port on the module to re-dock at the forward multi-docking adaptor, where it will complete a propellant transfer to top-up the tanks for Tianhe’s orientation and orbital thrusters. It will remain docked with the station through the arrival of Tianzhou-3, and will be used as a target test for manipulating large objects using the module’s external robot arm.

Space Sunday: SpaceX, NASA and interstellar visitors

SpaceX Starbase, Boca Chica, September 7th, 2021: to the left, Booster 4 stands on the launch table, the launch support tower standing over it. To the top right is Starship 20 sitting on sub-orbital pad B, with the lower half of Booster 3 (the upper tank section of which was cut off and removed in August. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

SpaceX is continuing to move towards a first test flight of its Starship / Super Heavy launcher combination with the return of Booster 4 to the orbital launch facilities – although there is still some way still to go before an actual launch attempt will be made.

Following the test stacking of Booster 4 and Starship 20 on the launch table back in August (see Space Sunday: the Ups and Downs of Space Vehicle Development), Booster 4 was rolled back to the production facilities at the company’s Starbase centre at Boca Chica, Texas, to undergo a number of revisions.

Chief among these has been modification to the vent valve system, nominally used to allow excesses gaseous oxygen and methane to be vented from the rocket’s tanks as it naturally “boils off” due to temperature differentials the vehicle experiences when fuelled ahead of a launch. In particular, the vents for the booster’s lower tank now have covers that direct any gas downwards along the rocket’s body, and the vents for the upper tank focre the gas outwards and away from the rocket.

Booster 4 re-departs the production facilities at Starbase to drive the 1.5 km down the road to the launch facilities Credit:

This suggests that SpaceX plan to use the release of gas from the tanks as a means to help control the orientation of the rocket during its descent back through the atmosphere in a manner similar to a more traditional reaction control system (RCS). If this proves to be successful, it means SpaceX have further reduced Super Heavy’s mass by avoiding the need for separate RCS systems and their tankage.

Another issue with rockets is that as the fuel tanks empty they lose internal pressure, and this can interrupt the steady flow of propellants to the engines. To prevent this, most launch systems utilise a reserve of helium that can be fed into the tanks as the propellants are burnt, maintaining the necessary tank pressure. To remove the mass created by a helium system, SpaceX have opted to use the rarer option of autogenous pressurisation. This draws a small flow of heated propellants before they reach the engines, and feeds this flow – in gaseous form – back up the outside of the rocket via dedicated pipes to be returned to the fuel tanks to re-pressure them.

The new vent systems and the piping of the autogenous pressurisation feeds where clearly visible as Booster 4 was rolled back to the orbital launch facilities on Tuesday, September 7th, and hoisted back onto the launch table, with the speculation iit may remain there until the actual launch attempt.

Two views of Booster 4 showing the revised excess gas vents from the top of the lower tank tank and the autogenous pressurisation feed pipes, Also visible is the black mass of the QD Arm. Credit: What About It

When this will be is unclear; the operation to hoist the booster into position showed the launch table itself is still being completed, being wrapped in scaffolding. It’s also not clear how much of the necessary propellant and electrical feeds have been installed in the launch support tower – although the Quick Disconnect (QD) arm that actually feeds propellants into the Starship vehicle and provide it and the booster with electrical power has been installed (with further additions to come). Similarly, the actual tank farm that will supply consumables – water, propellants, etc., – to the pad to enable launches.

Even so, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested an initial static fire test with Booster 4 could come within the next week. Even if the majority of the required plumbing, etc., is in place, this seems possibly ambitious,  given that such a test will likely only come after at least one each of cryogenic propellant loading / pressurisation tests which will take pre-and post test checks.

How many static fire tests might be run is unclear; its unlikely that SpaceX will want to fire all 29 engines in the first test but will likely build up to it – perhaps starting with the three motors at the centre of vehicle, followed by a firing of all nine of the middle engines before progressing to firing all 29 engines. And it should be remembered any of these tests, from pressurisation through the engine firings, could result in the rocket sustaining damage or even being completely destroyed.

Booster 4 being gently lowered into the launch table ring mount at the Starbase orbital launch pad. Notes the amount of construction scaffolding still in place. Credit: Nic Ansuini /

After the August stack test, Starship 20 was moved from the the orbital launch pad to sub-orbital launch pad B, where it has been undergoing an extensive examination of its thermal protection system (TPS) designed to protect it during entry into the atmosphere. The tiles on this system appear to have suffered more than the anticipated amount of stress / damage due to it being lifted up onto the booster by its snout in order to be stacked on the booster, requiring a lot of them to be replaced and others refitted / re-aligned. This work is now drawing to a close, but does point to a need for the tile system to be more robust if rapid turnarounds of Starships is to be achieved in the future.

Most recently, the vehicle has been receiving the six Raptor motors that will power it. This has sparked speculation that once this work is complete, Starship 20 could be ready to start its cryogenic and fuel pressurisations tests ahead of static firing test – again, possibly the inner three first, then all six.

How it started and how it is going: two shots indicating the number of Starship 20 heat shield tiles that needed to be completely replaced (red tags) or which required refitting / realigning (green tags) following the operation to stack and remove the vehicle on its booster in August. Credit:

A final element key to any launch attempt (and the full booster static fire test) is the granting of permission and a licence by the Federal Aviation Administration, which appears to be rightly determined not to be rushed into giving the OK whilst it is still conducting an extensive review of the Starbase facilities and their overall suitability for Super Heavy / Starship launches  in the event of an accident (particularly after the airborne explosion of Starship SN11in march 2021 resulted in debris falling to earth 8 km from the SpaceX facilities and close to a populated area).

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