Space Sunday: starships, helicopters and rockets

A camera close to the landing zone captures Starship SN15 with two good Raptor motor burns bringing it into a safe landing on May 5th. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has achieved its first successful landing of a Starship prototype after Starship SN15 was launched on May 5th, 2021.

The vehicle was the fifth full-scale prototype of the vehicle SpaceX intends to use on missions to Mars – and so much more – with the previous four, prototypes SN8, SN9, SN10 and SN11 all having suffered failures of various descriptions: SN8 came in too “hot” blowing up as it hit the landing pad; SN9 encountered motor issues that lead to being unable to remain upright so it also crashed into the landing pad; SN10 actually made a touch-down, but issues with one of its motors meant it blew up shortly afterwards; and SN11 exploded prior to landing after encountering issues when re-starting its Raptor motors.

Just before launch, Starship SN15 on the launch stand, venting excess vapours. The structure to the left is a test rig that is being used to simulate the dynamic stresses the forward section of an unladen Starship will face during atmospheric entry. Credit: SpaceX

SN15, however, is a substantially different vehicle to those. As the first of the “next generation” prototypes, it includes multiple updates and improvements throughout – including flying with the very latest iteration of the Raptor motors. Proof of this came in the run-up to the flight, when SN15 completing all its pre-flight tests without a significant issue – unlike the earlier models.

The vehicle lifted-off at 23:24 UTC, rapidly vanishing into low-altitude cloud as it climbed to the expected altitude of 10 kilometres, where it flipped into a horizontal skydiving descent. Just over 6 minutes after lift-off, the roar of the three Raptor engines re-starting reverberated through the clouds before the vehicle re-appeared in a tail-fist descent on  two of the three engines to complete a successful landing.

Starship SN15 on the landing pad, post-flight. The fire around the engine skirt is visible, and the fire suppression system can be seen dousing the area in water. Credit: SpaceX

Following landing, a small fire was visible at the base of the vehicle – the result of excess methane venting, and an issue SpaceX will need to address. However, it was clear that SN15 was safely down on the ground and “safing” procedures could commence.

Despite the atmospheric conditions, the team at NASAspaceflight.com team (this is not an official NASA group) had a number of video cameras placed around the SpaceX facilities at Boca Chica, Texas, and following the flight, they edited the footage from those cameras together to show the lift-off and landing sequences from different angles, some with the audio delay created by the distance of the camera from the launch stand edited out.

Some of these clips bring home the raw power of the Raptor engines – seconds after ignition, the shockwave of sound from the three engines on the Starship starts the camera vibrating – a small demonstration of what is to come when a Super Heavy / Starship combination lifts-off with no fewer than 28 of these engines firing simultaneously.

Following the flight, some pundits were forecasting SN15 could be set to make a second flight, possibly in short order – an idea fuelled be Elon Musk. This seems unlikely, as SpaceX will doubtless want to carefully examine the vehicle to learn all that they can from it prior to attempting to fly it a second time – if, indeed, they do.

All six of SN15’s landing legs suffered severe damage, as shown in this image, possibly the result of lateral loads placed on the vehicle on landing. Credit: SpaceX

As it is, the the landing legs – and possibly the base of the vehicle as well – suffered considerable damage during the “nominal” landing, as the image to the right shows.

Thought to be the result of lateral loading – the vehicle may have skidded sideways on touch-down – the damage is further evidence that SpaceX needs to seriously re-think how landing legs are mounted and deployed.

This is something the company his indicated it would be doing – and images of the proposed Starship Human Landing System (HLS) points to the direction in which they may move – although Musk has also floated the idea of eventually discarding any landing legs, and “catching” returning Starships via a launch tower, a-la his idea for Super Heavy – an idea that will presumably only apply to those Starships intended to operate no further than Earth orbit.

The next vehicle in the fleet that is likely to fly will be SN16, The legs on SN15 are the same as those on the earlier SN8-SN11 vehicles, and they are slated to be replaced by a more robust system,  and the degree of damage they suffered either as a result of a heavier touch-down or a possible lateral load being placed on the legs as a result of the vehicle “sliding” as it touched down. Either way, this damage along means that SN15 is unlikely to re-fly soon (although that doesn’t mean it won’t re-fly at some point).

As it stands, SN16 is now fully stacked and ready for transfer to a launch stand in order to have its Raptor engines fitted in preparation for a flight – this transfer could take place as soon as the coming week.

It is unclear how many more Starship launches will occur in the short-term: SpaceX is attempting to carry out an orbital launch of a Super Heavy Booster and an unladen Starship in July. Given the state of preparations – the company has yet to produce a fully flight-ready Super Heavy (Booster Number 1 has been scrapped, and work appears to have ceased on BN2 and BN2.1, leaving only BN3 under assembly at the moment), plus the orbital launch facilities are still under construction. Thus, unless attention and resources are significantly further shifted to booster development and testing, that July date seems to be highly ambitious.

Ingenuity Says ‘Farewell’ to “Wright Brothers Field”

On  Friday, May 7th, 2021, the Mars helicopter drone Ingenuity completed its 5th of five pre-planned test flights. In doing so, the little 1.8 Kg helicopter both set a new record and commenced a new phase in its mission.

During this flight, Ingenuity initially rose to the “usual” altitude of 5 metres, then said “farewell” to its operational based of “Wright Brother’s Field”, and headed south for a distance of  129 metres before coming to a hover. It this ascended further – climbing to 10 metres to take high-resolution of the area around itself, before descending to a landing in a flight lasting a total of 108 seconds.

The new landing site was selected on the strength of images gathered during the 4th flight for Ingenuity. It lies fairly close to the path the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will follow as it now commences its science operations in earnest. The initial plans for the rover do not require it to make long-haul drives, but rather investigate the area to the south of the mission’s landing site, and this will allow the Ingenuity team to carry out further flights that can both further test their vehicle and allow them to potentially assist the rover team by scouting possible places of interest for the rover to explore.

Overall, Ingenuity is in fair better shape than had been expected at this point in its flight regime: the solar collectors are working optimally, the battery system is providing more than enough energy to both power the little vehicle and to keep it warm during the harsh Martian nights.

The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations. We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing. We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.

– Bob Balaram, Ingenuity Chief Engineer, NASA/JPL

Prior to the 5th flight, NASA issued an audio recording captured by Perseverance of Ingenuity’s 4th flight – something the mission teams had been hoping to do.

The recording is a fascinating demonstration of the difference in how sound travels on Mars compared to Earth. Given the speed the rotors on Ingenuity spin (2400 rpm), one might expect the helicopter to generate the same high-pitched whine common to radio control helicopters on Earth. However, as the recording reveals, the less-dense atmosphere of Mars reduces the motor sounds from Ingenuity to a low-pitched hum. When listening, also note the doppler shift created by the drone’s motion away from, and back towards, the rover.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: starships, helicopters and rockets”

Space Sunday: a helicopter, a space station and a big ‘plane

April 25th (mission Sol 64), Ingenuity’s sideways looking colour camera just manages to image NASA’s Perseverance rover as it observes the helicopter’s 3rd flight from a distance of 85 metres from Ingenuity. The black disc in the lower left is one of the helicopter’s landing feet. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter drone has now complete four of its five initial flights on Mars, and in doing so, NASA has announced the programme has moved from demonstration flights to an extended “operational” flight regime covering at least a further 30 days. In particular, Ingenuity will be used to test how future aerial drones might be used in support of ground-based operations, with Ingenuity working in partnership with Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover, as the latter commences the operational phase of its own science mission.

For Ingenuity to now enter a new operational demonstration phase, our team has been extremely happy and proud. It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the test demo phase to, now, the new demo phase, where we can show how rotorcraft can be used.

– MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Project Manager

During its third flight, which occurred on Sunday, April 25th (mission Sol 64) Ingenuity flew a total of 100 metres, again at an altitude of around 5 metres, lifting-of from “Wright Brothers Field” to travel 50 metres downrange before hovering briefly and then returning to “Wright Brothers Field” and making a safe landing.

Along the way, the helicopter achieved another first – capturing a shot of Perseverance from the air. When enlarged, the image of the rover was slightly grainy, but the helicopter was moving at speed and was some 85 metres from Perseverance, with the colour camera set to periodically take photos – given the Earth-Mars distance, it simply isn’t possible to aim the camera in real time during a flight.

A series of still images from the downward-facing camera on Ingenuity strung together to produce an animation of the helicopter’s shadow passing over the surface of Mars. NASA/JPL

The helicopter’s 4th flight had been planned for Thursday 29th at 14;12 UTC, but was cancelled when Ingenuity has a further timing issue of the kind that caused a postponement of its pre-flight checks in early April. Whilst adjustments were made to the helicopter’s software to correct the issue, the engineering team noted that there was potential for it to again occur.

However the fact that the issue had been encountered meant the team were prepared for the problem, and 24 hours later, Ingenuity lifted-off to cover a total distance of 266 metres – 133 downrange and 133 back to “Wright Brothers Field”, flying for a total of 117 seconds, – well in excess of the planned maximum flight time of 90 seconds, and reaching a horizontal speed of 13 km/h.

Images from the flight were still being received and processed at the time of writing this article, but it is hoped that Ingenuity may have again caught Perseverance in one the five 13 megapixel shots taken with its sideways-looking colour camera. It  is also hoped that the microphones aboard the rover, which were turned on during the flight, may have caught the sounds of Ingenuity flying.

The Mastcam Z system on NASA’s Perseverance rover captures an image of Ingenuity flying downrange from during its 4th flight on April 30th, 2021. NASA/JPL

The decision to extend Ingenuity’s mission beyond the initial 30 days came as something of surprise: prior to the 4th flight being delayed, NASA were still talking in terms of the flight regime ending after the initial 30 days.

However, a re-evaluation of Perseverance’s science programme brought about a change of heart.  The initial flight extension is for a further 30 days, with further extensions possible if the helicopter can continue to operate in partnership with the rover, rather than the latter being a passive observer. Theoretically, there are no limits to how long Ingenuity might operate: it has no limiting consumables, and the only real threats to its operation being a crash, a mechanical issue or a failure resulting from the thermal stresses imparted by the day / night temperatures extremes.

China launches First Space Station Element

At  03:23 GMT on April 29th, a heavy-lift Long March 5B booster lifted-off from China’s Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island of Hainan, carrying the core module of the nation’s long-awaited permanent space station into orbit.

The Long March 5B used to launch the Tianhe-1 core module of the Chinese space station rolls out to the launch pad at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island, April 23rd, 2021, ahead of its April 29th launch. Credit: STR/China News Service
The 22.6 tonne Tianhe-1 (“Harmony of the Heavens”), also known as the Crew Cabin Module, is a 3-section unit designed to provide living quarters for a planned crew of 3 tiakonauts (as Chinese astronauts are called), with the associated life support systems, a power, propulsion facility that will provide power, life support, control and guidance for the entire station, and a docking hub.

Overall, the Tiangong space station is expected to comprise Tianhe-1 and two additional modules, Wentian and  Mengtian. The latter will provide a mix of research and science capabilities, together with further navigation avionics, propulsion and orientation control systems. Once launched, they will bring the station to around 60 tonnes in mass, with the option of additional capabilities being provided by Tianzhou resupply vehicles.

An artist’s illustration of China’s space station in Earth orbit. The core Tianhe-1 module extends from the centre to lower right, with a Tianzhou automated cargo / resupply vehicle docked at the aft airlock. Upper left shows a Shenzhou crew vehicle docked at the forward docking hub airlock. lower left and upper right are the two science modules with their solar arrays extended. Credit: Adrian Mann/All About Space magazine/Future Plc

Tiangong builds on the experience China gained in operating two (relatively short-lived) orbital laboratories, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2.  Despite its small size when compared to the 460-tonne International Space Station, the Chinese station will have a powerful research capability: fourteen internal experiment racks and more than 50 external docking points for instruments designed to gather data in the space environment, with 100 experiments already earmarked for flight on the station.

The two additional modules will not be launched until 2022. Before then, Tianhe will be visited by a automated Tianzhou resupply vehicle in May 2021. This will be followed in in June 2021 by the first crewed flight to the station. Tianzhou and crewed missions will then continue alternately in September / October 2021 and April / May 2022, before the science modules are launched for automated rendezvous with Tianhe-1 in May or June 2021 and August or September 2022.

Among its duties, the station will help China prepare for its planned crewed missions to the Moon and also co-operate a Hubble-class space telescope China plans to launch in 2024. This will occupy an orbit in a similar inclination to the station, allowing it to be serviced by crews operating from the station.

In  the meantime, the booster used to launch Tianhe-1 has caused consternation as China has effectively abandoned the 30 metre long core in low Earth orbit, and it is expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s denser atmosphere some time in the next week. This is a cause for concern as the booster’s orbit carries it over population centres such as New York, Madrid, Beijing and Wellington, New Zealand, and there are elements such as the motors that could survive entry into the atmosphere and strike the ground.

This is not the first time China has taken a cavalier attitude towards large mass orbital debris coming back to Earth: both the Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 orbital laboratories were left to make uncontrolled re-entries into the atmosphere, risking potential ground impacts.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a helicopter, a space station and a big ‘plane”

Space Sunday special: Michael Collins

Michael Collins in his official NASA Apollo 11 photo. Credit: NASA

On Wednesday, April 28th, 2021. the news came that Michael Collins, the Command and Service Module pilot on Apollo 11 had passed away at the age of 90.

Collins was the unsung hero of Apollo 11. While Armstrong and Aldrin held the world’s attention, he quietly circled the Moon in the CSM on his own. A natural loner, he stated he never really felt lonely, and in the 48 minutes of each orbit when he was out of radio contact with the Earth as Columbia passed round the far side of the Moon, has was not afraid. Rather, he felt “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.

Born on October 31st, 1930 in Rome, Italy, Collins, was the second son and forth child of James Lawton Collins and Virginia Collins ( née Stewart). The Collins family was steeped in military service, a fact that helped shaped Michael’s life.

Rising to the rank of of major-general, his father served in the 8th Cavalry during the Philippine–American War, and also saw deployments in both World Wars; he was also an aide-de-camp to General of the Armies John Joseph (Black Jack” Pershing. His brother – Michael’s uncle – was General J. Lawton Collins, the Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. Collins’ elder brother, James Lawton Collins Jr., also served in US Army in World War II and rose to the rank of brigadier general, and served as the U.S. Army Chief of Military History from 1970 to 1982.

Given his father’s career, Collins spent the first 17 years of his life following his father to his various US and overseas posting. During this time – and possibly fuelled by his father’s tale of flying on a Wright Brother’s biplane in 1911 – he jumped at the chance to take the controls of a US Army Air Corp Widgeon being flown by a family friend, awakening a nascent talent for flying.

Graduating from college in 1948 Collins briefly toyed with the idea of entering the US diplomatic service,  but opted to follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother, entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, sharing his class with future fellow astronaut Ed White. Graduating from West Point in 1952 with a BSc in military science, Collins had the choice of pursuing an Army or Air Force career and decided on the latter in part because of his love of flying and the rate at which aeronautics were developing, and in part because given the careers of his father, uncle and brother, he was worried about accusations of nepotism should he enter the Army.

Collins aboard Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

It  turned out that Collins was a “natural” pilot who easily took to flying jets. After training, he was selected for advanced day fighter training – a highly dangerous activity at the time, with 11 of his classmates killed during the 22 weeks of the training course. He also trained with fighter-bombers and gained qualifications in nuclear weapons delivery as well as maintaining his edge as a fighter pilot, winning first prize in a 1956 gunnery competition.

During the late 1950s, Collins was awarded command of a Mobile Training Detachment allowing him to accumulate over 1,500 hours flying time, which in turn gained him admittance to the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School. From 1960 through 1962, he flew numerous jet aircraft – although the test pilot’s life of hard flying and occasional ’bouts of hard drinking in celebration / commiseration encouraged him to quit smoking, with a four-hour flight as co-pilot of a B52 Stratofortress bomber getting him through the initial stages of nicotine withdrawal.

In 1962, like millions of others, Collins witnessed the flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. As s result, he applied to be a part of the second NASA astronaut intake, but his application was unsuccessful. However, as the Air Force was trying to enter space research via its own means, Collins applied for a new postgraduate course offered on the basics of space flight. He was accepted into the third class, studying alongside future astronauts: Charles Bassett, Edward Givens and Joe Engle.

In mid-1963 NASA started recruitment for their third astronaut intake – and Deke Slayton, the Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA, personally called both Collins and Bassett and offered them places in the astronaut training programme after reviewing their applications.

After completing his basic training, Collins opted to take pressure suits and extravehicular activities (EVAs, also known as spacewalks) as his specialised area of study. In writing his autobiography, he admitted that he was concerned at being excluded from the planning for the first American space walk – undertaken by Ed White in June 1965 – despite have the greatest expertise in the practical operation of space suits and in EVA protocols.

He was the first Group 3 astronaut to receive a crew assignment – back-up pilot for Gemini 7, which assigned him a flight seat on Gemini 10, alongside mission commander John “Jim” Young, who would go on to become NASA’s most experienced astronaut, flying Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.

Collins (right) with John Young ahead of their Gemini 10 flight. Credit: NASA

Gemini 10 was one of the most ambitious of the Gemini programme. It carried fifteen scientific experiments – more than any other Gemini mission outside of Gemini 7; it also called for two EVAs, and multiple rendezvous and docking with two Agena target vehicles. The EVAs meant that Collins became the first person to complete two spacewalks in the same mission.

Following the success of the 3-day Gemini 10 mission, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for the second crewed Apollo flight (Apollo 2), serving as the lunar Module Pilot, with Frank Borman as Commander and Thomas P. Stafford the Command Module Pilot. The training exposed Collins to both piloting the lunar module and the command module, and allowed him to receive training as a helicopter pilot – helicopters being believed to be the best way to simulate the descent of the lunar module.

With the ending of the Gemini programme, NASA opted to reshuffle the Apollo mission line up, axing Apollo 2 as it was seen as largely a re-run of Apollo 1. This and alterations to the crew rosters resulted in Collins – with the benefit of his experience and vehicle exposure – being transferred from lunar module pilot to command module pilot. In his role, he was promoted to the prime crew for Apollo 8.

Tragedy and health then intervened: the first in the form of the Apollo 1 fired that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and which prompted a redesign of the Apollo Command Module and a reorganisation of the planned Apollo flights. The second came as a result of Collins suffering a cervical disc herniation in early 1968 that required surgery. As a result, Collins was initially moved from Apollo 8 to Apollo 9, and then removed from that mission to allow time to recuperate from his surgery.

As a result of all of this, Collins was selected with fellow Group 3 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the exceptional Group 2 astronaut Neil Armstrong for the crew of Apollo 11, now earmarked to make the first crewed landing on the Moon – providing Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 missions completed successfully.

Collins (left) with Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in an engaging black and white portrait (later colourised). Credit: NASA

Given his role as Command Module Pilot, Collins often trained separately to Armstrong and Aldrin – and given they would be the two who would be the first humans to land on the Moon, they often took the lion’s share of media interest . Yet it was his role in the mission that perhaps carried the heaviest burden: if anything went wrong with the lunar module that left his colleagues stranded, Collins would be the one who would have to abandon them to their deaths and return to Earth alone.

Apollo 11 lifted-off from Kennedy Space Centre on July 16th, 1969. The mission has been documented to such a degree (including in these pages), that little need be said about the major elements. While Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins – who was also responsible for design the mission’s patch – kept himself busy with a range of tasks aboard the command and service module, which he came to regard as his personal space to the extent he wrote a dedication to the vehicle in the equipment bay:

Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP

He also dealt with a potential malfunction in the vehicle’s coolant system which, if unchecked, might have resulted in parts of Columbia freezing.

Mission Control advised him to follow a complicated procedure for taking manual control of the system as he passed out of radio range around the far side of the Moon. When he regained radio contact, he reported the issue dealt with – although he did so by the simple expedient of ignoring Mission Control entirely and simply switching the system to manual control and then back to automatic!

I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.

– Michael Collins, recounting how he felt after Armstrong and Aldrin had departed for the lunar
surface, and he was passing around the Moon’s far side
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, 1974)

Continue reading “Space Sunday special: Michael Collins”

Space Sunday: flights and MOXIE on Mars, ISS news

A comparison of the altitudes reached by Ingenuity during its first and second flights. Via NASA / JPL / iGadgetPro

Ingenuity, the small drone helicopter that forms part of the Mars 2020 mission, completed its 2nd successful flight on Mars on Thursday, April 22nd, 2021 (mission Sol 61), just days after become the first powered vehicle from Earth to lift-off and fly on another planet (see: ). And in keeping with the promise from the flight and engineering team, the second sortie was a  little more ambitious than the first.

Lifting-off at 09:33 UTC, the helicopter rose to an altitude of 5 metres before hovering and then transitioning into a controlled sideways flight covering a distance of around 2 metres before again coming to a halt. It then hovered in place, rotating itself to point its on-board colour camera in several different directions before transitioning back into horizontal flight to hover over its landing site and then descend to a safe landing.

In all, the light lasted 52 seconds, and was watched by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, parked some 64 metres away on “Van Zyl Overlook”. During the flight, Ingenuity used  its black-and-white camera to image the ground beneath it. Also – in another first – the helicopter took the first image of the surface of Mars captured by an operating aerial vehicle in controlled flight. The image clearly shows the tracks left by Perseverance as it manoeuvred around “Wright Brothers Field”, the location where Ingenuity is being tested.

An image from Ingenuity captured on April 22nd showing tracks left by Perseverance, note the helicopter’s shadow at the bottom of the image, and the landing feet visible top left and top right. Credit: NASA/JPL

While not overly dramatic in terms of manoeuvrings, the second flight paved the way for the third of five flights, which took place in the early hours on Sunday, April 25th, commencing at 05:31 UTC.

In this flight – for which data was still being received as this article was being prepared – Ingenuity rose to a height of 5.2 metres, hovered, and then flew a distance of some 50 metres downrange at a maximum speed of 2 metres / second (7.2 km/h). Following a further hover, the helicopter than returned uprange to again land at “Wright Brothers Field”. As with the 2nd flight, Ingenuity was able to use both its black-and-white and colour cameras, which have been received by NASA JPL and published.

Today’s flight was what we planned for, and yet it was nothing short of amazing. With this flight, we are demonstrating critical capabilities that will enable the addition of an aerial dimension to future Mars missions.

– Dave Lavery NASA program executive for Ingenuity, Washington DC

A further image captured by Ingenuity, this time during its April 25th 50-metre downrange flight. Credit: NASA/JPL

The April 25thflight was the longest yet, lasting 80 seconds. It now in turn paves the way for the last two in the pre-planned sequence of five initial flights in the coming days, and potentially opens the door for flights beyond those, if both are successful.

The video below compares Ingenuity’s first and second flights using animations of frames captured by the Mastcam-Z system on Perseverance. Note that the “side-to-side blinking” at the end of the video is a repeated showing of images captured by the left and right cameras of the Mastcam-Z system (which can also be used to produce stereoscopic images).

Perseverance also made history on April 22nd, by turning a sample of the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. Using the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment ( MOXIE), a unit roughly the size of a car battery, the rover produced an initial 5 grams of  oxygen – the equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut carrying out normal activity, as explained in the video below.

Five grams is an impressive, but small amount;  however, when running at full output, the MOXIE test-bed should produce around 10 grams per hour. More particularly, when scaled-up to a one tonne unit, MOXIE could produce 25 tonnes of usable oxygen over the course of several months.  That’s enough to help fuel a vehicle from the surface of Mars and back into orbit.

And this is why MOXIE is important. A major part of the mass required for a human mission to Mars is the oxygen and fuel feed stock the crew will need both to survive some 500 days on Mars and to power the vehicle that must lift them back up to orbit (and / directly back to Earth). That adds up to a lot of payload mass that has to be carried to, and landed on, Mars. So, if a good proportion of that mass could be removed from the equation, then human missions to Mars become a lot less payload intensive.

This idea was first put forward in the late 1990s by Drs. Robert Zubrin and David Baker as a part of the Mars Direct mission concept. In that idea, they postulated not only producing oxygen using the Martian atmosphere, but also methane fuel. Their idea meant that potentially, 112 tonnes of fuel and oxygen could be produced on Mars ahead of each crewed mission – enough to fuel their return vehicle to Earth and provide a reserve for use during their stay on Mars, all for the cost of lifting around 6 tonnes of hydrogen to Mars.

The Mars Direct proposal used hydrogen as as a feed stock to produce both oxygen and methane that could be used to fuel the Earth Return Vehicle a crew would use travel back to Earth. Credit: Zubrin & Baker / Pey

NASA’s goal is more modest, with the focus currently only on oxygen production; fuel such as liquid methane would still have to carried to Mars from Earth and suitably stored – although there is no reason why a broader use of ISRU – In-Situ Resource Utilisation, as the process is called – to produce oxygen and fuel could not be tested in the future. On Earth, using a NASA research grant, Zubrin proved the basic concept he and Baker developed (which in turn uses 19th century chemistry) actually works, producing oxygen, methane and water using just carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

China Names Their Rover

Mid-May should see China place its first lander / rover combination on the surface on Mars. A part of the Tianwen-1 mission that arrived in Mars orbit ahead of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, the rover has up until recently remained unnamed.

However, on Saturday, April 24th, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced the rover will now be called Zhurong after the god of fire and of the south, and an important personage in Chinese mythology and Chinese folk religion (also known as Chongli).

An artist’s impression of Chinese Zhurong rover on Mars. Credit: CNSA

The name was selected following a national competition of the kind NASA has used for the naming of its Mars rovers. It was seen by CNSA as being particularly apt as the Chinese name for Mars is Huoxing, or “fire star” – so it’s the god of fire on the fire star.

Roughly the size of NASA’s Wars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit, although slightly heavier, Zhurong carries panoramic and multispectral cameras, instruments to analyse the composition of rocks and ground-penetrating radar to also investigate subsurface characteristics. It  will most likely set down on Utopia Planitia, a Martian plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: flights and MOXIE on Mars, ISS news”

Mars Monday: Ingenuity flies

Ingenuity hovers 3m above the surface of Jezero Crater, Mars, watched by the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL

April 19th saw aviation and space flight history made 288 million kilometres from Earth, when a tiny drone-like craft weighing just 1.8 kg spun-up two contra-rotating rotor blades, each 1.2 metres in diameter, to 2,500 rpm and then rose into the tenuous atmosphere of Mars to a height of 3 metres, hovered rotated about its vertical axis, then descended to land on the Martian surface once more.

Ingenuity, a proof-of-concept system to test the feasibility of controlled, powered flight on Mars, is a remarkable little vehicle that holds great promise for the future of the exploration of that world. While this initial flight was short – under a minute in total length from spinning-up its rotors to touch-down, it opens the door to more extensive flights over the coming days that will see the vehicle complete more complex manoeuvres. In doing so, it will provide vital information on the behaviour of rotary vehicles on Mars, vehicles that could in the future provide enormous additional potential and capabilities to future robotic missions on Mars and eventually support human missions.

The flight occurred at 07:31 UTC on Monday, April 19th, with telemetry being recorded by the helicopter’s own systems and relayed to the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which also recorded the event using its Mastcam-Z camera system and its navigation cameras. The initial data from the flight was then transmitted to Earth some three hours later, with additional images and video being transmitted throughout the day.

The first indication of the success of the flight came not through any pictures but via a simple graphic track of altimeter readings made by Ingenuity. Mostly flat to show the vehicle was sitting on the ground, the track was marked by a sudden “bump” recording the vehicle rise to just over 3 metres, its hover, and then its descent. It was enough to get the helicopter’s flight team – a handful at JPL practising social distancing in a large room, the rest working from home – rejoicing. But the chart was just the opening treat.

The altimeter data track from Ingenuity was the first solid indication that Ingenuity had successfully flown. Credit: NASA/JPL

Following the initial receipt of data, still images in low-resolution captured by Perseverance’s navigation cameras clearly showed the helicopter “jumping” between to close-together points, indicating that during the period between the images, it had flown and landed. However the biggest treat came later in the day with a stream of frames captured by the Mastcam-Z system on the rover.  When strung together, these produced a video of the flight.

Ingenuity is a project more than six years in the making, and has uniquely involved not only multiple NASA space and science centres, but also their aviation research and development centres as well. It was actually a late addition to the Mars 2020 mission, requiring some extensive changes to the rover that had to be made in order to mount the helicopter beneath the rover’s belly, and include a mechanism for deploying Ingenuity onto the surface of Mars.

Ahead of the Mars 2020 launch, Ingenuity want through extensive testing to simulate flight conditions on Mars. This involved placing the vehicle a large vacuum chamber filled with carbon dioxide to a pressure to match the surface atmospheric pressure on Mars – which is the equivalent of Earth’s at an altitude of 30 km. To simulate the low Martian gravity (38% that of Earth’s), a special rig was attached to the demonstrator to counter 62% of its mass. Finally, a wall of 900 computer fans was used to simulate typical surface wind speeds on the surface of Mars, as recorded by the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity.

 All of this allowed engineers to define the optimal size of the helicopter’s rotors, balancing them against Ingenuity’s mass and size and to determine things like their required rate of spin to achieve flight – between 2,400 and 2,500 rpm  – five times the speed of Earth-based helicopter rotors.

A low-resolution image taken by Ingenuity’s downward point camera showing the helicopter’s shadow on the surface of Mars as it hovers at a height of 3m. Credit: NASA/JPL

Even so, flying an engineering test model in a controlled environment is very different to doing the same on Mars – hence a lot was riding on this first flight.

Ahead of it, the area selected for the test flight sequence and previously dubbed “the airfield” was unofficially renamed “Wright Brothers Field”. Having safely dropped off the helicopter there in early April, Perseverance had driven some 70 metres from Ingenuity at a rise overlooking the area that NASA has dubbed “Van Zyl Overlook” in honour of key Ingenuity team member Jakob van Zyl, who passed away unexpectedly in August 2020. From this vantage point it is hoped that the rover will be able to record all of Ingenuity’s flights.

Captured by Ingenuity’s downward-pointing camera, this image shows Ingenuity’s shadow on the surface of Mars just before it lands. Two of the vehicle’s legs can be seen top left and top right, while the 2,500 rpm spin of the contra-rotating blades used to provide lift makes them appear semi-transparent. Credit: NASA/JPL

Prior to the flight, and as noted in my previous Space Sunday update, the flight team had to make some changes to the software overseeing Ingenuity’s first flight. Not only have these adjustments worked well, it is hoped that they will remove any need for running a complete software re-installation on the vehicle – a process that could take several days to complete and severely impact the ability to complete all of the remaining four planned test flights. However, the option of a full re-installation is being kept open should further issues arise with the timing and control processes.

Inn the meantime, it’s going to be a few days before all of the data from the first flight has been analysed. As such, the next flight for Ingenuity has yet to be scheduled.

When it does goes ahead, it should see the helicopter rise to an altitude of around 5 metres, then translate into horizontal flight for a distance of some 50 metres before coming to a stop, then returning once more to land.

As it is, the initial telemetry from Ingenuity shows it is a good health – better, in fact than before it lifted off. This is because the flight removed dust that had been accumulating on the solar cells located above the vehicle’s rotors, interfering with their efficiency.

In all the Mars Helicopter project has three goals:

  • Show via Earth-based testing that it should be possible for a heavier-than-air vehicle  to take flight on Mars – achieve via the vacuum tests described above.
  • Achieve stable flight on Mars – now achieved through this first flight.
  • Obtain data that can inform engineers as to the design and capabilities required by future aerial vehicles that could be deployed to Mars – and also elsewhere in the solar system, such as Saturn’s moon Titan.
Following the flight, the ICAO has officially designated Ingenuity the first of aircraft type IGY, and gave its testing area on Mars the airport code JZRO. image credit: NASA

Continue reading “Mars Monday: Ingenuity flies”

Space Sunday: to the Moon, ready to fly and pioneers

An artist’s rendering of the SpaceX Starship HLS, now selected by NASA. Credit: SpaceX

On April 16th, in what was something of a surprising announcement, NASA confirmed that SpaceX has been granted the sole contract to develop the first Human Landing System (HLS) required for the Artemis project to return humans to the Moon.

HLS is the technical name given to the vehicle that will physically deliver crews to the surface of the Moon and return them back to lunar orbit. It is also the single element of the Artemis project that more-or-less ruled out the agency meeting the goal of returning the first crew to the Moon by the end of 2024. Developing a space vehicle is not a short-term activity, it requires years of development and testing, and a lot of money. Prior to the announcement, and with just 3.5 years to go for NASA to be able to meet the 2024 goal, it felt as if the decision on any HLS contract was being pushed down the road, NASA’s 2021 budget for any development stood at just US $850 million, around a quarter of the amount requested from Congress.

It was not until April 2020 that initial contracts were awarded to SpaceX and teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics for initial proposal and develop of potential landing systems (see:  Space Sunday: the Sun’s twin, going to the Moon & SpaceX). At the time NASA indicated they would likely proceed with two of the options; hence the reason for some of the surprise expressed after what was something of a hastily-arranged press conference the focused only on SpaceX gaining the initial contract – although the door is being kept open for the other teams to bid / compete for future Artemis missions.

During the announcement, NASA admitted that costs and a limited budget were a major factor in the decision. Not only is SpaceX already well down the road in Starship development, their bid price for the contract was significantly lower than either Blue origin or Dynetics. A further factor in SpaceX’s favour is their long-term operational relationship with NASA.

In this 2020 rendering (sans the revised landing legs), three of the exhaust ports for the high-thrust RCS system that will be used to bring the SpaceX HLS into a landing can be see below and to the right of the crew egress door. Credit: SpaceX

The contract to develop HLS is US $2.9 billion,  which covers the development of the system over the next few years, and the first two flights – an uncrewed test flight / landing and the first crewed landing. While a lot, this is actually around 13% of the cost of developing the Apollo Lunar lander when the latter is adjusted for inflation.

The SpaceX HLS Starship will be substantially different to those currently being developed and tested. As the Moon is without atmosphere, the HLS variant will not have any aerodynamic surfaces, nor will it have any thermal protection system, as it will not be making any atmospheric entries.

Instead, the Starship HLS will be equipped with four large deployable landing legs that will likely resemble those used on the Falcon 9 booster so  as to give as broad as possible “footprint” for stability when landing on the Moon. It will also be equipped with high-thrust RCS motors around its waist to be used in the final part of the lunar landing, rather than relying on its Raptor engines, which would likely blast a crater underneath the vehicle, making landings potentially dangerous.

Even so, its use is not straightforward:  to reach the Moon, the vehicle will be launched to Earth orbit by a Super Heavy booster and will then have to be refuelled by at least one Starship tanker vehicle.

Once it has arrived at the Moon, the vehicle will ferry crews to and from the surface and the Gateway Station – however, in order to do so, it will require routine re-fuelling, and some have already calculated that this could require up to 10 additional Starship launches to support each lunar landing / return flight.

A further potential concern is the sheer height of the vehicle. once on the Moon, a crew will be around 30 metres above the lunar surface, requiring some kind of winch / elevator mechanism in order for them to reach the lunar surface  and to off-load cargo.

As the HLS remains in lunar orbit, crews will be delivered to it via the Gateway station using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle / SLS booster combination.

NASA Announcements

Alongside the SpaceX HLS announcement, NASA has also announced a new competition for the development of commercial services that can be used in support of human operations on the Moon – cargo delivery systems and similar.

It has also been confirmed that the second crewed launched to the International Space Station using a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle should lift-off fro Kennedy Space Centre at 10:11 UTC on Thursday, April 22nd. The crew, comprising NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, France’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide, arrived at Kennedy Space Centre on Friday, April 16th, and performed a final pre-launch dress-rehearsal in readiness for the flight which allowed NASA and SpaceX to confirm the launch vehicle is ready for flight.

The NASA / ESA / JAXA Crew-2 arrive at Kennedy Space Centre. (l to r): Thomas Pesquet (ESA / France), Megan McArthur (NASA), Shane Kimbrough (NASA) and Akihiko Hoshide (Japan / JAXA).Credit: NASA

Crew-2 will fly to the ISS aboard the Endeavour, the Crew Dragon used for the August 2020 Demo-2 mission that saw astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken made the first human flight to orbit from US soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. Similarly, the Falcon 9 booster that will carry them to orbit was also used to fly the Crew-1 astronauts to the ISS in November 2020.

NASA has also received a potential boost from the Biden Administration, which is seeking a 6.3% increase in the agency’s budget for the next fiscal year. In all, the plan published by the administration is requesting US $24.7 billion for the space agency, with US $6.3 billion earmarked for the Artemis programme and US $3 billion for the ISS.

Some US $2.3 billion has been requested for understanding and alleviating climate change, a 10% increase over the prior year. The summary of the spend does not go into specifics on individual missions already in development or being planned, but does point to funding for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formally WFIRST), which the Trump administration repeatedly tried to cancel, and a 16% increase for NASA’s STEM funding, which again the Trump administration tried to eviscerate through a combination of closing down related NASA departments and reducing funding.

The Biden Administration is seeking a 6.3% expansion of NASA’s budget for 2022, specifically earmarking the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope for funding – a move likely to find favour in congress, which refused three attempts by the Trump administration to kill the project despite its advanced state of developing and low cost. Credit: NASA

Alongside of NASA, the Biden federal budget looks to increase the National Science Foundation’s government funding by 20% (US $10.2 billion) and raise the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association’s budget to US $2 billion.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: to the Moon, ready to fly and pioneers”