Space Sunday: SpaceX, Virgin, Blue Origin and HST updates

SpaceX: the orbital launch facilities under construction at Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas, as the 7th section of the launch support tower is hoisted into place. Credit: Bocachicagal /

SpaceX are driving ahead with preparations for their first Starship / Super Heavy orbital flight – although whether the company will achieve the goal of making the launch prior to the end of July 2021, as recently re-stated by company president and COO Gwynne Shotwell – would seem unlikely at this point in time.

Following the successful flight of Starship SN15 on May 5th, 2021, the company has taken a step back from medium and high-altitude test flights to focus on tasks that are core to that first orbital attempt, with the on-going construction of the orbital launch facilities and fabrication of both Starship prototype SN20 that will attempt the flight, and the Super Heavy booster that will lift it into the sky.

However, as recently announced by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, that booster will not be the unit everyone had been watching so keenly through its assembly at the company’s Starbase facilities at Boca Chica, Texas.  That honour will now go to Booster 4, still under construction.

A comparison between the sea-level Raptor engine (l) and the vacuum Raptor with its much larger exhaust bell (r). Three of each will be used to power orbital Starships, and 12 sea-level and sixteen vacuum motors will initially power Super Heavy boosters, rising to 16 of each as booster development progresses. Credit: SpaceX

Instead, Booster 3 (originally called BN3 for “Booster Number 3”, then re-designated in June as BN2 before undergoing a further change to its current designation) is to be used for further ground tests. These tests will, according to Musk, directly impact the internal design of Booster 4; if so, this would likely make any orbital flight attempt within the next month even more unlikely.

As I reported in Space Sunday: Selfies, Missions, Budgets and Rockets, a smaller section of a Super Heavy, designated BN2.1 has already completed cryogenic and hydraulic pressure tests designed to test thrust puck / tank integrity, and the tests with Booster 3 will expand on these. To this end, following the BN2.1 test mount was relocated to Orbital Test Stand A, one of the two launch stands previously used for Starship flight tests. Then, on July 1st, and with the rig in place and ready to receive it, Booster 3 was rolled out of the fabrication facility and driven the two(ish) kilometres down the road to the launch area and then lifted onto the stand.

In the coming weeks, the booster – currently without any Raptor engines mounted on it – will likely be put through various proof tests using both liquid nitrogen and actual fuel loads to check the overall structural integrity of the entire design. Some have suggested that these tests might see the booster fitted with a group of sea-level Raptor engines (the test stand doesn’t allow for mounting the vacuum engines) for a static fire test. However, if Booster 4 is to be substantially different to Booster 3, then such a test could be of questionable value; thus, others have speculated that Booster 3 might actually be pressure tested to destruction using liquid nitrogen, as was seen during early tank tests with partial builds of the Starship.

The 65-metre tall Booster 3 test article being moved from the Boca Chica fabrication facilities to the test and launch facilities, July 1st, 2021. Credit:

In the meantime, the orbital launch stand is under construction in two parts: the base of the stand and the massive launch table that will sit on top of it to actually mount and hold a Super Heavy booster and Starship prior to launch. Alongside the launch stand base is the massive support tower that has been rising section-by-section into the Texas sky, and which is now awaiting the hoisting and fitting of its uppermost section, which will eventually mount the crane that will lift and stack boosters and Starships onto the launch table.

Whilst at an advanced stage of construction, the tower still needs a lot of fitting-out with the infrastructure required to support a launch. Similarly, construction on the staging areas where boosters and Starships moved down to the launch facilities from the fabrication and assembly area will be placed prior to being stacked for a launch, has only just started – although this could be completed in relatively short order.

Just across from these staging areas, the fuel tank farm comprising 7 tanks that will house the fuel stocks need to fuel both Starship and booster ahead of a launch and a large water tank that will provide the massive volume of water required for the sound suppression system, also has some way to go before all 7 fuel tanks are in place and covered by their insulation sleeves, and it is not clear how much of the supporting infrastructure needed to deliver fuel and water to the launch pad has actually been implemented.

SpaceX orbital launch facilities construction: left – The base of the launch support tower with the angled ring of the launch table support structure just in front of it. Centre: the square foundations of the staging platforms for Super Heavy (uppermost) and Starship. Lower right: the fuel tank farm – the metal tanks are for housing liquid oxygen and liquid methane, the grey tank behind them is a fuel tank sheathed by an insulation tank designed to contain liquid nitrogen to help keep the fuel stocks in a liquid state, while the large grey tank to the left is the water tank for the launch sound suppression system. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

One aspect of the facilities starting to come on-stream is the generator farm that will be used to produce liquid oxygen for launches directly from the air around them. With five of the 10 massive generators now commissioned, this farm will eventually power a process called air liquefaction, a process that splits air into nitrogen, argon and oxygen, cooling them to liquid states. The liquid oxygen will then be pumped to the nearby tank farm to be used to fuel Starships and Super Heavy boosters, and the liquid nitrogen will be used to cool the liquid oxygen and liquid a methane  stored with the tank farm and keep them in their liquid state.

Virgin and Blue Origin Updates

Virgin Orbit has completed its first commercial air-launch, delivering a payload of seven small satellites successfully to orbit. Entitled “Tubular Bells Part One”, in recognition of the 1973 album by Sir Mike Oldfield and which arguably launched what would become the Virgin empire.

The company’s 747 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 13:50 UTC on Wednesday, June 30th to climb to an altitude of 50km, heading out over the Pacific Ocean. On reaching a point some 80km south of the Channel Islands, the aircraft released the LauncherOne rocket, allowing it to drop clear before igniting its motor and accelerating to orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl with the Tubular Bells Part One LauncherOne rocket mounted under its wing, being prepared for flight in the early hours of June 30th Credit: Virgin Orbit

On board the rocket was a combined payload of four R&D CubeSats for the US Department of Defence, two optical satellites for SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s first military satellite, all of which were successfully deployed from the rocket some two hours after Cosmic Girl took off.

The wonderful thing about Virgin Orbit is that it literally can help transform people’s lives around the world. It can put satellites up to monitor illegal fishing, check on climate change, check on the ozone layer, connect the three billion people who are not connected. And the fact we can do it from anywhere in the world … to any orbit, is unique.

– Sir Richard Branson

Following that success, on July 1st, Virgin Galactic announced that July 11th will see the first test flight for SpaceShipTwo since the company was granted an update to the vehicle’s FAA licence allowing them to start flying fare-paying passengers later in the year, a flight will see the vehicle fly with both crew and four passengers – three members of the Virgin Galactic team, and company founder Sir Richard Branson.

Whilst not carrying fare-paying passengers, as will be the case with the upcoming Blue Origin sub-orbital flight on July 20th, the Virgin Galactic flight will mean that Branson will beat Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos in making a sub-orbital flight and gaining his astronaut wings.

Once lifted to around 15-16 km attitude by its mothership, the MSS Eve, the VSS Unity will be released to power itself up to around 80-85 km altitude in a 10-minute flight during which those on board will experience between 2 and 3 minutes of micro-gravity before the vehicle makes an unpowered return to Earth to land like a conventional aircraft.

The crew of the July 11th Virgin Galactic test flight. From left: Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Founder of Virgin Galactic Richard Branson, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla and pilot Michael Masucci. Credit: Virgin Galactic

This 10-minute element of the flight by VSS Unity mirrors the overall flight time for the Blue Origin New Shepherd booster and capsule that will lift Bezos, his brother and an unnamed passenger who paid US $28 million to be the first fare-paying passenger flown by the company.

Also aboard that flight, which will take place on July 20th, will be a very special guest passenger: one other than “Wally” Funk.

Born in 1939, as Mary Wallace Funk, “Wally” is a remarkable woman. Obtaining her pilot’s licence when just 20 years of age, she was the first female civilian flight instructor training military pilots, the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector, and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. Most particularly in this instance, she was one of the Mercury 13 group – more formally, the “Women in Space” Programme founded in 1960 by William Randolph Lovelace, a former NASA flight surgeon.

1995: seven of the “Mercury 13” were guests of Elieen Collins, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, at the launch of that mission, STS-63. From left to right: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Credit: NASA via AP

Whilst lacking official government funding, but supported by NASA, the programme saw 25 women between the ages of 25 and 40 including Funk – despite the fact she was below the minimum age for consideration) – invited to take part in astronaut training. Of the 19 who enrolled, 13 graduated, with Funk the third best in the group and actually out-performing John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in some of the tests.

Although the term “Mercury 13” is often credited with being applied by the press at the time, the 13 women were actually known as FLATS – First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATS), although none actually ever flew into space. The term “Mercury 13” itself was first used by Hollywood producer James Cross in 1995 when comparing the 13 to the original Mercury Seven.

Wally Funk qualified as a pilot at the age of 20. She went on to become a civilian instructor of US military pilots, and gained more that 1,000 hours as an instructor on a range of aircraft. She earned her Airline Transport Rating in 1968, and became the first female FAA field examiner in 1971. Credit: unknown, via Blue Origin

Although she never flew into space as a part of any US programme, Funk has remained highly supportive of NASA and actually purchased a ticket to fly with Virgin Galactic when they start fare-paying flights later this year. However, in what might well have been a deliberate poke at Branson and his company, Bezos invited Funk to join his July 20th flight as his “honoured guest”.

“I’ll love every second of it. Whoooo! Ha-ha. I can hardly wait! Nothing has ever gotten in my way. They said, ‘Well, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it and I like to do things that nobody has ever done.

– Wally Funk

While she will not orbit the Earth, in making the trip aboard New Shepherd, Funk will nevertheless become the oldest person to date to fly in space beating – again – John Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1988.

Hubble Update: NASA taking a “Careful and Deliberate” Approach

NASA is taking a slow and deliberate approach to restoring science operations on the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been out of service since mid-June when a payload computer malfunctioned.

As I noted in my previous Space Sunday update, attempts to find the source of the issue were shifting away from the payload computer itself and towards two other components in the telescope – the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the primary power regulator circuits.

Further testing of both units during the week has led NASA to the decision to switch either or both the CU/SDF and the power regulator to their back-ups – but they will do so slowly. over the course of the next week or so.

The first part of this work will be a review of the procedures for making the switch-overs will be reviewed to determine if any updates need to be made in respect of the telescope’s age and changes it has seen over the years. Once reviewed, the procedures will then be tested on a “high-fidelity simulator” to ensure their suitability for active use. Then as a final step, a decision will be made one switching over one or both of the CU/SDF and power regulators, and the procedures implemented.

I have given the team very clear direction that returning Hubble safely to service and not unintentionally doing any harm to the system is the highest priority, not speed. They’re being very deliberate in their analysis and their choices of what they do. There’s two layers of review of all the procedures they come up [with]. Although we’re all impatient to have Hubble back taking science, the highest priority is to be very careful and deliberate and not rush.

– Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division

Space Sunday: selfies, missions, budgets and rockets

Zhurong and its lander. Credit: CNSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESA Looks to Venus and the Outer Planets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

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

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

That is, if the Ariane 5 cleared for launch.

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

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

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 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: Mars, galaxies and starships

 Mars 2020 mission Sol 46 (April 6th), 2021, a series of 62 images captured using the WATSON imager on the robot arm of the Perseverance rover were used to create this “selfie” of the rover “looking” at the camera, then back at the Ingenuity helicopter sitting on the ground some 4 metres away. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA has delayed the first flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after the vehicle detected an issue during one of its pre-flight tests.

For the past week, the agency has been preparing the little helicopter drone, part of the Mars 2020 mission, for the first of a series of 5 pre-planned test flights within Jezero Crater. It had been hoped the flight could take place on Sunday April 11th / Monday April 12th, 2021 (depending on where you are in the world); however it will now not take place until Wednesday, April 14th at the earliest.

After being dropped on the surface of Jezero Crater by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover (see my previous space Sunday report), Ingenuity successfully recharged its batteries using solar energy and survived its first night alone on Mars without incident. This was a major milestone for the project, as there were fears that if the batteries couldn’t be fully charged and generate sufficient heat, the extreme cold of the Martian night could freeze the vehicle’s electronics, and even crack the batteries themselves.

Since that first night, the helicopter has shown it can keep itself warm and the flight team has spent the week conducting a range of pre-flight checks, including unlocking Ingenuity’s pair of contra-rotating propellers and then testing them under power and at low speeds, then speeding up to higher speeds, including an attempt to reach the 2400 rpm required for take-off.

Part of testing Ingenuity included taking a low-resolution image via its downward-looking camera system while it was still sitting under the rover. April 3th, 2021 / Sol 42. Credit NASA/JPL
All of these tests were completed successfully, with the exception of the final full-speed test attempted on Friday, April 9th. This aborted during the phase when the command programme on Ingenuity was supposed to switch from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode, as will be required ahead of the actual flights. However, a guardian “watchdog” timer designed to oversee the correct execution of command sequences expired before the switch-over occurred, prompting Ingenuity to safely shut-down its motor and await further instructions from Earth.

Following a full evaluation of telemetry received following the curtailed test, the flight team were confident that no actual damage had occurred to the helicopter, stating the full spin-up test of the rotors would be postponed and the flight itself delayed until April 14th. They also indicated that assuming the first flight was completed without incident, the second flight will take place on Sunday, April 18th.

The rotor tests took place once Perseverance was well clear of the helicopter – the rover is gradually making its way to the look-out point where it will record Ingenuity’s flights. However, before it did so, engineers took the opportunity to use the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera on the rover’s robot arm to capture a series of 62 images that were stitched together to produce a picture of Perseverance apparently “looking” back at the helicopter using its mast cam imaging systems, and which can be seen at the top of this article.

Another image Perseverance took that recently caused excitement was one that appeared to show a “rainbow” arcing across the dusty Martian sky. Captured on April 4th (Sol 43), the image spread quickly across social media, as did the “rainbow” explanation.

Captured on April 4th (Sol 43), this image via the rear-facing Hazcam system on Perseverance caused excitement in the media, being described as a “rainbow”. However, it wasn’t any such thing, as NASA was forced to explain. Credit: NASA/JPL

The only problem being, rainbows are impossible on Mars, as NASA quickly stepped in to note through social media:

Many have asked: Is that a rainbow on Mars? No. Rainbows aren’t possible here. Rainbows are created by light reflected off of round water droplets, but there isn’t enough water here to condense, and it’s too cold for liquid water in the atmosphere.

NASA, via the @NASAPersevere Twitter account.

Rather, the “rainbow” was the result of lens flare – light being scattered by the lens of the Hazcam (HAZard avoidance CAMera) that captured the image, to strike the imaging sensor in multiple places like an arc of machine-gun bullets. Such effects are prevented on the front-facing Hazcams (the ones most frequently used by the rover, as they are equipped with sunshades; however, similar shades were deemed superfluous on the rear-facing Hazcams, and so lens flares like this are actually quite common should the system be in use and the Sun happens to be in the right position.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars, galaxies and starships”

Space Sunday: vistas of Mars and more on rockets

Released on March 5th, 2021, this image was captured on February 22nd, 2021 (Sol 4), using the Mastcam-Z system on NASA’s Perseverance rover. It shows a raised section of outflow delta sediments approximately 2.3 km west of “Octavia E. Butler Landing”, where the rover touched down. It was likely formed by material carried into the crater by flowing water that gradually settled as the flow of water met the calmer waters of the crater lake. The remnant is approximately 25-30m high and some 200m across at its base, as indicated by the horizontal scale. Beyond it can be seen the crater wall forming the backdrop to the image. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has spent a further week prepping itself to commence full-time operations on Mars, while also clocking up a distance of 90+ metres while further exercising its driving skills. The mission has also started honouring the Navajo people and their language.

Prior to the mission launching, the science team divided the anding site in Jezeo Crater into a grid with each cell covering an area of 1.5 square kilometres and after a US national park exhibiting similar geology. The plan was to compile a list of names inspired by each cell’s national park that could be used to name features observed by Perseverance. However, as the rover landed in the cell named for Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Tséyi’ in Navajo), in the heart of the Navajo Nation, the mission team reached out to the Navajo Nation through team member Aaron Yazzie, himself a Navajo (or Diné), to seek their permission and collaboration in naming new features on Mars.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer enthusiastically agreed to the idea and worked with advisers to make an initial list of 50 words in the Navajo language that could be used by the rover’s team in  dubbing surface features imaged by the rover.

The partnership that [we have] built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language. We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language. Our words were used to help win World War II, and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez

“Máaz” (Navajo for “Mars”) is currently the first target for scientific study by Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL

These names have already started to be used, and more are being added to the list. There is, however a complication: the accent marks used in the English alphabet to convey the unique intonation of the Navajo language cannot be read by the computer languages Perseverance uses. So instead, the science team is working with the Navajo to produce unaccented phonetic representations of the names which the rover can interpret.

The first of the Navajo names to be used is “Máaz” (the Navajo word for Mars – or “Maaz” to the rover). It has been applied to the first target for study by the rover, a large, flat rock the rover is due the commence studying soon. A second rock, dubbed “Yeehgo” (Yéigo in Navajo) has been used as a test subject for the rover’s SuperCam.

“Yeehgo” some 3.1m from the rover was used as a test subject for the SuperCam imager system and lasers on March 10th (Sol 16), during the rover’s driving operations. This images so the image contrasts from Navcam imagers (main picture) to Mastcam-Z (lower right) and Supercam mosaic of 2 images.Credit: NASA/JPL

Developed jointly by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and a consortium of French research laboratories under the auspices of French space agency CNES, SuperCam is an instrument suite that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy in rocks and regolith from a distance. It comprises two lasers that can “zap” rocks and other features multiple times per second while using it imaging system and four spectrometers to analyse the vapour and dust given off by the laser strikes to determine the composition of the material struck and potentially identify bio-signatures and assess the past habitability of the rock.

“Yeehgo” was used as a means of testing the resolution of the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) on the SuperCam system, with the rover’s high-resolution Mastcam and Navcam systems (both of which are mounted on the rover’s mast just below the SuperCam) also capturing images for context. The rock was also a target for the laser systems, which the on-board microphones picked up as they fired, the lasers sounding like a fast swinging Newton’s Cradle (sorry, no “pew-pew!” from Mars).

Since departing “Octavia E. Butler Landing” the rover has been scouting locations of interest,  in particular looking for an area when it might safely drop off the Ingenuity drone helicopter. The latter is intended to complete its test flights in the first 30-60 days of the mission in order to free-up the rover so it can drive much further afield and get on with its primary science mission in earnest.

Along the way, Perseverance paused to take in objects such as the rocks mentioned above, and to perform checks of its underside using the imaging systems on its robot arm, checking on the ejection of the “belly pan” covering the underside caching system that will deposit samples of rock and material for collection by a future sample-return mission.

I’ll have more on the Mars 2020 mission over the coming weeks.

Left: March 12th (Sol 18), the imaging system on the rover’s robot arm is used to check the underneath of the vehicle ahead of the release of the belly pan (outlined) covering the sample caching system. The four forward cameras of the Hazcam system can be seen at the top of the picture. Right: March 13th (Sol 19), a view from the rover’s rear Hazcam system images the belly pan on the ground as the rover resumes its drive. Credit: NASA/JPL

Continue reading “Space Sunday: vistas of Mars and more on rockets”