Curiosity Makes Mountain out of Dusthill

Curiosity Rover on Vera Rubin Ridge
(Image Credit: MSSS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity is still out there, day in and day out, doing Science for us all! The latest discovery to come from this hard working and vastly in-extra-innings ‘bot centers around the 3 mile tall Mount Sharp, located in Gale crater on the Martian surface. Using an improvised gravimeter, rigged from the existing accelerometers on board the vehicle, they have found strong evidence that the towering mountain was created through a long process of stacking wind blown material as it was driven into the crater. This is the far less likely result, geologically speaking, but thanks to the new ability to measure the surprisingly low density of the material comprising Mount Sharp, the stacking model looks more likely than one of erosion over time.

The best takeaway here, is of course that it’ll still make a great ski slope in a few years, but may need a little firming up in places. Also, that Curiosity is still working hard, along with the Earth-side engineers who continue to wring valuable Science from our future spare home planet, every hour of the day!

References:

The Mars Anthropocene


(Image Credit: NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)

In a paper just published on January 4th, Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid discusses the impact that human exploration of Mars is likely to have on that planet. The Anthropocene is a term used to describe the massive changes that have taken place to the Earth resulting from human interaction and activities, and for a similar effect to take place on Mars in a few decades would make it the first multiplanetary geological period.

The changes to be expected on Mars range from unavoidable microbial contamination of the environment to wholesale geographical changes necessitated by habitats and eventual pizza joints (per Musk) that will spring up over time.

One hopes that lessons we can take from the treatment of our own planet, which in many ways hastens the need to find a spare one, could help inform how we should treat our potential new home. How that plays out, and with what wisdom, we will know in the fullness of time, or at least our Grandchildren will.

References:

SpaceX – Starting That New Year Right!

SpaceX - Iridium-8 Launch

(Image Credit: Iridium Communications)

After a little hiatus around the holidays – always a packed time – the Gazette is back to bring you space news and 4th planetary highlights to help you make your colonization plans! This post doesn’t come to you with very much time to spare, but SpaceX is at it again, this time with their first launch of 2019 nearly upon us! It’s another landmark flight for the disruptive upstart company, as it will mark the 8th and final launch of this important contract to place 75 Iridium NEXT satellites (numbers 66-75 on this round) into orbit.

The booster is B1049.2, which previously hefted the Telstar VANTAGE satellite into geostationary orbit and then executed a perfect touchdown landing on Of Course I Still Love You. The launch is planned for:

January 11th at 10:31am Eastern time / 7:31am Pacific

from Vandenberg Air Force Base, pad SLC-4E, with recovery planned by autonomous drone ship Just Read the Instructions.

So – set your alarms, and get ready for the first of many amazing launches for this new year!

Check out the Press Kit for more details about tomorrow’s planned launch, and of course the excellent mission patch!

And Iridium apparently put together a Launch Soundtrack – enjoy!

References:

Mars – In the Wind

InSight Lander
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A lot of Mars news has been coming out over the past few weeks, fellow red planet enthusiasts, and we are certainly behind in discussing it! Suffice to say, the successful touchdown of NASA’s InSight Lander on November 26th has opened up a new era of science on our brother world. Along with a ton of cool pictures, what really is exciting is the first even audio recording of the martin wind. Behold!

References:

Two SpaceX Launches Incoming!

Falcon 9 Upcoming Launches
(Image Credit: SpaceX)

After a handful of weeks without a launch, SpaceX comes roaring back (as they are wont to do!) with a pair of launches in quick succession, from opposite sides of our fair country. The first of the series is slated for Thursday, November 15th at 3:46pm from the historic pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The payload of this first launch is Qatar’s Es’hail 2 satellite, which is designed to improve television service across the Middle East as well as supply amateur radio capabilities for Brazil and India. The block 5 booster B1047 which is powering this launch is slated for landing on the Autonomous Drone Ship Of Course I Still Love You, which is in the Atlantic poised and ready for action.

Not to be outdone by themselves, SpaceX has another launch scheduled on November 19th from Vandenberg at their new SLC-4E pad. This launch, dubbed the SSO-A mission, will be remarkable, as it will be the first time in history that a rocket has been reused three times! The booster B1046 will carry what is being called a ‘rideshare mission’ into orbit, deploying more than 50 satellites from at least 17 countries. Included in the pile of technology are two SkySat high-resolution Earth Imaging devices, a middle school science project, the German Eu:CROPIS satellite designed to investigate crop growth in alternate gravity situations, ITASAT-1 from Brazilian Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica and plenty more! While SpaceX was recently certified to re-land rockets at Vandenberg, a range conflict this time around means that they will likely rely on Just Read the Instructions, which is being made ready to depart port and get into position for another flawless booster recovery at sea.

Check out the exhaustive and impressive list of rideshare equipment over at NASA Spaceflight.com! And enjoy these upcoming two launches!

References:

NASA Mars InSight Lander Almost There

Insight Landing
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It’s sometimes difficult to wrap the mind around what it would really be like to leave the Earth and voyage to Mars. Well, back on May 5th the Gazette reported on the launch of the NASA Mars InSight Lander, and now that lander is several weeks away from landing on the red planet! The landing is projected to be on November 26th, with touchdown taking place at 11:47am Pacific Time, so set your watches.

The lander will utilize a supersonic parachute once it enters the martian atmosphere, and according NASA Chief Engineer Rob Manning, will decelerate from 12,300mph to 5mph at which point retro rockets will bring it to a soft landing on Elysium Planitia.

Remember that the intended mission of this lander is to study the interior of Mars, including gaining insight into Marsquakes. Through this research, additional knowledge about planetary formation and interiors will be gained, allowing us to better understand our very own homeworld.

For all of the additional information you can possibly want on the landing, be sure to check out the official Press Kit.

References:

Farming Mars

Farming Mars
(Image Credit: NASA)
The culmination of excitement and tech know-how has finally appeared to produce the perfect storm to get us on our way to Mars in the next decade or so. This is great news, and brings with it so many exciting challenges. You thought getting Tang from the original NASA space program was a boon? Just imagine the technologies and techniques we will have to invent and refine in order for the first hearty souls to live off-world.

As such, research is being done on how we can produce food to keep those early settlers alive and fed. Hydroponics is of course a strong area of study, as well as how to coax food from the martian surface. Turns out that poisonous regolith is not the most advantageous or friendly material in which to try to grow potatoes. However, as humans often do, we are finding ways to make it work, or at least some possibilities. At the Florida Institute of Technology as well as Villanova (both excellent links – follow those), students are running experiments with core crops including lettuce, peas, peppers and hops (Mars Bars!) in a variety of soil types simulating martian conditions.

While it is widely accepted that some sort of treatment will need to be done to the martian soil before it is able to produce crops, or frankly not kill us outright, the methods to speed up that remediation and align the hostile environment with human-supporting conditions as quickly as possible seem to get a little better every day.

References:

SpaceX SAOCOM-1A Launch – October 6th 10:22pm EST

SpaceX SAOCOM-1A
(Image Credit: CONAE)

The SpaceX launch schedule has been a real thing of mystery this year, setting re-usability and turn-around records earlier this summer, and having a bit of a dry spell lately. Well never fear, because you can be sure that Shotwell and the whole crew at everyone’s favorite commercial launch megagiant is busy planning and prepping for the rest of the domination of that 60 year old industry, in short order!

Coming up next we have the launch of the relatively light weight SAOCOM-1A (about 1600 kg) from the West coast at Vandenberg. The device name is an acronym of Satélite Argentino de Observación Con Microondas, and is managed by the Argentine Space Agency CONAE. The device has a L-band (about 1.275 GHz) full polarimetric Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and it’s main mission, in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency, is to assist with emergency management of natural disasters.

There’s usually something cool or special about a SpaceX launch, and this time around it is the planned RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing of the booster at the newly completed California Landing Zone, a pad only 1400 feet from the SLC-4 launch area. This will be a reused Block 5 booster, which we hope goes 2-for-2 with hardly a second thought. Onward to double digits!

So get excited for an on-shore landing – next time the drone ship Just Read the Instructions may get some more use!

References:

Opportunity Rover – Come On Back – Over

Opportunity Rover
(Image Credit: NASA)

It’s such a wonderful thing when electronics intended to last for months end up lasting years. One of my personal favorite examples of this is arcade equipment from the 1980s, which was cycled into and out of arcades extremely rapidly owing to their massive popularity at the time. These machines were not really “built to last”, but since it was the 1980s, they were built. As a result, we can still experience the joy of an original arcade or pinball machine, which requires surprisingly little TLC to get it back to prime.

Fast forward to 2003, when the Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity was launched, and subsequently landed on Mars in 2004. This was a mission intended to last for 90 days, and by all accounts the rover was designed for that time scale as well. However, 14.5 years into the mission it has surpassed all expectations and certainly paid for itself many times over with the science it has enabled. Sadly, the massive Martian dust storm of the last month may have finally brought that mission to an end, by covering the solar panels on the rover and effectively putting it to sleep. NASA and outposts around the world are anxiously listening for any slight signal from the rover, but as days drag on this seems less and less likely.

Steven Squyres (Ph.D Cornell 1981) who has been the principal investigator of the Mars missions for all this time, explains the situation in clear terms in a new article fittingly published in Cornell’s campus paper The Daily Sun. What is most likely to kill the rover will be the bitter cold it will be subjected to without power to stay warm. The -80 degree Celsius nights on Mars will subject the stalwart rover to component expansion and contraction – stresses which will be increasingly difficult to endure.

Overall, everyone is more than satisfied with the mission outcome, it’s just that after a piece of science equipment is nearly old enough to get a drivers license, you get a little attached.

So – we wish the rover the best. And we also look forward to a time when it has a place of honor in the first Natural Science museum to be built on the red planet.

References:

NASA ADEPT Folding Heat Shield for Mars

NASA ADEPT Folding Heat Shield for Mars
(Image Credit: NASA)

The good folks at NASA have conducted the first flight test of a new foldable heat shield on September 12th, with great success. This new concept is touted as a transformative technology that will enable larger and lighter ships to perform more advanced missions, not the least of which will be both cargo and crew missions to Mars with an enhanced ability to survive the rigors of reentry using a vastly slimmed down system. Any time you can save weight on a spacecraft, that savings can be redistributed to more critical areas, namely additional cargo and scientific apparatus (and pizza ovens).

Called the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT), a backronym worthy of Gary Busey, it consists of a 3D-woven carbon fibers arranged in a thick layer, formed on top of a structure which can flex and deploy the shield. This is in contrast to the traditional rigid, heavy, difficult to construct plastic shielding which has been used for decades. It’s this sort of novel and creative thinking which will allow us to accomplish more important and ambitious flight objectives, and is another great sign that key decision makers are aligned correctly to move us forward.

You can check out a video of the heat shield here!

References: