NASA is hard at work on their new Mars 2020 rover, which is intended to make planet-fall in early 2021. Bundled with this rover is an extra added bonus, of a small exploration-ready helicopter! The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) will mark the first time a human craft has flown on another planet. The potential for exploration is hard to overstate – while the rover programs have been tremendously successful, they are hampered by careful and deliberate navigation of difficult terrain, one inch at a time. An airborne solution suddenly releases scientists from that 2-dimensional constraint, and will open new avenues of research and discovery.
Of course – it also presents technical and AI-related challenges, because the copter must be able to maneuver autonomously in large part, due to the communication delay with the red planet.
What, you may ask, of the atmosphere? Well, that’s a great point! Mars has an atmosphere which is only 1% as dense as that of Earth, but it turns out that is still sufficient for the proposed little copter to take flight. It simply requires blades which are larger, more rigid, and which rotate quite a bit faster than an Earthly counterpart. For more excellent detail, see NASA’s 10 things article all about the copter!
As a summary of the engineering required for the craft, the body of which will be about the size of a softball:
* The Mars Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to tip.
* At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster than an Earth helicopter.
* The blades are much stiffer than any terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be.
* The helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).
The time has finally come for SpaceX to fly their crew-ready Dragon capsule on the first Demo mission for their client, NASA! This tremendously important milestone marks start of the next important phase in the effort to return American capacity for human spaceflight, which has been lost since the end of the shuttle program in 2011.
It was several years after the end of the famous shuttle missions that NASA realized the way forward would very likely be with private enterprise, and wisely awarded two contracts, to Boeing and SpaceX, for them to develop crew-rated craft and systems to safely bring astronauts to the ISS and return them safely to Earth. Of course, NASA has a long history of human space travel, and some very reasonable associated rules, regulations and certifications that must be achieved in order to qualify a vehicle for that task. Saturday’s flight will be a critical next step in that certification process, and if all goes well, it may result in a crew mission taking place in July of this year (though more likely closer to December).
While this mission will not have any humans aboard the craft, it will feature a mannequin in the stylish SpaceX flight suit, bristling with sensors to capture as much information as possible about the experience of the flight. The name of this figure? Ripley. Nice.
Flight Time: Liftoff is set for 2:49 a.m. EST (0749 GMT) Flight Location: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, from historic Pad 39A (Apollo missions, and final Shuttle flight were launched from this pad as well) Booster Recovery: on the autonomous robotic droneship Of Course I Still Love You
Affordable spaceflight is enabling a new golden age of mankind going to the stars. This has been possible in tremendous part due to the extremely important innovation by SpaceX of reusable boosters which can land after launch, as we all know. As if this was not enough, a newly emerging trend in the launches we have been seeing is that of rideshare, where multiple companies launch their projects on a single flight, thereby further reducing the cost to each organization.
Tonight, SpaceX has a launch planned on of one of their workhorse Falcon 9 boosters, and this will be the third flight for this proven craft. Previously it flew the Iridium-7 mission in July 2018 and the SAOCOM 1A mission in October. This mission will feature three payloads, arguably the most exciting of which being an Israeli lunar lander! The Beresheet robotic lunar lander is a joint project between SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, and if successful will make Israel only the 4th country ever to land on the moon – ranking them among China, Russia and the United States. After the successful launch today, the craft will undergo an 8 week journey before landing on the lunar surface. In Hebrew, ‘beresheet’ means ‘in the beginning’.
The other payload on this ride share launch consists of the PSN-6 communication satellite from the Indonesian company PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara as well as a U.S. Air Force satellite code named S5, intended to assist with identifying orbital debris which is an increasing problem.
The launch is scheduled for 8:45pm Eastern time, February 21st, from Cape Canaveral Air Force station (SLC-40), with a planned booster recovery on everyone’s favorite autonomous robotic droneship, Of Course I Still Love You!
You will be able to watch the launch live via the regular SpaceX production (embedded below) or on the SpaceIL Facebook page!
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!
(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.
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!
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!
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.
(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.
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.