Tag Archives: Perseverance

NASA’s Mars helicopter is doing so well its mission is extended indefinitely

It was only meant to be a proof of concept; a test of what could be possible. Ingenuity has proven itself to be more than worthy, and NASA researchers have now rewarded its success with more work — such is the life of a Mars explorer.

Ingenuity on Mars at Wright Brothers Field, photographed by Perseverance. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. NASA envisions that one day, rover/helicopter duos could be the norm of planetary exploration, but that day seemed far away. Now, it doesn’t seem far at all.

The problem with flying a helicopter on a planet like Mars is that its atmosphere (if you can call it that) is 100 times thinner than what we have on Earth, which makes flying way more difficult. When Ingenuity powered itself up over the Martian soil, it was a real Wright brothers moment — the first man-made vehicle to fly on a planet other than the Earth.

If Ingenuity had crashed on its second flight, it probably wouldn’t even have been all that bad. After all, its main goal was to fly up to five times, at altitudes no higher than 5 meters, for 90 seconds each. Now, after 12 flights in which the helicopter rose to a height of 12 m (39 ft), achieved all its objectives and gathered all the information it was meant to, NASA has finally extended its mission indefinitely.

Ingenuity after its 7th flight. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

“Everything is working so well,” said Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering team. “We’re doing better on the surface than we had expected.”

Ingenuity has been now switched to a new operations demonstration phase, showcasing how rovers and aerial explorers can work together. After a series of roundtrip flights, Ingenuity has been embarking on a series of one-way trips, accompanying the Perseverance rover as it explores Mars, surveying and taking photos from above. Overall, the helicopter has flown 2.83 km (1.76 mi) and shows no signs of stopping soon.

This annotated image depicts the ground tracks of NASA’s Perseverance rover (white) and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (green) since arriving on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. The green dots represent the locations of the helicopter’s airfields during the 11 flights it has made between April 19 and Aug. 4.

Surveying Mars from above is more than just a show of strength — it’s already paying dividends. For instance, flights taken by Ingenuity during its 12th flight showed that one region on Mars (dubbed South Seitha) was not as interesting as researchers were hoping for. As a result, the rover may choose a different path and focus on exploring other regions.

Now, the Ingenuity team plans to make one flight every 2-3 weeks, as long as conditions remain favorable. So far, everything went according to plan, but at some point in October, all operations will need to be shut down, as Mars passes behind the Sun, blocking communications. If the helicopter is able to withstand this period and is responsive after it’s turned back on, the mission will resume.

Since the mission went so well, NASA is already looking at bigger helicopters carrying a bigger payload for future missions. No doubt, Ingenuity was amazing on its own — but it has also paved the way for some amazing science in the future.

Meanwhile, Perseverance is also carrying its own weight. After a botched first try, the rover managed to extract a rock sample from Mars, a sample that is set to return to Earth for analysis by 2031.

All in all, these are great times for Mars exploration. Who knows, maybe a space race is slowly starting to kick off.

NASA’s Perseverance rover drills a rock on Mars on its second attempt

The second time’s the charm, at least for NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. The car-sized robot was apparently able to retrieve a rock sample on Mars on the second attempt, drilling the core of a rock dubbed “Rochette.” However, celebrations will need to wait just a bit, as more information is still needed before the sampling can be declared a success, mission engineers say. 

The drill hole from Perseverance’s second sample-collection attempt can be seen, in this composite of two images taken on Sept. 1, by one of the rover’s navigation cameras. Image credit: NASA.

If at first you don’t succeed

The rover had already made a sampling attempt on August 5, but the rock it drilled into was too soft and crumbled to dust that didn’t make it to the sampling tube. If Perseverance was successful this time with its drilling attempt, it would be the first-ever rock section collected on another planet that is set to return to Earth. Quite something! 

Perseverance arrived in Mars back in February, with the mission of collecting more than two dozen cores over the next year or so. If everything goes according to plan, the samples will be brought back to Earth as in 2031 by a joint United States and European effort. For now, NASA is now waiting for better pictures from Mars before declaring the core drilling an actual success. 

“The project got its first cored rock under its belt, and that’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” Jennifer Trosper, project manager at NASA, said in a statement. “The team determined a location, and selected and cored a viable and scientifically valuable rock. We did what we came to do. We remain encouraged that there is sample in this tube.”

Following the first attempt, the scientists at NASA piloted Perseverance to a new area so to look for a different kind of rock to sample. The rover was driven to the west, where the team found a larger rock that seemed less likely to disintegrate by deploying tools on it. Still, several tests were done before going for the actual drilling procedure.

Perseverance took photos of the rock and did an abrasion test to check if the rock, Rochette, was durable enough for the sample. Among many tools, the rover has a drill that can spin and hammer into the rock. The abrasion test was successful, so the scientists gave the green light. Perseverance then used the drill and extracted the core sample.

A careful drilling 

Images from the rover’s cameras show that the rock made it to the tube this time without crumbling into dust. Nothing seemed to get stuck in the mouth of the tube, which is good, as it has to be closed and stored in order to be safely delivered. But the researchers were worried about one photo that showed darkness in the tube, which could mean that the rock was shaken out of the tube. 

A sample tube with its cored-rock contents inside. Image credit: NASA.

Still, NASA remains optimistic and believes this is just due to bad lighting, and the sample is safely stored. That’s why they’ve decided to take more photos under diverse lighting conditions and then make the official announcement on whether the rock core was collected or not. The announcement could be done as early as tomorrow, with the space community currently on the edge of their chairs. 

Perseverance has 43 sampling tubes, and NASA hopes to fill at least 20 of them before calling an end to the mission. While the rover has been chilling on Mars in February, it took its time before doing science work as it was first helping with the first flights of NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity, designed to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars. 

NASA’s Mars helicopter could be ‘Wright brothers’ moment for space exploration

UPDATE: Success! The helicopter test flight was a success.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said a delighted MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An unusual robot was ferried to Mars along with NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance: a helicopter. The helicopter will carry out its first flight today — the first flight by a man-made craft on an extraterrestrial body. It’s a 21st century ‘Wright brothers moment.’

“The moment our team has been waiting for is almost here,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said at a recent briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles.

If everything goes according to plan, the 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter will slowly take off, fly 10 feet (3 meters) high, hover above the Martian surface for 30 seconds, then rotate and gently (very gently) land on all its four legs.

The debut is modest in scale, but pioneering moments usually are. The Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight of a motor-driven airplane in 1903 covered just 120 feet (37 meters) and lasted seconds. It was a small thing, but it demonstrated that it can be done — just like NASA wants to do now. It’s a groundbreaking moment for space exploration, Farah Alibay, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the BBC, adding that the flight felt “absolutely nuts”. 

“We’ve been flying on Earth for just over 100 years, and now we’re like, ‘yeah, we’re gonna go to another planet and fly’. It’s crazy. But that’s the beauty of exploration. That’s the beauty of engineering.”

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying through the Red Planet’s skies.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity’s, as the helicopter is named, will being its flight test around 3:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday (0730 GMT Monday), data confirming its outcome is not expected to reach JPL’s mission control until around 6:15 a.m. ET on Monday. NASA will have images and video of the flight, thanks to cameras aboard the helicopter, as well as cameras mounted on the Perseverance rover, which is currently 250 feet (76 meters) away from the flight one.

If the test succeeds, Ingenuity will carry out several longer flights in the weeks ahead, resting 4-5 days in between to recharge its batteries. NASA plans to proceed with extreme care, especially as the helicopter doesn’t have a self-righting system — one bad landing or an unexpected gust of wind could essentially end the mission.

When NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attempts its first test flight on the Red Planet, the agency’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will be close by, as seen in this artist’s concept.. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Flying on Mars is notably different than flying on Earth, and not just because it’s so far and the commands don’t happen in real-time. The main difference is the lack of an atmosphere — well, Mars does have an atmosphere, but it’s much thinner and rarefied than that on Earth, about 100 times thinner. To compensate for this, Ingenuity features larger rotor blades that also turn faster than would be necessary on Earth. Ingenuity also features a pretty heavy solar panel which it uses to recharge power.

The helicopter was already tested on vacuum chambers on Earth and also passed an important test, surviving in the frigid temperatures of the Martian night using its solar chargers.

“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL. “We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”

Ingenuity is just a proof of concept mission. If it is successful, it could open up a new dimension for Martian exploration missions, adding aerial surveys to the arsenal of scientific observation

NASA’s Mars helicopter gets ready for a historic flight

We are just weeks away from what could be a major accomplishment in space exploration: NASA is getting ready to fly the first helicopter outside of Earth. It’s set to happen on Mars as early as April 8. Still, there are several boxes to tick before the helicopter is ready to take off from the ground of the Red Planet.

An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter flying on Mars. Image credit: NASA.

The helicopter landed on Mars on February 18 in the belly of the Perseverance rover, which made its landing in Jezero Crater just over a month ago. Called Ingenuity, the 1.8kg aircraft will attempt a series of short hops in Mars’ rarefied air. If successful, it would represent something of a “Wright Brothers moment”, said NASA, referring to the first powered aircraft flight on Earth.

“When NASA’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars in 1997, it proved that roving the Red Planet was possible and completely redefined our approach to how we explore Mars. Similarly, we want to learn about the potential Ingenuity has for the future of scientific research,” Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA, said in a statement.

At the moment, the chopper is still attached to Perseverance’s belly. The rover is driving to the center of the airfield – a 10 meters by 10 meters area – and should arrive in a few days. After that, six more days will be needed to deploy the helicopter. Finally, with the helicopter hovering about 13 centimeters about the surface, Perseverance will roll away.

The rover will try to reach a safe distance of 60 meters from the airfield, from where it can capture the flight with its cameras. Ingenuity is also equipped with cameras and will photograph Perseverance as it goes. The helicopter will have 30 days to operate before the rover has to resume its science mission. The first week will be just to test the motor and the blades.

The helicopter’s airfield. Image credit: NASA

Ingenuity was built to be extremely light so as to be able to lift off in the thin atmosphere of Mars. It has four carbon-fiber blades arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directors at 2,400 revolutions per minute – much faster than the blades of a helicopter on Earth. It cost $85 million and if it succeeds it could open space exploration in a big way.

“I can only imagine where we may be a decade or so from now,” Bobby Braun, director for planetary science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a news conference. “If we can scout and scientifically survey Mars from the air, with its thin atmosphere, we can certainly do the same at a number of other destinations across the solar system.”

NASA is already planning to send a rotorcraft to explore Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, as part of its Dragonfly mission scheduled to launch in 2026. The rotorcraft will fly to dozens of promising locations on Titan looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth. It has eight rotors and flies like a large drone

But, at least for now, let’s focus on Mars and what could be a big accomplishment from Ingenuity. After the flight period, Perseverance will have to go back to its own mission – looking for signs of ancient Mars life and collecting dozens of samples for future return to Earth. That material will be taken back to Earth by a campaign as early as 2031.

The Sky Crane, the crazy idea which became the norm

The sky crane was the crazy idea that actually worked. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Prior to the rover Curiosity, rovers were either reaching the surface of Mars via rocket-controlled landers or merrily bouncing their way along the surface nestled in airbags. However, the creation of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), later named Curiosity, presented a dilemma for engineers. How do you get a one-ton rover the size of a Volkswagen down safely?

While previously rovers utilized landers in which they would drive off, the new car-sized Curiosity presented a problem. Landers need ramps and larger rovers need larger ramps. Additionally, ramps can be one of an engineer’s worse nightmares. Since the first successful rover, Sojourner, landed on Mars in 1997, engineers have always been scared that a multi-billion dollar project could get to a planet some 40,000 miles away from Earth, only to have the rover snag a part on the lander ramp, essentially becoming a lander itself on top of another lander, rendering them both basically useless.

(Note: The microwave-sized Sojourner was not technically the first rover on Martian soil. That distinction belongs to the Russians’ Prop-M rover which was tethered to their Mars 2 and 3 landers. Since Mars 2 pancaked itself into the surface and Mars 3 lost communications with Earth because of a sand storm, neither rover was actually deployed).

Second problem: These larger landers and larger ramps would need more room. On a planet where the main inhabitants are rocks (and lots of them), finding clearance would be a big thorn in the side of those in charge of finding a place to land. Not only that, but the good science comes when you get near the rocky stuff, which would be hard if you had to park in lot BFE.

Third problem: Putting rockets on the bottom of a rover like it was done in earlier landers like Viking creates a stability problem. In the book “Curiosity” by Rod Pyle, he likens it to “balancing a bowling ball on a broomstick.”

This is one reason why Spirit and Opportunity utilized the airbag system. The airbag system is pretty much how it sounds. Prior to the rover landing on the ground, airbags would inflate bouncing them to land where they may. This was never a viable option for the much larger Curiosity rover. Airbags can only handle so much weight and 2,000 pounds went far beyond those limits. Also, airbags also create just another thing to get the rover caught on.

So a new landing system was needed. As Curiosity’s Chief Engineer, Rob Manning, told Pyle in his book, “We were thinking out of the box. In fact, we threw away the box. We were literally going through all possible ways to land this machine, trying to imagine every possible configuration, whether it made sense or not.”

When Manning and his team first conceived the idea, it didn’t exactly have a warm reception. After all, Curiosity would be coming on the heals of two high-profile failures by NASA with the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter missions of the “better, faster, cheaper” era of the space program. (In 2004, the Harvard Review actually published a report using this NASA method as the way NOT to do business).

So the idea was tabled…but not for long.

After time devising other strategies, it always ended up coming back to the sky crane. As harrowing as it sounded, it was also one of the best options to deliver the rover to the best destination.

The Sky Crane

Think of the sky crane portion of the descent stage as a kind of jetpack with eight engines which safely lowered the rover to the ground. The sky crane slows the robot down until it hovers over the surface, then slowly winches the rover down with nylon cords.

If you’ve ever seen heavy-lift Sikorsky Skycrane helicopters with cargo dangling beneath via cables, that’s the essence of the sky crane. In fact, the engineers who first devised the idea actually met with pilots and engineers of that bird for guidance. Unfortunately, due to the gravity differences between Mars and Earth, there wasn’t a real way to test the landing system. Yes, it was a do-or-die operation where the only real test HAD to work.

“We talked about it to no end. If this didn’t go right, there would be nowhere to hide because every joe six-pack on the street would be saying that they knew it wouldn’t work,” Adam Steltzner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, chief engineer for the Perseverance rover, told Astronomy. Stelzner’s team originally thought up the sky crane idea for Curiosity.

If all goes right, and the rover makes it safely to the ground, pyrotechnically activated blades cut the cords connecting it to the descent stage. The descent stage then flies off to make its own uncontrolled landing on the surface of the Martian surface a safe distance away from the rover.

Before it hits Martian soil, the rovers have to go through six phases of EDL (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Prior to all of that though, the machine has to make it through the atmosphere. The intense period called the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, traveling at about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second). EDL ends about seven minutes later (known as the Seven Minutes of Terror) with the rover stationary on the surface. From just before jettison of the cruise stage 10 minutes before the craft hits the atmosphere, to the cutting of the sky crane bridle, the spacecraft goes through six different vehicle configurations and fires 76 pyrotechnic devices, such as releases for parts to be separated or deployed.

The parachute, which is 51 feet (almost 16 meters) in diameter, deploys about 254 seconds after entry, at an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers) and a velocity of about 940 miles per hour (about 405 meters per second). About 24 more seconds after parachute deployment, the heat shield separates and drops away when the spacecraft is at an altitude of about 5 miles (about 8 kilometers), traveling at a velocity of about 280 miles per hour (125 meters per second).

As the heat shield separates, the Mars Descent Imager begins recording video, looking in the direction the spacecraft is flying. The imager records continuously from then through the landing. The rover, with its descent-stage “rocket backpack,” is still attached to the back shell on the parachute.

The back shell, with a parachute attached, separates from the descent stage and rover about 85 seconds after heat shield separation. At this point, the spacecraft is about 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) above the ground and rushing toward it at about 190 miles per hour (about 80 meters per second), 6,900 feet (2,100 meters) above the ground.

All eight throttleable liquid-fueled retrorockets on the descent stage, called Mars landing engines, would then begin firing for the powered descent phase. The rover’s wheels and suspension system, which double as the landing gear, pop into place just before touchdown. The bridle is fully spooled out as the spacecraft continues to descend, so touchdown occurs at the brisk walking speed of about 1.7 miles per hour (0.75 meters per second). When the spacecraft sensed the rover has touched down, those pyrotechnically-fired blades release the cords, and the descent stage can then fly away before impacting on the surface of Mars far away from the rover.

A notable difference between Perseverance’s EDL and Curiosity’s is the Lander Vision System (LVS). While Curiosity used radar to determine the distance to the ground, Perseverance utilized a whole new type of technology.

The LVS’s job determined the rover’s position, handling different possible terrain conditions, within an accuracy of about 130 feet (40 meters) in less than 10 seconds. It contains a downward-facing camera that took multiple images of the ground and an onboard computer – the Vision Compute Element (VCE) — which processed these images and spit out acceptable landing locations. After the camera powered on, the LVS used an initial five seconds to take three images and process them to calculate a rough position relative to the Martian surface. Then, using that initial location solution, it took additional images, processing them every second, deriving locations on a finer scale. The VCE sent a stream of these location calculations to the main rover brain, the Rover Compute Element.

Now what started as a hare-brained idea is seeming to becoming the norm for NASA.

“If you’re landing a rover on Mars, there’s no doubt this is the right way,” said Steltzner. “(For Curiosity) we certainly had questions about whether this really was a crazy thing to try to do. Had we missed a big thing? Was it totally wrong? Did all the pieces actually come together and work? We answered those questions.”

Space and Physics Developments to Look Forward to in 2021

Unfortunately, science journalists don’t generally carry crystal balls as part of their arsenal, and if 2020 taught us anything, it’s not always safe to predict what the forthcoming year will bring. With that said, there are some space and physics developments that we can be fairly certain that will come to pass in 2021.

These are ZME Science’s tips for the top space science and physics events scheduled to occur in 2021.

Back to the Beginning with the James Webb Launch

It’s almost impossible to talk about the future of astronomy without mentioning NASA’s forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). To call the launch of Webb ‘much-anticipated’ is a vast understanding.

The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and unitized pallet structures that will fold up around the telescope for launch (NASA)

The reason astronomers are getting so excited about the JWST is its ability to see further into the Universe, and thus further back in its history than any telescope ever yet devised. This will allow astronomers to observe the violent and tumultuous conditions in the infant Universe. Thus, it stands poised to vastly improve our knowledge of the cosmos and its evolution.

Part of the reason for JWST’s impressive observational power lies in its incredible sensitivity to infrared light–with longer wavelengths than light visible with the human eye.

The ability to observe the early Universe could help settle confusion about what point in its history galaxies began to form. Whilst the current consensus is that galaxies began to form in later epochs, a wealth of recent research has suggested that galaxies could have formed much earlier than previously believed.

“Galaxies, we think, begin building up in the first billion years after the big bang, and sort of reach adolescence at 1 to 2 billion years. We’re trying to investigate those early periods,” explains Daniel Eisenstein, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES). “We must do this with an infrared-optimized telescope because the expansion of the universe causes light to increase in wavelength as it traverses the vast distance to reach us.”

An artist’s impression of the JWST in place after its 2021 launch (ESA)

The reason infrared is so important to observe the early Universe is that even though the stars are emitting light primarily in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, travelling these incredible distances means light is shifted into the infrared.

“Only Webb can get to the depth and sensitivity that’s needed to study these early galaxies.”

Daniel Eisenstein, Havard University

After years of setbacks and delays and an estimated cost of $8.8 billion the JWST is set to launch from French Guiana, South America, on 31st October 2021.

JET Will Have Star Power

The race is on to achieve fusion power as a practical energy source here on Earth. Nuclear fusion is already the process that powers the stars, but scientists are looking to make it an energy source much closer to home.

Internal view of the JET tokamak superimposed with an image of a plasma ( EFDA-JET)

When it comes to bringing star power down to Earth the Joint European Torus (JET)–the world’s largest tokamak–leads the way, housing plasmas hotter than are found anywhere else in the solar system, barring the Sun.

A tokamak is a device that uses a powerful magnetic field to trap plasma, confining it in a doughnut-like shape. Containing and controlling these plasmas is the key to generating energy through the fusion process. Within the plasma, particles collide with enough energy to fuse together forming new elements and releasing energy.

The process is cleaner and more efficient than fission power, which rips the atoms of elements apart, liberating energy whilst leaving behind radioactive waste.

JET itself isn’t a power station, rather it was designed to conduct experiments with plasma containment and study fusion in conditions that approach that which will be found in working fusion power plants. So, whilst the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)–set to be the world’s largest tokamak–is still under construction and won’t be operational until at least 2025, this year is set to be an important year for the experiment that inspired it.

Following upgrades conducted during 2020, JET is scheduled to begin experiments with a potent mix of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (D-T). This fuel hasn’t been used since 1997 due to the difficulties presented by the handling of tritium– a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus of one proton and two neutrons.

The JET team will be looking to attain an output similar to the 16 megawatts of power that was achieved in ’97, but for a more sustained period and with less energy input. The initial test at the end of the 20th century consumed more power than it produced.

Back to the Moon in 2021

2021 will mark the 52nd anniversary of NASA’s historic moon landing and will see the launch of several missions back to Earth’s natural satellite as well as continuing efforts to send humans following in the footsteps of Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11.

Illustration of Orion performing a trans-lunar injection burn (NASA)

As part of NASA’s deep space exploration system, Artemis I is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions designed to enable human exploration of the Moon and beyond.

“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known. It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.” 

Mike Sarafin, the Artemis I mission manager.

Artemis I will begin its journey aboard the Orion spacecraft, which at the time of its launch in November will be the most powerful spacecraft ever launched by humanity producing a staggering 8.8 million pounds of thrust during liftoff. After leaving Earth’s orbit with the aid of solar arrays and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) Orion will head out to the moon deploying a number of small satellites, known as CubeSats.

After a three week journey to and from the moon and six weeks in orbit around the satellite, Orion will return home in 2022, thus completing a total journey of approximately 1.3 million miles.

The Chandrayaan 2 launch. The ISRO will be hoping for better luck with Chandrayaan 3 in 2021 (ISRO)

NASA isn’t the only space agency with its sights set on the moon in 2021. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander at some point in 2021. It will mark the third lunar exploration mission by ISRO following the Chandrayaan-2’s failure to make a soft landing on the lunar surface due to a communications snafu.

Chandrayaan-3 will be a repeat of this mission including a lander and rover module, but lacking an orbiter. Instead, it will rely on its predecessor’s orbiter which is still in good working despite its parent module’s unfortunate crash lander. Should Chandrayaan-3 succeed it will make India’s ISRO only the fourth space agency in history to pull off a soft-landing on the lunar surface.

(Robert Lea)

Back with a Blast: The LHC Fires Up Again

The world’s largest, most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ceased operations in 2018 and this year, after high-luminosity upgrades, it will begin to collide particles again.

During its first run of collisions from 2008 to 2013 physicists successfully uncovered the Higgs Boson, thus completing the standard model of particle physics. With the number of collisions increased significantly, in turn, increasing the chance of spotting new phenomenon, researchers will be looking for clues of physics beyond the standard model.

All quiet at the LHC in 2019, but the world’s largest particle accelerator will fire up again in 2021 (Robert Lea)

The function of the LHC is to accelerate particles and guide them with powerful magnets placed throughout a circular chamber that runs for 17 miles beneath the French-Swiss border. When these particles collide they produce showers of ‘daughter’ particles, some that can only exist at high energy levels.

These daughter particles decay extremely quickly–within fractions of a second– and thus spotting them presents a massive challenge for researchers.

Luminosity when used in terms of particle accelerators refers to the number of particles that the machine can accelerate and thus collide. More collisions mean more daughter particles created, and a better chance of spotting exotic and rare never before seen particles and phenomena. Thus, high luminosity means more particles and more collisions.

To put these upgrades in context, during 2017 the LHC produced around 3 million Higgs Boson particles. When the High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) begins operations, researchers at cern estimate it will be producing around 15 million Higgs Bosons per year.

After being shut down for upgrades in 2018, the LHC prepares to fire up again in 2021 (CERN)

Unfortunately, despite firing up for a third run after these high luminosity upgrades, there is still work to be done before the LHC becomes the HL-LHC.

The shutdown that is drawing to completion–referred to by the CERN team as  Long Shutdown 2 (LS2)–was just part of the long operations that are required to boost the LHC’s luminosity. The project began in 2011 and isn’t expected to reach fruition until at least 2027.

That doesn’t mean that the third run of humankind’s most audacious science experiment won’t collect data that reveals stunning facts about the physics that governs that cosmos. And that collection process will begin in 2021.

So what is the Mars Sample Return mission exactly?

The Mars Sample Return Campaign is an effort to bring samples of Martian rocks and soil back to Earth (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If everything goes well, Martian rocks will hypersonically pancake themselves into the Utah desert.

But first, lets start from the beginning.

When Swati Mohan was in the third grade, the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation changed her life. One episode, in particular, displayed an artist’s rendition of everything space had to offer – stars, nebulas, and galaxies. From that moment on, she knew she had to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Now, years later, she is one of the primary actors in a project which could potentially change how we look at Mars, and space in general. From that third-grader, she has risen to become the lead of Guidance, Navigation, and Control Operations for the Perseverance Rover.

The Volvo-sized Perseverance (aka the 2020 Rover) and her sidekick, the helicopter Ingenuity, are the first stages of NASA’s sample return project. If all goes as planned, the duo will be landing at the Jezero Crater in February 2021.

Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Between three to four billion years ago, a river there flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments packed with carbonite minerals and clay. The Perseverance science team believes this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

“So the mission can be thought of in three separate phases,” Mohan told ZME Science. “One is launch cruise that’s getting from the surface of the Earth to Mars. The second phase is Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) from basically the top of Mars all the way down to the surface of the ground safely. The third mission is the surface mission. The actual portion where we drive around and do science is so complicated that in each of those phases there are separate missions, separate vehicles with all different hardware and software that goes along with it. You can think of it as each one of those phases has the complexity of a whole mission in it of itself.”

The returned samples have the potential to “change our understanding of the origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a July 28 news conference.

If successful, the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign will bring samples of Martian rocks and soil back to Earth, where they can be investigated in detail, using all the capabilities of terrestrial laboratories. The return program is part of an even larger Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Martian planet.


Credit: NASA/JPL.

The nuclear-powered Perseverance is the first rover to bring a caching system to Mars that will package samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Rather than pulverizing rock the way Curiosity‘s drill does, Perseverance’s drill will cut intact rock cores that are about the size of a piece of chalk and will place them in sample tubes that it will store until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location.

Built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the rover is loaded with all sorts of scientific instruments, advanced computational capabilities for landing and other new systems. With a chassis about 10 feet (3 meters) long, Perseverance is also the largest, heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has ever built.

The demanding science goal requested of the rover requires a new suite of instruments to tackle the question from many angles. While, at first glance, it may look like Perseverance wears the same uniform as Curiosity, it does contain a few improvements.

“Perseverance actually takes a lot of heritage from the Curiosity rover,” said Mohan. “The cruise stage that we’re flying is very similar. The EDL system is very similar. We’ve made some upgrades to Perseverance in order to improve our entry, descent and landing performance. And the rover shares the same kind of fundamental structure and body but it has all new set of instruments that are geared for searching for biosignatures.”

Among the technologies aboard Perseverance mission is the rover’s Terrain-Relative Navigation system (TRN). Part of the landing system, TRN is the primary reason Perseverance can explore a place like Jezero. It will enable the rover to quickly and autonomously comprehend its location over the surface and modify its trajectory during descent. This will be able to provide invaluable assistance for both robotic and crewed missions landing on the Moon and is a must for future robotic and crewed exploration of Mars.

Engineers have also given Perseverance more self-driving smarts than any other rover, allowing it to traverse more ground in a day’s operations without having to wait for engineers on our home planet to send up instructions. Calculated over the length of the mission, this lack of turn-around time will translate into more science.

The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, which can detect organic matter, and the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which measures the composition of rocks and soil, will allow Perseverance to map organic matter, chemical composition and texture together at a higher level of detail than any Mars rover has done before. These instruments — two of the seven total onboard — will play a particularly important role in Perseverance’s search for potential signs of life.

Perseverance also carries a technology demonstration coined the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — or MOXI, because what is science without a good acronym. This instrument will produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, demonstrating a way that future explorers might produce oxygen for rocket propellant as well as for breathing. The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) was also created with future human exploration in mind. MEDA will provide information about the current martian weather and climate, as well as the nature of the dust on the surface. The Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) package, a next-generation version of what flew on the Mars Science Laboratory mission that delivered the Curiosity rover, was also geared for future human exploration in mind, providing data about the entry and descent of the spacecraft through the atmosphere.

At one time, cameras were considered a waste of space on planetary explorers. Who would want to see images when there was so much science which could take up that space on the vessel. Thank God, those arguments have past for those of us who like to visually see the planetary landscapes (and for those of us who might want Martian backgrounds on their computer desktop…not naming names).

Perseverance is carrying the most cameras in any craft in the history of interplanetary exploration. The rover has 19 cameras that will deliver images of the landscape. The other parts of the spacecraft involved in EDL carry four additional cameras, potentially allowing engineers to put together a high-definition view of the landing process after the rover safely touches down on Mars.


In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

And what is a superhero without its trusty sidekick.

For Vaneeza Rupani, a high-school student in Northport, Alabama, second place didn’t turn out to be that bad. Rupani originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, before it was named Perseverance, but NASA officials recognized the submission as a terrific name for the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get the mission off the ground so to speak. 

“The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration,” Rupani wrote. “Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things.”

“It’s super cool,” said Mohan of Ingenuity. “The Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 had a little rover called Sojourner and it was not even the size of a cereal box, and it was an add-on. That rover is the genesis of how we have the Perseverance rover now and all this complexity and capability so it’s super exciting that we’re taking that next step with ingenuity to do the first powered flight.”

Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration – a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.

Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 revolutions per minute – many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries and other components. However, the little chopper doesn’t carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from Perseverance.

Because the Mars atmosphere is 99 percent less dense than ours, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass here on Earth.

Temps are another experiment with the little ‘copter. Nights at Jezro dip down much cooler than cardigan weather at minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity’s team on Earth tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity’s parts.

In addition, flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Like all our Martian rovers, commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.

NASA officials say that Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles which might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They are hoping what is learned through a helicopter could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL. “We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”

Sample Return Mission

The ultimate dream for those interested in space science is finding life on another planet. That starts with sample return missions. Perseverance is that first step.

Three launches will be necessary to accomplish landing, collecting, storing and finding samples and delivering them to Earth.

Once soil samples are collected by the rover, it will deposit samples in tubes at select locations, called depots, which will be collected at a later date by the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter.

“The lander goes, lands near one of these depots, and collects the samples which have been placed on the surface,” explained Dave Spencer, the Mars Sample Return Campaign Mission Manager at JPL, in an interview. “The lander has a European rover onboard, called the sample fetch rover. This rover will be placed on the surface we’ll go out and grab the samples from this depot, bring it back to the lander and put them in an orbiting sample container, which is basically a soccer ball sized container, then put into the Mars Ascent Vehicle on the lander, that can launch it up into Mars orbit.”

Illustration of Mars Sample Return process (Credit: ESA)

As currently envisioned, the lander that will gather the samples launches in 2026 and arrives at Mars in 2028, touching down close to the Mars 2020 rover near Jezero Crater. It deposits the fetch rover to pick up the stashed samples and transfer them to the rocket. Another option is for the Mars 2020 rover to retain some of its collected samples onboard and deliver those samples directly to the rocket. The rocket would then become the first ever to launch off another planet, transporting the sample return container into orbit around Mars.

“We also designed it so that the Mars 2020 rover, assuming it’s still alive, if it’s still got more samples onboard, it can come up and provide samples to be loaded into the orbiting sample container as well,” said Spencer. “So we can receive samples from either the fetch rover or the 2020 rover.”

That’s where a separate orbiting spacecraft, provided by ESA and also launched from Earth in 2026, would rendezvous with the sample return container and ferry it back to Earth.

A NASA-provided payload on the orbiter would provide the capabilities needed to capture and contain the samples, placing them in an Earth entry vehicle that would land the samples safely on U.S. soil.

Spencer explains:

“So now we’ve got this orbiting sample container, the soccer ball-sized container that’s been delivered by this Mars ascent vehicle into Mars orbit. And it’s going to be up at around 300 kilometers (186 miles) of altitude above the surface of Mars. And the European orbiter, this Earth Return Orbiter is going to go up and autonomously rendezvous and capture this orbiting sample container. And once it captures, there’s a big canister basketball hoop basically, that we steer the vehicle such that the orbiting sample contains canister goes into this basketball hoop, close the door on and capture it and then very carefully put it through a robotic process.”

The canister will contain all of the materials inside the orbiting sample container. However, scientists need to be careful not to return any uncontained material back into the Earth’s biosphere, such as dust on the canister. In order to keep this from occurring, the capsule contains a redundant containment system where the engineers put a containment vessel around the orbiting sample canister, and then turn around and put that unit into another containment vessel.

“Now we’ve got this enclosed set of samples and we put them into an earth Earth entry vehicle that gets delivered back to Earth. It’s then on put on an impact trajectory, so it’s actually going to crash land in Utah. And it comes in directly from the interplanetary trajectory. So it’s going to be coming in at hyper-sonic speeds through the Earth’s atmosphere and impact in the mudflats at a place called the Utah test and training rage.”

And then if all goes well, it will be recovered intact.

And if all goes better, we will make some amazing discoveries. Hopefully, discoveries that will propel us to search for sample returns on further bodies in the future.

As Alex Mather of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, eloquently wrote in his winning essay naming the Perseverance rover, “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as humans, will not give up.”

NASA delays its Mars 2020 launch by two days

NASA’s Mars rover, the Perseverance, was aptly named. After delaying its launch (July 17) by three days, the agency has now rescheduled it for July 22 due to “a contamination concern”.

Image credits NASA / Christian Mangano.

The agency initially delayed the launch due to issues with ground equipment, namely a faulty crane. As this was being fixed, engineers also ran into trouble as they were mounting the Atlas V rocket’s nosecone to its body (creating the space that transports the rover). Due to this, Perserverence’s launch was rescheduled for July 22, NASA said on Wednesday.

Earth and Mars don’t stay at a constant distance all the time. They move around the Sun at different speeds and on different orbits. The launch window to Mars, the span of time when its closest to Earth, is open until Aug. 11. So despite the delay, NASA isn’t worried about not being ready on time.

“NASA and United Launch Alliance [who built the rocket] are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” the agency writes.

“Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

NASA adds that “the spacecraft and vehicle remain healthy”, and successfully performed a refueling test on Monday.

Launch director Omar Baez said in a news conference that “[they] have plenty of window or runway ahead of us and we’re not worried about it”. He said that further setbacks from “not-so-perfect days” are probable but that the team will still be ready for launch. It may even be possible to extend the launch window to Aug. 15, Baez added.

Image credits NASA.

Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. Its target is the Jezero Crater, a 49 km (30.5 mi) wide crater thought to have contained liquid water at some point in the past. There, it will look for signs of ancient life and take samples that will be retrieved on a later mission. One of its most important tasks is to test MOXIE — a system that creates oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is rich in carbon dioxide.

Perseverance’s design is largely based on the Curiosity rover, the last rover to land on Mars. It’s heavier, carries fewer instruments, but is also equipped with a nuclear power source — which should keep the rover running for a long time.

NASA’s Mars missions landing sites.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Perseverance is the first rover to also bring along a colleague: Ingenuity, the first helicopter sent to space. The tiny flier will initially make three test runs in the Martian atmosphere, though it could make more if everything goes well.

Of course, this all hinges on NASA making the launch window. If they don’t, we will have to wait for another 26 months for the two planets to properly align again.