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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars pictures fuel NASA’s funding pitch

The first pictures from a Chinese probe on the surface of Mars were released today, sparking a plea from NASA’s recently appointed chief for more funding to keep America in the lead on the space frontier.

China’s Zhurong rover, which landed on the Red Planet on May 14, sent back pictures as it sat atop its landing platform on the flat plain of Utopia Planitia. One picture provides a rover’s-eye view of the ramp that the six-wheeled robot will use to roll down onto the surface.

The probe also sent back video clips that were captured by China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter during the lander’s separation.

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Cosmic Space

Discovery unveils reality TV contest for space trip

More than 20 years after TV executives first floated the idea of doing a “Survivor”-style series with a trip to space as the reward, it looks as if such a show might actually happen as early as next year.

The eight-part series’ working title is “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” It’s slated to air on the Discovery TV channel, with bonus content on the Science Channel and the discovery+ streaming service.

Discovery put out the casting call today, and you can sign up to vie for a spot on the show — that is, assuming that you’re a U.S. citizen who’s 18 or older and in good enough shape to endure the rigors of spaceflight. Applicants will have to answer a questionnaire and submit photos and a short video as part of the screening process. If you go on to the next stage, you’ll have to undergo a background check as well as psychological and physical exams.

Contestants will be put through astronaut-style training and a variety of extreme challenges. In the end, expert judges will select one candidate to take a ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon and spend eight days on the International Space Station as part of an Axiom Space mission.

Houston-based Axiom Space recently sealed the deal with NASA for its first private astronaut mission, known as Ax-1, and Discovery says it expects the reality-TV trip to be part of Ax-2.

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Cosmic Space

Chinese probe touches down safely on Mars

China scored another first for its space program today with the safe landing of the Tianwen-1 mission’s lander and rover on Mars.

“It is the first time China has landed a probe on a planet other than Earth,” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

The lander-rover spacecraft was brought to Mars aboard China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, which was launched last July and made its Red Planet rendezvous in February. For weeks, scientists used the orbiter to scout out potential landing sites, and settled on Utopia Planitia, the same plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

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Cosmic Space

Japanese billionaire doubles down on space tours

For some people, once is not enough when it comes to traveling to space — even if each trip costs tens of millions of dollars. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is apparently one of those people.

Virginia-based Space Adventures announced today that Maezawa and his production assistant, Yozo Hirano, will be taking a 12-day trip to the International Space Station, and documenting the adventure for Maezawa’s YouTube channel.

The Japanese pair will fly to the station and back aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that’s due for launch on Dec. 8, under the command of Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin. All the medical checks have been made, and the trio is due to begin about three months of training at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City in June, Space Adventures said.

“I’m so curious, ‘what’s life like in space?'” Maezawa said in Space Adventures’ news release. “I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world on my YouTube channel.”

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Cosmic Space

Axiom Space plans for a string of orbital tours

Axiom Space has firmed up its plans with NASA for the first all-civilian mission to the International Space Station — and says it has three more such tours lined up for the next couple of years.

But those next tours are going to be more costly, thanks to the law of supply and demand.

“There’s still not much in the way of supply,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini told reporters today during a teleconference. “The spacecrafts are awesome, but there’s just not a lot of flights available yet, and the demand is still growing.”

In that regard, Axiom Space is a trailblazer. Last year, it struck a deal with NASA to have its own habitat attached to the ISS in the 2024 time frame, in preparation for building its own orbital outpost. This year, it announced plans to send three customers to the station under the command of former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Today, Houston-based Axiom and NASA announced that they’ve signed an order clearing the way for the space station mission known as Ax-1 to take place by as early as next January.

“The first private crew to visit the International Space Station is a watershed moment in humanity’s expansion off the planet, and we are glad to partner with NASA in making it happen,” Suffredini said.

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Cosmic Space

Starship survives its landing for the first time

SpaceX’s Starship prototype super-rocket stuck the landing today after a 10-kilometer-high test flight. And this time, it didn’t blow up.

The six-minute flight at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marked the first time in five tries that one of SpaceX’s 160-foot-tall prototypes survived a complete cycle of launch and landing.

The third attempt came close in March, but in that case, the rocket erupted in a fireball minutes after it landed.

No such setback occurred this time around. Propelled by three of SpaceX’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, the Starship SN15 prototype rose into a cloudy sky, hovered at an altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) as planned, and then flipped into a horizontal attitude in order to increase drag and reduce its speed as it descended.

Moments before reaching the ground, Starship re-ignited two of its engines, righted itself and landed on its feet. When the smoke cleared, the rocket stood tall on its landing pad, with flames licking at its side.

“The Starship has landed,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker declared. He said the post-landing fire was “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying, as we continue to work on the test vehicle design.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a three-word reaction to Starship’s successful flight: “Starship landing nominal!”

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX and NASA make history with night splashdown

For the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968, NASA astronauts returning to Earth from orbit have splashed down at night. And for the first time ever, it was done with a commercial spaceship.

After spending 168 days in space, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, descended safely from the International Space Station to the Gulf of Mexico in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. The Dragon hit the water off Florida’s Gulf Coast at 2:56 a.m. ET today (11:56 p.m. PT May 1).

A recovery team hauled the Dragon, with its crew inside, onto the deck of a ship called the Go Navigator. While he waited to be brought out from the capsule, Hopkins expressed his thanks to the SpaceX and NASA teams for a trouble-free return.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. … Quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations,” Hopkins said. “It’s great to be back.”

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Cosmic Space

Veep will put her ‘personal stamp’ on space policy

Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as the head of the National Space Council is prescribed by law, but that doesn’t mean she and her boss at the White House had to take it seriously.

The space council’s role as a forum for coordinating federal space policy goes back to the Eisenhower administration. But it languished in hibernation for a couple of decades until its revival by the Trump White House, with Vice President Mike Pence filling the statutory role of chairman. Under Pence’s leadership, the council conducted public hearings and drew up seven policy directives on matters ranging from moon exploration to nukes in space.

Today Harris confirmed in a tweet that she’ll keep the ball rolling during the Biden administration:

During a background briefing for reporters, senior administration officials said Harris won’t be a mere figurehead.

The vice president “intends to put her own personal stamp on the concept,” one official said. (The briefing was conducted under the condition that the senior officials would not be identified further.)

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Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter gets a new job: robot scout

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been doing such a great job on Mars that mission managers have decided not to kill it off. Instead, the solar-powered rotorcraft will be given a new assignment: scouting from the air as NASA’s Perseverance rover moves into new territory.

“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase to the new ops demo phase, where we can show how a rotorcraft can be used, and show products that only an aerial platform from an aerial dimension can give,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said today during a news briefing held to lay out the helicopter’s new mission.

Ingenuity rode to a February landing on Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly, on an $85 million technology demonstration mission that’s a subset of the rover’s $2.7 billion, two-year-long primary mission.

Perseverance’s main tasks are to survey the terrain of Mars’ Jezero Crater, which was thought to have once been the site of an ancient lake, and store up samples for later return to Earth.

NASA planned to try out the solar-powered mini-helicopter on five test flights, merely to prove out the technology for conducting aerial missions in Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. After the first flight, Aung hinted that the final flight just might push the envelope far enough to break the 4-pound flying machine.

But things have gone so well during the flights to date — including today’s fourth flight in the series — that the mission team is extending Ingenuity’s mission for an operational demonstration.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends astronauts to orbit with a light show

Four astronauts from three nations have arrived at the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, after a night launch that lit up the skies over Florida with UFO-like displays.

The light show came courtesy of the timing for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on April 23 at 5:49 a.m. ET — which was just right for the dawn’s early glare to illuminate clouds of fuel and exhaust left behind by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as it ascended and went through stage separation.

In a tweet, NASA said the skies “lit up like a sunrise.” Other observers said the launch left an impression that was out of this world: