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Cosmic Space

China launches Mars probe amid big questions

China’s most advanced space probe — Tianwen-1, whose name means “Heavenly Questions” — is on its way to Mars, beginning a quest that will be riddled with questions.

Some of those questions are definitely heavenly in nature: How are reservoirs of potentially precious water ice distributed beneath the Martian surface? Where are the best places to find traces of past life, or to shelter future explorers?

But the biggest question about Tianwen-1 is more down to Earth: Can the Chinese actually pull this off?

“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” mission team leaders wrote last week in Nature Astronomy. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”

The mission’s start looked auspicious, although it lacked the level of official reportage that Western space enthusiasts are used to.

A video stream from Douyu.com showed China’s Long March 5 rocket sending the 5-ton probe skyward from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 12:41 p.m. local time July 23 (9:41 p.m. PT July 22). China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the launch in a bulletin issued a couple of minutes later.

The plan calls for Tianwen-1 to make a seven-month cruise to Mars and enter a polar elliptical orbit next February.

Tianwen-1 is one of three Mars probes being launched this summer to take advantage of a favorable celestial alignment that comes around only every 26 months. The other two spacecraft are the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which was launched earlier this week; and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for liftoff next week.

NASA’s recent Mars missions may make the interplanetary trip look easy. But over the past five decades, trips to the Red Planet have been so fraught with risks that mission managers used to joke darkly about a “Great Galactic Ghoul” who gobbled spacecraft bound for Mars.

Only NASA and the Soviet Union have successfully landed probes on Mars, and the Soviet Mars 3 lander lasted just 110 seconds on the ground before giving up the ghost in 1971.

Several NASA probes have gone astray, including Mars Observer in 1993 as well as Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. China has fallen victim to the ghoul’s grip as well: Its first Mars probe, a piggyback orbiter known as Yinghuo-1, was lost when the Russian spacecraft it was riding on, Phobos-Grunt, failed to get out of Earth orbit after its launch in 2011 and eventually fell into the Pacific.

Since that failure, China’s robotic space program has had much more success: The Chang’e-3 mission put a rover on the lunar surface in 2013, and a little more than five years later, Chang’e-4 became the world’s first mission to explore the moon’s far side at ground level.

Tianwen-1’s agenda is similarly ambitious: The orbiter is meant to conduct a global high-resolution survey of Mars over the course of a full Martian year, or nearly two Earth years. Two or three months after entering Martian orbit, a lander will unhook from the orbiter, descend through the atmosphere and make a soft landing in Utopia Planitia with the aid of a parachute, retrorockets and airbags.

If that touchdown is successful, the lander will disgorge a 500-pound rover that’s bristling with six scientific instruments — including two cameras, a meteorology station, a magnetometer, a surface composition analyzer and a ground-penetrating radar that could map those hidden concentrations of subsurface water ice.

Mars’ reservoirs of water ice would be crucial for sustaining human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. In the past, Chinese experts have talked about sending astronauts there sometime after 2040. But that’s an issue for another day. In the meantime, China — and the rest of the world’s spacefaring nations — will have to deal with lots of slightly less lofty heavenly questions.

Update for 1:25 a.m. PT July 23: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wished Tianwen-1 safe travels in a tweet:

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GeekWire

BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Spaceflight and Tethers team up on deorbiting system

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

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Cosmic Space

Hope rises: Emirates’ first Mars probe lifts off from Japan

The United Arab Emirates’ first-ever mission to Mars got off to a fiery start today with the launch of the Hope orbiter from Japan.

A two-stage Mitsubishi H-2A rocket sent the car-sized probe into space from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 2:58 p.m. PT today (6:58 a.m. local time July 20). Two previous launch attempts had to be called off due to unacceptable weather.

An Emirati team based at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai is in charge of the $200 million mission. The probe itself was built in the U.S. with help from research institutions including Berkeley, Arizona State University and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP.

Learning the tools of the space exploration trade is one of the Hope mission’s on-the-ground objectives. The United Arab Emirates has had several satellites launched into Earth orbit, but this is the nation’s first interplanetary probe.

“Collaboration and knowledge transfer have been key to the development of the Emirates Mars Mission,” project director Omran Sharaf said in a pre-launch news release.

About an hour after launch, the probe was deployed from the H-2A’s second stage and sent out of Earth orbit to start the seven-month, 306 million-mile cruise to Mars. Emirati mission controllers will track Hope’s progress with an assist from NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Hope’s three instruments — a high-resolution imager, an infrared spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer — are aimed at providing data about Mars’ atmosphere on a par with what Earth-observing weather satellites provide.

That should help flesh out the global picture of Martian weather provided by other nations’ orbiters, including NASA’s MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

One of the key scientific questions has to do with how hydrogen and oxygen are escaping from the upper atmosphere — a phenomenon that, over the course of billions of years, is thought to have turned Mars from a hospitable home for life to the cold, dry planet it is today.

“Hope will capture the ebbs and flows of weather on Mars to a degree that wasn’t possible before,” said LASP’s director, Daniel Baker. “It’s a showcase for how space exploration has become an increasingly international endeavor.”

The primary phase of the mission is meant to last a full Martian year, or a little less than two Earth years, but if all goes well that mission is likely to be extended.

Hope was the first of three Mars probes scheduled for launch during this summer’s rapid-transit opportunity. (Such opportunities come only every 26 months.)

China is expected to launch its Tianwen-1 spacecraft — including an orbiter, a lander and a rover — sometime in the next week or so. And NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is due for liftoff from its Florida launch pad no earlier than July 30.

Less than an hour before launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the UAE’s space program was a “shining example” of international space cooperation — and that last year’s flight of the Emirates’ first astronaut gave NASA “another partner” in human spaceflight during the ramp-up to Artemis moon missions.

Bridenstine said both the Hope orbiter and the Perseverance rover were aptly named.

“All of us believe that this is critical for our nation: to inspire the next generation, to provide hope and demonstrate perseverance,” he said. “The naming of these two robots, if you will, is absolutely perfect. … This is a very serious mission that is going to give us a lot of data and information on how we might one day, together even, explore Mars with humans.”

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Cosmic Space

It’s the summer of Mars: Check your Red Planet IQ

It’s been more than two years since the most recent launch to Mars, but traffic to the Red Planet is due to pick up dramatically in the next couple of weeks.

The United Arab Emirates could start things off as soon as Sunday (July 19) with the launch of its first-ever interplanetary probe, the Hope orbiter. Liftoff from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center is set for as early as 5:58 p.m. ET (1:58 a.m. UAE time July 20), with a Japanese H-2A rocket providing the ride.

The UAE is an up-and-comer in the space business, as evidenced by last year’s first space mission by an Emirati astronaut. This Mars mission celebrates the Emirates’ 50th anniversary as a nation, and is being carried out by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in collaboration with a variety of U.S. research institutions.

The car-sized Hope orbiter is designed to provide a weather-satellite style view of the Martian atmosphere over the course of its two-year-long primary mission. Hope’s launch has been delayed a couple of times due to unfavorable weather in Japan, but once liftoff takes place, it should be clear sailing to orbital insertion at Mars next February.

China is next up with its Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover. The spacecraft should be sent on its way from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site atop a Long March 5 rocket sometime next week.

Assuming all goes as advertised, Tianwen-1’s landing platform will touch down on a Martian plain known as Utopia Planitia next February. The rover will roll off the platform, take pictures, analyze rock samples and use a radar instrument to hunt for pockets of subsurface water.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will be snapping high-resolution pictures from above and serving as a communications relay. Tianwen (which means “Questioning the Heavens”) is China’s first Mars mission and could lay the groundwork for a sample return mission in the late 2020s.

NASA is also preparing for a sample return mission. On July 30, it’s due to launch the Mars Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Perseverance takes advantage of the same basic chassis design and plutonium-powered batteries used for the Curiosity rover, which is still in operation eight years after landing on Mars. But its instruments are optimized to look for the chemical signs of ancient microbial life.

After the one-ton, SUV-sized rover makes its February touchdown in Jezero Crater, one of its primary tasks will be to collect promising samples of Martian rock and soil for eventual return to Earth. Perseverance is also packing a mini-helicopter called Ingenuity, which could become the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet.

There’s a reason why all these spacecraft are due for takeoff this summer, heading for a landing next February. Because of the orbital relationship between Earth and Mars, the optimal opportunity for a trip to the Red Planet comes every 26 months.

NASA’s Mars InSight lander took advantage of the 2018 opportunity, and now it’s time once again for Mars-bound missions to lift off — or wait for the next turn in 2022.

There’ll be a lot more on the Red Planet menu in the next few weeks, and this Mars IQ test should serve as an appetizer. Are you a space cadet or a Mars commander? If you’ve read this story, you should get at least the first quiz question right…

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Cosmic Space

5 years after flyby, the case for Pluto still holds up

It was exactly five years ago today that NASA’s New Horizons probe made a history-making flyby past Pluto — and since then, the mission’s scientific discoveries and newly raised mysteries continue to pile up.

“I think the solar system literally saved the best for last with Pluto,” New Horizons’ principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, said in his anniversary blog post. “Of course, I’m a little biased — as we all are on New Horizons — but I can’t think of a more beautiful and scientifically richer way to have completed the first era of the reconnaissance of the planets.”

This year marks another, more personal anniversary: It’s been 10 years since the publication of “The Case for Pluto,” my book about the put-upon planet. Back then, the big question was whether Pluto deserved the planet label — and although I argued the case that it does, the clash over classification really isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

You can call Pluto a dwarf planet (my preferred term), a Kuiper Belt object or a “bloog.” (That last term is the one Caltech astronomer and self-described Pluto-killer Mike Brown came up with to make fun of the tiff over terminology.)

But in light of New Horizons’ discoveries, you can never call Pluto uninteresting.

It’s interesting to leaf through the pages of “The Case for Pluto” and size up how the speculation from 2010 matches up with the science as we know it in 2020. In honor of the fifth anniversary of the flyby and the 10th anniversary of the book, here are updates on five of the big questions about Pluto:

Is there liquid water on Pluto? Looks like it. New Horizons’ pictures of tectonic structures and mountains made of water ice, plus an analysis of the dwarf planet’s mass distribution, suggest that there are bodies of liquid water hidden beneath the surface layer of nitrogen ice. What’s more, shifts in the state of that water due to freezing may be what’s driving the creation of new faults in the surface ice.

“If Pluto is an active ocean world, that suggests that the Kuiper Belt may be filled with other ocean worlds among its dwarf planets, dramatically expanding the number of potentially habitable places in the solar system,” New Horizons team member James Tuttle Keane, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said today in a mission recap.

Does Pluto have plains of methane? Sort of. One of Pluto’s best-known features, a light-colored, heart-shaped zone that was named Tombaugh Regio in honor of the dwarf planet’s discoverer, is dominated by a plain known as Sputnik Planitia. The plain is made up of patchy nitrogen-ice glaciers, but New Horizons also detected the presence of frozen methane, carbon monoxide and water (in the form of icebergs).

A close analysis of the imagery led scientists to conclude that grains of methane sand have risen to the surface of Sputnik Planitia and are being blown around into icy dunes, probably by gentle winds in Pluto’s ultra-thin, nitrogen-rich atmosphere.

Will Pluto’s atmosphere freeze out? The latest evidence suggests a freezing trend. Pluto cycles through seasons in the course of its 248-Earth-year orbit, the dwarf planet’s elliptical orbit is currently taking it farther away from the sun. That means the already-chilly planet and its atmosphere will be getting even colder.

At the time of the New Horizons flyby, scientists saw signs that the atmosphere was still holding steady rather than freezing into flecks of ice, probably due to thermal inertia. But this year, a Japanese team reported that the pressure has apparently dropped by more than 20% since 2016. That’s a much more dramatic collapse than expected, and will need to be confirmed (or discounted) by follow-up observations.

Are there ice volcanoes? You bet … not only on Pluto but on its largest moon, Charon. The pictures from New Horizons suggest that slushy “cryolava” has blurped out onto the surfaces of the two worlds through fissures in the surface ice.

Although the flyby went by too quickly to see the actual blurping, scientists spotted large central pits on two Plutonian mountains known as Wright Mons and Piccard Mons that they believe serve as the mouths of ice volcanoes. And in a region on Charon called Vulcan Planitia, the New Horizons team saw signs of a huge flow of ammonia-rich water ice.

Is there another Planet X out there? Ask again later. Even when “The Case for Pluto” was written, there was plenty of speculation over whether an undetected planet much bigger than Pluto lurked on the solar system’s edge. Caltech’s Mike Brown and other researchers said anomalies in the orbits of objects in the Kuiper Belt hinted at the presence of what they called Planet Nine.

Years of searching through telescope data haven’t yet turned up hard evidence for Planet Nine’s presence, and some astronomers now speculate that the anomalies associated with the hypothetical planet are due instead to the gravitational influence of a grapefruit-sized black hole. Others suggest it’s just a glitch in the data.

Even if Planet X is crossed out. there’s much more to be discovered on the solar system’s last frontier.

The New Horizons team is still sorting through the data sent back from the last year’s follow-up flyby of a double-lobed Kuiper Belt object known as Arrokoth. A huge compendium of Pluto research, running to more than 1,000 pages in length, is being prepared for publication.

Stern and his colleagues are already working to identify a potential target for New Horizons’ third Kuiper Belt flyby. And they’re talking about sending out an orbiter with powerful sensors to conduct a longer-lasting survey of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

“By the time we mark the 10th anniversary of the Pluto flyby in July 2025, such a mission could even be under construction,” Stern wrote today.

Who knows? Maybe a 15th-anniversary edition of “The Case for Pluto” will be in the works as well.

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GeekWire

Orbite plans to build a space camp for grown-ups

If the 2010s were the decade when small satellites revolutionized the space industry, the 2020s will be when commercial space odysseys finally go mainstream.

At least that’s the gamble that Jason Andrews, the co-founder and former CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, is taking with French-born tech entrepreneur Nicolas Gaume.

Today Andrews and Gaume are taking the wraps off Orbite, a Seattle startup that will focus on getting would-be spacefliers ready for those future odysseys. “You’re going to go to a space camp for the next generation,” Gaume said.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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White House CFO becomes Pentagon’s top techie

White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios ⁠— who enlisted Amazon, Microsoft and other key players in artificial intelligence and cloud computing to fight COVID-19 ⁠— has himself been recruited for another role as the Defense Department’s top official for technology.

President Donald Trump is designating Kratsios to serve as the acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering — in effect, the Pentagon’s CTO. Kratsios will also keep his CTO role in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The previous under secretary in charge of defense tech, Mike Griffin, stepped down last week to pursue “a private-sector opportunity” along with his deputy.

Kratsios will be in the prime position to help the Pentagon pursue opportunities in emerging technologies such as AI, automation, quantum computing, robotics and 5G wireless services — frontiers that have drawn increasing attention under Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

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FCC chief tweets support for Amazon satellite plan

The Federal Communications Commission’s chairman, Ajit Pai, says he’s proposing approval of Amazon’s plan to put more than 3,200 satellites into low Earth orbit for a broadband internet constellation known as Project Kuiper … with conditions.

In a tweet, Pai said he shared his proposal today with colleagues on the commission.

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Cosmic Space

What to know before you go comet-hunting

This summer’s sky spectacle is a shooting star that was discovered in March by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Explorer, or NEOWISE. Comet NEOWISE (also known as C/2020 F3) zoomed around the sun last week, and is now visible to the naked eye. But only if you know exactly where, when and how to look.

Although there’s lots of buzz about NEOWISE, this is no “great comet” — just a pretty good one. If you’re expecting to look up above your head and see a celestial portent of “Game of Thrones” proportions, you’re going to be disappointed.

But if you’re angling to see this season’s most-talked-about sky show with your own eyes, here are five strategies to maximize your chances:

Go late or go early: Because it’s so soon after the northern solstice, the celestial alignments make it theoretically possible to see Comet NEOWISE in morning or evening skies, with emphasis on the word “theoretically.”

For the next few days, the comet will be higher in the sky in the morning, which means predawn viewing is preferred. The best time is around 3 to 4 a.m.; the farther north you are, the earlier you should get up. Around July 15, the comet’s outward trajectory from the sun will turn it into more of an evening star, with prime time coming at 10:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after sunset.

Look north: Your viewing spot should have an unobstructed view to the northern horizon — to the northeast for morning viewing, or to the northwest for the evening. To find optimal views of the horizon, scan Google Maps (with Street View). And to figure out exactly where to look in the sky, study the charts from Sky & Telescope, SpaceWeather.com, The Sky Live, Heavens Above and EarthSky.

Comet NEOWISE should be visible in the northeast by 3 a.m. July 11 — close to the horizon and to the left of Venus, the brightest object in eastern skies.

Seek clarity: The fact that NEOWISE is so close to the horizon means that sky conditions are crucial. There’s a good chance the comet could be lost in hazy or humid skies. And if there are clouds stretching across the horizon, that could be a deal-breaker. Finding out you’re clouded out at 3 a.m. is a truly rude awakening.

To determine if the forecast is favorable, click on over to Digital.Weather.gov, focus in on your viewing area and select “Sky Cover (%)” from the drop-down menu. Then move the slider bar to your planned viewing time (for example, “At Jul 11, 3 a.m.”) and check whether conditions are expected to be blue (set your alarm) or gray (sleep in).

Bring binoculars: Although NEOWISE is bright enough for naked-eye viewing, your naked eyes will see it pretty much as a fuzzy star. To make out the comet’s tail clearly, you’ll probably need to break out the binoculars or a telescope.

Skywatchers have been putting up some impressive pictures of NEOWISE and its double tail — a curving tail of cosmic dust illuminated by the sun, plus a dimmer, bluish tail of ions streaming straight out. You just have to remember that those photos are typically enhanced or stacked to bring out details you won’t be able to see with your own eyes.

Be realistic: Most celestial phenomena are subtler than the hype makes them out to be, so don’t get frustrated if that turns out to be the case for NEOWISE. While you’re out there comet-hunting, take a moment to check out other celestial wonders — ranging from the International Space Station and passing satellites to the moon, planets and meteors.

Even if you miss seeing NEOWISE with your naked eyes, you can still connect with the comet by checking out the views from the space station, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the scores of dedicated comet-hunters whose photos appear on SpaceWeather.com, EarthSky and other online galleries.

Update for 2 p.m. PT July 13: I discovered that 4 a.m. is really too late to look for the comet in northern-latitude locations (like Seattle). I totally missed seeing it at 4 a.m. on July 11 — but had much better luck at 3 a.m. on July 13, when it was still dark enough to spot NEOWISE in advance of the predawn glow. I’ve changed the time references in this story for the benefit of those still trying to catch sight of the comet before dawn.