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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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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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GeekWire

UW calls a halt to use of questionable test kits

Sample collection kits
Collection kits were made by Lingen Precision Medical Products in Shanghai. (Lingen Photo via Alibaba)

The University of Washington School of Medicine has alerted Seattle-King County public health officials and other partners to stop using a donated supply of specimen collection kits for coronavirus testing, due to quality control concerns.

In response, the Washington State Department of Health issued a recall order for about 12,000 of the Chinese-made kits, which were sent to local health jurisdictions, tribal nations and its partners across the state.

Concerns were raised on April 17 after UW Medicine determined that some of the kits, which were airlifted from Shanghai a couple of weeks ago with logistical assistance from Amazon, showed signs of contamination.

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GeekWire

Boeing braces for impact of China’s virus outbreak

Randy Tinseth
Randy Tinseth, vice president for marketing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, takes a question during the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance’s annual meeting in Lynnwood, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LYNNWOOD, Wash. — One of Boeing’s top market analysts says the concerns stirred up by China’s Wuhan coronavirus outbreak will affect airline profitability, passenger air traffic — and the economy as a whole.

Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said that effect is likely to throw an additional twist into his generally optimistic outlook for the aviation market in 2020.

He laid out Boeing’s outlook for the next year, and for the next 20 years, today during the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance’s annual conference at the Lynnwood Convention Center.

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Chinese gene-editing scientist goes to prison

He Xiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who stirred up a global controversy last year when he said his experiment produced twin baby girls with gene-edited traits, has been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $430,000 fine, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported today.

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Billionaires Jack Ma and Elon Musk debate AI

Jack Ma and Elon Musk
Jack Ma and Elon Musk discuss the peril and promise of artificial intelligence at a Shanghai AI conference. (Xinhua via YouTube)

n the debate over artificial intelligence, whose side is Elon Musk on?

Musk, who’s in charge of SpaceX, Tesla and the Neuralink brain interface venture, sized up the odds with AliBaba founder Jack Ma today during a widely watched one-on-one session at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai.

The way Musk sees it, the prospects aren’t great for humans if future AI agents decide to go rogue. That’s despite pronouncements from AI researchers who say machines won’t match humans anytime soon when it comes to general intelligence, as opposed to specialized AI applications such as playing chess or Go.

“The biggest mistake I see artificial intelligence researchers making is assuming that they’re intelligent,” Musk said. “Yeah, they’re not, compared to AI. And so a lot of them cannot imagine something smarter than themselves.”

Musk said future AI agents will be “vastly smarter” than humans. “So what do you do with a situation like that?” he asked. “I’m not sure. I hope they’re nice.”

For his part, Ma saw more promise than peril in AI.

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Experts share their visions for the moon in 2069

Moon base
The European Space Agency’s vision for lunar settlement includes habitats shielded by piled-up moon dirt. (ESA / Foster + Partners Illustration)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Fifty years ago this month, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission transformed the idea of putting people on the moon from science fiction to historical fact.

Not much has changed on the moon since Apollo, but if the visions floated by leading space scientists from the U.S., Europe, Russia and China come to pass, your grandchildren might be firing up  lunar barbecues in 2069.

“Definitely in 50 years, there will be more tourism on the moon,” Anatoli Petrukovich, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, said here today during the World Conference of Science Journalists. “The moon will just look like a resort, as a backyard for grilling some meat or whatever else.”

Wu Ji, former director general of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Space Science Center, agreed that moon tourism could well be a thing in 2069.

“People will go there for space holidays, and come back,” Wu said. “The staff of the hotel will work there. So that will be permanent human habitability on the moon in 50 years.”

“Robotic staff?” Petrukovich asked.

“No, not necessarily,” Wu answered.

Today’s session in Lausanne, titled “The Moon and Beyond,” provided a status report on international space cooperation as well as speculative glimpses at the next 50 years of space exploration.

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Study tracks China’s AI challenge to America

BigStock Photo

China wants to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030 — but a new analysis by Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, suggests that Chinese researchers are on track to take the lead well before that.

The analysis is based on a tally of the most impactful research papers in the AI field, as measured by AI2’s Semantic Scholar academic search engine.

“If current trends continue, within five years, China will surpass us in terms of the top, highest-impact papers,” the institute’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, told GeekWire. “The other thing to realize is that citations are what you might call a lagging indicator, because the paper has to be published, people have to read it, and they have to write their own paper and cite it.”

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How satellites and blockchain go together

Long March launch
A Chinese Long March 4B rocket lifts off from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in October 2018. One of the payloads was a nanosatellite equipped with a SpaceChain blockchain node. (CCTV via SciNews / YouTube)

It’s been three months since Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture headquartered in Redmond, Wash., was acquired by the ConsenSys blockchain studio — and although the venture currently known as ConsenSys Space hasn’t yet take the wraps off its business plan, another space-centric blockchain venture just might provide some clues.

Singapore-based SpaceChain has been ramping up its activity over the past year, highlighted by the launch of two nanosatellite-based blockchain nodes into orbit aboard Chinese Long March rockets in February and October of 2018.

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Tesla places future bets of Model Y — and China

Model Y
Tesla has teased the design of its Model Y car, but the big reveal is still ahead. (Tesla Image)

As big as the Model 3 electric car is for the future of Tesla, the sport utility vehicle known as the Model Y could be bigger, according to CEO Elon Musk.

“I would expect that the demand for the Model Y would be … maybe 50 percent higher than Model 3?” Musk said today during a teleconference reviewing the company’s fourth-quarter financial results. “Could be even double.”

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