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Cosmic Space

Perseverance rover’s zoom camera sees Mars in 3-D

If Martians ever golfed, the zoom camera system on NASA’s Perseverance rover could spot their golf balls from 100 yards away — but that’s not all. It can also see in colorful 3-D.

Three-dimensional perspectives of the Martian landscape can help scientists and engineers figure out the best course for the rover to follow when it’s driving autonomously around Jezero Crater. Perseverance’s navigation cameras can provide 3-D imagery in black-and-white — but for the full-color treatment, the twin zoom cameras of the Mastcam-Z system provide views that can’t be beat.

The Mastcam-Z team includes an honest-to-goodness celebrity: Brian May, who’s the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist who specializes in stereoscopic imaging. May and another technical collaborator, Claudia Manzoni, are sharing their 3-D pictures on the Mastcam-Z blog.

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NASA names Mars landing site after sci-fi pioneer

Fifteen years after her death, Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.

Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.

“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”

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A way-out idea to drill into Mars wins NASA funding

The latest crop of NASA-backed concepts for far-out space exploration includes “borebots” that could drill as far as a mile beneath the Martian surface in search of liquid water, and a nuclear-powered spacecraft that could intercept interstellar objects as they zip through our solar system.

Researchers in Washington state are behind both of those ideas.

The borebots and the interstellar-object checker are among 16 proposals winning Phase I funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC.

For more than two decades, NIAC (which started out as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) has backed early-stage projects that could eventually add to NASA’s capabilities for aerospace technology and space exploration.

“NIAC Fellows are known to dream big, proposing technologies that may appear to border science fiction and are unlike research being funded by other agency programs,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early-stage innovations and partnerships within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release.

“We don’t expect them all to come to fruition but recognize that providing a small amount of seed-funding for early research could benefit NASA greatly in the long run,” Gustetic said.

Phase I grants typically amount to $125,000 for a nine-month concept study, and promising concepts can go on to receive another $500,000 in Phase II support for two years of further development. The best ideas can win Phase III grants of $2 million for a two-year transition to commercial or government applications.

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Cosmic Space

Rover spots ‘alien skull’ and other Mars oddities

As sure as Martian winter brings on carbon dioxide frost, the release of high-resolution Mars imagery brings on a rash of alien sightings.

So it’s no surprise that today’s unveiling of a high-resolution, 360-degree panorama, based on image data from NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, has inspired serious and not-so-serious efforts to find anomalous shapes amid the reddish sands of Jezero Crater.

More than one sharp-eyed observer spotted a skull-shaped rock not far from the rover’s wheels. Others pointed to a bright-colored spot near the horizon — and wondered whether it might represent the wreckage of the rocket-powered “Sky Crane” descent stage that dropped the rover onto the Martian surface and then flew off to a crash landing.

The most surprising anomaly was spotted not on the panoramic image, but on one of the pictures snapped by a hazard avoidance camera just a couple of minutes after the Feb. 18 landing. A column of dust and smoke could be seen rising up from the horizon. Yes, it was coming from the dearly departed descent stage. But no, it wasn’t anywhere close to the bright-colored formation, which was probably just a rock formation gleaming in the sun.

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NASA releases amazing video and audio from Mars

For the first time ever, NASA has captured video of a rover landing on the surface of Mars, plus audio of the wind whistling past it after the landing — and Amazon Web Services is playing a key role in making all those gigabytes of goodness available to the world.

The stars of the show are NASA’s Perseverance rover and the hundreds of scientists and engineers supporting the mission to Mars at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other institutions around the world. But the fact that thousands of images are being pumped out via NASA’s website with only a few hiccups is arguably a testament to AWS’ performance.

“AWS is proud to support NASA JPL’s Perseverance mission,” Teresa Carlson, Amazon Web Services’ vice president of worldwide public sector and industries, said today in a blog post. “From the outset, AWS cloud services have enabled NASA JPL in its mission to capture and share mission-critical images, and help to answer key questions about the potential for life on Mars.”

More than 23,000 images, amounting to 30 gigabytes of data, were gathered during the final minutes of Perseverance’s journey to Jezero Crater on Mars, said Dave Gruel, camera suite lead for entry, descent and landing at JPL.

A couple of cameras looked up from the spacecraft’s back shell to document the deployment of the parachute. Another camera looked down from the “Sky Crane” descent stage to watch the rover’s touchdown. Meanwhile, cameras on the rover looked up at the Sky Crane and looked down and out to survey its surroundings.

All those perspectives were put together in a three-minute video that documented the milestones of the descent, from the time the parachute popped open to the rover’s dusty touchdown. At the end, video from the rover shows the descent stage flying away to its safe disposal, powered by a set of thrusters built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

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Cosmic Space

Rover delivers an iconic selfie from Mars

Can NASA’s Perseverance rover compete with the Hubble Space Telescope or Apollo 11 when it comes to stunning views from space? We already know the answer: The moment just before the six-wheeled robot’s touchdown on Mars has produced a picture for the ages.

“This is an image of the rover Perseverance, slung beneath the descent stage, its propulsion backpack, as it is being lowered to the surface of Mars,” Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Perseverance mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said today at a briefing where the Feb. 18 image was revealed.

Steltzner pointed out the three cables that connected the rover to the “Sky Crane” descent stage, not yet cut for the landing. You can also see the curlicue of the rover’s electrical umbilical cord. “The ones and zeroes that represent this image will travel down that umbilical before it is cut and the rover is left safe on the surface of Mars,” he said.

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NASA rover touches down to look for life on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars today and began a mission that’s meant to store up evidence of past life on Mars, after a trip that came to a climax with seven minutes of delicious terror.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” lead controller Swati Mohan declared at 12:55 p.m. PT.

The end of Perseverance’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey played out like a radio drama. Due to limited bandwidth and an 11-minute delay in receiving signals, there was no live video of the landing. But thanks to internet links, millions of people could listen in as Mohan called out the milestones over a live stream from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A socially distanced cadre of controllers at JPL applauded, screamed and exchanged fist bumps after the touchdown. Moments later, the first black-and-white picture from the rover’s hazard avoidance cameras was displayed on a giant screen.

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How the pandemic changed the protocol for Mars

Veteran spacecraft engineer Chris Voorhees has witnessed six Mars landings in the course of his career, and he’s playing a role in the next one as president of a Seattle-based engineering firm called First Mode.

But even though First Mode has been helping NASA ensure that its Perseverance rover will get to the surface of Mars safely on Feb. 18, Voorhees will experience it in the same way millions of others around the world will: from home, watching a live stream via YouTube.

At least he’ll be munching on the traditional good-luck peanuts. “I feel weird if I don’t do it,” Voorhees said.

This Mars mission is already weird enough — and not just because it would be the first mission to store up samples for eventual return to Earth, and the first to try flying a mini-helicopter over Mars.

Because of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the Perseverance rover mission have had to work almost exclusively from home. On the big day, only a minimal crew of ground controllers will be on duty at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Mallory Lefland, a JPL veteran who’s now a senior systems engineer at First Mode, will be there as part of the mission’s team for entry, descent and landing, or EDL.

“Most people won’t be on lab, working their shift, until 24 hours before landing,” she said last week during a mission preview hosted by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Whether they’re working at JPL or working from home, the people in charge of the $2.7 billion mission will serve mostly as spectators during the final minutes of the rover’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey to Mars.

The capsule containing the rover will be on its own as it goes through a sequence known as the “seven minutes of terror.” Because of the finite speed of light, it takes more than 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means the rover will have finished its landing sequence before the team at JPL even knows it started.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars probe enters orbit, scoring another first

For the second time this week, a spacefaring nation put its first robotic probe in Martian orbit.

Today it was China’s turn: After a seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise, China’s Tianwen-1 probe executed a 15-minute firing of its main engine, putting it into an elliptical orbit that comes as near as 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the surface of Mars every 10 days.

Tianwen-1’s success came less than 24 hours after the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft began orbiting the Red Planet.

Both nations have sent probes into space before, and China has put three probes on the surface of the moon. One of China’s moon probes even returned lunar samples to Earth. But these were the first successful Mars missions for each country. Only four other spacefaring powers — the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India — have put spacecraft into Martian orbit. Officials at NASA and ESA were among those tweeting their congratulations today.

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Cosmic Space

Arab orbiter reaches Mars, kicking off a robot invasion

The United Arab Emirates’ Hope space probe went into orbit around Mars today after a months-long cruise, adding a new member to an exclusive international club.

Only four other spacefaring powers — the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India — have successfully sent spacecraft to Mars. One more nation, China, could join the club this week.

Word that the SUV-sized Hope probe successfully reached its destination after a seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise was greeted with cheers at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world’s tallest building, lit up like a Red Planet billboard to mark the achievement.