Categories
Universe Today

Elon Musk updates his vision for SpaceX’s Starship

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has laid out a scenario for space travel that calls for his company’s Starship launch system to take on its first orbital test flight as soon as January.

Starship could go through “a dozen launches next year, maybe more,” and be ready to send valuable payloads to the moon, Mars and even the solar system’s outer planets by 2023, Musk said today during an online meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy.

But he advised against sending anything too valuable on the first flight to Mars. “I would recommend putting the lower-cost scientific mission stuff on the first mission,” he said, half-jokingly.

The National Academies presentation followed up on big-picture talks that Musk delivered in 2016 (when Starship was known as the Interplanetary Transport System), 2017 (when it was known as the BFR or “Big Frickin’ Rocket”) and 2018 (when Musk settled on “Starship”).

Musk’s basic concept is the same: Starship and its giant Super Heavy booster would be a one-size-fits-all system that could be used for point-to-point suborbital travel, orbital space missions and all manner of trips beyond Earth orbit, including moon landings. It’d be capable of lofting more than 100 tons to low Earth orbit (three times as much as the space shuttle), and sending 100 people at a time to Mars.

This week’s presentation provided some new details.

Categories
GeekWire

Mockups of Mars machines are going on a road trip

Seattle’s Museum of Flight says it’ll serve as the first stop on a road trip for NASA’s full-scale replicas of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter — display versions of the hardware that’s currently at work on Mars, 242 million miles away.

The SUV-sized rover and its drone-sized piggyback copter landed on the Red Planet in February, and since then they’ve both been surveying the terrain of Jezero Crater, which scientists suspect harbored a potentially habitable lake in ancient times. The Ingenuity helicopter began taking on exploratory flights in April.

The mockups are due to go on display in the Museum of Flight’s Charles Simonyi Space Gallery on Oct. 30. Representatives from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be on hand for the opening, which marks the kickoff of NASA’s yearlong “Roving With Perseverance” museum roadshow.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Sci-fi ideas take flight in the air of Mars

Drones on Mars? Factories that convert the carbon dioxide in the Red Planet’s atmosphere to breathable oxygen? Such concepts have fueled science-fiction stories for decades, and now they’re becoming reality.

Those two examples turned from fiction to fact just in the last week, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover mission. A mini-helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly has made its first two flights, and an experiment called MOXIE has demonstrated the CO2-to-oxygen trick in actual Martian conditions for the first time.

For viewers of National Geographic’s “Mars” sci-fi docudrama, it’s a case of been there, seen that. During the show’s first season, scaled-up versions of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter conducted reconnaissance missions that ranged above otherwise-inaccessible terrain. Martian air converters — actually called MOXIE — supplied astronauts on Mars with the oxygen they needed to get by.

The fact that both the fictional and the actual converters have the same name is in part due to Bobby Braun, who served as a consultant to the “Mars” show when he was a University of Colorado engineering professor and has since become director of solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Back in 2016, Braun told me the filmmakers’ use of MOXIE — which stands for Mars OXygen In-Situ Resource Experiment — served as an example of “things that are going on today that really inform the way the future mission, the 2033 mission in the series, unfolds.”

Martian helicopters and oxygen converters will have to become a lot more advanced over the next dozen years to match the vision laid out in “Mars” and other science-fiction tales. But if 2033’s historians look back at the technological developments that opened up Mars’ frontiers,  the past week could well loom large on their timeline.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter blazes trail for future flights

For the first time ever, a robotic flier made a controlled takeoff and landing on the surface of another planet – and NASA says space exploration will never be the same.

“This really is a Wright Brothers moment,” NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, said hours after today’s first Red Planet flight by the Ingenuity helicopter.

The 4-pound, solar-powered helicopter arrived on Mars in February as a piggyback payload on NASA’s Perseverance rover. After weeks of preparation, which included a software fix downloaded from a distance of 178 million miles, Ingenuity spun up its twin rotors and lifted off for a 39.1-second, 10-foot-high hop.

It was the first of five planned flights that serve as a technology demonstration for future aerial missions that could flit through Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.

Project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the feat was equivalent to sending an earthly rotorcraft flying at an altitude three times the height of the Himalayas.

“Unforgettable day,” she said.

Categories
GeekWire

How a goniometer gizmo will help Mars missions

The 3-foot-wide contraption that was built in First Mode’s Seattle workshop looks like something from a science-fiction movie, complete with spinning cogwheels and a flashing light beam — and it really does have an out-of-this-world purpose: helping scientists interpret readings from Mars.

Even the word that describes the gizmo has a sci-fi sound: “goniometer.”

Today, First Mode‘s engineering team delivered the 3-D goniometer to Western Washington University’s Mars Lab in Bellingham, Wash., where it’ll be used in connection with NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.

First Mode worked with Western to design the goniometer under the terms of a $302,000 contract from NASA, and it’s already picked up a suitably NASA-esque name. It’s known as the Western TANAGER, with an acronym that stands for “Three-Axis N-sample Automated Goniometer for Evaluating Reflectance.”

The name pays tribute to the Western Tanager, a bird that can be spotted in Washington and other Western states. “I tied it in by saying that with bird feathers, their color depends both on the pigment but also on the angle that you look at it,” First Mode systems engineer Kathleen Hoza told GeekWire.

Western’s new goniometer may look like something Buck Rogers would use in the 25th century, but such devices actually go back to the 16th century. Goniometers are designed to make precise measurements of angles, much like the protractors used in elementary school.

The Western TANAGER kicks things up a notch by measuring angles in three dimensions. Why is that important for Mars? Because knowing the precise angles of reflection for the sunlight that hits Martian rocks could help scientists unlock some of the Red Planet’s geological secrets.

Categories
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.

Categories
GeekWire

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.”