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Cosmic Space

Fresh hints of hidden lakes put Mars in spotlight

Two years after reporting the detection of a subsurface lake of liquid water near Mars’ south pole, scientists say they’ve gathered further evidence for the existence of that lake — plus three more hidden reservoirs of what’s likely to be super-salty H2O.

Such findings raise new hopes in the search for life beyond Earth in the solar system, although the conditions that’d be required are close to the edge of plausibility.

The new findings, published this week in Nature Astronomy, take advantage of techniques that look at the smoothness as well as the brightness of radar reflections. The research team includes many of the same scientists who were behind the earlier study, including lead author Elena Pettinelli of the University of Rome.

Pettinelli and her colleagues of ground-penetrating radar readings from MARSIS, an instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

Two years ago, the team identified a spot in Ultimi Scopuli, an area within a Martian region called Planum Australe, where the brightness of the radar echoes hinted at a reservoir of liquid water that might lie a mile beneath layers of ice and dust. But the researchers had only a limited amount of observations to go on.

Since then, they’ve added lots more data, and they also took advantage of new techniques that were field-tested to discover lakes hidden beneath the ice of East Antarctica, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

The new analysis confirmed readings related to the 12-mile-wide subsurface lake that was reported in 2018, and what appear to be smaller patches of water, slush or wet soil in the same area.

“These results corroborate the initial discovery … of a stable body of liquid water in Ultimi Scopuli using a different and independent technique, highlighting at the same time a more extensive, complex scenario with ubiquitous water patches surrounding the subglacial lake,” the researchers wrote.

A 55-by-75-mile-wide map of radar readings shows potential reservoirs of subsurface water as bluish patches. (Pettinelli et al. / Univ. of Rome / Nature Astronomy)

However, they say trying to explain how water could exist deep beneath the ice in Mars’ polar region is “at best, a matter of speculation at this point in time.”

They speculate that the water may be heavily laced with perchlorates or other salts that would allow it to exist in liquid form far below the normal freezing point for pure water. Previous Mars missions have turned up evidence of such salts at the surface.

Experiments on Earth have shown that perchlorate brines could remain liquid in a super-cooled state at temperatures as low as 190 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (150 Kelvin).

The researchers say subsurface temperatures at Ultimi Scopuli could come close to that level, and they propose that metastable conditions at depth “are likely to produce a remarkable effect, both in terms of the formation of brines and in terms of their longevity on Mars.”

Perchlorate-laced water is toxic to most life on Earth. In fact, perchlorate is a key ingredient of some types of rocket fuel. Nevertheless, some particularly hardy microbes are able to make a meal out of it — and that might turn out to be the case on Mars as well.

“The possibility of extended hypersaline water bodies on Mars is particularly exciting because of the potential for the existence of microbial life,” the researchers write.

For that reason, they say bodies of water in Mars’ south polar region would “represent areas of potential astrobiological interest and planetary protection concern, and future missions to Mars should target this region.”

The only probe to send data back from a spot anywhere close to Mars’ poles was Phoenix Mars Lander, which detected what may have been splashes of liquid water in 2008 at its landing site in the north polar region. Scientists have talked up ambitious plans for polar expeditions on Mars for decades, but so far there’s been little follow-through.

Should there be? Or should more attention be devoted to other potential targets in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, ranging from Venus to Europa and Enceladus?

In light of this month’s findings about the potential for life in Venus’ clouds, planetary scientist David Grinspoon is a bit meh about Mars.

“Mars??!!” he tweeted. “Life on Mars is so 2019.”

Mars’ spotlight brightens

It’s going to be hard to miss Mars in the weeks ahead: The Red Planet is getting brighter every night as it nears the closest point to Earth in its current orbit on Oct. 6, followed by opposition on Oct. 13.

Opposition is the time when Mars lines up directly opposite from the sun, as seen from Earth. This season is considered prime time for viewing Mars, which has started outshining Jupiter in the night sky. (Only Venus shines brighter in this month’s planetary parade.)

Mars gleams as a butterscotch-colored star in eastern skies after sunset — and at opposition, it should be right above you around midnight.

Mars is in opposition every 26 months, but some close encounters are closer than others. This time around, Mars will be only 38.6 million miles from Earth. The next time Mars comes this close will be in 2035.

In addition to Pettinelli, the authors of the Nature Astronomy study, “Multiple Subglacial Water Bodies Below the South Pole of Mars Unveiled by New MARSIS Data,” include Sebastian Emanuel Lauro, Graziella Capranelli, Luca Guallini, Angelo Pio Rossi, Elisabetta Mattei, Barbara Cosciotti, Andrea Cicchetti, Francesco Soldovieri, Marco Cartacci, Federico Di Paolo, Raffaella Noschese and Roberto Orosei.

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Cosmic Space

Nuclear power on the moon? It could happen by 2028

Nuclear energy has played a role in lunar exploration since the golden days of the Apollo moon program, when radioisotope power systems provided the wattage for scientific experiments.

Today such systems continue to power interplanetary spacecraft, ranging from the decades-old Voyager probes in interstellar space to the Perseverance rover that’s on its way to Mars. And now the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA are kicking things up a notch.

Tracey Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear infrastructure programs at the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Office, provided a preview today during a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on the department’s role in space exploration.

“This summer the department, along with NASA, has initiated an activity to look at doing a demonstration for fission surface power systems on the moon in the 2027, 2028 time frame, ” Bishop said.

She said potential partners from the nuclear power industry as well as the aerospace industry showed up for a “very engaging Industry Day” last month. “We’re looking forward to issuing a request for proposals from industry sometime this fall,” Bishop said.

The lunar demonstration project would follow up on the research conducted as part of the NASA-DOE Kilopower program, which successfully demonstrated a small-scale nuclear power system in Nevada a couple of years ago.

And that’s not all: The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, is working with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a road map for developing nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

“What DARPA is trying to do is, they’re trying to have a demonstrator that will fly in the 2025 time frame,” said Kevin Greenaugh, assistant deputy administrator for strategic partnership programs.

It’s early in the process, but federal officials eventually plan to turn to industry experts for help in designing what basically would be a nuclear rocket engine, Greenaugh said.

The project — known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO — would use nuclear power to heat rocket propellants to temperatures high enough to produce thrust. Such a system would be two to five times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, resulting in huge time savings for missions ranging from repositioning satellites to sending astronauts to Mars.

NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission tried to get a nuclear rocket called NERVA off the ground back in the 1960s.

“We did enough to understand what it was going to take, what the technical challenges are, and the fact that these [technologies] really are enabling for doing things such as certainly sending crews to Mars,” said Ralph McNutt, the chief scientist for space science at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Project NERVA fizzled in the post-Apollo era, due to shrinking space budgets as well as growing safety concerns about nuclear power. But now America’s space ambitions are on the rise again, and next-generation nuclear power concepts are raising confidence that the safety concerns can be adequately addressed.

“The advanced modular reactors are certainly adaptable to be used in earthbound applications, too,” said former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, who now heads a space policy consulting firm called moonWalker Associates. “That’s where a lot of the work is being done right now.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said following through on the concept could yield big payoffs.

“Nuclear propulsion could potentially cut the time of space travel to Mars by as much as half, which increases mission flexibility — which can be a true game changer for a Mars mission,” he said. “We’d like to get to Mars and back on ‘one tank of gas.’ That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Paul Dabbar, DOE’s under secretary for science, added that “it’s not just about getting to where we’re going, but it’s also about what we want to do when we get there.”

That’s where the interest in surface-based nuclear power comes to the fore. After all, if billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk envision building whole cities on the moon and on Mars, the power’s got to come from somewhere.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said future space settlements will almost certainly be built as public-private partnerships — with federal agencies like NASA and DOE blazing the technological trails for commercial ventures to follow.

“NASA has seen this in spades, when they did the development of resupplying cargo and crew to the ISS [International Space Station],” he said. “The government estimates that it saved between 20 and 30 billion dollars, compared to the traditional methods.”

So what will those extraterrestrial power systems look like? Will the moon go all-nuclear? Probably not, said Ben Reinke, executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Strategic Planning and Programs. Off-Earth settlements are more likely to rely on a mix of solar and nuclear power — plus batteries to store surplus electricity, as well as stores of hydrogen and oxygen that could be produced from ice on the moon or Mars.

“What you’re really talking about is a very small microgrid that has the same types of challenges that we have here on Earth,” he said. “You need some amount of power that would be baseload power. … And then on top of that, you would probably have some types of variable power, and a storage and distribution system that works for the proper size of that case.”

It turns out that nuclear fission isn’t the only option for energy on the moon: Reinke said lightweight, highly efficient perovskite solar cells could come into play. And who knows? Decades from now, nuclear fusion may even be part of the mix, with ample supplies of helium-3 fuel available on the lunar surface.

All of those technologies are part of the Department of Energy’s portfolio — so maybe Secretary Brouillette has a point when he says the DOE in his agency’s acronym could just as well stand for “Department of Exploration.”

Full disclosure: I served as the moderator for today’s virtual roundtable presentation, titled “Department of Exploration: Because You Can’t Get to Space Without the U.S. Department of Energy.”

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GeekWire

Perseverance rover begins trek to seek life on Mars

With the fiery flash of a rocket launch, NASA’s Perseverance rover headed out today for what’s expected to be a decade-long campaign to store up and bring back Martian samples that may hold evidence of alien life.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT), sending the rover into space for a seven-month cruise to Mars.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the area surrounding the launch pad was restricted, but hundreds of thousands of people watched the liftoff via streaming video. And as if the pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, in the minutes before launch, a magnitude-4.2 earthquake rattled through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover mission is managed.

Mission managers said the complications had no effect on the countdown.

“This is all about perseverance,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the buildup to liftoff. “Going to Mars is all about persevering in general. Doing it now is more persevering than ever before.”

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Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

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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

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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GeekWire

Mars rover carries monument to COVID-19 medics

Plate on Mars rover
An engineer attaches a plaque paying tribute to medical workers on the chassis of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for launch to Mars as early as next month. (NASA via YouTube)

When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands in Mars’ Jezero Crater next February, it’ll be carrying a tribute to the medical community and their work to quell the coronavirus pandemic.

A 3-by-5-inch aluminum plaque, showing planet Earth being supported by the ancient staff-and-serpent symbol of the medical profession, will grace the left side of the rover chassis.

Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the plaque recognizes the sacrifices that have been made by medical workers — and also by members of the mission team, who had to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the $2.4 billion project on track for launch as early as July 20.

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Mars Helicopter gets a new name: Ingenuity

Picking up on a suggestion from an Alabama high-school junior, NASA has given an ingenious name to the first helicopter due to take flight on Mars.

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2020 Mars rover gets its name: Perseverance

Perseverance rover
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s next rover at work on the Martian surface. (NASA Illustration)

NASA’s next Mars rover was named Perseverance today, following up on a suggestion made by a seventh-grader in Virginia.

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