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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.”

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GeekWire

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.