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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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GeekWire

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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GeekWire

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.

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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.”