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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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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

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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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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