samedi 30 janvier 2021

NASA Conducts 1st Hot Fire of New RS-25 Engine Test Series


NASA - ARTEMIS Exploration Mission-1 logo.

Jan 30, 2021

NASA conducts the first hot fire Jan. 28 in a new series of tests for production of RS-25 engines that will help power the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on future deep space missions. The test of RS-25 developmental engine No. 0528 on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., marks the beginning of a seven-test series designed to provide valuable data to Aerojet Rocketdyne, leadcontractor for SLS engines, as the company begins production of new RS-25 engines.

Image above: 1st Hot Fire of New RS-25 Engine Test Series. Image Credits: NASA/SSC.

Four RS-25 engines help power SLS at launch, firing simultaneously to generate a combined 1.6 million pounds of thrust at launch and 2 million pounds of thrust during ascent. The RS-25 engines for the first four SLS flights are upgraded space shuttle main engines and have completed certification testing. NASA now is focused on providing data to enhance production of new RS-25 engines and components for use on subsequent SLS missions.

The new test series will evaluate the performance ofengine components made with cutting-edge manufacturing technologies and techniques. The testing is part of NASA’s and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s effort to use advanced manufacturing methods to significantly reduce the cost and time needed to build new RS-25 engines. For the Jan. 28 test, the RS-25 developmental engine was fired for a full duration of about eight-and-a-half minutes (500 seconds), the same amount of time the engines must fire to help send SLS to orbit.

SLS RS-25 Engine Test 28 January 2021

The engine was fired at 111% of its original space shuttle main engine design power and the same power level needed to help launch SLS on its missions. The hot fire marksthe first test on the historic stand since April 2019, when NASA concluded testing of RS-25 engines for the first four SLS missions. Since that time, Stennis teams have worked to complete major maintenance and upgrade projects to the A-1 Test Stand and its systems to ensure future test capabilities.

Among other projects, the work featured installation of a new NASA-designed-and-manufactured thrust vector control system on the test stand that allows operators to “gimbal” test RS-25 engines, moving them on a tight circular axis as must be done in flight to ensure proper trajectory. NASA is building SLS as the world’s most powerful rocket. Initial SLS missions will fly to the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program, including the Artemis I uncrewed test flight this year that will pave the way for future flights with astronauts to explore the lunar surface and prepare for missions to Mars. RS-25 tests at Stennis are conducted by a combined team of NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Syncom Space Services operators. Syncom Space Services is the prime contractor for Stennis facilities and operations.

Related article:

NASA Conducts Test of SLS Rocket Core Stage for Artemis I Moon Mission

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vendredi 29 janvier 2021

CASC - Long March-4C launches Yaogan-31 02 satellites


CASC - China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation logo.

Jan. 29, 2021

Long March-4C launches Yaogan-31 02 satellites

A Long March-4C launch vehicle launched the second group of Yaogan-31 remote-sensing satellites from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu Province, northwest China, on 29 January 2021, at 04:47 UTC (12:47 local time).

Long March-4C launches Yaogan-31 02 satellites

Yaogan-31 02 (遥感三十一号02) satellites

According to official sources, the Yaogan-31 02 (遥感三十一号02) satellites will be used for scientific experiments, land and resources surveys, agricultural production estimation, disaster prevention and mitigation.

Related article:

Long March-2C launches new Yaogan-30 satellites

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Images, Video, Text, Credits: CASC/China Central Television/SciNews/Gunter's Space Page/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.


Potassium nucleus loses some of its magic


CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

Jan. 29, 2021

A new study at ISOLDE finds no signature of a “magic” number of neutrons in potassium-51, challenging the proposed magic nature of nuclei with 32 neutrons

Image above: ISOLDE spokesperson Gerda Neyens at the facility’s collinear resonance ionisation spectroscopy (CRIS) set-up. (Image: CERN).

The magic seems to be ebbing away from some atomic nuclei. The latest measurements of the sizes of potassium nuclei rich in neutrons show no signature of a “magic” number of neutrons in potassium-51, which has 19 protons and 32 neutrons. The result, obtained by a team of researchers using CERN’s nuclear-physics facility ISOLDE and described in a paper just published in Nature Physics, challenges nuclear-physics theories and the proposed magic nature of nuclei with 32 neutrons.

Protons and neutrons are thought to each occupy a series of shells of different energy within an atomic nucleus, just like electrons in an atom fill up a series of shells around the nucleus. In this nuclear shell model, nuclei in which protons or neutrons form complete shells, without any space left for additional particles, are termed “magic” because they are more strongly bound and stable than their nuclear neighbours. The number of protons or neutrons in such nuclei are termed magic numbers, and are cornerstones upon which physicists build their understanding of nuclei.

Previous studies indicated that nuclei with exactly or close to 20 protons and with 32 neutrons are magic on the basis of the energy it takes to remove a pair of neutrons from the nucleus or to take the nucleus to a higher-energy level. However, measurements of how the (charge) radii of neutron-rich potassium and calcium nuclei change as neutrons are added to them have challenged this indication, because they didn’t display a sudden relative decrease in the radii of potassium-51 and calcium-52, which both have 32 neutrons. Such a decrease, relative to nuclear neighbours with fewer neutrons, would indicate that 32 is a magic neutron number and that nuclei with 32 neutrons are magic.

A magic neutron number of 32 could also be revealed by a sudden relative increase in the radii of nuclei that have one more neutron, that is 33 neutrons. This is exactly what the team behind the latest ISOLDE study set out to investigate. By marrying two techniques, the ISOLDE researchers were able to make radii measurements of neutron-rich potassium nuclei and to extend them to potassium-52, which has 33 neutrons. The two techniques are a type of laser spectroscopy called collinear resonance ionisation spectroscopy (CRIS), which allows neutron-rich nuclei to be studied with high precision, and β-decay detection, which involves the detection of beta particles (electrons or positrons) emitted from the nuclei.

The new ISOLDE measurements showed no sudden relative increase in the radius of potassium-52, and thus no signature of “magicity” at neutron number 32.

CRIS stands for Colinear Resonance Ionization Spectroscopy

Video above: ISOLDE spokesperson Gerda Neyens explains the CRIS set-up and the new study. (Video: CERN).

The researchers went on to model the data with state-of-the-art nuclear theories, finding that the data challenges these theories. “The best nuclear-physics models on the market cannot reproduce the data in a satisfactory way,” says lead author of the paper Agi Koszorus. “If they get one feature of the data right, they totally miss the rest,” added co-lead author Xiaofei Yang.

“This study highlights our limited understanding of neutron-rich nuclei,” says co-author Thomas Cocolios. “The more we study these exotic nuclei, the more we realize that the models fail to reproduce the experimental results. It’s like having a map full of highways, but as soon as you take a path off those highways, you might as well be walking on the moon for all we know.”

“This result shows how much work is left for us to understand the atomic nucleus – probably the least-understood realm of physics,” concludes Cocolios.


CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 23 Member States.

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Image (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: CERN/By Ana Lopes.


Astronauts Go Into Weekend Prepping for Monday’s Spacewalk


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Jan. 29, 2021

Four Expedition 64 astronauts are going into the weekend preparing for a spacewalk on Monday for battery and high definition camera work. The other International Space Station residents will spend their time on research, maintenance and exercise.

Spacewalkers Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover will partner with astronauts Kate Rubins of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA over the weekend for spacewalk reviews, spacesuit checks and tool configurations. The quartet will also call down to mission controllers to discuss their readiness for Monday’s spacewalk.

Image above: NASA spacewalkers (front left) Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins are suited up and ready for the year’s first spacewalk as astronauts (rear left) Kate Rubins of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA join them for a portrait. Image Credit: NASA.

The spacewalking duo will set their spacesuits to battery power about 7 a.m. EST signifying the official start time of their excursion. NASA TV will begin its live coverage at 5:30 a.m.

Hopkins’ and Glover’s first task Monday is to exit the Quest airlock and translate to the Port-4 truss structure for battery work. There they will install the final adapter plate and connect it to the final lithium-ion battery which is being robotically installed in advance of the EVA. This work will complete battery upgrades on the orbiting lab that had begun on previous station missions.

Next, the duo will maneuver to the opposite side of the station toward their starboard truss worksite and remove and replace high definition cameras then route ethernet cables. Finally, they will install a wrist vision camera on the Kibo laboratory module’s robotic arm.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

During the spacewalk preparations on Friday, NASA Flight Engineer Shannon Walker tested the comfort of the experimental AstroRad radiation protection vest during an exercise session. She then installed tracking gear on an Astrobee robotic free flyer being tested for its ability to assist astronauts.

Walker later joined Rubins as crew medical officer and scanned the eyes of Hopkins and Noguchi with an ultrasound device. The ultrasound scans look at the crew member’s cornea, lens and optic nerve to insights into eye and vision health in space.

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NASA, SpaceX to Launch Second Commercial Crew Rotation Mission to International Space Station


SpaceX & NASA  -  Dragon Crew-2 Mission patch.


Jan. 29, 2021

NASA and SpaceX are targeting no earlier than Tuesday, April 20, for launch of the second crew rotation mission with astronauts on an American rocket and spacecraft from the United States to the International Space Station.

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 mission will launch four astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket to the space station. It will be the first mission to fly two international partner crew members as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

Image above: Members of the SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station participated in training in Hawthorne, California, on Jan. 11, 2021. Pictured from left are ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. Photo Credit: SpaceX.

NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will serve as spacecraft commander and pilot, respectively. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet will join as mission specialists.

The mission will lift off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew is scheduled for a long-duration stay aboard the orbiting laboratory, living and working as part of what is expected to be a seven-member crew.

SpaceX Crew Dragon launch. Animation Credits: SpaceX/NASA

Crew-2 also is expected to arrive at the space station to overlap with the astronauts that flew to the station as part of the agency’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission.

Return of Crew-1 with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, is currently scheduled for late April or early May. Crew-2 astronauts are set to return in fall 2021.

NASA and SpaceX also continue preparations for the launch of the agency’s Crew-3 mission, which currently is targeted for fall of this year.

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Life on Venus claim faces strongest challenge yet


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Jan. 29, 2021

New studies knock down a controversial report observing phosphine in the planet’s atmosphere.

Image above: Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter captured this image of Venus’s clouds with its ultraviolet imager. Image Credits: ISAS, JAXA, Akatsuki; Processing: Meli thev.

Two papers have dealt a fresh blow to the idea that Venus’s atmosphere might contain phosphine gas — a potential sign of life.

The claim that there is phosphine on Venus rocked planetary science last September, when researchers reported spotting the gas’s spectral signature in telescope data. If confirmed, the discovery could mean that organisms drifting among Venusian clouds are releasing the gas. Since then, several studies have challenged — although not entirely debunked — the report.

Now, a team of scientists has published the biggest critique yet. “What we bring to the table is a comprehensive look, another way of explaining this data that isn’t phosphine,” says Victoria Meadows, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who helped to lead the latest studies. Both papers have been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters and were posted on the arXiv preprint server on 26 January.

Alternative explanations

In one study, Meadows and her colleagues analysed data from one of the telescopes used to make the phosphine claim — and could not detect the gas’s spectral signature. In the other, the scientists calculated how gases would behave in Venus’s atmosphere — and concluded that what the original team thought was phosphine is actually sulfur dioxide (SO2), a gas that is common on Venus and is not a sign of possible life.

The latest papers pretty clearly show that there is no sign of the gas, says Ignas Snellen, an astronomer at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands who has published a different critique of the phosphine claim. “This makes the whole debate about phosphine, and possibly life in the atmosphere of Venus, quite irrelevant.”

Image above: Venus’s atmosphere is highly acidic and contains very little water. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Jane Greaves, an astronomer at the University of Cardiff, UK, who led the team that made the original phosphine claim, says she and her colleagues are still reading through the new papers and will comment after they’ve evaluated them.

The stakes for confirming phosphine’s presence on Venus are huge. On Earth, the gas — which is made of one phosphorus atom plus three hydrogen atoms — can come from industrial sources such as fumigants, or from biological sources such as microbes. When first reporting the discovery of phosphine on Venus, Greaves and her colleagues said that its existence might mean there was life on the planet, because other origins for the gas weren't obvious.

But the claim rests on a chain of observations and deductions that other scientists have been chipping away at in recent months.

Chipping away

Greaves’s team first used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii to observe a spectral line in Venus’s atmosphere at a frequency of 266.94 gigahertz — right around the frequency where both phosphine and SO2 absorb light. The scientists confirmed the existence of the line using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. With ALMA, they looked for other spectral lines that they would expect to see if the line came from SO2, and did not find them. This, they said, suggested that the line they had observed at 266.94 gigahertz came from phosphine.

Image above: Scientists had long considered Venus, which has a thick, acidic atmosphere, unsuitable for life. Image Credits: Detlev Van Ravenswaay/Science Photo Library.

But it turned out that the ALMA data the team had used had been processed incorrectly by the observatory. After the debate over phosphine on Venus began, managers at ALMA realized the mistake, pulled the raw data, reprocessed them and released the reworked batch in November. Greaves and her colleagues analysed the reprocessed data and concluded that they were still seeing phosphine — albeit at a much lower level than they had reported at first.

Those reprocessed ALMA data are at the heart of one of the new studies challenging the claim. A team including Meadows and led by Alex Akins, a research technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, aimed to replicate the work of Greaves’s group by analysing the reprocessed data that had been released to the public. But the researchers didn’t observe phosphine’s spectral line. “We just weren’t able to see it,” says Akins.

It is the first analysis of the reprocessed ALMA data to be published by an independent team.

The second study explores the 266.94-gigahertz feature, as seen by the JCMT. Andrew Lincowski, an astronomer at the University of Washington, led Meadows, Akins and others in modelling the structure of Venus’s atmosphere at various altitudes. They found that the JCMT observation was best explained by the presence of SO2 more than 80 kilometres above the planet’s surface — not by phosphine at 50–60 kilometres above the surface, as Greaves’s team claimed.

Still, the case isn’t closed yet. The new studies argue against the presence of phosphine, but can’t entirely rule it out. “There’s enough wiggle room there,” says Meadows.

Ultimately, the debate can be resolved only with fresh observations of Venus, many of which are planned in the coming months and years, says Akins. “Until we see something new, it’s probably just going to keep going back and forth.”



1. Greaves, J. S. et al. Nature Astron. (2020).

2. Akins, A. B., Lincowski, A. P., Meadows, V. S. & Steffes, P. G. Preprint at (2021).

3. Lincowski, A. P. et al. Preprint at (2021).

4. Snellen, I. A. G., Guzman-Ramirez, L., Hogerheijde, M. R., Hygate, A. P. S. & van der Tak, F. F. S. Astron. Astrophys. 644, L2 (2020).

5. Greaves, J. S. et al. Preprint at (2020).

Related articles:

Prospects for life on Venus fade — but aren’t dead yet

Life on Venus? Scientists hunt for the truth

Venus is Earth’s evil twin — and space agencies can no longer resist its pull

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: Nature/Alexandra Witze.

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NASA, Boeing Test Crew Return and Recovery Procedures


Boeing & NASA - Starliner Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) patch.

Jan 29, 2021

Landing and recovery teams from Boeing and NASA recently completed a crew landing dress rehearsal at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, in preparation for missions returning with astronauts from the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

When astronauts land after their journey to the space station on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, recovery teams must be able to remove the crew from the capsule quickly. In the unlikely event of a medical emergency, Boeing and NASA also partner with local trauma teams who are trained to provide the highest level of coordinated, specialized care.

Image above: Landing and recovery teams from Boeing and NASA take part in a crew landing dress rehearsal at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico in preparation for missions returning with astronauts from the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Image Credit: Boeing.

“We are working with Level 1 trauma centers that are fully staffed and have a full complement of doctors and nurses for a variety of conditions and disciplines, allowing us to plug into a network of the best very quickly,” said Michael Schertz, Boeing Starliner medical coordinator and a leader on the landing and recovery team.

During the training exercise, the team simulated a scenario in which a crew member needed to be transferred to The University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) in Albuquerque via an Air Center medical helicopter. UNMH is the only academic health center in the state and serves as the primary teaching hospital for The University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine, which means their staff uses cutting edge medical research, technology and specialty patient care.

“While the likelihood of a medical incident requiring this level of care is small, we just don't know enough to rule out the risk. As such, we prepare for the worst in the hope we never need it,” said Chris Ferguson, Boeing astronaut and director of Commercial Crew Mission Integration and Operations.

Boeing’s Starliner is designed to land on land, and is expected to touch down at one of five potential landing zones in the western United States, including two in New Mexico, and one in Utah, Arizona and California. Safety teams are coordinating with the University of Utah Health for the Utah landing site, Banner - University Medical Center Tucson, an academic hospital affiliated with the University of Arizona, for the Arizona landing zone, and Edwards Air Force Base for California landings.

During the final “run-for-record,” obstacles were introduced in order to simulate an emergency scenario, in which the team succeeded at locating the Starliner, configuring capsule support equipment, opening the hatch and removing the crew in less than an hour.

Image above: During a recent crew landing dress rehearsal at the U.S. Army's White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, the team simulated a scenario in which a crew member needed to be transferred to The University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque via an Air Center medical helicopter.
Image Credit: Boeing.

“The landing and recovery teams work ‘on the clock,’” Ferguson said. “There are reasons why the crew should be extracted from the spacecraft within a fixed time of about an hour. This takes all the skill, coordination and practice of a racing car pit crew. As such, this was the teams’ graduation event, and they did very well. I was very proud of their performance.”

Most of the landing sites are very remote and can experience extreme temperature swings within a 24-hour period. There is also wildlife, including poisonous scorpions and snakes that can injure staff. This is factored into the plans ensuring redundancy is in place to transport anyone who needs care without hindering the landing and recovery operations.

These exercises are a necessary step in preparing the teams for all aspects of a mission ahead of Boeing’s second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2), as well as crewed flights to the space station.

“Commercial Crew Program missions do not end until crew members are safely out of the Starliner,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Training exercises like this are essential to ensuring the entire team is prepared for every scenario.”

Animation above: (Infra-red camera) Landing phase (parachutes) of the CST-100 Starliner capsule and separation of the heat shield. Animation Credit: NASA.

Boeing also trains with the White Sands and Dugway Fire Departments, and several Cochise County municipalities to ensure this continuity of care is available at all of the potential landing sites.

“While we bring many of our own resources to support a landing, we rely heavily on the local authorities for assistance with security and protection of the public during landing events,” Ferguson said. “The trauma teams at our medical facilities also have been very interested to participate and learn from the NASA experts about space medicine. As spaceflight becomes more commonplace, there will be a growing need for familiarity with this field. It’s a very special role, and they have risen to meet it.”

NASA and Boeing are targeting no earlier than March 25 for the launch of OFT-2, and summer 2021 for the company’s Crew Flight Test (CFT). CFT crew members Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Mike Finke and Nicole Mann continue to train for the inaugural crewed flight test of the Starliner spacecraft.

Related article:

NASA and Boeing Target New Launch Date for Next Starliner Flight Test

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Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Anna Heiney.

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Hubble Spots an Interstellar Interaction


NASA & ESA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Jan 29, 2021

The life of a planetary nebula is often chaotic, from the death of its parent star to the scattering of its contents far out into space. Captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, ESO 455-10 is one such planetary nebula, located in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion).

The oblate shells of ESO 455-10, previously held tightly together as layers of its central star, not only give this planetary nebula its unique appearance, but also offer information about the nebula. Seen in a field of stars, the distinct asymmetrical arc of material over the north side of the nebula is a clear sign of interactions between ESO 455-10 and the interstellar medium.

The interstellar medium is the material such as diffuse gas between star systems and galaxies.  The star at the center of ESO 455-10 allows Hubble to see the interaction with the gas and dust of the nebula, the surrounding interstellar medium, and the light from the star itself. Planetary nebulae are thought to be crucial in galactic enrichment as they distribute their elements, particularly the heavier metal elements produced inside a star, into the interstellar medium which will in time form the next generation of stars.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

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Text Credits: European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA/Lynn Jenner/Image, Animation Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Stanghellini.


jeudi 28 janvier 2021

Astronauts Relax, Turn Attention to Monday’s Spacewalk


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Jan. 28, 2021

Four Expedition 64 astronauts are winding down today following Wednesday’s near seven-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station. The other three crew members stayed focused on space research and lab maintenance throughout Thursday.

Spacewalkers Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover spent Thursday relaxing for a few hours before turning their attention to the next spacewalk set for Monday. Their assistants, Kate Rubins of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA, joined the duo Thursday afternoon to review next week’s spacewalk.

Image above: NASA spacewalker Flight Engineer Victor Glover is dwarfed by the main solar arrays on the International Space Station’s far port-side truss structure. Image Credit: NASA TV.

The quartet first called down to mission controllers Thursday and discussed the previous day’s spacewalk when Hopkins and Glover installed a science antenna and readied the station for solar array upgrades. Rubins, with Noguchi as her back up, operated the Canadarm2 robotic arm, and assisted the spacewalkers in and out of their spacesuits.

Hopkins and Glover will exit the station again on Monday after they turn on their spacesuit batteries about 7 a.m. EST. They will spend six-and-a-half hours finishing battery maintenance and installing high definition cameras as Rubins and Noguchi monitor the duo. NASA TV will go on air at 5:30 a.m.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: ESA

In the midst of the spacewalk preparations, NASA Flight Engineer Shannon Walker has been conducting microgravity science. Today she worked on a technology demonstration that seeks to simplify life support systems using capillary action and fluid dynamics to separate liquids and gases.

Commander Sergey Ryzhikov worked on Zarya module power systems while continuing to pack the Progress 76 resupply ship ahead of its Feb. 9 departure. Flight Engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov started the day on Russian plumbing tasks then checked radiation hardware and measurements.

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Warming Seas Are Accelerating Greenland’s Glacier Retreat


JPL - Jet Propulsion Laboratory logo.

Jan. 28, 2021

Scientists with NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland mission are probing deep below the island’s warming coastal waters to help us better predict the rising seas of the future.

Image above: To measure water depth and salinity, the OMG project dropped probes by plane into fjords along Greenland’s coast. Shown here is one such fjord in which a glacier is undercut by warming water. The brown water is caused by sediment being dredged up from the base of the glacier by meltwater plumes. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Greenland’s melting glaciers, which plunge into Arctic waters via steep-sided inlets, or fjords, are among the main contributors to global sea level rise in response to climate change. Gaining a better understanding of how warming ocean water affects these glaciers will help improve predictions of their fate. Such predictions could in turn be used by communities around the world to better prepare for flooding and mitigate coastal ecosystem damage.

But researchers have long lacked measurements of the depths of the fjords along Greenland’s craggy coast. Without this information, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at a precise assessment of how much ocean water is being allowed into the fjords and how that affects glacier melt. By measuring their fjords one by one, a new study published in Science Advances has quantified, for the first time, how the warming coastal waters are impacting Greenland’s glaciers.

For the past five years, scientists with the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission have been studying these marine-terminating glaciers from the air and by ship. They found that of the 226 glaciers surveyed, 74 in deep fjords accounted for nearly half of the total ice loss (as previously monitored by satellites) from Greenland between 1992 and 2017. These glaciers exhibited the most undercutting, which is when a layer of warm, salty water at the bottom of a fjord melts the base of a glacier, causing the ice above to break apart. In contrast, the 51 glaciers that extend into shallow fjords or onto shallow ridges experienced the least undercutting and contributed only 15% of the total ice loss.

“I was surprised by how lopsided these findings were. The biggest and deepest glaciers are undercut much faster than the smaller glaciers in shallow water,” said lead author Michael Wood, a post-doctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who began this research as a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine. “In other words, the biggest glaciers are the most sensitive to the warming waters, and those are the ones really driving Greenland’s ice loss.”

In the case of Greenland’s glaciers, the bigger they are, the faster they melt. And the culprit is the depth of the fjord they occupy: Deeper fjords allow in more warm ocean water than shallow fjords, hastening the undercutting process.

Image above: The OMG mission also used boats to carry out depth and salinity measurements of Greenland's fjords occupied by marine-terminating glaciers. These measurements complement those provided by probes dropped from aircraft to create the most comprehensive survey to date of Greenland’s melting glaciers. Image Credit: NASA.

Undercutting and Calving

Greenland is home to one of Earth’s only two ice sheets.The ice there is over 2 miles (3 kilometers) thick in places. At the edges of Greenland, the vast glaciers extending from the ice sheet travel slowly down valleys like icy conveyor belts, which pour into the fjords and then melt or break off (or calve) as icebergs. The ice is replenished by snowfall that is compressed over time into the ice pack.

If the ice sheet were in balance, the amount of snow accumulating on the top would roughly equal the ice lost from melt, evaporation, and calving. But previous observations have shown that the ice sheet has been out of balance since the 1990’s: Melt has accelerated and calving has increased. In other words, the rate of ice being lost to the ocean is exceeding the supply from the ice sheet. This is causing the ice sheet to shrink and the glaciers to retreat toward land.

The main cause of such glacier retreat is the process of undercutting, which is driven by two factors: the amount of meltwater flowing from the glacier and the warm layer of salty water at the base of the fjord. During the summer months, increasing air temperatures heat the glacier’s surface, creating pools of meltwater. These pools leak through the ice and flow from the glacier in rivers below the surface. As the meltwater flows into the sea, it encounters the warmer salty water at the bottom of the fjord.

Glacial meltwater doesn’t contain salt, so it is less dense than saltwater and thus rises as a plume. The plume drags the warmer ocean water into contact with the glacier’s base. The amount of undercutting depends on the depth of the fjord, the warmth of the ocean water, and the amount of meltwater flowing out from beneath the glacier. As the climate warms, the amount of meltwater will increase and the ocean temperature will rise, two factors that boost the undercutting process.

Animation: How a Glacier Melts

Video above: When warm summer air melts the surface of a glacier, the meltwater bores holes down through the ice. It makes its way all the way down to the bottom of the glacier where it runs between the ice and the glacier bed, and eventually shoots out in a plume at the glacier base and into the surrounding ocean. The meltwater plume is lighter than the surrounding ocean water because it doesn't contain salt. So it rises toward the surface, mixing the warm ocean water upward in the process. The warm water then rubs up against the bottom of the glacier, causing even more of the glacier to melt. This often leads to calving – ice cracking and breaking off into large ice chunks (icebergs) – at the front end, or terminus of the glacier. Video Credit: NASA.

These findings suggest that climate models may underestimate glacial ice loss by at least a factor of two if they don’t account for undercutting by a warm ocean.

The study also lends insight into why many of Greenland’s glaciers never recovered after an abrupt warming of ocean water between 1998 and 2007, in which ocean temperature increased by nearly 2 degrees Celsius. Although ocean warming paused between 2008 and 2017, the glaciers had already experienced such extreme undercutting in the previous decade that they continued to retreat at an accelerated rate.

“We have known for well over a decade that the warmer ocean plays a major role in the evolution of Greenland glaciers,” said OMG Deputy Principal Investigator Eric Rignot of UCI and JPL, which manages the mission. “But for the first time, we have been able to quantify the undercutting effect and demonstrate its dominant impact on the glacier retreat over the past 20 years.”

Image above: Warmer ocean waters are speeding up the rate at which Greenland’s glaciers are melting and calving, or breaking off to form icebergs. This is causing the glaciers to retreat toward land, hastening the loss of ice from Greenland’s Ice Sheet. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Into the Icy Depths

Now in its sixth year, the OMG mission has carried out the mammoth task of measuring ocean temperature and salinity around the entire coast of Greenland. Each summer since 2016, the team has spent several weeks dropping between 250 and 300 probes from an aircraft to measure how water temperature and salinity change with depth while mapping the depth of otherwise-inacessible fjords.

This data complements other surveys of the region – including OMG measurements via boat (which began in 2015) and observational data collected from the Landsat satellites from NASA and the U.S. Geologic Survey – and builds on a growing body of glacier research on ice-ocean interactions. During this time, the OMG team has been able to gain a detailed view of how quickly the 226 glaciers studied are melting and which are retreating the fastest.

OMG is planning its campaign for the summer of 2021. The team hopes that the ongoing measurements of ocean conditions will be invaluable for refining predictions of ice loss, ultimately helping the world prepare for a future of rising oceans.

“When the ocean speaks, the Greenland Ice Sheet listens,” said OMG Principal Investigator Josh Willis, also of JPL. “This gang of 74 glaciers in deep fjords is really feeling the influence of the ocean; it’s discoveries like these that will eventually help us predict how fast the ice will shrink. And that’s a critical tool for both this generation and the next.”

For more information, visit:

Related links:

Science Advances:

Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG):

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/JPL/Ian J. O’Neill/Jane J. Lee/University of California/Brian Bell.


NASA’s MAVEN Continues to Advance Mars Science and Telecommunications Relay Efforts


NASA - MAVEN Mission patch.

Jan. 28, 2021

With a suite of new national and international spacecraft primed to explore the Red Planet after their arrival next month, NASA’s MAVEN mission is ready to provide support and continue its study of the Martian atmosphere.

Image above: This illustration shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars.  Image Credits: NASA/Goddard.

MAVEN launched in November 2013 and entered the Martian atmosphere roughly a year later. Since that time, MAVEN has made fundamental contributions to understanding the history of the Martian atmosphere and climate. A few science highlights include:

- Determination that the bulk of the Martian atmosphere has been lost to space through time, driving changes in the Mars climate and the ability to support life at the surface.

- Characterization of the mechanisms by which gas is stripped away from the atmosphere to space and of the role of solar storms hitting Mars in enhancing the escape rate.

- There is significant unexpected variability in the loss rate of hydrogen to space through the seasons, which has important implications for the history of water.

- Discovery of two new types of aurora at Mars, and characterization of all three types of aurora and of their causal mechanisms.

- First comprehensive measurements of winds in the Martian upper atmosphere, indicating substantial (and unexpected) interaction between different layers in the atmosphere.

- Revealed the unexpected complexity and dynamic nature of the Martian magnetosphere, with its influence on the behavior of the upper atmosphere (including variability in escape and occurrence of aurora).

Now with arrival of the Perseverance rover to the surface of the planet in February, MAVEN will continue to carry out both relay communications support for NASA’s surface missions and joint data analysis with these missions and with the orbiters already at Mars. In addition, MAVEN will be working on collaborative data analysis with the current missions and with the missions about to arrive at Mars.

Last year, in preparation for providing communications relay support, MAVEN reduced the highest altitude in its orbit using an aerobraking maneuver, a process taking advantage of the Martian upper atmosphere to place a small amount of drag on the spacecraft.  MAVEN also adjusted the orientation of its orbit, to better monitor data from Mars 2020 during its entry, descent and landing.

MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. Animation Credits: NASA/V-A

When not conducting relay communications, MAVEN will continue to study the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN has enough fuel to operate until at least 2030.

MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder, which also leads science operations. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN project. Lockheed Martin Space built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

For more information on the MAVEN mission, visit: or

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Karl Hille/GSFC/Nancy Neal Jones.

Best regards,

Artificial intelligence behind 21st Century spaceflight


ESA - European Space Agency patch.

Jan. 28, 2021

- Maintaining safety of operations and maximising scientific return are key concerns as satellites increase in number and complexity

- Artificial intelligence offers promising solutions to modern spaceflight challenges

- ESA and Germany’s DFKI institute have launched a new lab ‘ESA_Lab@DFKI’ for artificial intelligence research

It’s 4 October 1957, and the Soviet Union has just lofted humanity’s first satellite – Sputnik 1 – into the pristine orbital environment around Earth, marking the start of the Space Age.


Throughout 1960s and 70s, launches quickly increase, as the USA, Soviet Union and other countries race for space, discovering and utilising the immense value of the ‘orbital pathways’ above us – a precious, limited natural resource.

No one thinks about space debris, abandoned junk or derelict satellites.

Now, it’s the 1980s and 90s, and Gemini and Apollo have long given way to Soyuz and the Shuttles, actively flying to low-Earth orbit to build out the nascent International Space Station. A curious first-time event occurs in September 1991, when NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery has to perform a 7-second thruster burn to avoid debris from the derelict satellite Kosmos 955.

Space debris

Over the following years, such manoeuvres become increasingly necessary. By 2020, just one space agency, ESA, with a relatively small number of satellites in Earth orbit, is obligated to conduct about 20 collision avoidance manoeuvres each year. Slowly but steadily, the orbital environment is becoming more polluted.

The future has arrived

Now it’s January 2021, and ESA has just published the latest space environment numbers: some 28,210 debris objects big enough to damage or destroy a functioning satellite are up there. Clearly, it’s time to act.

“The need to automate collision avoidance is just one example of how 21st Century spaceflight is dramatically increasing in complexity,” says Thomas Reiter, Interagency Coordinator and Advisor to the Director General at ESA.

 “Artificial intelligence is becoming vital to handle this complexity, to operate, network, coordinate and protect our space infrastructure and to get the most out of the data acquired by our scientific satellite missions.”

Teaming up in Germany

To respond to this need, ESA and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) are establishing a new technology transfer lab located on the premises of DFKI in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

On 27 January, the two organisations launched ‘ESA_Lab@DFKI’, a place to work together on AI systems for satellite autonomy, the interpretation of extensive, complex data delivered by missions, collision avoidance capabilities and many other applications.

Image above: The Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission takes us over Darmstadt – home to ESA’s European Space Operations Centre.

The lab will take advantage of DFKI’s proximity to ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany, mission control for 22 ESA spacecraft and centre for the Agency’s Space Safety Programme, focussing on hazards posed by space debris, risky asteroids and space weather.

"AI and space belong together,” says Professor Antonio Krüger, CEO of DFKI. “AI can handle complexity far beyond humankind’s physical and mental limits and rapid technical progress in the field is enabling new projects that were unthinkable only a short time ago.”

“The establishment of this ‘transfer lab’ marks the next step in the collaboration between ESA and DFKI,” says Professor Andreas Dengel, Executive Director and Head of the Smart Data and Knowledge Services at DFKI. “Together we will identify and tackle the greatest challenges of modern spaceflight.”

AI for Solar System exploration…

As humans expand into the Solar System, AI will be our constant companion. Future space exploration at the Moon and Mars will require astronauts to work with intelligent machines including orbiting labs, landers, rovers and surface habitations.

ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover

“AI is essential for the operation of these machines, particularly for autonomous decision making, risk assessment and maintaining the health and safety of human and robotic explorers,” explains Alessandro Donati, manager for artificial intelligence and operations innovation at ESOC.

… and back at Earth

Artificial intelligence will also power a new generation of 'super-intelligent satellites' to help us better understand our home planet, solve climate change and ensure the sustainable use of space in future.

At ESA, the development of technologies to enable on-board autonomy for spacecraft is considered vital for all types of future missions. These include innovative ‘firsts’, like the Hera asteroid deflection mission and the world’s first space-debris removal mission, Clearspace-1, now readying for launch in 2025, as well as those delivering the vast quantities of data that provide society with services such as internet connectivity, navigation and telecommunications.

Process of capture

Artificial intelligence is also crucial for the analysis of the data sent down by observation satellites like ESA’s Earth Explorers and those in Europe’s Copernicus programme.

This data is far too extensive to be analysed by humans alone. AI systems on Earth can help scientists and researchers identify key patterns and relationships and uncover new insights into, for example, how our climate is changing.

Artist's impression of Ops-Sat

ESA's OPS-SAT, a small ‘nanosat’ launched in 2019, is allowing European industry and academic experimenters to test innovative new software across numerous fields, including artificial intelligence for pattern recognition, autonomous scheduling, deep learning and automated manoeuvring.

The partnership between ESA and DFKI will support these and other fundamental AI-related technology development efforts, and promises to expand the range and scope of innovations that evolve from academic research into highly developed industrial applications.

The ESA_Lab@ initiative

ESA_Lab@s are joint initiatives between ESA and academic/research institutions. The institutions contribute proposals for innovative research linking space and their scientific expertise, students and teaching, while ESA contributes technical expertise from across the Agency and first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing modern spaceflight.

The ESA_Lab@ Initiative

Existing ESA_Lab@s focussing on artificial intelligence include those established with the University Oxford and University College London.

Related links:

German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI):


European Space Operations Centre (ESOC):

Space Safety Programme:





Animations, Images, Text, Credits: ESA/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO/Copernicus Sentinel data (2020)/ATG medialab/ClearSpace SA.


mercredi 27 janvier 2021

Spacewalk Wraps Up With Upgrades on European Lab Module


EVA - Extra Vehicular Activities patch.

Jan. 27, 2021

Image above: NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins participates in a spacewalk in December of 2013 at the space station during Expedition 38. Image Credit: NASA.

NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover concluded their spacewalk at 1:24 p.m. EST, after 6 hours and 56 minutes. The two NASA astronauts completed a number of tasks designed to upgrade International Space Station systems.

The crew installed a Ka-band antenna, known as COL-Ka, on the outside of the ESA (European Space Agency) Columbus module, which will enable an independent, high-bandwidth communication link to European ground stations. Bartolomeo is partially operational and in a safe configuration following the connection of four of six cables to the science platform, and the final two cables that could not be connected will be attended to on a future spacewalk.

Image above: NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins participates in a spacewalk in December of 2013 outside the space station during Expedition 38. Image Credit: NASA.

During the spacewalk, Hopkins and Glover also removed a pair of grapple fixture brackets on the far port (left) truss in preparation for future power system upgrades. Glover also worked to replace a suspected broken pin inside the station’s airlock as a “get ahead” task, but teams determined that a replacement pin was not needed after an inspection confirmed the current pin to be functioning properly.

Space station crew members have conducted 233 spacewalks in support of assembly and maintenance of the orbiting laboratory. Spacewalkers have now spent a total of 61 days, 1 hours, and 47 minutes working outside the station.

Image above: Spacewalkers Victor Glover (top) and Michael Hopkins are pictured working on upgrades to the Bartolomeo science platform attached to Europe’s Columbus lab module. Image Credit: NASA TV.

Hopkins has now completed his third spacewalk for total of 19 hours and 54 minutes outside the space station. This was the first spacewalk for Glover with a total of 6 hours and 56 minutes.

On Feb. 1, Hopkins and Glover will conduct another spacewalk to address a variety of tasks, including installation of a final lithium-ion battery adapter plate on the port 4 (P4) truss that will wrap up battery replacement work begun in January 2017. Hopkins and Glover will remove another grapple fixture bracket on the same truss segment, replace an external camera on the starboard truss, install a new high-definition camera on the Destiny laboratory, and replace components for the Japanese robotic arm’s camera system outside the Kibo module.

Related links:

Expedition 64:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.


NASA’s Artemis Base Camp on the Moon Will Need Light, Water, Elevation


NASA - ARTEMIS Program logo.

Jan. 27, 2021

American astronauts in 2024 will take their first steps near the Moon’s South Pole: the land of extreme light, extreme darkness, and frozen water that could fuel NASA’s Artemis lunar base and the agency’s leap into deep space.

Scientists and engineers are helping NASA determine the precise location of the Artemis Base Camp concept. Among the many things NASA must take into account in choosing a specific location are two key features: The site must bask in near continuous sunlight to power the base and moderate extreme temperature swings, and it must offer easy access to areas of complete darkness that hold water ice.

Living on the Moon: NASA's Artemis Base Camp Concept. Image Credit: NASA

While the South Pole region has many well-illuminated areas, some parts see more or less light than others. Scientists have found that at some higher elevations, such as on crater rims, astronauts would see longer periods of light. But the bottoms of some deep craters are shrouded in near constant darkness, since sunlight at the South Pole strikes at such a low angle it only brushes their rims.

These unique lighting conditions have to do with the Moon’s tilt and with the topography of the South Pole region. Unlike Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt, the Moon is tilted only 1.5 degrees on its axis. As a result, neither of the Moon’s hemispheres tips noticeably toward or away from the Sun throughout the year as it does on Earth — a phenomenon that gives us sunnier and darker seasons here. This also means that the height of the Sun in the sky at the lunar poles doesn’t change much during the day. If a person were standing on a hilltop near the lunar South Pole during daylight hours, at any time of year, they would see the Sun moving across the horizon, skimming the surface like a flashlight laying on a table.

Lunar South Pole VR

Video above: A clip from a virtual reality tour of the Moon’s South Pole created by NASA engineers to help immerse astronauts, scientists, and mission planners in the exotic environment of that region as they prepare for a human return to the Moon. Video Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeffrey Hosler/W. Brent Garry/Thomas G. Grubb.

“It’s such a dramatic terrain down there,” said W. Brent Garry, a geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Garry is working with engineers on a virtual reality tour of the Moon’s South Pole to help immerse astronauts, scientists, and mission planners in the exotic environment of that region as they prepare for a human return to the Moon.

While a base camp site will require lots of light, it is also important for astronauts to be able to take short trips into permanently dark craters. Scientists expect that these shadowed craters are home to reservoirs of frozen water that explorers could use for life support. “One idea is to set up camp in an illuminated zone and traverse into these craters, which are exceptionally cold,” said NASA Goddard planetary scientist Daniel P. Moriarty, who’s involved with NASA’s South Pole site analysis and planning team. Temperatures in some of the coldest craters can dip to about -391 degrees Fahrenheit (-235 degrees Celsius).

Initial plans include landing a spacecraft on a relatively flat part of a well-lit crater rim or a ridge. “You want to land in the flattest area possible, since you don’t want the landing vehicle to tip over,” Moriarty said.

The landing area, ideally, should be separated from other base camp features — such as the habitat or solar panels — by at least half a mile, or 1 kilometer. It also ought to be situated at a different elevation to prevent descending spacecraft from spraying high-speed debris at equipment or areas of scientific interest. Some scientists have estimated that as a spacecraft thrusts its engines for a soft landing, it could potentially spray hundreds of pounds, or kilograms, of surface particles, water, and other gases across a couple of miles, or several kilometers.

“You want to take advantage of the landforms, such as hills, that can act as barriers to minimize the impact of contamination,” says Ruthan Lewis, a biomechanical and industrial engineer, architect, and a leader on NASA’s South Pole site analysis and planning team. “So, we’re looking at distances, elevations, and slopes in our planning.”

NASA Prepares to Explore Moon: Spacesuits, Tools

Video above: Preparing to explore the surface of the Moon goes well beyond designing and building safe spacecraft and spacesuits. NASA also has to ensure the surface vehicles and suits have the mobility required to do science, and that astronauts have the tools they need to identify and scoop up rock and soil samples. Video Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/James Tralie.

At the Moon, it’s critical to keep the area around the landing site and base camp as pristine as possible for scientists. For instance, among the many interesting features of the South Pole region is its location right between the Earth-facing side of the Moon, or the near side, and the side we never see from Earth, known as the far side.

These two hemispheres are geologically very different, with the far side more heavily cratered and its crust thicker than on the near side. Scientists don’t know why the two sides formed this way.

The Artemis Base Camp has to be on the Earth-facing side to make it easier for engineers to use radio waves to communicate with astronauts working on the Moon. But scientists expect that over billions of years of meteorite impacts to the Moon’s surface, rocks, and dust from each hemisphere were kicked up and strewn about the other, so it’s possible that astronauts could collect samples of the far side from their base camp on the near side.

Related links:

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Image (mentioned), Videos (mentioned), Text, Credits:NASA/Svetlana Shekhtman/GSFC/By Lonnie Shekhtman.

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NASA’s Perseverance Rover 22 Days From Mars Landing


NASA - Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover logo.

Jan. 27, 2021

Seven minutes of harrowing descent to the Red Planet is in the not-so-distant future for the agency’s Mars 2020 mission.

Image above: This illustration shows the events that occur in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey that NASA’s Perseverance rover takes to Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land on Mars safely on Feb. 18, 2021. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is just 22 days from landing on the surface of Mars. The spacecraft has about 25.6 million miles (41.2 million kilometers) remaining in its 292.5-million-mile (470.8-million-kilometer) journey and is currently closing that distance at 1.6 miles per second (2.5 kilometers per second). Once at the top of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, an action-packed seven minutes of descent awaits – complete with temperatures equivalent to the surface of the Sun, a supersonic parachute inflation, and the first ever autonomous guided landing on Mars.

Perseverance Arrives at Mars: Feb. 18, 2021 (Mission Trailer)

Only then can the rover – the biggest, heaviest, cleanest, and most sophisticated six-wheeled robotic geologist ever launched into space – search Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth.

“NASA has been exploring Mars since Mariner 4 performed a flyby in July of 1965, with two more flybys, seven successful orbiters, and eight landers since then,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Perseverance, which was built from the collective knowledge gleaned from such trailblazers, has the opportunity to not only expand our knowledge of the Red Planet, but to investigate one of the most important and exciting questions of humanity about the origin of life both on Earth and also on other planets.”

Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient microbial life. Billions of years ago, the now-bone-dry 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) basin was home to an actively-forming river delta and lake filled with water. The rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) that Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects from Jezero could help answer fundamental questions about the existence of life beyond Earth. Two future missions currently in the planning stages by NASA, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will work together to bring the samples back to Earth, where they will undergo in-depth analysis by scientists around the world using equipment far too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.

“Perseverance’s sophisticated science instruments will not only help in the hunt for fossilized microbial life, but also expand our knowledge of Martian geology and its past, present, and future,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020, from Caltech in Pasadena, California. “Our science team has been busy planning how best to work with what we anticipate will be a firehose of cutting-edge data. That’s the kind of ‘problem’ we are looking forward to.”

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Testing Future Tech

While most of Perseverance’s seven science instruments are geared toward learning more about the planet’s geology and astrobiology, the mission also carries technologies more focused on future Mars exploration. MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a car-battery-size device in the rover’s chassis, is designed to demonstrate that converting Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen is possible. Future applications of the technology could produce the vast quantities of oxygen that would be needed as a component of the rocket fuel astronauts would rely on to return to Earth, and, of course, the oxygen could be used for breathing as well.

The Terrain-Relative Navigation system helps the rover avoid hazards. MEDLI2 (the Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2) sensor suite gathers data during the journey through the Martian atmosphere. Together the systems will help engineers design future human missions that can land more safely and with larger payloads on other worlds.

Another technology demonstration, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, is attached to the belly of the rover. Between 30 and 90 days into the rover’s mission, Ingenuity will be deployed to attempt the first experimental flight test on another planet. If that initial flight is successful, Ingenuity will fly up to four more times. The data acquired during these tests will help the next generation of Mars helicopters provide an aerial dimension to Mars exploration.

Getting Ready for the Red Planet

Like people around the world, members of the Mars 2020 team have had to make significant modifications to their approach to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a majority of the team members have performed their jobs via telework, some tasks have required an in-person presence at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the rover for the agency and is managing the mission. Such was the case last week when the team that will be on-console at JPL during landing went through a three-day-long COVID-adapted full-up simulation of the upcoming Feb. 18 Mars landing.

“Don’t let anybody tell you different – landing on Mars is hard to do,” said John McNamee, project manager for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at JPL. “But the women and men on this team are the best in the world at what they do. When our spacecraft hits the top of the Mars atmosphere at about three-and-a-half miles per second, we’ll be ready.”

Less than a month of dark, unforgiving interplanetary space remains before the landing. NASA Television and the agency’s website will carry live coverage of the event from JPL beginning at 11:15 a.m. PST (2:15 p.m. EST).

Image above: Composed of multiple precisely aligned images from the Context Camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this annotated mosaic depicts a possible route the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover could take across Jezero Crater as it investigates several ancient environments that may have once been habitable. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

More About the Mission

A key objective of Perseverance's mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet's geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith.

Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

For more about Perseverance:

For more information about NASA's Mars missions, go to:

Related links:

NASA Television:

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter:

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/Grey Hautaluoma/Alana Johnson/JPL/DC Agle.