NASA said Friday it was seeking proposals from commercial companies for two new private crewed missions to the International Space Station. The first mission would likely take place between fall of 2022 and mid-2023. The second one would follow sometime between mid-2023 and the end of 2023.
Private astronaut missions are a relatively recent initiative from NASA, part of its Commercial low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program. For most of humanity’s history in space, trips to the ISS were reserved for astronauts from countries’ respective space agencies.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space was awarded the first private astronaut mission, to take place in January 2022. That mission will carry four private astronauts for an eight-day mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA will pay Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission.
Each of the new missions can be up to 14 days and proposals are due by July 9. The agency specified that the missions must be brokered by a U.S. company and use approved U.S. transportation spacecraft. (Axiom’s private mission will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon.)
NASA said that enabling private manned missions such as this one may help “develop a robust low-Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers, and the private sector leads the way.” Thanks to the significantly decreased launch costs – due in large part to innovations in rocket reusability, led by SpaceX – as well as a whole new ecosystem of ‘new space’ companies that have sprung up over the last five years, space has become busier than ever.
The agency also said LEO could eventually be used as a “training and proving ground” for the planned Artemis program – humanity’s long-awaited return to the moon – and missions even deeper into the solar system.
After spending more than 15 months at the Stennis Space Center in Southern Mississippi, the core stage of NASA’s large Space Launch System rocket departed for Florida in late April. Preparations are now underway for launching this mammoth rocket from Kennedy Space Center, likely sometime in early 2022.
For US Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, the months with the SLS rocket nestled onto a test stand in his home state kindled memories of NASA’s glory days, when engine and rocket test firings were more common at the space center. “Seeing and hearing all four engines of the SLS core stage fire together for the first time was thrilling,” Wicker said after one of the SLS test firings.
But even as he was celebrating the Stennis hot fire tests, Wicker must have been wondering what his center would do after the SLS rocket was gone. During the 15-month test campaign, officials from NASA and the core stage contractor, Boeing, made it plain that they only needed to perform ground test firings of this vehicle one time. Future SLS rockets would ship straight from the factory in Michoud, Louisiana, to the Florida launch site.
Actress Nichelle Nichols’ role as a NASA ambassador to bring diversity to the space program is the subject of the documentary Woman in Motion, now streaming on Paramount+.
Actress Nichelle Nichols will forever be remembered for playing Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series—one of the first Black women to play a prominent role on television—as well as engaging in the first interracial kiss on scripted television in the US. Less known is her equally seminal role as an ambassador for NASA in the 1970s, working tirelessly to bring more diversity to the agency’s recruitment efforts. That work is highlighted in Woman in Motion, a new documentary directed by Todd Thompson that is now streaming on Paramount+.
Thompson himself was not a hardcore Star Trek fan growing up, although he had seen most of the movies and was certainly familiar with Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura. His producing partners were fans, however, and when they told him about Nichol’s contributions to NASA, he decided it was a story that had to be told. Over the course of production, he interviewed dozens of people about how Nichols inspired them, and also spent a considerable amount of time with the actress herself, now 88.
“She’s the definition of Hollywood royalty for me,” Thompson told Ars. “How she carries herself, how she treats others, how she engages with you—she’s so incredibly magnetic. What she did was so paramount to giving us a blueprint of where we need to go, how we need to be, if we’re going to make any sort of progress here on Earth and beyond the stars. I was very humbled by the responsibility to tell her story and tell it the right way.”
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is once again heading to the International Space Station.
The company launched its 22nd Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA on Thursday. This is the fifth capsule SpaceX has sent to ISS in the last twelve months, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management Sarah Walker noted in a media briefing Tuesday. It’s also the first launch of the year on a new Falcon 9 rocket booster.
The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1:29 PM eastern time, right on schedule despite the threat of storm clouds from the south and east. The first stage separated as plannedand touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight minutes after launch. The second stage, which takes the capsule to orbit, separated 12 minutes after launch, also right on schedule.
Image Credits: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 Rocket launch vehicle is sending more than 7,300 pounds of research materials, supplies, and hardware, including new solar arrays, to the ISS crew. It’s the second mission under SpaceX’s new CRS contract with NASA; the first took place last December.
Dragon is carrying a number of research experiments to be conducted on the ISS, including oral bacteria to test germ growth with Colgate toothpaste; a number of tardigrades (also affectionately called water bears), primordial organisms that will attempt to fare and reproduce in space environments; and an investigation that will study the effects of microgravity on the formation of kidney stones – an ailment that many crew members display an increased susceptibility to during spaceflight.
The capsule is also delivering fresh food, including apples, navel oranges, lemons, and avocados.
Of the over 7,300 pounds of cargo, around 3,000 pounds will be taken up by a new roll-out, “flex blanket” solar array developed by space infrastructure company Redwire. As opposed to more traditional rigid paneled solar arrays, flex blanket technology provides more mass and performance benefits, Redwire technical director Matt LaPointe told TechCrunch.
The arrays were placed in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. It’s the first of three missions to send iROSA solar arrays to the station, with each mission carrying two arrays, LaPointe said. Once installed, the six iROSA arrays will collectively produce over 120KW of power. Redwire, which announced in March that it would go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, says the new iROSA arrays will improve the ISS’s power generation by 20-30%.
The Dragon capsule is set to arrive at the space station at around 5 AM on June 5, where it will autonomously dock on a port of the Harmony module of the ISS. It will spend more than a month with the station before splashing down in the Atlantic with research and return cargo.
Virgin Galactic has a new customer: The International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), which will be flying researcher, citizen scientist and STEM influencer Kellie Gerardi on an upcoming dedicated Virgin Galactic launch. Gerardi will be conducing a range of experiments on her flight, focused on researching healthcare technologies including a new biomonitor system to study the effects of spaceflights on astronauts in real time.
Gerardi has flown on multiple previous parabolic research flights, which are high-altitude aircraft flights that simulate the reduced gravity environment of space. This will be her first trip to space proper, however, and that transition exemplifies the benefits Virgin Galactic hopes to be able to offer to researchers who previously conducted their work in simulated zero-G conditions.
Image Credits: Kellie Gerardi
The biomonitor system that Gerardi will be testing was developed by Canadian startup Hexoskin along with the Canadian Space Agency, and is a wearable array of sensors dubbed ‘Astroskin’ that’s intended to provide monitoring of the impact of launch, reduced gravity, re-entry and landing for those making trips to space. Another experiment Gerardi will perform will test fluid dynamics to inform the design of humidifiers and syringes designed for use in space.
Virgin Galactic has booked similar missions previously, including a dedicated flight for scientist Alan Stern, who will be performing experiments on behalf of NASA and the Southwest Research Institute. Much of the attention on the company has focused on its space tourism flights for paying private astronauts, but the potential for commercial research is another key ingredient in its overall business mix.
SpaceX is going to be providing more rides to private astronauts to the International Space Station, on top of the previously announced mission set to take place as early as next January. All four of these flights will be for Axiom, a private commercial spaceflight and space station company, and they’re set to take place between early next year through 2023.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 spacecraft make up the first commercial launch system certified for transporting humans to the ISS, and they’ve already delivered three groups of NASA astronauts to the orbital lab, including one demo crew for its final qualification test, and two operational crews to live and work on the station. In May, Axiom and NASA revealed the details of their AX-1 mission, the first all-private launch to the ISS, which will carry four passengers to the station on a Crew Dragon to live and work in space for a duration of eight days in total.
NASA and SpaceX will be providing training to all four of the Axiom crews set to make the trip to the station. And while neither SpaceX or Axiom has shared more details yet on what the other three missions will entail, or when they’re set to take place, four missions in two years technically absorbs all the existing capacity NASA has allocated for private astronaut missions, which is set at 2 per year, for 2022 and 2023.
One private astronaut flight to the ISS is already set for 2021: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa booked a ride to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket for early December. Maezawa booked through Space Adventures, which has already provided a handful of trips for deep-pocketed private astronauts over the course of the past couple of decades.
Axiom meanwhile envisions a somewhat less niche, and more continually active future for commercial orbital space stations. The company is already working on a commercial module to be added to the existing ISS, and has designs on building a fully private successor to the station in future. Booking four trips with multiple crew members in two years goes a long way towards showing there’s more than just very sporadic demand from eccentric rich people for this kind of offering.
As part of the federal budget rollout on Friday, NASA released details of the funding it hopes to receive from Congress in fiscal year 2022.
The president’s budget request seeks $24.8 billion for the coming fiscal year, a nearly 7 percent increase over the $23.3 billion in funding NASA received for the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30. Congress will ultimately decide funding levels, of course, but this budget request is indicative of White House priorities.
The Biden Administration has placed a strong emphasis on science during its first four months, and that focus is reflected in this budget request. The White House is seeking $7.9 billion for NASA’s science programs, including Earth science and missions to explore the Moon and other planets. This represents a nearly 9 percent increase over last year’s budget for science programs, with Earth science and planetary science receiving the most significant increases.
Regular supply launches keep astronauts aboard the ISS supplied with relatively fresh food, but a flight to Mars won’t get deliveries. If we’re going to visit other planets, we’ll need a fridge that doesn’t break down in space — and Purdue University researchers are hard at work testing one.
You may think there’s nothing to prevent a regular refrigerator from working in space. It sucks heat out and puts cold air in. Simple, right? But refrigerators rely on gravity to distribute oil through the compressor system that regulates temperature, so in space these systems don’t work or break down quickly.
The solution being pursued by Purdue team and partner manufacturer Air Squared is an oil-free version of the traditional fridge that will work regardless of gravity’s direction or magnitude. It was funded by NASA’s SBIR program, which awards money to promising small businesses and experiments in order to inch them towards mission readiness. (The program is currently on its Phase II extended period award.)
“The fact that the refrigeration cycles operated continuously in microgravity during the tests without any apparent problems indicates that our design is a very good start,” said Leon Brendel, a Ph.D student on the team. “Our first impression is that microgravity does not alter the cycle in ways that we were not aware of.”
Short term microgravity (the prototype was only weightless for 20 seconds at a time) is just a limited test, of course, and it already helped shake out an issue with the device that they’re working on. But the next test might be a longer-term installation aboard the ISS, the denizens of which would no doubt like to have a working fridge.
While the prospect of cold drinks and frozen (but not freeze-dried) meals is tantalizing, a normal refrigerator could be used for all kinds of scientific work as well. Experiments that need cold environments currently either use complicated, small scale cooling mechanisms or utilize the near-absolute-zero conditions of space. So it’s no surprise NASA got them aboard the microgravity simulator as part of the Flight Opportunities program.
Analysis of the data collected on the flights is ongoing, but the success of this first big test validates both the approach and execution of the space fridge. Next up is figuring out how it might work in the limited space and continuous microgravity of the ISS.
The last time humans visited the moon in 1972, they got around on a relatively simple battery-powered vehicle. As NASA prepares for the next crewed mission to the moon, it’s looking to give the lunar rover an upgrade.
Lockheed Martin and General Motors said Wednesday they’re working together to develop a next-generation lunar vehicle designed to be faster and capable of traveling farther distances than its predecessor. If the project is selected by NASA, the rover would be used on the upcoming Artemis missions. The first mission, which will be an uncrewed test flight, is scheduled for November. The request for proposals will likely be published in the third or fourth quarter of this year, executives said at a media briefing Wednesday. NASA will award the contract after evaluating the submitted proposals.
The previous rover was only capable of traveling less than five miles from the Apollo landing site, limiting the astronauts’ ability to collect important data on far-flung lunar locales, like the north and south poles. The Moon’s circumference is nearly 7,000 miles. The two companies are aiming to improve the specs, Lockheed’s VP for lunar exploration Kirk Shireman said, noting that the exact materials used for the new rover, its range and other capabilities have yet to be determined.
GM will also be developing an autonomous driving system for the rover, which executives said Wednesday will improve safety and the ability for astronauts to collect samples and conduct other scientific research. GM is investing more than $27 billion through 2025 in electric and autonomous vehicle technologies and it aims to bring that research to the lunar rover project, Jeffrey Ryder, VP of growth and strategy at GM Defense, said. “We’re heads-down right now in investigating how we would take those capabilities and apply them to specific missions and operation associated with the Artemis program.”
GM also said it will be using its earth-bound research into battery and propulsion systems in developing the rover. Ryder anticipates that the rover program will lead to other market opportunities.
Both companies have supplied technology for NASA missions before, including its lunar missions. Auto manufacturer GM helped develop the previous lunar rover that was used during the Apollo era, including its chassis and wheels. It also manufactured and integrated guidance and navigational systems for the program. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s experience extends to building spacecraft and power systems that have been included on every NASA mission to Mars.
The companies said this was “one of several initiatives” they’re working on together, with further announcements regarding other projects expected in the future.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders inserted himself into the debate about NASA’s Artemis Program on Monday.
The independent and two-time presidential candidate did so by submitting an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act, which is now under consideration by the full Senate. Sanders’ amendment, No. 1925, has a simple purpose, “To eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”
The “bailout” in question refers to an earlier amendment filed to the Endless Frontier Act during a committee meeting earlier this month. Overall, the Endless Frontier Act is primarily about advancing US scientific and research efforts, but it has become fettered with modifications by US senators. Sanders is seeking to strip language from an amendment that has already been successfully attached to the scientific act.
On Wednesday, a US senator added an amendment to unrelated science legislation that would impose significant restrictions on NASA and its plans to return to the Moon.
The amendment (see document) was spurred by NASA’s decision in April to select SpaceX as its sole provider of a human landing system for the Artemis Program. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from the state of Washington, where Blue Origin is based, authored the legislation. Owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin led a lunar lander bid that was rejected by NASA.
The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the amendment without any debate, adding the NASA changes to the Endless Frontier Act, a bill to keep US scientific and technology innovation competitive with China and other countries.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space and NASA unveiled more details Monday about the forthcoming Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), the first fully private human mission to the International Space Station.
The Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1) spaceflight mission will ferry four private astronauts to the International Space Station in January 2022. The eight-day mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. While in space, the crew will be living and working in the U.S. segment of the ISS.
NASA will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission, such as transporting supplies to the ISS, though that does not include other reimbursable agreements between the two entities.
There’s a “high degree of confidence in the late January date” for the launch, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said.
Axiom in January released the identity of the crew members: Canadian investor Mark Pathy, investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe. Leading the crew as mission commander is former NASA astronaut and Axiom Space VP Michael López-Alegría, who has four spaceflights under his belt.
Pathy, Connor and Stibbe will engage in research missions while onboard. Pathy will be collaborating with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency; Connor, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; and Stibbe, to conduct scientific experiments coordinated by the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
“Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut and they’re not interested in being tourists,” López-Alegría said during the media briefing. “They want to do their part to improve humankind.”
To prepare for the mission, the four crew members will go on a “camping trip” in the Alaskan foothills for training in July, López-Alegría said. He will start full-time training around August, with Larry starting in September. The rest of the crew will start in October, with around two-thirds of their time dedicated to ISS-specific training and the rest dedicated to training with SpaceX. The staggered schedule is due to the differing responsibilities between the crew members while on board. Axiom will be using the same contractor that NASA uses to train its astronauts.
While Suffredini declined to specify how much the private astronauts paid for their space on the flight, he said he “wouldn’t argue with” widely reported figures in the tens of millions. The Washington Post in January reported that the ticket prices came in at $55 million each.
Prices may not always be so high, but Suffredini said that the industry is likely at least a decade away from serious price drops that might make space travel feasible for the average space-goer.
Axiom intends to offer astronaut flights – both private and national – to the International Space Station and eventually its own privately-funded space station. While Axiom has “things lined up” for AX-2, AX-3 and AX-4, “like everyone we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said. The number of missions to the ISS is limited because there are only two docking ports on the ISS, Station deputy manager Dana Weigel added. That suggests that additional stations will be necessary to meet the burgeoning demand for both commercial and scientific space missions.
The company also in January 2020 won a NASA contract to develop and install a commercial module to the Harmony docking port of the ISS as early as 2024.
Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that recent announcements on commercial spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in addition to the Axiom mission have heralded “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight.”
“A lot of times history can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point with human spaceflight,” he said.
No NASA official would ever admit this in public, but the 2010s have been a frustrating decade for human spaceflight.
After the space shuttle retired in 2011, as most everyone knows, NASA had no way to get its astronauts into space. But the frustrations ran deeper. Even as the agency scrambled to launch into low Earth orbit, it was tasked with sending astronauts further afield into deep space—to the Moon and Mars. So NASA has spent seemingly forever developing “capabilities” to get there, and observers often felt like NASA was spinning its wheels. Agency officials frequently talked about going to the Moon and Mars, but that was all they did—talk.
Now, however, things are starting to change. We are still in early days, but there is increasing agreement at NASA about the need to focus less on transportation—the “how” of getting there—and more on what to do when astronauts get to their destinations. This is because, as the transportation pieces fall in line, NASA can think about actual exploration.
This week’s episode of Found features The SMART Tire Company co-founder and CEO Earl Cole, a one-time Survivor champion whose startup is working with NASA to commercialize some of its space-age tech. Cole won a NASA startup competition seeking entrepreneurs to work with its scientists and researchers on applications of innovations it created for space exploration that could work right here on Earth, helping people while also forming the basis for a commercially-viable business.
We talked to Cole about the process of working with NASA, including its challenges and what the agency has to offer in terms of unique access to cutting-edge technology. He also shared his perspective on entrepreneurship from decades of experience, including difficulties with traditional VC and access to funding, and why he chose to initially raise money for his own startup through newly-available equity crowdsourcing. Cole also told us about why being a Survivor champ (and the first unanimous winner) provides crucial lessons for not only being a founder, but also running a company and being an effective leader, too.
We had a great time chatting with Cole, and we hope you have just as much fun listening. And of course, we’d love if you can subscribe to Found in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Google Podcasts or in your podcast app of choice. Please leave us a review and let us know what you think, or send us directed feedback either on Twitter or via email. Come back next week for yet another great conversation with a founder all about their own unique experience of startup life.
Aftermath of the liftoff of the SpaceX Crew-2 mission taking four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
In three months, NASA will come upon the 10th anniversary of the final space shuttle flight, a period that was surely melancholy for the space agency.
When the big, white, winged vehicles touched down for the final time in July 2011, NASA surrendered its ability to get humans into space. It had to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station. And the space agency had to fight the public perception that NASA was somehow a fading force, heading into the sunset.
Now we know that will not be the case, and the future appears bright for the space agency and its international partners. On Friday morning, NASA and SpaceX launched the third mission of Crew Dragon that has carried astronauts into space. After nearly a decade with no human orbital launches from the United States, there have been three in less than 11 months. Another successful mission further confirmed that the combination of Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft is a reliable means of getting crews to the International Space Station.
When NASA astronauts return to the Moon in a few years, they will do so inside a lander that dwarfs that of the Apollo era. SpaceX’s Starship vehicle measures 50 meters from its nose cone to landing legs. By contrast, the cramped Lunar Module that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin down to the Moon in 1969 stood just 7 meters tall.
This is but one of many genuinely shocking aspects of NASA’s decision a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024.
NASA awarded SpaceX $2.89 billion for these two missions. But this contract would balloon in amount should NASA select SpaceX to fly recurring lunar missions later in the 2020s. And it has value to SpaceX and NASA in myriad other ways. Perhaps most significantly, with this contract NASA has bet on a bold future of exploration. Until now, the plans NASA had contemplated for human exploration in deep space all had echoes of the Apollo program. NASA talked about “sustainable” missions and plans in terms of cost, but they were sustainable in name only.
SpaceX has another successful human space launch to its credit, after a good takeoff and orbital delivery of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Friday morning. The Dragon took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM EDT). On board were four astronauts, including NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, as well as JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and the ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.
This was Spacex’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA, after its Crew-1 operation last year. Unlike Crew-1, Crew-2 included use of two re-flown components in the spacecraft system, including the first stage booster, which was used during the Crew-1 launch, and the Dragon capsule, which was used for SpaceX’s first ever human spaceflight, the final demonstration mission of its spacecraft certification program for NASA, which flew Bob Behnken (side note: this mission’s pilot, McArthur, is Behnken’s wife) and Doug Hurley to the ISS. SpaceX has characterized the use of re-flown elements as arguably even safer than using new ones, with CEO Elon Musk noting that you wouldn’t want to be on the “first flight of an airplane when it comes out of the factory” during a conversation with XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis on Thursday evening.
Now that the Crew Dragon is in its target transfer orbit, it’ll be making its way to rendezvous with the Space Station, which will take just under 24 hours. It’ll be docking with the station early tomorrow morning, attaching to a docking port that was just cleared earlier this month when SpaceX’s other Crew Dragon relocated to another port on the ISS earlier this month.
This launch also included a recovery attempt for the booster, with a landing at sea using SpaceX’s drone landing pad. That went as planned, meaning this booster which has already flown two different sets of human astronauts, could be used to fly yet another after refurbishment.
SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program with NASA continues to be the key success story in the agency’s move to partner with more private companies for its research and space exploration missions. NASA also recently tapped SpaceX to develop the human landing system for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program, and which will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. For SpaceX’s human spaceflight program, the next big milestone will be its first flight of a mission made up entirely of paying private citizens, which is currently set to take place this fall.
SpaceX is set to launch its second operational commercial crew mission to the International Space Station for NASA, with a liftoff time of 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM PDT) on Friday morning. The flight will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA, one from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and one from the ESA (European Space Agency), to the station, where they will begin a regular tour of duty conducting science experiments, and maintaining and upgrading the orbital platform.
There’s already a SpaceX Crew Dragon at the Space Station from that Crew-1 launch last year, and it was relocated to another port on the station earlier this month in preparation for the arrival of the one flying for Crew-2. The Crew-1 Dragon capsule is set to return back to Earth with astronauts on board once they’re relieved by this flight’s crew, likely later this month on April 28.
One major notable change for this launch is the use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket booster. SpaceX has previously used new boosters fresh from the factory for its human launches, though it has a spotless track record when it comes to booster re-use for its cargo flights. It’s also the first re-use of a dragon spacecraft, and both components of this launch system actually previously supported human launches, with the first stage serving during Crew-1, and the Dragon capsule providing the ride for Demo-2, which flew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
The astronauts on today’s flight are Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur from NASA, as well as Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA and Thomas Pesquet from the ESA. As mentioned, liftoff time is set for 5:49 AM EDT, but SpaceX will begin streaming live hours in advance at approximately 1:30 AM EDT on Friday (10:30 PM PDT on Thursday).
NASA has marked a major milestone in its extraterrestrial exploration program, with the first powered flight of an aircraft on Mars. The flight occurred very early this morning, and NASA received telemetry confirming that the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter it sent to Mars with its Perseverance rover. This is a major achievement, in no small part because the atmosphere is so thin on Mars that creating a rotor-powered craft like Ingenuity that can actually use it to produce lift is a huge challenge.
This first flight of Ingenuity was an autonomous remote flight, with crews on Earth controlling it just by sending commands through at the appropriate times to signal when it should begin and end its 40-second trip through the Martian ‘air.’ While that might seem like a really short trip, it provides immense value in terms of the data collected by the helicopter during the flight. Ingenuity actually has a much more powerful processor on board than even the Perseverance rover itself, and that’s because it intends to gather massive amounts of data about what happens during its flight test so that it can transmit that to the rover, which then leapfrogs the information back to Earth.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.
As mentioned, this is the first ever flight of a powered vehicle on Mars, so while there’s been lots of modelling and simulation work predicting how it would go, no one knew for sure what would happen before this live test. Ingenuity has to rotate its rotor at a super-fast 2,500 RPM, for instance, compared to around 400 to 500 RPM for a helicopter on Earth, because of how thin the atmosphere is on Mars, which produced significant technical challenges.
What’s the point of even flying a helicopter on Mars? There are a few important potential applications, but the first is that it sets up future exploration missions, making it possible for NASA to use aerial vehicles for future science on the red planet. It can explore things like caves and peaks that rovers can’t reach, for instance. Eventually, NASA is also hoping to see if there’s potential for use of aerial vehicles in future human exploration of Mars, too — martian explorers would benefit significantly from being able to use aircraft as well as ground vehicles when we eventually get there.
Now, NASA will work on unpacking the data to glean more insights from the flight, and get back more photos and video of the helicopter during its ascent, hover and landing. Following this flight, it’ll plan additional flight testing attempts based on remaining power and other parameters now that it knows Ingenuity can fly and did as intended.
About five weeks have passed since Boeing updated the status of its Starliner spacecraft, with the company saying it was “evaluating” a new target launch date for its next mission. This test flight of Starliner, which will not carry crew, is destined to launch on an Atlas V rocket and dock with the International Space Station for about a week before returning to Earth.
Despite the lack of an official update, it now seems likely that Boeing and NASA are targeting late July or early August for this test flight. This is largely due to traffic at the International Space Station rather than the readiness of Starliner itself. Two NASA sources said the vehicle is “close” to being ready, with only a few small tests to certify the spacecraft for flight remaining. Starliner is therefore expected to be ready to fly by early summer.
The primary issue is the availability of space station docking ports fitted with an “international docking adapter,” which are used by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon 2, and Starliner vehicles. There are presently two such ports on the station, and for NASA, the priority for access to these ports are crew rotations followed by supply missions. So the question becomes when the Starliner test flight can find an open slot on station.
Lego has made a number of space shuttle sets over the years, but none has been as detailed as this 2,354-piece set. The finished orbiter is a substantial 21.8 inches (55.46 cm) long with a 13.6-inch (34.6 cm) wingspan, and it lends itself well to reproduction in Lego bricks at this scale; the space shuttle was covered in blocky tiles, after all.
The Psyche spacecraft chassis was delivered to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in late March, 2021. [credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech ]
A satellite company named Maxar recently delivered a passenger van-sized chunk of spacecraft to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This chassis will serve as the backbone for a robotic spacecraft that will explore a metallic asteroid for the first time. This ambitious mission, named Psyche after the eponymous asteroid it will explore, is due to launch next summer on a Falcon 9 rocket.
Once in space, the spacecraft will use an innovative means of propulsion, known as Hall thrusters, to reach the asteroid. This will be the first time a spacecraft has ventured into deep space using Hall thrusters, and absent this technology the Psyche mission probably wouldn’t be happening—certainly not at its cost of just less than $1 billion.
For David Oh, the large, boxy chassis represents one of those “full circle” moments in life. More than two decades ago, he worked on Hall thruster technology as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would go on to work for Space Systems/Loral, which first put the propulsive technology on large commercial satellites and would later be acquired by Maxar.
Early on Monday, a Crew Dragon was docked at the “forward” port of the Harmony module. [credit: NASA TV ]
Early on Monday morning, four astronauts donned their flight suits and clambered into their Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Resilience.
But they were not coming home. Rather, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, as well as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, were preparing to move the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time.
Over the course of 38 minutes, the spacecraft smoothly backed away from the International Space Station’s Harmony module to a distance of 60 meters from the large laboratory. Under the power of its Draco thrusters, Resilience then reoriented itself to dock with another port on the Harmony module.
NASA’s SBIR program regularly doles out cash to promising small businesses and research programs, and the lists of awardees is always interesting to sift through. Here are a dozen companies and proposals from this batch that are especially compelling or suggest new directions for missions and industry in space.
Sadly these brief descriptions are often all that is available. These things are often so early stage that there’s nothing to show but some equations and a drawing on the back of a napkin — but NASA knows promising work when it sees it. (You can learn more about how to apply for SBIR grants here.)
Martian Sky Technologies wins the backronym award with Decluttering of Earth Orbit to Repurpose for Bespoke Innovative Technologies, or DEORBIT, an effort to create an autonomous clutter-removal system for low Earth orbit. It is intended to monitor a given volume and remove any intruding items, clearing the area for construction or occupation by another craft.
There are lots of proposals for various forms of 3D printing, welding, and other things important to the emerging field of “On-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing” or OSAM. One I found interesting uses ultrasonics, which is weird to me because clearly, in space, there’s no atmosphere for ultrasonic to work in (I’m going to guess they thought of that). But this kind of counterintuitive approach could lead to a truly new approach.
Doing OSAM work will likely involve coordinating multiple robotic platforms, something that’s hard enough on Earth. TRAClabs is looking into a way to “enhance perceptual feedback and decrease the cognitive load on operators” by autonomously moving robots not in use to positions where they can provide useful viewpoints of the others. It’s a simple idea and fits with the way humans tend to work — if you’re not the person doing the actual task, you automatically move out of the way and to a good position to see what’s happening.
Hall effect thrusters are a highly efficient form of electric propulsion that could be very useful in certain types of in-space maneuvering. But they’re not particularly powerful, and it seems that to build larger ones existing manufacturing techniques will not suffice. Elementum 3D aims to accomplish it by developing a new additive manufacturing technique and cobalt-iron feedstock that should let them make these things as big as they want.
Venus is a fascinating place, but its surface is extremely hostile to machines the way they’re built here on Earth. Even hardened Mars rovers like Perseverance would succumb in minutes, seconds even in the 800F heat. And among the many ways they would fail is that the batteries they use would overheat and possibly explode. TalosTech and the University of Delaware are looking into an unusual type of battery that would operate at high temperatures by using atmospheric CO2 as a reactant.
When you’re going to space, every gram and cubic centimeter counts, and once you’re out there, every milliwatt does as well. That’s why there’s always a push to switch legacy systems to low size, weight, and power (low-SWaP) alternatives. Intellisense is taking on part of the radio stack, using neuromorphic (i.e. brainlike – but not in a sci-fi way) computing to simplify and shrink the part that sorts and directs incoming signals. Every gram saved is one more spacecraft designers can put to work elsewhere, and they may get some performance gains as well.
Astrobotic is becoming a common name to see in NASA’s next few years of interplanetary missions, and its research division is looking at ways to make both spacecraft and surface vehicles like rovers smarter and safer using lidar. One proposal is a lidar system narrowly focused on imaging single small objects in a sparse scene (e.g. scanning one satellite from another against the vastness of space) for the purposes of assessment and repair. The second involves a deep learning technique applied to both lidar and traditional imagery to identify obstacles on a planet’s surface. The team for that one is currently also working on the VIPER water-hunting rover aiming for a 2023 lunar landing.
Bloomfield does automated monitoring of agriculture, but growing plants in orbit or on the surface or Mars is a little different than here on Earth. But it’s hoping to expand to Controlled Environment Agriculture, which is to say the little experimental farms we’ve used to see how plants grow under weird conditions like microgravity. They plan to use multi-spectral imaging and deep learning analysis thereof to monitor the state of plants constantly so astronauts don’t have to write “leaf 25 got bigger” every day in a notebook.
The Artemis program is all about going to the Moon “to stay,” but we haven’t quite figured out that last part. Researchers are looking into how to refuel and launch rockets from the lunar surface without bringing everything involved with them, and Exploration Architecture aims to take on a small piece of that, building a lunar launchpad literally brick by brick. It proposes an integrated system that takes lunar dust or regolith, melts it down, then bakes it into bricks to be placed wherever needed. It’s either that or bring Earth bricks, and I can tell you that’s not a good option.
Several other companies and research agencies proposed regolith-related construction and handling as well. It was one of a handful of themes, some of which are a little too in the weeds to go into.
Another theme was technologies for exploring ice worlds like Europa. Sort of like the opposite of Venus, an ice planet will be lethal to “ordinary” rovers in many ways and the conditions necessitate different approaches for power, sensing, and traversal.
NASA isn’t immune to the new trend of swarms, be they satellite or aircraft. Managing these swarms takes a lot of doing, and if they’re to act as a single distributed machine (which is the general idea) they need a robust computing architecture behind them. Numerous companies are looking into ways to accomplish this.
You can see the rest of NASA’s latest SBIR grants, and the technology transfer program selections too, at the dedicated site here. And if you’re curious how to get some of that federal cash yourself, read on below.
On Tuesday, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) hosted a press conference where it detailed the plans for the Ingenuity drone that hitched a ride to Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover. The scientists and engineers behind the drone announced that they’ve now picked a site for what is expected to be the first powered flight on another planet. With the site settled, they’re now targeting April 8 for the flight, which will be the first in a monthlong series of test flights to validate the technology.
Ingenuity, pictured above, looks familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the profusion of small consumer drones that have developed over the last decade or so. But, as Ingenuity’s chief engineer Bob Balaram put it, “It’s the first aircraft designed for powered flight on another planet,” and that makes for some substantial differences with Earth-bound drones. For starters, the hardware is much bigger than it might seem from the photos, as each of its two counter-rotating blades is 1.2 meters (four feet) long. Ingenuity also weighs in at 1.8 kilograms (four pounds) on Earth, although it’s less than half of that weight on the red planet.
Balaram also said that “In effect, this is an aircraft that also happens to be a spacecraft,” noting it had to survive the stresses of launch and landing, as well as the temperature extremes of its flight to Mars and time on the surface. That has necessitated a heating element in Ingenuity’s fuselage, which keeps things like the batteries and electronics operational overnight. Once released on the planet’s surface by Perseverance, Ingenuity will be responsible for providing its own power, which it obtains via a solar panel perched above the blades.
As exciting as the entire Perseverance mission to Mars is, one of the events most looked forward to by us Earthlings must be the first flight of Ingenuity. After conducting numerous checks and double-checks, the Perseverance team has set April 8 as the date on which they hope to attempt the first controlled powered flight on another planet.
If all goes well, then in about two weeks Ingenuity will make its first hovering flight about 10 feet above the Martian soil. But the meantime will be chock full of preparation.
In the first place the team had to identify an “airfield,” a ten-meter-square space of flat ground close at hand to Perseverance’s landing zone. Having done so, the rover will soon make its way to the exact center and confirm its location.
Then the helicopter itself must be detached from the belly of the rover, to which it is apparently locked, bolted, and cabled. These are meant to keep it secure during the chaotic landing process, and are irreversible — so the team has to be 100 percent sure this is the spot and the conditions are right. The process should take about five days.
Once Ingenuity has been detached from Perseverance and rotated to flight-ready position, it will hang just five inches above the surface and use its few remaining connections with the rover to charge its batteries. Perseverance will then set it down and quickly drive away.
“Every step we have taken since this journey began six years ago has been uncharted territory in the history of aircraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer of the project at JPL, in a NASA news release. “And while getting deployed to the surface will be a big challenge, surviving that first night on Mars alone, without the rover protecting it and keeping it powered, will be an even bigger one. Once we cut the cord with Perseverance and drop those final five inches to the surface, we want to have our big friend drive away as quickly as possible so we can get the Sun’s rays on our solar panel and begin recharging our batteries.”
Once the helicopter detaches, it has 30 Martian days, or sols, in which it is sure to have enough power to work — beyond that they can’t be sure.
The next couple days will involve tests of Ingenuity’s systems and a test spin-up of its rotors to 2,537 RPM. The atmosphere of Mars is only a tiny fraction of that on Earth, making flight considerably more difficult in many ways. But that’s what makes it so fun to try!
If all the tests and checks are green, then on April 8 at the earliest Ingenuity will attempt to lift off, going up to 3 meters and staying for 30 seconds. The team should know if the flight was a success within a couple hours — and maybe even get some black and white imagery from the Ingenuity’s on-board cameras. Color imagery will come a few days later.
The team will evaluate what to do next based on this first flight, and the next weeks may bring more — and farther — forays around the airfield. We’ll know more after the data comes back.
A touching inclusion on Ingenuity’s chassis is a tiny scrap of the material from the Wright brothers’ first aircraft, the Flyer. So the machine that flew first on Earth will be present in a small way at the first on another planet.
It has been a long, difficult, and expensive road for NASA and its Space Launch System rocket. But on Thursday afternoon, the space agency got to taste some success with what appeared to be a nominal ground test-firing of the vehicle’s core stage.
With brilliant spring sunshine blazing overhead, the four space shuttle main engines that power the rocket roared to life on a test stand in Mississippi. Then they burned for 499.6 seconds, exhausting the vehicle’s supply of liquid oxygen.
At about one minute into the test, the engines began rocking and rolling. Known as gimbaling, this process is what allows a rocket to change the direction of thrust in flight. This dynamic exercise lasted for about 30 seconds and appeared to proceed nominally as well.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will be providing NASA with a valuable scientific tool ahead of the U.S. space agency’s goal of returning to the Moon: The ability to run experiments in simulated lunar gravity much closer to home, in suborbital space.
NASA revealed that Blue Origin will be modifying its reusable New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle to add Moon gravity approximation via rotation of the spacecraft’s capsule. That’ll effectively turn it into one big centrifuge, which will mean that objects inside will experience a gravitational force very close to that found on the lunar surface.
It’s not like there aren’t already ways to simulate lunar gravity, but the way that New Shepard will implement its system will provide two benefits that none of these existing methods can match: Longer duration, offering over two minutes of continuous artificial Moon gravity exposure, and larger payload capacity, which will unlock experimental capabilities that are currently impossible just due to space restrictions.
Blue Origin anticipates that this new capability for New Shepard will be ready to roll by 2022 – important timing because the whole idea is to help support NASA’s Artemis program, which is its mission series that will see a return to human Moon exploration, including establishment of a more permanent crewed research presence both in lunar orbit and on the surface.
Gravity on the surface of the Moon is about one-sixth as powerful as that here on Earth. NASA also points out that it will require experimentation not only in preparation for lunar missions, but also to support eventually crewed launches to Mars, which has gravity that’s just over one-third as strong as it is here.
Blue Origin is also working with NASA on human landers for its lunar missions, through a space industry team-up that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
The heads of the Chinese and Russian space agencies signed an agreement on Tuesday to work together to build a “scientific” station on the Moon.
Under terms of a memorandum of understanding, the two countries will cooperate on creation of an “International Lunar Science Station” and plan to invite other countries to participate. The agreement was signed by Zhang Kejian, director of the China National Space Administration, and Dmitry Rogozin, the chief of Russia’s space corporation, Roscosmos. The agreement was announced by Roscosmos.
Details about the project were fairly sparse, specifying only that the countries would work together to create research facilities on the surface and/or in orbit around the Moon. The goal was both to establish long-term, uncrewed facilities on the Moon as well as to build up the capabilities for a human presence there.
Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.
Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.
“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”
Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.
Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.
Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.
Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.
This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).
The seven minutes of terror are over. The parachute deployed; the skycrane rockets fired. Robot truck goes ping! Perseverance, a rover built by humans to do science 128 million miles away, is wheels-down on Mars. Phew.
Percy has now opened its many eyes and taken a look around.
The rover is studded with a couple dozen cameras—25, if you count the two on the drone helicopter. Most of them help the vehicle drive safely. A few peer closely and intensely at ancient Martian rocks and sands, hunting for signs that something once lived there. Some of the cameras see colors and textures almost exactly the way the people who built them do. But they also see more. And less. The rover’s cameras imagine colors beyond the ones that human eyes and brains can come up with. And yet human brains still have to make sense of the pictures they send home.
Astra, the Alameda-based space launch startup that recently announced its intent to go public via a SPAC merger, has secured a contract to deliver six cube satellites to space on behalf of NASA. Astra stands to be paid $7.95 million by the agency for fulfilment of the contract. This will be a key test of Astra’s responsive rocket capabilities, with a planned three-launch mission profile spanning up to four months, currently targeting sometime between January 8 and July 31 of 2022.
The satellites are for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) mission, which is a science mission that will collect data about hurricanes and their formation, including temperature, pressure and humidity readings. Like the extremely long, tortured-for-an-acronym name of the mission suggests, the data will be collected using a small constellation of satellites, each roughly the size of a shoebox.\
Astra completed its second of three planned launches designed to ultimately achieve orbit late last year, and exceeded its own expectations by reaching space and nearly achieving orbit. The company said that based on the data it collected from that mission, the final remaining barriers to actually making orbit are all fixable via changes to its software. Based on that, Astra CEO and founder Chris Kemp said that it believes it’s now ready to begin flying commercial payloads.
Kemp was formerly CTO of NASA, and has co-founded a number of technology companies over the years as well. This latest NASA mission isn’t its first contracted launch – far from it, in fact, since the company has said it currently has more than 50 total missions on its slate from both private and government customers, with a total value of over $150 million in revenue.
A full description of the rover’s descent and mission can be found here, but briefly stated here’s what happened:
After decelerating in the atmosphere interplanetary velocity, the heat shield is jettisoned and the parachute deployed. Beneath the heat shield are a number of cameras and instruments, which scanned the landscape to find a good landing spot. At a certain altitude and speed the parachute is detached and the “jetpack” lower stage takes over, using rockets to maneuver towards the landing area. At about 70 feet above the surface the “skycrane” dangles the rover itself out of the lander and softly plops it down on the ground before the jetpack flies off to crash at a safe distance.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The whole process takes about seven minutes, the last few seconds of which which are an especially white-knuckle ride.
While previous rovers sent back lots of telemetry and some imagery, this level of visual documentation is a first. Even Insight, launched in 2018, wasn’t able to send back this kind of footage.
“This is the first time we’ve actually been able to capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars,” said Mike Watkins, head of JPL, at a press conference. “These are really amazing videos, we all binge watched them over the weekend if you can call a one minute video binge watching. We will learn something by looking at the performance of the vehicle in these videos but a lot of it is also to bring you along on our journey.”
The team discussed the entry, descent, and landing camera system or EDL cams, which were made both to monitor how the process went and to provide the visceral experience that the whole team craved.
“I don’t know about you, but it is unlikely at this point in my career that I will pilot a spacecraft down to the surface of Mars,” said Matt Wallace, deputy project manager of Perseverance at JPL. “But when you see this imagery I think you will feel like you are getting a glimpse into what it would be like to land successfully in Jezero crater with perseverance.”
There were upward-facing cameras on the capsule, jetpack, and rover, and downward-facing cameras on the latter two as well, providing shots in both directions for practically the whole process. This image of the heat shield falling away feels iconic already – revealing the desert landscape of Mars much like film we’ve seen of Apollo landings on the Moon:
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
You can see the whole thing below:
Over 30 gigabytes of imagery were captured of the descent even though one of the cameras failed when the parachute deployed.
Practically every frame of the video offers new information about the process of landing on Mars — for instance, one of the springs used to eject the heat shield can be seen to have disconnected, though it didn’t affect the process. All the footage has been and no doubt will continue to be scrutinized for other insights.
In addition to these amazing landing videos, Perseverance has sent back a number of full-color images taken by its navigation cameras, though not all of its systems are up and running yet. The team stitched together the first images of Perseverance inspecting itself and its surroundings to form this panorama:
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
We’ll have many, many more images soon as the team processes and uploads them.
As a parting “gift,” the team provided the remarkable first sound recording from the surface of Mars; they hoped that this would both provide new insights and also let anyone who can’t see the images experience the landing in a different way.
The EDL system included a microphone to capture the sound of the landing, but sadly didn’t work during the descent. It is, however, working perfectly well on the surface and has now captured the ambience of the Red Planet — and while the sound of a gust of wind may not be particularly alien, it’s incredible to think that this truly is wind blowing across another world.
The Perseverance Mars rover landed safely yesterday, but only after a series of complex maneuvers as it descended at high speed through the atmosphere, known by the team as the “seven minutes of terror.” NASA has just shared a hair-raising image of the rover as it dangled from its jetpack above the Martian landscape, making that terror a lot easier to understand.
Published with others to the rover’s Twitter account (as always, in the first person), the image is among the first sent back from the rover; black-and-white shots from its navigation cameras appeared almost instantly after landing, but this is the first time we’ve seen the rover — or anything, really — from this perspective.
The image was taken by cameras on the descent stage or “jetpack,” a rocket-powered descent module that took over once the craft had sufficiently slowed via both atmospheric friction and its parachute. Once the heat shield was jettisoned, Perseverance scanned the landscape for a safe landing location, and once that was found, the jetpack’s job was to fly it there.
The image at the top of the story was taken by the descent stage’s “down-look cameras.” Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
When it was about 70 feet above the landing spot, the jetpack would have deployed the “sky crane,” a set of cables that would lower the rover to the ground from a distance that safely allowed the jetpack to rocket itself off to a crash landing far away.
The image at top was taken just moments before landing — it’s a bit hard to tell whether those swirls in the Martian soil are hundreds, dozens or just a handful of feet below, but follow-up images made it clear that the rocks you can see are pebbles, not boulders.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The images are a reminder that the processes we see only third-hand as observers of an HQ tracking telemetry data sent millions of miles from Mars are in fact very physical, fast and occasionally brutal things. Seeing such an investment of time and passion dangling from cords above a distant planet after a descent that started at 5 kilometers per second, and required about a hundred different things to go right or else end up just another crater on Mars… it’s sobering and inspiring.
That said, that first person perspective may not even be the most impressive shot of the descent. Shortly after releasing that, NASA published an astonishing image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which managed to capture Perseverance mid-fall under its parachute:
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Keep in mind that MRO was 700 km away, and traveling at over 3 km/second at the time this shot was taken. “The extreme distance and high speeds of the two spacecraft were challenging conditions that required precise timing and for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to both pitch upward and roll hard to the left so that Perseverance was viewable by HiRISE at just the right moment,” NASA wrote in the description of the photo.
Chances are we’re going to be treated to a fuller picture of the “seven minutes of terror” soon, once NASA collects enough imagery from Perseverance, but for now the images above serve as reminders of the ingenuity and skill of the team there, and perhaps a sense of wonder and awe at the capabilities of science and engineering.
In their first press conference following Perseverance’s successful landing on Mars, NASA and JPL scientists revealed some information on where the rover landed and what to expect for the next several days and weeks as it begins its mission in earnest.
Pics or it didn’t happen
One of the first orders of business is getting some of the images, audio, and video taken during the landing back to Earth. For now, doing so requires using a low-gain antenna to transmit data to some of the hardware in orbit around Mars. Jennifer Trosper, the deputy project manager for the rover, said that the Mars Odyssey orbiter should have a brief pass overhead within the next few hours, followed by the Mars Trace Gas orbiter, which will have a longer overflight and grab larger amounts of data. Matt Wallace, another deputy project manager, said that should be enough to allow NASA to release video of the landing on Monday.
Long-term, however, communications will rely on a high-gain antenna that will allow direct communications with Earth. That will require pointing, which means understanding the rover’s current orientation on Mars’ surface, which the team has inferred from the shadows cast in the first images sent down. Incidentally, those were taken with transparent lens caps on the Perseverance’s navigation cameras, so we can expect better images once those are removed.
Mars rover Perseverance has landed on the surface of Mars after a white-knuckle descent involving picking a landing spot just moments before making a rocket-powered sky crane landing. The rover immediately sent back its first image of Jezero crater, which it will be exploring over the course of its mission.
A clearly tense but optimistic team watched as Perseverance made its final approach to Mars a few hours ago, confirming it was on track to hit the bullseye of Jezero Crater, the ancient delta where the rover will soon be roving.
Except for a few brief but expected communications blackouts caused by the superheated air around the craft as it entered the thin Martian atmosphere, the lander sent back a continuous stream of updates to the team on Earth — considerably delayed, of course, by the distance to the other planet.
The team, and charmingly the on-screen hosts at mission HQ audibly gasped, whispered “yes!” and made other signs of their excitement as news trickled in that atmosphere entry had occurred on time, that the craft hadn’t broken up during the ten-G braking maneuver, that the parachute had deployed, that a landing site was found by the ground-facing radar, that the powered descent and sky crane had commenced, and at last finally that the rover had safely touched down on the surface.
Image Credits: NASA
Cheering but, in accordance with COVID-19 precautions not (as they normally would) hugging each other, the team celebrated the landing and soon were treated to the first images sent back from the rover.
These initial pictures are low-quality ones sent just seconds after landing by the “hazard camera,” a fisheye used for navigation. As the dust settles (literally) and the rover initiates its more powerful devices and cameras, we’ll have new, color images — probably within an hour or two.
For a more complete look at the mission and its remarkable landing method, you can read yesterday’s profile of the Perseverance mission. The next few days will probably be less exciting than the terror-inducing landing, but soon the rover will be up and running around Jezero, looking for evidence of life on Mars and testing technology that could be used by human visitors in the future.
“We’re not ready to go there with astronauts yet, but the robots are ready,” said JPL director Michael Watkins on the broadcast. “We start by sending, you know, our eyes and arms there in the form of a robot. It is just fantastic to be able to do that, and to learn from each rover, learn from the science and the engineering, and make the next one better, and make more and more discoveries. Every time we do one of these missions, we make fabulous discoveries — and you know, each one is more exciting than the last.”
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The exciting thing everyone is looking forward to, Mars helicopter Ingenuity, will hopefully take flight soon as well.
“We have a series of major milestones between now and the first flight. Tomorrow, we’ll turn on the helicopter, and the space station could confirm its health. The next major milestone will be when the rover deploys the helicopter on the surface, and that marks the first moment that Ingenuity operates on its own in a standalone manner, said MiMi Aung, project manager and engineering lead for Ingenuity. “Surviving that first cold frigid night of Mars will be a major milestone, then we’ll execute a series of checkouts, and then we will perform that very important first flight. And if the first flight is successful, we have up to four more flights in the thirty Martian days that we have set aside for our flight experiments.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully landed on the surface of Mars, transmitting telemetry information and the first images of its landing site. A low-resolution driving-camera image shows a field of dust-covered rocks, with the unmistakable shadow of the rover hardware. The early images are so fresh that you can still see the dust kicked up by the landing settling.
The landing came at the end of a cruise through interplanetary space and a dive through the Martian atmosphere, as the rover and its rocket-supported crane shed parachutes, a heat shield, and a lot of speed. The voyage culminated in the skycrane gently lowering the rover to the surface before rocketing off to land at a safe distance.
NASA refers to the landing protocol as “seven minutes of terror,” due to its complicated, multistage nature, all of which is run under automated guidance. Adding to the tension, all of the outcomes already happened over 10 minutes ago by the time any indication of their success reaches Earth.
Thursday’s the big day. NASA’s multibillion-dollar Mars rover will arrive at the red planet and almost immediately begin the process of trying to set down safely on the surface.
This is easier said then done. On approach to Mars, the Perseverance rover will shed its cruise stage, retaining only an aeroshell to protect itself and a descent stage. This slimmed-down spacecraft will hit the atmosphere traveling at about 20,000km/hour and have just 410 seconds—or nearly seven minutes—to shed this velocity and make a feathery touchdown.
How to land on Mars
Though the Martian atmosphere is thin, it will nonetheless provide a majority of the resistance to slow Perseverance down. Within about 80 seconds of entering the Martian atmosphere, temperatures outside the aeroshell are expected to reach 1,300° Celsius.
There will be one more robot on Mars tomorrow afternoon. The Perseverance rover will touch down just before 1:00 Pacific, beginning a major new expedition to the planet and kicking off a number of experiments — from a search for traces of life to the long-awaited Martian helicopter. Here’s what you can expect from Perseverance tomorrow and over the next few years.
It’s a big, complex mission — and like the Artemis program, is as much about preparing for the future, in which people will visit the Red Planet, as it is about learning more about it in the present. Perseverance is ambitious even among missions to Mars.
If you want to follow along live, NASA TV’s broadcast of the landing starts at 11:15 AM Pacific, providing context and interviews as the craft makes its final approach:
Until then, however, you might want to brush up on what Perseverance will be getting up to.
Seven months of anticipation and seven minutes of terror
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
First, the car-sized rover has to get to the surface safely. It’s been traveling for seven months to arrive at the Red Planet, its arrival heralded by new orbiters from the UAE and China, which both arrived last week.
Perseverance isn’t looking to stick around in orbit, however, and will plunge directly into the thin atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft carrying the rover has made small adjustments to its trajectory to be sure that it enters at the right time and angle to put Perseverance above its target, the Jezero crater.
The process of deceleration and landing will take about seven minutes once the craft enters the atmosphere. The landing process is the most complex and ambitious ever undertaken by an interplanetary mission, and goes as follows.
After slowing down in the atmosphere like a meteor to a leisurely 940 MPH or so, the parachute will deploy, slowing the descender over the next minute or two to a quarter of that speed. At the same time, the heat shield will separate, exposing the instruments on the underside of the craft.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This is a crucial moment, as the craft will then autonomously — there’s no time to send the data to Earth — scan the area below it with radar and other instruments and find what it believes to be an optimal landing location.
Once it does so, from more than a mile up, the parachute will detach and the rover will continue downwards in a “powered descent” using a sort of jetpack that will take it down to just 70 feet above the surface. At this point the rover detaches, suspended at the end of a 21-foot “Sky Crane,” and as the jetpack descends the cable extends; once it touches down, the jetpack boosts itself away, Sky Crane and all, to crash somewhere safely distant.
All that takes place in about 410 seconds, during which time the team will be sweating madly and chewing their pencils. It’s all right here in this diagram for quick reference:
Jezero Crater was chosen as a region rich in possibilities for finding evidence of life, but also a good venue for many other scientific endeavors.
The most similar to previous missions are the geology and astrobiology goals. Jezero was “home to an ancient delta, flooded with water.” Tons of materials coalesce in deltas that not only foster life, but record its presence. Perseverance will undertake a detailed survey of the area in which it lands to help characterize the former climate of Mars.
Part of that investigation will specifically test for evidence of life, such as deposits of certain minerals in patterns likely to have resulted from colonies of microbes rather than geological processes. It’s not expected that the rover will stumble across any living creatures, but you know the team all secretly hope this astronomically unlikely possibility will occur.
One of the more future-embracing science goals is to collect and sequester samples from the environment in a central storage facility, which can then be sent back to Earth — though they’re still figuring out how to handle that last detail. The samples themselves will be carefully cut from the rock rather than drilled or chipped out, leaving them in pristine condition for analysis later.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Perseverance will spend some time doubling back on its path to place as many as 30 capsules full of sampled material in a central depot, which will be kept sealed until such a time as they can be harvested and returned to Earth.
The whole time the rover will be acting as a mobile science laboratory, taking all kinds of readings as it goes. Some of the signs of life it’s looking for only result from detailed analysis of the soil, for instance, so sophisticating imaging and spectroscopy instruments are on board, PIXL and SHERLOC. It also carries a ground-penetrating radar (RIMFAX) to observe the fine structure of the landscape beneath it. And MEDA will continuously take measurements of temperature, wind, pressure, dust characteristics, and so on.
Of course the crowd-pleasing landscapes and “selfies” NASA’s rovers have become famous for will also be beamed back to Earth regularly. It has 19 cameras, though mostly they’ll be used for navigation and science purposes.
Exploring takes a little MOXIE and Ingenuity
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Perseverance is part of NASA’s long-term plan to visit the Red Planet in person, and it carries a handful of tech experiments that could contribute to that mission.
The most popular one, and for good reason, is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. This little solar-powered two-rotor craft will be the first ever demonstration of powered flight on another planet (the jetpack Perseverance rode in on doesn’t count).
The goals are modest: the main one is simply to take off and hover in the thin air a few feet off the ground for 20 to 30 seconds, then land safely. This will provide crucial real-world data about how a craft like this will perform on Mars, how much dust it kicks up, and all kinds of other metrics that future aerial craft will take into account. If the first flight goes well, the team plans additional ones that may look like the GIF above.
Being able to fly around on another planet would be huge for science and exploration, and eventually for industry and safety when people are there. Drones are have already become crucial tools for all kinds of surveying, rescue operations, and other tasks here on Earth — why wouldn’t it be the same case on Mars? Plus it’ll get some great shots from its onboard cameras.
MOXIE is the other forward-looking experiment, and could be even more important (though less flashy) than the helicopter. It stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, and it’s all about trying to make breathable oxygen from the planet’s thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere.
This isn’t about making oxygen to breathe, though it could be used for that too. MOXIE is about making oxygen at scales large enough that it could be used to provide rocket fuel for future takeoffs. Though if habitats like these ever end up getting built, it will be good to have plenty of O2 on hand just in case.
For a round trip to Mars, sourcing fuel from the there rather than trucking all the way from Earth to burn on the way back is an immense improvement in many ways. The 30-50 tons of liquid oxygen that would normally be brought over in the tanks could instead be functional payloads, and that kind of tonnage goes a long way when you’re talking about freeze-dried food, electronics, and other supplies.
MOXIE will be attempting, at a small scale (it’s about the size of a car battery, and future oxygen generators would be a hundred times bigger), to isolate oxygen from the CO2 surrounding it. The team is expecting about 10 grams per hour, but it will only be on intermittently so as not to draw too much power. With luck it’ll be enough of a success that this method can be pursued more seriously in the near future.
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
One of the big challenges for previous rovers is that they have essentially been remote controlled with a 30-mintue delay — scientists on Earth examine the surroundings, send instructions like go forward 40 centimeters, turn front wheels 5 degrees to the right, go 75 centimeters, etc. This not only means a lot of work for the team but a huge delay as the rover makes moves, waits half an hour for more instructions to arrive, then repeats the process over and over.
Perseverance breaks with its forbears with a totally new autonomous navigation system. It has high resolution, wide-angle color cameras and a dedicated processing unit for turning images into terrain maps and choosing paths through them, much like a self-driving car.
Being able to go farther on its own means the rover can cover far more ground. The longest drive ever recorded in a single Martian day was 702 feet by Opportunity (RIP). Perseverance will aim to cover about that distance on average, and with far less human input. Chances are it’ll set a new record pretty quickly once it’s done tiptoeing around for the first few days.
In fact the first 30 sols after the terrifying landing will be mostly checks, double checks, instrument deployments, more checks, and rather unimpressive-looking short rolls around the immediate area. But remember, if all goes well, this thing could still be rolling around Mars in 10 or 15 years when people start showing up. This is just the very beginning of a long, long mission.