Exciting news from Mars! As opening acts, spacecraft from both the United Arab Emirates and China entered orbit above the Red Planet, last week, with China hoping to be the second nation to land a successful rover, in a few months. And we await the news from NASA’s 2020 mission – which will attempt on Thursday to land the Perseverance rover that will explore the surface and collect rock samples for later return. In addition, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter will collect images from above. NASA will be using the same delivery technique – complicated and terrifying – that was so successful at landing Curiosity some years ago.
Tune in! You can watch the landing broadcast live, starting at 11:15 am PST on February 18, for “seven minutes of terror” as the rover plunges through the atmosphere of Mars, slowed by thrusters, a parachute, and then lowered by crane to the surface of Jezero Crater. For a preview, watch this NASA animation of the landing procedure.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirate’s Hope mission has just returned its first images from the Red Planet this week; it will carry out research on the atmosphere of Mars. In addition China’s Tianwen-1 probe successfully entered Mars orbit after a seven month journey.
== So many ways it matters! ==
Technology developed for NASA’s Perseverance mission will have had many spinoff uses on Earth. These examples are important, but the most boring may also help save us… better ability to detect small amounts of methane, helping us find pesky leaks that contribute to climate change… and more urgently send forth drones to find those rancid SOBs who are venting it deliberately from pipelines and wellheads.
Meanwhile Japan’s mission to the Martian moons will take images in 8k and return samples. Possibly among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system, and the sort of partners NASA should be working with(!), instead of joining a silly rush of Apollo-wannabes eager to plant ego-footprints on a dusty lunar plain. WHile we should continue robotic lunar science – and sell orbital hotel rooms and landers to those eager, would be moon-tourists… and polar water may have some limited uses… there is simply no valid reason for the US to join that rush to satisfy a footprint fetish that we took care of 50 years ago.
But sure… more lunar science! Fantastic new versions of Planetary Radar let Earth-based radio telescopes create incredibly detailed images of the moon and will open studies of other planetary moons and asteroids. Just stay on target guys! Minimize spillover! These beams are narrow, collimated, laser-like and much more detectable at long range (very long range, if you get my drift) than our measly TV signals and airport radars… which fade almost to nothing within a light year. (And no, ET is not watching I Love Lucy. That’s a silly cliché.)
Oh. Check out the bright dot of (immense!) lightning on this gorgeous Juno mission image of Jupiter! Taken by a camera made by Malin Space Systems in San Diego. Can you spot the dot… nearly the size of Europe?
== Looking toward asteroids ==
I’ve said it for more than a decade. One of the greatest astronomical discoveries has been the number of moons and dwarf planets that appear to bear pools… or oceans… of liquid water beneath protective ice roofs. Now even stronger evidence that at least some sort of briney lake exists under the ice on… Ceres. (Sorry EXPANSE fans! Ceres colonists would not have to import water.)
Leaving the (for now) pretty much useless Luna to tourists, some human endeavors are turning toward where the real wealth lies. For example: Japanese scientists open the Hayabusa probe’s containers of samples from carbon-rich asteroid Ryugu!
The mission to collect 60 or so grams of pristine material from Bennu instead may have collected more than 2000 grams, penetrating half a meter into the ancient, carbonaceous asteroid. Now stowed and ready for a launch homeward in March, the return capsule will arrive home in 2023. Wonderful! OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission, but it’s not the first one in history. Japan’s Hayabusa mission delivered small bits of the stony asteroid Itokawa to Earth in 2010.
Only now… meticulous orbital studies suggest that Bennu is a lot less-dense in the middle, possibly even “hollow.” In which case the mind reels with sci-fi possibilities! From obviously trying to dig out a wonderful O’Neil space colony to… wait… did you say hollow? What’s mostly hollow inside and rigid outside and sails through space? Um, a ship?
The New Horizons team that gave us the spectacular Pluto-Charon flyby, a few years back and a subsequent Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) recently partnered with the Subaru Observatory to search for new KBOs along the probe’s path, and about 75 new KBOs found in the direction New Horizons is traveling. Between 15 and 20 will pass close enough to New Horizons to be scientifically observed, beginning this December.
Says PI Alan Stern: “Although none of these KBOs are close enough for us to reach for a close flyby like we did at Arrokoth, the science we can do even from a distance will produce new results on KBO surface properties, shapes, rotational periods, and close-in moons that could not be achieved any other way.” And with new observations… “Perhaps (if we get lucky) we’ll even snag a new flyby target if we can find a KBO that’s within reach of our current fuel supply (about an eighth of a tank, which was about the same amount it cost to get to Arrokoth).”
== And more space news… ==
The next SpaceX cargo mission to the space station will carry an experiment called BioAsteroid that will contain pieces of meteorites and fungi, to see if a fungus can extract useful elements. Recently one kind of bacterium was shown to pull rare earth elements from basalt. Important.
As if taken from the very 1st chapter of EXISTENCE, “Scientists estimate that almost 3,000 dead satellites are orbiting our planet, which doesn’t account for the 900,000 pieces of debris less than 10 centimeters long that could cause a catastrophe should a chunk hit the wrong satellite at the wrong time…. and now, the European Space Agency is in the beginning stages of executing one of the more bizarre solutions: a space claw that would grip larger defunct satellites and steer them back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where both the satellite and the claw itself would burn up in peace.” Alas, the tether based technology that I describe would likely work much better and less expensively. (Here’s that vivid trailer of Existence with art by Patrick Farley!)
Finally…No, this is not an actual image sent back from Voyager 1, as the article seems to imply. But it is a kinda cool representation of what the solar system would look like, in V’ger’s rear view mirror, right about now. One of humanity’s proudest accomplishments. And let’s hope for another this Thursday, as our civilization resumes lifting its head.