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First commercial space taxi a pit stop on Musk’s Mars quest

May 24, 2020

(AP) It all started with the dream of growing a rose on Mars. That vision, Elon Musk’s vision, morphed into a shake-up of the old space industry, and a fleet of new private rockets. Now, those rockets will launch NASA astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station — the first time a for-profit company will carry astronauts into the cosmos.

It’s a milestone in the effort to commercialize space. But for Musk’s company, SpaceX, it’s also the latest milestone in a wild ride that began with epic failures and the threat of bankruptcy. If the company’s eccentric founder and CEO has his way, this is just the beginning: He’s planning to build a city on the red planet, and live there.

“What I really want to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though it’s something that we can do in our lifetimes and that you can go,” Musk told a cheering congress of space professionals in Mexico in 2016.

Musk “is a revolutionary change” in the space world, says Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, whose Jonathan’s Space Report has tracked launches and failures for decades. Ex-astronaut and former Commercial Spaceflight Federation chief Michael Lopez-Alegria says, “I think history will look back at him like a da Vinci figure.”

Musk has become best known for Tesla, his audacious effort to build an electric vehicle company. But SpaceX predates it. At 30, Musk was already wildly rich from selling his internet financial company PayPal and its predecessor Zip2. He arranged a series of lunches in Silicon Valley in 2001 with G. Scott Hubbard, who had been NASA’s Mars czar and was then running the agency’s Ames Research Center.

Musk wanted to somehow grow a rose on the red planet, show it to the world and inspire school children, recalls Hubbard. “His real focus was having life on Mars,” says Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who now chairs SpaceX’s crew safety advisory panel.

The big problem, Hubbard told him, was building a rocket affordable enough to go to Mars. Less than a year later Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, was born. There are many space companies and like all of them, SpaceX is designed for profit. But what’s different is that behind that profit motive is a goal, which is simply to “Get Elon to Mars,” McDowell says. “By having that longer-term vision, that’s pushed them to be more ambitious and really changed things.”

Everyone at SpaceX, from senior vice presidents to the barista who offers its in-house cappuccinos and FroYo, “will tell you they are working to make humans multi-planetary,” says former SpaceX Director of Space Operations Garrett Reisman, an ex-astronaut now at the University of Southern California.

Musk founded the company just before NASA ramped up the notion of commercial space. Traditionally, private firms built things or provided services for NASA, which remained the boss and owned the equipment. The idea of bigger roles for private companies has been around for more than 50 years, but the market and technology weren’t yet right.

NASA’s two deadly space shuttle accidents — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — were pivotal, says W. Henry Lambright, a professor of public policy at Syracuse University. When Columbia disintegrated, NASA had to contemplate a post-space shuttle world. That’s where private companies came in, Lambright says.

After Columbia, the agency focused on returning astronauts to the moon, but still had to get cargo and astronauts to the space station, says Sean O’Keefe, who was NASA’s administrator at the time. A 2005 pilot project helped private companies develop ships to bring cargo to the station.

SpaceX got some of that initial funding. The company’s first three launches failed. The company could have just as easily failed too, but NASA stuck by SpaceX and it started to pay off, Lambright says.

“You can’t explain SpaceX without really understanding how NASA really kind of nurtured it in the early days,” Lambright says. “In a way, SpaceX is kind of a child of NASA.” Since 2010, NASA has spent $6 billion to help private companies get people into orbit, with SpaceX and Boeing the biggest recipients, says Phil McAlister, NASA’s commercial spaceflight director.

NASA plans to spend another $2.5 billion to purchase 48 astronaut seats to the space station in 12 different flights, he says. At a little more than $50 million a ride, it’s much cheaper than what NASA has paid Russia for flights to the station.

Starting from scratch has given SpaceX an advantage over older firms and NASA that are stuck using legacy technology and infrastructure, O’Keefe says. And SpaceX tries to build everything itself, giving the firm more control, Reisman says. The company saves money by reusing rockets, and it has customers aside from NASA.

The California company now has 6,000 employees. Its workers are young, highly caffeinated and put in 60- to 90-hour weeks, Hubbard and Reisman say. They also embrace risk more than their NASA counterparts.

Decisions that can take a year at NASA can be made in one or two meetings at SpaceX, says Reisman, who still advises the firm. In 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad had a cracked nozzle extension on an engine. Normally that would mean rolling the rocket off the pad and a fix that would delay launch more than a month.

But with NASA’s permission, SpaceX engineer Florence Li was hoisted into the rocket nozzle with a crane and harness. Then, using what were essentially garden shears, she “cut the thing, we launched the next day and it worked,” Reisman says.

Musk is SpaceX’s public and unconventional face — smoking marijuana on a popular podcast, feuding with local officials about opening his Tesla plant during the pandemic, naming his newborn child “X Æ A-12.” But insiders say aerospace industry veteran Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer, is also key to the company’s success.

“The SpaceX way is actually a combination of Musk’s imagination and creativity and drive and Shotwell’s sound management and responsible engineering,” McDowell says. But it all comes back to Musk’s dream. Former NASA chief O’Keefe says Musk has his eccentricities, huge doses of self-confidence and persistence, and that last part is key: “You have the capacity to get through a setback and look … toward where you’re trying to go.”

For Musk, it’s Mars.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

A Rover for Phobos and Deimos

Le Bourget, France (SPX)

Jun 21, 2019

Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These are the target of the Japanese Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, which also involves international partners. Scheduled for launch in 2024. it will enter Mars orbit in 2025, and return samples to Earth in 2029. The spacecraft will carry a German-French rover that will land on either Phobos or Deimos and explore the surface in detail for several months.

The scientists hope to gain new insights into the formation and evolution of the solar system. At the International Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fuer Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), the Japanese space agency JAXA and the French space agency CNES agreed to further collaborate on the world’s first exploration of a minor solar system body with a rover.

“The world-first exploration of the Martian moons with a rover is a major technical challenge that we are tackling within the framework of our strong and proven partnership with Japan and France,” says Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board. “Together, we want to push the boundaries of what is technically feasible in robotic exploration and expand our knowledge about the origin of the solar system.”

On 18 June 2019, Hansjorg Dittus, DLR Executive Board Member for Space Research and Technology, Walther Pelzer, the DLR Executive Board Member responsible for the Space Administration, and Hitoshi Kuninaka, Director General of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) at JAXA, signed a cooperation agreement outlining DLR’s participation in the Japanese-led MMX mission. The contributions that the Franco-German rover will make to the mission are central to this agreement.

In addition, DLR is making scientific findings about Deimos and Phobos available in preparation for the mission and is enabling tests to be conducted at DLR’s Landing and Mobility Test Facility (LAMA) and in the drop tower at the Centre of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) in Bremen.

On 19 June 2019, the Franco-German cooperation agreement for the development of the rover as part of the MMX mission was signed by Pascale Ehrenfreund, Hansjorg Dittus and CNES President Jean-Yves le Gall. The German-French rover will be designed and built as a joint effort.

DLR will, in particular, be responsible for developing the rover’s casing and its robotic locomotion system, together with a spectrometer and a radiometer that will both be used to determine the characteristics and composition of the surface.

The French space agency CNES is making major contributions with camera systems for spatial orientation and exploration of the surface, as well as the rover’s central service module. Upon landing, the rover will then be operated jointly by CNES and DLR.

The MMX mission follows in the footsteps of the successful predecessor mission Hayabusa2, which explored the asteroid Ryugu. As part of the mission, on 3 October 2018, the Mobile Asteroid and Surface Scout (MASCOT) lander ‘hopped’ across the asteroid’s surface and sent spectacular images of a landscape strewn with boulders, stones and almost no dust back to Earth. On that same day, JAXA, DLR and CNES signed a first memorandum of understanding for cooperation within the MMX mission.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/A_Rover_for_Phobos_and_Deimos_999.html.

Small satellite concept finalists target Moon, Mars and beyond

Pasadena CA (JPL)

Jun 21, 2019

NASA has selected three finalists among a dozen concepts for future small satellites. The finalists include a 2022 robotic mission to study two asteroid systems, twin spacecraft to study the effects of energetic particles around Mars, and a lunar orbiter managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to study water on the Moon. At least one of these missions is expected to move to final selection and flight.

The missions will contribute to NASA’s goal of understanding our solar system’s content, origin and evolution. They will also support planetary defense, and help fill in knowledge gaps as NASA moves forward with its plans for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The selected finalists:

* Janus: Reconnaissance Missions to Binary Asteroids will study the formation and evolutionary implications for small “rubble pile” asteroids and build an accurate model of two binary asteroid bodies. A binary asteroid is a system of two asteroids orbiting their common center of mass. The principal investigator is Daniel Scheeres at the University of Colorado. Lockheed Martin will provide project management.

* Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE): This mission’s objective is to characterize (on multiple scales) the acceleration processes driving escape from Mars’ atmosphere, as well as how the atmosphere responds to the constant outflow of the solar wind flowing off the Sun. The principal investigator for this mission is Robert Lillis at the University of California, Berkeley. UC Berkeley will also provide project management.

* Lunar Trailblazer will directly detect and map water on the lunar surface to determine how its form, abundance and location relate to geology. The principal investigator is Bethany Ehlmann at Caltech. JPL will provide project management.

“Each of these concepts holds the promise to deliver big science in a small package,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “Their miniaturized size enables these systems to be developed at reduced overall costs while performing targeted science missions and testing brand new technologies that future missions can use.”

The finalists were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in 2018 through an opportunity called the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx).

Following an extensive and competitive peer review process, these concepts were selected based on their potential science value and feasibility of development plans. They will receive funding for up to one year to further develop and mature the concept designs, concluding with a preliminary design review (PDR). NASA will evaluate the PDR results, and after that expects to select one or more of the mission concepts to proceed into implementation and flight.

Using small spacecraft – less than 400 pounds, or 180 kilograms, in mass – SIMPLEx selections will conduct stand-alone planetary science missions. Each will share their ride to space with either another NASA mission or a commercial launch opportunity.

“The SIMPLEx program provides invaluable opportunities for increasingly innovative ways to conduct planetary science research,” said Lori S. Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Small_satellite_concept_finalists_target_Moon_Mars_and_beyond_999.html.

ExoMars landing platform arrives in Europe with a name

Paris (ESA)

Mar 22, 2019

The platform destined to land on the Red Planet as part of the next ExoMars mission has arrived in Europe for final assembly and testing – and been given a name.

An announcement was made by the Russian State Space Corporation Roscosmos of its new name: ‘Kazachok’.

The ExoMars program is a joint endeavor between ESA and Roscosmos and comprises two missions. The Trace Gas Orbiter is already circling Mars examining the planet’s atmosphere, while the second mission – comprising a surface science platform and a rover – is foreseen for launch in 2020.

Last month, the rover was named ‘Rosalind Franklin’ after the prominent scientist behind the discovery of the structure of DNA. Now the surface platform also has a name. Kazachock literally means little Cossack, and it is a lively folk dance.

Once on the martian surface, Rosalind the rover will drive off the Kazachok platform to perform scientific investigations. Kazachok will remain stationary to investigate the climate, atmosphere, radiation and possible presence of subsurface water in the landing site.

Welcome to Europe

Kazachok left Russia after being carefully packed to meet planetary protection requirements, making sure to not bring terrestrial biological contamination to Mars. It was shipped to Turin, Italy, on an Antonov plane along with ground support equipment and other structural elements.

The Italian division of Thales Alenia Space will perform final assembly and testing of the mission in close cooperation with ESA.

There will be more components arriving to Italy throughout the year, including avionics equipment, the carrier and rover modules and thermal protection systems for the landing platform.

Several test campaigns with ExoMars models are running in parallel in preparation for launch and landing.

Recent shock tests in Russia have successfully proved the mechanical compatibility between the spacecraft and the adapter for the Proton-M rocket that will set ExoMars on its way to Mars.

The ExoMars teams have also just completed the egress and locomotion tests with a full-sized model of the rover in Zurich, Switzerland.

There the rover drove off ramps and through all the terrain conditions that it might encounter on Mars: different types of soil, various obstacle shapes and sizes and all kind of slopes.

“We have now a very challenging schedule of deliveries and tests both in Italy and France. The coordination between the Russian and European teams is key to timely reach the Baikonur cosmodrome in 2020,” says Francois Spoto, ESA’s ExoMars team leader.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/ExoMars_landing_platform_arrives_in_Europe_with_a_name_999.html.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is put to the test

Pasadena CA (JPL)

Mar 20, 2019

In a little more than seven minutes in the early afternoon of Feb. 18, 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will execute about 27,000 actions and calculations as it speeds through the hazardous transition from the edge of space to Mars’ Jezero Crater. While that will be the first time the wheels of the 2,314-pound (1,050-kilogram) rover touch the Red Planet, the vehicle’s network of processors, sensors and transmitters will, by then, have successfully simulated touchdown at Jezero many times before.

“We first landed on Jezero Crater on Jan. 23rd,” said Heather Bottom, systems engineer for the Mars 2020 mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “And the rover successfully landed again on Mars two days later.”

Bottom was the test lead for Systems Test 1, or ST1, the Mars 2020 engineering team’s first opportunity to take the major components of the Mars 2020 mission for a test drive. Over two weeks in January, Bottom and 71 other engineers and technicians assigned to the 2020 mission took over the High Bay 1 cleanroom in JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility to put the software and electrical systems aboard the mission’s cruise, entry capsule, descent stage and rover through their paces.

“ST1 was a massive undertaking,” said Bottom. “It was our first chance to exercise the flight software we will fly on 2020 with the actual spacecraft components that will be heading to Mars – and make sure they not only operate as expected, but also interact with each other as expected.”

The heritage for Mars 2020’s software goes back to the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) and the Curiosity rover that has been exploring Mars’ Gale Crater since 2012. But 2020 is a different mission with a different rover, a different set of science instruments and a different destination on Mars. Its software has to be tailored accordingly.

Work began in earnest on the flight software in 2013. It was coded, recoded, analyzed and tested on computer workstations and laptops. Later, the flight software matriculated to spacecraft testbeds where it was exposed to computers, sensors and other electronic components customized to imitate the flight hardware that will launch with the mission in 2020.

“Virtual workstations and testbeds are an important part of the process,” said Bottom. “But the tens of thousands of individual components that make up the electronics of this mission are not all going to act, or react, exactly like a testbed. Seeing the flight software and the actual flight hardware working together is the best way to build confidence in our processes. Test like you fly.”

Making the Grade

On the day before ST1 began, the High Bay 1 cleanroom was hopping with “bunny suit”-clad engineers and technicians assembling, inspecting and testing the mission’s hardware. The next day, Wednesday, Jan. 16, the room was eerily quiet. The majority of workers had been replaced by two technicians there to monitor the flight test hardware.

Lines of electrical cabling – “umbilicals” – were added to provide data and power to the spacecraft’s cruise stage, back shell, descent stage and rover chassis, which have yet to be stacked together. The ground to in-flight spacecraft (and in-flight spacecraft to ground) communications were handled by X-band radio transmission, just like they would be during the trip to Mars.

ST1 began with commands to energize the spacecraft’s electrical components and set up thermal, power and telecom configurations. While all the spacecraft components remained in the cleanroom, Bottom and her team had them thinking they were sitting on top of an Atlas 541 rocket 190 feet (58 meters) above Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on July 17, 2020, waiting to be shot into space.

Next, they focused on another part of cruise before testing the landing sequence. Then they did it all over again.

After a successful launch, they time jumped 40 days ahead to simulate deep space cruise. How would the software and hardware interact when they had to perform navigation fixes and trajectory correction maneuvers? And how would they work when simulated events didn’t go as planned? The team looked for answers on the operators’ computer screens in the test operations room beside the cleanroom.

“From the test operations room, you could look out the windows onto the cleanroom floor and clearly see the flight hardware,” said Bottom.

“Nothing was visibly moving, but underneath the outer structure, there were flight computers swapping sides, radios sending and receiving transmissions, fuel valves moving in and out, subsystems being energized and later turned off, and electrical signals being sent to nonexistent pyrotechnic devices. There was a lot going on in there.”

On Jan. 30, the Mars 2020 test team was able to close their 1,000-plus page book of procedures for ST1. They went two-for-two on Mars landings. They also launched four times, performed deep space navigation, executed several trajectory correction maneuvers and even tested a few in-flight off-nominal situations.

This first evaluation of flight hardware and software, over a year in the making, had been a thorough success, demonstrating where things excelled and where they could be improved. When these new changes have been investigated on both a virtual workstation and in the testbed, they will have their chance to “fly” in one of the many other systems tests planned for Mars 2020.

“One of the future scenario tests will place the rover inside a thermal chamber and simulate being on the surface. It will step through mission critical activities at some very low Mars surface temperatures,” said Bottom. “Both literally and figuratively it will be a very cool test.”

The Mars 2020 Project at JPL manages rover development for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management. Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/NASAs_Mars_2020_Rover_Is_Put_to_the_Test_999.html.

Opportunity’s parting shot was a beautiful panorama

Pasadena CA (JPL)

Mar 13, 2019

Over 29 days last spring, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity documented this 360-degree panorama from multiple images taken at what would become its final resting spot in Perseverance Valley. Located on the inner slope of the western rim of Endurance Crater, Perseverance Valley is a system of shallow troughs descending eastward about the length of two football fields from the crest of Endeavor’s rim to its floor.

“This final panorama embodies what made our Opportunity rover such a remarkable mission of exploration and discovery,” said Opportunity project manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“To the right of center you can see the rim of Endeavor Crater rising in the distance. Just to the left of that, rover tracks begin their descent from over the horizon and weave their way down to geologic features that our scientists wanted to examine up close. And to the far right and left are the bottom of Perseverance Valley and the floor of Endeavour crater, pristine and unexplored, waiting for visits from future explorers.”

The trailblazing mission ended after nearly 15 years of exploring the surface of Mars, but its legacy will live on. Opportunity’s scientific discoveries contributed to our unprecedented understanding of the planet’s geology and environment, laying the groundwork for future robotic and human missions to the Red Planet.

The panorama is composed of 354 individual images provided by the rover’s Panoramic Camera (Pancam) from May 13 through June 10, or sols (Martian days) 5,084 through 5,111. This view combines images taken through three different Pancam filters. The filters admit light centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers (near-infrared), 535 nanometers (green) and 432 nanometers (violet).

A few frames (bottom left) remain black and white, as the solar-powered rover did not have the time to record those locations using the green and violet filters before a severe Mars-wide dust storm swept in on June 2018.

The gallery includes the last images Opportunity obtained during its mission (black-and-white thumbnail images from the Pancam that were used to determine how opaque the sky was on its last day) and also the last piece of data the rover transmitted (a “noisy,” incomplete full-frame image of a darkened sky).

After eight months of effort and sending more than a thousand commands in an attempt to restore contact with the rover, NASA declared Opportunity’s mission complete on Feb. 13, 2019.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Opportunitys_Parting_Shot_Was_a_Beautiful_Panorama_999.html.

New surprises from Jupiter and Saturn

Washington DC (SPX)

Mar 11, 2019

The latest data sent back by the Juno and Cassini spacecraft from giant gas planets Jupiter and Saturn have challenged a lot of current theories about how planets in our solar system form and behave.

The detailed magnetic and gravity data have been “invaluable but also confounding,” said David Stevenson from Caltech, who will present an update of both missions this week at the 2019 American Physical Society March Meeting in Boston. He will also participate in a press conference describing the work. Information for logging on to watch and ask questions remotely is included at the end of this news release.

“Although there are puzzles yet to be explained, this is already clarifying some of our ideas about how planets form, how they make magnetic fields and how the winds blow,” Stevenson said.

Cassini orbited Saturn for 13 years before its dramatic final dive into the planet’s interior in 2017, while Juno has been orbiting Jupiter for two and a half years.

Juno’s success as a mission to Jupiter is a tribute to innovative design. Its instruments are powered by solar energy alone and protected so as to withstand the fierce radiation environment.

Stevenson says the inclusion of a microwave sensor on Juno was a good decision.

“Using microwaves to figure out the deep atmosphere was the right, but unconventional, choice,” he said. The microwave data have surprised the scientists, in particular by showing that the atmosphere is evenly mixed, something conventional theories did not predict.

“Any explanation for this has to be unorthodox,” Stevenson said.

Researchers are exploring weather events concentrating significant amounts of ice, liquids and gas in different parts of the atmosphere as possible explanations, but the matter is far from sealed.

Other instruments on board Juno, gravity and magnetic sensors, have also sent back perplexing data. The magnetic field has spots (regions of anomalously high or low magnetic field) and also a striking difference between the northern and southern hemispheres.

“It’s unlike anything we have seen before,” Stevenson said.

The gravity data have confirmed that in the midst of Jupiter, which is at least 90 percent hydrogen and helium by mass, there are heavier elements amounting to more than 10 times the mass of Earth. However, they are not concentrated in a core but are mixed in with the hydrogen above, most of which is in the form of a metallic liquid.

The data has provided rich information about the outer parts of both Jupiter and Saturn. The abundance of heavier elements in these regions is still uncertain, but the outer layers play a larger-than-expected role in the generation of the two planets’ magnetic fields. Experiments mimicking the gas planets’ pressures and temperatures are now needed to help the scientists understand the processes that are going on.

For Stevenson, who has studied gas giants for 40 years, the puzzles are the hallmark of a good mission.

“A successful mission is one that surprises us. Science would be boring if it merely confirmed what we previously thought,” he said.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/New_surprises_from_Jupiter_and_Saturn_999.html.

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