By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 6 September 2021
It was only supposed to fly five times. Yet NASA’s helicopter on Mars, Ingenuity, has completed 12 flights and it isn’t ready to retire.
Given its stunning and unexpected success, the US space agency has extended Ingenuity’s mission indefinitely.
The tiny helicopter has become the regular travel companion of the rover Perseverance, whose core mission is to seek signs of ancient life on Mars.
“Everything is working so well,” said Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering team. “We’re doing better on the surface than we had expected.”
Hundreds of people contributed to the project, though only about a dozen currently retain day-to-day roles.
Ravich joined the team five years ago.
“When I got the opportunity to come work on the helicopter project, I think I had the same reaction as anybody else: ‘Is that even possible?'”
His initial doubts were understandable: The air on Mars has a density equivalent to only one percent that of Earth’s atmosphere. By way of comparison, flying a helicopter on Mars would be like flying one in the thin air nearly 20 miles (30 kilometres) above Earth.
Nor was it easy getting to Mars in the first place. Ingenuity had to withstand the initial shock of takeoff from Earth, and then of the February 18 landing on the red planet following a seven-month voyage through space, strapped to the rover’s belly.
Once in its new surroundings, the tiny (four pound, or 1.8 kilogram) copter has had to survive the glacial cold of Martian nights, drawing warmth from the solar panels that charge its batteries during the day. And its flights are guided using an array of sensors, since the 15-minute lag in communications from Earth makes real-time guidance impossible.
On April 19, Ingenuity carried out its maiden flight, making history as the first motorised craft to fly on another planet.
Exceeding all expectations, it has gone on to fly 11 more times.
“We’ve actually been able to handle winds greater than we had expected,” Ravich told AFP.
“I think by flight three we had actually accomplished all of our engineering goals … (and) got all the information we had hoped to get,” said Ravich, who works for NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which developed the helicopter.
Since then, Ingenuity has flown as high as 39 feet (12 metres), and its last flight lasted two minutes and 49 seconds. In all, it has covered a distance of 1.6 miles.
In May, Ingenuity flew its first one-way mission, landing outside the relatively flat “airfield” that had been carefully selected as its initial home.
But not all has gone smoothly. Its sixth flight brought some excitement.
After being knocked dangerously off-balance by a malfunction affecting the photos taken in flight to help it stabilise, the tiny craft was able to recover. It landed, safe and sound, and the problem was resolved.
Ingenuity is now being sent out to scout the way for Perseverance, using its high-resolution color camera.
The purpose is twofold: to chart a path for the rover that is safe, but also which is of scientific interest, notably in geological terms.
Ken Farley, who heads Perseverance’s science team, explained how photos taken by Ingenuity during its 12th flight showed that a region dubbed South Seitha was of less interest than scientists had hoped.
As a result, the rover might not be sent there.
After more than six months on the red planet, the little drone-like craft has gained a growing following on Earth, featured on coffee cups and T-shirts sold on the internet.
What explains its longevity?
“The environment has been very cooperative so far: the temperatures, the wind, the sun, the dust in the air… It’s still very cold, but it could have been a lot worse,” said Ravich.
In theory, the helicopter should be able to keep operating for some time. But the approaching Martian winter will be challenging.
NASA engineers, now armed with the data from Ingenuity’s flights, are already working on its next-generation successors.
“Something in the 20 to 30 kilograms (range) maybe, able to carry science payloads,” said Ravich.
Those future payloads might just include the rock samples collected by Perseverance.
NASA is planning to retrieve those samples during a future mission – sometime in the 2030s.
First Movie in Space: Russian Actress, Film Director Return to Earth After Filming
By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 18 October 2021
Russian actress and a film director returned to Earth Sunday after spending 12 days on the International Space Station (ISS) shooting scenes for the first movie in orbit.
Yulia Peresild, 37, and Klim Shipenko, 38, landed as scheduled on Kazakhstan’s steppe at 04:36 GMT (10:06am IST), according to footage broadcast live by Russia’s Roscosmos space agency.
Shipenko appeared distressed but smiling as he exited the capsule, waving his hand to cameras before being carried off by medical workers for an examination.
Peresild, who plays the film’s starring role and was selected from some 3,000 applicants, was extracted from the capsule to applause and a bouquet of flowers.
The actress said she is “sad” to have left the ISS.
“It seemed that 12 days was a lot, but when it was all over, I didn’t want to leave,” she told Russian television.
“This is a one-time experience.”
The team was ferried back to terra firma by cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, who had been on the space station for the past six months.
21st century space race
The filmmakers had blasted off from the Russia-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan earlier this month, travelling to the ISS with veteran cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov to film scenes for “The Challenge”.
If the project stays on track, the Russian crew will beat a Hollywood project announced last year by Mission Impossible star Tom Cruise together with NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The Russian movie’s plot, which has been mostly kept under wraps along with its budget, centres around a surgeon who is dispatched to the ISS to save a cosmonaut.
Shkaplerov, 49, along with the two Russian cosmonauts who were already aboard the ISS are said to have cameo roles in the film.
The mission was not without small hitches.
As the film crew docked at the ISS earlier this month, Shkaplerov had to switch to manual control.
And when Russian flight controllers on Friday conducted a test on the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft the ship’s thruster fired unexpectedly and destabilised the ISS for 30 minutes, a NASA spokesman told the Russian news agency TASS.
The team’s landing, which was documented by a film crew, will also feature in the movie, Konstantin Ernst, the head of the Kremlin-friendly Channel One TV network and a co-producer of “The Challenge”, told AFP.
The mission will add to a long list of firsts for Russia’s space industry.
The Soviets launched the first satellite Sputnik, and sent into orbit the first animal, a dog named Laika, the first man, Yuri Gagarin, and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova.
But compared with the Soviet era, modern Russia has struggled to innovate, and its space industry is fighting to secure state funding with the Kremlin prioritising military spending.
Its space agency is still reliant on Soviet-designed technology and has faced a number of setbacks, including corruption scandals and botched launches.
Russia is also falling behind in the global space race, facing tough competition from the United States and China, with Beijing showing growing ambitions in the industry.
Russia’s Roscosmos was also dealt a blow after SpaceX last year successfully delivered astronauts to the ISS, ending Moscow’s monopoly for journeys to the orbital station.
In a bid to spruce up its image and diversify its revenue, Russia’s space programme revealed this year that it will be reviving its tourism plan to ferry fee-paying adventurers to the ISS.
After a decade-long pause, Russia will send two Japanese tourists – including billionaire Yusaku Maezawa – to the ISS in December, capping a year that has been a milestone for amateur space travel.
Nobel Prize in Physics 2021 Winners: Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi
By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 5 October 2021
US-Japanese scientist Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann of Germany, and Giorgio Parisi of Italy on Tuesday won the Nobel Physics Prize for climate models and the understanding of physical systems, the jury said.
Manabe and Hasselmann share one half of the prize for their research on climate models, while Parisi won the other half for his work on the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems.
“Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it,” the Nobel Committee said.
“Giorgio Parisi is rewarded for his revolutionary contributions to the theory of disordered materials and random processes,” it added.
For the past two years, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences has honoured findings in the field of astronomy, leading watchers to speculate it was due for a change of field.
“The discoveries being recognised this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations,” Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics said.
In 2019, James Peebles of Canada and the US was given the award for discoveries explaining the universe’s evolution after the Big Bang, together with Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of Switzerland for the first discovery of an exoplanet.
This was followed in 2020 with a focus on black holes, with Britain’s Roger Penrose, Germany’s Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez of the US being honoured.
The Nobel season continues on Wednesday with the award for chemistry, followed by the much-anticipated prizes for literature on Thursday and peace on Friday before the economics prize winds things up on Monday, October 11.
ISRO’s Commercial Arm NSIL Announces First ‘Demand-Driven’ Satellite Mission
By Press Trust of India | Updated: 2 October 2021
ISRO’s commercial arm, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) on Friday announced its first “demand-driven” communication satellite mission as part of Space reforms announced by the Government in June last year. NSIL, incorporated in March 2019, got mandated to undertake operational satellite missions on a “demand-driven” model, wherein it has the responsibility to build, launch, own and operate the satellite and provide services to its committed customer.
As part of this initiative, NSIL, a Central Public Sector Enterprise (CPSE), under the Department of Space (DOS), is now undertaking its “1st demand driven communication satellite mission” named GSAT-24, a four-tonne class Ku- band satellite. NSIL is getting this satellite built by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) and will be launching it using Ariane-5 launcher operated by Arianespace. “The entire satellite capacity on-board GSAT-24 will be leased to its committed customer M/s Tata Sky for meeting their DTH application needs,” an NSIL statement said.
NSIL said it has entered into a necessary agreement with Tata Sky for utilising the satellite capacity on-board GSAT-24 and with Arianespace for seeking the launch services. GSAT-24 satellite will be owned and operated by NSIL on a commercial basis. The GSAT-24 satellite mission will be fully funded by NSIL. NSIL is envisaging the launch of GSAT-24 satellite during first quarter of 2022, it was stated.
Inspiration4 in Space: What Life Is Like Aboard the SpaceX Dragon Capsule
By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 18 September 2021
The first space tourism mission by Elon Musk’s SpaceX blasted off from Florida on Wednesday and the four crew members — a billionaire and three other Americans — have already seen more than 25 sunsets and sunrises.
SpaceX has released few details about their adventure since they reached an orbit which is more distant than that of the International Space Station.
Here’s what we know about their life on board:
Nine square meters
The four space tourists are aboard the SpaceX crew capsule called Dragon.
It is 8.1 meters (26.7 feet) tall and has a diameter of four meters (13 feet).
The capsule is composed of a trunk, which is inaccessible to the crew, upon which sits the living quarters.
The entire volume of the capsule is just 9.3 square meters (328 square feet).
Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old Air Force veteran who is one of the crew members, has compared it to travelling with friends in a van — one you can’t step away from though if you want to take a break.
Toilets with a view
The exact technology behind the toilets aboard the capsule is a SpaceX secret.
But Hayley Arceneaux, one of the four crew members, said in a Netflix documentary that the “bathroom is on the ceiling.”
“Really literally a panel that we take off and there’s like a funnel,” Arceneaux said. “There’s no upside down in space.”
The toilet is located near the clear glass observation dome, or cupola, installed on Dragon, which provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the cosmos.
“When people do inevitably have to use the bathroom, they’re going to have one hell of a view,” billionaire Jared Isaacman, the mission commander, told Business Insider.
Privacy is ensured with a simple curtain.
‘Eating, doing chores’
SpaceX released a video call Friday between the Inspiration4 crew and patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
The 29-year-old Arceneaux, who was treated for bone cancer as a child at St. Jude and works there now as a physician assistant, was asked by a patient what the astronauts do for “fun” in space.
She said they have spent time “eating, doing chores and looking out the window at the world.”
Sembroski said they’ve also been doing “a lot of blood tests and glucose monitoring.”
The astronauts were also asked what is their favorite “space food.”
“My favorite space food is pizza which I had yesterday and I’ll probably have for dinner tonight also,” said Sian Proctor, 51, who teaches geology at a small college in Arizona and was a finalist to become a NASA astronaut.
Musical interludes are also planned. Each passenger drew up a 10-song playlist and Sembroski planned to bring his ukelele.
The instrument and other objects are to be auctioned later with the proceeds going to St Jude.
The goal of the mission is to raise $200 million for the hospital, with Isaacman personally donating $100 million.
SpaceX tweeted on Thursday that the crew had carried out a “first round of scientific research.”
One of the goals of the mission is to collect data on the effects of the environment of space on complete novices.
Their cardiac rhythms, sleep and blood oxygen levels will be monitored along with radiation exposure.
Their cognitive functions were tested before the flight and will be examined again on their return.
Chinese Astronauts Return Safely to Earth After 90-Day Space Station Mission
By Reuters | Updated: 18 September 2021
Three Chinese astronauts returned to earth on Friday after a 90-day visit to an unfinished space station in the country’s first crewed mission since 2016.
In a small return capsule, the three men – Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo – landed safely in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in the north of China at 1:34 pm, state media reported.
The Shenzhou-12 mission was the first of four crewed missions planned for 2021-2022 as China assembles its first permanent space station. The process requires 11 missions, including the launches of the station’s three modules.
Construction kicked off in April with the launch of the Tianhe module, the future living quarters of the space station. Slightly larger than a city bus, Tianhe was where Nie, Liu and Tang have stayed since mid-June, marking China’s longest spaceflight mission.
While in orbit, the astronauts conducted spacewalks, validated Tianhe’s life-support system, tested the module’s robotic arm, and sorted supplies for upcoming crewed missions.
The second crewed mission is planned for October, with the next batch of astronauts expected to stay on Tianhe for six months.
Ahead of that Shenzhou-13 mission, China will send an automated cargo spacecraft – Tianzhou-3 – to Tianhe carrying supplies needed by the next crew.
Tianzhou-3 will be launched in the near future, state media said recently.
Blocked by US law from working with NASA and by extension on the US-led International Space Station (ISS), China has spent the past decade developing technologies to construct its own space station.
China’s space station, expected to be completed by the end of 2022, will be the sole alternative to the 20-year-old ISS, which may be retired in 2024.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Inspiration4: SpaceX’s All-Civilian Crew Mission Launch Scheduled for September 15
By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 13 September 2021
SpaceX is set to launch four people into space Wednesday on a three-day mission that is the first to orbit the Earth with exclusively private citizens on board, as Elon Musk’s company enters the space tourism fray.
The Inspiration4 mission caps a summer that saw billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos cross the final frontier, on Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin spaceships respectively, a few days apart in July.
The SpaceX flight has been chartered by American billionaire Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old founder and CEO of payment processing company Shift4 Payment. He is also a seasoned pilot.
The exact price he paid SpaceX hasn’t been disclosed, but it runs into the tens of millions of dollars.
The mission itself is far more ambitious in scope than the few weightless minutes Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin customers can buy.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon will be flying further than the orbit of the International Space Station.
“The risk is not zero,” said Isaacman in an episode of a Netflix documentary about the mission.
“You’re riding a rocket at 17,500 miles (28,000 kilometres) per hour around the Earth. In that kind of environment there’s risks.”
SpaceX has already given no fewer than ten astronauts rides to the ISS on behalf of NASA – but this will be the first time taking non-professional astronauts.
Lift-off is scheduled for Wednesday from 8:00 pm Eastern Time (5:30am IST) from launch pad 39A, at NASA’s Kennedy Center in Florida, from where the Apollo missions to the Moon took off.
‘Are we going to the Moon?’
In addition to Isaacman, who is the mission commander, three non-public figures were selected for the voyage via a process that was first advertised at the Super Bowl in February.
Each crew member was picked to represent a pillar of the mission.
As we prepare to start a new week, four civilians are preparing to make history as part of the Inspiration4 mission launching in just a few days. Help us celebrate the @inspiration4x astronauts and wish them luck on their mission! pic.twitter.com/eA33dR22dy— St. Jude (@StJude) September 13, 2021
The youngest, Hayley Arceneaux, is a childhood bone cancer survivor, who represents “hope.”
She will become the first person with a prosthetic to go to space.
“Are we going to the Moon?” she asked, when she was offered her spot.
“Apparently people haven’t gone there in decades. I learned that,” she laughed, in the documentary.
The 29-year-old was picked because she works as a Physician Assistant in Memphis for St. Jude’s Hospital, the charitable beneficiary of Inspiration4.
One of the donors secured the seat of “generosity”: Chris Sembroski, 42, is a former US Air Force veteran who now works in the aviation industry.
The last seat represents “prosperity” and was offered to Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old earth science professor who, in 2009, narrowly missed out on becoming a NASA astronaut.
She will be only the fourth African American woman to go to space.
Months of training
The crew’s training has lasted months and has included experiencing high G force on a centrifuge – a giant arm that rotates rapidly.
They have also gone on parabolic flights to experience weightlessness for a few seconds and completed a high altitude, snowy trek on Mount Rainier in the northwestern United States.
They spent time at the SpaceX base, though the flight itself will be fully autonomous.
Over the three days of orbit, their sleep, heart rate, blood, and cognitive abilities will be analysed.
Tests will be carried out before and after the flight to study the effect of the trip on their body.
The idea is to accumulate data for future missions with private passengers.
The stated goal of the mission is to make space accessible for more people, although space travel remains for the moment only partially open to a privileged few.
“In all of human history, fewer than 600 humans have reached space,” said Isaacman.
“We are proud that our flight will help influence all those who will travel after us.”
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