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(22 September 2020 – JPL) NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has a challenging road ahead: After having to make it through the harrowing entry, descent, and landing phase of the mission on Feb. 18, 2021, it will begin searching for traces of microscopic life from billions of years back.

That’s why it’s packing PIXL, a precision X-ray device powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Short for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, PIXL is a lunchbox-size instrument located on the end of Perseverance’s 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm. The rover’s most important samples will be collected by a coring drill on the end of the arm, then stashed in metal tubes that Perseverance will deposit on the surface for return to Earth by a future mission.

In this illustration, NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover uses the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). Located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, the X-ray spectrometer will help search for signs of ancient microbial life in rocks. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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PIXL requires pictures of its rock targets to autonomously position itself. Light diodes encircle its opening and take pictures of rock targets when the instrument is working at night. Using artificial intelligence, PIXL relies on the images to determine how far away it is from a target to be scanned. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Nearly every mission that has successfully landed on Mars, from the Viking landers to the Curiosity rover, has included an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer of some kind. One major way PIXL differs from its predecessors is in its ability to scan rock using a powerful, finely-focused X-ray beam to discover where – and in what quantity – chemicals are distributed across the surface.

“PIXL’s X-ray beam is so narrow that it can pinpoint features as small as a grain of salt. That allows us to very accurately tie chemicals we detect to specific textures in a rock,” said Abigail Allwood, PIXL’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Rock textures will be an essential clue when deciding which samples are worth returning to Earth. On our planet, distinctively warped rocks called stromatolites were made from ancient layers of bacteria, and they are just one example of fossilized ancient life that scientists will be looking for.

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A device with six mechanical legs, the hexapod is a critical part of the PIXL instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. The hexapod allows PIXL to make slow, precise movements to get closer to and point at specific parts of a rock’s surface. This GIF has been considerably sped up to show how the hexapod moves. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

An AI-Powered Night Owl

To help find the best targets, PIXL relies on more than a precision X-ray beam alone. It also needs a hexapod – a device featuring six mechanical legs connecting PIXL to the robotic arm and guided by artificial intelligence to get the most accurate aim. After the rover’s arm is placed close to an interesting rock, PIXL uses a camera and laser to calculate its distance. Then those legs make tiny movements – on the order of just 100 microns, or about twice the width of a human hair – so the device can scan the target, mapping the chemicals found within a postage stamp-size area.

“The hexapod figures out on its own how to point and extend its legs even closer to a rock target,” Allwood said. “It’s kind of like a little robot who has made itself at home on the end of the rover’s arm.”

Then PIXL measures X-rays in 10-second bursts from a single point on a rock before the instrument tilts 100 microns and takes another measurement. To produce one of those postage stamp-size chemical maps, it may need to do this thousands of times over the course of as many as eight or nine hours.

That timeframe is partly what makes PIXL’s microscopic adjustments so critical: The temperature on Mars changes by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) over the course of a day, causing the metal on Perseverance’s robotic arm to expand and contract by as much as a half-inch (13 millimeters). To minimize the thermal contractions PIXL has to contend with, the instrument will conduct its science after the Sun sets.

“PIXL is a night owl,” Allwood said. “The temperature is more stable at night, and that also lets us work at a time when there’s less activity on the rover.”

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PIXL opens its dust cover during testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One of seven instruments on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, PIXL is located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

X-rays for Art and Science

Long before X-ray fluorescence got to Mars, it was used by geologists and metallurgists to identify materials. It eventually became a standard museum technique for discovering the origins of paintings or detecting counterfeits.

“If you know that an artist typically used a certain titanium white with a unique chemical signature of heavy metals, this evidence might help authenticate a painting,” said Chris Heirwegh, an X-ray fluorescence expert on the PIXL team at JPL. “Or you can determine if a particular kind of paint originated in Italy rather than France, linking it to a specific artistic group from the time period.”

For astrobiologists, X-ray fluorescence is a way to read stories left by the ancient past. Allwood used it to determine that stromatolite rocks found in her native country of Australia are some of the oldest microbial fossils on Earth, dating back 3.5 billion years. Mapping out the chemistry in rock textures with PIXL will offer scientists clues to interpret whether a sample could be a fossilized microbe.

More About the Mission

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will also characterize the planet’s climate and geology, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

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

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

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ViaLite provides SES with cross-border solution

ViaLite provides SES with cross border solution

(27 November 2020 – ViaLite) Radio frequency over fiber optic links are a great solution for moving high frequency analog signals over a long distance, but solutions need expert planning, design and installation to get the best performance.

When SES needed a long distance link from the European Space Agency Redu station in Belgium to the SES site in Luxembourg, ViaLite’s experience in the market and long distance link solutions made the company a winning choice for the project.

SES, a World Teleport Association (WTA) leading satellite operator, required a long distance link system which provided a high dynamic range in bandwidth and could be controlled remotely by SES operations staff. The distance between the SES site and the Redu station is over 120 km and crosses over the border between Belgium and Luxembourg.

ViaLite’s DWDM long distance link system was the chosen solution; installed at the two sites, with a third site at the border required for signal amplification and interconnect between the two countries. The technology used is capable of connecting sites that can be hundreds of kilometers apart and has full bandwidth capability from 700 MHz through to 2450 MHz. As part of the system, optical amplifiers, optical switches, multiplexers and de-multiplexers were supplied, as well as dispersion compensation module and delay lines; provided to help with optimizing and balancing.

SES’s teleport (courtesy: SES)

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ViaLite long distance link system (courtesy: ViaLite)

Steve Jones, a Senior Systems Engineer at SES, commented on the results: “We are over the moon, we couldn’t ask for more. ViaLite were extremely supportive and most importantly, it works!”

Amair Khan, from ViaLite, said: “It was a great project to work on. It’s rare to have the opportunity to deploy a fiber link across country borders. The solution we provided was adaptable in order to compensate for optical losses throughout the fiber system.”

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Supercapacitors ready to deliver maximum power to space

Supercapacitors ready to deliver maximum power to space

(27 November 2020 – ESA) High-power supercapacitors – already found within terrestrial electric cars, trains, lifts and cranes – are on their way to space.

An ESA-led project with Airbus Defence and Space developed and tested a supercapacitor design able to provide brief bursts of very high power levels to space missions as required. Potential uses might include operation of high-power satellite radar systems, to stabilise overall onboard power during solar eclipses or other such events or launcher thrust vectoring.

Bank of supercapacitors engineering model (courtesy: ESA/Airbus Defence and Space)

“While traditional batteries store electric energy on a chemistry basis, supercapacitors do so on the basis of physics. The energy is stored as electrostatic charge, within an electrochemical double layer at the boundary between an organic electrolyte and activated carbon layers,” explains energy storage engineer Brandon of ESA’s Energy Storage section.

“This means they can both store and discharge power at a very fast rate that batteries cannot match, for many thousands of cycles with almost no internal resistance. However they have the corresponding disadvantage that they possess a lower overall energy density, so are able to store only a fraction the amount of energy of a battery with the same mass.”

Supercapacitors are, for instance, often used within electric and hybrid cars, storing the electric energy generated by braking wheels for later reuse and supplying power boosts for rapid acceleration.

“We performed an initial study of such a ‘Bank of Supercapacitors’ unit through ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems, ARTES, programme,” adds Brandon. “We studied possible applications and which commercial cells could be feasible for the application in space. The results of this study were very promising.

“Then Airbus Defence and Space in France approached us, wanting to finalise and qualify such a design for space. This project proceeded on a co-funded basis through our General Support Technology Programme – preparing promising products for space and the marketplace.”

The first challenge was to design and construct a working prototype ‘Bank of Supercapacitors’ (BOSC), based on 34 supercapacitors in series with three strings in parallel, incorporating thermal sensors to keep it from overheating and degrading.

“To make these prototype BOSCs suitable for space required careful ‘potting’ – meaning the insertion of epoxy between the stacked supercapacitors, connectors and printed circuit boards,” adds Brandon.

“This sealant potting is needed for multiple reasons, firstly to help safeguard these delicate devices from the violent vibration of launch. It also prevents the unwanted interaction of bare wires and to minimise ‘outgassing’ of electrolyte from the supercapacitor can – the release of unwanted gases in the vacuum of space.”

BD Sensors in the Czech Republic– in charge of designing and manufacturing the BOSC – was responsible for developing this critical process.

Mechanical testing – coming down to violent, launcher-strength shaking, as well as exposure to space-quality vacuum and temperature extremes – took place at project partner EGGO Space in the Czech Republic. Radiation testing was also essential, involving kilorads of exposure, to check the bank would go on operating when exposed to the same kind of charged particles experienced in orbit.

Gabriel Beulaguet of Airbus Defence and Space, engineering and project manager for the project, comments: “we have set-up in our laboratory a long life test under relevant electrical, thermal and vacuum conditions. After more than 2.3 million cycles, the performances – especially in terms of fading and balancing – are behaving as expected and the test will continue to run”.

Testing the electrical performance of the BOSC involved millions of charge and discharge cycles, including a dedicated lifetime test campaign to look at ageing effects. In parallel, the BOSC was also subjected to ‘abuse’ testing – involving short circuits, overcharges and physical shock from impacts.

“We found the bank can take a huge amount of current, up to 400 amps, several times without damage,” adds Brandon.

Denis Lacombe of ESA’s Technical Reliability and Quality Division, technical officer for the project, explains: “Now that lifetime testing is about to conclude, after three years of hard work we have a space-qualified product, ready for use by Airbus and added to the European Preferred Parts List so other missions can make use of it as well, enabling high-power space applications of all kinds.”

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Northrop Grumman names Scott Stapp as Chief Technology Officer

Northrop Grumman names Scott Stapp as Chief Technology Officer

(25 November 2020 – Northrop Grumman) Northrop Grumman Corporation has named Scott Stapp chief technology officer (CTO).

Stapp will report to Kathy Warden, chairman, chief executive officer and president and will work closely with the executive leadership team.

Scott Stapp, Chief Technology Officer (courtesy: Northrop Grumman)

As CTO, Stapp will lead the company’s technology strategy. He will help to ensure the company continues to leverage current technology and identify new solutions to bring to customers, creating new business opportunities and strengthening the company’s position on existing programs. He will also play a key role in engaging and developing the company’s technical talent.

Previously, Stapp was vice president, resiliency and rapid prototyping, with Space Systems, leading the sector’s rapid prototyping and resiliency programs across critical space missions. Prior to this, he served as vice president, applied research and technology development, with Aeronautics Systems.

Before joining Northrop Grumman in 2014, Stapp led the governance, acquisition and oversight of all DoD special access programs, for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and served as the principal staff assistant to the undersecretary of defense, acquisition, technology and logistics.

Stapp holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming, a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of New Mexico and a master’s degree in national resource management from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Northrop Grumman solves the toughest problems in space, aeronautics, defense and cyberspace to meet the ever evolving needs of our customers worldwide. Our 90,000 employees define possible every day using science, technology and engineering to create and deliver advanced systems, products and services.

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