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(17 December 2020 – NASA) NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are moving to the next phase in a campaign to deepen understanding of whether life ever existed on Mars and, in turn, better understand the origins of life on Earth.

NASA has approved the Mars Sample Return (MSR) multi-mission effort to advance to Phase A, preparing to bring the first pristine samples from Mars back to Earth. During this phase, the program will mature critical technologies and make critical design decisions, as well as assess industry partnerships.

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 rover using its drill to core a rock sample on Mars. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The first endeavor of this campaign is in progress. NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launched in July and is set to land on the Red Planet Feb. 18, 2021. The car-size rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life. Using a coring drill at the end of its robotic arm, Perseverance has the capability to gather samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust), and hermetically seal them in collection tubes. Perseverance can deposit these samples at designated locations on the Martian surface or store them internally.

In the next steps of the MSR campaign, NASA and ESA will provide respective components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission, with launches planned in the latter half of this decade. The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle to the surface of Mars. The rover will retrieve the samples and transport them to the lander. The Perseverance rover also provides a potential capability for delivery of collection tubes to the lander. A robotic arm on the lander will transfer the samples into a container embedded in the nose of the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Once sealed, the system will prepare for the first launch from another planet. In Mars orbit, the Earth Return Orbiter will rendezvous with and capture the sealed sample container, and then place the samples in an additional high-reliability containment capsule for return to Earth in the early 2030s.

“Returning samples of Mars to Earth has been a goal of planetary scientists since the early days of the space age, and the successful completion of this MSR key decision point is an important next step in transforming this goal into reality,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “MSR is a complex campaign, and it encapsulates the very essence of pioneering space exploration – pushing the boundaries of what’s capable and, in so doing, furthering our understanding of our place in the universe.”

Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available. Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.

The MSR campaign also advances NASA’s efforts to send humans to the Red Planet. It will involve landing heavier spacecraft on the Martian surface than ever before. It would also involve launch from and rendezvous operations around another planet for the first time. With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface in 2024 to prepare for humanity’s next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.

“MSR will foster significant engineering advances for humanity and advance technologies needed to successfully realize the first round-trip mission to another planet,” said Jeff Gramling, Mars Sample Return program director at NASA Headquarters. “The scientific advances offered by pristine Martian samples through MSR are unprecedented, and this mission will contribute to NASA’s eventual goal of sending humans to Mars.”

NASA established a Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board earlier this year to evaluate its early concepts for partnership with ESA to return the first samples from another planet. The board’s report with NASA’s responses released in October found the agency is now ready to undertake its Mars sample return campaign. NASA convened a second group of independent experts, the MSR Standing Review Board (SRB), to provide ongoing assessment of the MSR program. The SRB also recommended the program move into Phase A.

“Beginning the formulation work of Phase A is a momentous step for our team, albeit one of several to come,” said Bobby Braun, Mars Sample Return program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads development for NASA’s MSR effort. “These reviews strengthened our plan forward and this milestone signals creation of a tangible approach for MSR built upon the extraordinary capabilities of the NASA centers, our ESA partners, and industry.”

ESA is providing the Earth Return Orbiter, Sample Fetch Rover, and the lander’s robotic arm to the partnership. NASA is providing the Sample Retrieval Lander, Mars Ascent Vehicle, and the Capture/Containment and Return System payload on the Earth Return Orbiter. Multiple NASA Centers are involved in this effort, contributing in their areas of strength.

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InSight’s ‘Mole’ ends its journey on Mars

InSights ‘Mole ends its journey on Mars

(14 January 2021 – JPL) The heat probe developed and built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and deployed on Mars by NASA’s InSight lander has ended its portion of the mission.

Since Feb. 28, 2019, the probe, called the “mole,” has been attempting to burrow into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature, providing details about the interior heat engine that drives the Mars’ evolution and geology. But the soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction it needs to hammer itself to a sufficient depth.

After getting the top of the mole about 2 or 3 centimeters under the surface, the team tried one last time to use a scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to scrape soil onto the probe and tamp it down to provide added friction. After the probe conducted 500 additional hammer strokes on Saturday, Jan. 9, with no progress, the team called an end to their efforts.

Part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole is a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) pile driver connected to the lander by a tether with embedded temperature sensors. These sensors are designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet (3 meters) deep.

In this artist’s concept of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars, layers of the planet’s subsurface can be seen below, and dust devils can be seen in the background. (courtesy: IPGP/Nicolas Sarter)

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”

While NASA’s Phoenix lander scraped the top layer of the Martian surface, no mission before InSight has tried to burrow into the soil. Doing so is important for a variety of reasons: Future astronauts may need to dig through soil to access water ice, while scientists want to study the subsurface’s potential to support microbial life.

“We are so proud of our team who worked hard to get InSight’s mole deeper into the planet. It was amazing to see them troubleshoot from millions of miles away,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This is why we take risks at NASA – we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t. In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere, and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”

Hard-Earned Wisdom

The unexpected properties of the soil near the surface next to InSight will be puzzled over by scientists for years to come. The mole’s design was based on soil seen by previous Mars missions – soil that proved very different from what the mole encountered. For two years, the team worked to adapt the unique and innovative instrument to these new circumstances.

“The mole is a device with no heritage. What we attempted to do – to dig so deep with a device so small – is unprecedented,” said Troy Hudson, a scientist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California who has led efforts to get the mole deeper into the Martian crust. “Having had the opportunity to take this all the way to the end is the greatest reward.”

Besides learning about the soil at this location, engineers have gained invaluable experience operating the robotic arm. In fact, they used the arm and scoop in ways they never intended to at the outset of the mission, including pressing against and down on the mole. Planning the moves and getting them just right with the commands they were sending up to InSight pushed the team to grow.

They’ll put their hard-earned wisdom to use in the future. The mission intends to employ the robotic arm in burying the tether that conveys data and power between the lander and InSight’s seismometer, which has recorded more than 480 marsquakes. Burying it will help reduce temperature changes that have created cracking and popping sounds in seismic data.

There’s much more science to come from InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport. NASA recently extended the mission for two more years, to Dec. 2022. Along with hunting for quakes, the lander hosts a radio experiment that is collecting data to reveal whether the planet’s core is liquid or solid. And InSight’s weather sensors are capable of providing some of the most detailed meteorological data ever collected on Mars. Together with weather instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and its new Perseverance rover, which lands on Feb. 18, the three spacecraft will create the first meteorological network on another planet.

More About the Mission

JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors.

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Blue Origin successful demonstrates New Shepard crew capsule upgrades

Blue Origin successful demonstrates New Shepard crew capsule upgrades

(14 January 2021 – Blue Origin) Blue Origin has successfully completed its 14th mission to space and back today for the New Shepard program.

The New Shepard crew capsule outfitted with astronaut experience upgrades landing at Launch Site One. (courtesy: Blue Origin)

Mission NS-14 featured a crew capsule outfitted with astronaut experience upgrades for upcoming flights with passengers onboard. Capsule upgrades included:

  • Speakers in the cabin with a microphone and a push-to-talk button at each seat so astronauts can continuously talk to Mission Control.
  • First flight of the crew alert system with a panel at each seat relaying important safety messages to passengers.
  • Cushioned wall linings and sound suppression devices to reduce ambient noise inside the capsule.
  • Environmental systems, including a cooling system and humidity controls to regulate temperature and prevent capsule windows from fogging during flight, as well as carbon dioxide scrubbing.
  • Six seats.

Also today during ascent, the booster rotated at 2-3 degrees per second. This is done to give future passengers a 360-degree view of space during the flight.

This flight continued to prove the robustness and stability of the New Shepard system and the BE-3PM liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine.

Also onboard today were more than 50,000 postcards from Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future. The Club has now flown over 100,000 postcards to space and back from students around the world. More information here.

Key mission stats

  • 15th consecutive successful crew capsule landing (every flight in program, including pad escape test in 2012).
  • The crew capsule reached an apogee of 347,568 ft above ground level (AGL) / 351,215 ft mean sea level (MSL) (105 km AGL/107 km MSL).
  • The booster reached an apogee of 347,211 ft AGL / 350,858 ft MSL (105 km AGL/106 km MSL).
  • The mission elapsed time was 10 min, 10 sec and the max ascent velocity was 2,242 mph / 3,609 km/h.

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Infostellar introduces its new Chief Technology Officer

Infostellar introduces its new Chief Technology Officer

(11 January 2021 – Infostellar) Infostellar has announced the arrival of Steve Montgomery as the company’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO).

In this role, Steve will lead the company’s efforts in building and operating Infostellar’s global network of ground stations, including partner and company-owned assets. Steve will also leverage StellarStation by driving the technical development and expansion of the company’s ground segment products and services.

Steve Montgomery, Chief Technical Officer (courtesy: Infostellar)

“We are thrilled to have Steve join our team. Not only does he bring a wealth of technical expertise in building and operating global space assets, he also brings his experience in developing a startup GSaaS company into an industry leader.” says Infostellar Founder and CEO, Naomi Kurahara.

Kurahara added, “Steve will be a key factor in driving our products and services in the future, thus enabling Infostellar to provide mission critical ground operations to our growing client base.”

Steve has over 27-years of experience building and operating ground stations all over the world. He was a leader in the Universal Space Network team that was acquired by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) in 2009 and remained with the company until joining Infostellar.

Most recently, Steve held the position of Chief Establishment Director at SSC, where he was directly responsible for the installation and operation of a global network of ground stations in support of a wide variety of international space programs. While at SSC, Steve also held the position of Managing Director of SSC Space Australia Pty Ltd, where he was responsible for SSC’s ground station operations in that region. Additionally, Steve led SSC’s efforts in building a world-class Launch and Early Orbit Operation (LEOP) and On-Orbit communications capability that to this day provides mission critical services to the world’s leading space agencies and companies.

Montgomery said: “I am very pleased to be joining Naomi and the Infostellar team. This company is embarking on a journey that expands ground segment services while reducing capital and operational expenses by fully benefiting from cloud infrastructure. Together we have a unique opportunity to be an enabler of new space applications. ”

About Infostellar

Infostellar is a satellite ‘Ground Segment as a Service’ (GSaaS) provider. We provide flexible and scalable ground station services enabled by our cloud platform, ‘StellarStation’, which virtualizes ground station networks. By lowering the barriers to entry in the ground segment, Infostellar empowers newspace businesses to build better missions and improve the quality of their service. Founded in 2016, Infostellar is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan and has its European office in the UK.

About StellarStation

StellarStation is a flexible, scalable, satellite ground station sharing platform. After a one-time setup, satellite operators can access any ground station across our global network. StellarStation also enables ground station owners to monetise their unused capacity by sharing it with satellite operators.

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