A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates was set to swing into orbit around Mars in the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission Tuesday, the first of three robotic explorers arriving at the red planet over the next week and a half.
The orbiter, called Amal, Arabic for Hope, traveled 300 million miles in nearly seven months to get to Mars with the goal of mapping its atmosphere throughout each season.
A combination orbiter and lander from China is close behind, scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land on the surface in May to look for signs of ancient life.
A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing Feb. 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harbored microscopic life.
About 60% of all Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere.
If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times, the first almost 45 years ago. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.
For the UAE, it was the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, making the flight a matter of intense national pride.
For days, landmarks across the UAE, including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, glowed red to mark Amal’s anticipated arrival. This year is the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, casting even more attention on Amal.
The celestial weather station aimed for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers). It was set to join six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.
Amal was expected to perform an intricate, high-stakes series of turns and engine firings to maneuver into orbit and achieve what has eluded so many before.
“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the UAE’s space agency.
A success would be a tremendous boost to the UAE’s space ambitions. The country’s first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians. That’s 58 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched astronauts.
In developing Amal, the UAE chose to collaborate with more experienced partners instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. Its engineers and scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University.
The spacecraft was assembled at Boulder, Colorado, before being sent to Japan for launch last July.
All three spacecraft en route to the red planet lifted off within days of one another, taking advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars—thus their close arrival times.
The car-size Amal cost $200 million to build and launch; that excludes operating costs at Mars. The Chinese and U.S. expeditions are considerably more complicated—and expensive—because of their rovers. NASA’s Perseverance mission totals $3 billion.
The UAE, a federation of seven skeikhdoms, is looking for Amal to ignite the imaginations of the country’s scientists and its youth, and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.
“This mission was never about just reaching Mars,” said Omran Sharaf, Amal’s project manager. “Mars is just a means for a much bigger objective.”
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In Oregon, Scientists Find a Virus Variant With a Worrying Mutation – Yahoo News
Scientists in Oregon have spotted a homegrown version of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus that first surfaced in Britain — but now it’s combined with a mutation that may make the variant less susceptible to vaccines.
The researchers have so far found just a single case of this formidable combination, but genetic analysis suggested that the variant had been acquired in the community and did not arise in the patient.
“We didn’t import this from elsewhere in the world — it occurred spontaneously,” said Brian O’Roak, a geneticist at Oregon Health and Science University who led the work. He and his colleagues participate in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s effort to track variants, and they have deposited their results in databases shared by scientists.
The variant originally identified in Britain, called B.1.1.7, has been spreading rapidly across the United States, and accounts for at least 2,500 cases in 46 states. This form of the virus is both more contagious and more deadly than the original version, and it is expected to account for most U.S. infections in a few weeks.
The new version that surfaced in Oregon has the same backbone, but also a mutation — E484K, or “Eek” — seen in variants of the virus circulating in South Africa, Brazil and New York City.
Lab studies and clinical trials in South Africa indicate that the Eek mutation renders the current vaccines less effective by blunting the body’s immune response. (The vaccines still work, but the findings are worrying enough that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have begun testing new versions of their vaccines designed to defeat the variant found in South Africa.)
The B.1.1.7 variant with Eek also has emerged in Britain, designated as a “variant of concern” by scientists. But the virus identified in Oregon seems to have evolved independently, O’Roak said.
O’Roak and his colleagues found the variant among coronavirus samples collected by the Oregon State Public Health Lab across the state, including some from an outbreak in a health care setting. Of the 13 test results they analyzed, 10 turned out to be B.1.1.7 alone, and one the combination.
Other experts said the discovery was not surprising, because the Eek mutation has arisen in forms of the virus all over the world. But the mutation’s occurrence in B.1.1.7 is worth watching, they said.
In Britain, this version of the variant accounts for a small number of cases. But by the time the combination evolved there, B.1.1.7 had already spread through the country.
“We’re at the point where B.1.1.7 is just being introduced” into the United States, said Stacia Wyman, an expert in computational genomics at the University of California, Berkeley. “As it evolves, and as it slowly becomes the dominant thing, it could accumulate more mutations.”
Viral mutations may enhance or weaken one another. For example, the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil contain many of the same mutations, including Eek. But the Brazilian version has a mutation, K417N, that is not present in the version from South Africa.
In a study published Thursday in Nature, researchers compared antibody responses to all three variants of concern — the ones identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. Consistent with other studies, they found that the variant that pummeled South Africa is most resistant to antibodies produced by the immune system.
But the variant circulating in Brazil was not as resistant, even though it carried the Eek mutation. “If you have the second mutation, you don’t see as bad an effect,” said Michael Diamond, a viral immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who led the study.
It’s too early to say whether the variant in Oregon will behave like the ones in South Africa or Brazil. But the idea that other mutations could weaken Eek’s effect is “excellent news,” Wyman said.
Overall, she said, the Oregon finding reinforces the need for people to continue to take precautions, including wearing a mask, until a substantial portion of the population is immunized.
“People need to not freak out but to continue to be vigilant,” she said. “We can’t let down our guard yet while there’s still these more transmissible variants circulating.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2021 The New York Times Company
NASA rover Perseverance takes first spin on surface of Mars – Global News
NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance has taken its first, short drive on the surface of the red planet, two weeks after the robot science lab’s picture-perfect touchdown on the floor of a massive crater, mission managers said on Friday.
The six-wheeled, car-sized astrobiology probe put a total of 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) on its odometer on Thursday during a half-hour test spin within Jezero Crater, site of an ancient, long-vanished lake bed and river delta on Mars.
Taking directions from mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, the rover rolled 4 meters (13.1 feet) forward, turned about 150 degrees to its left and then drove backward another 2.5 meters (8.2 feet).
“It went incredibly well,” Anais Zarifian, a JPL mobility test engineer for Perseverance, said during a teleconference briefing with reporters, calling it a “huge milestone” for the mission.
NASA displayed a photo taken by the rover showing the wheel tread marks left in the reddish, sandy Martian soil after its first drive.
Perseverance rover: Scientist on when we can expect samples back from Mars
Another vivid image of the surrounding landscape shows a rugged, ruddy terrain littered with large, dark boulders in the foreground and a tall outcropping of rocky, layered deposits in the distance – marking the edge of the river delta.
Some additional, short-distance test driving is planned for Friday. Perseverance is capable of averaging 200 meters of driving per day.
But JPL engineers still have additional equipment checks to run on the rover‘s many instruments before they will be ready to send the robot on a more ambitious journey as part of its primary mission to search for traces of fossilized microbial life.
So far, Perseverance and its hardware, including its main robot arm, appear to be operating flawlessly, said Robert Hogg, deputy mission manager. The team has yet to conduct post-landing tests of the rover‘s sophisticated system to drill and collect rock samples for return to Earth via future Mars missions.
NASA announced it has named the site of Perseverance’s Feb. 18 touchdown as the “Octavia E. Butler Landing,” in honor of the award-winning American science-fiction writer. Butler, a native of Pasadena, California, died in 2006 at age 58.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
© 2021 Reuters
NASA's new Mars rover Perseverance hits dusty red road, ventures 21 feet in 1st trip – Chilliwack Progress – Chilliwack Progress
NASA’s newest Mars rover hit the dusty red road this week, putting 21 feet on the odometer in its first test drive.
The Perseverance rover ventured from its landing position Thursday, two weeks after landing on the red planet to seek signs of past life.
The roundabout, back and forth drive lasted just 33 minutes and went so well that the six-wheeled rover was back on the move Friday.
During a news conference Friday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shared photos of the tire tracks over and around small rocks.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks and I’ve seen a lot of them, said engineer Anais Zarafian. ”This is just a huge milestone for the mission.”
As soon as the system checks on Perseverance are complete, the rover will head for an ancient river delta to collect rocks for return to Earth a decade from now. Scientists are debating whether to take the smoother route to get to the nearby delta or a possibly tougher way with intriguing remnants from that once-watery time 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.
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