Most of the Martian attention these days is fixed on the NASA Perseverance life-seeking mission, but we shouldn’t forget that the agency’s Curiosity is still going strong as it also looks for signs of ancient habitability.
Percy hit the headlines late last week when it was discovered that its first sampling attempt did not go to plan. The new rover is supposed to cache a bunch of promising rocks and samples for a future sample-return mission, to bring Martian stuff back to Earth by 2031 if funding and tech development holds. (The thinking is it would be easier to search for ancient Martian microbes using high-tech equipment on Earth.)
But Perseverance’s mission is greatly informed by Curiosity, which stuck the landing in Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. Within days of arriving, Curiosity found signs of an ancient streambed. Within a few months, it was slowly on the road to its ultimate destination — Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp). Curiosity is still climbing that mountain in a bid to understand the history of water on Mars, and how habitable the planet might have been in the past.
On the 6th (Earth time), Curiosity was working on analyzing a couple of rocks and it also did a short drive of just 46 feet (14 meters), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported in an Aug. 6 update. Curiosity began to accidentally tear up its wheels early in the mission and JPL remains very protective of them, because without wheels that rover won’t go far.
“The terrain is so rocky that it’s hard to see too far beyond the rover’s current position. We don’t want to use too much autonomous driving in this rocky terrain and risk damaging the wheels,” JPL stated Aug. 6. Happily, the Perseverance rover’s wheels were reinforced in such a way that it should stand up to rocky terrain for many years, without the holes that Curiosity has been carefully managing by driving on smooth surfaces as much as possible.
Curiosity is moving along in its 10th year of observations in the wake of a new study that has an alternate view about the area it is exploring. A new Science Advances study suggests that volcano- and wind-blown deposits modified by acid rain — not water — was responsible for the weathering that the rover has observed in Gale Crater and its surroundings for the past decade.
For example, the study discusses the Yellowknife Bay formation near Curiosity’s landing site, which contains sandstones “interbedded” with mudstones. Such a formation is difficult to explain through lake depositions alone, the authors assert, and say that the rocks would require “several episodes of eolian-dominated [wind] activity”, perhaps through “airfall deposition of dust or likely volcanic ash.”
The authors’ work suggests that any lakes that Curiosity saw were smaller and more transient, meaning it would be harder for life to get a foothold. That said, none of the authors are on the long-running Curiosity team, and we will need to see if more studies confirm their findings.
The clays Curiosity keeps seeing on the slopes of Mount Sharp,, however, do suggest a lot of water-bearing activity in that region. Moreover, the rover has found multiple examples of organics — the building blocks of life — along with spikes of methane (a gas that can be indicative of life or non-life bearing processes; which is happening on Mars is not yet known.)
With Curiosity having been approved for multiple extended missions, it’s clear that the rover so far has been delivering on its mandate to produce valuable science about the evolution of the Martian climate and its possibilities for hosting life. So far, the rover has driven 16.17 miles (26 km) on Mars and it remains in good shape, despite the wheels. Curiosity should therefore keep rolling on Mars for at least several more years in search of more information about the planet’s history.
— Having worked in the space station core module Tianhe for three months — the longest-ever human space mission in Chinese history, three astronauts of the Shenzhou-12 crew returned to Earth on Friday, hitting a new milestone in China’s space exploration.
BEIJING, Sept. 17 (Xinhua) — Three Chinese astronauts, the first sent to orbit for China’s space station construction, have completed their three-month mission and returned to Earth safely on Friday.
The return capsule of the Shenzhou-12 manned spaceship, carrying astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, touched down at the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region at 1:34 p.m. (Beijing Time).
The first manned flight during the construction of China’s space station was a complete success, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced.
The return capsule of Shenzhou-12 separated from the spaceship’s orbiting capsule at 12:43 p.m. under the command of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. The braking engine of the return capsule then ignited, and the return capsule separated from the propelling capsule.
After the return capsule landed successfully, the ground search team arrived at the landing site. This is the first time that the Dongfeng landing site was used in the search and retrieval of the manned spacecraft. The medical personnel confirmed that the astronauts were in good health, after the hatch of the return capsule was opened.
The trio looked relaxed and waved to the ground crew after they exited the return capsule. Later, they were escorted to a helicopter by the ground crew, according to Xinhua reporters at the scene.
“Welcome back home for the Mid-Autumn Festival,” the people cheered as the country’s space heroes passed by.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional event symbolizing family reunion, falls on Sept. 21 this year.
The three astronauts arrived at Beijing by plane Friday night, but they will not go immediately back home to celebrate the festival with their families. Instead, they will undergo several weeks of quarantine for a comprehensive medical examination and health assessment, according to Xu Wenlong, a research assistant with the China Astronaut Research and Training Center.
The professional medical personnel will help the astronauts re-adapt to the gravity and environment on Earth, restore their body functions as soon as possible and improve their immunity, through multiple methods of exercise, diet, massage, physical therapy, and treatment with traditional Chinese medicine, Xu said.
The success of the Shenzhou-12 manned spaceflight mission laid a solid foundation for the continued construction and operation of the country’s space station, the CMSA said.
On June 17, the Shenzhou-12 spaceship was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China and docked with the space station core module Tianhe. After the docking, the three astronauts entered the core module and began their three-month stay in space.
On June 23, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a video talk from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center with the astronauts, showing his consistent concern and support for the Chinese pursuit of its space dream.
“The construction of the space station is a milestone in China’s space industry, which will make pioneering contributions to the peaceful use of space by humanity,” said Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
The Shenzhou-12 crew carried out a series of space science and technology experiments, and tested key technologies for the construction and operation of the space station, concerning long-term stays by astronauts, the recycling and life-support system, the supply of space materials, extravehicular activities (EVAs) and operations, and in-orbit maintenance.
They performed EVAs twice, on July 4 and Aug. 20, respectively.
The first EVAs, performed by Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, took approximately seven hours. The astronauts accomplished tasks including equipment installation and panoramic camera lifting.
Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming carried out EVAs for the second time, installed extravehicular extended pump sets and lifted a panoramic camera in about six hours of EVAs.
The EVAs tested the performance and function of the new-generation homemade extravehicular mobility units and the coordination between the astronauts and the mechanical arm, as well as the reliability and safety of related EVA supporting equipment.
The mechanical arm installed on the core module played an important role in assisting the astronauts with their EVAs.
It is designed to help the astronauts in the assembly, construction, maintenance and repair of the space station, and to support space applications.
China launched its space station core module Tianhe on April 29 and the cargo craft Tianzhou-2 on May 29. The two completed a computer-orchestrated rendezvous and docking on May 30.
The Shenzhou-12 spaceship then formed a three-module complex with the combination of Tianhe and Tianzhou-2 after it was launched.
The Tianzhou-3 cargo craft and the Shenzhou-13 manned spaceship will also be launched later this year to dock with Tianhe, and another three astronauts will then begin their six-month stay in orbit.
After the five launch missions this year, China plans to have six more missions, including the launch of the Wentian and Mengtian lab modules, two cargo spacecraft and two crewed spaceships, in 2022, to complete the construction of the space station.
The quartet of newly minted citizen astronauts comprising the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission were due to splash down in the Atlantic off Florida on Saturday, completing a three-day flight of the first all-civilian crew ever launched into Earth orbit.
To prepare for atmospheric re-entry and return to Earth, the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle completed two rocket “burns” on Friday to lower its altitude and line up the capsule’s trajectory with the targeted landing site.
The Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, is scheduled to parachute into the sea around 7 p.m. Eastern time, shortly before sunset, according to SpaceX, the private rocketry company founded by Tesla Inc electric automaker CEO Elon Musk.
SpaceX supplied the spacecraft, launched it from Florida and flew it from the company’s suburban Los Angeles headquarters.
The Inspiration4 team blasted off on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral atop one of SpaceX’s two-stage reusable Falcon 9 rockets.
Within three hours the crew capsule had reached a cruising orbital altitude of just over 363 miles (585 km) – higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, and the farthest any human has flown from Earth since NASA’s Apollo moon program ended in 1972.
It also marked the debut flight of Musk’s new space tourism business and a leap ahead of competitors likewise offering rides on rocket ships to well-heeled customers willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of spaceflight and earn amateur astronaut wings.
The Inspiration4 team was led by its wealthy benefactor, Jared Isaacman, chief executive of the e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments Inc, who assumed the role of mission “commander.”
He had paid an undisclosed but reportedly enormous sum – put by Time magazine at roughly $200 million – to fellow billionaire Musk for all four seats aboard the Crew Dragon.
Isaacman was joined by three less affluent crewmates he had selected – geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, physician’s assistant and childhood bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42.
Isaacman conceived of the flight primarily to raise awareness and donations for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee, where Arceneaux was a patient and now works.
The Inspiration4 crew had no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which was operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though Isaacman and Proctor are both licensed pilots.
SpaceX already ranked as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the space station for NASA.
Two rival operators, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc and Blue Origin, inaugurated their own astro-tourism services in recent months, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.
Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4’s three days in orbit. (Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
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