Going to Mars is non-trivial, since both planets revolve around the Sun and are hence in constant motion relative to each other. Earth and Mars are at their closest distance relative to each other every 26 months — and this is when Earthlings try to send missions to Mars.
Every two years since the 1960s, different space agencies have sent missions to Mars. Between 1976 and 1992, many launch windows remained unutilised. On occasion, there have been multiple missions in a launch window.
But never in history have three space agencies headed to Mars in a single launch window. And never in history have so many space agencies simultaneously operated a mission to Mars or the orbit of Mars. There are currently 10 spacecraft from five different space agencies — the United States, European Union, India, China, and the United Arab Emirates — either orbiting or on the ground on Mars. Two more rovers — NASA’s Perseverance and China’s Tianwen-1 — are set to land on Mars on February 18 and in May 2021 respectively.
NASA has a lander (Mars Insight), a rover (Curiosity), and three orbiters (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, MAVEN); India has an orbiter (Mangalyaan-1); the EU has 2 orbiters (Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter); and China and UAE will have an orbiter each (Hope and Tianwen-1 respectively).
The flotilla of missions represents the spread of planetary exploration in general, and Mars exploration in particular. This is attributable to a reduction in launch costs and the cheaper availability of the technology required in space exploration.
Dr Amitabha Ghosh is a NASA Planetary Scientist based in Washington DC. He has worked for multiple NASA Mars Missions starting with the Mars Pathfinder Mission in 1997. He served as Chair of the Science Operations Working Group for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, and was tasked with leading tactical Rover Operations on Mars for more than 10 years. He helped analyse the first rock on Mars, which incidentally happened to be the first rock analysed from another planet.
The UAE’s mission of Hope
Two out of the three missions launched for Mars last July are already operational. The UAE, a tiny but rich country of <10 million people, bedazzled the world by becoming the fifth national space agency (after the US, EU, Russia, and India) to reach Mars when the Hope Orbiter underwent orbital insertion on February 9. The UAE beat out China in the race for Mars, albeit by a day.
The UAE mission will study the Martian atmosphere, and will seek to address the billion-dollar question of how and why Mars lost its atmosphere. The loss of the atmosphere resulted in the loss of surface water, and possibly the environment hospitable to life.
The Chinese experiment
The Chinese National Space Agency arrived at Mars with lessons learned from a successful string of Chang’e missions to the Moon. Notably, the Chang’e 4 rover was able to survive more than 25 lunar nights (each night stretches to 14 Earth days) — this is a remarkable engineering feat, since temperatures can go down to –170 degrees C. The Chang’e 5 mission was able to successfully bring back rock samples to Earth in December 2020.
Tianwen-1, the first mission to Mars from China, successfully underwent orbital insertion on February 10. Tianwen-1 carries an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. China’s approach for landing a rover is somewhat different. Unlike NASA rovers, Tianwen-1 will orbit Mars for a few months before attempting to land in May this year.
The spacecraft has a suite of instruments to address a range of scientific questions. Interestingly, it has a ground penetrating radar instrument to look for water under the Martian surface. The rover is scheduled to land at Utopia Planitia, a location with possible ancient groundwater deposits.
This week, Perseverance
The most sophisticated mission from an engineering standpoint, NASA’s Perseverance Rover, is en route to Mars, and is set to land on Thursday at Jezero Crater, which was likely filled with water in the past. Touchdown is scheduled for approximately 3.55 pm EST (2.25 am on Friday India time).
Perseverance is NASA’s 4th generation Mars Rover — starting with Sojourner from the Mars Pathfinder Mission in 1997, followed by Spirit and Opportunity from the Mars Exploration Rover Mission in 2004, and Curiosity from the Mars Science Laboratory in 2012.
The goal is to look for biosignatures in the dried up lake bed at Jezero Crater. The thought is that early life on Mars may have resembled early ocean-dwelling life on Earth, like stromatolites. If indeed this was the case, Perseverance would find fossils or some biosignatures — hints of life — in either the chemical measurements or morphological observations.
In addition, Perseverance will produce oxygen on the Martian surface for the first time, using atmospheric CO2 from the Martian atmosphere. Perseverance will cache rock samples that will be returned to Earth by a subsequent European Space Agency/NASA mission.
Musk’s Starship enterprise
The most spectacular preparation for revolutionising Mars exploration is happening away from the spotlight, in a sleepy coastal town in East Texas. This is the only effort in the mix that is not underwritten financially by government money. SpaceX, a private US-based company promoted by Elon Musk and backed by select investors, has a long-range goal of starting a commercial service to transport passengers to Mars. Boca Chica, a name that apparently no one had heard a few years ago, is now the site of development of Starship, which represents arguably the best shot at landing humans on Mars.
A human mission to Mars has been the holy grail of space exploration. Ever since Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon 50 years go, man has not been able to proceed to the next logical destination: Mars. The primary reason is the enormous price tag of a human Mars mission. In comparison to the Moon, which is only about three days away, Mars is seven months away. Carrying humans, in engineering terms, translates to maintaining a temperature controlled pressurised module. It also entails carrying supplies required by astronauts, including water and oxygen, for an approximately 18-month trip.
In addition, human missions, unlike robotic spacecraft missions, need to be returned to Earth, which in engineering terms translates into carrying an enormous amount of fuel from Earth, to be able to launch from Mars for the return journey. The engineering complexity and the increased mass requirement of a human mission to Mars, compared to the Moon, pushes costs to between $250 billion and $1 trillion. Starship promises to reduce mission costs by >95% to as much as 99% by using multiple innovations like refuelling the spacecraft in orbit, and manufacture of rocket fuel on Mars using materials that are found on Mars (and therefore, fuel for the return journey would not need to be carried from Earth).
A decade of Mars missions
As the decade starts up, multiple missions are on the drawing board: prominently, the ESA ExoMars rover mission to return rock samples from Mars, ISRO’s plans for Mangalyaan-2, and the Chinese Space Agency’s plans for Tianwen-2 that will return rock samples from Mars.
In addition, there will likely be multiple flights of SpaceX’s Starship, first with cargo and finally with astronauts. In the history of humankind, 2020 will be remembered for the Covid-19 pandemic, but the 2020s may well be the decade of a flurry of spacecraft missions to Mars, ending with the first human footsteps on Martian soil.
Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests – CBC.ca
A southern Alberta mother and father are grappling with the sudden, unexplained death of their 17-year-old daughter, and with few answers, they’re left wondering if she could be the province’s youngest victim of COVID-19.
Sarah Strate — a healthy, active Grade 12 student at Magrath High School who loved singing, dancing and being outdoors — died on Monday, less than a week after being notified she’d been exposed to COVID-19.
While two tests came back negative, her parents say other signs point to the coronavirus, and they’re waiting for more answers.
“It was so fast. It’s all still such a shock,” said Sarah’s mother, Kristine Strate. “She never even coughed. She had a sore throat and her ears were sore for a while, and [she had] swollen neck glands.”
Kristine said Sarah developed mild symptoms shortly after her older sister — who later tested positive for COVID-19 — visited from Lethbridge, one of Alberta’s current hot spots for the virus.
The family went into isolation at their home in Magrath on Tuesday, April 20. They were swabbed the next day and the results were negative.
‘Everything went south, super-fast’
By Friday night, Sarah had developed fever and chills. On Saturday, she started vomiting and Kristine, a public health nurse, tried to keep her hydrated.
“She woke up feeling a bit more off on Monday morning,” Kristine said. “And everything went south, super-fast.”
Sarah had grown very weak and her parents decided to call 911 when she appeared to become delirious.
“She had her blanket on and I was talking to her and, in an instant, she was unresponsive,” said Kristine, who immediately started performing CPR on her daughter.
When paramedics arrived 20 minutes later, they were able to restore a heartbeat and rushed Sarah to hospital in Lethbridge, where she died.
“I thought there was hope once we got her heart rate back. I really did,” recalled Sarah’s father, Ron.
“He was praying for a miracle, and sometimes miracles don’t come,” said Kristine.
Searching for answers
At the hospital, the family was told Sarah’s lungs were severely infected and that she may have ended up with blood clots in both her heart and lungs, a condition that can be a complication of COVID-19.
But a second test at the hospital came back negative for COVID-19.
“There really is no other answer,” Ron said. “When a healthy 17-year-old girl, who was sitting up in her bed and was able to talk, and within 10 minutes is unconscious on our floor — there was no reason [for it].”
The province currently has no record of any Albertans under the age of 20 who have died of COVID-19.
According to the Strate family, the medical examiner is running additional blood and tissue tests, in an effort to uncover the cause of Sarah’s death.
‘Unusual but not impossible’
University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, who was not involved in Sarah’s treatment, says it is conceivable that further testing could uncover evidence of a COVID-19 infection, despite two negative test results.
However, she hasn’t seen a similar case in Alberta.
“It would be unusual but not impossible because no test is perfect. We have had cases where an initial test is negative and then if you keep on thinking it’s COVID and you re-test, you then can find COVID,” she said.
According to Saxinger, the rate of false negatives is believed to be very low. But it can happen if there are problems with the testing or specimen collection.
She says people are more likely to test positive after symptoms develop.
“The best sensitivity of the test is around day four or five of having symptoms,” she said. “So you can miss things if you test very, very early. And with new development of symptoms, it’s always a good time to re-test because then the likelihood of getting a positive test is a little higher. But again, no test is perfect.”
Sarah deteriorated so quickly — dying five days after she first developed symptoms — she didn’t live long enough to make it to her follow-up COVID-19 test. Instead, it was done at the hospital.
‘An amazing kid’
The Strate family now faces an agonizing wait for answers — one that will likely take months — about what caused Sarah’s death.
But Ron, who teaches at the school where Sarah attended Grade 12, wants his daughter to be remembered for the life she lived, not her death.
Sarah was one of five children. Ron says she was strong, active and vibrant and had plans to become a massage therapist after graduating from high school.
She played several sports and loved to sing and dance as part of a show choir. She was a leader in the school’s suicide prevention group and would stand up for other students who were facing bullying.
“She’s one of the leaders in our Hope Squad … which goes out and helps kids to not be scared,” he father said.
“She’s an amazing kid.”
Sarah would often spend hours helping struggling classmates, and her parents hope her kindness is not forgotten.
“She’d done so many good things. Honestly, I’ve got so many messages from parents saying, ‘You have no idea how much your daughter helped our kid,'” said Ron.
“This 17-year-old girl probably lived more of a life in 17 years than most adults will live in their whole lives. She was so special. I love her so much.”
China launches key module of space station planned for 2022
BEIJING (Reuters) -China launched an unmanned module on Thursday containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.
The module, named “Tianhe”, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.
Tianhe is one of three main components of what would be China’s first self-developed space station, rivalling the only other station in service – the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS is backed by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China was barred from participating by the United States.
“(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.
Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.
The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (211-280 miles).
In the later missions, China will launch the two other core modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft.
Work on the space station programme began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.
Both helped China test the programme’s space rendezvous and docking capabilities.
China aims to become a major space power by 2030. It has ramped up its space programme with visits to the moon, the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars and the construction of its own space station.
In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain.
The project is set to expire in 2024, barring funding from its partners. Russia said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.
Russia is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.
Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led Artemis moon exploration programme and instead chosen to join Beijing in setting up a lunar research outpost in the coming years.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Simon Cameron-Moore and Lincoln Feast.)
NASA Pays Rich Homage To Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins – Gadgets 360
NASA on Thursday paid a rich tribute to Michael Collins, the American astronaut who was the command module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Collins, 90, passed away on Wednesday after battling cancer, his family said. Sharing a photograph on Instagram, NASA said the picture was clicked by Collins, who spent seven years of his career as an astronaut with them. The photograph shows the lunar module, “Eagle,” returning to the command module, “Columbia,” after landing on the Moon. The Earth can be seen in the background of the picture. NASA said the picture had all of the humanity in it, save for Collins who captured it.
Collins kept the command module flying while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. “We remember Michael Collins, @NASA astronaut and crew member of Apollo 11, who passed away on April 28, 2021,” NASA said.
In the post, NASA also quoted what Collins had said during a transmission to Mission Control on the trip back to Earth from the Moon on July 21, 1969. “This trip of ours to the Moon may have looked, to you, simple or easy… All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all those I would like to say, thank you very much.”
NASA further shared what the mission control stated during Apollo 11. “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during the 47 minutes of each lunar revolution when he’s behind the Moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder aboard Columbia. While he waits for his comrades to soar with Eagle from Tranquility Base and rejoin him for the trip back to Earth, Collins, with the help of Flight Controllers here in Mission Control Center has kept the Command Module’s system going.”
Besides, the space agency also released a statement, saying the nation had lost a “true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration” in Collins. NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said that as the pilot of Apollo 11 some referred to him as the “loneliest man in history”.
“While his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone. He also distinguished himself in the Gemini Program and as an Air Force pilot,” he said.
Jurczyk shared that Collins would say, “Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative,” adding “What would be worth recording is what kind of civilisation we Earthlings created and whether or not we ventured out into other parts of the galaxy.”
Jurczyk added that Collins’ own signature accomplishments, his writings about his experiences, and his leadership of the National Air and Space Museum helped gain wide exposure for the work of all the men and women who have helped our nation push itself to greatness in aviation and space. “There is no doubt he inspired a new generation of scientists, engineers, test pilots, and astronauts.”
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