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How NASA's next-gen Perseverance Mars rover tops older sibling Curiosity – CNET



This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA has once again sent what amounts to the ultimate driverless car to Mars. Perseverance, the rover previously known as Mars 2020, left Earth Thursday to become the successor robot to NASA’s Curiosity, which has been roving the red planet since 2012.

This latest-generation planetary explorer comes from a long line of well-traveled bots with some big upgrades over its older sibling that should allow scientists to see, touch and — for the first time ever — hear Mars in new ways.

Martian audio-visual club

An assortment of Mars rovers and orbiters have sent myriad views of the red planet home, but we’ve yet to actually open a microphone there to capture the sounds of our neighboring planet. Perseverance aims to finally change this by carrying a pair of mics that will pick up the audio of landing on the planet, as well as the ambient noise of another world and the whirring din of a rover at work. 

“Hearing how the mast swivels, the wheels turn, or hearing how other instruments sound can also be an important engineering diagnostic tool,” said Greg Delory, the CEO and co-founder of space hardware company Heliospace. He’s an adviser to Perseverance’s SuperCam microphone team. 

SuperCam is the rover’s new science instrument that blasts rock and other materials with a laser while its microphone records the subtle sounds made by different types of rock as they get zapped. The SuperCam mic will also be able to pick up the Martian wind and other sounds from the rover’s environment. 

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The other on-board mic is part of the entry, descent and landing system that includes full-color cameras to capture the whole thrilling ride down to the surface. 

All together, Perseverance is loaded with 23 cameras, most of them color devices. It will be capable of capturing HD video and stereo 3D panoramas and of zooming in on a target the size of a house fly from over 100 yards (91 meters) away. 

Save it for later

A key part of Perseverance’s mission is to collect rock and gas samples from the Martian surface that will then be secured for possible later retrieval by a future mission.

A significant portion of the rover’s belly is taken up by instruments for collecting and analyzing Martian geology.

“I can’t wait for the time that these unique samples will one day return to Earth and be available for study by scientists around the world,” planetary scientist Caroline Smith from the UK Natural History Museum said in a statement. Smith is working with NASA and the European Space Agency to plan how the samples will be curated upon their delivery to Earth.

The sample return mission is part of one of the larger goals for Perseverance — looking for evidence of past life on Mars. Jezero Crater, where the rover will land, is thought to have once been home to a large body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, making it a prime spot for life in the distant past. 



A flying sidekick

Perseverance will be fully grounded on Mars, but it’s carrying something new and exciting: the first helicopter to ply the thin atmosphere of our neighboring planet. 

Dubbed Ingenuity, the tiny chopper is stowed in the belly of the rover, to be expelled onto the surface for some flight tests. This should be very interesting since we’ve never flown on another planet and the atmosphere of Mars is very different from that of Earth. 

Put another way, don’t expect too much from this little space drone. But if it works, it could mean big ups (sorry) for how we explore other worlds in the future. 

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Prepping for Elon and other human visitors

One of the stated goals of the Perseverance mission is to make key advances that will support the future arrival of actual people to become the first (or at least the most recent) Martians. 

The rover is equipped with experiments like Moxie, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, which will test a way to pull oxygen out of literal Martian thin air. It will also use instruments to look at how the ubiquitous dust in that air could impact human life support systems and other key technologies. 

Still other experiments will look for subsurface water, study the Martian atmosphere, climate and weather, and assess their impact on potential human explorers. 

Fancy new wheels and a stronger arm

Engineers took some lessons learned from Curiosity and the punishment delivered to it by sharp, pointy Martian rocks and applied them to beefing up the wheels on Perseverance. They’re narrower, but have a bigger diameter and are made out of thicker aluminum. This, and all its new tools, make Perseverance heavier than its older sibling.

Wielding all those tools also requires a larger “hand” or turret on the end of its robotic arm. The arm extends 7 feet (2 meters), ending in the rotating 99-pound (45-kilogram) turret holding a scientific camera, chemical analyzers and rock drill. It’s pretty much the ultimate power glove.

Curiosity had a similar setup, but the turret on Perseverance weighs 33 percent more because it has bigger instruments and a drill meant to cut into intact rock cores to collect samples for storage.

All in all, Perseverance is the most advanced robot to visit Mars yet, and if all goes well, it might be one of the last to make the trip alone without human companions. 

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NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft Arrives at Kennedy Space Center – America Speaks Ink



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NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a modified 747 jumbo jet, touched down just before 4 p.m. EDT on Tuesday at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The SCA, which is designated NASA 905, was the original shuttle carrier and was used in 1977 for the space shuttle approach and landing tests. This series of eight captive and five free flights with the orbiter prototype Enterprise, in addition to ground taxi tests, validated the aircraft’s performance as an SCA, in addition to verifying the glide and landing characteristics of the orbiter configuration — paving the way for orbital flights and ferry flights. NASA 905 now will fly the final ferry flight in Space Shuttle Program history.


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How Venus and Mars Can Teach Us About the Past and Future of Earth



On September 18, 2017, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli shot this image from the International Space Station showing the Moon rising above the Earth’s horizon together with Mercury, Mars, the star Regulus, and Venus. Credit: ESA/NASA

One has a thick poisonous atmosphere, one has hardly any atmosphere at all, and one is just right for life to flourish – but it wasn’t always that way. The atmospheres of our two neighbors Venus and Mars can teach us a lot about the past and future scenarios for our own planet.

Rewind 4.6 billion years from the present day to the planetary construction yard, and we see that all the planets share a common history: they were all born from the same swirling cloud of gas and dust, with the newborn Sun ignited at the center. Slowly but surely, with the help of gravity, dust accumulated into boulders, eventually snowballing into planet-sized entities.

Rocky material could withstand the heat closest to the Sun, while gassy, icy material could only survive further away, giving rise to the innermost terrestrial planets and the outermost gas and ice giants, respectively. The leftovers made asteroids and comets.

Comparison of Terrestrial Planets

The four terrestrial (meaning ‘Earth-like’) planets of our inner Solar System: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. These images were taken by the Mariner 10, Apollo 17 and Viking missions. Credit: ESA

The atmospheres of the rocky planets were formed as part of the very energetic building process, mostly by outgassing as they cooled down, with some small contributions from volcanic eruptions and minor delivery of water, gases, and other ingredients by comets and asteroids. Over time the atmospheres underwent a strong evolution thanks to an intricate combination of factors that ultimately led to the current status, with Earth being the only known planet to support life, and the only one with liquid water on its surface today.

We know from space missions such as ESA’s Venus Express, which observed Venus from orbit between 2006 and 2014, and Mars Express, investigating the Red Planet since 2003, that liquid water once flowed on our sister planets, too. While the water on Venus has long since boiled away, on Mars it is either buried underground or locked up in ice caps. Intimately linked to the story of water – and ultimately to the big question of whether life could have arisen beyond Earth – is the state of a planet’s atmosphere. And connected to that, the interplay and exchange of material between the atmosphere, oceans and the planet’s rocky interior.

Planetary recycling

Back at our newly formed planets, from a ball of molten rock with a mantle surrounding a dense core, they stated to cool down. Earth, Venus and Mars all experienced outgassing activity in these early days, which formed the first young, hot and dense atmospheres. As these atmospheres also cooled, the first oceans rained down from the skies.

Mars Horizon to Horizon

Mars from horizon to horizon. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

At some stage, though, the characteristics of the geological activity of the three planets diverged. Earth’s solid lid cracked into plates, in some places diving below another plate in subduction zones, and in other places colliding to create vast mountain ranges or pulling apart to create giant rifts or new crust. Earth’s tectonic plates are still moving today, giving rise to volcanic eruptions or earthquakes at their boundaries.

Venus, which is only slightly smaller than Earth, may still have volcanic activity today, and its surface seems to have been resurfaced with lavas as recently as half a billion years ago. Today it has no discernable plate tectonics system; its volcanoes were likely powered by thermal plumes rising through the mantle – created in a process that can be likened to a ‘lava lamp’ but on a gigantic scale.

Mars, being a lot smaller, cooled off more quickly than Earth and Venus, and when its volcanoes became extinct it lost a key means of replenishing its atmosphere. But it still boasts the largest volcano in the entire Solar System, the 25 kilometer high Olympus Mons, likely too the result of continuous vertical building of the crust from plumes rising from below. Even though there is evidence for tectonic activity within the last 10 million years, and even the occasional marsquake in present times, the planet is not believed to have an Earth-like tectonics system either.

It is not just global plate tectonics alone that make Earth special, but the unique combination with oceans. Today our oceans, which cover about two-thirds of Earth’s surface, absorb and store much of our planet’s heat, transporting it along currents around the globe. As a tectonic plate is dragged down into the mantle, it warms up and releases water and gases trapped in the rocks, which in turn percolate through hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

Extremely hardy lifeforms have been found in such environments at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, providing clues as to how early life may have begun, and giving scientists pointers on where to look elsewhere in the Solar System: Jupiter’s moon Europa, or Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus for example, which conceal oceans of liquid water beneath their icy crusts, with evidence from space missions like Cassini suggesting hydrothermal activity may be present.

Moreover, plate tectonics helps to modulate our atmosphere, regulating the amount of carbon dioxide on our planet over long timescales. When atmospheric carbon dioxide combines with water, carbonic acid is formed, which in turn dissolves rocks. Rain brings the carbonic acid and calcium to the oceans – carbon dioxide is also dissolved directly in oceans – where it is cycled back into the ocean floor. For almost half of Earth’s history the atmosphere contained very little oxygen. Oceanic cyanobacteria were the first to use the Sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, a turning point in providing the atmosphere that much further down the line allowed complex life to flourish. Without the planetary recycling and regulation between the mantle, oceans, and atmosphere, Earth may have ended up more like Venus.

Extreme greenhouse effect

Venus is sometimes referred to as Earth’s evil twin on account of it being almost the same size but plagued with a thick noxious atmosphere and a sweltering 470ºC surface. Its high pressure and temperature is hot enough to melt lead – and destroy the spacecraft that dare to land on it. Thanks to its dense atmosphere, it is even hotter than planet Mercury, which orbits closer to the Sun. Its dramatic deviation from an Earth-like environment is often used as an example of what happens in a runaway greenhouse effect.

Earth's Evil Twin

Appearances can be deceiving. This thick, cloud-rich atmosphere rains sulphuric acid and below lie not oceans but a baked and barren lava-strewn surface. Welcome to Venus. Credit: ESA/MPS/DLR-PF/IDA

The main source of heat in the Solar System is the Sun’s energy, which warms a planet’s surface up, and then the planet radiates energy back into space. An atmosphere traps some of the outgoing energy, retaining heat – the so-called greenhouse effect. It is a natural phenomenon that helps regulate a planet’s temperature. If it weren’t for greenhouse gases like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone, Earth’s surface temperature would be about 30 degrees cooler than its present +15ºC average.

Over the past centuries, humans have altered this natural balance on Earth, strengthening the greenhouse effect since the dawn of industrial activity by contributing additional carbon dioxide along with nitrogen oxides, sulfates, and other trace gases and dust and smoke particles into the air. The long-term effects on our planet include global warming, acid rain, and the depletion of the ozone layer. The consequences of a warming climate are far-reaching, potentially affecting freshwater resources, global food production and sea level, and triggering an increase in extreme-weather events.

There is no human activity on Venus, but studying its atmosphere provides a natural laboratory to better understand a runaway greenhouse effect. At some point in its history, Venus began trapping too much heat. It was once thought to host oceans like Earth, but the added heat turned water into steam, and in turn, additional water vapor in the atmosphere trapped more and more heat until entire oceans completely evaporated. Venus Express even showed that water vapor is still escaping from Venus’ atmosphere and into space today.

Venus Express also discovered a mysterious layer of high-altitude sulfur dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide is expected from the emission of volcanoes – over the mission’s duration Venus Express recorded large changes in the sulfur dioxide content of the atmosphere. This leads to sulphuric acid clouds and droplets at altitudes of about 50-70 km – any remaining sulphur dioxide should be destroyed by intense solar radiation. So it was a surprise for Venus Express to discover a layer of the gas at around 100 km. It was determined that evaporating sulphuric acid droplets free gaseous sulphuric acid that is then broken apart by sunlight, releasing the sulfur dioxide gas.

The observation adds to the discussion what might happen if large quantities of sulfur dioxide are injected into Earth’s atmosphere – a proposal made for how to mitigate the effects of the changing climate on Earth. The concept was demonstrated from the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, when sulfur dioxide ejected from the eruption created small droplets of concentrated sulphuric acid – like those found in Venus’ clouds – at about 20 km altitude. This generated a haze layer and cooled our planet globally by about 0.5ºC for several years. Because this haze reflects heat it has been proposed that one way to reduce global temperatures would be to inject artificially large quantities of sulfur dioxide into our atmosphere. However, the natural effects of Mt Pinatubo only offered a temporary cooling effect. Studying the enormous layer of sulphuric acid cloud droplets at Venus offers a natural way to study the longer-term effects; an initially protective haze at higher altitude would eventually be converted back into gaseous sulphuric acid, which is transparent and allows all the Sun’s rays through. Not to mention the side-effect of acid rain, which on Earth can cause harmful effects on soils, plant life, and water.

Global freezing

Our other neighbor, Mars, lies at another extreme: although its atmosphere is also predominantly carbon dioxide, today it hardly has any at all, with a total atmospheric volume less than 1% of Earth’s.

Terrestrial Planet Magnetospheres

Artist impression (not to scale) idealizing how the solar wind shapes the magnetospheres of Venus (top), Earth (middle) and Mars (bottom). Credit: ESA

Mars’ existing atmosphere is so thin that although carbon dioxide condenses into clouds, it cannot retain sufficient energy from the Sun to maintain surface water – it vaporizes instantly at the surface. But with its low pressure and relatively balmy temperatures of -55ºC (ranging from -133ºC at the winter pole to +27ºC during summer), spacecraft don’t melt on its surface, allowing us greater access to uncover its secrets. Furthermore, thanks to the lack of recycling plate tectonics on the planet, four billion-year-old rocks are directly accessible to our landers and rovers exploring its surface. Meanwhile our orbiters, including Mars Express, which has been surveying the planet for more than 15 years, are constantly finding evidence for its once flowing waters, oceans and lakes, giving a tantalizing hope that it might have once supported life.

The Red Planet too would have started out with a thicker atmosphere thanks to the delivery of volatiles from asteroids and comets, and volcanic outgassing from the planet as its rocky interior cooled down. It simply couldn’t hold on to its atmosphere most likely because of its smaller mass and lower gravity. In addition, its initial higher temperature would have given more energy to gas molecules in the atmosphere, allowing them to escape more easily. And, having also lost its global magnetic field early in its history, the remaining atmosphere was subsequently exposed to the solar wind – a continuous flow of charged particles from the Sun – that, just as on Venus, continues to strip away the atmosphere even today.

With a decreased atmosphere, the surface water moved underground, released as vast flash-floods only when impacts heated the ground and released the subsurface water and ice. It is also locked up in the polar ice caps. Mars Express also recently detected a pool of liquid water buried within two kilometers of the surface. Could evidence of life also be underground? This question is at the heart of Europe’s ExoMars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020 and land in 2021 to drill up to two meters below the surface to retrieve and analyze samples in search for biomarkers.

Mars Dried Out River Valley Network

This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a network of dried-up valleys on Mars, and comprises data gathered on 19 November 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18831. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Mars is thought to be currently coming out of an ice age. Like Earth, Mars is sensitive to changes in factors such as the tilt of its rotational axis as it orbits the Sun; it is thought that the stability of water at the surface has varied over thousands to millions of years as the axial tilt of the planet and its distance from the Sun undergo cyclical changes. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, currently investigating the Red Planet from orbit, recently detected hydrated material in equatorial regions that could represent former locations of the planet’s poles in the past.

The Trace Gas Orbiter’s primary mission is to conduct a precise inventory of the planet’s atmosphere, in particular the trace gases which make up less than 1% of the planet’s total volume of atmosphere. Of particular interest is methane, which on Earth is produced largely by biological activity, and also by natural and geological processes. Hints of methane have previously been reported by Mars Express, and later by NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of the planet, but the Trace Gas Orbiter’s highly sensitive instruments have so far reported a general absence of the gas, deepening the mystery. In order to corroborate the different results, scientists are not only investigating how methane might be created, but also how it might be destroyed close to the surface. Not all lifeforms generate methane, however, and the rover with its underground drill will hopefully be able to tell us more. Certainly, the continued exploration of the Red Planet will help us understand how and why Mars’ habitability potential has changed over time.

Exploring farther

Despite starting with the same ingredients, Earth’s neighbors suffered devastating climate catastrophes and could not hold on to their water for long. Venus became too hot and Mars too cold; only Earth became the ‘Goldilocks’ planet with the just-right conditions. Did we come close to becoming Mars-like in a previous ice age? How close are we to the runaway greenhouse effect that plagues Venus? Understanding the evolution of these planets and the role of their atmospheres is tremendously important for understanding climatic changes on our own planet as ultimately the same laws of physics govern all. The data returned from our orbiting spacecraft provide natural reminders that climate stability is not something to be taken for granted.

In any case, in the very long term – billions of years into the future – a greenhouse Earth is an inevitable outcome at the hands of the aging Sun. Our once life-giving star will eventually swell and brighten, injecting enough heat into Earth’s delicate system to boil our oceans, sending it down the same pathway as its evil twin.

Source: – SciTechDaily

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To the Moon and Back Again – Georgia Southern University Newsroom



Alumnus Helping NASA Return to the Moon by 2024

No one on Earth has stepped foot on the Moon since Apollo 17 landed there in December 1972. But NASA is relying on the new space exploration program, Artemis, to change history and take the first woman and the next man to the moon by 2024.

Georgia Southern alumnus Andy Warren (’87) is one of the engineers helping NASA return astronauts to the moon. He started his career with the space agency in 1988, two years after the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

“I was looking for a job and they were hiring. Honestly it was never something I thought about doing growing up but it gets in your blood,” Warren said. “It’s very exciting and fulfilling work. I have a passion for it.”

Warren works at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, as manager of the Cross-Program Integration team for NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). A team at MSFC is designing the powerful SLS rocket that will send the crew in the Orion spacecraft to the moon and eventually to Mars. The Orion crew capsule is being developed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the ground systems including the launch pad are being handled by a team at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Warren said the cross-agency team “ensures that the systems, including the rocket components, all work together when the flight vehicle gets assembled and launched at KSC.”

Prior to the Artemis program, Warren worked on the Space Shuttle program in various capacities from 1988 through the last mission in 2011. In his early years, he worked on ground systems including the large cranes that were used to assemble the shuttle. After that, he served as the management intern to the launch director, the person who gives the final “go” for launch on launch day.

“I sat right next to him in the control room during several shuttle launches,” said Warren, who grew up in North Augusta, South Carolina. “It was an amazing experience because you could just feel the raw power. You could actually physically feel it rumbling off the launch pad.”

Remembering a Shuttle Distaster

Warren was a Georgia Southern student when he watched the Challenger explosion. It was later determined that the accident was caused by the solid rocket booster O-rings not working properly at cold temperatures. During Shuttle mission STS-132 in May 2010, Warren served as the solid rocket booster representative on the Shuttle Mission Management Team and gave the final concurrence (“go”) that the solid rocket boosters were safe for launch.

“It was one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “When talking with students, I present it in the context that there’s nothing special about me, but you never know where you’ll end up and the opportunities that you’ll have in the future if you apply yourself.”

As the Cross-Program Integration manager for the SLS program, Warren is excited about the upcoming test of the ambitious rocket that has been in development for the past decade. The SLS relies on long-proven hardware from the space shuttle, including the engines and solid-fuel boosters. But the rocket is different in that it has been designed for launching both astronauts and robotic scientific missions for deep space exploration hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth, while the space shuttle was designed for travel a few hundred miles above the Earth.

“Our first flight will be a test to demonstrate the ground systems, rocket and crew systems. It will go around the back of the moon next year,” Warren said. “Then about two years later, we’ll launch astronauts in the Orion crew capsule beyond the moon and back to Earth. That’s further than any humans have ever been from Earth. Then we’ll launch a crew, which will land on the moon.”

As NASA embarks on this next era of space flight, Warren is confident it will inspire a new generation of explorers.

“I think the future is really bright,” he said. “In the 60s, we had the beginnings of space flight and ever since we went to the moon, people have been dreaming of going to Mars and deep space exploration. And now we’re actually building the rockets. We dream big and we’re currently building a really big rocket to achieve those dreams.”

Warren is an active Georgia Southern alumnus. He serves on the College of Science and Mathematics advisory board and returns to campus every year to meet with students, professors and administrators. — Sandra Bennett

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