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NASA chooses Canadian scientist for a critical role in the 2020 Mars rover mission

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One of the main purposes of the mission is to determine if life once existed on Mars

Prof. Chris Herd, a geologist at the University of Alberta, has been selected to serve on an advisory board for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission in Edmonton, Alberta on Friday, December 16, 2016.

Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

The NASA Mars 2020 Rover is scheduled to launch this July, and a Canadian will take on an incredibly important role in the mission.

Chris Herd is a planetary geologist and professor at the University of Alberta. He is one of only 10 people, as well as the only Canadian, to be chosen by NASA for a role as a returned sample scientist on the first-ever mission to bring Mars rock samples back to Earth.


The Mars 2020 Rover is seen in the spacecraft assembly area clean room, December 27, 2019 during a media tour at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Once the rover makes landing on Feb. 18, 2021, it will be used to drill into rocks and collect rock samples on the red planet. The job of Herd and his colleagues will be to examine the surface in the area of Mars where the rover lands, and to choose where the rover drills.

“We want to be able to choose the exact spot where we take a sample, and where that sample is going to have the maximum scientific value when it comes back to earth,” Herd said in a phone interview.

Herd was chosen for the mission, in part, because he has spent his career analyzing meteorites that originated from Mars.


Fans and deltas formed by water and sediment are seen in the Jezero Crater on Mars, identified as a potential landing site for the Mars 2020 Rover, in this false colour image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, published May 15, 2019 and obtained November 15, 2019.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

The rover will land on Mars in the Jezero Crater. Three-and-a-half to four billion years ago, the crater was likely filled with water. If there was life on Mars at the time, evidence of life could be concentrated there.

“The best possible thing that we could imagine is that we find evidence for life having existed on Mars,” Herd said. “It’s a fundamental question for humanity: has life ever developed outside of the Earth?”

If everything goes according to plan, the samples will come to Earth in 2031. Herd says he hopes to analyze some of the prospective samples.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is funding Herd’s participation in the mission.

Tim Haltigin is the planetary senior mission scientist at the CSA. He stresses that the mission is important for both Canada, and the scientific community as a whole.

“We’re on the cusp of starting the first steps to achieve something that has been truly the holy grail of planetary exploration for many decades,” Haltigin said in a phone interview. “To have a Canadian on a mission of this profile really highlights Canadian expertise on the international stage.”

On top of being chosen for the project, Herd was also chosen to be a representative on the project science group, the scientific managing group for the whole mission.

“It’s a huge honour,” Herd says.

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Stargazer in Italy spots NASA's DART asteroid impact probe in night sky after launch – Space.com

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An Italian telescope captured NASA’s asteroid-smashing mission shortly after its launch into space this week. 

A new image and video, taken by the Elena telescope located in Ceccano, Italy, shows NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, also known as DART, separated from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket which launched the spacecraft from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Tuesday (Nov. 23 PST, or early Nov. 24 EST) . The mission sent DART on a 10-month-long journey to a binary asteroid system called Didymos

Both DART and the booster can be seen in this image (above), which was taken remotely with a single 30-second exposure, astronomer Gianluca Masi said in a statement. Masi runs the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0, which includes the Elena telescope.

The image was taken remotely 10 hours after DART lifted off, Masi said.

Related: NASA’s DART asteroid-impact mission explained in pictures

NASA’s DART spacecraft and a Falcon 9 second stage booster that launched it can be seen as two small dots at the center of this image capture a few hours after the mission’s launch. (Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project)

The robotic Elena telescope automatically tracked DART and the booster, both of which are visible at the center of the image as bright dots. The short white lines surrounding those two dots are stars in the background. When the image was taken, DART was about 93,000 miles (150,000 kilometers) from Earth, about half the distance between our planet and the moon, Masi said. 

In addition to the static image, the telescope also captured a short video sequence, which shows the separated second-stage booster blinking. This blinking, Masi said, is caused by the booster spinning. 

The pioneering DART mission will conduct a first-of-its-kind test that will show if and how a spacecraft can change the path of an asteroid by smashing into it. In September of next year, the spacecraft will ram into a 525-foot-wide (160 meters) asteroid “moonlet” known as Dimorphos, which orbits the larger space rock Didymos. The goal of the experiment is to alter Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos, shortening it by several minutes, to prove that such an intervention could divert the trajectory of a large asteroid if, in the future, one were to be on a path that threatened planet Earth.

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DART also carries a small cubesat called LICIACube, from Italy’s space agency, which will be released 10 days ahead of DART’s self-destructive impact and film the aftermath of the crash. 

In 2024, the European Space Agency (ESA) will also send a larger surveyor spacecraft called Hera to the asteroid system that will analyze the crater and gather data about Didymos’ and Dimorphos’ physical structure and chemical composition. By then, astronomers will have known whether DART deflected Dimorphos, thanks to ground-based observations. 

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Russia’s new module on ISS to offer docking opportunity for foreign spacecraft in future – TASS

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KOROLYOV /Moscow Region/, November 26. /TASS/. NASA and Roscosmos have begun talks on harmonizing technical standards of Crew Dragon spaceships with the Russian module and Russian spacecraft with the US segment on the International Space Station (ISS), Roscosmos Chief Dmitry Rogozin said at the Flight Control Center on Friday.

“NASA and Roscosmos have launched talks on harmonizing technical standards that will allow not only Crew Dragon or Russian spaceships to dock with the American segment but, in general, this docking is possible and will require an adapter,” Rogozin said, replying to a question about whether US spacecraft would be able to dock to Russia’s new Prichal nodal module.

The Prichal module’s docking completed the formation of the ISS Russian segment, the Roscosmos chief said.

The Prichal nodal module will also serve as a prototype for similar modules for the future Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS) that will be the ‘joints’ of its space body, Rogozin said.

“This is one of the most important prototypes for creating the ROSS whose architecture will differ from the ISS. It should employ the principle of eternal service life: modules that use up their potential will be detached from the station and it will be augmented in a different direction with the help of such nodal modules that will serve as some joints of a new and large metal design engineering body,” Rogozin said.

A Soyuz-2.1b carrier rocket with the Progress M-UM space freighter and the Prichal nodal module blasted off from Launch Pad No. 31 (‘Vostok’) of the Baikonur spaceport to the orbital outpost at 16:06 Moscow time on November 24. The flight to the orbital outpost took two days. The Prichal module docked with the Russian Nauka research lab on November 26.

The new module will boost the capabilities of Russian spaceships, including the latest Oryol spacecraft, to dock with the ISS. Overall, the new module will have five docking ports. The first docking of a manned spacecraft with the Prichal module is scheduled for March 18.

The spacecraft-module also delivered about 700 kg of various cargo to the ISS, including equipment and consumables, water purification, medical control including sanitary and hygienic supplies, maintenance and repair tools, as well as standard food rations for the 66th Main Expedition crew.

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Italy and France sign agreement on space launchers

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 Italy and France clinched an accord on Friday to strengthen their cooperation on space launchers as part of a broader bilateral treaty.

Among the goals laid out in the bilateral treaty were pledges to reinforce military connections, including at an industrial level, and work together in the space sector.

The two countries agreed to work together on liquid and solid propulsion and press ahead with the development of launchers Ariane 6 and Vega C, Italy’s innovation minister and France’s economy minister said in a joint press release.

Launchers are the second largest area of space-manufacturing activity in Europe after commercial satellites, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

For the development of Ariane 6, ESA is working with more than 600 companies in 13 European countries, led by prime contractor ArianeGroup, which is a joint venture of Airbus and Safran.

ESA is overseeing procurement and the architecture of the overall Vega-C launch system, while industry is building the rocket with Italy’s Avio as prime contractor.

 

(Reporting by Francesca Landini; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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