NASA revises Mars’ sample return plan to use helicopters – Ars Technica
On Wednesday, NASA announced that it had made major changes to its plan for returning samples from the surface of Mars in the early 2030s. Currently being collected by the Perseverance rover, the samples are set to be moved to Earth by a relay of rovers and rockets. Now, inspired by the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, NASA is saying it can lose one of the rovers, replacing it with a pair of helicopters instead.
The Mars sample return plan involves a large collection of challenges, but a central one is that the samples are currently in Perseverance, but eventually have to end up in a rocket that takes off from the surface of Mars. That means that Perseverance will have to get close enough to the rocket’s landing site—which we can’t choose precisely—to exchange the samples, possibly diverting it from scientific objectives. It also can’t be too close when the rocket lands since the rocket’s landing and its associated hardware could pose a risk to the rover and its samples.
The original plan included a contingency. Perseverance would approach after the rocket had landed, and the samples would be transferred directly. If that didn’t work out for whatever reason, a second rover sent to Mars by the ESA would act as an intermediary, visiting a site where the samples had been cached, retrieving them, and then delivering them to the rocket.
In the new plan, that second rover has been eliminated. In its place? Two helicopters. These will be delivered as part of the same payload as the rocket carrying the samples to orbit. As a result, the new plan involves only a single lander (beyond the one that delivered Perseverance) that will carry both the rocket and the helicopters, significantly lowering the risk of the overall plan.
These helicopters, naturally, will be based on the design of Ingenuity, which was sent to Mars as a test vehicle and significantly outperformed expectations, completing 29 flights over a year. Given that experience, NASA is confident that helicopters can be designed to carry small payloads and potentially complete multiple flights between the return rocket and wherever the samples are located—either on Perseverance or at a cache location.
After that, the plan remains the same. The samples will be loaded into a container placed on the NASA-designed Mars Ascent Vehicle carrying them to orbit. There, the container will be transferred to the Earth Return Orbiter, built by ESA, which will get them back to Earth in 2033, at which point they will drop through the atmosphere for retrieval and study.
The next step will be approval by ESA, after which both agencies will start the preliminary design phase, which will handle all the details on the different vehicles that will be needed. Meanwhile, Perseverance has already gathered a dozen samples from the surface of the red planet.
The SpaceX steamroller has shifted into a higher gear this year – Ars Technica
Is it possible that SpaceX has succeeded in making orbital launches boring? Increasingly, the answer to this question appears to be yes.
On Friday the California-based company launched two Falcon 9 rockets within the span of just a little more than four hours. At 12:26 pm local time, a Falcon 9 rocket carried 52 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit from a launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. A mere 4 hours and 12 minutes later, another Falcon 9 rocket delivered two large communications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit for the Luxembourg-based satellite company SES from Kennedy Space Center.
This broke SpaceX’s own record for the shortest time duration between two launches. However, the overall record for the lowest time between two launches of the same rocket still belongs to the Russian-built Soyuz vehicle. In June 2013, Roscosmos launched a Soyuz booster from Kazakhstan, and Arianespace launched a Soyuz from French Guiana within two hours. Those launches were conducted by two separate space agencies, on separate continents, however.
Friday’s launch of the two SES satellites was, overall, SpaceX’s 19th orbital mission for the calendar year. As of today, the company is launching a Falcon rocket every 4.1 days and remains on pace to launch approximately 90 rockets before the end of 2023.
To put this into perspective, a decade ago, the United States launched an average of 15 to 20 orbital rockets a year, total. In 2022, the United States recorded its most launches in any calendar year, ever, with 78 orbital flights. This year, barring a catastrophic accident with the Falcon 9 booster, that number will easily get into triple digits. The all-time record for orbital launches in a single year is held by the Soviet Union, with 101, in 1982.
A decade ago, SpaceX was still an upstart in the global launch industry. In the year 2013, it launched the Falcon 9 rocket a grand total of three times in a single year for the first time. This was actually a pretty monumental achievement for the company, as it introduced both its second launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base and a substantially upgraded variant, 1.1, of the Falcon 9 rocket. It also flew commercial missions for the first time and began experimenting with ocean-based landings.
In that competitive environment a decade ago, SpaceX still lagged far behind its main competitors, including Roscosmos, Europe-based Arianespace, and US-based United Launch Alliance. This year those numbers have swung massively around. Through today, Russia has launched three rockets, two Soyuz and one Proton, in 2023. Arianespace has yet to launch a single mission, and nor has United Launch Alliance.
No longer a competition
Put another way, SpaceX’s main competitors over the last decade have launched three rockets this year. SpaceX, by comparison, just launched three rockets in three days, including the CRS-27 mission flown for NASA on the evening of March 14. Increasingly, only the combined efforts of China’s government and its nascent commercial launch sector can pose a challenge to SpaceX’s launch dominance. That nation has a total of 11 orbital launches this year.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he would like the launch industry to achieve airline-like operations with rockets one day. His company is not there yet, as it takes a couple of weeks to land, refurbish, and relaunch a Falcon 9 first stage. Each mission still requires a brand-new second stage. And the fastest turnaround time at its three launch pads, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Vandenberg in California, is still about a week for each facility.
But they sure have come a long way in a decade.
Scientists Identify Intense Heatwaves At The Bottom Of Ocean
Global warming is causing temperature across the globe to rise. The rate has increased in the last decades, with climatologists warning of the extreme effects that the mankind has to experience. The scientists have also been tracking temperature data streaming in from ocean surfaces. But in a shocking discovery, they have found that marine heatwaves can unfold deep underwater too, even if there is no detectable warming signal above. The discovery is based on new modelling led by researchers at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The research detailing the underwater heatwave has been published in Nature Communications.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to really dive deeper and assess how these extreme events unfold along shallow seafloors,” the study’s lead author Dillon Amaya, a climate scientist with NOAA’s Physical Science Laboratory, is quoted as saying by Science Direct.
It is based on the analysis of underwater temperature of continental shelf waters surrounding North America.
“This research is particularly significant as the oceans continue to warm, not only at the surface but also at depth, impacting marine habitat along continental shelves,” said co-author Clara Deser.
The scientists found that marine heatwaves can be more intense and last longer than hot spells at the ocean surface, though it varies from coast to coast.
The simulations found that bottom marine heatwave and surface marine heatwave tend to occur at the same time in shallow regions where surface and bottom waters mingle. But in deeper parts of the oceans, bottom marine heatwaves can develop without any indication of warming at the surface.
Temperature spikes along the seafloor ranged from half a degree Celsius up to 5 degrees Celsius, the research further found.
According to NOAA, marine heatwaves are periods of persistent anomalously warm ocean temperatures, which can have significant impacts on marine life as well as coastal communities and economies.
According to data, about 90 per cent of the excess heat from global warming has been absorbed by the ocean, which has warmed by about 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past century.
Watch the Chelyabinsk Meteor Breakup in this Detailed Simulation
The people of Chelyabinsk in Russia got the surprise of their lives on the morning of February 15, 2013. That’s when a small asteroid exploded overhead. The resulting shockwave damaged buildings, injured people, and sent a sonic boom thundering across the region.
The Chelyabinsk impactor was about 20 meters across. It broke up in the atmosphere in an airburst and sent a shower of debris across the landscape. The event awakened people to the dangers of incoming space debris. Since we experience frequent warnings about near-Earth objects, scientists want to understand what a piece of space rock can do.
These days, there are many observation programs across the planet. For example, NASA operates its Sentry System and ESA sponsors the NEODyS project. They and others track incoming space rock. The observation data help predict the impacts of all but the very smallest asteroid chunks that come our way. Despite those programs, it’s inevitable that something like the Chelyabinsk asteroid chunk will slip through. So, it’s important to understand what happens during such an impact.
Modeling the Chelyabinsk Meteor
Scientists around the world began studying the event almost as soon as it happened. They collected bits of the debris and studied images of the entire event. Researchers with the Planetary Defense program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently released a highly detailed 3D animation of a simulated chunk of space rock modeled after the Chelyabinsk impactor. They based the materials of the object in their animation on meteorites recovered from the ground.
Because people recorded the event with cell phones and security cameras, the team compared their model to what everybody witnessed. It turned out to be very close to what actually happened.
“This is something that can really only be captured with 3D simulation,” said Jason Pearl, lead researcher on the project. “When you combine LLNL’s specialized expertise in impact physics and hydrocodes with the Lab’s state-of-the-art High Performance Computing capabilities, we were uniquely positioned to model and simulate the meteor in full 3D. Our research underlines the importance of using these types of high-fidelity models to understand asteroid airburst events. A lot of smaller asteroids are rubble piles or loosely bound collections of space gravel, so the possibility of a monolith is really interesting.”
So, How Did the Chelyabinsk Object Shatter?
The most often-asked question about the rock that smacked into Earth over Russia was: was it a single chunk of debris? Or was it a flying rubble pile? If it was a monolithic chunk of rock, that would imply specific details about the strength of the rock and how it broke up. If it was a flying rubble pile, it might have broken up earlier and higher in the atmosphere. The LLNL experiment implies strongly that the impact was a single monolithic rock. It broke up under the heat and pressure of atmospheric entry.
To model the impactor and its behavior, the research team used a computational method called “smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH).” It models an object in a fluidic flow. In this case, it treats the atmosphere as a fluid. The model also simulates what happens as a Chelyabinsk-sized hunk of rock moves through the simulated air.
In their simulation, the team found that the incoming object started to break up from the rear and the cracks moved from back to front. The timescale of crack propagation toward the front of the asteroid controls the time at which the asteroid splits into smaller fragments while entering Earth’s atmosphere. A collection of fragments lies near the shock front and that shields the rest of the fragmenting rock. Finally, when the impactor reaches about 30 kilometers above Earth’s surface, intact fragments separate. That’s when the debris is exposed to the free stream. Eventually, the debris cloud decelerates very quickly and the remaining fragments continue to break up as they fly through the air toward the ground.
The Physics of the Breakup
The disintegration of the Chelyabinsk object provided scientists with a “physics-rich” event to study. According to LLNL physicist Mike Owen, the coupling of the asteroid to the atmosphere depends on how much surface area it has. The greater the surface area, the more exposure it has to heat, stress and pressure. Those all combine to break it up.
“As the asteroid enters the atmosphere, you start to have sort of a catastrophic failure,” Owen said. “And it tends to compress in the direction of travel. It was like the asteroid was being squeezed in the direction of travel, breaking into distinct pieces that started to separate and break perpendicular to the direction of travel. All of a sudden, you’ve got a lot more material being exposed to the hypersonic interaction with the air, a lot more heat being dumped in, a lot more stress on it, which makes it break faster and you get sort of a cascading runaway process.”
Using Chelyabinsk To Understand Future Impacts
Models of impactors like this one provide insight into future events when chunks of space rock will hit Earth. One long-term goal would be to use such models to assess what will happen to a target region during an impact. Meteoric impacts are natural disasters that affect our planet just as fires and floods do. As such, there’s a need to predict and understand them so that people can be more prepared.
Researcher Cody Raskin points to our increased ability to detect such incoming impactors. “If we can see a small asteroid approaching Earth in time, we could run our model and inform authorities of the potential risk, similar to a hurricane map,” said Raskin. “They could then take appropriate protective actions, such as evacuating residents or issuing shelter-in-place orders, ultimately saving lives.”
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