Jul 14, 2020

Axios Space

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1 big thing: The summer of Mars

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Three missions to Mars from three nations are expected to take flight this summer, putting on stark display how varied planetary missions have become in recent years.

Why it matters: More nations are now going to space as the costs of launch and development are driven down. Mars is a step further that is reserved for those with the most ability and resources — missions to the planet are a new mark of scientific and technical prowess on the global stage.

Details: The UAE's Hope probe is designed to keep an eye on Mars' weather patterns from orbit and fill in gaps in knowledge left by previous orbiters.

  • China's Mars mission — which includes an orbiter, lander and a rover — would be the country's first solo one to the planet.
  • NASA's Perseverance rover is expected to hunt for signs of past life on Mars from its landing site.

Between the lines: The three efforts all aim to help piece together Mars' past and current environment and suitability for life, and reflect a global push deeper into space that is driven by both science and geopolitics.

  • The U.S. is the only nation to successfully land and operate rovers on the Martian surface, and expectations for Perseverance are high.
  • The rover is designed to cache interesting samples of rock and dirt on Mars that will eventually be returned to Earth for analysis on a future robotic mission, complex work that sets the stage for eventual crewed missions to the Red Planet.
  • China and the UAE's missions, on the other hand, will be historic feats if they simply get to Mars at all and reflect their increasing presence in space.

State of play: The UAE is looking to its Hope mission — which is expected to launch Thursday — as a way to help boost scientific and technical know-how in the Middle East.

  • UAE leaders want science to be "deeply integrated" into the nation's economy, Omran Sharaf, the project lead for Hope, told me. "They wanted to set the standards for the sectors that are involved by basically using space as a driver. Why? Because space standards are the highest."
  • The UAE also sees the mission as a way to refocus the world's attention on the Middle East's history of scientific discovery and invention as well as find a way to bring young workers into the economy.
"In 2010, we weren't even talking about exploring other planets. We were talking about what other advancements in Earth observation satellites we want to have."
— Sarah al-Amiri, deputy project manager for Hope

The intrigue: All three of these missions had to contend with issues around the coronavirus pandemic in order to get to the launch pad this summer.

  • NASA prioritized work on Perseverance during the pandemic because the window to launch to Mars only comes around every two years.
  • Europe and Russia's ExoMars mission, on the other hand, wasn't able to get to the launch pad in part due to limits on travel imposed by the coronavirus.
2. Updating planetary protection rules

Earthrise. Photo: NASA

NASA is loosening some of its guidelines around how to best protect the Moon and Mars from contamination by Earthly microbes that could be introduced by robotic and human missions.

Why it matters: Planetary protection measures are designed to help make sure that, if scientists ever do find life on another world, it isn't just our own microbes that got a toehold elsewhere after hitching a ride to distant space.

Driving the news: NASA introduced two new planetary protection directives last week focusing on the Moon and Mars that are the result of years of study, including a report released in 2019 that urged NASA to relax these guidelines.

Details: The new, more lenient guidelines are designed to open up new avenues for research and exploration while reflecting current scientific best practices for planetary protection.

  • And it's not one size fits all. Under the new guidance, much of the Moon will now be classified as "Category 1," instead of "Category 2," which means there will be no specific restrictions for planetary protection around many of the human or robotic missions to the Moon launching in the coming years.
  • However, some parts of the Moon will still remain Category 2 in order to protect sites, including icy craters, that have even a small probability of supporting life.
  • "We need to make sure that when we go to the Moon, we're protecting those very important scientific sites where there is a risk of harmfully ... powerfully contaminating the Moon from a biological perspective," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during an event announcing the changes.

Planetary protection measures for Mars, on the other hand, will remain the same under a second directive, with stringent protocols for robotic missions launching from Earth to limit microbes heading to the Red Planet, but will allow for future human missions.

What to watch: The Mars directive calls on NASA to continue updating its guidelines as data is collected that can help scientists learn more about whether certain parts of the world are habitable.

  • “The challenge with Mars is that we simply don’t yet have enough information to know where it is we can go and where we shouldn’t go and where we can go, but we need to be more careful than other places," Bridenstine added.
3. Spot a bright comet this month

Comet NEOWISE seen from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

A bright comet is gracing skies around the world this month, and from dark areas in the Northern Hemisphere, it's visible with the naked eye.

The big picture: This comet — named NEOWISE after the spacecraft that discovered it — likely won't be quite as spectacular as Comet Hale-Bopp was in 1997, but it will still make for good viewing for those who can see it.

How to spot it: Comet NEOWISE is now visible in the evening sky after making it through its close approach with the Sun on July 3 without breaking up.

  • According to Space.com, the best time to see the comet during the evening after sunset will be from today through July 19, as it climbs higher into the sky.
  • Right now, moonlight isn't a limiting factor and the comet is still close enough to shine relatively brightly.
  • While observers should be able to see the comet with the naked eye from dark areas, the icy object is best seen through binoculars, where details of the comet's tail and nucleus can really be appreciated.

Background: "In its discovery images, Comet NEOWISE appeared as a glowing, fuzzy dot moving across the sky even when it was still pretty far away," Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator, said in a NASA statement. "As soon as we saw how close it would come to the Sun, we had hopes that it would put on a good show."

  • Other comets this year, however, haven't been so lucky. Comet ATLAS, for example, seemed promising ahead of its close approach with the Sun, but it broke up as it got closer to the star.
4. Out of this world reading list

The city lights of Jazan on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Photo: NASA

Russian space chief questions NASA plans, praises partnership with China (Eric Berger, Ars Technica)

DOD awards $15 million Defense Production Act contract to LeoLabs (Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews)

Beyond the Milky Way, a galactic wall (Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

Artificial lights tell the story of the pandemic (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: 10 years of the Sun

Photo: NASA Goddard

Many spacecraft keep a close eye on the Sun, but perhaps the one with the most dramatic views is NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

  • An hour-long video from the SDO shows a decade of flares, orbits, sunspots and rotations of our nearest star.
  • Each second in the video represents a day from June 2, 2010, to June 1, 2020.
  • "From its orbit in space around the Earth, SDO has gathered 425 million high-resolution images of the Sun, amassing 20 million gigabytes of data over the past 10 years," NASA wrote in a video description.

Go deeper: Watch the full video and keep an eye out for a particularly gorgeous flare at about 13 minutes, 50 seconds.

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