Axios Space

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July 28, 2020

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1 big thing: The end of the beginning of Mars exploration

Illustration of an astronaut standing on Mars.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

NASA's next Mars rover ushers in a new chapter of exploration for the space agency that will eventually be defined by human missions to the Red Planet.

Why it matters: Rovers, landers and orbiters have beamed back invaluable data about Mars for decades, but the next phase in exploration depends on human explorers. One astronaut conducting science on Mars' surface could yield more efficient and quicker results than even the most advanced robot.

What's happening: NASA's Perseverance rover — expected to launch to Mars Thursday on a mission to hunt for signs of past life on the distant world — marks the culmination of decades of robotic exploration of the Red Planet.

  • NASA has methodically "followed the water" on Mars for the past 20 years, and it's progressively found evidence that the planet was once habitable and pinpointed areas where life may have been preserved, like Perseverance's landing site in Jezero Crater.
  • Perseverance, however, is the first mission with a real shot at finding actual signs of past life on the Red Planet.
  • "It's what we've been building up to for a long time now," planetary scientist Briony Horgan of Purdue University told me.

The big picture: This new chapter of exploration will also allow NASA to learn more about what's needed to make a human mission successful.

  • One of the experiments — called MOXIE — flying to Mars aboard Perseverance is designed to figure out how to draw oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere, a piece of tech that could eventually be used by crews.
  • But more than the practical elements of finding ways for people to survive on Mars for the long haul, Perseverance opens the door for future missions that will map ice and water on the planet that can be studied and eventually used by explorers.
  • "I see easily a couple more decades of this adventure unfolding," Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, told me, referencing the future of human and robotic missions to the Red Planet.

Between the lines: Perseverance will also set up future robotic missions with its work on the Martian surface.

  • Scientists using the rover will cache samples of interesting rocks and dirt that will be stored on the planet and eventually returned to Earth using a robotic sample return mission in the early 2030s.
  • Those samples will allow scientists back on Earth to figure out exactly when Martian rocks formed, giving them a keen sense of the geological history — and possibly the history of life — on the planet.
  • Some rocks could even help to determine the temperature of the Martian lake they were formed within.
"All of the things that we understand about the Earth from, for example, geology and geochemistry — they perfectly apply on Mars."
— Kenneth Farley, Perseverance project scientist

What's next: NASA plans to use the Moon and its Artemis program as a staging ground to get to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

  • The space agency is also going to have to decide where its robotic Martian exploration program goes from here, with some scientists advocating for smaller, less-expensive missions to help gather new data alongside the larger-ticket spacecraft.

2. A Martian helicopter — and more

Artist's illustration of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter.

Artist's illustration of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance will carry new tech to Mars that represents major technological advances since NASA's last rover — Curiosity — landed on the Red Planet in 2012.

Why it matters: These new experiments and technology demonstrations will fill in gaps in knowledge scientists have about the world and set up future robotic missions in the process.

Details: NASA's Ingenuity helicopter heading to Mars with Perseverance is a technology demonstration designed to autonomously fly through Mars' thin atmosphere as a proof of concept for a full-scale mission in the future.

  • "After receiving commands from Earth relayed through the rover, each test flight is performed without real-time input from Mars Helicopter mission controllers," NASA wrote in a fact sheet.
  • Perseverance will also record sounds from the surface of Mars and during its landing once it arrives about seven months after launch.
  • The scientific tool will allow scientists to listen in as the rover performs its tasks and possibly aid in experiments as Perseverance uses its powerful laser to investigate the composition of Martian rocks.
  • Perseverance's SHERLOC instrument, which is mounted to the rover's robotic arm, will search for organic compounds and possible biosignatures on Mars while also testing out pieces of spacesuit fabric for future human missions.

The big picture: All of these instruments will give scientists a more comprehensive look at Mars than they've had in the past, adding to the data collected by other rovers, landers and orbiters over the decades.

What to watch: Perseverance and all of its technological goodies are expected to leave for Mars Thursday at 7:50am ET from Florida atop a ULA Atlas V rocket.

  • You can watch the launch live via NASA TV starting at 7am ET and follow the Space channel on the Axios app for continuing coverage of the mission.

3. What we know about Russia's ASAT test

Earth as seen from orbit

Earth from orbit. Photo: NASA

On July 15, Russia ratcheted up international tensions by testing what appears to be a weapon to destroy enemy satellites in space, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

  • But this is far from the first time the country has put on a display of force in orbit.

Why it matters: Russia has been building out its space weapons capabilities for years. The recent test — which did not destroy a satellite — comes after Russia staged another anti-satellite test of a different kind of system in April.

Driving the news: On July 15, Russia's Cosmos 2543 satellite appeared to release a projectile near another Russian satellite.

  • Cosmos 2543 had been flying near a powerful U.S. spy satellite before the test.
  • The test may be part of a Russian program to develop a space-based anti-satellite weapon that could one day be launched from aircraft, the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden tells me.
  • However, information is sparse, and it's not clear exactly where this test fits in within Russia's broader capabilities.
  • The test was also similar to another Russian test staged in 2017.

The big picture: Space is a warfighting domain. The U.S. military relies on satellite imagery and other data beamed back to Earth by a small group of extremely powerful satellites to make accurate decisions about strategy.

  • That small number of high-powered National Reconnaissance Office satellites can actually be something of a liability for the U.S., Weeden added.
  • This small number of particularly expensive satellites make them very high-value targets, putting them at risk.
  • On the other hand: "China has been developing a lot of these similar capabilities, but they're doing it a different way. So they have satellites that do imagery and signals and stuff, but they've got like 140 of them," Weeden said. "They're not nearly as good as what the NRO has, but they're good enough."

4. Out of this world reading list

Clouds dotting Mars above its surface

A time lapse of Martian weather in 2018. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Coming of age on Mars (Dennis Overbye, New York Times)

A faraway solar system is an uncanny reflection of our own (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

Democratic platform calls for continuity in NASA programs (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

China launches ambitious mission on journey to Mars (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: Sunrise from space

A small spot of sunlight appearing on the blue limb of the Earth from the International Space Station.

Photo: Bob Behnken/NASA

Crewmembers on the International Space Station experience 16 sunrises and sunsets each day as their orbiting home fully circles the Earth every 90 minutes.

  • NASA astronaut Bob Behnken captured this photo of one of those sunrises from his post on the station this week.
  • Behnken and his fellow SpaceX Crew Dragon astronaut Doug Hurley are probably soaking in these final views before their expected return to Earth on Sunday.

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