Welcome back to This Week in Space! After a hiatus, we’re pleased to once again bring you our Friday morning digest of all things space-related. Let’s start with NASA news.
NASA has extended the missions of eight of its planetary-science spacecraft, thanks to their outstanding scientific productivity. The list: NASA’s InSight lander, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (the Curiosity rover), the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, New Horizons, and OSIRIS-REx.
Most of the listed missions are getting a three-year extension. However, NASA experts believe they can get nine more years out of OSIRIS-REx, assuming the stalwart spacecraft keeps doing as well as it’s done so far. In fact, OSIRIS is getting a new title with its promotion. The newly christened OSIRIS-APEX team will redirect the spacecraft toward a near-earth asteroid called Apophis.
This is probably the last extension for InSight, as mission scientists are finally drawing the spacecraft’s operations on Mars to a close. Hopefully we’ll get data until the end of 2022. The lander’s power reserves are waning, but the InSight team notes that next Martian summer, InSight may get a chance to charge itself back up.
“Extended missions provide us with the opportunity to leverage NASA’s large investments in exploration, allowing continued science operations at a cost far lower than developing a new mission,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA’s Washington HQ. “Maximizing taxpayer dollars in this way allows missions to obtain valuable new science data, and in some cases, NASA to explore new targets with totally new science goals.”
Ingenuity Spots Perseverance Rover’s Parachute
Ingenuity really is the little copter that could. After a year on Mars, it’s still going strong. In fact, on the one-year anniversary of its first flight, Ingenuity took off for a highly successful Flight 26. Its mission was to visit its own landing site. Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission engineers asked whether Ingenuity could get a decent photo of Perseverance’s protective backshell and landing chute. While Perseverance had only imaged the landing site from a distance, Ingenuity was happy to oblige with a close-up.
The backshell looks for all the world like a downed flying saucer, smashed up as it is by a highway-speed lithobraking event. And indeed, its purpose was to soak the impact, protecting Perseverance with its life. But the parachute and its rigging are apparently in great shape. The orange-and-white canopy “shows no signs of damage” from Mars atmospheric entry, despite braking from fifteen thousand miles an hour to a comfortable 78mph.
“NASA extended Ingenuity flight operations to perform pioneering flights such as this,” said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s team lead. “Every time we’re airborne, Ingenuity covers new ground and offers a perspective no previous planetary mission could achieve.”
Mars Sample Return Mission May Benefit
Ingenuity mission scientists expect their investigation of the backshell and parachute will take “several weeks.” Once it’s complete, Mars Sample Return mission scientists hope to use the results to ensure safer landings for future spacecraft. And that’s “spacecraft” in the plural sense. The MSR design team recently split the sample retrieval lander into two separate, smaller landers. At a meeting of the Space Studies Board, NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen explained the team’s reasoning. “The Phase A analysis demonstrated that, frankly, the single lander breaks entry, descent and landing heritage,” said Zurbuchen. “It is actually high risk.”
So, the MSR mission team is trying to make best use of the time between now and their slated launch date of 2028. Meanwhile, Perseverance continues to accumulate and cache samples for MSR to bring home. However, the imperled ESA ExoMars rover mission may further complicate the MSR’s already delayed timeline.
Ingenuity and Perseverance are currently surveying an ancient Martian river delta, named Three Forks for the three routes to the top. Their arrival at the delta marks the beginning of the mission’s main objective phase, called the Delta Front Campaign.
Perseverance spent a whole year crossing the flat bottom of an ancient crater lake that filled up with sediment. (It’s just like driving across Ohio, but Ohio has more corn.) Now that there’s some terrain, it’s time to start picking out scientific targets. Mission scientists are spoiled for choice; Percy is there to study rocks, and the whole region is cliffs and boulders. The Three Forks river delta itself looms 130 feet (40 meters) above the crater floor.
But the geological bounty comes with a cost. Thanks to all that rubble, only two of the delta’s three eponymous forks look passable. More recon sorties by Ingenuity will help mission scientists figure out which route is best.
‘An absolutely magnificent ride’
Closer to home, SpaceX launched four astronauts to the ISS on Wednesday, aboard a Crew Dragon newly named Freedom. The astronauts’ mission is known as Crew-4, and they will replace the Crew-3 astronauts who have lived and worked in microgravity on the ISS since November. cmdr. Kjell Lindgren and pilot Bob “Farmer” Hines are on the roster, alongside two female mission specialists. It’s the fifth such flight for NASA in the last two years, and the fourth launch for the Dragon’s reusable booster.
“We had an absolutely magnificent ride into low Earth orbit on an F9 booster and the Freedom capsule,” Lindgren said. “It was a really smooth ride. And the Gs were pretty amazing.”
“It was just incredible,” Hines added. “That ride, especially on the second stage, it was just really eye-watering, it was awesome.”
The launch came less than two days after SpaceX’s previous crewed mission — itself a first — safely splashed down off the coast of Georgia. “If we look tired, it’s maybe because we are a bit tired,” remarked Kathy Lueders, the leader of NASA’s space operations mission directorate. What a busy week in NASA space operations. Less than 40 hours ago we [landed] our first private astronaut mission, and the team carefully went through that data and then set up for the Crew-4 launch.”
Crew-4 Mission Arrrives Safely at ISS
The Crew-4 mission is also a milestone for representation. This is the first NASA crew to boast equal numbers of men and women. Flying with Crew-4 colleagues Lindgren and Hines, Samantha Cristoforetti, 44, is a veteran ESA astronaut and an decorated Italian fighter pilot. Cristoforetti previously spent 199 days aboard the ISS, during a research mission from 2014-2015. The ISS will also welcome Crew-4 planetary geologist Jessica Watkins for a four-month mission. Watkins, 33, will become the first Black woman to stay on the ISS for such a long-term mission, during which she’ll make the ISS her second home in the skies. As a planetary geologist, Watkins is also on NASA’s shortlist for a future lunar mission.
“I think, for me, the part that was the most awesome of the whole ride was definitely the view,” said Watkins, shortly after the Dragon made berth at the ISS. “Right as we were coming in for docking, we were starting to get suits on and starting to prepare and just had time to take a last-minute look out the window, and we could see the space station kind of off in the distance. ”
Skywatch: With Venus and Jupiter in Conjunction, Saturn and Mars Align
Finally, speaking of a beautiful view, let’s take a look up at what’s going on in the night skies.
Solar weather has been quiet this week; NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center expects a minor (G1) geomagnetic storm this afternoon, and then calm skies through the weekend.
Saturday, April 30 will be a great opportunity for skywatchers. And you don’t even need a telescope! A striking combination of Venus and Jupiter will reach its peak at about 19 UTC (3pm ET). The planets have been sailing slowly toward one another for weeks; tonight, they’ll only be a little more than a degree apart. But Saturday afternoon, Venus and Jupiter will be separated by just 0.2 degrees. Despite being hundreds of millions of miles apart, the two planets will appear to touch. While Venus and Jupiter conduct their stately dance, Mars and Saturn will also be visible, aligned roughly to the north of the conjunction.
The celestial show will go on all night and into daybreak. Observers in the Northern Hemisphere should look to the southeastern horizon about an hour before dawn. According to EarthSky, stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere will also be able to see the conjunction, but Venus and Jupiter will appear in the direction of sunrise, above the eastern horizon. Keep watching over the next few nights, and enjoy a moment’s kinship with the ancients. As the two planets begin to drift apart, you’ll see why ancient astronomers called them “wanderers.”