Space policy roundup – Feb.29.2020

A sampling of links to recent space policy, politics, and government (US and international) related space news and resource items that I found of interest (find previous space policy roundups here):


** The Space Show – Tue, 02/25/2020Dr. Namrata Goswami talked “about the new US Space Force, china, the Corona Virus and the Chinese space program, China space, India, Russia, US space visionary leadership, ESA, UAE, Luxembourg and more”.

** Clinton Clark – Space Situational Awareness with ExoAnalytic – Cold Star Project S02E21

Clinton Clark is the Vice President of First Impressions at ExoAnalytic Solutions, and our topic is space situational awareness.
– Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST)
– Space Domain Awareness (SDA)
– Space Traffic Management (STM)
– Space Situational Awareness (SSA)
are all terms–some newer than others–applicable to what ExoAnalytic does. Clint Clark and Cold Star Project host Jason Kanigan dig into what these terms mean, how the company goes about providing such services, and their impact on space. ExoAnalytic Solutions website:

** February 25, 2020 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast | Behind The Black


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Videos: “Space to Ground” ISS report – Feb.28.2020

Here is the latest episode in NASA’s Space to Ground weekly report on activities related to the International Space Station:

** “Down to Earth – A Work of Art

In this episode of “Down to Earth – A Work of Art,“ former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott recalls seeing home below during her time aboard the station. Stott explains how she experienced a shift in worldview known as “the Overview Effect,” a term coined by space philosopher Frank White.

** Jessica Meir speaks with students in Florida

In-flight event — Expedition 62 flight engineer Jessica Meir speaks with the Lee County School District in Florida.

** Space Station Crew Member Swears in Army Recruits

Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Drew Morgan of NASA, a colonel in the U.S. Army, swore in new Army recruits gathered at the Space Center Houston visitors center in a ceremony conducted from orbit Feb. 26. Morgan, who launched to the orbital complex last July, is slated to return to Earth April 17 to complete a 272-day mission.

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Student and amateur CubeSat news roundup – Feb.27.2020

A sampling of recent articles, press releases, etc. related to student and amateur CubeSat / SmallSat projects and programs (find previous smallsat roundups here):

** Univ. of Maine MESAT1 CubeSat project to involve high schools in environmental data analysis:

“We offered to kind of lead this effort,” said Ali Abedi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMaine and director of UMaine’s Center for Undergraduate Research. “The University of Maine will build the satellite, will work with NASA to launch it, and we’ll provide the data to middle schools and high schools.”

Graduate students from UMaine and undergraduate students from the University of Southern Maine will be involved in designing, developing and testing the small satellite, which will be about the size of a loaf of bread.

** Two university CubeSat projects underway in the Philippines: Scholars develop nanosatellites – Manila Bulletin News

Two nanosatellites which will be the first “Philippine university-built”, are slated for launch in the last quarter of the year, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) said.

The Maya 3 and Maya 4 cube satellites (CubeSat) are currently being developed by the first batch of scholars under the local nanosatellite engineering track in the Master of Science/Master of Electrical Engineering (MSEE/MSEE) graduate program at the University of the Philippines (UPD), through a scholarship grant from the DOST – Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI).

See also Maya-4 @ Nanosats Database.

** AMSAT news on student and amateur CubeSat/smallsat projects: ANS-054 AMSAT News Service Special Bulletin

  • QARMAN and Phoenix CubeSats Deployed from ISS
  • AMSAT Files Comments Opposing Deletion of 3.4 GHz Band
  • NEMO-1 Buoy Report
  • GNU Radio Conference – Tickets and Call for Papers
  • U.S. Naval Academy’s PSAT3 Scheduled to Launch in Mid-March
  • Changes to AMSAT-NA TLE Distribution
  • “Getting Started with Amateur Satellites” Available with Membership
  • ARISS Radio Telebridge Stalwart Gerald Klatzko, ZS6BTD, SK
  • Upcoming ARISS Contacts
  • Hamfests, Conventions, Maker Faires, and Other Events
  • Upcoming Satellite Operations
  • Satellite Shorts From All Over

General CubeSat/SmallSat info:

** ASU’s Phoenix CubeSat deployment from the ISS:

** Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer – On Orbit Assembly – Drew Morgan

Check out this great time lapse of Astronaut Drew Morgan preparing the 17th Nanoracks CubeSat Deployment Mission on the International Space Station! Nanoracks deployed nine satellites in February 2020 as a part of this mission.

** Building CubeSats to test electrodynamic tethering in space with MiTEE

Electrodynamic tethering could enable coordinated fleets of tens to hundreds of miniature satellites, transforming the way we monitor natural disasters, space weather and the broader space environment by eliminating the need for propellant to maintain a proper orbit and formation:

Mi-TEE (Miniature Tether Electrodynamics Experiment) is a University of Engineering project that aims to test the tethering technology in space. The project was selected by NASA in 2015 as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative. The experiment is currently expected to launch in 2020.

The project is currently organized through U-M’s Multidisciplinary Design Program, and is advised by Brian Gilchrist, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of U-M’s Space Physics Research Laboratory (SPRL).

** Jeff Dillon – Cubesat to Mars – 22nd Annual International Mars Society Convention

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Space transport roundup – Feb.26.2020

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here):

** First orbital Astra orbital rocket launch is currently set for liftoff from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island during the window 3:30-6:30 pm EST ( 2030-2330 GMT)on February 27th: Astra, DARPA prepare for upcoming launch challenge –

Thursday’s launch will be the third for Astra, coming after two launches in July and November 2018. Both launched from the PSCA in Alaska. These were originally believed to be failures. However, Astra stated that the first was successful, and the second was only “shorter than planned”. Neither were designed to reach orbit, as they didn’t have functioning second stages.

The company was known for operating in almost complete secrecy. Very little was known about their rockets, tests, and launch attempts. The only public sighting of an Astra rocket was by a news helicopter in early 2018. Their first rocket, named “Rocket 1.0”, was spotted being readied for a test at the former Naval Air Station Alameda in Alameda, California – just down the street from their factory.

However, Astra recently came out of the shadows, and has released some information about their operations.

Their current rocket, named “Rocket 3.0”, is a two-stage, five-engine, kerosene and liquid oxygen-powered rocket. The pumps of the first stage engines are powered by electric motors, similar to the Rutherford engines on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

A DARPA video about Astra:

More about Astra‘s rockets from Scott Manley:

About 18 Months ago I covered Astra, a small rocket startup based only a few miles from my home. They were still a ‘Stealth’ company, and would not publicly acknowledge what they were doing, even after a pair of suborbital tests which failed due to engine problems. However they’re now speaking publicly, and making a lot of noise about their smallsat launcher and their first orbital launch attempt only a few days from now.

See also Fresh out of stealth mode, Astra gearing up for orbital launch from Alaska – Spaceflight Now.

** SpaceX sets March 6th for Falcon 9 launch of Cargo Dragon mission CRS-20:

SpaceX is now targeting March 6 at 11:50 p.m. EST for launch of its 20th commercial resupply services mission (CRS-20) to the International Space Station. During standard preflight inspections, SpaceX identified a valve motor on the second stage engine behaving not as expected and determined the safest and most expedient path to launch is to utilize the next second stage in line that was already at the Cape and ready for flight. The new second stage has already completed the same preflight inspections with all hardware behaving as expected. The updated target launch date provides the time required to complete preflight integration and final checkouts.

The cargo Dragon will lift off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying more than 5,600 pounds of science investigations and cargo to the station, including research on particle foam manufacturing, water droplet formation, the human intestine and other cutting-edge investigations.

** The next Falcon 9 launch of 60 Starlink satellites is set for March 11 from LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

More SpaceX items below

** Soyuz 2-1a rocket launches Meridian M satellite from the Plesetsk cosmodrome on Feb. 20th: Soyuz 2-1a launches ninth Meridian satellite –

Russia’s Soyuz-2-1a rocket made its first launch of 2020 on Thursday, carrying the ninth Meridian communications satellite into orbit. Having lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia at 08:24 UTC, Soyuz deployed its Fregat-M upper stage about nine minutes later to carry the satellite to its final elliptical orbit. Spacecraft separation occurred two hours and twenty minutes after launch.

Meridian is a network of satellites that provide the Russian Government with communications for military and installations in the country’s far northern regions. The Meridian constellation forms part of Russia’s Integrated Satellite Communications System, complimenting the geostationary Globus – or Raduga – series of communications satellites.

** China launches four technology demonstrator satellites on Long March-2D rocket: Long March-2D conducts maiden launch from Xichang with four satellites –

Taking precautions with the coronavirus outbreak in all orbital and space launch centers, China returned to its launch activities after the Chinese New Year festivities with a new launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

This was the first use of a Long March-2D (Chang Zheng-2D) launch vehicle from Xichang. The mission orbited four satellites that will be used to carry out inter-satellite link networking and new ground observation technology tests in orbit. The launch took place from the LC3 Launch Complex at 21:07UTC.

Named Xinjishu Shiyan-C to F, XJS-C and D were made by SAST, XJS-E by the Harbin Inst of Tech. and XJS-F by CAST’s DFH Satellite Co., Ltd. (DFHSat).

** PLD Space of Spain carries out full duration test firing of the TEPREL-B engine for the MIURA 1 suborbital rocket. PLD Space successfully achieved a full rocket engine test for MIURA 1 mission – PLD Space

In May 2019 PLD Space suffered a catastrophic engine failure, which provoked material damage, including the loss of the first flight version of the TEPREL-B liquid rocket engine, developed by PLD Space for MIURA 1 launch vehicle. Therefore, the company decided to pause the qualification process and analyse the root causes of the failure to solve the problems found.

After eight months of hard work, PLD Space successfully achieved a full mission duration hot test of the flight engine. This allowed the company to validate the nominal engine performance during the full mission duration burn of two minutes, the necessary time to boost MIURA 1 launch vehicle into space.

“This milestone is a huge step forward for PLD Space, for the Spanish space sector and the European small launcher competitiveness, and allow us to be one of the few companies in the world that has successfully developed, tested and qualified propulsion technologies for space launch vehicles. Achieving this important milestone implies a turning point in the commercial space race and take us a step closer for launching MIURA 1 into space. With this result, PLD Space has a rocket engine capable of reaching space soon”, Raúl Torres, CEO and co-founder of PLD Space.

** Relativity Space shows off a 3D printed upper stage propellant tank:

** Venture Orbital Systems of Europe aims to launch the small Zephyr orbital rocket up to 40 times per year. First flight is targeted for 2024:

An article about Venture Orbita: CubeSat Market, The Zephyr is Positioned – Space Chronicle (Google Translate):

To start its activity, Venture Orbital needs an initial fundraising of 2.5 million euros. Depending on the information available, Zephyr can launch a payload of 35 kg in sun synchronous orbit (SSO) and 40 kg in low orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 500 km. This represents approximately the equivalent of three 6 U satellites. The launcher is ideal for placing small payloads into orbit intended in particular for Earth observation (EO), crop improvement, studying climate change or to improve access to emergency services in the event of crises. The company is not afraid to display its ambitions and has set itself the goal of arriving at up to 40 launches per year from the Guyana Space Center (CSG). The small structure also aims to offer its future availability of the Zephyr in a range of times ranging from three to six months. Launch price: around 1 million euros per mission. The company announces that it already has several contacts.

** Elevating Unity – Episode 6: SpaceShipTwo Relocation to Spaceport America

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** An update on Indian reusable space transport development: A Deep Dive Into ISRO’s Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology – Part I | Delhi Defence Review

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has long sought to lower the cost of access to space. In keeping with this goal, ISRO embarked on the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstration (RLV-TD) Program more than decade ago. As part of the RLV-TD program, it has been developing various technologies that will serve as building blocks for a future Two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) reusable launch vehicle. Importantly, these technologies are being developed in phases through a series of experimental flights. While the first flight of the RLV-TD, dubbed the ‘hypersonic flight experiment’ (HEX), was successfully executed on May 23, 2016, the stage is now set for the return flight experiment (REX) and scramjet propulsion experiment (SPEX) missions, respectively. LEX, in particular, is expected to be performed in the coming months.

A diagram of the Indian uncrewed reusable spaceplane.

** SpaceX:

** First SpaceX crew mission may last longer than initially planned:

** Upcoming Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral to send Argentine satellite into a polar orbitSpaceX sets date for first Florida launch of its kind in more than half a century – Teslarati

Argentinian space agency CONAE says that both its SAOCOM 1B satellite and SpaceX are on track for a type of launch that the United States’ East Coast hasn’t supported in more than half a century.

CONAE has revealed that SpaceX aims to launch the ~2800 kg (6200 lb) radar Earth observation satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket as early as March 30th, 2020 – late next month. With such a light payload, the Falcon 9 booster – presumably reused – will be able to perform a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) recovery, touching down at one of SpaceX’s two Landing Zone (LZ) pads located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). While Landing Zone rocket recoveries have become increasingly rare for SpaceX, that’s not actually why the SAOCOM 1B mission is so unique.

Instead, it’s exceptional because it will be the United States’ first East Coast polar launch in nearly six decades. The mission’s “polar” launch profile refers to the fact that the Argentinian radar satellite will ultimately orbit Earth’s poles, effectively perpendicular to more common equatorial orbits. If successful and repeatable, the mission could ultimately spark a new era for CCAFS and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and raises big questions about the future of California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) — or at least SpaceX’s presence there.

** Falcon 9 first stage will attempt a landing during an operational launch of a military satellite for the first time: SpaceX’s next military launch cleared for historic rocket landing attempt – Teslarati

Effectively confirming that B1054’s demise was was a contrivance and by no means a technical necessity, the SMC announced on February 20th that SpaceX’s GPS III SV03 mission is officially “the first time a booster is planned to land on a drone ship during a NSS [National Security Space] launch.” Effectively identical to B1054 aside from the addition of grid fins and landing legs, this means that Falcon 9 booster B1060 will be able to attempt a landing aboard a SpaceX drone ship shortly after launch.

**** Everyday Astronaut Tim Dodd captures some of the sound and flame-y fury of a Falcon 9 launch:

**** Starship

**** Reports and commentary on the Starship program:

Eric Berger tweets::

Some details on Starship’s first orbital flight:

• Pushing hard for this year
• Six-engine Starship
• Likely from Boca Chica, but also pursuing Florida and sea-based platform
• SN3, SN4, or SN5 probably will make flight

***** Some recent Tweets from Elon Musk about the Starships:

***** A diagram showing the latest assembled sections of the SN1 Starship:

**** Videos of recent activities at the Boca Chica Beach facility in South Texas – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

****** SpaceX Progress With Maria Pointer – Feb.23.2020LabPadre

Spacex is in full gear at Boca Chica, Texas. New buildings. New cranes. New ground being broken. Employees have grown exponentially. Video credit @BocaChicaMaria1

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN1 Night Ops to Downcomer Checks – Feb.23.2020 – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

24 hours a day operations at SpaceX Boca Chica as workers prepare SN1 for the upcoming rollover to the launch site. Video runs from Night Ops through to Sunday work. Videos and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

***** SpaceX Mega Stack Highlights W/ Maria Pointer – Feb 24, 2020 – LabPadre

Close up Mega stack highlights and other progressions at SpaceX BocaChica, Texas. Video Credit: @BocaChicaMaria1

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN1 moved to the launch site – Feb.25.2020 – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

In Boca Chica, SpaceX’s Starship SN1 was transported to the launch site on Tuesday ahead of proof testing and a static fire test which will be conducted over the coming days. Videos and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Starship SN1 Loaded Up On Test Stand Time Lapse – Feb.25.2020 – LabPadre

SN1 was load up onto the test stand at Boca Chica Launch Pad. My apologies on the low quality video. All images are explicitly owned by LabPadre Media. Filmed live on location with Maria Pointer. @BocaChicaMaria1

**** SpaceX granted permit to open facility at Port of LA for Starship related manufacturing:

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Space sciences roundup – Feb.25.2020

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items (find previous roundups here):


** Resolving the surface of Betelgeuse 700 light years away with the VLT‘s enormous mirrors: ESO Telescope Sees Surface of Dim Betelgeuse | ESO

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have captured the unprecedented dimming of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star in the constellation of Orion. The stunning new images of the star’s surface show not only the fading red supergiant but also how its apparent shape is changing.

Betelgeuse has been a beacon in the night sky for stellar observers but it began to dim late last year. At the time of writing Betelgeuse is at about 36% of its normal brightness, a change noticeable even to the naked eye. Astronomy enthusiasts and scientists alike were excitedly hoping to find out more about this unprecedented dimming.

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, in the constellation of Orion, has been undergoing unprecedented dimming. This stunning image of the star’s surface, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope late last year, is among the first observations to come out of an observing campaign aimed at understanding why the star is becoming fainter. When compared with the image taken in January 2019, it shows how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed.

** Meanwhile, Betelgeuse has stopped dimming:

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse appears to have finally stopped its unprecedented dimming, Villanova University astronomer Edward Guinan told me this afternoon. He says that although he’s unsure what has caused its strange brightness fluctuations, Betelgeuse is not likely to undergo a supernova explosion anytime soon. 

“The star has been nearly steady in brightness now over the last 10 days,” said Guinan.

** Weekly Space Hangout: February 5, 2020 – “More Things in the Heavens” – YouTube

Tonight we welcome Dr. Michael Werner and Dr. Peter Eisenhardt, authors of the new book More Things in the Heavens[: How Infrared Astronomy Is Expanding Our View of the Universe – Amazon commission link] which looks at how infrared astronomy is aiding the search for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life, and is transforming our understanding of the history and evolution of our universe. Included in their book are many spectacular images that have been captured by the Spitzer space telescope over its lifetime.

Solar system

** New Horizons fly-by of distant Arrokoth reveals clues to solar system formation: New Horizons Team Discovers a Critical Piece of the Planetary Formation Puzzle – New Horizons

Data from NASA’s New Horizons mission are providing new insights into how planets and planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – were formed.

The New Horizons spacecraft flew past the ancient Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth (2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019, providing humankind’s first close-up look at one of the icy remnants of solar system formation in the vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune. Using detailed data on the object’s shape, geology, color and composition – gathered during a record-setting flyby that occurred more than four billion miles from Earth – researchers have apparently answered a longstanding question about planetesimal origins, and therefore made a major advance in understanding how the planets themselves formed.

“This brief animation moves between two New Horizons spacecraft views of Arrokoth, the spacecraft’s New Year’s 2019 flyby target in the Kuiper Belt. The 3D effects come from pairing or combining images taken at different viewing angles, creating a “binocular” stereo effect, just as the separation of our eyes allows us to see three-dimensionally. The 3D information from these images provides scientists with critical insight on the object’s shape and structure and, subsequently, origin.”
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A New Horizons panel discussion of the latest findings:

See also How a space snowman called Arrokoth sheds light on planetary origins – GeekWire


** A ULA Atlas V rocket launched the Solar Orbiter, a joint ESA-NASA project, on Feb. 9th from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft will eventually go in close to the Sun and use the gravity of Venus to sling it into an orbit out of the ecliptic plane so that it can study the Sun’s polar regions.

** New spacecraft and earth sensors expected to produce a brilliant era for solar researchWe are entering the Golden Age of studying our Sun | Ars Technica

These new probes will build upon astronomers’ existing information about the Sun. Already, this body of knowledge has grown considerably over the last decade thanks to instruments such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is in geostationary orbit around the Earth and has provided a great amount of high-resolution imaging data. With the three new scientific tools, we are about to have a much more complete view of our Sun as a star, which matters not only for us, but also as we look to worlds around other stars.

“Over the course of the next 5 to 10 years we will have a much deeper understanding of the Sun as a star, which can have a significant impact on our understanding of exoplanet environments and as a consequence improve our understanding of what makes a planet habitable,” Alexander said.

** Sunspots made a small comeback in the New Year: Sunspot update: A tiny burst of activity that might mean something | Behind The Black

Despite their low number and general weakness, the continuing appearance of sunspots with polarities aligned with the new cycle strongly indicates that we will have a solar maximum in the next five years, not a grand minimum lasting decades that some scientists are predicting. While the year is young and it is certainly too soon to trust any trends, the fact that January saw an increase in activity over the past seven months suggests that we might have passed the low point of the minimum. We shall find out this year.


** China’s far side lunar rover ends 14th lunar day and restarts on the 15th:

** Asteroids and Comets

** OSIRIS-REx altimeter misbehaves on close pass of candidate sampling spot on BennuStatus Update: OSIRIS-REx Osprey Flyover – OSIRIS-REx Mission

On Feb. 11, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely executed a 0.4-mile (620-m) flyover of the backup sample collection site Osprey as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Preliminary telemetry, however, indicates that the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) did not operate as expected during the 11-hour event. The OLA instrument was scheduled to provide ranging data to the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager, which would allow the camera to focus while imaging the area around the sample collection site. Consequently, the PolyCam images from the flyover are likely out of focus.

The other science instruments, including the MapCam imager, the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), and the OSIRIS-REx Visual and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), all performed nominally during the flyover. These instruments and the spacecraft continue in normal operations in orbit around asteroid Bennu.

The mission team is currently reviewing the available data from the flyover in order to fully assess the OLA instrument. The entire data set from the flyover, including the PolyCam images, will be completely downlinked from the spacecraft next week and will provide additional insight into any impact that the loss of the OLA data may have.


** ESA’s CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite.(CHEOPS) begins examination of exoplanets; CHEOPS Just Opened Its Eyes to Start Studying Known Exoplanets, We Should See the First Picture in a Few Weeks – Universe Today

The CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) spacecraft just opened the cover on its telescope. The spacecraft was launched on December 18th 2019 and has so far performed flawlessly. In one or two weeks we could get our first images from the instrument.

CHEOPS is an ESA mission in partnership with Switzerland’s University of Bern. Its mission is not to find exoplanets, but to look more closely at stars with known exoplanets, and to watch as those planets transit in front of their star. It will watch those transits with a keen eye, and will determine the size of those planets with greater accuracy and precision. That will lead to better measurements of their mass, density, and composition.

An artist’s view of the CHEOPS spacecraft as it searches for exoplanets. Credits: ESA


** Scott Manley looks at ways to explore Venus’s ferociously hot surface: Venus Rover Concepts That Beat The Killer Atmosphere

How do you build a rover that can happily work at 500C, 90 Atmospheres of pressure and the problems of dust and corrosion? NASA has 2 approaches – one seeks to harden electronics against the heat, the other replaces electronic logic with mechanical hardware. NASA and HeroX are crowdsourcing solutions for a mechanism to detect obstacles and allow the rover to head in a different direction with a $15,000 prize to the best entry:


** Mars northern hemisphere differs significantly from the southern half: Two halves of a whole – ESA

The morphology and characteristics of the martian surface differ significantly depending on location. The northern hemisphere of Mars is flat, smooth and, in places, sits a few kilometres lower than the southern. The southern hemisphere, meanwhile, is heavily cratered, and peppered with pockets of past volcanic activity.

A transition zone known as ‘dichotomy boundary’ separates the northern lowlands and southern highlands. Large parts of this region are filled with something scientists call fretted terrain: blocky, broken-up, fragmented swathes of terrain where the rough, pockmarked martian south gives way to the smoother north.

The topography of Nilosyrtis Mensae. Mars north is to the right. Credits: ESA

** Insight Lander detects over 450 small Mars quakes: A Year of Surprising Science From NASA’s InSight Mars Mission – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander

… the ultra-sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), has enabled scientists to “hear” multiple trembling events from hundreds to thousands of miles away.

Seismic waves are affected by the materials they move through, giving scientists a way to study the composition of the planet’s inner structure. Mars can help the team better understand how all rocky planets, including Earth, first formed.

Mars trembles more often — but also more mildly — than expected. SEIS has found more than 450 seismic signals to date, the vast majority of which are probably quakes (as opposed to data noise created by environmental factors, like wind). The largest quake was about magnitude 4.0 in size — not quite large enough to travel down below the crust into the planet’s lower mantle and core. Those are “the juiciest parts of the apple” when it comes to studying the planet’s inner structure, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

** Update on Insight Lander‘s Mole digger: NASA’s Mars InSight Lander to Push on Top of the ‘Mole’ | NASA

The mole found itself stuck on Feb. 28, 2019, the first day of hammering. The InSight team has since determined that the soil here is different than what has been encountered on other parts of Mars. InSight landed in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil. Rather than being loose and sandlike, as expected, the dirt granules stick together.

The mole needs friction from soil in order to travel downward; without it, recoil from its self-hammering action causes it to simply bounce in place. Ironically, loose soil, not duricrust, provides that friction as it falls around the mole.

This past summer, the InSight team started using the robotic arm’s scoop to press on the side of the mole, a technique called “pinning” that added just enough friction to help it dig without coming in contact with the fragile science tether connected to the mole’s back cap.   

While pinning helped, the mole popped back out of the Martian soil on two occasions, possibly from soil building up from beneath. With few alternatives left, the team has decided to try helping the mole dig by carefully pressing on its back cap while attempting to avoid the tether.

It might take several tries to perfect the back-cap push, just as pinning did. Throughout late February and early March, InSight’s arm will be maneuvered into position so that the team can test what happens as the mole briefly hammers.

Meanwhile, the team is also considering using the scoop to move more soil into the hole that has formed around the mole. This could add more pressure and friction, allowing it to finally dig down. Whether they pursue this route depends on how deep the mole is able to travel after the back-cap push.

** China plans to launch an orbiter/rover combo spacecraft to Mars this summer. Here are some hints as to where the rover will land: China’s candidate landing site on Mars | Behind The Black

This location, on the northern lowlands plains of Utopia Planitia, makes great sense however for a first attempt by anyone to soft land on Mars. In fact, in 1976 these plains were the same location that NASA chose for Viking 2, for the same reasons. (The Viking 2 landing site was to the northeast of the Chinese site, just beyond the right edge of the overview map) While there are plenty of craters and rough features, compared to most of Mars’s surface, Utopia could be considered as smooth as a bowling ball.

** The ESA/Roscosmos Mars Rover needs a solar panel fix: Europe’s Rosalind Franklin Mars rover to make ‘pit stop’ for repair – BBC News

Europe’s Mars rover will have to make a “pit stop” for a minor repair when it is moved from France to Italy.

The vehicle, which is currently undergoing final preparations in Cannes prior to a summer launch, has developed a small problem with its solar panels.

Glue that holds brackets in place on the folding arrays has come unstuck.

It’s not considered a serious problem and will be fixed when the “Rosalind Franklin” robot passes through Turin on its way to the launch site.

Rosalind Franklin, also known by its codename ExoMars, is a joint venture of the European and Russian space agencies (Esa and Roscosmos)

** Looking for life under the Martian surface: Scientists eye the Martian underground in search for alien life |

Conference attendees generally agreed that the best places to look for extant Mars life are in the deep subsurface caves, and in salt and ice.

While the cold, dry surface of Mars, with its harsh radiation environment, is widely considered to be uninhabitable, the subsurface has been hypothesized to be a viable, long-lived habitable environment, protected from the punishing surface conditions of Mars and a place where water could be stable.

Vlada Stamenković, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, backed the underground approach at the conference. 

“The surface of Mars is a very oxidizing, radiation-heavy environment where liquid water is not really stable for an extended amount of time,” Stamenković said. “It’s the worst place to look for life-sites on Mars. Groundwater might be the only habitat for extant life on Mars, if it still exists today.” 

** Updates on Curiosity’s roving from Leonard David:

** Tour more sites on the marvelous Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman

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