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Space

Rocket debris from China’s space station launch is falling back to Earth — but where?

A large Chinese rocket is set to make an uncontrolled reentry back into Earth’s atmosphere, but it is not yet clear exactly where or when the debris will hit our planet.

China’s Long March 5B rocket is “unpredictably” falling back to Earth after launching a part of the new T-shaped Chinese space station on Thursday local time in Wenchang, according to SpaceNews. The 22.5-metric-ton Tianhe space station module is in its correct orbit after separating as planned from the core stage of the rocket, which is now expected to re-enter in a few days or about a week.

“It will be one of the largest instances of uncontrolled reentry of a spacecraft and could potentially land on an inhabited area,” SpaceNews said. That said, the more likely possibility is the core stage will fall in an uninhabited place like Earth’s oceans, which cover 70% of the planet. The odds of a particular individual being hit by space debris are exceedingly low, once estimated at 1 in several trillion.

Plotting the trajectory of this falling rocket stage is difficult, if not impossible because there are too many uncertainties involved in calculating the effect of the atmospheric drag on the core module. Earth’s atmosphere can expand or contract with solar activity, making it hard to estimate exactly when and where the rocket will come down.

“The high speed of the rocket body means it orbits the Earth roughly every 90 minutes and so a change of just a few minutes in reentry time results in reentry point thousands of kilometers away,” SpaceNews said, adding that the object’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means it “passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area.”

The rocket’s anticipated return numbers among several large debris events of the last few decades, including the Chinese Tiangong space station and Europe’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE). That said, most of the debris tends to burn up in the atmosphere and only the very largest pieces would come down to the ground. Launching states also generally try their best to point a returning piece of debris back to Earth and to give estimates for where it may fall.

On Twitter, spaceflight observer and Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell plotted the return of the Long March 5B against other large debris events, not least of which was the uncontrolled return of NASA’s 76-ton Skylab space station nearly 42 years ago. Ground controllers were able to steer the space station somewhat over its planned reentry point over the Indian Ocean, but the debris track stretched much further than expected.

“To summarize: this one is bigger than anything recent, but not as big as Skylab and its ilk back in the day,” McDowell said on Twitter of the Long March 5B’s return.

China plans a busy construction schedule on the space station, with state media reporting the construction should be finished by the end of 2022. Much like the International Space Station, the Chinese complex will include several modules, requiring 10 additional launches: two more module launches, four crewed missions and four cargo vessel flights, as reported by China Global Television Network (CGTN).

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Space

SpaceX continues Starlink deployment with latest launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX continued the deployment of its Starlink broadband megaconstellation May 4 with the second launch of 60 satellites in less than a week.

A Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 3:01 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s second stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites 64 minutes later.

The rocket’s first stage landed on the center of a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its ninth flight. The booster previously launched the Telstar 18 Vantage communications satellite, a set of Iridium satellites, and six other Starlink missions. This is the second booster SpaceX has flown nine times.

SpaceX had previously suggested Falcon 9 boosters could fly up to 10 times, but more recently indicated those stages could have longer lifetimes. “I don’t think the number 10 is a magic number,” Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in February. Once a booster reaches the 10-flight milestone, “we will continue to look at that booster and make an assessment whether we can move forward with it.”

That milestone could come soon. The next Falcon 9 Starlink launch, scheduled for no earlier than May 9, is expected to use the other Falcon 9 booster that has flown nine times, most recently in March. The company is using its internal Starlink missions to test the limits of booster reusability.

“There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 launch. “We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader.”

This launch comes less than a week after the previous Falcon 9 Starlink launch April 28. Of the 13 Falcon 9 launches so far this year, 10 have been dedicated to Starlink satellites while the eleventh, the Transporter-1 rideshare mission, carried 10 Starlink satellites, bringing the total number of Starlink satellites launched so far in 2021 to 610. Nearly 1,500 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit.

Space is continuing to build out its Starlink constellation, buoyed by a Federal Communications Commission decision April 27 to approve a license modification sought by SpaceX. That modification will allow SpaceX to operate 2,814 satellites originally planned for orbits between 1,100 and 1,300 kilometers to orbits of 540 to 570 kilometers.

The Starlink service remains in a beta test phase in the United States and several other countries, although Musk suggested last month that the beta test could end as soon as this summer as the constellation is built out.

Siva Bharadvaj, the SpaceX engineer who hosted the webcast of this latest launch, said that “over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink.” He did not disclose how many people are actively using the service, though.

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Space

Chinese rocket debris to make an uncontrolled reentry: What happened the last time

The almost 100-foot core of China’s Long March 5B rocket is likely to make an uncontrolled reentry at an unknown point in the coming days.

The spacecraft launched Thursday into low Earth orbit from Hainan’s Wenchang Center, ferrying the Tianhe module for the country’s first permanent space station.

However, this is not the first time one of China’s rockets made an uncontrolled descent.

Last May, debris from the same rocket rained down on at least two villages along Africa’s Ivory Coast. In that case, the rocket – which weighs more than 1.8 million pounds when fully fueled – was carrying an experimental crew capsule designed for potential future lunar missions.

The rocket reentered over the Atlantic Ocean at 11:33 a.m. ET on Monday, May 11, 2020.

Photos showed long metal rods that reportedly damaged several buildings in Ivory Coast, though no casualties were reported.

A local infrasound station also recorded what appeared to be rocket debris moving through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and hitting the ground.

The Verge reported that locals heard sonic booms and saw flashes and falling debris at around the same time that the rocket would have passed overhead.

Newsweek reported that part of the rocket had fallen into the water near West Africa after spending a week in low Earth orbit.

At the time, the U.S. Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron said the rocket passed directly over major U.S. cities – including Los Angeles and New York City – on its way down.

It was the largest object to make an uncontrolled descent since the Soviet Union’s 43-ton Salyut-7 space station landed in Argentina in 1991.

The only debris larger than the Salyut-7 space station was NASA’s almost 100-ton Skylab, which fell on a small Australian town in 1979.

Notably, a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite that reentered the atmosphere over northern Canada in 1978 resulted in a $3,000,000 fine for its clean-up over the tundra.

Typically, rocket manufacturers account for falling rocket debris.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Space

It’s not how big your laser is, it’s how you use it. Space law is an important part of the fight against space debris

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Steven Freeland, Professorial Fellow, Bond University / Emeritus Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University, Western Sydney University

Annie Handmer, PhD candidate, School of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

Space is getting crowded. More than 100 million tiny pieces of debris are spinning in Earth orbit, along with tens of thousands of bigger chunks and around 3,300 functioning satellites.

Large satellite constellations such as Starlink are becoming more common, infuriating astronomers and baffling casual skywatchers. In the coming decade, we may see many more satellites launched than in all of history up to now.

Collisions between objects in orbit are getting harder to avoid. Several technologies for getting space debris out of harm’s way have been proposed, most recently the plan from Australian company Electro Optic Systems (EOS) to use a pair of ground-based lasers to track debris and “nudge” it away from potential collisions or even out of orbit altogether.

Tools like this will be in high demand in coming years. But alongside new technology, we also need to work out the best ways to regulate activity in space and decide who is responsible for what.

EOS’s laser system is just one of a host of “active debris removal” (ADR) technologies proposed over the past decade. Others involve sails, tentacles, nets, claws, harpoons, magnets and foam.

Outside Australia, Japan-based company Astroscale is currently testing its ELSA system for capturing debris with magnets. The British RemoveDEBRIS project has been experimenting with nets and harpoons. The European Space Agency (ESA) is engaged in various debris-related missions including the ClearSpace-1 “space claw”, designed to grapple a piece of debris and drag it down to a lower orbit where the claw and its captured prey will end their lives in a fiery embrace.

Close calls are becoming more common

Space debris poses a very real threat, and interest in ADR technologies is growing rapidly. The ESA estimates there are currently 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1cm, about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10cm in length, and around 34,000 pieces larger than 10cm in Earth orbit.

Given the high speed of objects in space, any collision – with debris or a “live” satellite – could create thousands more pieces of debris. These could create more collisions and more debris, potentially triggering an exponential increase in debris called the “Kessler effect”. Eventually we could see a “debris belt” around Earth, making space less accessible.

In recent times, we have seen several “near collisions” in space. In late January 2020, we all watched helplessly as two much larger “dead” satellites – IRAS and GGSE-4 – passed within metres of each other. NASA often moves the International Space Station when it calculates a higher-than-normal risk of collision with debris.

More satellites, more risk

The problem of space debris is becoming more urgent as more large constellations of small satellites are launched. In 2019, the ESA sent one of its Earth-observing satellites on a small detour to avoid a high possibility of a collision with one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

In just the past few days, satellites from One Web and Starlink came perilously close to a collision. If the well-publicised plans of just a few large corporations come to fruition, the number of objects launched into space over the coming years will dwarf by a factor of up to ten times the total number launched over the six decades since the first human-made object (Sputnik 1) was sent into orbit in 1957.

Space law can help

Any feasible technology to alleviate the problem of space debris should be thoroughly explored. At the same time, actively removing debris raises political and legal problems.

Space is an area beyond national jurisdiction. Like the high seas, space is governed through international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the four other international treaties that followed set out a framework and key principles to guide responsible behaviour.

While the engineers might envisage nets and harpoons, international law is bad news for aspiring space “pirates”. Any space object or part of a space object, functional or not, remains under the jurisdiction of a “State of registry”.

Under international law, to capture, deflect or interfere with a piece of debris would constitute a “national activity in outer space” – meaning the countries that authorised or agreed to the ADR manoeuvre have an international legal responsibility, even if the action is carried out by a private company. In addition, if something goes wrong (as we know, space is hard), a liability regime applies to the “launching States” under the applicable Treaty, which would include those countries involved in the launch of the ADR vehicle.

The rules of the road

Beyond the legal technicalities, debris removal raises complex policy, geopolitical, economic, and social challenges. Whose responsibility is it to remove debris? Who should pay? What rights do non-spacefaring nations have in discussions? Which debris should be preserved as heritage?

And if a State develops the capability to remove or deflect space debris, how can we be sure they won’t use it to remove or deflect another country’s “live” satellites?

Experts are working to recognise and determine the appropriate regulatory “rules of the road”. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) deals with space governance, and it has had “legal mechanisms relating to space debris mitigation and remediation measures” on its agenda for years. There are already some widely-accepted and practical guidelines for debris mitigation and long-term sustainability of space activities, but each proposed solution brings with it other questions.

In the end, any debris remediation activity will require a negotiated agreement between each of the relevant parties to ensure these legal and other questions are addressed. Eventually, we might see a standardised process emerge, in coordination with an international system of space traffic management.

The future of humanity is inextricably tied to our ability to ensure a viable long-term future for space activities. Developing new debris removal methods, and the legal frameworks to make them usable, are important steps towards finding ways to co-exist with our planet and promote the ongoing safety, security and sustainability of space.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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New warp drive research dashes faster than light travel dreams, but reveals stranger possibilities

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Sam Baron, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University

In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a radical technology that would allow faster than light travel: the warp drive, a hypothetical way to skirt around the universe’s ultimate speed limit by bending the fabric of reality.

It was an intriguing idea — even NASA has been researching it at the Eagleworks laboratory — but Alcubierre’s proposal contained problems that seemed insurmountable. Now, a recent paper by US-based physicists Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire has resolved many of those issues and generated a lot of buzz.

But while Bobrick and Martire have managed to substantially demystify warp technology, their work actually suggests that faster-than-light travel will remain out of reach for beings like us, at least for the time being.

There is, however, a silver lining: warp technology may have radical applications beyond space travel.

The story of warp drives starts with Einstein’s crowning achievement: general relativity. The equations of general relativity capture the way in which spacetime – the very fabric of reality — bends in response to the presence of matter and energy which, in turn, explains how matter and energy move.

General relativity places two constraints on interstellar travel. First, nothing can be accelerated past the speed of light (around 300,000 km per second). Even travelling at this dizzying speed it would still take us four years to arrive at Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun.

Second, the clock on a spaceship travelling close to the speed of light would slow down relative to a clock on Earth (this is known as time dilation). Assuming a constant state of acceleration, this makes it possible to travel the stars. One can reach a distant star that is 150 light-years away within one’s lifetime. The catch, however, is that upon one’s return more than 300 years will have passed on Earth.

A new hope

This is where Alcubierre came in. He argued that the mathematics of general relativity allowed for “warp bubbles” — regions where matter and energy were arranged in such a way as to bend spacetime in front of the bubble and expand it to the rear in a way that allowed a “flat” area inside the bubble to travel faster than light.

Read more: Don’t stop me now! Superluminal travel in Einstein’s universe

To get a sense of what “flat” means in this context, note that spacetime is sort of like a rubber mat. The mat curves in the presence of matter and energy (think of putting a bowling ball on the mat). Gravity is nothing more than the tendency objects have to roll into the the dents created by things like stars and planets. A flat region is like a part of the mat with nothing on it.

Such a drive would also avoid the uncomfortable consequences of time dilation. One could potentially make a round trip into deep space and still be greeted by one’s nearest and dearest at home.
A spacetime oddity

How does Alcubierre’s device work? Here discussion often relies on analogies, because the maths is so complex.

Imagine a rug with a cup on it. You’re on the rug and you want to get to the cup. You could move across the rug, or tug the rug toward you. The warp drive is like tugging on spacetime to bring your destination closer.

But analogies have their limits: a warp drive doesn’t really drag your destination toward you. It contracts spacetime to make your path shorter. There’s just less rug between you and the cup when you switch the drive on.

Alcubierre’s suggestion, while mathematically rigorous, is difficult to understand at an intuitive level. Bobrick and Martire’s work is set to change all that.
Starship bloopers

Bobrick and Martire show that any warp drive must be a shell of material in a constant state of motion, enclosing a flat region of spacetime. The energy of the shell modifies the properties of the spacetime region inside it.

This might not sound like much of a discovery, but until now it was unclear what warp drives might be, physically speaking. Their work tells us that a warp drive is, somewhat surprisingly, like a car. A car is also a shell of energy (in the form of matter) that encloses a flat region of spacetime. The difference is that getting inside a car does not make you age faster. That, however, is the kind of thing a warp drive might do.

Using their simple description, Bobrick and Martire demonstrate a method for using Einstein’s general relativity equations to find spacetimes that allow for arrangements of matter and energy that would act as warp bubbles. This gives us a mathematical key for finding and classifying warp technologies.

Their work manages to address one of the core problems for warp drives. To make the equations balance, Alcubierre’s device runs on “negative energy” – but we are yet to discover any viable sources of negative energy in the real world.

Worse, the negative energy requirements of Alcubierre’s device are immense. By some estimates, the entire energy in the known universe would be needed (though later work brings the number down a bit).

Bobrick and Martire show a warp drive could be made from positive energy (i.e. “normal” energy) or from a mixture of negative and positive energy. That said, the energy requirements would still be immense.

If Bobrick and Martire are right, then a warp drive is just like any other object in motion. It would be subject to the universal speed limit enforced by general relativity after all, and it would need some kind of conventional propulsion system to make it accelerate.

The news gets worse. Many kinds of warp drive can only modify the spacetime inside in a certain way: by slowing down the clock of the passenger in exactly the way that makes a trip into deep space a problem.

Bobrick and Martire do show that some warp drives could travel faster than light, but only if they are created already travelling at that speed – which is no help for any ordinary human hoping for a bit of interstellar tourism.

The end game

Remember that a warp drive can modify the region of flat spacetime it encloses. It can, in particular, speed up or slow down a clock inside the drive.

Consider what it would mean to have such an object available. Want to put someone with a terminal illness on ice? Stick them in a warp drive and slow their clock down. From their perspective, a few years will pass, while a hundred years will pass on Earth — time enough to find a cure.

Want to grow your crops overnight? Stick them in a warp drive and speed the clock up. A few days will pass for you, and a few weeks will pass for your seedlings.

There are even more exotic possibilities: by rotating the spacetime inside a drive one may be able to produce a battery capable of holding huge amounts of energy.

Faster-than-light travel remains a distant dream. But warp technology would be revolutionary in its own right.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Space

Artificial intelligence is learning how to dodge space junk in orbit

An AI-driven space debris-dodging system could soon replace expert teams dealing with growing numbers of orbital collision threats in the increasingly cluttered near-Earth environment.

Every two weeks, spacecraft controllers at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, have to conduct avoidance manoeuvres with one of their 20 low Earth orbit satellites, Holger Krag, the Head of Space Safety at the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a news conference organized by ESA during the 8th European Space Debris Conference held virtually from Darmstadt Germany, April 20 to 23. There are at least five times as many close encounters that the agency’s teams monitor and carefully evaluate, each requesting a multi-disciplinary team to be on call 24/7 for several days.

“Every collision avoidance manoeuvre is a nuisance,” Krag said. “Not only because of fuel consumption but also because of the preparation that goes into it. We have to book ground-station passes, which costs money, sometimes we even have to switch off the acquisition of scientific data. We have to have an expert team available round the clock.”

The frequency of such situations is only expected to increase. Not all collision alerts are caused by pieces of space debris. Companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon are building megaconstellations of thousands of satellites, lofting more spacecraft into orbit in a single month than used to be launched within an entire year only a few years ago. This increased space traffic is causing concerns among space debris experts. In fact, ESA said that nearly half of the conjunction alerts currently monitored by the agency’s operators involve small satellites and constellation spacecraft.

ESA, therefore, asked the global Artificial Intelligence community to help develop a system that would take care of space debris dodging autonomously or at least reduce the burden on the expert teams.

“We made a large historic data set of past conjunction warnings available to a global expert community and tasked them to use AI [Artificial Intelligence] to predict the evolution of a collision risk of each alert over the three days following the alert,” Rolf Densing, Director of ESA Operations said in the news conference.

“The results are not yet perfect, but in many cases, AI was able to replicate the decision process and correctly identify in which cases we had to conduct the collision avoidance manoeuvre.”

The agency will explore newer approaches to AI development, such as deep learning and neural networks, to improve the accuracy of the algorithms, Tim Flohrer, the Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office told Space.com.

“The standard AI algorithms are trained on huge data sets,” Flohrer said. “But the cases when we had actually conducted manoeuvres are not so many in AI terms. In the next phase we will look more closely into specialised AI approaches that can work with smaller data sets.”

For now, the AI algorithms can aid the ground-based teams as they evaluate and monitor each conjunction alert, the warning that one of their satellites might be on a collision course with another orbiting body. According to Flohrer, such AI-assistance will help reduce the number of experts involved and help the agency deal with the increased space traffic expected in the near future. The decision whether to conduct an avoidance manoeuvre or not for now still has to be taken by a human operator.

“So far, we have automated everything that would require an expert brain to be awake 24/7 to respond to and follow up the collision alerts,” said Krag. “Making the ultimate decision whether to conduct the avoidance manoeuvre or not is the most complex part to be automated and we hope to find a solution to this problem within the next few years.”

Ultimately, Densing added, the global community should work together to create a collision avoidance system similar to modern air-traffic management, which would work completely autonomously without the humans on the ground having to communicate.

“In air traffic, they are a step further,” Densing said. “Collision avoidance manoeuvres between planes are decentralised and take place automatically. We are not there yet, and it will likely take a bit more international coordination and discussions.”

Not only are scientific satellites at risk of orbital collisions, but spacecraft like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could be affected as well. Recently, Crew Dragon Endeavour, with four astronauts on board, reportedly came dangerously close to a small piece of debris on Saturday, April 24, during its cruise to the International Space Station. The collision alert forced the spacefarers to interrupt their leisure time, climb back into their space suits and buckle up in their seats to brace for a possible impact.

According to ESA, about 11,370 satellites have been launched since 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully orbited a beeping ball called Sputnik. About 6,900 of these satellites remain in orbit, but only 4,000 are still functioning.

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Space

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity will attempt its boldest flight yet today

After three successful test flights, NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is ready to push the envelope in the skies of the Red Planet.

The small chopper will attempt its fourth flight today (April 29) at its Wright Brothers Field in Mars’ Jezero Crater, where it landed with NASA’s Perseverance rover, and this one aims to be its biggest and boldest yet.

“When Ingenuity’s landing legs touched down after that third flight, we knew we had accumulated more than enough data to help engineers design future generations of Mars helicopters,” Ingenuity chief engineer J. “Bob” Balaram of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “Now we plan to extend our range, speed, and duration to gain further performance insight.”

The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity is expected to take off at 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT) to make its fourth aerial sortie. The data from the flight should arrive at JPL at 1:21 p.m. EDT (1721 GMT), NASA officials said.

Ingenuity made history with its first flight on April 19, when it hovered just 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground. Since then, it has made two more flights, each one bigger than the last. The chopper’s most recent flight occurred Sunday (April 25), when Ingenuity reached a height of 16 feet (5 m), flew 164 feet (50 m) downrange and reached a top speed of 6.6 feet per second, which is about 4.5 mph (7.2 kph). It also captured a stunning photo of the Perseverance rover from the air.

For Ingenuity’s fifth flight, the helicopter’s controllers aim to fly faster and longer. If all goes according to plan, Ingenuity will fly up to a height of 16 feet and reach a top speed of 8 mph (12.8 kph) during the flight. It will first fly south for about 276 feet (84 m) to photograph sand ripples, rocks and small craters from above. If no issues pop up, Ingenuity is expected to reach a point 436 feet (133 m) downrange, hover and take photos, and then return to its Wright Brothers Field home.

“To achieve the distance necessary for this scouting flight, we’re going to break our own Mars records set during flight three,” said Mars Helicopter backup pilot Johnny Lam in the same statement. “We’re upping the time airborne from 80 seconds to 117, increasing our max airspeed from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and more than doubling our total range.”

If Ingenuity’s fourth flight goes well, the helicopter could attempt an even more audacious fifth and final flight. MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said earlier this month that she’d like the helicopter to travel about 2,000 feet (600 m) on that final flight, if it was possible. But plans for the fifth flight will only be finalized after this fourth trip, Ingenuity’s handlers said.

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars Feb. 18 to deliver Ingenuity and begin a planned two-year mission to collect samples of the Red Planet and search for signs of past life. Ingenuity’s five flights, which are spread out over a month of the mission, are a technology demonstration to prove that flying on Mars is possible and could be useful for future missions. Ingenuity’s flight window for its five flights closes in early May.

“From millions of miles away, Ingenuity checked all the technical boxes we had at NASA about the possibility of powered, controlled flight at the Red Planet,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in the statement. “Future Mars exploration missions can now confidently consider the added capability an aerial exploration may bring to a science mission.”

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Space

Mars helicopter Ingenuity misses takeoff for 4th flight on Red Planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity was supposed to get a real workout this morning (April 29), but things didn’t go as planned.

The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper was scheduled to lift off from the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater today around 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT), kicking off its fourth flight on the Red Planet. That didn’t happen.

“Aim high, and fly, fly again. The #MarsHelicopter’s ambitious fourth flight didn’t get off the ground, but the team is assessing the data and will aim to try again soon. We’ll keep you posted,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages Ingenuity’s technology-demonstrating mission, said via Twitter today.

Ingenuity also had a hiccup in the leadup to its first flight attempt, failing to transition to flight mode as planned. In response, the helicopter team altered the command sequence beamed from Earth — a fix that allowed Ingenuity to fly on Mars for the first time on April 19.

Tests here on Earth suggested that fix would be effective about 85% of the time, Ingenuity team members said. It’s possible that the same issue cropped up today, and the latest attempt just fell into the unlucky 15% slot. But we’ll have to wait until Ingenuity’s handlers have performed the requisite analyses to find out more.

Ingenuity landed with NASA’s Perseverance rover on Feb. 18 inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero, which hosted a big lake and a river delta in the ancient past.

Ingenuity deployed from Perseverance’s belly on April 3 and began prepping for its flight campaign, which is designed to show that aerial exploration is possible on Mars.

The helicopter has performed three flights to date, one apiece on April 19, April 22 and April 25. Those sorties have gotten increasingly ambitious, with the solar-powered chopper traveling 330 feet (100 meters) at a top speed of 4.5 mph (7.2 kph) during April 25’s 80-second flight.

The fourth flight was designed to push those boundaries even more. Today’s plan called for Ingenuity to cover about 872 feet (266 m) of ground and reach a top speed of 8 mph (13 kph) while staying aloft for 117 seconds, NASA officials said.

Ingenuity’s flight window is coming to an end. The campaign is capped at five flights over a one-month stretch from the April 3 deployment date, because Perseverance needs to start focusing on its own mission, which involves hunting for signs of long-gone Mars life and collecting samples for future return to Earth.

(Perseverance has been documenting and supporting Ingenuity’s work; for example, communications to and from the helicopter must go through the rover.)

It’s unclear at this point if Ingenuity will be able to squeeze five flights in before its time is up, but the helicopter team members have said they will do their best to make that happen.

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Stratolaunch flies world’s largest airplane on 2nd test flight

The biggest airplane ever built now has two flights under its belt.

Stratolaunch’s Roc carrier plane, which is being groomed to haul hypersonic vehicles aloft, conducted its second-ever test flight Thursday morning (April 29).

The giant aircraft, which features a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters), took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in southeastern California at 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT; 7:28 local California time) on a data-gathering shakeout cruise that lasted three hours and 14 minutes.

Roc reached a maximum altitude of 14,000 feet (4,267 m) and a top speed of 199 mph (320 kph) during Thursday’s test flight, which Stratolaunch deemed a success.

“We’re very pleased with how the Stratolaunch aircraft performed today, and we are equally excited about how much closer the aircraft is to launching its first hypersonic vehicle,” Stratolaunch chief operating officer Zachary Krevor said during a postflight news conference today.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen established Stratolaunch in 2011 with the idea that Roc would be used to launch satellites in midair. But Allen died in October 2018 without seeing that vision become reality, or even seeing the twin-fuselage Roc get off the ground. The plane didn’t make its first — and, until today, only — test flight until April 2019.

The company was sold in October 2019 to its current owners, who recast Roc’s role. The plane will now serve as a mobile launch platform for hypersonic vehicles, maneuverable craft that travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound.

Stratolaunch is developing its own family of hypersonic vehicles, including a reusable 28-foot-long (8.5 m) craft called Talon-A, which will be the first to fly with Roc. But that won’t happen for a while yet; Roc needs to make a number of additional solo flights first, company representatives said today.

If all goes according to plan, the first drop tests with Roc and a Talon-A test article will occur early next year. An expendable version of Talon-A will reach hypersonic speeds later in 2022, and the first flight with the reusable Talon-A variant will follow in 2023, said Stratolaunch chief technology officer Daniel Millman.

The data gathered during Talon-A flights might be of interest to the U.S. military, which has been developing its own hypersonic vehicles for years now, though none are operational yet. (Hypersonic vehicles are good weapon-delivery systems, because their maneuverability makes them tougher to counteract than traditional ballistic missiles.)

“One of the areas that we’re looking at is, how can we help the Department of Defense in mitigating risks for a lot of their expensive flight testing?” Millman said. “Our testbed has the ability to carry payloads. It has the ability to test materials. It has the ability to fly a variety of profiles that are of interest to folks across the spectrum both offensively and defensively in terms of hypersonics.”