Space Sunday: A year on Mars and the Polaris Programme

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Mars 2020 rover Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission arrived in Jezero Crater, Mars to commence operations.

In the year since then, the 1 tonne Perseverance rover and its tiny companion, the 1.8 Kg helicopter drone Ingenuity, have achieved a tremendous amount, with Ingenuity far exceeding expectations and the rover really still in the earliest phase of its mission (it’s “sister” rover, Curiosity has now been exploring Gale Crater on Mars for over nine years).

Currently, Perseverance is close to wrapping up its first science campaign, studying the basin of the 45 km wide Jezero Crater, a place believed to have once been the home of a lake billions of years ago, and which features some of the oldest rocks scientists have been able to study up close via a rover.

Nor is the rover studying those rocks purely in situ. As I’ve reported in these pages, the rover has been gathering samples in seal containers which – much later in the mission – be deposited in at least one cache on the surface of Mars to await collection by a hoped-for future sample return mission.

So far, six samples have been gathered, and while Martian pebbles got caught in a part of the sample transfer mechanism in January (see: Space Sunday: pebbles, ALH84001 and a supernova) suspending further coring operations, these were finally cleared at the end of the month, leaving the way clear for the rover to collect two more samples in the next couple of weeks.

A raw (unprocessed for Earth lighting conditions) image taken via the forward Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams) on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover Perseverance as it uses its robot arms to examine an area of exposed rock dubbed “Rimplas” during the rover’s return trip to its landing point. This image was captured on February 8th, 2022 (Sol 345 for the mission). Credit: NASA/JPL

These will come from a type of dark, rubbly rocks seen across much of the crater floor and which have been dubbed Ch’ał (the Navajo term for “frog”). It is hoped that if returned to Earth, samples of these rocks could provide an age range for Jezero’s formation and the lake that once resided there.

The samples Perseverance has been collecting will provide a key chronology for the formation of Jezero Crater. Each one is carefully considered for its scientific value.

– Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

As well as gathering and assessing samples, Perseverance has used the MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment) to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – such capabilities will be vital for future Mars missions, not only for producing oxygen, but also methane fuel.   

The rover also recently broke the record for the most distance driven by a Mars rover in a single day, travelling 320 metres on February 14th, 2022. This was achieved using the AutoNav software that allows Perseverance to find its own path around rocks and other obstacles.

Having spent the first year of operations studying the crater floor, Perseverance recently started heading towards one of the major features within the crater, a large river delta that once helped feed water into the crater.

On Earth, river deltas are great at preserving carbon-containing organic compounds – the building blocks of life as we know it. As such, much of the rover’s second year on Mars will be spent exploring and study the Jerero river delta.

We are incredibly excited to finally get to the delta [it is] the reason we chose the landing site, and we hope to get to it later this spring. Once we’re there, we’ll be able to look at the bottom of the ancient lake that once filled Jezero to search for signs of ancient microbial life, and we plan to spend the whole next year travelling through the ancient lake deposits and ancient river deposits that are within the delta.

– Briony Horgan, associate professor of planetary science at Purdue University

In order to reach the delta, Perseverance has been backtracking from a rugged part of the crater floor called “South Séítah”, which it has been exploring for the last several months, and will return to its landing site – now called Octavia E. Butler Landing – in the next two week or so. From there, it will drive west to reach the delta region.

While this might sound a long-winded way of doing things, the fact is that the route back from “South Séítah” is known and therefore “safe”, and the landing site provides direct access to the river delta. Whereas going “cross country” from “South Séítah” to the delta would take the rover across a dune field, with the risk of it becoming stuck.

Exactly where the rover will start its studies in the delta has still to be determined, as there are several points of interest that have already been spotted by the science team. One of these is a hilly feature dubbed “Kodiak Hill”, which the rover imaged from the landing point just after it arrived on Mars, and which could provide a good vantage point from which to properly survey the delta as a whole.

It’s likely a final determination of where to go to first with the delta  may be made with the assistance of Ingenuity.

Having completed its regime of five test flights early in the mission, during which Perseverance was relegated to the role of passive observer, the little drone has completed a total of 19 flights and doesn’t show any sign of stopping. While there had been some concern that a recent dust storm might impact its ability to obtain sufficient sunlight to keep its batteries charged, Ingenuity came through in good condition and, once its batteries had been fully charged, proved itself to be able to take to the air once more.

Ingenuity manages to catch Preservice in one of the images it captured which manoeuvring during a test flight in April 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

For the majority of its flights, Ingenuity had acted as an aerial scout for Perseverance, imaging its surroundings in order to help mission planners determine potential route the rover could follow and / or identify potential points of interest the rover could be directed to study. As such, it has proven itself an invaluable part of the overall mission and more than proven the benefit of having UAVs operating in support of surface missions.

I’ll continue to report on the mission’s progress – and that of Curiosity, as and when NASA provides updates.

Isaacman’s Polaris Programme

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who paid for and commanded the first non-professional astronaut flight into space, Inspiration4 in September 2021 aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle (see: Space Sunday: Inspiration4 and Chinese Flights), is now planning a series of similar space flights  – potentially culminating in the first crewed flight of the Starship vehicle.

On February 14th, 2022 Isaacman announced the establishment of the Polaris Programme, which will run in cooperation with SpaceX.

Polaris is a series of pioneering Dragon space missions that will aim to rapidly advance capabilities for human exploration. This programme has been purposefully designed to advance long-duration human spaceflight capabilities and guiding us toward the ultimate goal of facilitating Mars exploration.

– Jared Isaacman, February 14th

Thus far, only the first mission in the programme has any specifics associated with it – and these are sketchy in places, at least for the moment. Called Polaris Dawn, it appears to be jointly funded by Isaacman and SpaceX. It will take place no sooner than the last quarter of 2022 and will comprise Isaacman as commander, Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a retired Air Force pilot who was one of the ground directors for the Inspiration Inspiration4, as pilot and mission specialists Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, both SpaceX employees – Menon is married to Anil Menon, a former SpaceX flight surgeon who left the company to join NASA at the end of 2021 as part of its latest astronaut intake.

The other details revealed for the mission are:

  • It will aim to break the record for the highest Earth-orbiting crewed space flight That record was set in 1966, when Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr and Richard F. Gordon Jr piloted Gemini 11, the ninth crewed flight of that series in an extended elliptical orbit with a perigee of just 268 km and an apogee of 1,368 km.
  • This high altitude will allow the crew to study the radiation environment at the edge of interplanetary space – which is vastly different to that experienced by the majority of people who have flown into space – human missions rarely exceed 450 km above the Earth.
The Polaris Dawn crew (from L to R): Anna Menon, Scott Poteet, Jared Isaacman, and Sarah Gillis. Credit: Polaris Programme/John Kraus
  • The programme will aim to “raise funds and awareness” for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (the Inspiration4 mission raised a total of US $240 million for the hospital) as a part of “a global health initiative” that will involve SpaceX, their Starlink satellite broadband network. But again, precise details as to what this will mean / entail were no elaborated.
  • The flight will include the first EVA (extravehicular activity) spacewalk by a commercial crewed mission.

This last aspect has drawn the most attention, as it will entail the entire crew utilising a modified version of the suits currently worn by crews using Dragon to fly to / from the International Space Station. It will also be a further hark-back to the Gemini (and Apollo) missions. Like the vehicles used in those programmes, Crew Dragon does not carry an airlock, so the entire vehicle will have to be depressurised the the EVA – something that shouldn’t be a problem, as the vehicle has from the start been designed to be able to vent down to vacuum. However, the exact purpose of the EVA – together with the overall science objectives for the mission – has yet to be detailed.

How many Polaris missions will take place after Dawn is unclear; in terms of Crew Dragon, Isaacman appears to suggest the number of missions will be dependent on how quickly Starship moves from development through operational status as a cargo vehicle to being capable for flying with crews.

This is not something that we can expect in the next few years; SpaceX have a lot to do just to prove Starship and Super Heavy form a viable cargo launch vehicle, after which the vehicle will have to go through an assessment and rating to clear it for flying crews and passengers. This is itself not a simple process – for example, it is expected that crewed launch vehicle have so form of abort / escape system, something  Elon Musk has thus far only “supposed” this could be possible for Starship.

However, for all the gaps in what has thus far been presented, the Polaris Project would appear to be an interesting new venture – one the goals that again reach beyond mere space tourism.

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