February 16th, 2022

Otherworldly Mars image shows ripples sculpted by dust devils

Chaotic mounds, wind-sculpted ripples, and dust devil tracks: This image shows a fascinating and otherworldly landscape near Hooke Crater in Mars’ southern highlands. The image was taken by the CaSSIS camera onboard the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on February 1, 2021, and shows part of Argyre Planitia, centered at 46.2°S/318.3°E.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a hauntingly beautiful image of the surface of Mars, showing how the landscape there is sculpted by winds.

The image, taken from orbit by the ESA and Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), shows the Hooke Crater area in the southern highlands of Mars. The false colors are due to the filters used by TGO’s CaSSIS camera, which looks in the infrared wavelength to capture more details of the surface mineralogy.

February 14th, 2022

Jared Isaacman, who led the first all-private astronaut mission to orbit, has commissioned 3 more flights from SpaceX

The crew of the next SpaceX private astronaut flight, called Polaris Dawn, pose at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. From left: Anna Menon, who works to develop astronaut operations for SpaceX; Scott Poteet, who served as the mission director of the Inspiration4 mission; Jared Isaacman, who is financing the mission; and Sarah Gillis, lead space operations engineer for SpaceX. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire entrepreneur who led the first all-private-citizen crew to orbit in September, has commissioned three additional spaceflight missions in what amounts to a privately funded space program with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Like NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs at the dawn of the Space Age, the flights — dubbed Polaris, for the North Star — will seek to systematically chart new territory in bold, groundbreaking missions. In doing so, they would dramatically accelerate the progress of commercial spaceflight in what has become a new era of exploration, where private companies — and people — are claiming the rarefied territory that was once the exclusive domain of governments.

The first flight, which could come by the end of the year, will aim to send a crew of four farther than any other human spaceflight in 50 years and feature the first private-citizen spacewalk, Isaacman said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post. The second flight also would be aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the vehicle that NASA now relies on to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

The third flight in the series, however, would be the first crewed mission of the next-generation Starship spacecraft, now under development by SpaceX and which NASA intends to use to land astronauts on the moon.

February 10th, 2022

How to watch Elon Musk’s Starship presentation live

SpaceX stacking its Starship spacecraft on top of a Super Heavy booster at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX

This evening, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will give a presentation about his company’s next generation Starship system — a massive new rocket that SpaceX has been developing over the last few years to take humans to the Moon and eventually Mars. It’ll be Musk’s first presentation on the vehicle since 2019 and his fifth one overall since 2016.

Starship is by far SpaceX’s most ambitious project to date. The design calls for a giant spaceship and rocket combo that would be more powerful than the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon. Starship, the passenger part of the vehicle, is meant to launch to space on top of a gargantuan booster rocket known as the Super Heavy. Starship is supposed to be capable of landing on the surface of the Moon and back on Earth, while Super Heavy is also meant to land itself back on Earth, making the entire system reusable.

Scheduled start time: New York: 9PM / San Francisco: 6PM / London: 2AM / Berlin: 3AM / Moscow: 5AM / New Delhi: 7:30AM / Beijing: 10AM / Tokyo: 11AM / Melbourne: 1PM

February 9th, 2022

NASA Wants To Bring Pieces Of Mars Down to Earth

Illustration: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

Space may be the final frontier, but over the past few decades scientists have started to encroach on its territory. They’ve sent rover after rover to Mars, each one built to examine the planet’s surface for valuable information about its composition and history. But there’s only so much testing equipment that you can fit on a rover, let alone design with the durability to land, completely functional, on another planet. That’s why NASA is trying a new method: Bringing Martian rocks back to Earth.

The concept for returning Martian samples to Earth for terrestrial study isn’t a new one. The Mars Sample Return Mission has been in its “conceptual phase” for years, while scientists designed a methodology for getting rockets both to and from the red planet. Now, however, NASA has taken a new step towards getting the mission off the ground by bringing on Lockeed Martin to construct real life rockets.

February 8th, 2022

Riding a laser to Mars

Laser-thermal propelled spacecraft in Earth orbit awaiting its departure. Credit: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Could a laser send a spacecraft to Mars? That’s a proposed mission from a group at McGill University, designed to meet a solicitation from NASA. The laser, a 10-meter wide array on Earth, would heat hydrogen plasma in a chamber behind the spacecraft, producing thrust from hydrogen gas and sending it to Mars in only 45 days. There, it would aerobrake in Mars’ atmosphere, shuttling supplies to human colonists or, someday perhaps, even humans themselves.

McGill’s concept, called laser-thermal propulsion, relies on an array of infrared lasers based on Earth, 10 meters in diameter, combining many invisible infrared beams, each with a wavelength of about one micron, for a powerful total of 100 megawatts—the electric power required for about 80,000 U.S. households. The payload, orbiting in an elliptical medium Earth orbit, would have a reflector that directs the laser beam coming from Earth into a heating chamber containing a hydrogen plasma. With its core then heated as high as 40,000 degrees Kelvin (72,000 degrees Fahrenheit), hydrogen gas flowing around the core would reach 10,000 K (18,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and be expelled out a nozzle, creating thrust to propel the ship away from Earth over an interval of 58 minutes. (Side thrusters would keep the craft aligned with the laser’s beam as Earth rotates.)

When the beaming stops, the payload zips away at a velocity of almost 17 kilometers per second relative to Earth—fast enough to go past the moon’s orbital distance in a mere eight hours.

February 3rd, 2022

Mars Curiosity rover’s wheels look all beat up, but NASA isn’t fretting

Curiosity’s MAHLI camera snapped this view of one of the rover’s wheels in late January 2022.


Just like I inspect the bottom of my hiking boots from time to time, NASA’s Curiosity rover schedules in regular check-ups of its wheel treads. Mars hasn’t been kind to the rover’s aluminum wheels, which have taken a serious beating from rocks since it started exploring Gale Crater in 2012.

Curiosity snapped some fresh looks at its kicks in late January, and the views led to some concerned social media discussions (and some humorous ones) about the state of the wheels and what it means for the rover’s ability to rove. Good news: Curiosity is doing OK.

The wheel image that attracted the most attention is quite a looker. It shows multiple holes and broken grousers (raised treads), cracks and bent metal. If your car tire looked like that, you’d be breaking out the jack and the spare. But the wheel issues have been known for a long time and the Curiosity team already implemented mitigation measures to extend their life.

February 2nd, 2022

Helicopters Flying at Mars May Glow at Dusk

This is an artist’s concept of a glow surrounding a drone at Mars during flight. The glow, exaggerated for visibility, might happen if the drone’s spinning rotor blades generate an electric field that causes electric currents to flow in the Martian air around the craft. Although the currents generated by the drone in the atmosphere are small, they might be large enough to cause the air around the blades and other parts of the craft to glow a blue-purple color.
Credits: NASA/Jay Friedlander

The whirling blades on drones flying above Mars may cause tiny electric currents to flow in the Martian atmosphere, according to a NASA study. These currents, if large enough, might cause the air surrounding the craft to glow. This process occurs naturally at much larger scales on Earth as a corona or electrical glow sometimes seen on aircraft and ships in electrical storms known as Saint Elmo’s Fire.

February 1st, 2022

Waste to Base Materials Challenge: Sustainable Reprocessing in Space

Help NASA improve future space missions by proposing approaches to permit efficient reprocessing/recycling/repurposing of onboard resources.

This challenge is all about finding ways to convert waste into base materials and other useful things, like propellant or feedstock for 3D printing. We are looking for your ideas for how to convert different waste streams into useful materials that can then be made into needed things and cycled through multiple times – and we are looking for ideas to convert waste into propellant. Eventually, we would like to integrate all the different processes into a robust ecosystem that allows a spacecraft to launch from Earth with the lowest possible mass. For now, we are asking you to share your ideas for waste management/conversion in several specific categories:

Fecal waste
Foam packaging material
Carbon dioxide (CO2) processing

Winning ideas in each category will each receive a prize of $1,000. Additionally, judges will recognize “best in class” ideas, awarding each a prize of $1,000. A total prize purse of $24,000 will be awarded.

Open to submissions January 18, 2022

Submission deadline March 15, 2022 @ 5pm ET

Judging March 15 – April 19, 2022

Winners Announced April 26, 2022

January 29th, 2022

Op/Ed: Humans, Mars and the Solar Ecosystem

Shutterstock – Thammanoon Khamchalee

It is sometimes said that the human settlement of other planets would be an act of arrogance. Consider instead that believing we should not go may actually be the more arrogant presumption. Is our wisdom greater than that primeval drive of life itself to proliferate and prevail? Do we have the right to intercede?

If we establish a sustainable and scalable presence on Mars this century, we will almost certainly do the same on other worlds within the next thousand years. Whether we terraform or develop advanced habitats, we will bring flora and fauna with us. As thousands of years turn to millions, and millions to billions, the subsequent potential for life to spread and blossom in the solar system (and perhaps beyond) could be vast beyond our imagining.

January 25th, 2022

Motion capture is guiding the next generation of extraterrestrial robots

Dr. Frankie Zhu with AXEL rover in the extreme robotics lab at NASA JPL

“How do we build robots that can optimally explore space?” is the core question behind Dr Frances Zhu’s research at the University of Hawai’i. One part of the answer is, “with motion capture”.

“It is my hope that my research contributes to the way extraterrestrial robots move and make decisions on other planets,” explains Zhu (main image), an assistant researcher and deputy director at the University’s Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.

That research is in its early stages, but NASA has seen the value in it and awarded Zhu an EPSCoR grant by the name “Autonomous Rover Operations for Planetary Surface Exploration using Machine Learning Algorithms”.

Specifically, Zhu’s project focuses on robots that explore extreme terrain on lunar and planetary surfaces. “There are a few questions that I want to answer,” she says.