China launches its first unmanned mission to Mars

By Ryan Woo

WENCHANG, China (Reuters) – China successfully launched an unmanned probe to Mars on Thursday in its first independent mission to another planet, in a display of its technological prowess and ambition to join an elite club of space-faring nations.

China’s largest carrier rocket, the Long March 5 Y-4, blasted off with the probe at 12:41 p.m. (0441 GMT) from Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan.

In 2020, Mars is at its closest to Earth, at a distance of about 55 million km (34 million miles), in a window of about a month that opens once every 26 months.

The probe is expected to reach Mars in February where it will attempt to land in Utopia Planitia, a vast plain in the northern hemisphere, and deploy a rover to explore the planet for 90 days.

If successful, the Tianwen-1, or “Questions to Heaven”, the name of a poem written two millennia ago, will make China the first country to orbit, land and deploy a rover in its inaugural mission.

There will be challenges ahead as the craft nears Mars, Liu Tongjie, spokesman for the mission, told reporters ahead of the launch.

“When arriving in the vicinity of Mars, it is very critical to decelerate,” he warned.

Liu said the probe would orbit Mars for about two and a half months and look for an opportunity to enter its atmosphere and make a soft landing.

“Entering, deceleration and landing (EDL) is a very difficult (process),” he said.

Since 1960, half of all the 50-plus missions to Mars including flybys failed, due to technical problems.

China previously made a Mars bid in 2011 with Russia, but the Russian spacecraft carrying the probe failed to exit the Earth’s orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.

Eight spacecraft – American, European and Indian – are either orbiting Mars or on its surface with other missions underway or planned.

The United Arab Emirates launched a mission to Mars on Monday, an orbiter that will study the planet’s atmosphere.

NEW SINO-U.S. FRICTIONS?

The United States may launch a probe as soon as end-July to Mars. It will deploy a rover called Perseverance, the biggest, heaviest, most advanced vehicle sent to the Red Planet by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA’s InSight is currently probing the interior of Mars on a plain called Elysium Planitia. Curiosity, a car-sized rover deployed by NASA, is studying soil and rocks in Gale Crater, searching for the building blocks of life.

Asked if Tianwen-1 would present new frictions with the United States, Liu told Reuters the Chinese mission is a scientific exploration project not to compete with anyone but cooperate with each other.

“From our point of view, Mars is large enough for multiple countries to explore and carry out missions,” Liu said in an interview, when asked if there was a chance the Chinese rover would meet with Curiosity and InSight.

Liu declined to give a cost estimate for China’s mission.

China’s probe will carry 13 scientific instruments to observe the planet’s atmosphere and surface, searching for signs of water and ice.

“Scientists believe there was an ancient ocean in the southern Utopia Planitia. At a place where an ancient ocean and land meet, scientists hope to make a lot of discoveries,” Liu said.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo in Wenchang; Additional reporting by Liangping Gao in Beijing; Writing by Jane Wardell and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Neil Fullick, Robert Birsel, William Maclean)

Ten years after ‘suicide’ mission, NASA thirsts for lunar water

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A decade after NASA sent a rocket crashing into the moon’s south pole, spewing a plume of debris that revealed vast reserves of ice beneath the barren lunar surface, the space agency is racing to pick up where its little-remembered project left off.

The so-called LCROSS mission was hastily carried out 10 years ago Wednesday in a complex orbital dance of two “suicide” spacecraft and one mapping satellite. It proved a milestone in the discovery of a natural lunar resource that could be key to NASA’s plans for renewed human exploration of the moon and ultimately visits to Mars and beyond.

“The LCROSS mission was a game changer,” NASA’s chief Jim Bridenstine told Reuters, adding that once water had been found the United States “should have immediately as a nation changed our direction to the moon so we could figure out how to use it.”

The agency now has the chance to follow up on the pioneering mission, after Vice President Mike Pence in March ordered NASA to land humans on the lunar surface by 2024, accelerating a goal to colonize the moon as a staging ground for eventual missions to Mars.

Bridenstine says the moon holds billions of tons of water ice, although the exact amount and whether it’s present in large chunks of ice or combined with the lunar soil remains unknown. To find out before astronauts arrive on the moon, NASA is working with a handful of companies to put rovers on the lunar surface by 2022.

“We need next to get on the surface with a rover to prospect for water, drill into it, and determine how suitable it is for extraction,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado.

Instead of launching expensive fuel loads from Earth, scientists say the lunar water could be extracted and broken down into its two main components, hydrogen and oxygen, potentially turning the moon into a fuel arsenal for missions to deeper parts of the solar system.

OPEN KIMONO

Weeks before the LCROSS impact booster struck the moon’s south pole, the mission’s development timeline “was a bad rush to the finish line,” Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS, told Reuters.

“We wanted to make as large of a hole as possible to get as much materials out of the shadows and into the sunlight,” Colaprete said, describing an unusually fast-paced program using technology that had never been used in space before.

Engineers and mission leaders used the business phrase “open kimono” about disclosing company information to characterize the program’s breakneck development speed and the need for clear and open lines of communication between contractors and NASA.

“That almost became a mantra for the project,” Colaprete said.

The current lunar program is also “forcing some cultural changes” at NASA, he added, which has undergone a series of high-level management changes and delays with the agency’s commercial crew program, a public-private effort to resume U.S. human spaceflight for the first time since 2011.

“People are coming together in a way like they did on LCROSS.”

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Pullin)

Newfound comet likely an ‘interstellar visitor,’ scientists say

Comet C/2019 Q4 is imaged by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Hawaii's Big Island September 10, 2019. NASA/JPL/Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/Handout via REUTERS

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – A newly discovered comet hurtling toward the orbit of Mars has scientists scurrying to confirm whether it came from outside the solar system, a likely prospect that would make it the second such interstellar object observed in our planetary neighborhood.

The trajectory of the comet, first detected by Crimean astronomer Gennady Borisov, follows a highly curved path barreling in the sun’s direction at unusually high speeds, evidence that it originated beyond the solar system.

“On our team we’ve been scrambling here at the University of Hawaii to get observations to make position measurements,” said Karen Meech, an astronomer at the university whose team concluded that the object’s size and tail of gas classify it as a comet.

“Every time a new comet is discovered, everybody starts to try and get data so that you can get the orbit,” Meech told Reuters, adding that her researchers “all are 100 percent convinced that this really, truly is interstellar.”

The comet, an apparent amalgam of ice and dust, is expected to make its closest approach to the sun on Dec. 8, putting it 190 million miles (300 million km) from Earth, on a route believed unique to such objects of interstellar origin.

Once confirmed interstellar, the comet – dubbed C/2019 Q4 by astronomers – would become only the second such body ever observed by scientists.

The first was a cigar-shaped comet dubbed ‘Oumuamua – a name of Hawaiian origin meaning a messenger from afar arriving first – that sailed into our planetary neighborhood in 2017, prompting initial speculation that it may have been an alien spacecraft. Astronomers soon reached a consensus that it was not.

Unlike ‘Oumuamua, which visited the solar system for only a week, the newfound comet will linger near Mars’ orbit for almost a year, giving scientists ample time to characterize its chemical signatures and seek further clues about its origin.

“The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space,” said Davide Farnocchia, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)

Explainer: NASA aims to build on moon as a way station for Mars

FILE PHOTO: Tourists take pictures of a NASA sign at the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Joey Roulette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Unlike the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon 50 years ago, NASA is gearing up for a long term presence on Earth’s satellite that the agency says will eventually enable humans to reach Mars.

“Now, NASA is working to build a sustainable, open architecture that returns humanity to our nearest neighbor,” Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of the U.S. space agency, said in a statement to a Senate committee on Wednesday.

“We are building for the long term, going to the Moon to stay, and moving beyond to Mars.”

The next manned mission to the moon will require leaps in robotic technologies and a plan for NASA to work with private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to help cut the cost of space travel.

Using NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket being built for a debut flight in late 2020, the agency is aiming to return humans to the moon by 2024 in an accelerated timeline set in March by the Trump administration.

No humans have launched from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

NASA officials say exploration of the moon and Mars are intertwined, with the moon becoming a testbed for Mars and providing an opportunity to demonstrate new technologies that could help build self-sustaining extraterrestrial outposts.

We are working right now, in fact, to put together a comprehensive plan on how we would conduct a Mars mission using the technologies that we will be proving at the moon,” Bridenstine told reporters on Monday, adding that a mission to the Red Planet could come as soon as 2033.

Technologies that can mine the moon’s subsurface water ice to sustain astronaut crews, but also to be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as a rocket propellant, could be crucial for missions to Mars. The planet is reachable in months-long missions when at its closest orbital approach of 35.8 million miles from Earth’s utilization versus curiosity,” said roboticist and research professor at Carnegie Mellon University William Whittaker, comparing the Artemis program, as the new lunar mission has been dubbed, with Apollo. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology.

POLITICAL PRIORITIES

The last manned mission to the moon was almost a half-century ago in 1972, when Cold War-era tensions underscored President John F. Kennedy’s push to prove technologies that landed the first humans on the lunar surface.

“That’s 50 years of non-progress; I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can’t do better than that,” said Buzz Aldrin, who joined Neil Armstrong in walking on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Bridenstine said shifting political priorities were the key reason NASA had not returned to the surface of Earth’s natural satellite since then. “If it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now,” said the NASA chief, who is working to woo Republican and Democratic lawmakers to approve additional taxpayer funds for the program.

Development of NASA’s flagship rocket, Space Launch System, whose main contractor is Boeing Co, is taking years longer than expected with cost overruns of nearly $2 billion, a federal audit released in June found. Those delays could push the rocket’s first launch to June 2021, potentially endangering NASA’s plan to reach the moon by 2024.

“Cost and schedule matter,” Bridenstine said. “So we are working rapidly to put together a team that can assess the cost and schedule of these programs and create a realistic baseline that we can work toward.”

Bridenstine, under mounting pressure to meet the White House’s 2024 deadline, demoted two longtime heads of NASA’s human exploration division last week in a slew of administrative shakeups amid dwindling congressional support for the lunar initiative.

Charlie Duke, who piloted the lunar-landing module during the last lunar mission, Apollo 16, said leadership in the Apollo missions was “bold without being careless.”

“Don’t be so risk-averse that you don’t fly,” he said.

He added that the decision to put astronauts on top of a massive Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle used by NASA for the Apollo program, “was a very gutsy call. They went through it carefully and they determined it was OK.”

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)

NASA’s InSight lands on Mars to peer into planet’s deep interior

James Bridenstine (L), Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), speaks along Michael Watkins, JPL Director, Project Manager Tom Hoffman and scientists Bruce Banerdt, Andrew Klesh and Elizabeth Barrett after the landing of spacecraft InSight on the surface of Mars, in Pasadena, California, U.S. November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Steve Gorman

PASADENA, Calif. (Reuters) – NASA’s InSight spacecraft, the first robotic lander designed to study the deep interior of a distant world, touched down safely on the surface of Mars on Monday with instruments to detect planetary seismic rumblings never measured anywhere but Earth.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into cheers, applause and hugs as they received signals confirming InSight’s arrival on Martian soil – a vast, barren plain near the planet’s equator – shortly before 3 p.m. EST.

Minutes later, JPL controllers received a fuzzy “selfie” photograph of the probe’s new surroundings on the Red Planet, showing the edge of one lander leg beside a rock.

Watch parties for NASA’s live television coverage of the event were held at museums, libraries and other public venues around the world, including Times Square, where a small crowd of 40 or 50 people braved pouring rain to witness the broadcast on a giant TV screen affixed to a wall of the Nasdaq building.

InSight’s descent and landing, consisting of about 1,000 individual steps that had to be flawlessly executed to achieve success, capped a six-month journey of 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth.

The spacecraft was launched from California in May on its nearly $1 billion mission. It will spend the next 24 months – about one Martian year – collecting a wealth of data to unlock mysteries about how Mars formed and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system.

“The reason why we’re digging into Mars is to better understand not just Mars, but the Earth itself,” said JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator.

A central question is why Mars, once a relatively warm, wet planet, evolved so differently from Earth into a mostly dry, desolate and cold world, devoid of life.

The answers are believed to have something to do with the as-yet unexplained absence, since Mars’ ancient past, of either a magnetic field or tectonic activity, said NASA’s chief scientist James Green.

While Earth’s tectonics and other forces have erased most evidence of its early history, much of Mars – about one-third the size of Earth – has seemingly remained largely static, creating a geologic time machine for scientists, Green said.

InSight and the next Mars rover mission, scheduled for 2020, are both seen as precursors for eventual human exploration of Mars, an objective that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Monday might be achieved as early as the mid-2030s.

DAREDEVIL LANDING

InSight was the eighth spacecraft to have landed successfully on Mars, all of them operated by NASA.

The three-legged lander streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles (19,795 km) per hour and plunged 77 miles to the surface within seven minutes, slowed to a gentle touchdown by atmospheric friction, a giant parachute and retro rockets.

The stationary probe was programmed to pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around its landing site, before two disc-shaped solar panels were to be unfurled like wings to provide power to the spacecraft.

But scientists did not expect to verify successful deployment of the solar arrays for at least several hours.

The 880-pound (360 kg) InSight – its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – marks the 21st U.S.-launched Mars mission, dating back to the Mariner fly-bys of the 1960s.

Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been sent from other nations.

InSight’s new home in the middle of Elysium Planitia, a wide, relatively smooth expanse close to the planet’s equator, is roughly 373 miles (600 km) from the 2012 landing spot of the car-sized Mars rover Curiosity, the last spacecraft sent to the Red Planet by NASA.

PEERING BENEATH SURFACE

InSight’s primary instrument is a French-built seismometer, designed to record the slightest vibrations from “marsquakes” and meteor impacts around the planet. The device, to be placed on the surface by the lander’s robot arm, is so sensitive it can measure a seismic wave just one half the radius of a hydrogen atom.

Scientists expect to see a dozen to 100 marsquakes during the mission, producing data to help them deduce the depth, density and composition of the planet’s core, the rocky mantle surrounding it, and the outermost layer, the crust.

The NASA Viking probes of the mid-1970s were equipped with seismometers, too, but they were bolted to the top of the landers, a design that proved largely ineffective.

Apollo missions to the moon brought seismometers to the lunar surface as well. But InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on planetary seismic tremors beyond Earth.

A second instrument, furnished by Germany’s space agency, consists of a drill to burrow as much as 16 feet (5 meters) underground, pulling behind it a rope-like thermal probe to measure heat flowing from inside the planet.

Meanwhile, a radio transmitter will send back signals tracking Mars’ subtle rotational wobble to reveal the size of the planet’s core and possibly whether it remains molten.

NASA officials say it will take two to three months for the main instruments to be deployed and put into operation.

The landing data and initial photograph were relayed to Earth from two briefcase-sized satellites that were launched along with InSight and were flying past Mars as it reached its destination. The twin “Cubesats” tagging along for the flight to Mars represented the first deep-space use of a miniature satellite technology that space engineers see as a promising low-cost alternative to some larger, more complex vehicles.

(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Pasadena; Additional reporting by Pavithra George in Pasadena; Editing by Michael Perry and Tom Brown)

Underground lake found on Mars, raising possibility of life

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Using a radar instrument on an orbiting spacecraft, scientists have spotted what they said on Wednesday appears to be a sizable salt-laden lake under ice on the southern polar plain of Mars, a body of water they called a possible habitat for microbial life.

The reservoir they detected — roughly 12 miles (20 km) in diameter, shaped like a rounded triangle and located about a mile (1.5 km) beneath the ice surface — represents the first stable body of liquid water ever found on Mars.

Whether anywhere other than Earth has harbored life is one of the supreme questions in science, and the new findings offer tantalizing evidence, though no proof. Water is considered a fundamental ingredient for life.

The researchers said it could take years to verify whether something is actually living in this body of water that resembles a subglacial lake on Earth, perhaps with a future mission drilling through the ice to sample the water below.

“This is the place on Mars where you have something that most resembles a habitat, a place where life could subsist,” said planetary scientist Roberto Orosei of Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Italy, who led the research published in the journal Science.

A view of Ophir Chasma on the northern portion of the vast Mars canyon system, Vallles Marineris, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. REUTERS/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A view of Ophir Chasma on the northern portion of the vast Mars canyon system, Vallles Marineris, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
REUTERS/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

“This kind of environment is not exactly your ideal vacation, or a place where fish would swim,” Orosei added. “But there are terrestrial organisms that can survive and thrive, in fact, in similar environments. There are microorganisms on Earth that are capable of surviving even in ice.”

The detection was made using data collected between May 2012 and December 2015 by an instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft that transmits radar pulses, which penetrate the Martian surface and ice caps.

“This took us long years of data analysis and struggles to find a good method to be sure that what we were observing was unambiguously liquid water,” said study co-author Enrico Flamini, chief scientist at the Italian Space Agency during the research.

The location’s radar profile resembled that of subglacial lakes found beneath Earth’s Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

Mars long ago was warmer and wetter, possessing significant bodies of water, as evidenced by dry lake beds and river valleys on its surface. There had been some signs of liquid water currently on Mars, including disputed evidence of water activity on Martian slopes, but not stable bodies of water.

Orosei said the water in the Martian lake was below the normal freezing point but remained liquid thanks in large part to high levels of salts. Orosei estimated the water temperature at somewhere between 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius) and minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius).

It remains to be seen if more subsurface reservoirs of water will be found or whether the newly discovered one is some sort of quirk, Orosei said.

If others are detected and a network of subglacial lakes exists like on Earth, he said, that could indicate liquid water has persisted for millions of years or even dating back to 3-1/2 billion years ago when Mars was a more hospitable planet.

The question would be, Orosei added, whether any life forms that could have evolved long ago on Mars have found a way to survive until now.

“Nobody dares to propose that there could be any more complex life form,” Orosei said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket soars in debut test launch from Florida

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.

By Joey Roulette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – The world’s most powerful rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, roared into space through clear blue skies on its debut test flight on Tuesday from a Florida launch site in another milestone for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private rocket service.

The 23-story-tall jumbo rocket, carrying a cherry red Tesla Roadster from the assembly line of Musk’s electric car company as a mock payload, thundered off its launchpad in billowing clouds of steam and rocket exhaust at 3:45 p.m (2045 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, where moon missions once began.

Boisterous cheering could be heard from SpaceX workers at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where a livestream feed of the event originated. At least 2,000 spectators cheered the blastoff from a campground near Cocoa Beach, 5 miles (8 km) from the space center.

Within three minutes, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters separated from the central rocket in one of the most critical points of the flight.

Then, capitalizing on cost-cutting reusable rocket technology pioneered by SpaceX, the two boosters flew themselves back to Earth for safe simultaneous touchdowns on twin landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, about eight minutes after launch. Each rocket unleashed a double sonic boom as it neared the landing zone.

The center booster rocket, which SpaceX had predicted was less likely to be salvaged, slammed into the Atlantic at about 300 miles per hour (483 kph), showering the deck of the nearby drone landing vessel and destroying two of the ship’s thrusters, Musk told a post-launch news conference.

‘CRAZY THINGS COME TRUE’

Still, the Silicon Valley mogul known for self-deprecating understatement hailed the launch as a victory and “a big relief.”

“I had this image of this giant explosion on the pad, with wheels bouncing down the road and the logo landing somewhere with a thud. But fortunately, that’s not what happened,” he said. “Crazy things come true.”

While the Falcon Heavy’s initial performance appeared, by all accounts, to have been near flawless, it remained to be seen whether the upper stage of the vehicle and its payload would survive a six-hour “cruise” phase to high Earth orbit through the planet’s radiation belts.

The launch, so powerful that it shook the walls of the press trailer at the complex, was conducted from the same site used by NASA’s towering Saturn 5 rockets to carry Apollo missions to the moon more than 40 years ago. SpaceX has said it aspires to send missions to Mars in the coming years.

The successful liftoff was a key turning point for Musk’s privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, which stands to gain a new edge over the handful of rivals vying for lucrative contracts with NASA, satellite companies and the U.S. military.

Falcon Heavy is designed to place up to 70 tons into standard low-Earth orbit at a cost of $90 million per launch. That is twice the lift capacity of the biggest existing rocket in America’s space fleet – the Delta 4 Heavy of rival United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co- for about a fourth the cost.

The demonstration flight put the Heavy into the annals of spaceflight as the world’s most powerful rocket in operation, with more lift capacity than any space vehicle to fly since NASA’s Saturn 5, which was retired in 1973, or the Soviet-era Energia, which flew its last mission in 1988.

Propelled by 27 rocket engines, the Heavy packs more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly three times the force of the Falcon 9 booster rocket that until now has been the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet. The new rocket is essentially constructed from three Falcon 9s bolted together side by side.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

‘NEW SPACE RACE?’

Going along for the ride in a bit of playful cross-promotional space theater was the sleek red, electric-powered sports car from Musk’s other transportation enterprise, Tesla Inc.

Adding to the whimsy, SpaceX planted a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat of the convertible Tesla Roadster.

Musk mused that “it may be discovered by some future alien race.” The white spacesuit was real, he said.

A third burn was successful, Musk Tweeted late on Tuesday, sending the Tesla Roadster into its planned trajectory.

“Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt,” he tweeted.

The roadster, which carries a plaque inscribed with the names of more than 6,000 SpaceX employees, could instead end up in perpetual Earth orbit.

The launch followed an impressive run of successful paid missions – 20 in all since January 2017, when SpaceX returned to flight following a 2016 launchpad accident that destroyed a $62 million rocket and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that it was to put into orbit two days later.

Musk said he hoped Tuesday’s achievement would encourage a new “space race” by private ventures and other countries, an allusion to the 1960s Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“Space races are exciting,” he said.

SpaceX had previously announced plans to eventually use Falcon Heavy to launch two paying space tourists on a trip around the moon. Musk said on Monday he was now inclined to reserve that mission for an even more powerful SpaceX launch system, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, whose development he said was proceeding more swiftly than expected.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral, Fla. and Gregg Newton in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Obama vows to send people to Mars by 2030

Dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on Mars inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water are seen in a NASA handout image

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to help send people to Mars within the next 15 years, pledging to work with private companies to “to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.”

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” Obama said in an opinion piece for CNN posted to its website.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Human flights to Mars still at least 15 years off: ESA head

Monitors in the ESOC

By Maria Sheahan and Ashutosh Pandey

DARMSTADT, Germany (Reuters) – Dreaming of a trip to Mars? You’ll have to wait at least 15 years for the technology to be developed, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) said, putting doubt on claims that the journey could happen sooner.

“If there was enough money then we could possibly do it earlier but there is not as much now as the Apollo program had,” ESA Director-General Jan Woerner said, referring to the U.S. project which landed the first people on the moon.

Woerner says a permanent human settlement on the moon, where 3D printers could be used to turn moon rock into essential items needed for the two-year trip to Mars, would be a major step toward the red planet.

U.S. space agency NASA hopes to send astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s and businessman Elon Musk, head of electric car maker Tesla Motors, says he plans to put unmanned spacecraft on Mars from as early as 2018 and have humans there by 2030.

The ESA’s Woerner said it would take longer.

A spacecraft sent to Mars would need rockets and fuel powerful enough to lift back off for the return trip and the humans would need protection from unprecedented physical and mental challenges as well as deep-space radiation.

Woerner would like to see a cluster of research laboratories on the moon, at what he calls a “moon village”, to replace the International Space Station when its lifetime ends and to test technologies needed to make the trip to Mars.

That could be funded and operated by a collection of private and public bodies from around the world, he said in an interview at the ESA’s Operations Centre.

“There are various companies and public agencies asking to join the club now, so they want to do different things, resource mining, in situ research, tourism and that kind of stuff. There is a big community interested,” he told Reuters.

“The moon village is a pit stop on the way to Mars,” Woerner said, adding that new 3D printing technology could be used to build material and structures out of rocks and dust, doing away with the cost of transporting everything needed for a mission.

“To test how to use lunar material to build some structures, not only houses, but also for a telescope or whatever, will teach us also how to do it on Mars,” he said.

The ESA, working with Russia, in March sent a spacecraft on a seven-month journey as part of the agency’s ExoMars mission, which will use an atmospheric probe to sniff out signs of life on Mars and deploy a lander to test technologies needed for a rover scheduled to follow in 2020.

Woerner said Europe was looking at ways to lower the cost of launches but did not plan to copy Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is trying to develop relatively cheap, reusable launch vehicles.

“We should not copy. To follow and copy does not bring you into the lead. We are looking for totally different approaches,” Woerner said, adding the ESA was examining all manner of new technologies, including air-breathing engines that do not need to tap into oxygen from a spacecraft’s tank.

(Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Astronauts get first look inside space station’s inflatable module

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module shown at Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas Nevada

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Monday floated inside an experimental inflatable module that will test a less expensive and potentially safer option for housing crews during long stays in space, NASA said.

Station flight engineers Jeff Williams and Oleg Skripochka opened the hatch to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, at 4:47 a.m. EDT (0847 GMT) on Monday.

Designed and built by privately-owned Bigelow Aerospace, BEAM is the first inflatable habitat to be tested with astronauts in space. The Las Vegas-based firm previously flew two unmanned prototypes.

BEAM was flown to the space station aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship in April and inflated to the size of small bedroom on May 28. It is scheduled to remain attached to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, for two years. Wearing face masks and headlamps, Williams and Skripochka floated inside the darkened module for the first time to collect air samples for analysis and retrieve engineering data from BEAM’s inflation.

Williams told flight controllers the module looked “pristine,” mission commentator Gary Jordan said during a NASA TV broadcast. Williams also said it was cold inside BEAM, but that there was no sign of condensation on the walls, Jordan said.

Astronauts will return to BEAM on Tuesday and Wednesday to install temperature and radiation sensors as well as instruments to collect data from any micro-meteoroid or orbital debris impacts.

BEAM’s hatch will remain closed except when astronauts go inside the module six or seven times per year to retrieve recorded data, NASA said.

Lightweight inflatables, which are made of layers of fabrics and a protective outer shield, are far less costly to launch than traditional metal modules. They may also provide astronauts with better radiation protection.

“This technology can be used in future designs for a mission to Mars,” Jordan said. Bigelow Aerospace is aiming to fly inflatable space modules 20 times larger than BEAM that can be leased out to companies and research organizations.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Scott Malone, G Crosse)