NASA’s astrobiology rover Perseverance makes historic Mars landing

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – NASA’s science rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere on Thursday and landed safely on the floor of a vast crater, its first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.

Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as radio signals confirmed that the six-wheeled rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived within its target zone inside Jezero Crater, site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.

The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 293 million miles (472 million km) before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour (19,000 km per hour) to begin its approach to touchdown on the planet’s surface.

The spacecraft’s self-guided descent and landing during a complex series of maneuvers that NASA dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” stands as the most elaborate and challenging feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.

“It really is the beginning of a new era,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said earlier in the day during NASA’s webcast of the event.

The landing represented the riskiest part of two-year, $2.7 billion endeavor whose primary aim is to search for possible fossilized signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars some 3 billion years ago, when the fourth planet from the sun was warmer, wetter and potentially hospitable to life.

Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth – the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from another planet.

Two subsequent Mars missions are planned to retrieve the samples and return them to NASA in the next decade.

Thursday’s landing came as a triumph for a pandemic-weary United States in the grips of economic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 public health crisis.

SEARCH FOR ANCIENT LIFE

NASA scientists have described Perseverance as the most ambitious of nearly 20 U.S. missions to Mars dating back to the Mariner spacecraft’s 1965 fly-by.

Larger and packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers preceding it, Perseverance is set to build on previous findings that liquid water once flowed on the Martian surface and that carbon and other minerals altered by water and considered precurors to the evolution of life were present.

Perseverance’s payload also includes demonstration projects that could help pave the way for eventual human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen.

The box-shaped tool, the first built to extract a natural resource of direct use to humans from an extraterrestrial environment, could prove invaluable for future human life support on Mars and for producing rocket propellant to fly astronauts home.

Another experimental prototype carried by Perseverance is a miniature helicopter designed to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. If successful, the 4-pound (1.8-kg) helicopter could lead to low-altitude aerial surveillance of distant worlds, officials said.

The daredevil nature of the rover’s descent to the Martian surface, at a site that NASA described as both tantalizing to scientists and especially hazardous for landing, was a momentous achievement in itself.

The multi-stage spacecraft carrying the rover soared into the top of Martian atmosphere at nearly 16 times the speed of sound on Earth, angled to produce aerodynamic lift while jet thrusters adjusted its trajectory.

A jarring, supersonic parachute inflation further slowed the descent, giving way to deployment of a rocket-powered “sky crane” vehicle that flew to a safe landing spot, lowered the rover on tethers, then flew off to crash a safe distance away.

Perseverance’s immediate predecessor, the rover Curiosity, landed in 2012 and remains in operation, as does the stationary lander InSight, which arrived in 2018 to study the deep interior of Mars.

Last week, separate probes launched by the United Arab Emirates and China reached Martian orbit. NASA has three Mars satellites still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham)

Branson’s Virgin Orbit reaches space with key mid-air rocket launch

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time on Sunday with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering ten NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket’s first test launch last year.

The Long Beach, California-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl some 35,000 feet over the Pacific at 11:39 a.m. PT before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.

“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, dubbed Launch Demo 2. “In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo.”

Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, successfully placed 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA, the company said on Twitter.

The rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, aimed to place 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA roughly two hours into the mission, though Virgin Orbit had not confirmed whether they were deployed as planned.

The successful test and clean payload deployment was a needed double-win for Virgin Orbit, which last year failed its attempt to reach space when LauncherOne’s main engine shut down prematurely moments after releasing from its carrier aircraft. The shortened mission generated key test data for the company, it said.

Sunday’s test also thrusts Virgin Orbit into an increasingly competitive commercial space race, offering a unique “air-launch” method of sending satellites to orbit alongside rivals such as Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace, which have designed small-launch systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.

Virgin executives say high-altitude launches allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently and also minimize weather-related cancellations compared to more traditional rockets launched vertically from a ground pad.

Virgin Orbit’s government services subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the system to the U.S. military, with a first mission slated for October under a $35 million U.S. Space Force contract for three missions.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Daniel Wallis)

SpaceX to launch astronaut crew in first operational mission

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Elon Musk’s SpaceX is poised to send a crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station on Saturday evening in NASA’s first operational mission using the Crew Dragon capsule.

The Crew Dragon capsule, named “Resilience” by its crew, is due to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 7:49 p.m. ET on Saturday (0049 GMT on Sunday) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying three U.S. astronauts and one from Japan, Soichi Noguchi.

The roughly eight-hour flight to the station will be SpaceX’s first operational mission, as opposed to a test, after NASA officials this week signed off on Crew Dragon’s design, ending a nearly 10-year development phase for SpaceX under the agency’s public-private crew program.

“The history being made this time is we’re launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station,”  NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

Musk, who usually attends high-profile SpaceX missions in person at Kennedy Space Center, said Thursday that he took four coronavirus tests on the same day, with two returning negative and two producing positive results.

Bridenstine, asked on Friday if Musk will be in the launch control room for liftoff on Saturday, said agency policy requires employees to quarantine and self-isolate after testing positive for the disease, “so we anticipate that that will be taking place.”

Whether Musk came into contact with the astronauts was unclear, but unlikely since the crew has been in routine quarantine for weeks prior to their flight on Saturday.

NASA contracted SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop competing space capsules aimed at replacing its shuttle program that ended in 2011 and weaning off dependence on Russian rockets to send U.S. astronauts to space.

SpaceX’s final test of its capsule came in August, after the company launched and returned the first astronauts from U.S. soil on a trip to the ISS in nearly a decade. Boeing’s first crewed test mission with its Starliner capsule is planned for late next year.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Bill Tarrant and Diane Craft)

Boeing’s first Starliner crewed mission tentatively slated for 2021

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Boeing Co said on Tuesday it aims to redo its unmanned Starliner crew capsule flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) in December or January, depending on when it completes software and test hardware production development.

If the test mission is successful, Boeing and NASA will fly Starliner’s first crewed mission in summer 2021, with a post-certification mission roughly scheduled for the following winter, the company added.

Boeing is eager for another shot at proving its crew capsule after technical failures put the aerospace juggernaut behind Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, which successfully returned its rival crew capsule from the ISS earlier this month.

During Boeing’s first uncrewed test, in December 2019, a series of software glitches and an issue with the spacecraft’s automated timer resulted in Starliner failing to dock at the space station and returning to Earth a week early.

In February, a NASA safety review panel found Boeing had narrowly missed a “catastrophic failure” in the botched test, and recommended examining the company’s software verification process before letting it fly humans to space.

Earlier this month, Boeing watched from the sidelines as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico after a two-month voyage to the International Space Station – NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

NASA sets launch date for SpaceX U.S. manned mission to space station

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – NASA on Friday set a launch date of May 27 for its first astronaut mission from U.S. soil in nearly ten years.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, will send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its Falcon 9 rocket from Florida – marking the company’s first mission carrying humans aboard.

“BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. space agency had previously said the mission, in which NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, 48, and Doug Hurley, 52 will ride SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the space station, would launch sometime in May.

As with most high-profile missions, the new date could slip. If all goes as planned, the mission would mark the first time NASA launches its astronauts from U.S. soil since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle.

The space agency has since relied on Russia’s space program to ferry astronauts to the space station.

A decade in the making, next month’s mission is the final test for Crew Dragon before regularly flying humans for NASA under its Commercial Crew Program, a public-private initiative. Boeing Co is developing its competing Starliner astronaut taxi as the agency’s second ride to space.

The agency is mulling whether to extend Behnken and Hurley’s stay aboard the space station from a week as originally planned to up to six months in order to ensure U.S. astronauts are staffed on the station continuously.

Timelines for the crew program have been pushed back by years, with the first crew launch originally slated for early 2017.

The development delays with Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner have forced NASA to buy more crew seats from Russia’s space agency, an increasingly costly expense as Moscow scales its own Soyuz program back to just two missions a year.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Bill Berkrot)

NASA astronaut Christina Koch returns to Earth after record mission

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American astronaut Christina Koch, who led the first all-female spacewalk in 2019, landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday after a record stay on the International Space Station, ending a 328-day mission expected to yield new insights into deep-space travel.

Koch, a North Carolina-born engineer who joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013, set the record for the longest stay in space by a woman. Her mission will provide researchers valuable data on how weightlessness and space radiation affect the female body on long spaceflights.

“Women acclimate well to space, so I think this is a milestone that will be overtaken by women in the future and it’s what we aspire to,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator.

The Soyuz MS-13 capsule touched down on the snowy Kazakh Steppe at 4:12 am ET (0912 GMT) carrying Koch, 41, European astronaut Luca Parmitano of Italy and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov.

They will be flown by search and recovery teams to the Karaganda region to begin their journey home.

“I’m just so overwhelmed and happy right now,” Koch said, sitting in a chair wrapped in blankets as she waited to be carried into a medical tent to restore her balance in gravity.

Koch also achieved a gender milestone in a spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir last October that marked the first time two women stepped out of the space station at the same time. They completed two more all-female spacewalks in January.

NASA’s first attempt at an all-female spacewalk in March 2019 was called off https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-women-space/nasa-cancels-first-all-women-spacewalk-due-to-lack-of-small-spacesuits-idUSKCN1R71CE due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size, which ignited a gender-equity debate.

Koch’s 328 days in space eclipsed Peggy Whitson’s record for an American woman on a single spaceflight at 289 days.

Scott Kelly holds the overall American record at 340 days, and Russia’s Valeri Polyakov holds the global record of 437 days aboard the defunct Mir space station.

Astronauts on the space station, whose 20th anniversary in low-Earth orbit comes later this year, have made 227 maintenance spacewalks, nearly two dozen of which included women astronauts, according to NASA.

Studying the impact of lengthy spaceflights could prove useful for NASA’s aim of building a permanent space station on the moon within the next decade.

Kelly’s 340 days demonstrated that long-term spaceflight causes thickening of the carotid artery and retina, changes in gene expression, and slight cognitive impairment for men.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Sandra Maler, Giles Elgood and Bernadette Baum)

2019 was second-hottest year ever, more extreme weather coming: World Meteorological Organization

GENEVA (Reuters) – Last year was the second-hottest year since records began, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Wednesday, warning that heat was likely to lead to more extreme weather events like the Australian bushfires in 2020 and beyond.

The data from the Geneva-based WMO crunches several datasets including from NASA and the UK Met Office. It showed that the average global temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degree Celsius (34°F) above pre-industrial levels.

“Australia had its hottest, driest year on record in 2019, setting the scene for the massive bushfires which were so devastating to people and property, wildlife, ecosystems and the environment,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

The hottest year on record was in 2016, the WMO said, due to the warming impact of a strong El Nino event.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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)

Earth to FEDOR: Russia launches humanoid robot into space

Russian Soyuz-2.1a booster with the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft carrying robot Skybot F-850 blasts off from a launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan August 22, 2019. Russian space agency Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian humanoid robot was making its way on Thursday to the International Space Station after blasting off on a two-week mission to support the crew and test his skills.

Known as FEDOR, which stands for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research, the Skybot F-850 is the first humanoid robot to be sent to space by Russia. NASA sent humanoid robot Robonaut 2 to space in 2011 to work in hazardous environments.

“The robot’s main purpose it to be used in operations that are especially dangerous for humans onboard spacecraft and in outer space,” Russian space agency Roscosmos said on Thursday after the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The ISS is a joint project of the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

Traveling in an unmanned Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft, FEDOR is expected to dock at the ISS on Saturday with 1,450 pounds (660 kg) of cargo including medical supplies and food rations for the crew waiting at the station, NASA said.

FEDOR, who is the size an adult and can emulate movements of the human body, has apparently embraced his mission, describing himself as “an assistant to the ISS crew” on his Twitter page, which has 4,600 followers.

“Everything is normal,” a tweet posted on his account said a few hours into his flight.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Plans detailed for first U.S. mission to land on moon since Apollo

FILE PHOTO: A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – The first American spacecraft expected to land on the moon in nearly 50 years will be an unmanned robotic lander built by closely held Astrobotic Technology Inc and launched in two years by United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, the companies told Reuters on Monday.

Astrobotic was one of nine companies chosen in November to compete for $2.6 billion to develop small space vehicles and other technology for 20 missions to explore the lunar surface over the next decade.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic picked Vulcan, being developed by a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, to launch its Peregrine lander from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in summer 2021. That launch will be Vulcan’s first, and a major test for a rocket that will become the backbone of ULA’s defense against rival boosters from billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other companies.

Barring schedule slips, Astrobotic said Peregrine would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since Apollo astronauts touched down in 1972.

The mission will ferry technology and experiments to the moon under a NASA program that will lay the groundwork for astronaut trips by 2024 under the optimistic schedule laid out by the Trump administration.

“Our first flight on Vulcan is also the first big step in going back to the moon,” United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno told Reuters ahead of the announcement.

Astrobotic said in May that NASA awarded it $79.5 million for the first mission, which will carry up to 28 payloads from eight different countries, including the United States and Mexico.

While the dollar value of the launch contract was not disclosed, it marks a high-profile victory for ULA’s flagship heavy-lift rocket, which Astrobotic said it chose over a rival bid from SpaceX.

While SpaceX has already slashed the cost of launches with its reusable rocket technology, Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, whose BE-4 engines power the Vulcan, is also working on a heavy-lift booster.

MANY MOONSHOTS

NASA is pushing to outsource the design, development and operations for some space activities to private companies under a strategy championed by Trump-appointed administrator Jim Bridenstine. He wants NASA to be one customer of many in the low-Earth and lunar marketplaces to pave the way for deeper space exploration.

For ULA, the launch serves as the first of two certification flights for the U.S. Air Force. Vulcan will replace ULA’s legacy Delta and Atlas rocket families, synonymous with space missions for the U.S. military for decades.

ULA and Astrobotic acknowledge production problems or other factors could delay the launch schedule.

Other countries are also focused on the moon. A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon in January, though Israel’s unmanned robotic lander Beresheet crashed on its final descent in April. India’s Chandrayaan-2 rover, launched in July, was on its way to the moon’s south pole, unexplored by any other nation.

“Everything that humans will do on the moon’s surface will be enhanced by robotic surface assets,” Astrobotic Chief Executive John Thornton told Reuters ahead of the announcement planned for Monday.

The Astrobotic deal marked the second time in a week that ULA beat SpaceX on a high-profile contract. On Wednesday, Sierra Nevada Corp picked Vulcan to launch its Dream Chaser space plane on cargo missions to the International Space Station, which will be the second Vulcan launch.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Cynthia Osterman)