After months of setbacks, NASA says that the InSight Lander’s Mole is working again.
InSight landed on Mars on Nov. 26 2018 in Elysium Planitia. Its mission is to study the interior of the planet, to learn about how Mars and other rocky planets formed. InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) is a NASA mission with other partners, including the DLR (German Aerospace Center.)
There is no doubt that one of the hallmarks of the modern space age is the way it is becoming increasingly democratic. In addition to more space agencies entering the fray, private aerospace companies are contributing like never before. It is no surprise then that there are innovators and entrepreneurs that want to increase public access and participation in space exploration.
This is what UK startup Spacebit and its founder, Pavlo Tanasyuk, hope to accomplish with their decentralized aerospace company. Central to their vision is the Walking Rover, a four-legged robotic explorer that they plan to deploy to the lunar surface in the coming years. This rover will represent a number of firsts for space exploration, which includes being the first commercial lunar mission sent by the UK.
NASA and the DLR are making some progress with the Mole. The Mole has been stuck for months now, and NASA/DLR have been working to get it unstuck. After removing the mole’s housing to get a better look at it with InSight’s cameras, the team came up with a plan.
Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission to asteroid Ryugu has reached one of its final milestones, if not its climax. The sample-return spacecraft has launched the Minerva-II2 rover at the asteroid. This is the last of four rovers that Hayabusa 2 is deploying on Ryugu.
The mole is the name given to the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument on NASA’s Mars InSight lander. It’s job is to penetrate into the Martian surface to a depth of 5 meters (16 ft) to measure how heat flows from the planet’s interior to the surface. It’s part of InSight’s mission to understand the interior structure of Mars, and how it formed.
But it’s stuck at about 35 centimers (14 inches.) The mole can do science shy of its maximum depth of 5 meters, but not this shallow. And NASA, and the DLR (German Aerospace Center) who provided the mole, have a new plan to fix it.
In a death-defying maneuver for the spacecraft, NASA’s Juno has completed an unprecedented and unplanned engine burn. The purpose? To save the spacecraft’s “life,” or at least the rest of its mission to Jupiter.
Jupiter casts a deep, dark shadow. Dark enough, in fact, to effectively kill Juno if it flies through it. Rather than let the spacecraft spend 12 battery-draining hours in Jupiter’s shadow, and then attempt a risky resuscitation on the other side, NASA took another course of action: a 10.5 hour burn of Juno’s reaction thrusters that will steer it clear of Jupiter’s life-draining shadow.
This image of the lunar highlands is from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. You’d need superhuman eyesight to spot it, but India’s crashed Vikram lander is in there somewhere. The lander attempted to land on the Moon on September 6th, but when it was only 2.1 km above the surface, within reach of its objective, ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) lost contact with the spacecraft.
Work on the Mars 2020 Rover is heating up as the July/August 2020 launch date approaches. Mission engineers just attached the Mars Helicopter to the belly of the rover, where it will make the journey to Mars. Both the solar-powered helicopter and the Mars Helicopter Delivery System are now attached to the rover.
NASA’s Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The small rotor-craft only weighs 1.8 kg (4 lbs.) and is made of lightweight materials like carbon fiber and aluminum. It’s largely a technology demonstration mission, and is important to NASA. The overall mission for the Mars 2020 rover won’t depend on the helicopter, but NASA hopes to learn a lot about how to proceed with aircraft on future missions by putting the Mars helicopter through its paces on Mars.
Is there a more complicated and sophisticated technological engineering project than a spacecraft? Maybe a particle accelerator or a fusion power project. But other than those two, the answer is probably no.
Spacecraft like the ESA’s JUICE don’t just pop out of the lab ready to go. Each spacecraft like JUICE is a singular design, and they require years—or even a decade or more—of work before they ever see a launch pad. With a scheduled launch date of 2022, JUICE is in the middle of all that work. Now its cameras are capturing images of Jupiter and its icy moons as part of its navigation calibration and fine-tuning.
When SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander crashed into the Moon, it was a bitter-sweet moment for Israel’s space exploration aspirations. The privately-built spacecraft was punching above its weight class by proceeding on its journey to the Moon. Unfortunately, it crashed, ending the dream.
But Beresheet carried some unusual passengers, as part of an unusual, yet visionary, sub-mission: tardigrades.