It’s Official, Astronaut Bill Nelson is NASA’s new Administrator

On March 19th, 2021, the Biden Administration announced that they had nominated a successor for the role of NASA Administrator. Their nominee was Sen. Clarence William Nelson II (aka. Bill Nelson), a Democratic Senator from Florida, an attorney, and a former payload specialist at NASA. On Monday, May 3rd, he assumed the role of 14th NASA Administrator during a ceremony where he was given the oath of office.

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Mars Helicopter Completes its 4th Flight. 117 Seconds of Airtime

On April 30th, 2021, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieved yet another milestone and set new records with its fourth flight on Mars. This time around, the helicopter took off at 12:33 AM Mars Standard Time (10:49 AM EDT; 07:49 AM PDT) and ascended to an altitude of 5 meters (16 feet). It then traveled south for approximately 133 meters (436 feet) and then back in the space of about two minutes (117 seconds).

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Protests From Dynetics and Blue Origin put NASA’s Lunar Lander Award to SpaceX on Hold

Project Artemis, NASA’s long-awaited plan for sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, has taken many steps forward. Aside from the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the elements that will make up the Lunar Gateway, NASA recently awarded SpaceX with the contract to build the Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.

However, this decision didn’t sit well with the other two companies NASA was also considering. These included Blue Origin, the commercial space company founded by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, and Alabama-based aerospace company Dynetics. After protests were filed by both companies, NASA decided to issue a stop-work order on the HLS award to SpaceX while it reviews the complaints.

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Mid-Latitude Glaciers on Mars Could Supply Water to Human Explorers

By Earth standards, the surface of Mars is the picture of desolation. It’s not only irradiated and cold enough to make Antarctica look balmy, but it’s also one-thousands times drier than the driest places on Earth. However, beneath the super-arid surface of the Red Planet, there are abundant supplies of water ice that could someday be accessible to human explorers (and even settlers).

This is especially the case in the mid-latitude region known as Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain located in Martian northern lowlands. According to new research conducted with support from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the region shows signs of glaciers and glacier activity. These findings could prove very useful for the future human landings and exploration of Mars, not to mention potential settlement.

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Animation Shows how Saturn’s Rings Move at Different Speeds

Saturn’s rings are one of the most recognized and revered celestial objects known to the human race. From a distance, they look like a disk of layered crystal or multicolored disks within disks that wrap around Saturn’s hazy umber face. When viewed up close, we see that these rings are actually particles of water ice (from microns to icebergs), as well as silicates, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.

We would also noticed that the rings have some interesting orbital mechanics. In fact, each ring has a different orbit that is the result of its proximity to Saturn (i.e., the closer they are, the faster they orbit). To illustrate what this complex system look like, NASA Fellow Dr. James O’Donoghue created a stunning animation that shows how each of Saturn’s major ring segments (A-Ring to F-Ring) orbit together around the planet.

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NASA Picks SpaceX to Land Astronauts on the Moon!

As part of the Artemis program, NASA is gearing up to send the “first woman and next man” to the Moon by 2024. Central to this is the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, and the Orion spacecraft. But after these elements transport astronauts to Lunar orbit, they will need a lander to take them to and from the surface.

For this reason, NASA contracted a number of commercial partners to develop a Human Landing System (HLS). After much consideration, NASA announced on Friday, April 16th, that they had selected SpaceX to continue developing their concept for a lunar lander. When American astronauts return to the Moon for the first time in fifty-two years, it will be a modified version of the Starship that will bring them there.

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The Same Technology Could Search for Microbes in Mars Rocks or Under the ice on Europa

Ever since it landed in the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover has been prepping its scientific instruments to begin searching for signs of past life on the Red Planet. These include spectrometers that will scan Martian rocks for organics and minerals that form in the presence of water and a caching system that will store samples of Martian soil and rock for retrieval by a future mission.

These telltale indicators could be signs of past life, which would most likely take the form of fossilized microbes. In the near future, a similar instrument could be used to search for present-day extraterrestrial life. It’s known as the Wireline Analysis Tool for the Subsurface Observation of Northern ice sheets (WATSON), and could be used to find evidence of life inside “ocean worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.

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OSIRIS-REx Did One Last Close Flyby of Asteroid Bennu. It’s Almost Time to Come Home

After more than two years in orbit around asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is ready to come home. It’s bringing with it a pristine sample of space rocks that geologists here on Earth are eager to study up close. The sample will arrive in September 2023, but we won’t have to wait nearly that long for new data from OSIRIS-REx. Last week, the probe carried out one final flyby of Bennu, in an effort to photograph the sample collection site. The photographs are being downlinked now, and should be here by midweek.

If you’ve been following the OSIRIS-REx mission, you probably already know why scientists are keen to see these photographs, but if you haven’t, hold on to your hats – it’s a wild story.

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How’s the Weather in Jezero Crater? According to Perseverance: Cold

On February 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero crater on Mars. Shortly thereafter, it powered up some of the scientific instruments it will use to conduct science operations and search for potential evidence of past life. One such instrument is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), which turned on for 30 minutes and issued the rover’s first weather report from Mars.

The forecast? Bitter Cold! Basically, the temperature was lower than what you’d expect on a harsh and windy winter’s night here on Earth! According to the data the rover sent back, which was received by mission controllers at 05:25 P.M. EST (08:25 P.M. PST), the local temperature around the Octavia E. Bulter landing in the Jezero crater was -20 °C (- 4 °F) when MEDA started recording, then dropped to -25.6 °C (-14 °F) within 30 minutes.

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Mars Helicopter Survives its First Night on Mars is Getting Ready to Fly

On April 3rd, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter was removed from its carbon-fiber shield on the Perseverance rover’s belly. On Sunday, April 11th, it will make its first attempt at a powered, controlled flight, becoming the first aircraft to operate on another planet. In the meantime, Ingenuity accomplished another major milestone as it survived its first full night on the Martian surface.

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