¶Our Questions to Heaven are one step closer to being answered. Following on the heels of UAE's Hope, China’s Tianwen-1 mission (translated 'Questions to Heaven') launched on a Long March 5 booster carrying an orbiter, retropropulsive lander, and 240 kg solar-powered rover (we featured China’s ambitious first planetary lander mission in Issue No. 64). Tianwen reported successful trans-Mars injection and was caught on security cam by the ATLAS-MLO planetary defense telescope (which has a lovely dashboard). After its 7-month journey, the orbiter will enter a highly elliptic orbit. After several additional months surveying the landing area, the lander and rover will descend using a combination of blunt body aeroshell, supersonic parachute, and finally, a retropropulsion system similar to the ones used for Chang'e 3 & 4. The duo should land south of Viking 2 in the Utopia Planitia (map of Mars landing sites). The orbiter will both relay signals and continue to conduct science with its 2 cameras and 5 other instruments for 1 Martian year, similar to UAE's orbiter (covered last issue). Meanwhile, the rover will survey the Martian surface for a 90-day primary mission. It's similar to NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but with different science goals, including subsurface radar (China's Yutu-2 rover found regolith layers that suggested a violent Lunar history using a similar instrument). Related: NASA’s Perseverance launch is targeted for 7:50 a.m. EDT this Thursday, July 30, and you could attend a (very early morning) virtual launch party.
¶Venus has active volcanic geology. Scientists have identified 37 active or recently-active volcanic structures on Venus (paper). Evidence for a volcanically-active Venus has been building for a while: the surface appears to generally be just 300–700 million years old (indicating some sort of resurfacing, possibly massive lava flows) and we found a volcanic peak that is hotter than its surroundings (which have a modest surface temperature of 450°C). It’s generally thought that Venus doesn’t have global plate tectonics because it lacks oceans, but even without tectonic plates, these and other findings support it still being quite volcanically active. An active Venus may help the proposed NASA VERITAS mission win approval—VERITAS’s powerful radar, near-infrared spectrometer, and gravimeter and would map the planet’s surface and geological history, possibly providing hints of a watery (and less face melty) past. VERITAS’s spectrometer would also determine which surface rocks were recently formed from magma flows. Here are a few recent favorites about the hottest planet in the solar system:
- Like Uranus, Venus spins the wrong way (relative to the other planets), with the sun rising in the west and setting in the east. It also spins very slowly, taking 243 Earth days to rotate once. This may be due to a balance between atmospheric and gravitational tides, or to a past collision.
- There is evidence that “a shallow water ocean and habitable conditions may have persisted on Venus for as long as 3 billion [years]” (paper), far longer than Mars. (There’s even a small chance that dark patches in the upper atmosphere are from current biological activity.)
- A paper suggesting that a crewed mission to Mars should swing by Venus on the way, allowing for real-time control of a Venus lander, atmospheric sample return, and more safe-return-to-Earth options to abort the mission. Related: TIL that NASA considered a crewed Venus flyby mission launched with a Saturn V for the 1970s.
- The Glenn Extreme Environments Rig at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, can test materials at Venus-like conditions. Most materials don’t like them.
- A cleaned up reprocessing of Soviet Venera-13 & 14 data, including never-before-seen pixels.
- Ideas for future missions: NASA’s potential DAVINCI lander (pdf)—competitor to VERITAS, an ISRO orbiter, a Russian orbiter and lander, steampunk rovers, airships, and floating cities (any day now).
¶Russia appears to have fired a space-based weapon. The US Space Command and the UK condemned a space-based anti-satellite weapons test performed by Russia’s Kosmos-2543 that appears to have launched a fast-moving, anti-satellite projectile while in orbit—possibly an unfortunate first. Kosmos-2543 itself is a sub-satellite that was deployed from Kosmos-2542, an “inspection” satellite which maneuvered near the NRO’s USA 245 Keyhole 11 spy satellite. Jonathan McDowell said an analysis suggests that “Kosmos 2543 released the mysterious object July 15 at a relative velocity of more than 400 mph, or about 700 kilometers per hour.”
| News in brief. Dawn Aerospace announced their Dawn Mk-II Aurora reusable space plane, capable of hosting a 3U payload on suborbital flights multiple times per day from commercial runways (intro video); a Russian Progress MS-15 cargo vehicle launched from Baikonur on Thursday to resupply the ISS, despite Baikonur’s growing COVID-19 outbreak; Virgin Orbit’s failed first launch of LauncherOne was due to a propellant line break; and, Demo-1 is scheduled to leave the ISS on Sunday and splash down somewhere off the coast of Florida.|
- 📅 This Saturday is the start of Smallsat, which is entirely online and free this year. You should probably attend.
- A study used satellite data from Planet and other sources to expose illegal fishing in North Korean waters.
- You can scrub through public satellite imagery at zoom.earth and sentinel-hub, or do it from the command line with felicette. Or just do yourself a favor and ‘telnet mapscii.me’.
- Introduction to Licensing a Satellite.
- 📚 A collection of free textbooks from Springer. Also: NASA e-Books, including one about Cassini.
- The vintage beauty of Soviet control rooms, and how Soviet science magazines fantasized about life in outer space.
- Ethan Siegel discusses the boundaries of current physics and where next-generation facilities, including the Vera Rubin Observatory, the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope (née WFIRST), and the JWST, may take us.
- How do you start a Soyuz?
- Construction has begun on the massive ITER experimental tokamak fusion reactor in France after years of building support systems. Here’s drone footage of ITER from earlier this year when the 1250-tonne steel base of the cryostat was installed. Meanwhile, private efforts are underway, and the world’s largest (pre-ITER) tokamak was just finished in Japan.
- If wormholes exist, and that’s a BIG if, we might be able to spot one with gravitational wave detectors like LIGO and Virgo, as long as, you know, a black hole chose to pass back and forth through it.
- This is technically a laser pointer. It’s also 100W.