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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

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Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.
China’s "Moon Rabbit" lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

China’s “Moon Rabbit” lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor.  The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST).  The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later.  Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions.  With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race.  Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.

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Chang’e

Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous.  It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity.  According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).

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The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture.  He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!).  More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon.  I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!

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