NASA launched its first mission to the sun, the Parker Solar Probe, in August 2018. The probe has approached our star six times, coming closer than any spacecraft before it and traveling faster than any previous human-made object. It has traced the source of the solar wind of charged particles and discovered previously unseen bursts of that solar wind that bend the sun's magnetic field.
The spacecraft is on track to rocket around Venus for the fourth time in February, then swing back to circle the sun twice. Parker is scheduled to pass Venus again on October 16.
NASA Perseverance Rover lands on the Red Planet to study the Mars' Habitability
The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA's quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. The rover has a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission that would ferry them back to Earth for detailed analysis. Perseverance will also test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars.
Strapped to the rover's belly for the journey to Mars is a technology demonstration — the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, may achieve a "Wright Brothers moment “ by testing the first powered flight on the Red Planet.
Searching for Ancient Life, Gathering Rocks and Soil
There are several ways that the mission helps pave the way for future human expeditions to Mars and demonstrates technologies that may be used in those endeavors. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.
Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Science:
Studying Mars' Habitability, Seeking Signs of Past Microbial Life, Collecting and Caching Samples, and Preparing for Future Human Missions
The Perseverance rover has four science objectives that support the Mars Exploration Program's science goals:
Looking for Habitability: Identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
Seeking Biosignatures: Seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time.
Caching Samples: Collect core rock and "soil" samples and store them on the Martian surface.
Preparing for Humans: Test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.
All address key astrobiology questions related to the potential of Mars as a place for life. The first three consider the possibility of past microbial life. Even if Perseverance does not discover any signs of past life, it paves the way for human life on Mars someday.
Mars 2020 Technology: Heritage and Innovation
Technologies for Entry, Descent, and Landing
The mission uses technological innovations already demonstrated successfully, especially for entry, descent, and landing (EDL). Like NASA's Curiosity rover (, the Mars 2020 spacecraft uses a guided entry, descent, and landing system. The landing system on Mars 2020 mission includes a parachute, descent vehicle, and an approach called a "skycrane maneuver" for lowering the rover on a tether to the surface during the final seconds before landing.
This type of landing system provides the ability to land a very large, heavy rover on the surface of Mars in a more precise landing area than was possible before Curiosity's landing. Mars 2020 takes things one step further. It adds new entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies, such as Terrain-Relative Navigation (TRN). This sophisticated navigation system allows the rover to detect and avoid hazardous terrain by diverting around it during its descent through the Martian atmosphere. A microphone allows engineers to analyze entry, descent, and landing. It might also capture sounds of the rover at work, which would provide engineers with clues about the rover's health and operations, and would be a treat to hear.
Technologies for Surface Operations
The Perseverance rover design minimizes costs and risks because it is largely based on the engineering design for the previous Curiosity rover. The Perseverance long-range mobility system allows it to travel on the surface of Mars over 3 to 12 miles (5 to 20 kilometers). Improvements on Perseverance include a new, more capable wheel design. And for the first time, the rover carries a drill for coring samples from Martian rocks and soil. It gathers and stores the cores in tubes on the Martian surface, using "depot caching." Caching demonstrates a new rover capability of gathering, storing, and preserving samples. This could potentially pave the way for future missions to retrieve the samples and ferry them to Earth for intensive laboratory analysis.
Perseverance tests a technology for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is 96% carbon dioxide. This demonstration helps mission planners test ways of using Mars' natural resources to support human explorers and improve designs for life support, transportation, and other important systems for living and working on Mars. The rover also monitors weather and dust in the Martian atmosphere. Such studies are important for understanding daily and seasonal changes on Mars, and will help future human explorers better predict Martian weather.
Perseverance is also set to release the first interplanetary drone from its belly and test technologies that humans would need to survive on the red planet.
NASA's Perseverance nuclear rover lands on Mars to drill the soil for signs of alien life.
NASA's newest nuclear-powered robot is en route to Mars, where it's set to scan and drill Martian soil for signs of alien life. The rover, called Perseverance, is programmed to stash samples away so a future mission can bring them back to Earth.
"This is the first time in history when NASA has dedicated a mission to what we call astrobiology: the search for life — either maybe now, or ancient life — on another world," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said ahead of the rover's launch.
Virgin Galactic launches a human mission from Spaceport America
Another of Richard Branson's companies, Virgin Galactic, expects to launch a human mission from Spaceport America — its New Mexico headquarters — in February. Two pilots will fly the SpaceShipTwo model, carrying some research payloads for NASA, to suborbital altitudes.
The company has twice launched employees on up-and-down suborbital flights from its test facility in California's Mojave Desert. The company first attempted a flight from Spaceport America in December, but a bad connection on an onboard computer stopped the rocket motor from igniting. February's flight will test the company's attempt to fix the issue.
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