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China’s Tianwen-1 Captured a Haunting Photo of Earth And The Moon on Its Way to Mars

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No matter where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going, it’s always good to see home. And we all love seeing pictures of our home planet, as seen from space.

The latest image of the Terran System comes from China’s Mars mission, Tianwen-1, which launched on July 23. It captured an image of the Earth and the Moon, seen from about 1.2 million km from Earth, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

 

It joins a great group of photos taken of our “pale blue dot” from missions like Voyager, Cassini, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and, of course, the Apollo missions to the Moon. You can see a gallery of Earth-Moon images as seen from other worlds here.

earthglobalsurveyor 1Image taken on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing Earth and the Moon. (NASA/JPL)

Tianwen-1 used its optical navigation sensor to take this black-and-white photo, showing both the Earth and the Moon as crescent-shaped, “watching each other in the vast universe,” said Xinhua News, China’s News Agency.

This is CNSA’s first mission to Mars, and it joins two other Mars missions launched this month, as Earth and Mars are aligned favorably for the fastest and cheapest (in terms of fuel expenditures) trip between the two planets.

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first-ever interplanetary effort, the Hope Mars mission, also known as the Emirates Mars Mission, launched on July 19, and NASA launched the Perseverance rover on July 30.

aviewoftheea(CNSA)

China’s ambitious mission consists of a lander, rover and an orbiter. Tianwen means “Heavenly Questions”, or “Questions to Heaven.”

The mission is slated to study the Red Planet’s morphology and geological structure, soil characteristics and distribution of surface water ice, surface material composition, atmospheric ionosphere and surface climate and environment, as well as physical field and internal structure of Mars, said Liu Tongjie, spokesperson of China’s first Mars mission and deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center.

The latest update on the mission said the spacecraft was in good condition.  

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.

 



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That Weird, Long Cloud on Mars Has Made a Dramatic Return

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Every good story deserves a sequel – and the strange white cloud spotted above an extinct Martian volcano back in 2018 just got one, because the stunning fog trail has made another appearance.

 

In fact, this is the latest instalment in a long-running series, and this time scientists were looking out expectantly for the event.

It’s thought that the white plume is formed from dense air near the planet’s surface getting forced uphill, where the temperature drops and the moisture condenses around dust particles.

It happens on Earth too: it’s called orographic lift.

So this doesn’t mean the long-dead Arsia Mons volcano is suddenly bursting back into life. But even though the cloud isn’t associated with volcanic activity, it’s still a stunning sight to behold.

“We have been investigating this intriguing phenomenon and were expecting to see such a cloud form around now,” says physicist Jorge Hernandez-Bernal, from the University of the Basque Country in Spain.

“This elongated cloud forms every Martian year during this season around the southern solstice, and repeats for 80 days or even more, following a rapid daily cycle. However, we don’t know yet if the clouds are always quite this impressive.”

Hernandez-Bernal is part of a team using the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on the Mars Express probe to keep an eye on the Red Planet. The spacecraft has been in orbit for the past 16 years, watching the changing seasons and days.

 

A Martian day lasts a little over 24 hours, while a year lasts about 687 days – hence this being the cloud’s first appearance since 2018.

The cloud now has a name – it’s being termed the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud, or AMEC.

Based on observations so far, it can stretch out to about 1,800 kilometres (1,118 miles), which on Earth would get it almost half way across the US.

And the VMC is the perfect instrument to capture it with – the photos above were taken on 17 July and 19 July. While most spacecraft view Mars in the afternoon due to their orbits, Mars Express is also watching in the early mornings.

That’s when this intriguing phenomenon appears, for about three hours at a time before disappearing. It also occurs during the southern solstice when the Sun is in the southernmost position in the Martian skies.

 

 

“The extent of this huge cloud can’t be seen if your camera only has a narrow field of view, or if you’re only observing in the afternoon,” says planetary scientist Eleni Ravanis, working on the Mars Express mission at the European Space Agency.

 

“Luckily for Mars Express, the highly elliptical orbit of the spacecraft, coupled with the wide field of view of the VMC instrument, lets us take pictures covering a wide area of the planet in the early morning. That means we can catch it!”

Scientists are continuing to try and understand the AMEC and it’s behaviour, but they’ve got a great vantage point.

You can see some of the stunning imagery that Mars Express has captured so far on Flickr.

 



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NASA’s Mars-Bound Spacecraft Is Back Online After Experiencing Technical Difficulties

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Mars 2020, the spaceship carrying NASA’s new rover Perseverance to the Red Planet, experienced technical difficulties and was temporarily running on essential systems only, the agency said Thursday.

 

“Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth’s shadow,” NASA said.

The spaceship has left Earth’s shadow and the temperatures are now normal.

When a vessel enters safe mode, it shuts down all but essential systems until it receives new commands from mission control. “Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars,” added NASA.

The spacecraft also experienced a delay in setting up its communications link with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, its mission control.

Mars 2020 sent its first signal to ground controllers at 9:15 am (1315 GMT) but it was not until 11:30 am (1530 GMT) that it established telemetry – more detailed spacecraft data.

Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager, said that the fact that the spaceship had entered safe mode was not overly concerning.

“That’s perfectly fine, the spacecraft is happy there,” he said.

“The team is working through that telemetry, they’re going to look through the rest of the spacecraft health.

“So far, everything I’ve seen looks good, so we’ll know more in a little bit.”

© Agence France-Presse

 





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Success! NASA Just Launched Perseverance on Its Mission to Mars

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A rocket carrying NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover yet has launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, though its crucial journey through space is just beginning.

The Perseverance rover and its landing apparatus is packed inside the top of a 197-foot Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Thursday morning. At 7:50 am ET, the rocket’s boosters fired and heaved it off the launchpad, beginning a high-stakes, hour-long rocket ride to the orbital path to deliver the robot to Mars.

 

If it survives the journey ahead, the $US2.4 billion mission’s car-size rover will scan and drill Martian rock for signs of alien life, release the first-ever interplanetary helicopter from its belly, and test technologies that humans will need to survive on the Red Planet.

The rocket must complete a series of complex manoeuvres as it speeds through Earth’s atmosphere, jettisoning outer layers and firing engines at the right moments to push Perseverance onto its path to Mars.

The launch won’t be a success until the rover’s spacecraft separates from the rocket’s upper stage and departs on its seven-month journey across interplanetary space.

Here’s how the launch should proceed:

  • Liftoff, 7:50 am ET
  • Jettison solid rocket boosters, 7:51:49 am
  • Jettison payload fairing, 7:53:27 am
  • Cut off booster engine, 7:54:21 am
  • Separate the rocket’s upper stage from the core booster, 7:54:27 am
  • Start the main engine, 7:54:37 am
  • Cut off the main engine, 8:01:39 am
  • Start the main engine again, 8:35:21 am
  • Cut off the main engine again, 8:42:59 am
  • Separate Mars rover spacecraft from the upper stage, 8:47:42 am
  • Start venting excess fuel out of the upper stage to avoid an explosion, 9:14:02 am
  • Launch operations complete, 9:57:22 am

 

The momentum from the launch and a big boost from Earth’s rotation should carry the spacecraft over 314 million miles to reach Mars in February 2021. A giant jetpack should safely lower the rover into Mars’s Jezero Crater – an ancient river delta that could harbour traces of alien life.

Perseverance is programmed to search for those traces – ancient rocks containing chemical signatures that only life would leave behind – and prepare samples for later return to Earth.

This marks July’s third Mars launch. The United Arab Emirates and China each launched their own spacecraft to the Red Planet on July 18 and 23. All three missions are trying to catch Mars as it passes close to Earth. That won’t happen again until 2022.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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NASA Is About to Launch Mars 2020! Here’s How You Can Watch Live

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On Thursday morning, NASA will launch its fifth Mars rover: A robotic scientist the size of an SUV.

The $US2.4 billion, nuclear-powered vehicle, named Perseverance (“Percy” for short) is designed to trundle along the Martian surface, mine for signs of ancient life, capture high-quality video and audio, and collect rock and soil samples for an eventual return trip to Earth.

 

In preparation for future human landings on Mars, the rover will also carry an experimental device that converts carbon dioxide from the planet’s thin atmosphere into oxygen, and test samples of potential space suit material to see how well they hold up against Mars’ radioactivity.

And if that wasn’t enough, the rover’s belly contains a helicopter named Ingenuity.

nasa's mars helicopter ingenuityNASA’s Mars copter, Ingenuity. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance is scheduled to launch at 7:50 am ET on Thursday 30 July atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The liftoff will be streamed live on NASA TV – you can watch below. The broadcast is expected to start at 7:00 am ET (11 am UTC).

The liftoff will mark the third Mars-bound mission to begin this month. It follows the launch of the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe, which aims to orbit Mars to chart a global map of its climate. 

China’s Tianwen-1 mission, meanwhile, is expected to put a rover on Mars that will use radar to detect underground pockets of water and also put a spacecraft into orbit to study Mars’ atmosphere.

 

The launches were all scheduled closely together in order to hit a critical window in Mars’s orbit: The period when its path aligns most closely with that of Earth.

That window comes in February 2021, which is when the spaceships are expected to arrive at Mars. Because of fuel and weight constraints, missing the chance to launch now would have required space agencies to wait until 2022.

Perseverance is scheduled to land at Mars’s Jezero Crater on February 18. The crater, once flooded with water, was selected after five years of careful study by planetary scientists because its rock and clay have the potential to contain electrochemical signatures of former life.

The same features that make the Jezero crater appealing for study make it a difficult place to land a rover, however: The site’s varied terrain is full of dips, ridges, and boulders.

But engineers have made advances in landing technology, including the development of a more precisely timed landing parachute, since NASA’s last rover, Curiosity, arrived on Mars in 2012. Most recently, the agency successfully dropped its InSight lander on Mars in November 2018.

If all goes well, Perseverance will be the fifth Mars rover mission managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and also the fifth successful Mars rover landing overall (unless China’s lands first).

Yet another Mars rover called Rosalind Franklin – a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Russia’s Roscosmos – is scheduled to launch in 2022.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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Scientists Detect Giant ‘Megaripple’ Structures Moving Across Mars

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For the first time, scientists have observed that ‘megaripples’ on Mars – huge sand waves seen on the Martian surface – are moving structures, and not ancient relics stuck in place since the Red Planet’s distant past.

 

Megaripples, which also occur in deserts on Earth, are generally larger than smaller sand ripples, and are composed of chunkier, coarser sand grains that sit at the top of their crests, resting on finer grains buried at the bottom.

The heftiness of the crest grains – combined with the very thin and faint winds of Mars’ light atmosphere today – had scientists thinking these sediment structures must be static and immovable formations. Not so, new research shows.

A study led by planetary scientist Simone Silvestro from the INAF Capodimonte Astronomical Observatory in Italy reveals Martian megaripples are a flowing phenomenon after all – although you have to watch very, very closely to catch them in the act.

By comparing images taken by the HiRISE camera (High Resolution Imaging Experiment) on NASA’s MARS Reconnaissance Orbiter over the space of several years, Silvestro’s team discovered the Martin megaripples are definitely in motion, just a very slow motion.

Between 2007 and 2016, megaripples at two Martian sites – Nili Fossae and McLaughlin crater – shifted at average speeds as low as 12 centimetres (4.7 inches) a year, with a top recorded speed of 19 centimetres (7.5 inches) per year.

 

At such slow rates of displacement, it’s perhaps no wonder these shifting sands were thought to be static – and previous comparisons examining the formations over shorter timeframes of only two to three Martian years had failed to detect the subtle migration. Now, thankfully, we have more probe data to draw upon, affording a closer look at what’s happening.

“We had the opportunity to see these megaripples moving because now we have more than 10 years of observations,” Silvestro explained to Inside Science.

It’s not just our probe imagery that’s expanded, however. So too has our understanding of what’s possible in the Martian atmosphere, as before this, researchers didn’t think Mars’ winds would be powerful enough within the thin atmosphere to move the megaripples – which are so large that they were spaced up to 35 metres (115 ft) apart in the areas studied here (although the average is about 5 metres, or 16 ft).

It seems the Martian wind can move the megaripples, provided it has some help. The researchers suggest the proximity of larger sand dunes located in the Nili Fossae and McLaughlin crater areas studied could be helping to shift the megaripples, with the finer-grained dunes providing a high volume of sand flux that may help displace the coarse grains sitting atop the megaripple crests.

Without such a level of “impact-driven creep” from neighbouring, saltating dunes, other Martian megaripples might not be able to move so much, nor as quickly as the speedy bunch glimpsed here.

While these megaripples may be slow, though, the fact that we can see them moving at all doesn’t only represent a significant increase in our knowledge of atmospheric conditions on Mars – it’s also just some very impressive science at work.

As planetary scientist Ralph Lorenz from Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the research, told Science: “We can now measure processes on the surface of another planet that are just a couple times faster than our hair grows.”

The findings are reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

 



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Humans Are About to Return a Rock to The Surface of Mars After 600,000 Years

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Humans are about to make history by sending a little piece of a Martian rock back to the surface of Mars for the first time ever.

The meteorite fragment Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (or SaU 008) will hitch a ride on the 2020 NASA Perseverance rover mission on Thursday – some 600,000 years after it left the Red Planet, and around 1,000 years after arriving on Earth.

 

Perseverance is going to use SaU 008 to calibrate its sensitive scanners and instruments once it lands, treating it as a reference point for the other rocks and materials that it’s going to come across in its journey across the Martian surface.

There’s still plenty that we don’t know about the geological make-up of Mars, and a rock fragment that we know originates from the planet – and that has already been extensively analysed – is going to be a helpful comparison point.

“This little rock’s got quite a life story,” Caroline Smith, the Head of Earth Sciences Collections and Principal Curator of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum in the UK, told the BBC.

“It formed about 450 million years ago, got blasted off Mars by an asteroid or comet roughly 600,000-700,000 years ago, and then landed on Earth; we don’t know precisely when but perhaps 1,000 years ago. And now it’s going back to Mars.”

mars rock 1 1024A slice of SaU 008. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The meteorite that SaU 008 comes from was found in Oman in 1999, and the SaU 008 fragment has been part of the Natural History Museum collection since 2000.

The tiny bubbles of gas trapped inside the rock are an exact match to the atmospheric conditions of Mars, which is how we know its origin.

 

A small slice of SaU 008 is going to be mounted onto the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) spectrometer, carried by Perseverance, which will use a laser to analyse the chemical and organic composition of Martian rocks.

Having a piece of original Mars meteorite on hand should make this study more accurate and reliable, and SHERLOC is taking along nine other different materials to test them in the atmosphere of the Red Planet – including a material that could be used in future spacesuits.

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” says SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials Marc Fries, from the Johnson Space Center.

“It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

mars rock 2An artist’s concept of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Of course, there are other ways NASA could calibrate those instruments. But, as a paper presented at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference last year explained, the homecoming of part of SaU 008 also offers “unique education and public outreach purposes”.

Both NASA and SpaceX have a history of using unique and headline-grabbing items to help them in their missions – whether it’s a sparkly purple dinosaur used as a zero-gravity indicator, or a Tesla roadster as a test payload.

 

So, sending a Martian rock back to its home planet may be somewhat of a publicity stunt, but it’s a pretty cool one, with a useful purpose.

While a meteorite chunk has previously been blasted back into the orbit of Mars, this is going to be the first time a fragment like this will have been returned to the actual surface. It’ll be used around Perseverance’s landing site, the Jezero crater.

The 49-kilometre (30-mile) bowl may have once held a lake, and one of the jobs that Perseverance has is to look for any lingering traces of life. Any samples of interest are going to be packaged up and left for future missions to recover.

Material with signs of Martian life could eventually arrive back in 10-15 years, and if Perseverance does find something of note, then the homecoming of the small fragment of SaU 008 will be partially responsible.

“The piece of rock we are sending was specifically chosen because it is the right material in terms of chemistry, but also it is a very tough rock,” Smith told the Guardian. “Some of the Martian meteorites we have are very fragile. This meteorite is as tough as old boots.”

The Perseverance mission, with a bit of SaU 008 on board, is scheduled to launch on 30 July. You can watch the whole thing live below.

 



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NASA’s Next Mission to Mars Has Been Cleared For Launch This Thursday

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NASA on Monday gave its latest Mars rover Perseverance the all clear to launch later this week on a mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life.

“The launch readiness review is complete, and we are indeed go for launch,” administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

 

“We are in extraordinary times right now with the coronavirus pandemic, and yet we have in fact persevered and we have protected this mission because it is so important.”

The launch will take place at 7:50 am (1150 GMT) on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Live coverage will take place on YouTube and across social media platforms.

Following a seven-month journey, Perseverance is set to land at Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021.

The six-wheeled robot, which is about the size of an SUV and weighs 2,300 pounds (1,040 kilograms), is NASA’s fifth Mars rover and its most advanced to date.

Perseverance with xxx attached to its belly, Kennedy Space Center, 6 April 2020. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)Perseverance with Ingenuity attached below, Kennedy Space Center. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It comes equipped with a small helicopter called Ingenuity that will attempt to fly – a first on another planet – as well as a robotic arm, and an array of cameras and a pair of microphones.

To look for evidence of ancient fossilized bacteria, it will use two lasers and an X-ray capable of chemical analysis.

It will also gather rock and soil samples for a future mission that will bring them back to Earth for further study.

 

This is crucial for establishing whether any organic compounds it obtained really came as a result of living processes.

Perseverance will build on previous orbital and landed missions, which established that the dry, cold Mars we see today was much warmer and wetter billions of years ago.

These environments lasted long enough to possibly support the development of microbial life.

With Thursday’s launch, the United States will become the third nation to embark on a mission to the Red Planet this month.

Artist's impression of Perseverance on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)Artist’s impression of Perseverance on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

China launched a rover to Mars last week named Tianwen-1 (“Questions to Heaven”).

If China’s mission succeeds, it will become only the second nation after the United States to have a rover on another planet – though it has previously placed two rovers on the Moon.

The United Arab Emirates also launched an orbital probe from Japan earlier this month called “Al-Amal” (Hope), the Arab world’s first mission to Mars.

© Agence France-Presse

 



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Experiments Show Bacteria Grow More Lethal And Antibiotic-Resistant in Space

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China has launched its Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. A rocket holding an orbiter, lander and rover took flight from the country’s Hainan province earlier this week, with hopes to deploy the rover on Mars’s surface by early next year.

 

Similarly, the launch of the Emirates Mars Mission last Sunday marked the Arab world’s foray into interplanetary space travel. And on July 30, we expect to see NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover finally take off from Florida.

For many nations and their people, space is becoming the ultimate frontier. But although we’re gaining the ability to travel smarter and faster into space, much remains unknown about its effects on biological substances, including us.

While the possibilities of space exploration seem endless, so are its dangers. And one particular danger comes from the smallest life forms on Earth: bacteria.

Bacteria live within us and all around us. So whether we like it or not, these microscopic organisms tag along wherever we go – including into space. Just as space’s unique environment has an impact on us, so too does it impact bacteria.

We don’t yet know the gravity of the problem

All life on Earth evolved with gravity as an ever-present force. Thus, Earth’s life has not adapted to spend time in space. When gravity is removed or greatly reduced, processes influenced by gravity behave differently as well.

In space, where there is minimal gravity, sedimentation (when solids in a liquid settle to the bottom), convection (the transfer of heat energy) and buoyancy (the force that makes certain objects float) are minimised.

 

Similarly, forces such as liquid surface tension and capillary forces (when a liquid flows to fill a narrow space) become more intense.

It’s not yet fully understood how such changes impact lifeforms.

How bacteria become more deadly in space

Worryingly, research from space flight missions has shown bacteria become more deadly and resilient when exposed to microgravity (when only tiny gravitational forces are present).

In space, bacteria seem to become more resistant to antibiotics and more lethal. They also stay this way for a short time after returning to Earth, compared with bacteria that never left Earth.

Adding to that, bacteria also seem to mutate quicker in space. However, these mutations are predominately for the bacteria to adapt to the new environment – not to become super deadly.

More research is needed to examine whether such adaptations do, in fact, allow the bacteria to cause more disease.

Bacterial team work is bad news for space stations

Research has shown space’s microgravity promotes biofilm formation of bacteria.

Biofilms are densely-packed cell colonies that produce a matrix of polymeric substances allowing bacteria to stick to each other, and to stationary surfaces.

 

Biofilms increase bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics, promote their survival, and improve their ability to cause infection. We have seen biofilms grow and attach to equipment on space stations, causing it to biodegrade.

For example, biofilms have affected the Mir space station’s navigation window, air conditioning, oxygen electrolysis block, water recycling unit and thermal control system. The prolonged exposure of such equipment to biofilms can lead to malfunction, which can have devastating effects.

Another affect of microgravity on bacteria involves their structural distortion. Certain bacteria have shown reductions in cell size and increases in cell numbers when grown in microgravity.

In the case of the former, bacterial cells with smaller surface area have fewer molecule-cell interactions, and this reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics against them.

Moreover, the absence of effects produced by gravity, such as sedimentation and buoyancy, could alter the way bacteria take in nutrients or drugs intended to attack them. This could result in the increased drug resistance and infectiousness of bacteria in space.

All of this has serious implications, especially when it comes to long-haul space flights where gravity would not be present. Experiencing a bacterial infection that cannot be treated in these circumstances would be catastrophic.

 

The benefits of performing research in space

On the other hand, the effects of space also result in a unique environment that can be positive for life on Earth.

For example, molecular crystals in space’s microgravity grow much larger and more symmetrically than on Earth. Having more uniform crystals allows the formulation of more effective drugs and treatments to combat various diseases including cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Also, the crystallisation of molecules helps determine their precise structures. Many molecules that cannot be crystallised on Earth can be in space.

So, the structure of such molecules could be determined with the help of space research. This, too, would aid the development of higher quality drugs.

Optical fibre cables can also be made to a much better standard in space, due to the optimal formation of crystals. This greatly increases data transmission capacity, making networking and telecommunications faster.

As humans spend more time in space, an environment riddled with known and unknown dangers, further research will help us thoroughly examine the risks – and the potential benefits – of space’s unique environment.

Vikrant Minhas, PhD candidate, University of Adelaide.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 



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China Successfully Launches a Mars Rover Mission, Joining The New Space Race

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China launched a rover to Mars on Thursday, a journey coinciding with a similar US mission as the powers take their rivalry into deep space.

The two countries are taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a short journey, with the US spacecraft due to lift off on July 30.

 

The Chinese mission is named Tianwen-1 (“Questions to Heaven”)  a nod to a classical poem that has verses about the cosmos.

Engineers and other employees cheered at the launch site on the southern island of Hainan as it lifted off into blue sky aboard a Long March 5  China’s biggest space rocket.

Site commander Zhang Xueyu declared the mission a success on state broadcaster CCTV.

The five-tonne Tianwen-1 is expected to arrive in February 2021 after a seven-month, 55-million-kilometre (34-million-mile) voyage.

The mission includes a Mars orbiter, a lander and a rover that will study the planet’s soil.

“As a first try for China, I don’t expect it to do anything significant beyond what the US has already done,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

It is a crowded field. The United Arab Emirates launched a probe on Monday that will orbit Mars once it reaches the Red Planet.

But the race to watch is between the United States and China, which has worked furiously to try and match Washington’s supremacy in space.

 

NASA, the American space agency, has already sent four rovers to Mars since the late 1990s.

The next one, Perseverance, is an SUV-sized vehicle that will look for signs of ancient microbial life, and gather rock and soil samples with the goal of bringing them back to Earth on another mission in 2031.

Tianwen-1 is “broadly comparable to Viking in its scope and ambition”, said McDowell, referring to NASA’s Mars landing missions in 1975-1976.

Catching up

After watching the United States and the Soviet Union lead the way during the Cold War, China has poured billions of dollars into its military-led space programme.

“China joining (the Mars race) will change the situation dominated by the US for half a century,” said Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts.com, which specialises in China’s space programme.

China has made huge strides in the past decade, sending a human into space in 2003.

The Asian powerhouse has laid the groundwork to assemble a space station by 2022 and gain a permanent foothold in Earth orbit.

China has already sent two rovers to the Moon. With the second, China became the first country to make a successful soft landing on the far side.

 

The Moon missions gave China experience in operating spacecraft beyond Earth orbit, but Mars is another story.

The much greater distance means “a bigger light travel time, so you have to do things more slowly as the radio signal round trip time is large,” said McDowell.

It also means “you need a more sensitive ground station on Earth because the signals will be much fainter,” he added, noting that there is a greater risk of failure.

China has upgraded its monitoring stations in the far-western Xinjiang region and northeastern Heilongjiang province to meet the Mars mission requirements, state news agency Xinhua reported last week.

The majority of the dozens of missions sent by the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and India to Mars since 1960 ended in failure.

Tianwen-1 is not China’s first attempt to go to Mars.

A previous mission with Russia in 2011 ended prematurely as the launch failed.

Now, Beijing is trying on its own.

“As long as (Tianwen) safely lands on the Martian surface and sends back the first image, the mission will… be a big success,” Chen said.

© Agence France-Presse

 



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