In some ways, we’ve become a little jaded when it comes to news from Mars, which almost always has to do with the Ingenuity helicopter completing yet another successful flight. And so it was with the report of flight number 54 — almost. It turns out that the previous flight, which was conducted on July 22, suffered a glitch that cut the flight short by forcing an immediate landing. We had either completely missed that in the news, or NASA wasn’t forthcoming with the news, perhaps until they knew more. But the details of the error are interesting and appear related to a glitch that happened 46 flights before, way back in May of 2021, that involves dropped frames from the video coming from the helicopter’s down-facing navigational camera. When this first cropped up back on flight six, it was only a couple of missed frames that nearly crashed the craft, thanks to confusion between the video stream and the inertial data. Flight engineers updated the aircraft’s software to allow for a little more flexibility with dropped frames, which worked perfectly up until the aborted flight 53.
Good news out of Mars from the little lunchbox that could — in the seven times that MOXIE has run since it arrived in February 2021, it has reached its target production of six grams of oxygen per hour, which is in line with the output of a modest tree here on Earth. The research team which includes MOXIE engineers report that although the solid oxide electrolysis machine has shown it can produce oxygen at almost any time or day of the Martian scale, they have not shown what MOXIE can do at dawn or dusk, when the temperature changes are substantial, but they say they have ‘an ace up (their) sleeve’ that will let them do that. We can’t wait to see what they mean.
In other, somewhat funnier space news — early last Sunday morning, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter was cruising by Venus as part of a gravity-assist maneuver to get the Orbiter closer to the Sun. Two days before the Orbiter was to reach its closest point to the spacious star, it spat a coronal mass ejection in the general direction of both Venus and the Orbiter (dibs on that band name), as if to say ‘boo’. Fortunately, the spacecraft is designed to withstand such slights, but the same cannot be said for Venus — these events have their way with Venus’ atmosphere, depleting it of gasses.
If you need evidence that our outwardly peaceful little neck of the solar system is actually a dangerous place, look no further than the 40 newly launched Starlink satellites that were just clobbered out of orbit. It seems that the SpaceX launch on February 3 was ill-timed, as it coincided with the arrival of energetic plasma from a solar storm that occurred a few days before. The coronal mass ejection followed an M-class flare on the Sun, which was aimed just right to hit just as the 49-satellite addition to the Starlink constellation was being released. This resulted in an expansion of the upper atmosphere sufficient to increase drag on the newborn satellites — up to 50% more drag than previous launches had encountered. Operators put the satellites into safe mode, but it appears that 40 of them have already met a fiery demise, or soon will. Space is a tough place to make a living.