Window In The Skies: Why Everyone Is Going To Mars This Month

Mars may not be the kind of place to raise your kids, but chances are that one day [Elton John]’s famous lyrics will be wrong about there being no one there to raise them. For now, however, we have probes, orbiters, and landers. Mars missions are going strong this year, with three nations about to launch their rockets towards the Red Planet: the United States sending their Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 mission, and the United Arab Emirates sending their Hope orbiter.

As all of this is planned to happen still within the month of July, it almost gives the impression of a new era of wild space races where everyone tries to be first. Sure, some egos will certainly be boosted here, but the reason for this increased run within such a short time frame has a simple explanation: Mars will be right around the corner later this year — relatively speaking — providing an ideal opportunity to travel there right now.

In fact, this year is as good as it gets for quite a while. The next time the circumstances will be (almost) as favorable as this year is going to be in 2033, so it’s understandable that space agencies are eager to not miss out on this chance. Not that Mars missions couldn’t be accomplished in the next 13 years — after all, several endeavors are already in the wings for 2022, including the delayed Rosalind Franklin rover launch. It’s just that the circumstances won’t be as ideal.

But what exactly does that mean, and why is that? What makes July 2020 so special? And what’s everyone doing up there anyway? Well, let’s find out!

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Snoopy Come Home: The Search For Apollo 10

When it comes to the quest for artifacts from the Space Race of the 1960s, few items are more sought after than flown hardware. Oh sure, there have been stories of small samples of the 382 kg of moon rocks and dust that were returned at the cost of something like $25 billion making it into the hands of private collectors, and chunks of the moon may be the ultimate collector’s item, but really, at the end of the day it’s just rock and dust. The serious space junkie wants hardware – the actual pieces of human engineering that helped bring an epic adventure to fruition, and the closer to the moon the artifact got, the more desirable it is.

Sadly, of the 3,000,000 kg launch weight of a Saturn V rocket, only the 5,600 kg command module ever returned to Earth intact. The rest was left along the way, mostly either burned up in the atmosphere or left on the surface of the Moon. While some of these artifacts are recoverable – Jeff Bezos himself devoted a portion of his sizable fortune to salvage one of the 65 F1 engines that were deposited into the Atlantic ocean – those left on the Moon are, for now, unrecoverable, and in most cases they are twisted heaps of wreckage that was intentionally crashed into the lunar surface.

But at least one artifact escaped this ignominious fate, silently orbiting the sun for the last 50 years. This lonely outpost of the space program, the ascent stage from the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, appears to have been located by a team of amateur astronomers, and if indeed the spacecraft, dubbed “Snoopy” by its crew, is still out there, it raises the intriguing possibility of scoring the ultimate Apollo artifact by recovering it and bringing it back home.

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Could Orion Ride Falcon Heavy To The Moon?

Things aren’t looking good for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Occasionally referred to as the “Senate Launch System”, or even less graciously, the “Rocket to Nowhere”, the super heavy-lift booster has long been a bone of contention for those in the industry. Designed as an evolution of core Space Shuttle technology, the SLS promised to reuse existing infrastructure to deliver higher payload capacities and lower operating costs than its infamous winged predecessor. But in the face of increased competition from commercial launch providers and proposed budget cuts targeting future upgrades and expansions of the core booster, the significantly over budget and behind schedule program is in a very precarious position.

Which is not to say the SLS doesn’t look impressive, at least on paper. In its initial configuration it would easily take the title as the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of lifting nearly 105 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 70 tons for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It would still fall short of the mighty Saturn V’s 155 tons to LEO, but the proposed “Block 2” upgrades would increase SLS payload capability to within striking distance of the iconic Apollo-era booster at 145 tons. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been adamant that the might of SLS was the only way the agency could accomplish bigger and more ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Or at least, they were. On March 13th, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to Congress that in an effort to avoid further delays, the agency is exploring the possibility of sending their Orion spacecraft to the Moon with a commercial launcher. The statement came as a shock to many in the aerospace community, as it would seem to call into question the future of the entire SLS program. If commercial rockets can do the job of SLS, at least in some cases, why does the agency need it?

NASA is currently preparing a report which investigates what physical and logistical modifications would need to be made to missions originally slated to fly on SLS; a document which is sure to be scrutinized by SLS supporters and critics alike. Until the report is released, we can speculate about what this hypothetical flight to the Moon might look like.

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Hitchhiking To The Moon For Fun And Profit

On February 22nd, a Falcon rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Indonesian communications satellite Nusantara Satu. While the satellite was the primary payload for the mission, as is common on the Falcon 9, the rocket had a couple of stowaways. These secondary payloads are generally experiments or spacecraft which are too small or light to warrant a rocket of their own such as CubeSats. But despite flying in the economy seats, one of the secondary payloads on this particular launch has a date with destiny: Israel’s Beresheet, the first privately-funded mission to attempt landing on the Moon.

But unlike the Apollo missions, which took only three days to reach our nearest celestial neighbor, Beresheet is taking a considerably more leisurely course. It will take over a month for the spacecraft to reach the Moon, and it will be a few weeks after that before it finally makes a powered descent towards the Sea of Serenity, not far from where Apollo 17 landed 47 years ago. That assumes everything goes perfectly; tack a few extra weeks onto that estimate if the vehicle runs into any hiccups on the way.

At first glance, this might seem odd. If the trip only took a few days with 1960’s technology, it seems a modern rocket like the Falcon 9 should be able to make better time. But in reality, the pace is dictated by budgetary constraints on both the vehicle itself and the booster that carried it into space. While one could argue that the orbital maneuvers involved in this “scenic route” towards the Moon are more complicated than the direct trajectory employed by the manned Apollo missions, it does hold promise for a whole new class of lunar spacecraft. If you’re not in any particular hurry, and you’re trying to save some cash, your Moon mission might be better off taking the long way around.

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Orbital Mechanics On A Vintage Kaypro

These days, a good proxy for hacking prowess is getting Doom playable on the oldest piece of hardware imaginable. While we respect and applaud these efforts, perhaps the bar should be set a bit higher. Like orbital mechanics on an early 80s Kaypro, perhaps?

At least that’s the hurdle [Chris Fenton] set for himself as a fun project for his spare time with his Kaypro 2/84, a vintage Z80 clocking in at a screaming 4 MHz and 64-kB of RAM. With its built-in 80×25, 9″ green phosphor CRT monitor and flip-top keyboard, the Kaypro fit into that loveable luggable category of machines and predated IBM’s and Apple’s market dominance by a few years. The CP/M operating system has actually aged pretty well — but well enough to port [Chris]’ Deep Dish Nine, a graphical game written for the Arduboy that uses Kerbal-like orbital mechanics skills to deliver interplanetary pizzas? In the first instance, no — the game, ported to Turbo Pascal, only managed fractional frames per second, rendering it unplayable. But with some very clever coding, [Chris] was able to improve refresh rates 10-fold. The optimization road not taken includes hardware hacks, like overclocking the Z80 or even replacing it with an FPGA and emulator, but that’s hardly keeping with the spirit of the thing.

It’s always great to see vintage machines pushing the envelope. A great place to see them is one of the Vintage Computer Fairs, like the upcoming VCF Southeast in Georgia. We were at the one diagonally across the country a few weeks back, and they’re well worth the trip.