Too much of a good thing is generally a bad thing, but a surfeit of asteroid material is probably a valid exception to that rule. Such was NASA’s plight as it started to unpack the sample return capsule recently dropped off by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft as it flew by Earth, only to discover it was packed to overflowing with samples of asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft, which arrived at Bennu in 2018 and spent a good long time mapping the near-Earth asteroid, apparently approached its carefully selected landing site a bit too energetically and really packed the sample container full of BennuBits™ — so much so that they could actually see sample shedding off into space before stowing it for the long trip back to Earth. The container is now safely in the hands of the sample analysis team, who noted that everything in the TAGSAM (Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Module), even the avionics deck, is covered with black particles, each precious one of which needs to be collected and cataloged. The black stuff is especially interesting to planetary scientists, as it might be exactly what they were after when they selected Bennu, which may have broken off a much larger carbon-rich asteroid a billion or so years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if these interplanetary hitchhikers have anything to tell us about the origin of life in the solar system.
Last week, we noted an attempt to fix a hardware problem with software, which backfired pretty dramatically for Ford when they tried to counter the tendency for driveshafts to fall out of certain of their cars by automatically applying the electric parking brake.
This week, the story is a little different, but still illustrates how software and hardware can interact unpredictably, especially in the automotive space. The story centers on a 2015 Optima recall for a software update for the knock sensor detection system. We can’t find the specifics, but if this recall on a similar Kia model in the same model year range and a class-action lawsuit are any indication, the update looks like it would have made the KSDS more sensitive to worn connecting rod damage, and forced the car into “limp home mode” to limit damage to the engine if knocking is detected.
A clever solution to a mechanical problem? Perhaps, but because the Kia owner in the story claims not to have received the snail-mail recall notice, she got no warning when her bearings started wearing out. Result: a $6,000 bill for a new engine, which she was forced to cover out of pocket. Granted, this software fix isn’t quite as egregious as Ford’s workaround for weak driveshaft mounting bolts, and there may very well have been a lack of maintenance by the car’s owner. But if you’re a Kia mechanical engineer, wouldn’t your first instinct have been to fix the problem causing the rod bearings to wear out, rather than papering over the problem with software?
Since NASA’s Mariner spacecraft made the first up-close observations of Mars in 1964, humanity has lobbed a long line of orbiters, landers, and rovers towards the Red Planet. Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. History, to say nothing of the planet’s surface, is littered with Martian missions that didn’t quite make the grade. But we’ve steadily been getting better, and have even started to push the envelope of what’s possible with interplanetary robotics through ambitious craft like the Ingenuity helicopter.
Yet, after nearly 60 years of studying our frigid neighbor, all we have to show for our work boils down to so many 1s and 0s. That’s not to say the data we’ve collected, both from orbit and on the surface, hasn’t been extremely valuable. But scientists on Earth could do more with a single Martian rock than any robotic rover could ever hope to accomplish. Even still, not so much as a grain of sand has ever been returned from the planet’s dusty surface.
But if everything goes according to plan, that’s about to change. Within the next decade, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) hope to bring the first samples of Martian rocks, soil, and atmospheric gases back to Earth using a series of robotic vehicles. While it’s still unclear when terrestrial scientists should expect delivery of this interplanetary bounty, the first stage of the program is already well underway. The Perseverance rover has started collecting samples and storing them in special tubes for their eventual trip back to Earth. By 2028, another rover will be deployed to collect these samples and load them into a miniature rocket for their trip to space.
Just last week NASA decided to award the nearly $200 million contract to build that rocket, known officially as the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. The MAV will not only make history as the first rocket to lift off from a celestial body other than the Earth, but it’s arguably the most critical component of the sample return mission; as any failure during launch will mean the irrevocable loss of all the samples painstakingly recovered by Perseverance over the previous seven years.
To say this mission constitutes a considerable technical challenge would be an understatement. Not only has humanity never flown a rocket on another planet, but we’ve never even attempted it. No matter what the outcome, once the MAV points its nose to the sky and lights its engines, history is going to be made. But while it will be the first vehicle to make the attempt, engineers and scientists have been floating plans for a potential Martian sample return mission for decades. Continue reading “NASA Taps Lockheed To Bring Back A Piece Of Mars”
Good news from Jezero crater as the Mars rover Perseverance manages to accomplish for the first time what it was sent to do: collect and cache core samples from rocks. Space buffs will no doubt recall that Perseverance’s first attempt at core sampling didn’t go as planned — the rock that planetary scientists selected ended up being too soft, and the percussive coring bit just turned the core sample into powder. The latest attempt went exactly as planned: the cylindrical coring bit made a perfect cut, the core slipped into the sample tube nested inside the coring bit, and the core broke off cleanly inside the sample tube when it was cammed off-axis. Operators were able to provide visible proof that the core sample was retained this time using the Mastcam-Z instrument, which clearly shows the core in the sample tube. What’s neat is that they then performed a “percuss to ingest” maneuver, where the coring bit and sample tube are vibrated briefly, so that the core sample and any dust grains left around the sealing rim slide down into the sample tube. The next step is to transfer the sample tube to the belly of the rover where it’ll be hermetically sealed after some basic analysis.
Did any Android users perhaps oversleep this week? If you did, you’re not alone — lots of users of the Google Clock app reported that their preset alarms didn’t go off. Whether it was an actual issue caused by an update or some kind of glitch is unclear, but it clearly didn’t affect everyone; my phone mercilessly reminded me when 6:00 AM came around every day last week. But it apparently tripped up some users, to the point where one reported losing his job because of being late for work. Not to be judgmental, but it seems to me that if your job is so sensitive to you being late, it might make sense to have a backup alarm clock of some sort. We all seem to be a little too trusting that our phones are going to “just work,” and when they don’t, we’re surprised and appalled.
There seem to be two kinds of people in the world — those who hate roller coasters, and those who love them. I’m firmly in the latter camp, and will gladly give any coaster, no matter how extreme, a try. There have been a few that I later regretted, of course, but by and large, the feeling of being right on the edge of bodily harm is pretty cool. Crossing over the edge, though, is far less enjoyable, as the owners of an extreme coaster in Japan are learning. The Dodon-pa coaster at the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park is capable of hitting 112 miles (180 km) per hour and has racked up a sizable collection of injuries over the last ten months, including cervical and thoracic spine fractures. The ride is currently closed for a safety overhaul; one has to wonder what they’re doing to assess what the problem areas of the ride are. Perhaps they’re sending crash test dummies on endless rides to gather data, a sight we’d like to see.
And finally, you may have thought that phone phreaking was a thing of the past; in a lot of ways, you’d be right. But there’s still a lot to be learned about how POTS networks were put together, and this phone switch identification guide should be a big help to any phone geeks out there. Be ready to roll old school here — nothing but a plain text file that describes how to probe the switch that a phone is connected just by listening to things like dial tones and ring sounds. What’s nice is that it describes why the switches sound the way they do, so you get a lot of juicy technical insights into how switches work.
If everything goes according to plan, China will soon become the third country behind the United States and the Soviet Union to successfully return a sample of lunar material. Their Chang’e 5 mission, which was designed to collect 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of soil and rock from the Moon’s surface, has so far gone off without a hitch. Assuming the returning spacecraft successfully renters the Earth’s atmosphere and lands safely on December 16th, China will officially be inducted into a very exclusive club of Moon explorers.
Of course, spaceflight is exceedingly difficult and atmospheric reentry is particularly challenging. Anything could happen in the next few days, so it would be premature to celebrate the Chang’e 5 mission as a complete success. But even if ground controllers lose contact with the vehicle on its return to Earth, or it burns up in the atmosphere, China will come away from this mission with a wealth of valuable experience that will guide its lunar program for years to come.
In fact, one could argue that was always the real goal of the mission. While there’s plenty of scientific knowledge and not an inconsequential amount of national pride to be gained from bringing a few pounds of Moon rocks back to Earth, it’s no secret that China has greater aspirations when it comes to our nearest celestial neighbor. Starting with the launch of the Chang’e 1 in 2007, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has progressed through several operational phases, each more technically challenging than the last. Chang’e 5 represents the third phase of the plan, with only the establishment of robotic research station to go before the country says they’ll proceed with a crewed landing in the 2030s.
Which helps explain why, even for a sample return from the Moon, Chang’e 5 is such an extremely complex mission. A close look at the hardware and techniques involved shows a mission profile considerably more difficult than was strictly necessary. The logical conclusion is that China intentionally took the long way around so they could use it as a dry run for the more challenging missions that still lay ahead.
We humans are good at a lot of things, but making holes in the ground has to be among our greatest achievements. We’ve gone from grubbing roots with a stick to feeding billions with immense plows pulled by powerful tractors, and from carving simple roads across the land to drilling tunnels under the English Channel. Everywhere we go, we move dirt and rock out of the way, remodeling the planet to suit our needs.
Other worlds are subject to our propensity for digging holes too, and in the 50-odd years that we’ve been visiting or sending robots as our proxies, we’ve made our marks on quite a few celestial bodies. So far, all our digging has been in the name of science, either to explore the physical and chemical properties of these far-flung worlds in situ, or to actually package up a little bit of the heavens for analysis back home. One day we’ll no doubt be digging for different reasons, but until then, here’s a look at the holes we’ve dug and how we dug them.