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The NASA ingenuity helicopter could pave the way for future tandem rover-drone missions

27th February 2021
"The 1.8-kilogramme chopper is about 0.49 metre tall with two rotor blades of about 1.2-metre wingspan stacked above each other."

With the successful landing of its Perseverance Mars rover on Friday, NASA is set to become the first global space agency to fly a drone in the atmosphere of another planet, an advance that could pave the way for future "tandem-exploration" missions that include new terrestrial and aerial surveillance methods.

As the rover surveys and looks for evidence of past life around the Jezero crater on Mars -- an ancient lakebed believed to have once contained liquid water -- the Ingenuity helicopter's expected flight on Mars 31 days from now will be a test demonstrator, the space agency had said.

"Even though Ingenuity is a tech demo, meaning we are trying to demonstrate a new technology and not necessarily doing any science data gathering, the inspiration came from future science and operational consideration," Goutam Chattopadhyay, Senior Research Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, told PTI.

Over the course of its mission, Ingenuity is expected to make five attempted flights each lasting for about 90 seconds at a stretch.

While NASA already conducts several reconnaissance missions to pick exploration sites on other planets before sending rovers to them, Chattopadhyay said these terrestrial vehicles do not have the ability to go on their own, expecting to find "something interesting".

He believes this is where drones may come into the picture in future planetary exploration missions.

"Now, if we have a helicopter or such a flying vehicle that can go around, do some surveillance, send that data back to the rover, and then the rover makes a decision whether to further explore some areas based on that data, it will be much more interesting," the NASA scientist explained.

However, NASA Engineers, including J. (Bob) Balaram from JPL, say there are several new challenges to flying a fully autonomous drone on the Martian atmosphere which are not encountered here on the Earth.

Balaram and his colleagues explain these challenges in a study describing the design, development, and testing of the Mars helicopter, posted in the Aerospace Research Central website.

The research, presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech 2019 Forum, noted that the Red Planet's thin carbon dioxide atmosphere is approximately 1 percent of the Earth's atmosphere density -- equivalent to the Earth's air density at an altitude of 35 km.

"Since this is a very thin atmosphere, we can't really fly anything very high up on Mars," Indian astrophysicist Dibyendu Nandi added.

He explained that airplanes and helicopters fly on the principle of lift based on Newton's third law of motion: For the lift force to push the helicopter up, an equal force should be applied which pushes the air down.

"If the density of the atmosphere becomes half, the lift becomes halved. So if a planet has a weak atmosphere, getting the lifting force is always going to be a problem, The drones need to be able to move greater amounts of air than they do on Earth," Nandi, a scientist at the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, told PTI.

While the weaker gravitational pull of Mars -- 38 percent that of the Earth -- is an advantage, he said choppers meant for Mars still need to weigh very less with blades that can rotate much faster while consuming as little energy as possible.

"For example, a helicopter rotor on Earth rotates at 400-600 rotations per minute. Whereas on Mars, the blades need to rotate at 2600 rpm. This is a huge challenge," Chattopadhyay added.

To test the drone's performance in Martian conditions, NASA scientists evacuated a chamber to near-vacuum and back-filled it with carbon dioxide gas to a density representative of the Red Planet's atmosphere.

According to the NASA engineers, the helicopter also had to be vacuum compatible and capable of survival at very low temperatures down to minus 100 degrees Celsius.
"So the materials used for building vehicles for Mars undergo expansion and contraction between day and night and may lead to severe physical stress on the structure of these vehicles," Nandi added.

At the JPL Space Simulator, the engineers also tested the helicopter's aerial performance under a range of conditions, including its response to winds and higher-speed forward flight by placing it in front of an array of small fans capable of producing winds up to approximately 10 metres per second.

And drones built for such missions also have to be fully autonomous.

"We cannot really do live driving the vehicle sitting in here due to the time delay related to the huge distance. The helicopter flies autonomously using a gyroscope, accelerometer, camera, altimeter, and on-board computer," Chattopadhyay explained.

He said the autonomous system developed for Ingenuity uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, which he said can help engineer better light-weight and efficient drones here on the Earth for delivering medicines, transporting organs for transplant, and other uses.

Just like the Sojourner rover on the 1997 Pathfinder mission paved the way for numerous Mars rovers, the scientists believe the Ingenuity technology demo can open the doors for future drone missions to other planets. 

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NASA adds more safety fixes for Boeing's crew capsule

26th February 2021
"NASA has added more safety fixes for Boeing’s space capsule before it can fly astronauts following a pair of close calls during last year’s test flight."

NASA has added more safety fixes for Boeing’s space capsule before it can fly astronauts following a pair of close calls during last year’s test flight.

In closing out the seven-month investigation, NASA officials said Tuesday they have now identified 80 corrective actions, mostly involving software and testing, that must be done before the Starliner capsule launches again. The previous count was 61.

“It’s a bit of a wake-up call for NASA and its contractors” across the board, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program.

During its space debut last December with no one on board, the Starliner ended up in the wrong orbit and could not reach the International Space Station. Ground controllers barely had time to solve another software problem that could have destroyed the capsule at flight’s end.

Boeing will repeat the flight later this year before attempting to launch astronauts next spring.

SpaceX, meanwhile, successfully launched two NASA astronauts to the space station in May. They will return home next month aboard their Dragon capsule, splashing down off the Florida coast.

In hindsight, NASA did not focus enough on the software portion of the Boeing flight, Stich said. The space agency instead probably concentrated more on SpaceX because of its non-traditional approach to software development, he acknowledged.

Boeing had plenty of experience working on large NASA projects like the space shuttle and space station, and so NASA was “a little more used to the Boeing process,” Stich said.

“It’s often natural for a human being to spend more time on that newer approach, and maybe we didn’t quite take the time we needed with the more traditional approach,” he added.

NASA has since added more of its own staff to monitor software development at both Boeing and SpaceX.

NASA is also borrowing SpaceX’s “robust” approach to software, which involves going back to the designers following testing for feedback, said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s new human spaceflight chief who until a month ago managed commercial crew. She wants to see more of that type of approach across other NASA programs.

Boeing will need several more months to complete its software upgrades and tests before repeating the first test flight, officials said. SpaceX plans to launch a second crew later this summer or early fall.

“This has been a big learning experience for us,” Lueders said.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Nokia and NASA building first ever cellular network on Moon

26th February 2021
"Nokia selected by NASA to build first ever cellular network on the Moon"

Nokia selected by NASA to build a first-ever cellular network on the Moon. Nokia has announced further details after being named by NASA as a partner to advance “Tipping Point” technologies for the Moon, deploying the first LTE/4G communications system in space and helping pave the way towards a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface.19 October 2020

  • LTE/4G technology promises to revolutionize lunar surface communications by delivering reliable, high data rates while containing power, size, and cost.
  • Communications will be a crucial component for NASA's Artemis program, which will establish a sustainable presence on the Moon by the end of the decade.

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Nokia Bell Labs’ pioneering innovations will be used to build and deploy the first ultra-compact, low-power, space-hardened, end-to-end LTE solution on the lunar surface in late 2022. Nokia is partnering with Intuitive Machines for this mission to integrate this groundbreaking network into its lunar lander and deliver it to the lunar surface. The network will self-configure upon deployment and establish the first LTE communications system on the Moon.  

The network will provide critical communication capabilities for many different data transmission applications, including vital command and control functions, remote control of lunar rovers, real-time navigation, and streaming of high definition video. These communication applications are all vital to long-term human presence on the lunar surface.

Nokia’s LTE network – the precursor to 5G – is ideally suited for providing wireless connectivity for any activity that astronauts need to carry out, enabling voice and video communications capabilities, telemetry, and biometric data exchange, and deployment and control of robotic and sensor payloads.

Marcus Weldon, Chief Technology Officer at Nokia and Nokia Bell Labs President, said: "Leveraging our rich and successful history in space technologies, from pioneering satellite communication to discovering the cosmic microwave background radiation produced by the Big Bang, we are now building the first-ever cellular communications network on the Moon. Reliable, resilient, and high-capacity communications networks will be key to supporting sustainable human presence on the lunar surface. By building the first high-performance wireless network solution on the Moon, Nokia Bell Labs is once again planting the flag for pioneering innovation beyond the conventional limits.”

Nokia’s lunar network consists of an LTE Base Station with integrated Evolved Packet Core (EPC) functionalities, LTE User Equipment, RF antennas, and high-reliability operations and maintenance (O&M) control software. The solution has been specially designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the launch and lunar landing and to operate in the extreme conditions of space. The fully integrated cellular network meets very stringent size, weight, and power constraints of space payloads in an extremely compact form factor.

The same LTE technologies that have met the world’s mobile data and voice needs for the last decade are well suited to provide mission-critical and state-of-the-art connectivity and communications capabilities for any future space expedition. LTE is a proven commercial technology, has a large ecosystem of technology and component suppliers, and is deployed worldwide. Commercial off-the-shelf communications technologies, particularly the standards-based fourth-generation cellular technology (4G Long Term Evolution (LTE)) are mature, proven reliable, and robust, easily deployable, and scalable. Nokia plans to supply commercial LTE products and provide technology to expand the commercialization of LTE, and to pursue space applications of LTE’s successor technology, 5G.

Through the Tipping Point solicitation, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate seeks industry-developed space technologies that can foster the development of commercial space capabilities and benefit future NASA missions. The public-private partnerships established through Tipping Point selections combine NASA resources with industry contributions, shepherding the development of critical space technologies. NASA plans to leverage these innovations for its Artemis program, which will establish sustainable operations on the Moon by the end of the decade in preparation for an expedition to Mars.

As a market leader in end-to-end communication technologies for service providers and enterprise customers globally, Nokia develops and provides mission-critical networks adopted by airports, factories, industrial, first-responders, and the harshest mining operations on Earth, for automation, data collection, and reliable communications. By deploying its technologies in the most extreme environments, Nokia Bell Labs will validate the solution’s performance and technology readiness level, and further, optimize it for future terrestrial and space applications.

About Nokia

We create technology to connect the world. Only Nokia offers a comprehensive portfolio of network equipment, software, services, and licensing opportunities across the globe. With our commitment to innovation, driven by the award-winning Nokia Bell Labs, we are a leader in the development and deployment of 5G networks.

Our communications service provider customers support more than 6.4 billion subscriptions with our radio networks, and our enterprise customers have deployed over 1,300 industrial networks worldwide. Adhering to the highest ethical standards, we transform how people live, work, and communicate. For our latest updates, please visit us online at www.nokia.com and follow us on Twitter @nokia.
 


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NASA celebrates 20 years of humans living on the International Space Station

26th February 2021
"NASA started sending some of its astronauts to stay for months at a time beginning in 2000."

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first long-term mission to the International Space Station, known as Expedition 1. Ever since then, there have always been a handful of humans living and working in orbit on the ISS — a continuous presence of people in space.

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Prior to that mission, most of NASA’s human spaceflight program revolved around launching relatively quick, weeks-long trips to orbit on the agency’s Space Shuttle. But in the mid-1990s, NASA began sending its astronauts to space for much longer trips to live on Russia’s old Mir space station. Once the US, Russia, and their international partners started piecing together the International Space Station, NASA started sending some of its astronauts to stay for months at a time beginning in 2000 — and there have been people on board ever since.

A CONTINUOUS PRESENCE OF PEOPLE IN SPACE

As part of Expedition 1, a crew of three astronauts launched to the space station on October 31st, 2000, on board a Russian Soyuz rocket. The flight carried two Russian cosmonautsYuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev — and NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd, who docked with the ISS two days later on November 2nd. The trio would stay for four and a half months until March, leaving after a new crew of three came to the station aboard Space Shuttle Discovery for the start of their more than five-month stay. Their mission was aptly named Expedition 2.

NASA has been celebrating this big moment with press events from astronauts currently on board the ISS — part of Expedition 64 — as well as a virtual round table with the original members of Expedition 1. Today, the space agency will air a series of specials about the construction of the International Space Station, highlighting the research that’s been done on board the lab over the last 20 years. Tune in at 1PM ET to get a history lesson about how we’ve kept people 250 miles above Earth continuously since 2000.

Source: TheVerge


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