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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Space news weekly recap: Swimming robots in space, China maps Mars and much more

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced that its Tianwen-1 orbiter had mapped the entire surface of Mars but that is just the tip of the iceberg of the most interesting space news that happened over the last week. From a communications blackout with a NASA spacecraft to a new waste disposal technique at the international space station, here is last week’s space news recap.

Chinese Tianwen-1 orbiter maps the whole of Mars’ surface

After being in operation for 706 days and circling Mars over 1,344 times, the orbiter of the Tianwen-1 mission has generated medium-resolution image data that covers the whole globe of the red planet. While it was doing that, the mission’s rover covered more than 1921 metres of the planet’s surface, taking pictures and collecting data.

Together, the rover and the orbiter have collected over 1,040 GB of raw scientific data with their 13 onboard scientific instruments after two years of flight and exploration. Once this data is completely received and processed on Earth, it will be turned into standard scientific data products that will then be delivered to scientists.

The CNSA said that “China welcomes global scientists to apply for related research and jointly push forward the exploration of the universe.” It also added that it is already sharing data with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) after collaborating with them for collision forecasting. The rover and ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft also performed an in-orbit relay communications test.

CAPSTONE communications blackout

NASA had temporarily lost contact with the CAPSTONE spacecraft shortly after it left Earth’s orbit to head for the lunar orbit. After the launch on July 4, the spacecraft had successfully deployed its solar arrays and stabilised itself. With this, it was able to begin charging its onboard battery, allowing it to ready its propulsion systems for its first manoeuvres.

It made contact with a Deep Space Network ground station in Madrid, before making partial contact with the Goldstone ground station before communications went out. Due to this, NASA had to delay some of the adjustments it had to make to the spacecraft’s trajectory. After a small period of the spacecraft going through the dark of space with no contact, NASA was able to reestablish communication with the spacecraft.

NASA’s CAPSTONE mission will demonstrate an innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solution at the Moon from a near rectilinear halo orbit slated for Artemis’ Gateway. (Illustration credit: NASA/Daniel Rutter)

Swimming robots designed to look for alien life in extraterrestrial oceans

NASA is developing swimming robots that can swarm together and search for signs of alien life in the waters under the kilometres-thick icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The space agency’s Sensing WIth Independent Micro-swimmers (SWIM) concept envisions these robots being packed inside ice-melting probes that would tunnel through the frozen crust to release these tiny robots underwater.

These robots could then explore the waters far from the ice probe by collecting data as a swarm to search for signs of extra terrestrial life. Each robot will come with a propulsion system, onboard computer, communications systems and sensors including those for temperature, salinity acidity and pressure. The scientists behind the robots also plan to include chemical sensors to monitor for biomarkers.

Concept of operations for the small robots. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

A new way to take out the trash for the International Space Station

NASA has successfully tested a new waste disposal technology for the International Space Station developed by Texas-based space technology company Nanoracks. Usually, astronauts on the space station just store their waste for months till the next resupply cargo vehicle arrives. This ‘disposable’ Cygnus vehicle is then filled with bags of trash and released. After de-orbiting, it completely burns up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, along with all the waste in it.

The Nanoracks Bishop Airlock is pictured in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm as it is positioned away from the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

The new concept that was just tested uses a specially designed waste container which is mounted in the Bishop Airlock. It can be filled up with around 270 kilograms of waste before it is released. At that point, just like with the Cygnus method, it completely burns up during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The scientists hope that this can become a more efficient and sustainable method of waste disposal on the spacecraft since astronauts do not have to wait till the cargo spacecraft arrives to dispose of the waste.

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