Earth has been trapping heat at an alarming new rate, study finds

The amount of heat trapped by Earth’s land, ocean, and atmosphere doubled over the course of just 14 years, a new study shows.

To figure out how much heat the earth was trapping, researchers looked at NASA satellite measurements that tracked how much of the Sun’s energy was entering Earth’s atmosphere and how much was being bounced back into space. They compared this with data from NOAA buoys that tracked ocean temperatures — which gives them an idea of how much heat is getting absorbed into the ocean.

The difference between the amount of heat absorbed by Earth, and the amount reflected back into space is called an energy imbalance. In this case, they found that from 2005 to 2019, the amount of heat absorbed by Earth was going up. Their results were published in Geophysical Research Letters this week.

“The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth’s energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they’re both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact,” said Norman Loeb, a NASA researcher and the lead author for the study in a press release. “The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense.”

A graph of the study’s results showing the trend upward over time.
NASA/Tim Marvel

The researchers think that the reason the Earth is holding on to more heat comes down to a few different factors. One is human-caused climate change. Among other problems, the more greenhouse gases we emit, the more heat they trap. It gets worse when you take into account that increasing heat also melts ice and snow. Ice and snow can help the planet reflect heat back into space — as they disappear, more heat can be absorbed by the land and oceans underneath.

There’s another factor at play too — natural changes to a climate pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Between 2014 and 2019, the pattern was in a ‘warm phase’ which caused fewer clouds to form. That also meant more heat could be absorbed by the oceans.

More than likely, it’s the combination of climate change with those natural shifts that made such a big difference to Earth’s energy balance, Loeb says. “And over this period they’re both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth’s energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”

Fourteen years isn’t a long time compared to Earth’s long climate history — researchers will have to keep gathering data to get more information about how this fits into the complete picture of the planet’s energy imbalance.

“My hope is the rate that we’re seeing this energy imbalance subsides in the coming decades,” Loeb told CNN. “Otherwise, we’re going to see more alarming climate changes.”


China, Russia aim for first joint astronaut Moon landings in next decade

China and Russia expect to put their first crews of astronauts on the Moon sometime in the next decade, representatives said on Wednesday. Already established plans for their International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) include a lineup of robotic lunar missions and coming up with a legal framework for exploring the Moon, an effort similar to the NASA-led Artemis lunar program.

Officials from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, gave a joint presentation during the Global Space Exploration Conference in Russia on their three-phase plan to build a network of Moon bases and satellites in lunar orbit. The space agencies formally teamed up on the project in March.

The first and most of the second phase of the lunar project “is just preparatory work” involving uncrewed missions, Wu Yanhua, CNSA’s deputy director, said through a translator. “We are still focusing on unmanned lunar exploration in the next ten years,” he said, responding to an audience question on when the first Russian or Chinese astronauts will be on the Moon.

CNSA is currently focused on sending astronauts to its new low-Earth-orbiting space station, whose first module launched in April. The station’s first crew of three astronauts is expected to launch from China sometime this month for a three-month stay.

Russia and China’s plans for a Moon presence set up a race between the countries and the US. Their ILRS is taking shape in parallel to NASA’s Artemis program, a multibillion-dollar effort to put US astronauts on the Moon as soon as 2024 and establish a long-term presence on the surface in the following decade. NASA is working with Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency on a Lunar Gateway. The Gateway is a planned outpost orbiting the Moon designed to relay crews of astronauts to future base stations on the lunar surface. Russia, NASA’s biggest partner on the International Space Station, had been in talks with the US to participate in the Gateway program before turning to China’s ILRS plan instead.

China and Russia have said the ILRS is open to international partners, including NASA. The two countries are also working on a “dedicated legal framework” for exploring the Moon, Roscosmos deputy director-general Sergey Saveliev said at the conference. An initial version of the agreement should be ready by year’s end, Wu said.

That framework currently lags behind NASA’s Artemis Accords, a similar document that aims to set legal norms for the Moon operations under its Artemis program. US officials emphasize the Accords are an interpretation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that promotes peaceful coordination between countries on the Moon. NASA signed its eleventh partner, Brazil, onto the Artemis Accords on Tuesday, after courting other US allies like South Korea, Ukraine, Australia and the United Kingdom.

“We have already established a specialized legal team under the joint working group” for the China-Russia-led legal framework, Wu said during the conference panel. “We also welcome all the parties to participate in it and follow the legal framework.” Saveliev said Roscosmos is talking to the European Space Agency and the French space agency as prospective partners.

Видеоконцепция создания Международной научной лунной станции

После презентации ознакомиться с Дорожной картой и Руководством по участию в проекте #МНЛС можно будет на официальных сайтах Роскосмоса и КНКА

— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) June 16, 2021

The agenda for ILRS consists of three phases. The first phase, between 2021 and 2025, involves at least six robotic missions launching to the Moon, split evenly between China and Russia, that will scout future lunar landing locations and conduct scientific reconnaissance. The next phase, from 2026 to 2035, focuses heavily on construction, with “massive” cargo deliveries and the complete establishment of facilities in lunar orbit and on the Moon’s surface. The final phase begins in 2036, when routine operations begin. That includes “lunar research and exploration, technology verification, supporting human lunar landing[s] with the completed ILRS. Expanding and maintaining modules if needed,” a presentation slide said.

Despite a stretched-out timeline for crewed Moon landings, NASA administrator Bill Nelson has cast China’s growing space capabilities as “aggressive,” pointing to Beijing’s lunar plans and its debut Mars landing last month as a reason for the US to race ahead for a 2024 Moon landing. He’s urged lawmakers to keep an eye on the country’s growing partnership with Russia, a longtime NASA ally in space.

“We are prepared to work with the US in space,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a NBC news interview on Monday, ahead of his meeting with President Joe Biden. “I think recently the head of NASA said that he could not imagine development of space programs without its partnership with Russia. We welcome this statement.”


SpaceX ignored last-minute warnings from the FAA before December Starship launch

Elon Musk’s company was told SN8’s launch would violate its FAA license, but SpaceX launched anyway

Minutes before liftoff, Elon Musk’s SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration that launching its first high-altitude Starship prototype last December would violate the company’s launch license, confidential documents and letters obtained by The Verge show. And while SpaceX was under investigation, it told the FAA that the agency’s software was a “source of frustration” that has been “shown to be inaccurate at times or overly conservative,” according to the documents.

SpaceX’s violation of its launch license was “inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. “Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window,” Monteith went on.

Launch violations are rare in the industry, even as private contractors have taken over work that once was the US government’s alone. SpaceX occupies a particularly dominant position, as it is now NASA’s only ride to the International Space Station and the Moon. The documents exclusively obtained by The Verge show how SpaceX prioritized speed over safety when launching on its own private rocket playground. Ultimately, the FAA didn’t sanction SpaceX, and less than two months later, SpaceX resumed flights in Boca Chica, Texas.

For Musk, SpaceX’s CEO who was on site for SN8’s launch day, the violation is one of the latest tussles with regulators overseeing his companies. After settling with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2018 over an attempt to take Tesla private, Musk was told his tweets about the company needed a lawyer’s sign-off. Shortly after, he went on 60 Minutes to say no one was approving his tweets; the SEC brought him back to court, though Musk’s tweets have continued to raise eyebrows with no apparent consequences. In 2020, Musk’s Fremont Tesla factory violated local safety orders, defying the local government’s stay-at-home order to work through the pandemic. Musk taunted local officials, inviting them to come arrest him.

SpaceX emerged from the December launch violation relatively unscathed. The company has since won a $2.9 billion contract to put NASA astronauts on a Starship flight to the Moon in 2024 — the first and only such contract in a half-century.

Neither SpaceX nor Musk has publicly commented on the SN8 violation. SpaceX didn’t respond to a request for comment. The FAA confirmed the violation after a report by The Verge in January. But a confidential five-page report by SpaceX and letters between Shotwell and Monteith reveal what SpaceX employees knew before liftoff and detail how the company responded to its violation in the aftermath.

SpaceX first attempted to launch SN8 at SpaceX’s South Texas Starship campus on December 8th with FAA approval, but it scrubbed due to an engine issue. Launch day on December 9th, when weather conditions changed, was full of ad hoc meetings between company employees and FAA officials, who repeatedly rejected SpaceX’s weather and launch modeling data that purported to show SN8 was safe to fly, according to a five-page SpaceX report. It was unclear what role, if any, Musk himself played in the decision to launch SN8.

SpaceX’s SN8 Starship prototype successfully lifts off in violation of its launch license.
GIF: SpaceX

The FAA’s models showed that if the rocket exploded, its shockwave could be strengthened by various weather conditions like wind speed and endanger nearby homes. As a new launch countdown clock was ticking, SpaceX asked the FAA to waive this safety threshold at 1:42PM, but the FAA rejected the request an hour later. SpaceX paused the countdown clock.

SpaceX’s director of launch operations, whose name wasn’t provided in the report, restarted the launch countdown clock shortly after. The report said the director had “the impression that” SpaceX’s data was sufficient. But that wasn’t the case. As the launch clock was counting down, SpaceX staff in the meeting made little progress — 15 minutes before liftoff, “the FAA informed SpaceX that the weather data provided was not sufficient.” The same safety risk remained, and SN8 wasn’t cleared for launch.

SpaceX employees left the FAA meeting for the company’s launch control room ahead of SN8’s launch. Minutes before liftoff, an FAA safety inspector speaking on an open phone line warned SpaceX’s staff in the launch control room that a launch would violate the company’s launch license. SpaceX staff ignored the warning because they “assumed that the inspector did not have the latest information,” the SpaceX report said.

SpaceX launched the rocket anyway. The steel-clad SN8 prototype flew more than six miles over the company’s private rocket facilities on the coast of Boca Chica, Texas, and blew to smithereens upon landing. No injuries or damage to any homes were reported.

SN8 perishes in an explosive “hard landing”

In one letter to Shotwell, Monteith cited SpaceX’s report and slammed the company for proceeding with the launch “based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions,’ rather than procedural checks and positive affirmations.”

“These actions show a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” he said.

SpaceX agreed to take over a dozen corrective measures but defended its own data and decision-making. The company criticized the FAA’s launch-weather modeling software. The software’s results, SpaceX said, can be intentionally interfered with to provide “better or worse results for an identical scenario.”

SpaceX has complained to the FAA in the past about the software, but “this feedback has not driven any action, contributing to the situation described above,” the report said. A “closer and more direct dialogue” with FAA officials would’ve smoothed the FAA discussions before SN8’s launch, SpaceX added.

SpaceX also proposed corrective measures: pausing the launch countdown clocks if an FAA inspector says there’s a violation and lowering the threshold for manually detonating an errant rocket midflight, before a more dangerous explosion occurs. The company also proposed to build at least four new launch and weather modeling tools with the FAA.

Monteith wasn’t happy with SpaceX’s response. He ordered SpaceX to reevaluate its safety procedures and launch day chain of command, and he urged it to go back and review the launch control room phone lines to spot any times SpaceX strayed from the license’s communication plan. He also required an FAA inspector to be physically present in Texas for every Starship prototype launch in the future. Flying inspectors from offices in Florida to rural Texas for each launch isn’t easy, so the FAA might base one in Houston for a shorter trip.

FAA investigators couldn’t determine whether the SN8 license violation was intentional, according to people involved in and briefed on the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity. That’s partially why the FAA review of the violation wasn’t a more in-depth investigation that could have resulted in fines or stronger consequences. FAA officials also believed grounding Starship and foisting a two-month investigation on a multibillion-dollar company focused heavily on speedy timelines would be a more effective penalty than imposing relatively trivial fines, the people said.

SN8 marked SpaceX’s first high-altitude launch outside of its other launch sites in Florida and California, where Air Force officials who monitor local weather conditions tell the company whether it’s safe to launch. Those government officials, formally called Range safety officials, don’t exist at SpaceX’s private rocket facilities in south Texas. SpaceX was primarily responsible for its own range safety during SN8’s launch, a responsibility in which it had very little experience. The company acknowledged in its report that the Starship site “was not mature enough” to function as a range.

SpaceX is moving ahead anyway. Since the launch violation, it’s launched four more rockets at the Starship site and even landed one successfully — all with FAA approval and a few changes to its operations. Unlike SN8, which launched on an automatic timer, other Starship launches now require a final “go” command from a human operator, Shotwell said in a letter to Monteith. And it is taking a stab at maturity, at least with its range safety tech.

At least one of the new launch-weather models SpaceX proposed, designed to bolster its range capabilities, has already taken shape. The company is building a database of wind patterns over Boca Chica to help inform its launch day weather modeling, using an experimental tool to gather wind speed data, according to a document the company filed with the Federal Communications Commission in April.

But new weather tools won’t change Musk’s Twitter presence, a concern for agency officials and lawmakers who worry the CEO’s candid tweets influence SpaceX employees and put unfair pressure on launch safety processes.

As the FAA’s review of SpaceX’s safety culture investigation was nearing completion in late January, holding up the company’s SN9 launch for a few days, Musk tweeted that the FAA’s “space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” and that, under its rules, “humanity will never get to Mars.” An FAA spokesman replied, saying the agency “will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety.”

The House transportation committee that oversees the FAA opened its own probe into SpaceX’s SN8 violation in February as well as “the FAA’s subsequent response, and the pressure exerted on the FAA during high profile launches,” chairs of the committee and its aviation subcommittee wrote to the agency’s administrator Steve Dickson. SpaceX’s recent launch activities raise serious questions about whether the FAA is under “potential undue influence” in making safety decisions, the letter said.

In March, after an onsite FAA inspector left town for the weekend following a week of anticipation for the company’s SN11 prototype launch, SpaceX emailed the inspector on Sunday to return for a Monday liftoff, according to a person familiar with the exchange. The inspector, taking the weekend off, missed the email at first but hopped on an early Monday morning flight back to Texas.

“FAA inspector unable to reach Starbase in time for launch today,” Musk wrote on Twitter, stirring up vitriol against the FAA in SpaceX’s fan base bubbles on Twitter and Reddit. The inspector landed in Texas, and SN11 launched the next day.


China’s Zhurong rover sends a selfie from Mars

China has released new images from its Zhurong rover, which began wheeling its way around Mars in late May. One of the photos is a lovely selfie of Zhurong posed next to its landing platform. The “touring group photo,” as the China National Space Administration calls it in a blog post, was taken with a small wireless camera that the rover placed on the surface before scooting back to line up for the shot like an excited parent.

Zhurong also took a photo of the landing platform by itself, showing the ramp the rover drove down, the Chinese flag, and if you look closely to the left of the flag, the mascots for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Zhurong’s landing platform.
Image: CNSA

There are more photos in the Twitter thread below, linked here, including a panorama that shows the Red Planet’s horizon in the distance beyond the rover, along with marks on the surface from propellant expulsion during landing.

Cool panorama here from Zhurong, showing the fascinating horizon but also areas affected by the passivation of the landing platform (expelling remaining propellant to prevent explosion), to the north and south (also seen in the shots from Tianwen-1 & MRO from orbit).

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) June 11, 2021

Zhurong joined NASA’s Perseverance on Mars last month (though the rovers are over a thousand miles apart), making China the second country to land and operate a rover on the planet. It’s expected to keep exploring for about 90 days, and it will capture more images while it analyzes the Martian climate and geology.

Perseverance also sent along some glamour shots of its own in April, though it used a robotic arm (a selfie stick, if you will) rather than setting a camera down and backing away from it. This one is a family photo of both the rover and its little helicopter companion, Ingenuity. NASA details how the selfie was made in this blog post with videos.

Perseverance and Ingenuity in a selfie stitched together from 62 individual images.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

And here’s Perseverance’s “face” against the serene panorama of Mars. The planet might be a lonely place, but it makes for a rather scenic backdrop.

Perseverance gazes into the camera.
Image: NASA / JPL (panorama stitch by Joey Roulette / The Verge)


The Senate just advanced the beef between SpaceX and Blue Origin

A controversial amendment pushed by Jeff Bezos’ space firm Blue Origin passed the Senate Wednesday night, inching closer to becoming law. Crammed inside a mammoth science and technology bill designed primarily to counter competition from China, the amendment would allow NASA to spend up to $10 billion on its embattled Moon lander program. Aside from countering China, it also marks the latest development on Bezos’ warpath to counter competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

For Blue Origin, the $10 billion boost is a key weapon in an enduring rivalry between the country’s two richest people — one way or another, the company hopes parts of the funding could help give it a better chance to compete with SpaceX. It’s just one front in a wide-ranging effort to change the outcome of NASA’s watershed Human Landing System competition: the space agency gave SpaceX, and only SpaceX, a $2.9 billion contract in April to launch its first two missions to the Moon by 2024, upsetting expectations that two companies would be picked.

NASA says it picked SpaceX because it had the best and most affordable proposal, and only SpaceX because it didn’t have enough funds to pick a second company. Last year, Congress gave NASA a quarter of what it requested to fund two separate lunar landers. Blue Origin and Dynetics, the two losing companies, filed protests with the country’s top watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, triggering a pause on SpaceX’s award that could last until August 4th. Among dozens of counterarguments, Blue Origin says NASA unfairly gave SpaceX a chance to negotiate its contract that other bidders didn’t get and unfairly snubbed its roughly $6 billion proposal.

Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

The stakes are high: If the GAO supports Blue Origin’s arguments, it could reset the whole lunar lander competition and delay NASA’s goal to put humans on the Moon by 2024 — the main deadline in the agency’s Artemis program. If the GAO rejects the company’s protest, things proceed as planned and SpaceX resumes — or begins — its Moon lander work.

But, in its two-pronged fight on Capitol Hill and at the GAO, Blue Origin might not want any ruling on its protest at all.

Lawyers and lobbyists for Bezos’ company argue that NASA, at any time during the GAO’s review of the protest, can simply exercise its ability to make a formal “corrective action” to its HLS decision, enter negotiations with any of the two losing bidders, then pick one as a second contractor that would develop its lunar lander alongside SpaceX — without having to reopen the whole competition. If the corrective action plan settles any of the issues raised in Blue Origin’s protest, then GAO lawyers would dismiss the protest. Such settlements are not uncommon — nearly half of all 2,137 bid protests last year were dismissed because an agency took corrective action.

But it’s extremely unlikely NASA would opt to suddenly reverse its HLS decision through a corrective action. Formally responding to Blue Origin’s protest late last month, the agency fiercely defended its award decision in a lengthy rebuttal filed with the GAO, according to people familiar with the process. Agency staff involved in the NASA effort worry that a reversal could set a bad precedent and are concerned that adding another company might jumble the terms of SpaceX’s current award and potentially spawn another legal nightmare.

Then-nominee Bill Nelson speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing before taking office as NASA administrator.
Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool / Getty Images

However, one reason to correct the decision, some argue, would be if NASA had some assurance that it’d have enough money to pay for a second contractor. That’s where Blue Origin’s herculean lobbying effort comes into play.

Senators Maria Cantwell, a senior Democrat from Blue Origin’s home state of Washington, and Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, proposed the amendment that passed the Senate last night. In its original version, it would have vaguely forced NASA to pick at least one more contractor within 30 days from the bill’s enactment and use $10 billion to fund the whole program — SpaceX’s contract and the hypothetical second company’s contract — through 2026. Cantwell had been irked by NASA’s decision to pick one company and penned the language to promote commercial competition, aides say.

When we landed on the moon, there was great collective pride in that achievement. Our space program should be something that we ALL take part in. We shouldn’t hand over $10B in corporate welfare to Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, who are jointly worth $350B, to fund their space hobby.

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) May 26, 2021

A bipartisan chorus of opposition followed, with Sen. Bernie Sanders — one of Washington’s leading critics of Jeff Bezos and other billionaires — calling it a “multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout” and counter-proposing to delete the Cantwell-Wicker language entirely. “I’ve got a real problem with the authorization of $10 billion going to somebody who, among other things, is the wealthiest person in this country,” Sanders, who voted against the bill last night, said earlier this month. “Cry me a river,” said Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in a tweet on Blue Origin’s protest. “Jeff Bezos lost out on a space contract so now Senate inserts a Bezos bailout provision for $10 billion for his space company??”

The “Bezos Bailout” discourse began when SpaceX lobbyists distributed a lobbying memo to lawmakers last month calling the Cantwell-Wicker amendment “a $10 billion sole‐source hand‐out” that “will throw NASA’s Artemis program into years of litigation.”

“THIS AMENDMENT IS NOT ABOUT COMPETITION. THIS IS A HAND‐OUT,” the SpaceX memo, a copy of which was shared with The Verge and first reported by The Washington Post, screams in all-caps. It adds: “Blue Origin has received more than $778 million from NASA, the Air Force, and the Space Force since 2011, and it has not produced a single rocket or spacecraft capable of reaching orbit.”

The amendment doesn’t explicitly command NASA to add another Moon lander contractor to work alongside SpaceX, or even pick Blue Origin for that matter — chunks of the $10 billion could very well go to SpaceX in the future. But the 30-day deadline was seen as a de facto mandate to do so, since creating a new development program in that slim window would be unlikely, and because Blue Origin’s lander proposal came in second place behind SpaceX’s. After weeks of negotiations between NASA and Congress, the amendment’s 30-day deadline was expanded to 60 days, and the funding year stops at 2025 instead of 2026, according to the version of the bill that passed, locking in a concession intended to give NASA more flexibility to use the $10 billion according to its original plan.

That plan includes future competitions, like a development program that could give companies some $15 million to mature their lunar lander designs, or a bigger competition to provide NASA with routine transportation to the Moon. But Blue Origin doesn’t want to wait for those programs to open up. It’s leading a national team of companies it marshaled in 2019 to build a winning Moon lander proposal. That team includes Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, two publicly traded space and defense contractors that could decide to jump ship and work on their own proposals for the follow-up awards, some in the space industry speculate.

Image: Peter Parks / AFP via Getty Images

Bezos’ National Team, though, is still together. Draper Laboratory, the third firm on Blue Origin’s team, won a separate $49 million contract late last month to build avionics software partially to support “NASA’s Artemis campaign of missions to not just return to landing on the moon, but to create a sustained presence in lunar vicinity,” according to a contract document. It’s unclear if that software will support SpaceX’s Moon lander, Starship.

“Draper’s work under this award may include NASA’s human landing system, but we don’t know yet,” Pete Paceley, Draper’s vice president of civil space, told The Verge, adding that Draper remains a member of the National Team. “If we do work on HLS under this contract it will be in direct support to NASA.”

As for the Blue Origin-backed Cantwell amendment, which survived the Senate, it’s unclear if it’ll survive the House. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who chairs the House committee and subcommittee that oversees NASA, has come out against NASA’s overall approach to getting to the Moon. A spokeswoman for Rep. Johnson declined to offer comment on the fate of the amendment. In an earlier statement related to NASA’s award to SpaceX, Rep. Johnson said there was still an “obvious need for a re-baselining of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2024.”

No one knows when the House could vote on the amendment, and it’s unclear how much it’ll change in the process. Other members of Congress have thrown their support behind NASA’s Moon program. NASA’s new administrator, former Senator Bill Nelson, has been barnstorming Capitol Hill with meetings and public statements since the first week he took office, rallying support for his agency’s Moon program.

“The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which includes the NASA authorization bill, is an investment in scientific research and technological innovation that will help ensure the U.S. continues to lead in space and sets us on a path to execute many landings on the Moon in this decade,” Nelson said in one such statement from late Tuesday, after the Senate passed the science and technology bill that the Cantwell amendment was crammed into. “I applaud the Senate passage of the bill and look forward to working with the House to see it passed into law.”


Senate approves billions for US semiconductor manufacturing

After months of political jockeying and procedural hurdles, the Senate approved a massive science and technology bill Tuesday to boost US competitiveness with China. The bill invests billions into emerging technology industries like artificial intelligence, semiconductors, and quantum computing in the US.

The bill — titled the US Innovation and Competition Act or USICA — builds off a previous proposal from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the Endless Frontier Act. Endless Frontier was lauded as one of the first big bipartisan bills to come from the Biden administration. But over the last few months, the bill, which was seen as a must-pass piece of legislation for both parties, was bloated with political mush and much of the original funding was watered down as it moved through the Senate process.

In its current form, the bill provides $52 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing, as well as a 30 percent boost in funding for the National Science Foundation and $29 billion for a new science directorate to focus on applied sciences.

“Whoever wins the race to the technologies of the future will be the global economic leader,” Schumer said in a tweet on Tuesday. “We must invest in science, R&D, manufacturing, and innovation.”

The Endless Frontier Act was originally intended to provide $100 billion in funding for a new science directorate at the National Science Foundation to promote research in emerging tech fields. It would dole out billions to regions all across the country to build out new tech hubs and encourage tech companies to find homes outside of Silicon Valley and the coasts.

Last month, the package appeared to be doomed as Republicans withheld their votes to end debate on the bill. Hours after the initial cloture vote was called, Schumer reached an agreement with Republicans to hold votes on parts of the bill they were contesting the following week. Specifically, Republicans were concerned with language in the bill that would require a prevailing wage for semiconductor manufacturers in the US. On Tuesday, an amendment to strike that language was shot down.

In March, President Joe Biden put out his sweeping infrastructure package known as the American Jobs Plan. The original $2 trillion plan contained funding for broadband expansion, roads, highways, and called for $50 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing. Tuesday’s vote in the Senate marks the next step in achieving parts of the administration’s infrastructure goals.

Earlier this year, Biden signed an executive order to combat growing concerns over a global semiconductor shortage. The order called for a 100-day government review of supply chains to address shortfalls in acquiring chips. That review was published Tuesday, and the White House launched a new task force to address these supply chain disruptions.

Tuesday’s USICA approval also provides $10 billion to reshape cities and regions across the US into “technology hubs,” focusing on research and development into cutting-edge industries and creating new, well-paying tech jobs outside of the coasts. The funds will go to the Commerce Department and cities will be able to pitch the government on why it should be on the receiving end of these funds.

“This is certainly a welcome injection of resources,” Mike Wallace, legislative director for human development at the National League of Cities, told The Verge last week. “These are funds that will help local officials, but all stakeholders, think about economic mobility in a regional way.”

USICA faced criticism not only from Republicans, but from progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders initially voted to tank the competition bill last month over what he called a “multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout” that would authorize $10 billion for the Amazon CEO’s space venture, Blue Origin, to participate in NASA’s next Moon mission, codenamed “Project Artemis.” Sanders also attempted to negotiate language in the bill that would give the federal government equity interest in exchange for semiconductor grants and aid.

The package still needs to move through the House before President Biden can sign it into law. On Tuesday, Schumer said that he was “quite certain that we will get a really good product on the president’s desk,” but it’s unclear how long that will take or if the bill will change further.


NASA’s Juno probe will get close to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede on Monday

On Monday NASA’s Juno space probe, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, will get a close-up look at Jupiter’s biggest moon Ganymede, the agency said in a press release. It will be the closest NASA has gotten to the largest moon in the solar system for more than 20 years— Galileo cruised by Ganymede in 2000— coming within 645 miles of its surface. The information Juno gathers will give insight into the moon’s composition and ice shell, as well as provide data for future missions to Jupiter.

“Juno carries a suite of sensitive instruments capable of seeing Ganymede in ways never before possible,” said principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “By flying so close, we will bring the exploration of Ganymede into the 21st century, both complementing future missions with our unique sensors and helping prepare for the next generation of missions to the Jovian system.”

Those missions include NASA’s Europa Clipper (launch date still TBD) and the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer [JUICE] mission, slated to launch next year and arrive at Jupiter in 2029 (and kudos to the ESA for going the extra mile on that acronym).

Ganymede is bigger than Mercury and is the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetosphere, which NASA describes as “a bubble-shaped region of charged particles” that surrounds it. The JunoCam, which has taken many of the most striking photos of Jupiter during its mission will only be able to snap about five images during the flyby, since Ganymede will appear and fade from view all within a 25-minute window. Three hours before Juno gets to its closest point near Ganymede, its science instruments will begin collecting data.

“Literally every second counts,” said Matt Johnson, Juno mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “On Monday, we are going to race past Ganymede at almost 12 miles per second (19 kilometers per second).” And less than 24 hours later, Juno will make its 33rd science pass of Jupiter, he added.

Juno is expected to get closest to Ganymede at about 1:35PM ET on Monday. You can track where Juno is now with NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System interactive.


NASA will send two missions to Venus for the first time in over 30 years

The agency has picked two new robotic missions to explore the hot hell-world of Venus, Earth’s neighbor and the second planet from the Sun, administrator Bill Nelson announced on Wednesday. The two missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, were among four competing proposals under the latest round of NASA’s Discovery Program, which manages smaller planetary exploration missions with a slim budget of roughly $500 million each.

“These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” Nelson said during his first “State of NASA” address at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC on Wednesday. “They will offer the entire science community a chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

DAVINCI+, slated to launch around 2029, will mark the first US-led mission into the atmosphere of Venus since 1978, when NASA’s second Pioneer mission plunged into Venusian clouds for scientific study. The spacecraft will fly by Venus twice to snap close-up photos of the planet’s surface before tossing a robotic probe into its thick atmosphere to measure its gasses and other elements.

An image of Venus captured by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe last summer showing the planet’s mysterious nightside and revealing a surprisingly clear view of its surface.
NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory/Guillermo Stenborg and Brendan Gallagher

Interest in Venus spiked last year during NASA’s review of the four missions, when a separate international team of researchers published findings that the noxious gas, phosphine, was possibly floating in the clouds of Venus — an intriguing theory that hinted at the first signs of off-world life, as phosphine is known to be made primarily by living organisms. But other researchers disputed the team’s findings, leaving the phosphine theory open-ended. DAVINCI+’s plunge through Venus’ atmosphere could decisively settle that mystery.

When the research was published, NASA’s previous administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said “it’s time to prioritize Venus.” NASA’s science associate administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen, tells The Verge that although the two probes could help confirm the phosphine research, they were picked for their scientific value, proposed timeline, and other factors independent of the phosphine findings.

The second mission, VERITAS, is a probe slated to launch around 2028, just before DAVINCI+. It’ll orbit Venus and map its surface much like NASA’s Magellan probe did for four years beginning in 1990, but with a much sharper focus that will give scientists a better picture of the planet’s geological history. It’ll use a synthetic aperture radar and track surface elevations to “create 3D reconstructions of topography and confirm whether processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active on Venus,” NASA said in a statement.

Another camera on VERITAS will be sensitive to a wavelength that could spot signs of water vapor in Venus’ atmosphere, which, if detected, could hint that active volcanoes had been degassing on the planet’s surface sometime long ago.

Taken together, the two missions make clear that NASA is finally going all in on Venus, a spicy-hot planet long sidelined by other, more scientifically popular planets like Mars. The two Discovery-class missions that competed with DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were TRIDENT, which would’ve studied Neptune’s icy moon Triton, and the Io Volcano Observer (IVO), which would’ve studied the tidal forces on Jupiter’s moon Io.

The twin missions to Venus aim to confront the possibility that the planet was once habitable. “Venus is closer to the Sun, it’s a hot house now, but once upon a time it might’ve been different,” NASA’s Discovery program head Thomas Wagner tells The Verge. Studying the planet’s atmosphere up close could give scientists clues on how it evolved over time to allow Venus to become the hell world it is today, with surface temperatures of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

The missions could also help scientists learn how to look at exoplanets, distant planets in other solar systems. Though hot and unlivable, Venus sits in the Goldilocks zone of our solar system, a term scientists use to characterize the position of exoplanets whose distances from the Sun sit in just the right spot to foster life. Venus, Wagner says, could be a model, right next to Earth, to help us understand exoplanets farther away. The planet’s distance from our Sun also raises equally intriguing questions about why Venus turned into the hell-world it is today.

“Since Venus is in the goldilocks zone, we want to know what the heck went on on Venus,” Wagner says.


NASA’s Curiosity rover has captured amazing images of clouds on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover has captured images of clouds on Mars— as described in its blog post: “wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting sun, some of them shimmering with color.”

According to NASA clouds are rare in the thin atmosphere of Mars, but usually form at its equator during its coldest time of year. Scientists noticed that last year — two years ago in Earth time— there were clouds beginning to form earlier than expected, so this year they were ready.

A gif of clouds drifting above Mount Sharp on Mars, taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover on March 19th.

The images are not only stunning, they’ve provided new insights to the Curiosity team at NASA. The early clouds are at higher altitudes than most Martian clouds— which typically hover about 37 miles above the planet’s surface and are made up of water ice. The higher-altitude clouds are likely made of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, NASA says.

Curiosity provided both black-and-white and color images— the black-and-white photos show the rippled details of the clouds more clearly.

Curiosity took these images of clouds on Mars just after sunset on March 31st.

But it’s the color photos taken from the rover’s mast camera and stitched together from multiple images that are really breathtaking. NASA describes them:

Viewed just after sunset, their ice crystals catch the fading light, causing them to appear to glow against the darkening sky. These twilight clouds, also known as “noctilucent” (Latin for “night shining”) clouds, grow brighter as they fill with crystals, then darken after the Sun’s position in the sky drops below their altitude. This is just one useful clue scientists use to determine how high they are.

Curiosity also captured images of iridescent “mother of pearl” clouds, with pastel colors throughout. Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado said in NASA’s post that those colors come from cloud particles nearly identical in size. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate,” he explained.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted these iridescent, or “mother of pearl,” clouds on March 5th, the 3,048th Martian day, or sol, of its mission.

Lemmon said he marvels at the colors that show up in these clouds; reds and greens and blues and purples. “It’s really cool to see something shining with lots of color on Mars.”

Very cool.


NASA’s Mars helicopter had a midair brain fart

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter ended its sixth flight test on Mars earlier than planned last week after bugging out mid-flight, the rotorcraft’s chief pilot wrote in a blog post on Thursday. The four-pound mini helicopter was aiming to fly farther than any of its previous excursions to test out its scientific reconnaissance capabilities, as the latest trial in an extended test campaign to demonstrate a new mode of transportation on another world.

Last Saturday, Ingenuity powered up and rose 33 feet from the Martian surface to travel a distance of roughly two football fields along a preprogramed flight path, all the while snapping photos of a “region of interest” on Mars during flight. As it buzzed along at about nine miles per hour toward the end of the first 150-meter leg of its journey, a glitch in the helicopter’s navigation unit caused Ingenuity to suddenly lurch midair.

Video from Ingenuity’s navigation camera shows the wobbling caused by a glitch.

It was a “stressful flight” for the little copter, Håvard Grip, the chief pilot, said. “Ingenuity began adjusting its velocity and tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern,” rattled over what Grip said were “phantom errors” that caused “roll and pitch excursions of more than 20 degrees, large control inputs, and spikes in power consumption.”

Ingenuity lands safely after a stressful flight.

Ingenuity’s sense of movement comes from two vital parts of its internal computer, stored in its tissue box-sized body that hangs underneath its twin-rotor system. The first part is an inertial measurement unit (IMU) that tracks how fast the rotor blades spin to calculate acceleration, which enables estimates of its speed, midair position, and location (relative to its starting point). The second instrument is a tiny, ground-facing, black-and-white camera that snaps 30 photos per second to give the helicopter a visual sense of where it is, tracking rocks and patterns on the ground as Ingenuity zips by. Those photos come with timestamps, so Ingenuity can precisely analyze movement over time.

All of that data converges in the helicopter’s navigation system to provide a sense of balance and awareness. Ingenuity’s flub occurred 54 seconds into flight when one of the black-and-white navigation images randomly disappeared, knocking the image pipeline out of order and rendering the timestamps on all subsequent images inaccurate. “From this point on, each time the navigation algorithm performed a correction based on a navigation image, it was operating on the basis of incorrect information about when the image was taken,” Grip explained.

The spoiled navigation data misled Ingenuity to believe it was making a series of flight errors, prompting harried attempts to overcorrect itself before a safety system kicked in to guide it calmly back to the ground.

Despite the glitch, Ingenuity captured this west-facing image 33 feet above the Martian surface as planned.
Image: NASA / JPL

Ingenuity landed safely about 16 feet from its intended touchdown spot, partly because the helicopter’s navigation unit is designed to ignore navigation images during the landing process, when it nears altitudes of around three feet. Relying only on data from the IMU, none of the images with glitch-inducing timestamps affected Ingenuity’s landing. “We designed Ingenuity to tolerate significant errors without becoming unstable, including errors in timing,” Grip said.

The helicopter arrived on the Red Planet attached to the underbelly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed at Mars’ Jezero Crater, a dried-out lake bed, on February 18th. Perseverance deployed Ingenuity on the Martian surface on April 4th, leaving it to carry out the first powered flight on another world on April 19th. Just after its fourth flight, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California opted to extend Ingenuity’s flight campaign, impressed with the helicopter’s stability and performance.

A JPL spokesman said engineers are reviewing data from Ingenuity’s sixth flight and don’t yet know when it will carry out its seventh.


Lockheed Martin and GM are working on an electric Moon buggy

Lockheed Martin and General Motors unveiled plans on Wednesday to build an autonomous buggy-like vehicle that future astronauts can use to zip around the surface of the Moon. The two companies collaborated to pitch a conceptual Lunar Terrain Vehicle to NASA’s Artemis program, a Moon exploration campaign that calls for various robots, vehicles, and scientific bases to be planted on the lunar surface within the next decade.

Ahead of a presentation Wednesday morning, Lockheed and GM said in a joint press release that the vehicle will use the automaker’s autonomous driving technology and is “being designed to traverse significantly farther distances” than Apollo-era buggies. Just like those Moon buggies from the ‘70s, the Lockheed-GM concept will be fully electric.

The rover is still in the early stages of development, so details on its size, weight and range aren’t set in stone yet, Jeff Ryder, GM’s Vice President of Growth and Strategy, told reporters in a press conference. It will be “made of very lightweight, strong and resilient materials,” but “exactly what those are is still in formulation,” says Lockheed’s lunar exploration vice president Kirk Shireman. “We want it to be as light and strong and have a long life as it possibly can.”

“These next-generation rovers will dramatically extend the range of astronauts as they perform high-priority science investigation on the Moon that will ultimately impact humanity’s understanding of our place in the solar system,” Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed’s space unit, said in a statement. NASA’s Artemis program calls for an initial astronaut Moon landing as soon as 2024 (a goal some say is unrealistic) with follow-up missions to build a sustained presence on the lunar south pole. Those missions will serve as a proving ground for technologies that can inform future missions to Mars.

The heavyweight collaboration between Lockheed and GM came after NASA asked the private sector to come up with ideas for two types of human-rated Moon vehicles: the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (or LTV) and a bigger “Lunar Surface Science Mobility System,” essentially a science lab on wheels. NASA had only a few minimum specifications for LTV concepts. First, they should be capable of driving autonomously on the Moon’s hazardous, crater-laden terrain, a challenging environment for the computer vision technology that powers autonomous driving systems on Earth.

A NASA LTV also needs to be fully electric and capable of recharging itself internally — either from onboard solar arrays or other systems — and externally from infrastructure that can be set up on the Moon, like NASA’s Human Landing System. It should be able to carry two fully suited astronauts, including the driver, as well as any cargo for a total haul capacity of 1,102 pounds on a single charge for at least 1.2 miles. And it needs to withstand the lunar south pole’s volatile surface temperatures, which can vary from 260 degrees Fahrenheit to negative 280 degrees during the Moon’s nighttime.

Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan aboard his Lunar Roving Vehicle on the Moon’s bumpy Taurus-Littrow landing site.
Photo: NASA / Johnson Space Center

Lockheed and GM were among the cadre of industry giants that built NASA’s first lunar landing systems and buggies under the Apollo program. GM built the chassis and wheels for the Lunar Roving Vehicles, as they were formally called, on Apollo missions 15 through 17. The rover for Apollo 17, the program’s final Moon mission in 1972, did the most roving: Astronaut Gene Cernan whipped the lightweight electric LRV more than 22 miles total on the Moon, going as far as 4.7 miles away from their lunar module.

Lockheed and GM said their new concept will travel much farther than the buggies of Apollo. “The result” of the companies’ engineering efforts, a press release said, “may allow astronauts to explore the lunar surface in unprecedented fashion and support discovery in places where humans have never gone before.”


former-nasa-astronaut-peggy-whitson-is-returning-to-space-— this-time,-on-a-private-ride

Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is returning to space — this time, on a private ride

Peggy Whitson, one of NASA’s most experienced retired astronauts, is going back to space — this time with a racecar driver and two other passengers in the latest mission planned by Axiom Space. The Houston-based space company announced on Tuesday that Whitson will serve as the mission commander for its second private flight to the International Space Station, with John Shoffner, a GT racer, serving as mission pilot.

The Ax-2 mission with Whitson and Shoffner will be similar to Ax-1, Axiom’s first planned flight for early next year: a crew of four private citizens will fly to the International Space Station for a roughly eight-day stay conducting scientific research. It’s the latest private spaceflight planned so far as companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic race to offer tourists a trip to space — either to the ISS, orbit, or the edge of space.

Axiom serves as a mission manager that procures other companies’ spacecraft to fly people to space, charging passengers somewhere around $55 million per mission if it’s on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and probably more if it’s on Boeing’s Starliner capsule, which has yet to be flight-certified by NASA.

Whitson, 61, has tallied 665 days in space across three missions, the most for any NASA astronaut. She and Shoffner have been training as backups for Ax-1, which is slated to launch three entrepreneurs and former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría to the ISS in January 2022. That flight will use SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which has flown three crews of government astronauts to the ISS since May last year under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The ride for Ax-2 hasn’t been confirmed yet, Axiom says, and the two other Ax-2 crewmates are still being sorted out.

Ax-2’s mission commander Peggy Whitson (left) and pilot John Shoffner (right).
Photo: Axiom Space

When Whitson retired from NASA in 2018, she didn’t think she’d go back to space again. “I didn’t think it was likely. Probably because of that, I was more excited to be assigned as an Axiom backup for Ax-1 and then prime commander for Ax-2 than even for my first spaceflight,” she told The Verge in a phone interview. “It seemed even more unexpected.”

Shoffner, 65, is a trained pilot, investor in the life sciences industry, and a racecar driver who started a GT3 motorsports racing team named J2-Racing with his wife. He and Whitson will do research on the ISS for 10x Genomics, a California-based biotechnology company that manufactures gene sequencing technology for researchers. Shoffner, an investor 10x Genomics, plans to test single-cell sequencing methods while in microgravity, a first for the company.

“I’m going to try and help because I’m a geek. I like this stuff, too,” says Whitson, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University and was once the deputy division chief for the Medical Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center, NASA’s astronaut headquarters in Houston.

Axiom says its private missions will launch every six months, meaning Ax-2 would launch in the middle of 2022 (or roughly half a year after Ax-1 in January 2022). But the date for Ax-2 depends largely on traffic at the space station, which only has two international docking adapters that serve as parking spaces for both cargo and government astronaut missions. Axiom will have to squeeze into the station’s increasingly busy schedule and reserve one of those adapters for the 10-day trip, including eight days docked to the ISS.

Earlier this month, NASA signed an agreement with Axiom to greenlight the company’s Ax-1 mission. The Ax-1 crew is still going through a rigorous training process intended to adjust crew members to the G forces of launching to space.

While its crew members will have to go through the same training, the Ax-2 mission is likely to be more costly than Ax-1. NASA has shifted the prices for hosting private astronaut missions on the space station, primarily a government-run research platform. Axiom’s second mission will be subject to the agency’s latest pricing table: a base of $5.2 million per person, and $4.8 million per mission to pay for planning and integration. The day rate for each passenger is anywhere between $88,000 and $164,000 to accommodate food, cargo, and other services. Axiom says it sorts this out with NASA and includes all of these charges in the customer’s single ticket price.

Axiom, founded in 2016 by a veteran NASA ISS program manager, is building its own private space station modules that it plans to attach to the ISS as soon as 2024. Whitson says her mission will help open doors for more ambitious crewed missions into space. “The future of spaceflight depends on us building an infrastructure that enables us to step further and further away from Earth,” she says. “This step by Axiom, introducing private astronauts to the space station, is going to be just the initial step.”


Virgin Galactic spaceplane VSS Unity completes successful flight

Virgin Galactic completed its first successful space flight in more than two years on Saturday, with its crewed VSS Unity spacecraft carried to an altitude of more than 44,000 feet before gliding safely back to Earth.

Virgin’s VMS Eve carrier aircraft took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at about 10:35AM ET with Unity aboard. About 10 minutes before its release, Unity switched to its own battery power, and conducted flight control and electrical checks. Once released by Eve, Unity’s pilots C.J. Sturckow and Dave Mackay ignited the rocket motor, then shut it down a few minutes later, with the spacecraft’s momentum keeping it traveling toward its apogee, or highest point.

Unity reached apogee at about 11:30AM ET, did a slow turn, then glided back into Earth’s atmosphere, landing at about 11:43 AM ET on the same Spaceport America runway where its flight began.

Saturday’s test flight, which also carried research payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, is the latest step toward Virgin Galactic’s goal of a space tourism program. The company has some 600 reservations for tickets on future space flights, which go for around $250,000 each. Unity is able to carry up to six passengers and two pilots.

It was Virgin Galactic’s first space flight since 2019, and the third one it’s completed. Unity’s first two flights, in late 2018 and early 2019, were conducted at the company’s test facility at the Mojave Air and Spaceport out of California. Virgin Galactic later moved its operations to Spaceport America, where it plans to conduct all of its commercial tourist flights. The company had to abort its first flight attempt at the new facility in December, after Unity’s engine cut out early ahead of its glide back to Earth.

Virgin Galactic said in February, and confirmed during its May 10th earnings call, that it has a total of four spaceflights planned this year. The next one is slated to have two pilots and four Virgin Galactic employees as passengers, and a third flight is scheduled to have Virgin founder Richard Branson on board. Flight four is intended to be a commercial flight for the Italian Air Force, which should generate $2 million in revenue.

The dates for the future Unity flights are still to be announced.


China drives its rover on the surface of Mars

China became the second country to successfully deploy a vehicle on Mars on Saturday, and the first to do so on its inaugural visit to the Red Planet. Reuters reported that the solar-powered Zhurong rover drove down the ramp of its landing capsule on to the surface of Mars at about 10:40 AM Beijing time.

Zhurong first landed on Mars earlier this month and started its journey on Mars’ surface on Utopia Planitia, a smooth plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. That’s more than 1,200 miles from the Jezero Crater where the US rover Perseverance touched down in February. A third rover, NASA’s Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, was spotted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter climbing up Mars’ Mont Mercou last month, Space News reported.

Chinese state media tweeted images of Zhurong’s arrival on Mars.

Zhurong, named for the Chinese god of fire, has a Mars-Rover Subsurface Exploration Radar, Mars Magnetic Field Detector, and Mars Meteorology Monitor, as well as a high-resolution topography camera. It will study Mars’ soil and atmosphere, and search for signs of water or ice beneath the planet’s surface over the course of its 90-day mission.

The European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos Space Corporation are planning to jointly land a rover on Mars in 2022.


China releases first images from its Zhurong rover on Mars

China’s Zhurong rover has beamed back its first images from the surface of Mars after landing on a vast plain called Utopia Planitia. The rover plunged through the Martian atmosphere last Friday, bundled together with a lander after separating from China’s Tianwen-1 probe.

The new images released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) show the two robots meticulously executing their first post-landing steps: the lander extended a tiny ramp to help Zhurong put its six wheels on the Martian surface for the first time. And Zhurong unfolded its four wing-like solar panels and a communications antenna, as seen from one of the rover’s navigation cameras.

A shot of the backside of Zhurong taken by a navigation camera, showing the rover’s antenna and solar panels deployed.
Image: CNSA

The Tianwen-1 mission, which arrived in Martian orbit in February, is China’s first trek to Mars. Until last week, only the US had been able to successfully land and operate rovers on the Red Planet. NASA’s most recent rover, Perseverance, landed in February at Jezero Crater, a little over a thousand miles from China’s landing site at Utopia Planitia. (NASA’s Viking-2 mission also landed at Utopia Planitia in 1976.)

Surviving the dive through Mars’ atmosphere — the “seven minutes of terror” — is the hardest part of any voyage to the planet. CNSA also released images of the landing phase in action:

Image: CNSA

Tianwen-1 launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in China’s Hainan province on July 23rd last year, setting off on its seven-month trek to the Red Planet. Now, with Zhurong preparing to rove Utopia Planitia, China has its first robotic laboratory on Mars. The rover’s instruments will work to study the planet’s geology and climate during its planned 90-day mission.