Watch Boeing launch its spaceship on a do-over flight to prove it can transport astronauts for NASA

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 4
A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will attempt to redeem itself this week, after botching its last major test flight.

The company’s eventual goal is to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the way SpaceX already does. Both companies developed their launch systems through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to private companies in order to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.

But before carrying people, the Starliner has to complete an uncrewed test flight to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s certification process. Boeing first attempted this flight in December 2019, but it turned out that one of the spaceship’s clocks was set 11 hours ahead of schedule. The clock prompted the spaceship’s engines to fire too vigorously, too early – a move meant to come at a later stage of the mission.

That caused the spaceship to burn through 25% of its fuel, forcing Boeing to skip docking with the space station in order to save the Starliner from total failure.

Now, the company is confident that it has fixed the problems with its spaceship, so it’s time for the do-over.

“Now’s the right time. This team is ready to go, this vehicle is ready to go,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing last week.

Watch Starliner launch live

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight test oft launch pad cape canaveral launch 6NHQ201912200021_orig
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41 on December 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, is set to launch on Tuesday at 1:20 p.m. ET. Starliner will blast off atop an Atlas V rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA plans to broadcast the whole thing, below, starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

If all goes according to plan, the Atlas V booster should fall away after about four minutes. That leaves the rocket’s upper stage to give Starliner one final push into Earth’s orbit before it, too, separates from the capsule. Starliner should orbit Earth alone overnight, slowly lining itself up to meet the ISS the next day.

“That’s the part of this flight that, to me, is so critical: docking with station and then also, on the back end as well, going through that whole undock sequence,” Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing.

If the spaceship successfully latches onto a port on the ISS, astronauts on the station will then open its hatch and unload its cargo – science equipment and supplies. After that, the Starliner is scheduled to stay docked to the ISS to test out its systems and its endurance in space, until it returns to Earth a few days later.

The launch was originally set for Friday afternoon, but had to be delayed after a mishap on the ISS. Russia’s new module, Nauka, fired its engines unexpectedly after docking to the station on Thursday, which rotated the ISS 45 degrees. Flight controllers regained control about an hour later.

“We wanted to make sure we had some breathing room to fully assess the situation on station before adding another vehicle,” Lueders said in a briefing on Thursday.

Boeing’s investigation into the failed flight revealed further problems

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship space capsule nasa commercial crew program ccp orbiting earth illustration 317188 33_CST_Flip_fr01_
An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

During Boeing’s test flight in 2019, the early engine fire prompted the company’s engineers to quickly review the spacecraft’s software while Starliner was orbiting Earth. In doing so, they discovered and patched another issue – not the clock error – that could have been catastrophic.

As Starliner prepares to fall back to Earth, it’s supposed to shed its service module – a cylinder containing the spaceship’s main engines. That part is meant to fall away from the crew module, which holds the astronauts.

But this second software error could have led the service module to bounce back and crash into the crew module. That could have sent the astronauts’ capsule tumbling or significantly damaged its protective heat shield, making it unsafe to plow through the atmosphere.

The discovery of this issue prompted a NASA investigation into Boeing’s coding and overall safety culture. NASA administrators at the time said the software issue was likely a symptom of larger problems at the company. But now, Stich said, “Boeing has an excellent safety culture.”

Boeing has fixed both issues and changed some of the spaceship’s communications software.

“There’s always a little bit of that trepidation in you,” Stich said. “This is spaceflight. The Atlas is a great vehicle. Starliner is a great vehicle. But we know how hard it is, and it’s a test flight as well. And I fully expect we’ll learn something on this test flight.”

Why NASA needs Boeing

Assuming Starliner can make it to the ISS and back without major issues, its next step will be to do that again with astronauts onboard – a crewed test flight. If everything goes smoothly, that flight could launch by the end of this year, Stich said.

boeing starliner space capsule lowered on cables to rocket
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is stacked atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 17, 2021.

NASA is relying on both Boeing and SpaceX to replace the government-developed Space Shuttle, which stopped flying in 2011. After that, NASA relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed the agency’s tests, flying its first astronauts to the ISS last year. SpaceX has flown two full crews since then.

NASA hopes to add Starliner to its fleet soon so that the agency is no longer reliant on just one launch system.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on July 28, 2021.

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Business leaders have immense power over space travel but there’s a risk they won’t make ethical decisions for the rest of us, say experts

space station
A view from the International Space Station.

  • Many business leaders are showing a keen interest in space travel.
  • Experts have questioned how leaders’ decisions about the future of space will affect ordinary people.
  • One said it’s unclear whether leaders will make humane social and political orders beyond Earth.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently jetted to the edge of space and back in a rocket designed and built by his company Blue Origin. Not long before that, fellow billionaire Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic, also traveled to the edge of space.

While both events were marked as milestones in ushering in a new era of commercial space travel, some space industry figures say there are inherent problems with giving business leaders the keys to space. These leaders also include SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who along with Bezos and Branson, has shown great interest in the space sector.

“They may not make the wisest or most ethical decisions for all of us,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.

According to Bimm, for Bezos and especially Musk, tourism is just one step in a grand vision of private space settlement. “Bezos envisions millions of humans living off-world in verdant cylindrical space stations. Musk, on the other hand, is fixated on Mars and establishing a million-person city there,” he added.

But this approach is perilous, according to Bimm. He said: “Can we trust them to establish just and humane off-world social and political orders?”

Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The shift to privatized space travel could also shake up the way NASA operates in the future, Bimm said: “It could mean a revitalized NASA, or a NASA that shifts into more of a basic space science and advisory role to private companies doing human spaceflight.”

Billionaire business leaders are also changing the career path into the space industry, experts told Insider.

“What is changing is the type of elite person allowed to go there,” Bimm said. “Before, it was soldiers and later scientists, and now we are seeing the very wealthy and their handpicked companions added to this elite lineage,” he said.

Michael Brown, assistant professor from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University, agreed, saying that in previous decades those chosen for spaceflight missions tended to be pilots, scientists, engineers, and doctors.

Back then, crews were also carefully selected by a committee of government experts. “Later on, novelist Tom Wolfe famously described what set these astronauts apart as ‘the right stuff’- essentially skill, bravery, and ego,” Bimm said.

But to get to space today, you simply need the “right funds” to buy a ticket, according to Bimm. Or “as we saw in the case of Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos, the right family to buy a ticket for you.”

Bimm added: “The flight was exciting to watch but also raises key questions about the future: what, and more to the point, who is space for? Soldiers, scientists, and now the wealthy.”

There are many unanswered questions about how accessible space travel really is but according to Brown, “space billionaires are only broadening space access to space millionaires.” He said the access they provide is “limited to a couple of minutes of floating.”

Matthew Hersch, a historian of aerospace technology at Harvard University, said that although the invention of commercial space travel is great, demand from ordinary people seems low.

“We haven’t seen evidence that demand for space launch services is elastic enough to support selling launch services to average people, even if they can be offered cheaply enough,” Hersch added.

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A government watchdog just rejected Jeff Bezos’ protest of NASA awarding a lunar lander contract to SpaceX alone

Jeff Bezos Elon Musk
Jeff Bezos (left) and Elon Musk.

  • Jeff Bezos has been dealt a loss in his protest of NASA’s awarding SpaceX a lunar lander contract.
  • Blue Origin had said it was unfair of NASA to award the $2.9 billion contract to just one company.
  • SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to the news on Twitter with a flexing bicep emoji.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Jeff Bezos has just been dealt a blow in his effort to challenge a big victory for SpaceX.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday denied a protest that Bezos’ Blue Origin had filed that contested NASA’s decision to award a lunar lander contract to SpaceX alone.

“GAO first concluded that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award,” the office said in a statement.

Elon Musk’s spaceflight company SpaceX was chosen to receive the $2.9 billion contract in April, edging out defense contractor Dynetics and Blue Origin. The contract is part of NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the Moon as early as 2024 through the agency’s Artemis program. NASA’s decision came as a shock since the agency had been expected to choose two of the three companies, not just one.

Shortly after, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed protests challenging the decision. Blue Origin said NASA was required to award contracts to multiple companies in accordance with its initial stated preference.

When announcing it had picked SpaceX, NASA said it only chose one company because of limited funding from Congress for the program.

Blue Origin says NASA never initiated talks with the company to try to negotiate the price of its human landing system, which NASA expected would cost the agency $6 billion, roughly twice as much as SpaceX’s price. Blue Origin says that NASA did, however, allow SpaceX to negotiate.

“The announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all,” GAO’s statement continued. “In reaching its award decision, NASA concluded that it only had sufficient funding for one contract award. GAO further concluded there was no requirement for NASA to engage in discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement as a result of the amount of funding available for the program.”

Read more: Companies’ mad rush to cloud giants like Amazon and Microsoft might finally be about to slow down, according to a Morgan Stanley survey

The office added that “the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms.”

A Blue Origin spokesperson told Insider the company will “continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction,” the spokesperson said. “The Human Landing System program needs to have competition now instead of later – that’s the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to GAO’s decision on Twitter, simply writing “GAO” and adding the flexing bicep emoji.

Just days ago, Bezos offered to cover up to $2 billion dollars in costs if NASA were to give Blue Origin another shot at the lunar lander contract.

Dynetics did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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Russia’s new space-station module fired its engines in error, pushing the entire station into an hour-long spin

nauka module spaceship with solar array wings approaches international space station
A screenshot from NASA’s livestream shows the Nauka module approaching its port on the International Space Station, July 29, 2021.

A new Russian space-station module malfunctioned after it docked on Thursday. The module, called Nauka, starting unexpectedly firing its thrusters – which moved the entire station out of position.

The long-awaited science module had already encountered several technical issues on its way to the ISS, but once it docked to the space station on Thursday morning, it seemed to be in the clear. Then about three hours after its arrival – at about 12:34 p.m. ET – Nauka suddenly began firing its thrusters.

Astronauts on the ISS told flight controllers they were seeing something strange out their windows. Space journalist Anatoly Zak was among the first to notice their observations.

“Numerous particles are also seen outside the station indicating either major propellant leak or gas vent,” Zak tweeted.

In response to the glitch, flight controllers began firing thrusters on two other parts of the Russian side of the ISS, including the service module, in what they called a “tug of war” to get the station back into its normal position.

By 1:30 p.m. ET, ISS flight controllers announced that Nauka’s thrusters had finally stopped firing and they had regained control of the station’s positioning. Over that hour, Nauka had rotated the station by 45 degrees.

“All other station systems are operating perfectly,” NASA said Thursday afternoon. “None of the other appendages were damaged in any way.”

A helium leak could be to blame for the malfunction

proton m rocket fires engines blasts off from launchpad carrying nauka module
A Proton-M rocket carrying the Nauka module blasts off from the launchpad at Russia’s space facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, July 21, 2021.

A sudden loss of control over the space station’s orientation is “not a common occurrence,” NASA said, adding that there are procedures in place to fix such an issue when it does arise. Occasionally, flight controllers deliberately change the ISS’s orientation to avoid oncoming space debris, or make it easier for a spacecraft to successfully dock at the station.

The ISS crew is not in danger and never was, according to flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Currently there are two cosmonauts, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, aboard the station, as well as and five astronauts: Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, and Mark Vande Hei of NASA.

“It’s safe to say the remainder of the day is no longer going to happen as scheduled, of course,” a flight controller told the ISS astronauts Thursday afternoon. Controllers asked them to check the station’s starboard, or right, side to see if there was any damage to the station’s exterior or floating debris.

So far, the astronauts have reported nothing amiss. They didn’t even feel the station moving during the incident, according to ISS program manager Joel Montalbano.

“You asked the crew, ‘Hey, did the space station shake or anything like that?’ And the response was negative,” he said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon.

Montalbano added that he’s “not too worried” given that the station’s maximum spin speed was about half a degree per second.

It’s not yet clear what caused the engines to fire out of turn. But Zak wrote that Russia’s mission control discovered a helium gas leak in one or two of Nauka’s tanks, which may have comprised the thrusters’ operation.

Around 2:15 p.m. ET, Russian flight controllers confirmed with NASA that they had disabled the errant thrusters.

Zak also reported that Nauka has used up all the propellant available to its thrusters, so there’s no chance of another “tug of war.”

A dramatic docking

ISS The International Space Station as of Oct. 4, 2018
The International Space Station photographed in November 2018.

Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.

The module expands the Russian side of the ISS, adding more science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. It also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.

But Nauka didn’t have a smooth journey into orbit. Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka failed to fire its main engines and push itself to a higher altitude. Russian mission controllers had to instruct the 43-foot-long, 2.5-ton module to fire its backup thrusters to get back on course.

After Nauka successfully docked on Thursday, the two ISS cosmonauts started checking for leaks, preparing to open the module’s hatch, and integrating the module into the station’s power and computer systems.

But after the engines started firing, flight controllers advised the ISS crew to keep the hatch closed and to close the station’s 1.5-inch-thick windows.

NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, will spend the next few days investigating the incident. Roscosmos will take the lead on analyzing Nauka, while NASA will focus on assessing space-station structures for any signs of damage.

“We’ll have a quick look done by the end of the day tomorrow,” Montalbano said. “That’ll tell us if we have any poke-outs that we’re worried about that we want to go and look at.”

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NASA has delayed Boeing’s spaceship flight after a Russian module pushed the space station out of position

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship space capsule nasa commercial crew program ccp orbiting earth illustration 317188 33_CST_Flip_fr01_
An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

A major mishap on the International Space Station has forced NASA and Boeing to delay the company’s planned spaceship flight.

Boeing was set to launch its spacecraft, called Starliner, toward the ISS on Friday afternoon and dock there on Saturday. This mission is meant to be Starliner’s last test flight before carrying its first astronauts. Boeing attempted this demonstration flight once before, in December 2019, but failed to reach the ISS due to software issues. Now the company is trying again, hoping to prove to NASA that Starliner is ready to fly astronauts.

But Boeing will have to wait just a little longer.

That’s because Russia added a new module to the ISS on Thursday, then immediately encountered major technical issues. The new module, called Nauka, starting unexpectedly firing its thrusters just hours after arriving at the ISS – which moved the entire station out of position.

nauka module spaceship with solar array wings approaches international space station
A screenshot from NASA’s livestream shows the Nauka module approaching its port on the International Space Station, July 29, 2021.

NASA announced on Thursday afternoon that it had decided to delay Boeing’s Starliner launch. The next opportunity to launch is on Tuesday, August 3.

“We wanted to make sure we had some breathing room to fully assess the situation on station before adding another vehicle,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing on Thursday.

Boeing is one of two companies – SpaceX is the other – that NASA has funded to develop human-spaceflight systems. Both NASA and Boeing are determined to finish Starliner’s test flights and start using the spaceship to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.

Before SpaceX’s Crew Dragon completed its test flights last year, NASA could only use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly its astronauts. Starliner’s next flight is critical to giving the agency more options.

Nauka encountered technical issues on the ground and in space

man in white lab coat stands in front of nauka module port opening in lab room
A specialist at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre works on preparations of the Nauka module, July 31, 2020.

Russia originally planned to add Nauka to the ISS in 2007, but technical issues delayed its development on the ground. Nauka finally launched on July 21, but it immediately encountered technical problems. It didn’t complete the first engine burn that was supposed to push it into a higher orbit above Earth, so Russian flight controllers had to initiate several smaller burns to push it onto the right path.

The long-awaited science module finally docked to the ISS at 9:29 a.m. ET on Thursday. It latched onto the correct ISS port and sealed itself. Cosmonauts began preparing to open the hatch connecting the module to the station.

But three hours later, at about 12:34 p.m. ET, Nauka suddenly began firing its engines. It took flight controllers about an hour to get the ISS back under control, after playing “tug of war” by firing engines on another part of the station.

The thrusters rotated the ISS by 45 degrees before NASA and Russian flight controllers regained control.

“It’s safe to say the remainder of the day is no longer going to happen as scheduled, of course,” a flight controller told the ISS astronauts.

NASA says the astronauts on the ISS were never in danger.

Currently there are two cosmonauts, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, and five astronauts aboard the station: Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, and Mark Vande Hei of NASA.

Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.

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Boeing will once again try to fly its spaceship to the space station for NASA on Friday, after failing its first attempt

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 4
A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

On Friday, Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will attempt to redeem itself after botching its last major test flight.

The company’s eventual goal is to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, the way SpaceX already does. Both companies developed their launch systems through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition that awarded funding to private companies in order to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.

But before carrying people, the Starliner has to complete an uncrewed test flight to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s certification process. Boeing first attempted this flight in December 2019, but it turned out that one of the spaceship’s clocks was set 11 hours ahead of schedule. That prompted the spaceship to fire its engines too vigorously, too early – a move meant to come at a later stage of the mission. That caused the spaceship to burn through 25% of its fuel, forcing Boeing to skip docking with the space station in order to save the Starliner from total failure.

Now, the company is confident that it has fixed the problems with its spaceship, so it’s time for the do-over.

“Now’s the right time. This team is ready to go, this vehicle is ready to go,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human-spaceflight directorate, said in a press briefing on Thursday.

Boeing must show NASA its spaceship can reach the space station

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight test oft launch pad cape canaveral launch 6NHQ201912200021_orig
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41 on December 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Starliner is set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket at 2:53 p.m. ET on Friday – assuming thunderstorms don’t force a delay. The mission, called Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will send the rocket and capsule roaring into the skies above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

If all goes according to plan, the Atlas V booster should fall away after about four minutes. That would leave the rocket’s upper stage to give Starliner one final push into Earth’s orbit before it, too, separates from the capsule. Starliner should orbit Earth alone overnight, slowly lining itself up to meet the ISS the next day.

“That’s the part of this flight that, to me, is so critical: docking with station and then also, on the back end as well, going through that whole undock sequence,” Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing on Tuesday.

If the spaceship successfully latches onto a port on the ISS, astronauts on the station will then open its hatch and unload its cargo – science equipment and supplies. After that, the Starliner is scheduled to stay docked to the ISS to test out its systems and its endurance in space, until it returns to Earth on August 5.

Boeing’s investigation into the failed flight revealed further problems

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship space capsule nasa commercial crew program ccp orbiting earth illustration 317188 33_CST_Flip_fr01_
An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship orbiting Earth.

During Boeing’s test flight in 2019, the early engine fire prompted the company’s engineers to quickly review the spacecraft’s software while Starliner was orbiting Earth. In doing so, they discovered and patched another issue – not the clock error – that could have been catastrophic.

As Starliner prepares to fall back to Earth, it’s supposed to shed its service module – a cylinder containing the spaceship’s main engines. That part is supposed to fall away from the crew module, which holds the astronauts.

But this second software error could have caused the service module to bounce back and crash into the crew module. That could have sent the astronauts’ capsule tumbling or significantly damaged its protective heat shield, making it unsafe to plow through the atmosphere.

The discovery of this issue prompted a NASA investigation into Boeing’s coding and overall safety culture. NASA administrators at the time said the software issue was likely a symptom of larger problems at the company. But now, Stich said, “Boeing has an excellent safety culture.”

As a result of NASA’s investigations, Boeing fixed both issues and changed some of the spaceship’s communications software.

“There’s always a little bit of that trepidation in you,” Stich said. “This is spaceflight. The Atlas is a great vehicle. Starliner is a great vehicle. But we know how hard it is, and it’s a test flight as well. And I fully expect we’ll learn something on this test flight.”

Why NASA needs Boeing

Assuming Starliner can make it to the ISS and back without major issues, its next step will be to do it again with astronauts onboard – a crewed test flight. If everything goes smoothly, that flight could launch by the end of this year, Stich said.

boeing starliner space capsule lowered on cables to rocket
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is stacked atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 17, 2021.

NASA is relying on both Boeing and SpaceX to replace the government-developed Space Shuttle, which stopped flying in 2011.

After the Space Shuttles were retired, NASA relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. Then SpaceX’s Crew Dragon passed the agency’s tests, flying its first astronauts to the ISS last year. SpaceX has flown two full crews since then. NASA hopes to add Starliner to its fleet soon so that the agency is no longer reliant on just one launch system.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter nailed its 10th flight – double what engineers had hoped Ingenuity would do

Mars ingenuity helicopter nasa perseverance rover
The Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, sitting where the Perseverance rover dropped it, on April 5, 2021.

  • NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completed its 10th flight on Mars Saturday.
  • That’s twice the number of flights that NASA originally planned for the little drone.
  • Engineers thought Ingenuity would crash much earlier, but it’s now on an extended mission.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The “little helicopter that could” has done it again.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, a tissue-box-sized rotorcraft that landed with the Perseverance rover in February, completed its 10th flight over the red planet on Saturday.

Each Ingenuity flight has been more daring than the last. So Saturday’s flight was likely the helicopter’s riskiest yet: If everything went according to plan, Ingenuity climbed 40 feet in the air, then headed south-by-southwest toward a collection of rock features called “Raised Ridges,” before looping back around to a landing zone about 310 feet west of its initial takeoff spot.

Before Saturday, Ingenuity had already flown nearly one mile in total, so its 10th flight helped it hit that threshold.

The flight should have lasted about 2 minutes, 45 seconds. During that time, Ingenuity is expected to have visited 10 distinct waypoints, snapping photos along the way.

ingenuity flight 10 path
An annotated image of Mars’ Jezero Crater depicts the ground track and waypoints for Ingenuity’s 10th flight.

Flight 10 is a significant milestone, since Ingenuity has now flown twice as many times as NASA engineers originally planned. NASA expected Ingenuity to crash on its fourth or fifth flight as it tested the limits of its speed and stamina.

But Ingenuity has continued to exceed expectations. Even when a glitch led the helicopter to wobble mid-air in May during its sixth flight, it still managed to touch down safely.

The drone started out as a technology demonstration, but NASA gave Ingenuity a secondary mission in late May after its fourth flight. Since then, Ingenuity has started scouting new Martian terrain and testing operations that NASA might want to conduct with future space helicopters. In its recent flights, Ingenuity has explored unsurveyed areas of Mars’ Jezero Crater – a 28-mile-wide impact basin that was filled with water about 3.5 billion years ago – landing in new spots each time.

The uneven landscape is a challenge for Ingenuity, since rocky or rippled land can distort its field of view, causing it to veer in the wrong direction. Ingenuity’s ninth flight earlier this month was a “nail-biter,” NASA scientists said, since the helicopter had to cross over particularly treacherous terrain.

Ingenuity helicopter mars first flight Taking Off and Landing
The Perseverance rover captured footage of Ingenuity taking off and landing for its first flight on April 19, 2021.

Ingenuity is still proving itself useful on Mars, but its future is uncertain

In Ingenuity’s first four flights, the rotorcraft landed in the same spot it lifted off. Its fifth flight led it to touch down in a new airfield that it had previously flown over, photographed, and mapped. But these recent flights have sent Ingenuity traveling south over uncharted territory.

NASA engineers haven’t said when Ingenuity’s mission will end, but the helicopter could keep flying as long as it stays alive and doesn’t interfere with the science work of the Perseverance rover.

ingenuity flight seven shadow
Ingenuity captured a photo of its shadow during its seventh flight on Mars.

Perseverance is combing Jezero Crater in search of potential fossils of ancient alien microbes. Ingenuity’s new operations can assist with that mission: The helicopter can scout and map terrain, spot promising areas for study from the air, and fly to spots the rover can’t reach.

NASA scientists are particularly curious about “Raised Ridges,” since water may have once flowed there. During its ninth flight, Ingenuity also snapped color images of intriguing rock outcrops that Perseverance might examine later.

“We’re hoping the color images will provide the closest look yet at ‘Pilot Pinnacle,’ a location featuring outcrops that some team members think may record some of the deepest water environments in old Lake Jezero,” NASA scientists wrote in a recent blog post.

It’s possible, though, that Perseverance’s tight schedule won’t allow it to visit the rocks, “so Ingenuity may offer the only opportunity to study these deposits in any detail,” the scientists said.

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NASA is giving SpaceX $178 million to launch its mission to a Jupiter moon that could harbor alien life

europa clipper illustration shows spacecraft flying above icy moon with jupiter in background
This illustration, updated in December 2020, depicts NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft.

NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch its next alien-hunting mission to a Jupiter moon.

The mission, called Europa Clipper, is designed to fly past Jupiter’s moon Europa 45 times, getting as close as 16 miles above its surface. Scientists believe the moon conceals a global ocean beneath its icy crust, and alien life could thrive deep within it.

NASA announced Friday that it set a date for the mission and awarded the $178 million launch contract to SpaceX. Now Europa Clipper is scheduled to blast off aboard the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024.

falcon heavy rocket launches engines firing through grey skies
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches on a demonstration flight from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Europa Clipper’s main objective is to determine whether Europa could host life at all. It aims to take high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, chart the composition and thickness of its icy crust, look for lakes below the surface, and measure the depth and saltiness of the ocean below.

The spacecraft could even fly through plumes of water vapor that shoot through Europa’s ice, since those are known to crest more than 100 miles above the surface. This water seems to come from the ocean below, and it could contain signs of life.

The reason Europa can keep water in a liquid state is that it follows an oval-shaped orbit around Jupiter. The giant planet’s gravity stretches and relaxes the moon, and that friction warms Europa’s deep underground salt water, keeping it liquid. The warmth from that process could also allow the moon to harbor deep-sea ecosystems.

SpaceX is becoming a NASA favorite

SpaceX, the rocket company Elon Musk founded in 2002, is not in the business of studying other planets. But it is in the business of launching things for NASA, and the agency is awarding the company more and more opportunities to do so.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk smiles in front of a blue background
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship flew NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year. It was the first time the US has launched its own astronauts since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. SpaceX is now regularly ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to turn its in-development Starship megarocket into a lunar lander. The agency said Starship is set to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 (though that timeline may be unrealistic). That would be the first human moon landing since the Apollo missions ended in 1972.

The decision prompted challenges from competing rocket makers Blue Origin and Dynetics since the original plan was for NASA to pick two of the three companies for lunar-lander contracts. The protests required NASA to order that SpaceX stop work on the lunar lander.

SpaceX didn’t win its new Europa Clipper contract without contest, either. According to Eric Berger, a senior space editor for Ars Technica, Congress has spent years urging NASA to launch the mission aboard its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. But legislators finally relented due to delays in the launch system’s development, its high cost, and a recent technical issue that would require $1 billion to correct, Berger reported.

According to Berger, NASA could save nearly $2 billion by launching the mission aboard Falcon Heavy instead of SLS.

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NASA’s InSight Mars lander just gave scientists an unprecedented look at the guts of the red planet. Here’s how they compare to Earth’s.

InSight mars lander
An artist’s illustration of the InSight lander on Mars.

For the first time, we know what the interior of another planet similar to ours looks like.

In a trio of studies published Thursday in the journal Science, an international team of more than 40 scientists revealed how the Mars’s core, mantle, and crust contrast with Earth’s.

By analyzing seismic data collected by NASA’s InSight lander on the red planet, the researchers estimated of the size of Mars’s core, the thickness of its crust, and the composition of its mantle (the layer in between).

“We only have this kind of information for the Earth and moon,” Brigitte Knapmeyer-Endrun, a planetary seismologist at the University of Cologne and co-author of the new research, told Insider. “But the moon we can’t compare to Earth very well because it’s so much smaller.”

Mars, however, is our tinier, terrestrial twin. The new studies suggest its core is less dense than Earth’s but scaled to size.

Beaming seismic waves through Mars’s heart

insight lander seismometer mars
The InSight lander’s seismometer, as photographed by the lander’s camera on September 23, 2020.

InSight, NASA’s $828 million robotic science station, landed on Mars in November 2018. Since then, the lander has used its seismometers – which detect and record earthquakes – to listen for similar quakes on Mars.

Seismic waves from 12 of these marsquakes, which travel right through the middle of the planet and bounce off the layers inside, helped Knapmeyer’s group to map the boundaries of the crust and core.

“Imagine you have a closed box and you want to find out what’s inside,” Knapmeyer said. “This method is like taking that box and putting it into an X-ray.”

Mars has a fatter core than scientists thought

mars core mantle crust illustration
An artist’s illustration of Mars’s interior.

InSight’s findings suggest Mars has a large liquid core that starts almost halfway to the planet’s center, nearly 1,000 miles beneath the surface.

Its 1,143-mile radius was “larger than expected,” Amir Khan, a seismologist from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and a study co-author, told Insider.

The boundary of Earth’s liquid outer core – which encircles a solid metal inner core – starts deeper than Mars’s does, at 1,800 feet.

That said, Earth is nearly twice as wide as Mars is, and its core is about twice as wide too.

Unlike Earth’s core which is dominated by nickel and iron, Mars’s less dense core contains lighter elements like hydrogen and oxygen.

The red planet appears to lack an inner core, according to Simon Stähler, another study co-author and Khan’s colleague at ETH.

“We don’t know, we’ll be looking for this,” Stähler told Insider, adding, “temperatures are likely too high for an inner core to form.”

A more engorged core also means Mars’s mantle is relatively thinner compared to Earth. It also lacks a dense layer of mineral called bridgemanite that keeps Earth’s mantle stable under high pressure, which could explain the core’s unexpected size.

“Mineralogically speaking the mantle of Mars is a ‘simpler’ version of that of Earth,” Khan said.

Mars had, and lost, its protective magnetic field

magnetic field
A visualization of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Earth’s core plays a key role in protecting the planet from dangerous solar wind and radiation. Swirling liquid iron in the outer core generates a magnetic field that stretches all the way from there to the space surrounding our planet.

illustration of earth's core/mantle layers
An artist’s conception of the different layer’s of our planet, including the crust, mantle, and inner and outer cores.

That swirl happens, in part, because of a process in which hotter, lighter material from the outer core rises into the mantle above. There, it swaps places with cooler, denser mantle material, which sinks into the core below. This is known as convection.

While Mars has a liquid core, it lacks that swirling engine, known as a dynamo.

Bits of magnetized Martian crust suggest the planet did have a magnetic field once, between 4 billion and 4.5 billion years ago. The absence of the bridgemanite layer in Mars’s mantle could explain why its dynamo shut off about 300,000 years after the planet formed. Without that layer, Mars’s interior leached heat much faster, crippling the convection happening there.

Plus, “Mars is smaller and therefore cools faster than Earth,” Stähler said. “Different planet – different story.”

The red planet’s crust is as thick as Earth’s

insight mars lander nasa
This illustration shows NASA’s InSight spacecraft with its instruments deployed on the Martian surface.

The two planets’ crusts are similarly thick, according to Knapmeyer, though Mars’s crust has two or three layers.

The average thickness of the Martian crust is between 14 and 44 miles. Earth’s crustal thickness varies wildly – under the oceans, it can be as narrow as 3 miles – yet beneath the continents, it’s between 18 and 44 miles thick.

But Mars crust is really old and static compared to Earth’s, she said. Our planet’s shell is broken up into tectonic plates that surf on top of the mantle. Thanks to convection, these plates sometimes collide or sink under one another, meaning new bits of crust emerged all the time.

Mars lacks those plate tectonics, so there’s been no new crust generated since the planet’s crust formed some 4.5 billion years ago.

The planet was once “probably complete molten” and that hot liquid mass then differentiated into a crust, mantle, and core, Khan said.

The absence of plate tectonics is linked, in part, to sluggish convection in the mantle, according to Stähler. Lack of water plays a role too.

“Water lubricates the plate motion on Earth,” Stähler said. “On Mars, the water was probably lost very early, once there was no dynamo anymore and the atmosphere was blown away by solar wind.”

InSight’s next target? The moon

the moon surface
The moon as viewed by NASA’s Mariner 10 probe in 1973.

Scientists had previously used observation of Mars’s mass, diameter, and rotation from space to predict what its internal layers might look like.

Stähler was pleased InSight’s findings matched earlier predictions.

“We could confirm very rough estimates made from orbit. So now we know how much we can trust estimates of Venus’s or Mercury’s inner structure,” he said.

InSight’s mission on the red planet is expected to last until the end of 2022, but the lander’s scientific explorations won’t end next year. InSight will head to the moon as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program in 2024, Stähler said.

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NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover will fire a laser from its 7-foot robotic arm to cut its first sample of Martian rock

NASA's Mars Perseverance rover on the Martian surface.
NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover will start collecting its first rock sample in the next two weeks.

  • NASA’s Perseverance rover will collect its first Mars rock sample within two weeks, the agency said.
  • The rover’s 7-foot robotic arm will cut out a chalk-sized rock sample with a laser.
  • The mission will help NASA search for signs of ancient life on Mars, the agency said.
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NASA on Wednesday said that its Perseverance rover was preparing to collect its first sample of Martian rock to help scientists search for signs of ancient life.

Since the Mars rover landed on the red planet in February, it has explored the Martian surface, photographed its surroundings, and helped with the helicopter Ingenuity’s test flights.

In June, Perseverance began its first scientific mission, setting off on a three-mile road trip to reach the Jezero Crater. Now it’s there, the rover will pick up its first ever Mars rock sample with its 7-foot robotic arm, NASA said in a statement.

Instruments on the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm will scan the Martian surface where it plans to extract the rock, NASA said. The arm will scrape off the top layers of rock and dust to expose an unweathered surface, the space agency added.

One of the instruments will fire a laser onto the surface to cut out a piece of the rock, according to NASA. The rover will stop for a Martian day to recharge its batteries for the next day, NASA said.

Perseverance will then lift out a chalk-sized rock sample and put it in a sealed tube, NASA said. A spacecraft will later pick up the tube and bring it back to Earth for scientific observation, the agency said.

The rock collection mission, which will begin within the next two weeks, will take Perseverance 11 days to complete, NASA said.

“While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region,” Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said in the statement.

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