That’s according to Virgin Galactic ticket holder, Caroline Freeland, who told Insider that she has met the 82-year-old on several occasions.
After buying her $250,000 ticket for a trip to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship, Freeland, 58, was invited to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s 49th and 50th anniversary parties.
The three-day celebrations in Cape Canaveral allowed Freeland to get to know many well-known astronauts, including Funk, who is the oldest person to travel into space.
Freeland, who has already completed some training for her spaceflight with Virgin Galactic, described Funk as “very understated … engaging, easy, charming, happy, and fun.”
The recent Blue Origin astronaut “really bounces around … she has the energy of 6,000 labradors,” Freeland said.
Funk was part of a group of female aviators called Mercury 13 in anticipation of flying to space in the 1960s but she never got the chance to go. Bezos asked Funk to join him, his brother, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen on a trip to space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Funk also traveled to London and gave a speech about her experience in the space industry to 10 to 15 Virgin Galactic ticket holders, which Freeland said she attended.
Freeland said that these meetups were “one of the wonderful things about this whole journey to becoming a future astronaut.”
The ticket holder and future astronaut said she’s also met Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who she described as a “lovely chap.” Branson beat Bezos to space by nine days when Virgin Galactic flew its first crewed mission 55 miles above Earth.
Freeland, who is London-based, said she also met former NASA astronaut, Mike Massimino, at the parties.
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.
It’s not clear if the company sold any private tickets before it officially opened sales on Tuesday. Insider contacted Blue Origin for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
“The demand is very, very high,” Bezos said. “So we’re going to keep after that, because we really do want to practice with this vehicle.
“We’re going to have to build more boosters to fly more frequently, and we’re going to be doing that and working on the operational things we need to do,” Bezos told reporters.
Bezos and Blue Origin didn’t disclose seat prices for the journey, which travels 62 miles above the Earth’s surface.
A seat next to Bezos on New Shepard went for $28 million in the company’s auction in June. The winner pulled out due to “scheduling conflicts,” and Oliver Daeman, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands who also placed a bid, took the seat instead. He was Blue Origin’s first paying customer.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX may be the buzziest name in private space exploration, but the Tesla CEO isn’t the only superrich entrepreneur with grand visions for humanity’s future beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The Amazon founder and fellow centi-billionaire, Jeff Bezos, has his own space firm – Blue Origin. He flew on the company’s human flight to the edge of space on Tuesday, launching 62 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard its New Shepard rocket.
Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group dabbles in everything from airlines to healthcare, launched a commercial-spaceflight company of his own called Virgin Galactic. Earlier this month, he launched 53.5 skyward on one of the company’s rocket-powered planes, fulfilling a decades-long dream of traveling to space.
These three companies were all founded within a few years of one another in the early 2000s, but each has its own business model and plans for a space-faring future.
Here’s what Musk, Bezos, and Branson are each trying to accomplish, and where their efforts stand today.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, years before becoming Tesla’s outspoken CEO and cementing himself as a regular fixture in the Twittersphere.
The company grew out of an idea Musk had to send a spacecraft called the “Mars Oasis” to the red planet. The vehicle would deliver an experimental greenhouse and equipment for taking photos of the planet and sending them back to Earth. Musk hoped the project would spark a renewed interest in getting to Mars within the US government.
That’s what the Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has spent the better part of the past two decades trying to achieve, and it’s made some great strides.
It has completed numerous launches for commercial and government customers, and in 2012 it became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. In 2020 it became the first to send humans to space and to the ISS. And in April NASA picked the company to land the first astronauts on the Moon since 1972.
SpaceX is also working on a broadband-internet service consisting of thousands of satellites, called Starlink. The service hopes to deliver high-speed internet to remote and rural areas, and SpaceX recently said it had more than 500,000 orders and deposits.
Ultimately, Musk thinks humanity’s future hinges on its ability to settle Mars. He said in 2020 that he wanted to establish a city of 1 million people on Mars by 2050. Settlers would get there using a fleet of 1,000 SpaceX Starships – the towering, 387-foot-tall rocket ship the company is designing for deep-space travel.
Like Musk, the Amazon billionaire Bezos’ fascination with space travel stretches back decades. He’s been particularly taken with the physicist Gerard O’Neill’s visions of floating space stations that could house trillions of humans once Earth runs out of resources.
To indulge his obsession, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 with a similar goal as Musk’s venture: Make space exploration cheaper through boosters that can be recycled for future launches. The Kent, Washington-based company operated in total secrecy until about 2003, and Bezos stayed tight-lipped about its plans for more than a decade after that.
For years now, the company has been testing a suborbital rocket called New Shepard, built to take paying tourists to the edge of space in a pressurized capsule. The idea is that on a Blue Origin flight, space tourists will be able to catch a glimpse of Earth through large windows and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Jeff Bezos wrote in an Instagram post. “On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend.”
The company is also developing a larger rocket called New Glenn for delivering payloads to low orbit, along with a secretive future project called New Armstrong. If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re right – Blue Origin’s launch vehicles are all named for former NASA astronauts.
In 2019, Bezos revealed plans for a lunar lander called Blue Moon, which the company said would be ready in 2024 and would eventually help establish a “sustained human presence” on the moon. Blue Origin bid for a contract to land NASA astronauts on the moon and was beat out by SpaceX – but the company is disputing the decision.
When Bezos announced plans to step down as Amazon’s CEO in 2021, he said he planned to dedicate more time to his other ventures, including Blue Origin. And in a 2018 interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, Bezos called the rocket company his “most important work.”
Branson’s space venture differs from Blue Origin and SpaceX in a couple of key ways. Virgin Galactic is focused on suborbital tourism, rather than launching people and payloads into space. It also has a radically different method of sending spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t launch rockets straight up from the ground like its rivals. Instead, its spacecraft are meant to be flown to 50,000 feet by a broad, dual-fuselage jet called WhiteKnightTwo. From there, the ship detaches and glides for a few seconds before firing up its rocket motor and beginning a near-vertical ascent to about 300,000 feet.
The company completed its first fully-crewed flight to the edge of space earlier this month, launching its founder and others more than 50 miles skyward. Virgin Galactic planned to accept passengers in 2021, it’s pushed those plans to next year. It has sold 600 tickets for $200,000 to $250,000 apiece.
When the spacecraft reaches its final altitude, customers will be able to get out of their seats and spend several minutes floating around the luxurious cabin and gazing back at Earth or out into space. Virgin also plans to offer flights for research purposes. Once the spacecraft is pulled back into Earth’s atmosphere, it will be piloted back to Virgin’s New Mexico facility for a runway landing.
Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are reusable, aside from their fuel, and the company hopes to make launching things and people into space more economical and environmentally sound.
In March, Virgin Galactic unveiled the VSS Imagine, the first of its next-generation SpaceShip III vehicles. Before that, it had built and flown two SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, including the VSS Enterprise, which was obliterated in a fatal crash in 2014.
In the future, Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of vehicles that could fly tourists to space hotels, transport researchers to floating labs, or provide lightning-fast transcontinental flights. In 2017, it spun off a company called Virgin Orbit, which is working to send satellites into orbit using a similar air-launch system.
Branson was the mission specialist on the flight, which also took Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor, Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer, and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research, to the edge of space.
All four were standing in as passengers to test the spaceflight.
Two pilots, Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, flew the space plane, called VVS Unity.
Richard Branson made a speech before he took off his seatbelt.
“To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars,” Branson said in a speech when VVS Unity reached zero gravity.
“Now, I’m an adult in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth,” he said.
“To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do,” he added. Branson then unfastened his seatbelt to join the other crew members floating around the spacecraft.
Branson and the crew unstrapped themselves from their seats when the space plane reached 55 miles above sea level.
Virgin Galactic‘s VSS Unity shut off its engines when it reached the edge of space, and drifted above the Earth.
At this point, the crew members experienced zero gravity. As soon as they unfastened their seatbelts, they began floating around the space plane.
The crew members flipped upside down, walked on the ceiling, and did forward rolls in the spacecraft.
Branson and the crew spent about five minutes floating around VVS Unity. They walked upside down and spun around with each other in zero gravity.
The space plane has 17 windows for the crew members to look out of and see the Earth below.
The crew members could see the curvature of the Earth below them as they floated around the spacecraft.
“Great to start the morning with a friend,” Branson said in a tweet two hours before the flight.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson confirmed Musk’s purchase to The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, but didn’t clarify how high Musk was on the waiting list.
A ticket for a one-hour trip on Virgin Galactic’s space plane costs $250,000 – that also includes training and a spacesuit. About 600 people across 58 countries have already reserved a ticket on VVS Unity, including the celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga.
Blue Origin’s relationship with one of its closest partners, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), has soured over delays to rocket engines, according to a new Ars Technica report.
Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, is building two engines for the ULA’s Vulcan rocket. The ULA wanted to launch the rocket into space this year, but the engines have been delayed, Ars reported. The Vulcan rocket is a two-stage launch vehicle that is set to send satellites into orbit for the US Space Force.
“There is great concern about this engine development,” one industry source told Ars. “There is great concern that Blue is not putting enough attention and priority on the engine.”
ULA CEO Tory Bruno isn’t showing the full extent of his concern to the public, the source added.
“He’s protecting Blue Origin,” a second industry source told Ars, commenting on Bruno’s lack of public criticism of the engine delay. “It does no good to throw Blue Origin under the bus.”
Bruno had previously said he expected the rocket to launch in 2021. But he told Aviation Week in June that the first launch had been nudged back to 2022.
Blue Origin and the ULA announced their partnership to fund the development of the new BE-4 rocket engines in 2014.
The ULA may not be happy with how its collaboration with Blue Origin worked out, “but for now they have no recourse but to make the marriage with Blue Origin work,” a third industry source told Ars.
Space Force officials are also annoyed about the delay because they want to start flying the rocket, the sources told Ars. This additional tension has put even more pressure on Blue Origin engineers, they added.
Insider asked the ULA and Blue Origin for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
The ULA declined to comment to Ars on when Blue Origin’s rocket engines are expected to be finished. It also declined to comment to Ars on any fallout with Bezos’ company.
Industry sources told Ars the ULA chose Blue Origin’s engine over one designed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. It’s unlikely the ULA would reconsider Aerojet’s engines, they added.
People worried about starving or being eaten don’t have time to ponder the finite nature of life. But once we know we’re going to survive in the short-term, immortality begins to loom larger than mortality. Affairs, Teslas, and Ayahuasca are the accessories of a life with more money than time. Now the billionaire class has taken mid-life crises to a new level.
In the past month, French billionaires alone have cut ribbons on: a $194 million art museum in Paris; a $175 million Frank Gehry-designed “creative campus” in Arles; and a nearly $900 million, 16-year renovation of La Samaritaine department store, complete with hotel, spa, and wavy glass facade.
Not to be outdone in the big bank/little d–k department, Richard Branson is rumored to be seeking to beat Bezos into space. He might get suborbital before Bezos, but he’s hardly breaking new ground. At least 570 people have sojourned in space since Yuri Gagarin made the first trip in 1961. Branson wouldn’t even be the oldest person to do it: John Glenn left the planet at 77 years old (his second trip). You do you, Rick and Jeff.
The desire to bravely go where no one has gone before is deeply rooted in the human spirit. Discovery must be a feeling of great wonder. At that moment, you are here for a reason. You are immortal.
Exploration can be hugely beneficial for those who follow, who get to cross Donner Pass on pavement. Yet nearly 50 years since the Apollo astronauts last walked on the moon, we’ve … not been back. Space is not the Sierra Nevadas.
Space is exponentially more expensive and dangerous. Nineteen of the 570 people who’ve ventured into space haven’t returned, yielding a mortality rate of 3.3%, versus 1.3% for climbing Everest and .04% for base jumping. Worse, by American standards, space travel is going to be a shitty business.
Even with our advanced technology, and a fawning CNBC engaging in a consensual hallucination that these billion-dollar hair plugs are for all mankind, the ROI is suspect. That last sentence is my way of saying “makes no fucking sense whatsoever.” There is 100x the return investing in technologies and systems of cooperation on a planet already perfect for human life, a mere 38.6 million miles from Mars. The billionaire obsession with space fantasy (and our willingness to go along with it) isn’t just disappointing, it’s nihilistic. Our idolatry of innovators is morphing into phantasmagoria.
There are four reasons to put a rocket into space. In order of near-to-medium-term relevance (i.e. having any purpose this century), they are:
There’s a real business in hauling stuff – mostly communications satellites – into orbit. Indeed, this is where both Bezos and Musk have placed their bets. Blue Origin and SpaceX are serious space-hauling companies. Apparently, it’s also a profitable business. Said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith: “We make money on every flight.”
Scientific exploration is worthwhile, but it’s not a business. It feeds businesses (hauling, materials, communications), but this is deep science, better pursued by our commonly owned enterprise, the government.
In fact, contracting is becoming a competence for NASA. In 2010 commercial launches represented about 30% of all US launches. Last year, they accounted for 80%. Private enterprise is eliminating NASA’s need to design, build, and launch. That’s a good thing: It means they have more time to focus on exploring. Let capitalism handle the picks and shovels. NASA will handle the science.
After that, we venture into ego and fantasy. Space tourism is a bad business that could end in a flash … literally. What’s the market for people willing to spend $250,000 to be weightless for a few minutes? What’s the repeat market? And what will be left of that market after the first tourist rocket explodes on the launch pad, killing Bob from accounting? Because the nature of rockets is … they explode. About 90% of US rocket launches were successful last year. That might sound OK until you start putting humans in them.
In human transport, superior shareholder returns will be a function of fast versus far. In my view, the most under- and overhyped transportation firms are Boom Technologies and Virgin Galactic, respectively. The market for people willing to pay $25,000 to get from NYC to London in 3.5 hours is (at a minimum) 1000x the market for people willing to pay $250,000 for a 90-minute suborbital ride to the Kármán line. Six hundred people have paid $250,000 to reserve a seat on Virgin Galactic. Six hundred people land on a private jet at Teterboro every six hours.
As for colonization of Mars … really? The only interesting question is whether Elon actually believes any of this – whether anyone at SpaceX believes any of this – or whether it’s purely a PR stunt. Colonizing the Red Planet will not happen in my, or my kid’s, lifetime. Intense solar radiation, combined with the lack of atmosphere and low gravity, would require living (dying) quarters buried deep under the planet’s surface for any hope of survival. As astronomer Caleb Scharf told us on Pivot, “there’s a lot of stuff [on Mars] that wants to kill you.” The worst place on Earth is better than the best place on Mars.
The SPAC(e) race
The biggest trend in space over my lifetime has been the rise of the private space hauler. Who’s best positioned to win in this new market? In general, there are three ways to maximize profits: reduce costs, do more (in this case, more flights), and diversify your business.
As for No. 3, Virgin Galactic is the clear loser, as Richard Branson is focused on space tourism. Jeff and Elon, by contrast, are investing heavily in orbital infrastructure. Between them, SpaceX’s Starlink project and Amazon’s Project Kuiper plan to launch nearly 14,000 satellites, providing continuous, high-speed Internet access globally. That should keep the space haulers busy for some time.
In sum, there’s real money to be made in hauling stuff – but satellites, not tourists. The past decade has seen more than $125 billion of investment poured into positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), a sector that relies on good satellite constellations to feed Uber, Maps, DoorDash, and nearly every other app on your phone. This is why launch vehicles and satellites are hogging all the space infrastructure investment.
With 1,480 unique space companies competing for a place in the stars, the space economy is very thirsty. But a rocket needs more fuel than a Ford F150 – about 12,300x more. What do you do when you need fuel (capital) in exuberant excess? You either 1. find a billionaire or 2. access the public markets.
SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all have a massive head start because they were birthed by billionaires. Bezos, Musk, and Branson will pay their kids’ expenses no matter how dysfunctional or explosive. But the sector is attracting new sources of capital.
Take Rocket Lab, a 500-employee startup that also launches rockets. How will it get the capital it needs to keep up with the 9,500-employee behemoth that is SpaceX? Via SPAC. In March, Rocket Lab merged with Vector Acquisition Corp. and raised $750 million at a $4.1 billion valuation. The company has already had two successful launches this year.
A dozen other space startups have also gone (or are going) public via SPAC. Astra, a small satellite-launching company, raised $500 million at a $2.1 billion valuation. Spire Global, a satellite-data company, raised $475 million at a $1.6 billion valuation. There are hundreds of other space startups thirsty for an injection of public cash. The 2021 SPAC boom is yielding tremendous opportunity and risk for astronauts and investors.
Near versus deep space
My observation is that men are more focused on deep space, and women near space. Men are more ego driven and obsess about frontiers in business and the solar system. Women are (cue the Twitter hate) more concerned with exploring things near them, finding less reward in being the first person on Ganymede. My advice to young men, especially those with kids, is to be more focused on near space. As you get to the end of your time on the third rock from the sun, you won’t be desperate to spend more time with strangers, but the people closest to you. I spent the first 40 years of my life obsessed with getting affirmation from people I didn’t know. It came at a cost to relationships with my family, friends, and ex-wife.
Tonight the family ate at a sushi restaurant, and my 10-year-old ordered kakigori, Japan’s quintessential summer treat: shaved or crushed ice drizzled with flavored syrup or condensed milk. It’s awesome. Nobody, despite my son’s urging, would try it. I agreed and demonstrated a rare expression of joy (see above: It is awesome). My son, at that moment, felt so close to me he pushed the kakigori in front of me and sat on my lap so we could enjoy the dessert together. It felt as if I was discovering something nobody had ever felt/seen before, and all of mankind would benefit.
I am strong, here for a reason … immortal. Going where (this) man has never gone before.
After decades of gazing longingly at Mars, the world’s space agencies are finally turning back to look at Venus.
Last week NASA announced that it had picked two new missions to go to Venus – one, called VERITAS, to orbit the planet and another, called DAVINCI+, to plunge to its surface. Now the European Space Agency (ESA) is throwing its hat in the ring.
The ESA revealed Thursday that it’s sending its own probe to Venus – an orbiter called EnVision. The mission aims to study how the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and interior interact to create the infernal pressure cooker it is today. Together, the three probes spell a renaissance in Venutian science.
“A new era in the exploration of our closest, yet wildly different, solar system neighbor awaits us,” Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said in a press release. “Together with the newly announced NASA-led Venus missions, we will have an extremely comprehensive science program at this enigmatic planet well into the next decade.”
The NASA missions are set to launch between 2028 and 2030, and the ESA probe sometime in the early 2030s.
Venus’ climate became hellish long ago, but it may have hosted life
Venus used to be a lot like Earth. The two planets are about the same size, and they’re made of the same material. Scientists think Venus could have even had oceans in the distant past.
But something happened that drastically changed Venus’ climate. Today it’s the hottest planet in our solar system, thick with yellow, heat-trapping clouds of sulfuric acid. Its average surface temperature is a blistering 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius) – hot enough to melt lead – and its crushing air pressure is more than 90 times that of Earth’s.
The upcoming missions could help scientists understand how Venus became such an extreme environment, whether it was hospitable to life, and whether or not its volcanoes are still erupting.
The world’s interest in Venus was rekindled in September, when a new study suggested the planet’s clouds could harbor microbial aliens.
That’s because researchers found traces of phosphine – a gas typically produced by microbes on Earth – in the upper reaches of Venus’ clouds. However, a follow-up study suggested those trace elements weren’t phosphine, but rather sulfur dioxide, casting doubt on the idea that Venus could be habitable.
These new missions could help settle that debate.
“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface, all the way down to its very core,” Tom Wagner, a NASA Discovery Program scientist, said in a statement about the NASA missions. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”
China is about to attempt its first Mars landing – a feat accomplished successfully by only half the spacecraft that have ever tried.
Tianwen-1, as the mission is called, means “questions to heaven.” It aims to be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into the planet’s orbit, drop a landing platform onto the Martian surface, and deploy a rover all in one expedition.
The first steps are complete. The mission launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Now the orbiter is preparing to release a capsule carrying the lander and rover. The capsule must plummet through the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute, then release the lander, which should fire downward-facing thrusters to lower itself to the Martian surface. If that all goes well, the Tianwen-1 lander will later deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil.
The landing attempt could happen as soon as Friday evening and as late as Tuesday (in Beijing, that’s Saturday to Wednesday), according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
Any landing attempt would occur early in the morning Beijing time, the CNSA said. That would be evening on the US East Coast. Twitter accounts that monitor China’s space programs reported that a Friday landing would happen at 7:11 p.m. ET.
Landing is “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. If the Tianwen-1 lander safely touches down on Martian soil, it would be the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971. Success would make China the third nation to land on Mars.
The intended landing spot is in Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock that may have extensive reserves of water ice beneath its surface. If space agencies like NASA someday send humans to Mars, water would be a crucial resource because it can both sustain astronauts and get broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. It’s unlikely that Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.
China’s 530-pound, solar-powered rover is set to explore the region and study its water ice. The mission is also intended to help China prepare for a future attempt to return Martian rocks or dirt to Earth in the late 2020s.
When the time comes, China’s gumdrop-shaped landing capsule will separate from the Tianwen-1 orbiter and fall towards Mars.
The capsule must protect the robots inside as it plummets through the Martian atmosphere at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A supersonic parachute must deploy to slow the fall. As the lander nears its destination, thrusters have to fire downwards to help it decelerate. Then it should lower itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.
As with any Mars landing, the spacecraft must conduct this entire process autonomously. Because it takes at least eight minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth, and vice versa, mission controllers can’t communicate with the spacecraft in real time. When they receive the signal that the capsule is falling towards Mars, it will already be on the surface, dead or alive.
That’s why aerospace engineers refer to this part of a Mars mission as “seven minutes of terror.”
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission,” Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing before its landing. “Success is never assured.”
Meet Zhurong: the 90-day Mars rover
The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. The process of deploying the ramp for the rover and getting it onto Mars’ surface could take more than a week, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum.
Zhurong’s name “echoes with the Chinese name of the red planet, Huoxing (meaning the planet of fire),” according to a CNSA statement. “Fire brought warmth and brightness to the ancestors of humankind, and fire lit up human civilization. Naming China’s first Mars rover after the god of fire signifies igniting the flame of China’s planetary exploration.”
Zhurong is set to explore Utopia Planitia for 90 Martian days, according to a journal article by scientists on the Tianwen-1 team.
Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal, according to the scientists, is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet.”
This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 13, 2021.