Virgin Galactic says its space mission with the Italian Air Force is delayed due to a possible manufacturing flaw

Richard Branson in space aboard a Virgin Galactic rocket plane.
Richard Branson floats in space aboard a Virgin Galactic rocket plane.

  • Virgin Galactic rescheduled a commercial research test flight over a potential manufacturing defect.
  • The possible flaw was unrelated to the FAA’s investigation of its rocket plane, the company said.
  • Virgin pushed its space mission with the Italian Air Force back to mid-October at the earliest.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic said on Friday that its first commercial research mission with the Italian Air Force would be delayed because of a possible manufacturing defect.

The spaceflight company said that during groundwork, a third-party supplier flagged a potential defect in a component of the flight-control system they provided.

“At this point, it is not yet known whether the defect is present in the company’s vehicles and what, if any, repair work may be needed,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

The company said it’s conducting a vendor inspection, which was part of Virgin Galactic’s usual safety procedures.

The mission, named “Unity 23,” was initially slated for September or early October. It’s now been pushed to mid-October at the earliest.

Virgin said the spaceflight would carry three paying crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to conduct research relevant to current and future spaceflight systems and technologies.

The Federal Aviation Authority was investigating the rocket ship that Branson took to the edge of space on July 11 – called Unity 22 – saying it went outside its clearance zone while returning. Shares in Virgin Galactic tumbled 7% after the FAA’s announcement earlier this month.

The FAA investigation wasn’t related to the now-delayed space mission, Virgin said.

“Our test flight processes and procedures are rigorous and structured to identify and resolve these types of issues,” Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, said in a statement. “We look forward to taking to the skies again soon.”

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Cosmonauts have discovered cracks on a Russian module of the space station, and they could spread

soyuz spacecraft approaches zarya module cylinder with solar panels above blue earth oceans
A Soyuz spacecraft approaches a docking port on the space station’s Zarya module, December 22, 2009.

Russian cosmonauts have discovered cracks in a module on their side of the International Space Station.

“Superficial fissures have been found in some places on the Zarya module,” Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the Russian segment of the ISS, told state-owned news agency RIA on Monday, according to a Reuters report translating his statement. “This is bad and suggests that the fissures will begin to spread over time.”

It’s not clear how extensive the new cracks are, or what might have caused them. Solovyov did not say whether the cracks were causing any air leaks, Reuters reported.

Insider was not able to independently confirm the Reuters report, and NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 41-foot-long Zarya module was the first piece of the space station (ISS), and it launched into orbit in 1998. It’s mainly used for storage and propulsion.

This is the latest in a series of issues with Russian modules, since Russia’s side of the space station hosts some of its oldest components. Last year, a toilet on the segment went bust, temperatures mysteriously increased, and an oxygen-supply system broke down.

Russian media previously reported that Solovyov told the Russian Academy of Sciences: “There are already a number of elements that have been seriously damaged and are out of service. Many of them are not replaceable. After 2025, we predict an avalanche-like failure of numerous elements onboard the ISS.”

In September 2019, another space-station module, Zvezda, which provides living quarters for the cosmonauts, started leaking air. The leak wasn’t major and didn’t pose a danger to the station’s crew, so ISS managers left it alone until they noticed an increasing rate of leakage. When the astronauts and cosmonauts on the station finally discovered the source in September 2020, they did so by letting tea leaves float around, then following them. They patched the tiny hole with Kapton tape.

1990s astronauts in striped shirts inside cramped hallway of zarya space station module
Sergei Krikalev (left) and James H. Newman begin work on the Zarya module, December 11, 1998

In 2018, a mysterious drill hole was discovered on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was docked to the ISS. Cosmonauts filled it with epoxy before it could depressurize the station. Earlier this month, an anonymous Russian official blamed NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor for the holes, claiming she had drilled them in an attempt to get an early trip home. NASA leadership firmly denied the accusations.

Even Russia’s newest module – a spacecraft called Nauka, which it launched to the ISS in July – has experienced serious issues. Shortly after docking to the station, Nauka began unexpectedly firing its thrusters. This caused the entire ISS to spin around 540 degrees and flip upside down before flight controllers regained control an hour later.

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Russia has docked its new science module to the International Space Station, after 14 years of delays

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.

Russia has finally delivered a long-awaited science module to the International Space Station.

The new module, a 43-foot-long cylinder called Nauka (meaning “science” in Russian), approached the ISS on Thursday morning. The spaceship inched forward slowly, aligning itself exactly with the ISS port that was waiting to receive it. Its docking system met the port at 9:29 a.m. ET and locked into place, forming a seal so that cosmonauts could open the hatch and access their new facilities.

Nauka gives the Russian side of the ISS expanded science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. It also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.

The module was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.

“This is a very difficult and important victory for us,” Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said on Twitter after docking.

NASA broadcasted live footage of Nauka docking to the ISS on Thursday morning. Watch the video below.

The new module is not fully integrated into the ISS yet, though. Cosmonauts will need to conduct about 11 spacewalks to set up electronics on the outside of the module, according to Spaceflight Now.

Russia’s old module burned up in Earth’s atmosphere

To clear a port for Nauka, Russia’s 20-year-old Pirs docking station detached from the ISS on Saturday. Pirs first arrived at the space station in 2001, and it has served as a receiving station for cargo-carrying Progress capsules and astronaut-ferrying Soyuz spaceships.

russian progress spaceship docked to international space station
A Russian Progress cargo spaceship, docked to the Pirs docking compartment on the International Space Station’s Russian segment, June 2, 2021.

After Pirs undocked, a Progress spacecraft towed it into Earth’s atmosphere. As gravity pulled the old module down, the bulk of it burned up in the atmosphere. The parts that survived fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Nauka had mid-flight issues on its way to the ISS

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.

Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), didn’t have a smooth journey to the ISS.

Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka started malfunctioning. It didn’t complete the first engine burn that was supposed to push it into a higher orbit above Earth. The module needed to gain altitude so that gravity wouldn’t pull it into the atmosphere, where it would burn up. So Russian mission controllers instructed the module to fire its backup thrusters to push itself higher.

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

Over the next few days, Nauka fired its thrusters several times to move into the right orbital path. Those “corrective maneuvers” put it on track to reach the ISS.

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

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Russia is set to dock a long-awaited new module to the space station on Thursday

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 Center works on preparations of the Nauka module, July 31, 2020.

Russia is finally ready to attach a long-awaited science module to the International Space Station.

The new module, a 43-foot-long cylinder called Nauka (meaning “science” in Russian), is currently orbiting Earth and making its way towards the station. It will give the Russian side of the ISS expanded science facilities, crew quarters, and a new airlock for spacewalks. Nauka also features a new docking port for Russian spacecraft.

The module was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but technical issues and unexpected repairs led to years of delay.

To clear a port for Nauka, Russia’s 20-year-old Pirs docking station detached from the ISS on Saturday. Pirs first arrived at the space station in 2001, and it has served as a receiving station for cargo-carrying Progress capsules and astronaut-ferrying Soyuz spaceships.

russian progress spaceship docked to international space station
A Russian Progress cargo spaceship, docked to the International Space Station’s Russian segment, June 2, 2021.

After Pirs undocked, a Progress spacecraft towed it into Earth’s atmosphere. As gravity pulled the old module down, the bulk of it burned up in the atmosphere. The parts that survived fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Now that Pirs’ old port is open, Nauka is scheduled to dock there on Thursday morning at 9:24 a.m. ET. The high-stakes maneuver must be executed perfectly: The spaceship must align exactly with the port in order to lock into place and form a seal so that cosmonauts can open the hatch and access their new facilities.

If all that is successful, the ISS cosmonauts will then need to conduct about 11 spacewalks to set up electronics on the outside of the new module, according to Spaceflight Now.

Nauka had mid-flight issues on its way to the ISS

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.

Nauka, which is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), hasn’t had a smooth journey to the ISS.

Shortly after launching on July 21, Nauka started malfunctioning. It didn’t complete the first engine burn that was supposed to push it into a higher orbit above Earth. The module needed to gain altitude so that gravity wouldn’t pull it into the atmosphere, where it would burn up. So Russian mission controllers instructed the module to fire its backup thrusters to push itself higher.

Over the last few days, it’s fired its thrusters several times to move into the right orbital path.

nauka space station module assembled in large lab room
The Nauka module is assembled at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, April 9, 2021.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced Wednesday morning that Nauka had successfully performed its “final corrective maneuver,” putting it on track to reach the ISS.

Watch Nauka dock to the space station live

NASA plans to broadcast live footage of Nauka docking to the ISS on Thursday morning, starting at 8:30 a.m. ET. Watch the livestream via the embed below.

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Jeff Bezos went to space to realize how fragile Earth is. A 10-minute flight may not be long enough to experience this ‘overview effect.’

Jeff Bezos looks into distance in front of Blue Origin rocket
Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin.

When NASA astronaut Alan Shepard saw Earth while walking on the moon in 1971, he cried. Other astronauts who’ve viewed our planet from space have described feelings of awe, unity with the rest of humanity, and an appreciation for the spinning orb that supports our species.

That same desire undergirded Jeff Bezos’s roughly 10-minute flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

Bezos, the world’s richest man and founder of spaceflight company Blue Origin, accompanied three other passengers to the edge of space on Tuesday morning. The crew experienced weightlessness for just three minutes while in zero gravity.

“Every astronaut, everybody who’s been up into space, they say that it changes them,” Bezos said during a press conference following the launch. “And they’re kind of amazed and awestruck by the Earth and its beauty, but also by its fragility. And I can vouch for that.”

Experts call overwhelming feelings when seeing Earth from space “the overview effect,” according to David Yaden, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences research fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

blue origin new shepard crew capsule view from spaceship window in space
The view from space on a different New Shepard flight on April 14, 2021.

Bezos didn’t travel nearly as far as most astronauts, though: The billionaire rode a New Shepard rocket up to the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, where many experts say space begins.

But Yaden told Insider “there are no specific boundaries for how high one’s perspective must be in order to experience the overview effect.” (When space writer Frank White coined the term in 1978, he argued that even people in planes could experience it.)

Still, Yaden isn’t sure if a 10-minute flight is enough to profoundly change the billionaire’s perspective. Only time will tell if Bezos really experienced a cognitive shift after viewing Earth from above, he said.

“Most astronauts talk about the view and how it transformed their values,” Yaden said. “I think the test of whether Bezos’s flight was a glorified roller-coaster ride or whether it was more like true space flight will be determined from his actions going forward, especially regarding his commitment to scientific, environmental, and humanitarian causes.”

Was Bezos awed by the view or his place in the universe?

earthrise 1968
The Earth rises above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft on December 22, 1968.

In a 2016 paper, Yaden and his colleagues concluded that the feeling of awe was a key aspect of the overview effect.

That feeling, according to Yaden, is triggered by the sweeping scenery of Earth from space, but also by the realization that everything humans care about is contained in a tiny, fragile sphere.

“I have little doubt that Bezos experienced awe from perceptual vastness – it must be quite a view up there!” Yaden said. “But did he experience conceptual vastness from realizing that we are all in this world together and that Earth’s situation is fragile?”

Astronauts who conduct missions on the International Space Station, for example, report experiencing both. That’s because they are in space for much longer periods of time, and are contributing to science by performing experiments in space, Yaden said.

“I think listening to Bezos’s self-report is one way of assessing his experience, but assessing his actions going forward will be another, probably more important, way of determining whether he experienced the overview effect in the way that so many astronauts over the years have described,” Yaden said.

Bezos said traveling to space ‘reinforces my commitment to climate change’

Jeff Bezos laughs wearing a cowboy hat
Jeff Bezos laughs as he speaks about his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space during a press conference on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas.

One of the tickets for Tuesday’s launch originally sold for $28 million. But Bezos said he wants to make the experience of viewing Earth from space accessible to more people.

Blue Origin plans to fly tourists into space regularly on New Shepard, but has yet to open ticket sales.

“This is the only good planet in this solar system,” Bezos said on Tuesday. “And we have to take care of it. And when you go into space and see how fragile it is, you’ll want to take care of it even more. And that’s what this is about.”

Traveling to space, he added, “reinforces my commitment to climate change, to the environment.”

new shepard launch
The New Shepard launch on July 20, 2021.

Yaden said feelings of intense awe generally result in positive mental health outcomes for people: “The sense of self can temporarily fade into feelings of connectedness with other people and the world.”

But he doesn’t think it’s a sufficient justification for flights like Bezos’s.

“I am all for space science and engineering, but given the pollution and expense of these commercial flights, it is hard to justify them on the basis if the overview effect,” he said.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.

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Ashton Kutcher says he was supposed to be on the next Virgin Galactic flight, but that he sold his ticket back because ‘it was not a smart family decision’

Ashton Kutcher with his arm around Mila Kunis on the red carpet
Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis at the annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony in 2017.

  • Ashton Kutcher sold his ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight at the urging of his wife, Mila Kunis.
  • He said “it was not a smart family decision” to go to space when the couple has young kids.
  • Kutcher said he was supposed to be on the next flight but will instead go to space “at some point.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ashton Kutcher is planning to go to space aboard a Virgin Galactic flight – just not for a long time.

The actor and venture capitalist told Cheddar’s Kristen Scholer on Wednesday that he had reserved a seat on one of the company’s suborbital flights years ago, but has since sold his ticket back at the urging of his wife, the actress Mila Kunis.

Kutcher and Kunis have been together since 2012 and got married in 2015. They have two kids together: Wyatt, age 6, and Dimitri, age 4.

“When I got married and had kids, my wife basically encouraged that it was not a smart family decision to be heading into space when we have young children, so I ended up selling my ticket back to Virgin Galactic,” Kutcher said. “I was supposed to be on the next flight, but I will not be on the next flight.”

But, he added, he hasn’t given up the dream completely: “At some point I will be going to space.”

While Kutcher may not be heading to space soon, others are: Virgin Galactic successfully flew its first full crew to the edge of space, 55 miles above Earth, last weekend.

The company has said that it wants to start taking paying customers on the flight beginning next year, and more than 700 people, including Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Elon Musk have already reserved slots. Tickets for the flight are worth up to $250,000; Virgin Galactic has said it hopes to eventually fly up to 400 flights per year.

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More than 41,000 people have signed petitions to stop Jeff Bezos from returning to Earth after his trip to space next month

jeff bezos new shepard launch blue origin thumb 4x3
Jeff Bezos is set to launch aboard the New Shepard rocket on July 20.

  • Petitions to stop Jeff Bezos’ Earth re-entry collected more than 41,000 signatures between them.
  • The one with the most signatures is entitled: “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth.”
  • Bezos will fly into space on July 20 for Blue Origin’s first human flight of New Shepard rocket.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than 41,000 people have signed petitions calling to stop Jeff Bezos from returning to Earth after he blasts into space next month.

Bezos, founder of space-exploration firm Blue Origin, said on June 7 that he and his brother Mark Bezos will fly into space aboard the New Shepard rocket on July 20 – the company’s first human flight.

Three days after Bezos’ announcement, two petitions were launched to try and prevent the billionaire’s re-entry to Earth. They have both garnered thousands of followers in just 10 days.

More than 23,000 people have signed one Change.org petition titled: “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth.”

“Billionaire’s should not exist…on earth, or in space, but should they decide the latter they should stay there,” the petition’s description said.

Some signatories gave a reason for signing the petition, which included comments such as “being let back into Earth is a privilege – not a right,” and “Earth don’t want people like Jeff, Bill [Gates], Elon [Musk] and other such billionaires.”

Another petition, called “Petition To Not Allow Jeff Bezos Re-Entry To Earth,” has accumulated more than 18,000 signatures and is quickly increasing.

Jose Ortiz, who set up the petition, said in the description that Bezos is “an evil overlord hellbent on global domination.”

“The fate of humanity is in your hands,” Ortiz also wrote.

Both petitions are aiming to get 25,000 signatures, making them two of the top signed petitions on Change.org, according to the website.

Bezos will take an 11-minute flight to the edge of space alongside his brother and the winner of the Blue Origin auction for a seat in the New Shepard spacecraft, which sold for $28 million. They’ll be strapped into a dome-shaped capsule, which sits on top of the rocket booster.

Once New Shepard reaches the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface – the capsule will separate from the booster, reenter the atmosphere, and float back down to Earth with the help of parachutes.

“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure – it’s a big deal for me,” Bezos said in a video posted to Instagram on June 7.

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Europe is sending a probe to Venus, teaming up with NASA to rocket 3 missions to the planet in the next 15 years

esa venus mission envision spacecraft illustration
An illustration of the EnVision spacecraft with Earth (left) and Venus (right).

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

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A composite image of Venus from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter.

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.”

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China has landed a spacecraft on Mars for the first time, delivering a water-hunting rover to the red planet

china mars global remote sensing and small rover hx 1 martian mission illustration rendering cas xinhua
An illustration of China’s Zhurong rover leaving the lander to explore the Martian surface.

China has landed its first spacecraft on the surface of Mars, according to Chinese state media.

The mission, called Tianwen-1, or “questions to heaven,” is the first 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.

If everything went according to plan, a gumdrop-shaped landing capsule separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter on Friday evening and fell toward Mars. With the lander and rover safely tucked inside, the capsule plummeted through the Martian atmosphere, friction heating the material around it to temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

High above the red-dust Martian surface, a supersonic parachute had to deploy to slow the capsule’s fall. As the lander neared its destination, thrusters should have fired downward to help it decelerate. Then it should have lowered itself to the surface on a set of legs to absorb the impact.

China has not released details about the state of the lander or rover. But if everything is in good shape, the landing would make China the third nation to ever successfully put a robot on the Martian surface. It’s the first non-NASA Mars landing since the Soviet Union’s rover touched down in 1971.

Tianwen-1 launched in July 2020 and the spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars in February. Landing was “the most challenging part of the mission,” the CNSA previously said. Only half the spacecraft that have ever attempted a Mars landing have succeeded.

china tianwen 1 mission orbiter with lander rover capsule
The Tianwen-1 probe, carrying a lander and rover in a landing capsule, en route to Mars. Photo released December 16, 2020.

Now, China’s first Mars lander and rover are sitting in the middle of 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 Mars-bound spaceships could carry enough water, oxygen, and hydrogen for the entire journey there and back.

If all goes well, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp for the six-wheeled rover to roll down onto Martian soil. The rover is called Zhurong, named for ancient Chinese mythology’s god of fire, according to the CNSA. It’s set to explore the region and search for its water ice with ground-penetrating radar.

Mars photographed by china tianwen-1 orbiter
The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft circling the planet.

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.

“Landing safely on Mars is a huge challenge, especially for China’s first soft landing attempt,” Long Xiao, a planetary scientist at the China University of Geosciences, told National Geographic ahead of the attempt. “But it is a necessary step for Mars and deep-space exploration.”

The Zhurong rover has 90 days to explore Mars – for now

china's tianwen-1 zhurong rover replica
A replica of the Tianwen-1 Mars rover is displayed during an exhibition inside the National Museum in Beijing, China, March 3, 2021.

At 530 pounds, Zhurong is about the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers NASA landed on Mars in 2004. It could take more than a week to deploy the lander’s ramp and roll the rover onto Martian soil, journalist Andrew Jones reported for IEEE Spectrum. Then it will open its butterfly-wing solar panels to soak up the sunlight and charge its batteries.

Once the rover is on the ground, it has about 90 days to study Mars. That’s its official mission timeline, but Spirit and Opportunity had the same three-month window and ended up exploring Mars for six and 14 years, respectively.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter will continue circling the red planet for one Martian year (two Earth years), relaying data to Earth and taking photos. Its main goal is to “perform a global and extensive survey of the entire planet,” according to a journal article by Tianwen-1 scientists.

This will involve charting Mars’ geology, surveying its climate, and measuring its electromagnetic and gravitational fields.

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China plans to attempt an ambitious Mars landing as early as Friday, dropping both a lander and a rover to the red planet

china mars tianwen-1 mission photo arrival orbit
The first image of Mars taken by China’s Tianwen-1 probe, released by the China National Space Administration on February 5, 2021.

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.

china tianwen hx 1 mars orbiter lander rover mission launch long march 5 rocket july 23 2020 GettyImages 1227744386
A Long March 5 rocket carrying China’s Tianwen-1 mission to Mars lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on July 23, 2020.

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.

Mars photographed by china tianwen-1 orbiter
The surface of Mars, as photographed by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft.

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.

Tianwen-1 is operating alongside two other recent arrivals on Mars: United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe, which is currently circling the red planet, and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which just began exploring Mars’ Jezero Crater.

7 minutes of terror to land on Mars

china tianwen 1 mission orbiter with lander rover capsule
An image released December 16, 2020 shows the Tianwen-1 probe carrying a lander and rover in a landing capsule en route to Mars.

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.

china's tianwen-1 mars lander prototype testing
A prototype is lifted during a test a Mars lander in Huailai in China’s Hebei province, November 14, 2019.

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

china's tianwen-1 zhurong rover replica
A replica of the Tianwen-1 Mars rover displayed in the National Museum in Beijing, China, March 3, 2021.

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.

Read the original article on Business Insider