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Rappelling NASA rover could split in two to explore Mars’ deep craters

NASA JPL took the DuAxel out for a test run in the Mojave Desert.


NASA/JPL-Caltech/J.D. Gammell

NASA’s car-size Mars rovers are awesome, versatile machines capable of traversing rugged terrain. But they’re not made to descend down the sides of craters. For that, NASA would need something like its DuAxel prototype rover, a wild concept that is two rovers in one.

When all together, DuAxel is a four-wheeled rover. The rear can anchor itself to the ground while the front goes free on two wheels. A tether holds the pieces together while the front section rappels down a steep slope. This could work well for exploring currently inaccessible crater walls on Mars.

NASA put a DuAxel prototype through its paces in the Mojave Desert in California. “DuAxel performed extremely well in the field, successfully demonstrating its ability to approach a challenging terrain, anchor, and then undock its tethered Axel rover,” robotics technologist Issa Nesnas said in a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Tuesday.

A video shows the clever rover in action and how it can use onboard instruments to get a close look at what’s under its wheels.

One of the motivations for developing DuAxel is to one day get a closer look at enigmatic dark streaks called recurring slope lineae that appear on the side of some martian craters. Scientists are trying to figure out if these have a watery origin.

The craters are too steep for a rover like Curiosity or Perseverance (which is currently on its way to Mars), but a transforming rappelling machine like DuAxel could handle the challenge.

It’s not just Mars science that could benefit from the plucky little rover design. “DuAxel opens up access to more extreme terrain on planetary bodies such as the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and possibly some icy worlds, like Jupiter’s moon Europa,” said Nesnas.   

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Mars will appear especially bright Tuesday night, at opposition with the sun

Opposition describes the occasion marked by the sun, Earth and Mars all lining up perfectly. Earth is in the middle, so the sun is on one side while Mars is on the other. That means Mars will be at the opposite point in the sky, above the horizon after the sun has set.

It also means Mars will appear fully illuminated from the vantage point of Earth-dwellers, causing it to appear especially bright.

Where to look

Mars was closest to Earth a week ago on Oct. 6, in fact the closest in 15 years, but appears more brilliant Tuesday night. That’s because it’s in a better position to reflect more sunlight back at us. Last week, it was doing so at a slanted angle, acutely diminishing its apparent magnitude.

If you’re looking to catch Mars at its most effulgent, all you have to do is look east an hour or two after sunset. Mars will be highest toward midnight.

You’ll be able to tell which one is Mars based on its brightness and color. Only Venus and the Moon will be more scintillating. But Venus makes its appearance in the mornings.

You’ll also see a reddish tinge to Mars, resulting from the iron oxide-rich surface that gives it a rusty hue.

What is opposition, and how often does it occur?

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. Earth is located about 93 million miles from the sun; Mars averages 142 million miles. It’s the last of the solar system’s solid, dense inner planets, which also include Mercury, Venus and Earth.

Earth rotates around the sun once every 365 days; Mars takes 687 days to do the same, so a year on Mars is longer. That also means that Earth and Mars are usually in different places in their orbits about the sun.

Picture two cars driving around a traffic circle, at different speeds. Even if they start out next to each other, the faster car will outrun the slower until it comes back around again. That’s sort of how Earth and Mars behave.

As a result, opposition occurs every 26 months or so, when the more quickly orbiting Earth swings by on the “inside lane” as it passes by Mars.

Why opposition doesn’t always mean the closest point to Earth

Common sense dictates that when we pass Mars in a perfect line with the sun, Mars should be at its closest point to Earth. But that’s not exactly true. Mars was closer a week ago. SpaceWeather.com reports that was its closest until 2035.

The reason? Mars has a slightly eccentric, or elliptical, orbit. In addition, the gravity of Jupiter tugs on Mars and causes its orbit to be a bit off-kilter compared with ours. Those orbital quirks make it so Mars can sometimes be closest before opposition, and therefore before it appears brightest.

According to EarthSky.org, Mars will next reach its closest point to Earth on Dec. 1, 2022, but the next opposition will occur a week later.

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Mars will burn bright in the sky tonight as it reaches opposition

Ultra realisic 3d rendering of Mars and Milky way in the backround. Image uses large 46k textures for detailed appereance of the planet surface. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
Mars will burn brightly in the sky as it reaches opposition (Getty/NASA)

Mars will shine in the sky on Tuesday night as the planet lines up with Earth, looking big and bright as it reaches “opposition”.

Every 26 months, the two planets move close together, until Earth lines up with Mars on the same side of the sun. 

Tuesday night sees the moment of opposition, with the planets lining up at just after 11pm. 

At that point, Mars should be visible to the south east from the UK, astrophotographer Damian Peach told the BBC. 

Peach said, “Even at nine or 10 o’clock in the evening, you’ll easily see it over in the southeast. You can’t miss it, it’s the brightest star-like object in that part of the sky.”

The Red Planet actually made its closest approach to our planet on 6 October, when it was 38,586,816 miles away from Earth (very close, for Mars).

Read more: Astronomers find better planets for life than Earth

But at opposition, it looks bigger and brighter, NASA explained.  

“During opposition, Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth. From our perspective on our spinning world, Mars rises in the east just as the sun sets in the west,” NASA said.

“Then, after staying up in the sky the entire night, Mars sets in the west just as the sun rises in the east. Since Mars and the sun appear on opposite sides of the sky, we say that Mars is in ‘opposition’.”

NASA takes advantage of close approaches of Mars to launch new missions to the planet, with its new Perseverance rover launching this summer.

In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, coming within 34.65 million miles of us.

Read more: What are fast radio bursts, and why do they look like aliens?

Spacecraft from several nations are currently on the way to Mars, including NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, which is scheduled to land there in February.

NASA’s next-generation robotic rover – a car-sized six-wheeled vehicle carrying seven scientific instruments – also is scheduled to deploy a mini helicopter on Mars and try out equipment for future human treks to the fourth planet from the sun.

Read more: Astronomers find closest black hole to Earth

Its arrival at Mars is planned for 18 February at the site of an ancient river delta.

The mission marks NASA’s ninth journey to the Martian surface.

Perseverance is due to land at the base of an 820-foot-deep crater called Jezero, site of a former lake and water system from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists suspect could bear evidence of potential past microbial life.

Scientists have long debated whether Mars – once a much more hospitable place than it is today – ever harboured life.

Water is considered a key ingredient for life, and Mars billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.

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What Is Mars Opposition? How, When And Where To Watch Red Planet Shine Bright

KEY POINTS

  • Mars will be in opposition Oct. 13
  • A planet is in opposition when it aligns with the Earth and the Sun
  • Viewers can watch the event through Virtual Telescope Project’s Mars opposition viewing

Viewers can observe the Mars opposition Oct. 13 where the planet can be seen in the night sky.

Now that we’ve seen Mars hit its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 6, we can now expect to see it beaming in the night sky this Tuesday, when it will align with Earth and the Sun, giving viewers from Earth the closest view they can get for the next 15 years. The next time we’ll see Mars this close will be in 2035, according to an article by Space.com.

Mars and Earth, as well as all the other planets in the solar system, orbit the Sun at different distances and speeds. But every two years or so, Mars, the Earth and the Sun all form a straight line during the course of their orbits, with Earth in the middle. This is when a planet is considered to be in opposition. Viewers in the Northern Hemisphere will have an amazing view of the Red planet during its opposition, as it will be positioned farther up in the sky during this time.

“Indeed, Mars won’t be comparably close and well-positioned for northern observers again until it reaches opposition in 2052, making this year’s opposition all the more noteworthy,” said Gary Seronik, consulting editor for Sky & Telescope magazine.

For observers who are cooped up at home or cannot enjoy the privilege of looking up at the night sky, the Virtual Telescope Project will be streaming a Mars opposition viewing at 1 p.m. PT on Oct. 13.

Observers can expect to see Mars as a bright orange dot at the night of Oct. 13, according to article at cnet.com. With Mars in opposition on Oct. 13, NASA has described it as the night when viewers could “effectively” see a full Mars. The next time this will occur is two years from now.

Mars hit its closest approach to Earth Oct. 6 at just 62 million kilometers. It was positioned in a region of the sky with no bright stars overshining it, making it easy to spot. To observers who missed it, they can still look forward to a rare Halloween blue moon on Oct. 31.

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China’s Mars Probe Tianwen-1 Sends Home Selfies Captured 15 Million Miles From Earth

KEY POINTS

  • The CNSA released new selfies of Tianwen-1 captured 15 million miles away from Earth
  • The Mars probe took images of itself using a tiny camera ejected from the spacecraft
  • Tianwen-1 is expected to reach the red planet in February 2021

Talk about a clever way to take self-portraits in space! Tianwen-1 has snapped some selfies while in outer space using a camera ejected from its spacecraft.

While on its way to Mars, Tianwen-1 sent home new images of itself captured 15 million miles away from Earth. They were released by the China National Space Administration earlier this month as part of the country’s national day celebrations.

The small camera the Mars probe used to snap selfies had wide-angle lenses on each side and took one photo every second. It sends the images it takes to Tianwen-1, which would then transmit the pictures to Earth.

One of the many photos snapped by the camera is a close-up of the Tianwen-1 spacecraft that shows its two silver solar arrays and the conical aeroshell containing the mission’s rover. Another photo was taken from farther away and showcases the vastness of outer space surrounding Tianwen-1 as it makes its way to its mission.

The little photoshoot went both ways as the Tianwen-1 also took images of the tiny camera while it was being jettisoned into outer space and leaving the spacecraft.

Tianwen-1 was launched by China on July 23 aboard the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. This mission is considered to be China’s first attempt at reaching and eventually landing on the red planet.

If all goes according to plan, Tianwen-1 should arrive on Mars in February 2021. The rover will land on the red planet’s surface somewhere along Utopia Planitia, a large empty plain in the planet’s Northern Hemisphere.

The rover will then spend about 90 Martian days (1 Martian day is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day) studying its environment. The lander, meanwhile, won’t be doing any substantial scientific work as it will only be there to act as a delivery system for the rover.

China launched its Tianwen-1 Mars mission in July 2020 China launched its Tianwen-1 Mars mission in July 2020 Photo: AFP / Noel CELIS

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Don’t Miss Your Socially Distanced Date With Mars

Stargazers perk up — Mars is getting big and bright the coming week, as the sun, Earth and Mars line up close to a new moon on the night of Oct. 13.

The event that happens about every two years is called “opposition” in astronomy terms: the sun and Mars on opposite sides of Earth. From the earthling’s perspective, according to NASA, Mars rises in the east just as the sun sets in the west, and would stay up in the sky the whole night, setting in the west just as the sun rises.

Because we’re seeing the whole dayside of the red planet the whole week, it’s going to be ideal for viewing, writes Mikhail Kreslavsky, assistant research planetary scientist at University of California, Santa Cruz, in an email to NPR.

And because this year’s opposition is also close to the new moon, Mars will shine brighter without moonlight hampering, he writes.

The Mars opposition is related to “Mars close approach,” which is the point where Mars and Earth come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun. That happened on Oct. 6. Therefore, Mars is pretty large in size.

“[Usually] for people who are amateur astronomers with a decent-sized telescope, Mars would still look like a dot,” astronomer Derek Demeter told the podcast Are We There Yet? last week.

“Now we’re getting really close to Mars, the apparent size has tripled almost [in the telescope]” said Demeter, who directs Seminole State College’s planetarium.

“I was able to pick out surface features you’re never able to see … where Opportunity has landed … all these areas where the rovers have landed, where we might go,” he said about his stargazing experience a few days earlier.

The year 2020 has seen its share of Martian exploration launches. The U.S. launched a six-wheeled Rover called Perseverance; the United Arab Emirates launched its first mission ever to Mars, and China launched its Tianwen-1 project to send an orbiter, lander and rover to the red planet in one effort, reaching for a first successful Mars mission.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mars At Its Brightest Since 2003 As Moon Visits Venus. What You Can See In The Night Sky This Week

Each week I pick out the northern hemisphere’s celestial highlights (mid-northern latitudes) for the week ahead, but be sure to check my main feed for more in-depth articles on stargazing, astronomy and eclipses. 

What To Watch For In The Night Sky This Week: October 12-18, 2020

This week it’s all about Mars, which will look its biggest, brightest and best in post-sunset skies since 2018 and, technically speaking, since 2003.

However, it’s also a week where the Moon wanes towards its New phase, meaning dark skies at night, gorgeous crescents in the early pre-dawn mornings early in the week, and in early evenings from Sunday. 

MORE FROM FORBESWhat’s That Really Bright ‘Star’ In The Night Sky?

Tuesday, October 13, 2020: Mars at opposition

Tonight the red planet reaches opposition, a moment when the Earth is between it and the Sun. It’s therefore at its biggest and brightest. It’s also visible all night, rising at dusk in the easy and setting at dawn in the west.

The opposition of Mars happens roughly every two years, though technically speaking, Mars is tonight bigger and brighter than at any time since 2003. 

MORE FROM FORBESYour Stargazing Guide To Fall: One ‘Halloween Blue Moon,’ Two Eclipses And A Once-In-397 Years Sight

Wednesday, October 14, 2020: Crescent Moon and Venus

Look east about an hour before sunrise this morning and you’ll see the glorious sight of a very bright 76%-illuminated planet Venus shining 4.3° above a delicate 1% illuminated crescent Moon.

Such a Moon is often called “the New Moon in the Old Moon’s arms.” You may see “Earthshine” on the Moon’s darkened limb. That’s sunlight being reflected off Earth and onto the Moon. It’s always there, but only when the Moon is a slender crescent can human eyes discern it. 

Look above Venus and you’ll also see Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. 

Friday, October 16, 2020: New Moon and ‘Supermoon’

Although this isn’t something anyone can see—after all, a New Moon is lost in the Sun’s glare—our satellite will start anew today at 19:31 Universal Time.

It happens just a few hours after the Moon reaches its monthly perigee—the closest it comes to Earth on its slightly elliptical orbit—making this invisible New Moon a “supermoon.” Expect big tides. 

MORE FROM FORBESYour Stargazing Guide To October: Halley’s Comet Meteors, Dazzling Mars And Halloween’s ‘Blue Moon’

Constellation of the week: Cassiopeia

High in the northeast after dark is the constellation of Cassiopeia, the queen. It’s circumpolar, meaning it revolves around Polaris, the North Star. It’s thus almost always visible, and at this time of year it’s high in the

Planet Mars is at its ‘biggest and brightest’

Mars pictured by Damian Peach on 30 September
In all its glory: Mars pictured by Damian Peach on 30 September

Get out there and look up!

Mars is at its biggest and brightest right now as the Red Planet lines up with Earth on the same side of the Sun.

Every 26 months, the pair take up this arrangement, moving close together, before then diverging again on their separate orbits around our star.

Tuesday night sees the actual moment of what astronomers call “opposition”.

All three bodies will be in a straight line at 23:20 GMT (00:20 BST).

“But you don’t have to wait until the middle of the night; even now, at nine or 10 o’clock in the evening, you’ll easily see it over in the southeast,” says astrophotographer, Damian Peach. “You can’t miss it, it’s the brightest star-like object in that part of the sky,” he told BBC News.

Even though this coming week witnesses the moment of opposition, it was Tuesday of last week that Mars and Earth actually made their closest approach in this 26-month cycle.

A separation of 62,069,570km, or 38,568,243 miles. That’s the narrowest gap now until 2035.

At the last opposition, in 2018, Earth and Mars were just 58 million km apart, but what makes this occasion a little more special for astrophotographers in the Northern Hemisphere is the Red Planet’s elevation in the sky. It’s higher, and that means telescopes don’t have to look through quite so much of the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, which distorts images.

Experienced practitioners like Damian use a technique called “lucky imaging” to get the perfect shot. They take multiple frames and then use software to stitch together the sharpest view.

Damian’s picture at the top of this page shows up clearly the “Martian dichotomy” – the sharp contrast between the smooth lowland plains of the Northern Hemisphere and the more rugged terrain in the Southern Hemisphere. Evident too is Mars’ carbon dioxide ice cap at the southern pole.

The image was captured using a 14-inch Celestron telescope.

“That’s quite a serious bit of equipment; it’s not something you get on a whim,” says Damian. “But even a telescope half that size will show up all the major features on Mars quite easily. And if you’ve got a good pair of binoculars, you’ll certainly be able to make out that it’s actually a planet and not a star.”

It’s around opposition that space probes are launched from Earth to Mars. Obviously – the distance that needs to be travelled is shorter, and the time and energy required to make the journey is less.

Three missions are currently in transit, all of which were sent on their way in July: The United Arab Emirates’s Hope orbiter; China’s Tianwen orbiter and rover; and the Americans’ Perseverance rover.

Europe and Russia had hoped to despatch their ExoMars “Rosalind Franklin” rover, too, but they missed the launch window and will now have to wait until late 2022. That’s the penalty you pay when the planets align only every

Look up! That bright orange-y ‘star’ in the night sky is actually Mars

Mars is putting on quite a show for skywatchers this month.

For most of October, Mars will be brighter in the night sky than anything else in its vicinity, offering people a clear view of the red planet. Mars is also days away from reaching “opposition,” a celestial alignment in which Earth, Mars and the sun form a straight line in space, with Earth in the middle.

Mars will be at opposition Oct. 13. On that day, Mars will rise as the sun sets, reach its peak in the night sky at midnight, and then set as the sun rises again. If it’s a clear night, skywatchers can expect the red planet to outshine anything else in its region of the sky.

Mars oppositions typically occur every 26 months. Since Earth is closer to the sun, it circles the star two times in roughly the time it takes Mars to complete one orbit. Oppositions can occur at any point in Mars’ orbit, according to NASA, but occasionally the alignments happen around the time when Mars is closest to the sun, as is the case this year.

Mars reached the point in its orbit when it was closest to the sun — an orbital event known as perihelion — on Aug. 3. When it aligns with the sun and Earth several weeks later, it’s known as “perihelic oppositions.” These events are considered rare because they only occur once every 15 or 17 years, according to NASA.

The best way to see Mars is to head outside in the early evening and gaze just above the horizon in the eastern sky. If conditions are clear, Mars will be the brightest object in that region of the sky, appearing as a distinct, reddish-orange “star.”

Mars will be visible to the naked eye for most of October, but amateur astronomers with telescopes may also be able to glimpse features on the planet’s surface.

Mars made its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 6, when the two planets were separated by just 38.6 million miles, according to NASA. It will not pass this close to Earth again until 2035.

For skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere, this year’s opposition is expected to be particularly impressive because of Mars’ position in the sky.

“Indeed, Mars won’t be comparably close and well-positioned for northern observers again until it reaches opposition in 2052, making this year’s opposition all the more noteworthy,” Gary Seronik, consulting editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, said in a statement.

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Elon Musk’s Tesla, Starman fly past Mars 2 years after SpaceX launch

  • In February 2018, SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster owned by the company’s founder, Elon Musk, into deep space.
  • The electric vehicle, which has a spacesuit-clad “Starman” dummy in the driver’s seat, just made its first flyby of Mars.
  • To Starman, Mars would have appeared to be about one-tenth the size of the moon as seen from Earth, the astronomer Jonathan McDowell said.
  • The vehicle and its unlikely passenger, launched on the upper stage of a Falcon Heavy rocket, may travel for millions of years before crashing, most likely back into Earth.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

An electric car that Elon Musk rocketed into space more than two years ago just flew past Mars for the first time.

SpaceX, the rocket company Musk founded, launched his old Tesla Roadster aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018 with a spacesuit-wearing dummy named “Starman” at the wheel.

The car also carried a Hot Wheels model of itself with a miniature Starman inside. In storage, it holds a copy of the sci-fi novels “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, along with a towel and a sign that says “Don’t Panic.” The car’s speakers even blasted the song “Space Oddity” by David Bowie after launch.

Since then, the rocket’s second stage has glided through space with no fuel to propel it, with Musk’s old red car perched on top of it.

“It’s a rocket stage with a hood ornament,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who independently calculated the Tesla’s close Mars pass, told Business Insider.

spacex falcon heavy launch

An illustration of Musk’s Tesla atop the upper stage of a Falcon Heavy rocket.


SpaceX/YouTube



The Tesla was supposed to slip into a circular orbit between Mars and the sun. But the mission overshot and ended up on an elliptical path that takes it far past Martian orbit, toward the asteroid belt; it completes an orbit about every 557 days. The car’s trajectory had taken it past Mars orbit before, but at that time the planet was nowhere near the point where Starman intersected its path.

The car made its first close approach to Mars at about 2:25 p.m. ET on Wednesday, passing about 7.4 million kilometers (4.6 million miles) from the red planet, according to McDowell’s calculations. (SpaceX on Wednesday tweeted a similar estimate of “under 5 million miles” for the flyby distance.)

Neither the Tesla nor the Falcon Heavy stage attached to it is sending signals back to Earth, so McDowell calculated its path from the last data available as it left Earth. He used the same gravitational data that NASA uses to steer its space probes.

spacex falcon heavy launch

An illustration of “Starman” and Musk’s Tesla flying past Mars.


SpaceX/YouTube



“It’s a pretty confident extrapolation, because we understand gravity pretty well,” McDowell said. “The only thing that could throw you off is what we call outgassing: If there was leftover fuel, or if the paint job on the Tesla carriage came off,