Updates From the Edge: March 6

Perseverance: A New Mars Rover

NASA’s new rover, previously called Mars 2020, finally has a name: Perseverance. There was a huge contest that got about 28,000 entries and the winner was a middle school student named Alexander Mather.

In an example of why he won the contest, here’s a powerful line from his essay: “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere.”

NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen added during the announcement ceremony, “Perseverance is a strong word: it’s about making progress despite obstacles.”

The rover is supposed to launch aboard an Atlas V rocket in July of this year and, if all goes according to plan, will arrive on Mars in February 2021. It will have with it an array of scientific instruments such as ground-penetrating radar, spectrometers to measure soil composition, as well as cameras for both close-up and panoramic views of the surface of the Red Planet.

There’s also going to be a tiny helicopter, which is going to be the first heavier-than-air aircraft on another planet. Finally, there will be an oxygen-producing device that will be able to work with the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere.

There are two main goals to the Perseverance mission. First, it is is to take scientific measurements that help us make sense of the Martian environment both past and current. Did it ever host life? The second mission is to collect samples that another rover, planned for 2026, will pick up and return to Earth.

The six-wheeler will land on Mars in the dry river delta in the Jezero Crater in February 2021.

Space Tourism, Coming Right Up

SpaceX plans to send three tourists up to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021. They’re doing this along with a Texas start-up called Axiom Space.

This announcement came after NASA said last year it would open up the ISS to a bit more commercial activity.

Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said in a press release, “This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space.”

There have been civilians on the ISS before, but they all went up on Russian Soyuz ships. This trip will be the first launch of private citizens on a private spacecraft, however. They plan to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon capsule.

How much will it set you back to go to the ISS? A pass for the 10-day trip reportedly runs about $55 million.

What’s Happening at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy Publishing

The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes hits the streets on March 24! It’s the previously unpublished work by Robert A. Heinlein that is a parallel to his 1980 novel, The Number of the Beast.

Check out this recent review here and if you think it’s for you, definitely reserve your copy right away.

Of course there’s also Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is being published by CAEZIK in paperback on June 2 in the United States. Read an advanced preview here (link opens a PDF) and be the first of your friends to have a peek inside Sawyer’s latest work.

Also, The Oppenheimer Alternative is now available for pre-order, so be sure to get on the list right away.

Follow news from CAEZIK and all of ARC Manor’s imprints on Facebook and Twitter.

Updates From the Edge: February 28

A NASA Legend

Katherine Johnson passed this week at the impressive age of 101.

For those of you who may now know who she was, Johnson was an American mathematician who worked for NASA. Her calculations of orbital mechanics were crucial to the success of the first (and following) American spaceflights. NASA says she had the “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.”

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2019 she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

The 2016 movie Hidden Figures was in part about Johnson. She was portrayed by actress Taraji P. Henson.

Henson portraying Johnson in Hidden Figures

A Mini-Moon

In space-related news, Earth seems to have picked up an orbiting object.

Last week astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona noted a dim object that moved quickly across the sky. Skywatchers at several observatories kept an eye on the object, which is now designated “Temporarily Captured Object 2020 CD3”. It’s been orbiting the earth for around three years.

Scientist Kacper Wierzchos, who works with the Catalina Sky Survey, shared an animation of the object, which you can check out below.

The announcement (which you can read here) was posted by the Minor Planet Center, which monitors small bodies in space. It says “no link to a known artificial object has been found,” which tells us that it’s a naturally-occurring body such as an asteroid.

They also noted that 2020 CD3’s orbit is unstable so it will eventually escape orbit and away from Earth once again.

It’s quite small at around the size of a small car, so don’t get too excited for naked-eye sightings of 2020 CD3.

What’s Happening at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy Publishing

Less than a month to go until The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes hits the streets! It’s the previously unpublished work by Robert A. Heinlein that is a parallel to his 1980 novel, The Number of the Beast. It’s coming to you on March 24, 2020, so reserve your copy right here.

Of course there’s also Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is being published by CAEZIK in paperback on June 2 in the United States. Read an advanced preview here (link opens a PDF) and be the first of your friends to have a peek inside Sawyer’s latest work.

Follow news from CAEZIK and all of ARC Manor’s imprints on Facebook and Twitter.

Lettuce reach for the stars!

While it still seems like such a SF concept, it was proven in August 2015 that you can indeed grow lettuce in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station and consume it. And consume it, Expedition 45 crewmembers Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui did!

Fast forward to the most recent phase in the “Veggie” experiment: growth round Veg-03 was started on October 25th, 2016, to test the modified water delivery system, and this time six lettuces were grown simultaneously, under the care of Expedition 50‘s newly minted Space Station Commander Shane Kimbrough.

Space Lettuce
“Veggie” prototype. Credit: NASA/Gioia Massa

Yet how do you grow lettuce–indeed, any vegetable–in space when the microgravity means you can’t just “water” the plants? And no, the answer does not requite astronaut feces, such as in The Martian. Instead, it calls for a nifty invention where the seed “wicks” water out of nutrient pillows each seed is attached to and germinated from.

Shane Kimbrough was the first to taste the lettuce grown from the latest growth experiment, using a repetitive harvest technique where only the tops of a selection of leaves are sliced off for him to eat, allowing the lettuce base to grow new leaves for subsequent consumption and science samples to be sent home to be tested. Each growth cycle takes approximately ten days.

“Testing this method on-orbit, after using it on the ground, is very exciting for us,” said Veggie Project Manager Nicole Dufour. “A repetitive harvest allows us to provide more food for both the crew and for science, so it’s a win-win.”

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Tokyo Bekana Chinese Cabbage leaves are shown prior to February 2017 harvest aboard the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA.

Since then the fifth crop has been harvested on the ISS, by Peggy Whitson, on February 17th, 2017–the first crop of Chinese cabbage ever grown. While most of it will be going back to Earth for scientific study, the crewmembers were able to enjoy some of it. Peggy’s stay on the ISS was extended by three months as she is now Expedition 51‘s Space Station Commander, allowing her to oversea the planting of a second round of Tokyo Bekana Chinese Cabbage, and as of April 3rd, the crew are already seeing sprouts.

So what does this mean for the future of space exploration? Everything. Scientists agree it helps morale and the physical health of the astronauts to be able to consume fresh food while away from Earth. Not only that, but it increases the probability of creating a renewable sustainable food supply while NASA continues to explore the feasibility of humanity moving to Mars, or beyond.

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Astronaut Peggy Whitson harvests Tokyo Bekana Chinese cabbage aboard the ISS on February 17th, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA.

But what about the immediate future?

“I love gardening on Earth, and it is just as fun in space….” Peggy Whitson tweeted in early February. “I just need more room to plant more!”

And NASA apparently agrees. Later in Spring a second Veggie installation will be set up on the ISS, to provide side-by-side comparison experiments. And on the April 18th resupply mission is an experiment involving Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant as well as petri dishes to place within the Veggie facility. Arabidopsis is seen as the genetic model of the plant world, so the principle investigator, University of Florida’s Dr. Anna Lisa Paul, considers it the perfect specimen for performing genetic studies.

“These experiments will provide a key piece of the puzzle of how plants adjust their physiology to meet the needs of growing in a place outside their evolutionary experience,” Dr. Paul said. “And the more complete our understanding, the more success we will have in future missions as we take plants with us off planet.”

Now, when I read that quote, why can’t I help but think of The Day of the Triffids? Just how will the plants evolve to cope with microgravity? How will they adapt? With each advancement we make, the science fiction we extrapolate in books really does seem to becoming closer to reality. I can’t wait to find out what the future holds. How about you?