So what is making this golden age for sample return missions possible? The launches are cheaper, for one, as is the hardware used to build the probes and landers. Instruments like spectrometers, which can identify the presence of different elements and compounds, are smaller and more resilient, and use much less power. The autonomous technology used to navigate these worlds has improved tremendously—OSIRIS-REx in particular benefited from the fact that the natural feature tracking (NFT) system onboard provided real time mapping of the surface to keep the probe safe from Bennu’s hazardous boulders. NFT is poised to help future robotic missions run smoothly and safely, sample return or otherwise.
Engineers are also coming up with more novel ideas for how to actually collect and store these samples. Perseverance is going old-school with a drill kit to gather intact cores of rock from the ground. OSIRIS-REx came up with a pogo stick-like “touch and go” collection system that brought the spacecraft down for a few-second hop off Bennu and used compressed air to waft small rubble into the collection container. Haybausa2 literally shot bullets into Ryugu. MMX will use simple pneumatics to collect sandy material off Phobos.
For a Venus mission, scientists have been considering a spacecraft that can dip into the atmosphere and bottle up some gas. Cryogenics technologies will enable better storage of extraterrestrial volatiles—or frozen elements that can be vaporized. Basically, every world has a unique environment and set of circumstances that dictate the best approach for sample collection, and our technologies are finally at the point where sampling methods that once seemed too difficult or challenging are reasonable to pull off.
These aren’t investigations you can do with just a probe on the ground. There is simply no substitute for the kinds of investigations you can run through laboratory equipment here on Earth. Say we found evidence of DNA on Mars—Perseverance has no way to sequence it, and as of yet there’s no way any Martian probe could be fitted with the necessary equipment to do so. If we wanted to study rock samples to understand the history of Mars’s magnetic field, a rover just doesn’t have the ability to run those sorts of tests.
From paper to practice
So how exactly does a sample return mission go from idea to execution? “For a sample return mission, it’s about accessibility to get there and accessibility to come back,” says Richard Binzel, an MIT astronomer and co-investigator of OSIRIS-REx.
Certain destinations like the moon and Mars have always been at the forefront of planetary scientists’ minds, especially as we’ve learned more about the history of water on both bodies. But beyond these places, sample returns are harder to justify.
In Binzel’s view, sample returns are still too difficult to pull off for all but the most important questions. These revolve around the origins of the solar system and of the chemistry that led to life on Earth. “How far back can we go and get a time capsule of the beginning of everything that is the Earth, and us?” he says. “It’s all about volatiles.” In the context of planetary science, this can mean water ice, or nitrogen, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, sulfur dioxide—the ingredients for life. If there are no volatiles—and therefore no indication was once habitable or still might be—a sample return mission seems highly unlikely.
Once the target is selected, however, the engineers that take over to figure out how best to collect the sample and bring it back. From there, the scientists must simply play the cards they’re dealt with and hope the material that comes back is suitable enough to study.
The payoffs can be huge. Between 1969 and 1972, Apollo astronauts brought back 842 pounds of moon rocks. Over 50 years later, people are still studying them and publishing papers detailing new insights. “We’re reanalyzing and remeasuring and using newly developed techniques to look at the samples, and coming up with new questions,” says Bosak. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
The fact that these samples can be passed down from generation to generation, in which future scientists can use new technologies and insights to narrow down their investigations and pursue questions no one has yet thought of, means there’s a powerful legacy that’s worth going after. When Perseverance descends to Mars and visits Jezero Crater this month, it will be collecting material that scientists on Earth will study for decades—perhaps hundreds of years.
NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time
The news: NASA has flown an aircraft on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew up about three meters, then swiveled and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was livestreamed on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We, together, flew at Mars, and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.
In fact, Ingenuity carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)
The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’s bone-chilling temperatures (nights can drop down to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere—just 1% the density of Earth’s. That meant Ingenuity had to be light, with rotor blades that were bigger and faster than would be needed to achieve liftoff on Earth (although the gravity on Mars, which is only about one-third of Earth’s, worked in its favor). The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues.
Why it’s significant: Beyond being a significant milestone for Mars exploration, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by scoping out locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and capturing images. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a car-size drone that NASA is planning to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.
What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will conduct four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last for 30 Martian days, and is expected to stop functioning around May 4. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater as NASA moves on to the main focus of its mission: getting the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.
The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow
The public side of Positive is like many cybersecurity companies: staff look at high-tech security, publish research on new threats, and even have cutesy office signs that read “stay positive!” hanging above their desks. The company is open about some of its links to the Russian government, and boasts an 18-year track record of defensive cybersecurity expertise including a two-decade relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense. But according to previously unreported US intelligence assessments, it also develops and sells weaponized software exploits to the Russian government.
One area that’s stood out is the firm’s work on SS7, a technology that’s critical to global telephone networks. In a public demonstration for Forbes, Positive showed how it can bypass encryption by exploiting weaknesses in SS7. Privately, the US has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws in the system, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that were then used by Russian intelligence in cyber campaigns.
Much of what Positive does for the Russian government’s hacking operations is similar to what American security contractors do for United States agencies. But there are major differences. One former American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified material, described the relationship between companies like Positive and their Russian intelligence counterparts as “complex” and even “abusive.” The pay is relatively low, the demands are one-sided, the power dynamic is skewed, and the implicit threat for non-cooperation can loom large.
Tight working relationship
American intelligence agencies have long concluded that Positive also runs actual hacking operations itself, with a large team allowed to run its own cyber campaigns as long as they are in Russia’s national interest. Such practices are illegal in the western world: American private military contractors are under direct and daily management of the agency they’re working for during cyber contracts.
Former US officials say there is a tight working relationship with the Russian intelligence agency FSB that includes exploit discovery, malware development, and even reverse engineering of cyber capabilities used by Western nations like the United States against Russia itself.
The company’s marquee annual event, Positive Hack Days, was described in recent US sanctions as “recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” The event has long been famous for being frequented by Russian agents.
NSA director of cybersecurity Rob Joyce said the companies being sanctioned “provide a range of services to the SVR, from providing the expertise to developing tools, supplying infrastructure and even, sometimes, operationally supporting activities,” Politico reported.
One day after the sanctions announcement, Positive issued a statement denying “the groundless accusations” from the US. It pointed out that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing and said it provides all vulnerabilities to software vendors “without exception.”
Tit for tat
Thursday’s announcement is not the first time that Russian security companies have come under scrutiny.
The biggest Russian cybersecurity company, Kaspersky, has been under fire for years over its relationships with the Russian government—eventually being banned from US government networks. Kaspersky has always denied a special relationship with the Russian government.
But one factor that sets Kaspersky apart from Positive, at least in the eyes of American intelligence officials, is that Kaspersky sells antivirus software to western companies and governments. There are few better intelligence collection tools than an antivirus, software which is purposely designed to see everything happening on a computer, and can even take control of the machines it occupies. US officials believe Russian hackers have used Kaspersky software to spy on Americans, but Positive—a smaller company selling different products and services—has no equivalent.
Recent sanctions are the latest step in a tit for tat between Moscow and Washington over escalating cyber operations, including the Russian-sponsored SolarWinds attack against the US, which led to nine federal agencies being hacked over a long period of time. Earlier this year, the acting head of the US cybersecurity agency said recovering from that attack could take the US at least 18 months.
NASA selects SpaceX’s Starship as the lander to take astronauts to the moon
Surprising selection: Last year, NASA awarded three different groups contracts to further develop their own proposals for lunar landers: $135 million to SpaceX, $253 million to defense company Dynetics (which was working with Sierra Nevada Corporation), and $579 million to a four-company team led by Blue Origin (working with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper).
SpaceX didn’t just receive the least amount of money—its proposal also earned the worst technical and management ratings. NASA’s associate administrator (now acting administrator) Steve Jurczyk wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system was “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested, and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” The uncertainties were only exacerbated by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record with meeting deadlines.
What changed: Since then, SpaceX has gone through a number of different flight tests of several full-scale Starship prototypes, including a 10-kilometer high-altitude flight and safe landing in March. (It also exploded a few times.) According to the Washington Post, documents suggest NASA was enamored with Starship’s ability to ferry a lot of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its $2.9 billion bid for the contract, which was far lower than its rivals’.
“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in spaceflight history,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar lander system. “We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX.”
What this means: For SpaceX’s rivals, it’s a devastating blow—especially to Blue Origin. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, had unveiled its Blue Moon lander concept in 2019 and has publicly campaigned for NASA to select it for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the most well-developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.
For SpaceX, it’s a big vote of confidence in Starship as a crucial piece of technology for the next generation of space exploration. It comes less than a year after the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle was certified as the only American spacecraft capable of taking NASA astronauts to space. And it seems to confirm that the SpaceX is now NASA’s biggest private partner, supplanting veteran firms like Northrop Grumman and shunting newer ones like Blue Origin further to the sidelines. However, there’s at least one major hurdle: Starship needs to launch using a Super Heavy rocket—a design that SpaceX has yet to fly.
For NASA, the biggest implication is that SpaceX’s vehicles will only continue to play a bigger role for Artemis, the lunar exploration program being touted as the successor to Apollo. Former president Donald Trump’s directive for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 was never actually going to be realized, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests NASA may not miss that deadline by much. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket is expected to be ready soon.