The Week in Space: SpaceX Is Bringing Back Astronauts, NASA Launches Mars Rover

NASA commercial crew astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken are set to return to Earth after two months on the International Space Station.

While things have been crazy on Earth, it’s also been an eventful week in space: NASA launched its most ambitious Mars mission on Thursday, following two similar missions by China and the United Arab Emirates earlier this month; SpaceX successfully tested a prototype of its interplanetary spacecraft, Starship; and the shiny Comet NEOWISE made its closest approach to Earth.

Another historic space event is coming up this weekend, featuring SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft bringing back two NASA astronauts back to Earth after a two-month mission on the International Space Station.

Read on to learn more about the most important space news of the past week and details of SpaceX’s upcoming ISS return trip.

SpaceX to bring back NASA astronauts from ISS

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On May 30, SpaceX made history by successfully sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) in the final test of its new Crew Dragon spacecraft (atop a Falcon 9 rocket.)

This weekend, the Crew Dragon “Endeavour” capsule is scheduled to bring the two astronauts back home. Behnken and Hurley are expected to undock from the ISS on Saturday and land on Earth on Sunday at 2:48 pm Eastern Time.

However, a tropical storm passing near NASA’s planned landing site could force the astronauts to stay in orbit a bit longer. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s latest prediction, three of the seven planned landing zones near Cape Canaveral, Florida lie within the “cone of probability” of the tropical storm Isaias.

You can watch the live stream of Saturday’s undocking on NASA TV starting 5:15 p.m. Eastern Time.

A July 30 map shows NASA and SpaceX’s landing zones for the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission amid the estimated path and conditions of Tropical Storm Isaias. Google Earth/NOAA/NASA/Business Insider

NASA Launches ‘Perseverance’ Mars Rover

An Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA/Joel Kowsky

On Thursday, NASA launched its latest life-hunting Mars rover, the Perseverance, atop an Atlas V rocket (provided by United Launch Alliance), the same vehicle that has launched the space agency’s InSight lander and Curiosity rover to the Red Planet.

The Perseverance rover is the most ambitious Mars mission NASA has ever launched. If everything goes according to the plan, the rover will arrive on February 18, 2021 at the Jezero Crater, a spot on Mars that scientists believe was once a lake in which microbes could have lived.

The Perseverance is tasked with seeking signs of ancient life and collecting rock and soil samples for future Mars missions to bring back to Earth. It will also carry a drone helicopter for the first time to help explore the landing site and identify possible research spots.

A close-up view of a full size model of the Perseverance rover is on display at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2020. GREGG NEWTON/Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

A close-up view of a full size model of the Ingenuity helicopter, which will be part of the Perseverance rover set to launch to Mars, is displayed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2020.

SpaceX Tests Starship Prototype

SpaceX conducts a static-fire test of its Starship SN5 prototype on July 30, 2020. Elon Musk/Twitter

Also on Thursday, SpaceX successfully conducted a “static fire” test of Starship SN5, the latest prototype of SpaceX’s Mars-colonizing Starship spacecraft, at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.

During the test, SpaceX let the Starship prototype’s engine blaze while the vehicle remained tethered to the ground. The successful engine trial paves the way for a full-blown test of Starship in the future.

The SN5 is SpaceX’s sixth prototype of Starship. All previous models were lost at some point during pressure or static fire testing. Only one prototype, the Starhopper, has succeeded in making an untethered flight, lifting a few hundred feet off the ground in August 2019.

Virgin Galactic Unveils Spaceship Cabin for Future Space Tourists

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Cabin Interior. Virgin Galactic

On Tuesday, Virgin Galactic unveiled the interior design of its VSS Unity spaceship, marking the company’s readiness to fly amateur astronauts to suborbital space.

The VSS Unity cabin features Virgin Group’s signature mood lighting, customizable seats and private “halo” windows that guarantee an optimal view of Earth from an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles). Every passenger will also have two cameras to themselves that will make sure to capture every aspect of their experience.

Last Chance to See Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE seen by Twitter user @hiitsatom in southern Germany on July 19. @hiitsatom/Twitter

The once-in-a-lifetime Comet NEOWISE is flying away from Earth, but there’s still chance to get a glimpse of the bright shooting star with a telescope in the next few days.

First, find a clear patch of sky with minimal light pollution. Then look carefully to the northwestern sky just a little west to the Big Dipper and under the Arcturus. The comet will be climbing higher in the sky as the night wears on. There’s also a Comet NEOWISE app that will show you where to look from your location.

Comet NEOWISE was first discovered in March by a NASA telescope. It made its closest approach to Earth on July 22 and has since grown dimmer in the sky as it flies away from Earth.

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