News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


Stealth Aircraft of the World

F-35Like many guys, I went through a period in which I was highly fascinated by aircraft, to the point that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Years later… well, not much as changed. I still love aircraft, and sometimes entertain fantasies of flying one! Perhaps an aerospace fighter, if and when aliens try to invade us! But I digress…

Of all the aircraft that I’ve ever studied, stealth craft remain the most cool and interesting. And in honor of this ongoing fascination, I’ve decided to do a list of the world’s various stealth fighters, stealth bombers, and miscellaneous stealth craft. Due to the fact that many new ones are under development and the subject of much secrecy, I’ve decided to stick to those that are currently or have been in operation.

I present them now, in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

B-2 Spirit:
B-2There’s nothing like a classic… a big, bad classic! A strategic stealth bomber, the Spirit is one of the first stealth craft to be developed, though its entry into service was overshadowed by the F-117 (see below). A long range aircraft, the Spirit is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. Developed in conjunction being Boeing and Northrop Grumman, development began during the late 70’s and continued into the 80’s.

It’s original purpose was to penetrate Soviet anti-aircraft defenses and deploying nuclear weapons against high-value targets. With the end of the Cold War, the program was scaled back and the B2 did not see active service until 1997. It was has participated in the Kosovo War in 99 and was deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq for conventional, long-range bombing missions.

The Spirit requires a crew of two and contains two internal bomb bays in which munitions are stored, either on a rotary launcher or two bomb-racks. The B2 was the first to carry weapons in this fashion, which results less radar visibility than externally mounting of munitions. These internal weapons bays are capable of equipping conventional bombs, cruise missiles, and nuclear weapons. However, the bomber carries no surface to air missiles or guns, relying on its stealth technology to avoid encounters with enemy fighters.

Chengdu J-20:
Chendu-J20China’s been making a lot of waves in the news lately thanks to the development of its stealth fighter program. And though they may be thirty years late to the party, they are in a perfect position to take advantage of all the latest developments. Much like all 5th generation stealth craft, the J-20 is based on the concept of a twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft that is stealthy, not undetectable.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the J-20 was unveiled in 2011, though it is not expected to enter service between 2017 to 2019. However, China has publicized the creation of this fighter extensively as part of its modernization efforts. The source of the technology remains unknown, though some speculate that it was reverse engineered from samples taken from the downed F-117 in Serbia (see below). Chinese sources deny this, however, claiming it was the result of home-grown innovation.

And like other 5th generation craft, the J-20 has a belly-mounted internal weapons bay for short and long-range air-to-air missiles, and two smaller lateral weapon bays behind the air inlets for short-range weapons. From some photos obtained of the fighter, the armament capacity appears to be the same as the F-22 Raptor, with six weapons mounts.

F-117 Nighthawk:
F117-NighthawkThe first ever stealth craft to be unveiled, the Nighthawk will forever be known the “Stealth Fighter”, despite its ground-attack role. A single seat, twin-engine craft, the Nighthawk was developed in the late 70’s by Lockheed Martin. By 1983, it was introduced to the US Air Force but was not officially unveiled until 1988 when it began participating in military operations.

The first was in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama. However, this would be overshadowed by its more publicized role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There, it took part in 1,300 sorties, scored direct hits on 1,600 high-value targets in Iraq and was one of the few US and Allied aircraft to actually take part in strikes on downtown Baghdad. Throughout that war, and despite the proliferation of AAA, not a single craft was shot down.

During the Kosovo war, in 1999, the first F-117 was shot down outside of Belgrade by a Serbian missile brigade that had been experimenting with short-wave detection. This one incidents remains the only combat loss in the aircraft’s operational history, which ended in 2003 due to the introduction of the F-22 and other newer generations of stealth aircraft.

F-22 Raptor:
The original 5th generation fighter, the Raptor is a single-seat, twin-engine supermaneuverable fighter aircraft that uses stealth technology in a revolutionary way. Unlike previous generations of fighters, like the F-117, that attempted to be invisible on radar, the F-22 was designed to be difficult to detect, thus affording it a tactical advantage against enemy aircraft. Hence, it was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, but has additional capabilities that include ground attack, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence roles.

Development of this fighter craft began in the early 80’s with the intention of replacing the older F-15 and F-16 fighters, largely in response to the development of newer Soviet aircraft (such as the SU-27 and MiG-29). By the early 90’s, the first prototypes were released and highly publicized, with the first test flight taking place in 1997. In addition to its internal bays, thrust vectoring, and state-of-the-art control systems, the F-22 also incorporated stealthy materials and molded surfaces to minimize radar signature.

Since it entered service in 2005, the production of F-22’s has been stalled and restarted a few times over, largely in response to the development of the F-35. In 2010, funding for further production was officially cut. Nevertheless, the F-22 remains one of the most imitated designs in the world, inspiring the Sukhoi PAK FA and the Chendu J-20.

F-35 Lightning II:
The latest 5th generation stealth craft to be developed in the US, the Lighting II is a revolutionary design that incorporates all previous innovations in the field of stealth fighters. Developed in the 90’s as part of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the F-35 was intended to replace the aging F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and the British and American Harrier jump jets.

Though not officially in service yet, it made its debut flight in 2006 and is expected to join the US Air Force by 2016. In total, three variants have been proposed, each designed to fill a different type of mission profile. The F-35A is a conventional take and landing fighter, the B variant incorporates short-take off and vertical-landing capabilities, while the C is designed to be a carrier-based model.

Much like its predecessor, the F-22, the Lightning II possesses thrust vectoring, meaning it can adjust the angle of its thruster to assist in difficult turns. In the F-35B model, the engine nozzle is capable of being aimed straight down and, combined with a centrally-mounted turbofan, allows the craft to hover in place and land vertically. It’s internal weapons bays, stealthy shape and materials – all of which are adapted from the F-22 – also give it a low radar signature. In summary, it is the most advanced and versatile stealth fighter yet to be introduced to the world.

Sukhoi T-50:
Last, we have Russia’s answer to the 5th generation stealth fighter challenge. Beginning in the late 1980’s as a successor to the Mig-29 and SU-27, the T-50 is the culmination of Russia’s PAK FA (Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation) program. A single-seat, twin engine jet fighter, the T-50 represents the former Soviet blocs efforts to develop weapons comparable to the Western Allies.

The T-50 made its first flight in 2010 and is expected to join the Russian Air Force by 2015/16. Much like all 5th generation fighters currently in development or in operation, it’s armaments consist of two internal bays for missiles and either one or two GSh-301 30mm cannons.

In terms of its profile, the T-50 bears a striking resemblance to the F-22. However, it has some clear differences, such as the absence of thrust vectoring. However, it also takes advantage of some of the latest in avionics technology. These include three X-band arrays planted in the front and sides of the plane, as well two L-band placed in the wings. This allows for greater detection abilities, especially where stealth craft are involved. What’s more, the new technology enables fighter to fighter information sharing.

Final Thoughts:
Pretty cool huh? Given the advance of technology over the years, it seems like only a matter of time before fighters incorporate direct control through neural links, and polymorphic frames that can change shape based on altitude and air resistance. What’s more, in a few years time, we’re likely to see aircraft that can take advantage of the latest in adaptive camouflage and real-life cloaking technology, making the terms “stealth fighter” and “undetectable” quite literal! Cool indeed!