News from Space: NASA Showcases New Rover Tools

NASA_2020rover1Last Thursday at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, NASA unveiled more information about its Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to join Opportunity and Curiosity on the Red Planet by the end of the decade. The subject of this latest press release was the rover’s payload, which will consist of seven carefully-selected instruments that will conduct unprecedented science and exploratory investigations, and cost about $130 million to develop.

These instruments were selected from 58 proposals that were submitted back in January by researchers and engineers from all around the world. This is twice the usual number of proposals that NASA has received during instrument competitions in the recent past, and is a strong indicator of the extraordinary level of interest the scientific community is taking in the exploration of the Mars.

NASA_2020roverThese seven new instruments include:

  • Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE): this technology package will process the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. ISRU stands for In Situ Resource Utilization.
  • Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): this spectrometer will use a high-resolution imager and X-ray fluorescence for detailed elemental analysis to a finer degree than possible with any prior equipment.
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): this sensor suite will use an ultraviolet laser for fine-scale mineralogy, detecting organic compounds, and high-resolution imaging.
  • Mastcam-Z: an advanced camera system that will send home panoramic and stereoscopic images and assist with rover operations and help determine surface mineralogy.
  • SuperCam: an imaging device with super capacities to perform chemical composition analysis and more mineralogy. This tool will allow the rover to peer around hunting for organic compounds within rocks or weathered soils from a distance, helping identify interesting locations to sample in greater detail.
  • Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA): This sensor suite to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, and relative humidity. As dust is such a defining characteristic of weather on the red planet, it’s also going to measure dust size and shape, helping characterize how big of a hassle it will make housekeeping.
  • Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX): a ground-penetrating radar to imagine the subsurface to centimeter-scale resolution.

These instruments will be used to determine how future human explorers could exploit natural resources to live on Mars, pinning down limits to how much we could rely on using local materials. In addition, demonstration technology will test out processing atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, a key step towards using local resources for manufacturing oxidizers for rocket fuel and suitable for humans.

NASA_2020rover5This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the proposed mission, which is looking ahead to the possibility of manned Martian exploration and even settlement. To quote William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington:

Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible.

At the same time, and in keeping with plans for a manned mission, it will carry on in NASA’s long-term goal of unlocking Mars’ past and determining if life ever existed there. As John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, explained:

The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record. This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.

Mars_footprintNASA addressed these goals and more two weeks ago with their mission to Mars panel at the 2014 Comic-Con. This event, which featured retired astronaut and living legend Buzz Aldrin, spoke at length to a packed room about how Apollo 11 represented the “the first Giant Leap”. According to Aldrin, the Next Giant Leap could be “Apollo 45 landing humans on Mars.”

The panel discussion also included enthusiastic support of Orion and the Space Launch System which are currently under development and will be used when it finally comes time to send human explorers to join the rovers on Mars. The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed almost two years ago.

NASA_2020rover2Not only does it look virtually identical to Curiosity – from its six-wheeled chassis, on-board laboratory, and instrument-studded retractable arms – and will even be partly built using Curiosity’s spare parts.It will also land on Mars using the same lowered-to-the-surface-by-a-giant-sky-crane method. NASA als0 plans to use the rover to identify and select a collection of rock and soil samples that will be stored for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

These rock samples will likely have to wait until the proposed manned mission of 2030 to be picked up, but NASA seems hopeful that such a mission is in the cards. In the meantime, NASA is waiting for their MAVEN orbiter to reach Mars and begin exploring it’s atmosphere (it is expected to arrive by September), while the InSight Lander – which will examine Mars’ interior geology – is slated for launch by March 2016.

terraformingSo we can expect a lot more news and revelations about the Red Planet in the coming months and years. Who knows? Maybe we may finally find evidence of organic molecules or microbial life there soon, a find which will prove once and for all that life exists on other planets within our Solar System. And if we’re really lucky, we might just find that it could feasibly support life once again…

Sources: cbc.ca, fastcompany.com, nasa.gov, space.io9.com, (2), extremetech.com

Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with Space.com’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


Sources:
fastcompany.com, buzzaldrin.com, space.com

News From Space: Cassini Snaps Shots of Distant Earth

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For those who follow my site, or just pay attention to a reliable news source, you may recall that NASA announced an opportunity to take part in a long-range photo op. REALLY long range. A few weeks ago, in an attempt to raise awareness about Jupiter and space exploration, NASA announced that the Cassini Space Probe would be rounding Saturn and snapping photos of a distant Earth.

The worldwide “Wave at Saturn” campaign encouraged people to look up at the skies as the probe took its shots. Junior astronomers were also encouraged to watch with their telescopes to see if they could spot the distant satellite performing its route around the massive, ringed planet. This marked the first time that NASA was able to give the people of Earth advanced warning about a space photo op, and the turnout was impressive.

Earth_July_19_2013_Saturn-580x326Granted, North America and part of the Atlantic Ocean were the only illuminated parts of Earth at the time, but NASA claims that more than 20,000 people came out to wave at Saturn and post pictures of themselves online. Given the enormous distance involved, Earth itself appeared only 1.5 pixels wide in the photos. So congratulations if you got in the picture, but don’t expect to be able to see you face.

Not to be left out, members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena gathered outside of the facility to wave at Cassini on July 19th as it rounded the Saturnalian system and snapped shots of North America. Camping out on the front lawn, researchers and scientists set up a pavilion for the afternoon and enjoyed some outdoor fun until the moment arrived to wave at the heavens.

cassini-wave20130After being beamed back to Earth from 1.5 billion km away (over a billion miles), NASA science teams got right to work processing the many photos shot by Cassini so they could create individual color composites and a panoramic view of the ‘pale blue dot’ of Earth as well as the entire Saturnalian system. And as you can see from the image posted at the beginning of this article, the first color composite was pretty damn spectacular!

Cassini took a total of 323 images using different spectral filters. The snapshots it took of Earth happened between 2:27 and 2:42 p.m. PDT on Friday, July 19 from a distance of about 1.44 billion kilometers (898 million miles). The images show the Earth and the Moon as dots barely about a pixel wide but do reveal the ‘pale blue dot’ that is home to all of humanity and our whitish colored neighbor.

saturn_cassini2006Distant views of the Earth from robotic space probes, especially from the outer reaches of our Solar System, are few and far between, and are therefore events for space and astronomy enthusiasts and everyone else to savor. The last time Cassini took mosaic pictures of Saturn and Earth was back in 2006, and those were pretty spectacular too. But on this occasion, the benefits went beyond stunning photographs.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained:

One of the most exciting Cassini events in 2013 will be the unusual opportunity on July 19 to image the whole Saturn system as it is backlit by the sun. With Saturn covering the harsh light of the sun, we will be gathering unique ring science and also catching a glimpse of our very own home planet.

Coincidentally, the first humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) set foot on the Moon 44 years ago nearly to the day of Cassini’s new images on July 20, 1969. In short, this occasion reminds us that not only do we live in a very vast universe, but that we are part of a very proud and ongoing tradition of exploration.

News from Space: The Orion MPCV gets a Manned Mission

Orion_arraysIt’s known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and it represents NASA’s plans for a next-generation exploration craft. This plan calls for the Orion to be launched aboard the next-generation Space Launch System, a larger, souped-up version of the Saturn V’s that took the Apollo teams into space and men like Neil Armstrong to the Moon.

The first flight, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will be targeted to send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft to a point more than 70,000 km (40,000 miles) beyond the Moon. This mission will serve as a forerunner to NASA’s new Asteroid Redirect Initiative – a mission to capture an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth – which was recently approved by the Obama Administration.

orion_arrays1But in a recent decision to upgrade the future prospects of the Orion, the EM-1 flight will now serve as an elaborate harbinger to NASA’s likewise enhanced EM-2 mission. This flight would involve sending a crew of astronauts for up close investigation of the small Near Earth Asteroid that would be relocated to the Moon’s vicinity. Until recently, NASA’s plan had been to launch the first crewed Orion atop the 2nd SLS rocket to a high orbit around the moon on the EM-2 mission.

However, the enhanced EM-1 flight would involve launching an unmanned Orion, fully integrated with the SLS, to an orbit near the moon where an asteroid could be moved to as early as 2021. This upgrade would also allow for an exceptionally more vigorous test of all the flight systems for both the Orion and SLS before risking a flight with humans aboard.

orion_arrays2It would also be much more technically challenging, as a slew of additional thruster firings would be conducted to test the engines ability to change orbital parameters, and the Orion would also be outfitted with sensors to collect a wide variety of measurements to evaluate its operation in the harsh space environment. And lastly, the mission’s duration would also be extended from the original 10 to a full 25 days.

Brandi Dean, NASA Johnson Space Center spokeswoman, explained the mission package in a recent interview with Universe Today:

The EM-1 mission with include approximately nine days outbound, three to six days in deep retrograde orbit and nine days back. EM-1 will have a compliment of both operational flight instrumentation and development flight instrumentation. This instrumentation suite gives us the ability to measure many attributes of system functionality and performance, including thermal, stress, displacement, acceleration, pressure and radiation.

The EM-1 flight has many years of planning and development ahead and further revisions prior to the 2017 liftoff are likely. “Final flight test objectives and the exact set of instrumentation required to meet those objectives is currently under development,” explained Dean.

orion_spacecenterThe SLS launcher will be the most powerful and capable rocket ever built by humans – exceeding the liftoff thrust of even the Saturn V, the very rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts into space and put Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the Moon. Since NASA is in a hurry to reprise its role as a leader in space, both the Orion and the SLS are under active and accelerating development by NASA and its industrial partners.

As already stated by NASA spokespeople, the 1st Orion capsule is slated to blast off on the unpiloted EFT-1 test flight in September 2014 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. This mission will be what is known as a “two orbit” test flight that will take the unmanned Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to an altitude of 5800 km (3,600 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

After the 2021 missions to the Moon, NASA will be looking farther abroad, seeking to mount manned missions to Mars, and maybe beyond…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of NASA testing out the parachutes on the Orion space vehicle. The event was captured live on Google+ on July 24th from the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, and the following is the highlight of the event – the Orion being dropped from a plane!:

Neil Armstrong’s EKG Available for Auction

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The video of Neil Armstrong taking man’s first step onto the Moon is perhaps the most iconic pieces of footage humanity has ever produced. To Armstrong, seeing the Earth shining back at him must have been the most gorgeous, awe-inspiring sight ever. But to the crews manning Mission Control, Armstrong’s electrocardiogram reading was what they were looking at the moment he set his foot down.

And though we will never be able to see things from Armstrong’s perspective, you can see what Mission Control saw during those seminal moments. The six-inch strip of readout is going up for auction at the RR Auction site, and for the starting price of $200 you can own this piece of history. The strip comes in a presentation frame along with an Armstrong autopen signature and various mission patches.

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RR Auction has a tremendous stash of space-related memorabilia going up for bid. Many of the pieces are autographs from luminaries of the space program, but the Armstrong EKG isn’t the only unusual piece on offer. There is also a Constant Wear Garment from 1968 that was issued to Buzz Aldrin. This garment is kind of like a space onesie designed to be worn under the in-flight coveralls.

Other interesting lots include a set of Challenger Spacelab screws, a Space Shuttle commemorative Pepsi can, a flown heat shield fragment from Apollo 8, and a chunk of seat fabric from Apollo 13. Bidding starts on May 16 for the EKG reading along with the other space items. The opening bid for the EKG is $200, but the last time an Armstrong EKG went up for action back in 2004, bidding ended at $12,500.

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As the description on the EKG reads:

After the landing, this EKG report was saved by the Manager of Medical Administration for the Space Center. It was cut up into five pieces; four were presented to the attending physicians on the medical team.

And interestingly enough, the EKG indicates that Armstrong was very calm as he gazed at Earth from the Moon. But then again, how could such a sight not inspire feelings of deep serenity? And it only seems fitting that even in death, Armstrong continues to impress, amaze and exert a strong influence.

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Source: news.cnet.com

Apollo Rocket Engines Recovered from Seafloor

apollo_rocketThis past week, history was made when Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com) and his privately funded company, Bezos Expeditions, announced that they had successfully retrieved pieces of the very engines that had once launched Apollo astronauts to the moon. Using remotely operated vehicles and a series of slings, the crew members recovered enough parts to reconstruct the majority of two F-1 rocket boosters.

Bezos Expeditions announced last year that using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, that they had discovered the remains off the coast of Cape Canaveral off the coast of Florida. And this past Thursday, and with NASA’s help, Bezos located the fragments at a depth of almost 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) and began hauling them to the surface. Bezos claims they belonged to the historic Apollo 11 spaceflight, but further study and restoration will be needed before their identity can be confirmed.

apollo_rocket1Regardless, this is an exciting find, and the nature of the rocket boosters confirms that they were at least part of the Apollo program. Between 1968 and 1972, ten missions were conducted that flew out of the Kennedy Space Center, each one using the Saturn V rocket, that used five F-1 engines to boost them into orbit. Once the rockets had spent their fuel, they were detached and fell into the sea.

That means that approximately sixty five F-1 engines reside in the ocean off the coast of Florida. No telling which of those these ones could be, but it is hoped that serial numbers will be retrieved from the engines that can connect them to a specific Apollo mission. But regardless, this is an exciting find, and could not have come at a better time since NASA is looking to embark on a renewed era of exploration.

saturn-v-rocket-engines-recovered-ocean-installed_65442_600x450All told, Bezos and his team spent three weeks at sea, working almost 5 kilometers below the surface. During this time, Bezos claims that his team found so much:

We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program. We photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.

Naturally, NASA was pretty impressed with the find as well. After the find was announced, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made the following statement on behalf of the Agency:

This is a historic find and I congratulate the team for its determination and perseverance in the recovery of these important artifacts of our first efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit. We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display.

Apollo_11Needless to say, this is an exciting find, regardless of whether or not these rockets were the same ones that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. Naturally, I hope it is. I can think of no greater tribute to Armstrong’s memory so soon after his passing. I can imagine him looking down on this from the stars, where he now resides, with a big old smile!

And be sure to check out this video taken by the Bezos Expedition of the undersea find:

Source: nationalgeographic.com, universetoday.com