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:


Source:
gizmag.com, exploremars.org, indiegogo.com

News from Space: Time Capsule to Mars

Time_capsule_to_mars1The selfie is an apparent obsession amongst today’s youth, snapping pictures of themselves and posting them to social media. But for just 99 cents, people can send a picture of themselves to the Red Planet as part of the Time Capsule to Mars (TC2M) – a student-led, crowdfunded project that aims to send three CubeSat microsatellites to the planet containing digital messages from tens of millions of people from all around around the world.

The objective of the TC2M – a project of Explore Mars – mission is to inspire people throughout the globe and allow them a personal connection with space exploration in the same spirit of the Apollo missions. The non-profit organization also aims to educate and inspire children by enabling them to upload their media content, track their spacecraft and lander, and participate in the mission via a personalized Mission Control portal over the internet.

Mars_exploreWith the help and support of NASA, MIT, Stanford University and Deep Space Industries (among others), the student-led team will design, launch, fly and land three CubeSat-based spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The projected cost of the mission, covering everything from design to launch, is $25 million, which TC2M will attempt to raise by way of crowdfunding.

In terms of sending media content, people currently have the option of uploading only images up to 10 MB in size. However, in the coming months, TC2M claims that participants will also be able to upload other types of media such as videos, audio clips and text files. In order to reach as many people as possible, uploads in the developing world will be free of charge for smaller files, underwritten by corporate sponsors.

Time_capsule_to_mars2Emily Briere, a mechanical engineering student who is heading the project, explained their aim thusly:

We hope to inspire and educate young people worldwide by enabling them to personally engage and be part of the mission. The distributed approach to funding and personal engagement will ultimately guarantee our success.

The data will be carried by three identical 13-kg (27-lb) CubeSat spacecraft, each 30 x 40 x 10 cm (12 x 16 x 4 inches) in size. This will be the first time that such spacecraft are used for interplanetary travel, as well as the first time that many of the new technologies are being tested. The data will be stored in a quartz crystal, which is extremely dense and could last for millions of years, hence making it ideal for surviving the hostile conditions on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thrusterThe technologies being tested on the three spacecraft include delay-tolerant networking for the Deep Space Internet, inflatable antennae, and new interplanetary radiation sensors that will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. But out of all the new technologies being tested, the most exciting is certainly the propulsion system. But the most interesting technology of all will be in the form of its engines.

The three spacecraft will be propelled by an ion electrospray system (iEPS), a microthruster developed at MIT that is essentially size of a penny (pictured above). Each spacecraft will be powered by 40 thruster pairs, which will generate thrust using an electric field to extract and accelerate ions. The ionic liquid propellant is much more efficient than rocket fuel, and MIT scientists believe a scaled-up version may one day bring humans to Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thruster1The choice of employing three separate but identical spacecraft for the mission may be due in part to the fact that so many new technologies are being tested at the same time. To triple the chances of success, Briere has previously said that crowdfunders who want to send their media to Mars will have the option of having the data uploaded on all three spacecraft, for an additional price.

The spacecraft themselves will disintegrate as they traverse the Martian atmosphere. However, the payloads are being designed to aerobrake and land on the surface of Mars while keeping the data intact and preserved uncorrupted on the surface of the planet for a long, long time. As for how they intend to keep it stored until the day that manned missions can retrieve it, there are a few options on the table.

Time_capsule_to_marsOne option that is being considered is to use a microinscribed thin tungsten sheet, which has the advantage of being thin, light and strong, with a high melting point – meaning it won’t disintegrate upon entry – and good aerobraking properties because of its large surface area. However, there are concerns that sandstorms on Mars might damage the data once it has landed.

A second option would be an aerogel-shielded media. A metal ball could encase the data which would be stored in a very light medium, such as a quartz memory. The metal ball would be surrounded with an aerogel that will act as an ablative shield as it enters the atmosphere. And as it gets closer to the surface, the metal ball will act as a cushion for the data as it lands on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars3The organizers have only just announced their crowdfunding plans, and expect to reach the very ambitious goal of $25 million before the launch, which is planned for 2017. You can contribute to the mission and upload your own picture by visiting the mission website. And for those interested in possibly contributing, stay tuned to find out how and where you can donate once the crowdfunding campaign is up and running.

So in addition to showcasing new spacecraft, new media technologies, this project is also an attempt to stimulate interest in the new age of space exploration – an age characterized by public access and involvement. It’s also an opportunity to make your mark on the Red Planet, a mark which will someday (if all goes to plan) be uncovered by a new generation of explorers and settlers.

In the meantime, be sure to watch the short promotional video below which describes the mission and its goals:


Sources:
gizmag.com, timecapsuletomars.com, web.mit.edu