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: 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

News from Space: Insight Lander and the LDSD

mars-insight-lander-labelledScientists have been staring at the surface of Mars for decades through high-powered telescopes. Only recently, and with the help of robotic missions, has anyone been able to look deeper. And with the success of the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, NASA is preparing to go deeper. The space agency just got official approval to begin construction of the InSight lander, which will be launched in spring 2016. While there, it’s going to explore the subsurface of Mars to see what’s down there.

Officially, the lander is known as the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, and back in May, NASA passed the crucial mission final design review. The next step is to line up manufacturers and equipment partners to build the probe and get it to Mars on time. As with many deep space launches, the timing is incredibly important – if not launched at the right point in Earth’s orbit, the trip to Mars would be far too long.

Phoenix_landingUnlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on the Red Planet by way of a fascinating rocket-powered sky crane, the InSight will be a stationary probe more akin to the Phoenix lander. That probe was deployed to search the surface for signs of microbial life on Mars by collecting and analyzing soil samples. InSight, however, will not rely on a tiny shovel like Phoenix (pictured above) – it will have a fully articulating robotic arm equipped with burrowing instruments.

Also unlike its rover predecessors, once InSight sets down near the Martian equator, it will stay there for its entire two year mission – and possibly longer if it can hack it. That’s a much longer official mission duration than the Phoenix lander was designed for, meaning it’s going to need to endure some harsh conditions. This, in conjunction with InSight’s solar power system, made the equatorial region a preferable landing zone.

mars-core_bigFor the sake of its mission, the InSight lander will use a sensitive subsurface instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). This device will track ground motion transmitted through the interior of the planet caused by so-called “marsquakes” and distant meteor impacts. A separate heat flow analysis package will measure the heat radiating from the planet’s interior. From all of this, scientists hope to be able to shed some light on Mars early history and formation.

For instance, Earth’s larger size has kept its core hot and spinning for billions of years, which provides us with a protective magnetic field. By contrast, Mars cooled very quickly, so NASA scientists believe more data on the formation and early life of rocky planets will be preserved. The lander will also connect to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to precisely track the position of Mars over time. A slight wobbling could indicate the red planet still has a small molten core.

If all goes to plan, InSight should arrive on Mars just six months after its launch in Spring 2016. Hopefully it will not only teach us about Mars’ past, but our own as well.

LDSDAfter the daring new type of landing that was performed with the Curiosity rover, NASA went back to the drawing table to come up with something even better. Their solution: the “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”, a saucer-shaped vehicle consisting of an inflating buffer that goes around the ship’s heat shield. It is hopes that this will help future spacecrafts to put on the brakes as they enter Mar’s atmosphere so they can make a soft, controlled landing.

Back in January and again in April, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tested the LDSD using a rocket sled. Earlier this month, the next phase was to take place, in the form of a high-altitude balloon that would take it to an altitude of over 36,600 meters (120,000 feet). Once there, the device was to be dropped from the balloon sideways until it reached a velocity of four times the speed of sound. Then the LDSD would inflate, and the teams on the ground would asses how it behaved.

LDSD_testUnfortunately, the test did not take place, as NASA lost its reserved time at the range in Hawaii where it was slated to go down. As Mark Adler, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project manager, explained:

There were six total opportunities to test the vehicle, and the delay of all six opportunities was caused by weather. We needed the mid-level winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet [4,500 meters to 18,230 meters] to take the balloon away from the island. While there were a few days that were very close, none of the days had the proper wind conditions.

In short, bad weather foiled any potential opportunity to conduct the test before their time ran out. And while officials don’t know when they will get another chance to book time at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, they’re hoping to start the testing near the end of June. NASA emphasized that the bad weather was quite unexpected, as the team had spent two years looking at wind conditions worldwide and determined Kauai was the best spot for testing their concept over the ocean.

If the technology works, NASA says it will be useful for landing heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet. This is one of the challenges the agency must surmount if it launches human missions to the planet, which would require more equipment and living supplies than any of the rover or lander missions mounted so far. And if everything checks out, the testing goes as scheduled and the funding is available, NASA plans to use an LDSD on a spacecraft as early as 2018.

And in the meantime, check out this concept video of the LDSD, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:


Sources:
universetoday.com, (2), extremetech.com

Happy Anniversary Curiosity!

curiosity_sol-177-1Two days ago, the Mars Rover known as Curiosity celebrated a full year of being on the Red Planet. And what better way for it to celebrate than to revel in the scientific discoveries the rover has made? In addition to providing NASA scientists with years worth of valuable data, these groundbreaking finds have also demonstrated that Mars could once have supported past life – thereby accomplishing her primary science goal.

And it appears that the best is yet come, with the rover speeding off towards Mount Sharp – the 5.5 km (3.4 mile) high mountain dominating the center of the Gale Crater – which is the rover’s primary destination of the mission. This mountain is believed to contain vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment, thus making it a veritable gold mine of scientific data!

curiosity-anniversary-1To take stock of everything Curiosity has accomplished, some numbers need to be tallied. In the course of the past year, Curiosity has transmitted over 190 gigabits of data, captured more than 71,000 images, fired over 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of rocks and soil, and drilled into two rocks for sample analysis by the SAM & CheMin labs housed in her belly.

On top of all that, the rover passed the 1 mile (1.6 km) driving mark on August 1st. Granted, Mount Sharp (aka. Aeolis Mons) is still 8 km (5 miles) away and the trip is expected to take a full year. But the rover has had little problems negotiated the terrain at this point, and the potential for finding microbial life on the mountain is likely to make the extended trip worthwhile.

curiosity-anniversary-20But even that doesn’t do the rover’s year of accomplishments and firsts justice. To really take stock of them all, one must consult the long-form list of milestones Curiosity gave us. Here they are, in order of occurrence from landing to the the long trek to Mount Sharp that began last month:

1. The Landing: Curiosity’s entrance to Mars was something truly new and revolutionary. For starters, the distance between Earth and Mars at the time of her arrival was so great that the spacecraft had to make an entirely autonomous landing with mission control acting as a bystander on a 13-minute delay. This led to quite a bit a tension at Mission Control! In addition, Curiosity was protected by a revolutionary heat shield that also acted as a lifting body that allowed the craft to steer itself as it slowed down in the atmosphere. After the aeroshell and heat shield were jettisoned, the rover was lowered by a skycrane, which is a rocket-propelled frame with a winch that dropped Curiosity to the surface.

2. First Laser Test: Though Curiosity underwent many tests during the first three weeks after its landing, by far the most dramatic was the one involving its laser. This single megawatt laser, which was designed to vaporize solid rock and study the resultant plasma with its ChemCab system, is the first of its kind to be used on another planet. The first shot was just a test, but once Curiosity was on the move, it would be used for serious geological studies.Curiosity-Laser-Beam3. First Drive: Granted, Curiosity’s first drive test was more of a parking maneuver, where the rover moved a mere 4.57 m (15 ft), turned 120 degrees and then reversed about 2.4 m (8 feet). This brought it a total of about 6  m (20 ft) from its landing site – now named Bradbury Landing after the late author Ray Bradbury. Still, it was the first test of the rover’s drive system, which is essentially a scaled-up version of the one used by the Sojourn and Opportunity rovers. This consists of six 50 cm (20-in) titanium-spoked aluminum wheels, each with its own electric motor and traction cleats to deal with rough terrain.

4. Streams Human Voice: On August 28, 2012, Curiosity accomplished another historical first when it streamed a human voice from the planet Mars back to Earth across 267 million km (168 million miles). It was a 500 kilobyte audio file containing a prerecorded message of congratulations for the engineers behind Curiosity from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and demonstrated the challenges of sending radio beams from Earth to distant machines using satellite relays.

curiosity-anniversary-45. Writes a Message: Demonstrating that it can send messages back to Earth through other means than its radio transmitter, the Curiosity’s treads leave indentations in the ground that spell out JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) in Morse Code for all to see. Apparently, this is not so much a gimmick as a means of keeping track how many times the wheels make a full revolution, thus acting as an odometer rather than a message system.

6. Flexing the Arm: Curiosity’s robotic arm and the tools it wield are part of what make it so popular. But before it could be put to work, it had to tested extensively, which began on August 30th. The tools sported by this 1.88 m (6.2-ft) 33.11kg (73 lb) arm include a drill for boring into rocks and collecting powdered samples, an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), a scooping hand called the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA), the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and the Dust Removal Tool (DRT).

curiosity-alluvialplain7. Discovery of Ancient Stream Bed: Curiosity’s main mission is to seek out areas where life may have once or could still exist. Therefore, the discovery in September of rocky outcroppings that are the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater, was a major achievement. It meant that there was a time when Mars was once a much wetter place, and increases the chances that it once harbored life, and perhaps still does.

8. First Drilling: In February, Curiosity conducted the first robot drill on another planet. Whereas previous rovers have had to settle for samples obtained by scooping and scraping, Curiosity’s drill is capable of rotational and percussive drilling to get beneath the surface. This is good, considering that the intense UV radiation and highly reactive chemicals on the surface of Mars means that finding signs of life requires digging beneath the surface to the protected interior of rock formations.Curiosity_drillings9. Panoramic Self Portrait: If Curiosity has demonstrated one skill over and over, it is the ability to take pictures. This is due to the 17 cameras it has on board, ranging from the black and white navigation cameras to the high-resolution color imagers in the mast. In the first week of February, Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 130 high-resolution images, which were assembled into a 360⁰ panorama that included a portrait of itself. This was just one of several panoramic shots that Curiosity sent back to Earth, which were not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also provided scientists with a degree of clarity and context that it often lacking from images from unmanned probes. In addition, these self-portraits allow engineers to keep an eye on Curiosity’s physical condition.

10. Long Trek: And last, but not least, on July 4th, Curiosity began a long journey that took it out of the sedimentary outcrop called “Shaler” at Glenelg and began the journey to Mount Sharp which will take up to a year. On July 17, Curiosity passed the one-kilometer mark from Bradbury Landing in its travels, and has now gone more than a mile. Granted, this is still a long way from the breaking the long-distance record, currently held by Opportunity, but it’s a very good start.

curiosity_roadmapSuch was Curiosity’s first 365 days on Mars, in a nutshell. As it enters into its second year, it is expected to make many more finds, ones which are potentially “Earthshaking”, no doubt! What’s more, the findings of the last year have had an emboldening effect on NASA, which recently announced that it would be going ahead with additional missions to Mars.

These include the InSight lander, a robotic craft which will conduct interior studies of the planet that is expected to launch by 2016, and a 2020 rover mission that has yet to be named. In addition, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter as just arrived intact at the Kennedy Space Center and will be blasting off to the Red Planet on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast atop an Atlas V rocket.

maven_orbitThese missions constitute a major addition to NASA’s ongoing study of Mars and assessing its past, present and future habitability. Between rovers on the ground, interior studies of the surface, and atmospheric surveys conducted by MAVEN and other orbiters, scientists are likely to have a very clear picture as to what happened to Mars atmosphere and climate by the time manned missions begin in 2030.

 

Stay tuned for more discoveries as Curiosity begins its second year of deployment. Chances are, this year’s milestones and finds will make this past years look like an appetizer or a warm-up act. That’s my hope, at any rate. But considering what lies ahead of it, Curiosity is sure to deliver!

In the meantime, enjoy some of these videos provided by NASA. The first shows Curiosity’s SAM instrument singing “happy birthday” to the rover (though perhaps humming would be a more accurate word):


And check out this NASA video that sums up the rover’s first year in just two minutes:

Mars Lander Mission, 2016

With all the news coming back from Curiosity rover since its deployment, one would get the impression that Mars is a pretty happening place. Blue sunsets, wide open vistas, tall mountains and extensive plains. All the while, our collective fascination with the planet has been growing apace. And it seems that this trend is destined to continue…

After looking at several low-cost options for their next major mission, NASA scientists decided to once again return to the Red Planet, this time to do some interior planet studies to determine whether Mars has a solid or liquid core, and determine the planet’s basic structure.

Known as the InSight lander, this mission won out over two equally enticing proposals. The first called the for the deployment of the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), a floating high-tech buoy which would be sent to Saturn’s moon Titan. Once there, it would study the methane lakes of Titan, examining their composition and interaction with the atmosphere. Thanks to the Cassini probe, these lakes have attracted a great deal of interest of late, particularly since they may be able to support life. Understandably, many can’t wait to study them up close and see if this holds true.

The second potential mission called for the deployment of “Chopper”, a proposed Comet Hopper mission that would put a lander on comet 46P/Wirtanen where it would study the comet’s composition. This comet, which was originally discovered in 1948, belongs to the Jupiter family of comets and orbits the Solar System once every 5.4 years. Studying its make-up would go a long way to helping scientists understanding how Solar comets behave and provide clues as to the early formation of our Solar System.

But scratch those! With 2016 on the way, budget limited and Mars the happening place, InSight will be the one to go. What’s more, it’s research is likely to prove very useful in settling some ongoing arguments, not the least of which is whether Mars possesses liquid water beneath its surface. If this should prove true, it might mean terraforming could be a go sometime down the road…

People can dream! And speaking of which, check out the NASA simulation of what InSight will look like once deployed.


Source: Universe Today