News from Space: We’re Going to Mars!

marsAs part of their desire to once again conduct launches into space from US soil, NASA recently awarded commercial space contracts worth $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX. But beyond restoring indigenous spaceflight capability, NASA’s long-term aim is clearly getting a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And in assigning the necessary money to the companies and visionaries willing to help make it happen, they just might succeed.

As per the agreement, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to finance the completion of the CST-100 spacecraft, and for up to six launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX is receiving $2.6 billion for its manned Dragon V2 capsule, and for up to six launches. NASA expressed excitement its collaboration with both companies, as it frees the agency up for bigger projects — such the development of its own Space Launch System (SLS).

elon-musk-on-mars-curiosity-self-640x353One person who is sure to be excited about all this is Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO, and  private space visionary. With this big infusion of cash, he has apparently decided that it’s time to bring his plans for Mars forward. Ever since 2007, Musk has indicated a desire to see his company mount a manned mission to Mars, and now he may finally have the resources and clout to make it happen.

These plans include flying astronauts to Mars by 2026, almost a decade before NASA thinks it will. By late 2012, he even spoke about building a Mars Colony with a population in the tens of thousands, most likely established sometime during the 2020’s. As of this past year, he has also revealed details about a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), an interplanetary taxi that would be capable of ferrying 100 people at a time to the surface.

Fan art concept of the MCT
Fan concept art of the MCT

And then in February of this year, SpaceX began developing the MCT’s engines. Known as the Raptor, this new breed of large engine reportedly has six times the thrust of the Merlin engines that power the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Now that the company has the financial resources to dream big, perhaps the MCT might move from the development stage to prototype creation.

And there is certainly no shortage of desire when it comes to sending people to the Red Planet. Together with Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, and Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, crowdfunded organizations are also on board for a manned mission. The case for settling it, which Musk himself endorses, is a good one – namely, that planting the seed of humanity on other worlds is the best way to ensure its survival. 

Earth_Mars_ComparisonAnd as Musk has stated many times now, a manned mission Mars is the reason there is a SpaceX. Back in 2001, while perusing NASA’s website, he was perturbed to find that the space agency had nothing in the way of plans for a mission to Mars. And the best time to go is probably in about 15 or 20 years, since Mars will be at its closes to Earth by then – some 58 million kilometers (36 million miles).

During this window of opportunity, the travel time between Earth and Mars will be measured in terms of months rather than years. This makes it the opportune time to send the first wave of manned spacecraft, be they two-way missions involving research crews, or one-way missions involving permanent settlers. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of people willing to volunteer for the latter.

Mars_one1When Mars One posted its signup list for their proposed mission (which is slated for 2025), they quickly drew over 200,000 applicants. And this was in spite of the fact that the most pertinent details, like how they are going to get them there, remained unresolved. Inspiration Mars, which seeks to send a couple on a round trip to Mars by 2021, is similarly receiving plenty of interest despite that they are still years away from figuring out all the angles.

In short, there is no shortage of people or companies eager to send a crewed spaceship to Mars, and federal agencies aren’t the only ones with the resources to dream big anymore. And it seems that the technology is keeping pace with interest and providing the means. With the necessary funding now secured, at least for the time being, it looks like the dream may finally be within our grasp.

Though it has yet to become a reality, it looks like the first Martians will actually come from Earth.

Sources:, (2),

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’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.


News from Space: First Couple to go to Mars!

marsJane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are a pretty interesting couple. Like most, they plan trips together to new and exciting destinations. But unlike most, they plan to go to Mars, and they just might see their dream come true. Twenty years ago, they founded the private space company Paragon Space Development Corporation, with the aim of finding the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet.

And now, after many years of planning, they may finally get to see it come to fruition. The only problem is, the window for this launch – in 2021 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment – is fast approaching. And a number of technical and logistical issues (i.e. how to shield themselves against deadly radiation, how to store their waste, how much food, water, and air to bring) still need to be resolved.

Inspiration_Mars (2)The mission – called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito – is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings.

But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars. They believe that sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators. Beyond that, and in advance of NASA’s proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, it might just inspire a full-scale colonization effort.

Photograph by John de DiosThe couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome near Tuscon, Arizona called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. For two years (between 1991 and 1993), eight people – including Poynter and MacCallum – lived inside this dome as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments.

This included a jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside. All went relatively smoothly until, 16 months into the experiment, crew members began suffering from severe fatigue and sleep apnea.

Mars_OneThey discovered that the dome’s oxygen content had substantially dropped and, when one member fell into a state of confusion in which he could not add simple numbers, decided to refill the dome with oxygen, breaking the simulation of space-colony self-sufficiency. The project was deemed a failure by many, with Time Magazine going as far as to name it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century.

But the crew persisted for their full two-year trial and, if nothing else, emerged intimately aware of the mental traumas of prolonged isolation—crucial wisdom for anyone seriously considering traveling to another planet. As Poynter described it, the challenges were numerous and varied:

Some of the easier ones to get your head around are things like depression and mood swings—that’s kind of obvious. Weird things are things like food stealing and hoarding.

Mars_simulationThe more severe symptoms were similar to the delusions reported by early 20th century explorers who hallucinated while trekking for months through the featureless white expanse of Antarctica. She describes one instance in which she was standing in the sweet potato field about to harvest greens to feed the Biosphere 2 goats when she suddenly felt as if she had stepped through a time machine:

I came out the other side and was embroiled in a very fervent argument with my much older brother. And what was so disconcerting about it was that it really was hallucinatory. It was like I could smell it, feel it. It was very weird.

Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)MacCallum blogged about these plans while still living inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon. After Biosphere 2 project, both began working with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR.

Then in December 2012, Paragon teamed up with another commercial space flight company named Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.

near-space_balloon5In short, Poynter and MacCallum have their fingers in just about every commercial space venture currently on the table outside of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, of course. Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today. Their focus is on creative teamwork, hoping to foster the kind of innovative spirit needed to make space missions possible.

Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to send a human couple to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones is one such person, who said in an interview with WIRED that he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.

mars-mission1Originally, Dennis Tito hoped to finance the project entirely independently, using crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy. The original goal was also to get the project off the ground by 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017.

They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support. According to McCallum:

There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.

During recent hearings with NASA, Tito explained that he would need roughly $1 billion over the next four or five years to develop the space launch system and other aspects of the mission. NASA was not readily willing to agree to this and they put the issue on hold. But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space.

oriontestflightAll of this would be great for NASA, which is beholden to public opinion and still looking to Congress to allocate the money needed to new infrastructure and fund future missions. Ergo, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground. Or as he put it:

I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.

At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars and did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system – all the things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission.

Poynter_MacCallum_Portrait-330And MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators, much as the Apollo missions inspired the current generation of innovators and astronauts. McCallum turned five on July 20th, 1969 – the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and credits that historic event for inspiring him to take an interest in space and enter the Biosphere 2 project.

And though they hadn’t originally intended to be the couple that would take part in the Inspiration Mars mission, they have indicated that they would be willing to throw their hats into the ring. After all, they meet the basic requirements for the mission, being a physically fit middle-aged couple, and the Biosphere 2 project lent them some experience living in isolation.

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356But most important to the couple is the idea of being able to call back to students on Earth and describe the experience. As he described it, watching footage of the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet’s drift closer would be the most amazing thing ever for a child to behold:

That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler. And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.

Of that, I have little doubt. And even if Inspiration Mars does not get off the ground (metaphorically or literally), it has hardly the only private space venture currently in the works. For example, Elon Musk and his commercial space firm SpaceX has made incredibly progress with the development of the reusable-rocket system. And Mars One, another crowdfunded venture, is still in the works and aiming to send volunteers on a one-way trip by 2024.

No telling how and when the first human beings will walk on the Red Planet. But at this juncture, it seems like a foregone conclusion that not only will it be happening, but within our lifetimes. And while we’re waiting, be sure to check out the Inspiration Mars video below. I can attest to it being quite… inspiring 😉


Mission to Europa: NASA now Taking Suggestions

europa_moon_IoJupiter’s moon of Europa has been the subject of much speculation and intrigue ever since it was first discovered by Galileo in 1610. In addition to having visible sources of (frozen) surface water and a tenuous oxygen atmosphere, it is also believed to boast interior oceans that could very well support life. As evidence for this mounts, plans to explore Europa using robot landers, miners, submersibles, or even manned missions have been floated by various sources.

However, it was this past December when astronomers announced that water plumes erupting 161 kilometers (100 miles) high from the moon’s icy south pole that things really took a turn. It was the best evidence to date that Europa, heated internally by the powerful tidal forces generated by Jupiter’s gravity, has a deep subsurface ocean. In part because of this, NASA recently issued a Request for Information (RFI) to science and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to the enigmatic moon. Any ideas need to address fundamental questions about the subsurface ocean and the search for life beyond Earth.

europa-lander-2This is not the first time that NASA has toyed with the idea of investigating the Jovian moon for signs of life. Last summer, an article by NASA scientists was published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology, which was entitled “Science Potential from a Europa Lander“. This article set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved. At the time, the article indicated NASA’s ongoing interest, but this latest call for public participation shows that the idea is being taken more seriously.

This is positive news considering that NASA’s planned JIMO mission – Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter, which was cancelled in 2005 – would be taking place by this time next year. Originally slated for launch between May and January of 2015/16, the mission involved sending a probe to Jupiter by 2021, which would then deploy landers to Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa for a series of 30 day studies. At the end of the mission in 2025, the vehicle would be parked in a stable orbit around Europa.

JIMO_Europa_Lander_MissionJohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, had the following to say in a recent press release:

This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost… Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth. The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.

By opening the mission up to public input, it also appears that NASA is acknowledging the nature of space travel in the modern age. As has demonstrated with Chris Hadfield’s mission aboard the ISS, the Curiosity rover, as well as private ventures such as Mars One, Inspiration Mars, and Objective Europa  – the future of space exploration and scientific study will involve a degree of social media and public participation never before seen.

europa_reportThe RFI’s focus is for concepts for a mission that costs less than $1 billion, but will cover five key scientific objectives that are necessary to improve our understanding of this potentially habitable moon. Primarily, the mission will need to:

  1. Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  2. Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  3. Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  4. Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
  5. Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

Although Europa has been visited by spacecraft and imaged distantly by Hubble, more detailed research is necessary to understand the complexities of this moon and its potential for life. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 was the only mission to visit Europa, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times. Ergo, if we’re ever to determine conclusively whether or not life exists there, we’re going to have to put boots (robotic or human) onto the surface and start digging!

To read the full Decadal Survey report on NASA’s website, click here.


Space Tourism: The World View Balloon

near-space_balloonWhen the Space Age began, some five decades ago, there were many who predicted that commercial space flight would follow shortly thereafter. This included everything from passenger flights into space, orbital space stations, and even space tourism. Naturally, these hopes seem quite naive in hindsight, but recent events are making them seem feasible once more.

Consider Virgin Galactic, a commercial aerospace carrier that will begin taking passengers into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) beginning next year. And there’s Inspiration Mars, a private company that wants to send a couple on a round trip to visit the Red Planet. And now, there’s World View Enterprises, a company that plans to send to start sending passengers on a near-space balloon ride beginning in 2016.

near-space_balloon1Based in Tucson, Arizona, World View is a start-up that is looking to entice people into the budding field of space tourism by offering people a chance to get a taste of space without actually going there. Going into space is defined as traveling 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface, whereas their balloon ride will take passengers to a height of 30 km (18.6 miles), where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth

World View Enterprises recently obtained approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US $75,000 a ride, and are projected to begin in 2016. Each flight will consist of two balloon pilots and up to six passengers, which will be contained within a cylindrical capsule that comes equipped with heating and its own air-supply.

near-space_balloon2According to the company’s plan, the capsule – which measures 6 meters in length and 3 in width (approx. 20 x 10 feet) – will be deployed below a parasail (used for recovery) and tethered to a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cubic ft) helium balloon, which will provide the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to 30 km in altitude or Low-Earth Orbit.

Might sound a little dangerous to some, but the FAA has determined that World View’s design meets the engineering and environmental challenges posed by Low-Earth Orbit. They stressed that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, even though it will not exceed altitudes much above 30 km, and assigned it a safety factor of 1.4 – the same as that required of manned space systems.

near-space_balloon5The flight itself is projected to last about four hours, with the ascent taking 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will then remain at an altitude of 30 km for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.

That’s comes after, when the capsule is cut off from the balloon and begins to fall towards Earth. Once it gains enough speed, the parafoil will provide sufficient lift to slow the descent and bring the passengers in for a safe, controlled landing. Before touching down, the capsule will deploy a set of skids and lands much the same way a paraglider does.

near-space_balloon4All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points on the space tourism agenda. These include seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, and having a view of the planet that only astronauts are ever treated to. That may very well add up to an experience that is as good as being in space without technically getting there.

The only question is, will enough passengers line up for an amazing day’s flight that costs a startling $75K? Only time will tell. One thing is fore sure though. The dream of space tourism appears to finally be upon us, though it is a few decades late in coming. Today’s dreams do tend to become tomorrow’s reality, though they sometimes take longer than expected.

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from World View Enterprises showing their concept in action:


News From Mars: Revelations on Radiation

mars_astronauts1As the projected date for a manned mission to the Red Planet approaches, the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity team continue to conduct vital research into what a human team of explorers can expect to find. Unfortunately, earlier last month, that research led to a discouraging announcement which may force NASA and a number of private companies to rethink their plans for manned missions.

Earlier in May, a number of scientists, NASA officials, private space company representatives and other members of the spaceflight community gathered in Washington D.C. for a three day meeting known as the Humans to Mars (H2M) conference. Hosted by the spaceflight advocacy group Explore Mars, the attendees met to discuss all the challenges that a 2030 manned mission would likely encounter.

mars_astronautsFor starters, the human race currently lacks the technology to get people to Mars and back. An interplanetary mission of that scale would likely be one of the most expensive and difficult engineering challenges of the 21st century. Currently, we don’t have the means to properly store enough fuel to make the trip, or a vehicle capable of landing people on the Martian surface. Last, and most importantly, we aren’t entirely sure that a ship will keep the astronauts alive long enough to get there.

This last issue was raised thanks to a recent confirmation made by the Curiosity rover, which finished calculating the number of high-energy particles that struck it during its eight month journey to Mars. Based on this data, NASA says that a human traveling to and from Mars could well be exposed to a radiation dose that is beyond current safety limits.

NASAsolar_radiationThis was performed with the rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument, which switched on inside as the cruise vessel began its 253-day, 560-million-km journey. The particles of concern fall into two categories – those that are accelerated away from our Sun and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) – those that arrive at high velocity from outside of the Solar System. This latter category is especially dangerous since they impart a lot of energy when they strike the human body, can cause damage to DNA and are hard to shield against.

What’s more, this calculation does not even include time spent on the planet’s surface. Although Curiosity has already determined that planetary levels were within human tolerances, the combined dosage would surely lead to a fatal case of cancer for any career astronaut looking to take part in an “Ares Mission”. Cary Zeitlin from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and colleagues reported the Curiosity findings in the latest edition of Science magazine.

They claim that engineers will have to give careful consideration to the type of shielding that will need to be built into a Mars-bound crew ship. However, they concede that for some of the most damaging radiation particles, there may be little that can be done, beyond delivering them to Mars as quickly as possible. This presents an even greater challenge, which calls for the development of something better than existing propulsion technology. Using chemical propellants, Curiosity made the trip in eight months.

spaceX_elonmusk However, the good news is that at this juncture, nothing is technologically impossible about a manned Mars mission. It’s just a matter of determining what the priorities are and putting the time and money into developing the necessary tools. Right now NASA, other space agencies, and private companies are working to bring Mars within reach. And with time and further developments, who knows what will be possible by the time the 2020’s roll around?

Some alternatives include plasma and nuclear thermal rockets, which are in development and could bring the journey time down to a number of weeks. What’s more, SpaceX and other agencies are working on cheaper deliver systems, such as the grasshopper reusable rocket, to make sending ships into space that much more affordable. In addition, concepts for improving radiation shielding – like Inspiration Mars’ idea of using human waste – are being considered to cut down on the irradiation factor.

So despite the concerns, it seems that we are still on track for a Mars mission in 2030. And even if there are delays in the implementation, it seems as though a manned mission is just a matter of time at this point. Red Planet, here we come!


News From Space: The NASA-Funded Fusion Rocket

fusion-rocket-university-of-washington-640x353NASA scientists have been saying for some time that they plan to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. At the same time, space adventurist Dennis Tito and his company Inspiration Mars want to send a couple on a flyby of the Red Planet in 2018. With such ambitions fueling investment and technological innovation, its little wonder why people feel we are embarking on the new era of space exploration.

However, there is one sizable problem when it comes to make the Mars transit, which is the wait time. In terms of Tito’s proposed flyby, a trip to Mars when it is in alignment with Earth would take a total 501 days. As for NASA’s round-trip excursions for the future, using current technology it would take just over four years. That’s quite the long haul, and as you can imagine, that longer transit time has an exponential effect on the budgets involved!

Mars_landerBut what if it were possible to cut that one-way trip down to just 30 days. That’s the question behind the new fusion rocket design being developed at the University of Washington and being funded by NASA. Led by John Slough, this team have spent the last few years developing and testing each of the various stages of the concept and is now bringing the isolated tests together to produce an actual fusion rocket.

The challenge here is to create a fusion process that generates more power than it requires to get the fusion reaction started, a problem which, despite billions of dollars of research, has eluded some of the world’s finest scientists for more than 60 years. However, researchers continue to bang their head on this proverbial wall since fusion alone – with its immense energy density – appears to be the way of overcoming the biggest barrier to space travel, which is fuel weight and expense.

spacecraft_marsUltimately, the UW fusion rocket design relies on some rather simple but ingenious features to accomplish its ends. In essence, it involves a combustion chamber containing rings made of lithium and a pellet of deuterium-tritium – a hydrogen isotope that is usually used as the fuel in fusion reactions. When the pellet is in the right place, flowing through the combustion chamber towards the exhaust, a huge magnetic field is triggered, causing the metal rings to slam closed around the pellet of fuel.

These rings then implode with such pressure that the fuel compresses into fusion, causing a massive explosion that ejects the metal rings out of the rocket and at 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph) and generating thrust. This reaction would be repeated every 10 seconds, eventually accelerating the rocket to somewhere around 320,000 km/h (200,000 mph) — about 10 times the speed of Curiosity as it hurtled through space from Earth to Mars.

NASA_fusionchamberHowever, things still remain very much in the R&D phase for the fusion rocket. While the team has tested out the imploding metal rings, they have yet to insert the deuterium-tritium fuel and propel a super-heated ionized lump of metal out the back at over 100,000 kilometers and hour. That is the next – and obviously a very, very – big step.

But in the end, success will be measured when it comes to two basic criteria: It must work reliably and, most importantly, it must be capable of generating more thermal energy than the electrical energy required to start the fusion reaction. And as already mentioned, this is the biggest challenge facing the team as it is something that’s never been done before.

However, most scientific minds agree that within 20 years at least, fusion power will be possible, and the frontiers it will open will be vast and wonderful. Not only will we be able to fully and completely lick the problem of clean energy and emissions, we will have rockets capable of taking us to Mars and beyond in record time. Deep space flight will finally become a possibility, and we may even begin considering sending ships to Alpha Centauri, Bernard’s Star and (fingers crossed!) Gliese 581!


Manned Mars Mission Update!

Mars_landerMillionaire and space enthusiast Dennis Tito surprised the world with his announcement that he plans to fund a couple’s expedition to Mars. Apparently, the trip is planned to take place in 2018 during a conjunction of our planet with Mars, will take 501 days, and will involve sending a married couple in a capsule roughly the size of a Winnebago. But as time goes on, more news is trickling out of the “Inspiration Mars” program, and some of it is raising eyebrows.

For example, there’s the news that the Mars capsule will involve a rather interesting form of radiation shielding… made of feces. You read that right, the capsule will contain shielding composed of human feces (among other things) that will shield the couple inside from harmful cosmic radiation. But before people begin visualizing some ugly, creepy concoction, let me assure them that this concept is not as unusual as it sounds.

tito-mars-mission-conceptWhen it comes right down to it, this is the greatest health threat the people who go will face, followed shortly thereafter by muscle atrophy, boredom and cramped conditions. And rather than line the capsule with expensive and heavy metals, such as lead, the engineers designing the Inspiration Mars capsule thought they might kill two birds with one stone.

According to Taber MacCallum, co-founder and CEO of the Paragon Space Development Corporation and member of the Inspiration Mars team, explained that the idea had to do with waste recycling and storage. Since the couple will be eating, drinking and defecating within the capsule for a full 501 days, the waste has to go somewhere.

Mars_orbitThe proposed solution? Put it in the walls, along with food and liquid waste, and then desiccate it all to recycle the water. Or, as MacCallum put it:

It’s a little queasy sounding, but there’s no place for that material to go, and it makes great radiation shielding… Dehydrate them as much as possible, because we need to get the water back. Those solid waste products get put into a bag, put right back against the wall.

But to be fair, this proposal is not exactly new. In fact, the idea was mentioned back in 2011 by Michael Flynn, a life support engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, who proposed using urine and feces to shield space stations. Packing for Mars author Mary Roach The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxyalso mentioned it in a 2011 edition of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program is also working out the nuts and bolts of this concept under the name of “Water Walls Architecture”.

Source_croppedWater, MacCallum explained, is the key ingredient here, since it serves as a better radiation shield than metal. It’s the nuclei of atoms that block the radiation you see, and water contains more atoms (and therefore more nuclei) per volume than metal does. Food and waste also provide good radiation shielding, and because the food blocks rather than absorbs the radiation, it will remain safe to eat.

Naturally, McCallum was sure to note that they are still working out some of the logistical problems. For one, they still need to figure out how best to keep the Mars-bound couple from experiencing too many nasty sights and smells on their journey.

Gotta admit, this isn’t something you think about when you hear the word “space travel” do you? But then again, you have to account for things like this. Until people can survive without consuming food and water, and expelling waste, long-term space missions will have to figure out what to do about all the dirty, ugly business people get into!

Sources:, IO9

Wanted: Married Couple to go to Mars

tito-mars-mission-conceptSounds like the setup for a sci-fi romantic comedy doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s the basis for a planned Mars mission which is being hosted by space adventurist Dennis Tito. As the head of the non-profit organization known as Inspiration Mars, Tito has long believed that humanity must seize on the opportunity being provided by a new generation of space exploration, with the intention of becoming a truly “multi-planet species”.

The mission will consist of sending two professional crew members –  who will likely be a married couple – on a “fast, free-return” mission, passing within 160 kilometers of Mars before swinging back and safely returning to Earth. The spacecraft will likely be tinier than a small Winnebago recreational vehicle, and will be launched on Jan. 5, 2018 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment.

inspiration_marsTo make it happen, Inspiration Mars has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA – specifically the Ames Research Center (Ames) – to conduct thermal protection system and technology testing and evaluation, as well as tapping into NASA’s knowledge, experience and technologies. Tito emphasized during their initial meeting that his organization was not looking for money, but a partner to help them develop the required technologies.

The mission system will consist of a modified capsule launched out of Earth orbit using a single propulsive maneuver to achieve the Mars trajectory. An inflatable habitat module will be deployed after launch and detached prior to re-entry. Closed-loop life support and operational components will be located inside the vehicle, designed for simplicity and “hands-on” maintenance and repair.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014As already stated, the mission is a non-profit venture that is designed to inspire. As Tito himself put it:

“[the mission will engage] the best minds in industry, government and academia to develop and integrate the space flight systems and to design innovative research, education and outreach programs for the mission. This low-cost, collaborative, philanthropic approach to tackling this dynamic challenge will showcase U.S. innovation at its best and benefit all Americans in a variety of ways.”

What’s more, Tito believes that the time is right for this mission, and not only because of the orbital window of opportunity. “Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and the space industry are converging at the right time to make this mission achievable,” he said.

The mission will last 501 days, and Tito has emphasized that it will be an American adventure, not an international one. Tito himself plans to fund the next two years of the mission, beyond that it will be funded primarily through private, charitable donations, as well as government partners that can provide expertise, access to infrastructure and other technical assistance. He also believes media rights will be a major part of things, since the mission will be an historic first and ought to be caught on tape!

mars_lifeAnd the reason they wanted a married couple to do the deed is quite simple. Jane Poyter, a member of Inspiration Mars explains:

“Imagine, it’s a really long road trip and you’re jammed into an RV and you can’t get out,” Poynter said. “There’s no microgravity … all you have to eat for over 500 days are 3,000 lbs of dehydrated food that they rehydrate with the same water over and over that will be recycled,” adding that the two crew will need the proven ability to be with each other for the long term.

Makes sense. After all, who but a couple already intimately familiar with each others foibles and used to spending an inordinate amount of time together could make it 501 days without killing each other? And as we all know, taking a trip together is the true test of a relationship’s mettle, especially when its a capsule smaller than an RV with no chance of escape!

And for Tito’s sake, I hope things work out. One thing is for sure, his dream of a public-private relationship to make space travel happen is already taking shape.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the promotional animation, showing the mission and the mechanics of the free return trajectory: