New Space: “Sail Rover” to Explore Mercury

zephyr-580x435In addition to their ongoing plans to explore Mars for signs of life, the Jovian moon of Europa, and tow an asteroid closer to Earth, NASA also has plans to explore the surface of Venus. For decades, scientists have been yearning to get a closer look at this world’s pockmarked surface, but the volcanic activity, clouds of sulfuric acid and extreme heat are not exactly favorable to robotic rovers.

But according to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, a windsailing rover could be just the means through which the hellish surface environment could be surveyed. This rover, nicknamed Zephyr, would use the high speeds and hot temperatures of Venus to its advantage, deploying a sail after entering the atmosphere and sailing to the ground.

mercury_surfaceThe rover would not be able to move around the surface, but would have electronics inside that are able to withstand the temperatures of 450 degrees Celsius (840 degrees Fahrenheit). Whenever the science team wanted to move some distance, however, they would deploy another sail that could use the wind to transport it across the surface. But mainly, the rover would remain on the ground conducting surface analysis.

Geoffrey Landis, who is with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and a part of the project to develop Zephyr, has long been an advocate of exploring Venus. This has included using solar powered airplane to explore the atmosphere, and colonizing the planet with floating cities. On the subject of Zephyr, he stated that:

A sail rover would be extraordinary for Venus. The sail has only two moving parts-just to set the sail and set the steering position-and that doesn’t require a lot of power. There’s no power required to actually drive. The fundamental elements of a rover for Venus are not beyond the bounds of physics. We could survive the furnace of Venus if we can come up with an innovative concept for a rover that can move on extremely low power levels.

venus_terraformedIn addition to providing volumes of information on the planet’s, exploring the surface of Venus could yield some interesting clues as to how it came to look like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It has been suggested that at one time, Venus may have boasted an atmosphere and surface water similar to Earth’s, but was transformed into a toxic nightmare thanks to a runaway Greenhouse Effect.

Studying how this came to happen would go a long way to helping scientists understand Climate Change here on Earth, and as well as give them the chance to test out possible solutions. And of course, any working solutions might go a long way towards terraforming Venus itself, which is something many scientists are currently advocating since it might be cheaper and less time consuming than transforming Mars.

Then again, if the resources and budget are there, there’s no reason why we can’t try to retool both for human settlement. After all, we might not have much a choice in the coming centuries. Human beings aren’t exactly known for their slow population growth or conservation skills!


Preventing the Apocalypse: NASA’s Asteroid Lasso Mission


Shortly after that large meteor hit Russia, President Obama and NASA administrator Charles Bolden both announced that work would begin on a series of asteroid tracking technologies that would ensure that more severe Earth collisions would be prevented. Earlier this month, Bolden spoke at the Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. and said that a robotic spacecraft mission is currently being planned with this goal in mind.

The plan calls to mind such films as Armageddon and Deep Impact, but differs in that it involves lassoing an asteroid instead of detonating a small nuke inside it. The ultimate goal here is to tow an asteroid out of the path of Earth, but then to deposit it in orbit so that it can be visited by astronauts. These astronauts will then collect samples and conduct research that could one day assist in a mission to Mars or save Earth from a catastrophic collision.


This is in keeping with the Obama administrations’ pledge of putting a man on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars by 2030. It’s also in the same vein as NASA’s plan to catch and deposit an asteroid around the Moon, an idea that was proposed back in January of this year as part of the agencies plan to establish an outpost at Lagrange Point 2 early in the next decade.

And even though NASA has expressed that the massive 22 million ton asteroid Apophis will not impact planet Earth in 2036, it didn’t rule out that other, smaller rocks could possibly reach us in that time. Capturing them and towing them to where they could be safely deposited in orbit would present many opportunities, not the least of which could be commercial.


For example, asteroid prospecting is slated to begin in 2015, with companies like SpaceX and Deep Space Industries leading the charge. Once property rights are assigned to various celestial bodies, these and other companies hope to send missions out to mine them and establish automated 3D manufacturing facilities, places that use “sintering” to process ore into metal and other materials that can then be shipped back.

NASA’s science mission directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld also spoke about the importance of the lasso mission at the Human to Mars Summit on Monday. Above all else, he emphasized the importance of using the knowledge and skills gained from the research to achieve the long-term goal of survival:

We have a pretty good theory that single-planet species don’t survive. We don’t want to test it, but we have some evidence of that happening 65 million years ago [when an asteroid killed much of Earth’s life]. That will happen again someday … we want to have the capability [to leave the planet] in case of the threat of large scale destruction on Earth.

Yeah, its a rocky universe. And if we intend to survive in it, we had best learn how to deflect, capture and destroy any that come our way and get too close. And of course, we need to learn how to harness their endless supply of minerals and trace elements.


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: