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:


News from Mars: Another (Planned) Mission!

mars-mission1When it comes to generational milestones, those of born since the late 70’s often feel like we’re lagging behind previous generations. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” or the “Baby Boomers”, we weren’t around to witness Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of JFK, Neil Armstrong, or the FLQ Crisis. For us, the highlights were things like the development of the PC, the birth of the internet, Kurt Cobain, and of course, 9/11.

But looking ahead, those us of belonging to Generation X, Y, and Millennials might just be around to witness the greatest event in human history to date – a manned mission to Mars! And while NASA is busy planning a mission for 2030, a number of private sources are looking to make a mission happen sooner. One such group is a team of UK scientists working from Imperial College London that are working to mount a a three person mission to Mars.

mission-to-marsThe planned mission consists of two spacecraft, the first of which is a Martian lander equipped with a heat shield that will send the crew off into Earth’s orbit. The second craft would be a habitat vehicle, which is the craft that the crew would live in during the voyage. The habitat vehicle would consist of three floors, and measure in at around 30 feet (10m) tall and 13 feet (4m) in diameter.

The astronauts would be situated in the lander during takeoff, and would move to the habitat when the dual-craft reaches Earth orbit. Once the astronauts are safely within the habitat, a rocket would shoot the dual-craft off on its journey to Mars, which would take nine months to arrive, less than the approximately 300 days that most projections say it will take.

Mars_landerOnce In space, the dual-craft would then split apart but remain connected by a 60 meter (200 foot) tether. Thrusters from both vehicles would then spin them around a central point, creating artificial gravity similar to Earth’s in the habitat. Not only would this help the astronauts feel at home for the better part of a lonely year, but it would also reduce the bone and muscle atrophy that are associated with weightlessness.

The craft would be well-stocked with medicine to ensure that the crew remained in fine health for the nine month transit. Superconducting magnets, as well as water flowing through the shell of the craft, would be employed to help reduce both cosmic and solar radiation. And once the dual-craft reaches Mars, it would tether back together, the crew would move back into the lander, and then detach from the habitat descend to the Martian surface.

Mars-mission-2This mission would also involve sending a habitat and return vehicle to Mars before the astronauts arrived, so the crew would have shelter upon landing as well as a way to get home. The crew would spend anywhere from two months to two years on Mars, depending on the goals of the mission and the distance between Mars and Earth. On the way back home, the mission would dock with the ISS, then take a craft back to Earth from there.

What’s especially interesting about this proposed mission is that each stage of it has been proven to work in an individual capacity. What’s more, the concept of using water as a form radiation shielding is far more attractive than Inspiration Mars’, which calls for using the astronauts own fecal matter!

Unfortunately, no real timetable or price tags have been proposed for this mission yet. However, considering that every individual step of the mission has been proven to work on its own, the proposed overall journey could work. In the meantime, all us post-Baby Boomers can do is wait and hope we live to see it! I for one am going sick of hearing Boomers talk about where they were when Apollo 11 happened and having nothing comparable to say!

And be sure to enjoy this video of the University College London team discussing the possibilities of a Mars mission in our lifetime:


The Arkyd 100: Crowdfunding Space Exploraiton

ARKYD-in-SpacePlanetary Resources made quite the impression last year when they announced their plans to begin prospecting near-Earth asteroids with in the intention of mining them in the near future. Alongside such companies as SpaceX and Golden Spike, they are part of a constellations of private interests looking to establish commercial space travel and tourism. But their latest proposal goes a step further, bringing crowdfunding and the realm of space exploration together.

That’s the idea behind a Kickstarter campaign that the company began to raise money for a crowdfunded space telescope. Known as the Arkyd 100, the company claims that this new telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

asteroid_miningTo make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Once the telescope is up and running, it will allow them to better map the asteroid belt, thus assisting them in finding the rocks they want to mine for precious metals and trace elements. And with public financial backers making it happen, anyone pledging money will be able to own a piece of the prospector!

During a webcast on May 28th to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, gave a rundown on the details of the telescope. And interestingly enough, the Planetary Resources’ technical team that designed it also worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover. So if you do choose to invest, you will do so with the knowledge that the same people who helped build the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are behind this project. If that doesn’t inspire investor confidence, I don’t know what will!

ARKYD-Space-SelfieA wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope. And those who invest will have the chance of recouping certain rewards, depending on how much they choose to pledge. Those pledging the minimum donation of $25 will receive the “Your Face in Space” benefit, where you will have you picture placed on the Arkyd and receive a picture of said photo the telescope with Earth in the background. Higher pledges will provide access to the telescope for students and researchers worldwide.

After less than 2 hours into their campaign, Planetary Resources had raised over $100,000. And as of this article’s writing, just one day shy of a week, the campaign has reached $710,945 of their $1 million goal, and they still have 27 days left. I guess people want a piece of this project. And who can blame them, since it is a scientific and historic first!

Check out the promotional video for the Arkyd and Planetary Resources below. To make a donation or get information about the Kickstarter campaign, visit the campaign page here.


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