Bad New from Mars: First Colonists Doomed!

Mars_exploreWith the exploration of Mars continuing apace and a manned missions looming, there has been an explosion of interest in the idea of one day settling the planet. As the non-profit organization known as Mars One can attest, many people are  interested in becoming part of a mission to colonize the Red Planet. In fact, when they first went public, some 200,000 people signed on to become part of the experience.

The fact that the trip would be one-way and that the  plans for getting them there did not yet exist was not an deterrent. But if a recent study from MIT is to be believed, those who choose to go will and have the experience televised will be in for a rather harsh experience. According to a feasibility study produced by researchers at the Institute, the plan has potentially deadly and astronomically expensive flaws.

mars_revelationspaceAfter analyzing the Mars One mission plan, the MIT research group found that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days. The other astronauts would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The analysis also concludes that 15 Falcon Heavy launches – costing around $4.5 billion – would be needed to support the first four Mars One crew.

The technology underpinning the mission is rather nebulous; and indeed, that’s where the aerospace researchers at MIT find a number of potentially catastrophic faults. While the technology to set up a colony on Mars does technically exist, most of it is at a very low technology readiness level (TRL) and untested in a Mars-like environment. And the prediction that things will be worked out with time and crowdfunding does not appear to be sufficient.

Mars_one2Mars One will rely heavily on life support and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – squeezing water from Martian soil and oxygen from the atmosphere. But these technologies are still a long way off large-scale, industrial use by a nascent human colony on Mars. NASA’s next Mars rover will have an ISRU unit that will make oxygen from the Red Planet’s atmosphere of CO2 – but that rover isn’t scheduled to launch until 2020, just two years before the planned launch of Mars One.

Originally, Mars One’s sign-up list included some 200,000 candidates. That number has now been whittled down to 705 – a fairly even mix of men and women from all over the world, but mostly the US. Several teams of four astronauts (two men, two women) will now be assembled, and training will begin. The current plan is to send a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the first team of four to Mars in 2022 – just eight years from now. 

spaceX-falcon9The whole thing will be televised as a reality TV show, an instrinsic part of the plan since much of the funding is expected to come from media sponsors and advertisers. In the interim, a number of precursor missions – supplies, life-support units, living units, and supply units – will be sent to Mars ahead of the human colonizers. More colonists will be sent fairly rapidly thereafter, with 20 settlers expected by 2033.

The new feasibility study was led by Sydney Do, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done similar studies on other space missions. Do and his team ran a computer simulation based on publicly available information about the Mars One plan and the kinds of technologies it would rely on. The researchers entered data about the crew’s age, weight and activities to find out how much food, oxygen and water they would need.

Mars_GreenhouseThey took into account information from Mars One, such as its plan that “food from Earth will only serve as emergency rations” and the astronauts will mainly eat fresh food they grow themselves. The simulation monitored conditions in the Mars One habitat over 26 months – the amount of time between spaceships from Earth that would resupply them – or until the death of a crew member, whichever came first.

The results of their study were presented in a paper at the International Astronomic Union conference in Toronto last month. They suggest that serious changes would need to be made to the plan, which would either call for the astronauts to grow all their plants in a unit isolated from the astronauts’ living space to prevent pressure buildup in the habitats, or import all food from Earth instead of growing it on Mars.

mars_one2The researchers recommend the latter, as importing all the necessary food along with the first wave of colonists (not including the costs of development, operations, communications, and power systems) would cost $4.5 billion and require 15 Falcon 9 Heavy Rockets to transport it. Comparatively, flying all the equipment needed for the astronauts to grow their own food indefinitely which cost roughly $6.3 billion.

On top of all that, Do and his research staff have concluded that the project will not be sustainable financially. While Mars One says each subsequent manned mission will cost $4 billion, Do’s study found that each mission would cost more than the one before, due to the increasing number of spare parts and other supplies needed to support an increasing number of people.

mars_roverNaturally, Mars One replied that they are not deterred by the study. CEO and co-founder Bas Landorp – who helped develop the mission design – said the plan was based on the company’s own studies and feedback from engineers at aerospace companies that make space systems, such as Paragon Space Development and Lockheed Martin. He added that he and his people are “very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible”.

In any case, the study does not claim that the plan is bogus, just that it may be overreaching slightly. It’s not unreasonable to think that Mars One could get people to Mars, but the prospects for gradually building a self-sustaining colony is a bit farfetched right now. Clearly, more time is needed to further develop the requisite technologies and study the Martian environment before we start sending people to live there.

Mars_simulationOh well, people can dream can’t they? But the research and development are taking place. And at this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that a manned mission to Mars will be happening, along with additional robot missions. These will help lay the groundwork for eventual settlement. It’s only a question of when that could happen…

Sources: cbc.ca, extremetech.com, web.mit.edu

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: extremetech.com, (2)sploid.gizmodo.com, mars.nasa.gov

News from Space: MOM Arrives!

MOM_orbiterHistory was made this week as India’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully fired its braking rockets and arrived in Mars’ orbit. The arrival of India’s maiden interplanetary voyager was confirmed at 7:30am, India Standard Time (02:00 UTC, or 8:00pm EDT in the U.S. on Tuesday, Sept 23rd). MOM is the nation’s first attempt to explore the Red Planet, and represents a new era is space exploration.

By putting a probe in orbit around Earth’s neighbor, India has officially joined the elite club of only three other entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – i.e. Russia, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also represents an expansion in the space exploration, a competition once confined to two superpowers, to five major participants – the US, Russia, ESA, India and China.

India_Mars_Orbiter1It took over ten months for MOM to cross the roughly 225 million kilometers (140 million miles) of interplanetary space that lie between Earth and Mars. Nevertheless, the 12.5 minutes that it took for the signal to reach Earth were far more intense and exciting. And the good news, which arrived at 10:30pm EDT (Sept. 23rd) or 8:00 IST (Sept. 24th) was met with wild applause and beaming smiles at India’s Bangalore mission control center.

MOM’s Red Planet arrival was webcast live worldwide by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency which designed and developed the orbiter. ISRO’s website also gave a play by play in real time, announcing the results of critical spacecraft actions along the arrival timeline just moments after they became known. Indian PM Narenda Modi was watching the events unfold at ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC).

MOM_arrivalUpon the announced arrival, Modi addressed the team, the nation and a global audience, lauding the accomplishment and outlining the benefits and importance of India’s space program. In a speech that echoes John F. Kennedy’s own from 50 years ago, Modi also implored the team to strive for even greater space exploration challenges:

India has successfully reached Mars! History has been created today. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion… We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination. We have accurately navigated our spacecraft through a route known to very few. And we have done it from a distance so large that it took even a command signal from Earth to reach it more than it takes sunlight to reach us.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21. Together, they will assess the extent to which Mars’ atmosphere decayed over the course of billions of years, and hopefully be able to reconstruct what it once looked like, and how it came to deteriorate. From all this, scientists hope to learn whether or not Mars once hosted life, and still is in some form.

maven_tv_backdropMOM now joins Earth’s newly fortified armada of seven spacecraft currently operating on Mars surface or in orbit – which includes MAVEN, Mars Odyssey (MO), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Express (MEX), Curiosity and Opportunity. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN Principal Investigator, related well-wished on behalf of NASA in a post on the ISRO MOM Facebook page:

Congratulations to the MOM team on behalf of the entire MAVEN team! Here’s to exciting science from the two latest missions to join the Mars fleet!

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The flight path of the approximately $73 Million probe was being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to maintain its course.

MOM_trajectoryThe do-or-die breaking maneuver that put MOM into orbit, known as the Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI), involved the craft’s engines firing for 24 minutes and 13 seconds. The entire maneuver took place autonomously under the spacecrafts preprogrammed sole control due to the long communications lag time and also during a partial communications blackout when the probe was traveling behind Mars and the signal was blocked.

As the ISRO said in a statement:

The events related to Mars Orbit Insertion progressed satisfactorily and the spacecraft performance was normal. The Spacecraft is now circling Mars in an orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The inclination of orbit with respect to the equatorial plane of Mars is 150 degree, as intended. In this orbit, the spacecraft takes 72 hours 51 minutes 51 seconds to go round the Mars once.

MOM_pathMOM is expected to investigate the Red Planet for at least six months. Although it’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, it will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface using five indigenous instruments – including a tri color imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM). Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today. This will shed light not only on whether or not Mars supported life in the past, but if it still does in some form, and could possibly do so again.

This is an exciting time for space exploration, when ground-breaking news is happening on a regular basis and promises to lead to potentially Earth-shattering news in the future! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video that recap’s MOM’s historic mission and arrival, courtesy of WorldBreakingNews:


And this animation of the MAVEN and MOM orbit:


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

News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.

Sources: gizmag.com, nasa.gov

News from Mars: MAVEN Orbiter Arrives!

maven_tv_backdropIn November 2013, NASA launched the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe from Cape Canaveral. Described as a “time machine” for Mars, the orbiter would spend the next ten months traversing space, assuming an orbit around the Red Planet, and look for an answer as to how Mars went from being a planet with an atmosphere and water to the dried out husk that we know today.

And this evening, after trekking some 711 million kilometers (442 million-mile) across our Solar System, MAVEN will have arrived in orbit around Mars and will begin its year-long mission to study the planet’s upper atmosphere. The arrival will be broadcast live, courtesy of NASA TV and Space.com. The live webcast will run from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. EDT (0130 to 0245 GMT), and if all goes well, MAVEN will enter orbit around Mars at 9:50 p.m. EDT (0250 GMT).

maven_launchAs David Mitchell, NASA’s MAVEN project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement:

So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars. The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.

Though plans to study Mars’ atmosphere in detail have been in the works for years, the MAVEN program received a big push from the ongoing efforts from the Curiosity rover. During its ongoing mission to study the surface of Mars, Curiosity was able to confirm that Mars had extensive surface water billions of years ago. This revelation came very early in the mission, and indicated some rather interesting things about Mars’ past.

Mars-snow-header-640x353For instance, although Mars is now too cold for flowing water today, it might have had a thicker atmosphere in the past that warmed its surface and allowed the liquid to remain stable on the surface. And while scientists have a pretty good idea how it was lost (i.e. too far our Sun, too low a gravity field), the rate of loss and when it disappeared are just some of the questions that MAVEN will attempt to answer.

Much of what scientists know about Mars’ upper atmosphere comes from just a few minutes’ worth of data from the two Viking landers that took measurements as they made their way to the Martian surface in the 1970s. This time around, NASA will be able to collect data for an entire year, gathering far more data than either the Viking landers or any other spacecraft has since had the opportunity to do.

maven_atmo1As Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, explained it:

The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go. These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.

NASA scientists understand that Mars’ upper atmosphere acts as an escape zone for molecules floating dozens of miles from the planet’s surface. They theorize that as the solar wind hits the atmosphere, the radiation strips away the lighter molecules and flings them into space forever. To test this hypothesis, MAVEN will be examining the state of Mars’ upper atmosphere, and ionosphere to determine its interactions with the solar wind.

maven_atmosphereIn so doing, NASA hopes to determine what the current rates of escape are for neutral gases and ions, and thus get a better picture of how long it took for the atmosphere to degrade and when it began degrading. The upper atmosphere of Mars likely changes as the sun’s activity increases and decreases, which is why MAVEN investigators hope to run the mission for longer than a year.

MAVEN will began making science measurements around Nov. 8, due to it taking a short break from its commissioning phase to watch Comet Siding Spring pass close by on Oct. 19. The $671 million MAVEN spacecraft is one of two missions that launched toward Mars last November and which are making their arrival this month. The other probe is India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched just before MAVEN and will arrive at the Red Planet this Wednesday (Sept. 24).

It is an exciting time for space exploration, and the coming years are sure to be characterized by an escalating and accelerating rate of learning. Be sure to head on over to Space.com to watch the arrival broadcast live. And be sure to check out the following videos – the Mars Arrival trailer; NASA Goddard Center’s “Targeting Mars” video; and the NASA MAVEN PSA, hosted by LeVar Burton:

MAVEN Mars Arrival Trailer:


Targeting Mars:


LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story:


Sources:
space.com, (2), nasa.gov

News From Mars: Curiosity Celebrates 2 Years!

curiosity_peakEarlier this month, Curiosity marked its second year on the Red Planet, and this anniversary comes amidst plenty of exciting news and developments. Ever since the rover touched down at the Bradbury Landing site inside the Gale Crater on August 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm PDT (August 6, 05:31 GMT), it has been busily searching for signs that life once existed on Earth’s neighbor. And as it enters into its third year of exploration, it is getting closer to accomplishing this lofty goal.

The nuclear-powered explorer is the largest, most advanced rover ever built. And since nothing like it had ever flown before and the maintenance facility was over 160 million kilometers (1oo million miles) away, the first months that Curiosity spent on Mars involved an array of system tests before it took it first tentative rolls across the Martian sands on its roundabout path to Mount Sharp.

curiosity_roadmap1Curiosity’s main mission was to find out if there are any places on Mars where life could have once existed – specifically, areas displaying minerals and geology that could have been produced by water. The Bradbury Landing site, where it touched down, turned out to be very close to an ancient dried lake bed in an area named Yellowknife Bay. According to NASA, this lake bed may have been able to sustain microbial life billions of years ago.

And then, barely six months after landing, the scientists struck gold when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at Yellowknife Bay and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor. This was the first instance of Curiosity finding clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, which are a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

Curiosity_drillingsAs Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the Caltech said in a statement to mark the anniversary:

Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question. We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.

Compared to its first year, which was marked by many firsts – such as the first drilling operation on Mars, the first laser firing, and first UV night scans – Curiosity’s second year on the Red Planet has been more routine. However, it hasn’t been without its share of excitement. In February, the rover cleared a dune that blocked its progress and in July it negotiated a detour around rocky terrain at Zabriskie Plateau.

curiosity-2nd-year-2However, by far, the majority of the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet has been spent driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 9.0 kilometers (5.5 miles) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012, and her on board camera has snapped over 174,000 images – many of which have been transformed into panoramic shots of the surface.

The desired destination for the rover is now about 3 kms (2 miles) southwest of its current location. This consists of a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain known as Mount Sharp. As the primary destination on her ongoing mission, this layered mountain in the Gale Crater towers 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) into the Martian sky, and is believed to hold the most compelling evidence of life yet.

mountsharp_galecraterThe sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site. Using high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), they were able to determine the presence of deposits of clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

In late July of this year, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills”. Scientists anticipated that the outcrops here would offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing. However, the sharp edged rocks caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels, forcing it to make a detour.

Mars_rovermapThis detour will take Curiosity to a similar site called “Bonanza King” to carry out its fourth drilling mission. According to NASA, this is no great loss because the two areas are geologically connected and the space agency is keen to look at a formation that is different from the crater floor formations encountered so far. Engineers are studying Bonanza King to see if its is suitable for drilling by assessing whether or not the plates seen on the surface are loose.

When drilling operations resume, NASA will study alternative routes to Mount Sharp and determine how well the rover’s wheels can handle sand ripples. However, as Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, said during an interview during the rover’s second anniversary in Washington, DC : “Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year.”

Godspeed, little rover! And I do hope that it finds the long-sought-after organic particles it has been looking for since the mission began. This discovery will not only show that life once existed on Mars (and still does in some capacity) it will also be one of the greatest scientific finds of all time, and maybe even serve as the starting point for ensuring that it can exist again.

terraforming

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

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: Coming Comet Flyby of Mars

Mars_comet_flybyEarth’s neighbor is once again making the news, but not for the usual reasons. Rather than groundbreaking discoveries or updates being provided by the small army of rovers or satellites, the NASA has now got its eyes firmly fixed on the Red Planet because of an incoming comet. And in the coming months, NASA is taking every precaution to make sure its orbiting spacecraft are out of the way.

Known as C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, the comet’s icy nucleus is predicted to flyby Mars on Oct. 19th, and will miss the planet by just 132,000 km (82,000 miles). That’s 17 times closer than the closest recorded Earth-approaching comet, Lexell’s Comet, which skittered by our world in 1770. And while this is certainly a record-breaking event, no one is concerned about it damaging anything on the Martian surface.

Mars_comet_sidingspringIn fact, it the dust particles embedded in the comet’s vaporizing ice that concerns NASA planners. As dust spreads into a broad tail that could potentially brush Mars’ upper atmosphere, it could also play havoc with or even strike an orbiter. While tiny particles are hardly a hazard on their own, when they are traveling at 56 km (35 miles) per second relative to a spacecraft, a single impact could spell disaster.

Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains:

Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars. The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.

mars-comet-NASAHence why NASA is looking to get its hardware out of the way. The agency currently operates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft with a third orbiter, MAVEN, currently on its way to the planet and expected to settle into orbit a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by.

Already, mission planners tweaked MRO’s orbit on July 2 to move it toward a safe position with a second maneuver to follow on August 27. A similar adjustment is planned for Mars Odyssey on August 5 and October 9 for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. The time of greatest risk to the spacecraft is brief – about 20 minutes – when the widest part of the comet’s tail passes closest to the planet.

MARS-COMET-surfaceAs for the rovers on the surface, there really isn’t much to worry about there. Similar to what happens with meteor showers here on Earth, Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough that cometary dust particles will incinerate before they reach the surface. And its expected that rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during the comet’s closest approach.

Despite concerns about dust, NASA knows a good opportunity when it sees one. In the days before and after the flyby, all three orbiters will conduct studies on the comet. According to a recent NASA press release, instruments on MRO and Odyssey will examine the nucleus, coma and tail and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere:

Odyssey will study thermal and spectral properties of the comet’s coma and tail. MRO will monitor Mars’ atmosphere for possible temperature increases and cloud formation, as well as changes in electron density at high altitudes and MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as it’s warmed by the sun. The team anticipates this event will yield detailed views of the comet’s nucleus and potentially reveal its rotation rate and surface features.

This is Comet Siding Spring’s first trip to the inner solar system, so we can expect plenty of news and updates as it passes Mars. And the icy vapor and dust it leaves behind, which has been in a state of deep freeze since the time the planets were formed, will make for some pretty interest research as well! And be sure to check out this Solar System Scope simulation of the comet’s path as it makes it way through our Solar System past Mars.

Source: universetoday.com, solarsystemscope.com

News from Mars: Laser-Blasting and Soil Sampling

mars_lifeAs the exploration of Mars goes on, the small army of robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters continue to provide us with information, photographs and discoveries that remind us of how great a mystery the Red Planet truly is. For instance, in the past month, two major stories have been announced concerning the nature of Martian soil, its ancient history, and some of the more exciting moments in it’s exploration.

For example, Curiosity made news as its high resolution camera caught an image of sparks being generated as it zapped a Martian rock. In it’s lifetime, the rover has used its million watt Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser to zap over 600 rock or soil targets as part of its mission. However, this was the first time that the rover team was able to get the arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the action as it occurred.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamThe ChemCam laser is used to determine the composition of Martian rocks and soils at a distance of up to 8 meters (25 feet). By hitting targets with several high-energy pulses, it is able to yield preliminary data for the scientists and engineers back at Earth to help them decide if a target warrants a closer investigation and, in rare cases, sampling and drilling activities.

ChemCam works through a process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The laser hits a target with pulses to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Successive laser shots are fired in sequence to gradually blast away thin layers of material. Each shot exposes a slightly deeper layer for examination by the ChemCam spectrometer.

Mars_novarockAs Curiosity fired deeper into the target rock – named “Nova” – it showed an increasing concentration of aluminum as the sequential laser blasts penetrated through the uninteresting dust on the rock’s surface. Silicon and sodium were also detected. As Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam’s Deputy Principal Investigator at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, said in a statement:

This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created… Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.

During it’s first year on Mars, Curiosity has already accomplished its primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer. Currently, the rover is driving swiftly to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, where it hopes to find more.

Mars_soilIn that same vein, according to new geological information obtained by Curiosty’s images and soil examinations, samples that were pulled out of a crater that is estimated to be some 3.7 billion years old contain more evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. These findings were announced in a recent paper published in the online edition of Geology by University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack.

Unlike Earth, the Martian landscape is littered with loose rocks from impacts or layered by catastrophic floods. However, recent images from Curiosity from the Gale Crater reveal Earth-like soil profiles with cracked surfaces lined with sulfate, ellipsoidal hollows and concentrations of sulfate comparable with soils in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedRetallack, the paper’s lone author, studied mineral and chemical data published by researchers closely tied with the Curiosity mission. As a professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontology research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, he internationally known as an expert on the recognition of paleosols – ancient fossilized soils contained in rocks.

As he explains in the paper:

The pictures were the first clue, but then all the data really nailed it. The key to this discovery has been the superb chemical and mineral analytical capability of the Curiosity Rover, which is an order of magnitude improvement over earlier generations of rovers. The new data show clear chemical weathering trends, and clay accumulation at the expense of the mineral olivine, as expected in soils on Earth. Phosphorus depletion within the profiles is especially tantalizing, because it attributed to microbial activity on Earth.

dryvalleysThe ancient soils do not prove that Mars once contained life, but they do add to growing evidence that an early, wetter and warmer Mars was more habitable than the planet has been in the past 3 billion years. Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.

Since Curiosity is currently on its way to Mount Sharp, future missions will be needed to fully explore these features. But as Retallack explained, the parallels with Earth are quite exciting:

None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars. The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground.

The newly discovered soils indicate that more benign and habitable soil condition existed on Mars than previously expected. What’s more, their dating to 3.7 billion years ago places them within a transition period when the planet went from an early, benign water cycle to the acidic and arid Mars of today. This is especially important since major changes were taking place on Earth at around the same time.

Living-Mars.2Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying. But some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might indicate that life existed on Earth earlier may have been destroyed by tectonic activity, which did not occur on Mars. Basically, it may offer some credence to the theory that while flourished on Earth, it originated on Mars.

One person who supports this theory is Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida.  In the past, he has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email interview with Science Daily, Benner wrote that Retallack’s paper:

[S]hows not only soils that might be direct products of an early Martian life, but also the wet-dry cycles that many models require for the emergence of life.

So in addition to shedding light on the mysteries of Mars, Curiosity has also been pivotal in addressing some major questions which only increase the mystery of our own existence. Did life as we know it originate on Mars but flourish on Earth? Are there still some remnants of this microbial “Eden” being preserved deep within the soil and rocks? And could life exist there again some day?

All good questions that will no doubt keep robotic rovers, orbiters, landers, and even manned missions busy for many decades to come! In the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Curiosity’s spark-generating laser blast being caught on tape:


Sources:
universetoday.com, sciencedaily.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