November 12th, 2019

With Mars Methane Mystery Unsolved, Curiosity Serves Scientists a New One: Oxygen

Credits: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard

For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. As a result, they noticed something baffling: oxygen, the gas many Earth creatures use to breathe, behaves in a way that so far scientists cannot explain through any known chemical processes.

Over the course of three Mars years (or nearly six Earth years) an instrument in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) portable chemistry lab inside the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover inhaled the air of Gale Crater and analyzed its composition. The results SAM spit out confirmed the makeup of the Martian atmosphere at the surface: 95% by volume of carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). They also revealed how the molecules in the Martian air mix and circulate with the changes in air pressure throughout the year. These changes are caused when CO2 gas freezes over the poles in the winter, thereby lowering the air pressure across the planet following redistribution of air to maintain pressure equilibrium. When CO2 evaporates in the spring and summer and mixes across Mars, it raises the air pressure.

Within this environment, scientists found that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable seasonal pattern, waxing and waning in concentration in Gale Crater throughout the year relative to how much CO2 is in the air. They expected oxygen to do the same. But it didn’t. Instead, the amount of the gas in the air rose throughout spring and summer by as much as 30%, and then dropped back to levels predicted by known chemistry in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, though the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied, implying that something was producing it and then taking it away.

November 7th, 2019

China Unveils Plan To Send Astronauts To Mars

Chinese first woman astronaut Liu Yang (L) together with her two male colleagues, Jing Haipeng (C) and Liu Wang (R) wave as they areintroduced during a press conference at the Jiuquan space base, north China’s Gansu province on June 15, 2012.

In a story published by state news network China Daily, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation announced plans to send astronauts to the surface of Mars.

“Sending astronauts there will give man better opportunities to look for traces of life on Mars,” Pang Zhihao, a space technology researcher in Beijing told China Daily. “There are theories that Mars was very similar to Earth in terms of environment billions of years ago.”

According to the statement, it marks “the first time that China’s space industry has publicly unveiled a plan for manned missions to the red planet.”

November 4th, 2019

A Light Touch Required for NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover

The image was taken on Oct. 14, 2019, in the Space Simulator Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

An engineer working on NASA’s Mars 2020 mission uses a solar intensity probe to measure and compare the amount of artificial sunlight that reaches different portions of the rover. To simulate the Sun’s rays for the test, powerful xenon lamps several floors below the chamber were illuminated, their light directed onto a mirror at the top of the chamber and reflected down on the spacecraft. The data collected during this test will be used to confirm thermal models the team has generated regarding how the Sun’s rays will interact with the 2020 rover while on the surface of Mars.

October 31st, 2019

The self-hammering probe on NASA’s Mars lander can’t seem to actually dig into the ground

InSight’s Heat Probe Partially Backs Out of Hole: This GIF shows NASA InSight’s heat probe, or “mole,” digging about a centimeter (half an inch) below the surface last week. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s latest Mars lander is having problems with one of its main instruments — a self-hammering probe that just can’t seem to hammer itself into the interplanetary dirt. Over the weekend, the probe was attempting to dig itself into the Martian soil when it popped out of the ground unexpectedly. Now, NASA engineers are trying to troubleshoot to see if they can get this instrument to burrow underneath Mars’ surface as intended.

InSight’s second main instrument is the heat probe — nicknamed the mole. It’s supposed to hammer down into the ground just next to InSight and take Mars’ temperature. If it works as planned, it could give scientists more information about how much heat is leaving the planet’s interior. But the mole hasn’t had as much luck as the seismometer. In fact, it pretty much started having problems as soon as InSight got to the Red Planet. Since it started digging at the end of February, it hasn’t been able to travel more than 14 inches (35 centimeters), even though it’s designed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters).

The InSight team thinks that the soil surrounding the mole may be to blame. While it digs, the mole needs the soil to fall around the probe uniformly, providing friction that allows the instrument to hammer farther underground. Otherwise, it’d just bob up and down in one place, according to NASA. But testing has indicated that the soil in this particular spot is unlike soil encountered by previous landers on Mars. It’s clumping around the probe and not providing any friction. That may explain the slow movement.

October 23rd, 2019

SpaceX ‘excited’ about building moon bases and Mars cities at the same time

SpaceX has big dreams to build cities on Mars and bases on the moon at the same time, one of the plan’s key architects revealed over the weekend.

Paul Wooster, SpaceX’s principal Mars development engineer, explained that the Starship vessel under development is designed for versatility. That means, as the company aims to complete its first city on Mars by 2050, there’s no need to switch development priorities or move the focus to complete one or the other.

“The [Starship] system also opens up capabilities, for example, to deliver very large payloads to the moon, set up and operate lunar bases,” Wooster explained on Saturday at the 22nd annual Mars Society Convention at the University of Southern California. “Because it’s the same system that’s being used for going to the moon and going to Mars, it’s not something where you have to stop going to the moon in order to go to Mars…we’re really excited about the possibilities of doing both, having bases on the moon while we’re also setting up these cities on Mars.”

October 16th, 2019

NASA demos spacesuits for its Moon and Mars missions

Amy Ross, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, left, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, second from left, watch as Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing a ground prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), and Dustin Gohmert, Orion Crew Survival Systems Project Manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit, right, wave after being introduced by the administrator, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The xEMU suit improves on the suits previous worn on the Moon during the Apollo era and those currently in use for spacewalks outside the International Space Station and will be worn by first woman and next man as they explore the Moon as part of the agency’s Artemis program. The Orion suit is designed for a custom fit and incorporates safety technology and mobility features that will help protect astronauts on launch day, in emergency situations, high-risk parts of missions near the Moon, and during the high-speed return to Earth. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Today, NASA revealed the two spacesuits that it will use for its Project Artemis. It shared a video of a spacesuit engineer wearing a bulky, red-white-and-blue suit that will be used for work on the Moon and another spacesuit engineer rocking a thinner, orange suit. The latter is what the crew will wear on their way to and from the Moon, and in the event that there’s a sudden depressurization of their spacecraft, they’ll be able to live inside the suit for days.

October 15th, 2019

Op/Ed : I’m Convinced We Found Evidence of Life on Mars in the 1970s

Viking 2 lander image looking back across the craft. Dark boulders are prominent against the reddish soil. The landing site, Utopia Plantia, is a region of fractured plains. The lander is about 200 km south of Mie crater, and may be on top of one of the crater’s ejecta blankets. The largest rocks are about half a meter in size. The view is approximately to the southwest. (Viking 2 Lander, 22A158)

We humans can now peer back into the virtual origin of our universe. We have learned much about the laws of nature that control its seemingly infinite celestial bodies, their evolution, motions and possible fate. Yet, equally remarkable, we have no generally accepted information as to whether other life exists beyond us, or whether we are, as was Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea!” We have made only one exploration to solve that primal mystery. I was fortunate to have participated in that historic adventure as experimenter of the Labeled Release (LR) life detection experiment on NASA’s spectacular Viking mission to Mars in 1976.

On July 30, 1976, the LR returned its initial results from Mars. Amazingly, they were positive. As the experiment progressed, a total of four positive results, supported by five varied controls, streamed down from the twin Viking spacecraft landed some 4,000 miles apart. The data curves signaled the detection of microbial respiration on the Red Planet. The curves from Mars were similar to those produced by LR tests of soils on Earth. It seemed we had answered that ultimate question.

When the Viking Molecular Analysis Experiment failed to detect organic matter, the essence of life, however, NASA concluded that the LR had found a substance mimicking life, but not life. Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results. Instead the agency launched a series of missions to Mars to determine whether there was ever a habitat suitable for life and, if so, eventually to bring samples to Earth for biological examination.

October 14th, 2019

Inside NASA’s plan to use Martian dirt to build houses on Mars

A rendering of Marsha, one of the options NASA collaborators have come up with for housing on the Red Planet. The tall, slender shape maximizes interior space and lends itself to printing.Courtesy AI Spacefactory

People settling on Mars will to some degree have to live off the land. At its closest, our neighboring planet lies 35 million miles away. Transporting supplies there will cost roughly $5,000 per pound and take at least six months using current technology. Better to enlist the natural resources of their new home when possible, an approach called in situ resource utilization. “It totally changes the logistics of a mission,” says Advenit Makaya, a materials engineer who develops processes like 3D printing at the European Space Agency. “You don’t have to bring everything with you.”

Humans on the Red Planet might draw power from the sun, mine water from buried ice, and harvest oxygen from the atmosphere. With NASA’s encouragement, architects, engineers, and scientists are exploring how early residents might use recycled waste and the planet’s loose rock and dust, called regolith, to craft tools, erect homes, pave launchpads and roads, and more.

Rovers and probes have revealed enough about Martian geology for us to start figuring out how that might work. The surface contains an abundance of iron, magnesium, aluminum, and other useful metals found here at home. Scientists also believe the crust consists largely of volcanic basalt much like the dried lava fields of Hawaii.

October 10th, 2019

NASA’s New Spacesuit: The xEMU

Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU): EVA Spacesuit Technology and Design #SuitUp

NASA has announced the details of the first new spacesuit since the Space Shuttle, which will allow humans to return to the lunar surface and maybe even travel further beyond. But why does NASA need new spacesuits when they already have some in use?

When the Space Shuttle entered service, it came with a new spacesuit: the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (hence EMU). It remains the main operational spacesuit for NASA, despite its 30-year-old parts and even older design, and has allowed for many feats of human engineering. However, with this storied history has come deterioration: out of the original fleet of 14 flight-ready suits, only 8 remain thanks to a variety of accidents.

This inability to use current hardware has made the development of a new suit a major problem for the Artemis Program’s ambitions. As such, NASA has focused its resources on one suit design, as opposed to the many it was designing and studying previously: the xEMU, or Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit.

Building on the EMU’s basic design, the new xEMU will incorporate many design features of the 21st century. Compared to the old A7L suits from Apollo, the new suits will be more flexible, adaptable and much easier to put on, with multiple new features. These include a back entry port (similar to the port on Russia’s Orlan suit), modular design, high-speed data transceiver, sacrificial helmet shield (to protect from lunar dust), and HD video system, among many others.

October 9th, 2019

Small satellite launcher Virgin Orbit announces plans to send tiny vehicles to Mars

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air for the first time during a July 2019 drop test.

Virgin Orbit has big plans to send small spacecraft to Mars, as soon as 2022. The company — an offshoot of Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic — announced today that it is partnering with nearly a dozen Polish universities and a Polish satellite maker called SatRevolution to design up to three robotic missions to the Red Planet over the next decade.

If successful, these missions could be the first purely commercial trips to Mars. Up until now, only four organizations have ever successfully made it to the Red Planet, and all of them have been government-led space organizations. Commercial companies like SpaceX have vowed to send spacecraft to Earth’s neighbor, but so far, Mars has been the sole domain of nation-states. “It’s still a pretty small club, and none of them have been something quite like this where it’s a consortium of companies and universities,” Will Pomerantz, the vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, tells The Verge. Plus, all of these space agency vehicles have typically been large — comparable to the size of buses and cars.

But the Virgin Orbit team was inspired to take on this endeavor thanks to NASA’s recent InSight mission, which sent a lander to Mars in November of 2018. When the InSight lander launched, two small standardized spacecraft the size of cereal boxes — known as CubeSats — launched along with it, and traveled all the way to Mars trailing behind the vehicle. It marked the first time that CubeSats, or any small spacecraft of that size, had journeyed beyond the orbit of Earth and out into deep space. The pair of satellites performed exactly as intended, relaying signals from InSight back to Earth, proving that small satellites could be valuable on deep space missions for very low costs.