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April 19th, 2019

Fabric from University of North Dakota developed spacesuit to spend year in space

NDX-1 Mars Prototype Suit

Pieces of fabric from the University of North Dakota-developed NDX-1 spacesuit was launched into space aboard a Northrup Grumman “NG CRS-11 Cygnus” Resupply Mission, on Wednesday, on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch took place at the Wallops Flight Facility in Greenbelt, Md. Wallops is operated by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
NASA selected five technologies to test as part of its Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE)-11 mission, including the NDX-1 spacesuit sample provided by the UND Space Studies Department.

The MISSE program provides long-term exposure of materials to the inhospitable environments of the space environment, according to Pablo de León, a space studies professor at UND and primary inventor of the NDX-1 suit. All the materials are slated to remain in space for at least one year, allowing researchers to assess the long-term impact of temperature extremes and radiation on their performance.
MISSE has been a successful part of ISS research since 2001 when its original flight hardware became the first payload to be installed on the outside of the space station.

April 19th, 2019

Things Are Stacking up for NASA’s Mars 2020 Spacecraft

For the past few months, the clean room floor in High Bay 1 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been covered in parts, components and test equipment for the Mars 2020 spacecraft, scheduled for launch toward the Red Planet in July of 2020. But over the past few weeks, some of these components – the spacecraft-rocket-laden landing system and even the stand-in for the rover (christened “surrogate-rover”) – have seemingly disappeared.

In reality, they are still there, tucked neatly into the entry capsule, as they will be when it’s time for launch. The procedure is known as vehicle stacking and involves a hyper-detailed plan for what goes where and when.

“One of our main jobs is to make sure the rover and all the hardware that is required to get the rover from here on Earth to the surface of Mars fits inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket, which gives us about 15 feet [5 meters] of width to work with,” said David Gruel, assembly, test and launch operations (ATLO) manager for Mars 2020 at JPL.

The first step is to place the rocket-powered descent stage on top of the surrogate rover (the real rover is being integrated and tested in tandem with the spacecraft stack). Then, when all the holes line up and everything is attached, checked and re-checked again, the back shell is lowered over them via gantry crane.

“That crane has lifted almost every spacecraft that’s come through JPL since Mariner,” said Gruel. “To safely lift the large pieces of the Mars 2020 spacecraft, we utilize a dozen technicians and engineers.”

April 18th, 2019

Independent report concludes 2033 NASA human Mars mission is not feasible

One concept for a Deep Space Transport spacecraft that would take astronauts to and from Mars. An independent study concluded the technological challenges of such a spacecraft made plans to mount a human Mars mission in 2033 infeasible. Credit: Boeing

An independent report concluded that NASA has no chance of sending humans to Mars by 2033, with the earliest such a mission could be flown being the late 2030s.

The report, while completed prior to the March 26 speech where Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024, does offer insights into how much a lunar return might cost and how it fits into long-term plans to send humans to Mars.

NASA contracted with the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) to prepare the report, which Congress directed NASA to perform in the 2017 NASA authorization act. That bill called specifically for a technical and financial assessment of “a Mars human space flight mission to be launched in 2033.”

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

April 17th, 2019

A futuristic simulation of a Chinese Mars mission has opened in the Gobi Desert

A staff member demonstrates how she puts on the helmet of a mock space suit.

China’s propensity for over-the-top amusement parks and gimmicky tourists destinations is well-documented. While some seem like more of a dare, like a giant glass-bottom bridge suspended over a deep canyon, many of China’s tourist traps are designed to transport the visitor, whether it be to Europe or back centuries of Chinese history.

Add Mars to that list. Recently opened in Gansu province, and set among the orange backdrop of the Gobi Desert, C-Space Project Mars simulates a speculative Chinese-led mission to the red planet. China has shown grand ambitions for space travel. It successfully dropped a lander and rover on the far side of the moon in December, and it plans to send a rover to Mars in 2020.

April 12th, 2019

This technology would place humans traveling to Mars in a ‘sleep-like state’

SpaceWorks torpor habitat concept rendering (Photo: SpaceWorks)

SpaceWorks submitted a proposal to NASA in 2013 outlining technology that focused not on propulsion or advanced materials, but instead on affecting human biological systems and astronauts’ deep space travel habitat.

Its plan is simple: put the astronauts to sleep for about 80% of their voyage.

“I encountered this technology in the medical field called therapeutic hypothermia that places an individual into an inactive kind of sleep-like state,” said Bradford. “And they would cool the patient down for two or three days at a time, and that basically gives the body time to recover.”

According to Bradford, therapeutic hypothermia would provide a myriad of benefits. The crew would see reductions in the rates of muscle atrophy and bone loss from the lower metabolic state. He argues there is evidence that a “torpor state” could help build radiation shielding. Additionally, the space vessel would be stripped down to only the parts necessary to maintain the temperature of the habitat.

One design cuts the weight of NASA reference model from 45 tons to 20 tons for the SpaceWorks vessel for the same mission.

April 11th, 2019

The first study of a twin in space looks like good news for a trip to Mars

NASA | IMAGE EDITED BY MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW

Thanks to twin astronauts, we now have our first solid evidence of how the human body responds to long-term spaceflight—and it’s thrown up some mysteries.

Three years ago, American astronaut Scott Kelly came back to Earth. His return from the International Space Station on March 1, 2016, ended his US-record-setting run of 340 days in space under a medical microscope. His twin brother, Mark Kelly (who had been an astronaut), was under similar scrutiny here on Earth. The pair offered a unique opportunity to explore how the human body responds to long periods in space—giving us a glimpse at what could happen on trips to, say, Mars.

Now, more than three years later, we are finally getting a clear picture of what microgravity, radiation, and the space environment did to Scott’s body. The first results, published in Science today by dozens of researchers from around the globe, show promise for humankind’s space-based future. “It is predominantly very good news for spaceflight and those interested in joining the ranks of astronauts,” says Cornell professor Chris Mason, principal investigator for the NASA Twins Study. “While the body has an extraordinary number of changes, it also exhibits extraordinary plasticity in reverting back to a normal terrestrial state.”

The study looked at a number of biological markers, from the immune system (it functioned similarly to the way it does on Earth) to the shape of the eyeballs (Scott’s retinal nerve thickened). But two of the standout results came from a closer look at DNA and gene expression.

April 10th, 2019

Largest dust storm on Mars ever recorded may reveal why it’s so dry

A dust storm on Mars photographed by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express
SA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Dust storms on Mars aren’t all about dust — they’re also full of water. A satellite orbiting Mars has taken the most detailed measurements yet of how these rare events trap water at lower altitudes, which may help reveal what happened to the water that used to be abundant on the Red Planet.

In 2018, the largest recorded dust storm circled the entire Martian globe, so thick that it hid the surface from the sun and killed the Opportunity rover. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter watched this cataclysmic storm from orbit. Just before sunset and just after sunrise on Mars, it examined the atmosphere to determine how the dust storm absorbed sunlight.

Ann Carine Vandaele at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy and her colleagues used this data to determine how water was behaving in the storm. They found that just before the storm, there were water ice clouds in the atmosphere, but no water vapour more than 40 kilometres above the surface. This changed a few days later when water vapour appeared at altitudes of 40 and 80 kilometres, seemingly replacing the water ice clouds.

April 9th, 2019

NASA Selects Two New Space Tech Research Institutes for Smart Habitats

Illustration of the interior of a deep space habitat
Credits: NASA

As exploration missions venture beyond low-Earth orbit and to the Moon — and eventually Mars — NASA must consider automated technologies to keep habitats operational even when they are not occupied by astronauts. To help achieve this, NASA has selected two new Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) to advance space habitat designs using resilient and autonomous systems.

The selected proposals create two multi-disciplinary, university-led research institutes to develop technologies critical to a sustainable human presence on the Moon and Mars. The smart habitat, or SmartHab, research will complement other NASA projects to help mature the mission architecture needed to meet challenging exploration goals.

“Partnering with universities lets us tap into new expertise, foster innovative ideas, as well as expand the research and development talent base for both aerospace and broader applications,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We’re excited to work with these two new STRIs to develop smart habitat technologies for exploration missions on the Moon and Mars.”

Each STRI will receive as much as $15 million over a five-year period.

April 5th, 2019

Curiosity Captured Two Solar Eclipses on Mars

Curiosity Observes Phobos Eclipse: Sol 2359: This series of images shows the Martian moon Phobos as it crossed in front of the Sun, as seen by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Tuesday, March 26, 2019 (Sol 2359). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover landed in 2012, it brought along eclipse glasses. The solar filters on its Mast Camera (Mastcam) allow it to stare directly at the Sun. Over the past few weeks, Curiosity has been putting them to good use by sending back some spectacular imagery of solar eclipses caused by Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons.

Phobos, which is about 7 miles (11.5 kilometers) across, was imaged on March 26, 2019 (the 2,359th sol, or Martian day, of Curiosity’s mission); Deimos, which is about 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometers) across, was photographed on March 17, 2019 (Sol 2350). Phobos doesn’t completely cover the Sun, so it would be considered an annular eclipse. Because Deimos is so small compared to the disk of the Sun, scientists would say it’s transiting the Sun.

In addition to capturing each moon crossing in front of the Sun, one of Curiosity’s Navigation Cameras (Navcams) observed the shadow of Phobos on March 25, 2019 (Sol 2358). As the moon’s shadow passed over the rover during sunset, it momentarily darkened the light.

April 4th, 2019

CERN engineer prepares for simulated Mars mission

Zoe Townsend will join six other members of the LATAM-III crew to experience what life might be like on a future manned mission to Mars. Each of the team members will have specific tasks and challenges to carry out while at the MDRS, ranging from engineering and astrophysics to space farming and group problem-solving. As crew journalist, one of Zoe’s responsibilities will be to document mission progress via video updates. She will also be providing an inside track on her experience for The Student Engineer via a series of blogs, alongside conducting research into mining Martian resources with the aid of a rover.

“My project is a collaboration with the University West of England, where I would be taking a rover with a modular drill station to theoretically investigate the ability to mine resources for a base,” said Zoe. “This is with support from individuals at Catapult, Satellite applications. Another part of my work will be in outreach and creating video diaries for the Steminist platform.

“During my daily life, I am a CERN Engineer where I am working on the integration between the cryostat and the 16T magnets for the Future Circular Collider. Therefore, we also have support from CERN and as such, they will be promoting the mission.”