The commercial spaceflight company SpaceX announced on Twitter today that it plans to send its robotic Dragon capsule to Mars as early as 2018. “Red Dragons will inform the overall Mars architecture,” SpaceX representatives tweeted today (April 27), referring to the company’s eventual plans to set up a colony on Mars — a key goal of SpaceX and its founder, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Lockheed Martin’s Generation Beyond initiative aims to “inspire the next generation of innovators, explorers, inventors and pioneers to pursue STEM careers.” And what better way to spark young students’ curiosity than to give them ride on a bus that simulates a ride across the Martian surface? Passengers aboard the Mars Experience bus are treated to an immersive virtual reality adventure. As the bus moves, it makes the students feel like they’re driving across the red planet by showing 200 square miles of its surface on the boarded-up windows.
The aerospace company says the VR experience was built with the same software used for “the most advanced video games” today, which hopefully means it has great graphics. Lockheed Martin’s high-tech vehicle will tour the US to give students from different regions a chance to try it out. It’s not Generation Beyond’s only projects, though. The company is also providing a free deep space curriculum to all middle school teachers and has released an app that sends you real-time Mars weather reports.
By tracking the gravitational pull on spacecraft over Mars, NASA has created one of the most detailed maps yet of the Red Planet’s surface, and what lies beneath.
“Gravity maps allow us to see inside a planet, just as a doctor uses an X-ray to see inside a patient,” Antonio Genova of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said in a statement.
“The new gravity map will be helpful for future Mars exploration, because better knowledge of the planet’s gravity anomalies helps mission controllers insert spacecraft more precisely into orbit about Mars.”
As well as providing insight for future missions, the gravity map also offers explanations for developments in the planet’s past.
True to its purpose, the big NASA spacecraft that began orbiting Mars a decade ago this week has delivered huge advances in knowledge about the Red Planet.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has revealed in unprecedented detail a planet that held diverse wet environments billions of years ago and remains dynamic today.
One example of MRO’s major discoveries was published last year, about the possibility of liquid water being present seasonally on present-day Mars. It drew on three key capabilities researchers gained from this mission: telescopic camera resolution to find features narrower than a driveway; spacecraft longevity to track seasonal changes over several Martian years; and imaging spectroscopy to map surface composition.
Other discoveries have resulted from additional capabilities of the orbiter. These include identifying underground geologic structures, scanning atmospheric layers and observing the entire planet’s weather daily. All six of the orbiter’s science instruments remain productive in an extended mission more than seven years after completion of the mission’s originally planned primary science phase.
The satellite, called the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT.
The probe will investigate whether the methane in the world’s atmosphere is coming from a geological source or is being produced by microbes.
If all goes well, the two space powers expect to follow up this venture with a rover, to be assembled in the UK, which will drill into the surface.
That could launch in 2018, or, as seems increasingly likely, in 2020.
Just weeks before the historic encounter of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) with Mars in October 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft entered orbit around the Red Planet. To protect sensitive equipment aboard MAVEN from possible harm, some instruments were turned off during the flyby; the same was done for other Mars orbiters. But a few instruments, including MAVEN’s magnetometer, remained on, conducting observations from a front-row seat during the comet’s remarkably close flyby.
The one-of-a-kind opportunity gave scientists an intimate view of the havoc that the comet’s passing wreaked on the magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, around Mars. The effect was temporary but profound.
“Comet Siding Spring plunged the magnetic field around Mars into chaos,” said Jared Espley, a MAVEN science team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”
The next robotic mission to Mars will launch in less than a week, if all goes according to plan.
The first part of the two-phase, joint European-Russian ExoMars mission is scheduled to blast off atop a Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kakakhstan on March 14. A slight delay can be accommodated; the launch window extends through March 25.
The Proton’s payload consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and a lander called Schiaparelli, both of which should arrive at Mars in October after a seven-month cruise. TGO will sniff the Red Planet’s air from orbit using four scientific instruments, hunting for possible signs of life.
“The orbiter will perform detailed, remote observations of the Martian atmosphere, searching for evidence of gases of possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products,” European Space Agency (ESA) officials wrote in a mission description.
NASA had hoped its next Mars probe would have launched by now. Instead, the agency is mulling whether to spend an extra $150 million to fix a problem with the spacecraft and re-target liftoff for May 2018, the next time Earth and Mars favorably align for flight.
“The fact that I’m standing here talking to you, instead of gloating on the phone (from the Mission Control Center) is a clue that things haven’t gone as well as one may have hoped,” project scientist Bruce Banerdt told a Mars exploration planning group last week.
Launch of InSight, which is designed to study the deep interior of Mars, had been targeted for Friday, March 4. But preparations came to a sudden halt in late December after a nagging technical problem with the spacecraft resurfaced for a fourth time. By then, it was too late to finish another round of repairs before the 2016 launch window closed.
“Everything was ready to go, but then we kind of went off the rails,” Banerdt said.
NASA scientists are closer to solving the mystery of how Mars’ moon Phobos formed.
In late November and early December 2015, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission made a series of close approaches to the Martian moon Phobos, collecting data from within 300 miles (500 kilometers) of the moon.
Among the data returned were spectral images of Phobos in the ultraviolet. The images will allow MAVEN scientists to better assess the composition of this enigmatic object, whose origin is unknown.
“The Martian” was left stranded without any Oscars on Sunday night (Feb. 28) at the 88th Academy Awards.
Ridley Scott’s science fiction film about a NASA astronaut (Matt Damon) being left for dead on Mars received seven nominations — including Best Picture and Best Actor — but ended the evening with no wins.
“It’s pretty cool just to be nominated,” wrote Andy Weir, author of the book on which the “The Martian” is based, in a post on Facebook. “Slowly but surely, science fiction is worming its way into popular culture and mainstream entertainment. I’m proud to be a small part of that.”