July 12th, 2019

Medical care at the final frontier

CU students in the “Medicine in Space and Surface Environments” class perform CPR on a “fallen” crewmate in the Habitat at the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah.

Ben Easter, MD, steps onto a rocky ledge overlooking a dry riverbed. He cranes his neck and points into the canyon.

“Right here,” the emergency medicine doctor says with a gleeful glint, belying his boyish looks, “we’re going to foment some chaos and see what happens.”

The simulation is designed to test whether students, thrust into a search-and-rescue scenario where they must navigate rugged topography and rapid-fire events, are able to organize into teams and solve cascading problems, all the while racing the clock to save injured and ill crewmates.

“We want them to walk up onto this ridge and not know where exactly the patient is, and have a kind of ‘oh crap’ moment,” says Easter, on the teaching staff of a new class that blends wilderness medicine and aerospace engineering.

In a remote part of southern Utah – at the Mars Desert Research Station to be precise – 21 University of Colorado Boulder aerospace engineering students, a mix of graduate students and undergrads, became Martians. They experienced seven days of gut-knotting, brain-twisting moments along with after-burner bursts of inspiration – nudging more than a few students into changed-life territory.

July 11th, 2019

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover still taking a beating from red planet rocks

The Curiosity rover’s wheel has some damage in this image from July 7. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity rover is equipped with tough aluminum wheels, but they’re not getting off easy on Mars. The red planet’s rocky landscape continues to take a toll on the rover, as new images of wheel damage show.

The rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the the end of its robotic arm to take a close look at its wheels on July 7. This is pretty much the rover equivalent of inspecting the bottom of your boots after going for a rocky hike.

The wheels are dented and pockmarked from traversing rough ground. What’s most concerning are the many cracks and outright holes visible across the treads.

While the damage looks scary, the wheels are actually doing a pretty good job of hanging in there.

“Although the wheels have developed some holes, the testing and modeling that have been done since early 2014 indicate that Curiosity can still travel a number of kilometers on these wheels,” Curiosity team member Roger Craig Wiens wrote in a mission update.

The rover has traveled 12.99 miles (20.91 kilometers) since reaching Mars in 2012, so the wheels should still be serviceable for quite some time.

July 2nd, 2019

Landing the Mars 2020 rover: Autopilot will avoid terrain hazards autonomously

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will have an autopilot that helps guide it to safer landings on the Red Planet.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view of the Sea of Tranquility rising up to meet Neil Armstrong during the first astronaut landing on the Moon was not what Apollo 11 mission planners had intended. They had hoped to send the lunar module Eagle toward a relatively flat landing zone with few craters, rocks and boulders. Instead, peering through his small, triangular commander’s window, Armstrong saw a boulder field—very unfriendly for a lunar module. So the Apollo 11 commander took control of the descent from the onboard computer, piloting Eagle well beyond the boulder field,to a landing site that will forever be known as Tranquility Base.

“There had been Moon landings with robotic spacecraft before Apollo 11,” said Al Chen, entry, descent and landing lead for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “But never before had a spacecraft on a descent toward its surface changed its trajectory to maneuver out of harm’s way.”

Chen and his Mars 2020 colleagues have experience landing spacecraft on the Red Planet without the help of a steely-eyed astronaut at the stick. But Mars 2020 is headed toward NASA’s biggest Martian challenge yet. Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) indentation full of steep cliffsides, sand dunes, boulders fields and small impact craters. The team knew that to attempt a landing at Jezero—and with a rover carrying 50% more payload than the Curiosity rover, which landed at a more benign location near Mount Sharp—they would have to up their game.

“What we needed was a Neil Armstrong for Mars,” said Chen. “What we came up with was Terrain-Relative Navigation.”

July 1st, 2019

Earth To Mars In 100 Days? The Power Of Nuclear Rockets

Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

The Solar System is a really big place, and it takes forever to travel from world to world with traditional chemical rockets. But one technique, developed back in the 1960s might provide a way to dramatically shorten our travel times: nuclear rockets.

Of course, launching a rocket powered by radioactive material has its own risks as well. Should we attempt it?

On May 22, 2019, US Congress approved $125 million dollars in funding for the development of nuclear thermal propulsion rockets. Although this program doesn’t have any role to play in NASA’s Artemis 2024 return to the Moon, it – quote – “calls upon NASA to develop a multi-year plan that enables a nuclear thermal propulsion demonstration including the timeline associated with the space demonstration and a description of future missions and propulsion and power systems enabled by this capability.”

June 18th, 2019

Meteors help Martian clouds form

This image, taken from a computer simulation, shows middle altitude clouds on Mars. (Courtesy Victoria Hartwick)

How did the Red Planet get all of its clouds? CU Boulder researchers may have discovered the secret: just add meteors.

Astronomers have long observed clouds in Mars’ middle atmosphere, which begins about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface, but have struggled to explain how they formed.

Now, a new study, which will be published on June 17 in the journal Nature Geoscience, examines those wispy accumulations and suggests that they owe their existence to a phenomenon called “meteoric smoke”—essentially, the icy dust created by space debris slamming into the planet’s atmosphere.

The findings are a good reminder that planets and their weather patterns aren’t isolated from the solar systems around them.

“We’re used to thinking of Earth, Mars and other bodies as these really self-contained planets that determine their own climates,” said Victoria Hartwick, a graduate student in the Department of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences (ATOC) and lead author of the new study. “But climate isn’t independent of the surrounding solar system.”

The research, which included co-authors Brian Toon at CU Boulder and Nicholas Heavens at Hampton University in Virginia, hangs on a basic fact about clouds: They don’t come out of nowhere.

“Clouds don’t just form on their own,” said Hartwick, also of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder. “They need something that they can condense on to.”

On Earth, for example, low-lying clouds begin life as tiny grains of sea salt or dust blown high into the air. Water molecules clump around these particles, becoming bigger and bigger until they form the large puffs that you can see from the ground.

But, as far as scientists can tell, those sorts of cloud seeds don’t exist in Mars’ middle atmosphere, Hartwick said. And that’s what led her and her colleagues to meteors.

June 17th, 2019

NASA’s MRO Snaps ‘Black-And-Blue’ Impact Crater on Mars

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) snapped an image of a “black-and-blue” impact crater on the Red Planet. (Photo Credit: Nahúm Méndez Chazarra, NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)

Mars recently received a hard “punch” when a small space rock hurtled into the Red Planet’s surface and created a new impact crater that looks like a black-and-blue bruise.

The impact crater, which is estimated to be 49 feet to 53 feet in width, was captured in a new image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), reported. The MRO, which has been analyzing Mars for more than 13 years with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera and its lower-resolution Context Camera (CTX), snapped a HiRISE color image in April and it was shared by NASA on June 6. Researchers say the “black-and-blue” Mars crater could have formed between September 2016 and February 2019.

June 14th, 2019

To Make a Field Guide to Life on Mars, First Head to the Deep Sea

An artist’s rendering of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-CALTECH

In 2021, a NASA rover will touch down on Mars in search of signs of life, past or present. It will investigate the surface of the red planet and collect samples from areas that seem particularly promising. But traces of life on Mars—if they exist—aren’t going to be apparent to the naked eye: Obviously there’s no remains of mammoths or goldfish or snails. Any record of life on Mars would likely take the form of organic compounds, which have already been identified up there but aren’t definitive, or actual fossils of microorganisms. Such fossils exist here on Earth, but they’re very tricky to spot—even in places we know they’ll be. The best strategy for finding these miniscule traces, according to a group of Scandinavian scientists, is to study the denizens of the deep sea. This team now plans to create an atlas of fossilized microbes from Earth’s oceans—an extraterrestrial field guide of sorts—to help the rover and its human partners identify definitive proof of life on Mars, according to their recent article in Frontiers in Earth Science.

June 13th, 2019

NASA’s Mars 2020 Will Blaze a Trail – for Humans

This artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier to explore for humans. Credit: NASA

When a female astronaut first sets foot on the Moon in 2024, the historic moment will represent a step toward another NASA first: eventually putting humans on Mars. NASA’s latest robotic mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020, aims to help future astronauts brave that inhospitable landscape.

While the science goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to look for signs of ancient life – it will be the first spacecraft to collect samples of the Martian surface, caching them in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future mission – the vehicle also includes technology that paves the way for human exploration of Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide and extremely thin (about 100 times less dense than Earth’s), with no breathable oxygen. There’s no water on the surface to drink, either. The landscape is freezing, with no protection from the Sun’s radiation or from passing dust storms. The keys to survival will be technology, research and testing.

Mars 2020 will help on all those fronts. When it launches in July of 2020, the spacecraft will carry the latest scientific and engineering tools, which are coming together as the rover is built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Here’s a closer look:

Touchdown, Oxygen, Water, Spacesuits, Shelter

June 11th, 2019

Device seeks to brew oxygen on Mars from dangerous salt

Professor John Coates, PhD, describing the process of how the device works with the two chambers separating the oxygen from the water using electricity and a Chlorate solution at the Coates Lab at UC Berkeley on October 20.2015.
Photo: Franchon Smith, The Chronicle

Having discovered flowing, liquid water on the once-imagined arid surface of Mars, NASA scientists are looking to the next missing element needed for human habitability on the Red Planet: oxygen.

Finding a way to produce oxygen on the planet is vital if the space agency is to fulfill its goal of sending humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s, they say.

They have considered sending microbes on the journey to fill large bio domes to be built by the astronauts on the planet’s surface. Another idea they’ve pondered is sending along a large machine to split up the oxygen-containing carbon dioxide that makes up most of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Then there is the Bay Area scientist who has NASA’s ear with his idea that a dangerous salt compound believed to exist on Mars’ surface can be converted into breathable oxygen.

The compound, a perchlorate, is known to be a threat to human health on Earth, interfering with the production of human growth hormones.

John Coates, a microbiologist at UC Berkeley, has patented a mechanism he says can turn the perchlorate into oxygen fit for humans. Throughout the development process, he consulted NASA scientists who see Coates’ invention as a partial answer to the oxygen issue, but not the entire solution.

“What happens if astronauts are 10 miles from home (base) and they have a big problem and need oxygen? That is the niche that the perchlorate would fill,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “When you are (on Mars) out in middle of nowhere, scooping up a bag of dirt to produce oxygen would be easy to do.”

June 10th, 2019

Can We Prevent Phobos’ Inevitable Demise?

Mars has two natural satellites: Deimos and Phobos; the latter orbits Mars closer than any other moon orbiting the other planets in the solar system, and it’s currently undergoing a process known as orbital decay.

In short, this means that Phobos is slowly drifting closer to Mars over time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has an impact on the gravitational pull between Mars and Phobos. As this tug strengthens, the tidal forces exerted on Phobos are increased, and this quite literally tears the moon apart.

Phobos’ surface is covered in strange lines, and according to planetary scientists, these are ‘stretch marks’ that result from the tidal forces that are being exerted on the moon as it orbits Mars. If the moon’s orbital decay continues at its current rate, then the moon could be destroyed in the next several million years, resulting in a planetary ring around Mars.

This raises the question: could we save Phobos from a seemingly inevitable demise? Theoretically, we could, but it wouldn’t be easy or practical.