Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.
The science and technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars are so awe-inducing that it’s hardly surprising when scientists commenting on the triumph drop their usual jargon to speak like excited schoolchildren.
“It’s nice and dirty; I like that,” was how Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator behind the InSight mission, reacted when, shortly after setting down Monday on the flat and featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia, the lander beamed back an image speckled with red dust. “This image is actually a really good argument for why you put a dust cover on a camera. Good choice, right?”
Unlike the [rovers], InSight — Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is meant to stay in one spot and deploy instruments to measure marsquakes (yes, on Earth they’re “earthquakes”) in order to learn about what’s going on in the innards of the planet. One gizmo will take Mars’s temperature by hammering itself 16 feet below the surface. Deploying the instruments alone is expected to take two months, and the entire mission is meant to last a Martian year, roughly two Earth years.
What for? A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?
SpaceBok, a robotic hopper, is currently undergoing tested in the European Space Agency’s Mars Yard. On Wednesday, ESA released an image of the four-legged robot navigating cragged, red-tinged rocks.
SpaceBok was designed by a team of students from a pair of Swiss research universities, ETH Zurich and ZHAW Zurich. Students and researchers designed the robot for the purpose of navigating uneven, low-gravity environments like those found on the surface of the moon and Mars.
The Mars Yard is a small sandbox filled with a conglomerate of sand, gravel and different sized rocks. It is located at ESA’s Planetary Robotics Laboratory in the Netherlands.
“Legged robots can traverse unstructured terrain and could be used to explore areas of interest, such as craters, which rovers are unable to reach,” research team member Patrick Barton said in a news release. “As they are very versatile, they can change gait to adapt to different terrain.”
Despite the robot’s gait versatility, its preferred pattern of locomotion is hopping.
In December of 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1, in which the president directed NASA “to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”
In answer to that bold call, and consistent with the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, NASA recently submitted to Congress a plan to revitalize and add direction to NASA’s enduring purpose. The National Space Exploration Campaign calls for human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds and the cosmos.
The Exploration Campaign builds on 18 continuous years of Americans and our international partners living and working together on the International Space Station. It leverages advances in the commercial space sector, robotics and other technologies, and accelerates in the next few years with the launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
The Exploration Campaign has five strategic goals:
Transition U.S. human spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit to commercial operations that support NASA and the needs of an emerging private sector market.
Lead the emplacement of capabilities that support lunar surface operations and facilitate missions beyond cislunar space.
Foster scientific discovery and characterization of lunar resources through a series of robotic missions.
Return U.S. astronauts to the surface of the Moon for a sustained campaign of exploration and use.
Demonstrate the capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations.
British scientists are launching a daring mission to Mars to bring back samples of Martian soil which could prove that life once existed on the Red Planet.
In 2020, Nasa’s new rover will land on Mars and begin drilling down into the surface for core samples.
But it is experts at Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, who have been tasked with getting the precious cargo back to Earth.
The team is currently designing a second rover which will launch in 2026 to collect Nasa’s samples, load them onto a rocket and fire them up into orbit to be collected by a spacecraft and brought home.
The European Space Agency awarded two contracts to Airbus to study elements of a Mars sample return approach as the outlines of international cooperation with NASA on that effort materialize.
Airbus announced July 6 that it received two study contracts from ESA regarding Mars sample return mission concepts. Those studies include a rover to collect samples and an orbiter to return those samples to Earth.
The Mars Sample Fetch Rover, as conceived by ESA, would launch to Mars in 2026 on a NASA lander mission. It would use a robotic arm to gather samples cached by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, returning those samples to the lander and loading them into a NASA-provided rocket known as a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch them into Mars orbit.
The Earth Return Orbiter would rendezvous with the sample contained in Mars orbit. The orbiter would place the sample inside a biocontainment system in a reentry capsule for return to Earth by the end of the 2020s.
Nearly 20 years after Pathfinder rolled onto an ancient Martian flood plain called Ares Vallis, NASA’s four Mars rovers have only covered about 38 miles of the Red Planet. That leaves plenty of territory for the next lander, Mars 2020, to explore.
At a conference last week, scientists determined three possible landing sites for the rover: Columbia Hills, Northeast Syrtis, and Jezero Crater. Orbital observations and previous rovers have found that the first two sites were likely once home to hot springs; Jezero Crater may have held a large lake.
“If you find where the liquid water was,” Bruce Betts, director of science and technology for the Planetary Society, tells The Christian Science Monitor, “if there were ever life on Mars, that would be a good place to look.”
This “follow the water” paradigm has guided NASA’s missions to Mars since the 1990s. The Mars 2020 mission, scheduled for launch in three years, continues this approach and adds a new goal: returning samples for Earth-based study.
China’s Information Office of the State Council on December 27 released an expansive white paper on that country’s space activities in 2016, and projected looks at its space agenda in coming years.
In an associated press conference marking the release of the white paper, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua, stated that China plans to develop a new generation of heavy-lift carrier rocket, the “Changzheng-9” or “Long March-9.”
That booster is intended for future manned lunar landing and deep space exploration missions, according to a report by CRIENGLISH.com.
With the 2016 election now finished and Donald Trump confirmed as the president-elect of the United States, there are naturally some concerns about what this could means for the future of NASA. Given the administration’s commitment to Earth science, and its plans for crewed missions to near-Earth Orbit and Mars, there is understandably some worry that the budget environment might be changing soon.
At this juncture, it is not quite clear how a Trump presidency will affect NASA’s mandate for space exploration and scientific research. But between statements made by the president-elect in the past, and his stances on issues like climate change, it seems clear that funding for certain types of research could be threatened. But there is also reason to believe that larger exploration programs might be unaffected.
China has appointed retired basketball star Yao Ming and 10 other celebrities as “Ambassadors to Mars” to promote the nation’s first mission to Mars in 2020.
The 11 ambassadors will help publicise the Mars programme, encourage interest in science and technology among young Chinese people and also promote China’s international image.
The 2020 mission would be launched on a Long March-5 carrier rocket from the Wenchang space launch centre in southern China’s Hainan province, Xinhua reported.