MarsNews.com
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 4th, 2019

NASA research crew embarks on mock mission to Mars moon

The HERA XIX crew completed training and is ready for a 45-day mock mission to Phobos. Crewmembers are Barret Schlegelmilch, Christian Clark, Ana Mosquera and Julie Mason.
Credits: NASA

Space is hard on humans – it’s just not what we’re used to, because it’s very unlike this Earth most of us generally occupy for most of our lives. That’s why researchers do plenty of experimentation to figure out what it’s like for people to live and work in space, like a new experiment underway as of May 24 in which a crew of four will be isolated in a spacecraft for 45 days living and working together – but without ever leaving the confines of our planet.

In fact, the crew, which consists of Barret Schlegelmilch, Christian Clark, Ana Mosquera, and Julie Mason, won’t even leave the confines of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. But that’s the point – confined living and working space, for a simulated mission to Phoibos, one of Mars’ two moons. The experiment is what NASA calls a “Human Exploration Research Analog,” which is a contrived acronym that nets you HERA, the greek goddess of family, and basically means a simulated crewed spacecraft mission.

To be clear, the ‘crew’ participating in this experiment aren’t actually astronauts, they’re volunteers who “micic or emulate the type of people that [NASA] select for astronauts,” according to Human Research Program’s Flight Analogs Project Manager Lisa Spence in a statement. And these astronaut analogues will be monitored during the simulated spacecraft mission, with observers specifically looking to check out the impact, both physiological and psychological, or extended confined missions.

June 3rd, 2019

SpaceX beginning to tackle some of the big challenges for a Mars journey

A rendering of what a Super Heavy Starship launch would look like.

Earlier this month, the principal Mars “development engineer” for SpaceX, Paul Wooster, provided an update on the company’s vision for getting to the Red Planet. During his presentation at the 2019 Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC, Wooster said SpaceX remains on track to send humans to Mars in the “mid-2020s.” He was likely referring to launch opportunities for Mars in 2024 and 2026, but he also acknowledged that much work remains to reach that point.

SpaceX plans to bring humans to Mars with a two-stage rocket: the Starship upper stage and a Super Heavy booster (the latter formerly known as the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR). Iterative design versions of the Starship are being built at facilities in both Boca Chica, Texas, and near Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is expected to provide an update on their development in late June.

Wooster said that SpaceX is working to “minimize the number of things that we need to do in order to get that first mission to Mars.” Part of that minimization involves a massive payload capacity. Starship, once refueled in low-Earth orbit, is planned to have a capacity of more than 100 tons to Mars.

This will allow SpaceX to take a “brute force” approach, which will greatly simplify the overall logistics of the first missions. For instance, this will allow for taking more consumables instead of recycling them, more equipment and spare parts, and other infrastructure, Wooster said.

May 24th, 2019

Comet Inspires Chemistry for Making Breathable Oxygen on Mars

In Giapis’s reactor, carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen.
Credit: Caltech

Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.

So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.

One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.

May 20th, 2019

Babies born on Mars could diverge from Earthlings within a couple of generations

At some point, humans might settle Mars. But according to an evolutionary biologist, babies born on the Red Planet will look, function, and behave dramatically different from Earthlings — and all within a few generations.

Tech entrepreneurs and technologists like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos love to talk about our species’ future as a multi-planetary species. And to be fair, they’re actually making important contributions to turn this vision into a reality. But while there’s a lot of focus on the technology that might take us to places such as Mars, not nearly as much thought seems to be given to what happens once we actually get there.

Any human colonists settling Mars would have to be confined to a relatively small habitat where they’d be subject to significantly higher radiation and more difficult living conditions than on Earth. In time, natural selection would amplify certain traits in the Martian population that would considerably differentiate humans born on the Red Planet from Earthlings. And according to Scott Solomon, a Rice University professor of evolutionary biology, this could happen within just a couple of generations.

May 17th, 2019

NASA’s MRO Completes 60,000 Trips Around Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter By The Numbers: Over the past decade, the mission has shown how dynamic Mars remains today, as well as how diverse its past environmental conditions have been. This image represents some of the highlights in the last 13 years. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter hit a dizzying milestone this morning: It completed 60,000 loops around the Red Planet at 10:39 a.m. PDT (1:39 p.m. EDT). On average, MRO takes 112 minutes to circle Mars, whipping around at about 2 miles per second (3.4 kilometers per second).

Since entering orbit on March 10, 2006, the spacecraft has been collecting daily science about the planet’s surface and atmosphere, including detailed views with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera (HiRISE). HiRISE is powerful enough to see surface features the size of a dining room table from 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the surface.

Meanwhile, MRO is watching the daily weather and probing the subsurface for ice, providing data that can influence the designs of future missions that will take humans to Mars.

May 14th, 2019

A New Idea for Putting Out Fires in Space: The Vacuum Cleaner?

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (white shirt) and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman (blue) practice a fire drill training in NASA’s Space Station mock-up in Houston, TX. (Image Credit: NASA)

Current safety regulations ensure that only low-flammable materials are brought into space. Fires in locations like the International Space Station (ISS), however, are still possible.

Short circuits happen, for example. Cosmic rays may cause structural damage to materials, altering their flammability.

At present, the ISS has a CO2 gas extinguisher, combined with a water mist, to dilute the local oxygen concentration and remove heat.

The method, however, leaves harmful fumes in the enclosed space. Crewmembers who put out the fires must put on oxygen masks due to the risk of the high concentration of CO2 in the cabin.

Researchers from the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan have developed a new type of fire extinguisher that is optimized for space-use and does not require the use of any oxygen masks.

The Vacuum Extinguish Method (VEM), a concept demonstrated in the academic journal Fire Technology, is a bit like the hoover in your living room, says lead researcher Dr. Yuji Nakamura.

“Think of it as simply sucking the flame like a vacuum cleaner to ‘clean up’ your firing zone,” Dr. Nakamura told Tech Briefs. “Then, the flame, as well as any other harmful products, is sucked in.”

The extinguishing system has two boxes. Once the first vacuum box is filled, a valve opens, sending the collected gas to the second container; the first box, meanwhile, continues its vacuuming.

May 14th, 2019

Humans to Mars Summit 2019 Launches in D.C. This Week: Watch It Live!

The 2019 Humans to Mars Summit kicks off in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday (May 14), and you can watch the conference events live online.

The annual three-day gathering, hosted by the nonprofit organization Explore Mars, brings together scientists, engineers, academics, government officials and other industry leaders to discuss the future challenges and the current progress humanity has made toward launching a crewed mission to the Red Planet by the 2030s.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will kick off the conference Tuesday morning with a speech at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), following opening remarks from officials with Explore Mars. Afterward, industry leaders will talk about how NASA’s goal to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 will help astronauts get to Mars by the 2030s. Later in the day, NASA officials will present updates on the agency’s InSight Mars lander. To wrap up the day, Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida will offer his remarks about the Red Planet.

Wednesday (May 15) will begin with remarks from Hoppy Price, chief engineer of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program, and SpaceX’s principal Mars development engineer Paul Wooster — so we may learn more about SpaceX’s plans for a Mars colony and its new interplanetary vehicle, named Starship.” That will begin at 8:50 a.m. EDT (1250 GMT).

May 13th, 2019

White House wants $1.6 billion extra for NASA to accelerate astronaut return to the Moon

Lunar Gateway

NASA and the White House will ask Congress for an extra $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020 in order to accelerate human missions to the Moon and return people to the lunar surface by 2024. The space agency is requesting these funds in addition to the $21 billion budget that the president already requested for NASA. That’s according to a new tweet from President Trump on Monday, who claimed that NASA will be going back to space in a “big way.”

The funding proposal is laid out in a new budget amendment that NASA officials have been crafting for the last two months, along with input from the White House. The additional funds are meant to help NASA meet Pence’s challenge of sending astronauts back to the Moon within the next five years. During a speech at a meeting of the National Space Council in March, Pence said that NASA’s original goal of sending humans to the Moon by 2028 was “just not good enough,” and that the space agency would pull off this new deadline by “any means necessary.”