MarsNews.com
July 11th, 2018

How to get to Mars without going mad

Israeli astronauts embrace in an earthbound simulation of life on Mars in February in the Negev desert, Israel.
(PHOTO BY MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The technological challenges involved in sending a crewed mission to Mars are daunting, but new research highlights the need to focus on the psychology of spaceflight to prevent world’s first Mars explorers arriving at their destination stark raving crazy.

A paper in the journal American Psychologist reviews the already extensive research done by NASA into the psychological trials that come with being an astronaut, and concludes that there is still a hell of a lot of work still to be done.

The central problem for would-be Mars travellers is that early missions will comprise a team of people confined in a tin can about the size of a small Winnebago for two or three years. During this time, communication with family and friends will be extremely minimal. Even talking to Mission Control will be difficult, given that signals to and from the craft will take almost an hour to arrive.

And that – say authors Lauren Blackwell Landon and Kelley Slack, both from NASA, and Jamie Barrett from the US Federal Aviation Authority – means teamwork and the ability to resolve both mechanical and personal issues without outside help will be essential.

“Although much is known about the underlying factors and processes of teamwork,” they write, “much is left to be discovered for teams who will be operating in extreme isolation and confinement during a future Mars mission.”

July 3rd, 2018

The Gloves We’ll Wear on Mars

MCP glove prototype. Photo: Final Frontier Design

Living on Mars — which Elon Musk predicts we’ll do in some form by 2024 — will no doubt pose hardships and challenges. And there’s going to be plenty of manual labor. It’s prohibitively expensive to ship construction supplies 34 million miles, so the first settlers will do what settlers have always done: build by hand, with local materials. Sure, those made-from-regolith bricks and water-based windows will probably be 3-D printed, but those materials will still need moving and stacking by hand. Exploring and surveying the planet, doing geological research, and locating ideal habitation areas will involve manual labor, too.

This is nothing new for humans. We’ve built one world by hand, we can probably build another — even in harsh UV light, subzero temperatures, and a lethally low-pressure atmosphere. But if opposable thumbs were key to the evolution of human civilization, and humanity can’t be naked against the Martian elements, then it’s an unexpected and unglamorous factor that will determine whether or not we succeed: gloves.

June 22nd, 2018

BWX Technologies to develop nuclear engine for Mars ship in Alabama

A nuclear technology company says it will start developing products in Alabama which include a propulsion system that could send rockets to Mars.

News outlets report BWX Technologies Inc. opened an office Thursday in Huntsville.

BWX vice president for advanced technical programs, Jonathan Certain, says the company has a contract with NASA to create conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal reactor that could power a spaceship to Mars. BWX will develop it at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

BWX CEO Rex Geveden says the company supplies nuclear components and fuel to the U.S. government including parts for submarines and aircraft carriers.

Certain says the company hopes to hire between 75 and 150 people in Huntsville in the next four or five years.

BWX’s headquarters is in Lynchburg, Virginia.

June 18th, 2018

Pushing the limit: could cyanobacteria terraform Mars?

Cyanobacteria could be used to render the atmospheres of other planets suitable for human life.
Credit: DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/GETTY IMAGES

The bacteria that 3.5 billion years ago were largely responsible for the creation of a breathable atmosphere on Earth could be press-ganged into terraforming other planets, research suggests.

A team of biologists and chemists from Australia, the UK, France and Italy has been investigating the ability of cyanobacteria – also known as blue-green algae – to photosynthesise in low-light conditions.

Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient organisms around, and were responsible, though photosynthesis, for converting the Earth’s early atmosphere of methane, ammonia and other gases into the composition it sustains today.

The photochemistry used by the microbes is pretty much the same as that used by the legion of multicellular plants that subsequently evolved. The process involves the use of red light. Most plants are green because chlorophyll is bad at absorbing energy from that part of the visible light spectrum, and thus reflects it.

Light itself, however, is a critical component for photosynthesis, which is why plants (and suitably equipped bacteria) fail to grow in very dark environments. Just how dark such environments need to be before the process becomes impossible was the focus of the new research.

The team of scientists, which included Elmars Krausz from the Australian National University in Canberra, tested the ability of a cyanobacterial species called Chroococcidiopsis thermalis to photosynthesise in low light.

Previously it had been widely thought that the necessary photochemistry shut down at a light wavelength of 700 nanometres – a point known as the “red limit”.

June 1st, 2018

Elon Musk Responds to Boeing CEO’s Plan to Get to Mars First

Elon Musk has thrown down the gauntlet. The SpaceX CEO responded to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s remarks that Boeing could get to Mars first with two words, posted to Musk’s Twitter page in the early hours of Friday morning: “Do it.”

Muilenburg was asked in an interview with The Street on Friday about who would make it first out of the two. After making his declaration, he explained: “We are working jointly with NASA and building that first rocket space launch system. It’s about 38 stories tall, the first story is being built right now. It has 9.2 million pounds of thrust on that rocket, it’s the biggest rocket ever. We will begin test flights starting next year. I firmly believe that the first person to step foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket.” The two CEOs have been locked in battle over the goal, and the pair had a near-identical exchange of words in December 2017.

April 17th, 2018

SpaceX to Build its Massive Mars Rocket in Los Angeles

SpaceX is getting closer to making its next big rocket a reality. The company has chosen to build its “BFR” rocket in the Port of Los Angeles, pending city approval.

Los Angeles’ mayor revealed the news during his “state of the city” speech on Monday. A final lease agreement for the proposed project will come before a city harbor commission on Thursday.

“SpaceX has called the Port of Los Angeles home to our west coast recovery operations since 2012 and we truly appreciate the City of Los Angeles’ continued partnership,” the company’s president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement.

The BFR is part of SpaceX’s plan to send humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Last September, the company’s CEO Elon Musk unveiled the design for the next-generation rocket, which will eventually replace its current Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy models.

April 13th, 2018

‘Kilopower’ Could Power a Mars Colony and Deep Space Missions

Science fiction writer Douglas Adams said it best — “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” Getting from one point to another takes a very, very long time, especially with our present technology. Right now, the closest neighboring star system is roughly 4.24 light years away. With our current spacecraft, it would take more than 81,000 years to reach it!

Unfortunately, NASA doesn’t currently have a solution for shortening that journey in any meaningful way, but the space agency might just have a way to power an interstellar mission. What is the Kilopower Project, and what could it mean for the future of spaceflight?

A reliable power source is essential to survival in space — or on any currently uninhabited planet. The Kilopower project utilizes nuclear fission, with small portable reactors that can handle any rough or unfriendly environment. Prototypes are currently being tested, and if they are successful, they will be able to handle everything from the cold vacuum of space to the dust storms of Mars.

Rather than using plutonium, like previous spacecraft reactors, the Kilopower devices run on uranium. Each unit is designed to create about 10 kilowatts (10,000 watts) of power, and if more is needed, multiple Kilopower reactors can be daisy-chained together. For comparison, the average home in the United States uses roughly 10,700-kilowatt hours a year, roughly equivalent to using one Kilopower reactor for about 42 days. Power needs for human habitats on other planets would be higher, due to the need to produce things like oxygen, heat and water, but many Kilopower reactors could efficiently meet the needs of a human colony on the Moon or Mars.

February 13th, 2018

Piece of Mars is Going Home

A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.

A chunk of Mars will soon be returning home.

A piece of a meteorite called Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) will be carried on board NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, now being built at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This chunk will serve as target practice for a high-precision laser on the rover’s arm.

Mars 2020’s goal is ambitious: collect samples from the Red Planet’s surface that a future mission could potentially return to Earth. One of the rover’s many tools will be a laser designed to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair.

That level of precision requires a calibration target to help tweak the laser’s settings. Previous NASA rovers have included calibration targets as well. Depending on the instrument, the target material can include things like rock, metal or glass, and can often look like a painter’s palette.

But working on this particular instrument sparked an idea among JPL scientists: why not use an actual piece of Mars? Earth has a limited supply of Martian meteorites, which scientists determined were blasted off Mars’ surface millions of years ago.

These meteorites aren’t as unique as the geologically diverse samples 2020 will collect. But they’re still scientifically interesting — and perfect for target practice.

January 30th, 2018

Evonik and Siemens to generate high-value specialty chemicals from carbon dioxide and eco-electricity

In the fermentation process–here at lab scale–, special bacteria are converting CO-containing gases to valuable chemicals through metabolic processes. (Copyright: Evonik Industries AG)

Germans lead the world in implementing renewable energy infrastructure. But sometimes, there is too much of a good thing: the inability to store excess electricity reduces the efficiency of the renewable energy installations.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, and hardly anyone doubts anymore that projects to pull carbon dioxide emissions out of the air will be a necessary transitional measure if the population of humans on Earth hope to continue energy-spurred growth while converting to renewable energy sources.

The Rheticus project offers solutions for both conundrums. Researchers from two German industrial giants, Siemens and Evonik, just announced that they will team up to demonstrate the feasibility of “technical photosynthesis.” The idea is to use eco-electricity and harness the power of nature to convert CO2 into more complex chemical building blocks, like the alcohols butanol and hexanol.

January 15th, 2018

Students Discover How To Grow Hops On Mars

Dr. Edward F. Guinan, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University, with two of his students in the “Mars Garden.” Credit Villanova University

Hops and Rye grow “fairly well” on Martian soil with the help of coffee beans and fertilisers produced back on Earth, according to a student experiment at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“I was trying to come with a project for the students to do, a catchy project that would be fairly easy,” Dr. Guinan, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, told the New York Times.

NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander have analysed Martian soil in great detail, and scientists have since replicated its unique characteristics in order to test its crop-growing potential.

Guinan ordered 45kg worth of “Martian soil” — which is made with crushed basalt from an extinct volcano in California’s Mojave Desert.

Guinan set his students to work. Each were assigned their own patch within a greenhouse and asked to grow crops of their choice in order to feed a hypothetical colony of migrants to Mars.

“I kept telling them, ‘You’re on Mars, there’s a colony there and it’s your job to feed them. They’re all depending on you.”