December 13th, 2016

Trump could replace Obama’s asteroid catcher with a SpaceX-backed mission to Mars

Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

When Donald Trump is sworn in on January 20, there’s a good chance he could scrap one of President Obama’s boldest visions for NASA: the asteroid redirect mission, or ARM.

ARM would ostensibly launch a robotic probe to an asteroid in 2023, capture the space rock, and tow it near the moon. Next, astronauts would ride NASA’s shiny new Space Launch System and Orion space capsule (which aren’t finished yet) to visit and dig into the asteroid sometime in 2025.

But ARM’s slipping deadlines, ballooning costs, redundancy with the recently launched asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx probe, and seeming incongruence with the space agency’s larger ambitions to send people to Mars will almost certainly doom the mission, Eric Berger reported for Ars Technica in February. (The Trump-friendly House Committee on Science, Space and Technology also recently sent an unfriendly letter about ARM to NASA, and it appears to be yet another presumed nail in ARM’s coffin.)

So what could a Trump-controlled NASA replace it with?

Physicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who recently retired as the leader of NASA’s science mission directorate, is pitching a popular idea involving a retrieving a sample of Martian soil, as Berger reported on Monday.

June 15th, 2015

NASA Prepares for First Interplanetary CubeSats NASA

When NASA launches its next mission on the journey to Mars – a stationary lander in 2016 – the flight will include two CubeSats. This will be the first time CubeSats have flown in deep space. If this flyby demonstration is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.

The twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO). CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.

May 4th, 2015

Traffic Around Mars Gets Busy NASA

NASA has beefed up a process of traffic monitoring, communication and maneuver planning to ensure that Mars orbiters do not approach each other too closely.

Last year’s addition of two new spacecraft orbiting Mars brought the census of active Mars orbiters to five, the most ever. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission joined the 2003 Mars Express from ESA (the European Space Agency) and two from NASA: the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The newly enhanced collision-avoidance process also tracks the approximate location of NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, a 1997 orbiter that is no longer working.

It’s not just the total number that matters, but also the types of orbits missions use for achieving their science goals. MAVEN, which reached Mars on Sept. 21, 2014, studies the upper atmosphere. It flies an elongated orbit, sometimes farther from Mars than NASA’s other orbiters and sometimes closer to Mars, so it crosses altitudes occupied by those orbiters. For safety, NASA also monitors positions of ESA’s and India’s orbiters, which both fly elongated orbits

January 20th, 2015

Elon Musk Explores Internet for Mars Colonies Discovery

Marsnet is coming…
We take the Internet and constant connectivity for granted on Earth, but once you take a step into space, things start to get a lot less broadband, and a lot more dial-up. So as we look into our future, when we have human settlements on Mars, will there be a Mars Internet or “Marsnet”? These questions have been asked by SpaceX founder Elon Musk and he has announced plans to boost connectivity in space, potentially partnering with Google. But this isn’t just about ensuring future Mars colonists can access their Netflix accounts; like most space endeavors, an off-world Internet infrastructure would have huge benefits to our daily lives on Earth.
“Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date,” Musk said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek before his announcement on Friday about establishing a SpaceX office in Seattle, Washington.

November 26th, 2013

Historic Demonstration Proves Laser Communication Possible NASA

In the early morning hours of Oct. 18, NASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) made history, transmitting data from lunar orbit to Earth at a rate of 622 Megabits-per-second (Mbps). That download rate is more than six times faster than previous state-of-the-art radio systems flown to the moon.
“It was amazing how quickly we were able to acquire the first signals, especially from such a distance,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager. “I attribute this success to the great work accomplished over the years by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT/LL) and their partnership with NASA.”

October 31st, 2012

Mars rover gets instructions daily from NASA via a network of antennae The Washington Post

We live in a chaos of electromagnetic energy. Visible, infrared and ultraviolet light courses omnidirectionally from the sun. A fraction of it bathes our planet, while some bounces off other planets, moons, comets and meteoroids. The visible light from stars up to 4,000 light-years away can be seen from Earth with the naked eye. With instruments, astronomers can detect gamma rays from stars 13 billion light-years away. Radio waves from remote galaxies help Earth’s official timekeepers monitor our planet’s path around the sun.
Once per day, a minuscule stream of radio waves joins this cacophony, making the 13.8-minute trip from an antenna on Earth to an SUV-size machine parked on the surface of Mars. Those short-lived waves represent our way — our only way — of communicating with Curiosity, the rover that NASA landed on Mars in August.

August 30th, 2011

NASA Tests Communication Scenarios For Near-Earth Asteroids Irish Weather Online

NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team has commenced testing communication scenarios for near-Earth asteroids.
The RATS team also is evaluates technology, human-robotic systems and extravehicular equipment in the high desert near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Field testing provides a knowledge base that helps scientists and engineers design, build and operate better equipment, and establish requirements for operations and procedures. The Arizona desert has a rough, dusty terrain and extreme temperature swings that simulate conditions that may be encountered on other surfaces in space.

August 25th, 2011

NASA’s lasercom system aims to beam a HD video feed from Mars

As cameras technology has allowed us to increase the resolution of the images we capture and video we watch, so has the bandwidth required to transfer that imagery. In space, the amount of data that can be sent is currently limited due to the radio frequency (RF) systems being relied upon.
NASA is trying to fix that limitation by testing a new communications system called a Laser Communication Relay (LCR). LCR is a desirable replacement because the optical/laser communication system (lasercom) allows for much higher data transfer rates while retaining the same size, weight and power requirements of existing RF systems. What that also means is a smaller optical system can still transmit at a decent data rate too, but save on power, weight, and size on board a satellite.
The difference in data rates is quoted as being as much as 100x that of existing RF systems and is the equivalent of trying to transfer data over broadband compared to Wi-Fi. The example NASA gives is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) which manages a 6Mbps data rate. The lasercom system would increase that to 100Mbps, meaning a high resolution image would arrive on Earth in 5 minutes rather than the current 90 minutes MRO takes.

October 16th, 2009

New concept may enhance Earth-Mars communication ESA

Direct communication between Earth and Mars can be strongly disturbed and even blocked by the Sun for weeks at a time, cutting off any future human mission to the Red Planet. An ESA engineer working with engineers in the UK may have found a solution using a new type of orbit combined with continuous-thrust ion propulsion. The European researchers studied a possible solution to a crucial problem affecting future human missions to Mars: how to ensure reliable radio communication even when Mars and Earth line up at opposite sides of the Sun, which then blocks any signal between mission controllers on Earth and astronauts on the red surface. The natural alignment, known as a conjunction, happens approximately every 780 days, and would seriously degrade and even block transmission of voice, data and video signals.

May 5th, 2005

Mars Telecommunications Orbiter: Interplanetary Broadband

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is expected to land a $500 million contract to build the Mars Telecommunication Orbiter, said Roger Gibbs, MTO project manager at JPL in Pasadena, California. The MTO is intended by NASA to pioneer the use of lasers in planet-to-planet communication; the intended launch date will be sometime in 2009. The Mars Telecommunication Orbiter will be the first interplanetary spacecraft whose main mission is to provide communications services to other missions. It will orbit Mars at a higher altitude than most orbiters, about 2,800 miles above the Martian surface. This will provide an enhanced line of site to Earth. The spacecraft will communicate with Earth via two radio bands and a new optical communications terminal, which will demonstrate the use of a near-infrared laser beam for interplanetary communications.