March 15th, 2022

Astrolab Advances Lunar Mobility with FLEX Rover

Recently tested by retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, the adaptive, multi-use rover can autonomously swap payloads, mobilize astronauts and more, enabling the next generation of planetary exploration and discovery

Venturi Astrolab, Inc. (Astrolab), an emerging aerospace company formed by a team of industry leading planetary rover and robotics experts, announces today the development of the Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover built to enhance Lunar and planetary mobility. Astrolab aims to bring to market a fleet of FLEX rovers to provide the mobility required to support a sustained human presence on the Moon and Mars.

The FLEX rover’s unique commercial potential comes from its novel mobility system architecture, which gives it the ability to pick up and deposit modular payloads in support of robotic science, exploration, logistics, site survey/preparation, construction, resource utilization, and other activities critical to a sustained presence on the Moon and beyond. Built with adaptive utility in mind, FLEX can also serve as an unpressurized rover for a crew of two astronauts, in line with NASA’s Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) requirements.

February 18th, 2022

Maana Electric’s TerraBox turns sand and electricity into solar panels

Maana Electric’s TerraBox turns sand and electricity into solar panels. Credit: Maana Electric

The Luxembourg-based startup Maana Electric will soon be testing its TerraBox, a fully automated factory the size of several shipping containers that takes sand and produces solar panels. The company aims to send these small warehouse container-like boxes, capable of building solar panels using only electricity and sand as inputs, to the deserts of the Earth, in order to contribute to the fight against climate change.

If all goes according to the plans, the technology could reach the Moon, Mars, and beyond as well to help future space colonies meet their energy needs. The TerraBox fits within shipping containers, allowing the mini-factories to be transported to deserts across the globe and produce clean, renewable energy.

December 16th, 2021

ExoMars discovers hidden water in Mars’ Grand Canyon

Mars Express took snapshots of Candor Chasma, a valley in the northern part of Valles Marineris, as it was in orbit above the region on 6 July 2006.
ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has spotted significant amounts of water at the heart of Mars’ dramatic canyon system, Valles Marineris.

The water, which is hidden beneath Mars’ surface, was found by the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)’s FREND instrument, which is mapping the hydrogen – a measure of water content – in the uppermost metre of Mars’ soil.

While water is known to exist on Mars, most is found in the planet’s cold polar regions as ice. Water ice is not found exposed at the surface near the equator, as temperatures here are not cold enough for exposed water ice to be stable.

Missions including ESA’s Mars Express have hunted for near-surface water – as ice covering dust grains in the soil, or locked up in minerals – at lower latitudes of Mars, and found small amounts. However, such studies have only explored the very surface of the planet; deeper water stores could exist, covered by dust.

“With TGO we can look down to one metre below this dusty layer and see what’s really going on below Mars’ surface – and, crucially, locate water-rich ‘oases’ that couldn’t be detected with previous instruments,” says Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia; lead author of the new study; and principal investigator of the FREND (Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector) neutron telescope.

“FREND revealed an area with an unusually large amount of hydrogen in the colossal Valles Marineris canyon system: assuming the hydrogen we see is bound into water molecules, as much as 40% of the near-surface material in this region appears to be water.”

The water-rich area is about the size of the Netherlands and overlaps with the deep valleys of Candor Chaos, part of the canyon system considered promising in our hunt for water on Mars.

April 22nd, 2021

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Just Turned Martian CO2 Into Oxygen

Image by NASA

A toaster-sized scientific instrument attached to NASA’s Perseverance rover just sucked up a bit of carbon dioxide from the surrounding Martian atmosphere and converted it into oxygen.

It’s a groundbreaking first that could lead to a future in which space travelers are not only able to generate air to breathe, but rocket fuel to get them back to Earth as well — while still on Mars.

The instrument, called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), is a technology demonstration that could eventually be scaled up to produce enough propellant to enable a crew of astronauts to take off from the surface of the Red Planet.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), in a statement. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars.”

March 29th, 2021

The Golden Box That Could Create Oxygen on Mars

MOXIE is already on the Red Planet. It’s now time to test it out.

Humanity’s future on Mars may depend on a golden box about the size of a car battery.

On February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars with this box, called MOXIE, nestled in its belly.

MOXIE was designed to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars, and NASA plans to put it to the test within the next few months. If it works as hoped, the instrument could play a key role in getting astronauts home from Mars — and maybe even help them survive while on the Red Planet.

NASA can’t send people to Mars until it knows it can also bring them back, and that means making sure the astronauts have enough rocket propellant for the return trip.

The most straightforward option is to send the propellant — a combination of oxygen and rocket fuel — to Mars with the astronauts.

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.”

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.

October 30th, 2018

How NASA Will Use Robots to Create Rocket Fuel From Martian Soil

This artist’s rendering shows excavating robots that may one day operate on Mars, long before humans ever set foot on the planet.
Illustration: Marek Denko/NoEmotion

The year is 2038. After 18 months living and working on the surface of Mars, a crew of six explorers boards a deep-space transport rocket and leaves for Earth. No humans are staying behind, but work goes on without them: Autonomous robots will keep running a mining and chemical-synthesis plant they’d started years before this first crewed mission ever set foot on the planet. The plant produces water, oxygen, and rocket fuel using local resources, and it will methodically build up all the necessary supplies for the next Mars mission, set to arrive in another two years.

This robot factory isn’t science fiction: It’s being developed jointly by multiple teams across NASA. One of them is the Swamp Works Lab at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, where I am a team lead. Officially, it’s known as an in situ resource utilization (ISRU) system, but we like to call it a dust-to-thrust factory, because it turns simple dust into rocket fuel. This technology will one day allow humans to live and work on Mars—and return to Earth to tell the story.

But why synthesize stuff on Mars instead of just shipping it there from Earth? NASA invokes the “gear-ratio problem.” By some estimates, to ship a single kilogram of fuel from Earth to Mars, today’s rockets need to burn 225 kilograms of fuel in transit—launching into low Earth orbit, shooting off toward Mars, slowing down to get into Mars orbit, and finally slowing to a safe landing on the surface of Mars. We’d start with 226 kg and end with 1 kg, which makes for a 226:1 gear ratio. And the ratio stays the same no matter what we ship. We would need 225 tons of fuel to send a ton of water, a ton of oxygen, or a ton of machinery. The only way to get around that harsh arithmetic is by making our water, oxygen, and fuel on-site.

October 3rd, 2018

Learn To Farm On Mars With This Fake Martian Soil

Fig. 1. Comparison of martian simulants. (a) MAHLI image of the scooped Rocknest soil; image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. (b) Photograph of MGS-1 prototype simulant produced for this work. (c) Photograph of JSC Mars-1. (d) Photograph of MMS-1 sold by the Martian Garden company.

If you watched or read “The Martian,” and wanted to try your hand at living on Mars or becoming a Martian farmer like Mark Watney, then today is your lucky day. Astrophysicists at the University of Central Florida have developed a scientific, standardized method to create soil like future space colonies might encounter on Mars. They’re selling it for about $10 per pound (or $20 per kilogram) plus shipping.

This soil, also called simulant, is designed and created to mimic the red soil on Mars. From how fine the grains are to what minerals are present, this simulant is about as close as you can get to real Martian soil. These researchers have also created an asteroid simulant and are working on developing a wider variety of simulants, like ones to mimic soils from different parts of Mars.

The only parts of the simulants that don’t match the real thing are the toxic, carcinogenic, or otherwise dangerous components that exist in actual asteroids or in real Martian soil. “We leave out the dangerous stuff,” said Dan Britt, a physics professor and member of the UCF Planetary Sciences Group working on creating these simulants.