June 14th, 2019

To Make a Field Guide to Life on Mars, First Head to the Deep Sea

An artist’s rendering of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-CALTECH

In 2021, a NASA rover will touch down on Mars in search of signs of life, past or present. It will investigate the surface of the red planet and collect samples from areas that seem particularly promising. But traces of life on Mars—if they exist—aren’t going to be apparent to the naked eye: Obviously there’s no remains of mammoths or goldfish or snails. Any record of life on Mars would likely take the form of organic compounds, which have already been identified up there but aren’t definitive, or actual fossils of microorganisms. Such fossils exist here on Earth, but they’re very tricky to spot—even in places we know they’ll be. The best strategy for finding these miniscule traces, according to a group of Scandinavian scientists, is to study the denizens of the deep sea. This team now plans to create an atlas of fossilized microbes from Earth’s oceans—an extraterrestrial field guide of sorts—to help the rover and its human partners identify definitive proof of life on Mars, according to their recent article in Frontiers in Earth Science.

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

May 23rd, 2019

Scientists gear up to look for fossils on Mars

Upcoming missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 might already have the technology to find tiny micro-fossils on the Red Planet.

When most people imagine hunting for fossils, they probably think of finding dinosaur bones laid down in layers of rock. But the vast majority of life – and therefore fossils – across Earth’s history has been microorganisms. These tiny lifeforms, either plants, animals or fungi, can be smaller than the width of a human hair. But with the right tools, the fossilized records of these tiny creatures reveal insights into the history of a planet. Even planets that aren’t Earth.

A group of Swedish scientists led by Magnus Ivarsson point out in research published May 1 in Frontiers in Earth Science that instruments already planned for upcoming space missions like the Mars 2020 rover could detect tiny fossils on Mars, if they exist. But Mars 2020 can’t analyze every rock it encounters in detail, so the researchers propose a few ways to determine the best places to look on the Red Planet.

May 22nd, 2019

NASA Invites Public to Submit Names to Fly Aboard Next Mars Rover

All Aboard for Mars 2020: Members of the public who want to send their name to Mars on NASA’s next rover mission to the Red Planet (Mars 2020) can get a souvenir boarding pass and their names stenciled on chips to be affixed to the rover.

Although it will be years before the first humans set foot on Mars, NASA is giving the public an opportunity to send their names — stenciled on chips — to the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which represents the initial leg of humanity’s first round trip to another planet. The rover is scheduled to launch as early as July 2020, with the spacecraft expected to touch down on Mars in February 2021.

The rover, a robotic scientist weighing more than 2,300 pounds (1,000 kilograms), will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

“As we get ready to launch this historic Mars mission, we want everyone to share in this journey of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. “It’s an exciting time for NASA, as we embark on this voyage to answer profound questions about our neighboring planet, and even the origins of life itself.”

The opportunity to send your name to Mars comes with a souvenir boarding pass and “frequent flyer” points. This is part of a public engagement campaign to highlight missions involved with NASA’s journey from the Moon to Mars. Miles (or kilometers) are awarded for each “flight,” with corresponding digital mission patches available for download. More than 2 million names flew on NASA’s InSight mission to Mars, giving each “flyer” about 300 million frequent flyer miles (nearly 500 million frequent flier kilometers).

From now until Sept. 30, 2019, you can add your name to the list and obtain a souvenir boarding pass to Mars here:

April 19th, 2019

Things Are Stacking up for NASA’s Mars 2020 Spacecraft

For the past few months, the clean room floor in High Bay 1 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been covered in parts, components and test equipment for the Mars 2020 spacecraft, scheduled for launch toward the Red Planet in July of 2020. But over the past few weeks, some of these components – the spacecraft-rocket-laden landing system and even the stand-in for the rover (christened “surrogate-rover”) – have seemingly disappeared.

In reality, they are still there, tucked neatly into the entry capsule, as they will be when it’s time for launch. The procedure is known as vehicle stacking and involves a hyper-detailed plan for what goes where and when.

“One of our main jobs is to make sure the rover and all the hardware that is required to get the rover from here on Earth to the surface of Mars fits inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket, which gives us about 15 feet [5 meters] of width to work with,” said David Gruel, assembly, test and launch operations (ATLO) manager for Mars 2020 at JPL.

The first step is to place the rocket-powered descent stage on top of the surrogate rover (the real rover is being integrated and tested in tandem with the spacecraft stack). Then, when all the holes line up and everything is attached, checked and re-checked again, the back shell is lowered over them via gantry crane.

“That crane has lifted almost every spacecraft that’s come through JPL since Mariner,” said Gruel. “To safely lift the large pieces of the Mars 2020 spacecraft, we utilize a dozen technicians and engineers.”

March 29th, 2019

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Completes Flight Tests

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the flight model (the actual vehicle going to the Red Planet), inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 1, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since the Wright brothers first took to the skies of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Dec. 17, 1903, first flights have been important milestones in the life of any vehicle designed for air travel. After all, it’s one thing to design an aircraft and make it fly on paper – or computer. It is quite another to put all the pieces together and watch them get off the ground.

In late January 2019, all the pieces making up the flight model (actual vehicle going to the Red Planet) of NASA’s Mars Helicopter were put to the test.

Weighing in at no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter is a technology demonstration project currently going through the rigorous verification process certifying it for Mars.

The majority of the testing the flight model is going through had to do with demonstrating how it can operate on Mars, including how it performs at Mars-like temperatures. Can the helicopter survive – and function – in cold temperatures, including nights with temperatures as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius)?

All this testing is geared towards February 2021, when the helicopter will reach the surface of the Red Planet, firmly nestled under the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights (up to 90 seconds long) will begin – the first from the surface of another world.

February 6th, 2019

Motors on Mars: The technology being sent to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of the Mars helicopter

The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.

The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.

The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.

“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.

December 3rd, 2018

Five planned missions to Mars

An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Rocket. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.

November 29th, 2018

Opinion: Mars Beckons

Niv Bavarsky

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?

October 29th, 2018

Third ASPIRE Test Confirms Mars 2020 Parachute a Go

This high-definition image was taken on Sept. 7, 2018, during the third and final test flight of the ASPIRE payload. It was the fastest inflation of this size parachute in history and created a peak load of almost 70,000 pounds of force.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the early hours of Sept. 7, NASA broke a world record.

Less than 2 minutes after the launch of a 58-foot-tall (17.7-meter) Black Brant IX sounding rocket, a payload separated and began its dive back through Earth’s atmosphere. When onboard sensors determined the payload had reached the appropriate height and Mach number (38 kilometers altitude, Mach 1.8), the payload deployed a parachute. Within four-tenths of a second, the 180-pound parachute billowed out from being a solid cylinder to being fully inflated.

It was the fastest inflation in history of a parachute this size and created a peak load of almost 70,000 pounds of force.

This wasn’t just any parachute. The mass of nylon, Technora and Kevlar fibers that make up the parachute will play an integral part in landing NASA’s state-of-the-art Mars 2020 rover on the Red Planet in February 2021. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) project conducted a series of sounding rocket tests to help decide which parachute design to use on the Mars 2020 mission.

Two different parachutes were evaluated during ASPIRE. The first test flight carried almost an exact copy of the parachute used to land NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory successfully on the Red Planet in 2012. The second and third tests carried chutes of similar dimensions but reinforced with stronger materials and stitching.

On Oct. 3, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission management and members of its Entry, Descent, and Landing team met at JPL in Pasadena, California, and determined that the strengthened parachute had passed its tests and was ready for its Martian debut.

“Mars 2020 will be carrying the heaviest payload yet to the surface of Mars, and like all our prior Mars missions, we only have one parachute and it has to work,” said John McNamee, project manager of Mars 2020 at JPL. “The ASPIRE tests have shown in remarkable detail how our parachute will react when it is first deployed into a supersonic flow high above Mars. And let me tell you, it looks beautiful.”