MarsNews.com
August 9th, 2018

Report: NASA Needs to Get Moving on Its Plan to Snatch Some Mars Dust

Illustration of the Solar System.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA doesn’t just randomly decide what telescopes and satellites to shoot into space and what planet to study next. Instead, a committee of outside scientists drafts a set of goals and recommendations in what’s called a decadal survey. And though it notes some financial setbacks, a midterm review of the last decadal survey report says NASA has done a pretty good job hitting the goals set by the 2013-2022 Planetary Science survey. But there’s work left to do, especially when it comes to bringing a sample of Martian dust to Earth.

The National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday released a midterm assessment of NASA’s progress on meeting the planetary science community’s goals for 2013 to 2022. According to the report, NASA has more or less met or exceeded the committee’s recommendations—but it hasn’t adhered to the recommended timeline for developing some discovery missions.

July 10th, 2018

ESA awards Mars sample return study contracts as international cooperation plans take shape

ESA is studying a rover that would fetch samples for launch on a NASA-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (above), as well as an orbiter that would capture the sample container for return to Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The European Space Agency awarded two contracts to Airbus to study elements of a Mars sample return approach as the outlines of international cooperation with NASA on that effort materialize.

Airbus announced July 6 that it received two study contracts from ESA regarding Mars sample return mission concepts. Those studies include a rover to collect samples and an orbiter to return those samples to Earth.

The Mars Sample Fetch Rover, as conceived by ESA, would launch to Mars in 2026 on a NASA lander mission. It would use a robotic arm to gather samples cached by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, returning those samples to the lander and loading them into a NASA-provided rocket known as a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch them into Mars orbit.

The Earth Return Orbiter would rendezvous with the sample contained in Mars orbit. The orbiter would place the sample inside a biocontainment system in a reentry capsule for return to Earth by the end of the 2020s.

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.

May 3rd, 2017

Japanese space agency’s mission aims to uncover how moons of Mars formed

2017-05-03 11_40_56-MMX - Martian Moons eXploration

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has announced a mission to visit the two moons of Mars and return a rock sample to Earth. It’s a plan to uncover both the mystery of the moons’ creation and, perhaps, how life began in our Solar System.

The Solar System’s planets take their names from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Mars is the god of war, while the red planet’s two moons are named for the deity’s twin sons: Deimos (meaning panic) and Phobos (fear).

Unlike our own Moon, Phobos and Deimos are tiny. Phobos has an average diameter of 22.2km, while Deimos measures an even smaller 13km. Neither moon is on a stable orbit, with Deimos slowly moving away from Mars while Phobos will hit the Martian surface in around 20 million years.

The small size of the two satellites makes their gravity too weak to pull the moons in spheres. Instead, the pair have the irregular, lumpy structure of asteroids. This has led to a major question about their formation: were these moons formed from Mars or are they actually captured asteroids?

The excitement for a Mars moon mission has led to strong international involvement in MMX. On April 10, JAXA president Naoki Okumura met his counterpart from France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), Jean-Yves Le Gall.

The meeting cemented a collaboration between the two space agencies. CNES will provide an instrument for MMX as well as combining expertise on flight dynamics for the tricky encounter with the Martian moons.

March 24th, 2017

‘Life’ horror movie sparks reality check on procedures for studying Mars samples

Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, a planetary protection officer aboard the International Space Station, in the movie “Life.” (Sony Pictures Digital Productions)

Rebecca Ferguson plays Miranda North, a planetary protection officer aboard the International Space Station, in the movie “Life.” (Sony Pictures Digital Productions)

Spoiler Alert! This article doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but wait to read it if you’re trying to stay totally in the dark about the plot of the movie “Life.”

Let sleeping Martians lie, particularly if they have a strong grip: That’s one of the lessons you could take away from “Life,” the first monster movie set on the International Space Station.

The movie – which opens today and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds – blends the gory horror of “Alien” with the harrowing suspense of “Gravity.” It’s a tour de force of simulated zero-G acrobatics (done mostly with ropes and wires). And it’s an orbital illustration of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong with having an alien on board does go wrong.

Purists may have questions about just how wrong it goes. Could a minuscule life form brought back from Mars really get that big that quickly? Is it really possible to combine neural, muscular and sensory functions in one cell? And just how easy is it for things to come loose (or get loose) on the space station?

The deepest question may well be, does this nightmare have any chance of happening in real life?

February 15th, 2017

Mars 2020: Could this be Red Planet round-trip?

NASA/AP

NASA/AP

Nearly 20 years after Pathfinder rolled onto an ancient Martian flood plain called Ares Vallis, NASA’s four Mars rovers have only covered about 38 miles of the Red Planet. That leaves plenty of territory for the next lander, Mars 2020, to explore.

At a conference last week, scientists determined three possible landing sites for the rover: Columbia Hills, Northeast Syrtis, and Jezero Crater. Orbital observations and previous rovers have found that the first two sites were likely once home to hot springs; Jezero Crater may have held a large lake.

“If you find where the liquid water was,” Bruce Betts, director of science and technology for the Planetary Society, tells The Christian Science Monitor, “if there were ever life on Mars, that would be a good place to look.”

This “follow the water” paradigm has guided NASA’s missions to Mars since the 1990s. The Mars 2020 mission, scheduled for launch in three years, continues this approach and adds a new goal: returning samples for Earth-based study.

December 27th, 2016

China Issues Space White Paper – Moon, Mars Goals

CCTV/China Spaceflight.com

CCTV/China Spaceflight.com

China’s Information Office of the State Council on December 27 released an expansive white paper on that country’s space activities in 2016, and projected looks at its space agenda in coming years.

In an associated press conference marking the release of the white paper, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua, stated that China plans to develop a new generation of heavy-lift carrier rocket, the “Changzheng-9” or “Long March-9.”

That booster is intended for future manned lunar landing and deep space exploration missions, according to a report by CRIENGLISH.com.

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.

September 28th, 2016

Mars awaits: Sydney rocket scientist to test ion drive in space University of Sydney

Return trips to Mars without refuelling could be a step closer, the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico heard today – because of world-leading research from the University of Sydney and the entrepreneurialism of a former student now set to test his invention in space.

The announcement comes weeks after research reporting a world record specific impulse – a measure of thrust efficiency, like miles per gallon – was published by a graduate and two professors at the University of Sydney.

The rocket engine is being commercially developed by Neumann Space, the company set up by Dr Patrick Neumann after the completion of his PhD. Dr Neumann, who was part of an international announcement by Airbus Defence & Space today at the congress taking place in Guadalajara, Mexico, sent a statement about the invention.

June 20th, 2016

Jeff Bezos: The government should offer “a very large prize to whoever first brings back some Mars samples” University of Sydney

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is no longer the highly funded juggernaut that it was in the 1960s, and these days private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are becoming more and more important in the development of spacefaring technology.

According to Bezos, this can actually be a good thing for the future of space travel and research, and during a recent on-stage interview during the John H. Glenn Lecture in Space History at the National Air and Space Museum, Bezos said that the government could do more to encourage a private space race for a potential mission to Mars.

Specifically, Bezos said that one possible method the government should consider is to offer a substantial prize for certain milestones.

“I think big prizes would be an interesting thing to do,” Bezos said during his interview. “… One thing that the government could do is just offer a very large prize to whoever first brings back some Mars samples. It would be very interesting. That kind of horse race would create lots of attention. People would compete for it.”