MarsNews.com
February 8th, 2019

NASA’s first interplanetary CubeSats fall silent beyond Mars

After a successful mission that pushed the limits of small satellite technology, ground controllers have lost contact with two briefcase-sized CubeSats beyond Mars, NASA said Tuesday.

The pioneering Mars Cube One, or MarCO, mission set records for the farthest distance CubeSats have ever operated, accompanying NASA’s InSight lander to Mars after a May 5 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The twin MarCO spacecraft relayed telemetry from InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere Nov. 26 and successfully landed on the Red Planet, giving engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California updates on the lander’s progress. albeit with an eight-minute delay due to the time it took radio signals to travel the 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Mars to Earth.

InSight could have succeeded without MarCO, but engineers would have had to wait hours to receive confirmation of the landing.

But MarCO was conceived primarily as an experimental mission to prove that CubeSats, with some modifications, could withstand the perils of deep space travel. CubeSats are much less expensive than larger satellites, and can cost less than $1 million to design and build for missions in Earth orbit.

The Mars Cube One mission cost $18.5 million, once engineers at JPL outfitted the satellites with a new type of radio, innovative antennas, a cold gas propulsion system, and other custom features needed for interplanetary spaceflight.

That’s still a fraction of the InSight mission’s $993 million cost.

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.

January 31st, 2019

‘Mars Buggy’ Curiosity Measures a Mountain’s Gravity

Side-by-side images depict NASA’s Curiosity rover (illustration at left) and a moon buggy driven during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Apollo 17 astronauts drove a moon buggy across the lunar surface in 1972, measuring gravity with a special instrument. There are no astronauts on Mars, but a group of clever researchers realized they havejust the tools for similar experiments with the Martian buggy they’re operating.

In a new paper in Science, the researchers detail how they repurposed sensors used to drive the Curiosity rover and turned them into gravimeters, which measure changes in gravitational pull. That enabled them to measure the subtle tug from rock layers on lower Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the base of Gale Crater and which Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. The results? It turns out the density of those rock layers is much lower than expected.

Just like a smartphone, Curiosity carries accelerometers and gyroscopes. Moving your smartphone allows these sensors to determine its location and which way it’s facing. Curiosity’s sensors do the same thing but with far more precision, playing a crucial role in navigating the Martian surface on each drive. Knowing the rover’s orientation also lets engineers accurately point its instruments and multidirectional, high-gain antenna.

By happy coincidence, the rover’s accelerometers can be used like Apollo 17’s gravimeter. The accelerometers detect the gravity of the planet whenever the rover stands still. Using engineering data from the first five years of the mission, the paper’s authors measured the gravitational tug of Mars on the rover. As Curiosity ascends Mount Sharp, the mountain adds additional gravity – but not as much as scientists expected.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” said lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University. “We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”

January 28th, 2019

Overcoming the Challenges of Farming on Mars

The study was conducted in a climate-regulated growth chamber in the Netherlands.
Image credit: Silje Wolff, NTNU Social Research (CIRiS)

Scientists in Norway and the Netherlands may have brought us closer to workable space farms, which experts agree are necessary if astronauts are ever going to reach the red planet.

“Astronauts stay on the International Space Station for six months and they can bring everything they need in either freeze-dried or vacuum packs, but the next goal for all space agencies is to reach Mars where travel is much longer,” explained Silje Wolff, a plant physiologist at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space in Trondheim, Norway.

In the best possible conditions, it would take a spacecraft between six and nine months to reach Mars and the same to get back — not to mention the additional months they would likely spend there.

“It’s very challenging, if not impossible, for them to take everything they would need for such a long mission,” she said.

Growing plants in space is tough — low gravity means water distribution is difficult to manage, the roots are often starved of oxygen, and stagnant air reduces evaporation and increases the leaf temperature.

But in a recent study, published in the journal Life, Wolff conducted a sequence of trial-and-error tests to perfect the process of growing lettuce, data which the researchers plan to use to grow salad in space.

January 22nd, 2019

Elon Musk: Why I’m Building the Starship out of Stainless Steel

Twitter/SpaceX

So SpaceX is making a huge rocket out of stainless steel. As far as we know, this marks the first time the material has been used in spacecraft construction since some early, ill-fated attempts during the Atlas program in the late 1950s.

We know he is doing this this because, after weeks of rumors about a tweak to the design, a few days before Christmas Musk revealed that there would be much more than a tweak. The state-of-the-art carbon fiber forming the body of the Starship rocket (formerly known as the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, or Big F-other-word Rocket) and its Super Heavy booster would be replaced by 300-series stainless.

On January 10, Musk tweeted a photograph of a test version of Starship—essentially a prototype that can be used for suborbital VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) test flights, reaching around 16,400 feet. He is calling these “hops.”

Since the quasi-unveiling, Musk has briefly answered some direct questions from the curious space-watchers of cyberspace via Twitter. But two weeks before the announcement he sat down with Popular Mechanics editor in chief Ryan D’Agostino at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, for an exclusive interview in which he discussed, in great detail, the thinking behind the change. He talked about a lot more than that—we’ll be bringing you more soon. For now, here’s what he said about the big change.

January 18th, 2019

Musk vs. Bezos: The Battle of the Space Billionaires Heats Up

Illustration: Blood Bros.

The commercial space business has blossomed over the past decade. Two companies, though, have grabbed the spotlight, emerging as the most ambitious of them all: Blue Origin and SpaceX.

At first glance, these two companies look a lot alike. They are both led by billionaires who became wealthy from the Internet: Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin earned his fortune from Amazon.com, and Elon Musk of SpaceX got rich initially from Web-based businesses, notably PayPal. Both companies are developing large, reusable launch vehicles capable of carrying people and satellites for government and commercial customers. And both are motivated by almost messianic visions of humanity’s future beyond Earth. This coming year, we’ll likely see some major milestones as these two titans continue to jockey for position.

Even further down the road, both Bezos and Musk see their companies truly enabling the expansion of humanity beyond Earth. But they have different visions of where we should go and how.

January 15th, 2019

Microbes Might Be Key to a Mars Mission

Credit: NASA, Clouds AO and SEArch Wikimedia

Picture a group of adventurous companions setting out into the great frontier to explore a barren, wild land. They must bring only the most important things they’ll need to survive on their own. Every ounce of weight they decide to take with them means another ounce they must transport. It sounds like an extreme backpacking trip, but I’m actually talking about a future mission to the surface of Mars.

We take for granted all the things we have on Earth that support human life—air for breathing, water for drinking and nutrients in the soil that allow us to grow food. On Mars, however, astronauts will need to bring their own life support systems, which can be prohibitively costly to transport. Without a lightweight flexible technology that can manufacture a variety of products using limited resources, the first Mars explorers won’t survive their journey.

Typically, microbes are considered a threat to space missions because they could cause illnesses. But non-pathogenic microbes might in fact be part of the solution for getting to Mars. Microbes can convert a wide variety of raw materials into a large number of essential products. Using engineering principles, synthetic biology can be harnessed to turn microbes into tiny programmable factories.

December 18th, 2018

NASA Begins America’s New Moon to Mars Exploration Approach in 2018

The first U.S. astronauts who will fly on American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station, wave after being announced, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The astronauts are, from left to right: Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, Nicole Aunapu Mann, Chris Ferguson, Eric Boe, Josh Cassada and Suni Williams. The agency assigned the nine astronauts to crew the first flight tests and missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon.
Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA welcomed a new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, deputy administrator, Jim Morhard, and chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit, in 2018. Their focus is on firmly establishing the groundwork to send Americans back to the Moon sustainably, with plans to use the agency’s lunar experience to prepare to send astronauts to Mars.

“Our agency’s accomplishments in 2018 are breathtaking. We’ve inspired the world and created incredible new capabilities for our nation,” Bridenstine said. “This year, we landed on Mars for the seventh time, and America remains the only country to have landed on Mars successfully. We created new U.S. commercial partnerships to land back on the Moon. We made breakthroughs in our quest to send humans farther into space than ever before. And, we contributed to remarkable advancements in aviation. I want to thank the entire NASA team for a fantastic year of American leadership in space, and I am confident we will build on our 2018 successes in 2019.”

In 2018, NASA celebrated six decades of exploration, discoveries and cutting-edge technology development for the agency’s 60th anniversary on Oct. 1. Bridenstine said, “President Eisenhower launched our nation into the Space Age and President Kennedy gave us the charge to reach the Moon. Over six incredible decades, we have brought the world an amazing number of bold missions in science, aviation and human exploration. NASA and its workforce have never failed to raise the bar of human potential and blaze a trail to the future. We celebrate our legacy today with great promise and a strong direction from the President to return to the Moon and go on to Mars.”

The Office of the Chief Financial Officer received a successful clean audit in 2018 – the eighth consecutive clean financial audit opinion for the agency. In addition, DeWit led his Strategic Investments Division in working with the Government Accounting Office to pass an official Corrective Action Plan for only the second time in NASA’s history, which will increase accountability and transparency into the costs of large programs and proactively improve NASA’s program and project management activities.

On Dec. 11, NASA recently marked the one-year anniversary of Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1), which provided a directive for NASA to return humans to the surface of the moon for long-term exploration and utilization and pursue human exploration of Mars and the broader solar system. Two additional space policy directives were enacted this year by the White House, with SPD-2 in February helping ease the regulatory environment so entrepreneurs can thrive in space, and SPD-3 in June helping ensure the U.S. is a leader in providing a safe and secure environment as commercial and civil space traffic increases.

November 30th, 2018

Bothell company’s explosives made sure Mars craft had a soft landing

In this February 2015 photo made available by NASA, the parachute for the InSight mission to Mars is tested inside the world’s largest wind tunnel at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin via AP)

Redmond-based rocket maker Aerojet-Rocketdyne wasn’t the only [Washington State] firm anxiously watching the NASA Mars landing on Monday.

In nearby Bothell, a team at the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems operation sat in front of a live video feed from NASA’s Mission Control, waiting for news about their own piece of the mission — a small but powerful cannon designed to blast out the parachute that helped slow the InSight landing craft as it plunged through the Martian atmosphere.

The so-called Mortar Deployment System is a wastebasket-sized cylindrical device, roughly 18 inches long and 10 inches across, that uses a precisely calibrated explosion to rapidly inflate a huge parachute behind the lander. That high-caliber shove is needed because the Martian atmosphere, at only one-hundredth the density of Earth’s, is so thin that the parachute won’t unfold on its own, said Paul Lichon, director of General Dynamic’s Bothell operation.

And unless the chute deploys fully and precisely on time, Lichon said, the lander’s braking rockets — supplied by Aerojet-Rocketdyne — wouldn’t slow the lander sufficiently to avoid a crash landing.

“This is one of the few systems on the spacecraft that is ‘single-point failure,’” said Lichon. “If our system doesn’t work, the whole mission is lost.”

November 28th, 2018

SpaceBok robotic hopper being tested at ESA’s Mars Yard

The four-legged robot mainly uses a hopping locomotion to navigate uneven terrain.

SpaceBok, a robotic hopper, is currently undergoing tested in the European Space Agency’s Mars Yard. On Wednesday, ESA released an image of the four-legged robot navigating cragged, red-tinged rocks.

SpaceBok was designed by a team of students from a pair of Swiss research universities, ETH Zurich and ZHAW Zurich. Students and researchers designed the robot for the purpose of navigating uneven, low-gravity environments like those found on the surface of the moon and Mars.

The Mars Yard is a small sandbox filled with a conglomerate of sand, gravel and different sized rocks. It is located at ESA’s Planetary Robotics Laboratory in the Netherlands.

“Legged robots can traverse unstructured terrain and could be used to explore areas of interest, such as craters, which rovers are unable to reach,” research team member Patrick Barton said in a news release. “As they are very versatile, they can change gait to adapt to different terrain.”

Despite the robot’s gait versatility, its preferred pattern of locomotion is hopping.