MarsNews.com
August 7th, 2019

How This Video Game Company Will Help Keep Mars Astronauts Healthy

Illustration of an astronaut in front of Mars.GETTY

Level Ex isn’t your average video game company. Instead of stealing cars or street fighting, its games focus on the human body, creating video games for doctors and other medical professionals that want to practice complicated procedures. Now the company aims to help astronauts stay healthy on long-term missions, such as going to Mars.

On Wednesday, Level Ex announced that it received a year-long grant of an undisclosed amount from the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), an organization that is led by Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine and is funded by NASA’s Human Research Program. The grant will provide funding for Level Ex to create a virtual simulation that can show how human anatomy and medical procedures will differ in space versus on Earth. Eventually, the company hopes to create medical video games that can be used to train astronauts on health situations they may encounter while in space. Level Ex has made many exciting products over its four year history, says founder and CEO Sam Glassenberg, but “this one is something special.”

August 1st, 2019

NASA Announces US Industry Partnerships to Advance Moon, Mars Technology

Illustration of a human landing system and crew on the lunar surface with Earth near the horizon.
Credits: NASA

As NASA prepares to land humans on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program, commercial companies are developing new technologies, working toward space ventures of their own, and looking to NASA for assistance. NASA has selected 13 U.S. companies for 19 partnerships to mature industry-developed space technologies and help maintain American leadership in space.

NASA centers will partner with the companies, which range from small businesses with fewer than a dozen employees to large aerospace organizations, to provide expertise, facilities, hardware and software at no cost. The partnerships will advance the commercial space sector and help bring new capabilities to market that could benefit future NASA missions.

“NASA’s proven experience and unique facilities are helping commercial companies mature their technologies at a competitive pace,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “We’ve identified technology areas NASA needs for future missions, and these public-private partnerships will accelerate their development so we can implement them faster.”

The selections were made through NASA’s Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO) released in October 2018. They will result in non-reimbursable Space Act Agreements between the companies and NASA. The selections cover the following technology focus areas, which are important to America’s Moon to Mars exploration approach.

July 2nd, 2019

Landing the Mars 2020 rover: Autopilot will avoid terrain hazards autonomously

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will have an autopilot that helps guide it to safer landings on the Red Planet.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view of the Sea of Tranquility rising up to meet Neil Armstrong during the first astronaut landing on the Moon was not what Apollo 11 mission planners had intended. They had hoped to send the lunar module Eagle toward a relatively flat landing zone with few craters, rocks and boulders. Instead, peering through his small, triangular commander’s window, Armstrong saw a boulder field—very unfriendly for a lunar module. So the Apollo 11 commander took control of the descent from the onboard computer, piloting Eagle well beyond the boulder field,to a landing site that will forever be known as Tranquility Base.

“There had been Moon landings with robotic spacecraft before Apollo 11,” said Al Chen, entry, descent and landing lead for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “But never before had a spacecraft on a descent toward its surface changed its trajectory to maneuver out of harm’s way.”

Chen and his Mars 2020 colleagues have experience landing spacecraft on the Red Planet without the help of a steely-eyed astronaut at the stick. But Mars 2020 is headed toward NASA’s biggest Martian challenge yet. Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) indentation full of steep cliffsides, sand dunes, boulders fields and small impact craters. The team knew that to attempt a landing at Jezero—and with a rover carrying 50% more payload than the Curiosity rover, which landed at a more benign location near Mount Sharp—they would have to up their game.

“What we needed was a Neil Armstrong for Mars,” said Chen. “What we came up with was Terrain-Relative Navigation.”

July 1st, 2019

Earth To Mars In 100 Days? The Power Of Nuclear Rockets

Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

The Solar System is a really big place, and it takes forever to travel from world to world with traditional chemical rockets. But one technique, developed back in the 1960s might provide a way to dramatically shorten our travel times: nuclear rockets.

Of course, launching a rocket powered by radioactive material has its own risks as well. Should we attempt it?

On May 22, 2019, US Congress approved $125 million dollars in funding for the development of nuclear thermal propulsion rockets. Although this program doesn’t have any role to play in NASA’s Artemis 2024 return to the Moon, it – quote – “calls upon NASA to develop a multi-year plan that enables a nuclear thermal propulsion demonstration including the timeline associated with the space demonstration and a description of future missions and propulsion and power systems enabled by this capability.”

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.”

June 5th, 2019

An Atomic Clock for Deep Space

A glimpse of the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the middle bay of the General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed spacecraft.
Credits: NASA

NASA’s Orbital Test Bed satellite is scheduled for launch via a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 22, with live streaming here. Although two dozen satellites from various institutions will be aboard the launch vehicle, the NASA OTB satellite itself houses multiple payloads on a single platform, including a modular solar array and a programmable satellite receiver. The component that’s caught my eye, though, is the Deep Space Atomic Clock, a technology demonstrator that points to better navigation in deep space without reliance on Earth-based atomic clocks.

Consider current methods of navigation. An accurate reading on a spacecraft’s position depends on a measurement of the time it takes for a transmission to flow between a ground station and the vehicle. Collect enough time measurements, converting them to distance, and the spacecraft’s trajectory is established. We know how to do atomic clocks well — consider the US Naval Observatory’s use of clocks reliant on the oscillation of atoms in its cesium and hydrogen maser clocks. Atomic clocks at Deep Space Network ground stations make possible navigational readings on spacecraft at the expense of bulk and communications lag.

While GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) use onboard atomic clocks, the technologies currently in play are too heavy for operations on spacecraft designed for exploration far from Earth. That puts the burden on communications, as distant spacecraft process a signal from an atomic clock on the ground. What the spacecraft lacks is autonomy.

June 3rd, 2019

SpaceX beginning to tackle some of the big challenges for a Mars journey

A rendering of what a Super Heavy Starship launch would look like.

Earlier this month, the principal Mars “development engineer” for SpaceX, Paul Wooster, provided an update on the company’s vision for getting to the Red Planet. During his presentation at the 2019 Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC, Wooster said SpaceX remains on track to send humans to Mars in the “mid-2020s.” He was likely referring to launch opportunities for Mars in 2024 and 2026, but he also acknowledged that much work remains to reach that point.

SpaceX plans to bring humans to Mars with a two-stage rocket: the Starship upper stage and a Super Heavy booster (the latter formerly known as the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR). Iterative design versions of the Starship are being built at facilities in both Boca Chica, Texas, and near Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is expected to provide an update on their development in late June.

Wooster said that SpaceX is working to “minimize the number of things that we need to do in order to get that first mission to Mars.” Part of that minimization involves a massive payload capacity. Starship, once refueled in low-Earth orbit, is planned to have a capacity of more than 100 tons to Mars.

This will allow SpaceX to take a “brute force” approach, which will greatly simplify the overall logistics of the first missions. For instance, this will allow for taking more consumables instead of recycling them, more equipment and spare parts, and other infrastructure, Wooster said.

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.

May 14th, 2019

A New Idea for Putting Out Fires in Space: The Vacuum Cleaner?

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (white shirt) and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman (blue) practice a fire drill training in NASA’s Space Station mock-up in Houston, TX. (Image Credit: NASA)

Current safety regulations ensure that only low-flammable materials are brought into space. Fires in locations like the International Space Station (ISS), however, are still possible.

Short circuits happen, for example. Cosmic rays may cause structural damage to materials, altering their flammability.

At present, the ISS has a CO2 gas extinguisher, combined with a water mist, to dilute the local oxygen concentration and remove heat.

The method, however, leaves harmful fumes in the enclosed space. Crewmembers who put out the fires must put on oxygen masks due to the risk of the high concentration of CO2 in the cabin.

Researchers from the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan have developed a new type of fire extinguisher that is optimized for space-use and does not require the use of any oxygen masks.

The Vacuum Extinguish Method (VEM), a concept demonstrated in the academic journal Fire Technology, is a bit like the hoover in your living room, says lead researcher Dr. Yuji Nakamura.

“Think of it as simply sucking the flame like a vacuum cleaner to ‘clean up’ your firing zone,” Dr. Nakamura told Tech Briefs. “Then, the flame, as well as any other harmful products, is sucked in.”

The extinguishing system has two boxes. Once the first vacuum box is filled, a valve opens, sending the collected gas to the second container; the first box, meanwhile, continues its vacuuming.