May 7th, 2007

Methane Blast NASA Science

On January 16, 2007, a dazzling blue flame blasted across the sands of the Mojave desert. In many respects, it looked like an ordinary rocket engine test, but this was different. While most NASA rockets are powered by liquid oxygen and hydrogen or solid chemicals, “we were testing a methane engine,” says project manager Terri Tramel of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). The main engine, built and fired by the NASA contractor team Alliant Techsystems/XCOR Aerospace, is still in an early stage of development and isn’t ready for space. But if the technology proves itself, methane engines like this one could eventually be key to deep space exploration.
Methane (CH4), the principal component of natural gas, is abundant in the outer solar system. It can be harvested from Mars, Titan, Jupiter, and many other planets and moons. With fuel waiting at the destination, a rocket leaving Earth wouldn’t have to carry so much propellant, reducing the cost of a mission.

May 31st, 2005

Approaching Mars NASA Science

By the time you finish reading this sentence, you’ll be 25 miles closer to the planet Mars. Earth is racing toward Mars at a speed of 23,500 mph, which means the red planet is getting bigger and brighter by the minute. In October, when the two planets are closest together, Mars will outshine everything in the night sky except Venus and the Moon. (You’re another 50 miles closer: keep reading!)

April 26th, 2005

Don’t Breathe the [Mars]dust NASA Science

When humans return to the Moon and travel to Mars, they’ll have to be careful of what they inhale. In 1972, Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt sniffed the air in his Lunar Module, the Challenger. “[It] smells like gunpowder in here,” he said. His commander Gene Cernan agreed. “Oh, it does, doesn’t it?” The two astronauts had just returned from a long moonwalk around the Taurus-Littrow valley, near the Sea of Serenity. Dusty footprints marked their entry into the spaceship. That dust became airborne–and smelly. Later, Schmitt felt congested and complained of “lunar dust hay fever.” His symptoms went away the next day; no harm done. He soon returned to Earth and the anecdote faded into history.

March 20th, 2005

En route to Mars, the Moon NASA Science

NASA has a new Vision for Space Exploration: in the decades ahead, humans will land on Mars and explore the red planet. Brief visits will lead to longer stays and, maybe one day, to colonies. First, though, we’re returning to the Moon. Why the Moon before Mars? “The Moon is a natural first step,” explains Philip Metzger, a physicist at NASA Kennedy Space Center. “It’s nearby. We can practice living, working and doing science there before taking longer and riskier trips to Mars.”

October 24th, 2004

Blinding Flashes NASA Science

Gazing out of their space capsules, Apollo astronauts witnessed sights that humans had never before seen. They saw the breathtaking view of the Earth’s bright blue disc against the inky black of space. They saw the far side of the Moon. They also saw strange flashes of light inside their eyeballs! Since then, astronauts aboard Skylab, the Shuttle, Mir, and the International Space Station have all reported seeing these flashes. No need to call Agents Mulder and Scully of The X Files, though: what the astronauts are experiencing is space radiation zipping through their eyes like subatomic bullets. When a “bullet” strikes the retina, it triggers a false signal that the brain interprets as a flash of light.

August 20th, 2004

Have Blood, Will Travel NASA Science

The radiation astronauts encounter in deep space could put vital blood-making cells in jeopardy. Editor’s Note: Stem cells discussed in this story are adult stem cells, not to be confused with controversial embryonic stem cells. All adults have stem cells; they’re crucial to everyday health. NASA is working to learn how space radiation might affect the blood-making stem cells of astronauts en route to the Moon or Mars.

March 2nd, 2004

Meridiani Planum: “Drenched” NASA Science

Some rocks at Opportunity’s landing site in Meridiani Planum on Mars were once soaked in liquid water. Members of the Mars Exploration Rovers’ international science team presented the evidence today to news reporters at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

February 25th, 2004

Greenhouses for Mars NASA Science

When humans go to the Moon or Mars, they’ll probably take plants with them. NASA-supported researchers are learning how greenhouses work on other planets. Confused? Then you’re just like plants in a greenhouse on Mars. No greenhouses exist there yet, of course. But long-term explorers, on Mars, or the moon, will need to grow plants: for food, for recycling, for replenishing the air. And plants aren’t going to understand that off-earth environment at all. It’s not what they evolved for, and it’s not what they’re expecting. But in some ways, it turns out, they’re probably going to like it better! Some parts of it, anyway.

February 17th, 2004

Can People Go to Mars? NASA Science

NASA has a mystery to solve: Can people go to Mars, or not? “It’s a question of radiation,” says Frank Cucinotta of NASA’s Space Radiation Health Project at the Johnson Space Center. “We know how much radiation is out there, waiting for us between Earth and Mars, but we’re not sure how the human body is going to react to it.” NASA astronauts have been in space, off and on, for 45 years. Except for a few quick trips to the moon, though, they’ve never spent much time far from Earth. Deep space is filled with protons from solar flares, gamma rays from newborn black holes, and cosmic rays from exploding stars. A long voyage to Mars, with no big planet nearby to block or deflect that radiation, is going to be a new adventure.

January 22nd, 2004

Destination: Meridiani Planum NASA Science

On January 24, at about 9:05 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, NASA’s second rover is scheduled to arrive on Mars. Opportunity will land near the equator, on a plain known as Meridiani Planum. It’ll be halfway around the planet from Gusev Crater, where its twin, Spirit, is already feeding eager scientists as much data as it can transmit.