March 12th, 2013

Reality TV paves way for Neil Armstrong of Mars New Scientist

Commercial space-flight mogul Elon Musk has quipped that he would like to die on Mars – just not on impact. The quote highlights his desire to build reliable, affordable spacecraft that could one day carry the first people to land on the Red Planet.
Musk may have the technological prowess to make it happen. Last week his company SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, lofted its Grasshopper rocket a record 80 metres into the air, where it hovered for a few seconds before gently landing on hydraulic legs.
It’s not high compared with the distance to space but the ability to take off, land and then take off again, like the vehicles of science fiction, brings a reusable rocket a step closer. That could be one part of making interplanetary travel affordable, not to mention less polluting. Today, all rockets are single-use and discarded once their payload reaches orbit.

May 6th, 2010

Destination Phobos: humanity’s next giant leap New Scientist

PHOBOS is a name you are going to hear a lot in the coming years. It may be little more than an asteroid – just two-billionths of the mass of our planet, with no atmosphere and hardly any gravity – yet the largest of Mars’s two moons is poised to become our next outpost in space, our second home.
Although our own moon is enticingly close, its gravity means that relatively large rockets are needed to get astronauts to and from the surface. The same goes for Mars, making it expensive to launch missions there too

April 26th, 2010

Martian tubes could be home for ‘cavenauts’ New Scientist

Our ancestors made their first homes in caves. Now it looks like the first humans on Mars will do the same.
An analysis of Martian geography suggests where to look for the right kind of caves. “At least two regions, the Tharsis rise and the Elysium rise, contain volcanic features which may be suitable locations for caves,” says lead author Kaj Williams of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.
What’s more, the analysis suggests that caves in these regions will contain a ready supply of water, in the form of ice.
Lava tubes are the most likely form of cave that we could occupy on Mars. These tunnel-like caves were created when ancient lava flows solidified at the surface, while lava inside drained away.

March 11th, 2010

Mars glacier lubricant could fuel rockets New Scientist

Rocket engines could benefit from a natural Martian lubricant – but not to keep them oiled. A salty sludge that may be lubricating the ice caps of Mars could one day provide fuel.
The ice is too cold to flow normally. But if winds were to carry salty soil particles to the ice cap, they might gradually sink to form a briny bed, kept liquid by the planet’s warmth. This could allow the ice cap to flow like a glacier, say David Fisher at the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, and colleagues.
Such brine would freeze as it moved toward lower temperatures at the edge of the ice cap, forming a ring of concentrated salt. This could one day be mined as a component of solid rocket fuel, says Fisher.

March 2nd, 2010

Mars rover Spirit could rise again New Scientist

NASA’s Spirit rover should be able to wriggle free of its sandy trap on Mars after all, says a scientist for the mission. But the plucky robotic explorer will need to survive the bitter Martian winter first.
In April 2009, Spirit’s wheels broke through a thin surface crust and got mired in the loose sand below. After months of trying unsuccessfully to free the rover, NASA declared on 26 January that Spirit would henceforth be a stationary lander mission rather than a rover.
But the announcement was “a little bit premature”, rover scientist Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, told researchers at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, on Monday.
In nine drives between 15 January and 8 February, mission members coaxed the rover into driving backwards by 34 centimetres – “pretty good for a lander”, Arvidson said. That far surpasses the mere millimetres of motion Spirit had managed in previous efforts.

January 27th, 2010

NASA may abandon plans for moon base New Scientist

NASA will probably not build an outpost on the moon as originally planned, the agency’s acting administrator, Chris Scolese, told lawmakers on Wednesday. His comments also hinted that the agency is open to putting more emphasis on human missions to destinations like Mars or a near-Earth asteroid.
NASA has been working towards returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and building a permanent base there. But some space analysts and advocacy groups like the Planetary Society have urged the agency to cancel plans for a permanent moon base, carry out shorter moon missions instead, and focus on getting astronauts to Mars.

December 9th, 2009

Second stalled wheel may doom Mars rover New Scientist

A second wheel may now be broken on NASA’s Spirit rover, dampening hopes for freeing the robot from a sand trap it has been trapped in for seven months. The injury will also increase the rover’s risk of freezing to death in the coming winter.
Spirit has been struggling to escape from a patch of soft, sandy soil since April. Its three left wheels are almost entirely buried and have little traction, and its right-front wheel is of no use – it seized up permanently in 2006.
Now, Spirit’s right-rear wheel is also having problems and may be permanently disabled.

November 11th, 2009

Mars rover battles for its life New Scientist

NASA’s twin Mars rovers have outlasted their planned three-month missions for so long that they seem indestructible. Nearly six years on, their presence on the Red Planet is taken for granted, as if they are immutable parts of the Martian landscape.
But we may soon have to confront a new reality. Spirit, which has always suffered more hardships than Opportunity, is facing its toughest challenge yet. When New Scientist went to press, the rover was set to begin a risky push to free itself from a sand trap it has been mired in for six months. Mission engineers say it may not survive the attempt. “She’s in a very precarious situation, and we don’t know for sure if we’re going to get her out,” says rover driver Scott Maxwell of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

August 18th, 2009

How to turn seawater (or Martian air) into jet fuel New Scientist

Faced with global warming and potential oil shortages, the US navy is experimenting with making jet fuel from seawater.
Navy chemists have processed seawater into unsaturated short-chain hydrocarbons that with further refining could be made into kerosene-based jet fuel. But they will have to find a clean energy source to power the reactions if the end product is to be carbon neutral.
The process involves extracting carbon dioxide dissolved in the water and combining it with hydrogen – obtained by splitting water molecules using electricity – to make a hydrocarbon fuel.

June 3rd, 2009

Phonecams could boost hunt for Mars life New Scientist

Anyone strolling by the Mars Society’s Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah, in February would have been baffled to see two men in spacesuits bouncing around while pointing cellphones at rocks.
No, they hadn’t taken leave of their senses. The pair were testing out an imaging algorithm designed to automatically pinpoint areas of geological interest on future crewed or robotic missions to the Red Planet. These might include unusual rock formations or signs of organic matter that could indicate life. The algorithm should give astronauts the eyes of a trained human geologist – though, for now, it is fed its pictures via a regular Nokia camera-phone.