April 29th, 2009

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 16th, 2008

Report urges timetable for human mission to Mars New Scientist

The Obama administration should set a concrete schedule for human Mars missions, and make sure new hardware developed for NASA’s return to the Moon can be adapted for missions to other destinations, a new report says.
With a new US president set to take charge of the White House and many questions hanging over NASA’s future, many have been trying to advise the agency about where it should go from here.
President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team has been very tight-lipped, but if the Obama administration takes its cue from the preponderance of advice it’s getting, then human missions to Mars may well move up in priority.
Back in November, the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group, released a report called “Beyond the Moon”, which called for delaying new missions to the Moon and channelling more resources into paving the way for human missions to Mars instead.
Now, an independent group of space experts, led by David Mindell of MIT, is calling for a timeline for human Mars missions, and urging that any Moon hardware be designed with other destinations in mind as well.

November 9th, 2008

Plucky Mars rovers on the move again New Scientist

The arrival of spring in southern Mars is reviving NASA’s two venerable Mars rovers as deepening autumn in the arctic north slowly freezes the Phoenix lander.
After hibernating for the winter on the northern edge of a plateau called Home Plate, the Spirit rover moved uphill in October to collect more sunlight.
On the other side of the planet, the Opportunity rover, which climbed out of a large crater called Victoria at the end of August, has completed the first month of a 12-kilometre trek towards an even bigger crater called Endeavour. That journey is expected to take more than two years.
Designed to last only 90 days, the two rovers have survived for nearly five years on the Red Planet. Both are showing their age, but Jake Matijevic, chief of rover engineering at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, says they still are doing fine.

October 10th, 2008

Goldmine bug DNA may be key to alien life New Scientist

A bug discovered deep in a goldmine and nicknamed “the bold traveller” has got astrobiologists buzzing with excitement. Its unique ability to live in complete isolation of any other living species suggests it could be the key to life on other planets.
A community of the bacteria Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator has been discovered 2.8 kilometres beneath the surface of the Earth in fluid-filled cracks of the Mponeng goldmine in South Africa. Its 60°C home is completely isolated from the rest of the world, and devoid of light and oxygen.

October 1st, 2008

Lunar endurance mission to act as ‘boot camp’ for Mars New Scientist

NASA chief Mike Griffin has outlined the punishing lunar endurance mission that would have to be completed before NASA could ever consider sending humans to Mars.
Speaking on NASA’s future mission priorities at this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, Griffin said that Mars is not automatically the next destination simply because humans have already been to the Moon. “The total human experience on the Moon is less than 27 human working days – on a world that is the size of Africa,” he says. “So whether the Moon is a stepping stone to Mars or a place of interest in its own right depends on knowledge we don’t have yet.” To improve that knowledge, and to test the logistics and human factors of potential Mars missions in the bargain, Griffin proposes an elaborate lunar mission experiment. It would mimic the travel and landing time of a Mars mission by using the International Space Station as a mock Mars spaceship – and the Moon as a surrogate Mars.

June 6th, 2008

Could microbes on Phoenix survive on Mars? New Scientist

The Phoenix lander may have been coated with dozens of species of bacteria when it left Earth – and some may be hardy enough to scrape by on Mars, two new studies suggest.
But researchers say the parts of the lander that will contact water ice on Mars – which might provide a toehold for life – have been carefully sterilised, minimising the chances that terrestrial life could colonise the planet.
NASA has long realised that spacecraft could potentially seed other planets with terrestrial life. To cut the chances of transporting microbes to space, probes such as Phoenix, which landed on the northern plains of Mars on 25 May, are now assembled in clean rooms ventilated with filtered air.
NASA also swabs the craft to measure the levels of particularly hardy spore-forming bacteria, which can lay dormant for decades and withstand extreme temperatures.
But the agency doesn’t routinely check for less resilient bacteria or microbes that can’t be cultured, since harsh ultraviolet radiation on Mars is thought to quickly kill most such organisms.

November 16th, 2007

Mars rover crippled and blinded as instruments fail New Scientist

NASA’s Opportunity rover has been crippled and blinded by problems with two of its most important instruments. The agency has suspended work involving the rover’s rock grinding tool and its infrared spectrometer while engineers try to work out a fix.
The problems are the latest in a long line of failures that have begun to plague both rovers as they age.
Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, were designed to last just 90 days. But they have been driving around the Red Planet for nearly 4 years, having landed in January 2004.

October 28th, 2006

Soil minerals point to planet-wide ocean on Mars New Scientist

An ocean of water once wrapped around Mars, suggests the discovery of soil chemicals by NASA’s rovers. But the same chemicals also indicate that life was not widespread on the planet at the time the ocean was present.
Sulphates, which form most readily in liquid water, had already been detected by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. The minerals have been interpreted as evidence for past bodies of water on the surface. But it has not been clear how large these bodies of water might have been.
Now, a new analysis of rover data suggests that the sulphates were once dissolved in a planet-wide ocean. The study was carried out by James Greenwood of Wesleyan University and Ruth Blake of Yale University, both in Connecticut, US.

October 24th, 2006

Hitch hike to Mars inside an asteroid New Scientist

Burrowing inside an asteroid whose orbit carries it past both the Earth and Mars could protect astronauts from radiation on their way to the Red Planet. The idea is being investigated with funding from NASA.
Outside the protective bubble of the Earth’s magnetic field, charged particles from the Sun and from beyond our solar system in the form of cosmic rays pose a hazard to astronauts.

January 25th, 2006

Spacecraft skin ‘heals’ itself New Scientist

A material that could enable spacecraft to automatically “heal” punctures and leaks is being tested in simulated space conditions on Earth. The self-healing spacecraft skin is being developed by Ian Bond and Richard Trask from the University of Bristol, UK, as part of a European Space Agency (ESA) project. The researchers have taken inspiration from human skin, which heals a cut by exposing blood to air, which congeals to forms a protective scab. “The analogy is the vascular system of the human body,” Bond told New Scientist. “The system needs to be completely autonomous.”