With recent news headlines proclaiming that dozens of people have been selected as finalists for a Martian astronaut corps, it might seem like a trip to this alien world might finally be close at hand. But let’s have a little reality check. What are the chances that we really will see people on the Red Planet in the next couple of decades? Most people just don’t get how hard this would be, says Mary Lynne Dittmar, an aerospace consultant in Washington, D.C. “The distances that are involved and the complexities that are involved in going and staying there are really enormous,” she says.
Before and after shots taken by a Mars-orbiting satellite have detected a newly created impact crater half the size of a football field near the planet’s equator.
NPR’s Joe Palca says that while objects are striking Mars all the time (with big chunks surviving until impact, thanks to the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere), this is the first time scientists have been able to determine the exact day a meteor struck – in this case, sometime on March 28, 2012.
But it wasn’t noticed until two months ago.
Former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin pioneered a “faster, better, cheaper” approach to America’s space program, but he would have been hard-pressed to deliver a Mars mission for the bargain-basement price of India’s first probe to the red planet, which blasted off Tuesday.
“India’s Mars mission, with a budget of $73 million, is far cheaper than comparable missions including NASA’s $671 million Maven satellite that is expected to set off for Mars later in November,” reports The Wall Street Journal, which is among several publications noting the disparity between the cost of U.S. space missions and India’s burgeoning program.
Even the project director of India’s Mars orbiter mission has been quick to tout his country’s frugality in space:
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
“This is less than one-tenth of what the U.S. has spent on their Mars mission Maven,” S. Arunan told reporters at a pre-launch news conference last week, according to Al-Jazeera, which added that “the cost-effectiveness of the mission is indeed turning out to be the highlight of the project, almost eclipsing the other aspects.”
The budget negotiations in Washington are not front-page news on Mars. There, millions of miles away, NASA’s rovers continue to operate, taking photographs and collecting data as they prepare for the coming Martian winter. The two rovers are taking in data and getting into strategic locations before winter arrives on Mars in a few months.
The scarcity of sunlight shouldn’t pose a challenge for Curiosity, whose systems are powered by heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium. NASA hopes that the older Opportunity, which powers itself with solar panels, will be aided by its position on a north-facing slope.
Scientists working on NASA’s six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it’s a good problem.
They have some exciting new results from one of the rover’s instruments. On the one hand, they’d like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.
It’s a bind scientists frequently find themselves in, because by their nature, scientists like to share their results. At the same time, they’re cautious because no one likes to make a big announcement and then have to say “never mind.”
It’s called the seven minutes of terror. In just seven minutes, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, a new six-wheeled rover called Curiosity, must go from 13,000 mph as it enters the Martian atmosphere to a dead stop on the surface.
During those seven minutes, the rover is on its own. Earth is too far away for radio signals to make it to Mars in time for ground controllers to do anything. Everything in the system known as EDL — for Entry, Descent and Landing — must work perfectly. So you won’t be surprised to learn that this is a rather nerve-wracking time for Adam Steltzner, the EDL team leader.
“The product of nine years of my life will be put to the test Sunday evening,” Steltzner told me when I visited him at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in late July. “And so that is personally anxiety provoking.”
I don’t know about you, but I tend to think of engineers as serious buttoned-down types. Steltzner is anything but.
He has pierced ears, wears snakeskin boots and sports an Elvis haircut. He’s quick to laugh and curious about everything. Steltzner’s laid-back style makes team meetings a jolly affair. I stopped by one of those meetings during my visit. The jollity was still there, but it was clear that the prelanding tension was rising.
Russians are feeling pretty gloomy after spending days trying to contact a spacecraft aimlessly orbiting Earth. The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was destined for one of Mars’ moons. As we reported earlier this week, it was supposed to scoop up some rocks and return home with its specimens, but one of its boosters failed to ignite and now its stuck.
RIA Novosti, Russia’s official international news outlet, said scientists have been trying to reconnect with the spacecraft to no avail.
“The spacecraft repeatedly passed over the Baikonur station and other Russian and foreign points of space communications during the night. There is no news yet,” RIA Novosti reports a a Russian space program spokesman said.
NASA has pulled the plug on one of its two Mars rovers. Spirit hasn’t been heard from in more than a year, and now the space agency says it’s abandoning hope that it will hear from the rover again.
Any disappointment that Spirit’s mission has come to an end has to be tempered by the fantastic success of the robotic explorer. Intended to last 90 days, Spirit operated in Gusev Crater on Mars for more than six Earth years.
As the nation attempts to go on a debt diet, the cost of federally funded space missions, like the long-awaited manned mission to Mars, is being questioned. But two scientists are recommending a different approach that could change space exploration forever: leaving the astronauts there.
In their article from the Journal of Cosmology, scientists Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and Paul Davies of Arizona State University propose making the mission to Mars a one-way trip.
“The purpose of doing this is to save money, to put it bluntly,” Davies tells NPR’s Audie Cornish.
“I think we’ve all had this dream of going to Mars — it has been something that has, for decades, been proposed — but it’s one of these on-again-off-again projects because it is so phenomenally expensive. But by making the trip one way, you cut the cost dramatically, not just 50 percent, probably about as much as 80 percent. Then it becomes feasible.”
NASA has announced a plan to extricate its rover Spirit, which has been stuck in a Martian sand trap since April. The space agency will begin transmitting commands to the exploration robot on Monday. Based on tests conducted on Earth this spring that simulated conditions at the Martian site, researchers do not expect the effort to be quick or easy. “This is going to be a lengthy process, and there’s a high probability attempts to free Spirit will not be successful,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program. “Mobility on Mars is challenging, and whatever the outcome, lessons from the work to free Spirit will enhance our knowledge about how to analyze Martian terrain and drive future Mars rovers,” McCuistion said. “Spirit has provided outstanding scientific discoveries and shown us astounding vistas during its long life on Mars, which is more than 22 times longer than its designed life.”