July 30th, 2014

NASA May Put a Greenhouse on the Red Planet Scientific American

At long last Earthlings may be on the verge of colonizing another planet—but those first Terran ambassadors will be plants, not humans.
NASA is expected to announce within days whether they will attach a one-liter “greenhouse” to its next Mars rover to be launched in 2020. A similar greenhouse would take a voyage to the moon with any team that manages to land a robot there by 2015 to snag Google’s Lunar X PRIZE. These experiments could illuminate whether human colonization of the moon or Mars could be possible.
NASA’s proposed Mars Plant Experiment, or MPX, aims to answer two questions: Can plants germinate and grow in Martian gravity? And can they thrive while being bombarded by cosmic rays? To find out, investigators would attach a small, clear cube filled with carbon dioxide to the rover’s shoulder, says Heather Smith, a deputy principal investigator for MPX. Inside would be 250 seeds of the Arabidopsis plant, a fast-growing cousin of mustard chosen because it has been studied exhaustively by scientists. After the rover lands the seeds would be soaked with water; heaters and LEDs would regulate their temperature. Over the next 10 to 15 days, via sensors and cameras, the world could observe the first beings we know of to be born, live and die on another planet.

September 27th, 2013

Cache and Not Carry: Next Mars Rover to Collect Samples for Return to Earth—Someday Scientific American

Have rover, need payload. That’s the state of things for NASA, which is planning to launch its next rover to Mars in 2020. The rover has ambitious goals, including searching for signs of habitability and life on the Red Planet, and collecting rock samples to be stored for future return to Earth. Now, NASA is asking scientists to propose instruments that will help the spacecraft accomplish its mission.
The space agency released an “announcement of opportunity” on September 24 calling for proposals by December 23. Researchers who plan to put an instrument in the hat must file a heads-up about their plans, called a notice of intent, by October 15.

July 8th, 2013

A homesick astronaut on Mars Scientific American

There are going to be plenty of technological and physiological hurdles to jump before we land the first astronauts on Mars. But once they’re safely on their journey, another kind of challenge may rear it’s head. What happens when you can no longer see Earth?
Even the quickest Mars trip is going to be long. If you get the timing right, as Dennis Tito plans to, you could manage a round trip to Mars in 501 days. Most missions, especially if they land on the surface and do a bit of exploring, will take longer.

February 13th, 2013

Step into the Twilight Zone: Can Earthlings Adjust to a Longer Day on Mars? Scientific American

“Mutinous” is not a word frequently used to describe teams of NASA scientists and engineers.
But that’s precisely the term employed by Harvard University sleep scientist Charles Czeisler to explain what happened when the group operating the Pathfinder mission’s rover in 1997 was required to live indefinitely on Mars time.
“They didn’t really have a plan for dealing with the Martian day before they went up, and the rover lasted a lot longer than it was supposed to, so they actually had a mutiny and wanted to shut the thing off because they were so exhausted,” he says, drily adding the obvious: “NASA wasn’t too happy with that notion.”

April 12th, 2011

At Heaven’s Gate: 50 Years After Humans First Reached Space, What Frontiers Remain? Scientific American

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin did something no human had done before. On board the Vostok 1 spacecraft, Gagarin became the first person in space after rocketing into the sky from a launch site in Kazakhstan for a nearly two-hour flight. What is more, Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, a feat that the U.S. would not achieve until its third manned spaceflight, John Glenn’s three-orbit flight on Friendship 7, February 20, 1962.
Fifty years later, both the space race—and the Cold War of which it was a part—have come to an end. The Soviet Union is no longer, but the Russian space program has become an invaluable partner to NASA’s human spaceflight program. Over the past decade more than a dozen countries, including Russia and the U.S., have sent astronauts to the International Space Station, the longest-serving continuously manned orbital outpost in history. Meanwhile, China has built up a formidable program of its own, sending three manned missions into space since 2003.
But human exploration of the solar system has contracted in scope since 1972, when the last set of Apollo astronauts to visit the moon returned to Earth. Whereas the first 10 years following Gagarin’s flight were peppered with firsts—notably the pioneering moon missions Apollo 8 and Apollo 11—the last four decades have witnessed little else but trips to and from low Earth orbit.
That ought to change, finally, in the decades to come. Space agencies around the world are planning ambitious missions to the moon and to even farther-flung locales that have never been visited by humankind. No one knows who the next Yuri Gagarin will be, or what flag will adorn his or her spacesuit, but below are a few solar system destinations that might find themselves festooned with fresh footprints in the next 50 years.

March 21st, 2010

Room for Debate: Where, If Anywhere, Is NASA Headed? Scientific American

On complex issues, as is often said, it is possible for intelligent people to disagree. That was certainly the case March 15 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, when five leaders of the space exploration intelligentsia met to discuss NASA’s plans for human spaceflight.
The topic of the event, the 10th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, could hardly have been more timely, given the February budget request from President Obama that sought to drastically change NASA’s direction for human spaceflight and the way the agency does that business. If the budget survives Congress, NASA could start hiring private corporations to launch U.S. astronauts into orbit rather than use its own hardware; Obama’s plan would also scrap the existing Constellation Program, including the Ares rockets being developed to lift humans beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s.

March 13th, 2010

Spectacular avalanche seen on Mars Scientific American

A dramatic picture of an avalanche of Mars has been captured by a powerful camera from orbit. The collapse happened on a towering cliff face in the red planet’s far northern arctic region. Scientists believe it happened when the area began to thaw in local spring. Rock, ice and dust were sent plummeting 2,300 ft causing a cloud of fine debris to billow to a distance of 625 ft.

March 2nd, 2010

Mars’s Environment Shown to Be Hostile, but Not Untenable for Earthly Microbes Scientific American

Microbes similar to those on Earth would have a tough time surviving the harsh environment of Mars, but it is not inconceivable that they could persist there given a little protection, according to a new study. The finding supports similar, previous work and lends credence to the theory that if microbial life ever arose on Mars, it could exist below the planet’s surface to this day.
Mars is in most respects a terrible habitat for life as we know it: winter temperatures can dip below –100 degrees Celsius, the atmosphere contains little oxygen, and without the benefit of a robust ozone layer the Martian surface is bombarded with ultraviolet (UV) solar radiation.

July 29th, 2008

NASA turns 50 today Scientific American

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established 50 years ago today by the aptly named National Aeronautics and Space Act.
NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, with a staff of 80 spread among four laboratories. The agency now consists of 15 facilities that employed more than 17,000 people in 2006, according to Best Places to Work.
The agency’s mission statement since 2006 has been “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

October 11th, 2004

Father of Spirit and Opportunity Scientific American

With the success of twin rovers on the Red Planet, Steven W. Squyres and his team are showing how to conduct robotic missions–and setting the stage for human exploration. A professor of astronomy at Cornell University, Squyres, 48, is the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Team, which consists of 170 members. He is responsible for all the scientific activities of both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers, leading colleague John Grotzinger to liken him to a “flea on a hot griddle,” with his hands in everything.