November 21st, 2014

How NASA Plans to Land Humans on Mars The Planetary Society

Mars lander concept
On the surface, NASA’s humans to Mars plans seem vague and disjointed. For instance, it’s difficult to see how visiting a captured asteroid in lunar orbit fits into a bigger picture. But if you combine Gerst’s speech with two days of symposium panels and a day of interviews at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the full breadth of what the agency is trying to do begins to makes sense. There is indeed a plan to put humans on Mars. Vague? Yes. Hard to see? Absolutely. But that’s because Gerst and NASA are playing the long game. And right now, it may be the only game they can play. There are three big reasons NASA can’t lay out a comprehensive Mars plan: flat budgets, a perilous political landscape, and the sheer scale of a 20-plus-years program. Thus far, NASA’s most audacious human exploration program kicked off in 1961, when John F. Kennedy declared Americans would walk on the moon by the end of the decade. The nine-year program was a success, but it was bolstered by a strong political mandate and more than double the funding NASA receives today. The agency’s budget peaked in 1966 at $43.5 billion (in 2014 dollars). Today, NASA gets about $18 billion. There’s not much political will to go to Mars, and no indication that NASA’s budget will change significantly. In fact, NASA doesn’t even have a fiscal year 2015 budget yet, as it operates under a stopgap continuing resolution.

September 16th, 2014

Mars Orbiter Mission prepares for Mars arrival The Planetary Society

The countdown for the crucial and nerve-wracking Mars orbit insertion of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on September 24 has kicked off. At ISRO’s telemetry, tracking and command network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore, the mood among the scientists is right now a mixture of optimism, excitement, and nervous apprehension. On September 15 at the auditorium of the Mars mission command and control centre at ISTRAC, some of the key players of this mission addressed the media about the sequence of events leading to the orbit insertion. Orbit insertion will take place 48 hours after NASA’s Mars Atmosphere And Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) enters the orbit of the Red Planet on September 22.

August 20th, 2014

Curiosity wheel damage: The problem and solutions The Planetary Society

There are holes in Curiosity wheels. There have always been holes — the rover landed with twelve holes deliberately machined in each wheel to aid in rover navigation. But there are new holes now: punctures, fissures, and ghastly tears. The holes in Curiosity’s wheels have become a major concern to the mission, affecting every day of mission operations and the choice of path to Mount Sharp. Yet mission managers say that, so far, the condition of the wheels has no effect on the rover’s ability to traverse Martian terrain. If the holes are not causing problems, why the rerouting? Is the wheel damage a big deal or not?

April 9th, 2014

Look how clean Opportunity is now! The Planetary Society

You’ve heard from both Larry Crumpler and A. J. S. Rayl recently about how Opportunity has enjoyed a cleaning event that’s left her solar panels sparkling in the sunshine. Here’s a rover deck panorama to corroborate that story, newly processed by James Sorenson. I love how the position of the rover mast’s shadow across the deck perfectly implies its presence and even height. (Opportunity, of course, cannot see her own camera mast.)

February 4th, 2014

ExoMars baby pictures: Spacecraft core module delivered to assembly site The Planetary Society

The European Space Agency announced yesterday a significant milestone in the development of the next Mars mission: the core module of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has been delivered to Thales Alenia. The core module consists of the structure, thermal control, and propulsion systems; a lot of assembly and testing remains before the 2016 launch. It needs electronics, power systems, instruments, telecom, and so on. But it’s beginning to look a lot like a spacecraft.

January 24th, 2014

Bill Nye and Planetary Radio Live Celebrate the Rovers The Planetary Society

We’ll talk about the accomplishments of both Opportunity and her sister, Spirit, and the legacy of these two little explorers that have gone far beyond their creators’ dreams.
Society Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist Emily Lakdawalla will present stunning images of Mars, and Director of Projects Bruce Betts will join Mat for a live edition of What’s Up. Also returning by popular demand, the great gypsy swing band, Hedgehog Swing!

December 18th, 2013

An Updated Mars Exploration Family Portrait The Planetary Society

The Mars Exploration Family Portrait shows every dedicated spacecraft mission to Mars, and now includes India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA’s MAVEN. The dates listed are for launch.

December 9th, 2013

The Mists of Mars The Planetary Society

Late last month, visitors to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona witnessed a rare and spectacular sight. A temperature inversion (where a layer of cold air is trapped beneath warm air) led to a canyon filled to the brim with clouds. On the very same day, a robotic spacecraft at the planet Mars captured a similar scene. This one was a much more common event, but one that still makes for incredible imagery. Valles Marineris is a network of canyons that in many ways looks similar to the Grand Canyon–except that at more than 4,000 kilometers in length, if it were on Earth it would stretch across most of the United States.
This canyon, too, sometimes fills with clouds, made of tiny particles of water ice, though it’s not caused by an inversion. Despite the Red Planet’s well-earned reputation as a dry desert, there are hints of water on its surface and in its atmosphere. The Mars Color Imager (MARCI) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes daily observations of the entire planet. On November 29 and 30, MARCI returned pictures of wispy clouds clinging to the summits of Olympus Mons and the other towering volcanoes. It also showed Valles Marineris, a long horizontal scar probably formed in part by the tectonic effects of all those volcanoes. As happens seasonally, the canyon was clearly filled with clouds.

October 2nd, 2013

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter achieves imaging of comet ISON from Mars The Planetary Society

Yesterday, the much-anticipated comet ISON made its closest pass by Mars. Despite the government shutdown, all NASA spacecraft are still operating normally, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Curiosity, and Opportunity have all attempted imaging over the last several days. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera is the first to achieve a positive detection of the somewhat-fainter-than-expected comet in its photos.

September 23rd, 2013

Photos and Video of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, proceeding toward October 28 launch The Planetary Society

Indian media reported over the weekend that the Mars Orbiter Mission has passed some senior review, and has been approved to proceed toward a launch date of October 28, with the launch taking place in the afternoon. This is one week later than previously planned; I haven’t found any reason cited for the delay. The launch period closes November 19. The same article states that the spacecraft is now undergoing vibration testing and that there will be a pre-shipment review on Thursday. Assuming the spacecraft passes that review, it is expected to be shipped to the launch site at Sriharikota a week from today, on September 30. The launch vehicle is being assembled, and the spacecraft will be stacked onto the rocket on October 10.