MarsNews.com
January 28th, 2019

Overcoming the Challenges of Farming on Mars

The study was conducted in a climate-regulated growth chamber in the Netherlands.
Image credit: Silje Wolff, NTNU Social Research (CIRiS)

Scientists in Norway and the Netherlands may have brought us closer to workable space farms, which experts agree are necessary if astronauts are ever going to reach the red planet.

“Astronauts stay on the International Space Station for six months and they can bring everything they need in either freeze-dried or vacuum packs, but the next goal for all space agencies is to reach Mars where travel is much longer,” explained Silje Wolff, a plant physiologist at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space in Trondheim, Norway.

In the best possible conditions, it would take a spacecraft between six and nine months to reach Mars and the same to get back — not to mention the additional months they would likely spend there.

“It’s very challenging, if not impossible, for them to take everything they would need for such a long mission,” she said.

Growing plants in space is tough — low gravity means water distribution is difficult to manage, the roots are often starved of oxygen, and stagnant air reduces evaporation and increases the leaf temperature.

But in a recent study, published in the journal Life, Wolff conducted a sequence of trial-and-error tests to perfect the process of growing lettuce, data which the researchers plan to use to grow salad in space.

January 25th, 2019

Inside an otherworldly mission to prepare humans for Mars

Crew members Gernot Grömer and João Lousada stand inside the habitat module of Kepler Station, the temporary base for a simulated Mars mission called AMADEE-18.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FLORIAN VOGGENEDER

On an average day, you might find Kartik Kumar in the Netherlands, where he’s finishing up his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at Delft University of Technology or tending to his startup company. But in February 2018, Kumar was standing on the surface of Mars.

Well, almost. After intensive training, Kumar became one of six “analog astronauts” who volunteered for a month-long simulated mission to the red planet called AMADEE-18. The project’s main goal: to test the tools, procedures, and mental and physical challenges that a real future Mars mission might face.

The more weak points the team can identify, the better. Screwing up on Earth is nothing compared to screwing up on Mars, a frozen desert with unbreathable air that swirls with toxic dust. Even the smallest mistake there could be lethal.

January 24th, 2019

Silent Mars Rover Opportunity Marks 15 Years on Red Planet in Bittersweet Anniversary

An artist’s concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover on the surface of Mars. Two rovers were launched in 2003 and arrived at sites on Mars in January 2004.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

NASA’s Opportunity rover has now been on Mars for 15 years, but the milestone is a bittersweet one.

Opportunity touched down on the night of Jan. 24, 2004, a few weeks after its twin, Spirit, landed on a different patch of Red Planet ground. Both solar-powered rovers embarked on three-month missions to search for signs of past water activity — and both delivered in spades, finding plenty of such evidence and continuing to roam long after their warranties expired.

“Fifteen years on the surface of Mars is testament not only to a magnificent machine of exploration but the dedicated and talented team behind it that has allowed us to expand our discovery space of the Red Planet,” John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Spirit finally went silent in March 2010. After getting bogged down in thick sand, the rover lost the ability to orient itself to catch the winter sun and ended up freezing to death, NASA officials have said. Spirit finally went silent in March 2010. After getting bogged down in thick sand, the rover lost the ability to orient itself to catch the winter sun and ended up freezing to death, NASA officials have said.

Opportunity may have recently met a similar fate: It hasn’t made a peep since June 10, 2018.

January 23rd, 2019

NASA discovers fresh ‘blast pattern’ on Mars

Sometime between July and September of 2018, a rock smacked into Mars and left an impressive mark near the planet’s south pole.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) snapped a view of the resulting impact crater and the explosive signature it left on the icy landscape.

“It’s notable because it occurred in the seasonal southern ice cap, and has apparently punched through it, creating a two-toned blast pattern,” NASA planetary scientist Ross Beyer said of the image released on Tuesday.

Impact craters result when a meteoroid or other space-faring rock collides with Mars.

January 22nd, 2019

Elon Musk: Why I’m Building the Starship out of Stainless Steel

Twitter/SpaceX

So SpaceX is making a huge rocket out of stainless steel. As far as we know, this marks the first time the material has been used in spacecraft construction since some early, ill-fated attempts during the Atlas program in the late 1950s.

We know he is doing this this because, after weeks of rumors about a tweak to the design, a few days before Christmas Musk revealed that there would be much more than a tweak. The state-of-the-art carbon fiber forming the body of the Starship rocket (formerly known as the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, or Big F-other-word Rocket) and its Super Heavy booster would be replaced by 300-series stainless.

On January 10, Musk tweeted a photograph of a test version of Starship—essentially a prototype that can be used for suborbital VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) test flights, reaching around 16,400 feet. He is calling these “hops.”

Since the quasi-unveiling, Musk has briefly answered some direct questions from the curious space-watchers of cyberspace via Twitter. But two weeks before the announcement he sat down with Popular Mechanics editor in chief Ryan D’Agostino at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, for an exclusive interview in which he discussed, in great detail, the thinking behind the change. He talked about a lot more than that—we’ll be bringing you more soon. For now, here’s what he said about the big change.

January 21st, 2019

UAE announces launch date of Mars probe

The UAE’s unmanned spacecraft to Mars will be launched during a tight window between July 14 to August 3, 2020, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) has announced.

The spacecraft, called Hope, has to be launched during that short time frame as there cannot be any unwanted interstellar conditions or objects interfering with the probe’s seven-month long journey to Mars. If the dates are missed, it could be another two to two and half-year wait for another launch opportunity.

It will take off from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. The launch date aims to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE.

The UAE’s mission to Mars, which falls under MBRSC’s Emirates Mars Mission programme (EMM), aims to study what caused water on the red planet to disappear in efforts to learn more about Earth’s past and future.

The spacecraft is currently undergoing an “intense testing phase” as the manufacturing stage has already been completed.

January 18th, 2019

Musk vs. Bezos: The Battle of the Space Billionaires Heats Up

Illustration: Blood Bros.

The commercial space business has blossomed over the past decade. Two companies, though, have grabbed the spotlight, emerging as the most ambitious of them all: Blue Origin and SpaceX.

At first glance, these two companies look a lot alike. They are both led by billionaires who became wealthy from the Internet: Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin earned his fortune from Amazon.com, and Elon Musk of SpaceX got rich initially from Web-based businesses, notably PayPal. Both companies are developing large, reusable launch vehicles capable of carrying people and satellites for government and commercial customers. And both are motivated by almost messianic visions of humanity’s future beyond Earth. This coming year, we’ll likely see some major milestones as these two titans continue to jockey for position.

Even further down the road, both Bezos and Musk see their companies truly enabling the expansion of humanity beyond Earth. But they have different visions of where we should go and how.

January 17th, 2019

Op/Ed: The Anthropocene Is Coming to Mars

Universities participating in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge try to devise innovative ways to drill for water on the Red Planet. (NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)

Astrobiologist Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, asks a provocative question in a paper published recently in EOS: How will our exploration of Mars change the Red Planet?

The term Anthropocene has been widely used for the current period in Earth’s geological history, in which human actions have had enough impact on the planet that we see a clear distinction from the previous period, the Holocene. The geological signatures of that transition include a variety of features such as the extinction of many animal and plant species, an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (resulting in global warming), deposition of plastic in sediments, movements of soil from mining, and the construction of highways, dams, and residential areas.

The Anthropocene as a geological epoch is not formally recognized, but has been widely used to indicate a period where humans majorly affect planet Earth, beginning sometime in the mid-20th century. Fairén suggests that the same nomenclature should be used for Mars, starting with the first human mission slated for the mid-21st century. The thinking is that with the arrival of the first humans, we will inevitably leave topographic changes such as buildings and excavations, especially when utilizing natural resources on Mars as currently envisioned by NASA. To some extent we already have made changes, considering all our abandoned or crashed spacecraft on the planet and the tracks from our rovers. But once we see the first astronaut bootprints in the Martian sands, the impact will be so significant that, according to Fairén, we ought to speak no longer of the Late Amazonian period on Mars, but of the Mars Anthropocene. Earth and Mars will then have a shared geological epoch.

January 16th, 2019

Scientists Discover Clean Water Ice Just Below Mars’ Surface

Erosion on Mars has uncovered large, steep cross-sections of clean, subterranean ice. In this false color image captured by NASA’s HiRISE camera, one of eight recently discovered stripes appears dark blue against the Martian terrain.NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/USGS

Locked away beneath the surface of Mars are vast quantities of water ice. But the properties of that ice—how pure it is, how deep it goes, what shape it takes—remain a mystery to planetary geologists. Those things matter to mission planners, too: Future visitors to Mars, be they short-term sojourners or long-term settlers, will need to understand the planet’s subsurface ice reserves if they want to mine it for drinking, growing crops, or converting into hydrogen for fuel.

Trouble is, dirt, rocks, and other surface-level contaminants make it hard to study the stuff. Mars landers can dig or drill into the first few centimeters of the planet’s surface, and radar can give researchers a sense of what lies tens-of-meters below the surface. But the ice content of the geology in between—the first 20 meters or so—is largely uncharacterized.

Fortunately, land erodes. Forget radar and drilling robots: Locate a spot of land laid bare by time, and you have a direct line of sight on Mars’ subterranean layers—and any ice deposited there.

Now, scientists have discovered such a site. In fact, with the help of HiRISE, a powerful camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they’ve found several.

January 15th, 2019

Microbes Might Be Key to a Mars Mission

Credit: NASA, Clouds AO and SEArch Wikimedia

Picture a group of adventurous companions setting out into the great frontier to explore a barren, wild land. They must bring only the most important things they’ll need to survive on their own. Every ounce of weight they decide to take with them means another ounce they must transport. It sounds like an extreme backpacking trip, but I’m actually talking about a future mission to the surface of Mars.

We take for granted all the things we have on Earth that support human life—air for breathing, water for drinking and nutrients in the soil that allow us to grow food. On Mars, however, astronauts will need to bring their own life support systems, which can be prohibitively costly to transport. Without a lightweight flexible technology that can manufacture a variety of products using limited resources, the first Mars explorers won’t survive their journey.

Typically, microbes are considered a threat to space missions because they could cause illnesses. But non-pathogenic microbes might in fact be part of the solution for getting to Mars. Microbes can convert a wide variety of raw materials into a large number of essential products. Using engineering principles, synthetic biology can be harnessed to turn microbes into tiny programmable factories.