MarsNews.com
May 31st, 2019

Europe to Mars – and back!

Europe has been in orbit around Mars for more than 15 years and is almost a year away from launching its first rover mission, but ambitions are already running high to go one step further: returning a sample from the Red Planet.

In 2016, ESA and Roscomos launched the 3.7 tonne ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the heaviest spacecraft operating at Mars today. Dedicated to analysing the planet’s atmosphere in greater detail than ever, it is making a census of the gases present and to find out if any have a biological or geological origin. The spacecraft is also providing a global map of water distribution in terms of water-ice or water-hydrated minerals in the shallow sub-surface of Mars.

TGO is also a key provider of data-relay services to NASA’s Insight lander and Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. It will be the primary communications relay for the second ExoMars mission, which comprises a rover and surface science platform. It is on track for launching in July 2020 and will arrive at Mars in March 2021. TGO is already getting ready for the new arrival: next month it will make adjustments to its orbit to ensure it will be in the correct position to support the entry, descent and landing of the descent module.

After driving off the surface platform and studying its surrounds, the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, will locate scientifically interesting sites to examine. It will retrieve samples from 2 m below the ground, where they are protected from the harsh radiation that bombards the surface, for analysis in its highly advanced onboard laboratory to search for evidence of life.

May 29th, 2019

China’s first Mars spacecraft undergoing integration for 2020 launch

Render of China’s Mars 2020 rover ahead of deployment. Credit: CNSA/Xinhua

China remains on schedule to ready its first independent mission to Mars in time for a short launch window in mid-2020, according to a leading space official.

“Mars 2020 mission spacecraft is undergoing integration,” Wang Chi, director of the National Space Science Center (NSSC) in Beijing, told SpaceNews in a rare update on the mission.

Ambitiously, the mission consists of both an orbiter and a rover, with a total of 13 science payloads. The NSSC will be involved in integration of the instruments with the spacecraft.

The orbiter will be equipped with a high-resolution camera comparable to HiRise on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a medium-resolution camera, subsurface radar, minearology spectrometer, neutral and energetic particle analyzers and a magnetometer.

The 240-kilogram solar-powered rover, nearly twice the mass of China’s Yutu lunar rovers, will carry a ground-penetrating radar, multispectral camera, a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy instrument and payloads for detecting the climate and magnetic environment.

Meanwhile, the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology, an institute under main space contractor the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), this month completed testing of a variable thrust engine, capable of 7,500 Newtons of thrust, which will provide the majority of deceleration for the landing.

Two preliminary landing areas have been selected. The first is Chryse Planitia, close to the landing sites of NASA’s Viking 1 and Pathfinder, with the second covering Isidis Planitia and stretches to the western edge of the Elysium Mons region, between the landing sites of Curiosity and Viking 2.

May 28th, 2019

Curiosity Gazes Upon Noctilucent Clouds Over Gale Crater

Just imagine this scene. You’re on Mars, in Gale crater, with Curiosity. The sun has just set, and the temperature is falling rapidly. You look up. You see brilliant, wispy clouds, still sunlit even though night has fallen where you’re standing. They’re high in elevation, so the Sun can still reach them. As you stand there, skygazing, feeling increasingly chilled, the noctilucent clouds waft along in the Martian air, dimming from east to west as the Sun sets on them.

Curiosity has, in fact, been looking up after sunset recently. It’s been taking Navcam photos, and the camera’s reasonably broad field of view (45 degrees) lets it take in a lot of clouds, giving all of us back on Earth a chance to see them, too.

May 24th, 2019

Comet Inspires Chemistry for Making Breathable Oxygen on Mars

In Giapis’s reactor, carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen.
Credit: Caltech

Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.

So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.

One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.

May 23rd, 2019

Scientists gear up to look for fossils on Mars

Upcoming missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 might already have the technology to find tiny micro-fossils on the Red Planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

When most people imagine hunting for fossils, they probably think of finding dinosaur bones laid down in layers of rock. But the vast majority of life – and therefore fossils – across Earth’s history has been microorganisms. These tiny lifeforms, either plants, animals or fungi, can be smaller than the width of a human hair. But with the right tools, the fossilized records of these tiny creatures reveal insights into the history of a planet. Even planets that aren’t Earth.

A group of Swedish scientists led by Magnus Ivarsson point out in research published May 1 in Frontiers in Earth Science that instruments already planned for upcoming space missions like the Mars 2020 rover could detect tiny fossils on Mars, if they exist. But Mars 2020 can’t analyze every rock it encounters in detail, so the researchers propose a few ways to determine the best places to look on the Red Planet.

May 22nd, 2019

NASA Invites Public to Submit Names to Fly Aboard Next Mars Rover

All Aboard for Mars 2020: Members of the public who want to send their name to Mars on NASA’s next rover mission to the Red Planet (Mars 2020) can get a souvenir boarding pass and their names stenciled on chips to be affixed to the rover.

Although it will be years before the first humans set foot on Mars, NASA is giving the public an opportunity to send their names — stenciled on chips — to the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which represents the initial leg of humanity’s first round trip to another planet. The rover is scheduled to launch as early as July 2020, with the spacecraft expected to touch down on Mars in February 2021.

The rover, a robotic scientist weighing more than 2,300 pounds (1,000 kilograms), will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

“As we get ready to launch this historic Mars mission, we want everyone to share in this journey of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. “It’s an exciting time for NASA, as we embark on this voyage to answer profound questions about our neighboring planet, and even the origins of life itself.”

The opportunity to send your name to Mars comes with a souvenir boarding pass and “frequent flyer” points. This is part of a public engagement campaign to highlight missions involved with NASA’s journey from the Moon to Mars. Miles (or kilometers) are awarded for each “flight,” with corresponding digital mission patches available for download. More than 2 million names flew on NASA’s InSight mission to Mars, giving each “flyer” about 300 million frequent flyer miles (nearly 500 million frequent flier kilometers).

From now until Sept. 30, 2019, you can add your name to the list and obtain a souvenir boarding pass to Mars here:
https://go.nasa.gov/Mars2020Pass

May 20th, 2019

Babies born on Mars could diverge from Earthlings within a couple of generations

At some point, humans might settle Mars. But according to an evolutionary biologist, babies born on the Red Planet will look, function, and behave dramatically different from Earthlings — and all within a few generations.

Tech entrepreneurs and technologists like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos love to talk about our species’ future as a multi-planetary species. And to be fair, they’re actually making important contributions to turn this vision into a reality. But while there’s a lot of focus on the technology that might take us to places such as Mars, not nearly as much thought seems to be given to what happens once we actually get there.

Any human colonists settling Mars would have to be confined to a relatively small habitat where they’d be subject to significantly higher radiation and more difficult living conditions than on Earth. In time, natural selection would amplify certain traits in the Martian population that would considerably differentiate humans born on the Red Planet from Earthlings. And according to Scott Solomon, a Rice University professor of evolutionary biology, this could happen within just a couple of generations.

May 17th, 2019

NASA’s MRO Completes 60,000 Trips Around Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter By The Numbers: Over the past decade, the mission has shown how dynamic Mars remains today, as well as how diverse its past environmental conditions have been. This image represents some of the highlights in the last 13 years. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter hit a dizzying milestone this morning: It completed 60,000 loops around the Red Planet at 10:39 a.m. PDT (1:39 p.m. EDT). On average, MRO takes 112 minutes to circle Mars, whipping around at about 2 miles per second (3.4 kilometers per second).

Since entering orbit on March 10, 2006, the spacecraft has been collecting daily science about the planet’s surface and atmosphere, including detailed views with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera (HiRISE). HiRISE is powerful enough to see surface features the size of a dining room table from 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the surface.

Meanwhile, MRO is watching the daily weather and probing the subsurface for ice, providing data that can influence the designs of future missions that will take humans to Mars.

May 14th, 2019

A New Idea for Putting Out Fires in Space: The Vacuum Cleaner?

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (white shirt) and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman (blue) practice a fire drill training in NASA’s Space Station mock-up in Houston, TX. (Image Credit: NASA)

Current safety regulations ensure that only low-flammable materials are brought into space. Fires in locations like the International Space Station (ISS), however, are still possible.

Short circuits happen, for example. Cosmic rays may cause structural damage to materials, altering their flammability.

At present, the ISS has a CO2 gas extinguisher, combined with a water mist, to dilute the local oxygen concentration and remove heat.

The method, however, leaves harmful fumes in the enclosed space. Crewmembers who put out the fires must put on oxygen masks due to the risk of the high concentration of CO2 in the cabin.

Researchers from the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan have developed a new type of fire extinguisher that is optimized for space-use and does not require the use of any oxygen masks.

The Vacuum Extinguish Method (VEM), a concept demonstrated in the academic journal Fire Technology, is a bit like the hoover in your living room, says lead researcher Dr. Yuji Nakamura.

“Think of it as simply sucking the flame like a vacuum cleaner to ‘clean up’ your firing zone,” Dr. Nakamura told Tech Briefs. “Then, the flame, as well as any other harmful products, is sucked in.”

The extinguishing system has two boxes. Once the first vacuum box is filled, a valve opens, sending the collected gas to the second container; the first box, meanwhile, continues its vacuuming.

May 14th, 2019

Humans to Mars Summit 2019 Launches in D.C. This Week: Watch It Live!

The 2019 Humans to Mars Summit kicks off in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday (May 14), and you can watch the conference events live online.

The annual three-day gathering, hosted by the nonprofit organization Explore Mars, brings together scientists, engineers, academics, government officials and other industry leaders to discuss the future challenges and the current progress humanity has made toward launching a crewed mission to the Red Planet by the 2030s.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will kick off the conference Tuesday morning with a speech at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT), following opening remarks from officials with Explore Mars. Afterward, industry leaders will talk about how NASA’s goal to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 will help astronauts get to Mars by the 2030s. Later in the day, NASA officials will present updates on the agency’s InSight Mars lander. To wrap up the day, Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida will offer his remarks about the Red Planet.

Wednesday (May 15) will begin with remarks from Hoppy Price, chief engineer of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program, and SpaceX’s principal Mars development engineer Paul Wooster — so we may learn more about SpaceX’s plans for a Mars colony and its new interplanetary vehicle, named Starship.” That will begin at 8:50 a.m. EDT (1250 GMT).