MarsNews.com
October 8th, 2019

Curiosity rover finds an ancient oasis on Mars

Filled with briny lakes, the Quisquiro salt flat in South America’s Altiplano represents the kind of landscape that scientists think may have existed in Gale Crater, which NASA’s Curiosity rover is exploring. Credit: Maksym Bocharov

If you could travel back in time 3.5 billion years, what would Mars look like? The picture is evolving among scientists working with NASA’s Curiosity rover.

Imagine ponds dotting the floor of Gale Crater, the 100-mile-wide (150-kilometer-wide) ancient basin that Curiosity is exploring. Streams might have laced the crater’s walls, running toward its base. Watch history in fast forward, and you’d see these waterways overflow then dry up, a cycle that probably repeated itself numerous times over millions of years.

That is the landscape described by Curiosity scientists in a Nature Geoscience paper published today. The authors interpret rocks enriched in mineral salts discovered by the rover as evidence of shallow briny ponds that went through episodes of overflow and drying. The deposits serve as a watermark created by climate fluctuations as the Martian environment transitioned from a wetter one to the freezing desert it is today.

Scientists would like to understand how long this transition took and when exactly it occurred. This latest clue may be a sign of findings to come as Curiosity heads toward a region called the “sulfate-bearing unit,” which is expected to have formed in an even drier environment. It represents a stark difference from lower down the mountain, where Curiosity discovered evidence of persistent freshwater lakes.

October 4th, 2019

An Indian orbiter reached Mars five years ago, and it’s still ticking

Artist’s rendering of the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft at the Red Planet. ISRO

Without fanfare, an Indian spacecraft just completed its fifth year in orbit around Mars last week. As the spacecraft nears the end of its design lifetime, this is a moment that seems worth a little more recognition.

When it launched the Mars Orbiter Mission in November, 2013, India had never attempted an interplanetary flight before. And Mars is really treacherous. About 50% of spacecraft sent to Mars fail either upon launch, attempting to enter orbit, or landing on the surface. India made it on the country’s first try, with a budget significantly less than $100 million. The spacecraft remains in good working order, with fuel for at least another year of operations.

While the orbiter didn’t make any huge new scientific discoveries—it had neither the very best cameras nor instruments among its modest 15kg of payload—it carried far more weight symbolically as it expanded the community of Mars exploration beyond the traditional space-faring nations. Before the Mars Orbiter Mission reached Mars, only the United States, Soviet Union, and European Space Agency had successfully sent robotic missions to Mars.

“It benefits everybody for more countries to be involved in planetary exploration,” said Ali Bramson, a planetary scientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona. “Space exploration is hard. So, India’s success as a space-faring nation, especially as one that can put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, increases the ability for collaboration between countries, both scientifically and from an engineering and technology development perspective.”

October 1st, 2019

NASA Announces New Tipping Point Partnerships for Moon and Mars Technologies

Astrobotic is one of 14 companies selected for NASA’s Tipping Point solicitation. This illustration depicts CubeRover, an ultra-light, modular and scalable commercial rover.
Credits: Astrobotic/Carnegie Mellon University

NASA has selected 14 American companies as partners whose technologies will help enable the agency’s Moon to Mars exploration approach.

The selections are based on NASA’s fourth competitive Tipping Point solicitation and have a combined total award value of about $43.2 million. This investment in the U.S. space industry, including small businesses across the country, will help bring the technologies to market and ready them for use by NASA.

“These promising technologies are at a ‘tipping point’ in their development, meaning NASA’s investment is likely the extra push a company needs to significantly mature a capability,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “These are important technologies necessary for sustained exploration of the Moon and Mars. As the agency focuses on landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program, we continue to prepare for the next phase of lunar exploration that feeds forward to Mars.”

The selections address technology areas such as cryogenic propellant production and management, sustainable energy generation, storage and distribution, efficient and affordable propulsion systems, autonomous operations, rover mobility, and advanced avionics.

September 30th, 2019

The rocket Elon Musk wants to send to Mars is almost ready to launch

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft at the Boca Chica facility in Texas
Loren Elliott/Getty

Elon Musk has said that his Starship spacecraft – which is designed to carry people to the moon and Mars – will begin orbital test flights in less than two months. The SpaceX CEO made the comments during an evening presentation at Space X’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with the gigantic shiny spacecraft lit up in the background.

Musk first revealed plans for the rocket in 2016, updating them and calling the craft the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) in 2017. Last year, he revised the design again and changed the rocket’s name to Starship. It is 118 metres tall and apparently capable of carrying about 100 people to the moon or Mars.

September 27th, 2019

Getting mac and cheese to Mars

WSU graduate student Juhi Patel, an author on the mac and cheese paper, puts packages of purple potatoes into an incubator, which speeds up the food quality changes at a consistent rate.

Washington State University scientists have developed a way to triple the shelf life of ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese, a development that could have benefits for everything from space travel to military use.

If human beings go to Mars, they need food. Food that won’t spoil during the long travel between planets, and while they’re on the surface.

Currently, plastic packaging can keep food safe at room temperature for up to twelve months. The WSU researchers demonstrated in a recent paper in the journal Food and Bioprocess Technology they could keep ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese safe and edible with selected nutrients for up to three years.

“We need a better barrier to keep oxygen away from the food and provide longer shelf-life similar to aluminum foil and plastic laminate pouches,” said Shyam Sablani, who is leading the team working to create a better protective film. “We’ve always been thinking of developing a product that can go to Mars, but with technology that can also benefit consumers here on Earth.”

In addition to having space travel in mind, the researchers are working closely with the U.S. Army, who want to improve their “Meals Ready to Eat” (MREs) to stay tasty and healthy for three years.

In taste panels conducted by the Army, the mac and cheese, recently tested after three years of storage, was deemed just as good as the previous version that was stored for nine months.

September 24th, 2019

Mars or bust: A comic

Jacob Turcotte and Eoin O’Carroll

It has been more than five decades since humans first set foot on another world, and as memories of the Apollo 11 mission recede, the stars beckon mankind to make its next giant leap.

This time, humanity has set its sights on the fourth planet from the sun, Mars. A settlement on the red planet has long been a staple of science fiction. But today, scientists and engineers are working to make these dreams a reality.

Drawn by Jacob Turcotte and written by Eoin O’Carroll, this comic looks at some of the challenges and potential solutions for a crewed Mars mission, from getting the timing of the launch right, to slowing it down when it arrives, to creating the buildings, farms, and other infrastructure that humans need to thrive on the red planet.

September 17th, 2019

NASA, ESA officials seek formal approvals for Mars sample return mission

Artist’s concept of a Mars sample return mission, including a U.S.-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (left), a European-built Earth Return Orbiter (center), and a NASA-provided Earth Entry Vehicle (right). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

After crystallizing a partnership to retrieve samples from the surface of Mars and return them to Earth, NASA and European Space Agency officials are seeking government funding commitments before the end of this year to carry out a multibillion-dollar robotic mission that could depart Earth with a pair of rocket launches as soon as 2026.

The Mars sample return mission, if approved, would pick up rock and soil samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover set for launch next year. The specimens would come back to Earth for detailed analysis in terrestrial laboratories, yielding results that scientists say will paint a far clearer picture of the Martian environment — today and in ancient times — than possible with one-way robotic missions.

A preliminary signal of support came earlier this year came in the White House’s fiscal year 2020 budget request, which proposed $109 million for NASA to work on future Mars missions, including a sample return. That’s after NASA received $50 million to study the sample return effort in 2019.

“The 2020 budget, the president’s recommended budget, included Mars sample return as a recommendation that we begin working on,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a presentation Sept. 10 to the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences. “We don’t know the status of that through congressional funding yet because we don’t have an appropriations bill yet, but we’re hopeful that there will be some appropriations there so we can move out on this activity.”

NASA unveiled a strategy to pursue a “lean” lower-cost Mars sample return mission in 2017, a plan Glaze said would allow scientists to get their hands on fresh samples from the Martian surface as soon as possible.

But even a lean Mars sample return mission will cost billions of dollars.

September 13th, 2019

Bigelow Aerospace wants Mars trip to go through North Las Vegas

The Olympus, Bigelow’s massive space station prototype, is seen during a tour at Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal @EliPagePhoto)

Robert Bigelow is working to make sure the pathway to Mars runs through North Las Vegas.

Bigelow and his Bigelow Aerospace manufacturing facility played host to eight NASA astronauts and 60 engineers this week — some spending several days getting to know the company’s B330 autonomous, expandable space station.

The versatile inflatable module can be used as a transport vehicle on a lengthy space voyage, and can be attached by airlock to existing space stations or serve as a base of operations on a planet surface or the moon.

Bigelow and his staff hosted reporters Thursday to show off a mock-up of the B330 and provide updates on other Bigelow projects, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which recently observed its third anniversary attached to the International Space Station.

The company also showed off Olympus, Bigelow’s massive space station prototype that’s only in concept stages today, but for which there is a life-size model within the production facility.

“We’re in competition with other companies that are going through this testing process where NASA has been sending in their astronauts to critique the good, the bad and the ugly of companies’ hardware, their enclosures, their architecture and whatever and that’s the process we’re going through,” Bigelow said in a briefing.

Bigelow said the company has made modifications based on the astronauts’ comments, changing a handhold grip or slide-out seating here or there.

September 11th, 2019

Tributes to Terrorism Victims are on Mars

The piece of metal with the American flag on it in this image of a NASA rover on Mars is made of aluminum recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers in the weeks after their destruction. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

In September 2001, Honeybee Robotics employees in lower Manhattan were building a pair of tools for grinding weathered rinds off rocks on Mars, so that scientific instruments on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity could inspect the rocks’ interiors.

That month’s attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, less than a mile away, shook the lives of the employees and millions of others.

Work on the rock abrasion tools needed to meet a tight schedule to allow thorough testing before launch dates governed by the motions of the planets. The people building the tools could not spend much time helping at shelters or in other ways to cope with the life-changing tragedy of Sept. 11. However, they did find a special way to pay tribute to the thousands of victims who perished in the attack.

An aluminum cuff serving as a cable shield on each of the rock abrasion tools on Mars was made from aluminum recovered from the destroyed World Trade Center towers. The metal bears the image of an American flag and fills a renewed purpose as part of solar system exploration.

Honeybee Robotics collaborated with the New York mayor’s office; a metal-working shop in Round Rock, Texas; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; and the rover missions’ science leader, Steve Squyres, at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

“It’s gratifying knowing that a piece of the World Trade Center is up there on Mars. That shield on Mars, to me, contrasts the destructive nature of the attackers with the ingenuity and hopeful attitude of Americans,” said Stephen Gorevan, Honeybee founder and chairman, and a member of the Mars rover science team.

September 10th, 2019

To live on Mars we’re probably going to have to eat bugs

The Martian Diet, by UCF’s Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt (Image: eatlikeamartian.org)

The first million people to live on Mars won’t survive solely on vegetarian diets but will also need alternative proteins, including insects, to gain critical calories, according to research by University of Central Florida planetary scientists.

In the paper, Feeding One Million People on Mars, published in New Space, UCF researchers Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt laid out what it would take to feed a Martian population based on what is known about Martian soil and the equipment needed to grow or make food on the red planet.

Unfortunately for fans of “The Martian,” it just isn’t sustainable to farm your way to a full crop of potatoes out of Martian soil — and human feces.

“If you think of the regolith (soil) on Mars it’s just fundamentally different than the soil on Earth you grow crops in,” Cannon said. “There’s no organic matter, there’s no bacteria and fungi.”

Cannon knows a lot about dirt from other worlds. As the founder of UCF’s Exolith Lab he creates Mars, moon and asteroid simulants.

It would take some work to transform Martian dirt into a more Earth-like soil. Because of that, Cannon and Britt say the more favorable method for Martian farming will be hydroponics.