Today, NASA revealed the two spacesuits that it will use for its Project Artemis. It shared a video of a spacesuit engineer wearing a bulky, red-white-and-blue suit that will be used for work on the Moon and another spacesuit engineer rocking a thinner, orange suit. The latter is what the crew will wear on their way to and from the Moon, and in the event that there’s a sudden depressurization of their spacecraft, they’ll be able to live inside the suit for days.
We humans can now peer back into the virtual origin of our universe. We have learned much about the laws of nature that control its seemingly infinite celestial bodies, their evolution, motions and possible fate. Yet, equally remarkable, we have no generally accepted information as to whether other life exists beyond us, or whether we are, as was Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea!” We have made only one exploration to solve that primal mystery. I was fortunate to have participated in that historic adventure as experimenter of the Labeled Release (LR) life detection experiment on NASA’s spectacular Viking mission to Mars in 1976.
On July 30, 1976, the LR returned its initial results from Mars. Amazingly, they were positive. As the experiment progressed, a total of four positive results, supported by five varied controls, streamed down from the twin Viking spacecraft landed some 4,000 miles apart. The data curves signaled the detection of microbial respiration on the Red Planet. The curves from Mars were similar to those produced by LR tests of soils on Earth. It seemed we had answered that ultimate question.
When the Viking Molecular Analysis Experiment failed to detect organic matter, the essence of life, however, NASA concluded that the LR had found a substance mimicking life, but not life. Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results. Instead the agency launched a series of missions to Mars to determine whether there was ever a habitat suitable for life and, if so, eventually to bring samples to Earth for biological examination.
People settling on Mars will to some degree have to live off the land. At its closest, our neighboring planet lies 35 million miles away. Transporting supplies there will cost roughly $5,000 per pound and take at least six months using current technology. Better to enlist the natural resources of their new home when possible, an approach called in situ resource utilization. “It totally changes the logistics of a mission,” says Advenit Makaya, a materials engineer who develops processes like 3D printing at the European Space Agency. “You don’t have to bring everything with you.”
Humans on the Red Planet might draw power from the sun, mine water from buried ice, and harvest oxygen from the atmosphere. With NASA’s encouragement, architects, engineers, and scientists are exploring how early residents might use recycled waste and the planet’s loose rock and dust, called regolith, to craft tools, erect homes, pave launchpads and roads, and more.
Rovers and probes have revealed enough about Martian geology for us to start figuring out how that might work. The surface contains an abundance of iron, magnesium, aluminum, and other useful metals found here at home. Scientists also believe the crust consists largely of volcanic basalt much like the dried lava fields of Hawaii.
NASA has announced the details of the first new spacesuit since the Space Shuttle, which will allow humans to return to the lunar surface and maybe even travel further beyond. But why does NASA need new spacesuits when they already have some in use?
When the Space Shuttle entered service, it came with a new spacesuit: the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (hence EMU). It remains the main operational spacesuit for NASA, despite its 30-year-old parts and even older design, and has allowed for many feats of human engineering. However, with this storied history has come deterioration: out of the original fleet of 14 flight-ready suits, only 8 remain thanks to a variety of accidents.
This inability to use current hardware has made the development of a new suit a major problem for the Artemis Program’s ambitions. As such, NASA has focused its resources on one suit design, as opposed to the many it was designing and studying previously: the xEMU, or Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit.
Building on the EMU’s basic design, the new xEMU will incorporate many design features of the 21st century. Compared to the old A7L suits from Apollo, the new suits will be more flexible, adaptable and much easier to put on, with multiple new features. These include a back entry port (similar to the port on Russia’s Orlan suit), modular design, high-speed data transceiver, sacrificial helmet shield (to protect from lunar dust), and HD video system, among many others.
Virgin Orbit has big plans to send small spacecraft to Mars, as soon as 2022. The company — an offshoot of Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic — announced today that it is partnering with nearly a dozen Polish universities and a Polish satellite maker called SatRevolution to design up to three robotic missions to the Red Planet over the next decade.
If successful, these missions could be the first purely commercial trips to Mars. Up until now, only four organizations have ever successfully made it to the Red Planet, and all of them have been government-led space organizations. Commercial companies like SpaceX have vowed to send spacecraft to Earth’s neighbor, but so far, Mars has been the sole domain of nation-states. “It’s still a pretty small club, and none of them have been something quite like this where it’s a consortium of companies and universities,” Will Pomerantz, the vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, tells The Verge. Plus, all of these space agency vehicles have typically been large — comparable to the size of buses and cars.
But the Virgin Orbit team was inspired to take on this endeavor thanks to NASA’s recent InSight mission, which sent a lander to Mars in November of 2018. When the InSight lander launched, two small standardized spacecraft the size of cereal boxes — known as CubeSats — launched along with it, and traveled all the way to Mars trailing behind the vehicle. It marked the first time that CubeSats, or any small spacecraft of that size, had journeyed beyond the orbit of Earth and out into deep space. The pair of satellites performed exactly as intended, relaying signals from InSight back to Earth, proving that small satellites could be valuable on deep space missions for very low costs.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.