MarsNews.com
August 6th, 2018

SpaceX organizes inaugural conference to plan landings on Mars

Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress on September 29, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. Behind him is a rendering of the Big Falcon Spaceship that could transport people to Mars.

No one can deny that SpaceX founder Elon Musk has thought a lot about how to transport humans safely to Mars with his Big Falcon Rocket. But when it comes to Musk’s highly ambitious plans to settle Mars in the coming decades, some critics say Musk hasn’t paid enough attention to what people will do once they get there.

However, SpaceX may be getting more serious about preparing for human landings on Mars, both in terms of how to keep people alive as well as to provide them with something meaningful to do. According to private invitations seen by Ars, the company will host a “Mars Workshop” on Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the University of Colorado Boulder. Although the company would not comment directly, a SpaceX official confirmed the event and said the company regularly meets with a variety of experts concerning its missions to Mars.

This appears to be the first meeting of such magnitude, however, with nearly 60 key scientists and engineers from industry, academia, and government attending the workshop, including a handful of leaders from NASA’s Mars exploration program. The invitation for the inaugural Mars meeting encourages participants to contribute to “active discussions regarding what will be needed to make such missions happen.” Attendees are being asked to not publicize the workshop or their attendance.

August 3rd, 2018

Senators seek focus on Mars in NASA’s exploration plans

Members of the Senate’s space subcommittee said at a recent hear they want NASA to remain focused on human missions to Mars even as it plans activities in cislunar space and on the moon. Credit: Boeing

Senators preparing a new NASA authorization bill want to ensure that the agency’s long-term focus remains human missions to Mars even as it plans flights to the moon.

At a July 25 hearing by the Senate’s space subcommittee, titled “Destination Mars – Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet,” key senators made clear that development of a “Gateway” facility in cislunar space, or human missions to the surface of the moon, should not be a distraction to human Mars exploration.

“While the moon will provide a great testing ground in preparation for the journey to Mars, we must remain vigilant and ensure that we limit costly delays that could push a crewed Mars mission in the 2030s out of reach,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “Mars is today the focal point of our national space program.”

That view had bipartisan support. “We need to help NASA lift its gaze past the moon and understand how the work we do in space closer to Earth will serve us in our quest for Mars,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the subcommittee.

Both Markey and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) criticized NASA for not yet providing a “roadmap” document required by a 2017 NASA authorization act outlining its plans for eventual human missions to Mars. That report was due to Congress last December.

August 1st, 2018

AeroVironment draws on high-altitude drone development to help make a helicopter for Mars

Wahid Nawabi, chief executive of AeroVironment Inc., holds a scale model of one of the composite blades that will be used to propel NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Helicopter through the thin Martian atmosphere. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A Southern California company that specializes in small drones for the military has an opportunity to contribute to aviation history: the first aerial flight on Mars.

AeroVironment Inc. is making the rotors, landing gear and material to hold solar panels for the Mars Helicopter project, which will be assembled at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. The device will deploy from NASA’s latest Mars rover in 2020, taking high-resolution images that can determine where the slower-wheeled vehicle should head next.

The drone helicopter will look somewhat similar to a hobbyist device you might see whiz by on the beach. But it will incorporate years of research into the challenges of flying in a thin atmosphere that has similar density to about 100,000 feet above Earth’s sea level.

“There’s been a lot of doubts about being able to even fly in the atmosphere of Mars,” said Wahid Nawabi, chief executive of the Monrovia-based company. “It’s been over 100 years since the Kitty Hawk moment. This is the next event.”

July 31st, 2018

Mars Is At Its Closest to Earth Since 2003 Today! It Won’t Be Closer Until 2287

Mars’ closest approach to Earth since 2003 has given us especially detailed, up-close views of the Red Planet. This recent image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows Mars and its ongoing dust storm in incredible detail.
Credit: NASA, ESA and STScI

According to NASA, Mars was 35.8 million miles (57.6 million kilometers) from Earth at its closest point this morning. In August 2003, Mars was a smidge closer: 34.6 million miles (55.6 million km). Mars won’t be that close to Earth until 2287, according to a NASA update. Mars will reach opposition again before then. In October 2020, the Red Planet will reaches opposition and will be 38.6 million miles (62.1 million km) from Earth, according to NASA’s update.

You can see Mars tonight by looking to the southwestern sky. Weather permitting, Mars will be visible low on the southwestern horizon, with the moon shining to the upper left. Saturn will also be visible, as shown in the map below.

July 30th, 2018

One Woman’s Math Could Help NASA Put People on Mars

Kathleen Howell is developing potential orbits around a Lagrange point.
SOURCE: PURDUE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF AERONAUTICS AND ASTRONAUTICS, AI SOLUTIONS

Kathleen Howell never aspired to walk on the moon. When she watched the first lunar landing as a teenager in 1969, she was more intrigued by the looping route that brought the Apollo 11 astronauts from Earth to the Sea of Tranquility and back. Orbits became her life’s passion. In 1982 she wrote a doctoral thesis on orbits in “multibody regimes” that earned her a Ph.D. from Stanford. She soon received a Presidential Young Investigator Award.

Howell’s world-leading expertise in unconventional orbits is in fresh demand. NASA has decided that a ­near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO)—a specialty of hers—would be an ideal place to put the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a planned way station for future human flights to the moon and eventually Mars. Mission planners have already brought her in for advice.

Unlike an ordinary flat orbit, an NRHO can be slightly warped. Also, it stands on end, almost perpendicular to an ordinary orbit—hence “near rectilinear.” The plan is for the Gateway’s circuits to pass tight over the moon’s north pole at high speed and more slowly below the south pole, because of the greater distance from the moon. Imagine moving your hand in circles, as if washing a window, while you walk forward. Except you’re making hand circles around the moon while walking around Earth.

July 30th, 2018

Top Five Teams Win a Share of $100,000 in Virtual Modeling Stage of NASA’s 3D-Printed Mars Habitat Competition

Team Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas, is the first-place winner in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 3: Level 1 competition.

NASA and partner Bradley University of Peoria, Illinois, have selected the top five teams to share a $100,000 prize in the latest stage of the agency’s 3D-Printed Habitat Centennial Challenge competition. Winning teams successfully created digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of a house on Mars using specialized software tools. The teams earned prize money based on scores assigned by a panel of subject matter experts from NASA, academia and industry. The judges interviewed and evaluated submissions from 18 teams from all over the world and selected these teams:

Team Zopherus of Rogers, Arkansas – $20,957.95
AI. SpaceFactory of New York – $20,957.24
Kahn-Yates of Jackson, Mississippi – $20,622.74
SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York – $19,580.97
Northwestern University of Evanston, Illinois – $17,881.10

“We are thrilled to see the success of this diverse group of teams that have approached this competition in their own unique styles,” said Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges. “They are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets. We are excited to see their designs come to life as the competition moves forward.”

July 27th, 2018

Lunar eclipse: How to watch the blood moon and Mars this Friday

A NASA image of a “blood moon” blushing red.

NASA

A close approach by Mars will light up the sky all night Friday, July 27, and many parts of the world will also be able to catch a “blood moon” at the same time in a rare astronomical double-billing.

Those outside the viewing zone can catch the event online through the Virtual Telescope Project.

Friday’s red moon comes as part of the longest total lunar eclipse of the century. The sun, Earth and moon will line up and our planet will cast a reddish shadow onto our lunar buddy. That’s how it gets the dramatic-sounding “blood moon” nickname.

Mars will also be part of the show because the Red Planet and sun will be on opposite sides of Earth, a phenomenon know as Mars opposition. Mars will be nearing its closest approach to Earth since 2003, making it look very bright in the sky. Its appearance near the blood moon after sunset will give viewers a double vision in red.

The eclipse will be visible in parts of Australia, Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. Sorry, North America, you’ll need to watch online instead.

July 26th, 2018

Putting Boots on Mars Requires a Long-Term Commitment, Experts Tell Senators

An artist’s depiction of humans working on Mars.
Credit: NASA

A group of senators heard expert opinions during a committee hearing on Wednesday (July 25) about what will be required — logistically and scientifically — to safely land humans on Mars.

The hearing was coordinated by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is chair of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. “Mars is today the focal point of our national space program,” Cruz said during opening remarks. “If American boots are to be the first to set foot on the surface, it will define a new generation — generation Mars.”

But right now, NASA’s focus seems to be split between the moon and Mars — a point raised by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, who asked whether the NASA budget is being “robbed” because efforts aimed at a journey to the moon are drawing resources away from the real priority of Mars.

Another clear takeaway from the testimony was the sheer number of tasks NASA needs to accomplish before such a mission can become a reality: everything from figuring out how to land larger spacecraft on Mars to developing systems that can function completely independently of Earth to making sure astronauts can withstand the mental challenges of being so far from home.

All those tasks mean NASA can’t do it alone and needs to find a way to bring other countries as well as private companies into the mix. “People make it sound like the government is actually building all the hardware,” said Chris Carberry, head of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting exploration of Mars. “They’re not.”

July 25th, 2018

Mars Express Detects Liquid Water Hidden Under Planet’s South Pole

The European Space Agency (ESA)

Radar data collected by ESA’s Mars Express point to a pond of liquid water buried under layers of ice and dust in the south polar region of Mars.

Evidence for the Red Planet’s watery past is prevalent across its surface in the form of vast dried-out river valley networks and gigantic outflow channels clearly imaged by orbiting spacecraft. Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.

But the climate has changed significantly over the course of the planet’s 4.6 billion year history and liquid water cannot exist on the surface today, so scientists are looking underground. Early results from the 15-year old Mars Express spacecraft already found that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is also buried in layers interspersed with dust.

The presence of liquid water at the base of the polar ice caps has long been suspected; after all, from studies on Earth, it is well known that the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of an overlying glacier. Moreover, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of water and keep the water liquid even at below-freezing temperatures.

But until now evidence from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, MARSIS, the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive.

It has taken the persistence of scientists working with this subsurface-probing instrument to develop new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible to confirm their exciting conclusion.

July 23rd, 2018

NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Finds That “Stolen” Electrons Enable Unusual Aurora on Mars

MAVEN observations of a proton aurora. In the top panel, natural variability of the solar wind results in occasional dense flows of solar wind protons bombarding Mars. At bottom, observations by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph show increased ultraviolet emission from the atmosphere when the solar wind is enhanced.
Credits: NASA/MAVEN/University of Colorado/LASP/Anil Rao

Auroras appear on Earth as ghostly displays of colorful light in the night sky, usually near the poles. Our rocky neighbor Mars has auroras too, and NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft just found a new type of Martian aurora that occurs over much of the day side of the Red Planet, where auroras are very hard to see.

Auroras flare up when energetic particles plunge into a planet’s atmosphere, bombarding gases and making them glow. While electrons generally cause this natural phenomenon, sometime protons can elicit the same response, although it’s more rare. Now, the MAVEN team has learned that protons were doing at Mars the same thing as electrons usually do at Earth—create aurora. This is especially true when the Sun ejects a particularly strong pulse of protons, which are hydrogen atoms stripped of their lone electrons by intense heat. The Sun ejects protons at speeds up to two million miles per hour (more than 3 million kilometers per hour) in an erratic flow called the solar wind.

The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission) team was studying Mars’ atmosphere with the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS), and observed that on occasion, the ultraviolet light coming from hydrogen gas in Mars’ upper atmosphere would mysteriously brighten for a few hours. They then noticed that the brightening events occurred when another MAVEN instrument, the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA), measured enhanced solar wind protons.