NASA Goes With Atlas V To Launch Mars 2020 Rover

The deployment of the Mars 2020 rover will be the next step in their "Journey to Mars". Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has accomplished some truly spectacular things in the past few decades. Officially launched in 1992, this program has been focused on three major goals: characterizing the climate and geology of Mars, looking for signs of past life, and preparing the way for human crews to explore the planet.

And in the coming years, the Mars 2020 rover will be deployed to the Red Planet and become the latest in a long line of robotic rovers sent to the surface. In a recent press release, NASA announced that it has awarded the launch services contract for the mission to United Launch Alliance (ULA) – the makers of the Atlas V rocket.

The mission is scheduled to launch in July of 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, at a point when Earth and Mars are at opposition. At this time, the planets will be on the same side of the Sun and making their closest approach to each other in four years, being just 62.1 million km (38.6 million miles) part.

Following in the footsteps of the Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit rovers, the goal of Mars 2020 mission is to  determine the habitability of the Martian environment and search for signs of ancient Martian life. This will include taking samples of soil and rock to learn more about Mars’ “watery past”.

But whereas these and other members of the Mars Exploration Program were searching for evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface and a denser atmosphere (i.e. signs that life could have existed), the Mars 2020 mission will attempt to find actual evidence of ancient microbial life.

The design of the rover also incorporates several successful features of Curiosity. For instance, the entire landing system (which incorporates a sky crane and heat shield) and the rover’s chassis have been recreated using leftover parts that were originally intended for Curiosity.

There’s also the rover’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator – i.e. the nuclear motor – which was also originally intended as a backup part for Curiosity. But it will also have several upgraded instrument on board that allow for a new guidance and control technique. Known as “Terrain Relative Navigation”, this new landing method allows for greater maneuverability during descent.

Another new feature is the rover’s drill system, which will collect core samples and store them in sealed tubes. These tubes will then be left in a “cache” on the surface, where they will be retrieved by future missions and brought back to Earth – which will constitute the first sample-return mission from the Red Planet.

In this respect, Mars 2020 will help pave the way for a crewed mission to the Red Planet, which NASA hopes to mount sometime in the 2030s. The probe will also conduct numerous studies designed to improve landing techniques and assess the planet’s natural resources and hazards, as well as coming up with methods to allow astronauts to live off the environment.

In terms of hazards, the probe will be looking at Martian weather patterns, dust storms, and other potential environmental conditions that will affect human astronauts living and working on the surface. It will also test out a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying sources of subsurface water (as a source of drinking water, oxygen, and hydrogen fuel).

As NASA stated in their press release, the Mars 2020 mission will “offer opportunities to deploy new capabilities developed through investments by NASA’s Space Technology Program and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, as well as contributions from international partners.”

They also emphasized the opportunities to learn ho future human explorers could rely on in-situ resource utilization as a way of reducing the amount of materials needed to be shipped – which will not only cut down on launch costs but ensure that future missions to the planet are more self-reliant.

The total cost for NASA to launch Mars 2020 is approximately $243 million. This assessment includes the cost of launch services, processing costs for the spacecraft and its power source, launch vehicle integration and tracking, data and telemetry support.

The use of spare parts has also meant reduced expenditure on the overall mission. In total, the Mars 2020 rover and its launch will cost and estimated $2.1 billion USD, which represents a significant savings over previous missions like the Mars Science Laboratory – which cost a total of $2.5 billion USD.

Between now and 2020, NASA also intends to launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander mission, which is currently targeted for 2018. This and the Mars 2020 rover will be the latest in a long line of orbiters, rovers and landers that are seeking to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet and prepare it for human visitors!

Further Reading: NASA, Mars 2020 Rover

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A New NASA Cumulative Time in Space Record

Astronaut Jeff Williams just established a new record for most time spent in space by a NASA astronaut. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station has provided astronauts and space agencies with immense opportunities for research during the decade and a half that it has been in operation. In addition to studies involving meteorology, space weather, materials science, and medicine, missions aboard the ISS has also provided us with valuable insight into human biology.

For example, studies conducted aboard the ISS’ have provided us with information about the effects of long-term exposure to microgravity. And all the time, astronauts are pushing the limits of how long someone can healthily remain living under such conditions. One such astronauts is Jeff Williams, the Expedition 48 commander who recently established a new record for most time spent in space.

This record-breaking feat began back in 2000, when Williams spent 10 days aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-101. At the time, the International Space Station was still under construction, and as the mission’s flight engineer and spacewalker, Williams helped prepare the station for its first crew.

This was followed up in 2006, where Williams’ served as part of Expedition 13 to the ISS. The station had grown significantly at this point with the addition of Russian Zvezda service module, the U.S. Destiny laboratory, and the Quest airlock. Numerous science experiments were also being conducted at this time, which included studies into capillary flow and the effects of microgravity on astronauts’ central nervous systems.

During the six months he was aboard the station, Williams was able to get in two more spacewalks, set up additional experiments on the station’s exterior, and replaced equipment. Three years later, he would return to the station as part of Expedition 21, then served as the commander of Expedition 22, staying aboard the station for over a year (May 27th, 2009 to March 18th, 2010).

By the time Expedition 48’s Soyuz capsule launched to rendezvous with the ISS on July 7th, 2016, Williams had already spent more than 362 days in space. By the time he returns to Earth on Sept. 6th, he will have spent a cumulative total of 534 days in space. He will have also surpassed the previous record set by Scott Kelly, who spent 520 days in space over the course of four missions.

On Wednesday, August 24th, the International Space Station raised its orbit ahead of Williams’ departure. Once he and two of his mission colleagues – Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin – undock in their Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft, they begin their descent towards Kazakhstan, arriving on Earth roughly three and a half hours later.

Former astronaut Scott Kelly was a good sport about the passing of this record, congratulating Williams in a video created by the Johnson Space Center (see below). Luckily, Kelly still holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut – which lasted a stunning 340 days.

And Williams may not hold the record for long, as astronaut Peggy Whitson is scheduled to surpass him in 2017 during her next mission (which launches this coming November). And as we push farther out into space in the coming years, mounting missions to NEOs and Mars, this record is likely to be broken again and again.

In the meantime, Williams and his crew will continue to dedicate their time to a number of crucial experiments. In the course of this mission, they have conducted research into human heart function, plant growth in microgravity, and executed a variety of student-designed experiments.

Like all research conducted aboard the ISS, the results of this research will be used to improve health treatments, have numerous industrial applications here on Earth, and will help NASA plan mission farther into space. Not the least of which will be NASA’s proposed (and rapidly approaching) crewed mission to Mars.

In addition to spending several months in zero-g for the sake of the voyage, NASA will need to know how their astronauts will fair when conducting research on the surface of Mars, where the gravity is roughly 37% that of Earth (0.376 g to be exact).

And be sure to enjoy this video of Scott Kelly congratulating Williams on his accomplishment, courtesy of the Johnson Space Center:

Further Reading: NASA

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Good News, Martian Colonists Can Eat All the Radishes They Want

Screenshot from the The Martian, showing character Mark Watney tend to his Martian potato crop. Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

When you’re stated purpose is to send settlers to Mars by 2026, you’re sure to encounter a lot of skepticism. And that is exactly what Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp has been dealing with ever since he first went public with MarsOne in 2012. In fact, in the past four years, everything from the project’s schedule, technical and financial feasibility, and ethics have been criticized by scientists, engineers and people in the aerospace industry.

However, Lansdorp and his organization have persevered, stating that they intend to overcome all the challenges in sending people on a one-way trip to the Red Planet. And in their most recent statement, MarsOne has announced that they have addressed the all-important issue of what their settlers will eat. In an experiment that feels like it was ripped from the The Martian, MarsOne has completed testing different types of crops in simulated Martian soil, to see which ones could grow on Mars.

Located in the Dutch town of Nergena, MarsOne maintains a glasshouse complex where they have been conducting experiments. These experiments took place in 2013 and 2015, and involved Martian and Lunar soil simulants provided by NASA, along with Earth soil as a control group.

Using these, a team of ecologists and crop scientists from the Wageningen University & Research Center have been testing different kinds of seeds to see which ones will grow in a Lunar and Martian environment. These have included rye, radishes, garden cress and pea seed. And earlier this year, they added a crop of tomatoes and potatoes to the mix.

As Dr. Wieger Wamelink, the ecologist who led the experiments, told Universe Today via email:

“We started our first experiment in 2013 (published in Plos One in 2014) to investigate if it was possible to grow plants in Mars and moon soil simulants. We assume that plants will be grown indoors, because of the very harsh circumstances on both Mars and moon, very cold, no or almost no atmosphere and way to much cosmic radiation. That first experiment only had a few crops and mostly wild plants and clovers (for nitrogen binding from the atmosphere to manure the soil).”

After confirming that the seeds would germinate in the simulated soil after the first year, they then tested to see if the seeds from that harvest would germinate in the same soil to create another harvest. What they found was quite encouraging. In all four cases, the seeds managed to germinate nicely in both Martian and Lunar soil.

“Our expectation were very low,” said Wamelink, “so we were very surprised that on the Mars soil simulant plants grew rather well and even better than on our nutrient poor control earth soil. There were also problems, the biggest that it was very difficult to keep the soil moist and that though on Mars soil simulant there was growth it was not very good, i.e. the amount of biomass formed was low.”

And while they didn’t grow as well as the control group, which was grown in Earth soil, they did managed to produce time and again. This was intrinsic to the entire process, in order to make sure that any crops grown on Mars would have a full life-cycle. Being able to grow crops, replant seeds, and grow more would eliminate the need to bring new seeds for every crop cycle, thus ensuring that Martian colonists could be self-sufficient when it came to food.

In 2015, they conducted their second experiment. This time around, after planting the seeds in the simulated soil, they added organic matter to simulate the addition of organic waste from a previous crop cycle. And on every Friday, when the experiments were running, they added nutrient solution to mimic the nutrients derived from fecal matter and urine (definite echoes of The Martian there!).

Once again, the results were encouraging. Once again, the crops grew, and the addition or organic matter improved the soil’s water-holding capacity. Wamelink and his team were able to harvest from many of the ten crops they had used in the experiment, procuring another batch of radishes, tomatoes and peas. The only crop that did poorly was the batch of spinach they had added.

This year, the team’s experiments were focused on the issue of food safety. As any ecologist knows, plants naturally absorb minerals from their surrounding environment. And tests have shown that soils obtained from the Moon and Mars show concentrations of heavy metals and toxins  – such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and iron (which is what gives Mars its reddish appearance). As Wamelink described the process:

Again we have ten crops, but slightly different crops from last year; we included green beans and potatoes (best food still and Mark Watney also seems to love potatoes). Also repeated was the addition of organic matter, to mimic the addition of the plant parts that are not eaten from a previous growth cycle. Also new is the addition of liquid manure, to mimic the addition of human faeces… We know that both Mars and moon soil simulants contain heavy metals, like led, copper, mercury and chrome. The plants do not care about this, however when they end up in the eaten parts then they could poison the humans that eat them. There we have to test if it is safe to eat them.”

And again, the results were encouraging. In all cases, the crops showed that the concentrations of metals they contained were within human tolerances and therefore safe to eat. In some cases, the metal concentrations were even lower than that found those grown using potting soil.

“We now tested four species we harvested last year as a preliminary investigation and it shows that luckily there are no harmful quantities present in the fruits, so it is safe to eat them,” said Wamelink. “We will continue these analyses, because for the FDA they have to be analysed in fresh fruits and vegetables, where we did the analyses on dried material. Moreover we will also look at the content of large molecules, like vitamins, flavonoids (for the taste) and alkaloids (for toxic components).”

However, the Wageningen UR team hopes to test all ten of the crops they have grown in order to make sure that everything grown in Martian soil will be safe to eat. Towards this end, Wageningen UR has set up a crowdfunding campaign to finance their ongoing experiments. With public backing, they hope to show that future generations will be able to be self-sufficient on Mars, and not have to worry about things like arsenic and lead poisoning.

As an incentive, donors will receive a variety of potential gifts, which include samples of the soil simulant used for the experiment. But the top prize, a a dinner based on the harvest, is being offered to people contributing €500 ($555.90 USD) or more. In what is being called the first “Martian meal” this dinner will take place once the experiment is complete and will of course include Martian potatoes!

Looking ahead, Wamelink and his associates also hope to experiment crops that do not rely on a seed-to-harvest cycle, and are not harvested annually.These include fruit trees so that they might be able to grow apples, cherries, and strawberries in Martian soil. In addition, Wamelink has expressed interest in cultivating lupin seeds as a means of replacing meat in the Martian diet.

And when it comes right down to it, neither MarsOne or the Wageningen UR team are alone in wanting to see what can be grown on Mars or other planets. For years, NASA has also been engaged in their own tests to see which crops can be cultivated on Mars. And with the help of the Lima-based International Potato Center, their latest experiment involves cultivating potatoes in samples of Peruvian soil.

For hundreds of years, the Andean people have been cultivating potatoes in the region. And given the arid conditions, NASA believes it will serve as a good facsimile for Mars. But perhaps the greatest draw is the fact cultivating potatoes in a simulated Martian environment immediately calls to mind Matt Damon in The Martian. In short, it’s a spectacular PR move that NASA, looking to drum up support for its “Journey to Mars“, cannot resist!

Naturally, experiments such as these are not just for the sake of meeting the challenges posed by MarsOne’s plan for one-way crewed missions to Mars. Alongside the efforts of NASA and others, they are part of a much larger effort to address the challenges posed by the renewed era of space exploration we find ourselves embarking on.

With multiple space agencies and private corporations (like SpaceX) hoping to put buts back on the Moon and Mars, and to establish permanent bases on these planets and even in the outer Solar System, knowing what it will take for future generations of colonists and explorers to sustain themselves is just good planning.

Further Reading: Mars Exchange

The post Good News, Martian Colonists Can Eat All the Radishes They Want appeared first on Universe Today.

Time For NASA To Double Down On Journey To Mars

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Since the Authorization Act of 2010, NASA has been pushing ahead with the goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. The latter part of this goal has been the subject of much attention in recent years, and for good reason. Sending crewed missions to the Red Planet would be the single-greatest initiative undertaken since the Apollo era, and the rewards equally great.

However, with the scheduled date for a mission approaching, and the upcoming presidential election, NASA is finding itself under pressure to show that they are making headway. Despite progress being made with both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, there are lingering issues which need to be worked out before NASA can mount its historic mission to Mars.

One of the biggest issues is that of assigned launched missions that will ensure that the SLS is tested many times before a crewed mission to Mars is mounted. So far, NASA has produced some general plans as part of it’s “Journey to Mars“, an important part of which is the use of the SLS and Orion spacecraft to send a crew beyond low-Earth orbit and explore a near-Earth asteroid by 2025.

This plan is not only intended to provide their astronauts with experience working beyond LEO, but to test the SLS and Orion’s capabilities, not to mention some vital systems – such as Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which will be used to send cargo missions to Mars. Another major step is  Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first planned flight of the SLS and the second uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft (which will take place on September 30th, 2018).

However, beyond this, NASA has only one other mission on the books, which is Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2). This mission will involve the crew performing a practice flyby of a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, and which is scheduled for launch in 2023. This will be the first crewed test of the Orion spacecraft, and also the first time American astronauts have left low-Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

While significant, these mission remain the only two assigned flights for the SLS and Orion. Beyond these, dozens more have been proposed as part of NASA’s three phase plan to reach Mars. For instance, between 2018 and the 2030s, NASA would be responsible for launching a total of 32 missions in order to send the necessary hardware to near-Mars space before making crewed landings on Phobos and then to Mars.

In accordance with the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” – which was presented last year by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) – Phase One (the “Earth Reliant” phase) of this plan would involve two launches in 2028, which would be responsible for transporting a habitation module, an SEP module, and a exploration vehicle to cis-lunar space.

This would be followed by two SLS flights in 2029, bringing the Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) stage to cis-lunar space, followed by a crew to perform the final checks on the Phobos Hab. By 2030, Phase Two (known as the “Proving Ground” phase) would begin with the last elements – the Earth Orbit Insertion (EOI) stage and taxi elements – being launched to cis-lunar orbit, and then all the equipment being sent to near-Mars space for pre-deployment.

By 2031, two more SLS missions would take place, where a Martian Hab would be launched, followed in 2032 by the launches of the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) and Trans-Mars Injection (TMI) stages. By 2033, Phase Three (the “Earth Independent” phase) would begin, where the Phobos crew would be transported to the Transit Hab, followed by the final crewed mission to the Martian surface.

Accomplishing all of this would require that NASA commit to making regular launches over the next few years. Such was the feeling of Bill Gerstenmaier – NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations – who recently indicated that NASA will need to mount launches at least once a year to establish a “launch cadence” with the SLS.

Mission proposals of this kind were also discussed at the recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting – which meets annually to discuss matters relating to NASA’s safety performance. During the course of the meeting, Bill Hill – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) – provided an overview of the latest developments in NASA’s planned mission.

By and large, the meeting focused on possible concepts for the Mars mission, which included using SEP and chemical propellants for sending hardware to cis-lunar space and near-Mars space, in advance of a mission to Phobos and the Martian surface. Two scenarios were proposed that would rely to these methods to varying extents, both of which called for a total of 32 SLS launches.

However, the outcome of this meeting seemed to indicate that NASA is still thinking over its long-term options and has not yet committed to anything beyond the mission to a near-Earth asteroid. For instance, NASA has indicated that it is laying the groundwork for Phase One of the Mars mission, which calls for flight testing to cis-lunar space.

However, according to Hill, NASA is currently engaged in “Phase 0” of the three phase plan, which involves the use of the ISS to test crew health via long duration space flight. In addition, there are currently no plans for developing Phases Two and Three of the mission. Other problems, such as the Orion spacecraft’s heatshield – which is currently incapable of withstanding the speed of reentry coming all the way from Mar – have yet to be resolved.

Another major issue is that of funding. Thanks to the Obama administration and the passage of the Authorization Act of 2010, NASA has been able to take several crucial steps towards developing their plan for a mission to Mars. However, in order to take things to the next level, the US government will need to show a serious commitment to ensuring that all aspects of the plan get the funding they need.

And given that it is an election year, the budget environment may be changing in the near future. As such, now is the time for the agency to demonstrate that it is fully committed to every phase of its plan to puts boots on the ground of Mars.

On the other hand, NASA has taken some very positive strides in the past six years, and one cannot deny that they are serious about making the mission happen in the time frame it has provided. They are also on track when it comes to proving key concepts and technology.

In the coming years, with flight tests of the SLS and crewed tests of the Orion, they will be even further along. And given the support of both the federal government and the private sector, nothing should stand in the way of human boots touching red soil by the 2030s.

Further Reading: NASA

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