Now retired, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly is a veteran of four space flights. He holds the record for total accumulated days in space, as well as for the longest single mission by an American: a full year aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He clearly knows a thing or two about what’s possible in the realm of space flight, and he just told the world he doesn’t doubt Elon Musk when the SpaceX CEO shares his seemingly impossible plans.
“When Elon Musk said he was going to launch his rocket and then land the first stage on a barge, I thought he was crazy,” Kelly said on Tuesday during an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box. “And then he did it. I’m not going to ever doubt what he says, ever again.”
Kelly didn’t focus solely on Mars during the interview; he also commented on Musk’s plans to use the BFR for commercial travel on Earth. The retired astronaut believes that regular and safe commercial space transportation will happen within the next 30 years or so.
“I think at first what we’ll have is something similar to the early days of aviation, where the barnstormers took people for rides, and that developed into a transportation system,” Kelly said, before adding, “The more we do it, the better we get at it.” Kelly told CNBC he believes traveling from Los Angeles to London in just 45 minutes in a real possibility.
In any case, while Kelly doesn’t doubt Elon Musk will be able to follow through on building the technology needed to get to Mars or to travel quickly between Earth’s major cities, he does know firsthand that space can have a dramatic effect on the human body. He studied that impact during his year-long stay aboard the ISS, noting, “In this weightless environment, we lose a lot of bone mass and muscle mass.” If we want to take trips to Mars, we’ll need to find ways to combat these effects, said Kelly.
On Saturday, Elon Musk participated in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) forum on Reddit in which he answered questions pertaining to about SpaceX’s latest rocket, the “BFR,” as a follow up to his IAC 2017 talk. One user put forth the idea of internet on Mars, asking, “Does SpaceX have any interest in putting more satellites in orbit around Mars (or even rockets) for internet/communications before we get feet on the ground? Or are the current 5-6 active ones we have there sufficient?”
So, is the idea of internet on Mars truly feasible, or is it just an outlandish fantasy right now? One Reddit user had some pretty keen insight into its potential:
The concept of an internet connection on Mars is kinda awesome. You could theoretically make an internet protocol that would mirror a subset of the internet near Mars. A user would need to queue up the parts of the internet they wanted available and the servers would sync the relevant data. There could be a standard format for pages to be Mars renderable since server-side communication is impractical.
This exploration of the concept prompted Musk to simply reply, “Nerd” — which the user it was directed at and others in the thread took as an ultimate sign of respect.
Within the Realm of Possibility
Of course, Musk also dug a little bit deeper, “But, yes, it would make sense to strip the headers out and do a UDP-style feed with extreme compression and a CRC check to confirm the packet is good, then do a batch resend of the CRC-failed packets. Something like that. Earth to Mars is over 22 light-minutes at max distance.” he continued, “3 light-minutes at closest distance. So you could Snapchat, I suppose. If that’s a thing in the future.”
This is not the first time that the idea of an interplanetary internet has come up. Back in 2015, Musk suggested the idea of placing hundreds of satellites 1,200 km (750 miles) above Earth to help accomplish this task. He even told Bloomberg Businessweek that, “Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date.” The theory of this plan rests on the fact that light travels faster in the vacuum of space than through Earth’s atmosphere.
Newsweekalso discussed the topic last September with Josh Boehm, a former SpaceX employee. It seems as though, currently, the satellites and infrastructure necessary to make this a reality aren’t in place. But, since humans haven’t reached Mars yet or even begun the journey, there is still a few years to build a Martian internet.
NASA’s new X3 thruster, which is being developed by researchers at the University of Michigan in collaboration with the agency and the US Air Force, has broken records in recent test. It’s hoped that the technology could be used to ferry humans to Mars.
A chemical rocket tops out at around five kilometers per second (1.86 miles/sec), while a Hall thruster can reach speeds of up to 40 kilometers per second (25 miles/sec). This kind of increase is particularly relevant to long-distance space travel, like a prospective voyage to Mars. In fact, project team leaders project that ion propulsion technology such as this could take humans to the Red Planet within the next 20 years.
Ion engines are also more efficient than their chemical-powered counterparts, requiring much less propellant to transport a similar amount of crew and equipment over large distances. Alec Gallimore, the project lead, stated that ionic propulsion can go around ten times farther using a similar amount of fuel in an interview with Space.com.
There are of course many other forms of deep-space travel on the table. The flaw of chemical-based designs is the need to bring the chemical fuel with them into space, which adds more mass that needs more fuel to lift into space, and so on. A Bussard ramjet, which is a type of fusion rocket, collects diffuse hydrogen in space with a huge scoop, which means, since its fuel is picked up en route, that it could approach light speed.
Sci-fi fans would recognize faster-than-light theoretical forms like the warp drive. General relativity stipulates that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in the universe. However, if we could compact and expand the fabric of spacetime ahead of and behind us, respectively, we could technically be moving faster than the speed of light. However, the scientific consensus so far is that we’re nowhere near this kind of technology.
Red Planet, Green Light
Recent tests demonstrated that the X3 thruster can operate at over 100kW of power, generating 5.4 Newtons of thrust — the highest of any ionic plasma thruster to date. It also broke records for maximum power output and operating current.
The technology is apparently on track to take humans to Mars sometime in the next twenty years. However, it’s not without its limitations.
Compared to chemical rockets, the ionic alternative is capable of a very small amount of thrust. This means that it would have to operate for a very long time to reach the same level of acceleration as a chemical system, and as a result it’s not currently suitable for the launch process.
However, engineers are attempting to mitigate these issues with the X3 design. Multiple channels of plasma are being used rather than just one, but the current challenge is producing an engine that’s sufficiently powerful as well as being relatively compact. While most Hall thrusters can be picked up and carried around a lab with relative ease, the X3 needs to be moved with a crane.
In 2018, the team will continue to put the X3 through its paces with a test that will see it run continuously for 100 hours. A shielding system is also being developed that would prevent plasma from damaging the walls of the thruster, allowing it to operate for even longer, perhaps even several years at a time.
At the 2017 edition of the International Astronautical Congress, Elon Musk told attendees exactly how he plans to take humans to Mars. SpaceX’s BFR project is poised to make some huge changes to the way we travel long distances on Earth, but it’s also set to provide a means of getting to the red planet.
Musk claims that the latest BFR design is capable of ferrying 100 crewmembers, along with the equipment needed to install a colony on Mars. He stated an admittedly “aspirational” goal of sending ships to the planet by 2022, with crews following two years later.
Mars has long since been a major goal for Musk and SpaceX, and BFR seems to have the necessary specs to bring it to fruition. However, there’s one big question that remains — how are the astronauts going to survive the challenging conditions once they’ve made the trip?
Survive Red Death
“Elon lays out an impossibly large vision, and then revises it slightly downward,” said space policy expert John Logsdon, speaking with Business Insider. “People say he’s being practical. This is no more practical than it was last year There are so many questions on the viability of this plan.”
The nuts and bolts of SpaceX’s plan to keep martian explorers alive seems to hinge upon the ships that would precede the first human visitors. One would locate water sources, while the second would set up apparatuses capable of turning water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel. There would be a need for cargo ships to resupply the colony with food on a regular basis, at least to begin with.
Musk has remained fairly quiet on how SpaceX would keep the new residents of Mars fit and healthy in the long-term. One proposal that’s been touted by others is bioregenerative life support, which collects human’s breath, liquid waste, and solid waste, and uses organic material to recycle it into food, water, and air.
“Biological systems are really resilient,” said D. Marshall Porterfield, who was formerly the director of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Division. “They tend to be self-healing, self-repairing, so that’s one of the advantages of a bioregenerative life support capability.”
Bioregenerative life support would help make a prospective colony on Mars much more sustainable, not to mention cheaper to operate. However, it would also require a huge amount of research and development — and it doesn’t seem like SpaceX is interested in tackling the project.
When Porterfield was working for NASA, SpaceX approached the agency with plans to collaborate on a Mars flyby. At this time, he was given an insight into the inner workings of the company, and found that it didn’t have a science division of the scope required to develop technology like bioregenerative life support.
Of course, things could have changed in the interim. But other expert sources are just as dismissive of SpaceX’s strength in this area.
SpaceX is a very good engineering firm with a solid track record, when it comes to rocket science. Certainly they’re going to design a system that makes every effort for high level of safety,” said Logsdon. “But they haven’t said a word about how people will survive once they get to Mars. It just isn’t a part of their capabilities.”
It may well be that SpaceX is sticking to its biggest strength, that being transportation. If its BFR can get personnel and equipment to Mars, the smartest thing to do might be leaving other aspects of the mission to organizations that specialize in those areas.
Mars famously has the largest volcanoes known to science. The largest is Olympus Mons, pictured below, which towers 22km above the surrounding plains — over two and a half times taller than Mount Everest. This extinct volcano is 640km wide even at its narrowest point, greater than the distance between London and Glasgow, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. And Olympus Mons isn’t alone in the Earth-beating stakes — three other Martian volcanoes are more than 10km high.
Mars is a small world. It is half the diameter and less than 11% the mass of Earth, so the existence of such volcanoes was particularly surprising when they were revealed by the first satellite orbiter pictures collected by NASA in the 1970s. Ever since, scientists have been keen to discover more about these towering mountains — what they are made of, when they first erupted, when they were last active, and why they grew so much larger than anything on our own planet. So how are we getting on?
Spacecraft have sent back stunning images and data about these volcanoes over the years, yielding an amazing amount of knowledge. We have learned a lot from the impact craters made by asteroids, for example, since older areas on the planet have more craters than younger areas.
From this, scientists have concluded that the volcanoes on Mars began erupting well over 3.5 billion years ago, roughly comparable to how far back eruptions go on Earth. The most recent Martian eruptions are perhaps a few tens of millions of years old. No active volcanoes have been discovered; at least not yet.
Scientists also study Martian volcanoes by examining certain meteorites on Earth. Asteroid strikes on Mars are relevant to this as well, since massive amounts of energy are released when big asteroids hit the surface. This is often sufficient to blast other pieces of rock upwards, some of which reach Earth as meteorites.
We have now recovered over 100 samples of genuine Martian space rock: the gases trapped inside them match the Martian atmosphere as recorded by the Viking and Curiosity missions. The meteorites can be examined in laboratories with state-of-the-art machines that are too large and heavy to fit on spacecraft. My colleagues and I have just published the latest such research in Nature Communications. The first detailed analysis of the eruption rates of volcanoes on Mars using Martian meteorites, it involved the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, the University of Glasgow, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and the Natural History Museum in London.
To determine when the rocks originally erupted, we used a technique known as argon-argon geochronology. This works by measuring, using a mass spectrometer, the amount of argon built up from the natural decay of potassium. It showed that the meteorites formed 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion years ago from at least four eruptions over the course of 90m years. This is a very long time for a volcano to be active, and much longer than terrestrial volcanoes, which are typically only active for a few million years.We examined six meteorites which had been found in various places over the last century, including the Egyptian desert, Indiana in the American Midwest, and the barren ice fields of Antarctica. They had been ejected into space together around 11m years ago — this is important because it means they must have left Mars following the same asteroid impact crater on the same volcano.
Yet this is only scratching the surface of the volcano, since the asteroid impact will only have excavated rocks buried a few tens of metres below the surface. When we are talking about a volcano that could be upwards of 10km tall, this only represents a very small portion of its history. It must therefore have started erupting before the 1.4 billion-year-old rocks that we have been studying were formed.
We were also able to calculate that this volcano grew exceptionally slowly — about 1,000 times more slowly than volcanoes on Earth. This again indicates that for the Martian volcanoes to have grown so large, Mars must have been far more volcanically active in the distant past. It all serves to support the previous findings I mentioned about Martian volcanoes dating back upwards of 3.5 billion years.
Knowns and unknowns
The other reason for the massive size of Martian volcanoes is that Mars lacks active plate tectonics. This has allowed molten rock to erupt through the same parts of the planet’s crust for very long periods. For terrestrial volcanoes, by contrast, plate tectonics moves them away from their magma sources and brings their eruptions to an end.
The last piece of the puzzle for our Martian meteorites was where they came from. By investigating NASA satellite photos we found a potential candidate: a crater large enough to have ejected meteorites into space, but young enough to be consistent with the 11 million year ejection age, and on volcanic terrain. As yet unnamed, the crater is 900km from the summit of the 12.6km Elysium Mons volcano, over 2,000km north of the present site of the NASA Curiosity rover.
Our research work has underlined the significant differences in volcanic activity between Earth and Mars, but numerous secrets about these Martian wonders remain. Scientists are still debating the mechanisms in the planet’s mantle that drive such volcanoes and keep supplying magma for eruptions in the same places for so long. The age of the most recent eruptions on Mars are also still subject to considerable uncertainty. And there’s much still to be uncovered about the links between the planet’s volcanoes and its atmosphere.
Some of these secrets will continue to be unravelled through studying Martian meteorites, satellite images and new rovers. To truly understand the largest volcanoes in the Solar System, however, we will probably have to collect pieces of our neighbouring planet through human or robotic missions and bring them back to Earth.
Experts have predicted for years that, at some point in the near future, we will make the first human discovery of alien life — and that life will be on Mars. At the same time, researchers have worked tirelessly in trying to pinpoint the origins of life on Earth.
Recently, scientists have discovered evidence that could be key to understanding the beginnings of life — namely, indications suggesting ancient hydrothermal deposits on the “sea-floor” of Mars. This hidden site in the Eridania region of Mars might not hold definitive answers about Martians, but could provide clues to how life evolved on our planet.
An illustration of deposits in the Eridania basin. Image Credit: NASA
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) observed these deposits in a basin within a southern region on Mars as MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars identified minerals in the deposits. Recently, an international report published in the journal Nature Communications analyzed the MRO’s observations and concluded that the deposits were most likely formed by hot water, heated by a part of Martian crust that was volcanically active a long, long time ago.
No life (microbial or otherwise) has been identified in the samples, but Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston explained that, “Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” he said in a press release from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”
These sea-floor deposits are roughly 3.8 billion years old, and around that same time, hydrothermal conditions on the sea-floor of Earth were potentially gearing up for life to begin. Now, because Earth’s crust is still so active, there aren’t clear remnants of this origin period. But this ancient sea-floor on Mars seems to be an excellent candidate for partially simulating Earth’s origin conditions.
“This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment,” Niles said in the press release. “It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds — life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat, and water.”
The report which analyzed this discovery states that “Ancient, deep-water hydrothermal deposits in Eridania basin represent a new category of astrobiological target on Mars,” and “Eridania seafloor deposits are not only of interest for Mars exploration, they represent a window into early Earth.”
Elon Musk has a plan, and it’s about as audacious as they come. Not content with living on our pale blue dot, Musk and his company SpaceX want to colonize Mars, fast. They say they’ll send a duo of supply ships to the red planet within five years. By 2024, they’re aiming to send the first humans. From there they have visions of building a space port, a city and, ultimately, a planet they’d like to “geoengineer” to be as welcoming as a second Earth.
If he succeeds, Musk could thoroughly transform our relationship with our solar system, inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers along the way. But between here and success, Musk and SpaceX will need to traverse an unbelievably complex risk landscape.
Many will be technical. The rocket that’s going to take Musk’s colonizers to Mars (code named the “BFR” — no prizes for guessing what that stands for) hasn’t even been built yet. No one knows what hidden hurdles will emerge as testing begins. Musk does have a habit of successfully solving complex engineering problems though; and despite the mountainous technical challenges SpaceX faces, there’s a fair chance they’ll succeed.
As a scholar of risk innovation, what I’m not sure about is how SpaceX will handle some of the less obvious social and political hurdles they face. To give Elon Musk a bit of a head start, here are some of the obstacles I think he should have on his mission-to-Mars checklist.
Imagine there was once life on Mars, but in our haste to set up shop there, we obliterate any trace of its existence. Or imagine that harmful organisms exist on Mars and spacecraft inadvertently bring them back to Earth.
Yet Musk’s plans threaten to throw the rule book on planetary protection out the window. As a private company SpaceX isn’t directly bound by international planetary protection policies. And while some governments could wrap the company up in space bureaucracy, they’ll find it hard to impose the same levels of hoop-jumping that NASA missions, for instance, currently need to navigate.
It’s conceivable (but extremely unlikely) that a laissez-faire attitude toward interplanetary contamination could lead to Martian bugs invading Earth. The bigger risk is stymying our chances of ever discovering whether life existed on Mars before human beings and their grubby microbiomes get there. And the last thing Musk needs is a whole community of disgruntled astrobiologists baying for his blood as he tramples over their turf and robs them of their dreams.
Musk’s long-term vision is to terraform Mars — reengineer our neighboring planet as “a nice place to be” — and allow humans to become a multi-planetary species. Sounds awesome — but not to everyone. I’d wager there will be some people sufficiently appalled by the idea that they decide to take illegal action to interfere with it.
The mythology surrounding ecoterrorism makes it hard to pin down how much of it actually happens. But there certainly are individuals and groups like the Earth Liberation Front willing to flout the law in their quest to preserve pristine wildernesses. It’s a fair bet there will be people similarly willing to take extreme action to stop the pristine wilderness of Mars being desecrated by humans.
How this might play out is anyone’s guess, although science fiction novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy” give an interesting glimpse into what could transpire once we get there. More likely, SpaceX will need to be on the lookout for saboteurs crippling their operations before leaving Earth.
That was back in 1967, four years before Elon Musk was born. With the emergence of ambitious private space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and others, though, who’s allowed to do what in the solar system is less clear. It’s good news for companies like SpaceX — at least in the short term. But this uncertainty is eventually going to crystallize into enforceable space policies, laws and regulations that apply to everyone. And when it does, Musk needs to make sure he’s not left out in the cold.
This is of course policy, not politics. But there are powerful players in the global space policy arena. If they’re rubbed the wrong way, it’ll be politics that determines how resulting policies affect SpaceX.
Perhaps the biggest danger is that Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars looks too much like a disposable Earth philosophy — we’ve messed up this planet, so time to move on to the next. Of course, this idea may not factor into Musk’s motivation, but in the world of climate change mitigation and adaptation, perceptions matter. The optics of moving to a new planet to escape the mess we’ve made here is not a scenario that’s likely to win too many friends amongst those trying to ensure Earth remains habitable. And these factions wield considerable social and economic power – enough to cause problems for SpaceX if they decide to mobilize over this.
There is another risk here too, thanks to a proposed terrestrial use of SpaceX’s BFR as a hyperfast transport between cities on Earth. Musk has recently titillated tech watchers with plans to use commercial rocket flights to make any city on Earth less than an hour’s travel from any other. This is part of a larger plan to make the BFR profitable, and help cover the costs of planetary exploration. It’s a crazy idea — that just might work. But what about the environmental impact?
Even though the BFR will spew out tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the impacts may not be much greater than current global air travel (depending how many flights end up happening). And there’s always the dream of creating the fuel — methane and oxygen — using solar power and atmospheric gases. The BFR could even conceivably be carbon-neutral one day.
But at a time when humanity should be doing everything in our power to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the optics aren’t great. And this could well lead to a damaging backlash before rocket-commuting even gets off the ground.
Inspiring — or Infuriating?
Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite — and changed the world. It was the dawn of the space age, forcing nations to rethink their technical education programs and inspiring a generation of scientists and engineers.
We may well be standing at a similar technological tipping point as researchers develop the vision and technologies that could launch humanity into the solar system. But for this to be a new generation’s Sputnik moment, we’ll need to be smart in navigating the many social and political hurdles between where we are now and where we could be.
These nontechnical hurdles come down to whether society writ large grants SpaceX and Elon Musk the freedom to boldly go where no one has gone before. It’s tempting to think of planetary entrepreneurialism as simply getting the technology right and finding a way to pay for it. But if enough people feel SpaceX is threatening what they value (such as the environment — here or there), or disadvantaging them in some way (for example, by allowing rich people to move to another planet and abandoning the rest of us here), they’ll make life difficult for the company.
This is where Musk and SpaceX need to be as socially adept as they are technically talented. Discounting these hidden hurdles could spell disaster for Elon Musk’s Mars in the long run. Engaging with them up front could lead to the first people living and thriving on another planet in my lifetime.
Earlier this month, NASA said it was prepared to shift its focus away from Mars, and toward the Moon, whenever the current administration gave the “go” for logistical launch. Now the organization will have to put their plans into motion, because the present administration just announced a renewed effort to get back to the Moon, and beyond.
In an op-ed published to The Wall Street Journal on October 4, Vice President Mike Pence explained an executive order had been signed to restore the National Space Council, with him as its head.
“On Thursday the council will hold its first meeting in nearly 25 years, and as its chairman, I will deliver a simple message: America will lead in space again,” he said, citing the national space policy’s lack of a coherent vision as the reason the U.S. has been left behind, while countries like China and Russia move forward with their own plans. Pence also explained how desperately the U.S. needs technology of its own in space, to protect its surveillance, communication, and navigation systems from hacking attempts.
But What About Mars?
The ostensible goal is human exploration. However, Pence believes starting with the Moon and establishing a firm presence on Earth’s nearest neighbor, as “a vital strategic goal,” ought to come first. This isn’t the first time the Moon has taken precedence as first step to missions advancing farther into the solar system; in August, former astronaut Chris Hardfield said settling on the Moon should come first, as it would prove we can still get there. The promise is that our travels won’t end there. According to the VP, the U.S. intends to be the first country to send people to Mars. However, the impetus for space expansion here seems to be exclusively commercial, rather than exploratory or scientific.
“In the years to come, American industry must be the first to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit, to expand the sphere of the economy beyond this blue marble, ” added Pence.
Within the next few weeks, the administration will form a Users’ Advisory Group comprised of various leaders in the commercial space industry. As its name suggests, it’s largely meant to option the expertise of those whom have been developing new hardware and technology to get people into space, either for learning or commercial purposes.
Indeed, as Pence put it, “Business is leading the way on space technology, and we intend to draw from the bottomless well of innovation to solve the challenges ahead.”
The VP didn’t detail who would be in this group, though SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos are a couple of people that come to mind; Musk just recently detailed new plans to send people to Mars in 2024, while Blue Origin intends to send people into suborbital space starting next year.
It may be some time before we see what the National Space Council comes up with. While NASA has shared its plans for getting to the Moon and Mars, the organization was noticeably absent from the Vice President’s announcement. Critics of NASA’s pattern of incoherent plans to get us to Mars like Dr. Robert Zubrin, former Lockheed Martin Astronautics engineer and president of Pioneer Astronautics, have pointed out that Moonbases and low-Earth orbit missions are designed to diversify mission functions so as to garner funding for under-used or unnecessary departments, rather than actually get us to Mars. If you want to string a rope from A to B, a straight line isn’t best if you’re a rope salesman. Whether NASA’s absence signifies a change in plans or not, the coming years are sure to be the most interesting in U.S. space travel history since the 1960s.
The ice was discovered in an area on the Martian equator called the Medusae Fossae, which spans several hundred kilometers across. Scientists had assumed the equator would be too warm for ice to stay intact near the surface for so long.
Permafrost ice has been spotted on Mars using data provided by the Odyssey spacecraft’s neutron spectrometer, particularly at the red planet’s polar regions, which was confirmed in 2008 by NASA’s Phoenix lander when it uncovered chunks of pure ice just a few centimeters below the surface. The specialized spectrometer picks up neutron radiation coming from the Martian surface when high-energy cosmic rays pour down from space.
“These interact with the top meter of the soil and kick out particles, neutrons included,” Johns Hopkins’ APL planetary astronomer Jack Wilson told Cosmos. Analyzing those particles can identify what substances the cosmic rays are interacting with. Recently, Wilson and his colleagues gave the Odyssey data a second look, because the earlier studies had a very low resolution at just around 520 kilometers. They managed to reconstruct the image to a resolution of 290 kilometers.
There may be no bigger question than whether we are alone in our solar system. As our spacecraft find new clues about the presence of liquid water now or in the past on Mars, the possibility of some kind of life there looks more likely. On Earth, water means life, and that’s why the exploration of Mars is guided by the idea of following the water.
But the search for life on Mars is paired with plenty of strong warnings about how we must sterilize our spacecraft to avoid contaminating our neighbor planet. How will we know what’s native Martian if we unintentionally seed the place with Earth organisms? A popular analogy points out that Europeans unknowingly brought smallpox to the New World, and they took home syphilis. Similarly, it is argued, our robotic explorations could contaminate Mars with terrestrial microorganisms.
Space agencies have long prioritized preventing contamination over our hunt for life on Mars. Now is the time to reassess and update this strategy – before human beings get there and inevitably introduce Earth organisms despite our best efforts.
What Planetary Protection Protocols Do
Arguments calling for extra caution have permeated Mars exploration strategies and led to the creation of specific guiding policies, known as planetary protection protocols.
Strict cleaning procedures are required on our spacecraft before they’re allowed to sample regions on Mars which could be a habitat for microorganisms, either native to Mars or brought there from Earth. These areas are labeled by the planetary protection offices as “Special Regions.”
The worry is that, otherwise, terrestrial invaders could jeopardize potential Mars life. They also could confound future researchers trying to distinguish between any indigenous Martian life forms and life that arrived as contamination from Earth via today’s spacecraft.
The sad consequence of these policies is that the multi-billion-dollar Mars spacecraft programs run by spaceagencies in the West have not proactively looked for life on the planet since the late 1970s.
That’s when NASA’s Viking landers made the only attempt ever to find life on Mars (or on any planet outside Earth, for that matter). They carried out specific biological experiments looking for evidence of microbial life. Since then, that incipient biological exploration has shifted to less ambitious geological surveys that try to demonstrate only that Mars was “habitable” in the past, meaning it had conditions that could likely support life.
Even worse, if a dedicated life-seeking spacecraft ever does get to Mars, planetary protection policies will allow it to search for life everywhere on the Martian surface, except in the very places we suspect life may exist: the Special Regions. The concern is that exploration could contaminate them with terrestrial microorganisms.
Can Earth Life Make It On Mars?
Consider again the Europeans who first journeyed to the New World and back. Yes, smallpox and syphilis traveled with them, between human populations, living inside warm bodies in temperate latitudes. But that situation is irrelevant to Mars exploration. Any analogy addressing possible biological exchange between Earth and Mars must consider the absolute contrast in the planets’ environments.
A more accurate analogy would be bringing 12 Asian tropical parrots to the Venezuelan rainforest. In 10 years we may very likely have an invasion of Asian parrots in South America. But if we bring the same 12 Asian parrots to Antarctica, in 10 hours we’ll have 12 dead parrots.
We’d assume that any indigenous life on Mars should be much better adapted to Martian stresses than Earth life is, and therefore would outcompete any possible terrestrial newcomers. Microorganisms on Earth have evolved to thrive in challenging environments like salt crusts in the Atacama desert or hydrothermal vents on the deep ocean floor. In the same way, we can imagine any potential Martian biosphere would have experienced enormous evolutionary pressure during billions of years to become expert in inhabiting Mars’ today environments. The microorganisms hitchhiking on our spacecraft wouldn’t stand much of a chance against super-specialized Martians in their own territory.
So if Earth life cannot survive and, most importantly, reproduce on Mars, concerns going forward about our spacecraft contaminating Mars with terrestrial organisms are unwarranted. This would be the parrots-in-Antarctica scenario.
On the other hand, perhaps Earth microorganisms can, in fact, survive and create active microbial ecosystems on present-day Mars – the parrots-in-South America scenario. We can then presume that terrestrial microorganisms are already there, carried by any one of the dozens of spacecraft sent from Earth in the last decades, or by the natural exchange of rocks pulled out from one planet by a meteoritic impact and transported to the other.
In this case, protection protocols are overly cautious since contamination is already a fact.
Technological Reasons the Protocols Don’t Make Sense
Another argument to soften planetary protection protocols hinges on the fact that current sterilization methods don’t actually “sterilize” our spacecraft, a feat engineers still don’t know how to accomplish definitively.
The cleaning procedures we use on our robots rely on pretty much the same stresses prevailing on the Martian surface: oxidizing chemicals and radiation. They end up killing only those microorganisms with no chance of surviving on Mars anyway. So current cleaning protocols are essentially conducting an artificial selection experiment, with the result that we carry to Mars only the most hardy microorganisms. This should put into question the whole cleaning procedure.
Further, technology has advanced enough that distinguishing between Earthlings and Martians is no longer a problem. If Martian life is biochemically similar to Earth life, we could sequence genomes of any organisms located. If they don’t match anything we know is on Earth, we can surmise it’s native to Mars. Then we could add Mars’ creatures to the tree of DNA-based life we already know, probably somewhere on its lower branches. And if it is different, we would be able to identify such differences based on its building blocks.
Mars explorers have yet another technique to help differentiate between Earth and Mars life. The microbes we know persist in clean spacecraft assembly rooms provide an excellent control with which to monitor potential contamination. Any microorganism found in a Martian sample identical or highly similar to those present in the clean rooms would very likely indicate contamination – not indigenous life on Mars.
The Window Is Closing
On top of all these reasons, it’s pointless to split hairs about current planetary protection guidelines as applied to today’s unmanned robots since human explorers are on the horizon. People would inevitably bring microbial hitchhikers with them, because we cannot sterilize humans. Contamination risks between robotic and manned missions are simply not comparable.
Whether the microbes that fly with humans will be able to last on Mars is a separate question – though their survival is probably assured if they stay within a spacesuit or a human habitat engineered to preserve life. But no matter what, they’ll definitely be introduced to the Martian environment. Continuing to delay the astrobiological exploration of Mars now because we don’t want to contaminate the planet with microorganisms hiding in our spacecrafts isn’t logical considering astronauts (and their microbial stowaways) may arrive within two or three decades.
Prior to landing humans on Mars or bringing samples back to Earth, it makes sense to determine whether there is indigenous Martian life. What might robots or astronauts encounter there – and import to Earth? More knowledge now will increase the safety of Earth’s biosphere. After all, we still don’t know if returning samples could endanger humanity and the terrestrial biosphere. Perhaps reverse contamination should be our big concern.
The main goal of Mars exploration should be to try to find life on Mars and address the question of whether it is a separate genesis or shares a common ancestor with life on Earth. In the end, if Mars is lifeless, maybe we are alone in the universe; but if there is or was life on Mars, then there’s a zoo out there.
On September 11th, the Sun surprised scientists monitoring the red planet by hitting Mars with an unexpected solar storm. The storm produced an aurora on Mars 25 times brighter than any other observed by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, which has been studying the planets’ atmosphere since 2014.
The featured image above, taken by the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph on NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, shows the intensity of ultraviolet light on Mars’ night side before (left) and during (right) the solar storm.
The storm also doubled the highest radiation levels measured on Mars’ surface, by the Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), since it landed in 2012. Though our planet was on the opposite side of the Sun, radiation was detectable from Earth—a testament to the storm’s power.
“This is exactly the type of event both missions were designed to study, and it’s the biggest we’ve seen on the surface so far,” said Don Hassler, RAD Principal Investigator, in a NASA press release. “It will improve our understanding of how such solar events affect the Martian environment, from the top of the atmosphere all the way down to the surface.”
Less Than Quiet on the Solar Front
This storm was particularly surprising because it came at a time when the Sun was expected to be relatively quiet.
The sun’s magnetic poles flip roughly every eleven years, and the period between this swap—known as the solar cycle— is characterized by relatively predictable levels of sunspot activity. Sunspots visually mark where powerful magnetic fields are erupting from the sun, producing the solar flares and coronal mass ejections that cause solar storms. The sun is currently approaching its solar minimum, when few to no sunspots are expected.
“The current solar cycle has been an odd one, with less activity than usual during the peak, and now we have this large event as we’re approaching solar minimum,” said Sonal Jain of the University of Colorado Boulder’s, a member of the instrument team for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, in the NASA release.
Tracking how events like this impact the Martian surface is key to gauging the habitability of the red planet, both for its own potential life and for future human explorers—a significant focus for NASA. Data from RAD will help researchers develop safety shielding for astronauts on the planet’s surface. According to Hassler, astronauts on Mars would definitely have needed shelter during a storm of this magnitude.
“To protect our astronauts on Mars in the future, we need to continue to provide this type of space weather monitoring there,” he said.
The basic idea behind the BFR is to create a single booster and ship that could replace the company’s Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon. This would allow SpaceX to pour all the resources currently split across those three crafts into the one project.
Once completed, the BFR could be used to launch satellites and space telescopes or clean up space debris. It would also be capable of docking with the International Space Station (ISS) for the delivery of cargo. Most excitingly, though, is the BFR’s potential to facilitate the establishment of off-world colonies.
Mission to Mars
The current BFR design is large enough to ferry up to 100 people and plenty of equipment, which Musk believes will be instrumental in creating a base of operations on the Moon. “It’s 2017, I mean, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said during his IAC presentation. “What the hell is going on?”
Musk’s aspirations go well beyond the Moon, though. SpaceX’s goal of heading to Mars as soon as they have the technology to do so is well known, and during last night’s presentation, Musk shared imagery of a fully fledged Martian city.
Construction on SpaceX’s first ship capable of heading to Mars is expected to start within the next nine months, and Musk hopes to send a pair of cargo ships to the planet in 2022, though he admitted that this goal is somewhat “aspirational.”
“We want to make our current systems redundant,” Musk said during a presentation at IAC. “One system, one booster and ship, that replaces the Falcon 9, Heavy, and Dragon.” In other words, the BFR is really about efficiency: instead of spending SpaceX’s resources on three separate rockets, they can be focused (in addition to income from launching private satellites and ISS re-supply trips) on one: a redesigned BFR.
The new BFR is a bit smaller than the original, but it’s still massive: the rocket is 48 meters (157 feet) long, with a dry mass of 85 tons and capable of carrying 1,100 tons of propellant mass. The payload bay is eight-stories tall, with a pressurized volume of 825 cubic meters (29,135 cubic feet). Its transit configuration holds 40 cabins (which can hold two to three people each), large common areas, a central storage, a galley, and a solar storm shelter.
Capable of refueling in space, the BFR’s fuel tank can hold up to 240 tons of CH4 and its oxygen tank 860 tons of liquid O2. Upon its arrival to Mars — approaching the atmosphere at 7.5 kilometers per second — the ship could land using either one or both of its two center engines. “We want the landing risk to be as close to zero as possible,” said Musk. With all of these specs, SpaceX has calculated the cost of launching the BFR with its 150 ton payload to be cheaper than the Falcon 1 (0.7 ton payload).
More Than Mars
If SpaceX wants to just focus on one rocket, what would happen to the rest? Given the drive to operate efficiently, Musk said the rockets wouldn’t go to waste: SpaceX would keep the reusable rockets available for commercial use. Even if we will be saying goodbye to the Falcon 9 and other rockets, Musk did present some very intriguing possibilities for the BFR. Aside from Mars, Musk envisions a BFR launching next-generation satellites, which could help clean up space debris and service the ISS.
The BFR can also fly to the Moon and back — despite not having any local propellant production on the lunar surface. “It’s 2017,” Musk said, clearly amused. “We should have a lunar base by now.” Perhaps the BFR could also help with missions to construct a lunar base or a cislunar orbital station something that already may be part of NASA’s future plans. Basically, Musk envisions the BFR would be your friendly lunar-neighborhood transport.
And what about Mars? Musk said they want to land at least two cargo ships on the red planet by 2022 to confirm water resources and identify potential dangers, as well as build infrastructure and life support in preparation for future missions. By 2024, two crew ships would bring the first people to Mars — with more supplies and cargo — to set up a propellant production plant and the beginnings of a base for expansion.
SpaceX has come a long way since 2009: in fact, Musk realized in the middle of his talk that it was the anniversary of SpaceX’s first successful rocket launch. In his IAC talk, Musk also gave an update on the Falcon Heavy, which he said has turned out to be a bit more complicated than they thought. “It’s about believing in the future,” Musk said, “That it’ll be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
Musk’s final thought? When it comes to the potential for rocket technology, he enticed listeners to consider that its applications could be more than just off world: “If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?”
The company first shared details on the orbiter in June 2016, a few months before SpaceX’s Elon Musk unveiled his own plans for a Mars mission. Today, they again beat Musk to the punch, presenting just hours ahead of the SpaceX CEO’s own updates on his company’s Mars mission.
The Mars Base Camp is an outpost meant to float in orbit around Mars. It would hold a crew of six astronauts, who would be able to observe and study Mars to prepare for eventual human colonization.
At “the heart and soul” of the station is NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which would be assembled as part of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) — NASA’s cislunar orbiter. As Lockheed Martin’s presenters said during their presentation, “The path to Mars is through cislunar space,” and the DSG would act as the jumping-off point for Mars and beyond.
Down and Back Again
Once the Mars Base Camp was in Martian orbit, the astronaut scientists aboard it would have a number of options for observing and even exploring the Red Planet. Integral to those missions is the lander Lockheed Martin unveiled during their IAC presentation.
The plan is to send the reusable lander down onto the Martian surface on multiple occasions. “We designed a lander that can fuel in orbit, that has enough room to support a crew of four people for two weeks and then take off again,” Lockheed Martin senior systems engineer Robert Chambers told CNBC in an exclusive interview prior to the presentation.
The presenters gave viewers a short run down of the lander’s specs during the IAC event. It can carry 80 metric tons of propellant, 30 metric tons of dry mass, and has a propulsion stage that could generate almost 60 kilograms (132,000 pounds) of thrust. Its crew cabin systems — life support, crew displays, avionics, etc. — are based on Orion’s own systems.
The “refuel-able, restartable, single-stage” craft is capable of approaching the Martian surface at 5 km/s (roughly 3.1 miles per second) and returning to the Mars Base Camp “without being dependent on any surface propellant generation.” It uses aerodynamics to reduce its descent velocity, and best of all, according to the presenters, “We can power this entire spacecraft system just with water.”
In fact, both the lander and the orbital base camp can be powered by water. More specifically, Lockheed Martin plans to use cryogenic hydrogen as fuel for the lander. “You can fuel up in orbit and have enough for a two- or three-week stay on the surface with up to four crew,” Rob Chambers, one of the designers for the Mars Base Camp, said in a press conference before the presentation.
So, it certainly looks like Lockheed Martin has a solid plan in place for Mars. During the presentation, they made it clear that the purpose of the Mars Base Camp’s first missions would be to conduct a more comprehensive survey of Mars and Martian space. The ultimate goal, though, is to find a place where humans could eventually settle in.
Every year, the who’s who of the space industry gathers at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to celebrate all things space-related. The week-long event is essentially the Comic-Con of space exploration, with panels of astronauts replacing the cast of Game of Thrones and talks on off-world colonization filling in for the latest Marvel movie trailer.
This year’s IAC is being held in Adelaide, Australia, and the past few days have delivered their share of excitement.
Panelists have overviewed plans for Moon villages, Bill Nye has detailed the possibilities of solar sailing, and Lockheed Martin has unveiled their potentially game-changing lander. Experts have discussed issues ranging from diversity in the space industry to the importance of inspiring today’s youth to tackle tomorrow’s off-world challenges, and historic milestones in space exploration have received their due celebration.
Still, the most highly anticipated event has been saved for the last day of IAC: a presentation by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate much longer. The day is finally here, and Elon Musk is ready to take the stage. Watch along via the livestream below, and to ensure you don’t miss a single exciting revelation from the SpaceX CEO, we will be updating this article live throughout his presentation.
Musk starts by reiterating why he believes it’s important that we become a multiplanet species.
Musk says the most important thing about his presentation is this: “I think we’ve figured out how to pay for [BFR].”
Key to that is having a single vehicle that can do everything that’s needed in greater Earth orbit activity. “We want to make our current vehicles redundant,” says Musk.
SpaceX wants to create one craft that replaces Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon.
The company has been perfecting propulsive landing and now has had 16 consecutive successful landings.
“We believe the precision is good enough…that we will not need legs.”
The forthcoming Dragon 2 will directly dock with the space station with zero human intervention.
Musk notes that today is the ninth anniversary of the first successful SpaceX launch.
Falcon 9 has 30 times the payload capability of Falcon 1 and includes reuse of the primary booster. Next goal is reuse of the fairing, which will equal 70 to 80 percent reusability for the craft.
The company is now beginning serious development of BFR. They plan to have a payload of 150 tons to low-Earth orbit.
BFR stats include a a 48 meter length, a dry mass of 85 tons, and 1,100 tons propellant mass.
The payload bay of BFR will be eight stories tall.
The company has added a delta wing with a split flap to the BFR design. This will allow the craft to handle a range of payloads and atmospheric densities.
The payload area has a pressurized volume of 825 cubic meters, and the Mars transit configuration consists of 40 cabins and large common areas, central storage, galley, and solar storm shelter.
Fuel tank will hold 240 tons of CH4. The oxygen tank holds 860 tons of liquid O2.
The engine section consists of six engines: two sea-level engines and four vacuum engines.
You can land the ship with either one of the two center engines. “We want the landing risk to be as close to zero as possible,” says Musk.
The launch cost for the BFR (150 ton payload) is less than for the Falcon 1 (.7 ton payload).
BFR could be used to launch satellites, clean up space debris, or service the ISS.
The BFR could go to the Moon and back with no local propellant production on the Moon, which would enable the creation of a lunar base.
“It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now,” says Musk.
With a BFR, you could send a ship to orbit, refill its tanks, and then send it to Mars. You would need to use local resources on Mars to refuel.
Because Mars has a lower gravity than Earth, we would not need a booster to leave the Red Planet.
Entry to Mars would be at 7.5 kilometers per second.
Aspirational timeline: By 2022, land at least two cargo ships on Mars; confirm water resources and identify hazards; and place power, mining, and life support infrastructure for future flights.
By 2024, send two crew ships to take the first people to Mars, send two cargo ships to bring more equipment and supplies, set up propellant production plant, and build up base to prepare for expansion.
Musk shares a video detailing what a 39-minute trip from New York to Shanghai would look like via a SpaceX rocket traveling at 27,000 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour).
“Most of what people would consider long-distance trips would be completed in less than half an hour,” says Musk.
Musk concludes the presentation with a question: “If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?”
If SpaceX is the young upstart of the space industry, Lockheed Martin is the weathered veteran. While Musk’s company boasts roughly 5,000 employees, Lockheed Martin has nearly 100,000 spread out across dozens of nations. For decades, they have been a leading innovator in everything from energy to military operations, and their contributions to space have been invaluable.
Through partnerships with NASA, the U.S. government, and others, Lockheed Martin has developed powerful space telescopes and launched more than 100 commercial satellites, helping disseminate information across the globe. They had a hand in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Jupiter-orbiting JUNO space probe, and the Phoenix spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2008.
Their next big goal is a follow-up of sorts to Phoenix, but instead of putting robots on Mars, they want to deliver people to the Red Planet.
Mission to Mars
NASA’s very first Mars lander was built by Lockheed Martin, and now, the company believes they can help the agency and their partners make the dream of a human Mars colony a reality.
Lockheed Martin first revealed their plans for a Mars Base Camp orbiter last year, and before Musk takes the stage to talk about SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System, they’ll present their own mission to Mars updates, sharing the latest news on their Deep Space Gateway and unveiling the reusable lander they believe will change how we think about surface exploration.
Lockheed Martin’s presentation will be livestreamed below, and we will be updating this article live throughout to ensure you don’t miss a thing.
UPDATE 6:45 PM EST: Lockheed Martin will no longer be livestreaming this presentation due to technical issues, but as soon as the link to the recorded presentation is posted, we’ll update this article with all the highlights.
We will post the full Mars Base Camp webcast soon after the presentation concludes. Check back at ~7:30 ET. for a link. #IAC2017
Cosmic rays are high-energy atomic and subatomic particles that get blasted out from exploding stars, black holes, and other powerful sources in space. The rays can damage DNA, increase the risk of cancer, lead to vision-impairing cataracts, cause nervous system damage, and give rise to blood circulation issues, among other health effects in astronauts.
Researchers know that astronauts receive much higher radiation exposure than those of us who remain on Earth, since the planet’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of that harmful energy.
Earth’s magnetic field also diverts and deflects a lot of space radiation, which helps protect astronauts on the International Space Station — which orbits just 250 miles above the planet.
On a trip to Mars, however, it’s open season for cosmic rays. In addition, the planet lost its magnetic field billions of years ago, which will expose the first Mars explorers to extra radiation.
Health scientist Frank Cucinotta and his colleague Eliedonna Cacao at the University of Nevada Las Vegas researched this problem by reexamining the results of four previous studies of tumors in mice.
In addition of looking for the effects of a cosmic ray’s direct hit to cells, which could coax them to develop into cancer, the researchers also looked at how secondary or “non-targeted effects” might play a role.
What they found is a risk of cancer in deep space (at least for mice) that’s about two times higher than previous estimates.
Why Deep-Space Travel May Be More Dangerous Than Expected
The researchers think this elevated cancer risk comes down to how damaged DNA spreads throughout the body.
When a cell is struck by a cosmic ray, it doesn’t simply keep the change to itself. It can give off chemical signals to other cells, which might trigger nearby healthy cells to also mutate into cancer.
Previous models hadn’t really accounted for this domino effect. Even more worrisome, the type of radiation responsible for causing the effect was “only modestly decreased by radiation shielding,” Cucinotta and Cacao wrote in their study.
Human exploration of Mars need not stop before it starts, though.
And as the researchers noted in their study, “significant differences” exist between mouse-model cancer rates and those actually seen in people. “These differences could limit the applicability of the predictions described in this paper,” they wrote.
But the scientists add that this knowledge gap is precisely why future deep-space explorers and their respective agencies should exercise caution.
“[S]tudies … are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere,” they said.
Thanks to some new methods of studying the structure of planetary density, we now know that the crust of our closest neighbor, Mars, is much thinner than scientists previously thought. A paper published in Geophysical Review Letters explains that the estimated density of about 2,580 kg per cubic meter (2.58 grams per cubic centimeter), is 96% of our own crust density on Earth, at 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter.
This sounds moot at first blush, but a significantly lower crust density on Mars transforms our understanding of (inter)planetary science.
Obviously, Earth’s proximity makes it easy for us to study the blue mote’s gravitational field, relative to distant bodies like Mars. While measurements taken to calculate density of other planets are limited, NASA researchers expanded the scope of data to make it easier to calculate a more accurate estimation of a planet’s density. To make their calculations, they combined topological data about the geography and structure of the Martian surface with the gravitational data they already had. In a statement, the researcher Greg Neumann said, “As this story comes together, we’re coming to the conclusion that it’s not enough just to know the composition of the rocks. We also need to know how the rocks have been reworked over time.”
These findings will help researchers learn more about what is going on under the surface of the Red Planet. Aside from the information about the planet’s density, the researchers were also able to learn more about the makeup of the planet.
They gleaned that the surface of Mars is much more porous than previously thought, with volcanic regions showing denser makeup than others. Tanya Harrison, Martian scientist and director of research for the Space Technology and Science Initiative at Arizona State University told Gizmodo, “The cool thing about this study is that the method they developed can be applied to any body where we have data about its gravity and topography.”
All of this information could help us better prepare for future missions to the Red Planet, when we’ll finally have a shot at studying it in person. Ultimately, this new method advances the study of (other) rocky planets, allowing us to peer into their history, adding to our study of the composition of matter in the greater universe; its distribution, behavior, and origin.
This week, preeminent figures from the lengths and breadth of the spacefaring community will convene at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia. On Friday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will address attendees, and he apparently has some big news to share.
Earlier this morning, Musk took to his personal Twitter account to tease the unveiling of “major improvements” as well as “some unexpected applications” during his appearance on Friday.
While we can’t say for sure exactly what Musk is referring to, there’s a good chance that it relates to one of SpaceX’s biggest goals for the future: Mars. Back in July, he tweeted that the next big update on SpaceX’s plans for a Mars expedition could happen at IAC 2017. Additionally, the project was officially unveiled at last year’s IAC, making this year’s event a particularly appropriate setting for a major update.
Given that SpaceX’s Red Dragon program was recently put on the back burner, the current status of the company’s mission to Mars is in a bit of limbo, so the possibility of learning the details of their new plan in just a few days is very exciting. However, Musk’s reference to “unexpected applications” in his tweet this morning might be a hint that his announcement isn’t directly related to space exploration.
One potential alternative is SpaceX’s Starlink project, which will use a network of satellites to provide internet access back on Earth.
Given the location of the event, the applications might even have something to do with Musk’s efforts to help Australia improve its renewable energy infrastructure. In July, he inked a deal to implement a Powerpack battery system at the Hornsdale Wind Farm, and while that is a technically Tesla project, rather than a SpaceX endeavor, perhaps Musk is bringing his two companies together in some way.
Whatever Musk is planning to announce, it’ll be livestreamed around the world, so we’ll all find out at the same time.
NASA’s current priority when it comes to space travel is to get people to Mars sooner rather than later. The organization has said in the past that it’s unable to get people to the Red Planet, but projects from the likes of SpaceX have kept the dream alive. If, however, the current U.S. administration decides to shift focus to the Moon, NASA wouldn’t be caught completely off-guard and unable to adjust.
Speaking at Rice University earlier this month, Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, spoke about NASA’s ability to go to the Moon if told to do so. She told Rice Space Institute director David Alexander, “I think we’re very well set up to do it. It’s not at all incompatible with what we’re doing.”
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is key to the organization’s current plans for Mars, with it and the Space Launch System rocket scheduled for a pair of test flights between 2019 and 2023. Afterwards, construction would begin on a “Deep Space Gateway” near the Moon, which would be used as a staging area for future missions to Mars and activity on the Moon itself.
Prepared for Anything
According to Ars Technica, it’s unclear which aspects of the plan would remain if focus shifted from Mars to the Moon. The Deep Space Gateway, for example, could be replaced with a plan to skip that construction and just go straight to landing crew members and necessary cargo.
“What we’ve really tried to do at NASA is leave a lot of options open, to develop the basic capabilities — the spacecraft Orion and the heavy lift launch vehicle — and then talk with other partners about what they are interested in doing,” added Ochoa.
Regardless of which location is chosen, it’s clear that humanity has plans to settle off world. It’s only a matter of time at this point, though we’ll have to see if it comes true within the next 20 years.
The NASA human landing site selection committee proposed 47 potential sites for a human occupied base on Mars. They considered not only scientific regions of interest but also “resource regions of interest” — where there is accessible water.
A number of conditions need to be met for an exploration zone to be considered useful for prospecting for water. Water needs to be accessible, located near the surface, and of sufficient size and concentration to meet the user needs.
For operational reasons the Mars water site also needs to be located with a latitude less than 50°. This ruled out the previously identified large surface ice deposits in the high latitude polar regions of Mars.
The Protonilus-Deuteronilus Mensae region on Mars is located in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars (~8°E and 60°E 38N and 50°N).
This region is host to numerous land forms which appear to contain large buried ice deposits, hundreds of meters thick and several kilometers wide.
If the ice is preserved as we believe, these features would represent a significant resource easily capable of satisfying the requirements for a human base. It is for this reason that three exploration zones have been proposed in the region.
At the low pressures in the Martian atmosphere, and the temperatures in equatorial regions, ice can “sublime” directly from the solid to gas state (evaporation being the transition from water to gas). The features we are observing protect ice under a layer of debris.
Because of this, it is not possible to evaluate directly the quantity of ice present. Instead we must rely on data collected by orbital spacecraft to work out the geological properties and potential water resources available.
If we were able to make measurements on the planet itself (as we can usually do on Earth), things would be much clearer. However, there have been no landed rover missions to this region of Mars, so we are reliant on remotely sensed data.
There is still a lot to be learned from data collected by satellites orbiting Mars. These give us high resolution imagery of the surface, along with insight into the geological properties of these features.
We can make informed assessments about how much water there is, and where it is distributed, as well as about what lies over it (which will have to either be drilled through or excavated to reach the water). These interpretations can be used to guide future exploration activities, and assist equipment design and mine planning operations.
Rover missions could provide more certainty, but planning such a mission will not occur until after site selection, and insight into the feasibility of mining ice deposits on Mars to support human missions to the Red Planet.
Other Mining in Space
It’s not only Mars which is being investigated as a potential source of water in space. The Moon with its supply of polar water ice is being considered as a potential resource to supply proposed lunar bases or propellant for Mars missions. The Lunar Resource Prospector mission set to launch in the early 2020s will help us better understand the resource potential of the Moon.
Asteroid mining companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are looking to exploit water stored in near Earth asteroids and are working towards exploratory missions in the near future.
There are a large number of technical issues that must be navigated before such an ambitious mining enterprise is considered low-risk enough to be feasible. These are challenging, but not insurmountable. A significant international effort is afoot to solve the problems with several companies, the major space agencies, and the government of Luxembourg committed to the task.
Representatives from these stakeholder groups will be in Australia to discuss these issues at the Off-Earth Mining Forum held in Sydney, September 20-21, 2017.
One of the changes we’re expecting is about the rockets, specifically in terms of size. In July, Musk said that SpaceX has designed the rockets for Mars to be smaller than initially planned, to cut down on costs. Right now, we know that these would fit in SpaceX’s existing factories, and would be capable of both Earth orbital missions as well as traveling to Mars.
“Maybe we can pay for it by using it for Earth orbit activity. That’s one of the key elements of the new architecture,” Musk said in a July interview. Cutting down costs is necessary, especially since Musk has put a cap on how much a ticket to Mars should be, at around $200,000.
A 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing factories …
“The Mars exploration program is well underway,” Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of China’s Mars mission, said on Wednesday while speaking at the Beijing International Forum on Lunar and Deep-Space Exploration, according to state news agency Xinhua.
China plans to send an unmanned probe comprising three parts — an orbiter, a lander, and a rover — to Mars by 2020. The probe will carry 13 payloads, seven of which will be on the orbiter and the remaining six on the rover. “The payloads will be used to collect data on the environment, morphology, surface structure, and atmosphere of Mars,” explained Rongqiao.
After a seven-month journey to the Red Planet, the orbiter will launch the lander towards Mars’ northern hemisphere, where it will explore the surface. Its tasks will include testing equipment for sample retrieval missions, which are scheduled between 2025 and 2030.
“Chinese scientists are doing preliminary research now to anticipate the data that will be collected from Mars, so we can publish our reports faster,” Zhang said, as reported by China News.
China’s mission to Mars is part of their space agency’s goal of becoming a frontrunner in space exploration by 2030. Aside from Mars, they also plan on sending unmanned probes to Jupiter in 2036 and to Uranus in 2046.
Mars. So Hot Right Now.
Seemingly everyone wants to go Mars right now — it’s currently the hottest item in space exploration.
This interest is understandable, as most experts see Mars as a potential jumping off point in humanity’s attempts to colonize space, but actually bringing these plans to fruition will be no easy task.
While today’s advances in rocket technology will certainly help, colonizing Mars won’t be as simple as sending unmanned missions and probes and rovers to the Red Planet. We need to send people, and doing that may well end up being a collective endeavor. It’s not difficult to imagine SpaceX and NASA teaming up, although both have their own plans for getting to Mars. Russia supposedly has plans to work with the U.S. on a joint Mars project, too.
Eight months have passed since the fifth Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) experiment began, and on Sunday, September 17, the crew returned from isolation.
The crew, comprised of four men and two women, were tasked with living in a geodesic dome located near Mauna Loa, one of the remote volcanoes that forms Hawaii. The dome had 1200 square feet of floor space, and small sleeping quarters for each member. A kitchen, laboratory, bathroom with one shower and two toilets, simulated airlock and “dirty work area” were also included.
The mission was meant to simulate Mars, hence the habitat’s rocky, Mars-ish location, and as such, the crew had to wear space suits while outside of the dome, communicate with NASA on a 20-minute delay, and live on canned and freeze-dried food.
While in isolation, the crew played games designed to measure their stress levels and overall compatibility. Logs were kept by each member explaining how they felt throughout the mission. Special sensors were also worn at all times to measure their voice levels and distance to other crew members — this was particularly important to see if members avoided each other, and if they got into arguments.
“There are certainly human factors to be figured out, that’s part of what HI-SEAS is for,” said the team’s information technology specialist Laura Lark. in a video recorded within the dome. “But I think that overcoming those challenges is just a matter of effort. We are absolutely capable of it.”
The data collected will be used to help NASA (which funded the project) pick individuals for a two-to-three-year mission to the red planet. The organization hopes to begin around 2030, and those chosen for the expedition will need to have the right combination of characteristics and skills to better deal with the stress, relative loneliness, and dangers such a mission would entail.
Mars has garnered a lot of attention from companies like SpaceX that wish to put people on the red planet in the hopes of colonizing it. Expeditions to Mars have been delayed, but many — such as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin — still believe we’ll settle on the planet within the next two decades.
In order to ensure we’re able to sustain life on Mars, however, we’ll need supplies. From water to precious metals like platinum, we’ll need these to prosper in whatever task we take on. Asteroid mining companies have begun to realize that. According to Motherboard, these companies are currently engaged in a race to see who can accomplish the task of mining asteroids first — with Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources leading the charge.
“During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids,” said Deep Space CEO Daniel Faber. “We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space, from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there.”
Mining nearby asteroids isn’t just beneficial to those living in space, but those of us here on Earth as well. Mining for metals has severely impacted the amount of them left at our disposal, and shifting to deep sea diving isn’t great for the environment. Asteroids could be exactly what’s needed to offset the damage done to the ocean floor and our remaining resources.
Of course, these mining missions won’t take place in the immediate future, as funding is still impeding the process. It was only relatively recently that laws were put into place to support the cause: President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act back in 2015, which received praise from Planetary Resources. Elsewhere, the government of Luxembourg just signed a similar law in July.
We’ll have to wait and see if asteroid mining ever happens, but its undeniable that companies are invested in trying to realize it. Settling on other planets has been a goal of ours for quite some time, and in order to make it possible, we’ll need resources. Asteroids, it seems, are just waiting to hand them over.
NASA has confirmed that SpaceX is making changes to their previously announced timeline for a manned mission to Mars. Jim Green, head of the agency’s planetary science division, acknowledged that NASA had been informed that Red Dragon was being put “on the back burner.”
SpaceX was originally planning to make the journey to Mars in 2018, with NASA providing assistance with regards to navigation and communications as part of a Space Act Agreement between the two organizations. “We’d agreed to navigate to Mars, get [Elon Musk] to the top of the atmosphere, and then it was up to him to land,” said Green.
Initially, Red Dragon was expected to use a propulsion landing system to make its controlled descent onto the surface of Mars. However, when SpaceX confirmed in July 2017 that the craft would no longer have these capabilities, many observers wondered whether the Mars mission might miss its launch date.
We now have evidence that Mars gets its share of snow— and that far from being only light flurries, they’re sometimes violent snowstorms.
These storms are much different from what was previously thought of the red planet’s weather, which only occurs at night and comes with intense gusts of wind. This new forecast came from a combination of data on water-ice clouds, collected by the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft over the years, and data gathered by NASA’s Phoenix Lander, which ventured to Mars in 2008.
“It’s the first time anyone has shown that snowstorms, or water-ice microbursts, occur presently on Mars,” said lead researcher Aymeric Spiga, a planetary scientist from the Université Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, to New Scientist. “Any snow particles formed were thought to fall only very slowly through their own weight.”
Spiga explains that previous attempts to find snowstorms were unsuccessful because scientists were using the wrong models, or only one model at a time. Spiga and his team used “more sophisticated and fine-scale modelling,” allowing them to simulate Mars’ atmosphere in greater detail.
Many of the snowstorms will gradually come to an end before reaching the planet’s surface, but others can make it to ground level if a cloud forms closer to the surface. That said, the amount of snow isn’t enough to ski on, or even to make a decent snowman.
“Well, the associated winds found in the storm are rather vigorous,” explained Franck Montmessin, another member of Spiga’s team studying Mars’ atmosphere, to ResearchGate’s blog. “Since they occur in the lower part of the atmosphere, one might want to avoid these turbulent events to ensure a safe landing.”
Getting to Mars is the biggest space project this generation will ever see, that is until we actually land people on the red planet. Such a bold endeavor has a cornucopia of nitty-gritty details to iron out, in one way or another, before proceeding with a manned mission. The most obvious is the need to build rockets and spacecraft able to ferry probes and people. For NASA’s mission to Mars, this also entails the construction of a lunar space station that’ll serve as a jump-off point to the rest of the solar system.
Speaking to Futurism after the successful launch of SpaceX’s CRS-12 mission on Monday, NASA Acting Chief Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr. explained how getting to Mars requires small, incremental steps. “When you look at our plans today [for getting to Mars], we use the International Space Station as much as we can…for example, our life support systems, we test them up there.” He added that the Moon would be the next logical step in this process.
But getting to Mars and surviving there are two disparate yet equally important aspects of the same mission. “We try and make sure that, when we do a science mission or a human spaceflight mission, that we have a cross between the science and the human exploration,” Lightfoot explained.
Making Life Possible
Now no one wants to fly to Mars, land on the ground, yawp “I did it!”, turn around and head home. Space exploration is more than symbolic pretense. We want to stay on Mars and install a colony. Of course, the eventual plan is to terraform Mars, but that could take thousands of years to accomplish — if it’s at all possible. So, in Lightfoot’s mind, we ought to start small, and there’s nothing more basic for survival on Mars (or anywhere) than having a secure source of air to breathe. “The next lander that is going to Mars, Mars 2020, has an experiment where we are going to try and actually generate oxygen out of the atmosphere on Mars, clearly that’s for human capability down the road,” Lightfoot said.
What we know is that the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner than Earths, with some 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, 2.7 percent nitrogen, 1.6 percent argon, and about 0.13 oxygen, plus a bunch of other elements in even smaller amounts. By contrast, the Earth’s atmosphere has 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. Water won’t be much of a problem, though.
It may sound like science fiction right now, but lab experiments have shown that it’s possible. That’s why the Mars 2020 Rover mission is crucial. Other efforts to make Mars habitable include plans of building a magnetic shield around the planet, similar to Earth’s, building a nuclear reactor, as well as growing potatoes like in Matt Damon in The Martian.
According to NASA, the potential of this project to revolutionize space travel lies in the “ability to accelerate a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine.” Nuclear thermal rockets have double the propulsion efficiency of even the Space Shuttle’s main engine, and the new engines would also weigh less, allowing for a higher cargo capacity.
Sonny Mitchell, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a NASA press release, “As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond.”
Not only would nuclear propulsion make this exploration possible, it would also significantly lessen the travel time required to reach our destinations. For example, a journey to the Red Planet using current technology would take six months, but with NTP technology, that same trip would be shortened by two months.
This certainly is an exciting time for space exploration as we are rapidly developing the technology needed to push humanity farther out into the final frontier than ever before.
Humankind is eager to step out into the cosmos and wander across the deserted plains of the Red Planet. According to most reports, Elon Musk is leading the way with SpaceX; however, a number of other orginizations—NASA, China’s Space Agency, The Mars Society—are training, deploying prototypes, and working on the plethora of questions and challenges that we will face when attempting to bring the first human beings to Mars.
But, as much as it might seem natural to get entrenched in the details of how we will actually get humans off of planet Earth (and keep them mentally and physically healthy throughout the duration), it is critical that we remember why we’re going in the first place.
In a recent interview, Buzz Aldrin—the renowned astronaut, engineer, and (of course) the second human to ever step foot on the Moon—explained why exploration and discovery are so important, touching upon why we should (and why we will) have humans on Mars in 20 years…
We’ve now surveyed and scrutinized almost every inch of this planet, but there is so much we have yet to learn.
Aldrin begins by stating that, from both a scientific and technological perspective, we are at the perfect juncture to push the boundaries of exploration. He asserts that, thanks to recent advancements, for the first time in human history, voyaging to other worlds is truly within our reach: “Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like. We have never been closer to knowing and exploring another planet.”
When asked just how close we really are to achieving this feat, Aldrin was quick to respond with his timeline, saying that we could “have the first Human Martians at Mars by 2040.”
Aldrin continued by segueing into a discussion of why venturing to other worlds is important, noting that, in many ways, our planet is ancient and familiar and the other bodies in our solar system are, for all intents and purposes, virgin territory: “Space travel and exploration represents the final frontier – we’ve now surveyed and scrutinized almost every inch of this planet, but there is so much we have yet to learn.”
However, Aldrin states that the most notable aspects of this quest are about far more than just acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge or conquering new worlds. The journey to Mars will bring with it reignited excitement for science and innovation, creating a generation of young people who have ingrained within them a thirst for understanding and exploration.
Remembering A Race
When Buzz stepped onto the Moon in 1969, countless youth were captivated by the story and went on to pursue careers in STEM fields, hoping to achieve monumental feats of similar proportions.
Indeed, Aldrin is very aware of the impact that action in science has on the youth, stressing that, “we can only get there [to Mars] if we start investing in future generations.” Ultimately, as previously noted, he says that this investment is the key to long-term success: “In 1903, man learned to fly airplanes. Only 66 years later, we walked on the Moon. In order to help the next generation to make giant leaps like these, we must educate, enable and inspire them to be passionate about subjects like science, technology, engineering, art, and math.”
Aldrin notes that he has devoted himself to helping foster such a desire in young people, saying, “That’s the mission of the SpaceShare Foundation, and it’s one I wholeheartedly support.”
Aldrin’s Space Share Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to inspiring children’s passions for science and technology by providing educational tools to educators across the country at no cost. The goal of this work is to ensure that all young people are given the resources that they need to live up to their potential. After all, one never knows who the next Carl Sagan could be.
As Former President Barack Obama noted in a speech at the Frontiers Conference, “America is about Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers—but we’re also the place you can grow up to be a Grace Hopper, or George Washington Carver, or a Katherine Johnson, or an Ida B. Wells. We don’t want somebody with a brilliant idea not in the room because they’re a woman. We don’t want some budding genius unavailable to cure cancer or come up with a new energy source because they were languishing in a sub-standard school as a child. Because we’re going to be a better team if we got the whole team.”
Aldrin echoes these ideas, noting that, while reaching Mars in the next 20 years is extremely likely, it will only happen if we ensure that young people are given every opportunity to be the best that they can be: “Sometimes I can’t believe this lucky kid from New Jersey got to land and walk on the Moon…work hard and keep reaching for the stars.”
“The objectives of the mission are to build highly qualified UAE human resources in the field of space technology, to develop knowledge, scientific research and space applications that benefit mankind, to create a sustainable knowledge-based economy, to promote diversification and encourage innovation,” the announcement said.
In six short words on an Instagram post Elon Musk announced the next step of SpaceX’s plan to eventually fly humans to Mars: “Falcon Heavy maiden launch this November.” The announcement means that the launch will be a little later than earlier predictions: Musk tweeted in June that “all Falcon Heavy cores should be at the Cape [Canaveral Air Force Station] in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that.”
If the Falcon Heavy test is successful it will become the most powerful operational rocket in the world: using 27 Merlin rocket engines spread across three falcon 9 cores, it would have a liftoff thrust of 2.3 million kg (5 million lb) that is capable of carrying 54,000 kg (119,000 lb) into orbit — this is twice the payload of the next largest rocket, Delta IV Heavy, and SpaceX claim it will cost 66 percent less to deliver.
Musk followed his announcement by divulging a few extra details via Twitter. He clarified SpaceX’s plans to retrieve and potentially reuse the rocket’s boosters, later qualifying the ambitious goals by adding, “If we are lucky”
Side booster rockets return to Cape Canaveral. Center lands on droneship.
Musk’s cautious optimism mirrored his previous remarks to a crowd at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, “There’s a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit. I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.”
The next few months should be exciting for Musk on a number of other fronts as well: he has identified September as when updates on his plan to reach Mars will arrive, the Tesla Model 3 will continue to ramp up production, and the Boring Company will continue to make progress towards decreasing congestion in Los Angeles after its first elevator test earlier this week.
When its founder and CEO, Elon Musk, confirmed that SpaceX is abandoning the plan to use a powered Dragon landings for Mars, it didn’t come as a surprise. Musk had previously announced that the initial ideas for SpaceX’s Mars mission had been reviewed and changes were coming.
The original plan included testing a Dragon 2 capsule for surface landings on Mars, supposedly by 2020. Last week, Musk announced during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference that SpaceX has scrapped the design that put landing legs on the Dragon 2 capsule. However, this didn’t mean that SpaceX would no longer do power landings on Mars.
“[The] plan is to do powered landings on Mars for sure, but with a vastly bigger ship,” Musk said on a tweet. Currently, SpaceX’s space capsules are capable of splashdown landings, but surface landings are more ideal for missions to Mars.
Throwing a bone to SpaceX redditors, Musk revealed yet another detail.
A 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing factories …
The cryptic post has been making a buzz on the SpaceX Reddit, and some have offered their interpretations as to what this nine-meter (30-foot) diameter machine could be. One possibility is that it could be the Boring Company’s tunneling machine, as the current standard tunnel diameter is roughly 8.53 meters (28 ft).
However, it’s highly unlikely that Musk was referring to a tunneling machine. Keep in mind that the Boring Company’s plan is to reduce the standard tunnel diameter in half or “less than 14 feet,” as it says in its website. “Reducing the diameter in half reduces tunneling costs by 3-4 times.”
A Surprise for September
So, if not a tunneling machine, what else could it be? A more interesting suggestion is that SpaceX may be building a smaller version of its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). Musk has said that they plan on keeping the costs of making and maintaining rockets reasonable — or, at the very least, at par with the $200,000 per person cost of getting on a flight to the Red Planet. Could a mini-ITS be that solution?
“[Nine] meters is 3/4 of the size of the 12 meter full sized ITS,” one redditor commented. “There also happened to be 4 layers of engines in the original ITS design. I would guess that this is basically an ITS with the outer layer of 21 engines removed. A 50 percent scale vehicle. Still the most powerful rocket in history, and [roughly] 50 percent more powerful than [the Space Launch System].”
Whether Musk is building a smaller ITS, the Boring Company’s tunneling machine, or something else entirely, we won’t know for sure until he reveals what this really is all about. We need not wait that long, though, as Musk said that all will be revealed at this year’s International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September.
Yes, I postponed publishing in order to present the updated interplanetary rocket & spaceship design in Adelaide. Will be on the final day.
The serial entrepreneur is scheduled to speak on the final day (Sept. 29) of this event to be held in Adelaide, Australia. It was during the IAC back in 2016 that Musk first unveiled SpaceX’s plans to make humanity into a multi-planetary species.
A hearing held by the House Science Committee that aimed to discuss the largest of NASA’s upcoming projects — including launching another Mars rover in 2020 and a Europa flyby mission with a possible subsequent landing — took a strange turn when congressman Dana Rohrabacher, of California, asked “Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?”
Kenneth Farley, a professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and project scientist for the 2020 rover team, answered: “there’s no evidence that, uhh, I’m aware of […] I would say that is extremely unlikely.” Additionally, he corrected Rohrabacher’s timeline by saying that “the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago. Not thousands of years ago.”
The chances of our planetary neighbor ever hosting a civilization, however, are extremely small — although some, perhaps not entirely credible sources, claim that evidence of a previous sophisticated species can be found in photos released by the Curiosity Rover, which may show a six inch man who bares a startling similarity to the Atacama Alien found in Chile.
SpaceX has abandoned its plans to equip future versions of the Dragon spacecraft to undertake powered landings. This change will affect long-term plans for Mars, as CEO Elon Musk acknowledged to the International Space Station Research and Development Conference on Wednesday.
The Dragon spacecraft that is currently under development for NASA’s commercial crew program will use SuperDraco thrusters only as a launch abort system, not to land on any surfaces. During a Q&A session, Musk replied to questions about Dragon’s propulsive landing capabilities by saying, “It was a tough decision. Technically it still is, although you’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad because we’ve deleted the little legs that pop out of the heat shield.”
Safety certification issues for propulsive landings were behind the cancellation of the plans to transition away from water landings and toward propulsion-assisted landings on solid ground. “It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety, particularly for crew transport,” Musk said.
Bigger Red Picture
Additionally, the overall goal of SpaceX is now to land larger spacecraft on Mars to further the long-term goal of getting humans on Mars. “There was a time that I thought the Dragon approach to landing Mars, where you’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters, would be the right way to land on Mars,” Musk said during the session. “Now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way and there’s a far better approach.”
The alternative approach will also use a version of propulsive landing:
Plan is to do powered landings on Mars for sure, but with a vastly bigger ship
SpaceX’s new plans for the Falcon Heavy have recently evolved, and it makes sense to consolidate the costs of this kind of landing in a larger spacecraft. This change may also have either pushed back or canceled the Red Dragon mission, which was originally intended to land a Dragon 2 spacecraft on the surface of Mars.
We’ll all be eagerly awaiting more updates, possibly presented in Adelaide, Australia at September’s International Astronautical Congress meeting. In the meantime, it’s Twitter and the Cape to watch the Falcon Heavy.
Buzz Aldrin is an acclaimed astronaut, engineer, and (of course) the second human being to ever walk on the Moon. Over the years, he has inspired entire generations to look beyond the bounds of Earth and pursue the unknown. As Aldrin previously noted, “human beings are meant to be inquisitive. We’re meant to be achievers.” And to this end, Aldrin has dedicated his life to advancing humanity through discovery, creating explorers and scientists alike in the process.
Most recently, Aldrin helped to create a virtual reality (VR) experience that allows people to ‘travel’ to Mars. As one of the few individuals who has ever had the privilege of stepping onto an astronomical body besides Earth, Aldrin is able to expertly assist in conveying the experience of space travel to the everyday individual and, in so doing, take people (virtually) farther than they have ever gone before.
Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like in the future.
In a recent interview with Futurism, Aldrin weighed in on just how important it is for us, as humans, to take this next step in journeying into the final frontier, “One of the things that makes space exploration so exciting is that the possibilities are endless. Mars is the next actionable step for us – we have never been closer to knowing and exploring another planet. Plus, I believe that Mars has realistic potential for colonization.”
Aldrin continued by noting that, in order to make humanity’s future on Mars a reality, we will need to start garnering interest and making plans for tomorrow today: “Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like in the future. I believe we can have the first Human Martians at Mars by 2040.”
A Unified Quest
Obviously, a virtual journey to Mars isn’t exactly the same as a real Martian excursion; however, such technologies can, in some small way, help bring people to the stars who otherwise might not ever have the opportunity. In this respect, the VR experience is truly valuable. As Aldrin notes, “We have a long way to go before trips to space are widely affordable for everyone. Luckily AR/VR technology is here now.”
Aldrin continued by asserting that, more than just showing people what the voyage to Mars will be like, this type of experience is an integral part of encouraging people to get excited about science and exploration. And in today’s society, where denialism and sensationalism dominate many conversations, a genuine interest in science is more crucial than ever. Aldrin believes that exploring the vast recesses of space can help in this regard because, as he asserts, “space travel is a great unifier–it captures our collective imagination, encourages our curiosity, and inspires our creativity.”
It is in our nature to explore. We, as a species, are curious.
To this end, Aldrin thinks that it is through these small pushes in the right direction that humans will finally make it to other worlds. Because we are, at the end of the day, wanderers: “It is in our nature to explore. We, as a species, are curious and want to see what’s over the next hill, see how fast we can go. It was only 66 years from the point that the Wright brothers flew to us flying rockets to the Moon.”
If this VR voyage sounds like something that would interest you, Aldrin and Terry Virts, the former commander of the ISS, are teaming up with Omaze, a donation-based experience platform, to offer one winner (and a friend) a chance to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary as VIPs at the ShareSpace gala. You will get to hang out with the pair and experience Aldrin’s virtual Mars experience. Best of all, this effort supports The ShareSpace Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to getting kids involved with STEM.
In the words of the Carl Sagan, “Human beings are a curious, inquisitive, exploratory species. I think that has been the secret of our success as a species.” Aldrin embodies this exploratory quest and, through AR and VR, he wants to spark that curiosity and need to explore in all.
Of course, no one is positive when the first human footsteps will leave their mark on the Martian surface, but the quest to get us there is how we will continue to advance as a species….and it isn’t just astronauts and rocket scientists who can (and should) participate in this great journey. Whether virtually or through other means of education and involvement, it is now possible for us all to engage our minds, hearts, and exploratory imaginations. It’s a race we must run together.
Despite all this going on here on Earth, Musk still has his eyes fixed on Mars. The serial entrepreneur is determined to make humanity a multi-planetary species, but we might have to wait until the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September for an update on that front, according to a reply Musk sent to an inquisitive Twitter user.
This is crucial, especially now that Musk has set a target price on the cost of going to Mars: $200,000 per person. The updates might come in certain structural changes to the designs of the BFR and the ITS that could help ensure that this price point is met. After that, it will just be a matter of saving up the funds if you want to be one of the first humans to reach the Red Planet.
New research shows that our aspirations to grow potatoes on Mars may be a little premature. Results of a new study indicate that the thin Martian atmosphere and the ultraviolet radiation it allows to reach the planet’s surface interact with chemical compounds called perchlorates to create a deadly environment for bacteria.
We have known that there were perchlorates on the surface of the Red Planet since the 1970s when the Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft landed there. We’ve confirmed this with other probes since that time, and until recently that fact has actually been viewed in an encouraging light. That’s because although perchlorates — made from oxygen and chlorine — are toxic to humans, bacteria tend to thrive in their presence, using them for energy. Perchlorates also lower the point at which water melts, which offered still more hope for the existence of bacterial life on Mars.
On June 30th, President Trump revived the National Space Council and made Vice President Pence its chairman. During a tour of Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, July 6, Mr. Pence reaffirmed the American commitment to putting humans on Mars.
“Here the Hubble Space Telescope, the New Horizons, and so many other technological wonders lifted off the Earth to give us a glimpse of our fellow planets, the distant stars and the infinite galaxies that are a window into our very past,” Pence remarked at Cape Canaveral. “And here from this bridge to space, our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.”
Ad Astra Rocket Company thinks that a plasma engine could hypothetically get us to the Red Planet in 38 days, by traveling at a speed of 115,200 mph — contrary to the mainstream idea that massive rockets are the only way. NASA has supported the company’s plan by investing nine million dollars.
Franklin R. Chang Díaz, the CEO of Ad Astra and the man who co-holds the record for most visits to the International Space Station, plans to use plasma because it can be held in place magnetically, which means that more power can be produced because there is nothing for the fuel to melt. However, when in space, heating fuel to this temperature would require a nuclear power source — which is where this concept gets controversial.
Elon Musk, in particular, is critical of this plan on two fronts. First, attaching the weight of a nuclear reactor to a spacecraft, he thinks, is unfeasible. Secondly, he believes that using nuclear fuel on a spacecraft is dangerous because radioactive debris would fall back to Earth if the system failed.
The Cosmic Competition
Recently, Stephen Hawking added his voice to the choir of intellectuals and industry leaders proclaiming that humanity must become an interplanetary species. But with our ambition established, the question now becomes how to make it happen.
All other serious ideas of how to get to Mars propose using a chemical space rocket engine. NASA and SpaceX have both revealed plans that use enormous rockets which carry astronauts and all of their provisions including water, air, food, and machinery.
At the more theoretical end of the spectrum are plans to use technology that, previously, has been reserved for the realms of science fiction. Phillip Lubin has proposed using photon propulsion which, hypothetically, could get us to Mars in just three days.
The race for the red planet is well and truly on, and the winner of this 21st-century space race will be decided in the intellectual theater long before human boots touch Mars’ dusty surface. However, according to most estimates, we will only need to wait around a decade to find out.
Being able to produce power on alien worlds will define our terraforming and interplanetary colonization experiences — how we generate atmospheres, produce life’s prerequisites, and power machines for exploration depend on it. NASA experts estimate that a Mars expedition would require roughly 40 kilowatts of power — around enough to power eight houses on Earth — and they think they may know the best way to generate that energy: nuclear fission.
For the past three years, NASA has been funding Kilopower, a project that aims to develop “a compact, low cost, scalable fission power system for science and exploration.”
The project’s budget is around $15 million, and in September, the agency will unveil the fruits of their labor — a 1.9 meters (6.5 feet) tall generator designed to produce up to 1 kilowatt of electric power — during testing at the Nevada National Security Site.
Although other alternatives for generating power have been put forward, none are as viable as fission. Solar energy, for instance, would require that astronauts stick to regions that receive an adequate amount of sunlight. “If you want to land anywhere, surface fission power is a key strategy for that,” Michelle Rucker, an engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told Space.com.
Project Kilopower marks something of a fission resurgence for NASA after a hiatus of more than 50 years. The last time the agency operated a fission reactor was in 1965, when they launched the Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) project. That project resulted in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that are still used to power spacecraft today, as well as the nuclear-powered spacecraft SNAP 10A, which stopped working 43 days after it was launched into space due to an electrical component failure.
A Question of Terraforming
Individuals such as Stephen Hawking have issued warnings that Earth can’t survive our habitation for much longer, so finding an alternative home for humanity is becoming critical. The question of how to provide power off-world is one of the biggest ones we face as we consider the Red Planet as our future home.
Other aspects of Mars colonization are already falling into place. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is driving the transportation element of the cosmic migration forward, developing detailed plans and working on ever-larger spaceships that we could use to get to our planetary neighbor.
If we ever successfully move to another planet, these questions and hundreds more, such as how diseases will respond to space and how reproduction will work, will have to be answered. Estimates concerning how long this will take vary, with some saying decades and others saying centuries. At any rate, let us hope it is sooner rather than later if Hawking’s prediction proves to be accurate.
On June 17th, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) celebrated 1,000 days in orbit around our solar system neighbor — it entered into this orbit in September 2014. To commemorate the 1,000 day anniversary, NASA released a list of its 10 most exciting findings.
MAVEN’s goal is to explore the Red Planet’s “upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the sun and solar wind” in order to gain insight into the “history of Mars’s atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability.” The changes that caused its transition from a habitable world to the rocky tundra we see today are mainly caused by the dissipation of Mars’s volatiles (the low-boiling point compounds that make up the atmosphere) into space.
The mission is remarkable because it is the first to explore Mars’s atmosphere rather than its surface. In order to do this, MAVEN is using eight separate instruments and fluctuates between 3,728 miles (6,000 km) and 77 miles (124 km) from Mars’s surface — this allows it to study the entire spectrum of Mars’s atmosphere. It contains no tools to search for life on the planet, because adding a detector for methane (a gas indicative of extant life) would have exceeded the project’s budget.
What We’ve Learned
MAVEN has made a number of interesting discoveries during the last 1,000 days. Gas is exchanged between the upper and lower halves of the Mars atmosphere in a way that will require further study; the ionosphere of the planet has a layer of metal ions; and there are two new types of aurora that have been discovered, called “diffuse” and “proton” — and, informally, Christmas Lights.
What NASA thinks is most important is the explanation behind how it lost such a significant proportion of its atmosphere. It was stripped layer by layer from the top by the the sun and the solar wind, which were more violent millions of years ago. Bruce Jakosky, Maven’s principal investigator, said that it was “like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time.”
These aren’t all of the discoveries made by MAVEN; you can read the full list on the NASA website.
The most likely short term application for such a robot would be helping astronauts to carry out inspections and repairs on spacecraft and structures like the International Space Station. Aksel Andreas Transeth, a Senior Research Scientist on the project, said in a press statement that “a snake robot could creep behind the sections, carry out an inspection, and perhaps even perform small maintenance tasks.”
Longer term goals include allowing teams to explore places on planets, moons, and comets that traditional six-wheeled craft could not by acting as a detachable arm capable of being operated autonomously. This would allow us to gain a new perspective on the small, hard-to-reach locations and difficult terrains of martian worlds.
Most excitingly, these robots could allow researchers to inspect tunnels beneath planets for habitability, which is crucial for the potential colonization of other planets. If we adapted to live underground, we would be provided a natural barrier against radiation, comets, and solar rays. The idea has already been linked to the European Space Agency’s proposed Moon Village.
Of the first snake robots, a concept robot, called the Wheeko Robot has already been developed. It has impressive dexterity and mobility due to to its “10 identical joint modules, each having two motorized degrees of freedom,” that are covered with small wheels that “enable the robot to slither forward over flat surfaces.”
What Our Current Rovers Have Done
SERPEX could be another weapon in our cosmic investigation arsenal, giving us a new way to explore our Universe. We have so far learned an incredible amount about planets such as Mars by, in part, launching land-based exploration vehicles like the Pathfinder and Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, and Curiosity in 2012. But these missions have been limited by the terrain that the craft can explore. One example: the Spirit Rover’s mission was ended when it got stuck in the mud in 2010.
We are living in the golden age of space exploration, with more missions and initiatives planned than ever before. The information we have gathered up to this point on our Solar System with fairly rudimentary exploration tools has been weird, wonderful, and fascinating.
Ideas such as SERPEX are pivotal if we are going to become more proficient in space travel and exploration. And, now that the possibility colonizing Mars is looking more and more plausible, anything that adds to our database of knowledge will aid our entire species.
Steve Chien and Kiri Wagstaff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have predicted that in the future, the behavior of space probes will be governed by AI rather than human prompts from earth. While humanity has made great strides in exploring the galaxies beyond our own, in order to learn even more about our universe, we may need to hand the controls over to robots.
That said, there will be challenges to the hand off, and the difficulties of micromanaging probes in deep space fall into three main categories:
First, probes may fall outside communications range, which means they will have to continue without instruction on their journey. That also means that eventually they’ll have to work out when, and how, to return with the data they have collected. A key aspect of this is knowing which data to document, and how to identify it: for example, deciding if weather is due to a storm or is normal for the planet being observed.
Second, because they will be traveling to areas of space that we know very little about, they will also have to be able to learn in order to adapt to environmental factors, such as unforeseen asteroids, temperatures, or gravities.
Third, because of the time required to travel to those distant parts of the universe, generations of scientists will die before probes return, leaving the probes somewhat to their own devices — so to speak.
The nature of these updates was confirmed in a media question session at the Kennedy Space Center in March, during which Musk said he would“provide an update on the design of the Interplanetary Transport System, and by Interplanetary Transport System, that includes the propellant depot on Mars,” He also stated that the tension in the project is to “not just get it done technically, but figure out how to get this done without going bankrupt.” He is, however, hopeful about this new approach.
Despite multiple assertions that the updates will be arriving imminently — including an announcement at an Everyday Astronaut event two and a half months ago that he was coming up “with a number of design refinements and probably ready to put on the website within a month or so” — there has been frustratingly little follow-up.
So, while we wait on tenterhooks for more information — stewing in the meta position of waiting for update news about an update — we were also given, fortunately, a transcript from the talk in which he details his non-updated plan, and gives an exciting look behind the scenes of SpaceX.
Colonizing Mars (thanks Prof Hubbard for creating this from my talk). Major changes to the plan coming soon. https://t.co/s59qMHUj5O
When starting SpaceX I thought the odds of success were less than 10%, and I just accepted that actually, probably, I would just lose everything but that I would maybe make some progress. If we could just move the ball forward, even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving forward, so we’d still do some good.
In 2017, he has exceeded just moving the ball forward in nearly every way possible — on top of becoming an industry leader in space flight, he has made major advances for humanity. Most of these concern space technology that can be used multiple times, reflecting his aim to address the conundrum of rockets being “the only form of transportation on Earth where the vehicle is built anew for each journey. What if you had to build a new plane for every flight?”
SpaceX’s first major landmark this year was to launch a satellite into space on a booster that had already been used before. In March, the company successfully propelled the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit by reusing the Falcon 9 rocket that had previously launched the CRS-8 satellite.
Next came flying the same Dragon rocket to the International Space Station for the second time; the company’s 11th supply mission in total. While the rocket had to undergo significant refurbishment, the mission on the 3rd of June was a seminal accomplishment that convinced NASA of the potential of reusable rockets — Kirk Shireman, Manager of the International Space Station Program, told CBS that “we expect to increase the amount of reflight as (NASA’s contracts with SpaceX) proceed.”
What the Future Has in Store
The next milestone SpaceX is set to cross is to launch the Falcon Heavy — the rocket that “was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”
If Musk’s tweet that “All Falcon Heavy cores should be at the Cape in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that” is true, we could see this goal realized as early as September. While the test flight will not carry a human passenger due to safety concerns, it will instead transport the “Silliest thing we can imagine!” into space: after the Dragon carried an enormous wheel of cheese on its first flight, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the Heavy’s cargo could be.
SpaceX is also remarkable for the number of flights it is undertaking, not only their groundbreaking nature. So far this year, it has averaged a flight every three weeks; but the tempo of flights will increase even more. The launch calendar has flights planned on June 17th (BulgariaSat-1), June 25th (Iridium Next Flight-2), and July 1st (Intelsat 35E) — if all these go to plan, this would amount to three flights in two weeks.
SpaceX, then, is marching proudly into the future in terms of both the type and number of flights they are undertaking. While they had a challenging 2015 and 2016, their efforts and achievements in 2017 put them on the right path to achieving their most ambitious goal: putting humans on Mars by 2025.
They say everything’s sweeter the second time around, and that seems to be the case for SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars. Last year, Musk unveiled his plans to colonize the Red Planet and make it fit for human habitation. Now, that version of the plan has been published and made available for free—with a few notable updates.
In the paper, the focus is on affordability, as that is the primary factor in making life on Mars a reality. As Musk notes, “You cannot create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion per person.” In order for it to be viable, Musk asserts that the cost should be about $200,000—equivalent to the median price of a house in the United States. In the paper, Musk outlines the steps he considers essential to ensuring this relative affordability.
But this is just the beginning. Musk posted a tweet today hinting that this version one is already being reviewed…and version 2 is on its way.
Mars V2 plan coming soon, which I think addresses the most fundamental flaw in V1: how to pay for development & operation of giant rockets https://t.co/yaITdVdpEc
According to Musk, the version one has one fundamental flaw, which is the cost of developing and operating giant rockets. While SpaceX has been specializing on reusable rockets, getting to Mars would still be costly due to the size of the rockets needed. According to V1 of the plan, getting to Mars depends on a reusable rocket-and-spaceship tandem, which Musk has called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). Reducing the costs to developing the ITS is crucial, especially since Musk himself has already put a cap on how much a trip to Mars should be.
Musk asserts that he envisions 1,000 or so ITS spaceships, each of which are carrying 100 or more people, leaving Earth orbit during “Mars windows,” the point in time when Earth and Mars align favorably, which happens once every 26 months.
Outlining the importance of making this information freely available, New Space editor-in-chief Scott Hubbard asserts that “publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning.”
“There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot,” Musk wrote. “There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.” By giving everyone access to this information, our chances of success are greatly improved.
The chunky concept rover is 3.3 meters (11 feet) tall, 8.5 meters (28 feet) long, and 4.3 meters (14 feet) wide. On its six equally chunky wheels, the rover weighs 2.7 tons. It is certainly not a flimsy vehicle, but despite its heft, it can reach speeds up to 110 km/h (68 mph) — though it probably wouldn’t travel faster than 24 km/h (15 mph) on Mars.
According to NASA, the rover “features life-support systems, navigation and communication systems, and design and materials that relate to conditions and resources on Mars.” It is designed to transport up to four astronauts at a given time, and it even comes equipped with a detachable laboratory. The vehicle runs off of solar power, carrying with it a 700-volt battery.
While this exact model might not be going into production anytime soon, parts of the concept may be used for future robotic rovers that are sent to the Red Planet.
One thing is certain, though. The fact that this concept exists shows that NASA scientists are carefully considering how humans might best move around Mars. It puts us one step closer to actually reaching the Red Planet, and though it might still seem like a far-off fantasy, as more details are considered and even small-seeming advancements are made, the closer we will get to becoming a multi-planetary species.
New research from scientists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) shows that the cancer risk for astronauts undertaking long-term missions to Mars or any other destination beyond Earth’s magnetic field is actually twice what we previously thought.
In the past, researchers determined that exposure to the very high rates of ionization in the atoms that comprise cosmic rays damaged the cells in astronauts’ bodies, making them vulnerable to a range of health problems, including acute radiation syndromes, cancer, cataracts, central nervous system issues, and circulatory diseases.
The actual amount of risk has typically been assessed using conventional risk models that attributed the radiation cancer to DNA mutation and damage, and these previous studies involved much briefer periods of time than those that occur during long-term space missions.
The researchers in the UNLV study used a non-targeted effect model instead. This model, which shows higher cancer risk in bystander cells in close proximity to heavily damaged cells, reveals a cancer risk at least twice that of the conventional risk model.
“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” UNLV researcher and space and radiation physics scholar Francis Cucinotta explained in a press release. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”
Combatting Cosmic Radiation
Any extensive time outside the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere will produce this much higher level of risk, and Cucinotta asserts an urgent need for additional research on human cancer risks and cosmic ray exposures prior to any long-term space missions. The results of this study will clearly affect the predicted efficacy of any already planned responses, such as radiation shields, so those must be reassessed, as well.
“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable,” Cucinotta stated in the release.“Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”
Cucinotta also addressed the moral dilemma we now face as we strive to colonize Mars and travel in space: “Waiving or increasing acceptable risk levels raises serious ethical flags, if the true nature of the risks are not sufficiently understood.” Indeed, we owe it to the astronauts willing to risk their lives to explore space to do everything we can to make sure they return home as healthy as when they left.
Tomorrow (June 1, 2017) will be a landmark date for commercial space travel. SpaceX is set to become the first privately owned company to perform multiple orbital flights to space using the same aircraft. On 21st September 2014, using the Falcon 9 rocket, this same Dragon CRS-4 delivered 2.5 tons of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
Since, this time, it has been refurbished and the launch window for its second cargo flight opens at 5:55pm ET.
It is one of only a handful of previous multi-orbit space flights — and all of the others were undertaken by governments. They include: the NASA orbiters Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour, which made dozens of missions but were hideously expensive to repair. There was also the X-37B, which Boeing built under commission by the U.S Air Force, and the Soviet VA spacecraft, which only orbited the Earth once on its second voyage.
While it is unclear how much the Dragon CRS-4 has had to be repaired, and exactly how much it cost, the savings are expected to be considerable. Moreover, this is nonetheless a landmark in breaching the final frontier, as private individuals are truly entering the space race, and this will play a major role in making space both commercially available and also affordable.
What Are SPACEX’S Other Plans?
However, ultimately, SpaceX is about far more than just making spaceflight affordable. SpaceX started with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets” — the first planet Musk’s space company aims to colonize is Mars. In order to do so, Musk plans to build the BFR . This stands for, in his own words, the Big F*cking Rocket, which will ferry the reusable Mars Colonial Transporter to the Red Planet.
Musk argues that humanity reaching Mars and other planets is pivotal. As He stated in an interview with aeon: “I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary”, and that this has to start with Mars because, “if we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel.”
The process, though, has to move in gradations — and this relaunch of the Dragon is a major milestone in Musk’s plan.
In the coming decades, the world’s largest space agencies hope to mount some exciting missions to the Moon and to Mars. Between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), there is simply no shortage of proposals for Lunar bases, crewed missions to Mars, and robotic explorers to both.
However, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a different mission in mind when it comes to the coming decades. Instead of exploring the Moon or Mars, they propose exploring the moons of Mars! Known as the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission, the plan is to have a robotic spacecraft fly to Phobos and Deimos to explore their surfaces and return samples to Earth for analysis.
The spacecraft would be deployed sometime in the 2020s, and would be tasked with two main objectives. The first would be to help scientists determine the origins of Phobos and Deimos, which has been a subject of debate for some time. Whereas some believe that these moons are capture asteroids, others have argued that they were created when fragments ejected from Mars (due to giant impacts on the surface) came together.
MMX will land on Phobos and acquire samples of at least 10 grams from more than 2cm below the surface. Analysis of samples returned to Earth will clarify the nature of the asteroid that led to the formation of the moon. Deimos observations will be limited to flyby imaging, but combined with ground data to be obtained for Phobos, we should be able to constrain its origin in a substantial manner.
The second objective focuses on the characterization of conditions both on and around the moons of Mars. This includes surface processes on Phobos and Deimos, the nature of the environment in which they orbit, and the global and temporal dynamics of Mars atmosphere — i.e. dust, clouds and water vapor.
“Airless bodies such as asteroids are exposed to space weathering processes,” said Dr. Fujimoto. “In the case of Phobos, an impact event on the surface releases many dust particles. Unlike an asteroid in the interplanetary space, dust particles will not be simply lost but will orbit around Mars and return and hit the Phobos surface. This is regarded as the reason that Phobos has a very thick regolith layer. Knowing this process is to know the attributes of returned samples better.”
Another major objective of this mission is to learn more about small bodies coming from the outer Solar System. As the outermost rocky planet, Mars’ orbit marks the boundary between the terrestrial planets — which have solid surfaces and variable atmospheres (ranging from super-thing to dense) — and the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System that have highly dense atmospheres.
Because of this, studying Mars’ moons, determining their origin, and learning more about the Martian orbital environment could teach us a lot about the evolution of the Solar System. Not only does such a mission present opportunities to study how planets like Mars formed, but also the process of by which primordial materials were transported between the inner and outer Solar Systems during its early history. As Dr. Fujimoto explained:
These small bodies were the delivery capsules for water from outside the Frost Line to the Habitable Zone of the solar system, where our planet is situated. Earth was born dry and needed delivery of water for its habitability to be switched on at all. It is likely that one of the (failed) deliveries led to the formation of Phobos, and, sample analysis will tell us about the failed capsule.
This is obviously the case when the capture idea turns out to be correct. Even for the case of giant impact, the scale of the impact is considered to be not too gigantic to alter fully the materials, implying that sample analysis would tell us something about the impactor asteroid.
As it stands, the probe is scheduled to launch in September 2024, taking advantage of the fact that Earth and Mars will be at the nearest point to each other in their orbits at this time. It will arrive around Mars by 2025, conduct its studies for a three-year period, and then return to Earth by July of 2029. Once there, it will rely on a suite of scientific instruments to conduct surveys and obtain samples.
These instruments include a Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS), a Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRS), a Wide Angle Multiband Camera (WAM), a Telescopic Camera (TL), a Circum-Martian Dust Monitor (CMDM), a Mass Spectrum Analyzer (MSA), and a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument.
The mission will also leverage some key partnerships that JAXA is currently engaged in. These include an agreement reached with NASA back in late March to include the Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS) in the MMX’s instrument suite. And in April, JAXA and the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) signed an Implementation Agreement (IA) that would allow the French national space agency to participate in the mission as well.
If all goes as planned, JAXA will be spending the next decade gathering information that could bridge findings made by Lunar and Martian missions. Whereas lunar research will reveal things about the history of the Moon, and Martian missions will offer new insights into Mars’ geology and evolution (and perhaps if life still exists there!), the MMX mission will reveal things about the history of Mars’ moons and the early Solar System as a whole.
Other proposals that JAXA is currently working on include the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and SPICA, two missions that will explore Jupiter’s Galilean Moons and conduct infrared astronomy (respectively) in the coming decade.
Mars’ relative closeness to the Earth and ample distance from the Sun have made it humanity’s best target for off-world colonization. While a number of institutions are working hard to make a Mars colony a reality, SpaceX was the first to reveal a concrete plan to get to the Red Planet.
That plan has been outlined pretty clearly, but two important parts still lack detail: the spaceship that will transport humanity to Mars and the rocket that would launch that spaceship. While the plan is short on details, it includes plenty of acronyms, specifically MCT, ITS, and BFR.
That transporter would reach space via the BFR, which stands for — no joke — Big F*cking Rocket, which should live up to its name. It’s expected to be bigger than the Falcon 9 and more powerful than the Falcon Heavy, which would make it the most powerful rocket ever built.
Right now, we don’t know too much about the ITS and the BFR. Thanks to a recent Twitter conversation, however, we do know that answers are forthcoming.
When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was asked for updates about the architectural changes for the ITS and the BFR by Twitter user @RITSPEX, he responded with a promising timeline of “a few month.” As Inverse pointed out, that timeframe would place the announcement in September, one year after Musk first revealed his plans for Mars.
Every other year since 2011, 32 of the brightest young minds from across the globe are invited to participate in the Caltech Space Challenge. They’re split into two teams and given five days to come up with a plan to address a mission statement. This year’s directive was to design a launch and supply station on the Moon to support missions into deep space.
In a post on The Conversation, five of the students involved in the challenge have shared their insights on the benefits of such a station and how we could make it happen. They explain that the presence of a lunar refueling station would decrease the energy needed to leave Earth’s atmosphere. The speed required to break out of the atmosphere is 11 kilometers per second (25,000 miles per hour), which is far easier to achieve without the added weight of excess fuel. Launching with just enough to fuel to get to a lunar “gas station” with a weaker gravitational pull and then heading on to Mars from there would save both time and money.
The fuel that would power these missions would be drawn from the Moon’s ice, which could be processed into a hydrogen-oxygen propellant that is already used in many rockets. The students propose using three types of rovers on the Moon to perform this task. The Prospector would seek out ice, the Constructor would build a launch pad and roads, and the Miner would collect ice and deliver it to storage tanks connected to electrolysis processing plants, which would transform it into usable energy. From there, the fuel would be transported to a location in stable orbit between the Earth and the Moon where spacecraft could refuel.
Why Go To Mars?
The race to get people to Mars has been heating up in recent years, with both governments and private companies competing to be the first to reach the Red Planet. Elon Musk, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and NASA have all stated their intentions, and stopping by the Moon first plays a big part in many of these efforts. NASA plans to build a new space station, the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), in lunar orbit to act as a pit stop on the way to Mars, and the agency has already laid the groundwork for a space fueling station of sorts with their Robotic Refueling Mission launch in November 2016.
Reaching Mars isn’t some Mount Everest/”because it’s there” situation for space explorers. The planet could prove instrumental in the survival of the human species. Stephen Hawking has said he believes we only have another hundred years or so on Earth, and right now, Mars is the closest thing we have to a back-up plan. The problem is, we haven’t even come close to actually stepping foot on it — yet. Between the people already in the space industry and students like those who participated in the Caltech Space Challenge, we have no shortage of great minds working to transform humanity into a multi-planetary species.
Mars 2117 is a virtual reality experience revealed by Terminal Future Media at the 2017 World Government Summit. The experience draws from plans from scientific communities about how an advanced human colony on Mars would look and operate. You may not be able to go to Mars in real life, but an immersive virtual world like this may be the next best thing.
Each year, automakers around the world release futuristic concept cars that force us to reconsider our notion of what a vehicle is, both in terms of looks and functionality. Now, one company is doing the same thing, but instead of reinventing the sedan or pickup truck, they’ve offered their take on a Mars rover.
Through a partnership with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Parker Brothers Concepts has built a six-wheeled, all-electric rover designed specifically to meet the challenges of exploring the surface of Mars. The estimated weight of the vehicle is 5,000 pounds, and it’s a staggering 28 feet long, so you definitely wouldn’t see it rolling down a highway here on Earth. Although it does reportedly have a max speed of 96 to 112 kmh (60 to 70 mph).
One of the rover’s creators, Marc Parker, told Business Insider that NASA provided his company with parameters for the vehicle. They then used that input to design and build their Batmobile-esque creation, which Parker calls “a dual-purpose vehicle.” “It actually separates in the middle,” he explained. “The rear section is a full lab, the front area is a cockpit for going out and doing scouting.”
Just a few days after its unveiling in Florida, the rover is already getting people excited about Mars exploration, and that excitement should only grow over the coming months. This summer, the vehicle will travel to various U.S. cities as part of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center’s “Summer of Mars” event, and after that, it will be included in a new “astronaut training experience” opening at the center this fall.
The impact of the rover won’t be limited to those who see it in person, either. “We’re also filming for a reality television series that’s going to be coming out about this build,” said Parker, who claims the show will be released on “one of the bigger cable networks.”
Like most concept cars, the Parker Brothers’ rover won’t actually see any practical action, but it could serve as a prototype for future vehicles. More importantly, it could inspire interest in space exploration, in which case its creation will have been well worth the effort.
Scientists currently hold two different assumptions regarding the origins of life on Earth. The first and more popular one assumes life began under Earth’s ancient oceans, in deep sea hydrothermal vents. The second suggests that life originated on land. Now, scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have uncovered fossil evidence that supports the second assumption and pushes back — way back —the earliest known existence of life in hot springs.
“Our exciting findings don’t just extend back the record of life living in hot springs by 3 billion years, they indicate that life was inhabiting the land much earlier than previously thought, by up to about 580 million years,” Tara Djokic, first author of the study, which is published in Nature Communications, explained in a UNSW press release.
The UNSW scientists made their discovery of fossil evidence of early life while studying hot spring deposits from the ancient Dresser Formation within Western Australia’s Pilbara Craton. These well-preserved deposits were approximately 3.5 billion years old and contained evidence of geyserite, a mineral deposit found only in a terrestrial hot spring environment.
Life on Alien Lands
Though they are noteworthy for what they tell us about early life on Earth, the findings of the UNSW study have implications that extend far beyond our planet. “Our research also has major implications for the search for life on Mars, because the Red Planet has ancient hot spring deposits of a similar age to the Dresser Formation in the Pilbara,” Djokic explained.
Indeed, the presence of water on Mars is already backed by quite a bit of evidence. Some of this water is in the form of ponds similar to ancient hot springs on Earth, most notably in a region of the Red Planet known as Columbia Hills. “The Pilbara deposits are the same age as much of the crust of Mars, which makes hot spring deposits on the Red Planet an exciting target for our quest to find fossilized life there,” Australian Center for Astrobiology director Van Kranendonk said about the study.
Of course, this all assumes that whatever life could exist on Mars would be similar to that of Earth’s, at least on a microbial level. “If life can be preserved in hot springs so far back in Earth’s history, then there is a good chance it could be preserved in Martian hot springs, too,” Djokic concluded.
At the 2017 Humans to Mars conference — which was held on Tuesday May 9 in Washington D.C. — Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin had a clear recommendation for NASA: if we’re serious about reaching Mars, ditch the International Space Station (ISS).
“We must retire the ISS as soon as possible,” Aldrin told the conference. “We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost.”
Aldrin made some alternative suggestions for NASA’s Mars program, including handing low Earth orbit (LEO) projects like the ISS over to private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital ATK. He’s also recommended that private companies like Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace build their own independent LEO stations.
Journey To Mars Vision
NASA, however, has a different opinion about the role of the ISS in getting to Mars. Thus far, the ISS has been part of the first phase of the project, which includes testing and developing partnerships with private companies. Furthermore, as Space.com reports, “NASA officials have repeatedly said that the ISS is a key part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’ vision.”
In March, members of the House Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space testified that extending U.S. participation in the activities of the ISS beyond the existing 2024 commitment date might not be prudent if getting to Mars is a priority. Right now, NASA spends around $3.5 billion annually on the ISS. The committee’s Chair, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, commented during that hearing that “Tax dollars spent on the ISS will not be spent on destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the moon and Mars. What opportunities will we miss if we maintain the status quo?”
Over the past century or so, humanity has accomplished a great deal of innovation. We learned to fly (at least with the help of airplanes), built huge machines, cured diseases, and developed computers, the Internet, and smart devices. At the same time, we’ve caused our fair share of destruction, too: in the form of several wars — two of which were world wars — and, of interest as of late, man-made climate change. Now, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking thinks we have 100 years left before doomsday — and we need to get off Earth long before that comes to pass.
The details of Hawking’s latest doomsday warning will be featured in a new BBC documentary airing on June 15 called Expedition New Earth, where he suggests that humanity needs to be a multi-planetary species within the next century in order to survive.
Our Days Are Numbered
Hawking explains that humankind’s days on Earth are already numbered because of climate change, asteroid strikes, epidemics, and overpopulation. The only way to survive? We need to change planets, and fast. A lot could happen in 100 years, and we’ve proven that we’re capable of discovering and developing many things within a century. But could we really go multi-planetary in that timeframe?
If you’ve played StarCraft or any similar game, you’ve probably wondered how your units were able to build bases so fast. Well, those Terran SCVs were probably 3D printers, most likely similar to one that MIT recently previewed.
Though not the first to 3D print a house, MIT’s Digital Construction Platform (DCP) is not your ordinary 3D printer. For starters, it’s a fully customizable, free-moving system that can 3D print an object of any size. Plus, the plan is to make the DCP a self-sufficient construction tool, capable of making individualized buildings designed using onsite environmental data.
In short, the DCP is an autonomous robotic system that can work in any environment using whatever materials nature can provide it with. The goal is, according to Steven Keating, “in the future, to have something totally autonomous, that you could send to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years.”
“So to me it’s not merely a printer,” said Neri Oxman, “but an entirely new way of thinking about making, that facilitates a paradigm shift in the area of digital fabrication, but also for architectural design. … Our system points to a future vision of digital construction that enables new possibilities on our planet and beyond.”
It’s easy to talk about humanity’s role in deep space exploration, but it’s another thing to actually figure out the logistics of the endeavor. One of the greatest risks involved in human space exploration is the risk of radiation. While the Earth and Sun do pose some radiation risk to our astronauts, the greatest source of trouble comes from outer space and is known as galactic cosmic radiation, ancient waves emanating from supernovas of the past.
NASA astronauts are listed as “radiation workers” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In accordance with NASA, OSHA has worked to establish the ALARA Principle, meaning that NASA keeps radiation exposure “as low as reasonably achievable.” With this in mind, OSHA waived the terrestrial radiation requirements for NASA, having the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer set the limit. This lead to the current protocol that ensures that astronauts aren’t exposed to radiation that will increase their risk of death from cancer by more than 3 percent. But if it’s a trip to Mars that we’re talking about, these low-Earth orbit standards will be modified to fit the expedition.
Ethically Leaving Earth
While NASA has learned a lot with previous research into the long-term effects of living in space, the space agency still has a ton of data to understand, and even more ethical gray areas to define. When on the International Space Station, astronauts are exposed to ten times as much radiation as on Earth. A Mars trip would up that exposure to 100 times more than on Earth. NASA has begun to study the effects of long-term exposure with the help of astronaut Scott Kelly, Mark Kelly (his Earth-dwelling retiree twin), and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
“For as long as there have been catalogs of health effects, radiation has been the most intractable, most severe, hardest problem to solve,” says Dan Masys, biomedical and health informaticist of the University of Washington. “Now, 20 or more years into advances in space technology and propulsion and systems and vehicles, radiation is still the deal breaker. It has never changed.” NASA is working on various means of lessening exposure to radiation, with faster rockets, better barriers between the astronauts and space, and drugs all on the table.
But at the end of the day, the question isn’t about a group of brave astronauts, it’s about the future of humanity. Billionaire tech innovators like Elon Musk are lobbying for humanity’s eventual expansion in our solar system for the key reason of preserving humanity itself. In order to ensure that a single catastrophic event doesn’t spell out the end times for the only life we know to exist in the universe, we must push it forward, or as Musk suggests: establish a colony of 1 million people on Mars as soon as we feasibly can.
Humanity has been fascinated by Mars since long before we stepped foot on the Moon. Our planetary neighbor has been the subject of innumerable works of sci-fi and inspired countless dreams of adventure and exploration. Now, after decades of determination, research, and scientific breakthroughs, we’re finally ready to do it: humans are going to Mars. Really.
We’re in Phase 0 now, conducting tests at the International Space Station (ISS) and developing partnerships with private space companies. Phase I will span 2018 to 2025 and will include the launch and testing of six SLS rockets. Those rockets will deliver components of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a new space station to be built near the Moon to serve astronauts en route to Mars.
After that, Phase II will launch the Deep Space Transport (DST) tube toward the lunar station in 2027, and in 2028 or 2029, astronauts will inhabit the tube for more than 400 days. In 2030, Phase III will see the DST restocked with supplies and the Mars crew via SLS rocket. Phase IV, of course, will be the trip itself in 2033.
That means we’re just a scant 16 years away from reaching a goal that has eluded every generation that came before us.
Staying Healthy and Happy
Completing the mission within their budget will be a challenge for NASA. That budget is currently about .5 percent of the total U.S. budget. For comparison, it was more than four percent during the Apollo Moon missions.
The mission to Mars includes obstacles beyond budget — keeping astronauts healthy and reasonably happy on the journey is chief among them. Without stopovers between Earth and Mars, astronauts will need to port everything they need with them, including air, food, and water, for a round-trip duration of two or three years.
Mental health is likely to be a concern for Mars astronauts, too, as they will essentially be sealed into the space tube for years at a time, with no ability for an emergency return once they leave Cislunar space. NASA’s HI-SEAS isolation experiment has shown promising results, but it is likely that the journey won’t be possible for everyone.
NASA also has competition in the race to get to Mars. Both Boeing and SpaceX hope to get there first, with SpaceX setting the lofty goal of arriving in 2022.
Ultimately, though, we all benefit from the friendly competition in the race toward Mars and the creative solutions it will almost certainly generate. If private companies work out some of these human challenges before NASA can, the agency can build on their experiences and spend its budget and efforts on other problems. In the end, the goal of putting humans on Mars will have been reached, irrespective of which organization crosses the finish line first.
NASA Langley Research Center is developing drones that can fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. Drones like these will be aboard future Rover missions, mapping unexplored regions of the Red Planet, like lava tunnels and deep valleys.
“There’s now a sense of urgency,” according to NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “The hope is we’ve created enough of a framework that folks can see that there’s a real plan worth executing. But also, it’s not so defined that it if some piece changes, the entire plan gets thrown away and we start all over again.”
The first phase of NASA’s plan is to build what it’s calling a deep space gateway (DSG), which would essentially be a small space station orbiting the Moon. The plan is to assemble it over the course of three SLS flights and have it completed by 2025. The DSG is meant to be staffed on a continuous basis and could sustain a crew of four, with the Orion docked, for 42 days, according to Planetary.org. It would have a propulsion module, a habitation module, and perhaps an airlock for spacewalks.
The DSG would serve as a space port or launch base for potential lunar landing missions, as well as for a deep space transport (DST) spacecraft. This is phase two of NASA’s plan. Planetary.org reports that the DST would be able to support a crew of four for as long as 1,000 days at a time. Between missions, supply and refurbishing runs would be done at the DSG.
The DST would be massive, with a predicted bare weight of about 41 metric tons. The plan is to launch it into lunar orbit in 2027 via a single SLS mission. “There’s really no [other] vehicle today, or even planned, that can launch 41 metric tons (to the Moon) in one piece,” said Gerstenmaier. “We think that that is the minimum size for this Mars-class transport.” If all goes well up to that point, NASA expects the DST to survive three trips to Mars and back.
Despite the agency’s understated approach to sharing its plans for Mars, Gerstenmaier is confident that NASA is well-equipped to pull them off. “There’s nothing this agency cannot do,” he said. “If you can give us a clear direction and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want.”
Bill Nye, everyone’s favorite science guy, recently released a public video message for the current administration. Through his organization, The Planetary Society, Bill has stated (and included a written report of) his official recommendations for the government in relation to their plans for NASA. The Planetary Society gave their 16-page report directly to the NASA transition team.
As many have already read and discussed, the current administration has their sights set on returning to the Moon and pushing forward the goal to put humans on Mars. In fact, many members of the House Science Committee think that not only should sending humans to Mars be an absolute priority, but we should be reaching this goal much sooner (something that those like Tom Young, a past director of Goddard Spaceflight Center, think is currently unrealistic). However, they have also decided that many other efforts of NASA, like climate change research, are less than necessary. In fact, recently, the President-Elect has announced possible plans to defund NASA’s Earth Science Division.
Bill Nye, a longtime supporter of correct, up-to-date scientific information, has shown the current administration how they can tailor their plans to be less “1960s moonshot flashback” and more “scientifically-minded space research.” Bill has laid out these recommendations fully and thoughtfully, and has specified five key suggestions (which he goes into great detail to explain). These suggestions are as follows:
1. Maintain the exploration of Mars as the organizing principle for NASA’s human spaceflight program;
2. Direct NASA to plan an executable, affordable path for sending humans to Mars orbit by 2033;
3. Expand NASA’s highly successful science portfolio;
4. Annual five percent increases to NASA’s budget for five years; and
5. Continue to grow and support the commercial space industry.
These recommendations seem simple enough, but if followed correctly could be the key to a brighter (and scientifically-sound) future. Going far beyond the simple “we want to get humans to Mars,” this plan sincerely outlines and develops ways that could advance and modernize current NASA plans. As both government and private space organizations race to release the most exciting developments to help us achieve our goals of space exploration, guidelines like these will allow all of the excitement and planning to become more grounded in reality.
Unfortunately, and especially currently, there are many who do not see value or validity in science. Even those who are in charge of funding scientific programs and research are not always well-versed in the importance of science. Thankfully, these recommendations by Bill Nye avoid any condescending attitude or overly-technical terminology. It is a helpful guide that can be easily interpreted and implemented.
If these suggestions are followed, NASA will be able to continue searching for life outside of Earth, create safe and viable ways to extend the possibilities of human space travel, and support ongoing research. The James Webb Space Telescope, the Mars 2020 rover, Solar Probe Plus, and the Europa Multi-Flyby Mission are just a few of the many projects and programs that will be able to continue to flourish under these guidelines.
These recommendations will hopefully be viewed and taken seriously by the current administration. While many dismiss NASA and think that missions to space are somehow frivolous, the research that NASA has done in the past has been the basis for a huge percentage of modern innovation. From health and medicine to smartphone technology, NASA researchers have had an irreplaceable impact on scientific advancement. Additionally, as the realities of climate change grow more pressing, the data that NASA scientists obtain and analyze is crucial in understanding how we can improve the harsh truths of our environment.
Ever since Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed his plans to make humankind an interplanetary species by getting to Mars, the world’s attention has been taken over by this fascination for the Red Planet. SpaceX, however, wasn’t the first to have plans for a mission to Mars. In fact, there have been such plans since the 1950s.
With all the attention Mars is getting, a concerned citizen, Sam, asked resident Science Guy Bill Nye: “Why are we trying to live on Mars and re-create Earth there by making an atmosphere and soil and water we can drink and such? Why can’t we take those ideas, that motivation and direct it at our own planet that we clearly need the help with? Why is it easier to start fresh on another planet than to get people talking about our own?”
The Science Guy Says
Bill Nye found the question interesting and relevant. He admitted that getting to Mars and making it habitable isn’t going to be easy: “People, first of all, just don’t grasp the scale of it. It’s a planet. It’s a whole planet,” he said. He also reminded viewers that water, food, and air are non-existent, which would pose many problems.
Nye explained that taking care of our own planet and getting to Mars aren’t two exclusive goals. He credits our desire to visit the red planet to humanity’s sense of exploration, which has pushed us forward over the past centuries. His goal is to establish a scientific research base on Mars, much like our bases in Antarctica.
More than that, however, is how getting to Mars would change our world, especially, “If there’s something alive on Mars, and we could prove it,” Nye said, “it would probably change the world.”
“It would be astounding if we found something still alive there,” he emphasized. “If we make this discovery of life, it would not have been done by an individual. It would be done by a society [which] invested its intellect and treasure in this quest.” He closed by saying that finding life “would affect the way each and everyone of us feels about what it means to be a living thing in the cosmos; what it means to have this place in space.” Finding life on Mars would certainly make the universe less lonely. Thanks, Bill!
For the first time in human history, human space exploration will go beyond our moon. With more than one organization looking to send humans to the red planet, traveling to Mars isn’t just a distant possibility — it’s an impending reality.
In 2020, there will be a specific launch window that will allow travel from Earth to Mars in the shortest, most efficient path possible. Given our current rocket technology, the trip would take about five to six months. This window will not only expedite travel, but will give organizations a more specific time frame to work within. However, according to current progress, it is most likely that government and private space organizations will be sending only unmanned probes until the 2020’s and 2030’s.
NASA notes that “they are currently further along than ever before in human history on [their] Journey to Mars.” Additionally, last year, SpaceX started testing the rocket intended to bring humans to the red planet, China announced its ambitious plans to reach Mars (with an unmanned probe) by the end of the decade, and the UAE announced that they plan to reach the planet by 2117.
Today we have unprecedented support for Mars exploration from Congress, industry, and the general public. Children born in 2017 are more likely than any generation before them to witness, before their 18th birthday, humans walk on another planet for the first time.
The Reality of Martian Travel
This unprecedented support is encouraging, but it will take a lot more than that to send humans to Mars.
For starters, there will be no stopovers between Earth and Mars — which means that everything humans will need, including (but not limited to) food, water, air, will need to be on board for a trip that experts are estimating to last as long three years. Six months to get there, six months back, and at least a year in between as they conduct research and wait for a launch window.
Of course, given advances in technology and the continued success of the International Space Station (ISS), we are significantly more knowledgeable than ever about space travel and how to ensure an efficient use of resources. Still, even the ISS requires supplies to be sent to the outpost every few months.
ISS astronauts consume nearly two pounds of food daily. If you assume the same volume of food will be consumed by a four-person crew on a three-year Mars mission, that means they need to bring a total of 24,000 pounds of food with them. SpaceX may have been able to deliver a payload of 5,500 pounds of supplies to the ISS, but that was because they used an unmanned Dragon capsule.
NASA tried to find a food solution with a recent 3D printing project that yielded a 3D printed pizza. However, it might be more possible to make up this shortage by space farming, but the field is still in its infancy. To date, the ISS’ Vegetable Production System has only been successful in planting flowers and five harvests of Chinese cabbage. Eventually, though, once the technology is better understood and more trials prove to be successful, space farming could hit two birds with one stone and provide food as well as oxygen.
These challenges are currently being addressed by the different space agencies preparing for their Mars missions. And, hopefully, by the time the launch window opens up, we’ll be more than ready to explore the Red Planet.
This week, NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) hosted a community workshop at their headquarters in Washington, DC. Known as the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop“, this event ran from February 27th to March 1st, and saw scientists and researchers from all over the world descend on the capitol to attend panel discussions, presentations, and talks about the future of space exploration.
One of the more intriguing presentations took place on Wednesday, March 1st, where the exploration of Mars by human astronauts was discussed. In the course of the talk, which was titled “A Future Mars Environment for Science and Exploration“, Director Jim Green discussed how deploying a magnetic shield could enhance Mars’ atmosphere and facilitate crewed missions there in the future.
The current scientific consensus is that, like Earth, Mars once had a magnetic field that protected its atmosphere. Roughly 4.2 billion years ago, this planet’s magnetic field suddenly disappeared, which caused Mars’ atmosphere to slowly be lost to space. Over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars went from being a warmer, wetter environment to the cold, uninhabitable place we know today.
This theory has been confirmed in recent years by orbiters like the ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN), which have been studying the Martian atmosphere since 2004 and 2014, respectively. In addition to determining that solar wind was responsible for depleting Mars’ atmosphere, these probes have also been measuring the rate at which it is still being lost today.
Without this atmosphere, Mars will continue to be a cold, dry place where life cannot flourish. In addition to that, future crewed mission – which NASA hopes to mount by the 2030s – will also have to deal with some severe hazards. Foremost among these will be exposure to radiation and the danger of asphyxiation, which will pose an even greater danger to colonists (should any attempts at colonization be made).
In answer to this challenge, Dr. Jim Green – the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division – and a panel of researchers presented an ambitious idea. In essence, they suggested that by positioning a magnetic dipole shield at the Mars L1 Lagrange Point, an artificial magnetosphere could be formed that would encompass the entire planet, thus shielding it from solar wind and radiation.
Naturally, Green and his colleagues acknowledged that the idea might sounds a bit “fanciful”. However, they were quick to emphasize how new research into miniature magnetospheres (for the sake of protecting crews and spacecraft) supports this concept:
“This new research is coming about due to the application of full plasma physics codes and laboratory experiments. In the future it is quite possible that an inflatable structure(s) can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (or 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss) as an active shield against the solar wind.”
In addition, the positioning of this magnetic shield would ensure that the two regions where most of Mars’ atmosphere is lost would be shielded. In the course of the presentation, Green and the panel indicated that these the major escape channels are located, “over the northern polar cap involving higher energy ionospheric material, and 2) in the equatorial zone involving a seasonal low energy component with as much as 0.1 kg/s escape of oxygen ions.”
To test this idea, the research team – which included scientists from Ames Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Colorado, Princeton University, and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – conducted a series of simulations using their proposed artificial magnetosphere. These were run at the Coordinated Community Modeling Center (CCMC), which specializes in space weather research, to see what the net effect would be.
New Opportunities for Exploration
What they found was that a dipole field positioned at Mars L1 Lagrange Point would be able to counteract solar wind, such that Mars’ atmosphere would achieve a new balance. At present, atmospheric loss on Mars is balanced to some degree by volcanic outpassing from Mars interior and crust. This contributes to a surface atmosphere that is about 6 mbar in air pressure (less than 1% that at sea level on Earth).
As a result, Mars atmosphere would naturally thicken over time, which lead to many new possibilities for human exploration and colonization. According to Green and his colleagues, these would include an average increase of about 4 °C (~7 °F), which would be enough to melt the carbon dioxide ice in the northern polar ice cap. This would trigger a greenhouse effect, warming the atmosphere further and causing the water ice in the polar caps to melt.
By their calculations, Green and his colleagues estimated that this could lead to 1/7th of Mars’ oceans – the ones that covered it billions of years ago – to be restored. If this is beginning to sound a bit like a lecture on how to terraform Mars, it is probably because these same ideas have been raised by people who advocating that very thing. But in the meantime, these changes would facilitate human exploration between now and mid-century.
“A greatly enhanced Martian atmosphere, in both pressure and temperature, that would be enough to allow significant surface liquid water would also have a number of benefits for science and human exploration in the 2040s and beyond,” said Green. “Much like Earth, an enhanced atmosphere would: allow larger landed mass of equipment to the surface, shield against most cosmic and solar particle radiation, extend the ability for oxygen extraction, and provide “open air” greenhouses to exist for plant production, just to name a few.”
These conditions, said Green and his colleagues, would also allow for human explorers to study the planet in much greater detail. It would also help them to determine the habitability of the planet, since many of the signs that pointed towards it being habitable in the past (i.e. liquid water) would slowly seep back into the landscape. And if this could be achieved within the space of few decades, it would certainly help pave the way for colonization.
In the meantime, Green and his colleagues plan to review the results of these simulations so they can produce a more accurate assessment of how long these projected changes would take. It also might not hurt to conduct some cost-assessments of this magnetic shield. While it might seem like something out of science fiction, it doesn’t hurt to crunch the numbers!
NASA’s current plans, first outlined in 2010 and later fleshed out in 2015, place humans on the red planet in the 2030s. They are currently developing the necessary capabilities to make it happen in tandem with other agencies and private companies. NASA is collaborating with private innovators, like engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, to 3D print structures on the moon with the eventual goal of creating similar structures that can withstand the radiation of the Martian atmosphere.
Elon Musk sees colonizing Mars as a necessity, and SpaceX has a congruently ambitious timeline for Mars exploration in place. The UAE has plans for a Mars Colony by 2117. Although the ESA is currently more focused on its plan for colonizing the moon, they did announce a joint Mars venture with Russia back in 2011. Even the Mars One Foundation is taking the non-profit approach to what is essentially the same goal: the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars.
“We cannot simulate the same physical and environmental conditions to reconstruct the Martian environment, I mean such traits like Martian microgravitation or radiation exposure,” lead author and University of Information Technology and Management cognitive scientist Konrad Szocik told Seeker.
“Consequently, we cannot predict physical and biological effects of humans living on Mars.”
Many discussions of terraforming Mars have ensued over the years, but the issue of any atmosphere created simply blowing away is a sticky problem for Mars. NASA scientists have conceived of a magnetic shell for Mars which might be able to retain an atmosphere. However, for each technical solution to a specific physical problem, there are numerous other issues that — according to the authors of the Space Policy paper — point to an inescapable conclusion: it will be more practical to modify the minds and bodies of the future residents of Mars than it will be to change the planet to support them.
For Szocik, the social and political aspects of how a Martian colony would function are just as problematic as physical challenges and health problems. “A human being is a social animal and he lives in a group,” he said. “Group problems affect many challenges and troubles, and we should consider now how we can prevent such typical human problems like conflicts, wars, cheating, etc.”
Szocik is also concerned about maintaining life on Mars. First, we would need a large enough colony to avoid problems of consanguinity, and we’d need a suitable technological and medical support system. Each medical worker would need to be specially trained to sustain and extend life on Mars in particular—which is, of course, something that basically no one in medicine at the moment is trained to do. In that respect, preparing for life on Mars might begin with changes here on Earth: we’ll have to reconsider everything we know about learning, relating, working, and be willing to redefine our life expectations.
True to the sprit of humanity’s early settlers, cultivating the land will probably be the best way to provide food for the Red Planet’s early colonists. But just how possible is it to plant seeds from Earth and grow them as Martian crops? To figure this out, the International Potato Center (CIP) — yes, it’s a real institution — launched an initiative last February called the Potatoes on Mars Project.
The effort is reminiscent of the scene from the movie “The Martian” in which Matt Damon’s character plants potatoes to survive on Mars. Turns out, the sci-fi film may actually have been onto something. The CIP worked in tandem with NASA’s Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) to discover if potatoes could be grown under Mars’ atmospheric conditions.
A tuber was planted in a CubeSat-contained environment that was especially designed by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima. Soil taken from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru, described as the most Mars-like soil found on Earth, was placed inside a hermetically sealed container that was installed in the satellite. To simulate the radiation found on Mars’ surface, the researchers used an LED. They built controls to alter the temperature to reflect Mars’ day and night cycles, as well as for adjusting air pressure, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels.
Now, a month after the first tuber was planted, preliminary results have been positive. “It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil,” said CIP’s potato breeder Walter Amoros.
However, the CIP’s experiment does more than just let us know that the Earth’s first Martian colonists may be snacking on potatoes when they reach the Red Planet in the next decade or so. It also helped us figure out if potatoes could survive in extreme conditions on Earth. “This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth,” says Chris McKay of NASA ARC in a press release.
By proving that potatoes can be cultivated under the harshest environments on Earth, the study could help the estimated one in nine people on the planet suffering from chronic undernourishment. That problem is likely to get worse considering modern stressors on our environment. “The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected, by climate change are working,” said Amoros.
All in all, potatoes may turn out to be a super food both in space and here on Earth.
If immortality is the Holy Grail of Futurism then the colonization of Mars is its Holy Sepulchre—a big empty tomb. Both attract their pilgrims: the former is a fairytale; the latter is a real place just out of reach, a sort of tantalizing inspiration to hungry dreamers everywhere salivating for land that doesn’t belong to them. These days, from the promises of Elon Musk to the heroics of Matt Damon, we positively fetishize Mars. Yet my advice to the 11th century crusader and the 21st century Martian colonist would be the same: tend your own garden.
I’m afraid that this is blasphemy from someone who calls himself a Transhumanist. After all, the colonization of space is tangentially connected enough to other themes associated with technological progress that they’re ordinarily all lumped together under the general banner of Futurism. In an increasingly divisive political climate, the promises of SpaceX and Mars One shine like the hope of some long-awaited escape from ourselves.
We might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably.
More fundamentally, the allure of space colonization is at the heart of some of our most beloved cultural narratives, shaping the aspirations of explorers since the first days of NASA and the Soviet Space Program. Even the earliest films lionized astronauts. The moon landing was the greatest collective lived experience of the twentieth century, this perfect human achievement more majestic than the pyramids and just as pointless only to the cynical.
Today, we might not have cities on the moon, but the fruits of space programs enrich our lives immeasurably. And given our recklessness when it comes to the fragile environment of this planet, perhaps we could use another world as a backup, just in case. We already have the technology to achieve the goal of getting to Mars, though for a perfect storm of reasons, it has yet to happen. But isn’t getting there a worthy goal? And won’t the journey there (and not only the physical journey, but the technical refinements forged along the way) benefit the cause of Progress with a capital P? Then what the hell am I complaining about?
My intention here isn’t to trash space exploration or regale you with clickbait about the top eleven reasons why the colonization of Mars would be a tragic mistake at this juncture in time. However, I want to seriously problematize the prospective colonization, if you’ll excuse a word that academics tend to overuse. I don’t want to focus on the hackneyed and frankly shortsighted idea that the money spent on getting to Mars could be better employed for services here on earth.
My critique has to do with the repercussions of contemporary attitudes about the seemingly unrelated topics of imperialism in outer space on the one hand and Transhumanism on the other. Cultural prejudices enshrining heroic astronauts blazing across the sky and mad scientists forging abominations pose serious problems for Transhumanists of all stripes and would-be Martian colonists alike.
If the predominant image of space colonizers enshrined in our zeitgeist is heroic pioneers soaring across the galaxy in the name of science and adventure, the narratives surrounding genetic engineering and cyborgs are positively apocalyptic by comparison—just think of Frankenstein, the Terminator, and GATTACA.
Somehow, an astronaut’s 400 million kilometer journey from Earth to a theoretical outpost in a faraway wasteland seems less terrifying than a head’s four-meter journey from its body to a theoretical apparatus capable of supporting its consciousness.
The reasons for this difference in our intuitions are varied. They partly have to do with the genealogy of our ideas about imperialism in outer space, which are grounded in discourse about the benefits of the exploration and exploitation of underdeveloped foreign lands, exotic travelogues, Cold War propaganda, epic films, etc. They also have to do with the attitudes that surround Transhumanism, grounded in skepticism about discredited fields like galvanism, the abuses of the eugenicists, deep-seated fears surrounding physiological dislocation and dismemberment, etc.
Heroes and Monsters
The end result of all this discourse is that, right now in the popular imagination, would-be cyborgs are monsters and would-be Martian colonists are heroes. Let’s take it for granted that the exploration of Mars would provide net benefits for society at large. Nevertheless, whether from the vantage point of someone who wants to investigate Mars and preserve its landscape (let’s call this the environmentalist perspective) or someone who wants to colonize and terraform it (the imperialist perspective, which incidentally seems to completely dominate the environmentalist one), the problem inherent in this tension is immense.
First, imagine you were an environmentalist who felt strongly against the radical transformation of Mars. Your reasons might be varied. To you, the urge to dominate nature with the clutter of terrestrial civilization might seem arrogant and intrusive. True, there are no indigenous Martians to despoil. But the process of terraforming the planet’s surface would still seem to be hugely rapacious.
Imagine drowning its pristine scarlet valleys in water and clouding its translucent atmosphere with chemicals. Wouldn’t even the most single-minded developer preserve some of the planet’s original landscape rather than transform it all? Doesn’t this intuition concede that there is inherent value and beauty in the wild state of the place? If advanced aliens exist within visitable distance of our planet, they are evidently the type to silently observe or ignore us rather than actively intervene in our affairs. How primitive it might seem to them that our conception of space travel in 2017 is still bound to the small-minded earthly impulse to barge in, dominate nature, and claim random parcels of it as our own.
From this perspective, the only visits to Mars should be undertaken for the sake of exploration rather than colonization. The best agents to do so would be robots and cyborgs rather than unenhanced human beings, whose imprint on the environment would be immense by comparison. Yet until the development of cyborgs, we are doomed to either only know Mars indirectly or permanently scar its landscape as successive generations of pioneers perish on its inhospitable surface.
Now, consider the imperialist perspective. To you, between climate change, nuclear war, plague, and pestilence, the existential threats to human civilization are great enough that you feel we need to colonize Mars as soon as possible or face the potential extermination of civilization as we know it. The preservation of the beauty of nature is all well and good, after all, but human interests come first.
Yet the conditions on Mars for the colonizers would be like something out of Dante; indeed, the first Martian immigrants should be “prepared to die,” warns Elon Musk.
As it is, we can’t even control the weather yet here on Earth, let alone create a colony on another planet with an inhospitable atmosphere. The bright eyed and bushy tailed original colonists would be like Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, fantasizing about the march of civilization but ending up the lonely dupes of capitalism wallowing in lunacy in a dark place where they shouldn’t have ventured in the first place.
On closer reflection, the imperialist would realize that until it became feasible to travel to Mars on a mass scale, the original colonies could only remain pitiable outposts for misguided dying settlers and insanely rich tourists rather than anything like a safety net for civilization at large. The fastest and most efficient way to transform the landscape would be by the sweat of cyborgs. And yet ironically, with the advent of cyborgs, the need to terraform the environment to suit un-enhanced human needs would perhaps be moot.
While I might have misgivings about the subjugation of a planet ironically named for the god of conquest, I don’t want to disparage a journey there as an admirable Futurist goal. But whether you are an advocate of peaceful exploration or large-scale colonization, the time has come to think realistically about the requisite intermediate steps. We need to make heroes of the pioneers who are willing to risk their lives and careers to overcome the hurdles on the way to our destination “in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching.”
Cyborgs and space explorers are entirely akin in their willingness to risk their lives for the sake of challenging the boundaries of conceivability. Yet in 2017, we call volunteers for the journey to Mars heroes, and there are no volunteers at all for brain implants because no doctor would ever dream of performing such an operation or convening a conference to discuss plans for one.
If a prominent surgeon called for volunteers and warned, as Musk did, that they must be prepared to die, I wonder if the public would meet the declaration with the same resigned sigh in recognition of the heroism of all involved. The principle is precisely the same: a human life is at stake. Yet we are willing to sanctify the sacrificeof the astronaut and glorify him, but would rather reverse engineer a machine analogous to a human brain than implant a machine into one
Investment in Mars in the absence of Transhumanism as a vigorous social ideology doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of Transhumanism, but it does come at the expense of the future of Mars. The most widespread current projections of the next century of human development imagine the needs of unenhanced humans predominating as a matter of course. Hence, long-term plans for Mars call for terraforming the planet to create a second Earth. Yet this limitation in our imaginations augurs great brutality and a great deal of human blood spilled along the way as we struggle to dominate conditions not meant for our bodies.
This, of course, does not mean I think there should be no exploration of Mars, or even that I am dead-set against eventual colonization. But I would hope that any such colonization would be undertaken in a spirit of great respect for nature, imposing upon it, let alone uprooting it, as little as possible. And I would also pray that the path toward colonization would be blazed with as few deaths as possible along the way.
Yet this can only take place after the ascendancy of Transhumanism and not a moment before it. For the time being, I would no more recommend a journey to Mars than I would a voyage across the Atlantic to an ancient Roman armed with nothing but a leaky trireme and his copy of Ptolemy.
David Vincent Kimel is a doctoral student in History at Yale. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram (spqrkimel). Visit his blog at earthasitis.com.
Both chambers of Congress just passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2017. With this transformative development, the space agency got a lot more than just $19.508 billion in funding. They also got a very clear mandate: Get humanity to Mars.
To be clear, Mars has been in the works for some time; however, the 2017 Act places a strong emphasis on this goal, making it the focal point of NASA’s long-term plans. In the document, congress asserts that the space agency is to get humans “near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.” Opposition to the bill from the administration isn’t expected, so it’s more than likely to be passed into law by the presidency.
There is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multiplanetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity. -Elon Musk
In order to get to Mars by the 2030s, Congress is asking NASA to develop “an initial human exploration roadmap” that must be submitted before December 1, 2017.
The bill outlines the necessity of this roadmap, stating: “It is the sense of Congress that expanding human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and advancing toward human missions to Mars in the 2030s requires early strategic planning and timely decisions to be made in the near-term on the necessary courses of action for commitments to achieve short-term and long-term goals and objectives.”
To that end, the 2017 Act states that this plan should outline clear goals that are a bit closer to home, instead of just making a grand leap to the Red Planet all at once. The document states, “A human exploration roadmap should begin with low-Earth orbit, then address in greater detail progress beyond low-Earth orbit to cis-lunar space, and then address future missions aimed at human arrival and activities near and then on the surface of Mars.”
Speaking of the planned stages, NASA already has a basic outline: “The human exploration of Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth: Earth Reliant [now until the mid-2020s], the Proving Ground [2018-2030], and Earth Independent [now to 2030s and beyond].”
With these planned phases, NASA should be able to easily provide Congress with the roadmap that it’s asking for.
Through this new NASA Authorization Act, Congress affirms that “Mars is the appropriate long-term goal for the human space flight program,” and it is likely that the Moon will be a stop over in 2020, if the current administration’s plans push forward.
NASA’s Mars Missions
Recently, much of the news covering missions to Mars involved private space companies, most notably, SpaceX and foreign space agencies — including China and the UAE.
According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the company will create a permanent Martian settlement. To that end, Musk’s plan includes the launch of the unmanned “Red Dragon” spacecraft by 2018, then sending a new and reusable rocket by 2022 (which will be powered by the just recently tested Raptor rocket), and eventually launching humans to Mars after that—hopefully landing by 2025. However, much of the details still need to be fleshed out.
Regardless, Musk has made it clear that he thinks such a colonization project will ultimately save the human race. And as this directive by congress reveals, the U.S. government agrees. See SpaceX’s plans in this video:
To say, however, that NASA has been sitting idly by would be inaccurate. The space agency has been “on a journey to Mars” for some time.
So, what has NASA been up to in relation to the Red Planet? The agency already has a host of rovers currently on Mars. One, the Curiosity rover, has made much headway in helping us better understand how much water did (and maybe still does) exist on Mars. Another rover is planned for 2020. This Mars 2020 rover will gather and study data on the availability of resources, such as oxygen, on Mars.
In this respect, Sending rovers is one of the first steps in getting people to Mars.
Ultimately, in the end, getting humans to Mars isn’t some empty obsession. It’s a worthwhile endeavor—one that has the potential to inspire generations in the same manner that the Apollo missions (and Moon landing) did. For many, getting to Mars would be the highest point of human exploration they would ever witness. Think of what New Horizon’s arrival at Pluto felt like, and now multiply that by about 100.
Already, Mars rover missions are accelerating innovation and research exponentially, so think of all the things that we could learn once we’re actually there. It is a bold new era in the final frontier.
At the forefront of modern space exploration looms the possibility of manned missions to Mars. From the ambitious schemes of Elon Musk, to NASA’s hopefulplan, to the collaborative endeavor of the ESA and Russia, it seems as though every major space agency is making strides towards putting humans on Mars. But, on a cold and desolate planet whose minuscule atmosphere is severely lacking, how do you sustain human life for long periods of time?
Many scientists and science fiction enthusiasts have, over the years, speculated at the possibility of terraforming Mars. Finding innovative ways to make the surface of the red planet gradually more conducive to human living. There have been many ideas and models created in the hopes of successful terraforming. Engineers designed ashell that could be placed around a small planet which could protect the planet from radiation and help to facilitate an atmosphere over time. Others thought that by breaking apart the martian crust they could release enough CO2 to build up an atmosphere. There have been many attempts, but the issues of cosmic and solar radiation paired with the unsurvivable atmosphere and dry terrain are always too much.
And, while the concept of terraforming Mars isn’t completely impossible, to successfully do it you would need to protect against cosmic radiation, solar radiation and solar winds, increase planet temperature, add oxygen and nitrogen to the atmosphere, and do all of this in a way that could be self-sustaining. Not impossible, but currently posing serious obstacles.
Despite all of these hurdles, scientists have not stopped trying to find inventive ways to terraform Mars. NASA recently proposed a unique strategy that shows a promising solution that could address some of these issues: a magnetic shield. Since the current scientific consensus is that Mars’ atmosphere was lost because of solar winds and the disappearance of the planet’s magnetic field, this solution shows promise. Mars’ magnetic field once protected the red planet while supporting an atmosphere (and moisture), and NASA scientists think it can be artificially restored.
According to Dr. Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, “In the future it is quite possible that an inflatable structure(s) can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (or 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss) as an active shield against the solar wind.”
The research team working on this idea recently conducted a simulation with their artificial magnetosphere, thanks to the Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC). They found that their dipole shield would be able to protect against solar wind and help to balance the Martian atmosphere. Because the shield would work as an artificial magnetic field, the atmosphere would actually continue to thicken over time.
This could be just another stepping stone in a long line of terraforming concepts, but this solution holds concrete possibility. Because it could help to actually create a better atmosphere over time and can actually be simulated within a lab, it is possible that the future of terraforming will begin with magnets.
NASA made a recent public request. They stated that they were looking for opportunities to “hitch a ride” on non-NASA missions to Mars. This might sound strange at first, but it makes sense. NASA is not the only agency launching and planning to launch missions into space, and bringing smaller NASA experiments aboard privately owned ships could allow for quicker advancements in research. NASA, along with many others, has ambitious plans of eventually sending manned missions to Mars. However, in order to further our explorations into space, we must first have more information.
Relying only on the data provided by NASA missions would slow progress. Partnering with private agencies like SpaceX would not hinder any privately-funded research, it would only add to the amount and type of information gathered.
NASA has big plans for the future. They have done extensive research into the possibility of terraforming Mars, had astronauts simulate living on Mars for an entire year, and continued planning unmanned missions to the Red Planet in order to learn more. There has even been recent discussion of creating an artificial magnetic field around Mars in order to terraform it over time and make it habitable for humans.
There is a lot of work ahead if NASA wants to put humans on Mars and, hopefully, one day terraform the planet. While there have been successful unmanned missions from NASA and other organizations, joining forces will allow for this progress to accelerate for the benefit of all parties involved. This wouldn’t be a merger of institutions, but rather a smart way to combine resources and eliminate waste. More frequent research on Mars will lead to better science and more informed space exploration. And, as scientists continue to develop the best ways for us to exist on the Red Planet, it is important that we better understand the mysteries of Mars.
The race to the Red Planet is, indeed, on, and the United Arab Emirates wants to be a part of it. Yesterday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE, announced the Mars 2117 Project. Its goal? To establish the first inhabitable human settlement on the Red Planet by 2117.
The project will expand on what Dubai sees as its role as a world leader in space science investments. “The new project is a seed that we plant today, and we expect future generations to reap the benefits, driven by its passion to learn to unveil a new knowledge,” Sheikh Mohammed said, reports Aljazeera.
The first phase of the project will focus on preparing the human cadres able to achieve scientific breakthrough to facilitate the arrival of human to the Red Planet in the next decades. The Mars 2117 Project also aims to prepare an Emiratis scientists team and to develop an international scientific consortium to speed up the research project. The project will start with an Emiratis scientific team and will be extended to include international scientists and researchers, in addition to streamline the human efforts in term of exploring and settlement of the [Red Planet].
The Mars 2117 Project isn’t the first time the UAE has expressed its desires to probe Mars. Back in 2014, the government announced the creation of a space agency with a goal to send an unmanned explorer to Mars by 2021.
Getting to Mars is a race, yes. But the daunting tasks involved — developing technology to travel fast enough, getting back from Mars, etc. — require a more collaborative approach. According to Sheikh Mohammad, this seems to be what UAE’s Mars 2117 Project brings to the table: “The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.”
The study of Mars’ surface and atmosphere has unlocked some ancient secrets. Thanks to the efforts of the Curiosity rover and other missions, scientists are now aware of the fact that water once flowed on Mars and that the planet had a denser atmosphere. They have also been able to deduce what mechanics led to this atmosphere being depleted, which turned it into the cold, desiccated environment we see there today.
At the same time though, it has led to a rather intriguing paradox. Essentially, Mars is believed to have had warm, flowing water on its surface at a time when the Sun was one-third as warm as it is today. This would require that the Martian atmosphere had ample carbon dioxide in order to keep its surface warm enough. But based on the Curiosity rover’s latest findings, this doesn’t appear to be the case.
These findings were part of an analysis of data taken by the Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray Diffraction (CheMin) instrument, which has been used to study the mineral content of drill samples in the Gale Crater. The results of this analysis were recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, where the research team indicated that no traces of carbonates were found in any samples taken from the ancient lake bed.
To break it down, evidence collected by Curiosity (and a slew of other rovers, landers and orbiters) has led scientists to conclude that roughly 3.5 billion years ago, Mars surface had lakes and flowing rivers. They have also determined, thanks to the many samples taken by Curiosity since it landed in the Gale Crater in 2011, that this geological feature was once a lake bed that gradually became filled with sedimentary deposits.
However, for Mars to have been warm enough for liquid water to exist, its atmosphere would have had to contain a certain amount of carbon dioxide – providing a sufficient Greenhouse Effect to compensate for the Sun’s diminished warmth. Since rock samples in the Gale Crater act as a geological record for what conditions were like billions of years ago, they would surely contain plenty of carbonate minerals if this were the case.
Carbonates are minerals that result from carbon dioxide combining with positively charged ions (like magnesium and iron) in water. Since these ions have been found to be in good supply in samples of Martian rock, and subsequent analysis has shown that conditions never became acidic to the point that the carbonates would have dissolved, there is no apparent reason why they wouldn’t be showing up.
Along with his team, Thomas Bristow – the principal investigator for the CheMin instrument on Curiosity – calculated what the minimum amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide would need to be, and how this would have been indicated by the levels of carbonate found in Martian rocks today. They then sorted through the years worth of the CheMin instrument’s data to see if there were any indications of these minerals.
But as he explained in a recent NASA press release, the findings simply didn’t measure up:
We’ve been particularly struck with the absence of carbonate minerals in sedimentary rock the rover has examined. It would be really hard to get liquid water even if there were a hundred times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than what the mineral evidence in the rock tells us.
In the end, Bristow and his team could not find even trace amounts of carbonates in the rock samples they analyzed. Even if just a few tens of millibars of carbon dioxide had been present in the atmosphere when a lake existed in the Gale Crater, it would have produced enough carbonates for Curiosity’s CheMin to detect. This latest find adds to a paradox that has been plaguing Mars researchers for years.
Basically, researchers have noted that there is a serious discrepancy between what surface features indicate about Mars’ past, and what chemical and geological evidence has to say. Not only is there plenty of evidence that the planet had a denser atmosphere in the past, more than four decades of orbital imaging (and years worth of surface data) have yielded ample geomorphological evidence that Mars once had surface water and an active hydrological cycle.
However, scientists are still struggling to produce models that show how the Martian climate could have maintained the types of conditions necessary for this to have been the case. The only successful model so far has been one in which the atmosphere contained a significant amount of CO2 and hydrogen. Unfortunately, an explanation for how this atmosphere could be created and sustained remains illusive.
In addition, the geological and chemical evidence for such a atmosphere existing billions of years ago has also been in short supply. In the past, surveys by orbiters were unable to find evidence of carbonate minerals on the surface of Mars. It was hoped that surface missions, like Curiosity, would be able to resolve this by taking soil and drill samples where water had been known to exist.
But as Bristow explained, his team’s study has effectively closed the door on this:
It’s been a mystery why there hasn’t been much carbonate seen from orbit. You could get out of the quandary by saying the carbonates may still be there, but we just can’t see them from orbit because they’re covered by dust, or buried, or we’re not looking in the right place. The Curiosity results bring the paradox to a focus. This is the first time we’ve checked for carbonates on the ground in a rock we know formed from sediments deposited under water.
There are several possible explanations for this paradox. On the one hand, some scientists have argued that the Gale Crater Lake may not have been an open body of water and was perhaps covered in ice, which was just thin enough to still allow for sediments to get in. The problem with this explanation is that if this were true, there would be discernible indications left behind – which would include deep cracks in the soft sedimentary lakebed rock.
But since these indications have not been found, scientists are left with two lines of evidence that do not match up. As Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Project Scientist, put it:
Curiosity’s traverse through streambeds, deltas, and hundreds of vertical feet of mud deposited in ancient lakes calls out for a vigorous hydrological system supplying the water and sediment to create the rocks we’re finding. Carbon dioxide, mixed with other gases like hydrogen, has been the leading candidate for the warming influence needed for such a system. This surprising result would seem to take it out of the running.
Luckily, incongruities in science are what allow for new and better theories to be developed. And as the exploration of the Martian surface continues – which will benefit from the arrival of the ExoMars and the Mars 2020missions in the coming years – we can expect additional evidence to emerge. Hopefully, it will help point the way towards a resolution for this paradox, and not complicate our theories even more!
Mars has some impressive geological features across its cold, desiccated surface, many of which are similar to featured found here on Earth. By studying them, scientists are able to learn more about the natural history of the Red Planet, what kinds of meteorological phenomena are responsible for shaping it, and how similar our two planets are. A perfect of example of this are the polygon-ridge networks that have been observed on its surface.
One such network was recently discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the Medusae Fossae region, which straddles the planet’s equator. Measuring some 16 story’s high, this ridge network is similar to others that have been spotted on Mars. But according to a survey produced by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these ridges likely have different origins.
This survey, which was recently published in the journal Icarus, examined both the network found in the Medusae Fossae region and similar-looking networks in other regions of the Red Planet. These ridges (sometimes called boxwork rides), are essentially blade-like walls that look like multiple adjoining polygons (i.e. rectangles, pentagons, triangles, and similar shapes).
While similar-looking ridges can be found in many places on Mars, they do not appear to be formed by any single process. As Laura Kerber, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the survey report, explained in a NASA press release:
“Finding these ridges in the Medusae Fossae region set me on a quest to find all the types of polygonal ridges on Mars… Polygonal ridges can be formed in several different ways, and some of them are really key to understanding the history of early Mars. Many of these ridges are mineral veins, and mineral veins tell us that water was circulating underground.”
Such ridges have also been found on Earth, and appear to be the result of various processes as well. One of the most common involves lava flowing into preexisting fractures in the ground, which then survived when erosion stripped the surrounding material away. A good example of this is the Shiprock (shown above), a monadrock located in San Juan County, New Mexico.
Examples of polygon ridges on Mars include the feature known as “Garden City“, which was discovered by the Curiosity rover mission. Measuring just a few centimeters in height, these ridges appeared to be the result of mineral-laden groundwater moving through underground fissures, which led to standing mineral veins once the surrounding soil eroded away.
At the other end of the scale, ridges that measure around 2 kilometers (over a mile) high have also been found. A good example of this is “Inca City“, a feature observed by the Mars Global Surveyor near Mars’ south pole. In this case, the feature is believed to be the result of underground faults (which were formed from impacts) filling with lava over time. Here too, erosion gradually stripped away the surrounding rock, exposing the standing lava rock.
In short, these features are evidence of underground water and volcanic activity on Mars. And by finding more examples of these polygon-ridges, scientists will be able to study the geological record of Mars more closely. Hence why Kerber is seeking help from the public through a citizen-science project called Planet Four: Ridges.
Established earlier this month on Zooniverse – a volunteer-powered research platform – this project has made images obtained by the MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) available to the public. Currently, this and other projects using data from CTX and HiRISE have drawn the participation of more than 150,000 volunteers from around the world.
By getting volunteers to sort through the CTX images for ridge formations, Kerber and her team hopes that previously-unidentified ones will be identified and that their relationship with other Martian features will be better understood.
We need to get to Mars, and we have to get there by 2033. At least, that’s what Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, Mark Kelly, former NASA astronaut, and Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, think.
“With great pride and confidence, our new President and Congress should commit together to NASA sending Americans to Mars by 2033—a realistic goal consistent with the demands of both rocket science and political science,” a recent article by Wired states.
The article cites three clear and simple reasons why the U.S. needs to get to Mars so quickly. The first reason is for science. With the recent discoveries about Mars, especially the existence of water and the possibility of microbial life, the article states that getting there “offers the chance to help answer a fundamental question: ‘Are we alone?’” The second reason is more practical, as “a national push to go to Mars would require new technologies, goods, and services that would yield an enormous return on investment to our economy. With such an effort, the American space program could generate considerable economic activity and create many US-based jobs.”
Now, 2033 isn’t an arbitrary date. It is an estimate that has been calculated based on current progress. Getting to Mars is, predictably, technologically and logistically taxing. But, thankfully, it’s a team effort between NASA and multiple private space companies, notably SpaceX.
The dream of sending people to Mars is alive. We need to make the program and strategy to do it a reality. The alternative is to give up, to take our players off the field, to concede the human exploration space frontier to other countries, and thereby guarantee defeat. […]
The big question before us and our leaders in Washington is whether we will make the investments and develop the plan we need to ensure that budding explorer and soon-to-be pioneer is an American.
In past years, the government hasn’t been remiss in ensuring the success of US space exploration efforts. Last December 2016, U.S lawmakers passed a bill for NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2017. “Today, NASA’s budget is 0.5 percent of the federal budget; the agency receives about $19 billion per year, of which about $8 billion is spent on human space flight,” according to the wired article.
The dream to reach Mars isn’t as far off as it had been when it was first conceived in the 1960s. And thanks to efforts from both the public and private sectors, we may actually get there by the hopeful year of 2033. Augustine, Kelly, and Hubbard are keeping their fingers crossed: “We hope the world will watch us be the first to send Americans to Mars and bring them home safely.”
**ARTICLE NOTES**Title: New Evidence Confirms That Microorganisms Can Survive on Mars
note development and how discovery was made. Second section, expand on what this means for alien life, terraforming, etc
Bits of life
It turns out there may actually be life on Mars, but not in the way that many have hoped for. According to a year-long study by a team of astrobiologists at the University of Arkansas (UARK), microbial life could survive in the environment on Mars. The team published their study in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.
It was the discovery of Methane on Mars that prompted the team’s study. “On Earth, most methane is produced biologically by past or present organisms. The same could possibly be true for Mars,” according to lead author Rebecca Mickol, astrobiologist at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences at UARK. “Of course, there are a lot of possible alternatives to the methane on Mars and it is still considered controversial. But that just adds to the excitement.”
Methane on Earth is produced by microbes called methanogens, usually found in swamps, marshes and the guts of cattle. These simple organisms on Earth can survive without the Sun and oxygen, relying on hydrogen for energy and carbon dioxide as their main carbon source.
The team’s experiment recreated the harsh environments found on Mars and exposed test-tube grown methanogens to them. The Martian environment has extremely low atmospheric pressures, roughly six-thousandths of Earth’s surface pressure. The methanogens were contained in liquids representing what could have flown underneath Mars’ surface. The scientists found that all four species managed to survive for three to 21 days.
Surviving in Mars
NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen traces of ancient rivers, lakes, and seas that once covered Mars. And because the presence of water on Earth is so indicative of life, scientists have been exploring the possibility that life existed on Mars billions of years ago. This new study shows that it’s possible that life still exists on the Red Planet today.
“In all the environments we find here on Earth, there is some sort of microorganism in almost all of them,” said Mickol. “It’s hard to believe there aren’t other organisms out there on other planets or moons as well.”
The UARK team’s study is groundbreaking. Proof that alien life could indeed exist on Mars could change the way we will approach the Red Planet. With plans of bringing human life there, it will be important to search for where this microbial life could be found and how not to damage it —especially if we terraform the planet (Though, the presence of microbes could also help to terraform Mars).
If microbes on Mars are found, they would be life forms originally inhabiting Mars. Think of all that we could learn by studying them. To find out if these microbes do indeed exist on Mars, the team continues to experiment with methanogens to see if they could thrive and grow at such a low pressure.
If such microbes can live on Mars, who is to say that they aren’t present elsewhere in our galaxy and beyond? According to Mickol, “with the abundance of life on Earth, in all the different extremes of environments found here, it’s quite possible there exists life — bacteria or tiny microorganisms — somewhere else in the Universe…We’re just trying to explore that idea.”
For the greater part of 2016, Mars was the focus of mankind’s fascination with space, and so much of this focus centered on our desire to know about life on the Red Planet. Was Mars once a host to extraterrestrial life? Well, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on a mission to satisfy this curiosity, and recently, it uncovered something worthwhile to add to its discovery notes from last year.
Scientists are convinced, more than ever, that Mars was once a wet planet. Some billions of years ago, Mars hosted large lakes, they assert, and traces of evidence supporting this assertion have been discovered by Curiosity. The rover has also found mineral deposits that suggest the previous periods with water lasted even longer than we thought.
For the past several weeks, the Martian rover has been examining slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges in an area of Mars known as “Old Soaker.” NASA believes that these could be mud cracks that formed about 3 billion years ago. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Nathan Stein, a member of Curiosity’s team. “It looks like what you’d see beside the road where muddy ground has dried and cracked,” he added.
So, Mars most probably had water, but does this mean that there was some kind of life on the Red Planet? Everywhere we find liquid water on Earth, we find life, but Curiosity will need to roam around a little more before we can be sure that the same can be said of Mars.
2017 looks like it’s going to be a fantastic year for futurists and sci-fi lovers. Whether you’re set on a much-anticipated sequel or a fresh standalone, this year is set to be awash in sci-fi features. Check out these five films to watch out for, and how they’re tied to real scientific advancements.
Life (March 2017)
Set aboard the International Space Station, this six-member crew is on a mission to become the first team to discover proof of extraterrestrial life on Mars. While conducting research, they find that life forms not only exist, but also might be much more intelligent than ever expected. The trailer seems to hint that the film will combine the realism of Gravity with the abject horror of Alien.
A resurgence of films set in realistic space conditions could be a response to increasing public attention to current space travel projects, such as those being conducted by SpaceX. With the arrival of the first humans on Mars rapidly approaching, and increased scientific efforts to search for intelligent life, our interest in seeing these kinds of stories is only going to grow.
Ghost In The Shell (March 2017)
Based on the 1995 anime film sharing the same title, Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, a cyborg faced with a mission to take down a dangerous criminal hacker. We’re hoping that director Rupert Sanders can combine his visual flair with a substantive exploration of some of the original film’s heady concepts.
The story delves into ideas such as consciousness and the repercussions of technological advancement – topics that aren’t at all unfamiliar to today’s researchers. In fact, science just recently took steps toward pinpointing where in the brain human consciousness is centered. Lately, there’s also been lot of focus on the ethics of AI within the scientific community, with some even calling for a mandatory kill switch.
Alien: Covenant (May 2017)
Alien: Covenant is the second chapter of Ridley Scott’s prequel trilogy, beginning with Prometheus and connecting with the original Aliens in 1979. The film captures a colony aboard the Covenant, who are bound for an uncharted planet within the outer reaches of the galaxy. When they arrive, they find that they aren’t alone. After they discover the planet’s sole survivor, the last “synthetic” from the failed Prometheus expedition, they encounter an alien life-form that turns their paradise into a dangerous world where they must fight to escape.
It’s too bad Steven Hawking was not a figure in the universe of the Alien films. Had he been, the crews from Weyland-Yutani would have known better than to make first contact. The famed scientist has recently warned against humans being the ones to initiate with alien beings, as the results could be devastating to our species.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (July 2017)
Luc Besson is returning to the beloved genre that put his name on the map. The director of the much loved (and hated) space opera, The Fifth Element is returning to the cosmos. His latest outing is based on the French comics series Valérian and Laureline. The trailer promises a wild ride full of lush visuals and plenty of over-the-top action to spare. The film’s massive $180 million budget will allow for a lot of delicious eye-candy to complement the mindless action.
We back here in the present are also starting the see the beginning of the kind of super suits Valerian gets to wear which give humans heightened ability. Some of these suits are being designed to increase the abilities of the elderly or disabled, but they can also be used to assist workers doing heavy lifting or other physical tasks.
Blade Runner 2049 (October 2017)
Here comes the long-awaited sequel to the original Blade Runner, which was released over three decades ago. It takes place in Los Angeles, where a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling) is led on a quest to find the former blade runner (Harrison Ford) who hasn’t been seen in more than 30 years. The film is being helmed by the visionary director Denis Villeneuve, known for his dark visual tone – one that matches the world created by Philip K. Dick and visualized by Ridley Scott in the original film. Watch out for the companion VR content being made available on the Oculus Rift, coming out around the release of the movie in October.
As with space travel, the technology behind bioelectronics and artificial intelligence is rapidly developing. Much like the world of Rick Deckard, robots are taking over tasks that only humans could previously do. The inclusion of VR content is also an interesting development for such a high profile film. It will be interesting to see what future campaigns will include, should this prove to be successful.
The clever girls and boys at NASA are always dreaming up new ways to circumvent the biggest obstacle to effective space travel: the speed barrier. Space is big, as you might have heard—and it takes a long time to get around.
It’s about three days to the Moon, which isn’t too bad; but Mars is another story altogether. With current methods of chemical rocket propulsion—the same that have been used for some three-quarters of a century—a voyage to the Red Planet would take about five months.
But a team of NASA scientists, headed by Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have envisioned a different means of getting about space—one that requires nothing more than a beam of light. Called “photonic propulsion,” it requires little more than a solar sail of ultralight material, which is pushed along by energy beamed from an orbital laser array.
Lubin’s team was awarded a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant, to the tune of $100,000, to begin the planning and testing phase of the project. It is being called—with a typically NASA-esque acronymic flair (though in this case to a somewhat unfortunate effect)—Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN).
The idea is to yoke a small probe to a solar sail, orbit a laser array, and push the probe toward its destination at speeds far in excess of anything we can attain these days. Lubin estimates a probe weighing only a few hundred pounds could be accelerated to Mars using this method in just three days. Scale the technology up from unmanned probes to manned vessels (no mean feat), and we could be talking about a journey to Mars in a month—one-fifth of the travel time via conventional techniques.
New Paths to the Stars
As we begin to seriously prepare for our first journey to Mars, there’s been a flurry of research into novel propulsion methods to help get us there. One very promising avenue leads to the VASIMR nuclear electric thruster, which opens up the possibility of a journey to the Red Planet in only 40 days. The technology is still in development, and has some key challenges—most notably building a space-capable nuclear reactor to power the engine array—but it seems to be one of the most immediately realizable technologies for fast interplanetary travel.
Other ideas have been mooted, including Charles Bombardier’s somewhat fanciful Solar Express concept, which could—theoretically—reach something like 1% of the speed of light. The peculiar “EM drive,” meanwhile, still makes headlines; although, barring a significant contravention of the laws of physics, it seems destined to follow cold fusion into the dustbin of scientific history.
So it seems photonic propulsion is one of the better options we currently have. If the technology can be scaled up and made to endure the rigors of frequent space travel, it might just be our best hope for colonizing the Solar System; when it comes to reaching for the stars, it might just be the only option we have for a very long time.
The surface of Mars is a barren landscape riddled with peril. From high energy radiation to barreling sandstorms, it is unbearably dry and currently unsurvivable for human beings. However, with the looming possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and future prospects of populated colonies on the Red Planet, NASA has been investigating different habitats that would best protect humans from the harsh elements.
NASA accepted more than 165 applications for a Mars habitat design contest this past year as part of their Centennial Challenges program that engages the public in the advancement of technology. Utilizing the public to innovate in this manner has allowed for an influx of creativity. Applicants have 3D printed models of their designs, and while the ultimate winner was the ‘Mars Ice House,’ there were a number of promising and intriguing designs. Below are the top three winners of this contest.
The third place winner of this contest was Team LavaHive. As their name indicates, their model is to be constructed with recycled spacecraft materials and ‘lava-casting.’ Regolith (the rocks and soil that lie loosely on the surface) would be made molten and shaped into coils and layers to form the shapes of the habitat. Each shape created would be sprayed with an adhesive to ensure that it is airtight. This method would protect not only against the harsh sand and wind elements, but also against high-energy radiation. These structures would exist both above and below the Martian surface, with the capacity to add additional subterranean modules.
The second place winner was Team Gamma. Their model is designed to be constructed by pre-programmed, semi-autonomous robots on the surface of Mars prior to the arrival of human astronauts. Each habitat may hold up to four adults and will be built using 3D printed structure, inflatable modules, and regolith. The regolith would be fused using microwaves, creating a barrier that would protect against radiation. The structures would exist both above and below the surface.
One unique aspect of this model is that the robots will not be given exact step-by-step directions. Instead, they will be given rules and objectives. This will allow them to operate even if communication fails and there are unexpected difficulties.
The design of the compact 93 sqm habitat modules combines spatial efficiency with human physiology and psychology, with overlapping private and communal spaces, finished with ‘soft’ materials and enhanced virtual environments, which help reduce the adverse effects of monotony, while creating positive living environment for the astronauts.
The ultimate winner of this contest was Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office of New York, New York, or Team Mars Ice House as they are known. Kevin Vipavetz, the senior systems engineer at NASA’s Langley research center, and his team considered “many crazy, out of the box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution.”
The Ice House is a large inflatable dome surrounded by a layer of 3D printed ice and a relatively thin layer of loose regolith. This strategy relies on the assumption of water in Mars’ northern hemisphere. This model is most capable of protecting human life against the intense cosmic and solar radiation, and surface contamination, while also allowing the structure to be completely above ground. The dome will feature an outer and inner shell, allowing for movement without a spacesuit and the possibility of growing plants.
All three of these designs might look outlandish and improbable, but they are structurally sound and capable of supporting human life and innovation. Some day, far into the future, one of these designs could be your future home on Mars.
The world is competing in a new space race – this time around, it’s a mad dash for Mars. SpaceX and NASA have been vocal about their plans to reach the Red Planet, but now, a new competitor is speaking up.
Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the National Space Administration, said Beijing aims to launch its first Mars probe around 2020 to carry out orbiting and roving exploration, followed by a second mission that would include collection of surface samples from the Red Planet. The announcement was made in a press conference held early this week for the release of a policy paper that detailed China’s intent to explore deep space.
The ultimate goal is to establish China as frontrunner in the field of space exploration by 2030. By then, the country also plans to have landed on the moon – a goal they hope to achieve by 2018. Eventually, China also plans to send probes to Jupiter and its moons.
Plans to Reach The Red Planet
The original space race was defined by the United States and Russia battling for supremacy in spaceflight capability from the 1950s through the 70s. America proved to be the winner of this race when they landed on the moon in 1969. China lagged behind – the country didn’t send its first satellite into space until 1970.
While the country was a late entrant into the space race, they have effectively stamped their intent to become a serious contender in the decades since. To date, they have staged a spacewalk, sent a rover to the moon, launched a space lab, and sent five crews into space. The latter marks China as only the third country in the world (the other two being the US and Russia) to have been able to achieve this successfully.
Given all the advances in technology however, this generation’s space race is more competitive than ever, with governments going head to head with privately funded organizations. SpaceX has already announced plans to colonize Mars within the next 40 to 100 years, targeting 2025 as the year they reach the Red Planet. As far as Elon Musk, the company’s CEO is concerned, it’s no longer a question of whether we will ever reach Mars, it’s a matter of when.
NASA on the other hand, who hopes to reach Mars by 2030, has divided their plan to reach Mars into several phases: “intensive research aboard the International Space Station to complex operations in multiple staging orbits for deep-space simulations, and finally missions and home-building on Mars.”
However, NASA’s associated administrator for science, Thomas Zurburchen says that it isn’t necessarily a race. “If Elon Musk brought the [Mars] samples in the door right now I’d throw him a party out of my own money,” he said in a previous interview with Seeker.
With the U.S. Congress giving NASA the funds it needs to send manned missions to Mars, the space agency is serious about making it to our nearest neighbor. They are taking a multi-step approach, first focusing on improving human spaceflight capabilities through tests of technologies like the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket out near the Moon.
Before it sends people to Mars, NASA has several more unmanned missions in the works. The first is InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), which is set for a 2018 launch as part of the agency’s Discovery Program to put a geophysical lander on Mars to study the planet’s interior.
Speaking of landers, NASA also plans to send a rover to the Red Planet by 2020. This Mars 2020 Rover “will carry seven carefully selected instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet,” according to NASA.
Other plans in the pipeline include a sample return mission by the second decade of the 21st century, though no concrete plans have been revealed for that just yet.
ESA’s ExoMars: Take Two
After a botched landing of its ExoMars lander earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled to have a second go at it by 2020. For the second mission, the ESA is including a rover equipped with a drill to allow for the study of Mars’ interior, as well as instruments for exobiology and geochemistry research. It will also include a Proton launcher provided by Russian space agency Roscosmos.
SpaceX isn’t the only company looking to establish a colony on Mars — Netherlands-based non-profit Mars One wants to be the first to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.
Th company’s plans include sending robotic precursor missions in 2020, 2022, and 2024, with the first settlers scheduled for launch in 2026 to land on Mars by 2027. Recently, the program had some trouble, suspending work on a couple of its robotic missions. In the meantime, Mars One continues its candidate selection process for astronauts and development of spacesuits for Mars.
Boeing Enters the Competition
The most recent company to express interest in joining the race to Mars is Boeing. The veteran rocket developer wants to beat newbie SpaceX to Mars, and both are currently working with NASA on program to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Though a detailed plan outlining Boeing’s missions to Mars hasn’t been released yet, according to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket.”
If you’re thinking of volunteering to go to Mars—should the offer come up—you might want to hold your horses.
Before we can even start sending people to Mars (a trip that would take around three years) an assessment must be made of the health risks associated with long periods of exposure to zero-gravity environments, and preventive measures must be identified and developed.
To that end, NASA launched the Human Research Program (HRP) in 2005, a research project dedicated to “investigating and mitigating the highest risks to astronaut health and performance in support of exploration missions.”
So far, the longest period that astronauts have been in space is almost one year—that’s twice the normal time for astronauts to spend in space. American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent nearly a year at the International Space Station (ISS) and served somewhat as guinea pigs for testing the long term medical, psychological and biomedical effects of long periods of space travel to the human body, a mission aptly named the One-Year Mission. Kelly and Kornienko are now undergoing studies to assess how their long stay in space has affected their health.
Space Biology: Health Hazards
Space Radiation Messes You Up…in Many Ways
Radiation is, by far, the most serious, most dangerous, and scariest health hazard out in space. Once you venture out beyond the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, there will be nothing to protect you from space radiation. According to Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI): “Exposure to space radiation increases the risks of astronauts developing cancer, experiencing central nervous system (CNS) decrements, exhibiting degenerative tissue effects or developing acute radiation syndrome.”
The effects of space radiation may appear immediately, or much later after exposure. According to NASA: “It can damage your central nervous system, with both acute effects and later consequences, manifesting itself as altered cognitive function, reduced motor function, and behavioral changes. Space radiation can also cause radiation sickness that results in nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and fatigue.”
“The food you eat and the medicine you take must be safe and retain their nutrient and pharmaceutical value, even while being bombarded with space radiation,” they add.
As of now, we still do not have the means to combat this.
Males and Females Experience Different Effects
It has been established that men and women are affected differently. Examine the differences through the visual below.
As mentioned earlier, studies are underway to completely identify all the health hazards of lengthy space travel. Intensive studies also focus on the effects of space travel on cells, tissues, hormones, and the immune system as microbes (including your own microbiome) can change in space. They are also easily transferred, increasing your risk of disease. Hopefully, these studies will progress quickly so that counteractive measures to these effects can be developed for safer deep space travel.
SpaceX plans to perform its first Red Dragon landing on Mars by 2018 – but it won’t be carrying any of NASA’s science instruments. Although NASA wants to see Elon Musk’s plans to conquer the Red Planet succeed, NASA would rather make sure SpaceX can pull them off first. If for any reason the mission fails, NASA doesn’t want millions of dollars of their equipment going down with the Dragon.
“I can’t wait for it to be successful, because it opens up our opportunities to deliver important science instruments into the Mars environment,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division head, speaking at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual fall meeting. And until this happens, he is keeping his fingers crossed.
“Landing on Mars is hard. I want to wait this one out,” Green said.
SpaceX isn’t rushing things by targeting a 2018 landing. It’s a matter of opportunity, aiming for a once-every-26-months chance when Earth and Mars align favorably. SpaceX wants to take every launch opportunity that would present itself in the future, hopefully beginning in 2018.
And, as SpaceX very well knows by now, missions as crucial as landing on Mars require ample time to go over every single relevant detail. Researching and studying the steps is critical.
According to Plan
For its part, SpaceX has been taking all the necessary preparations and precautions to ensure the critical technologies are prepared for the Mars missions. Perhaps the most important tech that will be key for a successful landing is the Dragon capsule’s onboard SuperDraco thrusters, which are needed to perform what SpaceX calls “supersonic retropropulsion”.
NASA is providing technical support to the first Red Dragon mission in a number of areas, via an unfunded Space Act Agreement. The space agency will get something out of the deal as well: access to most of the data gathered during Dragon’s landing on Mars.
Supposedly, the Dragon will force its way through the Martian atmosphere traveling far faster than the speed of sound. The SuperDraco thrusters — not parachutes — would then act as a counter force to slow the capsule down for a manageable thud on the Red Planet’s surface This strategy has never been executed before, and NASA is all too keen on seeing it succeed.
Facebook users got a sneak peek into the future when National Geographic hosted a 360 degree tour of a test habitat where crew members of the Mars Society are simulating a Martian mission. The crew just spent 80 days in the habitat and gave an exciting view into what life on Mars might look like.
This mission was a part of the larger Mars 160 mission designed to simulate the conditions and constraints of an actual mission to Mars. A team of seven crew members are participating in two 80-day excursions at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah (which you’ll see in the video) and then another 80 days at a research outpost in the Canadian Arctic.
During these simulations, crew members “will conduct a sustained program of geological, paleontological and micro-biological field explorations,” similar to the investigations that would be conducted on the Red Planet.
National Geographicis currently airing a miniseries, Mars, dealing with Martian exploration. You can catch the series finale on Monday, December 19, at 9/8c.
The Mars Society gives regular updates, including daily images, to Space.com.
A recent discovery supports these claims. The Curiosity rover’s study of different rocks over the Gale Crater’s elevational range of about 200 meters (650 ft) covers a timespan of roughly tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years. Throughout this period, the environment in the crater, which supposedly cradled an ancient Martian lake, was continually changing, but not enough to preclude life from existing.
The newest evidence of this ancient life on Mars is Curiosity’s discovery of boron, marking the first time that this element has been found on the Red Planet.
“We are seeing chemical complexity indicating a long, interactive history with the water. The more complicated the chemistry is, the better it is for habitability,” John Grotzinger, Curiosity team member and geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, explained in a press release. “The boron, hematite, and clay minerals underline the mobility of elements and electrons, and that is good for life.”
Where There Is Water…
Based on observations by Curiosity, the ancient lake in the Gale Crater was initially composed of fresh water (neutral-pH water). It became slightly acidic over time, and saltier still a little later.
This all happened over a period of millions of years, as the crater’s lake went through periods of drying out and then filling up again as groundwater rose. Despite these changes, Grotzinger believes that the area remained mostly habitable, as some forms of microbial life could’ve been sustained by groundwater during the lake’s dry spells.
If the conditions on ancient Mars were largely similar to those on Earth, where there is water, there is a great chance that life could exist, as well. The abundant traces of silica, which is excellent at preserving microbial life on Earth, found in Curiosity’s samples could aid future life-hunting missions on Mars. “I think this is a tremendously exciting discovery,” said Grotzinger.
“Mars is the next step of our space program. It’s the challenge that’s been staring us in the face for the past 30 years. At one time in the ancient past, Mars was very similar to the conditions of early Earth. We now have ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ on the surface of this new world. The Mars rovers have captured our imaginations. They genuinely are explorers in the old-fashioned sense.”
Thirty years ago, Carl Sagan wrote these words, urging the continued funding of NASA’s programs in the U.S. budget. However, there are obstacles that we still face when it comes to exploring, understanding, and conquering the Red Planet.
The U.S. is the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. We lead the globe in the exploration of the solar system and the development of commercial, military, and communication satellites. We can reach the Moon and Mars, but it seems we can’t (or don’t) stay long. Instead, we spend billions of dollars leaving and returning again.
In order to build on Mars, to stay on Mars, and ultimately expand to other worlds, there are two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. First, the establishment of a permanent presence in space requires the development of space-based infrastructures. We can see Mars with our “eyes” and “ears”—our probes—but we can neither physically reach it nor stay there until we’ve first established significant human enterprise, industry, and presence operating off Earth.
The second obstacle in relation to establishing a permanent human presence in space is the why? In short, to explore, understand, and build on the Red Planet, we need an economic impetus to do so.
So what is the next step? How do we maintain a human presence off Earth? How can we access the resources of the Solar System if we can’t stay in space any longer than it takes for the trip there and back again?
In the past half-century, we’ve had three real answers to this question: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the Skylab, and the Freedom. All projects towards permanent habitable space stations. Yet, all three projects were canceled due to financial obstacles.
With one exception.
A Long Voyage into the Cosmos
The Freedom Space Station project launched in 1994, and it was eventually converted into a larger Space Station, one that is still in operation today under a different name.TheFreedom and Russian Federal Space Agency space station project (MIR-2) modules were integrated, ultimately becoming the Russian Orbital Segments and American Orbital Segments of the International Space Station (ISS).
These canceled Russian and American projects formed the first joint international undertaking off Earth.
Can the U.S. maintain its place as a leader of the development of space-based industry? Could the U.S. create its own space station as a stepping stone into the cosmos? Let’s imagine it.
The space station could legally operate the way Tiangong 1 and 2 have. The Tiangong stations, translating to Heavenly Palace, have been the only other manned stations in space besides the ISS. Though small, the Tiangongs are nonetheless an entity of the Chinese government. An easy, if not entirely semantically correct, way to think about it is that the Tiangongs are a city of China in space.
Any developments by the U.S would be the American counterpart, the city in space—a design which was investigated by NASA more than a quarter of a century ago. The U.S space station should not only be intended as a scientific laboratory, but as a central location for U.S. economic activities, such as asteroid mining and space solar power (1). Ultimately, this new space station’s primary purpose would be to generate space-based industry, providing burgeoning enterprises with the resources to initiate economic activity off Earth. The new U.S. Space Station would be the realization of the three failed NASA projects to colonize the solar system
Making Space Affordable
With the development of space-based economic activities, such as space solar power and asteroid mining, this can lead to the creation of technology that will facilitate the accessibility of space by allowing companies to generate revenue from their efforts.
Currently, it costs millions of dollars to send a pound of anything into space, whether it’s computers, water, or personnel. Space solar power is an economic impetus that could lead to sustainable and renewable energy that does not emit greenhouse gasses, hazardous waste, and is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Additionally, asteroid mining can bring rare-earth metals and resources within our grasp, materials that are in limited supply on Earth and are used in everything from electric vehicles to computer chips. Resources that could be mined or extracted include iron, nickel, titanium, water, rare-earth metals, oxygen, and hydrogen. These could be used to sustain the lives of astronauts on-site, to create rocket propellants, and to send back to Earth. Notably, in space exploration, using resources gathered while on a journey is referred to as in-situ resource utilization, eliminating the need for billion-dollar-chemically-based rockets to bring such necessities from Earth.
These space-based industries are our frontier, the new frontier. Building a home amongst the stars can not only lead to the construction of the technology for easier ways of getting off the Earth, but also to new ways of thinking about space travel—like non-rocket space launches, a geosynchronous orbital tether to the stars, or even the laser propelled lightcraft (2).
Understanding The Need
Of course, having a U.S. space station would not be simple. The project will require us to create new space-based industries and catalyze a new frontier of economic activity with a dedicated human presence in space. But imagine drastically reducing the financial burden of maintaining satellites in space. Imagine being able to build ships while in space as opposed to launching them from the Earth and battling the clutches of gravity. Imagine the military advantage of a space station that can send aid to any position on the globe. Imagine 1000 Americans in space on an American Space Station in a new branch of the military.
Most importantly, such an enterprise would likely create unprecedented economic opportunities off Earth that we’ve never before considered, which could ultimately lead up to an even larger space station and the true colonization of the solar system.
Ultimately, a permanent U.S space station is not only a step for American aerospace industry gaining the foothold to tap resources of the solar system, but another big step for humanity becoming a multi-planetary civilization and one day reaching (and staying) on the Red Planet.
(1) Unlike terrestrial solar and wind power, oil, gas, ethanol, nuclear plants, and coal plants, space solar power does not emit greenhouse gasses or hazardous waste. It is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in huge quantities. It works regardless of cloud cover, daylight, or wind speed. Further, space solar power can be exported to virtually any place in the world, and its energy can be converted for local needs — such as the manufacturing of methanol for use in places like rural India, where there are no electric power grids. Space solar power can also be used for the desalination of sea water and the agricultural development of previously barren, open lands. Lastly, space solar power can provide a market large enough to develop the low-cost space transportation system that is required for its deployment. This, in turn, will also bring the resources of the solar system within economic reach.
(2) Laser propulsion is in its early stages of development. Lightcraft use an external laser source or maser energy to provide power for producing thrust. The laser/maser energy is focused to a high intensity in order to create a plasma. The plasma expands, producing thrust.
Many Mars missions are facing a very blunt controversy: how much is it going to cost to send people up there to study and possibly colonize the Red Planet?
A contender in the Mars space race is Mars One, a space tech organization that originates in the Netherlands. The company has two direct arms: the Dutch non-profit Mars One Foundation, and the British public company in charge of monetization, Mars One Ventures. Now, the Ventures profit arm has announced an agreement with Swiss InFin Innovative Finance AG to a shares takeover bid.
“The acquisition is now only pending approval by the board of Mars One Ventures,” the companies said in a joint announcement.
The finance takeover solidifies Mars One’s efforts to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. On the Mars One website, they discussed their reliance on corporate investments and donations as a primary funding source. The space tech company did try to gain additional funding by pitching a television reality show about the missions to and life on Mars, but this was axed by their partner production company.
To get to the Red Planet is a big dream that needs to bring in big bucks. The different companies gearing up to get us there are funded in different ways.
NASA plans to bring astronauts to Mars itself by the 2030s. It’s funded by the US government using federal revenue from income, corporate, and other taxes.
SpaceX receives most of its seed money from billionaire founder Elon Musk. It also gains much from its government subsidy, with an estimated $4.9 billion coming in for the space tech company and Musk’s electric car empire, Tesla. SpaceX has a more urgent timeline, and they plan to get millions of people up to the Martian “colonies” by 2024—just check out their new outline for a future “Mars-shot.”
Lockheed Martin, based in Maryland, is another privately-owned aerospace company with dreams of the Red Planet dancing through its head. Their Mars Base Camp, a collaboration with NASA, believes it can send astronauts to space by around 2028. It sources funds from its numerous corporate profits, together with investments.
While we’re not sure who can get us to Mars first, what’s certain is that it’s going to take a lot of money to do it.