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What Are NASA’s Plans For Exploring Mars?

NASA has been able to explore the surface of Mars for 20 years now, after the Spirit rover landed on the Red Planet. As the years have progressed, NASA has continued its exploration, utilizing two rovers and five orbiters to collect as much data as possible.

mars

Ancient Mars May Have Been Teeming With Life

Ancient Mars may have had the right environmental conditions to support a subterranean world filled with microscopic organisms, researchers say. These microbes are known to thrive in extreme conditions on earth.

Scientists at the University of Arizona determined that if primary life forms did ever exist on Mars, they would have drastically altered the planet’s atmosphere, resulting in an ice age that would have led to their own extinction.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Astronomy, analyzed the habitability of Mars around 4 billion years ago. Lead author Boris Sauterey and his team used climate and terrain models to simulate the temperatures at the surface and crust of the red planet.

“This allowed us to evaluate how plausible a Martian underground biosphere would be. And if such a biosphere existed, how it would have modified the chemistry of the Martian crust, and how these processes in the crust would have affected the chemical composition of the atmosphere.”

At the time, the planet is believed to have had a much denser atmosphere, rich in carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The temperate climate would have likely led to a planet teeming with water, capable of better sustaining life than it is today.

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The areas that were free of ice could have housed these organisms in a manner similar to early earth. Methanogens, known to exist in low-oxygen, extreme temperature and high-pressure conditions on earth, may have thrived underneath a thick layer of dirt protecting them from incoming radiation.

The atmosphere would have been thrown off kilter with the amount of hydrogen consumed from its carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere, causing temperatures to drop by nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere “would have been completely changed by biological activity very rapidly, within a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years,” Sauterey said.

The microorganisms living near the surface would have burrowed deeper into the crust in an effort to survive the rapidly dropping temperatures.

“The problem these microbes would have then faced is that Mars’ atmosphere basically disappeared, completely thinned, so their energy source would have vanished, and they would have had to find an alternate source of energy. In addition to that, the temperature would have dropped significantly, and they would have had to go much deeper into the crust. For the moment, it is very difficult to say how long Mars would have remained habitable.”

This evolution of the atmosphere would have been different from earth, where microbes helped maintain the proper temperatures in an atmosphere dominated by nitrogen.

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Kaveh Pahlevan of the SETI Institute led another study that suggested Mars had warm oceans that persisted through millions of years. The hydrogen-dense atmosphere would have served as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat. Much of the hydrogen would eventually rise and dissipate into the atmosphere.

“This finding is significant because H2 is known to be a strong greenhouse gas in dense environments. This dense atmosphere would have produced a strong greenhouse effect, allowing very early warm-to-hot water oceans to stabilize the Martian surface for millions of years until the H2 was gradually lost to space. For this reason, we infer that—at a time before the earth itself had formed—Mars was born wet.”

The University of Arizona study analyzed the influence microbes had on Mars’ atmosphere during a different period when it was primarily dominated by carbon dioxide.

Pahlevan added in an email to The Guardian, “what their study makes clear, however, is that if life were present on Mars” during this earlier period, “they would have had a major influence on the prevailing climate.”

Future exploration projects on Mars may provide a clearer picture of potential life on early Mars. Researchers identified Hellas Planitia, a plain formed by the impact of a giant asteroid early in Mars’ history, as a site for possible evidence. However, the plain is home to some of the planet’s strongest dust storms, making it too challenging to be explored by autonomous rovers right now.

NASA Researching Bigger Helicopter For More-Detailed Exploration Of Mars

NASA currently uses the Mars helicopter known as Ingenuity to capture images and data on the Red Planet. Now, the agency has announced that they are quietly researching a bigger and better helicopter to navigate through Mars’s rough terrain. Teddy Tzanetos, a NASA robotics technologist, discussed the new spacecraft in a recent interview:

“We’re trying to look at building on the success of Ingenuity, and what we could accomplish with a larger, more capable aircraft to Mars in terms of the science we could do and the distances we could go.”

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The new aircraft is set to be a larger version of Ingenuity, which has two rotors while the new version is equipped with a much larger helicopter that contains six rotors. NASA is continuously studying the limits of Ingenuity in terms of its speed and distance. 

A larger helicopter could be beneficial due to the fact that it could carry more equipment to analyze the composition of Mars. 

The research paper on the new aircraft lists three possible destinations: “Mawrth Vallis, a valley in which NASA has detected evidence of water movement in the past; Milankovič Crater, which could harbor large water ice deposits, and Lucus Planum, a relatively flat area around which some researchers believe a helicopter could help determine when Mars lost its magnetic field and also survey volcanic flows.”

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NASA is planning on sending another aircraft to Mars in 2026 to collect rock samples that are currently being drilled by the Perseverance rover. The next time Mars will be close enough to Earth for a rocket launch will be December 2022. 

“Many people who study Mars exploration say waiting much longer than that would be a shame. I think they would be very foolish to stall it that long. I think a few years from now, people will ask why are you sending something to Mars that can’t fly, since we know it’s possible now,” said Robert Zubrin, president of the non-profit Mars Society, which advocates for exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA also recently announced that Ingenuity has so far provided valuable tools that engineers can use to navigate where to send Perseverance. Zubrin believes that NASA should specifically sent an aircraft through the Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the solar system.

“The Valles Marineris has a lot of deposits that were probably ancient lakes on the bottom. A helicopter could explore the walls of the canyon vertically and laterally. That would serve science and build public fascination. I think this opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities. You’d want to go to exciting places geologically that you couldn’t get to with the rovers, which is a lot of terrain,” said Ray Arvidson, a professor of Earth and Planetary Services.

Mars Perseverance Rover Reveals Secret Parachute Message And Other Features 

NASA shared a video this week which showed off what it looks like when a spacecraft lands on Mars for the first time. The video showed the Perseverance Mars rover deploying a large and colorful orange-and-white parachute which many were quick to notice had a hidden message in it. 

Allen Chen is the entry, descent, and landing lead for the rover who spoke with the media this past Monday regarding the hidden message and how quick the public was able to pick up that the pattern on the parachute was more than just a randomly colorful design.  

“You might notice the pattern that’s on the parachute here. Distinct patterns are useful in helping us determine the clocking orientation of the parachute. Also, the contrasting sections can be useful in tracking different portions of the parachute as it inflates.  In addition to enabling incredible science, we hope our efforts and our engineering can inspire others. Sometimes we leave messages in our work for others to find for that purpose. So we invite you all to give it a shot and show your work.”

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Adam Steltzner is the rover’s chief engineer who tweeted out his shock that the internet was able to take on Chen’s challenge and decode the message in less than 6 hours of it’s initial posting on Twitter. The parachute’s hidden message included the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory motto “Dare Mighty Things,” as well as GPS coordinates for JPL in Pasadena, California. 

According to Stelzner the messages were embedded in the parachute using binary code within the white and orange triangles of fabric. The inner part of the parachute includes the “Dare mighty things” motto, with each word hidden in an expanding ring of the triangles. The band around the parachute is where the GPS coordinates can be found as well. 

The motto initially was taken from the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

The rover was also built by the team at JPL, which is where the mission is being managed. Ian Clark is the rover’s systems engineer and was the one who came up with the binary code message on the parachute. 

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“The brainchild of Ian Clark- who has done anything the project asked him to do, whether it was lead, develop, and execute a supersonic parachute test program, prove the cleanliness of the sampling system, or support EDL operations. All around sharp and selfless dude,” Chen tweeted.

The Perseverance rover has plenty of other hidden secrets as well, which NASA claims will slowly be revealed the longer the rover is on Mars. For example, the rover contains silicon chips containing the names of nearly 11 million people who participated in the “send your name to Mars” campaign. The chips also include 155 essays submitted by students who entered a contest to name the rover. 

The Perseverance rover also has a metal plate dedicated to health care workers combating the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to media reports, “on the rover’s deck is a symbol-laden calibration target for Mastcam-Z, or the rover’s pair of zoomable cameras. The calibration target includes color swatches to adjust the cameras’ settings, but also symbols of a man and a woman, a fern, a dinosaur, a rocket traveling from Earth to Mars, a model of the inner solar system, DNA and cyanobacteria, which is one of the earliest forms of life on Earth. 

The target also includes the motto “Two Worlds, One Beginning” on it, which refers to the concept that Earth and Mars were created from the same dust, unifying us and every other planet within our solar system.

NASA Celebrates Landing Of Perseverance Rover On Mars 

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars this Thursday after a seven-minute long plunge through the atmosphere which left scientists at the edge of their seat. Racing through space at more than 12,000 miles-per-hour, the rover is now safely on the surface of the red planet, and will remain there to look for possible evidence of past microbial life within the remains of an old lake. 

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life!” 

Swati Mohan, a guidance, navigation and control officer monitoring telemetry at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was one of the many flight engineers who burst into cheers and applause as the rover landed. He claims the moments leading up to its landing were filled with anxiety, referring to the landing process as “seven minutes of terror.”

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The rover itself weighs 2,260 pounds and has now landed on an ancient lakebed located within the Jezero Crater on Mars. The rover had to navigate through dangerous cliffs, large boulders, and slippery sand dunes to find its location. Jennifer Trosper is the deputy project manager to the Perseverance rover, who claims that the $2.4 billion rover exceeded all expectations with Thursday’s landing. 

“I almost feel like I’m in a dream. Our job is to think of all the bad things that can happen and try to avoid those, and when all good things happen, you feel like you’re dreaming.” 

President Joe Biden tweeted his congratulations to NASA as well: “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”

The rover landed in Mars’s atmosphere at 3:48 p.m. EST. The planet was around 2,700 degrees upon landing, and as it slowed down to around 1,000 m.p.h. it deployed a parachute 70 feet wide to help it land safely and slowly. Less than a minute from touchdown when the rover was about 2 miles off the ground, it released its parachute to complete its descent at 200 m.p.h., by the time it reached the ground it was traveling at a speed of around 2 m.p.h.

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When the rover landed it was “tweeted” out “Hello, world. My first look at my forever home,” along with a photo of the surface of the red planet. When the image first appeared in front of NASA scientists the entire room erupted in loud cheers and sounds of celebration.

Perseverance was initially launched seven months ago from Cape Canaveral. The journey itself was about 293 million miles, and when it got closest to the 127 million mile gulf between Earth and Mars it had approximately 11 minutes to land. This is NASA’s fifth Mars rover and the first designed specifically for looking for signs of past life. 

The Jezero Crater was specifically targeted for this mission because it once held a 28-mile-wide body of water that was approximately the size of Lake Tahoe. THe lake was fed by a river that cut through the rim of the crater. 

“During the first month, we also plan to deploy and test a small 4.5-pound, $80 million helicopter named Ingenuity that will attempt the first powered flight in the thin air of Mars, a ‘Wright brothers’ moment’ on another world,” according to Trosper.

NASA and the European Space Agency are planning on sending another rover to the crater later this decade to assist with collecting samples and load them into a small rocket to be brought back to Earth for observation.

SpaceX Headquarters

SpaceX Mars Rocket Explodes In What’s Seen As Successful Test Flight 

A giant experimental rocket that was built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company was successfully launched eight miles above the company’s testing facilities in South Texas. The rocket launched and landed as planned before it crashed into the ground resulting in a massive plume of smoke and flames. 

No one was on board of the experimental rocket that was over 160-feet tall. According to Musk, the rocket will hopefully be used to haul massive satellites into Earth’s orbit, and will be able to shuttle people between cities at record speeds; which would also eventually lead to the human settlement on the planet Mars. 

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Musk hopes that this technology can be the first step in establishing a human presence on Mars, and the massive explosion at the end of the test landing wasn’t exactly unexpected. The name of the prototype vehicle is the “SN8,” which Musk tweeted had a one-in-three chance of landing safely back on Earth after its first test-flight. 

The SN8 did successfully manage to maneuver to its landing target however, according to Musk, the rocket’s fuel system caused it to make a crash landing. Musk and SpaceX in general are no strangers to embracing the mishaps that occur with their multitude of experimental flying vehicles. When an error occurs, the company quickly moves to create an upgraded version of whatever failed and keeps on experimenting until something successful is established.

SpaceX has previously attempted two previous launches of SN8 this week however both of those attempts were halted moments before the countdown clocks ran out. It hasn’t been made clear why those particular launches were paused while this one actually was able to occur, however, last-minute mission cancellations are not uncommon in general for space exploration. 

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The company claims that they’re still obviously a long way from building an operational Starship spacecraft that would be able to support human travel to Mars, however, this was an amazing first step in that direction. So far the company has been focusing on what models would be able to perform best under the pressure that occurs when the rocket enters into the varying atmospheres in space. 

The next SN8 model that will be tested is the first of its kind to have three engines installed and will have the highest amount of risk for failure as a result. Initially Musk wanted to launch the SN8 into the stratosphere, which would be around 11 miles about the Earth’s surface. The company later decided an 8 mile distance would be a much safer bet as at least they would know that the rocket could make it to the point that is widely considered the “edge of outer space.” 

The final starship design will have to have six engines in order to successfully enter Earth’s orbit on its own and launch at the rate that SpaceX is aiming for. The idea of putting human beings on Mars will obviously involve a lot of technological, political, and ethical questioning that will likely be ongoing past our lifetimes, however, this launch goes to show that the possibility is there, now it’s just a matter of time and execution.

Astronat on Moon

Scientists Claim Mold From Chernobyl Could Help Protect Astronauts From Space Radiation

NASA has been working on a way to get back to the moon for the past few years, and now, they’re claiming to return by 2024. The goal is to potentially establish a permanent human presence on the moon by the end of the decade, however, there are a ton of logistical obstacles to work through before that idea can get anywhere close to becoming a reality. 

One of the largest issues NASA scientists have been working through is space radiation. The radiation levels in space pose a genuine threat for all astronauts. On Earth, the planet’s magnetic and atmosphere fields shield us from the deadly radiation that exists in space, however, that “safety blanket” of atmosphere disappears the further into space one goes. 

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For reference, astronauts working in the International Space Station are receiving 20 times the normal amount of radiation when compared to what we endure here on Earth. Obviously, this is a major concern, and is part of the reason scientists have been working tirelessly with an unexpected organism to help combat this radiation issue. 

Scientists have found that fungi and mold species found in Chernobyl, one of the most radioactive places on Earth, are thriving in Russia by “feeding on the extreme levels of radiation.” For those who are unaware, in 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced an explosion that blew a hole through a No. 4 reactor on the plant. The level of radiation around the plant was so intense it was said that exposure would result in death within 60 seconds, so finding species of fungi and agriculture in general was astounding. 

The initial study on these fungi species were published in a scientific journal last week, and specifically examined a species known as Cladosporium sphaerospermum (CS). The writers of the study claim that this fungi can be “used as a self-healing, self-replicating shield to protect astronauts in deep space.”

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The researchers explained in the study that they placed this specific species of fungi in the International Space Station for 30 days where they monitored its level of radiation absorption. They set up a petri dish with two sides; one side contained no fungi and acted as a control for the experiment, the other side contained CS particles. The dish was placed under a radiation detector where measurements were taken every 110 seconds. 

The study revealed that the fungi was able to adapt to the gravity conditions in space and “feed” on the radiation the same way it did in Chernobyl. Initial findings showed that CS was able to even block some incoming radiation by decreasing the levels up to 2%. 

In the conclusion of these findings the scientists claim that the biggest advantage of using CS fundi specifically is that it can replicate itself on its own, meaning workers at NASA would only have to send a small amount into orbit with astronauts to make it effective. With some tweaking and a lot more experimentation, researchers believe this fungi can be used to shield bases on the Moon or even Mars. 

As of right now NASA is planning on sending the Perseverance rover to the Red Planet by the end of the month, and the current astronauts aboard the International Space Station are set on returning to Earth on August 2nd.

Earth

Henk Rogers, Who Brought Tetris to the West, Plans to Save the Planet

Rogers, who introduced Tetris to the West, has his sights set on even greater ambitions – namely, traveling to the moon and Mars and protecting the Earth from environmental collapse.

Spaceship

India Announces They’ll Be Sending Humans To Space For The First Time

India is looking to become the fourth nation in the world to send its citizens into space. America, China, and Russia are the only other countries in the world to hold the same honor. The plan is to send four astronauts up into space in 2022. The identities of these individuals have been kept anonymous for now, as plans for the space mission are still in their preliminary stages. 

According to sources, India has been developing a spacecraft, known as Gaganyaan, that would let up to three individuals go into space and orbit the Earth for up to a week. The announcement came from the India Space Research Organization, or ISRO, which held a press conference about the mission on New Year’s Day. 

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Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Kailasavadivoo Sivan 

During the conference Kailasavadivoo Sivan, ISRO’s chairman pictured above, briefed over 100 media personnel about the mission and the four astronauts’ intensive training, which he mentioned would begin in Russia in a couple of weeks.

In addition to their first human-made space journey, ISRO is hoping to make up for their failed moon rover mission from 2018. Last year, India sent a small solar-powered space rover to the moon in order to land and collect data. However, the rover, known as the Chandrayaan-2, unfortunately crashed during a failed landing. ISRO states that the crash was due to a system malfunction that tampered with the landing gears in the rover. However, this incident was after a rather successful first moon rover mission from 2008. 

“India’s first successful lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, put a spacecraft in orbit around the moon in 2008 and then later sent a probe hurtling toward the moon’s south pole, where it deliberately crashed and released material that was analyzed by the orbiter’s scientific instruments, helping to confirm the presence of water ice on the Moon,” according to Nell Greenfieldboyce, who covered ISRO’s recent conference.

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Now, ISRO is hoping to make up for that malfunction by sending their newest rover, the Chandrayaan-3, to the moon. That mission is completely separate from the Gaganyaan mission; however, both were recently approved by the Indian government, so the announcements were made together. 

“The Chandrayaan-2 mission also included an orbiting spacecraft, however, that is still circling the moon and functioning well. That means it can be used by Chandrayaan-3’s rover to relay communications back to Earth,” said Greenfieldboyce

Since the first two space rover missions, India’s space program received a huge boost in public and political interest. Funding increased, and so did a desire for further exploration and expansion into the unknown.

Back in 2014, the ISRO was able to learn even more by putting a satellite into Mars’ orbit. At the time, this was a huge deal for India’s space program as they got to Mars before China, their biggest rival in terms of technology and space exploration. This made India the first Asian country to make it to Mars as well as the first nation in the world to reach it on their first attempt without any malfunctions.

The Chandrayaan-3 moon rover mission will likely occur before India is able to send their astronauts up into space, but both projects are predicted to launch within the next two to three years.

Space elevator

Study Finds a Space Elevator May Be Feasible

It sounds like something out of a cheesy science fiction novel, but scientists have long considered the possibility of creating an elevator that connects the Earth to the moon, making the trip between the two planetary bodies much easier. A number of practical considerations spring to mind immediately when contemplating such an endeavor, not the least of which is the financial cost of engineering and building such a system. A new paper, however, reaches the surprising conclusion that this barrier, among others, is not so great as to be prohibitive, and the reality of a space elevator may manifest within our lifetimes.

The paper, written by astronomy students Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford and published on the online research archive arXiv, details a proposed “lunar space elevator” and describes the engineering difficulties involved in constructing one, as well as unique solutions to these problems. The students’ proposal leverages technology that already exists, instead of relying upon technology which has yet to be invented, by suggesting the construction of an elevator starting on the moon and reaching 200,000 miles to geostationary orbit. 

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This construction method would eliminate the need to place a counterweight near Earth’s orbit to balance out the gravitational effects of building an elevator from the ground up to the moon, and also eliminates the risk of relative motion between the Earth and the moon to twist or bend the elevator. As this method attaches the elevator to a satellite in geostationary orbit, rather than the Earth’s surface, additional space travel is required to move from the Earth to the elevator, though the costs of this trip would be substantially less than the current cost of travelling to the moon.

The researchers propose that the cable used to support the elevator, which they call the Spaceline, would be thinner than a pencil and weigh about 88,000 pounds, which is within the possible payload weight of a rocket ship to the moon. A number of different materials could be used to create this Spaceline, including carbon nanotubes, a remarkably strong and light synthetic material which has so far only ever been produced in short lengths and is often considered in various space elevator designs. 

A space elevator would make possible the establishment of a zero-gravity base camp in space, as well as an eventual moon base.

However, the researchers argue that other materials such as Kevlar, Dyneema, and Zylon, which are cheaper and easier to manufacture, could be used under their specifications. Though Penoyre and Sandford speculate that this project would easily cost a few billion dollars, the price is “within the whim of one particularly motivated billionaire,” bringing to mind the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, both of whom have already invested significant portions of their personal fortunes into space exploration technology.

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Penoyre and Stanford also provide several practical justifications for investing in space elevator technology. The researchers argue that using a spaceline to move an elevator from geostationary orbit to the moon would be free, as the elevator could be powered by solar panels, and the cost of moving from the Earth to the elevator would be less than moving into a geostationary orbit. They also note that the development of this infrastructure would make transport of both people and materials across space much easier, and the engineering challenge of building a Spaceline would push forward technological capabilities. Additionally, a space elevator would make possible the establishment of a zero-gravity base camp in space, as well as an eventual moon base.

There are a number of scientific and economic advantages to returning to the moon generally. One potential application is the mining of valuable raw materials, such as helium-3, neodymium and gadolinium, which are thought to be buried beneath the moon’s surface. Helium-3, a rare material on Earth, could theoretically be used to fuel nuclear power generators, among other applications. The low-gravity vacuum of the moon has the potential to be a unique environment for scientific experiments, and establishing a human settlement on the moon would provide good experience for settling on other planets, most notably Mars.