Can Russia Save ExoMars?

The latest budget for NASA for FY 2013 sees the agency’s Mars exploration program taking a huge hit – it will get $318 million less than FY 2012. This funding cut has forced NASA to withdraw from the ExoMars, the joint mission with the European Space Agency designed to culminate with a sample return. Without NASA, ExoMars is left in pieces and ESA is hoping the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will take NASA’s place. This partnership could be without payoff since neither country has had great luck with Mars, particularly Russia whose missions have been thwarted by the mythical galactic ghoul. NASA’s withdrawal brings other questions to the forefront as well, like whether the agency has lost its way and will it soon lose its prestige in space. My whole article on the subject was published yesterday on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog. (Left, an artist’s concept of ESA’a Beagle 2 falling through the Martian atmosphere.)

Sounds of Space

Have you ever stopped to wonder why, during planetarium presentations filled with stunning images from other worlds, there is always a classical music soundtrack? That’s because no one has managed to capture planetary sounds, but not for lack of trying.  NASA’s Mars Polar Lander carried a microphone but the spacecraft crashed during its descent in 1999, and a French mission designed to record sound on Mars never flew. NASA’s successful Mars Phoenix Lander carried a microphone, but it failed to return any audio data during its 2008 mission. Simulated sounds, on the other hand, are easier to capture. Adjusting sound waves to reflect the environments on other bodies, we can start to get a sense of what space sounds like. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, Mars rover Opportunity’s half self portrait. 2004.)

JWST: Cosmic TiVo

This week, the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT) got its brain, or at least the bit responsible for its memory. The first solid-state electronics unit that will store the telescope’s data was delivered from SEAKR Engineer to the telescope’s builder, Northrop Grumman. It’s the same technology that’s inside devices like DVRs, meaning JWST is about to turn into a cosmic TiVo. Read the full article on Discovery News, where I am pleased to say I am a new writer! (Left, the JWST. NASA.)

NASA’s LRO: Shedding New Light on Old Mysteries

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter keeps finding interesting things on the moon. Last week, LRO’s camera photographed the landing sites of Luna 23 and 24, two Soviet probes that landed in the 1970s. The images have enabled scientists to solve mysteries about these missions, specifically what happened to Luna 23 and why the samples returned by Luna 24 were drastically different than anticipated. It seems these nearly 40-year-old missions are still unfolding. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, the Soviet Luna 16 spacecraft. One of many in the long-lasting program.)

Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?

On February 13, President Obama unveiled the proposed budget for NASA for the fiscal year 2013: $17.7 billion. That’s $59 million less than FY 2012, and a number that’s expected to remain constant over the next five years. Hardest hit was the Mars program, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of exploration on our cosmic neighbour. NASA has had great luck with creative and cost-efficient Martian missions in the past, so it’s possible that the next decade on Mars will be fruitful, it might also look different than anticipated. (Left, Mars’ atmosphere.) Continue reading “Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?”

Repurposing Curiosity

The recent cuts to NASA’s budget (after many delays, my article about the budget will be up tomorrow) has effectively killed the agency’s plan of returning Martian samples to Earth within a decade. But could Curiosity, the rover currently en route to Mars, be modified to collect samples? The rover could theoretically become the first stage in a sample return mission, requiring just one follow-up mission to collect and return the samples. That is, if everything works perfectly. Check out the full article on Motherboard. (Left, an artist’s impression of the rover Curiosity on Mars. It is about the size of a Mini Cooper.)

Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Mercury ‘7’s

Each of the Mercury missions had a name followed by the number 7. Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7, Gus Grissom in Liberty Bell 7, John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 (pictured), Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7, Wally Schirra flew Sigma 7, and Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7. Deke Slayton never flew because of a heart condition, but had he flown his mission would have been Delta 7.

So, what’s with all the ‘7’s?  Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Mercury ‘7’s”

MSL Sky Crane on Scientific American’s Guest Blog

Regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m fascinated by landings – the challenges of both landing on Earth and on other planets. Within this latter vein, I’ve lately become completely mesmerized with the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL’s) Sky Crane. Finally, I’ve found a fantastic outlet for an article I’ve been wanting to write for months about the Sky Crane, where it came from, and how it works. With this pieces, I’m very pleased to be a contributing member to the Scientific American’ Guest Blog! Check out the full article, which includes a video of MSL’s recent launch, on Scientific American’s website. (Pictured, the Sky Crane lowering the SUV-sized rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. Don’t you want to know all about it?)

Carnival of Space #223

It’s been a busy week for space blogs, so we’ve got a packed Carnival of Space. Let’s look at what’s been going on in my favourite way: starting from way out in deep space and coming all the way back home to Earth. (Fun vintage space picture of the day: the Apollo 1 crew relaxes in a pool during egress training. That looks like a fun day at work!) Continue reading “Carnival of Space #223”

Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition

Decades make great sales tools. Kennedy used a decade timeframe to sell American on the moon in 1961. Robert Zubrin recently tried the same pitch and called for a manned mission to Mars by the end of a decade (Zubrin’s been pitching a decade-long manned Mars program since the 1980s to no avail). A decade is a nice  round number, and when you’re at the start of a decade – like the year 1961 or 2011 – people (namely Congress and taxpayers) can easily contemplate the end of a decade as a timeframe. But it isn’t  only large-scale manned programs that use a round decade as a sales tool. Recently, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science in cooperation with NASA released an outline of its planetary goals for the coming decade. Where Mars in concerned, there is a pretty impressive program in the works from 2012 to 2023. But unlike the moon landing, bottomless funding isn’t going to achieve the goals at any cost. Instead, the next decade on Mars (pictured) will face certain challenges to meet the decadal goal.  Continue reading “Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition”