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.)

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.)

On Newt Gingrich on the Moon

Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim: “By the end of my second term [2020], we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American.” On the surface, it’s an intriguing and even exciting prospect to space enthusiasts. A base on the Moon would extend human presence in the Solar System and act as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Or, it could bankrupt NASA and prove to be little more than an ill-thought out, dead-end program. (Gingrich proposed a lunar base by 2020 in Florida on January 25, 2012.) Continue reading “On Newt Gingrich on the Moon”

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?)

The Problems of Simulating Mars on Earth

The psychological stress of spaceflight has always been a concern. One of the reasons there was so much banter during Apollo missions was because NASA was worried that if the astronauts stopped moving and had an opportunity to really think “I’m standing on the moon!” they would panic. But no one can generate banter for a mission lasting more than 500 days, especially when there is an increasing delay in communications. A crew going to Mars will need to have the mental stability – both as individuals and as a group – to maintain their own sanity and mentally survive going to Mars.  (Left, the Mars 500 Crew in May, 2011.)

This was the goal of the recent Mars 500 study, a joint project of the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). Six men were isolated and confined to a mock spacecraft for five hundred and twenty days. The purpose was to  simulate a Martian mission and gauge the participants’ psychological reactions to the mission – simulations are another fascination of mine. Mars 500 “landed” back on Earth on November 4, so it’s still too early to know the long-term effects of the mission. But it’s not too early to question wether or not it was an effective measure of human factors on a long-duration planetary mission, or if there even is an effective way to test man’s psychological reaction to a trip to Mars.  Continue reading “The Problems of Simulating Mars on Earth”