Archive for the ‘Mars’ Category

The Future of Human Spaceflight – Part 2: Mars

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

NASA’s SLS rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft

In the previous article we discussed the transitioning burden of human spaceflight to low Earth orbit (LEO) from NASA’s dependency on the Russians to private industry such as SpaceX and Boeing. In doing so, NASA set its sights on manned deep space missions, that will take place over the next few decades.

In the 1960s NASA pioneered human spaceflight with a series of manned spaceflight programs known as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Each program was divided into a series of missions building upon each other as stepping stones to reach the ultimate goal of putting humans on the moon. Apollo 11 was the first to achieve this goal, occurring in July 1969. On December 14, 1972 Apollo 17 left the moon, marking the last time humans traveled beyond LEO.

The Path to Mars

In the same way as the manned spaceflight programs from the 1960s and 1970s, NASA has ostensibly laid out a series of potential mission objectives that ultimately culminate in landing humans on Mars in the 2030s. Though these missions are far from guaranteed (and subject to budget cuts), the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are taking these milestone missions into account during their design phases.

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield monitoring a plant experiment on the International Space Station

The International Space Station

The first step in our journey to Mars is underway right now. Astronauts on the ISS are performing experiments to better our understanding of long term space exposure to the human body. In a document issued by NASA on May 29th, 2014 entitled “Pioneering Space: NASA’s Next Steps on the Path to Mars”, NASA indicated their research specifically targets “decreased gravity affecting bone, muscle, cardiovascular and sensorimotor systems, nutrition, behavior/performance, immunology and the ability to provide remote medical care via telemedic” It also provides us with a test bed for developing better technologies in areas such as spacecraft docking, life support, and extravehicular activity.

The Moon

While NASA may not be landing humans on the Moon anymore, it still provides an excellent place to test long duration, self sustaining systems in a low-risk environment. The first manned missions of the Orion and SLS, slated for 2021-2022, will send humans into an extended lunar orbit to prove the capabilities and habitability of the spacecraft.

Lunar orbit also is valuable for future missions in that the Moon’s gravity is one-sixth of Earth’s. Conceivably, a long duration mission to Mars could be staged and launched from lunar orbit, reducing the fuel requirements to reach cruising velocity to Mars. In this scenario, a manned rocket could be refueled in lunar orbit, increasing the potential payload launched from Earth and decreasing the cost of the mission.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

Artist rendition of a potential asteroid redirect mission spacecraft

In addition to human spaceflight, NASA also has projects involving deep space missions to near Earth asteroids (NEAs). To leverage this technology, NASA has decided to attempt a NEA capture and transfer into lunar orbit using robotic spacecraft powered by a solar electric propulsion (SEP) rocket in 2019. Once placed in lunar orbit, astronauts will take Orion to the asteroid, and attempt Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA). This will be the first time a human has set foot on an asteroid, slated for 2025.

The purpose of this mission is complex. From a scientific standpoint, asteroids are extremely old remnants of the early solar system, thus scientists want a closer look at their chemical makeup to help us understand how the solar system was formed. In terms of technology, it will be an impressive feat to both capture and relocate an asteroid, and SEP technology can later be used to transfer cargo to Mars in anticipation of a manned mission, effectively creating a Martian space station before humans ever arrive. Additionally, it will provide an excellent test of Orion’s ability to rendezvous with robotic spacecraft, and give astronauts a chance to test EVA in a low-gravity environment.

Phobos and Deimos

Before landing humans on Mars, NASA may launch a mission to one of Mars’s moons, Phobos or Deimos. Though scientists currently believe they are captured asteroids rather than pieces of Mars broken off, they could provide access to Martian material accrued from millions of years of meteor strikes to the martian surface. The also provide a test environment for landing men in a deep space environment, as Phobos’s gravity is 650 times weaker than Mars’s.

Artist rendition of the first humans on Mars

Mars Landing

Sometime in the 2030s, NASA plans to attempt the first landing of humans on another planet. This will be a culmination of the aforementioned programs, as well as countless hours of development and testing by NASA, partner space programs, and commercial space companies. As of now a mission to Mars will take a minimum 550 days, with more than 95 percent of that time spent in deep space between Earth and Mars. A Martian lander has yet to be developed, but will come to fruition as scientists and engineers learn more about Mars, and human sustainability in deep space.

Mission Updates: NASA in 2014

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

NASA has been granted approximately $17.7 Billion dollars for the 2014 fiscal year. Among many of the day to day operations, such as the ISS, Curiosity Rover, and educational outreach, there are a couple important missions that will be making significant strides in 2014.

Artist Rendering of the Orion Module


Orion is a multi-purpose spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into deep space. Development for the Orion began in 2005 during the now-cancelled Constellation program, and is currently being carried out by Lockheed Martin. Orion can carry up to six astronauts, and will eventually use the Space Launch System (SLS) to get it into space.

The first test flight of Orion is set to take place in 2014, called the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1). Since the SLS development is not yet completed, the Orion will be placed into orbit by a Delta IV Heavy rocket. The Orion will make a series of unmanned test flights over the next 5 years, to ensure its safety and reliability. Actual manned missions in the Orion are expected to take place after 2020.

Orion’s primary purpose is for manned spaceflight to the Moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars.

Artist rendering of the Space Launch System (SLS) carrying the Orion Spacecraft

This is the first time since the Apollo missions of the 60’s and early 70’s that a manned spacecraft is specifically designed to leave Low Earth Orbit (LEO).


James Webb Space Telescope

The James Web Space Telescope is a telescope currently being built by NASA, ESA (European Space agency), and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), with construction contributions from Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace. As opposed to the Hubble Space Telescope which utilizes primarily visible light, the JWST will observe in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared light is light that has a wavelength shorter than the human eye can see.

One of the James Webb Space Telescope’s primary goals is to see further (and thus earlier) into the universe than we ever have before. It is also intended to assist in answering questions about the formations of stars and planets, including those which existed very early in the universe.

The JWST is a reflective telescope with a hexagonal mirror made up of reflective panels that stretch a total of 21ft (6.5m) across. It also includes a large sunshield to block light from the sun, providing more accurate measurements from the telescope.

Program Progress

The JWST began in planning in 1996, with a budget of $500,000 and target launch of 2007. As the years passed, both the budget increased, and the launch date was pushed back. Currently the launch date is 2018, with a budget of about $8.8 billion.


The JWST will be located in space at a distance significantly further out from the Hubble space telescope – or any satellite for that matter. IT will be located at the second Lagrange point (referred to as L2), which is a special gravitational point in space that utilizes both the gravity from the Sun as well as the gravity from Earth to hold an object in a stable orbit around the system. The second Lagrange point is located approximately 930,000 mi (1,500,000 km) from Earth’s surface, or about for 4 times further than the moon.

Because of the significant distance to L2, sending spacecraft to it for maintenance is nearly impossible. Thus the telescope will have to be self-serviceable, and built with the idea in mind that it will not be accessible once deployed.


The Red Planet – pt.3

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Manned Missions to Mars

For the foreseeable future, the proverbial Holy Grail of astronomy is landing a man on Mars. The last time a human set foot on a world other than our own was Apollo 17, which occurred in December of 1972. A journey to Mars, however, has a slew of additional obstacles to overcome, making it significantly more expensive and dangerous than the Apollo missions to the moon. Nevertheless, there are missions already in the early stages to put men on Mars during our lifetime.


The most obvious challenge to going to Mars is the distance. Even with embarking at the optimal time considering the positioning of the two planets, a trip from Earth to Mars will take at least 150 days with current propulsion technology.   While that duration has been surpassed by numerous astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS and Mir, it has never been attempted in a small spacecraft, and never at such extreme distances from Earth. The mental stability of the crew is a concern, as a round trip journey could take well over a year. Additionally, if anything goes wrong on the journey, there is virtually nothing that can be done on Earth to help rescue the crew.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge currently facing human spaceflight to mars is radiation. Radiation comes from both the Sun as well as deep space. It is very damaging to human tissue in high volumes, and can cause life threatening cancer. In Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where a majority of human spaceflight has taken place, astronauts are protected by Earth’s powerful magnetic shield. Outside of this shield, the radiation is significantly higher. It was calculated that a round trip to Mars would subject astronauts to about .66 Sieverts of radiation, roughly 33 times the maximum acceptable annual radiation by the Department of Energy.

Additionally, a huge obstacle is the sheer cost of a manned mission to Mars. Cost estimates put it at anywhere from $6 billion to $500 billion, depending upon the mission parameters. For reference, the entire operating budget of NASA in 2014 is about $16.6 billion. The cost of a Martian trip is comprised of both the development of the necessary technology, as well as the cost of propelling a spacecraft to the Martian surface and back.

Current Manned Mission Proposals


Lockheed Martin’s Orion Spacecraft

In 2010 President Obama predicted an orbital mission to Mars in the mid 2030s. This would not put astronauts on the surface, but would get them within reach. Shortly thereafter he predicted a human landing.

NASA is currently developing a spacecraft with Lockheed Martin known as Orion. This craft is built to take astronauts to the Moon, various asteroids, and Mars. The first unmanned test flight is slated for 2014, with the first manned mission expected in the 2020s.


Russia is currently building a new launch pad which is designed to support missions to the Moon and Mars. It is expected to see its first use in 2018. While there aren’t any details yet on a specific mission to Mars, it is expected that the Russians will team up with the European Space Agency and NASA to build a spacecraft capable of sending humans to Mars

SpaceX Red Dragon Artist Rendering

SpaceX Red Dragon

The Red Dragon is a low cost Mars Lander concept designed by the private company SpaceX. Currently it does not have funding from NASA, but is proposed in budget discussions for 2015. The Red Dragon could launch for testing as early as 2018.


Mars One

Mars One Station

Perhaps the most controversial planned mission to mars is referred to as “Mars to Stay” concept. This is utilized by the Mars One program, which plans to send humans to Mars as early as 2024, with the intention of not returning those humans to Earth. This greatly reduces the cost of the trip, because fuel to leave Mars’ gravity and return home is not needed.

The concept is to choose candidates who are willing to live the rest of their lives on Mars, and train them for their mission. After a series of unmanned missions completes to create the initial habitat, four members of the Mars One crew will be sent to the surface. Additional crew and supplies will be sent every two years, expanding the habitat with each mission.

The funding for this project is expected to come primarily from revenue generated by selling television coverage of the mission, including filming the crew on Mars. Additionally, crowd funding sources and the sale of merchandise are anticipated to help contribute to the project’s finances.

This project is heavily criticized for multiple reasons, primarily being the disparity between expected funds and actual cost, and an oversight of the difficult challenges facing a trip and stay on Mars.

Mars Initiative

The Mars Initiative is an international organization to advocate space exporlation, specifically that of a manned mission to Mars. It does so by accepting donations from supporters to provide incentive and generate an additional funding source for the first successful mission, named the “Mars Prize Fund”.

The Red Planet – pt. 2

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

This is part two of a three part series on Mars.

Decedents of Mars

The origin of life on Earth is a hotly debated topic throughout all facets of humanity. Both religiously and scientifically, there are dozens of explanations for how life began on our planet. While most focus on Earth being the cradle of life, there is a theory of the origin of life coming from another celestial body.

Note: This is a scientific theory, and has not been proven.

The Early Solar System

Our sun was formed approximately 4.6 billion years ago, and the planets formed shortly after that. In the early solar system, planets were extremely hot and constantly bombarded with asteroids. Because Mars is about 10 times less massive than the Earth, it was able to cool quicker. In doing so, it may have also formed liquid water earlier than Earth. As we saw in a previous article, water is the key to life, and thus Mars may have been habitable millions of years before Earth.


Microscopic image of a Tardigrade

Although it is possible that Mars may have been habitable before Earth, it does not necessarily mean any life could travel between the two planets. Space is an extremely hostile environment, with frigid temperatures, fatal doses of radiation, and nearly a complete vacuum. To determine if life could exist in space, we must look at life on Earth today. Even in the harshest conditions on the planet, we find the Earth teeming with life. There is a classification of animals known as “extremophiles” that illustrate this survivability. One particular microscopic animal, known as the Tardigrade, can survive in almost any environment imaginable. They have been shown to live in temperatures a few degrees above absolute zero (−459.67°F), survive harmful doses of radiation, go without food for 10 years, and have even survived in the vacuum of space.


Since it is plausible that a microscopic life form can exist in space, all that is needed is the vehicle to travel between planets. As mentioned earlier, the young universe was riddled with asteroids that would often collide into planets. A large enough impact will launch planetary matter with such velocity that it will escape the gravity of that planet and begin its journey into space. It is possible some of this matter on mars may have harbored some extremophiles, and perhaps that matter made its way to Earth, thus seeding life on our own planet. The origin of life on Earth is a hotly debated topic throughout all facets of humanity. Both religiously and scientifically, there are dozens of explanations for how life began on our planet. While most focus on Earth being the cradle of life, there is a theory of the origin of life coming from another celestial body.