Opportunity Rover – Come On Back – Over

Opportunity Rover
(Image Credit: NASA)

It’s such a wonderful thing when electronics intended to last for months end up lasting years. One of my personal favorite examples of this is arcade equipment from the 1980s, which was cycled into and out of arcades extremely rapidly owing to their massive popularity at the time. These machines were not really “built to last”, but since it was the 1980s, they were built. As a result, we can still experience the joy of an original arcade or pinball machine, which requires surprisingly little TLC to get it back to prime.

Fast forward to 2003, when the Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity was launched, and subsequently landed on Mars in 2004. This was a mission intended to last for 90 days, and by all accounts the rover was designed for that time scale as well. However, 14.5 years into the mission it has surpassed all expectations and certainly paid for itself many times over with the science it has enabled. Sadly, the massive Martian dust storm of the last month may have finally brought that mission to an end, by covering the solar panels on the rover and effectively putting it to sleep. NASA and outposts around the world are anxiously listening for any slight signal from the rover, but as days drag on this seems less and less likely.

Steven Squyres (Ph.D Cornell 1981) who has been the principal investigator of the Mars missions for all this time, explains the situation in clear terms in a new article fittingly published in Cornell’s campus paper The Daily Sun. What is most likely to kill the rover will be the bitter cold it will be subjected to without power to stay warm. The -80 degree Celsius nights on Mars will subject the stalwart rover to component expansion and contraction – stresses which will be increasingly difficult to endure.

Overall, everyone is more than satisfied with the mission outcome, it’s just that after a piece of science equipment is nearly old enough to get a drivers license, you get a little attached.

So – we wish the rover the best. And we also look forward to a time when it has a place of honor in the first Natural Science museum to be built on the red planet.


NASA ADEPT Folding Heat Shield for Mars

NASA ADEPT Folding Heat Shield for Mars
(Image Credit: NASA)

The good folks at NASA have conducted the first flight test of a new foldable heat shield on September 12th, with great success. This new concept is touted as a transformative technology that will enable larger and lighter ships to perform more advanced missions, not the least of which will be both cargo and crew missions to Mars with an enhanced ability to survive the rigors of reentry using a vastly slimmed down system. Any time you can save weight on a spacecraft, that savings can be redistributed to more critical areas, namely additional cargo and scientific apparatus (and pizza ovens).

Called the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT), a backronym worthy of Gary Busey, it consists of a 3D-woven carbon fibers arranged in a thick layer, formed on top of a structure which can flex and deploy the shield. This is in contrast to the traditional rigid, heavy, difficult to construct plastic shielding which has been used for decades. It’s this sort of novel and creative thinking which will allow us to accomplish more important and ambitious flight objectives, and is another great sign that key decision makers are aligned correctly to move us forward.

You can check out a video of the heat shield here!


NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge

NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge
(Image Credit: NASA)

The good folks at NASA, ever managing to be on the leading edge, have just launched a competition encouraging teams to develop a system to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. Why is this important? Well, sugar-based biomaterials are plentiful on this planet thanks to our helpful plant life. That will not be the case as we set out among the stars! Developing bioengineering methods to create base materials that will be in short supply (such as easy to metabolize sugars like glucose) from materials that are in great abundance (carbon dioxide) will be a crucial step towards facilitating our successful advancement.

This competition is broken into two phases:

  • Phase 1: Teams submit a design and description of a method to perform the stipulated conversion. Up to 5 teams will be awared $50,000 each, as will be announced in April 2019.
  • Phase 2: Actually building a working system to perform the conversion. The successful team will walk away with $750,000.

This new contest is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which was initiated in 2005, intended to directly engage the public in advanced technology development. Basically, NASA is being very observant and starting to crowd-source ideas and research, which makes a great deal of sense in our current world.

To register for the competition, check out the official website!


Mars Dust Storm Finally Slowing

Mars Surface - Rover Tracks
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.)

A planet-wide dust storm, which was first seen on May 30, 2018, is finally winding down on the windy red planet. NASA’s rover Opportunity, which is solar powered, has suffered a shutdown as a result of this storm – going into what amounts to hibernation to ride out the storm. However, that dormant period has been longer and more intense than originally designed to handle, so everyone is on edge waiting to see if we can get the rover back on line.

Signals are being sent to the 15 year old rover, which is tucked away in Perseverance Valley, in the hope that once the batteries are recharged even a little, the unit will initiate recovery procedures.

We’ll keep you posted on the status of this fan-favorite rover; and hopefully some readers of this site will one day visit it in a science museum with 38% the surface gravity of Earth.


Mars Workshop Hosted by SpaceX

SpaceX Mars Conference
(Image Credit: Dr. Phil Metzger @DrPhiltill)

Last week, SpaceX hosted a closed-door. invitation only Mars workshop, intended to bring together an interdisciplinary team of industry leading experts to discuss the plan for the red planet. Details on this meeting are, as you would imagine, still pretty minimal, but it is encouraging that this sort of thing is starting to ramp up, and the right questions are being asked of the right people.

A recent criticism that has been lodged against SpaceX is that they are very focused and successful with solving the engineering problems required to improve rocket technology and build the pathway to Mars. However, the amount of time spent considering the human factor, and how difficult it will be to keep astronauts alive both on the journey as well as once they have arrived is far less. Challenges ranging from radiation exposure (in space and on the surface) to adequate supplies to the ‘dust problem’ to basic human interactions all need to be considered and seriously addressed. Since Musk’s companies all show a propensity for thinking of the edge cases and surprising us when we think they are missing an angle, I maintain great confidence that what needs to be considered, is well under way.


Mars – as Close as it Gets

Close Mars
(Image Credit: Hubble (NASA, ESA, and STScI))

NASA is reminding everyone that today, July 31st 2018, is the closest Mars will be to Earth for the next 269 years, at a distance of 35.8 million miles (57.6 million kilometers). That means, unless those of us alive now are very very lucky and some medical advances happen in the next 10-20 years, we probably won’t be around for the next one.

If it is cloudy where you are, don’t stress too much – the next close approach, while not prize winning, will still be fun to observe and will take place Oct. 6, 2020.

So – get out there and keep watching the skies!


Liquid Water Discovered on Mars

Surface ice near the South Pole - liquid water underneath
(Surface ice near the South Pole – liquid water underneath)

A team from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, using Marsis, a radar instrument on board the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Mars Express orbiter, believe they have discovered a nearly 20km (12 mile) underground liquid water lake on everyone’s favorite backup planet. This is significant for oh so many reasons, and we need to get a probe over there stat and see about what may be swimming around.

The technique for finding this new Mars feature utilized the radar capability of Marsis, and the team realized that reflections from the bottom of a subsurface feature were stronger than reflections from the surface which, in radar terms, is a good sign of liquid H2O.


Mars Perihelic Opposition – 15 year Minimum Distance

Mars Surface
(Image Credit: stuff.co.nz)

At the end of July we will be treated to a view of Mars that is about as good as it’s going to get from the surface of our blue planet. Earth will be passing directly between Mars and the sun, and at a minimum distance which recurs every 15 years. It should be possible to resolve surface details of our next home planet with a telescope, and you will be able to see it with the naked eye as a bright orange star-like object for the remainder of the year. While this is often at least somewhat true, 2018 should provide far better viewing than average!

It’s a good time to get and stay excited about Mars, and be sure to set your calendars for the next nearest approach when we will hopefully be sending a fleet of BFR vessels that way!

* stuff.co.nz – Mars will be at its biggest and brightest

Fluvial Stream Evidence on Mars

Fluvial Mars
(Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Mars has a lot of interesting surface features, and a new study claims to have decent reason to believe that many of the structures which resemble fluvial stream networks on Earth were formed by the same processes on Mars. Namely, it speaks to the existence of a climate and atmosphere which was able to support frequent and heavy rainfall, on a planet that may have been much wetter than even we had thought.

This all goes to show that Mars continues to surprise us, the more we learn about it, and that the vast undertaking of coming to terms with an entirely new celestial body is more meaningful and challenging than we can imagine.

Wind Power on Mars

Mars Wind Storm
(Image Credit: Ron Miller / weather.com)

A new study from Boston University’s Center for Space Physics has determined that wind is an effective option for power generation on Mars! This is especially important to combat times of low solar activity such as we are seeing with the current dust storm, and to balance power needs when a piece of equipment may be in a limited sunlight environment for half the year. Additionally, radioisotope power (ie. nuclear) as powers the Curiosity rover would be counter-indicated in a polar region as it would impact any science experiments being conducted.

The original experiments for this paper were conducted in 2010. At the time it was determined that wind was a possible power source given climate conditions on the Red Planet, however there were concerns over the required size of the turbines given the state of technology at the time. Now with 8 more years of materials science and research behind us, the equipment that could be deployed for this purpose has sufficiently improved that it truly can be seen as a viable option. Another great step forward for Mars!

Mars Wind Turbines
(Figure 1: (left) The wind turbine positioned in the wind tunnel, which is 2m in diameter. (right) Close-up of the wind turbine with the wind tunnel fan visible in the background.
Image Credit: Holstein-Rathlou of Boston University )