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!
(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.
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!
(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 )
When the starting whistle of the universe blew, and our solar system began to coalesce, it now turns out that Mars was running laps around the Earth in terms of planet formation. This is important because it means the planet would have had more than a 100-million-year head start over Earth regarding the development of a viable habitat. The report in the June 27th issue of Nature states that only 20 million years after the dust and gas around our sun had started to form the planets, Mars was up and running!
While these discoveries about the early crust formation on Mars may suggest a longer timeframe for possible development of life, it also indicates a relatively thin atmosphere which is a disappointing side note to this work. I suppose none of that will be terribly important once we start terraforming the place, and restoring it to the former glory of a green and blue world!
While other companies (I can’t even call them competitors) are scrambling to catch up to where SpaceX was in February, the incredible pace of development has not ceased, and all systems are go on the new BFR Mars rocket!
The new Raptor engine, which will be used in a 31-engine configuration to power the BFR, has undergone over 1,200 seconds of static firing tests so far, with the longest one running for 100 seconds. For those readers who want some power numbers, the new engine will produce thrust of 1,700 kilonewtons with a specific impulse of 330 seconds at sea level.
Specific Impulse is a measure of how effectively a rocket uses propellant, ie. the change in momentum delivered per unit of propellant consumed.
The first BFR missions are still on track for 2022, when the cargo train to Mars will start to run. That will allow SpaceX to send supplies in advance of manned missions, and I assure you they are developing robots and non-hostile AI to assist with remote construction duties. It’s clear that exciting news of this new venture will be coming out on a near-daily basis, and we will be here to cover it!
NASA continues to impress, reminding us all that they were in fact the founder of this feast that we are all enjoying so very much. Just a few days ago they announced plans to send a small, autonomous rotorcraft to Mars, as a passenger on the planned Mars 2020 rover mission.
The main purpose of the chopper is to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. NASA is also wasting no time in positioning it as a ‘first’, meaning the first nation to fly a craft on another world. That’s fair enough – so let’s get the marscopter there, get it aloft, and start streaming back some excellent images!
Happening this week, from May 8-10 at the George Washington University in DC, is the Humans to Mars event. Heavy with NASA and Boeing speakers, we also see Josh Brost, Senior Director, Government Business Development at SpaceX on the agenda, who participated in a round-table discussion on May 9th. I am continually excited that the conversation about this next bold step for mankind is intensifying, having tipped over what I hope is critical mass to make sure it actually happens – and quickly. I hope many Gazettians are younger and can look forward to a long lifetime of exciting solar system exploration, but your humble author is no spring chicken! We need to make this happen pretty soon!
The successful InSight launch from last weekend has pointed the new NASA Mars lander on the way to Mars, with a scheduled touch-down of November 26 2018. The launch also lofted two little Cubesats into space which are accompanying the main mission, forming a delightful caravan to the red planet. The mission for the Cubesats (MarCO-A and MarCO-B) is to observe the lander as it plummets to the surface of Mars in late November. But more importantly and in a broader sense, the briefcase-sized satellites will help refine our understanding of how to use these compact, affordable and increasingly high-performing devices to further explore our solar system.
Saturday afternoon, 5/5/2018 the first radio signals from the two little Sats were received by NASA, confirming that they are alive and well and in the midst of their new mission. The mission data which is collected during the flight of these two little pioneers should help usher in yet another new era of exploration and discovery of our solar system.
Mark your calendars now – more great Mars data coming soon this December!
Reference: Space.com and their article on the aspects of the mission.
After the negativity of yesterday, this seems like a great time to revisit some positive and exciting scheduled launches for later this week! NASA’s Mars InSight mission is still on schedule to launch at 4:05am Pacific Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This will make it the first launch to another planet from the West Coast. The fact that we are keeping baseball-like stats on that sort of thing now should make us all very happy.
Here is a NASA page with lots of good info, including links to watch the launch live for anyone who wants to set an alarm. The good news for us night-owls is that the time difference puts this launch at 7:05am Eastern which is downright reasonable!
This launch will come only hours after the first flight of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 Block 5 model, in theory still scheduled for this Friday at 4pm Eastern from pad 39A at Cape Canaveral. What another great week for space!
(Update) The SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 launch has been pushed to Monday, 5/7/2018 for an afternoon launch window between 4pm and 6:25pm.
A current and ongoing experiment at the Eden-ISS lab of Germany’s Neumayer Station III in Antarctica has successfully grown vegetables without dirt, daylight or pesticides. Certainly hydroponics have been a thing for many years, and this work borrows heavily from that discipline as a starting point, but they purposefully pushed the restrictions even further in order to simulate the harsh conditions which will need to be overcome when we first start trying to produce our food off-world.
These sorts of groundbreaking experiments and investigations, which are critical to our success as a space-faring people but not as ‘high profile’ as a rocket launch, are sure to be accelerating in the coming weeks and months. It is a testament to the focus and excitement again associated with the exploration of space, and making humanity multi-planetary, that institutions around the world are spinning up programs to facilitate our next steps into our larger destiny.