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.

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NASA Names Commercial Spaceflight Astronauts

Commercial Crew Astronauts
(Image Source: NASA)

On August 3rd, NASA officially named the astronauts who will fly on the SpaceX and Boeing crew modules destined for the International Space Station. This is a tremendously important step, as it is allowing the US to reclaim their own access to space instead of relying on Russian launch capability as it has since 2011 when the Shuttle was officially mothballed.

On the SpaceX Crew Dragon:

  • (test flight) Col. Bob Behnken of the Air Force
  • (test flight) Doug Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel
  • (ISS) Mike Hopkins, Air Force colonel
  • (ISS) Victor Glover, Navy commander

On the Boeing CST-100 Starliner:

  • (test flight) Eric Boe, a former space shuttle pilot who retired from the Air Force
  • (test flight) Christopher Ferguson, a Boeing astronaut who left NASA in 2011
  • (test flight) Lt. Col. Nicole Mann of the Marine Corps
  • (ISS) Williams, a retired Navy captain
  • (ISS) Cmdr. Josh Cassada of the Navy

The test flights will be here before we know it, with uncrewed flights of the new modules scheduled for late 2018, and the first human test flights slated for mid-2019.

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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!

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Liquid Water Discovered on Mars

Surface ice near the South Pole - liquid water underneath
(Surface ice near the South Pole – liquid water underneath)
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/MALIN SPACE SCIENCE SYSTEMS

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.

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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 )

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Rapid Mars Planet Formation Gave it a Head Start

Mars Crust Formed Early
(Image Credit: JPL/NASA)

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!

References:
Science News
Nature

SpaceX CRS-15 ISS Resupply Mission – June 29th 5:41am EST

SpaceX CRS-15 Mission
(Image Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is once again getting ready to resupply the ISS, as part of their ongoing contract with NASA to provide that vital service. The launch is scheduled for 5:41am Eastern on June 29th, from pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. The hardware for this mission will include both a previously flown Falcon booster as well as a previously flown Dragon capsule.

It’s exciting that the development of the Crew Dragon is moving ahead strongly, and every launch of the existing resupply dragon capsule provides more data and more assurance that the systems are up to the challenge of safely launching and returning astronauts. What a relief it will be soon, to have that capacity within our own control after many years of outsourcing.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Next Launch – May 31, 2018

SES-12 Satellite
(Image Credit: SES)

Mark your calendars for the next Falcon 9 launch, currently on the books for May 31st, 2018. The rocket will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s pad SLC-40 and will be carrying a communications satellite (SES-12) for European telecom giant SES. Current indications are that this will be an older model Block 4 booster which is not planned to be recovered sadly. Pretty soon they will only have Block 5 hardware available and then we will be in the era of major and continuous reuse.

Reference: Space Flight Insider

Falcon 9 Iridium Launch, 5/22/2018 12:47pm PDT

Falcon 9 Iridium Launch
(Image Credit: SpaceX)

Get ready for the next Falcon 9 launch, Tuesday 5/22/2018 at 12:47pm PDT (3:47pm EDT) from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vanderberg Air Force Base in California. This mission will loft NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, an extension of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment which was retired in 2017. These precision instruments are intended to track the movement of water on Earth, and are also able to monitor the planet’s gravitational fields. This data will be used to track the planet’s distribution of mass, and to refine models of the ocean and climate.

Also launching tomorrow are Iridium Satellites 51-55, which are part of the ongoing construction of the 75 satellite Iridium NEXT worldwide network. This advanced network is intended to provide L-band data speeds of up to 128 kbit/s to mobile devices, along with improved service to marine terminals and high-speed Ka-band service. The Ka-band allows for higher bandwidth communication and is often part of modern satellite communication protocols.

The booster for this mission is a Falcon 9 Block 4, which is not intended to be recovered. Pretty soon all missions will be flown with the highly reusable block 5 rockets, which will ensure a landing show every time.

The deploy of this varied cargo turns out to be a pretty interesting challenge for tomorrow’s launch, as it must happen at two very different spots along the voyage. The NASA GRACE-FO mission needs to be deployed at 300 miles of elevation, which is intended to take place midway through the 2nd stage burn, so it seems. The burn will pause at the 305 mile mark, the NASA payload will be deployed, then burn will recommence and continue to a 500 mile elevation for the Iridium hardware. This all sounds like yet another amazing plan and raises the bar once again for what can be done with commercial (and low cost!) rocketry. Hopefully the cams will be working and we will all get a heck of a show!

References:
Iridium Next
express.co.uk
Techcrunch