Meals for Mars?

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NASA has made tremendous progress during the past fifty years with regards to food science. Gone are the days of nutrients in toothpaste style tubes and it’s safe to assume NASA astronauts haven’t had to drink Tang in decades.

At a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, Maya R. Cooper, senior research scientist at NASA’s Space Food Systems Laboratory discussed how feeding astronauts will be one of the most difficult issues to resolve before launching a manned mission to Mars.

Despite all the progress NASA has made, what challenges still need to be overcome to feed the crew of a manned mission to Mars?

When we plan a camping trip, not much thought is given to what will be eaten during a weekend, a week, or even a month’s time. Modern food science has given us products that are safe to eat after even weeks, and in some cases months. It is very easy to go to the store and load up on delicious and nutritious food, with the expectation that said food will be relatively safe to eat with minor concerns for safety.

Manned spaceflight however, isn’t your average camping trip. Even during a one to two week mission, NASA astronauts can’t just open a refrigerator and make themselves a cold-cut sandwich. Food scientists at NASA must specially prepare meals for astronauts in order to ensure said meals are safe to consume during the mission, not only for the crew, but for their habitat as well. The average can or bottle of pop wouldn’t provide the same level of safety and satisfaction for a crew in space as it would for a person on Earth. Food crumbs can clog air filters or become lodged into sensitive equipment. Basically, what works well for a camping trip doesn’t always work for an ISS mission and what works for the ISS crew may not work for a multi-year mission to Mars.

In her talk, Cooper discussed some of the issues such as food safety that she and her team currently address. Some of the other issues discussed included food packaging, nutrition, weight, and of course variety.

Cooper cited that the current daily allocation of food for manned spaceflight crews is just under four pounds per day. Estimating a five-year trek to Mars would require over 7,000 pounds of food per crew person. “That’s a clear impediment to a lot of mission scenarios,” Cooper said. “We need new approaches. Right now, we are looking at the possibility of implementing a bioregenerative system that would involve growing crops in space and possibly shipping some bulk commodities to a Mars habitat as well. This scenario involves much more food processing and meal preparation than the current food system developed for the space shuttles and the International Space Station.”

Various examples of encapsulated space food.
Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Flight Center

The idea behind bioregenerative systems is that plants could multi-task, not only providing food, but also removing carbon dioxide gas and releasing oxygen, just like plants on Earth. Plants that are prime candidates for a Mars mission would have very little inedible structure. So far, ten plants that require little room and grow with minimal work have been identified. A few of the ten ideal plants identified are lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, some herbs and cabbage.

One other idea Cooper suggested for future manned missions to Mars, would be to ship food products ahead of time. Sending supplies in advance of a mission would result in less food and packaging flying onboard the manned spacecraft headed to Mars. There are a few questions regarding sending supplies in advance, namely what happens if a critical supply ship fails to reach Mars and whether current food preservation technology can guarantee adequate nutritional content for a mission to Mars.

“The NASA Advanced Food Technology project is currently working to address the issues of food variety, weight, volume, nutrition and trash disposal through research and external academic and commercial collaborations,” Cooper noted.

Source: American Chemical Society

Ray Sanders is a Sci-Fi geek, astronomer and space/science blogger. Visit his website Dear Astronomer and follow on Twitter (@DearAstronomer) or Google+ for more space musings.

How Did Jupiter Shape Our Solar System?

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Jupiter hasn’t always been in the same place in our solar system. Early in the history of our solar system, Jupiter moved inward towards the sun, almost to where Mars currently orbits now, and then back out to its current position.

The migration through our solar system of Jupiter had some major effects on our solar system. Some of the effects of Jupiter’s wanderings include effects on the asteroid belt and the stunted growth of Mars.

What other effects did Jupiter’s migration have on the early solar system and how did scientists make this discovery?

In a research paper published in the July 14th issue of Nature, First author Kevin Walsh and his team created a model of the early solar system which helps explain Jupiter’s migration. The team’s model shows that Jupiter formed at a distance of around 3.5 A.U (Jupiter is currently just over 5 A.U from the sun) and was pulled inward by currents in the gas clouds that still surrounded the sun at the time. Over time, Jupiter moved inward slowly, nearly reaching the same distance from the sun as the current orbit of Mars, which hadn’t formed yet.

“We theorize that Jupiter stopped migrating toward the sun because of Saturn,” said Avi Mandell, one of the paper’s co-authors. The team’s data showed that Jupiter and Saturn both migrated inward and then outward. In the case of Jupiter, the gas giant settled into its current orbit at just over 5 a.u. Saturn ended its initial outward movement at around 7 A.U, but later moved even further to its current position around 9.5 A.U.

Astronomers have had long-standing questions regarding the mixed composition of the asteroid belt, which includes rocky and icy bodies. One other puzzle of our solar system’s evolution is what caused Mars to not develop to a size comparable to Earth or Venus.

Artist's conception of early planetary formation from gas and dust around a young star. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Regarding the asteroid belt, Mandell explained, “Jupiter’s migration process was slow, so when it neared the asteroid belt, it was not a violent collision but more of a do-si-do, with Jupiter deflecting the objects and essentially switching places with the asteroid belt.”

Jupiter’s slow movement caused more of a gentle “nudging” of the asteroid belt when it passed through on its inward movement. When Jupiter moved back outward, the planet moved past the location it originally formed. One side-effect of caused by Jupiter moving further out from its original formation area is that it entered the region of our early solar system where icy objects were. Jupiter pushed many of the icy objects inward towards the sun, causing them to end up in the asteroid belt.

“With the Grand Tack model, we actually set out to explain the formation of a small Mars, and in doing so, we had to account for the asteroid belt,” said Walsh. “To our surprise, the model’s explanation of the asteroid belt became one of the nicest results and helps us understand that region better than we did before.”

With regards to Mars, in theory Mars should have had a larger supply gas and dust, having formed further from the sun than Earth. If the model Walsh and his team developed is correct, Jupiter foray into the inner solar system would have scattered the material around 1.5 A.U.

Mandell added, “Why Mars is so small has been the unsolvable problem in the formation of our solar system. It was the team’s initial motivation for developing a new model of the formation of the solar system.”

An interesting scenario unfolds with Jupiter scattering material between 1 and 1.5 AU. Instead of the higher concentration of planet-building materials being further out, the high concentration led to Earth and Venus forming in a material-rich region.

The model Walsh and his team developed brings new insight into the relationship between the inner planets, our asteroid belt and Jupiter. The knowledge learned not only will allow scientists to better understand our solar system, but helps explain the formation of planets in other star systems. Walsh also mentioned, “Knowing that our own planets moved around a lot in the past makes our solar system much more like our neighbors than we previously thought. We’re not an outlier anymore.”

If you’d like to access the paper (subscription or paid/university access required), you can do so at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v475/n7355/full/nature10201.html

Source: NASA Solar System News, Nature

First JWST Instrument Passes Tests

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One of many instruments that will fly aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just passed critical testing at ESA facilities in the UK. “MIRI”, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument, is being developed by the ESA as a vital part of the JWST mission. Researchers will use MIRI to study exoplanets, distant galaxies, comets and dust-shrouded star forming regions.  In order to work correctly and provide useful data, MIRI needs to consistently operate at temperatures of around 7 kelvin. (-266° C). How do engineers test these components to make sure they work properly in harsh conditions of space?

At the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space in Oxfordshire, engineers performed tests to ensure the entire instrument assembly works as designed.  Inside the test chamber, special “targets” were used to help simulate scientific observations. The simulated observations will scientists develop the software necessary to calibrate MIRI after JWST’s launch. Based on the initial results of testing, the engineers believe MIRI is working properly and will perform all required science functions extremely well.

Peter Jakobsen, ESA JWST Project Scientist, said,  “Future users of JWST and MIRI are looking forward to learning more about the detailed performance of the instrument once the test results are analysed further in the coming months. The experience gained by the MIRI test team throughout this campaign has sown the seeds for a rich scientific harvest from the JWST mission.”

In the same ESA press release,  Gillian Wright, Principal Investigator and lead of the MIRI European Science Team added, “It is inspiring to see MIRI working extremely well at its operating temperature after so many years in development. The test campaign has been a resounding success and the whole MIRI team can be very proud of this magnificent achievement.”

Sean Keen making adjustments to MIRI during environmental testing in RAL Space's thermal vacuum chamber on August 16th. 2011.

This past July, the U.S House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science proposed a budget for fiscal year 2012 that would cancel JWST’s funding. In a testament to the dedication of the teams involved in JWST’s construction, work continues despite the uncertain fate of the JWST mission.

Aside from the MIRI instrument passing testing, over half of JWST’s mirrors have been polished and coated. Several of the mirror segments have passed rigorous testing, and at this time, nearly three-quarters of JWST’s hardware is being built or tested.

A screenshot of a JWST mirror segment in the laser testing facility at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: John O'Connor, NASA Tech.

Above is a screenshot of a larger panoramic image from the NASA Tech website, showing one of the JWST mirror segments being tested in a laser testing facility at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. You can see several panoramic views of the mirror testing at NASA Tech. These are big files, but are well worth the view! Just go to the main page and scroll down for the JWST panoramas.

If you’d like to learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope, visit: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov or: http://webbtelescope.org/webb_telescope

Resources on how you can contact your representative to express support for JWST can be found at: http://savethistelescope.blogspot.com.

You can also read a statement by the American Astronomical Society regarding JWST at: http://aas.org/node/4483 Source: ESA News Release

Titan’s Giant Cloud Explained

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Titan is making news again, this time with Cassini images from 2010 showing a storm nearly as big as Texas.  Jonathan Mitchell from UCLA and his research team have published their findings which help answer the question:

What could cause such large storms to develop on a freezing cold world?

For starters, the huge arrow isn’t a cosmic detour sign reminding us to “Attempt No Landings” on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

In the study by Mitchell and his team,  a model of Titan’s global weather was created to understand how atmospheric waves affect weather patterns on Titan.  During their research, the team discovered a “stenciling” effect that creates distinct cloud shapes, such as the arrow-shaped cloud shown in the Cassini image above.

“These atmospheric waves are somewhat like the natural, resonant vibration of a wine glass,” Mitchell said. “Individual clouds might ‘ring the bell,’ so to speak, and once the ringing starts, the clouds have to respond to that vibration.”

Titan is the only other body in the solar system (aside from Earth) known to have an active “liquid cycle”.  Much like Titan’s warmer cousin Earth, the small moon has an atmosphere primarily composed of Nitrogen.  Interestingly enough Titan’s atmosphere is roughly the same mass as Earth’s and has about 1.5 times the surface pressure.  At the extremely low temperatures on Titan, hydrocarbons such as methane appear in liquid form, rather than the gaseous form found on Earth.

With an active liquid both on the surface and in the atmosphere of Titan, clouds form and create rain. In the case of Titan, the rain on the plain is mainly methane.  Water on Titan is rock-hard, due to temperatures hovering around -200 c.

Studies of Titan show evidence of liquid runoff, rivers and lakes, further emphasizing Titan’s parallels to Earth. Researchers believe better understanding of Titan may offer clues to understanding Earth’s early atmosphere.  In another parallel to earth, the weather patterns on Titan created by the atmospheric waves can create intense rainstorms, sometimes with more than 20 times Titan’s average seasonal rainfall. These intense storms may cause erosion patterns that help form the rivers seen on Titan’s surface.  Mitchell described Titan’s climate as “all-tropics”,  basically comparing the weather to what is usually found near Earth’s equator.  Could these storms be Titan’s equivalent of  monsoon season?

Mitchell stated “Titan is like Earth’s strange sibling — the only other rocky body in the solar system that currently experiences rain”.  Mitchell also added, “In future work, we plan to extend our analysis to other Titan observations and make predictions of what clouds might be observed during the upcoming season”.

The research was published Aug. 14 in the online edition of the journal Nature Geoscience .

If you’d like to learn more about the Cassini mission, visit: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm

China To Launch Space Station Module Prototype

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China’s space program is in the news again, this time with unconfirmed reports that the Tiangong 1 space lab may be launching into orbit sometime this year – possibly later this month.  Previous news reports cited potential launch dates in 2010 or 2011,  so this launch isn’t too far behind schedule.

What plans does China have for their first orbital space station prototype?

The space lab, named “Tiangong” translates from Mandarin Chinese into English as “Heavenly Palace”.  Weighing just under 9 tons, the prototype module will orbit for two years. China will use the module to practice docking maneuvers and test orbital technologies during the module’s lifetime.

China plans to follow the Tiangong 1 orbital lab with two more lab launches over the next few years to continue testing systems and technologies before starting construction on their own space station in the 2020’s.  Based on China’s current plans, the Tiangong orbital labs will not be used in the Chinese space station.

Artists rendering of a Tiangong module performing a docking procedure with a Shenzhou spacecraft. Image Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

Many space analysts believe China’s lack of a perceived “space race” is a potential reason for the country’s slow, methodical space program build-up.  So far, China has only launched three manned space flights:  Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 6 ( 2003 and 2005, respectively). China’s first mission to include a spacewalk was Shenzhou 7 (2008).

While China is making great strides with their manned space program, there are no current plans to include China in the ongoing International Space Station project.  Despite several political and technological issues preventing China’s participation in the ISS, recent comments from officials at the China National Space Administration have indicated a willingness to allow other countries to visit the country’s space station once it is operational.

If you’d like to learn more, Universe Today has previous coverage (Jan. 2010) on the Tiangong mission at: http://www.universetoday.com/51506/china-to-launch-space-station-in-2010-or-2011.

You can also visit the China National Space Administration’s website at: http://www.cnsa.gov.cn/n615709/cindex.html

Ring System Around Pluto?

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With the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to Pluto, there may be an intriguing additional task for the mission’s science team: look for a potential ring around Pluto and its moons. Researchers at The Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil have recently submitted a paper for publication in which they explore the possibility of a ring system around the Pluto-Charon system.  In their paper, the team discusses the effects of micrometeoroid impacts on Nix and Hydra and how the resulting dust particles could form a ring around Pluto.  The team also investigates forces, such as the solar wind, which would dissipate said ring system.


Pryscilla Maria Pires dos Santos and her team provide an exhaustive list of calculations in their paper which estimates the ring system to have a diameter of nearly 16,000 kilometers – well outside the orbits of Nix and Hydra.  Based on their calculations, Pires dos Santos state that despite nearly 50% of the ring’s mass being dissipated within a year, a tenuous ring system can be maintained by the dust expelled by micrometeoroid impacts.

Additional data presented in the paper places the rings “optical depth” as being several orders of magnitude fainter than even Jupiter’s rings. (Yes, Jupiter has a ring system!)  While ground-based observatories and even the Hubble Space Telescope haven’t detected the ring system Pires dos Santos et al. are hopeful that the New Horizons mission will provide data to validate their theoretical models. New Horizons has a dust counter capable of measuring dust grains with a minimum mass of 10-12 grams, which should provide the data required to support or refute the team’s models.

Pires dos Santos mentions: “It is worth to point out that the interplanetary environment in the outer Solar System is not well known. Many assumptions have to be made in order to estimate a normal optical depth of a putative ring encompassing the orbits of Nix and Hydra.

If you’d like to read the full paper, you can access it  (for free) at: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1108/1108.0712v1.pdf

Source: arXiv:1108.0712v1 [astro-ph.EP]

Cassini Focuses In On Two Moons

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In this new image from the Cassini Imaging Team Saturn’s moon Titan looks a little out of focus compared to the sharp, cratered surface of Tethys, seen in the foreground. But that’s only because Titan’s hazy atmosphere makes the moon look blurry. Titan’s current atmosphere is thought to resemble Earth’s early atmosphere, so we could be looking at an analog of early Earth.

And so, the Cassini mission is sharpening our understanding of Saturn and all its moons, but it might help us understand our own planet, as well.

At just over 1,000 kilometers in diameter, Tethys is believed to be almost entirely comprised of water ice, based on density estimates. Titan, at just over 5,000 kilometers in diameter is notable for being the second largest moon in our solar system, as well as having an atmosphere 1 1/2 times thicker than Earth. Titan is also known to have an active “liquid cycle” made up of various hydrocarbons, making Titan the second body in the solar system to have stable liquid on its surface.

The camera view is aimed at the Saturn-facing side of Titan and at the area between the trailing hemisphere and anti-Saturn side of Tethys. Not shown in frame is Saturn, which would be far to the left, from the perspective shown in the image.

The image was acquired with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera, in green visible light, on July 14, 2011. At a distance of roughly 3 million kilometers, the image scale for Titan is 19 kilometers per pixel. With Tethys at a distance of about 2 million kilometers, the image scale is roughly 11 kilometers per pixel.

If you’d like to learn more about the extended Cassini “solstice” mission, you can read more at: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/introduction/

Source: Cassini Solstice Mission Images

New Evidence for Flowing Water on Mars

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In a news conference today, NASA announced discoveries that provide additional evidence of seasonal water flows on Mars.  Using data collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the MRO team presented images of dark lines that form on slopes during the martian spring/summer and fade in winter.

During the news conference, HIRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen (University of Arizona), discussed that these “finger-like” features were found in Mars’ mid-southern latitudes.  “The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water,” he said.

McEwen based his explanation on several key facts:  First, salt lowers the freezing point of water (“plain” water would simply stay frozen on Mars)  Secondly, the temperature on Mars during these flows ranges from -23 to +27 degrees Celsius, which rules out CO2.  While there is significant evidence of flowing water, the team did state that there is no direct detection of water since it evaporates quickly on Mars.

Regarding the dark color of the flows, McEwen added, “The flows are not dark because of being wet, they are dark for some other reason.” McEwen also mentioned that researchers will need to re-create Mars-like conditions in the lab to better understand these flows, stating, “It’s a mystery now, but I think it’s a solvable mystery with further observations and laboratory experiments.”

MRO Project Scientist Richard Zurek (JPL) offered his thoughts as well.  “These dark lineations are different from other types of features on Martian slopes,” he said, “and repeated observations show they extend ever farther downhill with time during the warm season.”

This series of images shows warm-season features that might be evidence of salty liquid water active on Mars today. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona (click to view full animation)

What also proves intriguing to the team is that while gullies are very abundant on colder slopes that face the poles, the dark flows discussed in today’s news conference are found on warmer slopes which face the equator.

During the conference, Philip Christensen (Arizona State University) presented a map showing concentrations of “salts” in the same locations that the dark, “finger-like” flows were found.

McEwen reiterated during the Q&A session that the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), hasn’t detected any signs of water and that laboratory simulations will be necessary to gain a better understanding of these features – basically the team is seeing signs of flowing water, but not the water itself.

If you’d like to learn more about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and today’s announcement, you can visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mro

This map of Mars shows relative locations of three types of findings related to salt or frozen water, plus a new type of finding that may be related to both salt and water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA/LANL/MSSS

To see more images related to the new findings, see this link from JPL.

Sources: NASA/JPL News Conference, NASA/JPL News

Have a Vesta Fiesta This Weekend!

To help celebrate the start of the Dawn mission to Vesta, NASA is organizing a “Vesta Fiesta!” After traveling the solar system for nearly four years, the Dawn spacecraft is now entering the “science” phase of its mission. Given the fact that Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit an object in the asteroid belt, a fiesta is in order! (Here in Arizona we relish ANY excuse to fiesta!) Between August 5 and August 7, 2011, Vesta Fiestas will be held to help celebrate Dawn’s arrival at Vesta.

NASA is encouraging fans of the Dawn mission to join the celebration by hosting events at local clubs, schools, museums or societies. NASA has also provided numerous resources that are free to use for Vesta Fiestas, including games and activities, media resources (invitations, audio files, observing info, etc.) and live video on August 6th from the “Flagship” celebration at JPL in Pasedena, California.

If you’d like to participate by hosting your own party, or to find a party in your area, visit this page on the Dawn website, or on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=225252850843508

You can also follow the Dawn mission on Twitter

After studying the asteroid Vesta, Dawn will continue on to study dwarf planet Ceres, also in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

To help encourage participation, I humbly offer my Spicy Fiesta Cheese Dip:

Ingredients:
1lb sausage (breakfast or Italian)
1 block of Velveeta (cut into ~1 inch square cubes)
1 jar of your favorite salsa and (Optional) 1 small can (4oz?) of diced green chile peppers – Not Red Hot Chili Peppers! Flea, Chad and Anthony hate being diced.)

Procedure: Place 1/2 of the cubed Velveeta in a crock pot, set to “high”. Cook sausage and diced peppers completely in a skillet, add cooked sausage and peppers to the crock pot along with the salsa and remaining velveeta. Leave crock pot on “high” until all the Velveeta is melted, then set to “low” – stir often! Serve with tortilla chips and an ice cold drink of your choice.

If you’d like to learn more about the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, you can visit the Dawn website.