When it comes to the future of space exploration, a number of systems will come into play. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is also the Orion capsule. This is the vehicle that will take astronauts to the Moon again as part of Project Artemis (which is currently slated for 2024) and facilitate missions to Mars by the 2030s.
In preparation, the Orion capsule is being put through its paces to show that it’s up to the challenge. This past Tuesday, July 2nd, NASA successfully conducted the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test, bringing the Orion one step closer to completion. The launch took place during the early morning hours and involved the capsule being launched from NASA’s Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral aboard a modified Peacekeeper missile.
In the coming decades, NASA intends to mount some bold missions to space. In addition to some key operations to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), NASA intends to conduct the first crewed missions beyond Earth in over 40 years. These include sending astronauts back to the Moon and eventually mounting a crewed mission to Mars.
To this end, NASA recently submitted a plan to Congress that calls for human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of humanity’s knowledge of Earth, the Moon, Mars, and the Solar System. Known as the National Space Exploration Campaign, this roadmap outlines a sustainable plan for the future of space exploration.
Despite a recent announcement that NASA would be prioritizing a return to the Moon in the coming years, both the SLS and Orion are on track with the eventual goal of mounting crewed missions to Mars. In recent weeks, NASA conducted critical assessments of both components and their proposed launch schedules, and determined that they will be launched together in 2020 for the sake of conducting Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
This test flight, which will be uncrewed, will test both systems and lay the foundations for the first crewed mission of the SLS and Orion. Known as Exploration Mission- 2 (EM-2), which was originally scheduled for 2021, this flight is now expected to take place in 2023. EM-1 will also serve to establish a regular cadence of mission launches that will take astronauts back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.
The recent review came on the heels of an earlier assessment where NASA evaluated the cost, risk and technical factors of adding crew to the mission. This review was initiated as a result of the crew study and the challenges related to building the core stage of the SLS. Foremost among these was the recent tornado damage caused to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the SLS is currently being built.
On top of that, there are also the challenges related to the manufacture and supply of the first Orion Service Module. This module, which is being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), serves as the Orion’s primary power and propulsion component, until it is discarded at the end of each mission. During the summer of 2016, the design of the Service Module was also the subject of a critical design review, and passed.
After conducting their review, NASA reaffirmed the original plan to fly the EM-1 uncrewed. As acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced in a recent NASA press release:
“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019. Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”
In addition, NASA has established new production performance milestones to address a key issue identified by the review, which was scheduling risks. Based on lesson learned from first-time builds, NASA and its contractors have adopted new measures to optimize building plans which will ensure flexibility – specifically if contractors are unable to deliver on schedule.
At this juncture, NASA is on track to develop the new deep space exploration systems that will take astronauts back to the Moon and beyond. Cost assessments for EM-1, which include the SLS and ground systems, are currently within their original targets. By June 2020, NASA estimates that cost overruns will remain within a 15% limit for the SLS and just slightly above for the ground systems.
As part of the review, NASA also considered when the test of the Orion’s launch abort system (which needs to happen ahead of EM-1) would take place – which they chose to move up to April 2019. Known as Ascent-Abort 2, this test will validate the launch abort system’s ability to land the crew safely during descent, and ensure that the agency can remain on track for a crewed flight in 2023.
To build the SLS and Orion, NASA is relying on several new and advanced manufacturing techniques. These include additive manufacturing (3-D printing), which is being used to fashion more than 100 parts for the Orion spacecraft. NASA is also using a technique known as self-reaction friction stir welding to join the two largest core stages of the rocket, which are the thickest structures ever joined using this technique.
Integration of the first service module is well under way in Bremen, Germany, with work already starting on the second. This is taking place at the Airbus integration room, where crews on eight-hour shifts are busy installing more than 11 km (6.8 mi) of cables that will connect the module’s central computers to everything from solar planes and fuel systems to the module’s engines and air and water systems.
These crews also finished installing the Orion’s 24 orientation thrusters recently, which complement the eight larger engines that will back up the main engine. The complex design of the module’s propulsion system requires that some 1100 welds be completed, and only 173 remain. At present, the ESA crews are aiming to finish work on the Orion and ship it to the USA by the summer of 2018.
As far as the assembly of the SLS is concerned, NASA has completed welding on all the major structures to the rocket stages is on track to assemble them together. Once that is complete, they will be able to complete an engine test that will fire up the four RS-25 engines on the core stage simultaneously – the EM-1 “green run”. When EM-1 takes place, the launch will be supported by ground systems and crews at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The agency is also developing a Deep Space Gateway (DSG) concept with Roscosmos and industry partners like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This space station, which will be placed in orbit around the Moon, will facilitate missions to the lunar surface, Mars, and other locations deeper into the Solar System. Other components currently under consideration include the Deep Space Transport, and the Martian Basecamp and Lander.
These latter two components are what will allow for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Whereas the combination of the SLS, Orion and the DSG will allow for renewed lunar missions (which have not taken place since the Apollo Era) the creation of a Deep Space Transport and Martian Basecamp are intrinsic to NASA’s plans to mount a crewed mission to the Red Planet by the 2030s.
But in the meantime, NASA is focused on the first test flight of the Orion and the SLS, which will pave the way towards a crewed mission in a few years’ time. As William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, indicated:
“Hardware progress continues every day for the early flights of SLS and Orion. EM-1 will mark a significant achievement for NASA, and our nation’s future of human deep space exploration. Our investments in SLS and Orion will take us to the Moon and beyond, advancing American leadership in space.”
For almost forty years, no crewed spaceflights have been conducted beyond Low-Earth Orbit. And with the retiring of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has lost the ability to conduct domestic launches. For these reasons, the past three presidential administrations have indicated their commitment to develop the necessary tools to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars.
Not only will this restore the United State’s leadership in space exploration, it also will open up new venues for human exploration and create new opportunities for collaboration between nations and between federal agencies and industry partners. And be sure to check out this video showcases NASA’s plans for Deep Space Exploration:
When it comes to planning missions to Mars and other distant locations in the Solar System, the threat posed by radiation has become something of an elephant in the room. Whether it is NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, SpaceX’s plans to conduct regular flights to Mars, or any other plan to send crewed missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), long-term exposure to space radiation and the health risks this poses is an undeniable problem.
But as the old saying goes, “for every problem, there is a solution”; not to mention, “necessity is the mother of invention”. And as representatives from NASA’s Human Research Program recently indicated, the challenge posed by space radiation will not deter the agency from its exploration goals. Between radiation shielding and efforts aimed at mitigation, NASA plans to proceed with mission to Mars and beyond.
Since the beginning of the Space Age, scientists have understood how beyond Earth’s magnetic field, space is permeated by radiation. This includes Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs), Solar Particle Events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which contains trapped space radiation. Much has also been learned through the ISS, which continues to provide opportunities to study the effects of exposure to space radiation and microgravity.
For instance, though it orbits within Earth’s magnetic field, astronauts receive over ten times the amount of radiation than people experience on average here on Earth. NASA is able to protect crews from SPEs by advising them to seek shelter in more heavily shielded areas of the station – such as the Russian-built Zvezda service module or the US-built Destiny laboratory.
However, GCRs are more of a challenge. These energetic particles, which are primarily composed of high-energy protons and atomic nuclei, can come from anywhere within our galaxy and are capable of penetrating even metal. To make matters worse, when these particles cut through material, they generate a cascade reaction of particles, sending neutrons, protons and other particles in all directions.
This “secondary radiation” can sometimes be a greater risk than the GCRs themselves. And recent studies have indicated that the threat they pose to living tissue can also have a cascading effect, where damage to one cell can then spread to others. As Dr. Lisa Simonsen, a Space Radiation Element Scientist with NASA’s HRP, explained:
“One of the most challenging parts for the human journey to Mars is the risk of radiation exposure and the inflight and long-term health consequences of the exposure. This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA and alters many cellular processes.”
To address this risk, NASA is currently evaluating various materials and concepts to shield crews from GCRs. These materials will become an integral part of future deep-space missions. Experiments involving these materials and their incorporation into transport vehicles, habitats and space suits are currently taking place at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL).
At the same time, NASA is also investigating pharmaceutical countermeasures, which could prove to be more effective than radiation shielding. For instance, potassium iodide, diethylenetriamine pentaacietic acid (DTPA) and the dye known as “Prussian blue” have been used for decades to treat radiation sickness. During long-term missions, astronauts will likely need to take daily doses of radiation meds to mitigate exposure to radiation.
Space radiation detection and mitigation technologies are also being developed through NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division. These include the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor for the Orion spacecraft, and a series of personal and operational dosimeters for the ISS. There are also existing instruments which are expected to play an important role when crewed mission to Mars begin.
Who can forget the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), which was one of the first instruments sent to Mars for the specific purpose of informing future human exploration efforts. This instrument is responsible for identifying and measuring radiation on the Martian surface, be it radiation from space or secondary radiation produced by cosmic rays interacting with the Martian atmosphere and surface.
Because of these and other preparations, many at NASA are naturally hopeful that the risks of space radiation can and will be addressed. As Pat Troutman, the NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead, stated in a recent NASA press statement:
“Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that’s not the current situation. When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth.
Scientists are also engaged in ongoing studies of space weather in order to develop better forecasting tools and countermeasures. Last, but not least, multiple organizations are looking to develop smaller, faster spacecraft in order to reduce travel times (and hence, exposure to radiation). Taken together, all of these strategies are necessary for long-duration spaceflights to Mars and other locations throughout the Solar System.
Granted, there is still considerable research that needs to be done before we can say with any certainty that crewed missions to Mars and beyond will be safe, or at least not pose any unmanageable risks. But the fact that NASA is busy addressing these needs from multiple angles demonstrates how committed they are to seeing such a mission happen in the coming decades.
“Mars is the best option we have right now for expanding long-term, human presence,” said Troutman. “We’ve already found valuable resources for sustaining humans, such as water ice just below the surface and past geological and climate evidence that Mars at one time had conditions suitable for life. What we learn about Mars will tell us more about Earth’s past and future and may help answer whether life exists beyond our planet.”
Beyond the public sector, companies like SpaceX and non-profits like MarsOne are also investigating possible strategies for protecting and mitigating against space radiation. Elon Musk has been quite vocal (especially of late) about his plans to conduct regular trips to Mars in the near future using the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – also known as the BFR – not to mention establishing a colony on the planet.
And Baas Landsdorp has indicated that the organization he founded to establish a human presence on Mars will find ways to address the threat posed by radiation, regardless of what a certain report from MIT says! Regardless of the challenges, there is simply no shortage of people who want to see humanity go to Mars, and possibly even stay there!
And be sure to check out this video about the Human Research Program, courtesy of NASA:
Looking to the future of space exploration, NASA’s priorities are sometimes subject to change. In 2004, the Bush administration released it’s “Vision for Space Exploration“, which called for the development of rockets that would return astronauts to the Moon. This policy was later replaced by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which outlined plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.
Earlier today, on Thursday, October 5th, Vice President Mike Pence and several members of the Trump administration announced that their priorities have shifted once again. Instead of proceeding with NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, the administration has set its sights on once again mounting crewed missions to the Moon and establishing a permanent presence on the lunar surface.
The announcement came during the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, the newly-reestablished executive group that will be guiding US space policy in the coming years. Originally established in 1989 by then-president George H.W. Bush (and disbanded in 1993 by the Clinton administration), this council served the same purpose as the National Aeronautics and Space Council – which oversaw space policy between 1958 and 1973.
During the course of the meeting, which was live-streamed, Vice President Mike Pence laid out the administration’s plans for returning astronauts to the Moon. Emphasizing the need to restore NASA and America’s leadership in space, Pence compared the current situation to the early years of the Space Race and the crowing achievement that was the Apollo 11 mission. As he said:
“It is altogether fitting that we chose this week for the first meeting of the National Space Council. Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of Sputnik, that 184-pound satellite that changed the course of history. On that day, six decades ago yesterday, the race for space began and the then-Soviet Union took an early lead. But the sight of that light blinking across that October sky spurred America to action. We refused to accept a future in space written by the enemies of freedom, and so the United States of America vowed to claim our rightful place as the undisputed leader in the exploration of the heavens. And twelve years later, with “one giant leap for mankind”, America led in space.
Moving to the present, Pence indicated that the reestablishment of he National Space Council would put an end to the ways in which space exploration has stalled in recent decades. He also indicated how a return to the Moon – a goal which diminished in important in the post-Apollo era – would recapture the spirit of the past and reinvigorate modern space exploration.
As he expressed during the course of the meeting, the way space exploration has stalled is in part due to the way in which the Moon (as a destination) has diminished in importance:
“Our struggle to define the direction and purpose of America’s space program dates back decades to the post-Apollo period. We had just won the race to the Moon and suddenly the question became, ‘What should we do? Where should we go next?’ In the debate that followed, sending Americans to the Moon was treated as a triumph to be remembered, but not repeated. Every passing year that the Moon remained squarely in the rear-view mirror further eroded our ability to return to the lunar domain and made it more likely that we would forget why we ever wanted to go in the first place.”
A renewed mission to the Moon, claimed Pence, will put an end to decades in which not a single NASA astronaut has ventured beyond Low Earth Orbit. He further indicated how after the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program, the US has been dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. He also voiced criticism for the Obama administration, claiming that it chose “capitulation” when it came to the space race.
While this new policy technically represents a break from the policy of the Obama administration, and a return to the policy of the Bush administration, Pence emphasized that returning to the Moon would be a stepping stone towards an eventual crewed mission to the Red Planet. This announcement also put an end to months of ambiguity regarding the Trump administration’s space policy.
In the past, VP Pence has spoken about the need to return to the Moon and puts boots on Mars, but nothing definitive was said. This ambiguity, it is worth noting, has also been a source of anxiety for those at NASA, who were unsure about the future budget environment. And while this meeting did indicate that the Trump administration has a policy, many aspects of it were already in place before the administration took office.
After the meeting concluded, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot spoke of the results in a NASA press statement. In reference to the direction VP Pence had indicated for the agency, he said the following:
“Specifically, NASA has been directed to develop a plan for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
Much of the details discussed at the meeting were already established as early as last September. It was at this time that the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a provisional measure that guaranteed short-term stability for the agency by allocating $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017. Intrinsic to the Act was the cancellation for the NASA’s Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM) in favor of a more cost-effective alternative.
As Lightfoot indicated, this would still be the case under the current administration’s plan:
“The recommendation to the president would modify the existing National Space Policy to provide focus and direction to some of NASA’s current activities and plans, and remove a previous guideline that NASA should undertake a human mission to an asteroid as the next human spaceflight milestone beyond low-Earth orbit.”
Lighfoot also reiterated what Pence said during the meeting, how renewed missions to the Moon would ultimately assist NASA’s efforts to mount crewed missions to Mars. These included the importance of cis-lunar space to the exploration of both the Moon and the Mars, as well as its use as a proving ground for future mission to Mars and beyond in the Solar System.
“Based on a number of conversations I’ve had with the council,” he said, “we have highlighted a number of initiatives underway in this important area, including a study of an orbital gateway or outpost that could support a sustained cadence of robotic and human missions, as well as ensuing human missions to the lunar and Mars surfaces, and other destinations.”
While this latest announcement does confirm what many have suspected for some time – that the Trump administration would prioritize lunar exploration – much ambiguity remains. While Pence emphasized that the re-establishment of the NSC was intrinsic to restoring American leadership in space, very little appears to have changed since the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016.
What’s more, despite Pence’s claims of “capitulation” on behalf of the Obama administration, much of the current administration’s policy represents a continuation of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. These include the use of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the restoration of domestic launch capability. In short, much of the Trump administration’s plans to restore American leadership in space are piggybacking on the accomplishments of the Obama administration.
Beyond that, the creation of the Deep Space Gateway appears unaffected, since its existence is central to both renewed mission to the Moon and for crewed missions to Mars. And the long-term plan for the exploration of Mars appear to still be intact. So in many ways, this latest announcement is not much in the way of news, but also good news.
When it comes to organizations like NASA and space exploration in general, continuity is not only preferable, but necessary. And in the meantime, be sure to check out the live coverage of the event:
In the coming decades, NASA has some rather bold plans for space exploration. By the 2030s, they hope to mount their “Journey to Mars“. a crewed mission that will see astronauts traveling beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo era. At the same time, private companies and organizations like SpaceX and MarsOne are hoping to start colonizing Mars within a decade or so.
According to Chris Hadfield, these mission concepts are all fine and good. But as he explained in a recent interview, our efforts should be focused on renewed exploration of the Moon and the creation of a lunar settlement before we do the same for Mars. In this respect, he is joined by organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), and others.
When it comes to establishing a base on the Moon, the benefits are rather significant. For starters, a lunar outpost could serve as a permanent research base for teams of astronauts. In the same respect, it would present opportunities for scientific collaboration between space agencies and private companies – much in the same way the International Space Station does today.
On top of that, a lunar outpost could serve as a refueling station, facilitating missions deeper into the Solar System. According to estimates prepared by NexGen Space LLC (a consultant company for NASA), such a base could cut the cost of any future Mars missions by about $10 billion a year. Last, but not least, it would leverage key technologies that have been developed in recent years, from reusable rockets to additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing).
And as Chris Hadfield stated in an interview with New Scientist, there are also a number of practical reasons for back to the Moon before going to Mars – ranging from distance to the development of “space expertise”. For those interested in science and space exploration, Chris Hadfield has become a household name in recent years. Before becoming an astronaut, he was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and flew missions for NORAD.
After joining the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1992, he participated in two space missions – STS-74 and STS-100 in 1995 and 2001, respectively – as a Mission Specialist. These missions involved rendezvousing with the Russian space station Mir and the ISS. However, his greatest accomplishment occurred in 2012, when he became the first Canadian astronaut to command an ISS mission – Expedition 35.
During the course of this 148-day mission, Hadfield attracted significant media exposure due to his extensive use of social media to promote space exploration. In fact, Forbes described Hadfield as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”. His promotional activities included a collaboration with Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks, singing “Is Somebody Singing?“(I.S.S.) via Skype.
The broadcast of this event was a major media sensation, as was his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, which he sung shortly before departing the station in May 2013. Since retiring from the Canadian Space Agency, Hadfield has become a science communicator and advocate for space exploration. And when it comes to the future, he was quite direct in his appraisal that the we need to look to the Moon first.
According to Hadfield, one of the greatest reasons for establishing a base on the Moon has to do with its proximity and the fact that humans have made this trip before. As he stated:
“With long-haul space exploration there is a whole smorgasbord of unknowns. We know some of the threats: the unreliability of the equipment, how to provide enough food for that length of time. But there are countless others: What are the impacts of cosmic rays on the human body? What sort of spacecraft do you need to build? What are the psychological effects of having nothing in the window for months and months? And going to a place that no one has ever been before, that can’t be discounted.”
In that, he certainly has a point. At their closest – i.e. when it is at “opposition with the Sun”, which occurs approximately every two years – Mars and Earth are still very far from each othre. In fact, the latest closest-approach occurred in 2003, when the two planets were roughly 56 million km (33.9 million miles) apart. This past July, the planets were again at opposition, where they were about 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) apart.
During this time, astronauts would not only be subjected to a great deal of cosmic radiation, they would have to contend with the affects of microgravity. As studies that have been conducted aboard the ISS that have shown, long-term exposure to a microgravity environment can lead to losses in bone density, muscular atrophy, diminished eyesight, and organ damage.
Recent studies have also shown that exposure to radiation while on the surface of Mars would be quite significant. During its journey to Mars, the Curiosity rover recorded that it was subjected to average dose of 1.8 millisieverts (mSv) per day from inside its spaceship – the Mars Science Laboratory. During its first three hundred days on the surface, it was exposed to about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day.
This is about half and one-fifth (respectively) of what people are exposed to during an average here on Earth. While this falls outside of NASA’s official guidelines, it is still within the guidelines of other space agencies. But to make matter worse, a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, concluded that exposure to cosmic rays could cause cell damage that would spread to other cells in the body, effectively doubling the risk of cancer.
The risks of going to the Moon, in contrast, are easy to predict. Thanks to the Apollo missions, we know that it takes between two and three days to travel from the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo 11 mission, for example, launched from the Cape Kennedy on July 16th, 1969, and arrived in lunar orbit by July 19th, 1969 – spending a total of 51 hours and 49 minutes in space. Astronauts conducting this type of mission would therefore be subject to far less radiation.
Granted, the surface of the Moon is still exposed to significant amounts of radiation since the Moon has no atmosphere to speak of. But NASA estimates that walls which are 2.5 meters in thickness (and made from lunar regolith) will provide all the necessary shielding to keep astronauts or colonists safe. Another good reason to go to the Moon first, according to Hadfield, is because expertise in off-world living is lacking.
“There are six people living on the International Space Station, and we have had people there continuously for nearly 17 years,” he said. “But the reality is we have not yet figured out how to live permanently off-planet. So I think if we follow the historically driven pattern then the moon would be first. Not just to reaffirm that we can get there, but to show that we can also live there.”
But perhaps the best reason to settle the Moon before moving onto Mars has to do with the fact that exploration has always been about taking the next step, and then the next. One cannot simply leap from one location to the next, and expect successful results. What are required is baby-steps. And in time, sufficient traction can be obtained and the process will build up speed, enabling steps that are greater and more far-reaching. Or as Hadfield put it:
“For tens of thousands of years humans have followed a pattern on Earth: imagination, to technology-enabled exploration, to settlement. It’s how the first humans got to Australia 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, and how we went from Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd orbiting Earth to the first people putting footprints on the moon, to people living in orbit.
Based on this progression, one can therefore see why Hadfield and others beleive that the next logical step is to return to the Moon. And once we establish a foothold there, we can then use it to launch long-range missions to Mars, Venus, and beyond. Incremental steps that eventually add up to human beings setting foot on every planet, moon, and larger body in the Solar System.
On the subject of lunar colonization, be sure to check out our series on Building a Moon Base, by Universe Today’s own Ian O’Neill.
NASA has always had its fingers in many different pies. This should come as no surprise, since the advancement of science and the exploration of the Universe requires a multi-faceted approach. So in addition to studying Earth and distant planets, the also study infectious diseases and medical treatments, and ensuring that food, water and vehicles are safe. But protecting Earth and other planets from contamination, that’s a rather special job!
For decades, this responsibility has fallen to the NASA Office of Planetary Protection, the head of which is known as the Planetary Protection Officer (PPO). Last month, NASA announced that it was looking for a new PPO, the person whose job it will be to ensure that future missions to other planets don’t contaminate them with microbes that have come along for the ride, and that return missions don’t bring extra-terrestrial microbes back to Earth.
Since the beginning of the Space Age, federal agencies have understood that any and all missions carried with them the risk of contamination. Aside from the possibility that robotic or crewed missions might transport Earth microbes to foreign planets (and thus disrupt any natural life cycles there), it was also understood that missions returning from other bodies could bring potentially harmful organisms back to Earth.
As such, the Office of Planetary Protection was established in 1967 to ensure that these risks were mitigated using proper safety and sterilization protocols. This was shortly after the United Nation’s Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) drafted the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (as of 2017, 107 countries have become party to the treaty).
The goals of the Office of Planetary Protection are consistent with Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty; specifically, the part which states:
“States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”
For decades, these directives have been followed to ensure that missions to the Moon, Mars and the Outer Solar System did not threaten these extra-terrestrial environments. For example, after eight years studying Jupiter and its largest moons, the Galileo probe was deliberately crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to ensure that none of its moons (which could harbor life beneath their icy surfaces) were contaminated by Earth-based microbes.
The same procedure will be followed by the Juno mission, which is currently in orbit around Jupiter. Barring a possible mission extension, the probe is scheduled to be deorbited after conducting a total of 12 orbits of the gas giant. This will take place in July of 2018, at which point, the craft will burn up to avoid contaminating the Jovian moons of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
The same holds true for the Cassinispacecraft, which is currently passing between Saturn and its system of rings, as part of the mission’s Grand Finale. When this phase of its mission is complete – on September 15th, 2017 – the probe will be deorbited into Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent any microbes from reaching Enceladus, Titan, Dione, moons that may also support life in their interiors (or in Titan’s case, even on its surface!)
To be fair, the position of a Planetary Protection Officer is not unique to NASA. The European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other space agencies have similar positions. However, it is only within NASA and the ESA that it is considered to be a full-time job. The position is held for three years (with a possible extension to five) and is compensated to the tune of $124,406 to $187,000 per year.
The job, which can be applied for on USAJOBS.gov (and not through the Office of Planetary Protection), will remain open until August 18th, 2017. According to the posting, the PPO will be responsible for:
Leading planning and coordinating activities related to NASA mission planetary protection needs.
Leading independent evaluation of, and providing advice regarding, compliance by robotic and human spaceflight missions with NASA planetary protection policies, statutory requirements and international obligations.
Advising the Chief, SMA and other officials regarding the merit and implications of programmatic decisions involving risks to planetary protection objectives.
In coordination with relevant offices, leading interactions with COSPAR, National Academies, and advisory committees on planetary protection matters.
Recommending and leading the preparation of new or revised NASA standards and directives in accordance with established processes and guidelines.
What’s more, the fact that NASA is advertising the position is partly due to some recent changes to the role. As Catharine Conley*, NASA’s only planetary protection officer since 2014, indicated in a recent interview with Business Insider: “This new job ad is a result of relocating the position I currently hold to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which is an independent technical authority within NASA.”
While the position has been undeniably important in the past, it is expected to become of even greater importance given NASA’s planned activities for the future. This includes NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, a crewed mission which will see humans setting foot on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. And in just a few years time, the Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to begin searching the Martian surface for signs of life.
As part of this mission, the Mars 2020 rover will collect soil samples and place them in a cache to be retrieved by astronauts during the later crewed mission. Beyond Mars, NASA also hopes to conduct mission to Europa, Enceladus and Titan to look for signs of life. Each of these worlds have the necessary ingredients, which includes the prebiotic chemistry and geothermal energy necessary to support basic lifeforms.
Given that we intend to expand our horizons and explore increasingly exotic environments in the future – which could finally lead to the discovery of life beyond Earth – it only makes sense that the role of the Planetary Protection Officer become more prominent. If you think you’ve got the chops for it, and don’t mind a six-figure salary, be sure to apply soon!
*According to BI, Conley has not indicated if she will apply for the position again.
In 2010, NASA announced its commitment to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the third decade of the 21st century. Towards this end, they have working hard to create the necessary technologies – such as the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft. At the same time, they have partnered with the private sector to develop the necessary components and expertise needed to get crews beyond Earth and the Moon.
To this end, NASA recently awarded a Phase II contract to Lockheed Martin to create a new space habitat that will build on the lessons learned from the International Space Station (ISS). Known as the Deep Space Gateway, this habitat will serve as a spaceport in lunar orbit that will facilitate exploration near the Moon and assist in longer-duration missions that take us far from Earth.
Alongside such well-known companies like Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada, Lockheed Martin was charged with investigating habitat designs that would enhance missions in space near the Moon, and also serve as a proving ground for missions to Mars. Intrinsic to this is the creation of something that can take effectively integrate with SLS and the Orion capsule.
In accordance with NASA’s specifications on what constitutes an effective habitat, the design of the Deep Space Gateway must include a pressurized crew module, docking capability, environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.
The design specifications for the Deep Space Gateway also include a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, and logistics modules that would be intended for scientific research. The propulsion system on the gateway would rely on high-power electric propulsion to maintain its orbit, and to transfer the station to different orbits in the vicinity of the Moon when required.
With a Phase II contract now in hand, Lockheed Martin will be refining the design concept they developed for Phase I. This will include building a full-scale prototype at the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well as the creation of a next-generation Deep Space Avionics Integration Lab near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
As Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP program manager, said in a recent press statement:
“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home, but the recently selected astronauts will face unique challenges. Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit. While building this habitat, we have to operate in a different mindset that’s more akin to long trips to Mars to ensure we keep them safe, healthy and productive.”
The full-scale prototype will essentially be a refurbished Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), which was one of three large modules that was flown in the Space Shuttle payload bay and used to transfer cargo to the ISS. The team will also be relying on “mixed-reality prototyping”, a process where virtual and augmented reality are used to solve engineering issues in the early design phase.
“We are excited to work with NASA to repurpose a historic piece of flight hardware, originally designed for low Earth orbit exploration, to play a role in humanity’s push into deep space,” said Pratt. “Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals.”
The Deep Space Gateway will also rely on the Orion crew capsule’s advanced capabilities while crews are docked with the habitat. Basically, this will consist of the crew using the Orion as their command deck until a more permanent command module can be built and incorporated into the habitat. This process will allow for an incremental build-up of the habitat and the deep space exploration capabilities of its crews.
As Pratt indicated, when uncrewed, the habitat will rely on systems that Lockheed Martin has incorporated into their Juno and MAVEN spacecraft in the past:
“Because the Deep Space Gateway would be uninhabited for several months at a time, it has to be rugged, reliable and have the robotic capabilities to operate autonomously. Essentially it is a robotic spacecraft that is well-suited for humans when Orion is present. Lockheed Martin’s experience building autonomous planetary spacecraft plays a large role in making that possible.”
The Phase II work will take place over the next 18 months and the results (provided by NASA) are expected to improve our understanding of what is needed to make long-term living in deep space possible. As noted, Lockheed Martin will also be using this time to build their Deep Space Avionics Integration Laboratory, which will serve as an astronaut training module and assist with command and control between the Gateway and the Orion capsule.
Beyond the development of the Deep Space Gateway, NASA is also committed to the creation of a Deep Space Transport – both of which are crucial for NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”. Whereas the Gateway is part of the first phase of this plan – the “Earth Reliant” phase, which involves exploration near the Moon using current technologies – the second phase will be focused on developing long-duration capabilities beyond the Moon.
For this purpose, NASA is seeking to create a reusable vehicle specifically designed for crewed missions to Mars and deeper into the Solar System. The Deep Space Transport would rely on a combination of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and chemical propulsion to transport crews to and from the Gateway – which would also serve as a servicing and refueling station for the spacecraft.
This second phase (the “Proving Ground” phase) is expected to culminate at the end of the 2020s, at which time a one-year crewed mission will take place. This mission will consist of a crew being flown to the Deep Space Gateway and back to Earth for the purpose of validating the readiness of the system and its ability to conduct long-duration missions independent of Earth.
This will open the door to Phase Three of the proposed Journey, the so-called “Earth Indepedent” phase. At this juncture, the habitation module and all other necessary mission components (like a Mars Cargo Vehicle) will be transferred to an orbit around Mars. This is expected to take place by the early 2030s, and will be followed (if all goes well) by missions to the Martian surface.
While the proposed crewed mission to Mars is still a ways off, the architecture is gradually taking shape. Between the development of spacecraft that will get the mission components and crew to cislunar space – the SLS and Orion – and the development of space habitats that will house them, we are getting closer to the day when astronauts finally set foot on the Red Planet!
Elon Musk has never been one to keep his long-term plans to himself. Beyond the development of reusable rockets, electric cars, and revolutionizing solar power, he has also been quite vocal about establishing a colony on Mars within his lifetime. The goal here is nothing less than ensuring the survival of the human race by creating a “backup location”, and calls for some serious planning and architecture.
The paper was produced by Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor at Stanford University and the Editor-in-Chief of NewSpace, and includes all the material and slides from Musk’s original presentation. Contained within are Musk’s thoughts on how the colonization of Mars could be accomplished in this century and what issues would need to be addressed.
These include the costs of sending people and payloads to Mars, the technical details of the rocket and vehicle that would be making the trip, and possible cost breakdowns and timelines. But of course, he also addresses the key philosophical questions – “Why go?” and “Why Mars?”
Addressing this first question is one of the most important aspects of space exploration. Remember John F. Kennedy’s iconic “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech? Far from just being a declaration of intent, this speech was a justification by the Kennedy administration for all the time, energy, and money it was committing to the Apollo program. As such, Kennedy’s speech stressed above all else why the goal was a noble undertaking.
In looking to Mars, Musk struck a similar tone, emphasizing survival and humanity’s need to expand into space. As he stated:
“I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”
As for what makes Mars the natural choice, that was a bit more of a tough sell. Granted, Mars has a lot of similarities with Earth – hence why it is often called “Earth’s Twin” – which makes it a tantalizing target for scientific research. But it also has some rather stark differences that make long-term stays on the surface seem less than appealing. So why would it be the natural choice?
As Musk explains, proximity has a lot to do with it. Sure, Venus is closer to Earth, getting as close as 41 million km (25,476,219 mi), compared to 56 million km (3,4796,787 mi) with Mars. But Venus’ hostile environment is well-documented, and include a super-dense atmosphere, temperatures hot enough to melt lead and sulfuric acid rain! Mercury is too hot and airless, and the Jovian moons are very far.
This leaves us with just two options for the near-future, as far as Musk is concerned. One is the Moon, which is likely to have a permanent settlement on it in the coming years. In fact, between the ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, and the Chines National Space Administration, there is no shortage of plans to build a lunar outpost, which will serve as a successor to the ISS.
But compared to Mars, it is less resource rich, has no atmosphere, and represents a major transition as far as gravity (0.165 g compared to 0.376 g) and length of day (28 days vs. 24.5 hours) are concerned. Herein lies the greatest reason to go to Mars, which is the fact that our options are limited and Mars is the most Earth-like of all the bodies that are currently accessible to us.
What’s more, Musk makes allowances for the fact that colonists could start kick-starting the terraforming process, to make it even more Earth-like over time. As he states (bold added for emphasis):
“In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans. Mars is about half as far again from the Sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.
“It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.”
Naturally, no mission can be expected to happen without the all-important vehicle. To this end, Musk used the annual IAC meeting to unveil his company’s plans for the Interplanetary Transport System. An updated version of the Mars Colonial Transporter (which Musk began talking about in 2012), the ITS will consist of two main components – a reusable rocket booster and the Interplanetary Spaceship.
The process for getting to Mars with these components involves a few steps. First, the rocket booster and spaceship take off together and the spaceship is delivered into orbit. Next, while the spaceship assumes a parking orbit, the booster returns to Earth to be reloaded with the tanker craft. This vehicle is the same design as the spaceship, but contains propellant tanks instead of cargo areas.
The tanker is then launched into orbit with the booster, where it will rendezvous with the spaceship and refuel it for the journey to Mars. Overall, the propellant tanker will go up anywhere from three to five times to fill the tanks of the spacecraft while it is in orbit. Musk estimates that the turnaround time between the spacecraft launch and the booster retrieval could eventually be as low as 20 minutes.
This process (if Musk gets its way) would expand to include multiple spaceships making the journey to and from Mars every 26 months (when Mars and Earth are closest together):
“You would ultimately have upwards of 1,000 or more spaceships waiting in orbit. Hence, the Mars Colonial fleet would depart en masse. It makes sense to load the spaceships into orbit because you have got 2 years to do so, and then you can make frequent use of the booster and the tanker to get really heavy reuse out of those. With the spaceship, you get less reuse because you have to consider how long it is going to last—maybe 30 years, which might be perhaps 12–15 flights of the spaceship at most.”
In terms of the rocket’s structure, it would consist of an advanced carbon fiber exterior surrounding fuel tanks, which would rely on an autogenous pressurization system. This involves the fuel and oxygen being gasified through heat exchanges in the engine, which would then be used to pressurize the tanks. This is a much simpler system than what is currently being used for the Falcon 9 rocket.
The booster would use 42 Raptor engines arranged in concentric rings to generate thrust. With 21 engines in the outer ring, 14 in the inner ring, and seven in a center cluster, the booster would have an estimated lift-off thrust of 11,793 metric tons (13,000 tons) – 128 MegaNewtons – and a vacuum thrust of 12,714 metric tons (14,015 tons), or 138 MN. This would make it the first spacecraft where the rocket performance bar exceeds the physical size of the rocket.
As for the spacecraft, the designs calls for a pressurized section at the top with an unpressurized section beneath. The pressurized section would hold up to 100 passengers (thought Musk hopes to eventually increase that capacity to 200 people per trip), while all the luggage and cargo necessary for building the Martian colony would be kept in the unpressurized section below.
As for the crew compartments themselves, Musk was sure to illustrate how time in them would not be boring, since the transit time is a long. “Therefore, the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games – you can float around,” he said. “There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!”
Below both these sections, the liquid oxygen tank, fuel tank and spacecraft engines are located. The engines, which would be directly attached to the thrust cone at the base, would consists of an outer ring of three sea-level engines – which would generate 361 seconds of specific impulse (Isp) – and an inner cluster of six vacuum engines that would generate 382s Isp.
The exterior of the spacecraft will also be fitted with a heatshield, which will be composed of the same material that SpaceX uses on its Dragon spacecraft. This is known as a phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator (PICA), which SpaceX is on their third version of. In total, Musk estimates that the Interplanetary Spaceship will be able to transport 450 tons of cargo to Mars, depending upon how many times the tanker can refill the craft.
And, depending on the Earth-Mars rendezvous, the transit time could be as little as 80 days one-way (figuring for a speed of 6km/s). But with time, Musk hopes to cut that down to just 30 days, which would make it possible to establish a sizable population on Mars in a relatively short amount of time. As Musk indicated, the magic number here in 1 million, meaning the number of people it would take to establish a self-sustaining colony on Mars.
He admitted that this would be a major challenge, and could as long as a century to complete:
“If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person. However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.”
When the ITS is ready to launch, it will do so from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which SpaceX currently uses to conduct Falcon 9 launches from. But of course, the most daunting aspect of any colonization effort is cost. At present, and using current methods, sending upwards of 1 million people to Mars is simply not affordable.
Using Apollo-era methods as a touchstone, Musk indicated that the cost to go to Mars would be around $10 billion per person – which is derived from the fact that the program itself cost between $100 and $200 billion (adjust for inflation) and resulted in 12 astronauts setting foot on the Moon. Naturally, this is far too high for the sake of creating a self-sustaining colony with a population of 1 million.
As a result, Musk claimed that the cost of transporting people to Mars would have to be cut by a whopping 5 million percent! Musk’s desire to lower the costs associated with space launches is well-known, and is the very reason he founded SpaceX and began developing reusable technology. However, costs would need to be lowered to the point where a ticket to Mars would cost about the same as a median house – i.e. $200,000 – before any trips to Mars could happen.
As to how this could be done, several strategies are outlined, many of which Musk and space agencies like NASA are already actively pursuing. They include full Reusability, where all stages of a rocket and its cargo module (not just the first stage) would have to be retrievable and reusable. Refueling in Orbit is a second means, which would mean the spacecraft would not have to carry all the fuel they need with them from Earth.
On top of that, there would have to be the option for propellant Production on Mars, where the spaceship will be able to refuel at Mars to make the return trip. This concept has been explored in the past for lunar and Martian missions. And in Mars’ case, the presence of atmospheric and frozen CO², and water in both the soil and the polar ice caps, would mean that methane, oxygen and hydrogen fuel could all be manufactured.
Lastly, there is the question of which propellant would be best. As it stands, there are there basic choices when it comes – kerosene (rocket fuel), hydrogen, and methane. All of these present certain advantages and can be manufactured in-situ on Mars. But based on a cost-benefit breakdown, Musk claims that methane would be the most cost-effective propellant.
As always, Musk also raised the issue of timelines and next steps. This consisted of a rundown of SpaceX’s accomplishments over the past decade and a half, followed by an outline of what he hopes to see his company do in the coming years and decades.
These include the development of the first Interplanetary Spaceship in about four years time, which will be followed by suborbital test flights. He even hinted how the spacecraft could have commercial applications, being used for the rapid transportation of cargo around the world. As for the development of the booster, he indicated that this would be a relatively straightforward process since it simply involves scaling up the existing Falcon 9 booster.
Beyond that, he estimated that (assuming all goes well) a ten-year time frame would suffice for putting all the components together so that it would work for bringing people to Mars. Last, but not least, he offered some glimpses of what could be accomplished with ITS beyond Mars. As the name suggests, Musk is hoping to conduct missions to other destination in the Solar System someday.
Given the opportunities for in-situ fuel production (thanks to the abundance of water ice), the moons of both Jupiter and Saturn were mentioned as possible destination. But beyond moons like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan (all of which were mentioned), even destinations in the trans-Neptunian region of the Solar System were indicated as a possibility.
Given that Pluto also has an abundance of water ice on its surface, Musk claimed that a refueling depot could be built here to service missions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. “I would not recommend this for interstellar journeys,” he admitted, “but this basic system—provided we have filling stations along the way—means full access to the entire greater solar system.”
The publication of this paper, many months after Musk presented the details of his plan to the annual IAC meeting, has naturally generated both approval and skepticism. While there are those who would question Musk’s timelines and his ability to deliver on the proposals contained within, others see it as a crucial step in the fulfillment of Musk’s long-held desire to see the colonization of Mars happen in this century.
To Scott Hubbard, it serves as a valuable contribution to the history of space exploration, something that future generations will be able to access so they can chart the history of Mars exploration – much in the same way NASA archival materials are used to study the history of the Moon landing. As he remarked:
“In my view, publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning. My goal is to make New Space the forum for publication of novel exploration concepts-particularly those that suggest an entrepreneurial path for humans traveling to deep space.”
Elon Musk is no stranger to thinking big and dreaming big. And while many of his proposals in the past did not come about in the time frame he originally specified, no one can doubt that he’s delivered so far. It will be very exciting to see if he can take the company he founded 15 years ago for the sake of fostering the exploration of Mars, and use it instead to lead a colonization effort!
Update: Musk tweeted his thanks to Hubbard for the publication and has indicated that there are some “major changes to the plan coming soon.”
And be sure to check out this video of Musk’s full speech at the 67th annual meeting of the IAC, courtesy of SpaceX:
Now well into her 13th year roving the Red Planet, NASA’s astoundingly resilient Opportunity rover has arrived at the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” – overlooking the upper end of an ancient fluid-carved valley on Mars “possibly water-cut” that flows down into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.
In a remarkable first time feat and treat for having ‘persevered’ so long on the inhospitably frigid Martian terrain, Opportunity has been tasked by her human handlers to drive down a Martian gully carved billions of years ago – by a fluid that might have been water – and conduct unparalleled scientific exploration, that will also extend into the interior of Endeavour Crater for the first time.
No Mars rover has done that before.
“This will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.
“Opportunity has arrived at the head of Perseverance Valley, a possible water-cut valley here at a low spot along the rim of the 22-km diameter Endeavour impact crater,” says Larry Crumpler, a rover science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.
“The next month or so will be an exciting time, for no rover has ever driven down a potential ancient water-cut valley before,” Crumpler gushes.
“Perseverance Valley” is located along the eroded western rim of gigantic Endeavour crater – as illustrated by our exclusive photo mosaics herein created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
The mosaics show the “spillway” as the entry point to the ancient valley.
“Investigations in the coming weeks will “endeavor” to determine whether this valley was eroded by water or some other dry process like debris flows,” explains Crumpler.
“It certainly looks like a water cut valley. But looks aren’t good enough. We need additional evidence to test that idea.”
The valley slices downward from the crest line through the rim from west to east at a breathtaking slope of about 15 to 17 degrees – and measures about two football fields in length!
Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter on the Red Planet. Perseverance Valley slices eastwards at approximately the 8 o’clock position of the circular shaped crater. It sits just north of a rim segment called “Cape Byron.”
Why go and explore the gully at Perseverance Valley?
“Opportunity will traverse to the head of the gully system [at Perseverance] and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.
“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”
Exploring the ancient valley is the main science destination of the current two-year extended mission (EM #10) for the teenaged robot, that officially began Oct. 1, 2016. It’s just the latest in a series of extensions going back to the end of Opportunity’s prime mission in April 2004.
What are the immediate tasks ahead that Opportunity must accomplish before descending down the gully to thoroughly and efficiently investigate the research objectives?
In a nutshell, extensive imaging from a local high point promontory to create a long-baseline 3 D stereo image of the valley and a “walk-about” to assess the local geology.
The rover is collecting images from two widely separated points at a dip at the valley spillway to build an “extraordinarily detailed three-dimensional analysis of the terrain” called a digital elevation map.
“Opportunity has been working on a panorama from the overlook for the past couple of sols. The idea is to get a good overview of the valley from a high point before driving down it,” Crumpler explains.
“But before we drive down the valley, we want to get a good sense of the geologic features here on the head of the valley. It could come in handy as we drive down the valley and may help us understand some things, particularly the lithology of any materials we find on the valley floor or at the terminus down near the crater floor.”
“So we will be doing a short “walk-about” here on the outside of the crater rim near the “spillway” into the valley.”
“We will drive down it to further assess its origin and to further explore the structure and stratigraphy of this large impact crater.”
The six wheeled rover landed on Mars on January 24, 2004 PST on the alien Martian plains at Meridiani Planum – as the second half of a stupendous sister act.
Expected to last just 3 months or 90 days, Opportunity has now endured nearly 13 ½ years or an unfathomable 53 times beyond the “warrantied” design lifetime.
Her twin sister Spirit, had successfully touched down 3 weeks earlier on January 3, 2004 inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater and survived more than six years.
Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour almost six years – since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.
“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Crumpler.
Exactly what the geologic process was that carved Perseverance Valley into the rim of Endeavour Crater billions of years ago has not yet been determined, but there are a wide range of options researchers are considering.
“Among the possibilities: It might have been flowing water, or might have been a debris flow in which a small amount of water lubricated a turbulent mix of mud and boulders, or might have been an even drier process, such as wind erosion,” say NASA scientists.
“The mission’s main objective with Opportunity at this site is to assess which possibility is best supported by the evidence still in place.”
Extensive imaging with the mast mounted pancam and navcam cameras is currently in progress.
“The long-baseline stereo imaging will be used to generate a digital elevation map that will help the team carefully evaluate possible driving routes down the valley before starting the descent,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of JPL, in a statement.
“Reversing course back uphill when partway down could be difficult, so finding a path with minimum obstacles will be important for driving Opportunity through the whole valley. Researchers intend to use the rover to examine textures and compositions at the top, throughout the length and at the bottom, as part of investigating the valley’s history.”
The team is also dealing with a new wheel issue and evaluating fixes. The left-front wheel is stuck due to an actuator stall.
“The rover experienced a left-front wheel steering actuator stall on Sol 4750 (June 4, 2017) leaving the wheel ‘toed-out’ by 33 degrees,” the team reported in a new update.
Thus the extensive Pancam panorama is humorously being called the “Sprained Ankle Panorama.” Selected high-value targets of the surrounding area will be imaged with the full 13-filter Pancam suite.
After reaching the bottom of Perseverance Valley, Opportunity will explore the craters interior for the first time during the mission.
“Once down at the end of the valley, Opportunity will be directed to explore the crater fill on a drive south at the foot of the crater walls,” states Crumpler.
As of today, June 17, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived over 4763 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.
Opportunity has taken over 220,800 images and traversed over 27.87 miles (44.86 kilometers) – more than a marathon.
See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.
The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546).
As of Sol 4759 (June 13, 2017) the power output from solar array energy production is currently 343 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.842 and a solar array dust factor of 0.529, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter later in 2017. It will count as Opportunity’s 8th winter on Mars.
“The science team is really jazzed at starting to see this area up close and looking for clues to help us distinguish among multiple hypotheses about how the valley formed,” said Opportunity Project Scientist Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.
And NASA continues building the next two robotic missions due to touch down in 2018 and 2020.
Learn more about the Opportunity rover and upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
June 17-19: “Opportunity Mars rover, SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings