Explorers Could Build Bricks on Mars with Bacteria and Pee

The famous Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky once said, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” Tsiolkovsky is often hailed as one of the fathers of rocketry and cosmonautics and remembered for believing in the dominance of humanity throughout space, also known as anthropocosmism. His work in the late-19th and early-20th centuries helped shape space exploration several decades before humanity first walked on the Moon.

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NASA and HeroX Want to Convert Waste in Space and Monitor Air-Quality Here on Earth

Credit: NASA

In the coming years, NASA will be making the long-awaited return to the Moon, where they will be joined by multiple space agencies and commercial partners. This will be followed by NASA and China sending the first crewed missions to Mars and other locations in deep space in the next decade. This presents numerous challenges, not the least of which involves providing for astronauts’ basic needs while in flight. In keeping with Dr. Sian Proctor’s motto, “solving for space solves for Earth,” dedicated to addressing air-quality problems and Climate Change here at home.

To help NASA address these problems, the leading crowdsourcing platform HeroX has launched two new incentive challenges. First, there’s the “Waste to Base Materials Challenge: Sustainable Reprocessing in Space,” which seeks innovative solutions for what to do about all the waste that’s generated during long-duration spaceflights. (human and otherwise). Second, there’s the “NASA Air-athon Challenge,” which is looking to foster high-resolution air quality information to improve public health and safety.

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Orion Capsule Passes Key Launch Abort Test. Next Stop: The Moon!

The Ascent Abort -2 flight test proved that the abort system can pull crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency during ascent. Photo credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O’Connell

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.

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NASA Report Outlines How it Will Go Back to the Moon, to Mars, and Beyond in a Sustainable Way

NASA's Exploration Campaign includes active leadership in low-Earth orbit, in orbit around the Moon and on its surface, and at destinations far beyond, including Mars. Credits: NASA

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.

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NASA Moving Ahead with Deployment of Orion Capsule and Space Launch System

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the left, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (right). Credit: NASA

On October 11th, 2010, Congress signed the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act, which allocated the necessary funding for the space agency to commence preparations for itsJourney to Mars“. For the sake of mounting the first crewed missions to the Red Planet, several components were designated as being crucial. These included the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

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.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA

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.

Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1 Expanded View. Credit: NASA

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:

Further Reading: ESA, NASA

NASA Undeterred by the Threat of Space Radiation

Artist's impression of the Mars Base Camp in orbit around Mars. When missions to Mars begin, one of the greatest risks will be that posed by space radiation. Credit: Lockheed Martin

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.

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

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.

Artist depiction of a rover on the surface of Mars. Researchers are developing shielding concepts for transport vehicles, habitats and space suits to protect future astronauts on a journey to Mars. Credits: NASA

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.

Artist’s impression of the the Interplanetary Spacecraft approaching Mars. Credit: SpaceX

“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 NASA, Roscosmos, the Chinese National Space Agency (CSNA) have also expressed interest in conducting crewed mission to the Red Planet, possibly between the 2040s or as late as the 2060s. While the European Space Agency (ESA) has no active plans for sending astronauts to Mars, they see the establishment of an International Lunar Village as a major step towards that goal.

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:

Further Reading: NASA

VP Mike Pence Lays Out Administration’s Plan to go Back to the Moon

Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the National Space Council's first meeting, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Credits: 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.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, center, along with Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States Michael Kratsios, left, and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, right. Credits: NASA

The meeting, titled “Leading the Next Frontier: An Event with the National Space Council“, took place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s (NASM) Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The meeting was chaired by Vice President Mike Pence with the participation of NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, and was attended by Trump Administration cabinet members, senior officials, and aerospace industry leaders.

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.

Lunar footprint left by the Apollo astronauts. Credit: NASA

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.

Members of the National Space Council seen during the council’s first meeting on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

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.

Artist’s illustration of a possible astronaut mission to an asteroid. Credit: NASA Human Exploration Framework Team

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.”

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Artist illustration of the habitation module aboard the Deep Space Gateway. Credit: Lockheed Martin

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:

Further Reading: NASA, NASA (2)

Settle the Moon Before Mars, Says Astronaut Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield recently explained how humanity should create a Moon base before attempting to colonize Mars. Credit: Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

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.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV

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.

Using conventional methods, it would take a mission between 150 and 300 days to get from the Earth to Mars. Whereas a more fuel-efficient approach (like ion engines) would cost less but take much longer, a more rapid method like chemical rockets would could cost far more. Even with Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) or the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) concept, the journey could still take 5 to 7 months.

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.

Artist’s impression of a lunar base created with 3-d printing techniques. Credits: ESA/Foster + Partners

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.

Further Reading: New Scientist

Need a Job? NASA is Looking for a New Planetary Protection Officer

In the future, planetary protection (where we ensure that missions do not contaminate other words with Earth-borne organisms) will be especially important. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

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.

The US won the space race against its adversary, the USSR. The image of the American flag planted on the Moon, being saluted by an American astronaut, must have caused great consternation in the Kremlin. Will SpaceX's mission to Mars cause the same consternation? Will Russia and other nations use the mission to remind the US of their Outer Space Treaty obligations? Image: NASA
Back when NASA was still in the midst of the Apollo Program, it was decided that steps needed to be taken to ensure that missions to other bodies did not cause contaminated. Credit: NASA

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.”

The office and its practices are also consistent with NASA’s internal policies. These include NASA Policy Directive (NPR) 8020.12D: “Planetary Protection Provisions for Robotic Extraterrestrial Missions”, and 8020.7: “Biological Contamination Control for Outbound and Inbound Planetary Spacecraft”, which require that all missions comply with protection procedures.

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.

Artist’s concept of the Galileo space probe passing through the Jupiter system. Credit: NASA

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 Cassini spacecraft, 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.

Further Reading: Business Insider, USAJOBS

Ready to Leave Low Earth Orbit? Prototype Construction Begins for a Deep Space Habitat

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Artist illustration of Habitation Module aboard the Deep Space Gateway. Credit: Lockheed Martin

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.

The contract was awarded as part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership (NextSTEP) program, which NASA launched in 2014. In April of 2016, as part of the second NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement (NextSTEP-2) NASA selected six U.S. companies to begin building full-sized ground prototypes and concepts for this deep space habitat.

Artist’s impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA

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.

Artist’s concept of space habitat operating beyond Earth and the Moon. Credit: NASA

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.

Credit: NASA

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.

NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

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!

Further Reading: NASA, Lockheed Martin