Mars’ surface is a harsh environment for life. But life on Earth is notoriously resilient as well. No one is quite sure yet how microbes from Earth would fare on the Martian surface. However, the impact of a potential transmigration of microbes to the red planet could be immense. Not only could it skew any findings of potential real Martian life we might find, it could also completely disrupt any nascent biosphere that Mars might have.
To understand whether that much disruption is really possible, first we must understand whether any Earthly life can survive on Mars itself. According to a new study recently published in Frontiers in Microbiology, the answer to that is yes.
It’s looking more and more like the future of space exploration could involve drones in a big way.
We’ve already seen it here on Earth, where all kinds of flying drones are used by all kinds of people for all kinds of things. Drones are particularly useful in resource development, exploration, imaging, and remote sensing.
Could the future see drones flying around in the thin Martian atmosphere?
Growing meat without the need to grow a whole animal has been the dream of agriculturalists and foodies everywhere for decades. More and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon to try to truly recreate the experience of eating meat without the downsides so often associated with its creation. One of those companies is Aleph Farms, based in Israel, which just announced their newest program – Aleph Zero, an effort to grow meat in industrial quantities in space.
Get used to hearing the name “Jezero Crater.” It’s the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The 2020 rover is slated to launch in July 2020, and will land at Jezero Crater in February, 2021.
It’s pretty easy to see why NASA chose Jezero Crater for the next rover in their Mars Exploration Program (MEP). MEP is NASA’s long-term plan to explore Mars robotically. It includes rovers like Spirit, Opportunity, and MSL, the InSight Lander, orbiting spacecraft, and soon the 2020 rover.
Welcome to the moons of Mars, as you’ve never seen them.
NASA’s aging 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter recently snapped some unique views of the twin moons Phobos and Deimos, in an effort to better understand their texture and surface composition. The images are courtesy of the spacecraft’s THEMIS (the Thermal Emission Imaging System) heat sensitive instrument, and show the thermal gradient across the surface of the moons in color. Odyssey has been studying the moons of Mars since September 2017. The recent images of Phobos taken on April 24, 2019 are especially intriguing, as they occurred during full illumination phase.
We’ve known for some time that NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars. The vehicle, called the Mars Helicopter, is undergoing flight testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The little helicopter will make its eventual way to Mars as part of the Mars 2020 Rover mission.
The Mars Helicopter is pretty small, less than 1.8 kg (4 lb). It’s made of lightweight carbon fiber, and other materials like aluminum, silicon, and foil. The version being tested is the actual vehicle that will make the trip to Mars.
Some new images sent home by the InSight Lander show the robotic arm and the craft’s instruments waiting on deck, on the surface of Mars. The lander is still having its systems tested, and isn’t quite ready to get to work. It’ll use its arm to deploy its science instruments, including a drill that will penetrate up to 5 meters (16 ft.) deep into the Martian surface.
There’s solid evidence for the existence of water on Mars, at least in frozen form at the planet’s poles. And a more recent study confirms the existence of liquid water at the south pole. But visitors to Mars will need to know the exact location of usable water deposits at other Martian locations. A ground-penetrating radar called ScanMars may be up to the task.
Have you checked out Mars this season? Mars reaches opposition on July 27th at 5:00 Universal Time (UT) shining at magnitude -2.8 and appearing 24.3” across—nearly as large as it can appear, and the largest since the historic opposition of 2003. We won’t have an opposition this favorable again until September 15th, 2035.
Mars starts this week near the +4th magnitude star Psi Capricorni, loops westward through retrograde briefly into the astronomical constellation of Sagittarius the Archer in late August before heading back into Capricornus in September.
Mars opened up 2018 just 4.8” across, trekking through the early dawn sky. What a difference a few months make: Mars broke 15” arc seconds—a maximum size for an unfavorable opposition near aphelion—on May 30th, and now dominates the summer sky around midnight.
There’s one downside, however, to the 2018 opposition of Mars: it’s occurring very nearly as far south along the ecliptic as it can. This is great news for observers in Australia, South Africa and South America, as the Red Planet rides high near the zenith at local midnight. Up north, however, we are still looking at Mars through the murk of the atmosphere lower to the horizon. For example, here in Norfolk, Virginia at latitude 37 degrees north, we never see Mars rise more than 29 degrees altitude above the southern horizon this season.
Down with Dust Storms
Does Mars seem a bit… peachy colored to you this season? It’s not your imagination: a planetary dust storm is indeed underway. It’s the middle of autumn for northern hemisphere of Mars, and this seems to be shaping up to be one of those oppositions where the planet, though at its closest, presents a featureless, dust-shrouded disk. This seems to be the case roughly every third opposition or so… our best hope now is that it may clear in the coming final weeks of July. We checked out Mars over the past weekend, and could just spy the pole cap and some slight detail under a veil of haze.
Despite the depiction of Martian dust storms in science fiction blockbusters such as The Martian as furious and unrelenting, these storms are actually pretty mild-mannered, barely able to chase a leaf before them through the tenuous Martian atmosphere, if deciduous trees grew on Mars. One thing Martian dust storms can do, however, is coat solar panels with a battery-killing film, and it has yet to be seen if the aging Opportunity rover will awaken and phone home from Meridiani Planum.
Unlike the Earth, Mars has a markedly elliptical orbit, varying from 1.7 (AU) astronomical units from the Sun at aphelion to 1.4 AU near perihelion. This all means that not every opposition of Mars is equal; in fact, Mars can range from 55 million to 102 million kilometers from the Earth near opposition and appear 13.8” to 25.1” across, depending on where it’s at in its orbit. And although Mars laps the Earth roughly every 26 months, a cycle of favorable oppositions repeat every 15 years.
In 2018, Mars reaches opposition on July 27th at 5:00 UT/1:00 AM EDT 57.8 million kilometers from the Earth, then makes its closest approach four days later on July 31st at 8:00 UT/4:00 AM EDT, 57.6 million kilometers distant. Why the discrepancy? Well, opposition is simply reckoned as the point where an outer planet reaches an ecliptic longitude of 180 degrees opposite from the Sun. Mars, however, is still headed inward towards perihelion on September 16th, while Earth just came off of aphelion on July 6th.
Visually, Mars can on occasion “go yellow” and present a saffron color even to the naked eye if a planetary wide sandstorm is underway. At the eyepiece, the most prominent feature is always the pole cap, a white dollop on the planet’s pumpkin hued limb. Crank up the magnification, and dark patches come into view, as Mars is the only planet in the solar system presenting an actual surface available for amateur scrutiny. Mars has a day very similar to Earth’s at only 37 minutes longer in duration, meaning that if you observe Mars at the same time every evening, you’ll see nearly the same longitude of the planet turned towards you, shifted 10 degrees westward. A great tool for comparing what features on Mars are currently turned Earthward is Mars Previewer.
Can you spy Mars… daytime? This month is a good time to try, as it currently shines brighter than Jupiter. The easiest thing to do is lock on to it with a telescope near dawn as it sets to the west and the Sun rises in the east, then simply track it into the daytime sky. We’ve seen Mars in 2003 and again this year while the Sun is still above the horizon… having the Moon nearby also helps, though of course, Mars is very close to the horizon at sunset/sunrise right at opposition.
And speaking of which, viewers in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia are in for a special treat on the evening of July 27th, as a total eclipse of the Moon occurs just 15 hours after Mars passes opposition. Ironically, this is also a Minimoon eclipse, as the Moon also passes apogee just 14 hours prior to entering the Earth’s shadow. Expect to see the Red Planet just seven degrees from the blood red Moon at mid-eclipse (more on the eclipse next week).
The Moon won’t occult (pass in front of) Mars again until November 16th, 2018 for the very southernmost tip of South America. Stick around until July 26th, 2344 AD, and you can witness the Moon occulting the planet Saturn during an eclipse, though you’ll have to journey to southern Japan to do it.
But you may not have to wait that long… stick around until April 27th, 2078, and you can witness the Moon occult Mars… during a penumbral lunar eclipse:
This current evening apparition of Mars ends over a year from now on September 2nd, 2019, as Mars reaches solar conjunction on the farside of the Sun.
Finally, opposition is a great time to try and check the tiny Martian moons Phobos and Deimos off of your life list. These two moons were actually discovered by Asaph Hall from the United States Naval Observatory’s newly installed 26-inch refractor during a favorable parihelic apparition of Mars in 1877.
Shining at magnitude +12.4 (Deimos) and +11.3 (Phobos), seeing these moons would be a cinch… were it not for the presence of Mars shining a million times brighter nearby. Your best bet is to construct an occulting bar eyepiece (we’ve used a thin strip of foil and a guitar string affixed to an eyepiece to accomplish this) or simply place brilliant Mars just out of view. Phobos orbits once every 7.7 hours and substends 20” from the disk of Mars, while Deimos goes around Mars once every 30.35 hours and journeys 66” with each elongation from the Martian disk. PDS rings node or a good planetarium program such as Starry Night or Stellarium will show the current orientation of the Martian moons, aiding in your decision of whether or not to take up the quest.
Don’t miss out on Mars this opposition season… it’ll be almost another two decades before we get another favorable view.
Read all about viewing the planets, from observation to imaging and sketching in our new book: The Universe Today Guide to the Cosmos out October 23rd, now available for pre-order.
History was made on July 20th, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the Moon. The moment was the culmination of decades of hard work, research, development and sacrifice. And since that time, human beings have been waiting and wondering when we might achieve the next great astronomical milestone.
So really, when will we see a man or woman set foot on Mars? The prospect has been talked about for decades, back when NASA and the Soviets were still planning on setting foot on the Moon. It is the next logical step, after all. And at present, several plans are in development that could be coming to fruition in just a few decades time.
Werner Von Braun, the (in)famous former Nazi rocket scientist – and the man who helped spearhead NASA’s Project Mercury – was actually the first to develop a concept for a crewed mission to Mars. Titled The Mars Project (1952), his proposal called for ten spacecraft (7 passenger, 3 cargo) that would transport a crew of 70 astronauts to Mars.
His proposal was based in part on the large Antarctic expedition known as Operation Highjump (1946–1947), a US Navy program which took place a few years before he started penning his treatise. The plan called for the construction of the interplanetary spacecraft in around the Earth using a series of reusable space shuttles.
He also believed that, given the current pace of space exploration, such a mission could be mounted by 1965 (later revised to 1980) and would spend the next three years making the round trip mission. Once in Mars orbit, the crew would use telescopes to find a suitable site for their base camp near the equator.
A landing crew would then descend using a series of detachable winged aircraft (with ski landing struts) and glide down to land on the polar ice caps. A skeleton crew would remain with the ships in orbit as the surface crew would then travel 6,500 km overland using crawlers to the identified base camp site.
They would then build a landing strip which would allow the rest of the crew to descend from orbit in wheeled gliders. After spending a total of 443 days on Mars conducting surveys and research, the crew would use these same gliders as ascent craft to return to the mother ships.
Von Braun not only calculated the size and weight of each ship, but also how much fuel each would require for the round trip. He also computed the rocket burns necessary to perform the required maneuvers. Because of the detailed nature, calculations and planning in his proposal, The Mars Project remains one of the most influential books on human missions to the Red Planet.
Obviously, such a mission didn’t happen by 1965 (or 1980 for that matter). In fact, humans didn’t even return to the Moon after Eugene Cernan climbed out of the Apollo 17 capsule in 1972. With the winding down of the Space Race and the costs of sending astronauts to the Moon, plans to explore Mars were placed on the backburner until the last decade of the 20th century.
In 1990, a proposal called Mars Direct was developed by Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society and fellow aerospace engineer David Baker. This plan envisioned a series of cost-effective mission to Mars using current technology, with the ultimate goal of colonization.
The initial missions would involve crews landing on the surface and leaving behind hab-structures, thus making subsequent missions easier to undertake. In time, the surface habs would give way to subsurface pressurized habitats built from locally-produced Martian brick. This would represent a first step in the development of in-situ resource utilization, and eventual human settlement.
During and after this initial phase of habitat construction, hard-plastic radiation- and abrasion-resistant geodesic domes would be deployed to the surface for eventual habitation and crop growth. Local industries would begin to grow using indigenous resources, which would center around the manufacture of plastics, ceramics and glass out of Martian soil, sand and hydrocarbons.
While Zubrin acknowledged that Martian colonists would be partially Earth-dependent for centuries, he also stated that a Mars colony would also be able to create a viable economy. For one, Mars has large concentrations of precious metals that have not been subjected to millennia of human extracting. Second, the concentration of deuterium – a possible source for rocket fuel and nuclear fusion – is five times greater on Mars.
In 1993, NASA adopted a version of this plan for their “Mars Design Reference” mission, which went through five iterations between 1993 and 2009. And while it involved a great deal of thinking and planning, it failed to come up with any specific hardware or projects.
Things changed in the 21st century after two presidential administrations made fateful decisions regarding NASA. The first came in 2004 when President George W. Bush announced the “Vision for Space Exploration“. This involved retiring the Space Shuttle and developing a new class of launchers that could take humans back to the Moon by 2020 – known as the Constellation Program.
Then, in February of 2010, the Obama administration announced that it was cancelling the Constellation Program and passed the Authorization Act of 2010. Intrinsic to this plan was a Mars Direct mission concept, which called for the development of the necessary equipment and systems to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s.
The proposed journey would involve Three Phases, which would involve a total of 32 SLS launches between 2018 and the 2030s. These missions would send all the necessary components to cis-lunar space and then onto near-Mars space before making crewed landings onto the surface.
Phase One (the “Earth Reliant Phase”) calls for long-term studies aboard the ISS until 2024, as well as testing the SLS and Orion Crew capsule. Currently, this involves the planned launch of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in Sept. of 2018, which will be the first flight of the SLS and the second uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft.
NASA also plans to capture a near=Earth asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit, as a means of testing the capabilities and equipment for a Mars mission. Known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, this mission is scheduled to take place in the 2020s and would primarily involve a robotic mission towing the asteroid and returning samples.
Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), the first crewed flight using the Orion capsule, would conduct a flyby around the Moon and this asteroid between 2021 and 2023. At this point, NASA would be moving into Phase Two (“Proving Ground”) of the Journey to Mars, where the focus would move away from Earth and into cis-lunar space.
Multiple SLS launches would deliver the mission components during this time – including a habitat that would eventually be transported to Martian orbit, landing craft, and exploration vehicles for the surface of Mars. This phase also calls for the testing of key technologies, like Solar Electric Propulsion (aka. the ion engine).
By the early 2030s, Phase Three (“Earth Independent”) would begin. This calls for testing the entry, descent and landing techniques needed to get to the Martian surface, and the development of in-situ resource utilization. It also calls for the transferring of all mission components (and an exploration crew) to Martian orbit, from which the crews would eventually mount missions to designated “Exploration Zones” on the surface.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has long-term plans to send humans to Mars, though they have yet to build a manned spacecraft. As part of the Aurora Program, this would involve a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s using an Ariane M rocket. Other key points along that timeline include the ExoMars rover (2016-2020), a crewed mission to the Moon in 2024, and an automated mission to Mars in 2026.
Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is also planning a crewed mission to Mars, but doesn’t envision it happening until between 2040 and 2060. In the meantime, they have conducted simulations (called Mars-500), which wrapped up in Russia back in 2011. The Chinese space agency similarly has plans to mount a crewed mission to Mars between 2040 and 2060, but only after crewed missions to Mars take place.
In 2012, a group of Dutch entrepreneurs revealed plans for a crowdfunded campaign to establish a human Mars base, beginning in 2023. Known as MarsOne, the plan calls for a series of one-way missions to establish a permanent and expanding colony on Mars, which would be financed with the help of media participation.
Other details of the MarsOne plan include sending a telecom orbiter by 2018, a rover in 2020, and the base components and its settlers by 2023. The base would be powered by 3,000 square meters of solar panels and the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket would be used to launch the hardware. The first crew of 4 astronauts would land on Mars in 2025; then, every two years, a new crew of 4 astronauts would arrive.
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced plans to establish a colony on Mars in the coming decades. Intrinsic to this plan is the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a spaceflight system that would rely of reusable rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and return to Earth.
As of 2014, SpaceX has begun development of the large Raptor rocket engine for the Mars Colonial Transporter, and a successful test was announced in September of 2016. In January 2015, Musk said that he hoped to release details of the “completely new architecture” for the Mars transport system in late 2015.
In June 2016, Musk stated in the first unmanned flight of the MCT spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT Mars flight departing in 2024. In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – an upgraded version of the MCT.
According to Musk’s estimates, the ITS would cost $10 billion to develop and would be ready to ferry the first passengers to Mars as early as 2024. Each of the SpaceX vehicles would accommodate 100 passengers, with trips being made every 26 months (when Earth and Mars are closest). Musk also estimated that tickets would cost $500,000 per person, but would later drop to a third of that.
And while some people might have a hard time thinking of MarsOne’s volunteers or SpaceX’s passengers as astronauts, they would nevertheless be human beings setting foot on the Red Planet. And if they should make it there before any crewed missions by a federal space agency, are we really going to split hairs?
So the question remains, when will see people sent to Mars? The answer is, assuming all goes well, sometime in the next two decades. And while there are plenty who doubt the legitimacy of recent proposals, or the timetables they include, the fact that we are speaking about going to Mars a very real possibility shows just how far we’ve come since the Apollo era.
And does anyone need to be reminded that there were plenty of doubts during the “Race to the Moon” as well? At the time, there were plenty of people claiming the resources could be better spent elsewhere and those who doubted it could even be done. Once again, it seems that the late and great John F. Kennedy should have the last word on that:
“We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”