Mars has become something of an international playground over the past twenty years. There are currently eleven missions from five space agencies exploring the Red Planet, a combination of orbiters, landers, and rovers. Several additional robotic missions will be leaving for Mars in the next few years, and crewed missions are planned for the 2030s. Because of this increase in traffic, NASA and other space agencies are naturally worried about “planetary protection.”
With this in mind, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently released a new report that identified several criteria for future robotic missions to Mars. These would reduce these missions’ “bioburden” requirements, which are designed to prevent the unintentional contamination of the Red Planet with Earth-based organisms. Specifically, the report considers how Earth organisms would interfere with searches for indigenous life on the planet.
Today, at close to 04:30 PM local time (CST), NASA achieved a major milestone with the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) – the heavy launch system they will use to send astronauts back to the Moon and crewed missions to Mars. As part of a Green Run Hot Fire Test, all four RS-25 engines on the SLS Core Stage were fired at once as part of the first top-to-bottom integrated test of the stage’s systems.
This test is the last hurdle in an eight-step validation process before the Core Stage can be mated with its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and sent on its maiden voyage around the Moon (Artemis I) – which is currently scheduled to happen sometime in November of 2021.
It’s been a long road for InSight’s Mole. InSight landed on Mars almost two years ago, in November 2018. While the lander’s other instruments are working fine and returning scientific data, the Mole has been struggling to hammer its way into the surface of the planet.
After much hard work and a lot of patience, the Mole has finally succeeded in burying itself all the way into the Marian regolith.
We all know how exploration by rover works. The rover is directed to a location and told to take a sample. Then it subjects that sample to analysis and sends home the results. It’s been remarkably effective.
But it’s expensive and time-consuming to send all this data home. Will this way of doing things still work? Or can it be automated?
If the Curiosity rover was paranoid, would it feel like it was being watched? Well, it is being watched, by its brother in orbit, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The MRO watched Curiosity as it travelled through the ‘Clay-Bearing Unit‘ in Gale Crater, during June and July, 2019.
When InSight landed on Mars on Nov. 26th, 2018, it deployed a parachute to slow its descent through the thin Martian atmosphere. As it approached the surface, it fired its retro rocket to slow it even more, and then gently touched down on the surface. As it did so, its retro rockets excavated two small pits in the Martian soil.
In the coming decades, a number of missions are planned for Mars, which include proposals to send astronauts there for the first time. This presents numerous logistical and technical challenges, ranging from the sheer distance to the need for increased protection against radiation. At the same time, there is also the difficulty of landing on the Red Planet, or what is referred to as the “Mars Curse“.
To complicate matters more, the size and mass of future missions (especially crewed spacecraft) will be beyond the capacity of current entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technology. To address this, a team of aerospace scientists released a study that shows how a trade-off between lower-altitude braking thrust and flight-path angle could allow for heavy missions to safely land on Mars.