Mars Ingenuity Kicks up a Surprising Amount of Dust Every Time it Lands

NASA's Mars Helicopters: Present, Future, and Proposed: A family portrait of Mars helicopters - Ingenuity, Sample Recovery Helicopter, and a future Mars Science Helicopter concept. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Mars has a “dust problem.” The surface of the Red Planet is covered in particulate matter consisting of tiny bits of silica and oxidized minerals. During a Martian summer in the southern hemisphere, the planet experiences dust storms that can grow to encompass the entire planet. At other times of the year, dust devils and dusty skies are a persistent problem. This hazard has claimed robotic explorers that rely on solar panels to charge their batteries, like NASA’s Opportunity rover and the InSight lander, which ended their missions in 2018 and 2022, respectively.

Martian dust has also been a persistent challenge for the Ingenuity helicopter, the rotorcraft that has been exploring Mars alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover since February 2021. Luckily, the way it has kicked up dust has provided vital data that could prove invaluable for rotorcraft sent to explore other extraterrestrial environments in the future. Using this data, a team of researchers (with support from NASA) has completed the first real-world study of Martian dust dynamics, which will support missions to Mars and Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) in this and the next decade.

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Future Space Telescopes Could be 100 Meters Across, Constructed in Space, and Then Bent Into a Precise Shape

Graphic depiction of Bend-Forming of Large Electrostatically Actuated Space Structures. Credit: Zachary Cordero

It is an exciting time for astronomers and cosmologists. Since the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have been treated to the most vivid and detailed images of the Universe ever taken. Webb‘s powerful infrared imagers, spectrometers, and coronographs will allow for even more in the near future, including everything from surveys of the early Universe to direct imaging studies of exoplanets. Moreover, several next-generation telescopes will become operational in the coming years with 30-meter (~98.5 feet) primary mirrors, adaptive optics, spectrometers, and coronographs.

Even with these impressive instruments, astronomers and cosmologists look forward to an era when even more sophisticated and powerful telescopes are available. For example, Zachary Cordero 
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently proposed a telescope with a 100-meter (328-foot) primary mirror that would be autonomously constructed in space and bent into shape by electrostatic actuators. His proposal was one of several concepts selected this year by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

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A Martian Meteorite Contains Organic Compounds. The Raw Ingredients for Life?

Martian meteorite Tissint. (Image Credit: Dr. Ludovic Ferriere (study co-author); Natural History Museum Vienna)

In a recent study published in Sciences Advances, an international team of scientists led by the Technical University of Munich examined the Martian meteorite Tissint, which fell near the village of Tissint, Morocco, on July 18, 2011, with pieces of the meteorite found as far as approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the village. What makes Tissint intriguing is the presence of a “huge organic diversity”, as noted in the study, which could help scientists better understand if life ever existed on Mars, and even the geologic history of Earth, as well.

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NASA and DARPA Will be Testing a Nuclear Rocket in Space

Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, Credits: DARPA

The coming decades of space exploration will see astronauts return to the Moon, the first crewed missions to Mars, and robotic missions to the outer Solar System (among other things). These missions will leverage innovative technologies that allow faster transits, long-duration stays, and sustainable living far from Earth. To this end, NASA and other space agencies are investigating nuclear applications, especially where energy and propulsion are concerned. Many of these proposals have been on the books since the early space age and have been thoroughly validated.

On Tuesday, January 24th, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced they were launching an interagency agreement to develop a nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) concept. The proposed nuclear rocket is known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), which would enable fast-transit missions to Mars (weeks instead of months). This three-phase program will culminate with a demonstration of the DRACO in orbit, which is expected to occur by early 2027.

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Study Shows How Cells Could Help Artemis Astronauts Exercise

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

In 2033, NASA and China plan to send the first crewed missions to Mars. These missions will launch every two years when Earth and Mars are at the closest points in their orbits (Mars Opposition). It will take these missions six to nine months to reach the Red Planet using conventional technology. This means that astronauts could spend up to a year and a half in microgravity, followed by months of surface operations in Martian gravity (roughly 40% of Earth gravity). This could have drastic consequences for astronaut health, including muscle atrophy, bone density loss, and psychological effects.

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts maintain a strict exercise regimen to mitigate these effects. However, astronauts will not have the same option while in transit to Mars since their vehicles (the Orion spacecraft) have significantly less volume. To address this challenge, Professor Marni Boppart and her colleagues at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology are developing a process using regenerative cells. This work could help ensure that astronauts arrive at Mars healthy, hearty, and ready to explore!

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Physicist encourages continuing the search for life in Venus’ atmosphere

Image from NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft in February 1974 as it traveled away from Venus. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In a recent paper accepted to Contemporary Physics, a physicist from Imperial College London uses past missions and recent findings to encourage the importance of searching for life in the atmosphere of the solar system’s most inhospitable planet, Venus. This comes as a 2020 announcement claimed to have discovered the presence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere followed by follow-up observations from NASA’s recently-retired SOFIA aircraft in late 2022 that refuted it. Despite this, Dr. David Clements, who is a Reader in Astrophysics in the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, recently told Universe Today that “there is something odd going on in the atmosphere of Venus.”

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A Novel Propulsion System Would Hurl Hypervelocity Pellets at a Spacecraft to Speed it up

Graphic depiction of Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration. Credits: Artur Davoyan

Today, multiple space agencies are investigating cutting-edge propulsion ideas that will allow for rapid transits to other bodies in the Solar System. These include NASA’s Nuclear-Thermal or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) concepts that could enable transit times to Mars in 100 days (or even 45) and a nuclear-powered Chinese spacecraft that could explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. While these and other ideas could allow for interplanetary exploration, getting beyond the Solar System presents some major challenges.

As we explored in a previous article, it would take spacecraft using conventional propulsion anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years to reach even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (4.25 light-years from Earth). To this end, engineers have been researching proposals for uncrewed spacecraft that rely on beams of directed energy (lasers) to accelerate light sails to a fraction of the speed of light. A new idea proposed by researchers from UCLA envisions a twist on the beam-sail idea: a pellet-beam concept that could accelerate a 1-ton spacecraft to the edge of the Solar System in less than 20 years.

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Instead of Building Structures on Mars, we Could Grow Them With the Help of Bacteria

ISRU system concept for autonomous construction on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA and the China National Space Agency (CNSA) plan to mount the first crewed missions to Mars in the next decade. These will commence with a crew launching in 2033, with follow-up missions launching every 26 months to coincide with Mars and Earth being at the closest point in their orbits. These missions will culminate with the creation of outposts that future astronauts will use, possibly leading to permanent habitats. In recent decades, NASA has conducted design studies and competitions (like the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge) to investigate possible designs and construction methods.

For instance, in the Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0, NASA describes a “commuter” architecture based on a “centrally located, monolithic habitat” of lightweight inflatable habitats. However, a new proposal envisions the creation of a base using organisms that extract metals from sand and rock (a process known as biomineralization). Rather than hauling construction materials or prefabricated modules aboard a spaceship, astronauts bound for Mars could bring synthetic bacteria cultures that would allow them to grow their habitats from the Red Planet itself.

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New Nuclear Rocket Design to Send Missions to Mars in Just 45 Days

Artist's concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

We live in an era of renewed space exploration, where multiple agencies are planning to send astronauts to the Moon in the coming years. This will be followed in the next decade with crewed missions to Mars by NASA and China, who may be joined by other nations before long. These and other missions that will take astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the Earth-Moon system require new technologies, ranging from life support and radiation shielding to power and propulsion. And when it comes to the latter, Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) is a top contender!

NASA and the Soviet space program spent decades researching nuclear propulsion during the Space Race. A few years ago, NASA reignited its nuclear program for the purpose of developing bimodal nuclear propulsion – a two-part system consisting of an NTP and NEP element – that could enable transits to Mars in 100 days. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023, NASA selected a nuclear concept for Phase I development. This new class of bimodal nuclear propulsion system uses a “wave rotor topping cycle” and could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days.

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NASA’s Psyche Mission is Back on. It’ll Launch Towards its Metal Asteroid Target Later This Year

A June 2020 artist illustration of NASA's Psyche spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University)

NASA’s Psyche mission is back on track for launch and is now scheduled for a potential October 2023 launch date, according to an October 2022 statement from NASA. This comes after missing its originally planned launch date between August and October of 2022, and becoming subject to an independent review board, whose results were announced in November 2022.

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