NASA’s wild new plan to hunt for life on Mars would test SpaceX in ways never done before

Jessica Orwig

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

There are 99 Mars rocks on Earth, but they’re not the kind that scientists need in order to resolve the all-too-intriguing  mystery of whether there is — or once was — life on Mars.

So far, all efforts to answer this question have painted a picture of an ancient Mars once covered in water with a thicker atmosphere and warmer temperatures — a world similar to Earth. But no signs of past or present life have been found, yet.

That’s why a team of scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California have come up with a wild notion to do what has never been done before: transport rocks currently on Mars to Earth.

NASA has been seriously considering a sample-return mission like this for a while, ranking it as the highest-priority big-budget mission for the future in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey. The return mission that NASA envisioned in 2013 would cost $6 billion, but the team at NASA’s Ames Research Center thinks they might have found a cheaper way.

Enter the “Red Dragon” mission, which would see NASA team up with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, once again, for an epic mission of engineering firsts, including the first time anyone will have launched a vehicle off the surface of Mars.

spaceXSpaceX Photos

The project would launch a modified version of SpaceX’s current Dragon spacecraft to the Red Planet by as early as 2022, hence the project name “Red Dragon.”

The project is “technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist,” NASA senior systems aerospace engineer Andy Gonzales told NBC News.

Why we need to get Mars rocks back to Earth

Right now, the only Mars rocks available to scientist are not really rocks at all. They’re meteorites that were flung into space by a powerful impact and later plummeted to Earth at blazing speeds of more than 160,000 miles per hour.

However, this sort of rough, bumpy ride might have destroyed any valuable evidence within the rocks that could point to past life on Mars. And while NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently drilling into the Martian surface in search for signs of ancient alien life, it has come up empty-handed.

To determine, once and for all, whether Mars once harbored a thriving ecosystem on its watery and warm former self, scientists need to get their hands on Martian rocks that are sitting on the surface right now.

mars waterESO/M. KornmesserIllustration of what Mars might have looked like covered in water billions of years ago.

“Red Dragon” would follow NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, scheduled to launch a rover similar to Curiosity to Mars in 2020 — if the project is fully funded.

The Dragon spacecraft would then retrieve the samples taken by the Mars 2020 rover, store them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would then launch the samples back to Earth, as described in the graphic below:

red dragon mission conceptNASA Ames Research Center/Red Dragon Internal Study Team

Gonzales and his team have not approached SpaceX yet to see if Elon Musk and his company would actually be interested in such a mission. First, the team needs to get NASA to approve the concept and fund the mission, which was first proposed last year.

Despite no funding in site, Gonzales is still actively pushing for the project, which he discussed last week during a NASA Future In-Space Operations working group. Gonzales told NBC News that his team has not estimated the total cost of “Red Dragon” but they suspect it will cost less than NASA’s $6 billion mission envisioned in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey.

Stunning images reveal SpaceX’s revolutionary approach to landing on Mars

Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX has big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home.

And as mind-blowing as these innovative ideas are, the video animations and illustrations that bring Space X’s goals to life are equally impressive.

But these animations and illustrations aren’t just fiction and propaganda: They are a way for SpaceX to envision the future and make it a reality.

For example, in 2011 SpaceX released a videoshowing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space — something that had never been done before. And in 2015, SpaceX began attempting to land their rockets exactly how they had envisioned in the video.

(Neither of the two attempted landings, so far, have succeeded.)

And if you check out the latest photos and illustrations on SpaceX’s Flickr account, you’ll see something that is even cooler than landing a rocket on Earth: Landing a spacecraft on Mars. And judging from the illustrations, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a super-simple approach that has never been tried before.

This is SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:

spaceXSpaceX Photos

SpaceX will first send its Dragon capsule to Mars before transporting a crew on board its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is designed to carry seven astronauts at a time and is currently being tested by SpaceX for its debut launch, scheduled for 2017.

This unmanned Dragon capsule has been making trips to the International Space Station since 2010. But to get to Mars, which is 560,000 times farther, the Dragon will need to ride a more powerful rocket than the Falcon 9, which it takes to the ISS.

That rocket is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.

spaceXSpaceX on Flickr

However, this monster rocket will only take Dragon so far. Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing on it because the Martian atmosphere is a tricky beast to control.

The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, so simple parachutes won’t slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.

But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luckily, Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn’t be a problem heat-wise.

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

But there’s still the problem of slowing down. Although gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on Earth, the vehicle is still plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour after entering Mars’s atmosphere. If it were to hit the ground at those speeds, you’d have a disaster.

The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

And then, as the spacecraft continues to plunge toward the surface, it will fire its thrusters one final time for a soft, vertical touch down:

spacexSpaceX Photo on Flickr

This sort of landing is unlike anything that anyone has ever tried before, but you have to admit that Dragon looks pretty great on Mars if it ever manages to get there:

spaceXSpaceX Photo on Flickr

The last major Mars landing was NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. This landing was a huge success but extremely complicated that involved half a dozen steps that, if not completed perfectly, would end in disaster. NASA dubbed the landing process “7 minutes of terror” because that’s how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.

SpaceX has not announced when it plans to first send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars. However, there is a project called “Red Dragon” that NASA is considering and would involve sending a Dragon to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and then return them to Earth. This project has not yet been selected for funding by NASA but if funded could launch as early as 2022.

  • Jessica Orwig

 

Does oxygen necessarily mean aliens?

Astrobiologists find that the presence of oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere may not necessarily mean that life exists there.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

Scientists and E.T. enthusiasts may have to rethink an allegedly telltale sign that a planet has life.

The presence of oxygen, specifically O2 , in a planet’s atmosphere has long been thought to be a near-certain signal that there are, or at least were, living organisms engaging in photosynthesis on the planet. But new research suggests that oxygen can exist in large quantities without being produced by living things.

A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports found that some planets could have “abiotic” oxygen, produced through a a photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide

World’s first head transplant patient schedules procedure for 2017

RARE DISEASES

headtransplant.jpg

Valery Spiridonov who has put himself forward to have the world’s first head transplant is going to meet the surgeon. (CEN)

A man set to become the world’s first head transplant patient has scheduled the procedure for December 2017.

Valery Spiridonov, 30, was diagnosed with a genetic muscle-wasting condition called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, and volunteered for the procedure despite the risks involved, Central European News (CEN) reported.

“When I realized that I could participate in something really big and important, I had no doubt left in my mind and started to work in this direction,” Spiridonov, a Russian computer scientist, told CEN. “The only thing I feel is the sense of pleasant impatience, like I have been preparing for something important all my life and it is starting to happen.”

Dr. Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon, will perform the procedure on Spiridonov. The procedure is expected to last up to 36 hours, and it will require Spiridonov’s head be cooled as well as the donor’s body to extend the period during which the cells can survive without oxygen, CEN reported.

“According to Canavero’s calculations, if everything goes to plan, two years is the time frame needed to verify all scientific calculations and plan the procedure’s details,” Spiridonov told CEN. “It isn’t a race. No doubt, the surgery will be done once the doctor and the experts are 99 percent sure of its success.”

Spiridonov joked that first thing he plans to do after the procedure is go on a vacation.

“But on a serious note, this operation is aimed at restoring independence of severely disabled people. Once I get it back I’ll see what the life of a healthier person looks like,” he said.

China aims to be first to land probe on moon’s far side

Image result for far side of the moon

BEIJING (AP) — China’s space program says it plans to attempt the first-ever landing of a lunar probe on the moon’s far side.

 

Zou Yongliao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ moon exploration department told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday that the Chang’e 4 mission is planned for sometime before 2020.

 

Zou said the objective of the mission would be to study geological conditions on the moon’s far side, also known as the dark side. Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the far side, making it an excellent location to place a radio telescope for use by astronomers.

 

China’s next lunar mission is scheduled for 2017, when it will attempt to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to Earth with samples..

 

‘Alien Corpse’ Discovered Near Nuclear Power Plant

Andy Wells

Conspiracy theorists are in a bit of a flutter after the discovery of what the believe is an alien corpse near a nuclear power plant.

The odd discovery of the apparent body with a “mysterious skull” in Russia has got UFO hunters excited at what could be evidence of life on other planets.

Either that or it’s a mutant chicken embryo – which is what experts first thought it might have been.

However, scientists believe that if it is a corpse, it isn’t from any known animal on the planet.

One said: “It seems that this body is neither fish nor fowl – this creature has a mysterious skull, no neck and wings.”

Experts from the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, where the body was taken for more tests, are equally baffled.

Biologist Yegor Zadereev said: “Extensive studies are needed to determine what kind of creature or organism it is.”

However, alien hunters are in no doubt what it is – an extraterrestrial.

Scott C Waring, from UFO Sightings Daily, said: “This tiny alien body was found near a river in Russia and has no resemblance to any animal known.

“Russian scientists are confused over what it could be and said they need to wait for the results of the tests, which are probably DNA I assume.”

To be fair, the body does look a bit like the aliens out of the Sigourney Weaver movies.

Though what it was doing poking around a nuclear power plant in the middle of Russia is anyone’s guess…

Pics: YouTube/Flickr

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