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.

NASA IS SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING TERRAFORMING PART OF THE MOON WITH ROBOTS

By Kelsey D. Atherton
Lunar Transformer Concept

Lunar Transformer Concept

NASA

Announced yesterday, NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.

These reflectors would be carried around the crater rim by other rovers, unfolding and transforming into useful shapes when needed. A single reflector 130 feet in diameter could send light over six miles into the crater, powering a rover (or a fleet of several Curiousity-sized rovers) with up to one megawatt of energy and preventing them from freezing. Thanks to their height, there is always at least one point on the peaks on the crater rim that receives sunlight, so work could be done continuously in the crater.

Should this plan all work out, several transforming robots with reflectors would work on the edge of the crater, beaming sun in, while robots inside the crater built something close to an “oasis” on the moon. Or at least, an oasis for lunar robots.

The project was awarded in NASA’s Phase II funding, which provides up to $500,000 for two-year-long studies, so the next task is designing a workable reflector that fits into a cube slightly larger than three feet each side, weighing less than 220 pounds, and that unfolds to cover 10,700 square feet. If it all works out, the robots shall inherit the moon.

[NASA]

The Pope’s Lead Astronomer Says Aliens Exist But They Probably Aren’t Catholics

BY TRACE WILLIAM COWEN

Image result for Are will alone

Perhaps the biggest component of the “Are we alone in the universe?” debate, for some, is the resulting dismantling of religious institutions here on Earth following inarguable proof that such institutions are decidedly anti-universe. For the religiously inclined, the question arises: Would inhabitants of another planet, likely within another universe entirely, even have knowledge of the respective god of one respective religion or another? The answer, of course, is a relatively firm “No.” Now, just three short centuries after the Catholic Church violently condemned Galileo for suggesting that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, the Vatican Powers That Be are joining the realistic side of this debate.

Following NASA’s announcement of a possible Earth-like sister planet, Father José Gabriel Funes once again expressed his updated thoughts on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “It is probable there was life and perhaps a form of intelligent life,” says Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. “[Though] I don’t think we’ll ever meet a Mr Spock.” When pressed about the inherent contradictions of such an expression from a person of such devout Christian faith, Funes gives an admirably forthright response. “The Bible is not a scientific book. If we look for scientific responses to our questions in the Bible, we are making a mistake.”

Funes also believes, in a humorous act of deflection, that this theoretical extraterrestrial life likely aren’t Catholics, wouldn’t have the slightest clue as to who Jesus is, and most definitely haven’t experienced similar events of supposed religious importance. “The discovery of intelligent life does not mean there’s another Jesus,” offers Funes. “The Incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity of the universe.” That’s perfect, isn’t it? A powerful religious figure admits to the increasing likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (i.e. aliens), but in the same breath reinforces the outmoded belief that humans are the center of everything.

Sorry, aliens. Please don’t visit us until we have our shit together.

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It’s a new space race with China to the Moon and Mars

 By Richard Sammon,

Courtesy NASA

 

Concept rendering of the Orion, NASA’s spacecraft for deep-space exploration.

A new space race looms on the horizon.

The goal: Putting men on the moon again (and maybe women this time, too), echoing the expensive and exhilarating missions that led to Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the lunar surface in 1969.

A return to the moon seems likely sometime late in the 2020s – more than 50 years after the first trip there. It would be followed, sometime in the 2030s, by a manned flight to Mars, using a lunar base as a departure point.

A U.S.-led team will reach the moon first, just as Americans outpaced the Soviets last time. But China will be nipping at NASA’s heels, poised to win the new race if budget cuts or problems – either political or scientific – disrupt America’s timetable.
So why is a costly return to space under consideration even as many members of Congress are looking to cut federal spending and trim the budget deficit? One factor to weigh is that NASA’s budget won’t be much different than it is now, about $18 billion a year. Private companies will kick in billions more, as will countries eager to partner with the U.S.

Another consideration: There is vast potential for scientific gains in health care, technology and telecommunications. Medical experiments, a boon for universities and private companies that partner with NASA, will help astronauts deal with the effects of prolonged weightlessness. Here on Earth, those studies may lead to advances in treating bone and muscle problems in older people.

And there’s a good chance that space missions will lead to the creation of new products that will find uses in daily life. The first era of space exploration brought a number of advances that are now taken for granted: Memory foam for mattresses and pillows. Cordless power tools. Scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses. Even freeze-dried food.

The renewed interest in space travel will also create a string of business opportunities for companies of all sizes. At one end of the scale, SpaceX is getting $1.6 billion to develop and fly rockets. The company, just one of the joint ventures pushed by NASA’s brass, has had a mixed track record so far.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and others will work on lucrative contracts for space vehicles to carry humans and cargo, and will provide other major components and gear. While those giant firms will land much of the space program’s main work, the contracts will require countless subcontractors to provide parts and perform some tasks.

Nearly every state will benefit to a degree, though the bulk of the work will be in states with existing space industry ties: Florida and Texas, of course, but also Alabama, California, Maryland and Virginia.

 

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NASA’s Mission to Europa

Let's Talk About NASA's Mission to Europa

The search for life in the Solar System is about the hunt for water. Wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. I’m talking everywhere. In the most briny, salty pools in Antarctica, in the hottest hot springs in Yellowstone, under glaciers, and kilometers deep underground.

So we go searching for liquid water in the Solar System.

You might be surprised to learn that Jupiter’s moon Europa has the most water in the entire Solar System. If you took all the water on Earth, collected it into a big sphere, it would measure almost 1,400 kilometers across.

Europa’s water would measure nearly 1,800 kilometers.All that water exists in a layer around Europa, encased in a layer of ice. How thick? We don’t know.

Is there life down there? We don’t know. You can say there might be, and it wouldn’t be untrue. However, if you say there isn’t, that’s way less interesting for clickbait purposes. Whenever we don’t know the answers to fundamental and intriguing questions like that, it’s time to send a mission.

Good news! An actual mission to Europa is in the works right now. In 2015, NASA approved the development of an orbiter mission to Europa. If all goes well, and nothing gets cancelled, a spacecraft will launch in the 2020s, carrying 9 instruments to Europa. Most will be familiar cameras, mass spectrometers, and the like, to study the surface of Europa to a high level of resolution. Over the course of 45 flybys, the spacecraft will get down as close as 25 kilometers and capture it with incredible resolution.

Perhaps the most exciting, and controversial instrument on board the new Europa Orbiter mission will be its ice-penetrating radar. Mission planners battled over installing a radar this sophisticated, as it will be an enormous drain on the orbiter’s power.

This for us is incredibly exciting. It will allow the spacecraft to map out the depth and thickness of Europa’s icy exterior. Is it thick or thin? Are there pockets of water trapped just below the surface, or is it tough shell that goes on for dozens of kilometers?

The worst case scenario is that the shell goes thicker than the radar can reach, and we won’t even know how far it goes.

Whatever happens, the Europa orbiter will be a boon to science, answer outstanding questions about the moon and the chances of finding life there.

We’re just getting started. What we really want to send is a lander. Because of the intense radiation from Jupiter, the Sun, and space itself, the surface of the ice on Europa would be sterilized. But dig down a few centimeters and you might find life that’s protected from the radiation.

A future Europa lander might be equipped with a heated drill attached to a tether. The lander would be have with a heat-generated radioisotope thermoelectric generator, like most of NASA’s big, outer Solar System spacecraft.

But in addition to using it for electricity, it’ll use the raw heat to help a tethered drill to grind through the ice a few meters and sample what’s down there.

Drilling more than a few meters is probably the stuff of science fiction. Russian scientists in Antarctica drilled for almost two decades to get through 4,000 meters of ice above Lake Vostok. Imagine trying to get through 100 kilometers of the stuff, on a distant world, with a robot.

But, since I’ve talked about moving the Sun, and terraforming the Moon, maybe I shouldn’t put any bounds on my imagination. Nuclear-powered Europa submarines will get us swimming with the singing Europan space whales in no time.

Europa is the best place to search the Solar System for life, and I’m excited to see what the upcoming Europa Orbiter mission turns up. And I’m even more excited about the possibility of any future lander missions.

Fraser Cain – Universe Today

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3D Printers to Revolutionise Space Travel Within Two Year

3D printing
Astronaut Robert L. Satcher Jr. works outside the International Space Station in 2009. NASA hopes that 3D printing will allow astronauts to set up permanent habitats in the future. NASA/HANDOUT/REUTERS

NASA are aiming to introduce 3D printers into spacecraft within two years, allowing astronauts to set up permanent habitats on other planets and even print their own food.

In an interview with Newsweek, NASA’s 3D printing chief Niki Werkheiser says the technology will revolutionize space travel by allowing astronauts to be away from year for years on exploration missions without relying on ground control.

Current costs for space transportation are $10,000 per pound of mass. The development therefore has the potential to save millions of dollars as astronauts can travel light and print essentials on demand whilst in space.

NASA is currently developing its largest rocket yet, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is due to make its first test flight in 2017 and Werkheiser says her team are working to get a 3D printer on-board.

So far, Werkheiser’s team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama have produced several rocket components and a small wrench with the technology and yesterday the team announced the first successful print of a copper engine part for rockets.

However, they are working on much more exciting projects, including printing parts for a small shelter using substitutes for Martian and lunar sand – the theory being that astronauts could one day use the printers to build themselves habitats on extraterrestrial surfaces.

“The bottom line is being able to print anything you need in orbit. When we live on the ground, we don’t think much about running to Home Depot if something breaks but when you’re in space, even tiny things make a difference,” says Werkheiser.

The space agency is also funding a Texas-based company which is researching printing food, and has already produced prototype results in the form of printed pizza.

Other projects include developing a recycler which breaks down food wrappers into filament which the printer could convert into useful tools like circuit boards and batteries.

Werkheiser is optimistic that commercial applications of the technology means 3D printing in space will not be a thing of the future for long.

3D products are already being touted as offering a solution to homelessness and a means of creating human organs for those in need of transplants.

“The beautiful thing about 3D printing is that you’re going to see a pretty rapid evolution of commercial development. It’s going to happen,” says Werkheiser.

NASA has spent some $3m on the In-Space Manufacturing project which Werkheiser heads up.

The prototype 3D printer used on the International Space Station is the size of a small microwave and prints objects the size of an iPhone 6.

It produces objects by a process known as additive construction, using plastic filament as ink and constructing objects by a layering technique. Instructions are uplinked to the printer from ground control via email.

Werkheiser’s team are working on introducing metal filament to allow the printer to produce sturdier tools.

However, they are still working to overcome certain challenges posed by manufacturing in microgravity – for example, whether the layers of heated plastic form strong bonds when layered on top of each other in the absence of gravity.

Nevertheless, Werkheiser believes the technology will provide the key to allowing astronauts to live in space with the same freedom as on earth.

“This suite of capabilities will enable us to operate and live in space as we do on the ground. You need to get that autonomy in space and this is the secret sauce to getting there.”

 

 

Nasa’s Europa Mission take another step toward reality

 

NASA’s current plan for exploring Europa has just passed its first major review, proving that it’s feasible, unlike any of the previous ideas the agency’s scientists cooked up. America’s space agency has been developing mission ideas for Jupiter’s moon for years and even considered sending a lander to the satellite as recently as a year ago. Its scientists also once thought of sending a spacecraft to orbit Europa, but they ended up having to scrap that plan: the moon is bathed in Jupiter’s radiation, which would quickly kill any vessel that’s constantly exposed to it. So, instead of a lander or a Europa orbiter, NASA will send out a spacecraft in the 2020s designed to orbit Jupiter itself.

As the agency revealed in May, that spacecraft will be equipped with nine imaging, radar, magnenometry and spectometry tools to study the moon’s ice crust and the subsurface ocean that’s likely underneath it. The vehicle will fly by Europa 45 times during its mission period, and it will use every chance it gets to know more about the natural satellite. It’ll even be equipped to gather liquid/gas samples, in case the moon really does erupt plumes of water into space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been studying the mission formally known as the Clipper concept since 2011, with help from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Now, that concept is ready to enter development phase, and if all goes well, we’ll finally know if there’s life on Jupiter’s moon.

 

 

 

 

Is NASA one step closer to warp drive?

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Engage.NASA

Potentially good news for those who want to zip around our solar system, and beyond, at speeds approaching that of light — and maybe even faster.

NASA, according to NASASpaceFlight.com, is quietly claiming to have successfully tested a revolutionary new means of space travel that could one day allow for such insane speed, and to have done it in a hard vacuum like that of outer space for the first time.

The technology is based on the electromagnetic drive, or EM drive.

The science behind the EM drive is, well, complicated to say the least, but the basic idea is to convert electrical energy into thrust without propellant (the fuel in rockets), which should be impossible because it violates the law of conservation of momentum. That law states that momentum can only be changed by one of the forces described by Newton’s laws of motion — that’s where propellant normally comes in with traditional rockets.

If you want to dive into the “hows” and “whys” of all this, they’re discussed at length — by amateur enthusiasts as well as Ph.Ds and one of the NASA engineers actually working on the EM drive — on this NASASpaceFlight.com forum.

Scientists from the US, UK and China have demonstrated the EM drive over the past 15 years or so, but it’s been controversial, since as mentioned above, the EM drive would seem to violate classical physics. NASA’s tests in conditions that mimic outer space, however, bring a new sense of possibility to electromagnetic propulsion.

 

If such a technology really does work, and can be implemented in future spacecraft, the implications include faster, cheaper and more efficient travel around our solar system and beyond, and could even be a stepping stone to faster-than-light travel. Yes Trekkers, I do mean a warp drive.

Imagine a vehicle carrying half a dozen passengers and luggage to the moon in about four hours, or a multi-generational trip at almost one-tenth the speed of light to reach Alpha Centauri in less than a century. The technology that makes this a reality could be in testing right now in Texas at the Johnson Space Center.

NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but we reached out to Paul March, the engineer who has been working on the EM drive at JSC and sharing some of the results on the forum mentioned above. He told us:

“My work at Eagleworks (the lab at JSC where the EM drive is being tested) is just a continuation of my work tackling the fundamental problem that has been hindering manned spaceflight from the termination of the Apollo moon program. That being the availability of a robust and cost-effective power and propulsion technology that can break us loose from the shackles of the rocket equation.”

The technology will still require more tests to verify that it’s the real deal (none of this has gone through anything like a rigorous peer review, except for the pretty vigorous discussion on the above forum), and any spacecraft that ends up using an EM drive will basically need a substantial onboard nuclear power plant that will need to be developed for such a specific use in space.

The notion of flying through space atop a nuclear reactor shouldn’t be any more scary than all the radiation flying through space outside our hypothetical future moon taxi though, so don’t worry.

 

 

Ocean on Saturn moon resembles habitable lakes on Earth

image: http://cdn.rt.com/files/news/3e/c0/d0/00/saturn-moon-life-space.si.jpg

Enceladus, shown in this recent image captured by the Cassini spacecraft, one of Saturn's moons (Reuters / NASA)

 

Enceladus, shown in this recent image captured by the Cassini spacecraft, one of Saturn’s moons (Reuters / NASA)

The newly-discovered subsurface ocean on Saturn’s icy moon of Enceladus is similar in makeup to some of the life-bearing salt lakes on Earth, a new US study suggested.

Astrobiologists believe this small moon is the best place to search for alien life in the Solar System.

The 505-kilometer-wide satellite is geologically active, with powerful geysers blasting through its ice shell.
Those geysers contain water which researchers suggest comes from an ocean located beneath the moon’s icy surface.

A new paper entitled ‘The pH of Enceladus,’ published on Wednesday in the journal ‪Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, looks into the chemical reactions that occur as Enceladus’ ocean water comes into contact with its rocky mantle.

The authors based their research on data gathered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004.

They used mass-spectrometry measurements of the gases and ice grains in Enceladus’ plume to develop a model that estimates the saltiness and pH of the water in the moon’s inner ocean.

According to the US team’s findings, the ocean on Enceladus is likely salty and has a basic pH of 11 or 12, neutral pH being 7.

The same pH levels are found in ammonia-based glass-cleaning solutions, but some organisms on Earth are still capable of living in such conditions.

The high concentration of sodium chloride (NaCl) makes Enceladus’ ocean resemble terrestrial ‘soda lakes,’ such as ‪Mono Lake in California.

 

It’s good news for the those hunting alien life as a the fauna of Mono Lake includes brine shrimp and many different microbes.

The team’s model suggests that the ocean’s high pH is explained by serpentization, a process where metallic rocks from Enceladus’ upper surface are transformed into minerals due to contact with water.

Serpentization also leads to the production of molecular hydrogen (H2), which is a potential source of chemical energy for any life form in the ocean’s water, the paper said. ‪

“Molecular hydrogen can both drive the formation of organic compounds like amino acids that may lead to the origin of life, and serve as food for microbial life such as methane-producing organisms,” the study’s lead-author Christopher Glein, from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, said in a statement.

Glein described serpentinization as a link between geological processes and biological processes on the moon.

“The discovery of serpentinization makes Enceladus an even more promising candidate for a separate genesis of life,” he stressed.

The hidden ocean was discovered on Enceladus earlier this year by Italian scientists from Sapienza University in Rome, who also analyzed Cassini data.

They said that active hydrothermal vents are likely to exist on Enceladus’ seafloor, providing conditions similar to those that gave rise to some of the first life forms on Earth.

Read more at http://endthelie.com/2015/05/08/cradle-of-alien-life-ocean-on-saturn-moon-resembles-habitable-lakes-on-earth/#aYHUOIUcJpEW18zX.99

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