Half A Million Bucks Could Get You Round-Trip To Mars

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With NASA getting its budget slashed and space exploration a low priority for every politician not promising a moon base should they be elected, it’s easy to wonder who, if anyone, will carry the torch into this new century. It may be that other countries surpass us in the field of space exploration. Or it may be that the race for the final frontier will be pushed forward by eccentric rich folks. Such as, for instance, the “rocket entrepreneur” who believes we could make a round-trip voyage to Mars for as little as half a million dollars.

The wide-eyed dreamer in question is PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, who has partnered with NASA to help design new vehicles to transport crew and cargo to the international space station. Musk told the BBC that his Mars claims are supported by recent technological breakthroughs that are making the ambitious trip to the red planet more realistic and financially feasible.

We will probably unveil the overall strategy later this year in a little more detail, but I’m quite confident that it could work and that ultimately we could offer a round trip to Mars that the average person could afford — let’s say the average person after they’ve made some savings.


Espionage Or Rusty Gear? Russian Space Probe Engines Fails To Fire

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I think someone forgot to tell Russia that it’s no longer 1985. The Cold War is over, guys. We aren’t causing any ruckus anymore.

According to the Associated Press, an unmanned Russian spacecraft, the Phobos-ground probe, was launched into the atmosphere recently on a mission to Phobos, one of Mars’ moons, in order to retrieve material from the surface of the planetary body that would not only help explain its origin, but also help explain the origin of our own solar system. Unfortunately for them things didn’t go quite as planned.

When the unit was orbiting Earth, “unexplained” malfunctions occurred which Russia was quick to blame on foreign interference rather than just their admittedly shoddy equipment. An angry Roscosmos chief, Vladimir Popovkin, seems to think espionage is involved, though he doesn’t specifically name the US as the perpetrator. Another Russian official hints that the probe may have been affected by a powerful magnetic pulse originating at a US base in Alaska.


Mars Rover Finds Minerals Deposited By Water

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The new Mars rover Curiosity is on its way to the red planet, but that doesn’t mean its brother still on the planet is slacking off.  The Mars rover Opportunity continues to truck around the Martian landscape just as it has since 2004, collecting data and transmitting it back to Earth.  At the American Geophysical Union’s conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, NASA announced that Opportunity found a mineral vein on Mars that was likely deposited by water.

NASA describes “bright veins of a mineral” occurring on an apron around a portion of the rim of Endeavour Crater.  Researchers have nicknamed the vein most closely observed by Opportunity “Homestake” and it and its kin are unlike any other veins Opportunity has observed on the planet’s surface since it’s been there.  The spectrometer on Opportunity’s arm identified a ratio of calcium and sulfur that points to relatively pure calcium sulfate and the multi-filter data from the rover’s Panoramic Camera suggests the form of this calcium sulfate is gypsum.  Calcium sulfate is a big deal, because its high concentration could mean less acidic and more hospitable water conditions than what is suggested by other sulfate deposits previously observed on Mars.  The gypsum was likely formed by groundwater coming up through the planet’s crust, which carried up calcium sulfate formed when calcium from volcanic rocks combined with sulfur from other volcanic rocks or volcanic gas.

In addition to suggesting that there was not only water on Mars but water amenable to more types of life than previously thought, researchers think it could explain other gypsum observed on Mars.  Orbital observations found a dune field of gypsum sand on northern Mars that looks like those in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, but the origins of those dunes were previously unknown.  Basically, as Steve Squyres – principal investigator for Opportunity – puts it, the calcium sulfate veins discovered by the rover tell “a slam dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock. […] [gypsum isn’t] uncommon Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”


Mars Rover May Contaminate The Red Planet With Earth Life

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Mankind has been speculating about life on Mars for over a century, from the days where we envisioned canals stretching across the red sands, to our modern search for microscopic life hiding in pockets of ice. While we’ve never found any little green men, life might finally have appeared on the surface of the red planet. Only, er, we might have accidentally shipped it there.

Space.com reports that NASA’s Curiosity rover, which launched on November 26th and is currently headed for Mars, may have been contaminated. The problem stems from a set of drill bits which were not sent through the final step of the program’s ultra-cleanliness procedures. The space program has extensive steps, called the “planetary protection protocols,” which are designed to prevent any Earth contaminants from reaching other planets via NASA spacecraft. Instead of keeping all the drill bits in a sterile box, which would have been opened by the rover once planetside, the NASA crew decided it was safe to go ahead and attach one of the bits to the rover’s drill head. The appropriate paperwork to approve the step was filed, but it didn’t reach NASA’s planetary protection officer (that’s one hell of a business card) until it was too late to fix it.


NASA Launching New Mars Rover On Saturday

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Unlike the Orion project (which will launch three years ahead of schedule), the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission has been delayed two years.  Now, after 8 years of planning, its centerpiece rover will finally launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday.  The Mars rover Curiosity is being sent on a projected two year mission to assess whether Mars ever did or could support microbial life.  It will touch down in August at the Gale Crater after being lowered to the surface via a rocket-powered sky crane. Yes, you read that right.  The new Mars rover will be lowered to the Martian landscape via a rocket-powered sky crane to lay the groundwork for future searches for (microbial) life on Mars.

Curiosity is a behemoth compared to Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers that came before it.  Not only does it weigh five times more than its older brothers, it carries twice as many scientific instruments.  In addition to its fancy scientific gadgets, Curiosity has a good old-fashioned drill with which to peek at the insides of Martian rocks.  Instead of traditional solar cells, the new rover has radioisotope thermoelectric generators.  These spiffy generators use radioactive decay of plutonium to generate electricity, which makes Curiosity far better suited to Martian winters than previous rovers.  The combined force of all this makes for what MSL scientist Ashwin Vasavada calls “a Mars scientist’s dream machine”: “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another plaanet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out.”