NASA unveils missing pieces in journey to Mars

NASA says the United States is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in history, but that many challan
NASA says the United States is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in history, but that many challanges remain before humans can set foot on the red planet
NASA has outlined the many challenges that remain before humans can set foot on Mars, calling the problems "solvable" but setting no firm date for an astronaut mission to the Red Planet.

Updated details of the US space agency's Mars strategy were contained in a 36-page document released to the public late Thursday, ahead of upcoming talks with Congress about budgets for space exploration and a major international meeting of the space industry to be held in Jerusalem next week.

Astronauts who journey to Mars could spend three years in deep space, where radiation is high and so are the risks of cancer, bone loss and immune problems, said the document, called "NASA's Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration."

"Living and working in space require accepting risk, and the journey is worth the risk," it said, calling Mars "an achievable goal" and "the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence."

But some experts said the report—which included no schedule or budget—was weak on key details.

John Rummel, senior scientist at the SETI Institute, said the document contained "curious shortcomings," noting that it only mentioned the terms "food" and "air" once, without elaborating on how astronauts will grow food in space in order to survive.

It also ignored "the fundamental issue of contamination risk" if Mars is found to host tiny life forms, or if humans take them there by accident, Rummel told AFP.

"The document does not address how the question of whether Mars provides a 'home to microbial life' today will be answered, or when, nor what that discovery would mean to future exploration," he said.

"Without sufficient care, Earth contamination could be misread as Mars life."

Astronauts who journey to Mars could spend three years in deep space, where radiation is high and so are the risks of cancer, bo
Astronauts who journey to Mars could spend three years in deep space, where radiation is high and so are the risks of cancer, bone loss and immune problems, NASA says

'Closer' than ever

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement that the US space agency is "closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history."

Bolden, a former astronaut, said he looked "forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week."

The plan ahead is divided into three stages, the first of which is already under way with testing and experiments on human health and behavior, life support systems like growing food and recycling water, and 3-D printing aboard the International Space Station.

The second phase, called "Proving Ground," begins in 2018 with the first launch of the new deep space capsule Orion atop the most powerful rocket ever built, known as the Space Launch System, or SLS.

After that, the space agency plans to practice other missions in the area of space between the Earth and Moon, or in the Moon's orbit, known as cislunar space.

These include sending a robotic spacecraft in 2020 to lasso a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and ferry it to an area in deep space that astronauts can investigate.

"NASA will learn to conduct complex operations in a deep space environment that allows crews to return to Earth in a matter of days," said the report.

The third phase involves living and working on Mars' surface and in transiting spaceships "that support human life for years, with only routine maintenance," as well as "harvesting Martian resources to create fuel, water, oxygen, and building materials."

NASA gave no precise dates or details for this phase in the report, though one graphic mentioned "human missions to Mars vicinity in 2030+."

The investments outlined in each of the three phases "are affordable within NASA's current budget," the report said.

Obstacles remain

As NASA presses further into space, the agency acknowledged that the problems will grow more complex.

"Future missions will face increasingly difficult challenges associated with transportation, working in space, and staying healthy," said the report.

NASA also said it needs to develop adequate space suits to protect against the hazards of deep space exploration, and must test advanced solar electric propulsion to power spacecraft efficiently.

Before humans ever set foot there, global space agencies are planning a series of new robotic rovers, adding to those already sent by NASA, including the Curiosity rover which touched down in 2012.

Even that rover's spectacular sky-crane powered landing must be completely revamped for a human-scale landing, which would be 20-30 times heavier.

A vehicle to lift humans from the surface of Mars into Mars' orbit is also needed, and is considered "critical to crew survival."

"NASA will have to learn new ways of operating in space," said the report.

"Overcoming these challenges will be essential on the journey to Mars."


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© 2015 AFP

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Oct 09, 2015
NASA also said it needs to develop adequate space suits for deep space exploration, and must test advanced solar electric propulsion to power spacecraft efficiently.


I wonder whether they are referring to a solar powered ion engine, or whether they are referring to an electric solar sail?

Either way should be workable in theory, and I guess they should test both, but I wonder if they'll be able to scale it large enough economically? The ship which actually makes the journey between Earth and Mars is obviously going to be much larger than the capsule.

Oct 09, 2015
in the article it talks about an Ion Engine
http://www.nasa.g..._508.pdf

Oct 09, 2015
in the article it talks about an Ion Engine

I wonder how they want to return a sizeable craft (one that is large enough to carry astronauts and do experiments) home in a "matter of days" with an ion engine from anything further up than LEO.
Either we're talking a lot of days or there's some breakthrough in ion engine design I'm not aware of.

Oct 09, 2015
in the article it talks about an Ion Engine
http://www.nasa.g..._508.pdf


I see that, a 40kw ion engine powered by solar panels.

That comes to 144megajoules per hour, which is about the same as burning a tank of gasoline, except you don't consume oxygen and don't make waste, and don't have to carry the mass of fuel...only propellant. It's beautiful.

I've been advocating for such a design in concept, but it will be nice to see when NASA completes the design and enters test phase for one of these machines. They may one day make the solar-powered tractor idea feasible for space mining.

A_P:
The transit vehicle doesn't land on Mars, it stays in orbit (presumably high orbit). From the concept art it appears it will have an enormous compliment of solar arrays. My assumption is it will be heavily outfitted with ion engines....

Oct 09, 2015
It also appears that they will be attempting to design the return vehicle (rocket used to leave Mars surface) so that it can be sent on a trajectory allowing it to eventually be captured and re-used.

The proposed ion engine would use Xenon as the propellant. Mars atmosphere has some Xenon in it, but it is very little. However, I assume there would be a way to extract Xenon from the Mars atmosphere cryogenically if needed.

The return vehicle would use chemical propulsion.

The suggestion is a combination approach for getting the transit vehicle back out of Mars orbit and on course for Earth.

I assume given the very large depiction of the solar arrays on the transit vehicle that NASA is hoping for a nuclear-free transit vehicle, which solves some of the weight problem by reducing the amount of radiation shielding needed for the crew, and opens other, more space-efficient options for the floor plan of the transit ship anyway.

Good times.

Oct 09, 2015
it looks like the transit habitat is intended to have at least 50% more solar energy capacity than the ISS, in spite of being smaller. This may just be a distance adjustment as per the inverse squared law, but I suppose those details will come out as the actual design proposals become finalized in future decades.

Something working in our favor is the fact computers are being advanced in ways we never really imagined 10 years ago, and by the time the design is finalized we are going to have functioning quantum computers, photonics, and even better understanding of nano-materials and composite materials for structural components, so the craft may be lighter and more energy efficient than we currently realize.

Oct 09, 2015
By the way, a 40kw solar powered ion engine is a fairly decent sized engine. You need about 140square meters of solar PV panels at Earth distance from the Sun, and you need nearly twice that much area of panels at Mars perihelion. So the engine would actually need around 280square meters of panels to collect enough sunlight to produce 40kw of power, and I'm assuming the really advanced, expensive panels which are about 30% efficient.

So this is an area about 14 meters by 20 meters, or perhaps 4 nacelles of 5 meters by 14 meters each. So basically each nacelle would be the size of the floor area of a mobile home.

The amount of nuclear fuel you'd need to power an RNG for that much electricity would require an enormous amount of shielding between the power supply and the astronauts which probably ends up being about the same weight, but complicates other design matters. So weight being anywhere near equal, solar power much safer and efficient.

Oct 09, 2015
ogg_ogg:

WE don't have space robots capable of repairing other robots' components, and we don't have space robots capable of doing real geologic science, such as taking a 100m deep or even 1000m deep core sample and actually studying the true geologic history and composition of Mars.

Eventually manned missions will be able to do that. I am sure that taking a core sample of at least several meters deep, perhaps 10m, will be a good starting objective for the first few manned missions, in order to have a return sample, not to mention collecting as many types of surface rocks as possible, and samples of dust layers, etc.

We currently cannot do that with a robot, and it would cost a fortune to put an automated laboratory advanced enough to do all of this science on one rover or group of rovers anyway...and if you did it that way and so much as one component breaks before the mission is complete, then its useless anyway.


Oct 09, 2015
Ogg_Ogg:

To have a good idea fo where deep dwelling microbes might be, we would need good seismic data in order to characterize teh internal structure of the planet...at least the crust and upper mantle.

For this we'd need a network of at least several dozen seismometer stations, and we'd need to set up blasting zones to detonate exploratory charges to track the behavior of seismic waves. This would allow triangulation/tetration of the direction waves pass through the rocks, and thereby identify density transitions in the crust and upper mantle.

This is relevant, because on Earth the microbes which live in deep rock typically live deep oceanic basaltic plates. If Mars ever had anything like plate tectonics, this experiment would allow you to identify dead ancient subduction zones, and therefore identify where "wet rock" is most likely to be hiding. This is likely where the microbes would have migrated to access water; assuming enough internal heat to have liquid.

Oct 09, 2015
Returners: remember the vacuum cleaner problem. Wattage is not necessarily a measure of how useful it is. It's only a measure of power consumed. If I take the numbers from Wiki as a rough approximation (say 7kW and 250 mN of thrust), we could maybe estimate that a 40 kW engine has... 5.7 times thrust, so maybe like 1.425 N of thrust. Let's say a vehicle is 10 Mg in mass. That's an acceleration of 1.425e-7 m/s^2 . Ie, 0.1425 MICRON/s^2. Let's say the delta-v required is order 10 km/s. 10^6 / 10^-7 = 10^13 (dv/a order of magnitude at least). dv/a = t^2 -> t = 10^7 seconds or so. 10^7 seconds is order 100 days.

So.. on the order of 100 days of constant thrust? Not impossible, maybe useful for non-crewed craft.... but maybe not the ideal engine for a crew.

Oct 09, 2015
While craters have been fascinating to NASA past rover missions, I think a manned mission should focus on a canyon and sourrounding plains, far away from a major meteor impact.

pro:
1, Radio dating won't be contaminated by material introduced by meteors.
2, You still have access to multiple erosive and depositional environments to study rock layers in the canyon walls. If say 10m core sample is a practical limit, then this benefits you because you can take multiple cores along the wall, as well as at the base of the canyon and at the top of the wall.
3, a likely place to find aquatic microbial fossils...if wind erosion hasn't destroyed them.

Alternate:
A large volcano far from a major meteor crater.
pro:
1, Best access to rocks related to the most recent lower crust and mantle conditions.
Con:
Does not necessarily originate from the time Mars was wet, therefore not necessarily representative of chemistry (biochemistry) during Mars best era for life...

Oct 09, 2015
Let's clean up Earth before we despoil any more planets.

Oct 09, 2015
Shavera:

I'm sure we'll be seeing early versions of the engine used in the intervening time period as engines on un-manned space probes and orbiters, perhaps for missions to the outer gas giants as some are planned for the next few decades. It would be an excellent time to test the technology...although for going out as far as Saturn or Uranus you'd need an even larger amount of solar power...

I'm sure they'll come up with some missions which are both functionally useful (probes, etc) and test the parameters they'll need for the actual manned mission. We can always use more (advanced) mars orbiters, or advanced, maneuverable space telescopes (in lunar orbit where they say they want to experiment in this space between Earth and Moon,) etc.

Oct 09, 2015
Shavera:
The average velocity change during the 100 day scenario you provide is of course 5km/s. Doing the math plugging this back in means you get during that travel time an additional displacement of 43 million kilometers, on top of any residual velocity from prior stages of the launch (such as a boost vehicle and so forth).

This is almost enough to travel the entire distance from Earth to Mars at closest approach...

so they have some tweaks to work out before final design, no big deal I guess.

I mean, we already have working ion engines, just need to scale up the systems make sure all the bugs are worked out.

Still, this is a pretty large machine in terms of total area it covers when fully assembled and unfolded, even though it doesn't actually enclose a large volume.

Maybe there are plans to link the power of the Transit module so the Ion Engine can use even more power than what is provided by it's own solar panels?

Oct 09, 2015
in the article it talks about an Ion Engine

I wonder how they want to return a sizeable craft (one that is large enough to carry astronauts and do experiments) home in a "matter of days" with an ion engine from anything further up than LEO.


You misunderstand I think. The plans that I have seen so far involves staging such stages as an Earth return stage in orbit around Mars, and the 2-3 automatic stagings needed/Mars visit (even to Phobos and Deimos) involves the efficient, robust ion engines. That plays into the hand of spreading out expensive SLS launches to 1-2/year, which is the rate NASA both can afford and have to maintain.

Crew transits needs to be fast and involves chemical engines at the very least. (Work on fission engines have been mentioned, but I don't think they are politically viable.)

@ogg_ogg: Comparisons have been made, and if you can afford the investment manned missions have the best ROI. [ http://arxiv.org/abs/1203.6250 ]

Oct 09, 2015
Two things we need when we get to Mars:

American Flag
"Wal Mart: Coming Soon" sign.

Oct 09, 2015
The plans that I have seen so far involves staging such stages as an Earth return stage in orbit around Mars, and the 2-3 automatic stagings needed/Mars visit (even to Phobos and Deimos) involves the efficient, robust ion engines. That plays into the hand of spreading out expensive SLS launches to 1-2/year, which is the rate NASA both can afford and have to maintain.

That makes sense. And might be viable for the cislunar situation the article talks about, too.

Oct 11, 2015
This is a pathetic program description. It is apparent to me NASA is set to repeat the failure of the Apollo missions. They are planning manned missions too soon, that will go to mars as self-contained missions each of which will end with us leaving so that at the end of spending hundreds of billions we will again be left with a bunch of rocks to look at. THIS MUST BE OPPOSED. Nasa is on completely the wrong track. If you are interested in what NASA should have said then see my blog: https://logiclogi...on-mars/

Oct 11, 2015
NASA is full of bureaucrats and people who don't care about the real future of humans in space. Their effort is not goal directed but simply a set of high profile "public relations moments" with little science behind what it is doing. They say we are currently growing food at the ISS. This is so pathetic it is ridiculous. This will not be like growing food on mars. The ISS itself is a 200 billion waste. They want to build the same type of rockets and ships they have before. High cost and non-reusable making the space program incredibly expensive to support the maximum number of jobs and produce as many "magic moments" that they can. We cannot waste this money and go down this path. If they build SLS and Orion we will be in another 200 billion dollar disaster. Please can we please not do this and delay having a real space program another 30 years.

Oct 11, 2015
NASA needs a reboot. There are a lot of people there who understand that a private program can produce benefits but the agency is clearly focused on trying to build again highly expensive single use missions that will bankrupt us and leave us with little actual accomplishment. The goal of our space program and missions to mars should be clear. If we are going, we are going for permanent occupation. In order to make that practical it means we have to do a lot of work to make such a thing even remotely possible. Landing spectacular manned single missions that create awesome press will NOT advance our ability to actually become more and more independent. NASA must become goal directed. They must tell us what the goal is. If it is to collect rocks or to have some great "picture moments" then NO THANKS. Don't want to spend 300 billion or whatever on that.

Oct 11, 2015
Once again, let us clean up this planet before we despoil another.

Oct 11, 2015
gkam: setting impossible goals before doing something is simply saying: Don't do it. I'm not saying don't do it. I'm saying this is absolutely the wrong way to do it but we should do it.

History is replete with lots of reasons to worry about our home being despoiled or difficult to live in that don't involve humans being the reason. If we wait to develop the technology to go out then we may doom humanity whether we despoil ourselves or something else happens out of our control.

Oct 11, 2015
john, it is not an impossible goal, it is a necessary one. We can probably do both, but space exploration is secondary to the primary goal of saving the billions who will be left when the few go elsewhere on our dime.

Oct 12, 2015
gkam: NASA budget is much less than 1% of federal budget, My worry is that even this amount is being horribly wasted. Having astronauts growing food with earth soil within 100 miles of earth in earths atmosphere is proving nothing. If NASA is saying that they are advancing going to Mars with any part of the ISS we are being deceived. Any extension of life of the ISS is a collosal waste of money. It should be elevated to very high orbit and abandoned unless a truly useful purpose can be found. We need to move on. Next we cannot build more expendable rockets. This is madness. It will increase cost of space 10x and guarantees a phenomenal waste of money in the future as NASA becomes tethered to the technology like the Shuttle and ISS it builds. These things turned out to cost us hundreds of billions each and were like a rope around our necks. NASA cannot be allowed to continue to build dinosaurs that cost hundreds of billions.

Oct 12, 2015
We need a space program first that is lean and unencumbered with the issues of manned travel. Manned travel costs us 10x or 100x unmanned travel. If we are going to be successful in space we need to develop our ability to launch cheaply and to not have to build everything with 99.99999% chance of success. The first steps are to shed cost, improve efficiency, then to start exploring mars seriously like with 10 large industrial size vehicles that can dig and really observe what is where on mars and figure it out. These 3mph delicate probes that operate on a few hundred watts of power like a light bulb aren't going to cut it. We also need to work on a real space station that can do work like assemble things probably remotely from Earth initially. Possibly the space station can be repurposed.

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