Exploring Mars Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow 

public domain image of Mars from space, Going to Mars book reviews, lynettemburrows.com

I posted a series of book reviews titled, Going to Mars Word-by-Word, in September 2012. It was a fun exploration of the portrayal of Mars in classic to modern science fiction. In real life, we’ve been exploring Mars in new and better ways since then.

The number of launches to Mars is too long, international and complex for a single post by a space enthusiast with limited aerospace knowledge. We’ll focus on a few of the NASA missions. 

Odyssey

Mars Odyssey launched on April 7, 2001 and arrived on October 24, 2001. It is an orbiting spacecraft that studies Mars’ surface. Its mission is to detect water, shallow buried ice, and to study the radiation environment. 

It is still operational.

Spirit and Opportunity

Spirit was a Mars Exploration Rover launched by NASA on June 10, 2003. Its twin, Opportunity, launched on July 7, 2003. About the size of a golf cart, they carried the same scientific instruments. They landed on opposite sides of the planet on January 4 and 25 (UTC), 2004. 

They searched for and characterized a wide range of rocks and soil for clues about past water activity on Mars. Scientists planned for the rovers to drive up to 40 meters (approx. 44 yards) a day for up to 1 kilometer (about three quarters of a mile). 

These mechanical geologists exceeded their creators’s wildest dreams. Spirit concluded its mission in 2010. Opportunity worked for almost fifteen years. Scientists lost communication with it on June 10, 2018, during a planet-wide dust storm. It drove 45.16 kilometers (28.05 miles). The findings of the two rovers showed scientists that a very long time ago, Mars had salty seas and may have looked a lot like water on Earth.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) blasted off in 2005. On March 10, 2006, the orbiter reached Mars. Its scientific instruments studied the planet’s surface from orbit. The mission was to seek the history of water on Mars with extreme close-up photography. 

The MRO’s last communication came on December 31, 2010. 

Mars Phoenix

The Phoenix Mars Lander launched on August 4, 2007 (UTC) and landed on May 25, 2008. It studied the Martian arctic, searched for evidence of a habitable zone, and assessed the biological potential of the ice-soil boundary.  

On July 31, 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander discovered water ice on Mars. The sample contained the same elements as water on earth. Elements we believe are important components of the building blocks for life. 

The Lander also observed snow falling from the clouds and found salts and minerals that suggest Mars ice had thawed in the distant past. The lander also exceeded its life expectancy. After five months, instead of 90 days, its mission ended November 2, 2008. NASA lost contact with the lander completely in 2010.

Curiosity

Artist's rendition of Curiosity Rover exploring Mars shows a collection of metal boxes on a platform with four wide all terrain wheels and a camera on a stalk above the over and a robotic arm extended to rock in front of the rover.

Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, is twice as long and three times as heavy as the twins, Spirit and Opportunity. Launched on November 26, 2011, it landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 using precision landing techniques similar to the way the Space shuttle landings on Earth. Its landing inspired me to launch my blog series, Going to Mars Word-by-word.

This rover’s mission was to study martian rocks and soil in greater detail to understand the geologic processes that formed them and to study the atmosphere. Its design and power supply gave it an expected lifetime of a full martian year (687 Earth days.)

As of June 2022, Curiosity is still active.

Exploring Mars Today

According to NASA, there are five missions exploring Mars at present: Perseverance, MAVEN, Ingenuity, InSight, and Curiosity.

Other countries and space agencies have current missions on Mars as well. Some of these Mars missions are multiple nations and space agencies’s cooperative efforts.

For an international list of missions to Mars, see Space.com’s post or its brief history of Mars missions.

Going to Mars Word-by-Word

Illustration of a spaceship approaching the red planet, Mars, by Robert W. Burrows © 2013 for the post Exploring Mars on author Lynette M. Burrows' website

There are eight book reviews in this series. The first one reviews A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the last one is Mars Crossing by Geoffrey Landis. Wouldn’t itl be fun to explore the series to see if new information gained from exploring Mars changes my review?

What new information have you learned about Mars in the past ten years?

Image Credits

Middle image Curiosity Rover, NASA/JPL-Caltech, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last image by Robert W. Burrows © 2013.

The Key to Surviving Space Radiation?

What do The Andromeda Strain, Project Hail Mary, and extremophiles have in common? If you answered survival, you’d be partly correct. The results of an experiment on the International Space Station may be the key to surviving space radiation. Or is it proof that life can (has) spread through the universe?

Image of the international space station in the blackness of space radiation with the blue arc of Earth beneath it

Radiation in Space

We’ve all heard about it. Scientists have studied its effects on meteors and rockets and astronauts for years.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field; particles shot into space during solar flares (solar particle events); and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system.

NASA

This is of particular concern when astronauts travel beyond low Earth orbit. Space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases. On a trip to and from Mars, astronauts will endure at least fourteen months of radiation exposure. Depending on their mission, it may be many months more. Space radiation is of increasing concern here on Earth as the protective layers of atmosphere above us grow thinner.

Starting the Experiment

In 2015, the robotic arm on the International Space Station mounted three boxes of balls of extremophiles on a handrail. They stayed there, 250 miles above Earth, soaking up all forms of space radiation. They also endured the vacuum of space and extreme temperature swings as the station rotated in and out of the sunlight.

What are extremophiles?

Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme conditions, such as in a hot spring or an ice cap or an under sea volcanic vent.

In the late 1960s, a microbiologist named Tom Brock discovered and identified the first extremophile in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone. Since Brock and his colleague identified the microorganism, more and more extremophiles have been discovered. Microbiologists and astrobiologists have studied the organisms ever since. They estimate extremophiles have lived on Earth for more than forty million years. 

The Experiment

Three panels of the bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans, arrived on the space station via a SpaceX rocket. 

According to smithsonianmag.com each panel contained two small aluminum plates dotted with twenty shallow wells for different-sized masses of bacteria. The largest of the masses, or balls, of bacteria was thinner than a millimeter.

They positioned one panel pointed down toward the International Space Station; the other pointed out toward the cosmos. Astronauts collected one panel after it was in place for a year and sent it back to Earth for study. They colleced the second panel and sent back after two years’ exposure. They collected the third panel at the end of the third year and sent it to Earth.

The results showed the outer layers of the balls, or masses, of bacteria died and while those inside survived. 

How’d The Cells Survive?

Image of the Milky Way looks like a "cloud" of stars, a highway across the night sky and it's hard to imagine how much space radiation is up there.

The articles I read implied the cells balled up into layers as a protective mechanism, an instinct, so to speak. In addition, this particular bacteria carries up to ten copies of their DNA (humans carry two). Having more DNA means they can churn out more of the proteins that repair cells damaged by radiation. 

What is the Meaning of This?

This finding suggests that life could transport between planets on a meteor or other space debris. Some speculate that it hints at the origin of life on Earth. Others speculate it could mean life transferred from Mars to Earth or other planets. 

Astrobiologists and microbiologist identified the parts of the bacteria’s genes that create the radiation-repairing proteins. Other scientists have identified various parts of human DNA that change due to living in space (in part due to astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space). 

The scientists don’t have all the answers yet. But they may have found the key to surviving space radiation making long-term space flights safer. Will it mean they trigger human genes to produce those radiation-damage repairing proteins? Or will they manipulate human genes to be more like the extremophiles and create a being suited for space travel similar to what happens in Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Imagine you’re an astronaut and going to Mars is all you ever wanted to do. Would you allow scientists to turn you into an extremophile?

Image Credits

Top image NASA/Roscosmos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Image: by James Wheeler from Pixabay

Sixty-Three Years Leading Us to a Star Trek Life

On 1 October 2021, NASA celebrated the agency’s 63rd anniversary of operation. On October 5th two Russians, a film director and an actress, docked with the International Space Station to do a twelve day movie shoot. Are the past sixty-three years leading us to a Star Trek Life?

Photograph of NASA's control room in 19 with eight men crowded around control panels with dials and on off switches. Definitely not close to Star Trek Life.

The Beginning

In the summer of 1950, a two-stage rocket called Bumper 2 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It reached an altitude 250 miles higher than the International Space Station’s altitude. Under the direction of General Electric, Bumper 2 rockets were used to test rocket systems and for upper atmosphere research. It was far from even the dream of a Star Trek Life.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I. A basketball-sized satellite, Sputnik I, orbited the earth in 98 minutes.

Caught off-guard by the launch, the United States scrambled to develop similar or superior capabilities. In December, they launched their first satellite, the Vanguard. It exploded shortly after takeoff.

The first successful satellite launch in the U.S. came at the end of January 1958. In July of that year, Congress passed legislation that created NASA.

NASA’s Years

On October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), began operating with 8,000 employees spread over four facilities. A small office in Washington DC directed operations. The agency also had three major research facilities and two test research sites. They had a 100 million dollar budget.

On October 11, NASA launched Pioneer 1.

Within six months, they unveiled the Mercury astronaut corps. It was 1961 before President John F. Kennedy issued his challenge to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Then, on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo Mission and Neil Armstrong made history. Soaring to the moon with less technology than is in our kitchens today.

There have been near misses and tragic sacrifices along the way. NASA’s mission has shrunk and expanded. But their continuing research has given us many spinoffs.

Sixty+ Years Later

Photograph of the sleek and smaller workstations of NASA's control center in 2013. It looks like a slice of Star Trek life.
Date: 07-16-13 Location: Bldg 30 South, FCR-1 Subject: Expedition 36 ISS flight controllers on console during EVA #23 with Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano. Photographer: James Blair

In 2020, NASA had 17,373 employees and a budget of more than 22 billion dollars. There are ten major facilities and at least 8 smaller ones.

Besides NASA’s plans to launch projects into space, there are the NASA website. On the website you’ll find the NASA blog, NASA TV, NASA Live, NASA social media, educational sites, and tons and tons of photos and videos. There are apps and podcasts and ebooks and ringtones and so much more.

It’s not just the U.S. And the Russians. And it hasn’t been for years. More and more nations are launching rockets with human and nonhuman payloads. Celebrities and civilians are joining the ranks of the spacefaring.

The International Space Station (ISS) had been operational and continuously occupied for twenty years and 337 days. There are Mars One projects, and Mars rovers, and space telescopes to mention less than a handful of hundreds of projects from countries all over the Earth. Each project may hold discoveries that truly will launch us on our Star Trek Life.

And this has only been a portion of one lifetime of space adventures.

Conclusion

According to Wikipedia’s count, there were more than 200 successful spaceflights during 2020. We don’t have flying cars that can fold into a briefcase yet, so we aren’t ready for the Jetson life, but ISS has fresh chile peppers they’ve grown in orbit. And like a scene out of Star Trek, there’s a movie actress onboard ISS! Space hotels and voyages to Mars are in our near future. We’ve had sixty-three years leading us to a Star Trek life. Are you ready to “Boldy Go” sixty three more years?

Image Credits

Upper photo: Technicians and engineers monitor the countdown for the liftoff of Explorer 1 in the control room of the blockhouse at Space Launch Complex 26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex (now Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.) Photo credit: NASA

Lower photo: (16 July 2013) — Flight directors and spacecraft communicators appear in the foreground of this scene in the space station flight control room of the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center during the July 16 Expedition 36 spacewalk outside the International Space Station of astronauts Chris Cassidy of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency. From the left are Jerry Jason and David Korth at the FD console and astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough at the CAPCOM console. Issues with Parmitano’s spacesuit brought the spacewalk to an early end. Photo credit: NASA

Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Is the truth in asteroid dust? Perhaps we’ll soon learn the answer. This month, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully brought asteroid dust back to Earth for the second time in history.

Image of the sun and planets in a row with an illustration of the asteroid belt-is there truth in asteroid dust

A small asteroid doesn’t have a heated interior. Scientists believe that means that since the materials on an asteroid have never experienced that intense heat and altered, they have the “initial characteristics of the solar system.” Studying this material could lead to a new understanding of the history and development of our solar system.

What Is an Asteroid

It’s an irregularly shaped celestial body usually found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. (See the illustration above.) They can be as small as pebbles or hundreds of miles in diameter. Most asteroids are rocks, but some have clays or metals in them. There are currently 1,038,96 known asteroids.

Scientists believe that during the formation of our solar system some rocks and materials were “left overs.” These left overs are what we call asteroids. 

How Do Scientists Study Asteroids?

Astronomers have spent years observing celestial bodies like asteroids with powerful telescopes. Some scientists have been fortunate enough to work with meteorites, tiny bits of asteroids that survived the fiery plunge through earth’s atmosphere and landed on the surface. 

First Asteroid Dust Collected

In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa (Japanese for falcon), touched down on the asteroid Itokawa. On June 13, 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth. Before the main body of the probe disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere, it released a heat-resistant capsule that landed in the Australian outback.

The capsule contained about 1,500 particles from the surface of Itokawa. The pieces included low-iron, low-metal chondrite, a material found in Earth’s super-heated interior but not on its surface.

Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research Team at Socorro, New Mexico discovered 25143 Itokawa on Sept. 26, 1998. It is about 1,755 feet long and orbits 186 million miles from Earth. 

A Second Successful Collection

a view of the asteroid Ryugu --the asteroid appears to be a rounded cube with lots of rocks and pebbles on it--is the truth in asteroid dust?
A colored view of the C-type asteroid 162173 Ryugu, taken from
Hayabusa2
By ISAS/JAXA, CC BY 4.0

On December 14, 2020 JAXA confirmed that a capsule from Hayabusa2 landed in an Australian desert during the previous week. It contained black grains from asteroid Ryugu. They believe they got at least 0.1 grams of material. They reported a plan to open the capsule this week, but news sources have reported no further information.

The Future of Asteroid Dust

By the end of 2021, JAXA promised some dust to NASA, some to international researchers, and plans to save about 40 percent of the sample for future researchers.

NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 and traveled  334 million kilometers from Earth to asteroid Bennu. It scooped up samples from Bennu on October 2o, 2020. The sample will return to Earth in 2023. NASA promised some of the samples to JAXA in exchange for the sample from Ryugu. They also promised samples to other researchers.

Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Asteroid dust is kind of like housekeeping dust, right? There are some truths in the asteroid dust samples. Is it the truth about the origins of the solar system? Maybe. The problem with discovering the truth is that we can only see and understand with the knowledge and history we have now. That clouds our judgment and understanding to where we may be blind to the truth, even if it’s really out there. Does that mean these very expensive trips aren’t worth it? Is our search for the truth worth any cost? What future discoveries do you hope will result from studying asteroid dust? I wonder if the asteroids have dust bunnies?

It’s Not Just the Oceans that Need a Cleanup

Garbage. It’s a familiar, man-made problem. On land and in the oceans. But it’s not just the land and the oceans that need a cleanup. Garbage is an orbital problem.

A Growing Problem

Accompanying the September 12, 2009 NASA Image of the Day (above) was a statement. “Approximately 19,000 manmade objects larger than 10 centimeters orbit the Earth.”

By 2013 NASA reported more than 500,000 pieces of space junk were being tracked.

According to National Geographic, as of January 2019, more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in or approximately the  diameter of AAA battery), about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm (up to the length of a regular crayon or the diameter of drink coaster) and around 34,000 of pieces larger than 10 cm were estimated to be in orbit around the Earth. This amounts to close to 6,000 tons of materials in low Earth orbit.

It’s expensive to remove space debris from orbit. And there are no international space laws that require space agencies to clean up debris in LEO. So LEO is the world’s largest junk yard.

Houston. We’ve got a space junk problem.

Who Tracks Orbiting Garbage?

In cooperation with NASA, the Space Surveillance Network a group within the Department of Defense (DOD) detects, tracts, and catalogues space junk. They use a global network of telescopes to track the debris.

What Is Being Tracked

Nuts and bolts and pieces of spacecraft or satellites that have broken off are orbiting the Earth. There’s even a spatula out there!

Objects as small as 0.12 inches can be identified by ground-based radars.   Examining the divots and pits on spacecraft once it returns to earth, allows scientist to estimate the size and number of smaller pieces of space junk. The smallest objects are things like paint chips and solid rocket exhaust particles.

Where is the Debris?

Image of earth: Gringer. Scale orbits: Mike1024 / Public domain
scale orbits

The debris travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph within 1,250 miles of Earth’s surface in what’s called low Earth orbit (LEO). LEO is home to a lot of satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). That’s why space junk is a concern. It’s a constant danger to the satellites and the ISS. 

What Can We Do About Space Junk?

On June 20, 2018, the space station deployed the NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite into space from outside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. NanoRacks-Remove Debris used a 3D camera to map location and speed of debris and deployed a net to capture and de-orbit simulated debris up to 1m in size.

Tokyo-based Astroscale announced in October 2019 that they would launch the first commercial debris removal mission by the end of 2020. Their End-of-Life Service spacecraft will retrieve space debris and release that debris into the atmosphere.

In December 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they will launch a robotic junk collector with arms. It will blast off in 2025 and grab Vespa, a piece of space junk left by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. It will then drag Vespa to Earth’s atmosphere where both Vespa and the robotic junk collector will burn up.

Only Time Will Tell

Will these two missions be successful? There’s reason to believe they will be. If they are, companies that launch and maintain satellites may pay garbage collection fees. The first commercial garbage collectors will cleanup in more than one way.

What Might Follow?

Would companies eventually pay for these collectors to haul their satellites to a space station for repair? Maybe.

In that case, I must write faster. My story, The Repairmen, is not as far future as I had believed when I began writing it.

Cleanup

True, it’s not just the land and oceans that need a cleanup. But cleaning up space wasn’t a viable option until recently. Yet, if we don’t begin cleaning up our mess up there, satellites, space stations, and manned launches may become too dangerous. Let’s hope that these two ventures are successful and inspire more ideas and ventures to clean up the land, sea, air, and the space lanes of Earth.