NASA seeks volunteers for Mars isolation study

Volunteers will help researchers observe the effects of isolation in tight quarters for the months-long trip to Mars.

In conjunction with its goal of sending humans to the Moon and Mars, NASA is looking for US citizen volunteers to take part in an eight-month isolation study simulating life on a long spacecraft mission.

Selected participants will spend eight months in a spacecraft simulation in Moscow, Russia. Their environment will be much like that on a spacecraft heading to Mars, involving scientific research, use of virtual reality, and conducting robotic operations, much like astronauts would on the way to the Moon or Mars.

The goal of the experiment is to better understand the physiological and psychological effects of long-term isolation and confinement of a crew in a very small space. Data from the study will be used to address the challenges astronauts on future missions will face.

A spacecraft transporting astronauts to the Moon or Mars will be much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which consists of several modules and a recreation area.

Participants must be healthy US citizens between ages 30 and 55 who are proficient in both English and Russian. They must have an MS, PhD, or MD, or have completed military officer training. Those with Bachelors degrees will be considered if they have additional relevant educational, professional, or military training.

Varying amounts of compensation will be offered depending on whether participants are NASA employees, contractors, or otherwise associated with the space agency.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, those selected for the experiment will be required to quarantine for two weeks prior to the mission’s start to make sure they are not coming down with the virus or getting sick, much like ISS astronauts do.

The study is a followup to a similar four-month isolation experiment NASA conducted last year.

Anyone who meets mission requirements and wants to contribute to space exploration should visit the application site.

Space experts don’t think U.S. will reach mars by 2030s

Some space experts are doubtful that the United States will reach Mars by the 2030s.

Although the United States is determined to reach Mars by the 2030s, some lawmakers and space experts believe that a lack of funds and poor planning will delay the plan.

U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed interest in sending Americans back to the moon to create a lunar gateway that can be used to test spacecraft and technology that will ultimately bring humans to Mars.

“We don’t want to rob the NASA budget of what is the goal, and the goal is to get to Mars with humans,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, which is home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

“Do these missions help us achieve our goal of getting humans to Mars?” he asked.

Chris Carberry, chief executive of Explore Mars, claims that both private and international partnerships could make the missions to Mars more affordable for the United States.

“Our international partners want us to lead,” he said to lawmakers.

“But they have concerns that we keep changing directions. They are not sure that we are going to stick with the direction.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz says that he hopes the next NASA funding bill from Congress will create a more long-term vision.

“This next NASA authorization, the hope is that it will reach further and be bolder in its aspirations,” he said before asking retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson for her opinion at a hearing in Washington.

“The one most important thing is constancy of purpose,” said.

“We have to have a vision that lasts more than one administration. We have to have a budget line that will support those goals and objectives that we are trying to reach.”

German scientists creating artificial Sun

Scientists in Germany are turning on what is being described as ‘the world’s largest artificial sun.’

Scientists in Germany are turning on what is being described as ‘the world’s largest artificial sun.’

The massive honeycomb-like structure, known as the ‘Synlight’, uses 149 large spotlights typically employed in cinemas, to simulate sunlight.

The scientists will focus the enormous array of xenon short-arc lamps on a single 8/8 inch spot.

The scientists from the German Aerospace Centre hope that by doing so, they will be able to reproduce the equivalent of 10,000 times the solar radiation that would normally shine on a surface the same size.

“If you went in the room when it was switched on, you would burn directly,” said Professor Bernard Hoffschmidt, a research director at the DLR, where the experiment is sheltered in a protective radiation chamber.

The experiment consumes as much electricity in four hours as a four-person household would in a year.

The furnace-like conditions that will be created by this energy will reach up to 5,432 Fahrenheit (3,000 degrees Celsius.)

The German government is one of the world’s biggest investors in renewable energy.

The scientists will attempt to find ways of tapping the vast amount of energy that hits the earth in the form of light from the sun.

One of the primary areas of research will be on how to produce hydrogen efficiently. This will be the first step towards creating artificial fuel for airplanes.

According to Professor Hoffschimdt, billions of tons of hydrogen would be needed to drive airplanes and cars on CO2-free fuel.

Hydrogen is considered a promising future source of fuel. This is because it does not produce carbon emissions, therefore not contributing to global warming.

Recurring streaks on Mars not flowing water, new study says

Using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers found the seasonal streaks on Marsexist only on slopes steep enough for dry grains to fall the way they do on the faces of active dunes

In a new study of the seasonal dark streaky features on Mars that some have interpreted as being signs of possible subsurface water, researchers conclude the markings likely are due to granular flows of sand and dust slipping downhill.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the researchers found the seasonal streaks exist only on slopes steep enough for dry grains to fall the way they do on the faces of active dunes, according to a statement by the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The authors used observations from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HIRISE) camera on the MRO and looked at 151 streaky features at 10 sites.

But how these flows originated and why they gradually grow is still a mystery.

The dark streaks extend gradually downhill during warm seasons and disappear in cold weather. Thousands of these features, called “recurring slope lineae (RSL),” have been observed in more than 50 areas.

“We’ve thought of RSL as possible liquid water flows, but the slopes are more like what we expect for dry sand,” said lead author Colin Dundras of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the statement. “This new understanding of RSL supports other evidence that shows that Mars today is very dry.”

Almost all the RSL are restricted to slopes steeper than 27 degrees.

“The RSL don’t flow onto shallower slopes and the lengths of these are so closely correlated with the dynamic angle of repose, it can’t be a coincidence,” said co-author and HIRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwem at the University of Arizona.

Movement of sediment on ancient Mars may not have required water

Simulation shows alternate mechanism that required little water to transport surface material down slopes.

Features on Mars’ surface that scientists have interpreted as indications of ancient flowing water could have been produced by sediment transport methods that did not require water, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers have long assumed that gullies, slopes, dunes, and dark streaks on the Martian surface were created by the downward flow of sediment carried by high levels of water that the planet later lost.

A key problem with this theory is the huge amount of water that would have been necessary to create these features, which is far more than would have been produced via Martian weather.

In a computer simulation that replicated atmospheric conditions on ancient Mars, scientists at The Open University determined high levels of sediment can be transported downward with much less water due to the planet’s thin atmosphere, low pressure, and relatively warm surface temperature.

Mars’ atmospheric pressure is about seven millibars as compared with 1,000 millibars on Earth.

Under low atmospheric pressure, water will boil at surface sediment temperatures of just five degrees Celsius. Boiling water can hover or levitate above the surface and draw high levels of sand and sediment down sloped terrain.

In the simulation, approximately nine times more sediment was transported down a slope with this “levitation” effect than without it.

Lower gravity, such as that on Mars, sped up the rate at which the sediment was transported over vast distances.

Although Mars’ mean surface temperature is around minus 55 degrees Celsius, surface temperatures during Martian summer can reach 30 degrees Celsius.

The source of the water that could have produced this “levitation effect” remains unknown and requires further research. For scientists, however, the significance of these findings is confirmation of a possible sediment-moving mechanism on ancient Mars that did not require the large amount of water previously assumed to have been necessary for this process.

“Our research has discovered that this levitation effect caused by boiling water under low pressure enables the rapid transport of sand and sediment across the surface. This is a new geological phenomenon, which doesn’t happen on Earth and could be vital to understanding similar processes on other planetary surfaces,” study lead author Jan Raack of The Open University said.

“The sources of this liquid water will require more observational studies; however, the research shows the effects of relatively small amounts of water on Mars in forming features on the surface may have been widely underestimated.”

Curiosity rover team test drill using robotic arm

Failure of feed mechanism late last year has forced mission team to study new drilling technologies.

Members of NASA’s Curiosity mission team are testing a new technique to drill into Martian rock through using the rover’s robotic arm.

After 15 successful drills into surface rock between 2013 and 2016 that included sample collecting, the drill’s feed mechanism stopped functioning in December of last year.

During the drill sessions, stabilizing contact posts were placed on both sides of the drill bit while a motorized feed mechanism pushed the bit outward until it penetrated surface rock.

Samples of powdered rock collected during these sessions were sent to laboratory instruments within the rover for analysis.

When the drill’s feed mechanism first malfunctioned, mission engineers initially attempted to repair it remotely or take the chance of using it in spite of its being unreliable.

Eventually, they instead decided to bypass the feed mechanism entirely and drill with just the robotic arm.

“We’re replacing the one-axis motion of the feed mechanism with an arm that has five degrees of freedom of motion,” explained Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) chief engineer for return-to-drilling Douglas Klein.

“That’s not simple. It’s fortunate the arm has the force/torque sensor.”

Until now, that sensor was used to monitor for excessive drilling force that would trigger a daylong shutdown of the robotic arm.

While resumption of actual drilling is still several months away, the first test of the new method was conducted on Tuesday, October 17, when the drill was put to the ground for the first time in ten months, pushed slightly downward, and subjected to sideways motions.

The new technique is essentially an application of technology used for drilling on Earth. Mission engineers are also carrying out tests using a near-double of Curiosity at JPL and drilling into Earth rocks.

These tests include alternative methods of delivering powdered rock samples to laboratory instruments without use of the feed mechanism.

Curiosity is currently situated on lower Mount Sharp close to the top of a 20-story ridge, where it has been studying the amount and distribution of hematite, an iron oxide mineral.

Mission team members are optimistic about their chances of successfully drilling again.

“We’re steadily proceeding with due caution to develop and test ways of using the rover differently from ever before, and Curiosity is continuing productive investigations that don’t require drilling,” Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee of JPL said.

Ancient Mars could have been cold and still had flowing liquid water

Presence of Antarctic lakes in spite of freezing temperatures inspired study of early Mars.

Even if ancient Mars had been cold and icy rather than warm and wet, liquid water could still have flowed on its surface, according to a new study published in the journal Icarus.

While valleys and lakebeds on the Martian surface indicate water once flowed there, scientists continue to debate whether the planet was cold and icy or warm and wet during its ancient days.

Computer models of Mars’ early atmosphere suggest its climate was cold and icy.

Based on climate dynamics observed in Antarctica, where temperatures vary seasonally enough to sustain lakes even when mean temperatures are below freezing, three scientists sought to determine whether a similar mechanism could have occurred on ancient Mars.

They hypothesized that liquid water could have formed on Mars during seasonal melting much like it forms in Antarctica, even if the general climate had been icy and cold.

Although the planet could have been completely frozen for most of its year, peak summer temperatures could have melted the edges of glaciers, producing enough liquid water to carve the valleys and lakebeds seen on the planet today.

Other sources of warming, such as volcanoes and impact cratering, could also have melted ice into liquid water.

To test their theory, Ashley Palumbo and Jim Head of Brown University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science, and Robin Wordsworth of Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences ran state-of-the-art computer climate models for Mars.

The models assumed the composition of ancient Mars’ atmosphere to be largely carbon dioxide with small amounts of other greenhouse gases. Mars’ atmosphere is known to have been thicker billions of years ago, but how much thicker remains unknown.

To account for this, the researchers ran models with a variety of atmospheric thicknesses and the resulting increases or decreases of greenhouse warming they produced.

The computer models also accounted for the fact that the Sun’s output billions of years ago was weaker than it is today–another factor that would account for colder temperatures on Mars.

Other variables were added to the computer models to account for a variety of unknowns regarding early Mars. These included several different axial tilts, which would have altered the amounts of sunlight received by upper and lower latitudes, and various levels of orbital eccentricity, which would have influenced seasonal changes.

Several scenarios in the model showed the area of the valley networks covered with ice and mean temperatures remaining below freezing while at the same time, southern highland summer temperatures warmed above the freezing point.

Palumbo also incorporated data from an earlier study indicating the volume and rate of water runoff needed to have created the valleys and lakebeds.

With that data added, the model that best fit was one in which Mars had an orbit more eccentric than its current one, something entirely plausible in the planet’s early history.



NASA researching radiation protection for future Mars astronauts

Shielding, pharmaceuticals, and faster rockets are all being studied for the protections they provide.

Committed to sending astronauts to Mars during the 2030s, NASA is actively researching technologies to protect its men and women from harmful ultraviolet radiation during their journey and stay on the Red Planet.

Radiation exposure in space is much more dangerous than it is on Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have some level of protection from staying just within that magnetic field, but they are still exposed to more than ten times as much radiation as people on the surface.

Ionizing radiation in space comes from three sources–solar particle events, galactic cosmic rays, and the Van Allen Belts, which trap radiation from space.

According to NASA Space Radiation Element Scientist Lisa Simonsen, “This ionizing radiation travels through living tissues, depositing energy that causes structural damage to DNA, and alters many cellular processes.”

Protection measures as well as those that counter the effects of radiation come in various forms. Spacecraft, habitats, and space suits can be provided with shielding. Engineers are developing shielding technology at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) and other experimental facilities.

Devising protective shields is challenging because galactic cosmic rays are powerful enough to get through metal, plastic, cellular material, and water.

Another potential means of protection is pharmaceuticals, which some scientists believe may be more successful in protecting astronauts from galactic cosmic rays.

Methods of predicting space weather and detecting space radiation are also under development. NASA plans to equip its Orion capsule, which could one day transport astronauts to Mars, with a Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor.

The space agency has already sent a Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), which measures and identifies radiation from Mars and from space, to the Red Planet via an un-crewed mission.

RAD is capable of identifying specific protons, neutrons, energetic ions, and gamma rays.

Faster rockets will reduce the amount of time astronauts spend in space, lessening their radiation exposure.

Pat Troutman of NASA’s Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead noted the Red Planet is an ideal destination for astronauts because it has subsurface water ice and is known to have once been habitable for life as we know it.

“What we learn about Mars will tell us more about Earth’s past and future and may help answer whether life exists beyond our planet,” Troutman said.

“When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth.”


Mars Odyssey orbiter takes first image of tiny moon Phobos

First ever infrared photos shed light on small moon’s composition.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2001, but it did not have the technological capability of imaging its tiny moon Phobos until now.

Its first images of the small moon were captured on September 29 using Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), which has been studying the Martian surface for the past 16 years in both infrared and visible light.

THEMIS’ photos have helped scientists understand the composition of Mars’ surface.

Key to its new ability to image Mars’ small moons Phobos and Deimos is the fact that mission controllers can now rotate Odyssey to positions from which it can view the moons, noted Mars Odyssey project scientist Jeffrey Plaut.

In 2014, the mission team drew up procedures for rotating THEMIS to look up and image a passing comet. Prior to that, it had only looked down to the planet’s surface.

“There is heightened interest in Phobos because of the possibility that future astronauts could perhaps use it as an outpost for missions to Mars,” he said.

The first images of Phobos ever taken in the infrared, THEMIS’ photos enable scientists to observe temperature changes across the small moon’s surface, especially during sunrise and sunset.

When the September photo was taken, “Part of the observed face of Phobos was in pre-dawn darkness, part in morning daylight,” noted THEMIS Deputy Principal Investigator Victoria Hamilton.

Observing heat patterns at sunrise allows scientists to learn the rate at which Phobos’ surface warms.

“Including a pre-dawn area in the observation is useful because all the heating from the previous day’s sunshine has reached its minimum there.  As you go from pre-dawn area to morning area, you get to watch the heating behavior. If it heats up very quickly, it’s likely not very rocky but dusty instead,” Hamilton explained.

Scientists are uncertain as to whether the oblong-shaped moon, which has a diameter of approximately 14 miles (22 km), and its smaller companion Deimos, are captured asteroids from the belt between Mars and Jupiter or parts of Mars itself dislodged by asteroid impacts.

Covered in powdery dust, Phobos appears to be a gravitationally held together rubble pile rather than solid rock. It is believed to be composed of carbonaceous chondrites, much like solar system asteroids.

Using thermal imagery will assist scientists in determining the moon’s mineral composition and surface texture.


Methane deposits may have once allowed liquid water to flow on Mars

Researchers have found that methane deposits may have allowed Mars to maintain liquid water on its surface.

Ancient methane eruptions could help explain how Mars once maintained liquid water on its surface despite its cold, arid climate.

Over the past 10 years, researchers have discovered a plethora of evidence that suggests water once flowed freely across the Red Planet. In fact, many signs show water existed on Mars as recently as 3 billion years ago. However, that finding is strange because many studies have also shown Mars had a cold, dry climate during that time.

Though many astronomers have studied Mars’ past, nobody been able to explain that contradiction.

“It’s a paradox, an unresolved paradox of Mars,” Kevin Zahnle, a NASA scientist who was not involved in the research, told The Verge. “On the one hand, some people say that it looked warmish and wettish, at least occasionally. On another hand, nobody can figure out how it could have been warmish and wettish.”

Around 3 billion years ago, Mars’ Hesperian period — when the climate shifted from cold and wet to cold and dry — came to an end. By that time, the planet’s water should have been frozen into ice. However, 3.5-billion-year-old lake beds found on the rocky surface show that is not true.

To explain the discrepancy, scientists estimate that ages of unusual warming caused by outflows of methane took place during the Hesperian period. Such stretches would have warmed the planet and melted the ice, creating large areas of water.

Methane ice is a volatile substance. As a result, researchers think that when Mars tilted on its axis and pointed methane deposits towards the sun it pushed large quantities of the substance out into the atmosphere. This then caused periods of global warming that melted down water ice all across the planet’s surface.

This is a compelling study, but there are still many questions that need to be answered before any conclusions can be made. For instance, while the tilting likely played a role in the process, the team found the shift was not enough to cause true warming. Rather, Mars’ atmosphere would have had to feature a significant amount of carbon dioxide as well. Though scientists have tried to find signs of heightened CO2 levels in Mars’ rocks, they have come up empty so far.

“Having a thick CO2-rich atmosphere leads to some expectations about the kinds of rocks you would find deposited at that time,” explained Thomas Bristow, a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, according to UPI. “You would expect to see lots of carbonate minerals around, particularly in sedimentary rocks, but we don’t see them.”

Another problem is that, as the study is only based on computer models, researchers do not have any direct evidence of methane deposits on Mars. Even so, the team believes there is credence to their new theory and that further research could help explain one of the Red Planet’s biggest mysteries.

The new study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.