Friday, January 1, 2016

On Mars by 2040?

Robots have orbited Mars, landed there, driven around, taken pictures, and studied Martian rocks.

But humanity's exploration of Mars has been by proxy: Nobody's gotten farther from Earth than Lunar orbit.

That could change before 2040. NASA has worked out a step-by-step plan for getting humans back into deep space: provided that Congress doesn't change its mind.

Even if that happens, my guess is that it wouldn't be long before someone else decides that people should act like humans.
  1. To Mars: Step by Step
  2. Schiaparelli, Barsoom, and Life on Mars

Science, Mars,and Faith

(From NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team; used w/o permission.)

Mars? Robots? Deep space missions? In a religious blog?

Putting science, bingo, or anything else, at the top of my priority list, would be a bad idea. That's where God belongs. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)

However — my faith does not require ignorance.

The universe is packed with wonders that we're only now beginning to find. Scientific discoveries are opportunities for "even greater admiration" of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)

I think the universe follows knowable rules: which means we can learn how it works. This is okay. We're supposed to study this universe, and use what we learn. (Catechism, 32; 339, 2292, 2295)

Then there's the search for extraterrestrial life, and I've been over that before. Fairly often. (December 18, 2015; August 7, 2015; July 31, 2015)

1. To Mars: Step by Step

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Infographic outlining NASA's plans for Martian exploration.)
"NASA Releases Plan Outlining Next Steps in the Journey to Mars"
Stephanie Schierholz, NASA press release (October 8, 2015)

"NASA is leading our nation and the world on a journey to Mars, and Thursday the agency released a detailed outline of that plan in its report, 'NASA's Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.'

" 'NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,' said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. 'Today, we are publishing additional details about our journey to Mars plan and how we are aligning all of our work in support of this goal. In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international and partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week.'

"The plan can be read online at:


"...Future Mars missions will represent a collaborative effort between NASA and its partners—a global achievement that marks a transition in humanity's expansion as we go to Mars to seek the potential for sustainable life beyond Earth...."
NASA described the three steps toward folks walking on Mars:
  • Earth Reliant exploration
    • Mostly research on the International Space Station
  • Proving Ground
    • Deep space operations
      • No more than a few days from Earth
      • Mostly near Earth's moon
  • Earth Independent
    • Deep space operations
      • Beyond Earth's moon, possibly
        • Low Mars orbit
        • Martian moons
        • Eventually landing on Mars
We're closer to having someone on Mars now than we were a year ago: but there's still a lot left to learn, and technology to develop. My guess is that the biggest challenges will be developing life support systems that will keep working for years.

Using today's propulsion tech, it takes very roughly eight and a half months to get from Earth to Mars, or Mars to Earth. Getting back takes about the same time, but the crew has to wait for Mars and Earth to be in the right positions. ("#21d Flight to Mars: the Return Trip," NASA)

That gives them about one and a quarter years to look around, collect samples, and keep their equipment in good working order.

Field Tests: Asteroids and Robots

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
"NASA's Journey to Mars"
Gary Daines, NASA (December 1, 2014)

"NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

"Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet's history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?...

"...Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we'll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA's powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these 'proving ground' missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown...."
Sending "...a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon..." — that sort of thing was 'science fiction' in my youth.

'The sky's the limit' doesn't mean quite what it used to. I've discussed asteroid mining, lawyers, and extinction events, before. (January 16, 2015; October 3, 2014)

I'm pretty sure NASA will pick a small asteroid with an orbit that takes it near Earth: but that's still impressive. 'Parking' the asteroid in lunar orbit will be a good field test for Mars mission equipment.

How loud the sound and fury over moving an asteroid closer to Earth will get — that's another topic.

2. Schiaparelli, Barsoom, and Life on Mars

(From Giovanni Schiaparelli, via NASA and Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Giovanni Schiaparelli's Martian map, complied between 1877 and 1886. He named the canali (channels) after Earth's rivers.)
"Is there life on Mars?"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (October 2, 2015)

"For more than a century, people have speculated about whether there is life on Mars. Within five years we may have an answer.

"In the late 19th Century, the American astronomer Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on the surface of Mars.

"He suggested that this was evidence that our near planetary neighbour might not only harbour life, but could possibly be home to an advanced civilisation.

"This fired the public's imagination - prompting HG Wells's novel, The War of the Worlds, several comics and numerous Hollywood science fiction films depicting Martian invasions...."
We've learned a lot about Mars since Giovanni Schiaparelli's work got mis-translated into English. I've talked about Mars, perceptions, Percival Lowell, Barsoom, and all that, before, too. (October 30, 2015; January 2, 2015; Apathetic Lemming of the North March 14, 2009))

A half-century ago last July, Mariner 4 sent back pictures of a cratered Mars.

Years later, after Mariner 9, Mars 2, and Mars 3 went into orbit around Mars — and a planet-wide dust storm cleared — we saw craters: and what looked like river channels.

Now it looks like life could have started on Mars. Whether it did, and whether critters still live there: that's something we haven't learned yet. (October 30, 2015)

Then there's the matter of defining "life," and that's yet another topic.

More about Mars and life in the universe:


Brigid said...

Wrong form of an article: "with a orbit that takes it near Earth:"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Oops! Found and fixed: Thanks!

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