Author Archives: Carl

Mars Sample Return on the Cheap?

I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute.  BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.”  As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.

Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission.  Sound too ambitious?   Maybe not.  I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal.   Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.

With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.

While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission.  For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.

Mars Pirate Radio Interview

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with fellow Sci Fi author and host of Mars Pirate Radio Doug Turnbull.  He has posted our discussion in two parts here (tab down to Episodes CXXV and CXXVI).  It was a pleasure to speak with a like-minded space enthusiast on topics ranging from the works I have written with Tom James, to science fiction in general, to the future of human space exploration and settlement.

Doug has published numerous novels and short stories, and I invite you to check out his work.

The Aliens are Coming! Again…

Fans of big budget, cheesy Sci-Fi will be glad to learn that the first trailer is out for Independence Day: Resurgence.  It’s due in theaters June 2016, and picks up 20 years after the initial attack.  My personal hope is for something more serious than the original.  Roland Emmerich returns to direct, although he and Dean Devlin only get a character credit.  The screenplay is by Carter Blanchard,  James A Woods and Nicholas Wright, all with paper-thin writing credits so it’s hard to know what to expect.

Anyway, the official site has some interesting backstory details that had me intrigued.  First is the alternate timeline.  Picking up in 1996, and anticipating an eventual return by the invaders, the surviving Earthlings have adopted the aliens’ technology and have been preparing.  Apparently we have a Moon base and also bases on Mars and Saturn’s moon Rhea.

Additionally, there is also a reference to the impact of alien technology on consumer gadgets.  That sounded particularly intriguing at first, until I read the details that mention “breakout consumer products that were inspired by alien weaponry – including the touchscreen smartphone, bladeless fans, drones, and airport security scanners”.  OK, that’s as stupid as it is disappointing.

Still, I’ll try to reserve judgment for the final product.  As much as I am hoping for more realistic science fiction like what we were recently treated to with The Martian, I don’t mind the occasional alien shoot-em-up.

RIP Phobos

PhobosThat may be a bit premature, but apparently Phobos will be pulled apart by Mars’ gravity in about 30 to 50 million years.  New findings were announced by NASA Goddard scientists November 10.

Phobos’ grooves, long thought to be related to the enormous impact that created Stickney Crater, may actually be due to deformation from tidal forces.  These “stretch marks” may indicate that Phobos is not solid, but rather is an aggregate of rubble surrounded by a thick layer of powdery regolith.  This would make it easier for tidal forces to fracture the Moon.

These findings, if accurate, could present interesting challenges and opportunities for astronauts visiting the moon for exploration, mining, or setting up a base.  Phobos will figure prominently in Ghosts of Tharsis, our upcoming sequel to In the Shadow of Ares.

 

 

 

The Solar Wind Did It

At today’s briefing, NASA scientists announced that data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has confirmed that the solar wind plays a leading role in stripping away the Martian atmosphere, which was once thick enough to support abundant liquid water on the surface.

That’s not a new theory, and it’s hardly surprising that a planet with a third the gravity of Earth and a negligible magnetic field would be susceptible to the effect of solar wind, at least compared to Earth.  However understanding the mechanisms at work helps us to understand Mars’ past as well as its future.  I’m particularly interested in the impact these findings have on the potential for eventually terraforming Mars.

Company on the Moon?

A renewed international space race that many have been hoping for appears to be on the horizon.  NASA has announce plans to send humans to Mars, and now Russia has announced it intends to send humans to the Moon by 2029.  It has also been reported that Russia is in talks with China to collaborate on a Moon base.

Anything that gets us beyond LEO is a good thing, as long as the Moon doesn’t become the ultimate goal or a significant distraction in getting us to Mars.

Seeking Mars Architects

In line with NASA’s recent focus on Humans-to-Mars, the agency announced a new contest to design structures on Mars using existing materials found on the planet.  The In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge  offers a $10,000 first place prize and two $2,500 second place prizes.

Of course, ISRU is a cornerstone of all practical Humans-to-Mars proposals, and it’s nice to see NASA embracing it.  Personally I’d like to see a near-term sample return mission with the return powered by fuel derived form the Martian atmosphere, a much bolder ISRU demonstration than some of the proposals currently under consideration for the Mars 2020 mission.

ISRU is so critical because it significantly lowers the cost and (if done properly) the risk of the mission.  As NASA indicates:

One advantage of using resources from the planet instead of bringing everything from Earth is the potential to save the agency more than $100,000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cargo each launch.

As for that $100,000, that’s gotta come down quite a bit, regardless of ISRU.  Of course the private sector is making great strides there already.

We have a plan…or do we?

On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.

journeytomars-coverThe document is definitely much more of a PR brochure than an actual mission plan, but of course this is for public consumption.

It includes three phases:  “Earth Reliant” (ISS-based), “Proving Ground” (cis-Lunar) and “Earth Independent” (Mars and vicinity), “each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth.”

It is positive to hear NASA publicly proclaim, “Like the Apollo Program, we embark on this journey for all humanity. Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay.”  It’s quite a reversal from a few years ago where even mentioning Mars seemed to be a taboo.

Unfortunately, this “plan” does differ from Apollo in other key areas: it lacks the political mandate, budget and timeframe to provide a reasonable chance at success, at least in our lifetime.  This isn’t NASA’s fault, of course; it’s a political reality that must be overcome.

Other problems include the plan’s attempt to justify past expenditures and accommodate other, irrelevant initiatives.  The role of ISS is certainly larger than it needs to be, asteroid capture is unnecessarily included, and apparently Solar Electric Propulsion will be playing a role.  Too many things that don’t have a lot to do with getting to Mars.

There’s also no mention of a Mars fly-by mission.  Such a mission would be achievable within NASA’s current budget and more importantly within two presidential terms.  It would also significantly advance and provide a real “proving ground” for many of the critical technologies mentioned in this document.  Maybe more important, it would likely boost the political and public support for a full blown Mars landing and settlement program in our lifetimes.  Hopefully a future version of this plan will move in that direction.

 

A Martian Odyssey: We Can Do It

Robert Zubrin’s latest op-ed piece, published here in the National Review, invokes the pioneering and resourceful spirit of Homer’s Odysseus in advocating Humans-to-Mars.  In addition to tying in the recent NASA announcement about liquid water on Mars and the movie The Martian, Zubrin gives the back of his hand to Ed Regis, philosopher and author of a recent New York Times op-ed piece rife with inaccuracies about the hazards of a mission to Mars.