Travel To Mars & Manic Cats


When the caveman and I head south for an Amazon jungle escape in his homeland of Peru, we first have to endure a six hour flight from Houston. Since we are not made of money, we do not fly first class. And so far, I have yet to find an airline with a cuddle section in coach. Also, because of the horrible pollution in Peru’s capital, Lima, it’s location along the Pacific coastline and it’s coastal desert climate, there are only certain times of day that are suitable for flights because of smog and fog. The airport is active at night. So, getting there is not so bad. We can leave at a decent hour in the afternoon and arrive sometime after dinner. However, I have never been able to find any other flight back to the states that is not scheduled in the red-eye hours. This makes homeward air travel a grouch inducing event.

The gringa’s return trip experience usually goes something like this:

  • 10pm – Arrive at the airport
  • 12am – Settle into my airplane seat
  • 12:30am – Take off and read until I’m sleepy
  • 1:30am – Attempt to go to sleep which involves my travel neck pillow hanging in front to avoid the forward head bob which usually never really works so eventually I dig out a scarf and tie my head to the headrest
  • 2am – After tying my head to the headrest, I now have to pee after all the bending and twisting has tortured my bladder.
  • 2:15am – Re-tie my head to the headrest after returning from the bathroom. Discover I am wide awake. Untie my head and begin to read.
  • 3am – Tie my head to the headrest and try to sleep which involves fits and spurts of dozing off then those little jumps a body makes as you merge into deep REMs, wake up frightfully scared then embarrassed, need to pee again, blah, blah, blah.
  • 5am – Flight attendants come around with breakfast and I give up completely on sleep since now there is food involved.
  • 6am – Arrive in Houston where I am an absolute grouch until I collapse in my bed when I get home.

And that’s a “good” trip. One time we went and the air conditioner vent, those little circular doo-hickies up where the reading lights are that can pivot around? Well, the passenger in front of me had his on full blast and every now and then it would start spitting ice out and the angle was perfect for me getting shot in the eye about every thirty minutes or so. Just long enough for me to let my guard down, thinking that the other time it happened was just a fluke, then, “BAM”, right in the eye again. Oh, boy, I tell ya the gringa was spitting mad.

Then there was the time these three brothers were traveling together and they were all drunk as skunks. They wouldn’t stay in their seats. They would stand up, arms around each other, sing songs in Spanish, sometimes Portuguese, then hug and cry. I don’t know what they were singing about, maybe about their women that left them because they were loud and obnoxious drunks, but, eventually, one of them got sick right in front of the poor lady that was seated by the emergency exit. You how those seats that have all that extra space in front of them in the middle of the cabin? Yeah, he walked right over there and heaved. Then the lady screamed, jumped up, stepped in it, got so upset, tried to yell, gagged, then she puked. The flight attendant’s solution? Scatter a bucket of coffee grounds over it. Yeah, good times.

Which brings the gringa to the hopeful news out of NASA. I’m talking about their groundbreaking laser propulsion system. They are claiming that if the technology works, eventually crews could reach Mars in a matter of days. I’m guessing if that technology was put to use to get me to Peru a trip would be about as fast as Star Trek’s transporter technology. That sounds sensational to the gringa. No more dodging ice pellets or dealing with drunks or tying my head to the headrest and arriving home grumpy as a mad, wet cat.

So how does this laser propulsion business work? Scientists have known for some time how to propel objects at light speed. The reason this is not done with current spacecraft is because they are too heavy. Their weight creates all kinds of complications. Laser propulsion takes liquid fuel cargo out of the picture which drastically reduces the weight making light speed, then, a possibility, or at least a quarter of light speed a possibility. At that rate, a spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri within 15 years. That’s a star about four light years away.

With that in mind, then, a spacecraft that weighs about 100 kilograms/220 pounds could reach Mars in about six months, give or take a couple of months either way. So, to get serious about space travel, we’ve got to speed up transit time.

The laser propulsion system is called “photonic” propulsion, but laser just seems a word most people immediately can visualize. When I think of laser propulsion, I envision spacecraft zipping through the skies like a flash of light and all the cats on Earth will end up with manic disorders. Many will injure themselves attempting to launch through windows at the laser light displays crisscrossing the skies. There may be troubling and dangerous times ahead for cats and cat lovers. But, heads up to the gringa’s more innovative readers. This could lead to a niche market in cat care products for kitties that are suffering from spacecraft laser related mania.

But, I digress, to get back to how it all works… rather than one giant laser shooting a spacecraft off into the heavens, multiple lasers would propel an aircraft. Multiple amplifiers would then combine the power of the individual laser to create a singular beam powerful enough to propel the craft. And, guess what… the technology already exists! Scientists and researchers only need to develop and test the technology with actual aircraft and spaceships.

Scientists and engineers are very excited because they know this idea will work. They have small amplifiers that are about the size of a school book. What they really want is an array of amplifiers floating in orbit around Earth in a six-square-mile configuration. That’s what it would take to shoot a black-eyed pea to Alpha Centauri. Um, the gringa’s going to need a little more room than that on a trip to Mars. I’m just sayin’, ya know.

Although the necessary scope of how large an array really needs to be sounds absolutely outrageous, like, perhaps an array covering hundreds of square miles and orbiting the earth, scientists still believe it is do-able. And yet, with all of this good news, there is one little problem the scientists save to the last to mention.

That would be the sticky issue of how to put on the brakes. I mean, what good is it to send a satellite or probe blazing a light speed path through space if it can only pass through, never being able to slow down and click a couple of snapshots or collect some atmospheric gas samples or drop off a few passengers? It ends up just being a real expensive slingshot with old, highly educated kids playing around with it.

And, if a craft can’t slow down, how in the heck could it maneuver around space debris? That pea shaped probe will get obliterated the first time it comes up against a chunk of space ice the size of a nickel. So, the gringa says, “Well, scientists, sounds like you folks need to get back to the drawing board. At first I was very excited and now I’m just aggravated that you got me all excited for nothing. I am not interested in a light year speed fly-by to Mars or a light year speed crash landing suicide mission.”

That’s when the scientists remind us of another option. We could use the array for protection. Yes, we can zap asteroids and space debris that threaten Earthlings. See, I told you Earth cats are in for it.

 

Source: http://www.nasa.gov

image source:   http://www.spoki.tvnet.lv

 

 

 

X-Plane… Better than X-Men


Forget about X-Men and say hello to X-Plane. Now, of course, you want to know what the heck it is. X-Planes are NASA projects to produce all different types of aircraft that will be fueled with green energy, constructed of revolutionary materials and featuring innovative designs. Their energy consumption requirements and noise pollution contributions will be cut in half.

In response to Obama’s challenge to the agency to provide clean transportation, NASA launched the New Aviation Horizons initiative. The goal is to unveil experimental aircraft within a decade, hence the “X” of the X-Plane, and green aviation technologies.

Technology demonstrations have been happening for about six years now. With lightweight composite materials, shape changing wing systems, special coatings and revolutionary propulsion systems, researchers are predicting the airline industry will save hundreds of billions of dollars within the first two decades of putting the X-Planes into service.

In the future people will no longer be launched through the heavens in an aluminum tube. Hi-tech composite materials will create a craft where the wings blend into the body and have smart flaps that shape-shift to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. Special surface coatings will reduce drag further by making it possible for things like bugs that get splatted, stick and disrupt fine aerodynamics to just slide their slimy guts right off the surface of the aircraft.

Engines will not be limited to being wing or tail mounted. They can also be a part of the fuselage. The gringa envisions literally flying through the clouds, straddling a rocket, bug guts never sticking to my teeth. Preliminary models of super-efficient subsonic aircraft depict elongated fuselages that are twice as wide as the average subsonic aircraft with narrow wings, electric propulsion and an embedded engine.

With the development of an X-Plane that is supersonic, those sonic booms heard from time to time will become a thing of the past, or at least a sonic “poof” is all that will be heard. With a propulsion system fueled by low carbon bio-fuel, aircraft will be much quieter as they break the sound barrier.

Depending on how things go, NASA expects the first of the X-Planes to be in service by 2020. This, of course, all depends on funding, field tests and the cooperation of airports, airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration.

NASA test pilots have already performed successful test flights for the Tecnam P2006T. This Italian production aircraft features electric propulsion and is similar to some X-Planes already in development. One model is a hybrid concept integrating the wings into the aircraft fuselage and engines mounted at the top rear of the plane. The turbofan engines are flanked by two tails that serve as buffers to engine noise.

However, by following the lead of the Italians and focusing on electric propulsion, future commuter aircraft would be environmentally friendly and reduce noise pollution. One such model NASA is working on is called Sceptor (Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology and Operations Research). This aircraft is based on the Italian produced Tecnam P2006T. However, it is modified to have a different wing configuration that features integrated electric motors. Developers hope to test the performance of both the Tecnam P2006T and Sceptor and compare their capabilities. This goal is probably about three years away.

To test the experimental wings, they mount the wing to the top of an 18-wheeler truck cab and then drive like the dickens through the desert, reaching speeds in the 70 mph range, to simulate a wind tunnel. This allows researchers to gather data on drag, lift, pitching and rolling. I don’t know about you, but driving that truck sounds like fun. The gringa would like to have that job for a day.

Technology, aviation, chemistry, truck driving, computer modeling… the future for our youth has something for everyone. With each generation we need to cultivate the minds of our future scientists and innovators. And, with programs like X-Planes, what an inspiration for kids everywhere!

Source and Image Credit:  www.nasa.gov

 

 

“Back Up Life…”


SpaceX is the private company that is contracted with NASA to supply the space agency with the “Dragon”, a crew transport spacecraft designed for large crew capabilities as well as deep space missions. Elon Musk, the creator of SpaceX, recently gave an interview with GQ magazine. In that interview he voiced his concerns regarding accomplishing the Mars mission in light of the fact that this world’s nations just can’t seem to grow up and stop all of this war mess.

Musk’s big dream is to colonize Mars. Considering his accomplishments, the gringa believes he can achieve his dream. I mean, just think about it: he leads a company that has managed to develop technology that can design and build rockets at a fraction of the cost as NASA. SpaceX is also the first private company, ever, in all of the world, to have launched a spacecraft into orbit and have it successfully return to Earth. SpaceX has impressed NASA so much that it is contracted to manage resupply missions to the International Space Station as well as transport the astronauts between the ISS and Earth.

Musk believes colonizing Mars is more than just a glamorous adventure. He believes this mission is critical to the ultimate survival of the human species. Considering how mankind has been consistently annihilating one another since a caveman first created a club to sock it to his romantic rival, the gringa has no trouble at all believing Musk’s worst-case scenario of a natural or man-made disaster destroying life as we know it on Earth and the survivors starting over somewhere else. Why not Mars? Musk’s philosophy can be summed up in this statement, “You back up your hard drive… Maybe we should back up life, too?”

In addition to reusable rocket technology and personnel space ferries, SpaceX is developing “Mars colonial transport architecture” to further advance toward the ultimate goal. The gringa asks, “What the heck is that?”

A critical piece of this architecture is commonly called the BFR rocket (it has a technical name but Musk and the developers refer to it as BFR). Now, the gringa likes to keep things family friendly on these blog posts, but, just so you know, BFR actually stands for Big F*#@ing Rocket. I MEAN IT! No kidding! I love that! Scientists that have a sense of humor are right up the gringa’s alley.

The BFR is a two part rocket, booster rocket + spaceship. The booster is to break through the gravity and atmosphere of Earth. Once free, the spaceship is designed to travel through deep space to Mars. The gravity of Mars is weaker than Earth’s and also has a thinner atmosphere. Because of this the spaceship does not need a rocket booster to blast off from Mars for a return trip home.

In order for Martian colonists to create a self-sustaining environment on the Red Planet, what must be done? The planet has to be terraformed to create a warmer environment that will lead to ice melts so that it becomes a “watery” planet. Then fauna can be introduced that will help to create a breathable atmosphere. Musk considers Mars to be a “fixer-upper”. The gringa likes that term.

Nuclear energy could be used to help warm the planet. By converting technology that has been used to destroy life, the fusion bomb can be repurposed into technology that creates and sustains life (now, the gringa LOVES that!). As tiny pulsing suns at each Martian pole, this technology would create a warming effect without radiation and fallout. Mars would then experience the same benefits Earth has from its proximity to the Sun.

Now, NASA is devoted not only to preserving life on the planet Earth, but any life that may possibly be present throughout the cosmos. It has a Mars directive in place forbidding any mission landing near any area containing the potential for liquid water. That is because of the possibility of the presence of bio-organisms, life, causing cross-contamination, whether those organisms are of Earth and contaminate Mars or vice versa.

The good news, as far as the colonial mission goes, is that NASA’s research has not detected any life present on Mars, even on the microscopic level. So, if it is eventually determined that no life at all exists on Mars, the moral dilemma of invading, contaminating and/or destroying it is resolved and colonization can get the green light. The only life on Mars that might exist that NASA’s current research methods are unable to detect is subterranean microbial life.

So, who would like to give the pioneering life a shot and actually become a MARTIAN?  The gringa says, “Where’s the sign up sheet?”

Now, it’s pretty clear that Musk is the type of personality that is driven. There is very little that seems to get in his way when he has set a goal. His biggest concern regarding achievement of colonizing Mars is the very real reality of war. The Earth has never seen a single day in modern history where there has not been an active war somewhere. War could be the very thing that prevents progress.

War stood in the way of progress in the early 1900’s. It was supposed to be a golden era with no more war. Then, guess what? BAM! World War I started. Then World War II. Then the Cold War. However, the Cold War eventually led to the space race, so progress did come of that mess.

How possible is it, then, for progress toward colonizing Mars be disrupted? Pretty darn possible. So, the gringa says to all the religious zealots and war profiteering warmongers everywhere, “JUST STOP IT! KNOCK IT OFF! WE ARE SICK OF IT!”

Now, I know you must be itching to see just how much more fantastic Musk’s dream can get. Well, just check out his timetable. He is determined for all of this to be accomplished within his lifetime. If Musk gets his way (and he seems very apt at always getting his way) the world could see the first boots on the ground on Mars within the next ten to fifteen years.

In fact, before the end of 2015, or early in 2016, he plans to make a big announcement regarding his Mars-colonization plan. The gringa cannot wait to hear this crazy plan because I’m a crazy gringa who is his biggest fan!

 

Source: www.gq.com

Photo Credit: www.joserojas.org

The “Little Green Men” Star


If you happen to be a writer looking for fodder for a great science fiction story, you may want to delve into NASA reports regarding star KIC 8462852. NASA is fascinated by the strange goings on about this star and bears much resemblance to a pulsar named LGM-1 (Little Green Men). This pulsar emitted strange signals that created a stir within NASA and were ultimately determined to be a natural phenomenon. The strange events involving star KIC 8462852 have yet to solved.

Monitoring this star has been the responsibility of the Kepler mission for the past four years. In 2011, and later in 2013, two significant, and as yet unexplained, events took place. What do scientists really know? They know that the star dimmed because “something” passed in front of it large enough to block its light. The gringa says, “What the heck?”

In September scientists finally reported their theory and findings on what could possibly explain these strange events. They are blaming a “swarm” or “family” of comets. The gringa’s imagination begins whirling and thinks, “Or perhaps a fleet of starships.” Another theory suggests a cluster of planetary fragments and asteroids.

Scientists are using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to probe deeper into this mystery. To learn more, scientists, who first studied the star using observations conducted in visible light, then tried using infrared light. This is because if asteroids were involved and actually impacted the star there will be a whole bunch of infrared light surrounding the star and the dusty old bits of gravel from a pulverized asteroid should be at the perfect temperature to glow like a firefly under infrared wavelengths.  And detecting infrared light is one of things the Spitzer Space Telescope is designed to do.

This year the Spitzer took a gander at star KIC 8462852 while looking at hundreds of thousands of stars in its search for planets. One thing in particular that Spitzer was looking for was infrared emission of space dust that encircled stars. Spitzer didn’t find any of this type of dust around star KIC 8462852 so scientists think the asteroid collision theory can probably be scratched.

So, the gringa wants to know just what their thinking is now. What the scientists seem to be leaning toward is the possibility of a “swarm” of cold comets. For such a theory to work, this cluster of comets would need to have an unusually long orbit around the star. They also call this theoretical comet cluster a “family” because it would require a “pack leader” to explain some of the phenomena. The larger “big daddy” that would be in the lead would have been the one to block the star’s light in 2011. In 2013 the rest of the family would have been passing through in front of the star and blocked the light again in the strange pattern that was recorded.  This would explain why in 2015, when Spitzer observed the star again, there were no infrared signatures. The comet “swarm” was long gone and probably around on the other side of the star in its orbit progression.

The gringa must confess to thinking, “Mm hmm. Scout ship shouts, ‘The coast is clear!’ and the support ships soon set a course for the coordinates.” Oh yes, what an imagination! But please don’t judge the gringa! I just couldn’t help myself when NASA itself goes and names a pulsar something like “Little Green Men-1”.

NASA admits that what is going on with this star is strange and not understood. Their interest is extremely piqued so study and research will continue until the curiosity of these scientists are satisfied. And I ask you, is that not the greatest job ever? For every little kid that has lain on their back in the grass in the dark of the night staring up at the stars and wondering if there really are “little green men” out there, is that not just the coolest job ever to grow up and get to do!

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

 

 

 

The Cygnus Mission


The next real event to take place with NASA is the Cygnus mission. This will be a resupply of the International Space Station (ISS) with a cargo space vehicle contracted by NASA with the Orbital ATK company.  It will feature a new propulsion system in the first launch stage which they hope performs well and will continue to be used throughout slotted 2016 commercial resupply services (CRS) missions.

In October there was the disappointment of the launch failure of the Antares vehicle but teams have worked tirelessly to determine the reason for the failure and make any necessary changes to prevent future failures and ensure 100% success. Although this is an unmanned spacecraft, the goal is always 100% success.

The Cygnus spacecraft is undergoing enhancements such as launching aboard an Atlas V rocket, having the Antares rocket upgraded, integrated with the new RD-181 main engines and this upgrade being tested in a launch slated for a December 19, 2015 resupply mission. The RD-181 engines are more powerful than previous thrusters and make increased payload capacity possible.

The Atlas V rocket  is the delivery system for the Cygnus spacecraft that will deliver almost 8,000 pound of supplies and cargo to the ISS. Three previous missions have already delivered an equivalent payload and have actually removed more cargo than they have delivered. And, since there’s no Tuesday/Thursday curbside garbage pick-up at the ISS, this is a critical service. One of the important aspects of the enhanced design of the Cygnus is that it can carry almost three times the payload of previous missions. This is time saving as well as tax dollar saving. In 2016 Cygnus will carry out three more resupply missions and hopefully fulfill its maximum load capacity capabilities.

The Cygnus itself is an unpiloted, pressurized, cargo module. When it launches in December its cargo will not only contain life sustaining supplies, but important research materials. After achieving orbit, the craft will self-guide until it achieves a position near the ISS where it will be grabbed by the station’s robotic arm. It will be connected to a port and unloaded then reloaded with the station’s garbage, re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and incinerate. Mission accomplished!

Although Orbital ATK has the resupply contract, they are not the company responsible for the construction of Cygnus. In case you haven’t guessed by the name, it is of Italian origin. Thales Alenia Space designed and constructed the module in Italy.

And that is yet one more reason the gringa loves NASA and the entire scientific community that is committed to space exploration. These are the folks who not only see no limits to what mankind can achieve, they also do not see borders. The gringa hates the concept of borders. We’re all just people. We all just want to have the best opportunity possible to create the best life possible. Why should a situation that I had no say in or control over, who my biological parents are and where they gave birth to me, have anything to do with where I, as an adult, choose to live and build a life? Where is the freedom and justice in that? As long as there are barriers, there is no real freedom.

The Future Of American Rockets Is Here


NASA is preparing the most powerful rocket in world history to soon make its debut. Space Launch System (SLS) is a flexible design whose design evolved as testing continued. It’s capability is to launch a space vehicle laden with crew and cargo into the atmosphere as they commence a deep space mission. One such mission in the near future is for SLS to transport the Orion spacecraft then transfer its cargo and experiments into deep space. SLS is a technology that is safe, sustainable and provides astronauts the means to travel along a route of multiple destinations toward the grand prize, Mars.

The first SLS launch vehicle had a capacity of lifting over 70 tons beyond low-Earth orbit. It was the most powerful rocket that had ever been built. However, through its design evolution, it can now carry a load of over 143 tons making missions possible far out into our solar system.

Part of the cargo to be launched into space by SLS are the components and technology required for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This will enable NASA to first test the capabilities of all the technologies involved in a manned Mars mission in a safe, unmanned, robotic mission.  NASA’s Glenn Research Center is headquarters for the development of one of these technologies, the Solar  Electric Propulsion (SEP) system. The plan is to use solar arrays to convert sunlight into electrical power that will charge atoms as a means of propelling the spacecraft. This propulsion system can potentially move massive loads of cargo slowly, yet efficiently. This type of propulsion system can save the taxpayers a lot of money, but we have to be a little more patient and expect missions to take a bit longer. The gringa’s okay with that because I for darn sure get a little sick and tired of everyone seeming to be in an all-fired hurry all the time. Makes me tired sometimes just watching folks knock themselves out so. The gringa just wants to say, “Hey, relax. Get there in one piece. Sit, have a drink. Chat. Don’t rush through life. Take time to enjoy life and appreciate the little things that get overlooked when you run like a bat outta hell whose tail is on fire. Most of the crap in life that’s screaming for attention can wait. I promise it will still be there an hour later or a day later. That’s what I tell my big, ol’ pile of dirty laundry every day as I casually stroll by. Works like a charm.” But, I digress, back to rockets.

One component of the SEP system is the Hall thruster. It uses ten times less propellant than traditional chemical rockets. When it was tested in a vacuum chamber it proved to be more efficient and have longer fuel life.  Hall thrusters work by trapping electrons within a magnetic field. It then uses those electrons to ionize the propellant. This generates an electric field that accelerates the charged ions, creating a plasma exhaust plume that propels the spacecraft forward.  Sounds like rocket science, to the gringa. I don’t understand a bit of that but I will trust that the scientists at NASA know exactly what they are doing.

This is all part of NASA’s progress toward its initiative to launch a Green Propellant Infusion Mission in 2016. This fuel will be tested in a small satellite. It is a non-toxic, high-performance “green” fuel that will hopefully replace the toxic hydrazine that is currently used. This will enable NASA to utilize lightweight, composite tanks on rockets which will significantly lower the weight of the load, improving efficiency and lowering costs.

If the unmanned ARM mission is successful, SEP could very well be the answer to deep space travel. For humans to achieve deep space missions, SEP may deliver on the very things necessary to accomplish the job. SEP can move huge cargo loads which solves the problem of supply shortages. SEP does not require massive quantities of fuel to be part of the cargo due to its solar energy facet. That solves the problem of being able to carry enough fuel to make a round trip to deep space. The robotic nature of ARM resolves the conundrum of creating multiple ports staged along the route to Mars. An SEP-powered unmanned spacecraft could deliver the cargo and vehicles necessary for longer manned missions into deep space where they would wait until crews arrived. Mars expeditionary crews would station hop on their way to Mars, refueling and resupplying as they went. The gringa falls asleep at night fantasizing of leapfrogging her way to the Red Planet when she’s old and arthritic and cranky and craves the natural pain relief of the weightlessness of deep space. Hey, a girl can dream, cain’t she?

Source & Photo credit: www.nasa.gov

Asteroid Ahead! Redirect! Redirect!


I am a sci-fi fan. I love to read science fiction books, watch science fiction movies and even indulge in trolling some of the latest conspiracy theory sites on the future Armageddon triggered by an apocalyptical asteroid-Earth collision event. One thing I have learned throughout my many years of science fiction madness is that there is usually an itsy-bitsy kernel of truth within the fantastical story. The gringa has found such a tidbit of truth within the asteroid-Earth collision story and it comes straight from NASA.

A one of a kind robot mission is being planned at NASA regarding an asteroid near Earth. The robot’s job within the next decade is to gather a mega-ton boulder from an asteroid and redirect it into an orbit around the Moon. This asteroid sample would be explored about five years later and samples returned to Earth from its surface.  This mission, begun in 2013, is called “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (ARM) and is all part of the plan for getting humans to Mars in the 2030’s. This little information nugget is what is fueling the preppers and conspiracists who think all of mankind is doomed sometime this September by an asteroid-Earth catastrophe. As these folks hunker down in their bunkers, the gringa asks the dear reader to simply read on and amuse yourself.

Out of the thousand-plus asteroids astronauts have to select from, they have four that are favorites. A bit more research on their orbit, velocity, spin and size will be conducted for a few more years before a final decision is made. To speed things along, NASA also has created an initiative called the “Asteroid Grand Challenge”. Its purpose is to identify asteroids that pose a potential hazard not just through NASA’s efforts but through collaboration with other cosmic partners. For the astronaut hopeful, physicist, hobbyist astronomer and such in my reading audience, who knows, perhaps you could lend a hand and be a part of something fantastic. Since the plan to launch ARM is scheduled for some time in the 2020 decade, you’ve got plenty of time to get to work.

Now, considering my insatiable curiosity, the gringa has to ask, “Why should we spend so much taxpayer money and risk the lives of astronauts to collect some kazillion years old space rocks?” The answer? Asteroids are considered to be the remnants of the Big Bang. They are the left overs. By having access to an asteroid as near as our Moon, scientists can study more samples than ever before. This helps to satisfy their insatiable curiosity as to how our solar system was formed and life on Earth began. In other words, the discoveries could lead to mankind saving the planet and figuring out how to colonize another planet. There are also possibilities of finding frozen water sources which could hold all sorts of interesting things within to study under a microscope, maybe even a frozen bubble of breathable air. That would indicate the possibility of a sister planet that a human could survive on without a protective suit or artificial environment. And, of course, there are always “those” people who hope to find another energy and fuel source. You know, the ones who don’t look at outer space with curiosity and wonder but with dollar signs in their eyes.

The mission will develop a planetary defense technique that could be used to deflect an asteroid that posed a dangerous threat to Earth. Now, if you’re already questioning whether it’s even a good idea to nudge an asteroid over to the Moon and ask the sort of questions the gringa asks, like, “Um, guys, could it just be THAT could become the asteroid that ends up threatening all civilization?” Rest assured, NASA has thought of that as well. That is the reason for the studies on size, mass, velocity and speed. They want to capture an asteroid large enough to provide great research opportunity but small enough to burn up in the atmosphere if it did go rogue and plummet towards Earth.

The gringa also considers, “This all sounds fascinating but, exactly how does this get us closer to Mars?” Well, ever since mankind has begun to climb into rockets and physically explore the cosmos, astronauts have been dependent upon supplies and support from Earth. This has limited the amount of time astronauts can remain in space and how far they can travel. Such missions are labeled “Earth Reliant”. The “Proving Ground” of the deep space environment surrounding the moon is closer to what space travelers will experience on a trip to Mars. For example, solar and cosmic radiation is stronger outside low-Earth orbit and closer to the Moon.

Presently, a typical astronaut mission on the International Space Station (ISS) can last up to six months (about 180 days).  A manned mission to Mars could take 500 days or more. Most of that time is simply in transit back and forth (about six months each way). To become completely Earth independent journeys,  new technologies and methods will be tested on the asteroid.

One such technology to test is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP). This would do away with chemical dependent propulsion allowing larger on-board payloads in place of the weight that would have otherwise been dedicated to fuel. A larger payload means more on board supplies. More on board supplies means a longer mission capability. Solar propulsion also means energy independence. Energy independence means limitless distance capability of travel within our solar system. By having the asteroid, NASA can test the SEP system as a robotic system that can simulate sending cargo to Mars well before habitants arrive.

Once a robotic spacecraft has successfully landed on Mars, the next phase would then be to launch a crew to Mars. This crew will need to have the skills and technology to maneuver and dock with the Martian robotic spacecraft. This can be practiced on the asteroid delivered to Moon orbit.

Now, a trip to Mars is not a hot-shot, non-stop flight. The plan is actually to have a staged journey. Between Earth and Mars would be multiple ports of call similar in nature to the current ISS. The Orion is NASA’s current exploration craft that will be used in future solar system exploration.  All astronauts slated for Martian missions would then need to know how to dock the Orion with these stations.

What about the protective suits astronauts wore on the Moon landing and currently wear when conducting maintenance and repairs in space at  the ISS? Are these suits sufficient for a Mars mission or do astronauts require new technology there as well? Spacesuits, also known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), will need upgrades to the primary life support system (PLSS) due to the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars. Engineers are also working on upgrades that will provide better oxygen regulation and humidity control. The gringa thinks, “Dear God, please have decent humidity control. We don’t want to see leather skinned astronaut faces with crazy, frizzy hair.” The EMUs also have cooling systems and atmospheric pressure regulators that will be upgraded to accommodate holding more fluids for longer periods of time. Durability will also be a factor. Astronauts traveling to Mars will need these babies to last a long time and be easy to maintain and repair. The new designs will be tested on the asteroid missions before actually going to Mars. It would really suck to be 10 days out on a 500 day mission only to find out your spacesuit was not going to be able to hold 17 months worth of pee. At least on the asteroid you can turn around and go home and change your pants.

Within the next five years, the world can expect to see a new object floating around the moon and regular travel back and forth to study, research and rehearse for even greater events in the future. Within the gringa’s lifetime, I may just witness humans arriving on Mars. Who knows, by the time I’m old and ornery enough that my kids and grandkids have stolen my driver’s license, hidden my car keys and put my car up on blocks, I may just buy a damn ticket.

Sources:

http://www.nasa.gov/content/what-is-nasa-s-asteroid-redirect-mission

http://www.nasa.gov/content/how-will-nasas-asteroid-redirect-mission-help-humans-reach-mars

Photo credit: spectrum.mit.edu