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Credit: Inspiration Mars

Credit: Inspiration Mars

Billionaire Dennis Tito, who is known as the first-ever space tourist, unveiled on Wednesday Inspiration Mars, a plan to launch two people, likely a married couple, on mission to Mars in 2018. The best part: the spaceship in which they travel will be lined with the couple’s own shit! This whole idea sounds incredibly far-fetched, and I even mentioned my doubt of its feasibility last week when the “teaser” press release about the press release made some headlines. It still sounds kinda crazy because of the part about the shit (I’ll get to that in a minute), but they left out one really important detail last week- the couple won’t actually be landing on Mars, just flying around it once in a spacecraft. Actually landing on Mars is really, REALLY,¬†REALLY¬†hard in terms of engineering and feasibility, but just sending a couple of people on a slingshot around it? Not quite as hard. Tito is very committed to making it happen, and is even prepared to fund the first two years of mission development, so this could work. More details on the project can be found in this New Scientist article.

Now, as far as the shit goes… it’s really not as crazy as it sounds. One of the biggest challenges to deep space exploration like this is that the crew members will get bombarded with genetic mutation-inducing cosmic radiation. We’re talking X-rays and Gamma rays, along with the ever-present solar wind of ions. It’s practically a death sentence if you can’t shield the crew from all that, and as it turns out, dried up human waste is actually pretty good at just that! Rather than just jettison it into space, why not seal it up in (fully sanitary, of course) bags and line your spaceship with it to add to the shielding of your spaceship? Astronauts onboard the ISS are already using a reactor system that recycles the water from their urine, and gross as it may seem, this mission will do that AND recycle the moisture from their poop. When you’re going on a 500 day mission to Mars, you have to be very resourceful. For more on the poop shield, see this other article on New Scientist.

In other Mars-related news, unfortunately the Curiosity Rover has suffered a computer glitch which has forced the team to switch everything over to the rover’s backup computer. In short, they will slowly reboot all the rover’s systems from the backup computer, make sure everything checks out, and continue with normal operations. Meanwhile, another team will investigate the problem with the primary computer and attempt to fix it so that it’s operational and can be used in case the backup computer fails. For more, check out this post on Universe Today.

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NASA announced that it has selected the InSight Mars lander for its next Discovery mission. (Discovery missions are NASA’s lowest cost tier of science missions, such as Kepler, Dawn, Messenger, Mars Pathfinder, and more.) You may be thinking, “ANOTHER mission to Mars? What for?” Well, despite all the awesome science that Curiosity will do, it can’t tell us much about the deep interior of Mars, or what Mars’ seismic activity is like. The InSight lander will be a stationary robot much like the Phoenix lander. In addition to measuring seismic activity, it will deploy a probe that will drill deep below the surface to measure the flow of heat inside Mars. These measurements will help scientists understand how Mars formed and what happened in the past that changed the surface from one of flowing water (and possibly life) to the barren dry wasteland it is today. (Via Universe Today)

Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity completed its first set of driving maneuvers on Mars. This image was the first that showed the wheel tracks, confirming that the rover drove successfully. This was only a test of Curiosity’s driving systems, the first of several. Tests of every science instrument and every other system on the rover will continue for at least a month or so before they’ve established a solid baseline for how everything behaves now that it’s actually on Mars. Only then can the scientists begin run the real experiments the rover was designed to carry out. Science is sometimes very tedious and slow, but the results and knowledge gained is very much worth it.

These are both Mars-related stories that popped up across the blogosphere over the past week:

The first bit of news is that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is getting ever closer to its destination, and the dreaded “Seven Minutes of Terror” entry and landing sequence. They recently produced a video that does a pretty good job of conveying just how hard it is to land anything on Mars, and especially how insane this particular landing sequence is. It’s CRAZY HARD to do what they’re attempting to do. I’ve seen many other animations of this many times over, and it STILL blows my mind just how tedious and difficult this is from a scientific and engineering perspective. Seeing the video is essential, so here it is. Just watch:

The second bit of Mars-related news is a little crazier and far-fetched. A group of private investors are pooling their resources and claim that we can have humans on Mars by 2023. This project is called Mars One, and I have to be honest… the whole thing sounds utterly insane. They want to create such a huge media spectacle that the public interest and avenues for profit are such that they can raise the massive amount of cash it’ll take to make this happen. The craziest part of the whole thing is that it will be a one-way mission for the people who actually go to Mars. I think the ethics of such a thing are mostly subjective- I have no problem with a one-way mission if the people going are truly, honestly 100% dedicated to it. I think it’s honorable, and who am I to judge them for making such a profound decision. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the rest of the Apollo astronauts all knew the extremely high risks involved with what they were doing. They accepted it and went on to accomplish arguably the greatest feat in the history of mankind thus far- walk on the moon. I hope they pull it off, I really do, and without all the oversight and red tape of a government agency like NASA, the likelihood of this happening so soon is greater. But still. 2023 is REALLY REALLY soon to put humans on Mars. Here’s their promo video:

Crazy? Or just crazy enough to make it happen?

Some fantastic news from NASA today: The astoundingly successful and productive Kepler Mission has been extended through 2016! This is a huge relief for space nerds like me who eagerly watch science news blogs for the next big news item from missions such as Kepler. As you may know, Kepler is a space telescope which looks for planets in other star systems. Most specifically, the mission is looking for earth-like planets in other star systems. The mission has already racked up over 1,000 potential planets, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will find and confirm the first true earth-twin in these next 4 years. There was a lot of concern over the future of the mission due to recent NASA budget cuts- many thought the mission might not get funding to extend it even till 2014, so getting funding till 2016 was actually a pleasant surprise. The funding will, however, be up for review again in 2014. Still, this is a huge relief because Kepler has already seen what could be earth-twins, we just have to wait for a second transit to occur to confirm the initial observation. Since these are truly earth-like planets, it takes them roughly one earth year to orbit their parent star. The major worry was the mission would be ended before a second transit could be observed to confirm the planets’ existence. Thankfully we no longer have to worry about that, and it’s only a matter of time before the holy grail of planet-hunting is found.

(Via Universe Today and Bad Astronomy)

Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to liftoff for its final scheduled flight this Friday at 2:20pm EDT. This will give some parts of the US an opportunity to see both the ISS and Atlantis streaking overhead at night. They will appear as simply a relatively fast-moving bright dot in the night sky. The ISS is so large now that its reflective surface allows it to be one of the brightest visible objects in the sky, even brighter than Venus. You can use Spaceweather.com’s simple satellite tracker web-tool to see when the ISS (and other satellites) will be doing a flyby of your area. Here’s the list for Nashville this week/end.

The European Space Agency is in the final phase of a large experiment designed to study the physiological and psychological effects of a small group of people being isolated for extended periods of time as they would be on a mission to Mars. This final phase is called Mars500, and is about to subject 6 crew members from all over the world to 520 days of a simulated Mars mission. They’ve gone to great detail to make the simulation as realistic as possible, with outside communication on a 40-minute delay, and with random interruptions. This all sounds a bit crazy, but it’s absolutely essential to understanding how humans will behave and interact in such isolated conditions. I have no doubt that this research will contribute to the success of mankind’s first manned mission to the red planet. The participants were all, of course, eager and willing to put themselves through this. (Via ESA website)

NASA is asking for help from the general public in identifying “scientifically interesting” features on the surface of the moon. The recent Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken extremely high-resolution images, and there’s so much real estate to cover that NASA scientists can’t possibly go through it all in any reasonable amount of time. So, they created a website through the Zooniverse project called Moon Zoo where people can take a virtual tour of the surface of the moon, seeing details potentially as small as astronaut footprints from the Apollo missions! The surface feature identification tasks they need everyday people to do are still too complex for even a supercomputer to manage. This idea follows a long line of crowd-sourcing computing projects that began with SETI@Home in the late 90’s. A brilliant idea if you ask me. (Via Space.com)

On a personal note: I just bottled a batch of Belgian Blonde Ale and it should be ready to drink in a week or so. This stuff is 7.3% ABV so it’s venturing into the realm of high-gravity beer. Contact me if you want to try some. Next batch: a British ESB/American Pale Ale hybrid that should be interesting.

Back in 1960, a man named Joe Kittinger did probably the ballsiest thing ever done by any human being. EVER. He jumped out of a balloon that had lifted him literally to the edge of space- 102,800 feet above sea level. That’s roughly 20 miles. Not only was it by far the highest skydive (space-dive?) ever, but he also set a record for the fastest that a human being has ever traveled outside of a machine. Because he was free-falling through such thin air during the first few minutes of his jump, there wasn’t nearly as much friction to slow his fall, which allowed him to free-fall at supersonic speeds. Yes, he was traveling faster than the speed of sound, with nothing but a pressure suit around him to keep him alive. I can’t think of anything more utterly badass than that. Now a couple of people are trying to break Joe’s record by jumping from an even higher altitude. Frenchman Michel Fournier and Austrian Feliz Baumgartner are both attempting to make these jumps this year, according to an article on Discovery.com. Some would say these guys are totally crazy, but I say they are total badasses, and envy them. Watch Joe Kittinger describe his experience in this video:

NASA’s Mars rover Spirit will now become a stationary asset. The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched in 2003, and successfully landed on Mars in 2004. They were only intended to operate for 90 days, yet amazingly they have lasted 6 years. The news that NASA has abandoned efforts to free the Spirit rover from the pit of sand in which it’s been stuck for the last 6 months is somewhat saddening, but in context, it really doesn’t matter at all. These rovers are quite possibly NASA’s 2nd greatest accomplishment, next to putting a man on the moon. We should only be thrilled that this amazing little robot lasted as long as it did. Its mission is far from over, however, as it can still do plenty of science sitting right where it is. Of course, Opportunity is still mobile and NASA continues to drive it around, exploring new territory. Who knows how long these things will last? I have a strong feeling the abrasive dust that now coats almost every inch of both rovers will eventually take its toll, but how long that takes is beyond me. For more check out this article on Space.com. Here’s a cool animated GIF showing the last few maneuvering attempts to free it from the sand dune:

An historic solar eclipse occurred today over parts of Asia, including India, Nepal, and China. CNN.com has a great slideshow of images from the event. I’ve been patiently awaiting the next solar eclipse that will be seen in the U.S., and there’s a lot more waiting to be done. It won’t happen till 2017. But, when it finally does hit the U.S., Nashville is in for a real treat. Check out this map (be patient, it seems that website is a bit slow) of the Aug. 21st, 2017 total eclipse. You can easily see that the main shadow, or umbra, goes right smack over Nashville. I have no idea if I’ll still be in Nashville in 2017, but you can bet I’ll be traveling back for it if I’m not still living here. A total solar eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The May 20th, 2012 annular eclipse barely extends into northern California, but the 2017 one will be much better. For more info and a complete list of solar eclipses for the next several hundred years, check out the NASA eclipse website.

Charles Bolden was confirmed as NASA’s new administrator, along with Lori Garver as his Deputy Administrator. The two laid out some fresh policies at a videoconference with all the NASA centers. Of particular interest is their view toward feelings in the NASA workplace. Garver said “Feelings are not something that were popular in the last few years at NASA, but they’re back. Feelings are back!” I like it. If bringing feelings back to NASA equates to more passion for broadening mankind’s reach into space, then I’m all for it. Hopefully Garver can be successful in keeping Congress interested in what NASA’s up to, and keep them a top priority when it comes to funding. (Via Universe Today)

Speaking of NASA’s budget and direction, a new article on Space.com sheds some more light on details of what our first manned Mars mission would look like. The Ares V rocket under current development would do all the heavy lifting and get the cargo/equipment there, but they’d probably have to develop something a bit roomier than the Orion capsule to get the crew there, as Orion is only big enough to fit 3 people and at least 6 will be needed for a mission to Mars. Check it out here.

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