Earlier this month, NASA said it was prepared to shift its focus away from Mars, and toward the Moon, whenever the current administration gave the “go” for logistical launch. Now the organization will have to put their plans into motion, because the present administration just announced a renewed effort to get back to the Moon, and beyond.
A commercial effort to get humans into orbit around Mars in the late 2020s now includes a sleek vehicle to send astronauts down to the surface of the Red Planet. The aerospace company Lockheed Martin late Thursday (Sept. 28) revealed new details for its Mars Base Camp plan, an architecture aimed at building a crewed space station in orbit around the Red Planet that would support long-term exploration at Mars by astronauts on 1,000-day missions.
An atomic rocket has the potential to move more mass a much greater distance than traditional chemical propulsion. SpaceX will have its Falcon Heavy rocket in service within a year or two, making it the most powerful launch platform since the retirement of NASA’s Saturn V. But even the Falcon Heavy will only be able to lift 37,000 pounds (16,800 kg) to Mars.
On August 6 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars and kicked off a new era of Martian exploration. It was NASA’s fourth rover mission to Mars over the past 20 years; previous missions successfully landed the Sojurner, Spirit, and Opportunity rovers. Curiosity represented a far more difficult undertaking than its predecessors.
For the last few years, we’ve been able to frame NASA’s research and exploration with the goal of reaching Mars. The agency has been saying it wanted to land a human on the red planet in the 2030s, but now that’s looking less likely. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, has noted that NASA simply doesn’t have the money to make a Mars landing happen.
Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham, Michael Collins and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt joined Aldrin, one of 12 people to walk on the moon, at the sold-out fundraiser. "I like to think of myself as an innovative futurist," Aldrin told a crowd of nearly 400 people in the Apollo/Saturn V Center. "The programs we have right now are eating up every piece of the budget and it has to be reduced if we're ever going to get anywhere."
Pence -- standing on a flag-draped podium in KSC's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building -- offered no time frame or budget for the expeditions, but said partnerships with commercial companies are key. He repeatedly called for a "re-establishment" of American leadership in space and made no mention of ongoing or future international partnerships or collaborations, such as the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations.
As NASA makes plans to one day send humans to Mars, one of the key technical gaps the agency is working to fill is how to provide enough power on the Red Planet’s surface for fuel production, habitats and other equipment. One option: small nuclear fission reactors, which work by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power.
For the last year, the Curiosity rover has been studying the surface of Mars with more independence than ever before, saving human time and energy. The partly autonomous exploration is also helping people sidestep the constraints of working across vast distances in space. This new capability is powered by software called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS.
NASA is aiming to have humans on Mars in the next few decades, even if that comes with more risk than we originally thought. Just getting there is only the first challenge. Humans have to be able to survive and explore the red planet, and the agency just unveiled a vehicle that could help with the latter. The new six-wheeled rover looks like it just rolled out of a sci-fi movie.