It Happened in Space – Mars PropM Rovers

A model Mars Prop-M rover. Credit: NASA

Long before the Sky Crane lowered Curiosity into Gale Crater, before the twin MER rovers Spirit and Opportunity bounced across the Martian surface, even before Sojourner was a glimmer in its designers’ eyes the Soviet Union launched the twin Prop-M rovers. Though neither rover made it to the surface, the technology stands as a brilliant example of the Soviet ingenuity that gave the nation an early lead in space. I tell the Prop-Ms’ story, in brief, in my first video for Scientific American.

Incidentally, I’m very excited to announce that I’m doing a monthly video series – “It Happened in Space” – for Scientific American!

NASA’s Plan for Mars Makes the Old New Again

Curiosity’s photographs its own shadow in Sol 12 of the MSL mission. If NASA’s new plan sticks, we should see the same shot from Curiosity 2.0 in 2020 or 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL

Yesterday, NASA announced a bold new plan of exploration for the coming decade on Mars. It’s exciting. I love plans that include a methodical exploration of other worlds that will help answer the bigger questions out there, like why Mars developed into such a different world than the other inner bodies. But looking a little closer at what few details the agency’s released, it looks less like a concrete plan with a goal and more of a bid to capitalize on Curiosity’s unexpected fame. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just sort of an odd thing. [Read more…]

Obama’s Second Term and the National Future in Space

President Barack Obama discusses his plans and ambitions for NASA during an address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

The relationship between space exploration and politics is a complicated one. The President is the only person who can pick a major goal like going to the Moon, but proposals that big have to go through congress for funding. To make sticking to big goals more complicated, each incoming president has the power to change major decisions made by his predecessor in space. With a president having two terms in office, it’s more likely his vision for space will be realized but it’s far from a sure bet. It’s possible that Obama’s second term will get us closer to seeing NASA’s mammoth SLS rocket flying the Orion spacecraft to the Moon, but history tells us that the constant rotation in the White House has a way of stopping big ideas before they get started.

Felix Baumgartner: Unwitting Role Model

Felix Baumgartner. Not the role model I’d hoped he’d be. Oh well. Credit: REX

Two weeks ago, Austrian daredevil and skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped 120,000 feet from a balloon. It was neat, but that’s about it. It was a stunt funded by RedBull. My opinion on the jump as a whole can be found in full here.

Yesterday, I woke up to Baumgartner’s first interview since the jump. In the last two weeks, he’s become something of a celebrity. Across social media sites, he’s been lauded as the Neil Armstrong for a new generation (a view I strongly disagree with but will save for another rant). With a worldwide audience hanging on his words, I’d hoped Baumgartner would emerge as a spokesman for the value of the technology coming out of our space program and the need to study space to learn about the Earth. Instead, he accused NASA of wasting money exploring Mars. I finished reading the interview, got really irritated before 7 o’clock in the morning (far too early), then calmed down. My measured response to Baumgartner’s interview is over at AmericaSpace.

The Cost of Curiosity

Taken on Sol 32, this is the frist time Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its arm to take this portrait of the top of its Remote Sensing Mast showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras. It’s as close to a headshot as Curiosity can take. Credit: NASA/JPL

The other day I was in a coffee shop, quietly writing and sharing a table with a woman also on a laptop. She caught me staring blankly out the window and asked what I was working on; apparently I looked troubled. I told her I was working on a new angle for my sixth or so Mars article that week. She seemed interested so I told her about Curiosity, the heritage technology that’s helped NASA make multiple successful Mars landings, and how the Sky Crane will open up a new future of exploration.

The idea that reusing technology saves money in spaceflight and that developing new technology now may cut costs on future missions caught her attention. She urged me to play up that angle because the amount of money NASA spends on these missions is stupid.  “Curiosity,” she said, “cost half the nation’s defense budget.” That’s when I noticed her cross necklace and asked what kind of writer she is; turns out she’s a Christian motivational writer. That’s when I wished I had the figures on hand to illustrate just how little we spend on space exploration. But I didn’t so I quietly got back to work. But I did decided that I ought to write a blog post putting Curiosity into perspective so that the next time someone tells me NASA wastes money I can tell them how wrong they are.  [Read more…]

Reducing, Recycling, and Reusing on Mars

An artist’s concept of the Phoenix lander landing. Landers with retrorockets, a tried and true technology for landing on Mars. Credit: NASA

Two weeks ago, NASA announced it’s next Discovery class mission, those low cost missions that focus on answering one question. The agency chose the InSight mission to Mars. In the press conference, the agency cited the mission’s low cost and relatively low risk as the rationale behind its selection. But this sparked a weird backlash. NASA didn’t exactly say why the mission was more likely to fly under its $425 million cost cap, and some news outlets in the days following the announcement suggested that there were hidden costs in a mission. Specifically that the technology reused from previous missions was a hidden cost. The fact is NASA has been reusing technology and old test data on Mars since the 1960s, and not starting from scratch each time keeps overall mission costs down. Here’s my full article on Discover’s The Crux blog.

Apollo’s Youthful Glow

Ferdowsi’s mohawk in JPL’s mission control during Curiosity’s landing. Credit: Associated Press

Since Curiosity landed on Mars last Sunday night, the internet has been buzzing not about the Sky Crane that delivered the rover to the surface but about “Mohawk Guy.” Bobak Ferdowsi is a 32-year old flight director at JPL who looks more like a rock star than an engineer. Consensus on the internet is that Ferdowsi – specifically his mohawk – has made NASA cool, young, and relevant; the most common refrain is along the lines of “this isn’t your father’s/grandfather’s NASA.” But Ferdowsi is actually older than most engineers of the Apollo era. In fact, the average age in mission control has risen since the Apollo days as engineers stay with the agency over multiple long-term programs. Though 1960s engineers may look old fashioned, your father’s or grandfather’s NASA was a fairly young one.   [Read more…]

Gearing Up for the Sky Crane

The first image from the surface of Mars taken by Viking 1 in 1976. Credit: NASA

This Sunday night around 10:31 PST, the Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane will deliver the rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. It will land inside the geologically interesting Gale Crater, to be exact. Even among planetary landings it’s an exciting one, and for an historian it has some pretty interesting heritage. I’ve covered a few aspects of the mission’s history before, so here’s a small selection of articles to get you up to date on teh mission and excited about the most daring landing attempted to date on Mars. [Read more…]

Can Russia Save ExoMars?

The latest budget for NASA for FY 2013 sees the agency’s Mars exploration program taking a huge hit – it will get $318 million less than FY 2012. This funding cut has forced NASA to withdraw from the ExoMars, the joint mission with the European Space Agency designed to culminate with a sample return. Without NASA, ExoMars is left in pieces and ESA is hoping the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will take NASA’s place. This partnership could be without payoff since neither country has had great luck with Mars, particularly Russia whose missions have been thwarted by the mythical galactic ghoul. NASA’s withdrawal brings other questions to the forefront as well, like whether the agency has lost its way and will it soon lose its prestige in space. My whole article on the subject was published yesterday on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog. (Left, an artist’s concept of ESA’a Beagle 2 falling through the Martian atmosphere.)

Sounds of Space

Have you ever stopped to wonder why, during planetarium presentations filled with stunning images from other worlds, there is always a classical music soundtrack? That’s because no one has managed to capture planetary sounds, but not for lack of trying.  NASA’s Mars Polar Lander carried a microphone but the spacecraft crashed during its descent in 1999, and a French mission designed to record sound on Mars never flew. NASA’s successful Mars Phoenix Lander carried a microphone, but it failed to return any audio data during its 2008 mission. Simulated sounds, on the other hand, are easier to capture. Adjusting sound waves to reflect the environments on other bodies, we can start to get a sense of what space sounds like. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, Mars rover Opportunity’s half self portrait. 2004.)