ExoMars mission: ‘13 years of British research strapped to massive bomb’ The British-backed ExoMars mission will launch on Monday March 14 with the hope of finding life on Mars
By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor
11:54AM GMT 11 Mar 2016
British scientists are facing a nail-biting wait ahead of next week's ExoMars mission launch, warning that 13 years of research is now ‘strapped to a great big bomb.’
The huge proton rocket, which will take the spacecraft to the Red Planet, was rolled out on Friday morning ahead of its launch from Baikonor, Kazakhstan, on Monday.
The mission is hunting for life on Mars and will be looking specifically for evidence of the methane, a gas primarily produced by living organisms.
After a seven month journey, the ExoMars orbiter will release a probe to the surface and remain in orbit hunting for signs of life.
It is the first time that Britain has ventured to the planet since the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission in 2003.
The probe and orbiter are carrying an array of British instruments, tuned to hunt for elusive methane emissions which could signal the presence of life-forms. It will be followed in two-years-time by a rover which is currently being built by Airbus in Hertfordshire.
Dr Manish Patel, from the Open University, has helped develop the ozone-mapping ultraviolet (UV) spectrometer instrument on the orbiter, said: "This is a fantastic mission; massive.
"I spent the last 13 years of my life working on it so I am somewhat excited and nervous. You're strapping an instrument you've devoted your life to on top of a great big bomb.
"It's scary but it's why I'm in this business. There won't be many nails left on launch day."
On Earth, around 90 per cent of methane is produced by organisms, so the expectation is that some kind of life is also emitting the gas on Mars.
Microbial life has been found to live more than one mile beneath the surface of the Witwatersrand basin in South Africa so scientists are sure microbes could survive below the permafrost layer on Mars.
Crucially methane vanishes on Mars after a few hundred years so it must have been produced in the recent past.
Mars methane mission lifts off
By Jonathan Amos BBC Science Correspondent, Darmstadt
Europe and Russia have launched a joint mission to the Red Planet.
The satellite, called the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT.
The probe will investigate whether the methane in the world's atmosphere is coming from a geological source or is being produced by microbes.
If all goes well, the two space powers expect to follow up this venture with a rover, to be assembled in the UK, which will drill into the surface.
That could launch in 2018, or, as seems increasingly likely, in 2020.
It will take the carrier rocket more than 10 hours to put the satellite on the right trajectory to go to Mars.
This involves a series of engine burns by the Proton's Breeze upper-stage to build up the velocity needed to break free of Earth's gravity.
These will fling the TGO away from Earth with a relative velocity of 33,000km/h.
The flight sequence is sure to strain the nerves of space agency officials.
For Russia especially, the Red Planet represents a destination of wretched fortune.
It has previously launched 19 missions to the fourth planet from the Sun, and most of those have been outright failures.
Many could not get off the pad cleanly; others simply stalled above the Earth and fell back down; a few crashed and burned at Mars or sailed straight past.
Assuming everything works out this time, controllers at the European Space Agency's operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, can expect a signal from the TGO after it has been released on its way by the Breeze boost stage.
This should come through at 21:28 GMT. It is then a seven-month cruise to Mars.
Three days out from arrival, on 16 October, the satellite will eject a small landing module known as Schiaparelli.
Once on the surface, on 19 October, its aim is to operate a few science instruments, but engineers are primarily interested to see how the module performs during the entry, descent and touchdown.
In particular, Schiaparelli will showcase a suite of technologies - radar, computers and their algorithms - that will be needed to put a later, British-built rover safely on the planet.
This second step in the joint European-Russian ExoMars project is supposed to leave Earth in 2018, although this is now looking increasingly doubtful because of funding and scheduling issues. Many connected with ExoMars are now talking about 2020 as being a more realistic launch date.
'The Marge-ian Chronicles': 'The Simpsons' Riffs on Private Mars Colonization
Private Mars colonization has gotten "The Simpsons" treatment.
In the venerable show's latest episode — "The Marge-ian Chronicles," which aired Sunday (March 13) on Fox — Lisa applies to become an astronaut with a company called Exploration Inc., which aims to launch colonists toward Mars in 2026.
Mars One intends to pay for its ambitious activities primarily by staging a global media event around the entire project, from astronaut selection and training, to liftoff, to the pioneers' time on Mars. Exploration Inc. also relies on corporate sponsorship to pay the bills.
Permanent Mars Colony Is 'Long Way Down the Road,' NASA Says
The first NASA astronauts to set foot on Mars will aim to establish a research-and-operations base, not a permanently inhabited colony, agency officials say.
According to NASA's current plans, the Mars outpost — which NASA hopes to set up by the end of the 2030s — will serve as a hub that accommodates astronauts on a temporary basis, said Ben Bussey, the chief exploration scientist in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
A colony is "a long way down the road. No one's thinking of, on the NASA side, like a permanent human base," Bussey said Wednesday (March 16) during a presentation with the space agency's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. [Red Planet or Bust: 5 Crewed Mars Mission Ideas]
"The idea here is that you would have your exploration zone that you set up for the first crew," Bussey added. "And that crew would leave, and then you send another crew at the next good launch opportunity. So it isn't permanently occupied, but it is visited multiple times."
Beagle 2: most detailed images yet of lost Mars lander revealed
New pictures are most detailed images of Mars ever achieved from an orbiting spacecraft and seem to add weight to theory on Beagle 2’s final resting place Nicola Davis
Tuesday 26 April 2016 06.00 BST
Astronomers have revealed the most detailed images yet of what is thought to be the landing site of the ill-fated Mars lander, Beagle 2, offering further evidence that the British spacecraft failed to phone-home because of problems following touchdown.
Showing a bright blip in dusty terrain, the new picture is four times the resolution of previous images. The image adds weight to the theory that the diminutive spacecraft - just under a metre in diameter - landed as planned on Mars in 2003, but failed to fully unfurl its solar panels. “Given the size of Beagle 2, even with super-resolution images you are not likely to see more than a series of blobs because it is so small,” said Mark Sims, of the University of Leicester and former mission manager for Beagle 2. “What it does show is that it is on the surface and it is at least partially deployed.”
Launched on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter, the Beagle 2 spacecraft was due to touchdown on Mars on Christmas Day in 2003. But after leaving the mother craft it failed to make contact with Earth, leading to speculation that the lander had crashed.
But a series of clues have since indicated that the hitch likely occurred after it landed correctly on the planet’s surface. Last year Sims and colleagues including John Bridges, also at Leicester University, revealed an image from Nasa’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that showed a trio of specks on the planet’s surface, thought to be Beagle 2, its parachute and rear cover.
Now researchers at University College, London, have improved the resolution of the HiRISE images, to produce the most detailed pictures of Mars ever achieved from an orbiting spacecraft. The technique, known as Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR), involved stacking and matching up to eight HiRISE images of the same area - the first results of which were revealed by the team in February. “Each of the images are taken from a slightly different angle,” said Muller.
While each HiRISE image has a resolution of around 25cm, the technique allowed the team to produce images of the Martian landscape with a resolution of just 5cm, allowing much finer detail to be observed than ever before. In the case of the Beagle-2 landing site, five images were compiled resulting in a four-fold improvement in resolution. But it’s a lengthy process. “It takes three days on our fastest computers to do a small scene of 2,000 by 1,000 pixels,” said Jan-Peter Muller, from University College, London who led the work. “We can’t yet do an entire scene.”
The results, they say, confirm the idea that Beagle 2 did indeed make it to the red planet. “Intriguingly it isn’t a single white blob which is how it was represented last time around,” said Muller,. “We can now actually see a y-shape on the left hand side and some distortions as well on the right.”
But understanding what happened to Beagle 2, says Sims, isn’t just about unpicking the past - it could also help with future missions. “It’s important to tease the mystery apart because you want to know why it didn’t fully deploy,” he said. “You need to have some idea of how far you got, what might have been the good parts of your design, what might have been the parts which you would improve at a later date.”
While the new shot of the Beagle 2 site appears, to the untrained eye, to show little more than a y-shaped blob, Muller believes the technique has the potential to yield even greater detail. “We have provided the highest ever resolution pictures of the surface and we are going to keep going - the more pictures we get the better the resolution,” he said. “There is no theoretical limit at this point in time to what we can achieve.”
Let that sink in. Depending on your definition of “as soon as,” that means sometime between 20 and 32 months from now. But Musk probably meant roughly 24 months, because May 2018 is when the next best Mars launch window opens—a period when the red planet’s orbit brings it closest to Earth’s. His company SpaceX has a lot to do in the meantime. Like, finish building the rocket it will use to launch the spacecraft, and figure out how to land the damn thing on Mars’ surface.
2018 is the very near future. If SpaceX were starting their Mars program today, their deadline would be a total joke. “They’ve said for a long time that they intend to test their Dragon 2 capsule by going to Mars and trying to land,” saysDavid Hewitt, a rocket scientist with private spaceflight company Dynetics. SpaceX has been working on its human-capable capsule for several years. It is not only bigger than the original cargo-only Dragon, but capable of making planet landings using eight thrusters.
Elon Musk plans to get humans to Mars in six years
SpaceX founder tells meeting of astronautical experts that his only purpose is to ‘make life interplanetary’, revealing plans for reusable ship to Mars
Elon Musk unveils his plans to colonize Mars. Photograph: STRINGER/Reuters Nicky Woolf in San Francisco
Wednesday 28 September 201600.16 BSTLast modified on Wednesday 28 September 201601.16 BST
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has outlined his highly ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022 – three years sooner than his previous estimates.
However, the question of how such extravagantly expensive missions would be funded remains largely in the dark.
“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible – like it’s something we can achieve in our lifetimes,” Musk told an audience in his keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday.
He said there were “two fundamental paths” facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”
A shot of a video about the Interplanetary Transport System, which aims to reach Mars with a human crew for the first time in history.
In order to achieve this goal, Musk outlined a multi-stage launch and transport system, including a reusable booster – like the Falcon 9, which SpaceX has already successfully tested – only much larger. The booster, and the “interplanetary module” on top of it, would be nearly as long as two Boeing 747 aircraft. It could initially carry up to 100 passengers, he said.
The first ship to go to Mars, Musk said, would be named Heart of Gold as a tribute to the ship powered by an “infinite improbability drive” from Douglas Adams’ science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Similar modules, also launched using reusable boosters, would remain in Earth’s orbit to refuel the interplanetary craft to be able to use multiple trips, including to other parts of the solar system such as Enceladus, a moon of Saturn on which Nasa’s Cassini mission recently found evidence of a polar subsurface water ocean that could harbor life.
SpaceStation and launching satellites – both already part of SpaceX’s business model.
Elon Musk said humanity faces two paths – staying on Earth or becoming a ‘spacefaring civilization’. Photograph: Hector-Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
He also listed three other sources of revenue that simply read “kickstarter”, “profit” and – intriguingly – “steal underpants”.
Asked at the talk about funding, however, Musk said: “The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this. I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary.”
Bill Nye, chief executive officer of the Planetary Society and host of the popular TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy, was in the audience and described the energy of the crowd as “extraordinary”.
“Watching the crowd go absolutely wild today tells me that the best is yet ahead for space exploration,” he told the Guardian, adding that Musk had presented “a very aggressive schedule that seemed feasible to the crowd”.
“No matter what we send to Mars, I very much hope we conduct a thorough, careful search for life before we consider landing people and cargo. I believe the discovery of life or evidence of life would change the way we think about the cosmos and our place within it,” Nye added.
Nasa said in a statement that it welcomed Musk’s plans. “NASA applauds all those who want to take the next giant leap – and advance the journey to Mars. We are very pleased that the global community is working to meet the challenges of a sustainable human presence on Mars. This journey will require the best and the brightest minds from government and industry, and the fact that Mars is a major topic of discussion is very encouraging.”
Nasa says it has made “extraordinary progress” developing a plan for sustainable Mars exploration, building partnerships in both the public and private sectors.
1st Mars Colonists Should Be 'Prepared to Die,' Elon Musk Says
By Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer | September 30, 2016 03:50pm ET
The first people who fly with SpaceX to Mars should be OK with the possibility that the decision could cost them their lives, company founder and CEO Elon Musk said.
SpaceX aims to ferry 1 million people to the Red Planet over the next 50 to 100 years using the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), a rocket-spaceship combo that Musk unveiled Tuesday (Sept. 27) during a talk at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Well, he unveiled the ITS in concept; neither vehicle has been built yet.)
Musk painted a picture of a not-too-distant future in which 1,000 or more ITS spaceships, each loaded up with 100 or 200 settlers, zoom off toward Mars simultaneously from Earth orbit. But it's naïve to expect that everything will work perfectly from the start, he said. [Images: SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport for Mars Colonization]
"I think the first journeys to Mars are going to be really very dangerous. The risk of fatality will be high; there's just no way around it," Musk said at the IAC, adding that, for this reason, he would not suggest sending children on these flights.
"It would be, basically, 'Are you prepared to die?' If that's OK, then, you know, you're a candidate for going," he said.
Musk said he'd like to go to Mars, but it's unclear if he'll be among the Red Planet vanguard. In a teleconference with reporters Tuesday after the IAC talk, he said he wasn't sure if he'd be aboard the first-ever Mars colony ship, which may be called "Heart of Gold" after a vehicle in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." ...
Beagle 2, the failed British mission to Mars in 2003, came "excruciatingly close" to succeeding, a study shows.
A new analysis of pictures of the Beagle 2 spacecraft shows that it did not crash-land on the Martian surface.
Instead, it indicates that the landing went to plan and at least three of its four solar panels opened successfully.
The analysis also suggests that the probe may even have worked for several months, but was unable to send its data back to Earth.
Prof Mark Sims of Leicester University, who commissioned the study, told BBC News that there is an extremely small possibility that Beagle 2 might still be working on the Martian surface.
"It may have worked for hundreds of days depending on how much dust was deposited on the solar panels and whether any dust devils were cleaning the panels - as happened with Nasa's Mars Exploration Rovers," he said.
"One possibility is that it could still be working today - but it is extremely unlikely and I doubt that it is."
Dr Manish Patel, of the Open University, was among the hundreds of UK scientists who worked on the Beagle 2 mission. He agrees that the new evidence suggests that Beagle 2 took lots of scientific data but was unable to send it back.
"If Beagle 2 went into surface operations mode, it could have continued for some time performing the initial pre-programmed operations, happily taking data and waiting for a response from the orbiters. It turned out to be a very lonely time for the lander at the surface," he said.
Those views are backed by Prof Jan-Peter Muller of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which is part of University College London - who has no ties with the Beagle-2 mission.
"Given that (Nasa's) exploration rover Opportunity is going strong since January 2004 when it was due to last only until March 2004 and that Mars Express is going strong 13 years after orbit insertion when it was due to last only 3 years, the possibility that Beagle 2 could still be collecting data after 13 years is remotely possible."
The British built Beagle 2 Spacecraft was due to land on the Martian surface on Christmas Day in 2003.
The mission was charismatically led by the late Prof Colin Pillinger. The spacecraft was capable of collecting soil samples and analysing them for signs of organic molecules associated with life in a miniaturised on-board laboratory.
Disappointingly, no signal was received on Christmas Day. The search for a response from Beagle 2 continued for several months but the spacecraft was never heard from again.
In 2014, Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) found Beagle 2 on the Martian surface. The spacecraft took pictures which seemed to indicate that the spacecraft landed as planned and some of its solar panels had opened.
In the new detailed analysis, Nick Higgett and his team at De Montfort University not only confirmed this but also indicated that Beagle 2 had deployed at least three of its solar panels - with the fourth and final panel possibly beginning to open.
The technique is based on simulating possible configurations of the lander on the surface and comparing the amount of sunlight that reflects off the simulated lander with real pictures taken from Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The researchers then identified which landing configuration of one, two, three or four solar panels opened was the best fit.
"Hopefully these results help to solve a long held mystery and will benefit any future missions to Mars," said Mr Higgett.
We got so close," says Prof Sims, adding: "We succeeded in so many elements. It is a great pity the communications didn't work and we didn't get the science back."
Prof Sims, who worked on Beagle 2, says that he and others who worked on the mission take satisfaction from the fact that the system did seem to work so well.
"It shows that the Beagle 2 team did an amazing job. It shows that the design was sound. It got there. It landed on Mars at the first attempt."
In every failure there is a success hidden somewhere that teaches us and motivates us. This is a perfect example
Dr Manish Patel, Open University
The analysis suggests that Beagle 2 fell at the very final hurdle. It was unable to send back data or receive instructions from Earth.
This may have been because the fourth solar panel may have partially opened and shielded the radio antenna.
Alternatively, the receiver might have malfunctioned. Another possibility is that internal electrical systems were damaged by a heavy landing.
After studying the analysis, Dr Patel says he feels "incredibly frustrated" but also "incredibly proud" that the Beagle 2 team came so close.
"Previously, I assumed it was in pieces. But now I feel very proud to know that it's there, intact, and was (likely) ready to do some great science," he explained.
"This kind of tantalising result on a long held mystery is the kind of thing that keeps us going, that really inspires me to persist in the challenge of exploring Mars.
"I like to think that in every failure there is a success hidden somewhere that teaches us and motivates us. This is a perfect example."
The new results will be discussed by Mark Sims and Geraint Morgan at the Colin Pillinger Memorial Talk at Bristol University next Wednesday 16 November
Despite Trump's Request, NASA Not Aiming for Crewed Mars Mission by 2024
By Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer | May 12, 2017 05:24pm ET
Donald Trump won't be president when NASA launches its first crewed mission to Mars.
During a call with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) last month, Trump said he'd like the space agency to get people to the Red Planet "during my first term or, at worst, during my second term."
Such a request would seriously accelerate NASA's "Journey to Mars" initiative, which is currently working to get astronauts to the vicinity of the Red Planet in the 2030s. But it now appears that Trump was just engaging in a playful back-and-forth with ISS astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer, not stating a serious policy objective. [NASA and Trump: What Happened in Space in the 1st 100 Days (Video)]
White House officials have "asked us to look at the plan we have today, and see if we can keep going on that plan," NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters during a teleconference today (May 12). "They have not asked us to go to Mars by 2024."
Lightfoot's comments came during an update about the status of NASA's Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), which will mark the first joint flight of the Orion capsule and huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. NASA is developing both Orion and the SLS to send astronauts to Mars and other deep-space destinations. ...