Space News Flash

Space News Flash!  NASA Mars Orbiter Photographs Spirit and Vikings on the Ground

“New images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show three additional NASA spacecraft that have landed on Mars: the Spirit rover active on the surface since January 2004 and the two Viking landers that successfully reached the surface in 1976.”

How cool is this…. Check out the new pics from Mars!

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/MRO/news/mro-20061204.html?msource=14206&tr=y&auid=2196418

Neat photos and, of course, it’s good to know that no one’s carted stuff off in the last 30 years, but the real mission here is to have this new Mars orbiter photograph some things (and their shadows) of which we know the exact dimensions and shape in order to get perfect calibration of its camera for different perspectives, filters, sun angles, etc.  Only then can NASA photograph new prospective landing sites for the next rover-type mission and be able to tell the precise shape and size of the boulders, the tilt of the slopes, the width and depth of gullies, etc.  And all from Martian orbit! 

This is new capability and it’s a big deal.  Future Martian landers will probably be too big to use the "stuff it in airbags" design.  They will rely on the proven trilateral or quadrilateral landing strut configuration.  They will need a reasonably smooth and level landing zone much as a helicopter does.

Note that the ability to photograph all of the previous mission relics must mean (I haven't checked this out) that the new orbiter is in a much more inclined orbit than previous Mars orbital missions, maybe even a polar orbit.  Orbital physics-wise, this is technically very difficult.  Besides testifying to NASA's increasing sophistication in flight navigation and orbital dynamic control, it lends support to the idea that the next mission will be one to the edge of the Martian ice cap!

Ice means water, an absolutely essential resource for any significant Martian stay by humans.

Other space cadet news:  NASA has scheduled a night-launch of the shuttle on Thursday night, December 7th. 

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/main/index.html

Night launches (of crewed vehicles) are unnecessary and a dangerous mistake and absolutely contrary to a major recommendation of the Challenger Commission. 

How soon we forget.  How soon we return to our cocky, strutting, over-confident pre-shuttle disaster attitudes when very little with regards to shuttle flight safety has changed.  Are we back to the “Well, it didn’t blow up last time,” rationale for launching?

NASA has also announced a goal of building a lunar base by 2020.  Hoorah!

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/exploration/main/index.html

Now if they start making rocket fuel for the trips back to Earth while on the Moon, I’d really be impressed.  I’m back on the crewed mission to Mars topic, of course.   I presume you know of the “Mars Direct” approach pioneered by Dr. Robert Zubrin, “Travel light and live off the land,” where it is essential to be able to remake Martian atmospheric gases and soil into both fuel for a return trip and crew sustaining resources. For a good summary, see

http://www.rps.psu.edu/0305/direct.html

or if you prefer a more comic book style, see

http://chapters.marssociety.org/toronto/Education/MarsDirect.shtml .

All fans of a Martian adventure must have this site bookmarked:

http://new.marsstuff.com/ .  They’re a bit wacky, but enthusiasts often are.

Put all of these announcements (the night launch excepted) together and it begins to look like the US is inching towards a real space program.  Something I’ve been griping about for years...

see my Reflections ... blog.

Developing technology which can apply to a crewed Mars habitat but doing it only 3-days away on the Moon makes a lot of sense.  If we can't make a long-term habitat safe and sound on the Moon, we can forget Mars. 

This “lunar base” will only be "self-sustaining" in any sense if we find major pockets of ice in permanent shadow near the lunar poles. There should be but who knows, really.  Besides providing necessary water, robotic machines could be tested to electrolyze the water into hydrogen (an excellent fuel) and oxygen (the fuel's oxidizer & for the base’s crew life support). 

The first electrolysis machines (think of a fuel cell running in reverse) could use solar panels or the old reliable radionuclide thermoelectric power generator but for a really permanent station one needs a nuclear reactor on the Moon.  Launching a nuclear reactor is certain to bring out the aging "No Nukes, No Nukes!" crowd since even radionuclide generators stir them up.  But as any engineer will testify, with sufficient power one can make virtually anything out of whatever one has handy. 

And now for the bad news.

I do hope NASA’s planned return to the Moon makes it through a congress that is finally waking up to all the tax money that is deluging down the drain but still insists on more tax cuts.  NASA is an awfully soft target for budget cuts.  Hmmm?  Can I do anything to influence this decision?

Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray