This scanning electron microscope image shows speroidal features embedded in a layer of iddingsite, a mineral formed by action of water, in a meteorite that came from Mars.
A meteorite from Mars has been studied up-close and scientists have detected tiny structures that could be interpreted as having a biological origin.
This moment of déjà vu is brought to you by a new paper published in the February issue of Astrobiology where a team of scientists from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., describe the results of work on a 14 kilogram (30 pound) meteorite called Yamato 000593 (Y000593). The meteorite sample contains strong evidence that Mars used to be a lot wetter than it is now, but the researchers also report on the discovery of evidence for “biological processes” that occurred on the Red Planet hundreds of millions of years ago.
Although this sounds exciting, there will likely be some skepticism, but the researchers appear to have foreseen the media circus that “Mars life” always inspires and refused to appear overly excited of some pretty fascinating evidence for ancient microbial life.
In 1996, President Clinton made a high profile announcement on national television that evidence for life had been discovered by NASA scientists inside another Martian meteorite called Allan Hills 84001 (ALH84001). The discovery focused around scanning electron microscope images of the microscopic detail of ALH84001. The team, led by David McKay of Johnson Space Center, identified “biogenic structures” inside the meteorite that was theorized to be formed by indigenous life on Mars.
The controversial media storm surrounding that 1996 announcement stirred a backlash that threw McKay’s team’s findings into doubt. However, McKay’s team defended the work after ruling out terrestrial contamination and other factors that may have created the nanometer-sized worm-like structures. McKay also worked on the Y000593 study until his death in February 2013.
This new work focuses around a meteorite that was discovered in the Yamato Glacier, Antarctica, by a Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition in 2000.
Analysis of the meteorite shows that it formed on the surface of Mars 1.3 billion years ago from a lava flow. Then, around 12 million years ago, a powerful impact event shattered the region, blasting quantities of Martian crust, containing any hypothetical lifeforms (and evidence thereof), into space. These chunks of Mars rock then traveled through interplanetary space until one of the samples, Y000593, encountered Earth and fell to the surface as a meteorite, falling on Antarctica some 50,000 years ago.
There are many known samples of Mars crust that have fallen to Earth as meteorites and are considered incredibly valuable scientific specimens that can be used as time capsules into Mars’ geologic past. These meteorites are nature’s ‘sample return missions,’ no spaceship required.
“While robotic missions to Mars continue to shed light on the planet’s history, the only samples from Mars available for study on Earth are Martian meteorites,” said lead author Lauren White, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a news release. “On Earth, we can utilize multiple analytical techniques to take a more in-depth look into meteorites and shed light on the history of Mars. These samples offer clues to the past habitability of this planet. As more Martian meteorites are discovered, continued research focusing on these samples collectively will offer deeper insight into attributes which are indigenous to ancient Mars. Furthermore, as these meteorite studies are compared to present day robotic observations on Mars, the mysteries of the planet’s seemingly wetter past will be revealed.”
This scanning electron microscope image of a polished thin section of a meteorite from Mars shows tunnels and curved microtunnels.
In their research, the scientists describe features associated with Martian clay deposits — micro-tunnels thread throughout the Y000593 sample. When compared with terrestrial samples, the Martian shapes appear to closely resemble “bio-alteration textures” in basaltic glasses. This basically means that this Mars meteorite contains microscopic features that resemble mineral formations created by bacteria on Earth.
Another factor is the discovery of nanometer to micrometer-sized spherules sandwiched between the layers of rock in the meteorite. These spherules are distinct from the minerals inside the rock and are rich in carbon, another sign that they may have been formed through biological interactions inside the rocky material.
The First Rule of “Mars Life”: Don’t Talk About “Mars Life”
Is this proof of Martian bacteria munching through Mars rock? Sadly, that’s one conclusion that cannot be made from this study and the researchers are very cautious not to write the word “life” at any point in their publication — it’s replaced by technical terms like “biogenic origins” and “biotic activity.”
“We cannot exclude the possibility that the carbon-rich regions in both sets of features may be the product of abiotic mechanisms,” the scientists write in their paper. ‘Abiotic’ means mechanisms that are not caused by microbial life, such as some chemical reaction in the rock’s geology. “However, textural and compositional similarities to features in terrestrial samples, which have been interpreted as biogenic, imply the intriguing possibility that the martian features were formed by biotic activity.”
Their caution has been applauded by other astrobiologists. “(The authors) have done well not to cry wolf and to scientifically speculate on the tubules’ origins, accepting that, as of yet, they do not know whether they are of biological origin or not,” said Louisa Preston of the U.K.’s Open University.
“This is no smoking gun,” said White. “We can never eliminate the possibility of (terrestrial) contamination in any meteorite. But these features are nonetheless interesting and show that further studies of these meteorites should continue.”
Since the 1996 ALH84001 controversy, many other researchers have come forward with meteorite studies that appear to show evidence for life on Mars and other interplanetary locations, but most have been published in sketchy journals with little to no peer review process, which serves to blur valuable research being carried out by astrobiologists. Therefore, skepticism for any Mars life study is often high.
So, until we can detect and analyze DNA of extraterrestrial origin or have the ability to return pristine samples from Mars, work like this will be filed under “fascinating but not conclusive” in the profound hunt for life beyond Earth.
Putative Indigenous Carbon-Bearing Alteration Features in Martian Meteorite Yamato 000593
Airbus Defence and Space builds ‘space furnace’ to test materials of the future on the ISS (c) NASA
UC Irvine astrophysicists report that gamma-ray photons observed from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy are consistent with the intriguing possibility of dark matter annihilation, according to research submitted to the journal Physical Review D.
Kevork Abazajian, Nicolas Canac, Shunsaku Horiuchi and Manoj Kaplinghat analyzed data from NASA’s space-borne Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and found that only a narrow range of dark matter models can produce an excess of gamma rays coming from the Milky Way. These gamma rays could be produced as particles of dark matter annihilate one another. The data was collected August 2008 – May 2013. The findings were also presented today at UCLA’s the 11th Symposium on Sources and Detection of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe.
“The data provides a better-than 10 percent precise determination of the dark matter’s particle mass with the best estimates we have of what else is going on in the Galactic Center,” says Abazajian.
According to Kaplinghat, the signal is robust because its key features did not change even when several other possible sources were included. He also pointed out that a large number of yet unseen pulsars emitting gamma rays could also be an explanation for this signal.
The nature of 85 percent of the matter in the universe is an unknown material called dark matter. The leading theory is that dark matter consists of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMP’s). When two WIMP particles meet, they annihilate each other to produce more familiar particles – including gamma rays.
Quelle: University of California
A brilliant aerodynamicist and leader, Hugh Dryden may well be the most influential NASA official of whom you’ve never heard.
A brilliant aerodynamicist who not only conducted critical aerospace research far ahead of his time, but also a quietly effective government leader, Hugh Dryden may well be the most influential NASA official of whom you’ve never heard.
Dryden was born in the rural village of Pocomoke, Maryland on November 7, 1898. After suffering various career and financial setbacks his family settled in Baltimore, where his father worked as a streetcar conductor. Despite his modest background, Dryden showed signs of superior aptitude, having achieved a fifth-grade reading level by age 8. After graduating high school first in his class at age 14, Dryden was awarded a full scholarship to study at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University. Asked later in his life what he thought made the United States a great nation, he replied “…the equality of opportunity offered to each of its citizens to develop his personal talents to the fullest and to participate in the development of those accomplishments and ideals which make our national environment beneficial to all people.” Dryden’s life embodied this perspective and aspiration.
While at Johns Hopkins, he studied under Professor Joseph Ames, the legendary physicist, founding member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and namesake of the Ames Research Center. Ames became Dryden’s mentor and shaped his career. In three years, the young Dryden completed his bachelor’s degree, followed by his master’s degree a year later.
The International Space Station completed this week’s deployment of the NanoRacks CubeSats. The six-member Expedition 38 crew also worked on various science activities and prepared for a March 10 Soyuz undocking.
The final set of CubeSats, used for Earth observations, were released from the Kibo laboratory’s Multi-Purpose Experiment Platform (MPEP) Friday at 2:30 a.m. EST. Japanese flight controllers then guided the Japanese robotic arm to place the MPEP back inside Kibo’s airlock. The airlock was then repressurized wrapping up the micro-satellite deployment activities.
Expedition 37/38 crew members (from left) Mike Hopkins, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy are preparing to return to Earth inside their Soyuz TMA-10M spacecraft March 10.
Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata worked on an internal robotics project partnering with NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio. The duo participated in the SPHERES-SLOSH experiment using tiny satellites to study how fluids behave inside a container in microgravity. The tiny satellites, also known as SPHERES, may provide advances for rocket fuel delivery systems.
Wakata also had time set aside Friday morning for work with the Aniso Tubule plant experiment. He retrieved experiment samples and set them up for microscopic observation.
Flight Engineer Mike Hopkins opened the Fluids Integrated Rack inside the Destiny laboratory for some maintenance work. He temporarily removed an optics bench in the rack to replace an avionics package and a white light lamp. Hopkins later joined Mastracchio for a live question and answer session with students from Osage Beach, Mo.
Astronaut Mike Hopkins works inside the Light Microscopy Module which is part of the Destiny laboratory's Fluids Integrated Rack.
Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy teamed up to prepack gear for their upcoming return to Earth. Hopkins will join them for the ride home on March 10, officially ending Expedition 38. In preparation for the departure Kotov on March 9 will ceremonially handover command to Wakata, who will become the first Japanese station commander.
Veteran cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin photographed the conditions of the windows inside the Station’s Russian segment. He also monitored the reaction of jet and propulsion system exhaust on the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the space station’s external environment for the Relaxation experiment.
Investigation of chemiluminescent chemical reactions and atmospheric optical phenomena occurring during high-speed interaction between jet engine exhausts and the Earth's upper atmosphere, atmospheric optical phenomena during re-entry of bodies into rarified upper atmosphere and its optical properties in the UV range.
Conducting radiometric and spectrometric measurements in the UV range:
"Fialka-MV-Kosmos multispectral UV system which includes
Determining the effects of propulsion system exhausts on the Earth upper atmosphere and ISS environment, on optically sensitive surfaces (windows, equipment lenses, solar array panels). In perspective, simulation of atmospheric optical phenomena in ultra-violet, visible and near-infrared spectral bands (Earth atmosphere nightglow, SC re-entry glow, planetary atmospheric glow).
Waiting to replace the returning astronauts are Expedition 39/40 crew members Steve Swanson, Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev. The trio is in Star City, Russia, conducting suited dress rehearsals inside a Soyuz simulator. They are scheduled to launch aboard a Soyuz TMA-12 Soyuz spacecraft on March 25 for a six-hour ride to the station’s Poisk mini-research module for a docking.
BEIJING, Preparation for the 2017 launch of China's lunar probe Chang'e-5 is going as planned, the country's leading space scientist Ye Peijian told Xinhua on Saturday.
Chang'e-5, as part of China's third-phase lunar program, is expected to bring back moon rock samples to Earth, a move hailed by Ye as "a historic moment" for the country.
China's lunar program covers three stages. It completed the second phase after the Chang'e-3 probe soft-landed on the Moon on Dec. 14, with the country's first moon rover Yutu (Jade Rabbit) aboard.
But Yutu has experienced a mechanical problem that scientists are still trying to repair.
Ye said the Chang'e-3 mission has helped China to better understand the lunar environment and has paved the way for further explorations.
As the backup probe of Chang'e-3, Chang'e-4 should not repeat the mission, but do something more "innovative and meaningful", said Ye, without elaborating.
The more sophisticated Chang'e-5 mission, including unmanned sampling and returning, requires technology breakthroughs in moon surface takeoff, sampling encapsulation, rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, as well as high-speed Earth reentry.
To make sure the returning mission is a success, a Chang'e-5 test probe will be launched this year to rehearse the route, Ye disclosed.
Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 missions were in 2007 and 2010.
Launched on Oct. 1, 2010, China's first man-made asteroid Chang'e-2 is now about 70 million km from Earth and continues heading to deep space.
Ye said the asteroid could travel as far as 300 million km from Earth.
Despite a latecomer in space development, China has made steady progress in recent years. It is the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to acquire the skills necessary for extravehicular activities and space docking.
Das Airlander genannte Luftschiff kann nach Herstellerangaben bis zu drei Woche in der Luft bleiben und bis zu 60 Tonnen transportieren.
In Großbritannien ist ein neuartiges Luftschiff vorgestellt worden, das laut seinem Hersteller über lange Zeit auf umweltfreundliche Weise große Lasten transportieren können soll. Das riesige Luftschiff, das an drei aneinander gefügte Zeppeline erinnert, wurde am Freitag in einem Hangar im mittelenglischen Cardington von der Herstellerfirma Hybrid Air Vehicles der Öffentlichkeit präsentiert. Ihren Angaben zufolge soll der mit Helium gefüllte Riese bis zu drei Wochen in der Luft bleiben und bis zu 60 Tonnen transportieren können.Das Airlander genannte Luftschiff, das mit 91 Metern noch länger als das russische Transportflugzeug Antonov An-225 ist, hat kurze Flügel und Rotoren als Antrieb. Es ist allerdings deutlich kleiner als der deutsche Zeppelin Hindenburg, der 244 Meter maß. Der Airlander wurde zunächst für das US-Militär entworfen, doch wurde der Auftrag nach Auslieferung des ersten Exemplars storniert. Die Herstellerfirma erhielt nun einen Staatskredit von 2,5 Millionen Pfund (drei Millionen Euro) und hat angekündigt, hunderte Luftschiffe bauen zu wollen.
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How to crack strange space cases
Lone sleuth uses the internet and his wits to solve ufo mysteries
HOUSTON — When a space station astronaut made an offhand remark about an unusual formation of lights he saw passing in front of him during a spacewalk, the report had all the earmarks of an unsolvable space mystery. But it didn't take long to crack the case, thanks to the power of the Internet and one amateur space sleuth’s passion to find out.
It turned out that the case of the formation-flying lights was only the latest in a string of spooky space effects with perfectly natural explanations.
The investigation began when NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao told Aviation Week & Space Technology about "something interesting" he saw during a March 28 spacewalk with Russian crewmate Salizhan Sharipov.
“As the sun started rising after the first dark period, I looked out in the opposite direction of the sun and saw a line of five lights,” Chiao said. The lights seemed to be flying past fairly quickly "in an echelon formation, except that 'No. 2' was offset," he said.
Chiao admitted that he didn't know what the lights were, but he speculated that they might have been a constellation of satellites catching the sun's glint. Or perhaps they were "bright lights from oil platforms actually down on the Earth" that seemed to move due to the space station's own orbital speed.
Whatever they were, Chiao was delighted to have seen them. "It just shows you that after spending a lot of time in space and out on EVAs, there are still things that you can see that still surprise you," he mused.
Enter the investigator
One person who read the story was not surprised, since he had long been fascinated with unusual visual phenomena associated with space missions. James C. Smith, an aerospace engineer in Fairfax, Va., doesn't believe such phenomena are signs of alien visits. What he does believe — and what makes his work on this and other cases so impressive — is that such mysteries can often be solved, using resources available over the Internet. You just have to know where to look and what to do.
Smith knew that the place to go for images of bright lights on the night side of Earth was the home page of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, a military weather satellite network now closely integrated with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
After a day's worth of research, Smith came up with a solution to the mystery.
“A little research on the Internet shows that the area has a fleet of squid fishing boats which are the ones that use bright lights to attract the squid,” he reported by e-mail. "These unusually bright zones are the result of fleets of fishing vessels using powerful electrical lights at night to attract squid. The fleets regularly show up in images from weather satellites and from space stations."
Smith said Chiao was most likely looking at the fishing boats. “Since they are in the middle of a dark area of sea, and he was likely seeing them near the edge of his area of possible viewing, it may have been so dark opposite the sun that determining whether they were on the Earth surface or not may have been difficult,” Smith said.
“You can see that the lights are apparently brighter than any other lights around there,” he concluded. In photographs he obtained of the fleet that night, one light blob is indeed "off line" with a number of others. Viewed in the darkness below the onrushing space station, the lights would rapidly zoom off toward the horizon.
Decades' worth of anomalies
Reports of space anomalies are almost as old as the space program itself: For instance, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, reported seeing clouds of "fireflies" outside his window outside his window during the 1962 spaceflight — sparkles of light that were later attributed to ice particles coming off his Mercury capsule.
Smith himself recently came up with the solution to a three-decade-old mystery, involving a strange image from the Apollo 16 moon mission in 1972: The picture, widely distributed among UFO investigators, showed a disk-shaped structure that was seen in 16mm movie footage shot out the window as the Apollo spacecraft left the moon and headed back toward Earth.
None of Apollo 16's astronauts mentioned the disk at the time. Later, one NASA photo technician misidentified the disk as the crescent Earth (it was in the wrong part of the sky), and other space experts speculated that it might be a window reflection of the camera lens itself. But there was no truly satisfactory explanation, and UFO enthusiasts seized upon the picture as evidence that a flying saucer may have been monitoring the moon mission.
In 2003, the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a scholarly-sounding publication that focuses on “anomalies and topics outside mainstream science.” contained an article about the Apollo 16 disk by Japanese engineer Hiroshi Nakamura. “We believe that the object is a large extraterrestrial artifact. ... This is the only hypothesis that is consistent with the data," Nakamura wrote.
Another case cracked
Smith’s interest was piqued, and he began digging into the case. On Sept. 29, 2003, he posted his own findings.
“I ordered all possible 16mm film and reviewed them all to locate the above image and to see if any explanation (lens flare, reflection, etc.) could be the cause of the image,” he reported. He also searched all NASA online references about the Apollo missions and the Apollo spacecraft mechanical systems, seeking potential correlations between the image and candidate hardware.
This photo from the Apollo 16 moon mission seems to show a flying saucer. What does the image actually show?
“Of interest is the more or less horizontal line or bar sticking out part of the UFO,” Smith pointed out, noting a feature that was visible in the high-quality film he had received — a feature unnoticed by all previous analysts. He then pored over the web pages for any disk-shaped structures mounted on long booms — and found one
“The most likely cause of the UFO object is the EVA floodlight,” he said. The pole-mounted lamp was set up to illuminate shadowy areas on the Apollo spacecraft, during an unusual spacewalk aimed at retrieving film from a mapping camera. The spacewalk occurred a day after the picture was taken.
A sharper image of the Apollo 16 "flying saucer," produced from the original flight film, reveals a pole sticking out from the disk — which is actually a floodlight that was set up for a spacewalk.
NASA weighs in
Meanwhile, a parallel line of inquiry was being set in motion by Donald Ratsch, a Maryland truck driver and UFO enthusiast. Ratsch was apparently unaware of Smith's conclusions, and on Oct. 27, 2003, he sent a letter to his congressman asking that NASA be required to explain the images.
About six months later, he received his reply: NASA had looked at the original flight film, and concluded that the image showed ... the EVA floodlight.
Gregory Byrne, a NASA imaging expert at Johnson Space Center in Houston, explained to MSNBC.com that the review was conducted “only because it was requested of us by NASA HQ in response to a congressional inquiry.”
“I had no choice in the matter,” Byrne said, “and reluctantly had to pull image analysis resources away from shuttle return-to-flight to work Apollo 16. It actually turned out to be an interesting diversion from the tedium, and almost like stepping back in time.”
Quelle: NBC / J.Oberg
Reaktivierte NEOWISE-Mission hat im ersten Monat bereits 857 kleine Körper im Sonnensystem, darunter 22 erdnahe Objekte (NEO) und vier Kometen entdeckt.
More than 100 asteroids were captured in this view from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, during its primary all-sky survey. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft has spotted a never-before-seen comet -- its first such discovery since coming out of hibernation late last year.
"We are so pleased to have discovered this frozen visitor from the outermost reaches of our solar system," said Amy Mainzer, the mission's principal investigator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This comet is a weirdo - it is in a retrograde orbit, meaning that it orbits the sun in the opposite sense from Earth and the other planets."
Officially named "C/2014 C3 (NEOWISE)", the first comet discovery of the renewed mission came on Feb. 14 when the comet was about 143 million miles (230 million kilometers) from Earth. Although the comet's orbit is still a bit uncertain, it appears to have arrived from its most distant point in the region of the outer planets. The mission's sophisticated software picked out the moving object against a background of stationary stars. As NEOWISE circled Earth, scanning the sky, it observed the comet six times over half a day before the object moved out of its view. The discovery was confirmed by the Minor Planet Center, Cambridge, Mass., when follow-up observations were received three days later from the Near Earth Object Observation project Spacewatch, Tucson, Ariz. Other follow-up observations were then quickly received. While this is the first comet NEOWISE has discovered since coming out of hibernation, the spacecraft is credited with the discovery of 21 other comets during its primary mission.
Originally called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the spacecraft was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed. In September 2013, it was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA's efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. NEOWISE will also characterize previously known asteroids and comets to better understand their sizes and compositions.
JPL manages the NEOWISE mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, built the science instrument. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., built the spacecraft. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
A hurry-up launch in 2021 for a human flyby of Mars proposed by pioneer space tourist Dennis Tito would make a good “bridge” between the International Space Station and more sustainable missions closer to Earth, according to experts testifying before a skeptical House Science Committee Feb. 27.
The mission would require an advanced version of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and other new hardware to take advantage of a unique opportunity to reach Mars with a gravity assist from Venus. Committee witnesses were unwilling to put a price tag on that work, and conservative members of the panel said they were uneasy with open-ended spending for a high-risk project on a tight deadline.
“Do you really see right now that there’s a commitment in this country so that we don’t start down this trail, spending a lot of money, and then at the end of the trail not have accomplished the mission because the window wasn’t there?” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), asked Sandra Magnus, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Magnus, an astronaut and former ISS crew member, had testified that the U.S. would be capable of conducting the mission, provided Congress makes adequate funds available. Tito, who was the first “spaceflight participant” to purchase a ride to the space station on a Russian Soyuz crew vehicle, has testified that he could tap “private philanthropy” for $300 million toward the 2021 mission, and believes NASA could develop the necessary hardware for $100 million a year over the next seven years.
“I continue to believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put human space exploration back on track and demonstrate the ‘can do’ spirit that seems to have faded over time,” Tito said in a statement after the hearing. “The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed.”
Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems who has advised Tito’s Inspiration Mars Foundation on the Mars flyby, testified that the 70-ton variant of the SLS is on track for its critical design review this year, and an instrumented prototype of NASA’s Orion multipurpose crew vehicle is set for a Delta IV flight test in September. That test is designed to validate the design of the heat shield that would be needed to protect an Orion returning from the vicinity of the Moon, but Cooke testified that a more robust shield would be needed for the planetary-return velocities associated with reentry after a Mars flyby.
Also required by 2021 would be the advanced, “dual-use” upper stage on NASA’s books to take the SLS to its intermediate, 105-ton capability to low Earth orbit. Ultimately, the agency plans to add advanced strap-on boosters to give the big rocket the 130-ton-to-LEO capability Congress mandated.
After detailed study, Tito and his engineers rejected an early concept of a 501-day direct flight around Mars with a two-person crew during a particularly opportune launch window in 2018, and opted instead for the 580-day flight in 2021 that would fly by Venus and Earth before heading to Mars. Once there, Cooke said, the Orion crew would have 40 hours to observe the Red Planet from a distance that would make it appear at least as large as the Moon from Earth.
The mission also would require a habitat with advanced life support systems where the crew would reside during the long transits between planets, Cooke said. Tito funded a year-long study by Paragon Space Development Corp. that produced a benchtop life support system. The system appeared to meet the 2021 requirements, but testing on the ISS probably would be required. The habitat itself could be an Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus commercial cargo module, or perhaps an inflatable habitat provided by Bigelow Aerospace, according to Taber MacCallum, the Paragon CEO and chief technology officer.
Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a White House and NASA official under President George W. Bush, testified that he personally would favor a return to the Moon as the next human step beyond low Earth orbit. But the 2021 flyby would be a useful project to focus development on the systems that would be needed for work in cislunar space, asteroids and perhaps the Martian moons that would not require development of an expensive lander.
“The Mars flyby mission serves as an interesting potential bridge between where we are with the ISS, where we would like to be with Mars, and where our international partners and commercial opportunities are with human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit,” Pace said.