NASA to Demonstrate Communications Via Laser Beam

By Lori Keesey

It currently takes 90 minutes to transmit high-resolution images from Mars, but NASA would like to dramatically reduce that time to just minutes. A new optical communications system that NASA plans to demonstrate in 2016 will lead the way and even allow the streaming of high-definition video from distances beyond the Moon.

This dramatically enhanced transmission speed will be demonstrated by the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), one of three projects selected by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) for a trial run. To be developed by a team led by engineers at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., LCRD is expected to fly as a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite developed by Space Systems/Loral, of Palo Alto, Calif.


UK-Built Mars Rover Put Through Its Paces

The Bruno rover in the Mars yard. (Credit: Astrium)

UKSA PR — Earlier this month the latest Mars rover prototype developed by UK engineers demonstrated its autonomous navigation capability in a specially constructed mock-up of a Martian landscape – a ‘Mars yard’ – at Astrium’s Stevenage site.

With work on the robot’s Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) system now finalised, this was the first public test of a technology that truly puts this rover – nicknamed Bruno – in a class of its own. This new class of rover will be able to decide on its own course across the Red Planet’s uneven, boulder-strewn and gully-pitted surface, identifying hazards such as rocks, slopes and drops, and plotting out the most appropriate route to a given destination. The human controllers simply provide the coordinates of a target location; the rover works out how best to get there, and trundles off.


Video: Mars500 Crew Makes Other Worldly Pizza

Our brave marsonauts may face the most monotonous phase of their mission, but they’re not bored because they are not boring! Have a look at their inventive cookery to celebrate their one full year in the isolation!

In early June the Mars500 crew celebrated their one full year inside the modules simulating an interplanetary spaceship. They are now flying virtually back to Earth and due to a delay in communications, introduced to make the simulation more real, some material reaches the outside world slowly. As they get nearer to Earth the communications delayed is reduced.

By September the ship will only be be only two months away from the Earth.

A Non-Toxic Fuel From the Mojave Desert

Late next year, a cargo freighter will deliver a potentially revolutionary new propulsion system to the International Space Station.

Franklin Chang-Diaz’s VASIMR engine? No, that test is still a couple of years off.

The propulsion system is called NOFBX. It’s a green fuel system developed by a little-known Mojave-based R&D company called Firestar Technologies. And it could well be one of those “game changing” technologies that NASA officials believe will make space travel a lot more affordable.


Astrobotic Wins NASA Award to Study Lunar and Martian Lava Tubes, Caves

PITTSBURGH, PA – Astrobotic PR – NASA today selected Astrobotic Technology Inc. to research breakthroughs in methods to explore lava tubes, caves and recently discovered “skylights” leading down into these features on the Moon and Mars.

Lava tubes and other types of caves can shelter astronauts and robots from harsh off-world environments, which on the Moon means micrometeorite bombardment, intense radiation and extreme temperature swings of 500 degrees from day to night. Cave-dwelling by early astronauts and robots likely will be less expensive than bringing shelter materials all the way from Earth.

Astrobotic Technology, in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon University, is preparing a robotic expedition to the Moon to be launched in the December 2013 – July 2014 time frame.

Astrobotic was one of 30 companies, universities and NASA organizations that were selected for negotiation today by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program in the Office of Chief Technologist. The approximately $100,000 award is to cover a year-long study starting next month.

Astrobotic will be eligible for a $500,000 Phase 2 award next year to continue the work.

NASA Confident About MSL as Martian Landing Site is Chosen

During the NASA Lunar Science Forum last week, Jim Green was asked if there was any chance of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity being slipped another two years. NASA’s director of Planetary Science was emphatic that the probe, originally set to launch in 2009, would make its planned launch window set for Nov. 25 to Dec. 18. The car-sized rover was recently plugged into its power supply at its launch site in Florida and everything worked fine, he said.

Green and other NASA officials also announced last week that Curiosity would explore a layered mountain inside the planet’s Gale crater after it lands next August. The target crater spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.


Perminov Sees International Human Mars Mission in 2035 Using Nuclear Propulsion

Roscosmos Head Anatoly Perminov


Mission to Mars shall be implemented under international cooperation, Roscosmos Head Anatoly Perminov stated, answering the questions from the Twitter in Echo-Moscow web.

“No country is able of performing Martian mission by its own in the nearest future. That’s an issue of propulsion. In our program, we have human flight to Mars no earlier than 2035. On the other hand, advanced nuclear propulsion can be developed in 8 years or so, provided necessary funding. With this system, you can get to Mars in about 90 days,” Roscosmos head said.


Mars500 Diary: Approaching the Red Planet

Whole Mars500 crew in portrait, September 2010: (clockwise from top left) Sukhrob Kamolov, Romain Charles, Diego Urbina, Yue Wang, Alexandr Smoleevskiy and Alexey Sitev. Credit: ESA

In this 11th Mars500 Mission Diary, Diego Urbina writes about the preparations for the ‘arrival’ at Mars on 1 February and about his feelings now that the action is hotting up.


The Space Review: Where to Next in Space?

Altair on the moon

This week in The Space Review

EML-1: the next logical destination
One potential destination for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit is the Earth-Moon L-1 point. Ken Murphy discusses the various roles a human presence there could play in supporting space exploration and development.

The Grand Tour: Uranus
Twenty-five years ago today Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Uranus, becoming the first, and so far only, spacecraft to visit the seventh planet. Andrew LePage recounts the challenges of getting a spacecraft designed primarily for Jupiter and Saturn to continue the exploration of the outer solar system.

Fly me to the stars
Given the near-term challenges of just getting beyond Earth orbit, does it make sense to think about how to travel to other stars? Lou Friedman explains the benefits of long-term planning for interstellar missions, as DARPA and NASA are currently exploring.

Sub-scale and classified: the top secret CIA model of a Soviet launch pad
During the race to the Moon in the 1960s, the CIA built models of the Soviet N-1 launch pad to help them better understand the launch site infrastructure. Dwayne Day describes the discovery of one of those vintage models in an unexpected location.

Review: The Four Percent Universe
Discoveries in recent years have revolutionized the field of cosmology, indicating that ordinary matter makes up on a small fraction of the universe. Jeff Foust reviews a book that examines the search for dark matter and dark energy.

The Space Review: Moon, Mars or Narnia?

This week in The Space Review….

Human operations beyond LEO by the end of the decade: An affordable near-term stepping stone
Where should humans go next beyond Earth orbit, and how quickly? Harley Thronson, Dan Lester, and Ted Talay make the case for quickly and affordably establishing an outpost at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points.

Public interest and space exploration
The general public remains fascinated with many aspects of space exploration, from the Hubble Space Telescope’s observations of the cosmos to the activities of the Mars rovers. Lou Friedman notes that this interest must be taken into account when dealing with troubled current programs and planning future ones.

C.S. Lewis and his Space Trilogy, then and now
While best known for his Narnia books, C.S. Lewis also wrote a “Space Trilogy”. Taylor Dinerman examines those novels and their underlying message about space exploration before the beginning of the Space Age.

Review: Talking About Life
Astrobiology has gained traction in recent years as an interdisciplinary field seeking to answer one of the most fundamental questions: is there life elsewhere in the universe? Jeff Foust reviews a book where scientists and others talk about their work in this field.

NASA SBIR Program Funds Mars Sample Return Technologies

NASA faces a number of technical challenges to overcome for is Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. One can get a good sense of what those obstacles are by looking at the Small Business Innovative Research projects that the agency selected to fund earlier this month.

Below are summaries of the projects that were selected. They are broken down into key phases of the mission: aerocapture, entry, descent and landing; sample collection and surface operations; planetary ascent; and orbital rendezvous with the return vehicle.


Aurora Wins SBIR, STTR Awards for Mars and CubeSat Sample Return Technology

Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation was one of the big winners when NASA announced its intention to negotiate SBIR and STTR agreements earlier this month. Four of the company’s SBIR proposals were among those chosen for negotiations along with an STTR proposal.

One of the SBIRs involves a collaboration with MIT to develop a system to capture a Martian sample return capsule launched from the surface of the Red Planet for a NASA mission. The STTR proposal is a collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Space Systems to develop a system to allow small small probes to return experiments from Earth orbit.

Details for both projects are shown below. I’ve also included information about three other SBIR projects that include an ISS battery recharging system, catalytic combustors for very high altitude air-breathing propulsion, and propulsion control sampling algorithms.


Mars Odyssey Sets Longevity Record

Dec. 15, 2010

NASA’s Mars Odyssey, which launched in 2001, will break the record Wednesday for longest-serving spacecraft at the Red Planet. The probe begins its 3,340th day in Martian orbit at 8:55 p.m. EST on Wednesday to break the record set by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbited Mars from 1997 to 2006.

Odyssey’s longevity enables continued science, including the monitoring of seasonal changes on Mars from year to year and the most detailed maps ever made of most of the planet. In 2002, the spacecraft detected hydrogen just below the surface throughout Mars’ high-latitude regions. The deduction that the hydrogen is in frozen water prompted NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which confirmed the theory in 2008. Odyssey also carried the first experiment sent to Mars specifically to prepare for human missions, and found radiation levels around the planet from solar flares and cosmic rays are two to three times higher than around Earth.


Goff’s Altius Space Machines Snags NASA SBIR Award for Mars Sample Return System

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

This post looks at Altius Space Machines, a new startup from Jon Goff who is late of Masten Space Systems. Goff’s Colorado-based company is working on a system to assist NASA with its Mars Sample Return mission.