Planetary scientists sometimes joke that we know more about Mars than we do about the moon. NASA first landed a spacecraft on the surface of the fourth planet during the U.S. Bicentennial, five years before the first space shuttle ever lifted off. And we've learned plenty in the intervening 35 years: Viking 1 and 2 analyzed Mars rocks, Spirit and Opportunity found evidence of ancient water, and Phoenix saw the Martian snow. Yet the biggest question — whether Mars could ever be home to life — still eludes us.
NASA's newest rover, Curiosity, sets off this week in search of answers. It's the most complex interplanetary explorer ever, earning a PopSci 2011 Best of What's New award. If everything goes to plan — from Saturday's thundering Atlas V launch to the rover's self-piloted atmospheric entry and hovercraft airdrop — it just might become the type of once-in-a-generation explorer that raises even more questions than it answers.
The privately built Dragon space capsule's maiden flight to the International Space Station is just weeks away, but SpaceX and NASA already have big dreams for Dragon's next steps. In a presentation at NASA late last month, SpaceX and space agency officials discussed sending Dragon to Mars.
Mission scientists at NASA are narrowing down the shortlist of proposed landing sites for the agency's next Mars rover, and the two frontrunners that have emerged over the past week (from a shortlist of four) are tantalizing scientific targets indeed. One is a former crater lake that could be rich in sediments harboring a record of Martian geological history. The other is even more ambitious: a crater that is home to a three-mile high rocky mound.
When parachutes and airbags won’t do the trick, you’ve got to land like a hovercraft, lowering precious cargo from a flying crane.
Check out this amazing new animation of NASA’s new Mars rover, the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, on its harrowing journey to the red planet.
The trend toward commercialized space is reaching into military communications and even a human expedition to Mars. Advocates say such public-private partnerships could bring down mission costs and speed up the process.
The next generation of Mars rovers may not rove at all, instead bouncing around the planet while harvesting carbon dioxide for fuel.
A new Mars hopper concept involves a carbon dioxide collection and compression system, which would take advantage of CO2 phase changes to produce thrust. The Martian atmosphere is rich in CO2, so a robotic hopper that can harvest indigenous fuels would provide greater range while also solving the problem of fuel transport.
As a general rule, when NASA flies a scientific mission all the way to Mars, we expect that mission to last for a while. For instance, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were slated to run for three months and are still operating 6 years later. But one NASA engineer wants to send a mission all the way to the Red Planet that would last just two hours once deployed: a rocket-powered, robotic airplane that screams over the Martian landscape at more than 450 miles per hour.
If we ever decide to colonize Mars, it might be fairly simple to grow crops in that red soil, according to a new study. Mars’ reduced gravity could let us use less water and fertilizer than we do on Earth.
Relax, David Bowie: in all likelihood there is life on Mars. Unfortunately for those of us hoping to find organic life forms thriving elsewhere in our solar system, there's a reasonably good chance the microbial life we might someday find on Mars was put there by us.