(Published on October 27, 2015)

By Benjamin Vermette


NASA Confirmed the Presence of Liquid Water on Mars’ Surface

On September 28, NASA called a major press conference to announce “a major science finding concerning Mars”.  

What it was in reality was that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera showed spectrum evidence of, to make long story short, salty water flowing on the red planet. Be aware that this flowing water is temporary, not persistent liquid water. But why?

It is thought that water from Mars’ atmosphere is “absorbed” by Mars’ surface, where it stocks until it is dense enough for it to flow. This process would be made possible because of the presence of a chemical called perchlorate in the Martian soil, substance with the capacities to hold water. But the thing is, Mars’ atmosphere is really thin – 1% the density of Earth’s – and it’s not filled with water either. Even this seems unlikely. However, it is the preferred hypothesis of the scientists, which admits the actual source is still a mystery.

And how about life on Mars? Does water mean life? Well scientists know that microbial life can survive similar conditions here on Earth, but as they say, knowledge of the conditions on Mars is still too limited to apply a reasonable comparison. We also know Mars hitherto had vast amounts of flowing water on its surface which was comparable to the size of the Arctic Ocean here on Earth. It seems to me that Mars had a better chance of harbouring life millions of years ago.

The question of life in Mars’ salty liquid surface water is a mystery, and it may still be for a while because NASA and other space agencies are not allowed to investigate it. "The problem [of exploring habitable regions of Mars] is not exploding rockets, shrinking budgets, political gamesmanship or fickle public support," Lee Billings writes for Scientific American. "Rather, the problem is life itself – specifically, the tenacity of Earthly microbes, and the potential fragility of Martian ones."

We wouldn’t want to kill microscopic Martians. Let them evolve. 

Stephen Hawking May Just Have Solved a Huge Black-hole Mystery

A black hole is a zone in space that has so much gravitational attraction that nothing – not even light – can escape, hence their names ‘black holes’.

However, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who already changed our way of seeing black holes, recently explained a new radical theory that might have solved the so-called ‘information paradox’. This would mean that there actually is a method to escape those cosmic giants.

When an object enters a black hole, it gets destroyed. Everybody agrees on that. However, what scientists have been arguing about is what the black hole does with the object’s information. That information could be, for instance, the number, arrangement and order of the object’s atoms, the object’s energy level, trajectory, etc. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity states that all information must be destroyed as it enters the cosmic hole but the modern theory of quantum mechanics claims it can’t.

The key to Hawking’s new theory dates way back to the 1970s, when Stephen Hawking said that black holes could actually emit something, which is information-less photons (think of photons as tiny “particles” of light). This emission is called ‘Hawking radiation’, and the physicist recently posed that Hawking radiation could “pick-up” information and move it beyond the black hole. But why hasn’t he thought of this before?

“I propose that the information is not stored in the interior of the black hole as one might expect, but on its boundary, the event horizon,” he said at the end of August at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The event horizon acts as a point of no return: once you pass this point, you are doomed to die in the black hole. He said that information of a 3D object that was destroyed is stored as a 2D hologram on the event horizon, phenomenon known as ‘super translation’. Thus the information gets carried by Hawking radiation: but it’s not all good news since the information is basically useless. "The information about ingoing particles is returned, but in a chaotic and useless form," he said. "For all practical purposes, the information is lost."

"The message of this lecture is that black holes aren’t as black as they are painted," Hawking said. "They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly come out in another universe."

Yep, you heard. The Professor said “the hole would need to be large, and if it was rotating, it might have a passage to another universe. But you couldn't come back to our universe.”

"So, although I'm keen on spaceflight, I'm not going to try that."

NASA SLS Completes Critical Design Review

“We’re building a rocket that’s going to take humans out further than we’ve ever been, deeper into the solar system than we’ve ever been, that’s a really exciting thing,” said Todd May, Deputy Center Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Officially, NASA has finished the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will hopefully carry astronauts to asteroids, maybe back to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. This milestone is seen as approval for the engineers to begin full-scale construction of the rocket, even though some parts are still being built.

The major change this design review brought to the initial SLS is that the 20-story core stage of the rocket will not be painted in white as previously thought, but orange, the natural color of the core stage foam insulation – the same rusty orange as the Space Shuttle’s external tank.

In consequence, this removes a lot of weight: “Not applying the paint will reduce the vehicle mass by potentially as much as 1,000 pounds, resulting in an increase in payload capacity,” said Shannon Ridinger, a NASA spokesperson. “This is similar to what was done for the external tank for the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle was originally painted white for the first two flights and later a technical study found painting to be unnecessary.”

SLS before design review. (Wikipedia)

SLS before design review. (Wikipedia)

SLS after design review. (NASA)

SLS after design review. (NASA)

Note that the grey and orange stripes we can see on the solid rocket boosters may or may not be painted on the boosters for the first SLS test flight in 2018, NASA officials said. 

Powered by four liquid-hydrogen-fuelled RS-25 engines (which are basically former Space Shuttle engines) and two solid rocket boosters, SLS is expected to produce as much as 8.4 million pounds of thrust.

Its first test flight will be in 2018, as it will perform an uncrewed spaceflight to lunar orbit. A crewed mission is expected to launch in 2023, if everything goes well, on another flight to lunar orbit. 

Successful Heat Shield Test for Future Mars Exploration Vehicles

NASA is still testing and developing new technologies for future Mars’ crewed missions, and building a functional heat shield is one of them.

A heat shield is what keeps the capsule – carrying cargo or humans – from bursting into flames. In fact, when the capsule enters an atmosphere at high speeds (in this case Mars’ thin atmosphere), air in front of the speeding spacecraft gets compressed and thus creates heat, and eventually fire. Let me clear one misconception here—it’s not friction that creates fire—it’s compressed air. This is exactly what happens when you see a shooting star which, unfortunately, is not a star but rather air that gets compressed in front of the meteoroid coming at high speeds in our atmosphere. This compression creates heat and fire and thus the “shooting star” illusion. So, to protect the capsule from catching fire, a heat shield is required to insulate it and to deflect fire.

Modern rockets are designed with limited space to carry the spacecraft and its heat shield. However, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, employs engineers that have a solution to counter this limitation: the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT) heat shield. Deployed mechanically, ADEPT is made out of carbon fabric, which expands and opens like an umbrella.

At the beginning of October, Ames’s engineers successfully completed a heating simulation of an ADEPT model using temperatures similar to those it will face during a Mars’ re-entry. Reaching 3100 degrees Fahrenheit, the extremely hot airflow was deflected by the 21-inch diameter nozzle of the shield. The blue streaks you see are due to the decomposition of a resin installed on the surface of the shield to prevent degradation of the fabric joints.

Heating simulation testing ADEPT heat shield. (NASA)

Heating simulation testing ADEPT heat shield. (NASA)

Provided a couple of more years of development, ADEPT will probably protect astronauts as they enter Mars’ atmosphere for the first time. This is a key step toward NASA’s journey to the red planet.

Crewed Orion Capsule Launch Delayed to 2023

On September 14, NASA announced a two-year delay of its first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying a crewed Orion spacecraft.

Actually, this is not NASA’s fault. The blame is on the American Congress, which decides where to direct the required funding.

The Space Launch System is the new rocket that NASA is trying to develop to send astronauts back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. However, had the Congress primarily funded the Commercial Crew program instead, which promotes private companies like SpaceX to send Americans in space, a test crewed launch would have been possible in 2015. However, this time Congress funded SLS and Orion – which will receive an additional $7 billion USD – so its first crewed mission is scheduled in 2023.

SLS and Orion are big and powerful, but expensive. Commercial crew is cheaper, but say, less controllable? They could both send humans to Mars, but in different time frames.

Congress must fairly fund what is best for NASA, and NASA must present a clear vision of its plan to go to Mars.

You don’t want ads getting on rockets or on spacesuits to maintain a wealthy space business.

In Video: NASA Crashes Plane for Test

Towards the end of August, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia was the home of a third and last simulated crash of a Cessna 172 for safety’s sake.

Scientists and engineers at Langley dropped a 1974 airplane from a 30-meter height, which was carrying multiple cameras and sensors, as well as five Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs). ELTs are used to send signals to satellite in case of an emergency, to allow rescue teams to know the position of the crashed plane.

The test was conducted to improve ELTs, which have “to work in extreme circumstances of an airplane mishap,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. "Included in those extreme circumstances are the possibilities of excessive vibration, fire and impact damage. NASA research is designed to find practical ways to improve ELT system performance and robustness, giving rescue workers the best chance of saving lives."

The Search and Rescue Mission Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland financed this simulated drop on cement as well as the whole ELT research.