(Published December 4, 2015)

by Benjamin Vermette


Mars atmosphere mystery solved

Strong evidence suggests that there was a time when Mars was a nice little cozy planet, where rivers streamed next to a sea as large as Earth’s Arctic ocean. Temperatures were relatively warm and the atmosphere was dense enough to keep the water on its surface.  Mars seemed to have had suitable conditions for biological evolution to take place.

But how did the atmosphere go away? Why did Mars transition, from a planet with the capacity to harbour life, to the Mars we know today, which is cold and dry?

According to new results from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which has been studying the planet’s atmosphere since it started orbiting in September 2014, everything started about 3.7 billion years ago. It was during this time that Mars’ magnetic field “switched off”.

Solar wind, a stream of charged particles (mainly protons and electrons) coming from the Sun at speeds of millions of kilometres per hour, were no longer shielded when it passed the red planet due to the absence of a magnetic field. The wind thus gave the carbon dioxide and oxygen ions in the air sufficient energy to leave the atmosphere by generating an electric field in the upper atmosphere, perhaps causing auroras.

Solar winds displacing ions of Martian atmosphere. (NASA Scientific Visualization Studio) 

Solar winds displacing ions of Martian atmosphere. (NASA Scientific Visualization Studio) 

This video demonstrates this phenomenon more clearly. (ObservingSpace.com)

The current escape rate of the planet’s atmosphere is about 100 grams per second. However, during intense solar storms such as coronal mass ejection, which happened to Mars in March 2015, the escape rate can be amplified by a factor of 10 or 20, according to MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Emissions of ultraviolet light from the Sun also played a role in stripping off our neighbour planet’s atmosphere.

So the question remains: Is it true that less than 4 billion years ago, before this entire chaotic saga started, Mars had an environment suitable for life? The lack of evidence makes scientists struggle on this question, but at least it’s a reasonable question to ask, considering a recent study showed that Earth sheltered life as early as 4.1 billion years ago.

"Mars appears to have had a more clement environment for just as long as it took life to form on Earth," Jakosky said. "That doesn't tell us that life did form on Mars, but it says it's very plausible. It's at least not a stupid idea to ask whether it did."

The question now is whether the same can happen to Earth. Yes, indeed. And it is happening right now. Earth is actually losing atmospheric pressure, but don’t worry, it’s insignificant. What protects us from what happened on Mars is Earth’s strong magnetic field, which, due to our planet being bigger, is not inclined to disappear as it did on the red planet.

Thanks again, $671-million MAVEN, for answering our questions and doubts!

JOB ALERT: NASA is currently recruiting astronaut

Looking for a job? Are you American? Do you have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, mathematics or are you a medical doctor? NASA will be accepting astronaut-applications from December 14 through mid-February. Applications will be accepted at www.usajobs.gov

It is preferable to possess an advanced degree in such fields, along with at least three years of related professional experience, or at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft.

The chosen astronauts will be announced in mid-2017 after a complex selection process, which goes from intense physical challenges to IQ tests. They will need perfect vision (applicants with corrected vision through laser surgery are now accepted) and an extremely good blood pressure.

The selected astronaut class will possibly be the first one to step on Mars, but one thing is for sure: they will contribute to NASA’s journey to the red planet. “This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The new astronauts will be the first generation of space pioneers to fly in the Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and in the SpaceX Crew Dragon, both currently in the design and construction process.

But wait. Don’t ditch your job too quickly. According to WIRED, your chance of being selected, considering the projected number of applications, is less than 0.17%. It seems practically impossible, however, I don’t know any other jobs that come with an all-expenses paid voyage to space. 

Astronaut Scott Kelly’s recent activities during his “year in space”

Launched to the International Space Station (ISS) for an almost-year-long mission in space, American astronaut Scott Kelly has been busy in the past few weeks.  He, and his American colleague Kjell Lindgren who was also onboard the ISS, performed two seven-hour spacewalks recently.

On October 28, after gearing up their spacesuits, they: installed cables for a new docking mechanism, mounted a physics experiment and lubricated the station’s Canadarm2. One week later, on November 5, reconfiguring one of the ammonia cooling systems was their task.

Previously, towards the middle of October, Scott Kelly became the American with the most days passed in space, surpassing Mike Fincke at 382 days. By the time he comes back, he will have logged 500 days. That is pretty impressive, but not if he were Russian: cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 400 consecutive days on Mir in 1994; and Gennedy Padalka, who launched alongside Kelly in March, lived in orbit for 879 days – and he said he wanted to break the thousand mark.

To celebrate, NASA made this amazing video:

Female-only moon mission experiment in Russia

In Russia, on October 28, a simulated flight to the moon started onboard an isolated mock spacecraft. Six Russian women, aged 22 to 34, began an eight-day experiment to study females’ behaviour in high-stress environments – such as during a spaceflight – as well as their ability to handle pressure. 

After more than a week under constant observation, on November 9, the girls were “unleashed” and set free to review the mission.

The ladies – Yelena Luchitskaya, Darya Komissarova, Polina Kuznetsova, Anna Kussmaul, Inna Nosikova, and Tatyana Shiguyeva – all had experiences and expertise in medicine, biomedical sciences or psychology. Their main mission checklist, excluding simulating a landing on the Moon, consisted of 10 scientific experiments which left them with about 1 hour and a half of free time per day to read, socialize, etc.

Experiment supervisor Sergei Ponomaryov explained one of the mission’s goals: “There’s never been an all-female crew on the ISS. We consider the future of space belongs equally to men and women and unfortunately we need to catch up a bit after a period when unfortunately there haven’t been too many women in space.”

Unfortunately, the women were asked sexist questions during the press conference prior to the start of the mission, such as “How will you deal without makeup for eight days?”.

58 female astronauts have flown in space – 49 come from NASA, 4 come from the Soviet/Russian space program.

NASA postpones second round of ISS commercial resupply contract

NASA has postponed for a third time its selection of two commercial cargo companies to be awarded the second round contract of resupplying the International Space Station (ISS). The first round contract, which will end in 2018, was awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK in 2008.

On November 5, the day when the agency was supposed to announce the victors, NASA assured the selection will be made before January 30, 2016. This delay is partly due to SpaceX CRS-7’s mishap on June 28, where the company and the whole resupply system were perturbed. Specific details about this mishap are expanded on in my previous article

The contract, dubbed CRS-2, is valued between $1 billion and $1.4 billion and is intended to begin service in 2018 and end in 2024.

Two companies will be selected between Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Lockheed Martin to deliver about 20,000 kg of cargo to the ISS per year. Note that Boeing, one of the original contenders, will no longer be running. NASA didn’t specify its choice of ignoring Boeing, but the company will now put its main focus on the commercial crew contract. Unofficial sources state that Lockheed Martin is out too, but this was not confirmed either by Lockheed or NASA.

SNC and its Dream Chaser spacecraft, which were bypassed by NASA for the first round of the ISS commercial resupply contract as well as for last year’s commercial crew contract, are still in the race and hope to be successful.

“We are still in the competition, but cannot make any statements beyond that yet as we are still in a open competition.” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.

The Dream Chaser spacecraft, first designed to be a human-carrying spaceship, is now being adapted to be unmanned for the possible future cargo missions to the ISS.

Sierra Nevada Corporation`s Dream Chaser spacecraft undergoing ground testing at NASA`s Edwards Air Force Base in California. (wikipedia)

Sierra Nevada Corporation`s Dream Chaser spacecraft undergoing ground testing at NASA`s Edwards Air Force Base in California. (wikipedia)

5 companies originally battled ferociously for this contract. 4 remain. 2 will survive.