Journey to Mars is more than just fiction

Originally published in Goddard View

Goddard View January 2016 issue
Click to view the PDF version of the January 2016 issue of Goddard View.

While astronaut Mark Watney was planning his escape from Mars in the 2015 science fiction film “The Martian,” NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center was hard at work helping develop the capabilities needed to send real-life astronauts to Earth’s neighbor. And when the New Horizons spacecraft completed its historic flyby of Pluto in July, scientists took it as an informative moment for NASA’s overarching goal of developing a long-awaited expedition to the Red Planet by the 2030s.

In the past year alone, as part of the agencywide Journey to Mars endeavor, Goddard’s brightest minds made groundbreaking discoveries about how the planet evolved from being warm, wet and potentially habitable billions of years ago to becoming a dry and cold environment today. In addition, the center’s scientists and researchers have been studying how to get astronauts to Mars and survive the planet’s harsh environment, how communications systems between Earth and Mars could work, and what kind of scientific research Mars-bound astronauts will undertake and what technologies they’ll use.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life to get the opportunity to participate at NASA and make sure we’re clear and focused on the journey to Mars,” said Dava Newman, NASA’s recently appointed deputy administrator, during her visit to Goddard in August. “We’re on a journey to Mars. It’s not theoretical.”

To help play its part, Goddard has managed the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission since it launched in November 2013. The mission recently hit several major milestones as it continues to study the planet’s upper atmosphere. In April, MAVEN completed 1,000 orbits around Mars. By the time it celebrated one year on the planet in September, the mission had carried out 10 months of observations and completed four Deep Dip campaigns, which enable the spacecraft to take measurements near the lower end of the Martian upper atmosphere.

In November, NASA announced that data collected by MAVEN revealed that the once-thick Martian atmosphere appeared to have been warm enough to support liquid water — a key ingredient for life. But over time, solar winds stripped away gas and eroded the atmosphere, according to researchers.

“We know there had to have been lots of liquid on the surface in ancient Mars,” said MAVEN scientist Jared Espley. “We see the dry river beds, the dry lakes and the types of minerals that only form in the presence of water.”

While MAVEN examines the Martian air, NASA’s rovers on the ground are studying the planet’s geology and minerals that possibly formed in the presence of water. NASA’s Curiosity rover conducted experiments to study changes in Martian environmental conditions. Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite, which Goddard developed, detected the release of nitrogen from the surface during the heating of planetary sediments. The discovery, announced in March, further suggests that Mars was once capable of supporting life.

Goddard’s contributions extend far beyond planetary research. The center is also developing the technologies and instruments that will help make the journey possible. Several projects were discussed during a panel event in October.

David Israel, an architect for exploration and space communications, spoke about a communications network that will allow Mars-bound astronauts to communicate with Earth. He also outlined Goddard’s GPS-Enhanced Onboard Navigation System, which allows spacecraft to process GPS data in order to self-navigate.

Engineer Mark Lupisella discussed the development of low-latency teleoperations that facilitate the exploration of Mars without landing on or contaminating its surface. One such project could enable astronauts to control rovers on the surface while orbiting the planet.

Planetary geologist Jake Bleacher and his team have been working on and testing instruments on orbiters that astronauts will potentially use on the surface. They are also conducting habitability tests to determine how long humans can live in a rover, similar to how Watney survived in a fictional Ares III vehicle.

And once a Mars spaceflight becomes a reality and more than just a storyline in a Hollywood blockbuster, it may just be the beginning of what’s to come next.

“Once we get to Mars, we can refocus our questions on Earth about other planets, other moons around Mars and deeper space,” Bleacher said. “If we can get bootprints on the moons of Mars, on Mars’ surface, we’ll be turning the key on a really big door.”

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