As NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) continues to impress during its mission on the Red Planet – marked by another milestone via the use of its drill for the first time – NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld believes Curiosity is providing vital information ahead of potential crewed missions to Mars.
MSL On Mars:
Following on from its impressive survival during the “seven minutes of terror”, Curiosity’s August 6, 2012 landing on Mars kick-started a mission that has already achieved a series of stunning results.
Tasked with investigating the Martian climate and geology, assessing whether the selected field site inside Gale Crater has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life, and conducting planetary habitability studies in preparation for future human exploration, Curiosity’s control team took several weeks to verify the rover’s systems post landing.
After a two weeks of ground testing, Curiosity and its systems were put to the test for the first time on August 19, 2012 when the rover used its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to laser zap a rock, nicknamed “Coronation,” located near the rover’s landing site.
During the test, Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument hit “Coronation” rock with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10 second period. Each pulse delivered more than three million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.
The energy from the lasers excited atoms in the rock into an ionized, glowing plasma, which was recorded with a telescope and analyzed with three spectrometers for information about what elements were present inside the rock.
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The initial use of the laser on Mars served as target practice for characterizing the Chem/Cam instrument while also providing additional value to researchers on whether the elemental composition changed as the laser pulses progressed.
Now Curiosity in pressing on with another milestone, via the debut use of its drill, while at its current location in a small depression named Yellowknife Bay.
Hammering away on a slab of rock on the floor of Gale Crater, before and after images showed the drill worked as planned. This test on the rock – named John Klein in honor of a recently deceased NASA engineer – is a precursor to the expected drilling of test holes.
The end goal is to collect samples from the drilling, before delivering them to the suite of scientific instruments onboard the Rover. The results will be beamed back to Earth for scientists on the ground to evaluate.
MSL To Crewed Missions:
NASA’s JPL team have proven themselves as the world leaders in sending spacecraft to Mars, a planet that continues to be more than a challenge for nations such as the Russians. However, NASA is still decades away from sending humans to the Red Planet, with the Agency only providing a notional target of the mid 2030s.
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Regardless, Curiosity is gathering vital science to facilitate that possibility, via instrumentation that is specifically designed to collate data that will help humans set foot on Mars.
“We’ve already gotten a little bit of a taste of that with Curiosity’s results, (such as) the RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) results,” noted Dr. Grunsfeld. “We’re very afraid of space radiation for a good reason. With RAD on Curiosity, we’re able to analyze a tissue equivalent dose, as if there was a person in there.
“Now on the surface of Mars, we’re starting to get the information the Life Sciences team will be able to use to assess the hazards.”
Those hazards for a crew on Mars include a big solar particle event – such as a solar flare. However, the galactic cosmic rays is a constant threat that scientists need to learn more about.
“I’m confident we’ll get through that, but a mission to Mars is going to be hugely risky no matter what,” added the five time Shuttle astronaut. “So we have to assess, but until we get data and make the measurements it is an unknown. (However,) we’ve made a first step there.”
MSL’s Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) also provided useful data for any potential crewed mission to Mars, with Dr. Grunsfeld citing the heat shield and precision landing as good examples.
“The scale of the heat shield for the MSL system is on the scale of a human system, comparable to the Orion heat shield – not that Orion would go into the atmosphere of Mars, but we’re starting to learn about things at scale.
“Looking down the road, there’s a whole list of topics in technology and precision landing. You would like future crews to say ‘we’re going to land right next to the cargo ship that I landed to previously’. If you’re many kilometers away, that’s not right next to it. You want to be meters away.
“Some of the things that the Space Technology Program are looking at would advance us towards that – from EDL systems, to simple things (not unlike how) the advancement of navigation on Earth came from a better clock. The same thing applies in space, such as atomic clocks, which can precisely time the entry into Mars atmosphere.
“The active guidance system – which was a brand new feature on MSL – can navigate and guide you to a precision landing.”
Sustainability on Mars is also likely to be a key requirement for future crews to the Red Planet, with Dr. Grunsfeld citing the path towards In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).
“Down the road, I’d love for us to start to look at ISRU. How do we use the things were learning about on Mars?”
“One of the exciting things – which we saw on Viking, but got confirmation via the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) results on MSL – is there’s a fair amount of nitrogen in the Mars atmosphere. Well nitrogen is something that’s very important for humans and without that we might need to take it with us, so that’s a resource we could use (in situ).
“We’ve seen high water content. We could heat that out and use the water, even better if we land near ice. So there’s a lot of neat stuff looking to the future.”
With NASA’s Exploration Roadmap still lacking official release – despite lots of notional mission plans, the latest of which was created by Boeing – an actual mission plan for human flights to Mars remains unscripted.
However, Dr. Grunsfeld – who was speaking during the announcement of a new MSL rover mission to Mars at the end of this decade – is excited about the synergy between the Rover’s science gathering and future crewed missions.
“If we think of the 2030s as the potential for human exploration of Mars, I think this 2020 rover – and the other things we might be able to do in the 2020s – will provide a synergistic collaboration between science and human space flight,” added the SMD Associate Administrator.
“There’s a lot of cool things we can do with advancements, both in science and exploration.”
(Images: Via NASA, Boeing and L2 content from L2’s SLS specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site. Other image via NASA).
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