Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Do We Have the 'Right Stuff' to Put an Astronaut on Mars?

Mars_2_3_2 "All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct."

Carl Sagan

It only took eight years for JFK’s dream to land a man on the moon to be fulfilled, but plans to to land a man on Mars is going to take just that little bit longer -24 years to be exact, but at least we know how we’re going to go about getting our astronauts there.

NASA is serious about launching the most difficult mission ever attempted by the human race - putting an astronaut on Mars. The voyage will cover hundreds of millions of miles and take two and half years roundtrip. It sounds like science fiction. To make it scientific fact, the United States needs to first flex its deep space muscles again on familiar terrain - the moon. It's called the Constellation program.

"The accuracy with which you need to target a landing site on the surface is like throwing a basketball from New York to Los Angeles and having it go through without touching the rim," explains Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity..

If the astronauts actually that shot, and if they land on Mars, they will face a deadly environment - radiation from solar flares, dangerous dust and temperatures that average 60 degrees below zero. And they’ll have to do it for up to 18 months, before the Earth and Mars align properly again for a faster return home. No astronauts have ever spent that amount of time on an alien world. Neil Armstrong was on the moon for less than a day.

"And I think it’s more responsible for us to go to the moon, check out these systems, make sure the life-support systems, the space suits, the little things we need for these long voyages, work properly," explains Dr. Rick Gilbrech is NASA’s exploration chief.

During Apollo, the furthest the astronauts could ever venture out on their lunar rovers was six miles. NASA hopes the new rovers will let the astronauts explore 60 miles from their spacecraft. Technological advancements will help in another way. Think about this: There is more computing power in your average cell phone today than there was on any of the Apollo spacecraft that took the astronauts to the moon.

Another example of how the new missions might be different is the robonaut, which looks like a cousin of C-3PO. It’s an early model of a robot that might assist the astronauts with mundane and sometimes dangerous tasks on the moon.

NASA isn’t using the moon just to train for Mars. Next year, it will launch orbiters around the moon and then essentially blast the lunar surface. In the midst of the debris field, NASA hopes to find evidence of hydrogen, which could one day help fuel trips home for the astronauts. But will there be any missions for the astronauts at all?

The biggest obstacle NASA faces is money. One critic has called the Constellation program "Apollo on food stamps." During the 1960s, 4 percent of the entire national budget was spent on space. Today one-sixth of 1 percent goes to NASA.

Thanks to some new details released by NASA for their new Constellation manned Mars mission, we now have an insight in to what the missions will look like.

A 400,000kg (880,000lb) spacecraft would be constructed, in space. Due to the necessity of a craft that can act autonomously of NASA control, make the distance, and provide for its crew for a 900 day mission, the size of the ‘marscraft’ is obviously going to exceed that of the current space shuttles.

It would take three to four Ares V rockets to launch the elements of the spacecraft in to a low Earth orbit.

A ‘minimal crew’ would make the journey to Mars, taking approximately six to seven months to traverse the distance. A total of 550 days would be spent on the surface of Mars, before returning. Sent every 26 months to the red planet, the crews would need to take up to 50,000kg of cargo with them. They’d need an ‘aerodynamic and powered descent’ and autonomy or at least asynchronous from NASA control.

However, sending the crew is not the only part of this mission. Where are they going to live? How will all their equipment make the journey? That’s why their mission will be preceded by two separate missions.

With a theoretical launch date for the manned mission to Mars arriving in February of 2031, a cargo lander and surface habitat would be launched December 2028 and January 2029, respectively using two Ares V launches. Subsequently, the launder will arrive October 2029, and the habitat a month later; the crew will arrive August 2031.

The second set of pre-launches will occur in late 2030/early 2031, and anticipated to reach Mars at the same time as the first crew. Thus, in the first quarter of 2033, the second mission’s crew will launch to arrive on Mars by December, with the first crew having left January that same year, after a 17-month stay.

Will we see human settlements on Mars? Or is it all just a dream? Will the American public even support traveling to places humans can barely imagine?

Posted by Josh Hill with Casey Kazan.

Original here

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