The Journey So Far
It’s an exciting time to be alive, yet I have noticed comments on the latest news articles and photos that some folks are a little unsure how all the latest commotion adds up to the human race’s first trip to Mars, so I thought I’d try and sum it all up nicely for everyone here.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, lovingly called NASA, has developed a plan to get our butts literally to Mars — a feat that is not yet safe enough to attempt unless you happen to be a fancy robot of science. That said, nothing on such a grand scale has been attempted since the original Apollo moon landings way back in the 1960’s.
The graphic above is a very loose visual of their grand vision. It highlights the technological pieces they need to essentially invent in the coming years in order to accomplish putting a living being on a different planet. It is something that looks very straightforward, but it requires an enormous amount of testing, analysis, and then making the ultimate decisions as to what actually makes sense in terms of safety and comfort.
The TL;DR is that Orion is how we will transport humans to far places, launching from Earth with a new rocket called the SLS and a really cool Launch Abort System that will safely jettison the crew away from the rocket if something goes wrong. Orion alone is capable of going on deep space missions for about 21 days (assuming 4 people). Adding a lander, part of project Morpheus, will allow astronauts to land on the Moon. Longer journeys, like going to Mars, will require a habitation module that will attach to Orion, giving the crew some space to live in.
Check out the graphic above to see how these pieces fit into the grand vision. Now for the longer summary!
If you heard about the Orion launch earlier this month, you may already be aware that NASA has already begun the testing process on the capsule that will take the future crew anywhere beyond low Earth orbit — something a human has never done since the Apollo missions. Think about that for a moment and let it sink in.
You may have noticed a similarity between the Orion and Apollo capsules. The very specific shape is actually quite vital in terms of how it handles the intense heat of re-entry. According to the engineers who designed Orion, the capsule shape is as ideal as it gets. The group did an AMA last month to discuss the major improvements that they have made since Apollo.
The Orion capsule design does look a lot like Apollo, but with the latest technologies and materials. The shape is not by accident, it’s because it’s designed for deep space re-entry (20,000 MPH) and a stable shape for re-entry. Plus, the shape allows us to use all of the guidance data from previous missions. – Orion Engineers Reddit AMA
Orion’s first Exploration Flight Test, aka EFT-1, was a complete success despite the scrubbed launch the day before. December 5, 2014 will be forever remembered as our first real step into deep space exploration.
But EFT-1 was just an initial test for separation of the new Launch Abort System (the white pointy cone that sits on top of the capsule), heat shield performance on re-entry, parachute deployment and ability, navigation systems, and equipment specific to testing the amount of radiation that could get through as the capsule travels through deep space (i.e. solar flares, etc). The capsule spent far longer within the Van Allen Belts than it normally would in order to see how well the capsule protects the sensitive electronics (not to mention the future humans) inside from constant exposure to high levels of radiation.
The next step is for NASA to work on their Space Launch System, or SLS rocket, the next generation of propulsion that will allow humans to launch into deep space (that is, beyond low Earth orbit). Once the SLS is ready, un updated capsule will be used for the first official Exploration Mission. EM-1 will be unmanned, but contain all the systems required to accommodate astronauts, and possibly make a trip to the Moon and back.
EM-2 will be the first manned flight for Orion some time in the 2020s, and possibly take humans back to the Moon for the first time in several decades (the term “possibly” refers to the fact that NASA has not yet decided the flight plan for these missions just yet). All following missions will hopefully involve farther and farther distances from Earth, including landing humans on an asteroid, and then eventually Mars!
NASA has already done a sound test on a mini version of the SLS rocket. The test is meant to examine the effects of high and low frequency sound waves on every component of the SLS. You may have seen launches where they spray lots of water at the base of the rocket, and that is because it acts as a suppressor.
“The noise the engines and boosters generate is so great that it can impact the rocket, and the crew, during liftoff. We have to ensure we have the proper suppression system to basically turn that noise down to a safe level.” – Jeremy Kenny, Acoustics Engineer, Marshall Space Flight Center
For what will be the largest rocket in the world, it’s good to know they are thinking of every little thing. NASA has also been testing the structural components in load simulations (see video below), as well as testing the rocket engines in preparation for actual firing in 2015.
It’s utterly amazing how many people are involved in the overall project to Mars. The SLS rocket alone is being constructed in pieces and tested all over the United States. The Pegasus Barge is currently being refurbished, and will eventually carry the SLS core stage components from New Orleans to Alabama for — you guessed it — more testing.
If we want to land on the Moon in the near future, we’re going to need a new lander! Check out the recent test on Morpheus.
Morpheus is no ordinary lander. It contains a system called ALHAT – NASA’s Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology. Yes, you read that correctly. Autonomy isn’t just for cute little Google cars!
Watch the launch again, but this time with more views from the lander and overlays showing the ALHAT scanning a landing site with Moon-like obstacles!
With the end of 2014 close by, it’s hard to sit here and wait for what’s next. Just look at how far we’ve gone in a few years. 2015 promises to be full of more exciting tests that will ultimately develop the technology that takes humans to Mars. I’m getting chills just thinking about it!
There are several more components that will eventually come into play, such as the habitation module for trips longer than a few weeks. In the meantime, why not take the time to learn more about Mars with this really fun educational site called Be A Martian, catch up on the latest news about the Mars Rovers, or take in the sights of some incredibly gorgeous photos of the Martian terrain.