Science Behind the Fiction: NASA edges closer to manned Mars missions

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Dec 5, 2018, 10:00 AM EST

There's a world, not so far away, populated entirely by robots. It sounds like the setup for any number of science fiction stories, but it's true. Mars, our cosmic next-door-neighbor, is a vast, rust-colored wasteland by Earth standards. But it's absolutely stacked to the rafters with robo-buddies.

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but since the beginning of human space exploration, fifteen crafts have landed (or crashed) on Mars, with more orbiting or completing fly-bys. Most of them are now defunct, sitting inert, in their final resting places so far from home.

Each of these machines is a love letter not just to the vast expanse of space, but to the noble endeavor of human exploration. They are building blocks that will, hopefully, one day lead to human explorers on distant worlds.

At current, two artificial crafts are functioning on Mars, sending back data from our distant neighbor. The Curiosity rover has completed more than 2,000 sols (Martian days) since landing in 2012 and, more recently, the InSight lander touched down on the red planet and is currently setting up shop, readying itself for experiments that will tell us more about Mars's interior.

There's been something of a renaissance recently in terms of both real-world Mars exploration and stories set there. The Martian, based on the novel of the same name, written by Andy Weir tells the tale of a crewed mission to Mars gone wrong. Astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded on the surface, the rest of the crew believing him dead. Hulu's The First, starring Sean Penn, tells the tale of a Mars mission ended at takeoff and the efforts of a secondary crew to succeed in the shadow of tragedy.

The Martian and The First explore the potential realities of leaving Earth for another world, complete with all the struggles such an endeavor might entail. They are stories of failure and humanity's drive to overcome it. Getting boots on Mars won't be an easy task but it is one that humanity should, and likely will, one day undertake. Until then…

Mars Today

The new kid in class is the Mars InSight lander. It launched in May of 2018, after having missed its initial launch date two years earlier, and reached Mars in just under seven months. Those seven months were all leading up to what is called, by those at NASA, the seven minutes of terror. This is the time in which the lander must complete the landing sequence and those humans on Earth, who sent this craft on its long journey, can do nothing but watch and wait.

That sequence, by the way, is complex. It requires that the craft enter the Martian atmosphere at a specific angle. Too steep and it will burn up, too shallow and it will bounce off like a skipped stone and end its life in the emptiness of space.

From there it has to decelerate at roughly twelve times Earth gravity, from 13,000 to 1,000 miles per hour. Then there's a supersonic parachute, a series of controlled explosions, deployment of landing legs, and retrorockets. All of this has to go off without any error and without assistance from Earth. Rob Manning, chief engineer at JPL, explains the process in greater detail below.

Luckily, InSight landed successfully and is on its way to completing its mission to drill sixteen feet beneath the surface of Mars and return data about the planet's interior.

Meanwhile, some 600 kilometers away, near Gale Crater, the Curiosity rover continues its mission to study the climate and geology of Mars in hopes of determining whether or not it is or was ever habitable.

Planned Missions

A new rover is planned for launch in 2020, based on the design of Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory. Because Curiosity was so successful in its landing and subsequent exploration, it's provided a template for future missions.

The goal of the 2020 rover will be to gather samples for potential return to Earth by a later mission. It will also gather vital information useful for future crews setting foot on the red planet.

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA said of the mission, "The 2020 rover will help answer questions about the Martian environment that astronauts will face and test technologies they need before landing on, exploring and returning from the Red Planet. Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible."

In addition to NASA's plans, China has a mission in the works to launch an orbiter/rover combination in 2020. A landing site has yet to be selected but teams are working diligently to get the mission off the ground and into space.

The Future

While humanity first set foot on another world in 1969, the hurdles to Mars are significantly greater. A mission of that magnitude requires a much longer stay off-planet and is at the mercy of everything the hostile universe has to offer.

The first step to such an undertaking is already underway on the International Space Station, in low-earth-orbit, where astronauts are testing and perfecting technologies and processes that will allow future explorers to live extended periods in transit and on other planets.

Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko completed a year in space aboard ISS in 2016. The goal was to understand the physical and psychological impact of long-duration space travel.

The experiment didn't end when Kelly and Kornienko landed. Further analysis is required and was assisted by Kelly's twin brother, Mark, who remained on Earth and was analyzed as a control to see how the two may differ from exposure to vastly different environments.

From there, NASA has plans that sound more fiction than reality. In the coming decade, they plan to capture and redirect an asteroid into an orbit around the Moon and send a crew to explore and return samples to Earth. Such a mission hopes to act as a proof of concept for later missions to Mars where information gathered by Curiosity, InSight, and the un-named 2020 rover will have prepared crews to finally set foot on the red planet.

NASA and other governmental entities, however, aren't the only name in the game. Space X has enjoyed an impressive record of innovation and success in private space endeavors and has lofty goals to visit the Moon and Mars in the near future.

It seems likely that as we continue toward our goal of exploring our solar system and beyond that a collaboration between public and private sectors is inevitable.

One hopes that the two exploratory spheres will work together, sharing knowledge for the benefit of all of humanity, in search of the next great horizon.

You can keep an eye on InSight, as it readies for and completes its mission, at its official landing page.