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Humans on the surface of Mars by the 2030s

Stephanie LYardley25 November 2014

NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan speaks at UCL. Credit: Satureyes Photography (All rights reserved)

NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan speaks at UCL. Credit: Satureyes Photography (All rights reserved)

NASA has set its sights on expanding our presence into the Solar System by developing the capabilities needed for humans to step foot on Mars for the first time in the 2030s. This is the message of NASA’s Chief Scientist Dr Ellen Stofan and Chief Technologist Dr David Miller, outlined in a recent public lecture they gave at UCL.

NASA is currently working with 16 space agencies around the globe and the U.S. commercial space industry as part of a Global Exploration Roadmap to make the exploration of Mars a reality.

Future human exploration could answer one of the most fundamental unanswered questions: Is it possible that life can exist beyond Earth?

The International Space Station - our first step to Mars? Credit: NASA/Nespoli (public domain)

The International Space Station – our first step to Mars? Credit: NASA/Nespoli (public domain)

This journey begins in low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station where groundbreaking science takes place to develop the technology and communication systems that are essential for survival in space. Scientific advances are also being made in understanding how the body changes in microgravity and the impact the space environment has on mental health.

For over 40 years we have already landed robotic spacecraft on the surface of Mars. With the Curiosity rover discovering evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for millions of years is it possible to demonstrate life once existed? The rover has also measured the radiation levels that humans will be exposed to during the duration of the mission, helping in the development of their protection.

Why stop at Mars? Where else can we go? We have already observed water plumes erupting from the South Pole of Jupiter’s moon Europa and flew the Cassini spacecraft through ice plumes shooting from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

With missions such as Kepler detecting over 2500 exoplanet candidates in our region of the Milky Way, surely we aren’t alone?

Human exploration of Mars: is this our future? Credit: Martin Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)

Human exploration of Mars: is this our future? Credit: Martin Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)

  • Stephanie Yardley is a PhD student at UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory

Countdown to touchdown

OliUsher10 November 2014

Comet C-G, seen by Rosetta’s NAVCAM on 6 November 2014. Philae’s landing site is towards the top of the image. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

After a decade of travelling around the Solar System, the Rosetta probe is now at its destination: Comet 67-P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or Comet C-G to its friends).

The Rosetta mission is made up of two parts which have spent the last decade bolted together: the orbiter, and the lander, known as Philae.

Just after 9am GMT on Wednesday, Philae will separate from the mother ship and begin its descent to the comet’s surface. Around seven hours later, if all goes well, it will touch down on C-G’s rough surface.

This will be the first ever landing on a comet.

The gravitational force between two objects is directly proportional to their masses and the distance between them. Philae, at around 100kg, weighs much the same as a (large) human being, but the comet has a tiny fraction of the Earth’s mass. The pull between them is therefore minuscule – of the order of the gravitational force experienced by an object weighing just one gram on Earth.

Even though Philae will only be approaching Comet C-G at walking pace, the low gravity means it will need to attach itself to the surface with a harpoon to avoid bouncing back into space.

Because of this, the manoeuvre has been compared to a ‘docking’ rather than a ‘landing’.

UCL’s Prof Andrew Coates is a member of the Rosetta Plasma Consortium, which will be monitoring the plasma environment of the comet during Philae’s descent and landing. (He was also closely involved with the design and construction of Rosetta’s scientific payload.) He will be at mission control in Darmstadt on Wednesday as the lander begins its descent.

“The Rosetta orbiter and lander provide unique perspectives on how comets interact with the solar wind and on charged dust from the surface. The historic landing attempt will be a huge opportunity for coordinated observations,” says Prof Coates.

Comet seen over Rosetta's solar array, 14 October 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Comet seen over Rosetta’s solar array, 14 October 2014, when the comet was around 16km away. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA (All rights reserved)

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The Hubble Space Telescope’s successor: UCL’s contribution

OliUsher3 November 2014

JWST NIRSpec calibration assembly. Photo credit: UCL MSSL

JWST NIRSpec calibration assembly. Photo credit: UCL MSSL

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), currently under construction by NASA and ESA, will be the successor to the wildly successful Hubble Space Telescope. Unlike Hubble, which specialises primarily in observing the same light our eyes see (with limited ultraviolet and infrared capabilities), JWST is specially designed to observe in the infrared.

These wavelengths are interesting to scientists as they allow them to peer through thick dust clouds which scatter visible light, revealing areas of star birth and planetary systems forming. They also reveal the distant past of the cosmos, which has been redshifted out of the visible spectrum thanks to its extreme distance. Infrared observations are extremely challenging to do from the ground as most wavelengths of infrared are absorbed by the atmosphere.

(Hubble’s capabilities in visible light will be largely replaced by a new generation of ground-based observatories, such as the European Extremely Large Telescope.)

A vast project like JWST involves numerous institutions around the world – and among their number is UCL. UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory is providing part of the NIRSpec (Near Infra-Red Spectrograph) instrument, which in turn is part of the European contribution to the telescope project. JWST will also be launched from a European Ariane rocket in 2018.

NIRSpec will break down the light into its component wavelengths, allowing for precise measurements of the motion and chemical makeup of stars and galaxies.

The Calibration Assembly, pictured here, built by UCL, ensures accurate observations by periodically testing the accuracy of the instrument’s colour measurements.

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Yesterday’s solar eclipse, seen from space

OliUsher24 October 2014

Yesterday saw a partial eclipse of the Sun, visible in parts of eastern Russia and North America. In space, however, a more impressive eclipse (with virtually the entire solar disc obscured) was visible to the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s Hinode spacecraft.

Hinode (‘Sunrise’) was built in part by UCL’s Mullard Space Science Lab, and is the latest chapter in a long history of close relations between UCL and Japan.

This video shows the view captured from the spacecraft’s X-ray telescope, which captures the extremely hot gases in the solar atmosphere. (Note that while X-rays may let us see through a few centimetres of flesh, they don’t let us see through several thousand kilometres of Moon.)

Video credit: Shimojo/JAXA/ISAS

Space Shuttle commander visits UCL Academy

OliUsher13 October 2014

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (right) with UCL Academy principal Geraldine Davies (left)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (right) with UCL Academy principal Geraldine Davies (left)

Last week saw Charlie Bolden – a former Space Shuttle pilot who now heads up NASA – visit UCL Academy. In this week’s Picture of the Week, he can be seen visiting the school’s facilities with the principal, Geraldine Davies.

UCL Academy is a non-denominational state school in Swiss Cottage, around two miles north of UCL’s central London campus. The school, which is sponsored by UCL, educates local children and charges no fees, and has extensive input into its teaching from UCL academics and students. It opened in 2012, and recently sent its first student to UCL – to study chemistry.

Bolden gave an inspirational talk to students, and was mobbed by students as he toured the school afterwards.

UCL space scientist Lucie Green, who arranged the visit (and is one of the school’s governors), said: “UCL has a long history of working with NASA that began shortly after its formation in 1958. Today, we have an extended family that includes the UCL Academy and it’s wonderful to see the Academy being the focus for an inspirational visit by Charles Bolden. This is a very positive example of the value-added that comes from having such a broad community where we can work together for the benefit of the students.”

The event is covered in a post on the UCL Events blog, which begins:

Charlie Bolden was born in the deep south of the US, during the days of segregation and institutionalised racism. Despite this inauspicious start in life, he went on to a high-flying military career, commanded the Space Shuttle, spent 28 days in orbit and, in 2009, was made head of NASA by President Obama. He is the first African American to hold the position…

Read the full post here.

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Rosetta landing site chosen

OliUsher15 September 2014

Rosetta landing site

The landing site for Philae, the lander component of the Rosetta mission, has been chosen and is marked here with a white cross. Photo credit: ESA

The Rosetta mission, which for the past decade has been on a long and convoluted journey to Comet C-G, has recently reached its destination. It is the only artificial object ever to enter orbit around a comet, and is currently circling around it at an altitude of around 30km. (The cometary nucleus itself is around 4km across.)

Part of Rosetta’s mission is to measure the properties of the plasma (electrically charged gas) that surrounds the comet. To this end, the spacecraft features a suite of five sensors built by the Rosetta Plasma Consortium, a scientific collaboration that includes UCL’s Prof Andrew Coates.

But as well as measuring the plasma around the comet, Rosetta will attempt something never achieved before: it will release a lander that, later this year, will touch down on the comet’s surface. The European Space Agency has today announced the site that the lander, known as Philae, will aim for: a spot known as Site J, pinpointed in the photo above with a white cross. The landing site was chosen as the best compromise between safety (the surface of the comet is uneven in places and could damage the probe) and scientific interest (some parts are more active than others).

Copyright: ESA images are free to use providing they are credited, do not imply endorsement by ESA, do not feature identifiable individuals, and are not used in advertising or promotional materials.

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Heading to Mars… again!

OliUsher4 August 2014

Artist's concept of Mars 2020, a proposed NASA mission to Mars. UCL is part of the consortium building the stereoscopic camera. Photo credit: NASA (public domain)

Artist’s concept of Mars 2020, a proposed NASA mission to Mars. UCL is part of the consortium building the stereoscopic camera. Photo credit: NASA (public domain)

Mars 2020 is a planned NASA Mars rover, which will be built to an almost identical design to the Curiosity rover currently exploring the Martian surface. NASA has just announced the scientific payload, and it will include Mastcam-Z – a stereoscopic zoom camera which will be built by a consortium that includes UCL.

Mastcam-Z is the pair of square ‘eyes’ on the bottom of the rover’s ‘head’ as shown on this diagram.

Labelled diagram showing the location of the instruments on Mars 2020, a proposed NASA mission to Mars. UCL is part of the consortium building the Mastcam-Z stereoscopic camera. Photo credit: NASA (public domain)

Labelled diagram showing the location of the instruments on Mars 2020, a proposed NASA mission to Mars. UCL is part of the consortium building the Mastcam-Z stereoscopic camera. Photo credit: NASA (public domain)

UCL are responsible for developing a test environment for laboratory simulations of stereo measurements, and deriving accuracy estimates for rover operations from this. Prof Andrew Coates (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory), who is one of the co-investigators (scientific leaders) on the project will also play a leading role in science requirements specification and exploitation, and comparison with other missions including ExoMars.  His scientific focus will be atmosphere-surface interactions.

Many congratulations to the whole team, and in particular to Prof Coates, on this success.

UCL is already leading the consortium building PanCam, the main panoramic camera on the European ExoMars probe, which will launch in 2018.

We’ll check back in on the progress of both of these projects as the design, construction and testing moves forward.

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Another successful launch for UCL space technology

OliUsher21 July 2014

The UK Technology Strategy Board’s TechDemoSat-1, featuring the UCL-built Charged Particle Spectrometer, was successfully launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on 8 July. A video of the launch is now available from Roscosmos.

Jupiter’s icy moons: a promising location for extraterrestrial life?

OliUsher11 July 2014

What Cassini did for the Saturn system in the 2000s, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (or JUICE for short)  will do for Jupiter in the 2030s.

Artist's impression of JUICE in the Jupiter system. Credit: ESA (All Rights Reserved)

Artist’s impression of JUICE in the Jupiter system. Credit: ESA (All Rights Reserved)

The European Space Agency mission is currently being developed, with a 2022 launch planned. It will study Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, three of the largest moons in the Solar System. (Ganymede, which JUICE will orbit in 2032, is so big it is larger even than the planet Mercury).

Europa will be a particularly interesting target – the moon is covered by a thick crust of water ice, which may conceal an ocean of liquid water. If so, this could make it one of the most promising location in the Solar System for extraterrestrial life. It is thought that conditions below the ice could be similar to those in Antarctica’s Lake Vostok – a vast body of water that has remained totally covered by 4km of ice for millions of years, but which still harbours life.

UCL will provide detectors for JUICE’s scientific payload (in the form of the IRF-led Particle Environment Package) and will play scientific roles in the Imperial-designed J-MAG instrument, as well as the JANUS imager. It will also contribute more generally to the design of the craft.

As with Cassini, UCL’s contribution will focus largely on electromagnetic phenomena, including the interaction of Jupiter’s satellites with the Jupiter magnetosphere, and the effect of Jupiter on the moons’ atmospheres. The instrumentation will also play a key role in studying the oceans on Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

UCL is hosting the Alfvén conference this week, in which experts in planetary magnetic fields and plasmas are coming together to discuss the latest news from missions including plans for JUICE.

Exploring the environs of Titan

OliUsher10 July 2014

Last year, after almost a decade of studying Saturn and its moons, the plasma spectrometer onboard the Cassini probe broke down. This was far beyond its planned lifespan of four years – and what’s more, it may yet have second life, with plans to revive it near the end of the mission in 2017.

In addition to its long service at Saturn, the instrument had also survived the long journey through space that had begun in 1997 – a journey in which it was subjected to the harsh environment of interplanetary space, passed Venus twice and made measurements during Earth and Jupiter swingbys.

Artist's impression of Cassini at Saturn. Credit: NASA (public domain)

Artist’s impression of Cassini at Saturn. Credit: NASA (public domain)

Scientists at UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory took a lead role in the hardware development and the science team for the electron spectrometer, and while it is no longer operating, there is still plenty of work to do on the data it gathered. In particular, the detector’s studies of Saturn’s moon Titan are expected to yield further secrets.

Cassini – a NASA-led Saturn orbiter – released an ESA-built lander called Huygens to land on Titan when it arrived in the Saturn system in 2005. Huygens took the first ever picture on the surface of a body in the outer Solar System. (It is also the only landing to-date on another planet’s Moon.)

Huygens photo of Titan's surface. Credit:      NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona (public domain)

Huygens photo of Titan’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona (public domain)

But what the Cassini probe is able to do from space, which Huygens could not on the ground, is analyse the complex interaction of Titan’s thick atmosphere with the magnetic field of Saturn. Titan is surprisingly Earth-like, despite being quite small. It has a thick atmosphere and an icy, rocky surface, as well as mountains, seas, lakes and rivers (though these are made of liquid hydrocarbons such as methane, rather than water).

Hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, observed by the radar onboard Cassini. Radars do not produce colour images - in this picture, the smooth areas (lakes and rivers) have been coloured blue to improve contrast. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS (public domain)

Hydrocarbon lakes on Titan, observed by the radar onboard Cassini. Radars do not produce colour images – in this picture, the smooth areas (lakes and rivers) have been coloured blue to improve contrast. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS (public domain)

But while Earth’s atmosphere is cocooned well inside our planet’s magnetic field, protecting it from the Solar wind and from interactions with other Solar System bodies, Titan’s is not. Titan spends most of its orbit within Saturn’s hot magnetosphere, meaning its atmosphere interacts with the giant planet it orbits, including the plasma and magnetic field that surrounds it. This makes Titan’s atmosphere very ‘leaky‘ compared to Earth’s.

A recent fly-by of Titan by Cassini while the moon was orbiting outside Saturn’s magnetosphere reveal another intriguing phenomenon: the Solar wind blowing part of Titan’s atmosphere away, leaving a comet-like plume of gas coming from it.

UCL is hosting the Alfvén conference this week, in which experts in planetary magnetic fields and plasmas are coming together to discuss the latest results from missions including Cassini.