Making Oxygen On Mars

Thanks to the renewed interest in space exploration and improvements in rocketry technology developed by companies like SpaceX, we’re inching closer to the point where we might actually land human beings on the surface of Mars. But if we’re going to stay there for any meaningful length of time, we’ve got another challenge that we’ll need to overcome: the human visitors will need to breathe, and that means coming up with a reliable way to create a lot of oxygen in the pointedly carbon dioxide-rich, oxygen-poor Martian environment.

Fortunately for the future explorers of Mars, it looks like the big brains at MIT have come up with a solution. They created a lunchbox-sized device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or “MOXIE,” that was taken to Mars as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and has been on the surface of Mars since the mission landed in February 2021. The underlying concept of MOXIE was to use the carbon dioxide on Mars to create oxygen–which is a lot cheaper than trying to cart oxygen all the way from Earth.

MOXIE sucks in the thin Martian air, filters and pressurizes it, then moves it through the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), an instrument created by OxEon Energy. SOXE splits the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide, isolates the oxygen ions, and combines them into O2, the kind of oxygen humans breathe. Once MOXIE confirms that breathable oxygen has been created, it releases the oxygen and carbon monoxide into the Martian atmosphere.

MOXIE has been powered up on multiple occasions since its arrival, during different Martian seasons and at different times of the day and night, to see whether it works in different conditions and different temperatures. So far, MOXIE has worked under all conditions except dawn and dusk, when the temperature is changing rapidly, but the MIT team believes it has a solution to that problem. The little lunchbox-sized device creates six grams of oxygen per hour, which is about the same amount as a small tree on Earth.

When we get to the point of sending a human mission to Mars, the plan would be to send much bigger versions of MOXIE to the Red Planet ahead of the human mission, power them up, and let it generate a repository of oxygen that would supply the needs of both the human visitors and the rocket that would take the humans back home to Earth. Pretty cool!

The DART Hits The Bullseye (II)

When we last checked in on the NASA Double Asteroid Rendezvous Test (“DART”) probe, the golf cart-sized spacecraft had successfully smashed into Dimorphos, the asteroid circling its big brother Didymos, What wasn’t clear at that point was whether the successful navigation of the DART into Dimorphos had changed the trajectory of the asteroid.

Now we know: the DART not only hit the bullseye, it successfully changed the trajectory of the asteroid and exceeded expectations in doing so. Mission planners hoped that the DART would be able to change the length of time it takes Dimorphos to circle Didymos by 10 minutes, and tests reveal that the collision with the DART changed the orbit by 32 minutes.

The success of the DART is a big moment in developing a planetary defense to a potentially catastrophic asteroid strike. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson observed: “This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us. NASA has proven we are serious as a defender of the planet. This is a watershed moment for planetary defense and all of humanity, demonstrating commitment from NASA’s exceptional team and partners from around the world.”

Thanks to the DART, we are no longer at the mercy of the asteroids and meteors hurtling around our solar system. It’s not only cool, it’s great news for the future of homo sapiens and the other species that share planet Earth with us.

The DART Hits The Bullseye

Our space neighborhood is filled with comets, meteors, asteroids, and other random bits of rocky flotsam and jetsam, any one of which could come plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere and slam into our planet. Over Earth’s long history, many objects have done precisely that. That reality is of no small concern, because if the object is large enough, the impact could have catastrophic, climate-altering consequences. Some scientists theorize, for example, that the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred because of the after-effects of a gigantic and devastating meteor strike that occurred 65 million years ago.

The fact that humans haven’t had to deal with a similar random, collision-caused disaster has been the product of sheer dumb luck–until now. Thanks to the scientists and engineers at NASA, and the successful test on Monday of a suicidal spacecraft called the Double Asteroid Rendezvous Test (“DART”) probe, we’ve finally got a fighting chance.

The DART mission sought to show that the paths of killer asteroids could be deflected away from Earth by being rammed by a spacecraft. The target of the mission, at a distance about 7 million miles from our planet, was an asteroid called Dimorphos, and the goal was to change its orbit around a larger asteroid called Didymos. The DART probe, which was about the size of a golf cart and weighed 1,320 pounds, slammed into Dimorphos at a brisk 14,000 miles per hour rate, with the goal of nudging the asteroid into a speedier orbit around Didymos. Happily, the DART probe hit the Dimorphos bullseye, and as it approached it provided a continuous stream of photos, like the one above, that made the asteroid target look like a rock-studded egg in space. The ultimate crash of the DART into the target also was captured by many Earth-based telescopes. You can see the video of the collision taken from one telescope here.

So, did the ultimate sacrifice willingly undertaken by the DART probe successfully change the orbit of Didymos, as we hhope? We don’t know for sure, yet, but we’ll find out as the asteroid is monitored, and its orbit path is measured, over the next few months. But just being able to navigate a golf cart-sized spacecraft moving at 14,000 miles an hour into a moving asteroid seven million miles away is a pretty good start to developing a planetary defense system that will protect our species, and other inhabitants of planet Earth, from the ravages of killer asteroids.

The Webb Space Telescope Delivers

This week NASA released the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, and it is pretty amazing stuff.

The Webb Telescope is a joint effort by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. From its position far out in space, without having to peer through the Earth’s atmosphere, the Webb Telescope can see infrared light that is not detectable by the human eye and can position its powerful mirror assembly to peer into the deepest recesses of the universe. The images from the first five targets of the Telescope show its versatility; they range from a look at objects that are basically in our stellar neighborhood, only a few thousand light years distant, to a look at SMACS 0723, a cluster of galaxies that are 4.6 billion light years away.

And we can give NASA and its partners credit for a bit of whimsy in their choices, too. They decided one of the targets should be a cluster of galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet–familiar to anyone who has watched It’s A Wonderful Life as the home territory of the angel Clarence–and the image at the bottom of this post shows how the galaxies interact with each other and form new stars in a kind of exquisite gravitational dance.

My favorite images from the first five targets are of the amoeba-like Southern Ring planetary nebula, shown above. The nebula, which is a mere 2,500 light years from Earth, was formed by shells of gas and dust that were ejected by the two dying stars in the center of the array, shown clearly in the photo on the right. Carl Sagan would call the wispy material radiating out into the void “star stuff,” and it’s breathtaking to see.

The Webb Space Telescope has just begun its operations, and its five targets are only a tiny, infinitesimal part of the universe that the telescope will be exploring. Simply put, there’s lots to look at. Prepare to be amazed.

Random Weirdness In The Interstellar Void

The Voyager 1 probe, like the crew of the starship Enterprise, has literally gone where no one–or at least no person or machine associated with the planet Earth–has gone before. It is 14.5 billion miles from its home planet, which it left in 1977. Voyager 1 has traveled beyond the orbit of Pluto and is now out in interstellar space. It is so far away that it takes two full days for a message sent by the spacecraft to reach NASA on Earth.

Apparently, things are weird out in the interstellar void, because Voyager 1 has started behaving . . . strangely.

Voyager 1 still receives and executes commands from Earth, and transmits data back to NASA. That means the probe’s attitude articulation and control system is working and keeping its antenna pointed precisely at Earth. But the problem is that the telemetry data that the spacecraft is beaming back home doesn’t make any sense, or reflect what Voyager 1 is supposed to be actually doing. NASA engineers described the data being received as “random or impossible.”

What’s up with Voyager 1? NASA’s project manager for the probe notes that it is 45 years old, which is far beyond its anticipated lifespan, and the interstellar space that Voyager 1 is now traveling through is high radiation territory, which could be messing with the probe’s systems. So maybe Voyager‘s random or impossible data transmissions are just a glitch from an aging machine. But isn’t it curious that Voyager‘s issues came to light at the same time Congress was holding its first, highly publicized hearings into UFOs in decades?

Perhaps it is just a coincidence. But anyone who remembers the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture will feel a little unsettled when they hear that V’ger is behaving . . . strangely.

First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

NASA Naming Rights

The Washington Post is reporting that NASA is considering the possibility of selling naming rights to its rockets and spacecraft.  As part of that process, NASA also is thinking about loosening restrictions on astronauts in a bid to make them more accessible and known to the public — the kind of figures that might appear on cereal boxes.

7864011894_d67acabbf4It’s all about branding and (of course!) money.  The consideration process is in its very early stages, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announcing at a recent meeting of the NASA advisory council that he will be creating a committee to study the issues.  The Post quotes Bridenstine as saying:  “Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft, or the naming rights to its rockets?  I’m telling you there is interest in that right now. The question is: Is it possible? The answer is: I don’t know, but we want somebody to give us advice on whether it is.”

The kind of commercialization that is being contemplated would be an abrupt turn for NASA, which has studiously avoided any action that might be seen as an endorsement of one product or another.  And, there are challenging questions about how it would all work — and how astronauts being paid to appear on commercials, or wearing uniforms adorned with the patches of sponsor a la NASCAR drivers, would be treated under the governmental ethics laws.

When I first read of what NASA was considering, I rebelled against the very thought of corporate naming rights or corporate logos on spacecraft.  I’ve always like the purity of the white rockets and the simple white spacesuits, adorned only with an American flag and a NASA emblem, and it irks me that buildings built with public funds, like sports stadiums, can be rebranded with the name of a corporation that throws in a few million after the building has been completed.  But there’s no doubt about it — that’s just the world that we live in these days.

I also think that if selling corporate naming rights helps NASA get the money it needs to reenergize the manned space program, so that we can finally move to the Moon and Mars and beyond, I’m willing to endure rockets and spacecraft and astronaut suits that are plastered with stickers.  I also think it would be good for the country to have kids wanting to be astronauts again, as many kids did when I was growing up.  In those days, astronauts were the biggest heroes and celebrities around, and they stood for many of the qualities that we prize — bravery, fortitude, and coolness under stress, among others.  It wouldn’t be a bad thing, either, to put people who have gone to college and received advanced degrees into our firmament of national celebrities and aspirational figures for kids, right up there with hip-hop artists and professional athletes and reality TV stars.

So I say let NASA study the issue, and then move forward in a way that puts space back into the public eye and public mind.  I’ll put up with a few corporate logos along the way.

NASA Turns 60

Today NASA celebrates its 60th birthday.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29, 1958.

63a69251ab87b6532a23a84672c0bb66NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and President Eisenhower viewed the creation of the agency as an historic step, “further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” and allowing it to make “an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.”  You can read the full text of President Eisenhower’s signing statement here.

It is not unusual for federal legislation to be hailed as historic when it is signed, but in the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that prediction was entirely accurate.  I think it is safe to say that NASA has met, and greatly exceeded, the goal of allowing the United States to make “an effective national effort in the field of aeronautics and space exploration.”  The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the space shuttle and international space station, and the many unmanned probes and devices that have allowed us to better understand our solar system all bear the indelible imprint of NASA.  NASA has taken human beings to the Moon and brought them safely back home and has given us up-close looks at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.  NASA’s efforts have also helped to push advancements in science, technology, and other areas that have now become part of our lives and culture.  By any measure, this still-sprightly 60-year-old has been a spectacular success.

Some people reflexively complain about the creation of any federal agency, but NASA is an example of how mobilizing an effort at the national level and entrusting it to knowledgeable people can accomplish great things.  With private space exploration and travel looming on the immediate horizon, and Congress currently considering how to regulate those private efforts going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next 60 years bring for NASA — the little agency that could.

True Space Art

juno-jupiter-15If you like the notion of space travel, and wonder what it would actually be like out there among the planets, take a gander at some of the photographs of Jupiter taken by the NASA Juno probe, and you’ll get the answer — it is stunningly beautiful, like an artist’s canvas hanging out in space.

I can just imagine hanging out on the observation deck of some orbiting space station, sipping Tang and watching that lovely view slowly rotate in the window.

13 Billion Miles Away, And Still Working

Let’s pause for a moment, ignore the ugliness and failure that seems to boil out of the depths of Washington, D.C. on a daily basis, and consider for a moment something that everyone can agree America has done incredibly well:  manned, and unmanned, space exploration.

640px-ec_voyager_saturnConsider Voyager 1.  It was launched 40 years ago, in September 1977, during the early years of the Carter Administration.  With its sister probe Voyager 2, it successfully explored the major planets of our solar system, sending back fabulous pictures of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and collecting data that gave us a better understanding of the two giants in the neighborhood of planets circling the Sun.  I remember belonging to a group called The Planetary Society that supported space exploration and travel and getting some of the fantastic Voyager photos as part of my membership.

But then, Voyager 1 just kept going, and going, and going.  It is now more than 13 billion miles away, and has officially gone past the boundaries of our solar system and is out in the trackless areas of interstellar space.  And it’s still working, too.  Recently NASA sent a message out to Voyager 1, instructing it to fire its trajectory correction maneuver thrusters for the first time since November 8, 1980, a few days after the presidential election in which Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.  The Voyager flight team had to send the instructions in an outdated software language — imagine how much the computer world has changed since 1977! — and it took more than 19 hours for the instruction to reach Voyager 1, but the instruction worked, and the thrusters fired for the first time in 37 years.  The firing of the thrusters allows Voyager to keep its communication antenna pointed in our direction and to keep sending us data as it moves farther out into the void.

It’s pretty amazing stuff, and Americans should be proud of this accomplishment and the planning, and engineering, and foresight that went into the Voyager program.  Of course, we don’t hear about it, in the haze of coverage of presidential tweets and other current news — but it’s a noteworthy accomplishment just the same.  Kudos to NASA!

Checking Out Saturn’s Geometric Weirdness

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken its first plunge past Saturn, and the results are pretty amazing.  On its dive, Cassini goes from 45,000 miles from Saturn’s surface to as close as 4,200 miles from the spinning cloud cover, and it even threaded the needle by passing between the planet and its famous rings — where Cassini was hit by a few stray particles.

The brief video above shows some of the highlights of the first pass, and you can read about the first pass, and get links to the longer videos, here.  Forget the fact that the video footage from Cassini is black and white, and focus on the fact that we are seeing video taken from a planet that is more than 750 million miles away from our little part of the universe.  And take a good look at Saturn’s incredible strangeness — like the defined hexagonal shape that is formed by the cloud formations at Saturn’s north pole and the completely distinct eye that is found at the center of the polar vortex.  What could cause the clouds to form such unusual, seemingly unnatural shapes?

Why, aliens, of course.

The Warm Seas of Enceladus

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond.  To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.

enceladusThe latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn.  Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen.  That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on.  Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?

Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus?  Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.

But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter.  Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there.  It’s something we’re going to have to explore.

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

Into Saturn’s Rings

378033main_pia07873_fullYesterday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft began the final stage of its mission — a series of maneuvers that will give the probe a close-up look at the rings of Saturn.

First launched in 1997, Cassini has been knocking around the outer reaches of the solar system for years, exploring Saturn and its moons, and it has made some interesting discoveries.  Cassini’s foray into Saturn’s rings will be its grand finale.  The spacecraft will dive into the gap between Saturn and its rings, loop around the planet’s poles, and take a closer look at Saturn’s idiosyncratic features and study the gas and dust particles that make up the rings.

The mission then will close with Cassini flying close to the planet’s surface and ultimately plummeting into Saturn’s atmosphere in a final suicidal act.  By then, Cassini will be out of fuel, and scientists don’t want to take the chance that the spacecraft could somehow crash into one of Saturn’s moons — moons that might be habitable — so Cassini will be intentionally steered into the planet to go out in a blaze of glory.

Saturn’s rings were first seen by humans in 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the night sky, and they have been the object of wonder and fascination ever since.  The final stages of Cassini’s two-decade mission will give us more information about the rings than we have ever had before.  And it may answer some nagging questions, like whether the rings are the same age as the planet itself, or were they formed later?  And are there small moons embedded in the rings that might explain their shape and configuration?

NASA’s unmanned space exploration program should be the source of pride to all Americans.  Through countless missions to the inner and out solar system, it has added exposed our planetary neighborhood as a constantly surprising place, with potential sources of water, rich mineral deposits, and places that might conceivably harbor other forms of life.  The Cassini mission is just the latest chapter in an ever-encouraging tale that shows that the human impulse to explore and discover still runs strong.


Aboard the NASA probe Juno, currently speeding toward the planet Jupiter, are three special Lego figures.  Representing Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo Galilei, these Legos are made of aluminum, the same material as the spacecraft itself.  NASA came up with the idea of having the Lego figures ride along to get kids interested in the mission, and the folks at Lego, who are big on education, gladly went along with the idea.

But here’s the key thing:  when the Juno mission is over, the Juno will fly into Jupiter itself, where it and its Lego passengers will be consumed by fire.

lego_color_bricksHah!  Take that, you Lego bastards!  Burn, baby, burn!

Admittedly, these special aluminum Legos have done nothing to me to deserve being consigned to fiery death in the poisonous atmosphere of a faraway gas giant.  But I say that it is a fitting end nevertheless.

I well remember the days when gaily colored Legos coated the carpets of our homes, when you couldn’t walk a few barefoot steps in the darkened early morning hours without painfully encountering the sharp edges of a stray Lego block, and when elaborate Lego kingdoms and cities and spaceports dotted the environs as semi-permanent parts of the Webner family household.

I remember when trying to get the kids to pick up the legions of Legos was a fun daily parenting challenge.  I recall the back-breaking chore of picking up the tiny individual bricks and figures and special accessories, and the distinctive clunking, plastic-on-plastic sound that the Legos made as you tossed them, one by one, back into the plastic tubs that they called home.  At one point, there were likely thousands of Legos under our roof, lurking under our furniture and nestled in the cushions of our sofas and chairs, ready to be sat on by an unwary grandparents.

So yes, I remember the Lego days.  Burn them, I say.  Burn them all!