Mission to Mars another step closer as research ratchets up

31 Aug 2015

NASA has successfully trialled a failure test for its Orion spacecraft, wherein the back-up parachutes successfully returned a replica of the deep space device to the surface of Earth with no damage.

In what was dubbed a “dramatic” project, the test version of Orion touched down in Arizona after two chutes were failed on purpose, testing the back-up system that may be used, one day, for deep space missions.

Dropped from 6.5 miles in the air, the model – which is similar to Orion itself – replicated what it would be like to land on our surface, or that of Mars, under extreme duress.

The first of the craft’s 11 parachutes deploy when it’s traveling more than 300mph, with the suite of chutes reducing the speed of the fall to just 20mph.

Mission to Mars

“We test Orion’s parachutes to the extremes to ensure we have a safe system for bringing crews back to Earth on future flights, even if something goes wrong,” said CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system.

“Orion’s parachute performance is difficult to model with computers, so putting them to the test in the air helps us better evaluate and predict how the system works.”

The waiting game

Meanwhile, heading north-west from the destination of the Orion trial brings us to another leg of the substantial range of projects NASA is currently going through to research how a mission to Mars might turn out in a few decades.

Last Friday, NASA recruits began their year-long stay in a dome in a volcanic region of Hawaii, with their entire existence put through the paces of what a Mars mission may be like.

Curiosity Rover MIssion to Mars

The Curiosity Rover on Mars, via NASA

If they feel the need to get out and about, they need to don a full spacesuit, with the isolation the longest of its type attempted.

The six-strong team will live in close quarters under the dome, without fresh air, fresh food or privacy.

A French astrobiologist, a German physicist and four others — a pilot, an architect, a journalist and a soil scientist — make up the team.

The men and women have their own small rooms, with space for a sleeping cot and desk, with food consumption based on things like powdered cheese and canned tuna, with limited access to the internet.

In considering what she will most miss during her stay in the facility, crew member Dr Sheyna Gifford (“A simulated astronaut”) said in her wonderful blog: “Our loved ones, naturally. Followed by what you would expect: running, swimming, forests.

What music comes from Mars?

“Rain falling on our faces. Sun warming our skin. Wind – the sound and the feeling of it – just about anywhere. My typical answer is that I will miss unanticipated chaos: that thing that happens when you put the people of Earth together at random and stir.

“I’ll miss hearing glass shatter loudly in restaurants, and the sighs of sympathy that follow. I’ll miss street musicians […] There are no street musicians on Mars.”

There are two astronauts up in the ISS at the moment on the first ever year-long space stay, again aiding in researching the potential for deep space projects.

These will help us understand both the physical and social stresses put on these people, as a Mars trip could take anything up to three years to complete.

“I think one of the lessons is that you really can’t prevent interpersonal conflicts. It is going to happen over these long-duration missions, even with the very best people,” said Kim Binsted, a NASA investigator.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic