In your home on Earth, if something smells bad all you have to do is open the windows to let in some fresh air. But on astronauts’ homes in space – whether it’s the ISS, on board a Soyuz TMA, or, one day, inside the Orion capsule – that luxury isn’t an option. All the air available for breathing must be included in the craft and constantly scrubbed for contaminants and recycled. And if there’s something on board that happens to have an obnoxious odor you’re stuck with it for the duration of the mission… which could have negative side effects on the performance of crew members, if it’s bad enough.
This is why NASA needs George Aldrich. A Chemical Specialist at the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, George works in the Molecular Desorption and Analysis Laboratory and uses his uncanny sense of smell to help determine if objects and materials are safe to be sent along on space missions, both in terms of toxicity and stinkiness.
NASA may have its sights set on Mars, but before it can send astronauts to the Red Planet it needs to hone its skills with long-distance, long-duration human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit. Enter the “missing link” in exploration evolution: the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM, NASA’s plan for developing the technology and experience for Mars while learning more about the composition of near-Earth asteroids – and potentially also how best to safely alter their courses.
(You know, in case we ever have to one day and Bruce, Ben, and Owen aren’t available.)
This week NASA announced its choice to go with the second of its two options for the mission: the retrieval of a boulder from the surface of an asteroid by a robotic craft, which will then tow the sample back to the Moon where it will be put into orbit and researched by astronauts.*
“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”
It happens every time: an asteroid is slated to make a perfectly safe pass by Earth on its route around the Sun, like everyone else, but the tabloid “news” sites take the opportunity to start screaming bloody horror about the upcoming “near miss” and “terrified” NASA scientists etc. etc. It’s awfully tiring and even more predictable than the asteroids’ orbits themselves. I’d usually ignore such things except that they have the unfortunate side effect of actually 1. garnering a lot of attention, at least for a short period of time; and 2. scaring the bejeebers out of people who may not follow real space science news as much as I do. (Which is a lot of people.) So in an attempt to sort out any confusion I’ll say for the record:
There is no need to worry about asteroid 2014 YB35. It will safely pass by Earth on March 27, 2015 at about 4.5 million kilometers, or 2.7 million miles… 11.7 times farther than the Moon.
(And if that sounds like a long way away, that’s because it is.)
This July the New Horizons spacecraft will perform its long-awaited flyby through the Pluto system, capturing unprecedented data and images of the distant icy planet and its companion satellites Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. The first two worlds, in particular, will have their surfaces seen in high-resolution, allowing scientists to observe and map their features for the very first time. But as landforms come into view – craters, mountains, scarps, plains, and who knows what else – what will they be named?
This is where YOU come in.
Cold as hell and no place to raise your kids, the surface of Mars today is a quite inhospitable place for any forms of life we know of. But that wasn’t always the case – billions of years ago Mars may have been a lot more like Earth, with a magnetic field, a much denser atmosphere, lakes and even an ocean on its surface where life could have not just developed but thrived. And in Curiosity’s hunt for any remaining evidence of that ancient utopia, the rover has identified a key ingredient: nitrates contained within the surface rocks of Gale Crater.
Although it’s not thought that the nitrates were created by organisms currently living on Mars it’s yet another indication that the environment of Gale Crater was once a place where life could have existed, joining the rover’s previous discoveries of traces of water and sediment deposited by ancient rivers.
“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the research team.
The first attempt by ESA and Rosetta to hear back from Philae has turned up only radio silence – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the lander is on permanent shutdown. It may just be that it’s still too cold and dark where Philae is to have sufficiently warmed up its components for reactivation.
“It was a very early attempt; we will repeat this process until we receive a response from Philae,” said DLR (Germany’s Aerospace agency) Project Manager Stephan Ulamec. “We have to be patient.”
After landing in an as yet unconfirmed location on comet 67P on November 12, 2014, Philae performed all of its primary science tasks before running out of battery power and entering a hibernation “safe” mode. Its reawakening is anticipated by mission engineers as the comet gets closer to the Sun over the next several months.