Super Bowl LI may be over, but the excitement in Houston continues. As was publicized in their pre-Super Bowl #SpaceBowl events, NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located a short distance away from where the New England Patriots made history at NRG Stadium.
From their robotics and humanoids department at their mock-up facility led by Robotics Technical Discipline Lead Scott Askew, to the work being done on the Orion spacecraft led by Environmental Controls and Life Support Systems engineer Anna Kallay, NASA’s goal is clear: get a manned mission to Mars by sometime in the 2030s. The goal appears to be imprinted in every NASA employee’s mind.
“Because we can”, was the answer Flight Director Royce Renfrew gave us when asked about a mission to Mars. “Humankind has always been explorers, and now we here at NASA in conjunction with other space agencies around the world, we are just continuing the work of our ancestors. Just that now what we are exploring isn’t a new continent, it is a new planet. We want to make the unknown known. We really do not have specific goals on what we will find on Mars or a timeline to inhabit it, we simply want to see what is there.”
Astronaut Josh Cassada added, “I am happy to hopefully travel to Mars someday. That is part of why I wanted to be an astronaut at NASA. I feel like I have hit the lottery.” Fellow astronaut Reid Wiseman said, “I have spent 165 days in the International Space Station in Expeditions 40 and 41 gaining experience about how the human body responds to extended stretches of time in space. If I am not lucky enough to travel to Mars, hopefully the knowledge gained by my experiences in space can help whoever is gifted with the responsibility of going to Mars.”
NASA expects the trip to Mars to take between 7 and 9 months aboard the Orion spacecraft. Once the astronauts arrive, they can expect Mars to have similarities to our planet. Both are terrestrial planets with polar ice caps and both have liquid water on their surfaces. But beyond that, the two are quite different.
When it comes to weather and climate, Mars stands apart from Earth in rather dramatic ways. Because of a very thin atmosphere and being found much farther away from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder than it is on Earth. Mars’ average temperature is -51 °F, with an extreme cold reading of -225.4 °F during the winter at the poles, and a balmy high of 95 °F at noon of a summer day at the equator.
Due to the extreme cold at the poles, 25-30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes and becomes dry ice that accumulates on the ice caps. While predominantly frozen water, the Martian North Pole has a layer of dry ice one meter thick in winter, while the South Pole is covered by a permanent layer that is eight meters deep.
Mars has various sized dust storms, ranging from small tornadoes to planet-wide phenomena. If large and strong enough, dust from these storms can be carried high into the atmosphere, causing it to be heated from solar radiation. The warmer dust-filled air rises and the winds get stronger, creating storms that can measure up to thousands of miles in width and last for months at a time. Dust storms this large can block most of the surface of Mars from view elsewhere in the solar system.
The water cycle does not exist at this time on Mars simply because liquid precipitation does not fall. Solar radiation separates any liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Snow that does fall is usually not made of water, but made up of carbon dioxide instead. Most snow that does fall only falls in the vicinity of the poles.
With all of these differences, NASA is working to develop plans for humans to survive for periods of time on the red planet. NASA needs to overcome huge challenges, from the cold temperatures, to the gravity at only 1/3 the strength of what it is on Earth, to the amount of dangerous solar radiation that astronauts would be exposed to on Mars. NASA is modifying spacesuits worn now on International Space Station missions for travel to/from and life on Mars.