NASA's Maven Enters Mars Orbit: What's Next? - InformationWeek

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9/26/2014
08:06 AM
David Wagner
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NASA's Maven Enters Mars Orbit: What's Next?

Welcome to the start of a new space race to the Red Planet. Find out what's coming in Mars missions during the next decade, and when humans might set foot on the planet.
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(Source: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

NASA's latest ship to research the Red Planet entered Martian orbit Sept. 21. Maven, short for Martian Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, will study Mars's atmosphere, which is disappearing into space.

The craft hopes to show how and why the Martian atmosphere is leaking into space and to study the solar winds that constantly bombard the planet and, according to one theory, may be responsible for the loss of atmosphere. Solar wind is caused by the sun's release of plasma that contains highly energetic particles. On planets (like Earth) with strong magnetic properties, the solar wind is "deflected." Mars doesn't have such a strong magnetic field.

Researchers are also hoping they can get a sense of what Mars used to be like. Scientists believe that it once had a very thick atmosphere that kept it very warm and possibly able to support life. As the atmosphere thinned, the planet became colder, dryer, and less hospitable to life.

What Mars used to be like fuels a very interesting scientific question -- did Mars once have life? And it could also answer a strange but reality-shifting question -- are we Martians? One theory of how life was seeded on Earth is that Mars once had conditions much more suitable for microbial life than Earth did. It is possible that an asteroid brought some of those Martian microbes to Earth, where they helped change our atmosphere and eventually evolved into the plants and animals (and people) we know. Maven is not designed to answer either of those questions specifically, but the information could add to a growing list of puzzle pieces that are emerging around the question of life on Mars.

Those puzzle pieces are coming from a series of missions that began in the 1990s. The pace of Martian exploration is growing quickly, and it would have grown even faster if not for a series of unfortunate failed missions. These missions are trying to build a case about whether there was once life on another planet.

And they also serve as building blocks toward putting people on Mars. There are many missions planned to arrive at Mars in the next 5-10 years that could culminate in setting foot on an extraterrestrial world for the first time, possibly as early as 2023. From missions to investigate the atmosphere to studies on the soil content all the way to plans to send ships to the surface and come back safely, it is a great time to study Mars. Click the slideshow to see what missions are planned for the near future, and learn how scientsts are working to put a person on Mars during our lifetime.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 12:11:58 PM
Re: science is a way

I don't think it's a waste of money to investigate planets in our galaxy the more we understand about other planets the more we can do to protect our own planet and understand key issues of planetary evolution. As long as the missions have a clear goal and clear results it's beneficial, the missions that sound cool without clear research are the issue.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:42:37 PM
Re: Three points.
@tzubair- Yes, I'm really thrilled for India. Great achievment. Any country not giving them a call right now and saying, "let's work together" is just plain crazy.

As for bringing something back from Mars to Earth, the problem is building something that can leave the MArs gravity after it lands. Right now, we're landing things there by having them literally smack into the ground with air bags to protect them. It is really more like a controlled crash.

We need to be able to create something which can land more like the moon landing with a softer touchdown. And it needs to be heavy enough to carry enough fuel with it to return. Not surprisingly, it takes a lot of fuel to leave Mars. It also takes a lot of fuel to break Mars orbit and come back all the way to Earth in a reasonable amount of time.

This is just a guess, but I'm guessing what we'll have to do is launch a super big rocket from Earth. Then when the rocket gets to MArs, we'll send a small lander down. That lander will get samples and take off and redock with the larger rocket that has the fuel and boosters to put it back on a retun to Earth. That's quite a difficult ask.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:51:05 PM
Re: science is a way
@prospecttoreza- Well, every time we post something on space, someone brings this up--the cost per knowledge learned ratio. I always bring up that we've actually gotten quite a lot of brealthroughs because of space programs. NASA has directly given us advances in safety including anti-icing and safer roads, networking and communications, hazardous chemical detection, and solar power. They've helped us learn about water purification, growing crops in less than ideal places, cleaning up chemical spills, LEDs, and countless other advances.

The commercial value of all of NASA's inventions far exceeds the cost of the programs. And the number of people who have been helped is countless. 

We learn from great engineering feats. And that's what this is. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:53:56 PM
Re: Three points.
@Staphne Parent- It is interesting. They're both very daunting. Going and returning is hard. Going and staying is just as hard. Surviving the radiation, learning to deal with the different gravity, getting enough water for people and for growing food, learning to live on a diet of what can grow there, medical care and dealing with the isolation are just some of the obvious problems. 

I'm not sure which I'd call easier. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:56:20 PM
Re: science is a way
@billbo31- Well, I won't argue over the debt itself. But i will say there are two ways out of an economic problem-- you can shrink your spending and sit in a shell for decades or you can grow your wealth. The space program has a long trakc record of creating products with commerical viability, and the NASA budget is a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Investing in the country's future needs to be a part of any budget.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 1:01:16 PM
Re: Mangalyaan
@ArijitR071- I'm sorry you don't like the characterizaiton. I meant no offense. You have every right to brag. You SHOULD brag. You got a craft to Mars. You did it with what appeared to be ease and skill. You did it cheaply and it will be the first of many great successes. 

If you didn't brag about that, I don't know what you get to brag about.

More importantly, I quoted the source of the bragging in the article. And frankly, it is a great brag. Hollywood can't make pretend space for less than India brought us real space. In every way it was meant as a compliment.

But again, I apologize for offending. That was not the intention at all.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 2:07:28 PM
Mars mission blowback: It takes forever to get fast food
Count me as fainthearted, but I am not seeking a seat on the first human-occupied spaceship heading for Mars. I like to travel but a destination 450 million miles away would use up all my combined frequent flyer miles. Just getting a pizza delivered takes ForEver, and even Amazon Prime doesn't make deliveries there, and I thought they had distribution centers everywhere.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 2:21:24 PM
Re: science is a way
@Some guy- I see your joke there. But there's a serious point. The best part about the voyages of discovery are that they yielded unexpected benefits (though we'd be remiss without mentioning unexpected negative impacts as well). Improved ships, better navigation, a general boost in technology. Forget the economic benefits and you still see value. Add those economic ones (which admittedly carry cultural baggage) and it is a slam dunk for anyone except who the Europeans dunked on.

Hopefully, Mars will provide a more socially acceptable outcome while still gaining the technological and economic benefits.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 3:32:34 PM
Re: Mars mission blowback: It takes forever to get fast food
Charlie has finally found a weakness in Amazon's distribution system, LOL. Seriously, I hope to experience space travel in my lifetime. I would love to take a trip to fly around the moon instead of to Florida for once in my old age. And I love Florida.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 6:13:25 PM
Re: Mars
@ubuda301- I think you are right. There was a recent report that came out thast said NASA's "flexible approach" is making harder for them to get to Mars. They are not building MArs specific vehicles. They are still talking about how the rocket they are making could take them to the moon, a near-earth asteroid or Mars. 

A Mars-specific lifter would make me happier.
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