Red Planet versus Dead Planet: Scientists Debate Next Destination for Astronauts in Space

Mar 30, 2017

By Leonard David

THE WOODLANDS, Texas—Should the U.S. send humans back to the moon in a 21st-century reboot of the cold war–era Apollo program…or should the nation go full-throttle and for the gusto, sending crews to all the way to Mars, where none have gone before? U.S. scientists and policy makers have grappled ad nauseam with America’s next great otherworldly destination for decades, without making much meaningful progress. Now that it is approaching a half-century since an American—or anyone at all, for that matter—last left low Earth orbit, the debate seems lost in space.

Soon that shall change, many advocates of human spaceflight believe, through a hybrid of new initiatives by Pres. Donald Trump’s administration as well as commercial efforts led by private industry. The Trump White House’s vision for U.S. astronauts remains at present a foggy TBD, but there are plans afoot to relaunch a National Space Council. Helmed by Vice Pres. Mike Pence, the council would set a new space agenda not only for NASA but also for U.S. rocket companies, big and small, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.

In the meantime, speculation about the U.S.’s future in space has reached its highest point in recent memory, as made clear here last week by the proceedings of the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC). At the meeting, scientists unleashed the latest findings regarding Earth’s moon, Mars, asteroids, comets and myriad other cosmic objects of interest, often with a hopeful eye toward rekindling human voyages to other worlds. Although robotic probes are the persistent currency of discovery in today’s planetary science, many researchers increasingly see astronauts as crucial agents of exploration in the not-too-distant future.

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2 comments on “Red Planet versus Dead Planet: Scientists Debate Next Destination for Astronauts in Space

  • @OP – Soon that shall change, many advocates of human spaceflight believe, through a hybrid of new initiatives by Pres. Donald Trump’s administration as well as commercial efforts led by private industry. The Trump White House’s vision for U.S. astronauts remains at present a foggy TBD, but there are plans afoot to relaunch a National Space Council. Helmed by Vice Pres. Mike Pence, the council would set a new space agenda not only for NASA but also for U.S. rocket companies, big and small, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.

    Oh dear!
    With “visionaries” like Trump and Pence, there’s not much chance of useful science being done, – but it will probably make “good” (Buck-Rodgers style) ‘reality’ TV” for cheering know-nothing audiences!! 🙂



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  • There is a whole lot more work to be done by robot probes, before any human expeditions to the surface of Mars are likely to be scientifically useful!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39459561

    It is clear now that a big fraction of the atmosphere of Mars was stripped away to space early in its history.

    A new analysis, combining measurements by the Maven satellite in orbit around the Red Planet and the Curiosity rover on its surface, indicate there was probably once a shroud of gases to rival even what we see on Earth today.

    The composition would have been very different, however.

    The early Martian air, most likely, had a significant volume of carbon dioxide.

    That would have been important for the climate, as the greenhouse gas might have been able to warm conditions sufficiently to support nascent lifeforms.

    “We’re in the process of tallying up what the total amount removed was, but I’m going to guess right now that the amount of atmosphere that was present was about as thick as the Earth’s atmosphere – about one or two bars of gas,” said Bruce Jakosky from the University of Colorado in Boulder, US.

    “The bulk of that – maybe 80-90% – has been lost to space,” he told the BBC.

    Prof Jakosky is the principal investigator on the US space agency’s (Nasa) Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (Maven) satellite.

    Since arriving at the Red Planet in 2014, Maven has been studying the composition and behaviour of the upper atmosphere.

    And for a new paper just published in Science magazine, the satellite has looked in detail at the properties of the noble gas argon.

    Atoms of this gas exist only in small numbers – just a few parts per million.

    But argon is very instructive. It is inert: it will not react with other components of the atmosphere or indeed surface materials such as rocks.

    This means the only way it can be lost from Mars’ air is by being dragged away into space by the abrasive action of the solar wind – the billowing stream of charged particles constantly flowing from the Sun.

    Just how much argon has been removed over the course of 4.5 billion years of Mars history is divined from the ratio of heavy to light versions, or isotopes, of the atom. The light version (argon-36) escapes more easily than the heavy version (argon-38), which leaves the gas remaining behind enriched in the more massive isotope.



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