Inspiration Mars Foundation
Artist's impression of the hypothetical Inspiration Mars Foundation spacecraft.
Since NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity landed on the red planet, each sol (a Martian "day") of the mission sees a flood of new photographs from Aeolis Palus -- the plain inside Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5. In September 2012, mission controllers sent the command for Curiosity to flip open the dust cap in front of the robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Until that point, the semi-transparent dust cap only allowed MAHLI to make out fuzzy shapes -- although it did a great job imaging Curiosity's "head" and it is also famous for capturing Curiosity's first color photograph. But since the true clarity of MAHLI has been unleashed, we've been treated to some of the most high-resolution views of the rover, Martian landscape and, most importantly, we've seen exactly what MAHLI was designed to do: Look closely at Mars rocks and dirt, assembling geological evidence of potential past habitability of Mars.
The Business End
Curiosity is armed with 17 cameras and MAHLI is designed to capture close-up photos of geological samples and formations as the rover explores. MAHLI was designed and built by Malin Space Science Systems and is analogous to a geologist's hand lens -- only a lot more sophisticated. Its high-resolution system can focus and magnify objects as small as 12.5 micrometers (that's smaller than the width of a human hair!). This photograph captured by the rover's Mastcam shows the MAHLI lens (with dust cap in place) in the center of the end of Curiosity's instrument-laden robotic arm.
To aid its studies, MAHLI is equipped with four LEDs to light up the imager's samples.
The first photograph to be returned from MAHLI without the dust cover in place was received on Sol 33 (Sept. 8) of Curiosity's mission. Shown here is a view of the ground immediately in front of the rover. Although this photo was a test, mission scientists were able to do a very preliminary study of the large "pebble" at the bottom of the picture: "Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image. The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it," they wrote.
How Did Lincoln Help MAHLI?
On Sol 34 (Sept. 9), MAHLI was aimed at Curiosity's calibration target. This target is intended to color balance the instrument and provide a "standard" for mission scientists to refer to. The 1909 Lincoln penny was provided by MAHLI's principal investigatory Ken Edgett. Using a penny as a calibration target is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or some other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, says the MSL mission site.
Although MAHLI will be used to examine microscopic scales, it is showing its prowess at generating some spectacular high-definition views of the rover. Shown here is a mosaic of Curiosity's three left-side dusty wheels.
Hazard Avoidance Cameras
Hazard Avoidance Cameras, or Hazcams, have become "standard issue" for the last three rovers to land on Mars. Mounted on the front and back of rovers Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, these small cameras provide invaluable information about the terrain and potential hazards surrounding the rovers. These cameras are not scientific cameras -- they are engineering cameras. Shown here, MAHLI has imaged the four front Hazcams on Curiosity. Interestingly, it was these cameras who returned Curiosity's first dusty image after touch down in August.
Using the flexibility of the robotic arm, MAHLI was able to check the underside of Curiosity. As the camera can focus on objects from 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, MAHLI has incredible versatility allowing mission controllers to focus on the very small features of Mars to checking the health of the rover to viewing the impressive vistas beyond.
In October 2012, the Internet was abuzz with speculation about a "mystery object" lying beneath the rover during digging operations at "Rocknest." Sadly, after studying the translucent object, mission scientists deduced that it wasn't anything native to the alien environment, it was actually a piece of plastic that had fallen from Curiosity. Yes, Curiosity is littering the red planet.
The MAHLI camera was very attentive while Curiosity dug trenches in the Mars soil at "Rocknest."
In early 2013, MAHLI snapped another curious photo. This time, after driving to a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife," the camera picked out what appeared to be some kind of organic-looking object embedded in the rock. Nope, it's not a Mars "flower" -- more likely it's a concentration of minerals.
In what has become an iconic photo of Curiosity, MAHLI was commanded to capture dozens of high-resolution pictures of the rover. Like an "arms length" shot you may have in your Facebook profile, Curiosity did the same, composing a mosaic of pics taken with its outstretched robotic arm.
Curiosity Cleans Up!
The Mars rover isn't only a scientific superstar, it also has a talent for cleaning. This circular pattern on a Mars rock was brushed aside by Curiosity's Dust Removal Tool (DRT), helping the rover carry out analysis of the rock surface beneath the layer of dirt.
A private foundation is working to send a pair of non-NASA astronauts, possibly a married couple, on a slingshot journey to Mars, with blastoff slated for January 2018.
The nonprofit Inspiration Mars Foundation is starting work on life-support systems and other technologies that will be needed to keep two people alive and healthy for the 501-day mission. The flight path would put the spacecraft to within 150 miles of the Martian surface before automatically returning it on a direct approach to Earth.
A launch vehicle and spacecraft have not yet been selected, but a preliminary technical analysis considered a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon Heavy booster, which is expected to debut this year, and a modified Dragon capsule, a report obtained by Discovery News shows.
Privately owned SpaceX already flies Dragon cargo ships to the International Space Station and is working under a NASA partnership agreement to upgrade the capsule for human transport. Other firms working on space taxis include Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. NASA hopes at least one system will be available by 2017 to fly crews to the space station.
“We’re in an amazing time in commercial space. We can actually go shopping,” Taber MacCallum, a project organizer and chief executive of Paragon Space Development Corp., told Discovery News.
Inspiration Mars founder Dennis Tito, a multimillionaire who in 2001 became the first privately paying passenger to visit the space station, says he’s willing to pay “whatever it takes” to get the project off the ground. Tito and MacCallum declined to disclose cost estimates for the endeavor, but said they expect it will be largely supported by philanthropic donations.
NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System and a deep-space Orion capsule to fly astronauts to an asteroid in the mid-2020s and to Mars a decade later.
“If those programs were to get canceled in two or three years for lack of enthusiasm for human spaceflight, America would really be in a pickle, space leadership-wise,” MacCallum said.
“We really see this as a steppingstone to those missions,” he added. “If we were flying this mission and we started to have the test flights and launches of SLS and Orion, that would be fabulous.”
MacCallum, 48, a long-time space enthusiast, engineer and entrepreneur, would like to take the trip to Mars along with his wife and business partner, Jane Poynter, 50. The couple, who married in 1994, lived for two years inside the experimental Biosphere 2 enclosed research laboratory.
“We’ll throw our hats into the ring, but there are a lot of skills this crew is going to need. They’re going to have to be mechanically great, be articulate. These are going to be very special people,” he said.
Tito, who is 72, said he is not planning to fly.
The purpose of the voyage is to “show the world that the human race has the vision and the means to become a multi-planet species,” Tito wrote in a paper to be presented Sunday at the IEEE Aerospace Conference in Montana.
“The mission will address one of the most fundamental technical challenges facing human exploration of space, keeping the humans alive and productive in deep space,” said Tito, who runs a California-based investment management and consulting firm.
The former aerospace engineer was researching lunar flyby flight paths when he came up a paper published in the mid-90s describing the Mars free-return. To make the trip, launch would have to take place around January 2018. The next opportunity isn’t until 2031.
“If we don’t make 2018, we’re going to have some competition in 2031,” Tito told Discovery News. “By that time, there will be many others that will be reaching for this low-hanging fruit -- and it really is low-hanging fruit.”
“I was looking for something to fill in the blanks in our human spaceflight program. Forty years ago, we went to the moon and we haven’t done anything (beyond low-Earth orbit) since.
“I’ve reach this age and I say ‘Look, I’m not happy with this.’ We’ve done some great stuff with robotic exploration of Mars and the rovers, but what have we done in human spaceflight? Nothing much, and nothing at all beyond the moon. This (Mars mission) is really the answer, no question,” Tito said.