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Northwestern study of analog crews in isolation reveals weak spots for Mission to Mars

Evanston IL (SPX)

Feb 19, 2019

Northwestern University researchers are developing a predictive model to help NASA anticipate conflicts and communication breakdowns among crew members and head off problems that could make or break the Mission to Mars.

NASA has formalized plans to send a crewed spacecraft to Mars, a journey that could involve 250 million miles of travel. Among the worldwide teams of researchers toiling over the journey’s inherent physiological, engineering and social obstacles, Northwestern professors Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch, and their collaborators, are charting a new course with a series of projects focused on the insights from the science of teams and networks.

In a multiphase study conducted in two analog environments – HERA in the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the SIRIUS mission in the NEK analog located in the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia – scientists are studying the behavior of analog astronaut crews on mock missions, complete with isolation, sleep deprivation, specially designed tasks and mission control, which mimics real space travel with delayed communication.

The goal is threefold: to establish the effects of isolation and confinement on team functioning, to identify methods to improve team performance, and to develop a predictive model that NASA could use to assemble the ideal team and identify potential issues with already composed teams before and during the mission.

Contractor and DeChurch discussed their latest findings and next steps at a 10 a.m. EST, Feb. 17 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

“It’s like astronaut Scott Kelly says, ‘Teamwork makes the dream work,'” said Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering, School of Communication and the Kellogg School of Management.

Even for an astronaut, the psychological demands of this Mars journey will be exceptional. The spacecraft will be small, roughly the size of a studio apartment, and the round-trip journey will take almost three years.

“Astronauts are super humans. They are people who are incredibly physically fit and extremely smart,” said DeChurch, a professor of communication and psychology at Northwestern. “We’re taking an already state-of-the-art crew selection system and making it even better by finding the values, traits and other characteristics that will allow NASA to compose crews that will get along.”

Communication delays with worldwide mission controls will exceed the 20-minute mark. In that sense, the Mars mission will be like no mission that has come before.

“A lot of the past efforts to try to create models to simulate the future have run into criticism because people have said it’s not really grounded in good data,” Contractor said. “What we have here is unprecedented good data. We aren’t talking about intuition and expert views, this model is based on real data.”

The Northwestern researchers have been culling data from the Human Experimentation Research Analog (HERA) at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. HERA’s capsule simulator houses astronauts for up to 45 days; a mock mission control outside the capsule augments the realism with sound effects, vibrations and communication delays.

Those on the inside undergo sleep deprivation and try to perform tasks. The researchers collect moment-to-moment metrics about individual performance, moods, psychosocial adaptation and more.

The teams DeChurch and Contractor have studied experienced diminished abilities to think creatively and to solve problems, according to results from the first eight analog space crews, and are able to successfully complete tasks between 20 and 60 percent of the time.

“Creative thinking and problem solving are the very things that are really going to matter on a Mars mission,” DeChurch said. “We need the crew to be getting the right answer 100 percent of the time.”

The next phase of the research, just begun on Friday, Feb. 15, involves using the model to predict breakdowns and problems a new HERA crew will experience and making changes to “who works with whom, on what, when,” Contractor said. “We are going to run our model to see how we can nudge the team into a more positive path and make them more successful.”

The researchers are also expanding the experiment to the SIRIUS analog in Moscow, where, beginning on March 15, four Russians and two Americans, will undertake a 120-day fictional mission around the moon, and including a moon landing operation.

Contractor and DeChurch are in the midst of four NASA-funded projects exploring team dynamics and compatibility in preparation for the Mars journey.

Their NASA studies address different aspects of the crew’s challenges:

+ The likelihood that the crew and its support teams on Earth will have good chemistry and coping mechanisms; how to predict possible crew-compatibility outcomes

+ Work design; structuring the workflow so that astronauts can better manage transitions from solo to team tasks

+ Identifying and building shared mental models, whereby a team of varied specialists can find enough common ground to effectively accomplish their tasks but not so much that they engage in “group think” or form alliances.

Contractor, a leading expert in network analysis and computational social science, leads Northwestern’s Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) research group. DeChurch, a leading expert in teamwork and leadership who leads Northwestern’s Advancing Teams, Leaders, and Systems (ATLAS) lab, focuses on team performance; psychology, social interactions, and how multiteam systems best function.

“Our complementary strengths have been a winning combination for tackling the big interdisciplinary questions,” said DeChurch.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Northwestern_study_of_analog_crews_in_isolation_reveals_weak_spots_for_Mission_to_Mars_999.html.

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NASA announces demise of Opportunity rover

By Ivan Couronne

Washington (AFP)

Feb 14, 2019

During 14 years of intrepid exploration across Mars, it advanced human knowledge by confirming that water once flowed on the red planet — but NASA’s Opportunity rover has analyzed its last soil sample.

The robot has been missing since the US space agency lost contact during a dust storm in June last year and was declared officially dead Wednesday, ending one of the most fruitful missions in the history of space exploration.

Unable to recharge its batteries, Opportunity left hundreds of messages from Earth unanswered over the months, and NASA said it made its last attempt at contact Tuesday evening.

“I declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate told a news conference at mission headquarters in Pasadena, California.

The community of researchers and engineers involved in the program were in mourning over the passing of the rover, known affectionately as Oppy.

“It is a hard day,” said John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover project.

“Even though it is a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s very hard and it’s very poignant.”

“Don’t be sad it’s over, be proud it taught us so much,” former president Barack Obama tweeted later on Thursday.

“Congrats to all the men and women of @NASA on a @MarsRovers mission that beat all expectations, inspired a new generation of Americans, and demands we keep investing in science that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge.”

The nostalgia extended across the generations of scientists who have handled the plucky little adventurer.

“Godspeed, Opportunity,” tweeted Keri Bean, who had the “privilege” of sending the final message to the robot.

“Hail to the Queen of Mars,” added Mike Seibert, Opportunity’s former flight director and rover driver in another tweet, while Frank Hartman, who piloted Oppy, told AFP he felt “greatly honored to have been a small part of it.”

“Engulfed by a giant planet-encircling dust storm: Is there a more fitting end for a mission as perfect and courageous from start to finish as Opportunity?” he said.

The program has had an extraordinary record of success: 28.1 miles (45.2 kilometers) traversed, more than the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 moon rover during the 1970s and more than the rover that US astronauts took to the moon on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Opportunity sent back 217,594 images from Mars, all of which were made available on the internet.

– Human-like perspective –

“For the public, the big change was that Mars became a dynamic place, and it was a place that you could explore every day,” Emily Lakdawalla, an expert on space exploration and senior editor at The Planetary Society.

“The fact that this rover was so mobile, it seemed like an animate creature,” she said. “Plus it has this perspective on the Martian surface that’s very human-like.”

“It really felt like an avatar for humanity traveling across the surface,” she added.

Opportunity landed on an immense plain and spent half its life there, traversing flat expanses and once getting stuck in a sand dune for several weeks. It was there, using geological instruments, that it confirmed that liquid water was once present on Mars.

During the second part of its life on Mars, Opportunity climbed to the edge of the crater Endeavor, taking spectacular panoramic images — and discovering veins of gypsum, additional proof that water once flowed among the Martian rocks.

Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, landed three weeks ahead of it, and was active until it expired in 2010. The two far exceeded the goals of their creators: In theory, their missions were supposed to last 90 days.

Today, only a single rover is still active on Mars, Curiosity, which arrived in 2012. It is powered not by the sun, but by a small nuclear reactor.

In 2021, the recently named Rosalind Franklin robot, part of the European-Russian ExoMars mission, is slated to land on a different part of the planet, raising the population of active rovers to two.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Mission_complete_NASA_announces_demise_of_Opportunity_rover_999.html.

Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

October 20, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — European and Japanese space agencies said an Ariane 5 rocket successfully lifted a spacecraft carrying two probes into orbit Saturday for a joint mission to Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the unmanned BepiColombo spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana as planned to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury.

They said the spacecraft, named after Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, was in the right orbit and has sent the first signal after the liftoff. ESA says the 1.3 billion-euro ($1.5 billion) mission is one of the most challenging in its history. Mercury’s extreme temperatures, the intense gravity pull of the sun and blistering solar radiation make for hellish conditions.

The BepiColombo spacecraft will have to follow an elliptical path that involves a fly-by of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury itself so it can slow down before arriving at its destination in December 2025.

When it arrives, BepiColombo will release two probes — Bepi and Mio — that will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury. The probes are designed to cope with temperatures varying from 430 degrees Celsius (806 F) on the side facing the sun, and -180 degrees Celsius (-292 F) in Mercury’s shadow.

The ESA-developed Bepi will operate in Mercury’s inner orbit, and JAXA’s Mio will be in the outer orbit to gather data that would reveal the internal structure of the planet, its surface and geological evolution.

Scientists hope to build on the insights gained by NASA’s Messenger probe, which ended its mission in 2015 after a four-year orbit of Mercury. The only other spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA’s Mariner 10 that flew past the planet in the mid-1970s.

Mercury, which is only slightly larger than Earth’s moon, has a massive iron core about which little is known. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission.

“Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science,” said Jan Wörner, ESA Director General, in a statement. JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa, who earlier managed the project, said, “We have high expectations that the ensuing detailed observations of Mercury will help us better understand the environment of the planet, and ultimately, the origin of the Solar System including that of Earth.”

It is the second recent cooperation between the Europeans and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. JAXA’s Hayabusa2 probe dropped a German-French rover on the asteroid Ryugu earlier this month.

Jordans reported from Berlin.

Elon Musk plans to launch spacecraft for Mars in 2019

by Ray Downs

Washington (UPI)

Mar 11, 2018

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Sunday that he is on track to launch a spacecraft for Mars by next year.

“We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now,” Musk said during a question and answer session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. “And we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, probably some time in the first half of next year.”

Musk said that his ship — the Big Falcon Rocket — will be capable of greatly reducing the average cost of a spaceflight as far as Mars in large part because it will be reusable.

“This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry,” Musk said. “It is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”

After a series of short flights, Musk said he hopes to have a cargo mission land on Mars by 2022.

Musk said the goal is to begin a human colony on Mars and the first spaceflights there will begin to plant those seeds.

“Once you can get there, the opportunity is immense,” Musk said. “We’re going to do our best to get there and then make sure there’s an environment in which entrepreneurs can flourish.”

In September, Musk said the Big Falcon Rocket could also one day be used for travel to different points on earth, with the possibility of flights from New York City to Shanghai taking less then 40 minutes.

Space bases could preserve civilization in World War III: Elon Musk

Washington (AFP) March 12, 2018 – Bases on the moon and Mars could help preserve human civilization and hasten its regeneration on earth in the event of a third world war, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, said on Sunday.

Musk, the founder of rocket and spacecraft company SpaceX, said the company’s interplanetary ship could begin test flights as soon as next year.

There is “some probability” that there will be another Dark Ages, “particularly if there is a third world war,” Musk said at the SXSW conference.

“We want to make sure that there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring civilization back, and perhaps shorten the length of the Dark Ages,” he said.

“I think a moon base and a Mars base that could perhaps help regenerate life back here on earth would be really important.”

Musk said he thinks that SpaceX’s interplanetary ship will “be able to do short flights, short sort of up and down flights, probably sometime in the first half of next year.”

SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, last month, sending Musk’s red Tesla Roadster car toward an orbit near Mars.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Elon_Musk_plans_to_launch_spacecraft_for_Mars_in_2019_999.html.

Mars Express views moons set against Saturn’s rings

Paris (ESA)

Mar 02, 2018

New images and video from ESA’s Mars Express show Phobos and Deimos drifting in front of Saturn and background stars, revealing more about the positioning and surfaces of the Red Planet’s mysterious moons.

Mars’ two small moons are intriguing objects. While we know something of their size, appearance and position thanks to spacecraft such as ESA’s Mars Express, much remains unknown. How and where did they form? What are they made of? What exactly is on their surfaces – and could we send a lander to find out?

Mars Express has been studying Mars and its moons for many years. The satellite recently observed both Phobos, Mars’ innermost and largest moon at up to 26 km in diameter, and Deimos, Phobos’ smaller sibling at 6.2 km in diameter, to produce this new video and series of images.

The video combines 30 images as individual frames and shows Phobos passing through the frame with the gas giant planet Saturn, which sits roughly a billion kilometers away, visible as a small ringed dot in the background.

Precise positioning

Mars Express has been working for more than 14 years at the Red Planet. While several other spacecraft are currently at Mars, including ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars Express’ near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages for certain observations.

In particular, its path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, and allows it to periodically observe the moon close up from within 150 km – in the summer of 2017, it came as close as 115 km.

The images of Phobos and Saturn comprising the video were taken on 26 November 2016 by the High Resolution Stereo Camera. Mars Express was travelling at about 3 km/s when it obtained these views, highlighting the importance of knowing Phobos’ exact position: the spacecraft had just seconds to image the rocky body as it passed by.

Scientists repeatedly refine our knowledge of the moons’ positioning in the sky and ensure it is up-to-date by observing each moon against background reference stars and other Solar System bodies. These calculated positions are incredibly precise, and can be accurate to just a couple of kilometers.

Studying the surface

These images are also key to understanding the surface and structure of the moons. Alongside the view of Phobos set against Saturn, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos against a reference star on 8 January 2018 (star circled in red), close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on 12 September 2017, and images of Deimos with Saturn on 15 January 2018.

The frames of Phobos’ surface were taken during close flybys, and show the bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail. Phobos has one of the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System: Stickney crater’s 9 km diameter is around a third of the moon’s diameter. It is visible as the largest crater in these frames.

The same side of the moon always faces the planet, which means multiple flybys are needed to build up a full map of its surface.

Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground of one of the new Mars Express images, with the delicate rings of Saturn just about visible encircling the small dot in the background.

Deimos is significantly further away from Mars than its bigger sibling: while Phobos sits at just 6000 km from the surface, Deimos orbits at nearly 23 500 km. For comparison, our own satellite is around 16 times further from Earth than Deimos is from Mars.

Future missions to Mars

There is much we still wish to know about the Mars system. The moons remain particularly mysterious, with open questions about their origins, formation and composition. As a result, combined with their proximity to the Red Planet, the little moons have generated a lot of interest as a target for future missions.

Phobos in particular has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission. Owing to its nearness to Mars and one side always facing its parent, the moon could also be a possible location for a more permanent observation post. This would enable long-term monitoring and study of the martian surface and atmosphere, and communications relay for other spacecraft.

Understanding more about the positioning, surface, composition and terrain of both Phobos and Deimos from Mars Express observations is important for preparing for future missions.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Mars_Express_views_moons_set_against_Saturns_rings_999.html.

Discovery of boron on Mars adds to evidence for habitability

Los Alamos NM (SPX)

Sep 07, 2017

The discovery of boron on Mars gives scientists more clues about whether life could have ever existed on the planet, according to a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life – finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author on the paper. “Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”

RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a nucleic acid present in all modern life, but scientists have long hypothesized an “RNA World,” where the first proto-life was made of individual RNA strands that both contained genetic information and could copy itself. A key ingredient of RNA is a sugar called ribose. But sugars are notoriously unstable; they decompose quickly in water. The ribose would need another element there to stabilize it.

That’s where boron comes in. When boron is dissolved in water – becoming borate – it will react with the ribose and stabilize it for long enough to make RNA.

“We detected borates in a crater on Mars that’s 3.8 billion years old, younger than the likely formation of life on Earth,” said Gasda. “Essentially, this tells us that the conditions from which life could have potentially grown may have existed on ancient Mars, independent from Earth.”

The boron found on Mars was discovered in calcium sulfate mineral veins, meaning the boron was present in Mars groundwater, and provides another indication that some of the groundwater in Gale Cater was habitable, ranging between 0-60 degrees Celsius (32-140 degrees Fahrenheit) and with neutral-to-alkaline pH.

The boron was identified by the rover’s laser-shooting ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera) instrument, which was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in conjunction with the French space agency. Los Alamos’ work on discovery-driven instruments like ChemCam stems from the Laboratory’s experience building and operating more than 500 spacecraft instruments for national defense.

The discovery of boron is only one of several recent findings related to the composition of Martian rocks. Curiosity is climbing a layered Martian mountain and finding chemical evidence of how ancient lakes and wet underground environments changed, billions of years ago, in ways that affected their potential favorability for microbial life.

As the rover has progressed uphill, compositions trend toward more clay and more boron. These and other chemical variations can tell us about conditions under which sediments were initially deposited and about how later groundwater moving through the accumulated layers altered and transported dissolved elements, including boron.

Whether Martian life has ever existed is still unknown. No compelling evidence for it has been found. When Curiosity landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in 2012 the mission’s main goal was to determine whether the area ever offered a habitable environment, which has since been confirmed.

The Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with an instrument called “SuperCam,” developed by Los Alamos and an instrument called SHERLOC, which was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with significant participation by Los Alamos. Both of these will search for signs of past life on the planet.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Discovery_of_boron_on_Mars_adds_to_evidence_for_habitability_999.html.

Steampunk Rover Could Explore Hellish Venus

By Mike Wall, Space.com

September 6, 2017

Researchers are studying the possibility of building a steampunk Venus rover, which would forsake electronics in favor of analog equipment, such as levers and gears, to the extent possible.

“Venus is too inhospitable for the kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover,” project leader Jonathan Sauder, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.

“Inhospitable” may be a bit of an understatement. Thanks to Venus’ thick atmosphere, pressures on the planet’s surface are high enough to crush the hull of a nuclear submarine, NASA officials said. That same atmosphere has also spawned a runaway greenhouse effect: Venus’ average surface temperature is a whopping 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to melt lead (not to mention standard electronics).

No spacecraft has ever survived these conditions for more than 127 minutes, and none has even tried for more than three decades; the last probes to reach the Venusian surface were the Soviet Union’s twin Vega 1 and Vega 2 landers, which launched in 1984.

So Sauder and his team are thinking creatively, drawing inspiration from mechanical computers such as Charles Babbage’s famous 19th-century Difference Engine and the intricate Antikythera mechanism, which the ancient Greeks used to predict eclipses and perform a variety of other celestial calculations.

They’re developing their concept vehicle, known as the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), using two rounds of funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. NIAC grants are intended to help nurture potentially revolutionary space science and exploration ideas.

“In Phase 1, purely mechanical rover technologies were compared to a high-temperature electronics rover and hybrid rover technologies,” Sauder and his colleagues wrote in a description of the project. “A purely mechanical rover, while feasible, was found to not be practical, and a high-temperature electronics rover is not possible with the current technology, but a hybrid rover is extremely compelling.”

This hybrid rover, as currently envisioned, would trundle across Venus not on wheels but on treads, like a tank. Most of its power would be generated by an onboard wind turbine, though roof-mounted solar panels would help as well.

The team’s current plans also call for AREE to feature a radar target with a rotating shutter, which would allow the rover to selectively bounce back radar signals from an overhead orbiter. As such, AREE could relay data in an old-fashioned, Morse-code sort of way.

“When you think of something as extreme as Venus, you want to think really out there,” JPL engineer Evan Hilgemann, who’s working on AREE high-temperature designs, said in the same statement. “It’s an environment we don’t know much about beyond what we’ve seen in Soviet-era images.”

Source: SPACE.com.

Link: https://www.space.com/37994-nasa-steampunk-venus-rover-concept.html.

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