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NASA pens new rules to prevent us from contaminating the Moon and Mars

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NASA has a strict set of guidelines for sending missions out into space to prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the planets and moons that we visit. Now, the agency has revised those rules to clear the way for human missions to the Moon, and eventually Mars.

Science fiction has already taught us many lessons about the human exploration of space. Chief among those lessons is how we need to do everything we can to prevent some kind of harmful alien bacteria or organisms from being brought back to Earth.

On the flipside, however, is another crucial issue: to preserve the unique alien environments of our solar system – on the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. To do this, we also need to prevent them from being contaminated by microbes that originate from Earth. That is one of the key points of the Outer Space Treaty – an international agreement for the fair and responsible use of space.

This is where NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection comes in. The sole concern for this part of the agency is the possibility of harmful biological contamination due to space exploration. Their rules and regulations cover both forward contamination (Earth microbes hitching a ride to another celestial body) and back contamination (returning spacecraft, or astronauts, or samples bringing alien microbes back to Earth).

This is an artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By pure biological necessity, we bring microbes with us, no matter what we do or where we go. Apparently, with NASA’s previous rules, this fact would prevent any living astronaut from ever setting foot on Mars. They would also impose restrictions on visiting anywhere on the Moon that could have frozen water ice.

With new missions to the Moon currently in the works, such as NASA’s Artemis program, and with ideas for future crewed missions to Mars, the agency realized they needed to revisit these guidelines.

Now, after going over those rules, they have released two new NASA Interim Directives (NIDs) this week.

These directives take into account what they’ve learned from nearly 20 years of continuous human habitation of the International Space Station, as well as decades of robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars, and even from their plans for the new Lunar Gateway station.

The first NID changes how we treat the surface of the Moon. Before this, visiting anywhere on the lunar surface required special consideration, because we now know that the Moon has pockets of water ice. The new NID states that these restrictions now only count for specific areas of the surface where these pockets could exist; notably the so-called Permanently Shadows Regions at the bottom of craters near the lunar poles, and the Apollo landing sites which already contain biological materials left behind by the astronauts. The rest of the lunar surface would be free from planetary protection restrictions.

Moon-base-1This artist’s rendition shows a base on the Moon. Credit: ESA

“We are enabling our important goal of sustainable exploration of the Moon while simultaneously safeguarding future science in the permanently shadowed regions,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a NASA press release. “These sites have immense scientific value in shaping our understanding of the history of our planet, the Moon and the solar system.”

The other NID updates the planetary protections in place for Mars. Before now, Mars had one of the most stringent sets of restrictions in place. Anything that would touch down on the surface needed to be almost completely sterilized before it would be allowed to launch. For landers and rovers with life-detection capabilities, such as the Viking landers or the new Perseverance rover, they would have to be even more thorough.

NASA-Perseverance-RoverThis artist’s rendition shows the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA

Basically, there’s no sense in sending a robot to detect life on another planet if it only ends up detecting life that hitched a ride from Earth. To ensure that the search for extraterrestrial life is as honest and thorough as possible, we cannot bring anything with us.

The problem becomes: we can’t use the same sterilization methods with human astronauts as we do robotic explorers. So, if we are going to plan crewed missions to Mars, these rules have to change.

There’s one limitation to changing the rules, however. Even after over 40 years of exploring the surface of Mars, we still don’t know enough about it to develop a responsible set of restrictions.

“The challenge with Mars is that we simply don’t yet have enough information to know where it is we can go and where we shouldn’t go, and where we can go but we need to be more careful than other places,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said when the new NIDs were announced.

NASA Mars astronauts base roverA simulated base on Mars. Credit: NASA

NASA’s new Perseverance Rover is designed to search for signs that life existed on Mars in its distant past. It may even be able to tell us if there is life on the planet now (although in all likelihood, it would be microbes deep beneath the ground). Perseverance is currently scheduled to launch later this month, with a landing in Mars’ Jezero crater in February of 2021. So, once Perseverance arrives and begins its investigations, the science it collects will go into forming these new rules for human missions to Mars.

Sources: NASA | NASA OSMA

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Teijin High-Performance Fiber Strengthens NASA Mars Rover Landing Parachute – Composites Manufacturing Magazine

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The Mars Perseverance Rover is carrying the heaviest payload yet in its latest mission to seek signs of past life on Mars and to gather rocks and soil to be analyzed upon its return. The landing parachute of the Rover needs to be ready to deal with the extreme conditions on Mars, including temperatures of -63°C, strong dust storms, and atmospheric electricity, along with supporting the inflation load of nearly 70,000 lbs. Parachute developers, Airborne Systems and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, turned to Teijin for the para-aramid needed to do the job.

Teijin’s Technora® is used in the parachute’s suspension cords and riser, offering the strength and durability needed to complete this crucial mission. Technora® boasts a successful history with NASA, also being used in the Mars Curiosity Rover in 2012 allowing a safe landing while withstanding a 9G force.

The parachute for the Perseverance Rover underwent extensive testing to ensure that it is up to the challenging task at hand, including wind tunnel testing at NASA’s Ames Research Center and testing creating Mars-relevant conditions using Black Brant IX sounding rockets launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Research Facility. In the final flight test, the parachute was exposed to a 67,000-pound load — the highest ever survived by a supersonic parachute.

The deployment mortar was also tested extensively. Perseverance’s parachute is packed tightly into an aluminum canister and when deployed an explosive propellant at the base of the mortar will launch the parachute. With the strength of Technora® in the chute, tests at the extreme temperatures that could be experienced were all successful.

Charles Lowry, lead project engineer for Airborne Systems North America, Mars 2020 Parachute System subcontractor, explained, “When designing and building the parachute system for Mars Perseverance Rover, it was very important to utilize the volume that we were allocated to its fullest potential. Thanks to its outstanding strength-to-weight ratio, Technora® allows us to do just that and increases the overall safety of the mission by providing more volume for stronger parachute cloth. There are many unknowns involved in any mission to space, but the tried and proven performance of Technora® is not one of them.”

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Rise and shine, Prince George! – PrinceGeorgeMatters.com

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Friday’s (Aug. 7) forecast will take us on a roller coaster, Environment Canada predicts.

Today is off to a mainly sunny start, but clouds are expected to cover the skies by later this morning, bringing in a 30 per cent chance of showers for the afternoon.

Residents could be in for some more winds gusting southwest at 30 km/h.

Even though the radar shows partly cloudy conditions in the evening, the risk of showers could increase to 60 per cent.

The temperature could get to a high of 17 C; the low will drop to single-digits at 8 C.

Have a sunrise photo of Prince George? Email it to news@princegeorgematters.com, and we’ll feature it in Rise and shine, Prince George! Don’t forget to include the date the picture was taken, the location and your full name.

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Living on Mars – Skywatching – Castanet.net

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At some point in the next decade or two, one of us is going to plant a space-suited foot on the surface of Mars and make that first footprint.

However, that first trip to Mars will not involve a couple of days in a spacecraft, a few hours on the surface grabbing rocks and taking pictures, before heading home.

Using current space technology, getting from Earth to Mars takes a few months. Then, when we get there, we cannot fill some bags with samples, take some pictures and head home, because we will have to wait until Earth and Mars are in the right relative positions for the return trip.

This means we will have to have a Mars base suitable for living in comfortably for a few months, in other words, not far short of a permanently manned base, or even a good practice run for the first colony.

Long ago, Mars was a warm, wet world with a thick atmosphere, just like our Earth. However, because Mars is a smaller world than Earth, its core solidified much faster and the planet’s magnetic field decayed.

This let the solar wind hit the top of the atmosphere to start scouring it away. Mars’ gravity is less than Earth’s allowing the atmosphere to spread further upward, enhancing the rate at which it is still being lost to space.

The result is that today the Red Planet is a cold, almost airless desert. The air pressure is about 0.3% of the air pressure on the Earth’s surface, so that even if it were pure oxygen, each breath would bring in nowhere near enough oxygen for us to survive.

However, there is very little oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere. In addition, even through a warm, summer’s day on the Martian equator might reach 20 degrees Celsius, at night the temperature will drop far below zero, and over most of Mars, it is well below zero all the time.

The result is that for us to survive on Mars, we will have to live in sealed habitats, under bubbles, as depicted in science fiction stories, or, more likely, in underground habitats, where the soil acts as insulation against the temperature variations and protection against radiation.

If we want to work outside we will need spacesuits, or ride in sealed, insulated vehicles. Living like this will be highly inconvenient for those living and working on the planet over years, or lifetimes.

We know that Mars was once very much like the Earth. Could we make it like that again? Could we terraform Mars?

Various methods are talked about, genetically modified plants that like the local environment and spit out oxygen, or numerous industrial scale machine complexes that do the same thing, or maybe a mixture of both.

For example, pump a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to increase the greenhouse effect and the temperature, which will then melt the ice, liberating water, and provide a starting point for getting vegetation going.

This would take in the carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

We would hope that the dense atmosphere would still have enough greenhouse effect to keep things warm.

However, the processes that turned Mars from warm and watery to cold and dry will still be active, and that atmosphere we would be working hard to produce would continue to flowing off into space. Our terraforming process would therefore be an ongoing fight with Mother Nature.

There is another very important issue: If we find there is still some form of life on Mars, even bacteria, making the planet right for us would make it hostile to them. Have we the moral right to do that?

When we find life “out there,” we should respect its right to exist, as we expect would be the case when alien visitors arrive at our world and start complaining about the surface conditions.

  • Jupiter is conspicuous in the south overnight.
  • Saturn is to its left.
  • Mars rises around 11 p.m.
  • Venus, shining even brighter than Jupiter, appears in the early hours.
  • The Moon will reach Last Quarter on the 11th, and be New on the 18th.

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