NASA Unveils How We’ll Get to Mars and Explore Deep Space

No one yet knows what challenges will confront humans living in deep space. 

 

An illustration of the missions leading up to a manned mission to Mars. NASA.

NASA’s been in a slump lately. The International Space Station (ISS) is going to be retired somewhere in 2024-2028. It doesn’t even have a rocket right now to send anything up there, anyway. Not after retiring the space shuttle. The agency has been concentrating for six years on developing its new Space Launch System (SLS), to run missions to other parts of our solar system. You can argue that the SLS will be worth the wait. These will be the most powerful, heavy rockets NASA’s ever built.


Of course, there is a planned mission to land humans on Mars by 2033. But that’s far off, and the details have been fuzzy. That’s why space heads stood up and took notice recently, when NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, gave a presentation. Gerstenmaier revealed to the agency’s advisory council tentative plans for a lunar space station.

As part of its NextSTEP program, NASA has employed six companies to help it design the next generation of stations and vehicles. Boeing just announced its contribution—the Deep Space Gateway lunar station. Now NASA’s vision is starting to become clearer.

At the agency’s presentation, Gerstenmaier outlined plans to build and launch the station, which will allow Deep Space Transport (DST) craft to dock, aiding them in longer range missions, including to Mars. NASA’s press release called the station a place that “offers a true deep space environment,” for humans to get acclimated.

Deep Space Gateway will allow for more lunar missions as well, including robotic ones. The advantage is, if something goes wrong, crew members can try and make it back home again, a luxury not afforded to those headed for Mars.

Boeing Deep Space Gateway. Boeing.

Though there aren’t any hard dates yet, NASA plans to stagger missions, sending off one each year. It wants to work out how to coordinate the SLS, Orion, and the International Space Station (ISS), to support missions farther afield. Later on, they plan to set up a permanent installation in cislunar orbit (or near the moon).

The lunar station will be much smaller than the ISS, consisting of a power bus, a small habitat for the crew, a docking station, airlock, one research module, and one logistics one. For propulsion, they plan to use high power electric engines, a technology NASA itself has developed. This way, the station can position itself in one of a number of different orbits around the moon.

NASA is currently creating SLS and Orion spacecraft for the first two missions. Exploration Mission 1 (EM–1) should take place sometime next year. This will be a crewless journey. On other fronts, propulsion and habitation for the lunar station are in development. On board the ISS, life support systems and “related technologies,” are being tested.

From 2023 to 2026, NASA plans to send up pieces of and assemble the gateway. These missions will include four astronauts and should last between eight and 21 days. By the end of the 2020s, a one year mission will commence, to test systems required to travel to Mars, and elsewhere.

They’ll run experiments in the vicinity of the moon, in order to “build confidence that long-duration, distant human missions can be safely conducted with independence from Earth.” That's according to a statement on NASA’s website. Not only is the agency starting to build up infrastructure, they foresee challenges both technical and human. This space station will help develop strategies to overcome them. 

How well can humans live in deep space? That isn’t really something that’s ever been tested. Astronauts and later colonists will need to endure long journeys aboard a Deep Space Transport (DST) craft, also being developed by Boeing. Somewhere around 2029, NASA plans to send astronauts aboard one of these, for a total of 300-400 days, somewhere near our moon.  

Boeing Deep Space Transit (DST) Vehicle. Boeing.  

The long-term goal is reusable craft that can ferry people to places such as Mars, return to the gateway, refuel, get serviced, and go back out again. SpaceX recently proved it possible to reuse rockets, in yet another successful landing, this time including a redeployment. Reusability will soon become the mainstay of space exploration, which brings the cost down exponentially.

This isn’t only a US mission. Besides private companies, other countries can lend a hand. Partners may offer hardware or “supplemental resources.” We’ve just dipped our toes in outer space’s vast waters, as a species, and had a few jaunts into the shallow end. Spreading out and really exploring the solar system is a feat beyond anything humanity has ever done.

These efforts could ultimately open up space to commercial ventures. And the time is nigh. The world will soon be running out of the precious minerals needed for consumer electronics. Space if full of them. In fact, it’s been predicted that asteroid mining will bear the world’s first trillionaire.  

To learn what Bill Nye thinks of Martian colonization, click here: 

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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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