NASA Tests Space Concrete for Future Mars Habitats


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NASA is looking toward a future when humans could visit Mars for an extended period, and Elon Musk is promising to send people there in the next decade. Whenever humans do set foot on Mars, they’re going to need someplace to hang their hat (or spacesuit helmet). Concrete could potentially allow explorers to build structures quickly and easily, assuming it sets correctly without Earth gravity. NASA has conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to assess the strength of concrete mixed in space. 

Scientists believe concrete could be an ideal material for building on other worlds because it’s durable, offers protection from radiation, and it may be possible to make it using materials present on the moon and Mars. Being able to manufacture building materials at your destination (known as in-situ resources) makes missions cheaper and easier to design because you don’t have to launch as much mass from Earth. 

However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the molecular structure of concrete here on Earth. Concrete is a mixture of sand and gravel with lime or silicate (cement powder). As the cement dissolves in water, it forms crystal complexes that link together the aggregate to make a solid structure. The process of mixing and building with concrete is well established on Earth, but we don’t know how microgravity could affect it. Do we need to modify the ratios? Add additional materials? That’s what the ISS experiment aims to find out. 

ISS concrete above and Earth concrete below.

The experiment, known as Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), is the first time concrete has been mixed outside of Earth’s gravity. Astronauts aboard the ISS mixed tricalcium silicate and water in varying amounts to create a concrete paste. The astronauts added alcohol to some of the packets to stop the hydration process at set intervals as well. A separate experiment used a centrifuge simulated lunar and Martian gravity on the samples as they mixed. 

The experiment confirms that concrete can harden in microgravity, which is a good thing. That means we can build structures with concrete outside of Earth’s gravity. The primary difference is an increase in pores compared with concrete mixed on Earth, and that could reduce the material’s strength. However, lower gravity on the moon or Mars would also put it under less strain. It may be possible to develop different binders that improve the strength of lunar or Martian concrete, and that may even lead to better concrete here on Earth.

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NASA Attaches Helicopter Drone to Mars 2020 Rover


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NASA is still busy integrating the systems that will let the new Mars 2020 rover explore the red planet, but engineers took time to hook up the rover’s sole passenger this week: the Mars Helicopter. The small experimental aircraft is now installed on the belly of the rover, ready to ride the larger robot down to the surface of Mars. Once there, it will, hopefully, make history as the first-ever aircraft to fly on another planet.

 NASA began developing the Mars Helicopter Scout concept several years before rover assembly. After testing showed the design was viable, the agency secured $23 million in funding to make it a reality in time for the summer 2020 rover launch. The Mars Helicopter won’t include any scientific instruments because it’s considered a technology demonstration. NASA doesn’t want to trust any vital tasks to the first aircraft to ever fly on Mars. The solar-powered helicopter will have a camera, which could help the rover navigate around rough terrain and obstacles. 

To install the helicopter and its deployment system, engineers at NASA JPL had to flip Mars 2020 on its back. The rover is upside-down in the image above, giving the team access to the bottom surface for helicopter mounting. The rover will drop the Mars Helicopter Scout on the surface after its landing at Jezero Crater in 2021. In the meantime, a cover shield will remain in place to protect the helicopter during launch and landing. 

NASA has tested the helicopter in a vacuum chamber here on Earth. The chamber dropped to Mars-like atmospheric pressure, which makes it harder to generate lift. However, the Mars Helicopter Scout is just 4 pounds (1.8 kg). While we can’t change gravity, NASA used a “gravity offload system” that tugs upward on the rover to make it behave as if it were lighter. The helicopter successfully hovered in the chamber, so the team thinks it will be able to fly on Mars. 

After deployment on the surface, the Mars Helicopter Scout will fly up to five times over a month. Although, NASA has a habit of designing robots that far outlive their original mission parameters. The helicopter might take more flights than anyone is expecting. A successful test of the helicopter on Mars could mean much more ambitious flying robots will head to the red planet in the future. A flying probe could reach perilous cliffs, deep craters, and other locations inaccessible to a wheeled rover.

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Aerospace Firm Shows Off Giant Inflatable Space Habitat


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Most of the spacecraft in science fiction are ridiculously spacious, but real life is much less luxurious. The International Space Station (ISS) has just 388 cubic meters of habitable space, and future deep-space assignments could have astronauts serving much longer tours of duty. NASA has partnered with Sierra Nevada Corporation to explore ways to make spacecraft a bit less cramped, and the company has now completed a prototype inflatable habitat module with almost as much living space as the entire ISS. 

NASA originally funded the NextSTEP-2 program to develop technologies for long-term missions like the Lunar Gateway station and a journey to Mars. The current plan is to make the Lunar Gateway a smaller modular station that will initially have just a small life support area and docking for lunar landers. The inflatable habitat shown off at Johnson Space Center this week could eventually add a lot more living areas to the Gateway and other missions. 

This isn’t NASA’s first look at inflatable habitats. The agency partnered with Bigelow Aerospace to deploy a small inflatable prototype module to the ISS called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The 16 cubic meter volume of BEAM is a far cry from the Sierra Nevada mockup, though. 

The habitat measures approximately 26 by 26 feet (8 by 8 meters) with a total internal volume of 984 cubic feet (300 cubic meters). That’s a third of the total pressurized volume of the ISS, and more than three-quarters of its habitable space. The multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, allowing NASA to send the entire module to space in a standard rocket like the Falcon Heavy, ULA’s upcoming Vulcan booster, or NASA’s own Space Launch System. 

Once in space, the module can expand into a three-level habitat with room for any necessary activities — Sierra Nevada Corporation doesn’t have a specific purpose in mind, but the prototype is outfitted with a greenhouse, scientific facilities, a gym, and more.  

Sierra Nevada hopes to impress NASA and other potential partners with its initial design, but a space-ready habitat could be altered as needed. With all the changes to the proposed Lunar Gateway, the company isn’t sure when or if NASA will want a large inflatable habitat module. The timeline for sending humans to Mars is still very preliminary as well. Sierra Nevada isn’t building Mars-specific habitats until NASA defines mission parameters. However, an inflatable habitat like this could make a months-long trip to Mars much less stressful for the crew. 

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ExoMars Parachute Test Fails Again, Casting Doubt on Launch Plans


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The European Space Agency (ESA) is hoping to launch a new ExoMars mission to the red planet next year, but the future of that mission is in doubt after a second parachute failure. The ESA confirms a recent parachute test here on Earth has failed, making this the second failure in the last few months. 

Landing missions on Mars is particularly challenging because of its thin atmosphere. There’s enough atmosphere to cause landers to heat up but not enough to make parachutes highly effective. That’s why the ESA designed a massive 35-meter chute for the new ExoMars mission. NSA, meanwhile, plans to use a rocket sled for the Mars 2020 rover very similar to the one it used for Curiosity. 

The test took place high above the ESA Esrange test site in northern Sweden. A lander mockup was dropped from a high-altitude balloon with the same parachute system intended for use on the ExoMars lander, consisting of a smaller 15-meter chute and the 35-meter main chute. According to the ESA, the team observed damage to the parachute that prevented it from inflating all the way. As a result, the lander descended under a small pilot chute that was supposed to deploy the larger ones. This is not the first setback for the ExoMars program. In 2016, a lander crashed on Mars because of a sensor malfunction. 

The ExoMars mission, which is a collaboration between the ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos, will deliver an ESA rover to Mars named after DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. Russia will handle the launch operations, as well as contributing part of the science payload and the surface platform. 

The ExoMars Franklin rover.

With a second parachute failure now on the books, the ESA says it will spend some time studying what it has learned. It plans to convene a workshop of Mars parachute experts in September to evaluate the current state of the mission. The clock is ticking, though. Mars and Earth will be aligned for a quick journey next summer. That’s the same launch window NASA plans to use for the Mars 2020 rover, and the Chinese space agency is also planning to send a small rover around the same time. 

The future of the ExoMars mission will be in doubt if the ESA and Roscosmos can’t fix the lander’s parachutes. The next advantageous alignment of the planets won’t take place until late 2022, and that’s a long time to mothball a complex mission like this.

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Curiosity Spots Unexpectedly Complex Martian Rock


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NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen a lot of rocks. In fact, that’s almost all it sees on the surface of Mars. Recently, the rover spotted a rock so strange that the team decided to move in for a closer look. The so-called “Strathdon” has dozens of sedimentary layers squished together, a geological quirk scientists didn’t expect to see on Mars. This points to a potentially complicated and watery past in the region explored by Curiosity. 

Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, setting up shop in Gale Crater. Its goal was to make its way to nearby Mount Sharp and roll up the slope, examining the geology on the way. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014. The team has made numerous pit stops along the way to the summit in order to take a closer look at interesting regions. Currently, the rover is puttering around in an area called the “clay-bearing unit.” In the distant past, it was most likely home to streams and lakes, the only remnants of which are clay mineral deposits. 

While exploring the clay-bearing unit, Curiosity happened upon a strange boulder partially buried in the ground — the Strathdon. The rock formed from many layers of compressed sediment that had hardened into a brittle, wavy mass. It’s a stark contrast from the flat layers of lake sediment Curiosity has seen elsewhere on Mars. 

Strathdon as seen from 4 inches away.

Curiosity approached the Strathdon, taking a close-up mosaic image for scientists back on Earth to examine. The team speculates that the structure of this boulder means the clay-bearing unit has a much more complex and dynamic geological history than anyone expected. A combination of flowing water and wind could be responsible for the existence of this formation. This region might have been quite hospitable to life many eons ago, but Curiosity can’t say for certain — that’s for the next rover to find out. 

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is being assembled at JPL as we speak. It has a robotic arm, wheels, and some of its many, many cameras. The still-unnamed rover uses the same chassis as Curiosity, but it will carry instruments that are better able to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet. The launch is scheduled for next summer when Earth and Mars are lined up for an easy journey. Mars 2020 will join Curiosity on the surface in February 2021.

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NASA Tests Mars 2020 Robotic Arm With ‘Biceps Curls’


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Slowly but surely, the Mars 2020 rover is taking shape at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Engineers have attached some of the rover’s many cameras, its wheels, and now it’s time to give its robotic arm a test run. This arm will have to do some heavy lifting on the red planet, so NASA is having it do some biceps curls on Earth. It’s actually studying how the rover will maneuver its hefty sensor turret, but the action looks a whole lot like the rover pumping iron. 

The Mars 2020 rover will have a 7-foot (2.1 meters) robotic arm similar to the one on Curiosity. It sports five electrical motors and five joints: the shoulder azimuth, shoulder elevation, elbow, wrist, and turret. NASA has to make sure it all works perfectly before launch because the arm isn’t just there for pumping iron.

At the end of the rover’s arm, engineers have mounted a raft of important tools and sensors like the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) and Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). The arm is also home to the WATSON camera, which will provide us with Curiosity-style selfies of Mars 2020. We certainly can’t have that fail. 

The instrument package at the end of the arm weighs in at 88 pounds (40 kilograms) here on Earth. The new test, which you can see in video form below, was JPL’s first opportunity to see how the arm behaved with all the components connected. The arm moved smoothly between a deployed and stowed configuration. The arm will only weigh about a third as much on Mars, but the team is still making sure it’s robust enough to operate under Earth gravity. A great deal of Mars 2020’s science will depend on that arm reaching out and touching the red planet with its sensors and percussive drill. 

NASA still has a lot of work ahead of it before the rover can head off in search of adventure. If everything goes as planned. Mars 2020 will launch from Earth in July 2020 during an advantageous alignment of Earth and Mars. It will reach Mars in February 2021 to begin its one-year mission (687 Earth days). If Mars 2020 is anything like Curiosity, on which it is based, this rover will outlast the initial mission duration.

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