Mars Society UK – New Chapter to be Formed

It’s been a while, but now we’re in a position to write a follow-up article regarding the Mars Society in the UK. In July we reported about the Mars Society in the UK ceasing to function as you might expect.

The Mars Society’s Utah analogue research station. Photo credit: The Mars Society






If you’re an advocate of manned space missions, interested in Mars, astronomy, engineering, then the Mars Society is a great arena in which to digest and promote these topics with like-minded people. The Mars Society was created by Dr Robert Zubrin, and has the likes of Buzz Aldrin on its steering committee. See here for a reminder about what the Mars Society is about.

The Martian film is about to be released, we’re all waiting with baited breath until Monday to hear what stunning news NASA has to tell us about Mars, and  we are now able to report that there will be a new Mars Society Chapter in the UK.

Access the Sharp project from the Central Park Metro stop on the Oldham/Rochdale Line going north from the city centre.

It’s inaugural meeting is taking place at 2pm on October 11th in Manchester at the Sharp Project just north of Manchester’s city centre. The venue is easily accessible from the M60, and details of location can be found here.

The Sharp Project where the inaugural meeting will take place. Credit: The Shapr Project, Manchester
The Sharp Project where the inaugural meeting will take place.
Credit: The Sharp Project, Manchester

The existing situation had reached a point where it was unclear whether people were members of the society or not. No meetings were taking place, no AGM’s had taken place, in fact no discernible activity of any kind. This contrasts greatly with activity, not just of the Mars Society in it’s home of the USA, but also other chapters around the world, and in Europe. Take for example the Polish Mars

Oregon State's rover  taking part in the Rover Challenge
Oregon State’s rover taking part in the Rover Challenge

Society. There is huge amount going on in Poland, and indeed in other European countries, from hosting conferences and events, to the Rover Challenge: in other words, they are carrying out the work of the Mars Society.

You can visit the page for this new chapter at their Facebook group here. The group seems to have good ideas, and to be keen to follow the example of successful and dynamic societies from elsewhere, focusing on events, activity, and connections with research. Their page description says says

“This chapter of the Mars Society is based in Manchester simply because it’s principal founding officers are based there. Although meetings will take place in Manchester, the scope of the society is to engage people from anywhere, individuals and universities, to spread awareness of the Mars Society, Mars Direct, and the activities of the society in general.”

Sounds good to us! The founders of this new chapter are also keen to make the point that the chapter will be properly constituted, and the constitution adhered to with regular meetings, AGM’s, and a group of society officers. ” We’d love to hear from people who’d like to get involved.” says Rob Adlard, one of the new chapter’s founders “We’ve got a new website on the way, but people can contact us via the Facebook group until then.”

We contacted the Mars Society in the US, and Lucinda Offer, Executive Director of the Mars Society US had this to say

“The Mars Society U.S. is pleased to hear about the establishment of a new chapter in Manchester, England. We look forward to working with the new group to help expand Mars advocacy in the UK and encourage collaboration between the chapters in Manchester, London and Scotland”
So this is sort of an interesting idea, we’ll have to see where that goes. One of the stated aims of this new society is to develop a Rover Challenge. This is a great way to engage universities, develop student societies and wider engagement in the Mars Society.
You’d think that with the increase in funding and interest in the UK space sector, and the excellence of UK Universities in the areas of electronics, engineering and robotics, that the UK could have one of the most dynamic Mars Society chapters in the world.
Another founding member of the new chapter, Rob Astbury, commented that
“One of the original points of frustration was seeing UK universities exhibiting robotics programs at venues such as the UK Space Conference, knowing that none of them were engaged with anything like the Rover Challenge. Contrasting the high levels of engagement with European and US universities so actively involved in this kind of thing, it just seemed a shame that there is nothing like this currently in the UK. This is something we want to change, and would encourage anyone with uni connections to contact us to get involved”
The new chapter has lots of potential collaborators in the many excellent universities within a stones throw of their location for a start, and should get to know people like the Northern Robotics Network. Good luck to them!

The Online Home of Principia Mission

It’s now just a few weeks until the first UK astronaut to go to the ISS sets off on their historic journey. Now you can get involved and follow all the progress the website dedicated to this mission here

UK astronaut Tim Peake has a background in the army air corps, a helicopter test pilot with a degree in flight dynamics and evaluation, and speaks in this clip below

The mission is called Principia to celebrate Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking text on physics,Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), which described the principal laws of motion and gravity on which all space travel depends.

See Tim carrying out ESA’s winter survival training

Tim will fly to the ISS as a member of the Expedition 46/47 crew.  He will be launched on a Soyuz from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 15 December 2015 alongside NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.  They will join the international crew already on the ISS, briefly bringing the number to nine, and then reverting to the more usual complement of six, before returning in May 2016.

Some of the kit preceding Tim’s arrival was destroyed in Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket disaster, and so the back-up kit had to be sent on the Soyuz flight earlier this month. Tim will be conducting experiments on board the ISS, creating a series of films to be used in classrooms around the UK to teach students fundamentals of physics and chemistry, in addition to showcasing aspects of the UK space industry, currently employing over 30,000 people and worth over £11 billion per year to the UK economy.

In this video Tim experiences 8G in centrifuge tests

The mission could engage thousands of students in the UK, and inspire them to view careers in science as dynamic and exciting; something the UK badly needs with shortages of graduates in STEM subjects, reported to reach a shortfall of 100,000 in coming years.

Starchaser Industries Launch in Cheshire

Yesterday evening, Starchaser Industries successfully launched the 4.2m tall Astra 1 rocket from Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire.

Below is a little teaser…

Steve and Astra 1
Steve Bennett Starchaser CEO with Astra 1

It has been some time since the last Starchaser was last in full swing, and so this event was significant in that it signals a return to form for the UK’s top rocketeer.

Steve Bennett first rose to prominence with the X-prize competition, and hold’s the record for the largest rocket ever launched from the UK. When Burt Rutan’s spaceplane concept won the X-prize and was taken up by Virgin Galactic, spaceplanes appeared to be the way forward. Starchaser’s momentum was slowed as Bennett’s designs were simpler ballistic rockets; investors and sponsors became harder to find, exacerbated by the global financial crash. The recent paradigm shift has been the slow realisation that ballistic rockets ARE still the best way to get people and other things into space, and those developing vehicles with wings now appear to have taken a longer route to success. Virgin, for example, reported that they are now not setting a date for a return to commercial manned spaceflight as we covered in a previous post. 

After the successful launch, the booster can be seen with parachute open,  against a beautiful evening sky in Cheshire
After the successful launch, the booster can be seen with parachute open, against a beautiful evening sky in Cheshire

Unlike the competition, who are working on spaceplanes, Starchaser industries has proved it can build and launch successful rockets without the billions of pounds required to develop the new technologies and materials for spaceplanes; now a major problem currently constricting its rivals.

Rumours are that Starchaser is gaining sponsorship to take their plans forward now with some momentum, and have bigger things planned for 2016. Watch this space!

The Day Buzz Punched A Moon-Landing-Denier

So how do we feel about people who think that the moon landings were one big conspiracy? Is it funny? Do you agree with them? Are they entitled to their views, or is it a corrosive anti-intellectualism? Okay, so maybe I let my own views slip with that last question, but as fans of spaceflight, is this something we should engage with or simply or laugh it off? Apparently 20% of Americans now believe that the moon landings were a hoax.

For some people, Buzz reached new heights of being a hero when he punched an infamous moon-landing-denier in this now famous piece of video

Some feel that it’s simply a case of putting some facts on record, and everyone will agree, however that’s not how humans work. Our skeptical minds are essential tools, and obviously selected for survival over many thousands of years, but is there also an innate anti-intellectualism that may result from this, and it’s evident from these, and other groups for whom ever increasing amounts of evidence simply cause their views to be more deeply felt. Even though you saw it on the video clip, maybe Buzz DID NOT LAND that punch in the way it appears on first viewing…but I think we know the answer to that, and I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek now.

Credit: Brian Cox Twitter
Brian Cox made his view quite clear in this classic tweet Credit: Brian Cox Twitter

Part of the problem is that mankind has not been back to the moon since. People ask, if our technology has advanced, shouldn’t we have done so? In answer to that, some feel we need footage for the modern age, and that’s something that spaceflight enthusiasts look forward to.

Let’s assume that people can be rational, and I thought I’d share a couple of nice bits of evidence that are my favourite.

Here’s Amy Shira Teitel explaining about how we can see the effects of lower gravity in Apollo footage

Here’s a whole host of commentators and characters including Buzz and our own Roger Moore

Moon Landing Faked

See What Space X Astronauts Will See

People have likened it to a promotion that a car company would use to promote a new luxury model; so maybe executives at Space X are learning a lot from sister company, Tesla Motors.

It is very cool, it’s a bit like “if Mercedes made spaceships” however…there are 4 windows for the astronauts to see out into space, and back towards earth.

SpaceX tested out the Crew Dragon’s ability to keep astronauts safe in May. The company is developing the ship for NASA as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to bring “cost-effective access” to the ISS, as well as pave the way to develop ships for manned missions to Mars in the 2030s.

According to SpaceX, the ship will have a climate-control system that will allow astronauts to set the temperature in the Crew Dragon between a very comfortable 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. What about somewhere to charge your phone, and perhaps a deluxe cup-holder?

The support structure at the back of the seats look like something that could be found in a race car. SpaceX said that were anything to go wrong, the Crew Dragon’s emergency escape system would “swiftly carry astronauts to safety” with the same amount of G-force found on a ride at Disneyland.

Interior of Dragon. Credit: Space X
Interior of Dragon. Credit: Space X

The Dragon Crew will be self-driving, rather like the Tesla Model S, but astronauts and mission control will both be able to take control if need be. Hopefully astronauts won’t mistakenly press the “Deorbit Now” button when instead trying to depressurize the cabin, though.

NASA to Develop Submarine for Mission to Titan

Yes it’s happening – the desire to explore one of the most exciting objects on our solar system has momentum building behind it. One of the most curious features on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, is that it is the only place in our solar system other than earth to have seas. Now NASA is developing a plan to send a submarine to explore Kraken Mare, which is 1000 kilometers wide and 300 metres deep. The sea was made famous under the Cassini-Huygens mission through the feature named the ‘magic island’.

The value of the project aside from the science on Titan, will also have many benefits for NASA in terms of development and future missions. Titan Sub will also address the NASA technology areas of Space Power and Energy Storage, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Communications and Navigation Systems, Science Instruments and Sensors, Materials, and Thermal Management Systems. By addressing the challenges of autonomous submersible exploration in a cold outer solar system environment, Titan Sub serves as a pathfinder for even more exotic future exploration of the subsurface water oceans of Europa for example.

Artists drawing of the sub on Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA
Artists drawing of the sub on Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA

The ethane and methane seas on Titan have been extensively mapped by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been studying the moon as part of its mission to Saturn since 2004, when the probe arrived in orbit around the ringed planet. In January 2005, the Huygens probe — a lander carried by Cassini but built by the European and Italian space agencies — landed on the surface of Titan, beaming back the first photos of that strange new world. However, although we know that the seas are largely methane and ethane, the exact composition of the seas are not known, and variations between different stretches of water are not known.

Cassini HuygensTitanTitan Submarine
9 Real Technologies in Ridley Scott’s film The Martian

9 Real Technologies in Ridley Scott’s film The Martian

Andy Wier’s great novel The Martian has been made into a blockbusting film, starring Matt Damon, and directed by Teesside’s own Ridley Scott (studied Art in my hometown of Hartlepool Ed). The film is due out in the UK in November, but it’s a great read too.

One of the reasons this particular story (of the many great stories about Mars) is so engaging, is that it transports you to a believable world, an experience so nearly within our grasp that you can taste it. This is achieved by reference to lots of things we already know about, and technologies that already exist. Let’s take a look at a few…

  1. The Hab. 

On the surface of Mars, Watney spends a significant amount of time in the habitation module — the Hab — his home away from home. Future astronauts who land on Mars will need such a home to avoid spending their Martian sols lying on the dust in a spacesuit.

At NASA Johnson Space Center, crews train for long-duration deep space missions in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA). Not only does NASA have this tech, but this kind of analogue research is also the domain of the Mars Society.

Credit: The Mars Society
Credit: The Mars Society

2. The Plant Farm

Watney turns the Hab into a self-sustaining farm in “The Martian,” making potatoes the first Martian staple. Today, in low-Earth orbit, lettuce is the most abundant crop in space. Aboard the International Space Station, Veggie is a deployable fresh-food production system. Using red, blue, and green lights, Veggie helps plants grow in pillows, small bags with a wicking surface containing media and fertilizer, to be harvested by astronauts. In 2014, astronauts used the system to grow “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce and just recently sampled this space-grown crop for the first time. This is a huge step in space farming, and NASA is looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars. This is also an area of analogue research for The Mars Society, and we recently posted a plea for help fundraising which saw their Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign reach their target to re-build their GreenHab after a fire.damaged GreenHab

Photo credit: NASA
Photo credit: NASA

3. Water Recovery

There are no lakes, river or oceans on the surface of Mars, and sending water from Earth would take more than nine months. Astronauts on Mars must be able to create their own water supply. The Ares 3 crew does not waste a drop on Mars with their water reclaimer, and Watney needs to use his ingenuity to come up with some peculiar ways to stay hydrated and ensure his survival on the Red Planet.

On the International Space Station, no drop of sweat, tears, or even urine goes to waste. The Environmental Control and Life Support System recovers and recycles water from everywhere: urine, hand washing, oral hygiene, and other sources. Through the Water Recovery System (WRS), water is reclaimed and filtered, ready for consumption. One astronaut simply put it, “Yesterday’s coffee turns into tomorrow’s coffee.”

4. Oxygen Generation

Food, water, shelter: three essentials for survival on Earth. But there’s a fourth we don’t think about much, because it’s freely available: oxygen. On Mars, Watney can’t just step outside for a breath of fresh air To survive, he has to carry his own supply of oxygen everywhere he goes. But first he has to make it. In his Hab he uses the “oxygenator,” a system that generates oxygen using the carbon dioxide from the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) fuel generator.

On the International Space Station, the astronauts and cosmonauts have the Oxygen Generation System, which reprocesses the atmosphere of the spacecraft to continuously provide breathable air efficiently and sustainably. The system produces oxygen through a process called electrolysis, which splits water molecules into their component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen is either discarded into space or fed into the Sabatier System, which creates water from the remaining byproducts in the station’s atmosphere.

Oxygen is produced at more substantial rate through a partially closed-loop system that improves the efficiency of how the water and oxygen are used. NASA is working to recover even more oxygen from byproducts in the atmosphere to prepare for the journey to Mars.

5. Mars Spacesuit

Mark Watney spends large portions of his Martian sols (a sol is a Martian day) working in a spacesuit. He ends up having to perform some long treks on the surface, so his suit has to be flexible, comfortable, and reliable.

NASA is currently developing the technologies to build a spacesuit that would be used on Mars. Engineers consider everything from traversing the Martian landscape to picking up rock samples.

The Z-2 and Prototype eXploration Suit, NASA’s new prototype spacesuits, help solve unique problems to advance new technologies that will one day be used in a suit worn by the first humans to set foot on Mars. Each suit is meant to identify different technology gaps – features a spacesuit may be missing – to complete a mission. Spacesuit engineers explore the tradeoff between hard composite materials and fabrics to find a nice balance between durability and flexibility.

One of the challenges of walking on Mars will be dealing with dust. The red soil on Mars could affect the astronauts and systems inside a spacecraft if tracked in after a spacewalk. To counter this, new spacesuit designs feature a suitport on the back, so astronauts can quickly hop in from inside a spacecraft while the suit stays outside, keeping it clean indoors.

Credit: Giles Keyte/NASA
Credit: Giles Keyte/NASA

Then there are also these guys we’ve talked about a bit, Final Frontier Design

Credit: Final Frontier Design
Credit: Final Frontier Design

6. The Rover

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

Once humans land on the surface of Mars, they must stay there for more than a year, while the planets move into a position that will minimize the length of their trip home. This allows the astronauts plenty of time to conduct experiments and explore the surrounding area, but they won’t want to be limited to how far they can go on foot. Astronauts will have to use robust, reliable and versatile rovers to travel farther.

In “The Martian,” Watney takes his rover for quite a few spins, and he even has to outfit the vehicle with some unorthodox modifications to help him survive.

On Earth today, NASA is working to prepare for every encounter with the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). The MMSEV has been used in NASA’s analog mission projects to help solve problems that the agency is aware of and to reveal some that may be hidden. The technologies are developed to be versatile enough to support missions to an asteroid, Mars, its moons and other missions in the future. NASA’s MMSEV has helped address issues like range, rapid entry/exit and radiation protection. Some versions of the vehicle have six pivoting wheels for maneuverability. In the instance of a flat tire, the vehicle simply lifts up the bad wheel and keeps on rolling.

7. Ion Propulsion

In “The Martian,” the Ares 3 crew lives aboard the Hermes spacecraft for months as they travel to and from the Red Planet, using ion propulsion as an efficient method of traversing through space for over 280 million miles. Ion propulsion works by electrically charging a gas such as argon or xenon and pushing out the ions at high speeds, about 200,000 mph. The spacecraft experiences a force similar to that of a gentle breeze, but by continuously accelerating for several years, celestial vessels can reach phenomenal speeds. Ion propulsion also allows the spacecraft to change its orbit multiple times, then break away and head for another distant world.

This technology allows modern day spacecraft like NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft to minimize fuel consumption and perform some crazy maneuvers. Dawn has completed more than five years of continuous acceleration for a total velocity change around 25,000 mph, more than any spacecraft has accomplished on its own propulsion system. Along the way, it has paid humanity’s first visits to the dwarf planet Ceres and the asteroid Vesta.

8. Solar Panels

In the film, Matt Damon is constantly re-arranging solar panels to stay alive.

On the International Space Station, four sets of solar arrays generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power more than 40 homes. The station doesn’t need all that power, but the redundancy helps mitigate risk in case of a failure. The solar power system aboard the space station is very reliable, and has been providing power safely to the station since its first crew in 2000.

Orion, NASA’s spacecraft that will take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before, will use solar arrays for power in future missions. The arrays can gather power while in sunlight to charge onboard lithium-ion batteries. In case no sunlight is available – for instance, if Orion were to go behind the Moon – there would still be plenty of power to allow it to operate.

9. RTG

For more than four decades, NASA has safely used Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators(RTGs) to provide electrical power for two dozen space missions, including Apollo missions to the Moon. Spacecraft such as the Mars rover Curiosity and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover use an updated, next-generation model for electrical power.

RTGs are “space batteries” that convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into reliable electrical power. The RTG on Curiosity generates about 110 Watts of power or less – slightly more than an average light bulb uses.

In “The Martian,” the crew buries the plutonium-based RTG power source for the Mars Ascent Vehicle far away from the Hab in case of radioactive leakage. To prevent any leak, as suggested in the movie, Plutonium-238 has several layers of strong, advanced materials that protect against release even in severe accidents. The RTG mostly emits alpha radiation, which can only travel a few inches in the air and does not penetrate clothing or human skin. It could only affect human health if it were broken into very fine particles or vaporized, and inhaled or ingested. The isotope is manufactured in a ceramic form, so accidentally inhaling or ingesting it is unlikely, particularly as it does not dissolve in liquids.

In reality, the natural radiation environment on Mars is more extreme than the radiation produced from an RTG.  Ionizing radiation raining down on Mars from space is far more hazardous to human health.  Current Mars missions are analyzing the Martian radiation environment so that mission planners can design protection systems for future astronauts.

Future explorers will need assured, reliable and durable power sources for survival in place before they arrive.  Power system options might include a mix of more efficient radioisotope power systems, solar power, fuel cells, and nuclear fission.

Originally for with information from NASA and the Glenn Research Centre, Cleveland

Edited by Rob Adlard