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Look Out Mars, Here We Come!

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Are Humans getting ready for a manned trip to the Red Planet?

Mars, our nearest and most similar celestial neighbor, has long been a source of mystery for human beings. First observed by early Egyptian astronomers, the planet has been studied by everyone from Galileo to our six wheeled buddies Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity – all NASA rovers on the planet’s surface.

Humans now know there are no little green men on the big red planet, but what they have discovered may be even better. Data collected on the planet’s surface has led scientists to theorize that water once flowed on there, whose ancient atmosphere may well have been similar to Earth’s. Though the climate is much too cold for water to flow now, many believe it lays either in permafrost at the pole, or may well flow in hidden springs below the dusty surface.

So, if the planet is so cold, dry and lacking in life why visit?

Aside from the obvious “Why Not?”, Mars’ similarities to Earth could well give us a peek into our planet’s own future.

Enter MAVEN. Once thought to be a victim of the government shutdown, NASA’S Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission is set to launch November 18. MAVEN will set out to collect data on the Martian upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Dr. Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and his team, working in conjunction with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will be investigating the loss of volatile compounds such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water.

Scientists hope the information gathered will give insight into why the planet seems to be losing its atmosphere.

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“We’re trying to understand the boundary layer between the solar wind and the planet’s ionosphere because this is a key region where planetary material is being lost,” said project researcher David L. Mitchell. “We want to understand the loss processes and how the solar wind is stripping away the atmosphere.”

“The instrument will tell whether the spacecraft is measuring planetary plasma or solar wind plasma” in a specific region above the planet, he added. “It determines the environment, which is important for setting the stage for interpreting other measurements.”

MAVEN will also give NASA more detailed information regarding the magnetic field around Mars, which is very different from Earth’s own magnetic field.

While MAVEN’s launch has many excited, talks of a manned mission to the planet are far more exciting to most. With NASA putting the mid 2030’s as a possible target date for a human mission, many scientific hurtles must be jumped. The fact that there is no current propulsion system that could get a manned flight to and from the planet being arguably the most important issue, science is on it.

“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” stated John Slough, leader of a team developing a fusion-driven rocket at the University of Washington. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

Electrically powered propulsion may be another alternative to a fission/fusion driven rocket. Current uses of electric propulsion uses the Earth’s magnetic field, so information likely to be gathered by MAVEN could well be used in the development of a space ship used to shuttle humans to and from Mars. Current estimates put the trip, best case scenario, at 500 days, which may still be too long for astronauts.

High doses of radiation and loss of muscle mass due to lack of gravity are among the issues to be considered.

Human beings have long scoffed at the potential dangers of travel into the unknown, and this is no exception. Mars One, a privately funded group whose current mission is the colonization of Mars by 2023, have received over 202,000 applications for the one way trip, 24% of which came out of the United States. Certainly not the easy trip it might be in the Enterprise, to many the simple idea of being among the first to visit another planet make the overwhelming danger totally worth it. Mars One plans to launch their first test flight in 2016 and is excepting donations for the project.

Are you among the brave ready to boldly go?

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