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Results for category "Op/Ed"

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OPINION: NASA needs to start investing in Mars comms network

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

By practically every metric, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been an incredible success. Launched on August 12, 2005, MRO has spent more than ten years orbiting the Red Planet, both as a science-gathering platform and as a communications relay for other Mars-based assets. In its science role, it has contributed to significant findings on the planet, and returns more science information from Mars in a single day than the weekly total of all other Mars missions.

Indeed, in the time it has been active in the Martian system, MRO has transmitted more than 264 terabits (33,000 gigabytes – more than 7,000 DVDs) of data, which is more than all other interplanetary missions — past and present — combined. Not only that, but it has done so at data rates ranging from less than 500 kilobits per second (Kbps) when Mars is at its furthest from Earth (approximately 250 million miles) to 4 megabits per second (Mbps) when the two planets are a “mere” 60 million miles apart.

In its role as a communications relay satellite, MRO has no equal in the Martian system. Its 10-foot diameter high-gain antenna, combined with the 100-watt X-band radio, makes for the perfect partner to relay critical telemetry and science data from other spacecraft in-system. Beyond the obvious benefit of having a large antenna with which to communicate with Earth, being able to use MRO’s comms assets can translate to inbound spacecraft needing smaller – and less massive – comms systems of their own. This mass savings may have a significant impact on the type of science instruments included on the spacecraft, or perhaps may allow for a great fuel load, thus extending the usable life of the craft. Read More →

OPINION: It’s time to restart the nuclear thermal rocket program

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation during a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation during a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

Though it sounds like some far-fetched contrivance from the mind of a science fiction writer, nuclear thermal rockets (NTRs) are a very real – and incredibly efficient – means of propulsion under consideration for human missions to Mars. Not only are they real, but they have already been designed and tested…albeit more than 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, amidst a downturn in public support for nuclear-related programs of any sort in the early 1970s, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program was cancelled in 1972 and never resumed.

However, with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) marching towards its uncrewed maiden launch in 2018, and the agency’s goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars some time in the 2030s, there has been a renewed interest in propulsion systems that may help to get craft and crew to the Red Planet more efficiently, and more quickly, than traditional chemical propulsion systems.

NASA’s Tony Kim thinks that nuclear thermal rockets answer the program’s needs, and he’s ready to get started. Kim, the project manager for nuclear propulsion at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the strongest supporters for nuclear propulsion within the agency and was recently on-hand at an event at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility to discuss the program. Read More →

Is SLS *finally* getting a proper name?

SLS is begging for a name, NASA. Will it get one?

SLS is begging for a name, NASA. Will it get one? Image credit: NASA, with my commentary added.

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece on my “catch-all” blog imploring NASA to give SLS a fitting name. As I stated there:

“While our nation’s spacefaring endeavors might only be a few decades old, surely we haven’t run out of ‘cool’ names for our rockets. Come on – this is America…WE LANDED PEOPLE ON THE MOON!!!! We can do better than calling it ‘SLS’.

NASA: Names matter. Make it happen.”

Perhaps NASA’s Administrator, Charlie Bolden, read that piece. In an interview on the July 23, 2016, edition of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, Bolden might’ve just let the proverbial cat out of the bag.

Show host Peter Sagal had been engaging Mr. Bolden in a line of conversation, eventually leading up to Sagal asking: “Charlie, I’ve got to ask you, when are we really going to Mars?”

Without missing a beat, Bolden replied [emphasis added]: “We’re going to Mars in the 2030s. So we’ve got the vehicle called – we’re going to name it but right now we call it the Space Launch System. It’s a heavy lift launch vehicle.”

So, it would appear that SLS may, indeed, be getting a name less clinical-sounding and more appropriate for the vehicle meant to carry craft, crew, and robotic explorers far beyond low earth orbit. I sincerely hope so. Good on you, Mr. Bolden. Now…let’s just hope it’s a good name.