NASA’s Cool, Tiny Space Helicopter Will Explore Mars

NASA put the first man on the moon, built an international space station, made the Hubble Space Telescope (which still gives us gorgeous shots of the universe), yadda yadda. Those are old news, right? But then, as I’ve recently been thinking about it, I realize the people at NASA just never seem to run out of surprises throughout the decades. They went surprisingly sustainable, announcing the launch of a recycled supply rocket. They went surprisingly cute, making their satellites capture pictures of more than a million penguins. They even have a (non-surprisingly) fantastic podcast.

Another one is coming from NASA in a tiny gift box. A four-pound autonomous space helicopter will be launched alongside their 2020 rover mission to Mars. And the experimental device is only the size of a softball!

Traveling at the speed of light, it’ll still take several minutes for any commands sent from Earth to reach the helicopter, so the flying rover will have to be at least partially autonomous as it provides scientists and other autonomous vehicles with the first long-term bird’s-eye view of the planet.

NASA made the tiny space helicopter carry batteries and other hardware that were customized to be as light as possible. And aside from being incredibly light, the device also needs to have incredibly fast mechanisms or functions in order to survive the conditions in Mars.

[T]he Martian atmosphere is practically non-existent. The air pressure at the planet’s surface is lower than it is at a helicopter’s maximum altitude when flying above Earth. In order to take off, the tiny flying robot needs to spin it’s two blades ten times faster — 3,000 times per minute — than it would on Earth[.]

Once the new rover and its passenger — the tiny space helicopter — reach Mars in 2021, they will be scanning for signs of life, identifying hazards for future astronauts, and assisting other ground-based rovers in ongoing geology research.

By then, all of us should prepare for more Martian surprises in store. Again, care of NASA’s coolness.

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Organic Matter Found on Mars — Two NASA Studies

For many decades, the idea of life outside Earth has intrigued many of us, but most especially scientists, astronomers, and well, sci-fi writers. For them and other Mars enthusiasts (a.k.a. people who eagerly believe that Mars can harbor life), the recent year has shown us great updates. Snow has been discovered in the planet. Soil made to simulate the planet’s conditions has grown earthworms.

Due to updates like these, some organizations are being inspired to plan ahead for life on Mars. MIT designed dome forests that will adapt to the environment there. The UAE is building a Mars-like metropolis as well, in preparation for a future in that planet. And it looks like they are bound to be more inspired as NASA releases the results of two new major studies about the Red Planet in the journal Science.

The first study centers on methane, a simple organic molecule that forms the basis for natural gas. Biological sources produce most of the methane on Earth, so researchers suspected that methane on Mars could point them towards biological sources — life! — on Mars.

Astronomers were already detecting methane in Mars as far back as 2003, but they first confirmed its presence there in 2015. After analyzing years worth of data, they realized that the methane was probably coming from pockets of ice. When these ice pockets melt during “summer” in Mars, methane slips out and methane levels go higher. Scientists say the seasonal presence of methane might clue us in on how there used to be life in the Red Planet, though the current study is still inconclusive about that.

The next study, however, also implies the idea of ancient life, as scientists find evidence of organic matter in soil that came from Mars.

In the second study, [NASA’s Curiosity rover] collected soil samples from two spots in Gale crater estimated to be about three billion years old. When Curiosity heated them up, the researchers recognized several organic molecules commonly found in Earth’s organic-rich sedimentary rock.

The discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere and organic matter on Martian soil suggests interesting similarities between that planet and ours. Thus, it further spurs the question of life on Mars. And since the Curiosity rover is still roving around and looking for signs, one can only hope its next breakthrough will finally answer that question.

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