ESA’s ExoMars: Been there, Done or doing most of this, When do humans get to go to Mars?

On March 14 2016 the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the first of two ExoMars missions. The second mission is scheduled to launch sometime in 2018 and builds on information provided by the first.

ESA has partnered with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency for both of these missions. Generally ESA is providing mission management and most of the instruments particularly for the first mission.

Roscosmos is will use its Proton rocket to launch both missions from its facility in Baikonur, and for the second mission contribute the descent module and the platform for the rover.

Quoting ESA as to the purpose of these missions:

“Establishing if life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time. To address this important goal, the European Space Agency (ESA) has established the ExoMars programme to investigate the Martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for a future Mars sample return mission in the 2020’s.”

If a sample is going to be returned to Earth it should be one selected by a human. That’s not species hubris talking. Geologists are on record as saying that while the rovers do a great job of collecting samples, there is no substitute for a human in that role.
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WFIRST: A small step toward answering big questions

NASA has committed to a significant upgrade in its ability to explore planets in other solar systems and to understanding the force which drives the expansion of the universe. The tool used in these searches will collect so much data that NASA will allow the public, Citizen Scientists, to assist in its analysis.

The project is called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST. This week NASA’s Program Management Council approved plans for a mid-2020’s launch of an observatory which, as its names suggests, will explore in the near infrared range of the spectrum.

WFIRST is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary. The observatory will use the same basic science as Hubble, Spitzer and NASA’s other space based observatories but with the benefit of all the technological advances over the last several years.

The 2.7 meter primary lens WFIRST will use was given to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office.

Exoplanets:

The search for exoplanets in particular will get significantly more muscle. WFIRST will provide Hubble-quality over 100 times the area of sky as shown in the pic below. Hubble’s coverage is shown in the upper left hand corner whereas WFIRST’s coverage is the entire area shown.

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“Recording the sound of space time ringing . . . “ Professor Janna Levin Columbia University

The graphic above represents two stars circling each other, their gravity ensuring that they will end each other’s existence in a collision that will release three times the mass of our Sun in a few seconds.

LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) announced this week that it had detected the gravity waves of such a collision. Einstein predicted the existence of gravity waves in 1915 but until this week they had never been observed.

Gravity waves occur when the mass of two objects combine. The resulting entity has less mass and therefore “sits” on the fabric of space-time differently. The space-time fabric adjusts to the lesser mass and the adjustment ripples out from the new object through the fabric. The folds in the graphic represent those ripples.

LIGO’s detection mechanism is based on the fact that changes in the space-time fabric will affect the distance between objects. If those objects are mirrors then light will take longer to move between those two mirrors than it usually would.

Scientific America has a great description of LIGO’s process:

LIGO00004
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