by Kartik Aneja
“Mankind was born on Earth, but it was never ever meant to die here” (Interstellar, 2014).
This one line leads to the question “Why do we want to go to another planet?” It is a kind of pull offered by the prospect of adventure that compels humans to explore new frontiers. This driving force led humans to the moon and now it is going to take us to Mars also. Mars missions always have real risks and challenges involved with them and these risks escalate even further when it comes to sending humans to Mars. After rigorous research and scientific breakthroughs, we are closer than ever to make this dream into reality. This article aims to identify the various steps taken in accordance to explore Mars. We as students can even contribute to the Mars mission by using the steps mentioned in the article.
University Rover Challenge
The Space Sector is getting privatized at a fast pace, to allow even further participation, organizations like NASA, ISRO, etc. have been conducting several competitions to let Undergraduate and Graduate level students showcase their talent and get hands-on experience. One of those many competitions is the University Rover Challenge (URC).
The University Rover Challenge (URC) by the Mars Society is a robotics competition for university-level students that challenge teams to design and build a rover that would help explorers on Mars. The competition is held annually at the Mars Desert Research Station in the United States. The competition has also expanded internationally to include the European Rover Challenge, Canadian International Rover Challenge, and the Indian Rover Challenge as part of the Rover Challenge Series.
The University Rover Challenge aims to encourage students to develop skills in robotics, improve the state-of-the-art in rovers, and work in multi-disciplinary teams with collaboration between scientists and engineers to find the answers to the ultimate questions of mankind.
Since 1997, NASA has sent several robotic rovers on Mars, but there is a need to collect more data. This will take more ambitious missions with larger rovers and instruments that are massive to parachute onto the surface of Mars. While the gravity of Mars is 38 percent of Earth and Mars’s atmosphere is 99 percent less dense than Earth’s which leads to very less drag to slow down a parachuted parcel when it hits the atmosphere 125 km above the surface at a speed of 6 km/s to 0.5 km/s. So, for bigger Landers, we may not use parachutes in the future.
The key to this problem is to use Rockets to enter the atmosphere at a slight angle (-10 to -15 degrees), wait until the last moment to start firing rockets, and to fire them horizontally (forward against the direction of motion) rather than downward.
This horizontally firing uses all rocket’s thrust to slow down, rather than wasting fuel by firing downward to fight gravity.
The pull-up maneuver is called a gravity turn. Once the capsule’s propulsion system starts to slow the craft, gravity has a greater vector effect than its horizontal velocity. This pulls the trajectory into a vertical descent where the thrust is pointed downwards.
The additional flexibility of rocket-powered landings will enable humans to land larger and better-equipped missions to unlock more of the mysteries of Mars.
Technology Driven Approach
Each Mars mission is part of a continuing chain of innovation that relies on past missions for proven technologies. This chain allows pushing the boundaries of what is currently possible, while still relying on proven technologies.
The most recent of them is the Mars 2020 mission that leverages the successful architecture of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission by duplicating most of its entry, descent, and landing system and much of its rover design.
The mission advances several technologies for future human missions to Mars. Plans include infusing new capabilities through investments by NASA’s Space Technology Program, Human Exploration, and contributions from international partners.
Many innovations focus on entry, descent, and landing technologies (as explained in the previous sub-topic), which help ensure precise and safe landings. They include sensors to measure the atmosphere, cameras, and a microphone and at least two key methods to reach the surface of Mars with greater accuracy and less risk.