Madness on a mission to Mars

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Over the course of a minute speech Musk, always a dreamer, shared his biggest and most ambitious dream with the world—how to colonize Mars and make humanity a multiplanetary species. And what mighty ambitions they are. The Interplanetary Transport System he unveiled could carry people at a time to Mars.

Contrast that to the Apollo program, which carried just two astronauts at a time to the surface of the nearby Moon, and only for brief sojourns. Musk envisions a self-sustaining Mars colony with at least a million residents by the end of the century. Considering his mannerisms, passion, and the utter seriousness of his convictions, it felt at times like the man's entire life had led him to that particular stage. It took courage to make the speech, to propose the greatest space adventure of all time. Because what really matters is whether any of this fantastical stuff can actually happen.

During his talk, Musk outlined an extremely large new rocket, with a primary structure made from carbon-fiber composites that are lighter and stronger than the aluminum and other metals used in traditional rockets.

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A staggering 42 Raptor engines, burning liquid oxygen and densified liquid methane, would power the Interplanetary Transport System ITS booster to orbit. Presumably the software to integrate all of that power has come a long way since the Soviets tried their engine N1 rocket in the late 60s and early 70s.

All four N1 launches were failures. The expendable variant of the ITS rocket would have an unprecedented lift capacity of metric tons to low Earth orbit LEO , which is roughly equivalent to 50 full-size yellow school buses. The most powerful rocket flying today, the Delta IV heavy, has a payload-to-LEO capacity of only about 28 metric tons; the most powerful rocket ever to successfully fly, the Saturn V, could haul metric tons to LEO.

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Instead of departing Earth orbit at 4. After launching and being fueled on orbit, the ITS could deliver tons to the surface of Mars. The largest payload NASA—or anyone—has ever safely landed on the Martian surface is the Curiosity rover, which weighs less than a single ton. There are more details in the presentation SpaceX has posted on its Web site. Suffice it to say the company has proposed building breathtaking space machines orders of magnitude greater than NASA or anyone else has ever constructed.

These are truly audacious space-faring vessels, designed to go where no one has gone before.

They are almost unbelievable. Understandably, one might dismiss Elon Musk as a crank, a once-promising visionary slowly degenerating into a Howard Hughes-like madness. A million people on cold, dead Mars?

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The MER ops team packed up its newfound knowledge and Opportunity backed down the slope. The veteran rover spent the second half of the month driving up the floor of Marathon Valley to a more accessible outcrop destination, along another slope on another part of Knudsen Ridge unnamed as of post time , a site where Mars may finally give up its smectite secrets. The Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars CRISM , a visible-infrared spectrometer aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter MRO searching for mineralogical indications of past and present water on Mars, first detected the signatures ancient phyllosilicates, specifically smectite clay minerals, in The orbital instrument indicated there is a mother lode of different types of smectites in Marathon Valley.

Opportunity the rover has been looking to uncover and characterize those remnant smectites since July when she first entered Marathon Valley from the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity pressed on through March, driving to the southwestern end of Knudsen Ridge where she climbed another slope. The temperatures at Endeavour Crater are looking good. There are a lot of science opportunities ahead and we are actively exploring and looking forward. Joseph Whitehouse, bedrock at the top of the Knudsen Ridge slope the rover was exploring.

The veteran rover drove into the month and began her approach, moving 1. And, on Sol March 2, , the rover did just that. While the robot did make some uphill progress toward the bedrock target, she again experienced significant slip. Whitehouse and then took care of other business, including taking images of her deck for dust monitoring and re-taking some missed frames from the Whitehouse mosaic on Sol March 4, Opportunity attempted another hike upslope on Sol March 6, , but again slip caused her drive to end prematurely.

While the MER team regrouped, the rover finished up the first week of the month taking some additional frames for the Knudsen Ridge panorama and taking Navigation Camera Navcam images of the immediate area, as well as images of her deck for dust monitoring. The rover tried again to reach Pvt. Whitehouse as the second week of March began, but with her high tilt on the slope and the rubbly terrain under her wheels, she continued to slip more than advance.

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Once again her drive on Sol March 8, was automatically terminated. While the MER team assessed the situation the following morning, the rover took a Navcam cloud movie, snapped some Pancam multi-filter images of the foreground, and took more Pancam dust monitoring images on Sol March 9, Opportunity made a third and final attempt to get up close to Pvt.

Whitehouse on Sol March 10, , but after 20 meters This rover had scaled steep slopes before, but those slopes were, as memories serve, firm bedrock, not the loose soil covered and rubble laden terrain she was encountering on Knudsen Ridge. And, this is a rover and a team willing to take on a challenge. But try as they might, Opportunity was unable to reach even the bottom of the bedrock.

Proven robot trooper that she is, a rover that has so often made everything look easy, supported by the most experienced rover team in the world, reality does bite sometimes, and this time Mars won. The MER team decided to rove on. With their CRISM map, the scientists had already zeroed in on a new bedrock attraction to the southwest.

About 50 meters from Whitehouse, the new site is located on a slope on the southwestern end of Knudsen Ridge or south wall of Marathon Valley.

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So, on Sol March 12, , Opportunity backed down from the Pvt. Whitehouse bedrock with a 2-meter 6. The rover backed farther downhill to the north on Sol March 15, , putting about 6.

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Following the mission protocol, she used her Navcam and Pancam to take post drive images on Sols March March 18, With that drive, Opportunity was back on the floor of Marathon Valley and ready to begin a series of drives that would take her to the next science site. Driving would be the name of the game for the rest of March. Since Marathon Valley is slightly tilted to the east, Opportunity drove uphill, east to west, toward the Endeavour Crater rim. The robot field geologist logged 9. As usual, she took the routine Navcam and Pancam panoramas after the drive, and then spent a few sols taking care of routine engineering business, and taking images of her surroundings.

The MER ops team then gave Opportunity her route and commanded the rover to drive She worked into the wee hours that sol on another APXS atmospheric argon measurement. Two sols later, the rover revved her solar power engine and drove again putting 6. And that appears to be what got us on this one. Opportunity spent the next couple of sols taking images of various potential targets and her surroundings, including some Pancam pictures of the valley floor.

So many Pancam images that anyone following this mission knows all those images are going to go somewhere — like into a huge, monster panorama. The rover logged All of which brought her odometer to With power levels rising above watt-hours, more than two-thirds her capability when she landed in and had clean solar arrays, and an improved dust factor of 0. However, this time, said Nelson, it's hard to know that for sure.

Other than catching images of a dust devil whirling by, which rarely happens, Opportunity has no way of knowing how much the wind might be blowing. Making things more complex is the fact that the dust factor isn't derived by just dust on the array. So while dust is the primary aspect of the dust factor, it also incorporates other things. Consider that the current model takes into account the shadowing the rover experiences from the valley walls. However, a thorough analysis requires imaging and recently the imaging needs of the scientists and the rover have been taking a priority.