NASA Orion Spacecraft Flight Tests for Mission to Mars & Landscape Updates from Rover

Poster of Mars with statistics. Why go back to Mars? Far from dead, Mars holds untold potential. Nearly half a century of Mars exploration has yielded tantalizing clues that Mars may once have harbored life—and may harbor it still. The extraordinary landing of a revolutionary rover named Curiosity—which successfully touched down inside the Gale Crater—means we have wheels down on the planet once again, in the form of the most sophisticated robot ever to rove the Mars surface. Will NASA’s bold mission and this marvel of technology answer some of our biggest questions and usher in a new golden age of exploration? NOVA goes behind the scenes on NASA’s quest to solve the riddles of the red planet. ( Space Documentary HD, World’s Best Documentaries Around the World).

Human Mission to Mars NASA’s Ultimate Challenge

NASA Orion Flight Tests & Mission to Mars

NASA Orion Flight Tests & Mission to MarIn the not-too-distant future, astronauts destined to be the first people to walk on Mars will leave Earth aboard an Orion spacecraft. Carried aloft by the tremendous power of a Space Launch System rocket, our explorers will begin their Journey to Mars from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the spirit of humanity with them to the Red Planet.

The first future human mission to Mars and those that follow will require the ingenuity and dedication of an entire generation. It’s a journey worth the risks. We take the next step on that journey this Thursday, Dec. 4, with the uncrewed, first flight test of Orion. (Follow along on the Orion Blog, or see the full schedule of events and launch viewing opportunities).

Drawing of cross-section of NASA's Orion space, which is designed to go to Mars in the near future.Orion is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the storied Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. It is designed to go farther than humans have ever traveled, well beyond the moon, pushing the boundaries of spaceflight to new heights.

Orion will open the space between Earth and Mars for exploration by astronauts. This proving ground will be invaluable for testing capabilities future human Mars missions will need. The area around our moon, in particular, called cis-lunar space, is a rich environment for testing human exploration needs, like advanced spacewalking suits, navigating using gravity, and protecting astronauts from radiation and extreme temperatures.

Crew module after splash down in the Pacific Ocean with the Crew Module Uprighting System bags deployed and the USS Anchorage in the background

One of Orion’s early missions in the 2020s will send astronauts to explore an asteroid, which will be placed in a stable orbit around the moon using a robotic spacecraft. This Asteroid Redirect Mission will test new technologies, like Solar Electric Propulsion, which will help us send heavy cargo to Mars in advance of human missions. Astronauts aboard Orion will return to Earth with samples of the asteroid, having tested a number of collection tools and techniques we’ll use in future human missions to Mars or its moons.

Astronauts will board Orion for a first crewed flight in 2021. Many of Orion’s systems needed for that flight and others will be tested on Thursday with the first uncrewed flight test.

Astronauts in the Orion spacecraft that is being built by NASA for the Mission to Mars. Orion’s flight test is designed to test many of the riskiest elements of leaving Earth and returning home in the spacecraft. It will evaluate several key separations events, including the jettison of the launch abort system that will be capable of carrying astronauts on future missions to safety if a problem were to arise on the launch pad or during ascent to space, and the separation of the Orion crew module from its service module ahead of its reentry though Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion’s heat shield also will be tested to examine how the spacecraft endures its high speed return from deep space. The heat shield will experience temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit during Thursday’s test, and will come back at about 80 percent of the speed the spacecraft would endure returning from the vicinity of the moon.

Inside the command of the Orion Spacecraft built by Lockheed for NASA's Mission to Mars. Other elements will also be put to the test, including how Orion’s computers handle the radiation environment in the Van Allen Belt, the spacecraft’s attitude control and guidance and how its 11 parachutes slow the crew module to just about 20 mph ahead of its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Teams also will evaluate the procedures and tools used to recover Orion from the ocean after it touches down about 600 miles southwest of San Diego and is transported back to shore.  Testing these capabilities now will help ensure that Orion will be the next generation spacecraft for missions in the 2020s that will put Mars within the reach of astronauts in the 2030s. 

As development continues on Orion, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are helping us learn how to protect the human body for longer durations, which missions to Mars will require. Researchers operating increasingly advanced rovers and spacecraft on and around Mars are revealing the planet’s history while characterizing its environment to better prepare for human explorers. Here on Earth, the U.S. spaceflight industry is building and testing next generation technologies NASA will need to send astronauts to Mars and return them safely.

The Journey to Mars is humanity’s Next Giant Leap into our solar system. The Orion spacecraft and its first flight test will help make it possible.

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NASA’s current mission to send an astronaut to Mars is driven by development of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. The capsule spacecraft is being designed to take humans back to the moon by 2020. In later years, by rendezvous with Mars-bound vehicles assembled in orbit, it may take the first humans to the Red Planet. These future possibilities are exciting, but unmanned spacecraft have already greatly enhanced our knowledge of Mars.

Dozens of spacecraft have been sent to Mars, but only about one of every three missions has been a success. This sobering statistic underscores just how difficult it remains to send a craft to Mars and see it arrive in proper working order to transmit data back to Earth.The first Mars missions were called flybys and involved getting a spacecraft close to the planet so that it could take images in passing.
NASA’s Mariner spacecraft were small robotic craft designed to explore the neighboring planets of Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Mariner 4 passed Mars in July 1965 and captured close-up images of this foreign world—the first Mars images ever returned to Earth.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Heads Toward Active Dunes

This Sept. 25, 2015, view from the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a dark sand dune in the middle distance. Click to See Full Image with Full Caption on NASA Website 

This Sept. 25, 2015, view from the Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a dark sand dune in the middle distance.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On its way to higher layers of the mountain where it is investigating how Mars’ environment changed billions of years ago, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover will take advantage of a chance to study some modern Martian activity at mobile sand dunes.

On the next few days, the rover will get its first close-up look at these dark dunes, called the “Bagnold Dunes,” which skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. No Mars rover has previously visited a sand dune, as opposed to smaller sand ripples or drifts. One dune Curiosity will investigate is as tall as a two-story building and as broad as a football field. The Bagnold Dunes are active: Images from orbit indicate some of them are migrating as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year. No active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth.

The dark band in the lower portion of this Martian scene is part of the "Bagnold Dunes" dune field lining the northwestern edge of Mount Sharp.

The dark band in the lower portion of this Martian scene is part of the “Bagnold Dunes” dune field lining the northwestern edge of Mount Sharp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
“We’ve planned investigations that will not only tell us about modern dune activity on Mars but will also help us interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago,” said Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena, California.

As of Monday, Nov. 16, Curiosity has about 200 yards or meters remaining to drive before reaching “Dune 1.” The rover is already monitoring the area’s wind direction and speed each day and taking progressively closer images, as part of the dune research campaign. At the dune, it will use its scoop to collect samples for the rover’s internal laboratory instruments, and it will use a wheel to scuff into the dune for comparison of the surface to the interior.

This view taken from orbit around Mars shows the sand dune that will be the first to be visited by NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover along its route to higher layers of Mount Sharp.

This view taken from orbit around Mars shows the sand dune that will be the first to be visited by NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover along its route to higher layers of Mount Sharp. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Curiosity has driven about 1,033 feet (315 meters) in the past three weeks, since departing an area where its drill sampled two rock targets just 18 days apart. The latest drilled sample, “Greenhorn,” is the ninth since Curiosity landed in 2012 and sixth since reaching Mount Sharp last year. The mission is studying how Mars’ ancient environment changed from wet conditions favorable for microbial life to harsher, drier conditions.

Before Curiosity’s landing, scientists used images from orbit to map the landing region’s terrain types in a grid of 140 square quadrants, each about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) wide. Curiosity entered its eighth quadrant this month. It departed one called Arlee, after a geological district in Montana, and drove into one called Windhoek, for a geological district in Namibia.

This animation flips back and forth between views taken in 2010 and 2014 of a Martian sand dune at the edge of Mount Sharp, documenting dune activity.

This animation flips back and forth between views taken in 2010 and 2014 of a Martian sand dune at the edge of Mount Sharp, documenting dune activity. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Throughout the mission, the rover team has informally named Martian rocks, hills and other features for locations in the quadrant’s namesake area on Earth. There’s a new twist for the Windhoek Quadrant: scientists at the Geological Society of Namibia and at the Gobabeb Research and Training Center in Namibia have provided the rover team with a list of Namibian geological place names to use for features in this quadrant. The Windhoek theme was chosen for this sand-dune-bearing quadrant because studies of the Namib Desert have aided interpretation of dune and playa environments on Mars.

What distinguishes actual dunes from windblown ripples of sand or dust, like those found at several sites visited previously by Mars rovers, is that dunes form a downwind face steep enough for sand to slide down. The effect of wind on motion of individual particles in dunes has been studied extensively on Earth, a field pioneered by British military engineer Ralph Bagnold (1896-1990). Curiosity’s campaign at the Martian dune field informally named for him will be the first in-place study of dune activity on a planet with lower gravity and less atmosphere.

This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in mid-November 2015, approaching examples of dunes in the "Bagnold Dunes" dune field. Click Here to See Full Image and Caption at NASA Website
This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in mid-November 2015, approaching examples of dunes in the “Bagnold Dunes” dune field. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Observations of the Bagnold Dunes with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicate that mineral composition is not evenly distributed in the dunes. The same orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment has documented movement of Bagnold Dunes.

“We will use Curiosity to learn whether the wind is actually sorting the minerals in the dunes by how the wind transports particles of different grain size,” Ehlmann said.

As an example, the dunes contain olivine, a mineral in dark volcanic rock that is one of the first altered into other minerals by water. If the Bagnold campaign finds that other mineral grains are sorted away from heavier olivine-rich grains by the wind’s effects on dune sands, that could help researchers evaluate to what extent low and high amounts of olivine in some ancient sandstones could be caused by wind-sorting rather than differences in alteration by water.

Ehlmann and Nathan Bridges of the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland, lead the Curiosity team’s planning for the dune campaign.

“These dunes have a different texture from dunes on Earth,” Bridges said. “The ripples on them are much larger than ripples on top of dunes on Earth, and we don’t know why. We have models based on the lower air pressure. It takes a higher wind speed to get a particle moving. But now we’ll have the first opportunity to make detailed observations.”

JPL, managed by Caltech for NASA, built Curiosity and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. For more information about Curiosity, visit:

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington
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