Image: Gashopper
Pioneer Astronautics
The Pioneer Astronautics team watches the Mars Ship 1 "gashopper" in flight during a test at Platte Valley Airport near Brighton, Colo.

July 29, 2005 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Hopping on Mars: Imagine a rocket plane that can sail for dozens of miles over the Martian terrain, set itself down, send out a robotic explorer for a month or so, then take off for the next destination.

It may sound like pure science fiction — but for Robert Zubrin, rocket scientist and Mars mission architect, there's nary a shred of make-believe to the idea. In fact, he and his colleagues at Colorado-based Pioneer Astronautics have just finished up a NASA-funded project to develop an earthly prototype for such a plane, called "Mars Ship 1."

On Mars, the solar-powered plane would suck in carbon dioxide, the principal ingredient of Mars' thin atmosphere, and compress it as a propellant. When it's time for takeoff, a bed of pellets would be heated to a high temperature, and the CO2 would be passed over the pellets.

"What we generate is a moderately hot gas jet," Zubrin explained. "We're not really doing much to the CO2. There's no chemical reaction at all."

Powered by the thrust of the heated gas, the plane would rise into the air and keep gliding even after the CO2 was depleted.

For the $70,000, six-month NASA study, Pioneer Astronautics developed a prototype "gashopper" that weighed 118 pounds (53 kilograms) and had a wingspan of 14 feet (4.25 meters). The plane went through three test flights at a Colorado airport and flew as far as 1,655 feet (504 meters), Zubrin said.

According to Zubrin's calculations, a Martian gashopper could travel 62 miles (100 kilometers) on a hop. Then the plane would soak up solar energy over the course of a month or so, pumping up its CO2 reserves. During that time, a small rover could deplane, explore the surroundings, upload its findings and return to the mothership for the next hop.

"It is a ship for sailing Mars," Zubrin said.

The initial study was funded by a Small Business Innovation Research Phase 1 grant from NASA. Zubrin was the principal investigator for the project, and Chris Kuhl was the program technical monitor at NASA's Langley Research Center. Other members of the Pioneer Astronautics team included Gary Snyder, electronics lead; Dan Harber, aerodynamics lead; Nick Jameson, mechanisms design; Mike Hurley, radio-control pilot; Kyle Johnson, intern; and James Kilgore, machinist.

So what's next? NASA is now looking at proposals for SBIR Phase 2 funding, said Paul Mexcur, program manager for NASA's SBIR/STTR Program Office. The projects that are selected for Phase 2 would get up to $600,000 over two years for further development.

"It's a technology feeder program," Mexcur explained.

If the gashopper gets that far, it could eventually take its place among other airplane projects that have been considered for actual deployment on Mars, including ARES and BIG BLUE.

For more on the Mars Ship 1, check out Pioneer Astronautics' news release and AVI video — and since Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society, you can bet that the craft will be on display at the society's annual conference next month.

July 29, 2005 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Skating on Mars: Frozen lakes on Mars? Of course! There's tons of the stuff at the Martian poles, though much of the ice is of the carbon dioxide variety. You'd have to assume that some of the H2O would find its way into chilly craters and depressions near the poles, and that appears to be the case for an unnamed crater in a northern polar region called Vastitas Borealis.

Image: Ice lake on Mars
ESA / DLR / FU Berlin
A bright frozen "pond" of residual ice sits within a Martian crater, spotted by the Mars Express orbiter.
The 22-mile-wide, 1.2-mile-deep crater, spotted by the high-resolution camera aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, contains a bright circular patch of residual ice, plus a bit of frost around the rim.

The picture's sharp resolution and bright color makes the place looks positively inviting, but there are probably many more icy craters to choose from. For some alternate locations, check out the Mars Global Surveyor image of a southern polar crater covered by rippled fog, or a snapshot of a Martian crater that shows evidence of seepage and ponding. Heck, even the "Happy Face Crater" can take on a frosty look.

July 29, 2005 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Another water world: Scientists report that Enceladus, a frozen moon of Saturn, shows evidence of ice volcanism — including a cloud of water vapor near the moon's south pole that is most likely fed by emissions from fractures in surface ice. The report is based on data from the Cassini spacecraft, which made a close flyby of Enceladus earlier this month.

"Enceladus is the smallest body so far found that seems to have active volcanism," Torrence Johnson, a member of the Cassini imaging team member from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release today. "Enceladus' localized water vapor atmosphere is reminiscent of comets. 'Warm spots' in its icy and cracked surface are probably the result of heat from tidal energy like the volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io. And its geologically young surface of water ice, softened by heat from below, resembles areas on Jupiter's moons, Europa and Ganymede."

The latest claims are in line with suspicions that scientists had even before Cassini arrived in the Saturnian system a year ago, as well as recent findings about Enceladus' atmosphere.

July 29, 2005 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
The Economist: The neurology of consciousness World's pickiest animal identified
HubbleSite: Supergiant goes supernova
eChalk color illusions (via GeekPress)

July 28, 2005 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Russia to the rescue? NBC News space analyst Jim Oberg passes along a report from the  Itar-Tass news agency suggesting that the Russians could send up waves of Soyuz and Progress space capsules if they were needed to save the shuttle Discovery's crew.

Video: East meets West in space “We shall do everything in our powers to cope with this complex task. If we exert the maximum effort, the crew would be evacuated by three Soyuz craft before February 2006,” Nikolai Sevastianov, head of the Energia space company, is quoted as saying.

It looks as if Discovery will be in no need of a rescue , by the Russians or by a second NASA shuttle — but Oberg points out that there's a subtext to the report, related to the future of the international space station program.

"This public statement is more symbolic than practical, and expresses both genuine concern and a willingness to help, along with a gentle reminder that continuing shuttle problems are putting Russia more and more into the ‘driver’s seat’ in the program — with all the required financial considerations that this implies," Oberg observes.

Indeed, Discovery's flight and the shuttle fleet's problems (as well as the 30th anniversary of the first Apollo-Soyuz docking) have caused the Russians to float plenty of new space initiatives. Here are just a few other examples from the Russian press:

Then, of course, there's the proposal for $100 million round-the-moon voyages. We discussed this earlier in the week, in the context of Constellation Services International's long-simmering plan for such trips — and the idea received a mostly positive reception from Cosmic Log readers. Here's a selection of the feedback:

Robin: "You asked, would an amateur travel on such an experimental moonship at any price? Of course! If the price was right, amateurs and pros would be lining up for tickets. That $100 million price tag is pretty steep, though. I had the impression that CSI's Lunar Express would be more affordable. Must be some new overhead somewhere. You know what's interesting to me? That the Russians think they can make enough profit from Moon excursions to help finance the Kliper!"

Joseph Turner, New London, Conn.: "Are you kidding? In a heartbeat! NASA: Please pay attention! The space station is a steppingstone to the moon, not an obsolete obligation. Who woulda thunk the (formerly socialistic) Soviets would teach us how to make a profit and fund future expenses?"

Dave, Walbridge, Ohio: "Our Russian friends are long on ideas but short on money. This is just another 'blue sky' idea that will not see the dark of space."

Joe Strout, Fort Collins, Colo.: "Of course I would go, if I had the means! The backside of the moon, or any side of the moon close up, has been seen by only a handful of people (all of them white American men, as it happens). I would jump at the chance to add myself to that trip. Given the number of people willing to pay $20 million for a week on the international space station, $100 million to get a lunar tour as well seems like a bargain. I hope and expect that they will get multiple applicants for this deal."

Simon Proud, Leicester, U.K.: "Rather biased article. No, incredibly biased. As for the issue of whether anyone would be willing to travel (regardless of money) — of course! There'd be plenty of people willing to fly it. You've just got to find one with $100 million."

Gary O'Neal, Murfreesboro, Tenn.: "I'd rather drive a Yugo down the autobahn than take a Russian capsule around the moon. Odds of surviving are about the same, but it's not nearly as expensive."

Steve Basiewicz, Rochester Hills, Mich.: "Space tourism is as unthinkable now as routine international flights were in 1905. Yet, in the century since then, people were willing to pay $10,000 (1990 dollars) for a ticket aboard a Concorde, which has got to be worth something close to nine figures in [the modern equivalent of] 1905 dollars. So, though lunar orbit might not be the No. 1 tourist destination right away, a century from now it may be economical enough."

Actually, according to Tom's Inflation Calculator, $10,000 in 1990 is the equivalent of $15,000 today (which in itself is a scary thought), and if you took that $15,000 back to 1905, it would have the buying power of about $366,000 in today's dollars.

Douglas Fingles, Warner Robins, Ga.: "While I can only speculate that Richard Branson or Steve Fossett might pay up for a lunar excursion, it seems to me the important nugget in the story is the ability of the Russian Space Agency to not only run a project like this for just $100 million, but make a significant profit from it as well. So maybe the real costs of space travel are in the government bureaucracies and not the cost of hardware."

Thomas, Springfield, Ill.: "I think a lot of amateur space enthusiasts would jump at the opportunity to orbit the moon. The problem would be that only a handful of people on the planet can afford the price tag, and only a subset of those are space enthusiasts; even fewer would be willing to spend that much of their own fortune to do it. My best guess is that a courageous, deal-savvy celebrity will find financiers to pay all or part of it for it for the documentary movie rights. If I couldn't go myself, I'd buy a ticket to see the real in-depth story of a favorite celebrity doing so; others would too."

July 28, 2005 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
NASA challenge targets personal air vehicles Mars plan envisions comfy colony
AirVenture Today: SpaceShipOne makes triumphant arrival
The Guardian: Breaking the magic bubble

July 27, 2005 | 6:35 p.m. ET
Space deals confirmed: SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and British billionaire Richard Branson, would-be spaceline operator (and space traveler), today announced the creation of a new venture to build the SpaceShipTwo rocket planes that would be used by Branson's Virgin Galactic line.

Also today, Russia's Federal Space Agency and Virginia-based Space Adventures announced that New Jersey inventor/entrepreneur Greg Olsen will be part of a crew flying up to the international space station on Oct. 1, and will thus become the third paying passenger to visit the station.

If you're a close observer of the private-spaceflight revolution, you might be asking yourself right about now: Haven't we heard all this before? The answer is yes, sort of ... but the latest announcements add an extra measure of reality to the reports.

First, about Olsen's flight: It's true that the Russians announced a firm deal with the millionaire last month, but the exact timing of Olsen's space station flight had not at that time been confirmed. Now his 10-day, $20 million trip aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle is a sure thing, provided that he continues to pass the medical checks and keep up with the payments.

"This is really final," Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures, told me. "When they name the crew, all the final wheels are in motion for the flight."

Olsen, who plans to use his own company's imaging equipment during his stint in space, has been working more than a year to prepare for the flight. His training faced complications last summer when unspecified medical concerns came to light — and those concerns were resolved just a couple of months ago.

“His determination and dedication to this mission should be seen as highly commendable and respected by the entire space community,” Russian space agency chief Anatoly Perminov was quoted as saying. “Dr. Olsen will be the first space tourist launched since the Columbia tragedy; we look forward to many future private missions.”

Now, about the Rutan-Branson deal, which was announced at this week's EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis.: It's true that Branson announced a year ago that he'd be licensing SpaceShipOne technology for five Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceships, with service due to start in the 2008 time frame.

But today's announcement reflects a finer appreciation of the financial and regulatory realities. Several months ago, Rutan complained to Congress that U.S. export restrictions were making it difficult for the British Virgin Galactic project to move forward.

The new arrangement restructures the deal: The Rutan-Branson venture, called The Spaceship Company, will license SpaceShipOne's technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company set up with financial backing from software billionaire Paul Allen and intellectual property from Rutan's Scaled Composites.

The Spaceship Company will then do the actual building of SpaceShipTwos (or Threes ... or Fours) for Virgin Galactic, and for any other spaceline company that wants a suborbital craft. You can assume that the company is structured so as to avoid running into export roadblocks, while keeping the British financial backer in the loop.

Though I'm not privy to the financial details, this arrangement also could give Allen an easier, lower-risk path to recoup the $25 million-plus he shelled out for SpaceShipOne's construction. Money will flow from Branson, to the Rutan-Branson venture that will build the spaceships, to the Allen-Rutan venture that holds the intellectual-property rights. What's more, Branson could still conceivably make money in the new space race, even if Virgin Galactic ends up going nowhere.

For more on The Spaceship Company and Branson's plans, check out this report from

July 27, 2005 | 6:35 p.m. ET
Administrator Spock: When reporters asked NASA Administrator Mike Griffin how he felt when the space shuttle Discovery lifted off, he replied with a comment that could have come straight from the mouth of the "Star Trek" TV series' logic-loving Mr. Spock:

"I don't know ... I was watching displays and camera footage, looking for evidence of what we were all looking for: anything coming off the tank. Just trying to evaluate what we were seeing from an engineering perspective, realizing of course that it wasn't ever going to be as good as all the postgame replays that we will do. But if you want honesty, I've got to be honest with you. I was engaged in what was going on and was not aware of what I might or might not be feeling."

Among some listeners, the comment raised eyebrows of almost Vulcan proportions.

"The new administrator seemed to show himself as a bit of a 'pencil-necked geek,' as far as I'm concerned, when he admitted that he had no emotion during liftoff," Cosmic Log correspondent Mark Simpson wrote. "Give me a break. I was screaming 'Go, Baby' at the TV! I would be very surprised if we ever see him pull out a bottle of champagne as his predecessor did ."

It's too early for the champagne, of course, since NASA is consciously holding back on the celebrations until Discovery's safe return. But beyond that, Griffin actually likes to revel in his Spockian, strictly-science reserve. Last month, in fact, he told an audience: "With regard to feelings: I don't do feelings. Just think of me as Spock." (PDF version of text)

But just like Mr. Spock (who, after all, was half-human, half-Vulcan), Griffin has a softer side as well. At NASA's launch control center, he told workers, "I know what this means to you, because I know what this means to me."

And during a hurried encounter before Tuesday's news conference, Griffin gave me a far more down-to-earth assessment of liftoff: "I thought it was great!"

July 27, 2005 | 6:35 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
NASA: The next giant leap
Nature: Humans learn without explicit thought
N.Y. Times (reg. required): A new face
Reuters via MSNBC: The best way to woo women

July 26, 2005 | 8:45 a.m. ET
Fly me to the moon? Russian space officials are working out a plan to send high-rolling space passengers around the moon and back for a cool $100 million.

And just as the Soviet space shuttle looked like the American version, this idea has much in common with an American company’s proposal to use the international space station and a beefed-up Soyuz craft to offer an Apollo 8-style translunar excursion.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg wrote about the Lunar Express concept eight months ago : As laid out by Constellation Services International’s Charles Miller, the passenger would first be brought up to the international space station aboard a modified Russian Soyuz craft. Then the Soyuz would make a rendezvous with a booster-equipped logistics module that has been sent into orbit separately. The beefed-up craft would make an elongated figure-8 course around the moon – not landing there, but slingshotting around to return to Earth.

Oberg was amazingly prescient when he wrote, “The obvious question is what would prevent the Russians, or some other international space business, from simply stealing the idea and blowing off Miller and his associates.”

Unfortunately, Miller and CSI are not involved in the Russian round-the-moon project, reported by Moscow-based Channel 1 (in Russian) as well as the RIA Novosti news service.

Instead, the news reports say that Russia’s Federal Space Agency and Energia, the prime contractor for much of the country’s space hardware, are working on the project. Channel 1 says proceeds from the two-week, $100 million tour package would go toward building Russia’s next-generation spaceship, the Kliper .

Whether you’re talking about suborbital, orbital or lunar space tourism, the biggest challenges have to do with risk and revenue. Would billionaires (or perhaps high-rolling, deal-savvy entrepreneurs) think the trip is worth paying a nine-figure fare? For that matter, would any amateur travel on such an experimental moonship at any price? What do you think?

July 25, 2005 | 12:45 p.m. ET
Shuttle second-guessing: Figuring out the cause of a glitch that hasn't yet reappeared sounds like a job for a circuitry psychic — or perhaps the late, lamented Scotty from "Star Trek." But at least NASA engineers have a plan for capturing the glitch, or at least making a judgment over whether to let the shuttle launch despite the glitch.

The key phrase in NASA's calculations is "common cause." The fuel-sensor system that's been the matter of concern has built-in redundancy, so that it will work as designed even if two of the four low-level sensors are working correctly. Thus, if one sensor shows bad readings because of a cause specific to only that one sensor, there's still a margin of safety.

But if the sensor is bad because of a cause that could also bring down other sensors, you're in trouble. That's a "common cause." Here's another example: I'll be setting a clock alarm to get up at 10 p.m. tonight to cover the fillup of Discovery's tank. If I set another alarm for 10 p.m., that might sound like a good backup. But if those alarm clocks are both plugged into the wall power, a common cause — for example, a power outage — could bring down both clocks, and I'd sleep through the crucial tank fueling .

If there is an unexplained, unfixable glitch — and there may well not be — NASA wants to make sure that the glitch is confined to one sensor rather than due to a common cause. This was the reason why NASA switched from a "three-out-of-four" to a "four-out-of-four" rule after the Challenger explosion in 1986. They feared that a particular problem with the power supply could take out multiple sensors at the same time.

Now the power supply has been upgraded, and that would help mission managers feel more comfortable about going with just three working sensors. If the glitch reappears, follow-up tests are aimed at ensuring that there's no common cause: The launch team would turn various circuits in the shuttle on and off, and check the connections that go through key spots in that circuitry. Only after those checks have been made would mission managers decide whether to go ahead or call a halt.

Is that good enough? MSNBC readers weighed in on both sides of the issue, and here's a selection of the e-mail feedback:

Curt M. Thompson: “It sounds like a lot of rationalization to me.  It may not be a safety issue, but someone thought that all the redundancy was important, otherwise they would have just put in two or three sensors.  Besides … NASA has stated in writing what they are committed to do, and a lot of people know it.  If they launch with the sensor as it is, they are without integrity – yet, these days, what is integrity worth?  I can hear the people at the front lines of NASA expecting this to be a sellout of integrity and just vaporous words devoid of meaning, or more of the same.  This seems to be a pattern of struggling, sick and deadly safety cultures. Fix the sensor. I am sure it is a bundle of money, of which I would be more agreeable to as a taxpayer than to have a successful launch starved of integrity and a safety culture that will kill again.  Do it right this time and apologize for tempting those involved to launch against a written protocol. Then, if it is still a good idea, cut it back to three sensors for future launches, but not this one.”

Merretta Vasquez: “I do not agree with NASA's plans. The next mission into space should not have any ‘glitches’ or any other problems. I do not believe there is an imperative reason for NASA to launch the shuttle, so they should correct any problems before doing so. Not only would it be irresponsible of NASA to launch Discovery, but also it would be a national tragedy and embarrassment if anything were to happen to the shuttle or the fine men and women aboard.”

Derrick Fronckowiak: “… Since NASA believes the failure of this sensor to be out of the ordinary, and since there is system redundancy in the form of the other sensors, the probability of another system failure would seem highly unlikely. Additionally, the issue with that particular sensor will become a moot point as far as the safety of this shuttle mission is concerned, once the large external tank is separated from the orbiter.  The tank will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and for the most part burn up. ...  The redundancy built into the system mitigates the risk of launching even despite a reoccurrence of that same sensor failing.  This is the reason that redundancy and secondary backups are in place. The tragic loss of the other two orbiters was related to design problems and the highly improbable occurrence of the external tank’s insulation damaging the orbiter's wing leading edge.  Therefore, from the risk management standpoint, this mission is safe to launch even with this sensor issue still ongoing.”

Andy Cassidy, Manchester, Conn.: “What do I think of NASA's plan?  Same as always.  Say one thing, do another.  If triple redundancy wasn't necessary, they wouldn't have designed it in. It is necessary.  The fuel-gauge issue illustrates that not only has NASA not learned its lesson, but that it is incapable of learning the lesson.  Requirements are not optional.  They are requirements. That alone should decide the issue.  Lacking that, we have seen the same faulty safety culture destroy two vehicles and their crews. We are using a decades-old spacecraft.  That isn't a reason to be more tolerant of faults, it's a reason to be less tolerant!  If they can't get the shuttle safely prepared, as I feel they can, without resorting to 'management decisions' which put the crew at risk, then the shuttle should not fly. End of story.  If they want to automate the shuttle so no lives are at risk, fine.  Use the Ariane model of robotic launches. That way they can keep the international space station supplied and keep all applicable hearts beating on Earth as well.”

Jeff: “I feel that the decision to allow for a launch under those specific circumstances is a fair and reasonable decision.  As long as they get the expected failure, I don’t have a problem with a launch.”

Anonymous: “They are already doing what they said they'd never do again, and that's fly with known problems.  NASA's ‘safety culture’ needs further overhauling, along with the space program.  They also said they would never bend to schedule pressures, but are doing just that to rush launches in order to finish with the space station construction by 2010, a year mandated by President Bush. [Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne] Hale said ‘we're all still struggling a little bit with the ghost of Columbia, and therefore we want to make sure we do it right.’ I believe they should struggle with the ghosts of Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1 each time they go through a launch countdown.   Failure to do so could easily lead to another disaster, and I am afraid it will happen again. Space travel is inherently dangerous mainly because humans are inherently stupid.”

Richard A. Carver: “I worked in aerospace for 14 years, and if you are reporting everything correctly to your readers, then to proceed with the launch I believe be would be safe. It is just unnerving to have an indicator respond incorrectly when you know that each tank was filled with superchilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen. In closing, NASA should not hesitate to abort the mission if a problem arises that is not understood.  I will not fault NASA for aborting any mission that they believe must be aborted — ever.  I side on safety!”

Steve Murray: “After flying over 37 years in the military, from helicopters to jets to transports under peaceful and combat conditions, and a career in the airline industry, I think this is terribly risky to send up this space vehicle if this previous item that was a ‘downing gripe’ has all of a sudden moved on to a different NASA ‘go’ list even if it occurs again. What is the hurry? Fix the damn thing right and don’t grant some NASA waiver because NASA says so. God help everyone if something happens.”

Adam: “So there's a glitch and a malfunction, and they're going to launch it anyway?!? How come they can’t be real men (not to mention rocket scientists) and fix the problem making sure it's safe? I'm only 17 and I'm sick of this!”

Jamar: “Very safety-conscious of NASA to launch a potentially broken shuttle. I'm glad none of my family is on it.”

A.H.: “I keep hearing questions posed as to how the ‘public perceives’ the safety steps that are being employed.  There should be a total abandon of any campaign for public opinion, and [NASA should] simply determine a table of tolerances consistent with expert and scientific collective knowledge, assess risks in accordance with that standard, and go or no-go based on the team effort.  How we the public feel about the logistics of safety application will do nothing to ensure safety.  Please tell me that the priority of preservation of life is not dependent on a fear of public or political backlash!”

July 25, 2005 | 12:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
BBC: Butterfly unlocks evolution secret
Science News: Reflections of primate minds
Scientific American: Rebuilding a volcano Robot jumps, tumbles, rolls

Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments