How is NASA’s detailed plan to send astronauts to Mars

The Orion capsule in an artistic image, will carry out its first test in June, if there are no further delays (NASA)

Since man stepped on the Moon in 1969, his illusion to conquer other worlds has not stopped growing. The idea of ​​traveling to another planet, like Mars, has taken away his sleep and today, more than 50 years later, several nations are seeking to draw up a concrete plan to set foot on the red planet.

Specific, The United States and China seem to be more advanced in this sizeable enterprise. This week, NASA unveiled its plans to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon, as a preliminary to manned missions to Mars. To this end, as a formal measure, it sent to the United States Congress a project called the “National Space Exploration Campaign” that provides for “human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of natural phenomena on Earth, other worlds, and the cosmos.

For it, NASA developed the Artemis program, which on June 19 will advance in the first integrated test of deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will be an uncrewed test flight that will provide a foundation for human exploration of deep space and demonstrate our commitment and ability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. .

Artemis will launch this year with the novelty of the SLS rocket, the most powerful ever created (NASA)
Artemis will launch this year with the novelty of the SLS rocket, the most powerful ever created (NASA)

During this flight, The spaceship will launch on the world’s most powerful rocket and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. It will travel 450,000 kilometers from Earth, far beyond the Moon over the course of a four to six week mission. Orion will stay in space longer than any astronaut ship without docking with a space station and then returning to Earth. “This is a mission that will really do what has not been done and learn what is not known. It will open a path that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Together with missions in low Earth orbit and robotic exploration of resources on the Moon, the new strategy expressly cites the return of United States astronauts to the surface of the Moon for a sustained campaign of exploration and use. It is also committed to demonstrating the capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations. In a statement, NASA explains that the Moon is a fundamental part of Earth’s past and future, “an off-world continent that may contain valuable resources to support space activity and scientific treasures that can tell us more about our own planet.” ”.

With this first exploration mission, NASA seeks to lead the next steps in human exploration in deep space, where astronauts will build and begin testing near-Moon systems needed for missions on the lunar surface and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars.

NASA's first graphic conception of what a mission to the red planet would look like (NASA)
NASA’s first graphic conception of what a mission to the red planet would look like (NASA)

The second Artemis flight will take the crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans on board. The SLS Rocket will evolve from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems on Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging needs of deep space crew and payload missions. Future crewed exploration missions aboard Orion will be assembled and docked with the Gateway orbital station. NASA and its partners will use the gateway for deep space operations, including missions to and on the Moon with an ever-decreasing reliance on Earth. Using lunar orbit, we will gain the experience needed to extend human exploration further into the solar system than ever before.

Gateway, the door to space

The next wave of lunar exploration will be fundamentally different”, announced the US space agency that is developing a plan for Americans to orbit around the Moon from 2023, and astronauts land on the surface no later than the late 2020s.

“This will be the first opportunity for most people alive today to witness a moon landing, a moment when, in wonder and amazement, the world holds its breath. However, the United States will not stop there. Thus, a key component in establishing the first permanent US presence and infrastructure on and around the Moon is Gateway, a lunar orbital platform to house astronauts further from Earth than ever before.

NASA's plan to return to the Moon and from there go to Mars (NASA)
NASA’s plan to return to the Moon and from there go to Mars (NASA)

There, the United States and its partners will prepare to transit through deep space. They will test new technologies and systems as the necessary infrastructure is built to carry out missions on the surface of the Moon first, and later on Mars. NASA will also study the effects of life in deep space, such as radiation and microgravity, over long periods on living organisms.

NASA recalls that some elements of the Gateway are already under construction, and that it will be assembled in space, using both NASA’s next superrocket, the SLS, and ships from private companies. The first element, which will provide power and propulsion, will launch from Florida at the end of June 2022, if there are no further delays.. The lunar surface will serve as a crucial training ground and technology demonstration test site for future human missions to Mars and other destinations.

Through international cooperation and with commercial partners, it is planned to launch robotic missions to the lunar surface starting in 2020. They will focus on the scientific exploration of lunar resources and prepare the lunar surface for a sustained human presence. In the late 2020s, a lunar lander capable of carrying crews and cargo will begin trips to the surface. Activities will expand and diversify over time, taking advantage of the Moon and near space for scientific exploration in the broadest sense.

Starship, Elon Musk's ship also seeks to sign up to go to the Moon and Mars (SpaceX)
Starship, Elon Musk’s ship also seeks to sign up to go to the Moon and Mars (SpaceX)

China seeks to compete

Although the counterpart and rival of the United States in the space race was always the Soviet Union / Russia, today China is positioned as the main competitor to reach the Moon and Mars.

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced that its main space station module—named Tianhe—has four ion thrusters. Tianhe will use these engines to correct and maintain the entire station’s orbit around Earth. These engines use charged particles (ions) to generate thrust. Ion thrusters use a magnetic field that limits the movement of electrons from an element — xenon or krypton — and ionizes them to accelerate them and produce a force to propel the aircraft.

These engines have been in use since the 1970s. when the Soviet Union began using them to keep their Meteor satellites in orbit. That technology is currently used in Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which use krypton-fueled ion engines to hold their position in space or bring them down to Earth when they reach the end of their useful lives. But the CNSA has much more ambitious plans that threaten NASA’s plans to get to Mars before anyone else: Chinese engineers want to develop a 200-megawatt ion engine capable of propelling a manned spacecraft to Mars in just 39 days. Likewise, you have to be cautious and go step by step.

According to Hang Guanrong, one of the engineers at the Shanghai Space Station Institute, China is developing a 50 kW engine “mainly designed for large-scale manned missions and transport missions to the Moon and Mars.” all this is far from 200 megawatts needed to power a manned ship. Therefore, there is still much to be done to reach 200 megawatts and dream of a trip to Mars in a few weeks.

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