May 10, 2018

NASA pushes its Moon and Mars ambitions

Mars' Mount Sharp, taken by the Mars Curiosity rover in January 2018. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Trump administration has set its near-term sights on returning humans to the moon and, by the 2030s, to orbit or land on Mars.

Between the lines: NASA funding is key to human exploration of Mars, and some worry a mission to the moon could divert resources needed to reach the Red Planet. The agency is looking for the commercial space industry to take on more low-Earth orbit and lunar activities. When it comes to NASA resources for an eventual Mars mission, the moon is “the elephant in the room,” Artemis Westenberg, president of Explore Mars, said at the Humans to Mars Summit this week.

“We’re doing both the moon and Mars, in tandem, and the missions are supportive of each other.”
— Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, at Humans to Mars Summit, Wednesday

Establishing infrastructure at a "gateway" in cislunar space — the region between Earth and the moon — has long been proposed as a way to get to Mars.

  • Boeing's Peter McGrath said the region could be used to develop propulsion systems that can take humans further out to Mars. It could also help us study human factors related to Mars exploration, like the psychological impact of living far from home for longer durations or the effects of radiation on human health.
  • "In cislunar space, you can prove you're Earth-independent. Right now we're not — the ISS [International Space Station] is not," said Westenberg.

The sticking point is the renewed focus on landing humans on the moon. Bridenstine said that will help the development of precision landing systems, habitats on the surface or in orbit, surface mobility technologies, and methane engines for Mars.

Some moon-related technologies could be relevant to Mars exploration, but others may not be, raising the question of how much should be invested in developing those technologies.

  • Compact reactors to generate nuclear power lend themselves to early testing on the moon, according to Aerojet Rocketdyne's Joe Cassady. "That would be useful for the people who want to mine the moon," he said, adding it would also inform the technology's use for Mars exploration.
  • Surface mobility (think: rovers and spacesuits): Some aspects of spacesuit design could be transferable between the moon and Mars, but moon dust and the Mars variety differ. "We could do a lot of stuff to make a perfect rover for the moon, but it may not transfer completely to Mars," said Cassady.
  • Demonstrating surface systems for Mars on the moon would "take a lot of time and money" and while experimenting with mining technology is "probably a good thing to do on the can do a lot of that robotically," said McGrath.

"The big challenge is going to be not getting diverted into things that are solely useful for resource development on the moon," said Cassady. "I really don’t see it as an either or. I think we can make this work."

One key difference: The moon doesn't have an atmosphere — but Mars does, so a landing on Mars can take advantage of drag and is better practiced in high-Earth altitudes (above 100,000 feet).

“[The moon] is not exclusively the stepping stone,” says Eric Stallmer from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, whose members include SpaceX (which is developing a rocket for getting people to Mars). “If there are commercial vehicles and opportunities available for Mars, it could bypass the moon.”

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Coronavirus crisis tests Trump’s love for cheap oil

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump is working to help an oil industry imploding as the coronavirus crisis chokes demand, but listen closely and you’ll hear his enduring love for cheap prices.

Why it matters: He’s like most Americans, who worry about energy only when it’s expensive or gone. As president, Trump has been slow and uneven in responding to the sector’s turmoil because of his inclination to cheer rock-bottom prices.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 a.m. ET: 1,277,962 — Total deaths: 69,527 — Total recoveries: 264,048Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 5 a.m. ET: 337,646 — Total deaths: 9,648 — Total recoveries: 17,582Map.
  3. Federal government latest: White House adviser Peter Navarro battled Dr. Anthony Fauci in the Situation Room over the use of hydroxychloroquine.
  4. Trump latest: The pandemic may delay a Supreme Court case on the president's tax returns, sparing him from having to release them before the 2020 election.
  5. 2020 latest: Joe Biden says DNC may have to hold virtual convention.
  6. World update: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to the hospital as a "precautionary step."
  7. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal health. Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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World coronavirus updates: Fewer deaths in Italy and Spain, U.K. toll jumps

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

Health officials in Italy and Spain are seeing a glimmer of hope, as both countries reported a decline in deaths from the novel coronavirus Sunday. But the death toll continues to surge in the United Kingdom, which now has the world's fourth highest number of fatalities from COVID-19.

The big picture: The virus has killed more than 69,000 people and infected 1.25 million others globally as of early Monday, per Johns Hopkins data. Spain has reported the most cases outside the U.S. (more than 131,000) and Italy the most deaths (over 15,000). About half the planet's population is now on lockdown.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 2 hours ago - Health