NASA is set to announce they’ve solved a ‘major mystery’ on Mars at a press conference at 11:30am EST Monday. But experts are already speculating what the announcement could be.
While they still haven’t found a colony of little green men, the press conferences list of invitees and speakers gives a good hint as to what NASA could announce – liquid water has been discovered on the red planet.
According to the NASA press release, participating in the news conference will be:
- Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters
- Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters
- Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
- Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and the Georgia Institute of Technology
- Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) at the University of Arizona in Tucson
Ojha, Wilhelm, and McEwen published a paper in 2011 that claimed to have discovered liquid water on the surface of Mars, which makes their appearance as speakers in the news conference so noteworthy. If water has been found, this could have a major impact on a planned manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that NASA’s newest spacecraft, the Orion, won’t be flying astronauts as soon as anticipated.
Earlier this month, top NASA officials said there isn’t much confidence in the original 2021 launch date. That’s because of the space agency’s history of running into unexpected problems in new programs, like Orion.
Managers set 2023 as the new official launch date for the capsule, although they said they haven’t entirely given up yet on 2021.
Orion is meant to expand human exploration in space, principally Mars. The 11-foot capsule will blast off atop a megarocket still under development by NASA, called SLS for Space Launch System. An unmanned test flight of Orion and the new SLS rocket is still on schedule for 2018.
The spacecraft sailed through its first test flight in December. Nonetheless, managers said they want to be conservative in what lies ahead.
NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said there were too many variables to calculate the chance of meeting a 2021 launch. But he noted during a teleconference with reporters: “It’s not a very high confidence level, I’ll tell you that, just because of the things we’ve seen historically pop up.”
Software development typically can cause delays, as can the reuse of test hardware. While there are no setbacks in these areas yet, Lightfoot said, “but we have to account for those because we’ve got a lot of runway in front of us here before we get there, and those things could pop up.” He called these “unknown unknowns.”
NASA has already spent $4.7 billion on Orion and is committing $6.7 billion more in development costs from October to Orion’s first crewed flight by 2023. That first flight with astronauts will be to check out Orion’s crew systems close to Earth, especially the life-support equipment. The capsule is designed to hold four astronauts.
On the second crewed mission, NASA will push deeper into space, perhaps the far side of the moon, said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. He envisions the area around the moon as a prime testing ground for yearly missions. Another possible destination: an asteroid.
The ultimate prize is Mars in the 2030s — and, eventually, beyond.
NASA is focusing on Orion and SLS, while letting commercial space companies handle routine supply runs to the International Space Station. The goal is to get private companies — specifically SpaceX and Boeing — to start delivering American astronauts as well in 2017. Until then, Russia is doing all the crew transport.
Orion is NASA’s first new spacecraft for humans in more than a generation, succeeding the now-retired space shuttles.