A couple of weeks ago, European scientists announced the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars. This is just the latest in a long series of discoveries made by scientists and space agencies working together to advance human understanding of our place in the universe. From the detection of water in all of its forms on Mars by NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) rovers and satellites, to NASA providing the Commercial Crew astronauts that companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin use on their spaceships, the present culture of collaboration that characterizes NASA and its partners all around the world is not only unprecedented, it is yielding a trove of discoveries and breakthroughs in science and technology.
Mars polar ice cap protects liquid water from solar wind. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.
Scientists Around the World Use NASA and ESA Probes to Find Water on Mars
Finding liquid water on Mars is the result of years of collaboration. The path that led to this latest discovery began in 1971 when NASA successfully placed Mariner 9 into orbit around Mars. The goal of the mission was to map up to 70% of the planet’s surface. This was the first time that the surface of Mars was photographed and studied in detail. The images that the satellite sent back gave the first indication that liquid water could have flowed on the surface of the red planet in the form of oceans, lakes, and rivers at some point in the planet’s past. Shortly after that, two Soviet probes (Mars 2 and Mars 3) arrived, enriching the knowledge we had gained about the present and ancient geography of our neighboring planet and confirming that a liquid, possibly water, carved the surface of Mars millions of years ago.
More than a dozen satellites and landers from NASA, ESA, and the Russian space program have visited Mars in the 43 years since Mariner 9. Yet, water remained elusive until a major breakthrough last year when NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) enabled scientists to detect, “eight sites where thick deposits of ice beneath Mars’ surface are exposed in faces of eroding slopes,” thus, confirming relatively recent frozen water. This followed some intriguing pictures by NASA’s Curiosity rover that seemed to indicate water ice just a few inches below the surface of Mars.
Armed with the knowledge of the ongoing collaboration among agencies and scientists, a group of researchers, led by Roberto Orosei at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Bologna, recently published a paper in Science, announcing and detailing their discovery of water in liquid form under the Mars polar ice cap. TechCrunch summarized how they did it: “The study used data from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding, or MARSIS, aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter. It’s a ground penetrating radar that has already contributed to the story of water on Mars, with its readings suggesting basins and other features indicating oceans once existed there.”
Meet the first NASA astronauts flying commercial spacecraft. Image credit: NASA on The Commons.
NASA Astronauts to Fly SpaceX and Boeing Rockets to the International Space Station
On August 3, NASA announced the nine astronauts of its Commercial Crew Program who will man Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first human launches from the United States since 2011 when NASA retired the Space Shuttle. Eight of these astronauts are from NASA and one is from Boeing. They will be the first crews on the test flights and missions in this collaboration between private and public space programs.
In 2014, NASA began a partnership with Boeing and SpaceX to develop private, Apollo-style “space taxis” (as National Geographic called them) to be built and launched in the United States. The SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft to achieve this objective is scheduled to be ready by next year. This will be the first time that commercial rockets take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS)―just in time to maintain American presence on the ISS before the current contract with Russia expires next year. Since 2011 Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft have transported astronauts to the ISS.
According to NASA, “this public-private partnership marks the beginning of a new era of human spaceflight. NASA has worked closely with Boeing and SpaceX as the companies design, develop, and test their systems to ensure safe, reliable and cost-effective commercial transportation for astronauts to low-Earth orbit.” This collaboration will provide private companies with NASA’s 60-years of space crew expertise and enable the organization “to focus on deep space exploration with NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System.” Both are designed with the ultimate goal of returning humans to the moon and sending the first crew to Mars.
It Takes a Village
In collaboration with NASA, Space Florida, an aerospace economic development organization created by the State of Florida with the goal of “attracting and expanding the next generation of space industry businesses,” has done an amazing job recruiting next-generation space and aeronautics pioneers to Kennedy Space Center. (See our post: NASA @ 60: Kennedy Space Center Takes Off Again). Together with NASA, the organizations located here focus on the same goal: expanding the reach of science and technology through mindful collaboration. Whether it is enabling Italian scientists to discover liquid water on Mars or providing astronauts for commercial rockets here at home, this way of working, sharing, and making progress together would have been hard to predict, but fully welcomed, by the generation that created NASA 60 years ago.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.