Dennis Tito (the first space tourist) has continued his entrepreneurial work on a round trip mission to Mars and back. In fact, he has presented it to NASA as a possible new direction for the agency. His report can be found here.
His plan relies heavily on the NASA SLS for launch of the mission hardware, including a NASA Orion module and an extra habitation module to achieve the mission, and at first blush the mission looks exciting. However, some doubts (read: many doubts) actually remain on how this would be implemented, as discussed here at the Behind The Black blog.
It has been suggested that someone, or multiple someone’s, take a good, hard look at Tito’s plan, catalog and quantify the holes in it, and send it back to him for explanation. It may be a pipe dream, while also holding some merit, so why shouldn’t we take some time to determine what is right and what is wrong with the plan?
I’ll take a stab at it and get back to you.
NASA Just Cancelled its Advanced Spacecraft Power Program
With an adequate supply of Plutonium-238, and considering the current budget-constrained environment, NASA has decided to discontinue procurement of ASRG flight hardware. We have given direction to the Department of Energy, which manages the flight procurement, to end work on the flight units. The hardware procured under this activity will be transferred to the Glenn Research Center to continue development and testing of the Stirling technology.
In short, this means that the very best we can do without this much-anticipated advance in RTG technology is perhaps one or maybe two low-cost outer solar system exploration missions per decade, and not until at least 2019, when Plutonium production can reach the necessary levels. This is a serious setback for any missions that can’t rely on solar power.
Of course, it would be incredibly interesting to see if a private-enterprise motivation would fill this void. My first thought in that vein would be power generation for prospecting missions to asteroids and moons, where you may need to submerge into a pitch-black crater on asteroid 4660 Nereus, or maybe the frigid seas of Europa. The sun will be weak at best in such exotic lands, leaving a serious need for extra-solar power.
This is the kind of solution an enterprising space exploitation firm might use to further its business goals, and would justify basic commercial research.
Imagine the vista afforded a freighter captain, approaching a moon of the ringed planet, bringing supplies, or perhaps carrying some precious resource back home for use in the Earth/Moon system… This is gorgeous.
On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.
And here is home…
Astronomers Conclude Habitable Planets Are Common
Researchers working with data from the Kepler Space Telescope have arrived at an incredibly interesting figure: 1 in 5 stars have at least one earthlike planet orbiting within its habitable zone. Or as one astronomer put it
“What this means is, when you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye.” – Dr. Andrew Howard
Imagine that – if one considers “island hopping” from one system to the next in search of life, the journey has now been shrunk to 12 lightyears. With continued technological advancement, we can easily bridge such distances. Why do we drag our feet?