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Journey to Mars: NASA Reveals Next Steps Towards the Red Planet

Oct 13, 2015 04:03 AM EDT

Man is one step closer to setting foot on the Red Planet, according to NASA. The space agency, which recently announced the historic discovery of flowing water on Mars, has just announced an updated plan for 'The Journey to Mars.'

"NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in recent statement. "Today, we are publishing additional details about our journey to Mars plan and how we are aligning all of our work in support of this goal. In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international and partners."

The plan in full can be read online here, but if it's a general outline you're looking for, the Agency was happy to oblige.

"The journey to Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth," the agency reported. "NASA is managing these challenges by developing and demonstrating capabilities in incremental steps." (Scroll to read on...)

Finish Your Homework, or No Mars!

The first of these steps is pretty straight-forward. "Earth-reliant" activities, as NASA calls them, will be ongoing up until the day the Space Launch System (SLS) - NASA's latest flagship rocket and the "most powerful rocket ever built" - sends the Orion spacecraft on its way to Mars.

Gone are the days of uncertainty as competing space agencies scramble to claim alien soil. [You can read about declassified space-race plans, many of which were stunningly naive, here.] These days, agencies around the globe collaborate to ensure that no stone is left unturned, with the safety of their explorers being paramount.

This then includes research into the effects of prolonged exposure to space. Experts with the Mars One colonial project (tentatively proposed for 2027) estimate that the journey to mars will take anywhere between six and eight months. That's a bit longer than an average stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

And that's why US astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will be spending a whole year in space, offering researchers the valuable opportunity to see how prolonged exposure to microgravity affects the human body. (Scroll to read on...)

Prior to this experiment, Valeri Polyankov and Sergei Avdeyev, cosmonauts from the mid-1990s, spent the longest time in space, clocking in just under 438 and 380 days, respectively.

Polynakov, who spent his time aboard Roscosmos' Mir orbital station (now retired), said on the advent of his landing that "it is possible to preserve your physical and psychological health throughout a mission similar in length to a flight to Mars and back."

Now, with huge advances in space-science and medical fields, we will find out if he was right.

So You Can Make it to Mars? Prove It!

NASA has also outlined the next stages of testing in a new "Proving Ground" -- a cislunar patch of space around the moon "featuring multiple possible stable staging orbits for future deep space missions." Various mission in this region will put NASA's latest tech and techniques to the test, ensuring that everything is more than ready come Orion's Mars-bound launch.

What's More, NASA plans to robotically retrieve a large boulder from the surface of a nearby asteroid. [You can read more about that here.]

"[This mission] will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars," NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. "The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight." (Scroll to read on...)

Bringing it All Together

Like a baby bird finally leaving it's nest, NASA eventually plans to pool all that it has learned from the Proving Ground and Earth-side research and launch new and independent missions into the Martian system.

These missions, the agency says, will be manned, and will have astronauts in low orbit around the Red Planet or one of its moons. And eventually, man will step onto the dusty red planet itself.

"NASA's strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space," added William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters.

Challenges Ahead

Still, it's important to note that unlike the much-hyped Mars One project, NASA is hesitant to declare when exactly that historic first footstep onto dusty red soil will occur. Instead, the agency has simply been focusing on what comes next.

"Through our robotic emissaries, we have already been on and around Mars for 40 years," NASA said. "These orbiters and rovers have returned vital data about the Martian environment, helping us understand what challenges we may face and resources we may encounter."(Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: NASA Goddard Conceptual Image Lab/Michael Lentz] Simulation of how Mars went from an Earth-like planet to the cold and dry wasteland it is today. Now NASA and private groups like plan to colonize it.

One of those obvious challenges is temperature; Mars is approximately minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit -- enough to turn an ill-prepared explorer into a human popsicle. Another will be solar radiation, with the Red Planet's atmosphere being far too thin to adequately shield the surface. Lastly, there's the landing itself, where nearly 10 metric tons of spacecraft, supplies, and crew will need to safely alight onto Marian soil and then just-as-easily launch away.

"These challenges are solvable, and NASA and its partners are working on the solutions every day," the agency added.

"With humans on Mars, we will be able to advance science and technology in ways only dreamed of with current robotic explorers," NASA said. "Future Mars missions will represent a collaborative effort among NASA and its partners -- a global achievement that marks a transition in humanity's expansion as we go to Mars not just to visit, but to stay."

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