The M-cube phenomenon

‘The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.’

                                                                                                                                                            – Carl Sagan

I make it a point to begin or end my articles with a quote. Not just any quote, but something that makes me read it twice.

martian

A hundred years ago, Baron Munchausen landed on Mars. In his adventures the legendary and unfortunately fictional character had gone deep underwater. Not surprisingly, he meets a Martian in his fable. But what is the Martian’s countenance? Bug-eyed with elf like ears? Blue eyes sans nose? Is it after all human-like? These questions plague us till date. It has been a hundred years and after thousands of hours of research, innovation and relentless pursuit we have finally reached the culmination (or, have we?) of engendering a Manned Mission to Mars.

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A few months ago, some sharp-eyed observers of images from the Curiosity rover were convinced that they’d spotted a mouse on the planet’s surface. As Redditors poured over the grainy, zoomed-in photo, they were unknowingly participating in a long history of humans’ speculation of the Martian life—either through science or fiction. And the key element to this mission is the Orion spacecraft – named after the easily spotted and majestic constellation (now you can guess why there is an Orion at NIT Trichy).

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Orion is the first spacecraft ever built in the history of mankind which would take us earthlings, and along with us the entire mankind a step closer to discovering the unheard secrets of our Universe by taking us farther than we have ever dared to embark upon. Carried aloft by the tremendous power of a Space Launch System rocket, our explorers will begin their Journey to Mars from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the spirit of humanity with them to the Red Planet.

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2 days ago NASA successfully fired up its second and final qualification test of the booster in Promontory, Utah. The gravitational pull exerted by Earth, while helpful in most cases, proves to be a nuisance here. To break away from this intense connection, the temperatures inside have to reach a scorching 6000 degree Celsius. This booster is expected to provide 75% of the thrust which is much required. To give you a frame of reference, Sun’s surface temperature is roughly 6000 degree Celsius. This 2 minute test will be providing NASA with enough information to certify the booster with a green check and proceed to the next stage. Isn’t that questionably amazing?

What is the next step you ask? An uncrewed, first of the series of flight tests of Orion of which the first one is scheduled on December 4, 2016. A Thursday. During its 4.5 hour trip, Orion will orbit Earth twice and travel to an altitude of 3,600 miles into space. This is critical. To test how deep the well is you don’t jump inside. You throw a pebble and wait for the faint sound. In this case, nobody knows if the well has even a reachable end.

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This flight will test many elements that pose the greatest risks to astronauts and will provide the data needed to improve the design and minimize future risks.

To give a short glimpse into an insider’s opinion,

“Today’s test is the pinnacle of years of hard work by the NASA team, Orbital ATK and commercial partners across the country,” said John Honeycutt, SLS Program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “SLS hardware is currently in production for every part of the rocket. NASA also is making progress every day on Orion and the ground systems to support a launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We’re on track to launch SLS on its first flight test with Orion and pave the way for a human presence in deep space.”

If everything goes as planned, our species will land on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2030s. These are not just whims, rather goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

Did you know that you, irrespective of your knowledge of space exploration, can be on a crew that travels to Mars not more than a decade from now? Imagine, you will be one among thousands who represent our planet in a place millions of miles away. Does that sound cool? It probably does. However, I’d like to be a harbinger and give you some inside information on life on Mars.

Seeing as how ambitious and evolving we are, it is possible that one day in the foreseeable future we establish a permanent colony on Mars. So, how will a day be like there? The Martian year is twice as long as Earth’s, but visitors would still experience winter and summer seasons thanks to the planet’s tilted axis. Explorers would be treated to some mind-blowing sights, with vast canyons, giant mountains and sand dunes. The Martian air has a permanent veil of dust, giving the daytime sky an orange tinge although sunrise and sunset would be blue. Ice clouds similar to the cirrus clouds we see on Earth complete this otherworldly landscape. But apart from the scenic view, it is no resort beach.

Its atmosphere is very thin (only 1% as massive as our own), there is no liquid water and temperatures are distinctly chilly. On a nice balmy day down near the equator the surface temperature could get a little bit above freezing. The cold, coupled with a lack of oxygen, very low pressures and solar radiation would confine astronauts to their spacecraft or enclosed vehicles, with the occasional Mars-walk in their spacesuits. Since the air density is astonishingly low (1% as that of Earth’s) and also since Mars lacks a strong magnetic field, it cannot deflect harmful radiations. So basically all three necessities for life – food, water and shelter would be a humongous challenge to overcome.

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But hey, you get 40 minutes extra every day. Maybe that compensates for it after all.

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