NASA: Future of space exploration, life on Mars, Perseverance Rover, Ingenuity helicopter to take flight on Mars Sunday

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PASADENA, CA (WMBD) — Reach for the stars, because the future of space exploration is already here.

With the Perseverance Rover touching down on Mars, what’s next for NASA?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Chief Engineer Rob Manning spoke one-on-one with WMBD/WYZZ’s Matt Sheehan to give people a better look into the company’s adventures into the vast expanse of space.

“We’d like to know, are we alone? Are we the only living thing? Are we the representatives of life in the universe? That seems like quite the responsibility, let’s find out.”

Rob Manning | chief engineer | nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory

QUESTION: What does the Perseverance mean for the future of space exploration?

“The Perseverance has a bunch of things it’s responsible for to make happen. The most important one, we’re trying to acquire pure pristine samples of Mars, put them in drill cores, and put them in sample tubes. Then seal them away where they can be brought back to earth,” Manning said.

Manning said the plan is for humans to eventually go to the Red Planet, sometime in the 2030s.

“We will bring our biology with us. Before we contaminate Mars with Earth’s biology, we want to see what’s there. This is a hunt for life on Mars. This Rover, for the first time ever, will be collecting these core samples, putting them in these tubes, and then a subsequent mission will go and pick up these tubes and bring them back to Earth for analysis,” Manning said the analysis will happen eight years from now.

Manning said this mission is also helping NASA understand how well technology works for when humans go out on missions.

“It’s very Earth-like. It looks like a dry desert. It’s very cold, a very chilly place. The atmosphere is only 1% the density of Earth. It’s the equivalent of climbing a mountain 130,000 feet high. The air’s very thin, it’s also made of carbon dioxide. There’s zero oxygen for the most part. We thought if we’re gonna send people there, we want to have oxygen to breathe. If we can pull out hydrogen from rocks, we can create H20, water!” Manning said.

Rob said NASA has an experiment on board the Perseverance called MOXIE, “Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment.”

“It’s going to be grabbing Mars’ atmosphere and slowly converting it into oxygen and carbon. Pulling the C off the O2 and make oxygen. This is a long-term experiment to see how well we do with this kind of technology,” Manning said.

QUESTION: What are you looking to accomplish with Ingenuity, the helicopter, currently scanning Mars’ surface and taking photos?

“Overnight Wednesday night, the helicopter blades which are two perpendicular blades, these blades were locked into position, we moved them into the unlocked position,” Manning said. “The helicopter is almost all ready to go.”

On Friday, NASA is doing a spin test on the Ingenuity, Saturday the helicopter will charge up, and then Sunday will be a historic day.

“Cross your fingers, for the first time ever, we’re gonna fly a helicopter on another planet,” Manning said.

The Ingenuity’s blades are only four feet across. The whole helicopter only weighs four pounds.

“It has to be that way because the air is so thin. It’s hard to get a bite out of these blades to get some lift off of the ground,” Manning said. “They spin at 2700 RPM.”

Manning said the goal is to have future missions with helicopters on the surface of Mars, is to have it communicate with an “orbiting spacecraft.”

“It’ll be able to hop along the surface of Mars and explore it, wide ranges very quickly, with cameras,” Manning said.

Manning also was the Chief Engineer for the Mars Pathfinder and the Sojourner in the 1990s.

“We landed this little Rover, the Sojourner Rover, for the first time. It’s the size of a microwave,” Manning laughed.

Manning said in the same way Rovers have become more common in space exploration missions, smaller helicopters could very well be the future of scanning planet’s surfaces.

QUESTION: This idea, almost unthinkable until recent times. Sending humans to Mars. What is the timeline on that, and would it even be possible?

“We can send people to Mars. It’s just going to be time and money.”

Rob Manning | chief engineer | nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory

“Technology now allows us to say yes it is possible. It’s extraordinarily expensive and logistically very complex. The timeline has not been well established. NASA has offered the early 2030s, or mid 2030s as a possible first flight. But a lot more work has to be done to build up our infrastructure. Larger launch vehicles, technology such as Electric Propulsion, large vehicles that can transport large payloads from Earth to Mars,” Manning said.

The idea of Electric Propulsion has been around for awhile. In 2005, NASA actually showed that Star Wars used this idea for their Tie Fighters, or spacecrafts that fly under the Empire’s reign.

You can read more about how Tie Fighters were considered “Blockbuster Technology” here.

Manning said there are concerns for astronauts to live in an environment like Mars’.

He said you have to take into consideration that another environment could cause bone degradation, and have to withstand radiation.

“Radiation from the Sun. High energy particles from the Sun and also deep space. It does affect your genetic makeup if you’re not careful, so you have to monitor yourself. Under extreme conditions, like solar flares, you have to find a way to protect yourself,” Manning said.

If a solar flare were to happen, you would need a safety room that surrounds you with water.

“It would buffer you from the effect and protects you,” Manning said.

QUESTION: What is NASAs take on the future of space travel or tourism? Is this something NASA is looking into? Or will you all leave it to private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and more?

“NASA is a fan of space tourism, without a doubt.”

Rob manning | chief engineer | nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory

“NASA’s charter is to explore and develop technologies for America as a whole, not an individual. However, NASA is very eager to enable to private sector to do these kinds of things. NASA has actively encouraged private companies because for one, it benefits NASA as individuals who want to fly,” Manning said.

Manning said NASA has handed over the job of ensuring people are safe on space flights to the FAA.

“The FAA has a branch now that monitors non-NASA, commercial enterprises that send people to outer space,” Manning said. “Just like a new aircraft, you have to go through certain tests and evaluations for safety.”

QUESTION: If the Perseverance or other machines find signs of life on Mars, how will that change things for humans on Earth?

“Over the last century or so, scientists have realized that the amazing ambiguity and tenacity of life on this planet, which we are all apart of this fantastically intricate web of life, and they found the single-cell organisms that live underground are our cousins. We find this massive family tree of life on this planet, that seems to find many cracks and cervices to survive in many ways we didn’t think were possible,” Manning said. “Of course it takes time and effort on the part of life to do that. So we ask the question, if life is so ubiquitous on this planet and it started so early in Earth’s history, why wouldn’t it have happened at Mars? Or other planets?” Manning said.

Manning said Mars could very well be a place where life also originated.

“Mars was once a wet, blue of a sky world with an atmosphere, wind, weather, and water on the surface as oceans,” Manning said. “It was a very Earth-like world early in its life, about the same time life was getting started on this planet! Maybe there’s a parallel history, or maybe there’s a mechanism for life to travel back and forth through flying on meteors or asteroids that knocked rocks with life in it, and then the life would travel to other places.”

Manning said that idea has never been proven to be viable, but he says it’s also not inconceivable.

“If you go to other stars and other planets someplace, you might find there’s life that looks a lot like the life you see here. With single cells, DNA, and common molecules we’re used to seeing on this planet,” Manning said.

Manning and his twin brother, Chuck (Process Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory), spoke virtually to students at Illinois Wesleyan University Tuesday, April 6.

Rob Manning said it was a great experience to speak with the students at Illinois Wesleyan University about the importance of getting a college education.

“We shared a lot about what we do at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. We’ve explained the kind of science we’re doing,” Manning said. “Mostly we wanted to share the value of a well-rounded education. The great thing about a liberal arts education, even though people say ‘well you’re not gonna get rich studying the liberal arts,’ well that might be true. I don’t know, but I can say for sure I had one of those educations before I became technical. I think having that kind of solid understanding of the humanities, the origins of science, and understanding the fundamentals of education has really helped me in my career path.”

Manning said he encouraged students to not quickly dive into a particular professional tract and skip a broader education, but instead “enrich your life for your whole existence.”

Manning believes a college education is the beginning of a lifelong education.

To see the latest images from the Mars Rover, Perseverance, you can go to NASA’s website here.

Next step, the Ingenuity! Taking flight on Mars Sunday, April 11.

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