Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meteor showers to streak under a dark moon

Dark Moon
Each summer skywatchers all over the world look forward to observing the annual mid-August performance of the Perseid meteors, but often overlook some of the lesser showers that peak in the days leading up to the main event.

This year, sadly, the full moon will seriously hamper the 2011 Perseid meteor shower. But this week, the moon is a thin waning crescent and will arrive at new phase on Saturday, leaving the sky dark and moonless from dusk to dawn.

This makes it a great opportunity to enjoy two displays of "shooting stars" that will be active and near their peak this weekend, which can provide some entertaining viewing: the Delta Aquarids and the Alpha Capricornids.

How to watch
The actual number of meteors an observer can see in an hour depends strongly on sky conditions. The rates that we quote here are based on your having a really good, dark sky, having some experience in meteor observing and the assumption that you have the radiant of that particular shower directly overhead.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NASA's future: Let's go to Mars, an asteroid

With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA shifts its sights onto new projects.

Since the 1958 Space Act, NASA has held a strong foothold in space discovery and science. With the conclusion of the space-shuttle program, NASA is reevaluating its goals and looking for ways to continue to expand space travel.

"Human space flight has a bright future, Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administator, said. "The space shuttle was a great program, and we are so pleased that that program is now leading to the next great adventures in space."

NASA's immediate goals are to make successful trips to an asteroid and then to the planet Mars. NASA hopes that using the technology developed under the Shuttle program for these next missions will be big money savers.

"We are looking at being able to go to space for a lot less money using advanced technology and using the aerospace industry," Garver said.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NASA - How A Girdle Made The Moon Landing Possible

Nasa Moon
With the end of the space shuttle, we may also be seeing an end to manned space travel as a science endeavor. I am not saying we shouldn't send people into space, we certainly should, but it should be just that - a bold voyage into the unknown and not rationalized with science, where it is not a very good one. Robots are cheaper and better and the Congressional hearings are less messy if a robot dies.

President Obama likely agrees about robots, since he canceled the manned successor to the space shuttle, the Constellation project and there is no valid replacement in sight.

With the space shuttle over, people have given it a lot more honest reassessment that they did in the past - before a week ago, virtually no one in science media would do anything except be a cheerleader for the thing. But the space shuttle also did something positive - it showed us newer is not always better. Some old NASA stuff is still pretty cool.

When talking about the Mercury program, for example, and comparing the NASA of that time to that of today, I noted that we can still fire up an Apollo RS-18 engine from 39 years ago and it works just fine, so it shouldn't take 16 years to go back to the Moon when it only took 9 years the first time. We've lost our way because space started being about science and not about boldly going where no man has gone before.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Rare Volcanoes Discovered On Far Side of the Moon

Volcanoes on Moon
Shielded from Earth-bound eyes, the far side of the moon is home to a rare set of dormant volcanoes that changed the face of the lunar surface, a new study finds.

Data and photos from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) reveal the presence of now-dead silicate volcanoes, not the more common basaltic volcanoes that litter the moon's surface, researchers said.

"Most of the volcanic activity on the moon was basaltic," primary author Brad Jolliff of Washington University told in an email. "Finding other volcanic types is interesting as it shows the geologic complexity and range of processes that operate on the moon, and how the moon's volcanism changed with time."

Because the moon's rotation has been affected by tidal forces between the Earth and the moon, only one side of the moon is visible from the Earth. The far side of the moon — sometimes referred to inaccurately as the "dark side" — was hidden from view until 1959, when Soviet Union's Luna 3 spacecraft took the first photos of the region.

When NASA's Lunar Prospector probe circled the moon in 1998, it revealed a highly reflective plain lying between two ancient impact craters. Known as the Compton-Belkovich region, this part of the moon contains thorium and other silicate rocks, suggesting a more involved type of volcanic activity than that which created the moon's well-known dark plains of basaltic plains known as "maria," or "seas."

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Next Mars Rover Targets Gale Crater

When NASA's Vikings reached Mars 35 years ago, scientists and engineers had only vague ideas about where the mission's twin life-seeking landers should set down on the surface. Remarkable in hindsight, members of the site-selection team gave themselves only two weeks to find the best landing spot for Viking 1 — and ultimately had to scrap their provisional Plans A and B (too many big rocks!) and delay the first landing by two more weeks as they scrambled to find a suitable Plan C.

There'll be no such hurry-up offense for the space agency's next Red Planet adventure. When the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. "Curiosity") departs Earth on or about November 25th, the mission's 263 scientists will know with certainty that it's headed for 4.4868ºS and 137.4239ºE — a target on the broad floor of Gale crater.

NASA managers announced the choice of Gale over three other final candidates during an hour-long press briefing on Friday.

Whereas the Viking team had only relatively crude orbital imagery, some water-vapor measurements, and a few ground-based radar scans to work with, MSL's site selection involved deliberations over five years by 150 scientists, who hashed over 60 possible sites using 16 sets of detailed measurements and met in five dedicated workshops. The final four candidates, which underwent intense scrutiny after being picked in 2008, were:

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Friday, July 22, 2011

No hoax: Moon landing stands as NASA's finest hour

As Atlantis rolled to a stop on its Florida landing strip, ending the space shuttle fleet’s 30-year run, the atmosphere around NASA is filled with uncertainty.
Image: "Moon Shot"
Open Road Integrated Media
"Moon Shot" recounts the story of the early space effort. NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has updated the book, written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton as co-authors, for the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. and Soviet spaceflights.

It's not like it was 42 years and a day ago, at the time of America’s highest space triumph. That’s when Neil Armstrong took humankind’s first steps on the moon. The only thing for sure following Atlantis’ farewell flight is that most members of its launch team will be out of a job.

Critics say NASA is in shambles. They say foot-dragging and indecision by the Obama administration has left America with no defined mission in space. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a veteran astronaut himself, strongly disagrees. "I’m not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch," he says.

Despite the dithering, private companies could have Americans flying in their commercial spacecraft by 2015, and Bolden says test flights aimed at sending astronauts to deep space on NASA spaceships could begin in 2016 or 2017.

Back in 1969, the scene at America’s spaceport was clearly different: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon represented the height of prestige for America’s space program. The country was first. Americans were beating the Russians. A decade-long race to put a human on another world had ended.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Where Will the Next Mars Rover Land? NASA to Announce Crater Choice Friday

Mars Rover
NASA is set to announce the landing site for its next Mars rover Friday (July 22), and one thing's for certain: It will be a crater.

Earlier this month, the space agency revealed that its $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission will drop the car-size Curiosity rover down at either Gale Crater or Eberswalde Crater. Both Martian sites appear to preserve a record of ancient water activity. That's crucial, because Curiosity's main task is to assess whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

So which crater has NASA picked? The space agency hasn't tipped its hand, saying publicly that both craters have a lot to offer and that choosing between them is tough.

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NASA's Opportunity Tops 20 Miles of Mars Driving

Nasa Mars
More than seven years into what was planned as a three-month mission on Mars, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has driven more than 20 miles, which is more than 50 times the mission's original distance goal.

A drive of 407 feet (124 meters) completed on July 17 took Opportunity past the 20-mile mark (32.2 kilometers). It brought the rover to within a few drives of reaching the rim of Endeavour crater, the rover's team's long-term destination since mid-2008. Endeavour is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter, and its western rim exposes outcrops that record information older than any Opportunity has examined so far. The rover is now about eight-tenths of a mile (about 1.3 kilometers) from the site chosen for arriving at the rim.

"The numbers aren't really as important as the fact that driving so much farther than expected during this mission has put a series of exciting destinations within Opportunity's reach," said Alfonso Herrera, a rover mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. who has worked on the rover missions since before launch in 2003.

The latest drive included an autonomous hazard detection portion during which the rover paused at intervals to check for obstacles before proceeding.

Herrera said, "Autonomous hazard detection has added a significant portion of the driving distance over the past few months. It lets us squeeze 10 to 15 percent more distance into each drive."

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

42 years ago, man landed on the moon

Moon Landing
"Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." – Inscription on plaque left on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts

(RNN) - It is perhaps the crowning achievement in human history.

And it was a dream came true 42 years ago this week when Earth was joined by its only natural satellite in playing host to humans.

Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon July 20, 1969, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy's goal to surpass the Soviet Union in the space race. The United States sent five additional manned missions to the moon, and remains the only country to do so.

Describing the surface as "fine and powdery," Armstrong uttered one of the most famous lines ever spoken to mark the monumental event, and put the achievement into perspective.

"That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."

For 2 1/2 hours, Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin explored the lunar surface, collected rock samples, photographed the surface of the moon, the Earth and each other, and placed an American flag to stake claim to being the first country to visit another celestial body.

"We wanted to do well," Armstrong said in a rare interview with CBS' 60 Minutes in 2005. "But more than that, you as a person hope you don't make any mistakes."

Armstrong said in the interview that the famous statement after stepping on the moon was meant to honor the countless number of individuals whose work helped make the lunar landing, and the entire space program, possible.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Mars rover's destination decided

Mars Rover
After years of deliberation, NASA says it will announce the destination for its next Mars rover on Friday at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Earlier this month, the choice was whittled down to two: NASA said the Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, would be launched either to Eberswalde Crater or Gale Crater. Today's announcement signals that a decision has been made.

Curiosity is already at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, undergoing final preparations for launch as early as Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving. The car-sized rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars in August 2012 to begin a primary scientific mission scheduled to last at least one Martian year, or roughly two Earth years.

Among the questions the $2.5 billion mission could answer: Were there areas on the Red Planet that could have been favorable for supporting microbial life? Could "molecular fossils" preserve the evidence of such life? Past missions have turned up evidence that ancient Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today, but how long did those life-friendly conditions last?

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vesta Astroid : US Spacecraft Orbits Vesta Astroid

vesta asteroid
NASA’s Spacecraft Dawn has officially entered the orbit of one of Vesta.

“Today, we celebrate an incredible exploration milestone as a spacecraft enters orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt for the first time,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on

Dawn became the first probe ever to enter the orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, according to NASA.

Vesta is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system and Dawn will orbit it and rely information back to scientists. Observations will provide data to help scientists understand the solar system better.

“Dawn’s study of the asteroid Vesta marks a major scientific accomplishment and also points the way to the future destinations where people will travel in the coming years,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stealing moon rocks from NASA

Moon Rocks
RETURNING from vacation in the summer of 2002, NASA geochemist Dr Everett Gibson learned that a 275-kilogram safe had vanished from his lab. Situated in one of the most secure buildings on the planet, the lab was an implausible target for even the world's greatest crime syndicates - despite the fact that the Apollo lunar samples were stored there and the street price of moon rocks was estimated at about $5 million per gram.

The theft of the safe, which contained 101.5 grams of material, including samples from every lunar landing, was in fact stranger and more pedestrian than anyone could have imagined. Late one night, three NASA interns wheeled the safe into a borrowed Jeep, planning to hawk the material to a Belgian buyer they had found online. Within days they were caught, turned in by the Belgian and arrested in an FBI sting.

After serving a six-year prison sentence, Thad Roberts - the "mastermind" of this unmasterly crime - called Ben Mezrich, bestselling author of The Accidental Billionaires, seeking to reveal his side of the story. Trumped up by Mezrich as "one of the biggest heists in US history", Sex on the Moon is the entertaining yet unsatisfying result of that collaboration.

Mezrich relates Roberts's life as a thriller. Cast out by his Mormon family for premarital sex, Roberts finds direction by resolving to become an astronaut. He studies hard and lands a coveted internship at NASA's Johnson Space Center, where he impresses fellow interns with pranks such as sneaking into the space shuttle simulator. In his third semester, he falls in love with a new intern. "I want to give you the moon," he tells her.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

SpaceX chief sets his sights on Mars

Don't expect to hear any nostalgia about the soon-to-end space shuttle era from Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of Space Exploration Technologies. Musk isn't prone to look to the past, but rather to the future — to a "new era of spaceflight" that eventually leads to Mars.

SpaceX may be on the Red Planet sooner than you think: When I talked with him in advance of the shuttle Atlantis' last liftoff, the 40-year-old engineer-entrepreneur told me the company's Dragon capsule could take on a robotic mission to Mars as early as 2016. And he's already said it'd be theoretically possible to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years — bettering NASA's target timeframe of the mid-2030s.

You can't always take Musk's timelines at face value. This is rocket science, after all, and Musk himself acknowledges that his company's projects don't always finish on time. But if he commits himself to a task, he tends to see it through. "It may take more time than I expected, but I'll always come through," he told me a year ago.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Iapetus gets dusted

Saturn's Moon
Imagine a powdered sugar doughnut hole plowing through a cloud of dark-chocolate dust. The resulting two-colored treat would resemble one of Saturn’s weirder moons, Iapetus — an icy world with a coal-black face and a bright white backside.

For centuries astronomers have puzzled over the source of this yin-yang color pattern. Now a team led by graduate student Daniel Tamayo of Cornell offers an explanation: Dust flung from another one of Saturn’s moons is coating one side of Iapetus. Because Iapetus doesn’t rotate, the same face continually catches the dark moon flakes.

“Iapetus is probably one of the most striking bodies in the solar system, and one of the longest-standing problems in planetary science,” Tamayo says. In a study posted online July 7 in Icarus, Tamayo mathematically describes the movement of dust particles in the outer Saturnian system. He focuses on dust coming from Phoebe, a dark and distant, irregularly shaped moon that circles Saturn in the opposite direction as Iapetus. Phoebe’s retrograde motion puts it at odds with a number of other far-flung moons.

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China want to explore the Moon, Venus and Mars

In light of last week's final NASA space shuttle launch, Beijing is stepping up to the plate with aspirations of exploring the Moon, Venus and Mars.

China plans to send a rover to the moon by 2013 and an astronaut by 2020. As the U.S. slows its space initiatives, many are worried that the Chinese may become the leader in space exploration, knocking the U.S. from its long-held top spot.

"Space leadership is highly symbolic of national capabilities and international influence, and a decline in space leadership will be seen as symbolic of a relative decline in U.S. power and influence," said Scott Pace, an associate NASA administrator in the George W. Bush administration and proponent for sending American astronauts back to the moon.

Some American officials are worried Beijing may try to militarize space because the space initiatives are run by the army. Just four years ago, the Chinese fired a missile at a dead satellite in space, something which sent up a red flag for many officials.

Refuting the idea that the Chinese hope to militarize space, Li Longchen, former editor of Space Probe Magazine said, "Space technology can be applied for both civilian and military use, but China doesn't stress the military purpose. It has been always hard for humankind to march into space and China must learn the lessons from the U.S."

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mars, Asteroids, The Moon on NASA's To-Do List

Space shuttles will soon be a thing of the past, museum relics put on display around the country. But, NASA will remain, and they're determined to take the next steps in space exploration - without the shuttle taking them there.

Surrounded by the blackness of deep space, 117 million miles from Earth, is the asteroid "Vesta". In the not too distant future, U.S. astronauts could be looking out their window and preparing to set foot on an asteroid.

Astronaut Mike Gernhardt and his team are working on the kinds of equipment and techniques they'll need for human exploration of an asteroid as early as the year 2025 - before missions to either the Moon or Mars.

"What we're doing is building a simulated asteroid underwater." said Gernhardt. Not at some high tech lab, but right on the water in Key Largo, Florida. At the undersea habitat called "Aquarius", the group has created an asteroid proving ground in the near weightless environment of water. "We work there, we live there.....We can put anchors......We built a rock wall like a climbing wall. But we can climb up that wall in zero gravity."

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Friday, July 08, 2011

Saturn: Bring an Umbrella

The disturbances on Saturn shown here depict the largest, most intense storm observed on Saturn by NASA’s Voyager or Cassini spacecraft. The storm, currently active, encircles the giant planet, encompassing an area eight times the surface area of earth. Inside the planet’s atmosphere, lightning is generated in the water clouds where rain and hail make electricity, creating significant radio noise. Scientists are mystified as to why Saturn stores energy for decades and releases it all at once. This behavior is unlike that at Jupiter and Earth, which have numerous storms going on at all times. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini Imaging Team Leader, writes in her Captain’s Log on July 6th, 2011:

“One might think that after years in orbit around Saturn, we are now accustomed to great big happenings and fantastic spectacles. But far from it. It is the shock of the unexpected, the intense mind-grabbing, eye-popping, soul-stirring thrill of seeing the unseen that gets us every time. That is what this glorious, history-making exploration of Saturn and its magnificent realm is all about.”

This picture, captured on Feb. 25, 2011, was taken about three months after the storm began. By this time the clouds had already formed a tail that wrapped around the planet. This tail, which show as blue-tinged clouds south and west (left) of the storm head, can be seen encountering the storm head in this view. To see ravishing close-up images of the storm, click here.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Mars, Asteroids, The Moon on NASA's To-Do List

Space shuttles will soon be a thing of the past, museum relics put on display around the country. But, NASA will remain, and they're determined to take the next steps in space exploration - without the shuttle taking them there.

Surrounded by the blackness of deep space, 117 million miles from Earth, is the asteroid "Vesta". In the not too distant future, U.S. astronauts could be looking out their window and preparing to set foot on an asteroid.

Astronaut Mike Gernhardt and his team are working on the kinds of equipment and techniques they'll need for human exploration of an asteroid as early as the year 2025 - before missions to either the Moon or Mars.

"What we're doing is building a simulated asteroid underwater." said Gernhardt. Not at some high tech lab, but right on the water in Key Largo, Florida. At the undersea habitat called "Aquarius", the group has created an asteroid proving ground in the near weightless environment of water. "We work there, we live there.....We can put anchors......We built a rock wall like a climbing wall. But we can climb up that wall in zero gravity."

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

NASA Introduces Mars Rover "Curiosity," Debates Its Martian Landing Site

Mars Rover
Curiosity is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on November 25, 2011, and will land on Mars in August 2012. The decision regarding its landing site is expected to be made this month

After recently retiring Mars rover Spirit, NASA is introducing a new Mars probe called Curiosity. While the rover is expected to launch later this year, one critical question remains unanswered: where will it land?

NASA rover Curiosity is a $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered machine that is the size of a Mini Cooper, and is four times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity contains a laser that can vaporize rocks at seven meters, a percussive drill, a large robot arm and a weather station. In addition, it has 4.8kg of plutonium-238.

Curiosity's main mission on Mars is to find organic compounds as a "telltale sign" that life have existed on Mars. The problem is that scientist's must decide on a landing area that will most likely contain such evidence.

So far, scientist's have narrowed the choices down to four options: Eberswalde Crater, Mawrth Vallis, Gale Crater and Holden Crater

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Alabama Space Camp shifts its focus to the moon, Mars and asteroids

Moon and mars
NASA may be shutting down its space shuttle program, but that won’t stop a group of young astronauts from heading to the moon this summer, and Mars the next.

In simulation, at least.
For 29 years, Space Camp and its attendees have followed in NASA’s footsteps. This summer, the camp is taking the next giant leap for mankind largely on its own. The U.S. government may not want to fund space travel right now, but many children and adults have the money to pretend.

Space Camp was started in 1982, just a year after the first space shuttle launch, and is run by the nonprofit U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is funded by the state of Alabama and serves as the official visitor center for NASA’s nearby Marshall Space Flight Center.

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Monday, July 04, 2011

NASA Targets Manned Mission To Mars

nasa mars mission
The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will last for years to come. Here is what’s next for NASA:


NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars. We will build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.

NASA says it will soon announce the design for the heavy-lift Space Launch System that will carry them out of low Earth orbit. It is developing the technologies it will need for human exploration of the solar system, including solar electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems.

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Friday, July 01, 2011

Is Settling Mars Inevitable, Or An Impossibility?

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're not going to the planet Mars anytime soon. President Obama suggested something like the mid-2030s as a target date, but for various reasons - the dangers of space travel, the price tag, more pressing problems on this planet - that trip to the Red Planet has been put on indefinite hold.

My next guest says that's a mistake. We can and should be able to make the trip by 2020, and he says that technology - technologically speaking, we're already closer to being able to send astronauts to Mars than we were to sending men to the moon back in 1961, when President Kennedy made his pronouncement.

But what about all the obstacles: radiation, length of the trip, the lack of gravity during the voyage and all the potential hazards to the astronauts? Robert Zubrin has solutions to every one of these problems, and he's not just thinking about exploratory scientific field trips, he envisions human colonies growing crops in Martian soil, making energy from the atmosphere, even evolving new cultures and dialects.

So what do you think? Would you volunteer as a colonist from Mars? Or are you happy to let NASA's Rovers, the robots, explore the Red Planet? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or you can go to our Facebook page or our website. Our home page is

Robert Zubrin is the author of "The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must." He's also president of the Mars Society based in Golden, Colorado. He joins us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Zubrin.

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For Visits to Asteroid & Mars, NASA Needs New Ways to Do Everything

With NASA at a crossroads as the space shuttles retire, the space agency is facing the steep challenge of developing a slew of new technologies for a new phase in exploration: trips to an asteroid and Mars.

For 30 years, NASA astronauts have worked in low-Earth orbit, flying on the space shuttlesand building the International Space Station. Now that the station is complete and the shuttle program is winding down, the United States is focusing on sending astronauts farther out in the solar system than ever before.

NASA's next big goals for human spaceflight, as articulated by President Barack Obama, are visiting an asteroid by the year 2025 and landing on Marsin the 2030s.

"We're not going to get to an asteroid in 2025 without some of the key building blocks that NASA wants to start on today," NASA's chief technologist Bobby Braun told reporters during a June 27 teleconference.

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