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We are that much closer to making space travel a reality and SpaceX is helping make that possible.

Hosted by: Caitlin Hofmeister
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2012 water plume data (Credits: NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne) -
2014 water plume data (Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center) -
Artist’s depiction of water plumes on Europa (Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI) -

Also cool NASA videos here! Credit info should be listed too.

Artist’s depiction of Europa fly-by mission (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) -

Raptor engine test (Credit: SpaceX) -
Ship refueling in Earth orbit (Credit: SpaceX) -
Interplanetary spaceship arriving at Mars (Credit: SpaceX) -
ITS arriving at Jupiter (Credit: SpaceX) -
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Caitlin: If you’ve always wanted to retire to Mars, your dreams just got a little more realistic. On Tuesday, SpaceX announced its plans to colonize Mars! While NASA is planning to send a few astronauts to visit Mars in the 2030s, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that his company will send people to the Red Planet within the next decade.

Here’s their plan: A crew of about a hundred people will blast off on a new SpaceX launch system called the Interplanetary Transportation System, which consists of a booster and a crew capsule. It’s set to go into production within the next few years.

The booster is powered by forty-two Raptor engines and uses methane and oxygen for fuel. The Raptor engine is three times more powerful than SpaceX’s current engine, Merlin, and completed its first firing test on Monday.

Once in space, the booster and crew capsule will separate. The booster will return to Earth, landing back where it started: On the launch pad SpaceX has been renting since 2013 — the same one used by Apollo 11, the first mission to land humans on the moon. While the crewed spacecraft hangs out in orbit, a propellant tanker filled with extra fuel will be loaded onto the booster. Then, it’ll blast off again.

Once in orbit, the tanker will rendezvous with the crewed spacecraft to fuel it, then will return to Earth again. The tanker will make anywhere between three and five refueling trips before the spacecraft is ready to go. This may seems adding extra steps, but by fueling in orbit, the transport system can use a smaller two-stage rocket instead of a three-stage one that would have to be much bigger and cost a lot more money.

Once it’s fueled, the spacecraft will head off to Mars, reaching a cruising speed of more than 100,000 kilometers per hour. Around four months later, the spacecraft will land on Mars, using thrusters for a slow, controlled landing. It’ll be nice to have made it, but SpaceX doesn’t plan to make these trips one-way.

When the craft is to ready to leave, it’ll refuel on the Martian surface! Since Mars has a mainly carbon dioxide atmosphere and a lot of water ice, they’ll break down these materials with a small propellant plant and create more methane and oxygen fuel to power the craft. And because Mars has much weaker gravity than Earth, they won’t need a big booster to get it into orbit. The first manned flight to Mars could be as early as 2023, and eventually, Musk wants to send hundreds or even thousands of ships to build a colony of up to a million people.

Of course, there are all kinds of challenges SpaceX needs to overcome before they can send anyone to Mars. For one thing, they have to get the launch system to work — including all those landings and re-launches to refuel in orbit. They’ll also need to build that propellant plant on Mars so they can send people home.

So there’s a lot that still needs to be done before any of this can become a reality. But someday, you might be able to book a trip to Mars on a SpaceX ship. And they don’t plan to stop with Mars — eventually, the Transport System could also be used to visit Jupiter’s moons, like Europa.

Speaking of Europa, NASA announced Monday that they’ve found new evidence for water plumes on its surface! Europa is a little smaller than our Moon, but it has an ocean that holds twice the amount of water as all the oceans on Earth combined. It’s one of the most life-friendly places in our solar system, besides Earth. Problem is, that ocean is covered in a sheet of ice that’s kilometers thick.

NASA hopes to someday land on Europa and take samples from its ocean, but to get through the ice, that spacecraft would have to carry heavy, expensive drilling equipment. And heavy equipment means more rocket fuel, which means an even more expensive mission. But in 2012, NASA observed water plumes erupting more than 200 kilometers high near Europa’s south pole.

Unfortunately, the data seemed inconsistent, and they needed more research to figure out exactly what they were seeing. If these plumes did exist, though, we wouldn’t need any drilling equipment to get to Europa’s ocean. All we’d need to do is fly by the surface and drop a robot in a plume! A mission to Europa would become much more affordable — and realistic.

And on Monday, NASA announced they’ve found more evidence these plumes really do exist! The research team used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe Europa as it passed in front of Jupiter. Not only did they see plumes, but they saw them in the same place the 2012 team did, down near Europa’s south pole. One of the reasons the data has been so hard to confirm is because the plumes don’t operate on a regular schedule.

Of the 10 times the team observed Europa looking for plumes, they only saw them three times. NASA will keep observing the plumes using Hubble, and continue collecting data with the James Webb Space Telescope once it launches in 2018. And even though NASA isn’t ready to land on Europa any time soon, a fly-by mission is in the early planning stages.

It would launch in the 2020s. If NASA decides to move forward with the mission, it should be able to fly through one of Europa’s plumes and collect a sample if the opportunity arises. So, between the Hubble and Webb data and the possibility of a flyby mission, it looks like we’ll be learning a lot more about Europa for years to come.

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