Mission to Mars: Dream of Analyzing Martian Soil for Signs of Life May Soon be Reality

It's been a dream of scientists for generations: actually studying samples of Martian soil for signs of life. With Monday's announcement of President Donald Trump's 2021 budget for NASA, that dream appears likely to be funded and on the cusp of becoming reality.

The more than $25 billion budget is a 12% increase from last year's and would be NASA's largest in decades, investing in a variety of ongoing scientific, technological and aerospace goals. It is in contrast to the proposed deep cuts that would hit domestic programs, like food stamps, federal housing assistance, and Medicaid, federal disability and student loan programs.


The Trump Administration has prioritized American astronauts returning to the moon by 2024 and the use of it as a "launching pad to ensure that America is the first nation to plant its flag on Mars," the president said during his State of the Union address last week.

"We're going back to the moon to stay this time, and to build a sustainable presence at the moon and Mars eventually," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, speaking in front of rocket engines at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

NASA is also working with commercial "partners" at SpaceX and Boeing, Bridenstine said, to launch Americans on U.S. soil back to the space station this year.

Other technological efforts that will be undertaken on the red planet as part of Mars 2020 mission include the use of technology to turn the carbon dioxide on Mars into oxygen as well as the first ever helicopter to fly in another world, which would be a feat especially due to the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars that makes such flight much more challenging.

The Mars rover is in the process of being shipped to Cape Canaveral, where it will be launched this summer. NASA's budget included roughly $12.4 billion to send astronauts to the moon and prepare for the exploration of Mars and beyond.

The Mars sample return, however, is what has many people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, psyched.

"These are missions and programs that we've talked about for decades," said Michael Watkins, JPL's director. "These are not just another Mars mission. Mars sample return is a campaign that's been top ranked by the decadal survey (done every 10 years to identify priorities) for a number of (its) years. As a mission we've been trying to get going for more than 20 years."

Austin Nicholas, the Mars sample return lead mission engineer, spoke to dot.LA during an interview in the test bed area at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge where small sample tubes were strewn about on imaginary Martian soil as a demonstration. He demonstrates how these tubes will end up loaded into a circular sample container that gets placed on a rocket.

By Tami Abdollah

Austin Nicholas, the Mars sample return lead mission engineer, spoke to dot.LA during an interview in the test bed area at JPL on Monday, where small sample tubes were strewn about on imaginary Martian soil as a demonstration.

The Mars 2020 rover will drill into the the ground and capture samples of Martian soil in small tubes that will then be sealed and placed inside the rover for storage. The rover will have the capacity to capture samples for as many as 43 tubes from diverse regions of the red planet, depending on how the rover's exploration goes.

Once the tubes are all filled, they will be dropped in a cluster at a spot on the surface of Mars so that they can be picked up during a mission to retrieve the samples.

The next steps involve the launch of both a lander and orbiter in 2026. Once the lander arrives on Mars in 2028, it will deploy a "fetch rover" to pick up the tubes left on the ground years earlier. They'll be retrieved and loaded onto a rack and the fetch rover will drive to the lander, which will use a long mechanical arm to transfer the rack, and load the tubes into a circular sample container on the rocket.

The return of that container is complex. It requires a highly intricate choreography that includes the first-ever launch of a rocket off the surface of another planet. Once the rocket reaches space, it will eject the sample container. The orbiter will travel more than a thousand miles to the container and use a basket to catch the container filled with soil samples.


If all goes well, the return of the orbiter back to Earth with the samples would occur in 2031 at which point there would be efforts to isolate and quarantine samples before they are ultimately doled out to scientists around the world to study.

Scientists are searching for evidence of past habitable life and for fossilized ancient microbial life in the samples, but such an analysis requires instruments that are truly massive - as large as a major city block, for example - which is why the samples must be brought back to Earth for study.

__

Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me, or ask for my Signal.

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

On this week's episode of LA Venture, hear from Marcos Gonzalez, the managing partner at Vamos Ventures, a seed-stage venture fund which invests in Latino and diverse founders. Over half of L.A. County is Latino. A relatively new fund, investments are in the range of $100,000 to $500,000. Seems like a great time to be investing in this community! And, Vamos is hiring...

Read more Show less

El Segundo-based telemedicine technology provider Cloudbreak Health and Florida-based UpHealth Holdings, a digital healthcare provider, announced they will combine and go public via a SPAC in a deal that values the combined companies at $1.35 billion.

Named UpHealth, Inc., the new company aims to streamline online health care by becoming a single provider of four different services: telehealth, teletherapy, a health care appointment and management system and an online pharmacy.

UpHealth runs healthcare platform Thrasys Inc. and MedQuest Pharmacy, along with two other behavioral health companies. The merger with Cloudbreak, which under the pandemic expanded their interpretation services to remote medicine, will give the new company a foothold in almost 2,000 hospitals.

"What we wanted to do was form a business that could really be a digital infrastructure for health care across the continuum of care, right from home to hospital," said Jamey Edwards, the co-founder and CEO of Cloudbreak. Under the agreement, he will become the company's chief operating officer.

GigCapital2 expects the merger transaction to close at the start of Q1 2021. UpHealth will be publicly traded under the ticker "UPH" on the New York Stock Exchange. UpHealth's integrated care management platform serves over 5 million people, and is expected to reach 40 million over the next three years, according to the company.

Jamey Edwards, Cloudbreak

Jamey Edwards, co-founder and executive director of Cloudbreak

COVID-19 caused a meteoric growth in the use of telehealth services. In February, 0.1% of Medicare primary visits were provided through telehealth. In April, that number was nearly 44%, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Key stakeholders have seen and responded well to the benefits that telemedicine can bring, but they need a more comprehensive, integrated solution," said Al Gatmaitan, who has been named the co-chief executive officer of UpHealth. "This is what UpHealth focuses on, the adoption of digital health solutions well beyond the pandemic crisis."

The deal with the blank check company GigCapital2 gives the two digital health companies access to a wider network. UpHealth and its family of companies operate in 10 countries and their pharmacy has 13,000 e-prescribers in the U.S.


UpHealth will use the Cloudbreak platform as part of their global telehealth services to provide patients with round-the-clock care under a variety of specialties, including telepsychiatry and tele-urology. UpHealth also has contracts internationally, to provide country-wide care in India, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Edwards joined Cloudbreak in 2008 when it went from public to private. It has raised $35 million in venture funds, most recently in the first quarter of this year scoring $10 million from Columbia Partners Private Capital.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story identified Jamey Edwards as executive director of Cloudbreak, he is its CEO.

Ryan Edwards, the co-founder of Happier Camper, said he's asked all the time if his company leans on influencer marketing to promote their vintage-style trailers beloved by millennials.

With a waitlist six months out and demand growing from hotel-weary travelers, he said it isn't a priority yet.

"We almost don't need to," said Edwards.

That's because the $25,000 to $50,000 custom trailers have been a hit with a loyal fan base, and rising demand during the pandemic has only helped. Orders for compact trailers at the lower price end, including Happier Camper's 75-square-foot camper, are growing as newbie road trippers look for COVID-safe travels.

Read more Show less
RELATEDEDITOR'S PICKS

Trending