The WeMartians Blog

Other items of interest from the fourth planet

Every year in March, nearly two thousand scientists, from geologists to astronomers to geophysicists, descend upon The Woodlands, Texas, a suburb of Houston. And for one week, they share the latest findings in planetary science at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC).

Facilitated by the Lunar and Planetary Institute, who itself is supported by NASA, the 49th annual LPSC promises to showcase a variety of important Mars results, and WeMartians will be there in person to capture it all.

What can I expect for coverage?

TL;DR (if you’re short on time): Follow us on Twitter (@we_martians) for coverage from Monday, Mar 19 to Friday, Mar 23. The conference hashtag is #LPSC2018. First podcast episode will be Tuesday, Mar 27. Additional long form interviews will follow in subsequent episodes on our regular 3-week basis. Patreon Supporters should read below for bonus content info.

Social Media

I am one of the official conference microbloggers with dedicated access to wi-fi during LPSC. If you’re looking to follow along as it happens, our Twitter account is the one account you should follow. This year I’m going to make an attempt for more Twitter live video to bring you inside the science and the event at a deeper level.

Our other channels (Facebook and Instagram) will not have any further content than normal.

The Podcast

Episode 39 will be released on March 27th, the Tuesday after the conference. The intention is for this episode to be an overall story of the event, with short interviews from a variety of attendees and organizers. Listen to this podcast to hear a great summary of the event! This episode should include a good mix of science, inspiration and exploration. We might even be able to catch up with some of our past guests!

Depending on the contacts that we make on site, we could have 1-3 additional episodes that will follow on the regular schedule after Episode 39. These episodes will be traditional long form interviews with one or more scientists who are working on Mars.

Chomping at the bit? Try checking out last year’s summary episode as well!

What if I’m a Patron?

Quite frankly? Fasten your capsule harness. We’ve got a lot in store for Patrons of all levels. Expect daily audio updates throughout the event, and a vast amount of bonus content that doesn’t make it in to the regular episode. If you’re not already a Patron, now would be a great time to join. Bonus content is available to all Patrons who pledge $1 or more per month to help WeMartians continue building great content like this.

If you’re in our Discord (if you’re a $5+ supporter), I’ll be spending some time in there as well to give more inside looks and commentary. This will be a great place to discuss some of the things I see that aren’t suitable for public consumption (sounds lascivious, doesn’t it?!).

Click here to support WeMartians on Patreon and get behind the scences at LPSC2018!

The Event Itself

You might be asking yourself – what kinds of things actually happen at LPSC anyway? You can definitely check out the week’s schedule at a glance, or the full schedule with links to the abstracts being presented. But basically, there are three major kinds of events happening.

Oral Sessions

During most of the mornings and afternoons, different presenters will be taking turns giving talks  of around 15 minutes each on the subjects of their papers. These papers are organized into groups of similar research, and similar destinations in the solar system. For example, Monday morning has a three hour session on Mars Polar Caps: Where Ice Lingers, which is a series of talks on Mars’ two polar caps and the amazing processes that shape and change them. If you remember way back in Episode 4, Michael Aye taught us about how Carbon Dioxide cycles to the poles and back seasonally – this would be the right session for a talk like that (in fact, Michael is speaking in this very session!)

We’ll be hitting as many of the Mars ones as possible (hitting all would require Jake to be in more than one place as once). Past guests Lauren McKeown, Michael Aye, Justin Cowart, Matt Golombek and Frances Butcher are all speaking this year. Some of the highlighted sessions I’m looking forward to:

  • Astrobiology I: Looking for Life on Mars, Microbial Impact of Human Exploration, Curation Contamination Measurements
  • Mars Atmosphere
  • Aqueous Alteration of Mars: Results of Rovers, Meteorites and Analogs
  • Mars Rover Results: Depositional and Environmental History
LPSC2018 Attendees wait for the Oral Sessions to begin

LPSC2017 Attendees wait for the Oral Sessions to begin

Poster Sessions

If you don’t land a talk to present your work at LPSC, you might also have the chance to present your scientific findings in one of two poster sessions. These happen Tuesday and Thursday evening, and basically involve a huge conference hall with rows of posters up on walls. These posters try to summarize, with figures and other imagery, the findings on various topics so far. These posters are also categorized into different areas based on different themes.

We hope to meet a lot of people in these sessions and capture some on the scene summaries of different work being conducted. Some of the poster categories I’m looking forward to:

  • Astrobiology III: Analog Environments, Life Detection, and Extremophiles
  • Mars2020 Supercam Calibration & Lab Results
  • Planetary Mission Concepts III: Mars
  • Mars Future Exploration and Landing Sites
  • Human Extra Vehicular Activity Research
  • Phobos & Deimos II
  • Community Update from the Mars Exploration Program Advisory Group

Presentations & Special Events

Finally, there are a couple presentations & special events which take place throughout the conference.

On Monday, there is a feature lecture by Linda Spilker on Cassini, which will surely be delightful. Later that evening is “NASA Night”, where members of the Planetary Science directorate will address the attendees. We usually get some great info from this talk. They’re holding another smaller format meeting on Tuesday.

Monday evening, the Exhibit Hall opens, which has some cool visitors we’re keen to say hello to. Oftentimes big aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin will put on displays here.

On Wednesday, we’ll have the chance to hear Apollo astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt present some of his research as a geologist in Taurus Littrow on the Moon, which is of course a treat. More about the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17 will be on the docket later that afternoon.

Jack Schmitt Address the Attendees of LPSC2018

Apollo 17 Astronaut and Geologist Jack Schmitt Addresses the Attendees of LPSC2017. Credit: LPI

Finally, on Thursday, there’s a chance to meet the MEPAG (Mars Exploration Program Advisory Group) committee members. If you remember, we did a blog post about their Virtual Meeting update just a couple of weeks ago.

Come meet Jake!

Interested in meeting Jake, having a few drinks, and talking about space and science? Jake will be hosting a listener meetup on March 18th in The Woodlands. Come by the wonderful Goose’s Acre pub for some food and beverages. See all of our upcoming meetups at

March 18th, 2018, 8PM CDT
The Goose’s Acre
21 Waterway Avenue, Suite 140
The Woodlands, TX 77380

Is there a Live Stream for those of us not coming?

Yes! But most events won’t be streamed. The stream will be located here, and the image below shows you the events that will be streamed live.

LPSC2018 Live Stream Schedule

LPSC2018 Live Stream Schedule


It’s going to be a blast. So follow up on Twitter and be sure to catch Episode 39 of the podcast the following week!

This is the third part of a series on the WeMartians Patreon program. In January we covered the Orbiter level of $1/month, and last month we talked about the Lander level of $3/month. We’ve set some ambitious goals for the podcast. The most important goal is launching the WeMartians Travel Grant. If I’m serious about hitting these goals this year I need to ensure that the benefits of becoming a patron are clear. It occurs to me that I’ve only ever gone over the rewards at a cursory level. So, with this blog series I hope to change that.

Today I’d like to go over one of the most popular support levels: Rover. You’re a Rover-level patron if you contribute at least $5/month through Patreon. This reward level centers around our shared Discord community and advance notice of interviews.

Building a Community

One of the most amazing things that has come out of creating the WeMartians Podcast and subsequently building the Off-Nominal Podcast with my co-host Anthony is meeting and conversing with space enthusiasts all over the world. From emails to Twitter replies, Reddit comments & more, engaging with the space community is an awesome experience. But there’s never been a good forum for WeMartians listeners to congregate and share their passion.

Meanwhile, Anthony had started something with his podcast, Main Engine Cut Off. Using the integrated functionality of Discord and Patreon, he had created a chatroom for his listeners to meetup. When I asked him how it was going, he was proud to say that he had begun to see the inklings of what could be an incredible space for space. I wanted in on that action. But it didn’t make sense to compete. Anthony and I, by virtue of being podcast partners, shared a lot of listeners. It would be a bad experience for them to have two separate Discord servers to talk similar content.

A few conversations later we solved it. A shared space, branded under our partnership Off-Nominal, to host supporters of both Main Engine Cut Off and WeMartians. By bringing the communities together we simplified the experience. Plus, since the size of the community increased its value, we were stronger together.


What is Discord, anyway?

Discord is a software platform that was originally designed for Voice Over IP (VOIP) communication between gamers while playing multiplayer games. Think of it like Slack but for gaming. It has expanded to include all kinds of use-cases for communication, including Patreon communities. Users can communicate via chat in different text channels, sharing photos, links and more. Or, you can join voice channels to have vocal communication among a group. Discord can be run as an app on Windows, MacOS, Android or iOS, or directly in a browser. Here’s what you might see when you log in (I’ve edited this image to protect the identify of our supporters). It’s from a discussion about Space History and sharing our favourite photos and documentaries.

The Off-Nominal Discord is a private server that can only be accessed by supporting WeMartians (or Main Engine Cut Off) through Patreon at the $5 level. By creating an account with Discord and then connecting it to your Patreon account, you will automatically be added to the server seamlessly.

What Goes on in the Discord?

Because our community is global, there’s always something going on. As a user you set your own level of participation. Some supporters pop in once every few weeks to say hello and talk about something on their mind. Others find enjoyment from keeping the conversation going almost daily!

The topics we discuss are divided into broad areas, each with its own channel. This is helpful if you’re super interested in Space History but don’t care much about Space Policy. Simply mute the channels you don’t want to hear about! The channels we run today (available to all supporters at $5+ from either podcast) are:

  • #Announcements (for community announcements and events)
  • #General (for non-specific space related topics)
  • #Planetary (for Mars and other planetary science or exploration topics)
  • #Launch (for upcoming launches and launch vehicle technology)
  • #Policy (for politics, law, and strategy of space agencies and companies)
  • #History (for learning about the past of space)
  • #Random (for non-space related topics. This usually ends up being about listeners learning about other listeners and where they live)

We also have specific channels for those who support a specific podcast to discuss Patreon perks (more on that later). If you want to learn more about the channels, you might want to check out our helpful starter guide, which we give to new users who join.

Live Events

Sometimes, there’s an event happening, like a rocket launch or a Mars landing. These are great opportunities for the Discord community to get together and share the experience. Occasionally we’ll set up a voice channel to have a conversation about the event, or we might just stick to text based. These can be especially fun times to be a part of the group – the insights we get from each other amplify the experience!

We’ve also experimented with live recording sessions for Off-Nominal or other audio recording events (in fact, you can listen to one being published tomorrow!). We’re still ironing out these details, but it could mean you could hear one of the podcasts live as it is put together with the chance to offer questions or insights along the way. You could be a part of the show!

Patreon Perks

The private WeMartians channel has a special purpose. It is the one part of the server that is not shared with supporters of Main Engine Cut Off. There, listeners can discuss some of the perks that they get from being a Patreon supporter, from the Red Planet Review or Off the Cuff bonus content, to advance notice of guests (see below). It’s our private space just for Patreon Perks.

Sound good? Click the button below to pledge on Patreon now and join the community. If you’re not sold yet, keep reading!

Pledge $5/month on Patreon to join the Discord!

Advanced Notice of Interviews

The other key benefit of the Rover-level is advance notice of interviews. I try to plan my interviews as far as advance as possible to give myself flexibility in publishing and producing. I’m not always successful, but most of the time I can arrange for 3-7 days warning for Patreon supporters to know what I’m up to. Then, I ask for questions. I’ve gone back to Episode 36 with Farah Alibay, a payload systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and working on the InSight mission, and made the post public so you can see a real live example of what these notices look like.

For Rover-level supporters, this is a chance to be a part of the podcast. Have a specific question about the spacecraft our next guest is working on? Let me know and I’ll try to squeeze it in. Think I might miss an important fact for understanding a science paper on Martian rocks? Give me that heads up and I’ll do my best to get it answered. Want to know what it feels like to live in a habitat on a Mars analogue? Well, you get the idea.

If I read your question on the show, I’ll say your name so everyone knows who asked it. You will become not just a supporter, but a participant.

Combining Benefits

Remember, the notice of interviews is made that much better when combined with the Discord community. By popping in to the private WeMartians channel, you can talk with other supporters about upcoming interviews and plot your questions together!


The Rover-level is very popular because it combines two really key benefits. Having advance notice of interviews gives you the inside scoop on the next episode of the podcast and the chance to be a part of the interviews. The Off-Nominal Discord is a superb place to hang out, ask questions, share thoughts and learn something new. Together, they create wonderful benefit that not only benefits you but helps keep this podcast independent! That’s pretty cool.

Pledge $5/month on Patreon to become a Rover-Level Supporter!

February was a really great month! Not only did we travel to Florida to witness Falcon Heavy lift off for the first time, but we also achieved our third Patreon goal! We’ve now eclipsed $300 per month, meaning that I have the financial security to make at least one trip a year for the show. And that means we’re off to the races in building towards the WeMartians Travel Grant, our next goal of $450.

Thanks to all the Patrons who’ve pledged support already. We’re already 76% of the way to our goal of $450/month to kick off the WeMartians Travel Grant. This is so close! I would love to see this goal reached by the summer time so that we can get this project moving!

Click here to support WeMartians on Patreon


  • Red Planet Review (4 episodes) – Our new series continued through February with 4 more episodes. We talked about Mars 2020 progress, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, lots of space analogues, new science, and spacecraft news. It’s for our Lander-level patrons ($3+/month), but the first episode was published for free if you’d like to try it out!
  • Bonus Content: Episode 37 (Falcon Heavy) – Prior to the Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX held a press conference to address some of the questions. Anthony and I talked about what this meant from a restaurant in Titusville. It’s got a real authentic feel to it!
  • Discord Highlights – Over on the Off-Nominal Discord, our Rover-level ($5+) patrons continued to share in all kinds of great discussions. Membership has increased a lot lately which makes the community that much more rich. We’re recently created separate channels to help organize the discussion, and you can get a sneak peak by checking out this instruction sheet we give to new members. If you’d like to know more, check out on Monday – there’s a full explainer on what this benefit is! It’s a seriously cool place that I definitely recommend you check out.
  • Shop Discounts – Some of our members enjoyed their permanent discounts on the WeMartians Shop by contributing at the Station, Excursion and Base Levels! Perfect for picking up our new Extra-Nominal Shirt (celebrating Opportunity’s 5,000th sol) and our Falcon Heavy Sweater design!

Don’t miss out on these perks! Become a patron today!



Last week, members of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) held a virtual meeting (VM1). It precedes their face to face summit in early April. If you’re not familiar with MEPAG, here’s a brief explainer from their website on their objective.

The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) is responsible for providing science input needed to plan and prioritize Mars exploration activities. MEPAG serves as a community-based, interdisciplinary forum for inquiry and analysis in support of Mars exploration objectives. To carry out its role, the MEPAG updates goals, objectives, investigations and required measurements for robotic and human exploration of Mars in response to new discoveries and directions on the basis of the widest possible community outreach.

The two hour webcast covered updates to the upcoming Mars 2020 rover as well as the Mars Sample Return mission architecture currently being considered. The event didn’t get a lot of press, but if you weren’t able to listen in live, Jeff Foust over at did a great explainer and tied it in to the budget request that also dropped recently. You can also see the slides for the meeting on the MEPAG website. And I have a few things I want to comment on!

Mars Micro Orbiter

Planetary cubesats fascinate me. The first one to ever visit Mars will launch along with InSight in May, the Mars Cubesat One (MarCO). I spoke about it extensively with Farah Alibay on Episode 36. Last year at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Houston, NASA announced a few concepts including two that would visit Mars. We covered this along with the rest of the conference in Episode 21.

It seems another concept is under consideration, the Mars Micro Orbiter (MMO). From the SpaceNews article, quoting Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program.

The spacecraft is a 12-unit cubesat that would launch as a secondary payload and use onboard propulsion to travel to and enter orbit around Mars to perform global environmental monitoring.

The Mars Micro Orbiter concept slide from the MEPAG VM1 Presentation. Credit: MEPAG

Mars climate studies are something I need to get in to more because they are really important, especially as we consider human exploration. If you think about how difficult it is to predict the weather on Earth next week, a planet we’ve been living on our entire lives, imagine what it’s like for Mars. Global mapping like this would be tremendously valuable.

The concept is headed by Mike Malin from San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS). You might recognize MSSS as the manufacturer and operator of some of the most famous cameras on Mars. Thanks to them we got the Mars Observer Camera on Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CTX camera, and Curiosity’s Mastcam and MAHLI camera, among others.

Also note the caption in the lower right of the slide above: Target LR (Launch Readiness): 2020, which would indicate this is designed to fly with the Mars2020 rover and separate from the Centaur upper stage after its final burn towards Mars, much like MarCO will with InSight. I’m very excited to see the planned briefing at LPSC this year.

The Mars Helicopter

One of the most exciting technological developments for the Mars 2020 (to me at least) is the proposed Mars Helicopter. Think of it as a small drone that would travel with the rover to the surface, then fly around in a scouting capacity to help rover planners decide their route. The idea has not officially been approved for flight yet, but development seems to be going along well. NASA has flown the drone for a combined 86 minutes in a Mars environment. However, a decision is still pending. From

NASA has not made a decision to include it on Mars 2020, though. “There’s certainly a chance,” he said at the MEPAG meeting when asked if it could fly on that mission. A decision would likely come in a month or two, he added.

Green said the decision to add the helicopter to Mars 2020 will depend on both its technical progress and “an adequate budget” to complete its development. “It’s going through its reviews. So far, it’s doing well,” he said. “It has a ways to go.”

Update on the Mars Helicopter design progress. Credit: MEPAG

The benefits of a Mars Drone could be really significant. Route planning today involves a combination of orbital imagery, which is at best 30cm resolution thanks to the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This means that hazardous rocks smaller than that can’t be seen. The rover can compensate for this with its own local cameras, but they cannot see over rises in terrain. This means that in some cases time could wasted by climbing a rise, then discovering that the route beyond is impassable. The Mars Helicopter could give bird’s eye views of the surrounding areas.

There’s also a coolness factor that can’t be ignored. One of our past guests, Mike Seibert, put it best.

If you want to learn more about the concept, there’s an old but still useful video from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that goes over the concept.

Mars Sample Return

There was a significant update on the Mars Sample Return architecture. This includes the Mars Ascent Vehicle (which takes Mars 2020’s cached sample to orbit) and the rendezvous strategy to connect the Sample Return Orbiter with the sample for return to Earth. This update follows the “Lean” Sample Return plans presented in August, which I covered in great detail for WeMartians Patrons in an Off the Cuff episode. You can hear that audio and all the other bonus content for just $1/month on Patreon.

Hear all bonus content for as little as $1/month on Patreon

The presentation goes into significant detail on the development process for the ascent vehicle. I am by no means a rocket propulsion expert, so I won’t try and dissect these details to any great degree. However, I will say the progress so far on testing this technology impresses me. Multiple engine firings have occurred so far of the proposed hybrid motor on the ascent vehicle, and more are scheduled this year. Here’s the Ascent Vehicle diagram.

What the Mars Ascent Vehicle might look like. Credit: MEPAG

It also described some of the concepts for orbital rendezvous. Along with ascent, it’s one of the most challenging parts of this mission. However, the group reported that the concepts are well understood. The mission basically separates this component into three phases, using different combinations of sensors and orbital data to eventually capture the small sphere that will hold the samples.

Mars Sample Return Orbital Rendezvous Phases. Credit: MEPAG


I love seeing these updates. For most of the year we don’t get a lot of information on the planning phases of these far-out missions. Mars 2020 rover is launching in a little over two years, but the next component might not launch until 2026. Much of the technology is still immature, but I’m feeling very positive about the results so far. In April we’ll get a broader meeting that will really give us more on the Mars Exploration Program. Until then, we’ll have to savour this powerpoint!

Like Mars Rovers? You might like our T-Shirts!

Both our Mars Rover designs are available on the WeMartians shop in different colours and sizes for men and women. Pick up both and save on shipping!

Opportunity: EXTRA NOMINAL

Curiosity: SOON

This week, we’re celebrating National Engineers Week. Engineers are a massive part of space exploration. Without them, we would never have achieved our successes at Mars and beyond. On the WeMartians Podcast, we’ve had the privilege of interviewing some pretty amazing Engineers. So, we’d like to showcase a few of them here! Enjoy this curated selection of episodes featuring Martian engineers.

Episode 9: Riding Ions (feat. Joe Cassady)

Joe Cassady is the executive director for space at Aerojet Rocketdyne and a lifelong Engineer. He joined Jake in the summer of 2016 to talk about Solar Electric Propulsion and how the cutting edge technology could enable more efficient transportation of cargo to Mars.

Episode 25: Building a Rover (feat. Abbie Hutty)

Abbie Hutty is the Lead Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus working on the European ExoMars rover. She joined Jake last summer to talk about building and testing a rover chassis for Mars and why engineering spacecraft is so important!

Episode 31: The Interplanetary Business Case (feat. Chantelle Dubois)

Chantelle Dubois is an engineer from the University of Manitoba and a member of the Space Generation Advisory Council. Chantelle joined Jake in the Fall to discuss SpaceX’s update to the BFR concept and the plan to phase out Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

Episode 33: Mars Base Camp (feat. Steve Jolly and Danielle Richey)

Steve Jolly and Danielle Richey are engineers at Lockheed Martin working on the Mars Base Camp concept. The two joined Jake in November to discuss the human orbital station at Mars and some of the design philosophy behind the architecture.

Episode 36: Systems Engineering InSight (feat. Farah Alibay)

Farah Alibay is a Payload System Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on integrating instruments on to the InSight spacecraft ahead of its launch in May. Farah joined Jake in January to discuss the challenges of spacecraft integration as well as a cool cubesat concept flying alongside InSight called MarCO.

It’s been a couple of months since we launched the WeMartians Shop and the response has been great. Thanks to everyone who purchased a shirt so far! Not only do you look great, but you’re supporting an independent podcaster so that’s gotta feel good, right?

Today we’d like to introduce two new products to the shop!

Opportunity’s So Extra

On Friday the 15th of February, 2018, NASA’s Opportunity rover completed its 5,000th sol on the Red Planet. That’s intense. The little lawnmower-sized robot has been exploring Mars for over 14 years! The original nominal mission was planned to be 90 sols, which means it has exceeded it 55 times over. It’s an incredible milestone that deserves a ton of credit. Last year we spoke with Mike Seibert from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who gave us a thorough walk-through of everything it takes to operate Opportunity. It’s a big job and the rover drivers in Pasadena do a bang-up job. If you’d like to learn more, you should listen to the episode!

To celebrate this achievement, we’ve created a special edition T-Shirt with Opportunity’s face. It represents just how far outside the concept of nominal that this rover is now operating in. We hope you like it. It’s available in different colours and sizes for men and women in the WeMartians Shop today.

Opportunity: Extra Nominal (Womens)

Opportunity: Extra Nominal (Mens)


Pick up your own EXTRA NOMINAL T-Shirt today!

TwentySeven Now a Sweater

Surrounding the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy on February 6th, our TWENTYSEVEN T-Shirt has been all the rage. Featuring the business end of the SpaceX Rocket, it shows all twenty seven Merlin engines ready to take flight in to deep space. I wore the shirt to the launch when WeMartians covered it from Kennedy Space Centre, which you can see in our super cool reaction video.

The trip to Florida was a huge success, and when we returned we produced Episode 37 which tells the whole story of the Falcon Heavy Rocket from its origins to its future. You should listen in!


While at the site, I received a lot of questions about the shirt. Since the design has been such a hit we thought we’d make it available in some new formats. You can now get TWENTYSEVEN in a hooded pullover sweater format, available in three colours.

TWENTYSEVEN Inigo Blue (Unisex)

TWENTYSEVEN: Navy (Unisex)


Pick up your TWENTYSEVEN T-Shirt or Pullover Today!

Keep the Feedback Coming!

We’re always looking for new ideas and feedback on our products and services! If you’ve got an idea, feel free to send an email to us, or hit us up on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram! Ad ares!

This is the second in a series of blog posts to showcase our Patreon program. Last month, we went in to detail about the Orbiter Level of $1/month. I’ve set some ambitious goals for funding. I’d like to travel annually to cover events for listeners, like the Falcon Heavy launch last week. Perhaps more importantly, I’m committed to launching the WeMartians Travel Grant. If I’m serious about hitting these goals this year I need to ensure that the benefits of becoming a patron are clear. It occurs to me that I’ve only ever gone over the rewards at a cursory level. So, with this blog series I hope to change that.

Today I’d like to go over one of the highest value support levels: Lander. You’re a Lander-level patron if you contribute at least $3/month through Patreon. This reward level centers around a private, weekly podcast called Red Planet Review.

Why the Need for another Podcast?

I love the format of WeMartians and I think it furthers the podcast’s goals and fits within my schedule. Going deep in to interviews with guests is a great outlet for education and makes it easy to break down humanize complicated topics. But setting up and editing interviews takes a lot of work, which is why I only produce one episode every two to three weeks.

Three weeks is a long time to not be communicating with listeners! Two years in to the show, I find myself having to go over a lot of housekeeping and to catch up on news before each interview. I couldn’t very well just skip in to the next interview without talking about the most recent SpaceX accomplishment or the release of a perspective-changing science announcement. This began stretching my podcasts and cluttering them up. I needed a new way to be topical and communicate more frequently with listeners. Thus was born the Red Planet Review.

So what kinds of things do we cover in Red Planet Review?

The show focuses on Mars science, engineering developments, human spaceflight studies, important launches and spacecraft updates, rover mission progress and much much more. Here are some examples of what we cover!

Mars Science Papers

New papers on Mars science are being released all the time. From seismology to geomorphology, climate science and more, Mars is a place of constant discovery. Early in the show we broke down a discovery from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discussing how meteorites from Mars could tell us the abundance of water in its past. We discussed the exciting announcement from USGS of abundant sheets of pure water ice located on the slopes of Martian craters, sitting just below the surface. And we covered a study from Canada testing new life detection instruments that might one day fly on a Martian spacecraft.

In all cases we try to break down these stories into simple terms to help make them understandable, and to give you the context that makes them important and noteworthy.We think Mars science is really cool and deserves to be celebrated. Our show notes link back to articles and the papers themselves if you feel like learning more.

Mars Ice Sheets revealed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/USGS

Engineering Developments

New technology will be essential to get to Mars. From propulsion to power, navigation and communication, we need continued investment into cutting edge tech to push further into space. On some of our past shows, we’ve explored a new technology from Michigan Tech that can extract water from gypsum. We broke down the introduction of NASA’s Kilopower project, a nuclear power source for the surface of the Moon or Mars. And we covered the contract signing by Sierra Nevada to develop a habitat prototype for the Deep Space Gateway.

Like we do with science, we’ll break down the importance of these developments and how they fit in to the overall goal of continuing to explore Mars. You’ll learn the challenges and obstacles and next steps for the technology.

Pledge on Patreon to get access to Red Planet Review

Human Spaceflight Studies

Robotic exploration of Mars is awesome, but we look forward to the day when people can travel there, too. We’ve got a long way to go, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to figure it out now. We’ve talked about a study analyzing astronaut’s core body temperatures during long spaceflights. We also cover human spaceflight analogues, like the recent AMADEE-18 analogue going on right now in Oman.

An AMADEE-18 Astronaut performs an EVA. Credit: Austrian Space Forum

Rocket Launches and Spacecraft Updates

Mars launches and new spacecraft don’t happen often, but when they do we’re there to chronicle it. Whether it’s the static fire or launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket (which could have serious impact to Mars exploration), the delivery of Mars2020’s SuperCam, or the completion of the Mastcam-Z qualification model, we’ll keep you up to date.

Best of all, each week we summarize what the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity have been up to on the surface of Mars. We’ll talk about the rock targets the explore, the drives they make, and other updates to their instruments and strategy.

How can I listen?

Red Planet Review is released on Patreon, for supporters pledging $3+/month. The audio is accessed to your private RSS feed, so it will show up, along with any other WeMartians Bonus content you’re entitled to, in a second feed in your podcast player. It’s just like another podcast in your app! You can also listen directly on or through the Patreon app.

Wish you could hear one to try it out? No worries! We released the first episode in early January for free in the regular WeMartians feed. Listen on or through your podcast app.

Pledge on Patreon to get access to Red Planet Review


The Red Planet Review is a high value benefit for our patrons. For roughly 75 cents an episode, you’ll stay up to date on everything happening with Mars exploration. Plus, your money goes to a greater cause as we gear up to launch the WeMartians Travel Grant which will help a student travel to a conference and share their work to explore Mars. We think that’s pretty cool. Thanks for your support!

Almost seven years ago, Elon Musk revealed the Falcon Heavy rocket at a small press conference in Washington, DC. It was a rocket whose idea sprung from a customer request seven years before that. And tomorrow, it may finally launch. Yes, it’s been a long time coming for what will become the most capable rocket flying today. But patience is a virtue, and for those of us following along, the reward will surely be sweet.

The WeMartians Podcast has been following Falcon Heavy since its first episode. Back then, the line between the Heavy and Mars was more clear; SpaceX planned to launch many Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars’ surface during the next few launch windows. But while the Red Dragon mission was cancelled last year, this is still a very important rocket for we Martians.  And thanks to the generous support of our Patrons on Patreon, we’ll be there to watch it fly for the first time, first hand.

What does Falcon Heavy have to do with Mars?

Falcon Heavy has just a handful of customers on the manifest today. Following the demo flight tomorrow, it will launch the Space Test Program-2 flight for the Department of Defense sometime this year. STP-2 will feature a cornucopia of payloads and will be a true test of the rockets capabilities. But after this, there is only Arabsat 6A and a potential Inmarsat-6 satellite, whose launch dates have not been announced yet. Following the demo flight, we may see more customers sign on, but for now this is it.

The Falcon Heavy rocket completes its static fire testing at Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon Heavy rocket completes its static fire testing at Cape Canaveral.

But to this show, the Falcon Heavy represents something bigger. Falcon 9 has done a tremendous job shaking up the market by offering high launch cadence, low cost access to space. But its payload capacity limits it to low earth orbit and geosynchronous satellites. It has only ever launched one payload beyond GEO, the DSCOVR satellite for NASA in 2015, a small 570kg payload to L1, about 1.5M kilometres from Earth.

Falcon Heavy promises to bring a whole new payload class into its reusable, low-cost world. It positions SpaceX to be able to compete for larger classified payloads, larger GEO satellites, lunar missions for Deep Space Gateway, and even smaller payloads to Mars. It’s hard to understate how valuable it is to lower the cost of access to space. It’s also hard to predict the cascade of benefits that will come from it. Suffice it to say, Falcon Heavy could continue to disrupt the market in ways that will be positive for everyone trying to put things in space, Mars or not.

So what can you expect from WeMartians?

I flew down to Florida yesterday and am spending today getting affairs in order. As a Canadian, I have some extra steps to take care of in getting my media credentials and didn’t want to slow my companions down, so the extra day is helpful. After arriving yesterday, I wasted no time getting indoctrinated in American Life by watching the Super Bowl with fellow space podcaster Brendan Byrne, host of Are We There Yet?

This morning I’ll be meeting up with Anthony Colangelo, host of the Main Engine Cut Off Podcast and co-host with me on our joint project, Off-Nominal. We’ve got hotels to check-in to, press credentials to pick up, and (hopefully) some photos to take at LC-39A. I’ll be sharing what I can on Twitter (@we_martians), so follow along if you aren’t already! I expect to get some bonus content for Patrons done as well.

The launch pad of LC-39A with the SpaceX hangar in the foreground.

Launch Complex 39A, currently leased to SpaceX by NASA, where Falcon Heavy will lift off from. Credit: NASA

Tomorrow is the big event. There is a three hour launch window opening at 1:30PM EST (10:30AM PST). A backup opportunity exists the next day. We have plans for streaming, tweeting, and recording all the audio we possibly can.

Following the launch, we hope to record a session of Off-Nominal in person before flying home. WeMartians will come out the following Tuesday, giving me enough time to process the week, assemble the audio, and create an episode worth listening to.

What if I want to get primed?

If you haven’t already, you should check out Episode 35 with Brendan Byrne and Emilee Speck. In addition to talking about all the fun Mars stuff to expect this year, we go in to Falcon Heavy pretty deeply. It’s a great way to get excited and get ready for the launch! Otherwise, follow us on social media as we head down to the Cape. And hey – if you’re a listener and are heading down yourself, send us an email or a tweet to let us know! We’d love to meet up and chat!

We could not be more excited for this trip! Go Falcon Heavy!

Wear Falcon Heavy and support the trip!

Trips like this aren’t free, unfortunately. And while our patrons do a lot to help us get there, it won’t cover all the travel expenses. If you’re as excited about Falcon Heavy as we are, why not help us out by picking up one of our great TWENTYSEVEN T-shirts? They’re available on our shop for reasonable prices and ship everywhere in the world. Wear a rocket, support a podcast. It’s win-win.



Well, it’s been one full month of pledges since we announced a huge overhaul to our Patreon goals and rewards for 2018 and I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished.

Thanks to all the Patrons who’ve pledged support already. We’re 92% of the way to our goal of $300/month to fund one annual trip to cover live events. This is so close! I think we can reach it this month. Here’s a look at everything Patrons have enjoyed over the last month!

Click here to support WeMartians on Patreon


  • Introducing the Red Planet Review (4 episodes) – We kicked off our new series this month, a short weekly podcast covering Mars news headlines from around the world. It’s a great way to stay on top of current events while waiting for new interviews in the regular show. It’s for our Lander-level patrons ($3+/month), but the first episode was published for free if you’d like to try it out!
  • Interview Questions – Some of our Patrons used their Rover-level ($5+) privileges to submit questions for interviews ahead of time. Listener Lars got his question read on Episode 35 and listener Kris got his read on Episode 36!
  • Bonus Content: Episode 35 (Brendan Byrne & Emilee Speck) – Brendan and Emilee share some of their thoughts on Commercial Crew, Blue Origin’s new Rocket facility in Florida, and the OSIRIS-REx mission.
  • Bonus Content: Episode 36 (Farah Alibay) – Farah told us the story of her past internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, what she learned from the experience, and some of her work studying Mars Sample Return architectures.
  • Discord Highlights – Over on the Off-Nominal Discord, our Rover-level ($5+) patrons continued to share in all kinds of great discussions. Of course, there was a lot about Falcon Heavy as we approach the launch. But also about in-situ resource utilization, deep space communication, and some more frivolous things, too. Some of our listeners built a Launch Alert bot that feeds live rocket launch information right in to the chat! It’s a seriously cool place that I definitely recommend you check out.

Don’t miss out on these perks! Become a patron today!



On Sunday, January 21st, a small company called Rocket Lab launched a brand new rocket and successfully placed their first payload into orbit. It was a picture-perfect launch that deployed small cubesat satellites from two private companies into space. Dubbed #StillTesting, the rocket also tried out a new upper kick stage motor, and deployed a bold experiment called the Humanity Star.

The Humanity Star

The Humanity Star is a 1-metre geodesic sphere designed to reflect light from the sun down to observers on Earth. It’s a bright object that people can track from the ground as it passes from North to South and back in its polar orbit. It’s meant to inspire us. From Eric Berger’s article in Ars Technica:

“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet,” Beck told Ars in an interview before the launch. “This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”

RocketLab CEO Peter Beck standing next to the Humanity Star, a 1-metre geodesic sphere, on the coast.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with the Humanity Star before its launch. Credit: Rocket Lab

Opposition and Support

Soon after the company announced that the payload had been deployed in to orbit, something began happening on Twitter. Astronomers began denouncing the “star”. They complained that it was adding to an already difficult problem with light pollution, and had the potential to ruin valuable observations from telescopes down on Earth. Meg Schwamb is a respected astronomer and also part of the Planet Four citizen science project, which we talked about extensively with Michael Aye back in episode 4.

Mike Brown is another well-known astronomer. He famously discovered the dwarf planet Eris, which eventually led to Pluto’s declassification as a planet. He also put forward the hypothesis (along with Konstantin Batygin) that there is another, actual planet nine hidden out in the farthest reaches of our solar system.

Miriam Kramer over at Mashable did a great job summarizing some of the reactions. Meanwhile, Rocket Lab defended the project. From the Otago Daily Times in New Zealand:

“The whole point is to get people talking as a planet and I think we’ve achieved that. If you’re going to do something big some people will love it and some people won’t love it and it’s all about sparking the conversation.”

Rocket Lab had been monitoring how people reacted to the launch of the Humanity Star. Beck said positive messages had exceeded negativity at a ratio of about nine to one.

“Although there are a few people that it doesn’t sparkle with them the vast majority of people are inspired. It’s just incredible to see how many people have been thinking and pondering about it.”

It seems that, on Twitter at least, you either love it or you hate it.

Polarizing Space

I’ve spoken before about topics revolving around the theme of polarizing space. In Episode 34, Laura Forczyk helped us sort through the pivot from Mars to the Moon, a perennial debate favourite among space geeks. I covered the same topic in an Off the Cuff episode (premium content for Patreon supporters paying $1/month or more) exactly 1 year ago today. SLS vs. Commercial Rockets is another great example (and another topic I covered in Off the Cuff), as is human vs robotic exploration, planetary protection (for or against), and of course, “New Space” vs. “Old Space”.

Hear all the “Off the Cuff” content and more by subscribing on Patreon for just $1/month

A lot of these arguments can be broken down to a really basic “change” vs. “don’t change”. Really, if you’re a pessimist, almost every argument in history is essentially that. But in the case of the Humanity Star, and a lot of the tribal space arguments, we’re really looking at a shift in who drives the conversation. Are the skies the domain of scientists, funded by governments and absent of profit motivations? Or are they the playground of the world’s elite? This tweet from Richard Easther, an astrophysicist from the University of Auckland, belies the undertone of the argument perfectly.

Rise of the Billionaires

Since the dawn of the space age, space exploration has been driven by governments. In the earliest years of geopolitical motivations driving the space race, it was governments going toe to toe. Since then, it’s been mostly the same. National agencies drive the agenda, remain the largest customers, and regulate the industry. But in the past couple decades, this has begun to change.

In 2004, Anousheh Ansari and her brother Amir made a multi-million dollar contribution to the X-PRIZE foundation, which held a competition for non-government agencies to put a spacecraft above the karman line twice in two weeks. The competition went to SpaceShipOne, a spaceplane which became the first private spacecraft to reach space. It’s pilot, Mike Melville, became the first private astronaut. Today, the heritage of the vehicle lives on through Virgin Galactic, another private organization headed by a wealthy man with cosmic ambitions, Richard Branson. Anousheh later went on to fly herself to the International Space Station as one of the first privately-funded astronauts.

The SpaceShipOne team and the X-PRIZE team stand in front of SpaceShipOne on the runway after landing.

Amir and Anousheh Ansari, Paul Allen, Peter Diamandis, Burt Rutan, and Richard Branson celebrate the SpaceShipOne flight. Credit: Jim Sugar

Of course, more such privately funded figures are today becoming not just spaceflight players, but household names. Elon Musk’s SpaceX put the first private liquid-fueled rocket, the Falcon 1, in to orbit in 2008. Since then they’ve pushed many boundaries. They were the first private company to launch, recover, and launch a spacecraft again (Dragon 1). They were the first to complete a propulsive landing of an orbital-class rocket (and then launch it again). They’ve become the highest volume launch organization in the world, putting 18 successful payloads in to orbit last year. That beat any other country, and accounts for roughly two thirds of all American launches that year.

Elon Musk isn’t the only one, either. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is silently and steadily building a rocket empire called Blue Origin to send tourists to space and later enter the commercial satellite market. He’s also following a reusable rocket strategy, one that promises to continue to drive down costs and democratize space access. Bob Richards of Moon Express seeks to put a lander on the moon. Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki and Eric Andersen want to mine asteroids with their company Planetary Resources. And of course, there’s Peter Beck, who just wants the world to look up at his Humanity Star and wonder.

Is this Good?

The “Billionaires of Space” have done a lot of good, to be sure. Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket has provided opportunities for many small payloads to reach space, including projects from schools and universities. SpaceX has lowered the cost of access to space tremendously, charging NASA a third of what it would have to use the Shuttle to send cargo to space, returning all of its original investment, and driving economic activity in the United States instead of abroad. That’s of tremendous benefit to American taxpayers. Given how fast everything has been changing, we are probably only scratching the surface of what’s possible as these new players continue to disrupt an industry that has been stagnant for a long time.

But there are concerns as well. In a recent Planetary Radio episode, Mat Kaplan hosted a panel with Planetary Society staff Jason Davis, and our past guests Emily Lakdawalla and Casey Dreier. Casey brought up a wonderful point. Private investment in industry to the scale we’re seeing tends to happen in times of tremendous economic inequality. By definition, there needs to be a huge wealth gap between the richest and poorest among us to facilitate this kind of unencumbered spending by private individuals in to a specific pursuit. And if you think that isn’t true, I invite you to check out what SpaceX is launching next. I’m not here to discuss the nature of economic inequality or its solutions, but it is something that should be considered by anyone pondering which side to take in this.

A red Tesla roadster on a payload adapter surrounded by the Falcon Heavy fairings.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being prepared for launch on the Falcon Heavy Rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Interestingly, this is not the first time this has happened in space exploration, either. Casey also interviewed Alex MacDonald on the Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio back in December. Dr. MacDonald wrote a book called “The Long Space Age” which tells the story of the surge of investment in private observatories in the United States in the 19th century. I recommend you listen in to hear the parallels between then and now.

Final Thoughts

We’re obviously in a time of change. The old guard of space is under pressure from a newer, younger perspective that wants to change things and make them their own. One only has to watch a United Launch Alliance webcast and a SpaceX one to see the difference. The days of control rooms filled with weathered Caucasian men in suits and military uniforms are fading. Those of control rooms filled with young, diverse engineers in jeans and t-shirts are swelling. They’re different. They cheer at stage separations, they share on Twitter, and they put weird space disco balls in to orbit. But that doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong.

As the Humanity Star coverage filled the airwaves this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about polarizing positions. Tribalism is a curious part of human nature, one that simultaneously offends me but that I also can’t help but sometimes get sucked in to. I come back to reminding myself, over and over, that space, like many debates in our time, is a complicated issue, and not one that can properly be dissected in a tweet (whether you have 140 or 280 characters).

It’s OK to be excited about the SLS rocket’s capabilities, while also being critical of its program management. It’s OK to cheer the landing of a SpaceX rocket, while also being concerned about the cult of personality around it’s founder. It’s OK to want to protect other planets from microbial life but also send people to explore them. And it’s OK to be delighted about a human-made artificial star, while also sympathizing with astronomers, whose valuable telescope time might be polluted by more light.

Space is for everyone. But for most of us watching from the sidelines, we’ll need to be happy being armchair administrators. That’s all fine, as long as we recognize that there are different perspectives, it isn’t black and white, and our diversity makes us stronger. If we’re going to Mars, I’d like it to be built on a stronger coalition than 50% +1.