I don't do a lot of space-related posts. I find outer space kind of boring. But there have been a few stories lately that caught my eye.
Back to the moon
For the last couple of years, there's been talk of the US going back to the Moon. It looks like we might have some company when we get there. China and India recently announced their separate plans to send unmanned probes to the moon. China wants to study the chemical composition of the Moon’s surface, while India plans to create a 3D map of the satellite.
More planets than you can shake a stick at
Scientists at the University of California at Berkely have announced the discovery of 28 more planets outside of our Solar System, bringing the total to 236. They also discovered seven more “brown dwarfs” – which are basically stars that failed to ignite. Some scientists speculate that brown dwarfs may account for the missing “dark matter” whose gravity holds the Universe together.
Hi-res Mars images
There’s growing photo evidence that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars.
Photos from a NASA Mars orbiter taken over the span of several years show that erosion patterns have changed on portions of the Red Planet. Scientists have known that ice exists on Mars for quite a while, but these latest photographs help point to signs that liquid water occasionally can be found on the planet as well.
That’s especially important in the search for any forms of life on the planet. While past research has concluded that life was possible on the planet’s long past when it was warmer, these new photos help boost the odds that liquid water may exist somewhere on the planet today to help feed life forms.
Satellite photos have long shown gullies on the surface of Mars where water was believed to have flowed millions of years ago. Comparing photos of portions of Mars first photographed in 1999 and 2000 and then reshot in 2004 and 2005, researchers have found gullies in two spots that are part of the second series of photos, but not the first.
“Water seems to have flowed on the surface of today’s Mars,” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “The big question is how does this happen, and does it point to a habitat for life.”
There are no visible channels or pools of water on Mars. That leads researchers to think that there may be liquid water in underground aquifiers, which occasionally release water to Mars’ surface. Underground temperatures of Mars might be warm enough to keep water in its liquid state.
The new gullies display evidence of water flow similar to what we see on Earth. They are about one-quarter of a mile long and have delta-shaped patterns at their ends, much like what we find at the end of our rivers and streams. Also, flow patterns in the areas around obstacles in the paths of the gullies show similar patterns like those we see here on earth of mud and sediment washing around the obstacle.
By the way, if you want to see more about the surface of Mars, the Science Museum of Minnesota’s 3-D cinema currently is showing the film “Mars,” which has footage taken from the Mars rovers currently scurrying around the planet. Maybe you’ll be able to see some signs of water in the background.
Have you seen the trailer for the new Transformers movie? It has the story line of the Beagle 2 Mars rover being lost after landing on Mars and the implication is that an evil Decepticon destroys it as, “the only warning we will ever get.”
While I doubt that transforming Lamborghini’s are the cause, a space probe orbiting Mars has recently gone missing. The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), launched on November 7, 1996, is one of several probes currently studying Mars. (The others include the orbiters Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.) The original mission of the MGS was scheduled to last only about two years, but NASA has repeatedly extended the mission making the MGS the longest operating spacecraft ever sent to Mars. The MGS was launched in part to replace the Mars Observer, which disappeared in 1993 before reaching Mars (again, probably not Decepticons). Most of the Mars Observer’s instruments were rebuilt and installed on the MGS.
It has gathered more information on the Red Planet than all previous missions combined, all in all the spacecraft has been a tremendously successful workhorse.
The mission was most recently extended on October 1, however, early this month problems began to arise. On November 2 the spacecraft was sent commands for a routine moving of its solar panels. The spacecraft reported that the motor responsible for moving one of the panels had problems and had as a result switched to backup systems. While this is how the spacecraft is programmed to respond, no transmissions from the spacecraft were received for two days. On November 5 several transmissions were received that indicated the spacecraft had entered a “safe” mode, a pre-programmed state of minimal activity. After receiving no transmissions from the spacecraft on November 6 NASA engineers figured the spacecraft had followed further safety protocols when it determines a solar panel is stuck which result in turning the spacecraft so the panels face the sun, which result in making successful transmissions to Earth difficult. This past Monday NASA had hoped to get an image of the MGS from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but was unsuccessful. Yesterday NASA engineers sent a signal to the MGS that requested that it turn on a beacon on one of the two Mars rovers on the surface. Unfortunately, the Opportunity Rover did not get a signal from the MRS yesterday, but NASA will try again today. If that fails, NASA will continue to attempt to contract the MGS through the end of the year, but it may be that the mission of the Mars Global Surveyor may finally have come to an end.
One of the things the MGS did that I thought was interesting was take pictures of other orbiters and past landers on the Mars surface. The goal of these types of photos was to place the landers into a geological context, which helps scientists to understand the results these landers have returned. The Mars Global Surveyor had taken images of Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, Mars Pathfinder, and both Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.
It is even possible that the Mars Global Surveyor has found the location of the Mars Polar Lander, which was a failed mission that lost contact with Earth in December of 1999.
Images from the Mars Global Surveyor are available for viewing on Science on a Sphere at the Science Musuem of Minnesota.
Our two little Mars rover robots survived another winter on Mars. Spirit, who has a bad wheel, sat on a hillside facing the sun. Opportunity, who spent several weeks spinning its wheels in a sand dune, has now reached a huge crater named Victoria. Progress will be slow during October, though, because the Sun's position near our radio path causes interference.
Within two months after landing on Mars in early 2004, Opportunity found geological evidence for a long-ago environment that was wet. Deeper sediments exposed in craters allow a look into Mar's past. The Eagle Crater, in which Opportunity landed in 2004, gave geologists about 0.5 metres of layered rock to study. Endurance Crater, where Opportunity spent about six months, provided 7 metres of layers. Victoria Crater appears to be at least 60 metres deep.
"This is a geologist's dream come true," says rover principal scientist Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, US. "Those layers of rock, if we can get to them, will tell us new stories about the environmental conditions long ago. New Scientist
Jim Bell of Cornell, lead scientist for the rovers' panoramic cameras says NASA plans to drive Opportunity from crater ridge to ridge, studying nearby cliffs across the intervening alcoves and looking for safe ways to drive the rover down.
"It's like going to the Grand Canyon and seeing what you can from several different overlooks before you walk down," Bell said.
A new space capsule and launch system are being developed to bring the next generation of explorers to the International Space Station, back to the moon, and later to Mars. The new Orion space capsule and Ares launch system will be the long awaited replacement for the Space Shuttle and are scheduled to begin use by 2014.
The Orion capsule borrows its design from the Apollo-era space capsules, and improves on the best features of Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs, but is significantly larger than the old Apollo spacecraft and utilizes the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, safety, propulsion and heat protection systems.
Orion will be capable of transporting cargo and up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station. In addition, it will return humans to the moon to stay for long periods as NASA prepares for the longer journey to and an extended stay on Mars.
The new capsule and launch system will be significantly safer than the Space Shuttle because the design allows for an “escape tower” at the top of the capsule that allows for the separation of the crew capsule from the rocket below in the event of an emergency during launch. Further, there is minimal chance of debris damage as the capsule sits on top of the rocket.
To watch a video about the Orion and Ares systems, go here.
NASA announced the name of its new manned exploration craft – ‘Orion.’ Orion will take human space explorers to the moon and then hopefully to Mars. NASA aims to have Orion start its journey before 2014.
Ice geysers have been found on Mars’s south pole. The geysers have up to 100 mph carbon dioxide jets that spray sand and dust a couple hundred feet into the air.
A long time ago; far, far away, there might have been life on Mars.
Those are the conclusions researchers are coming to has they pull together data gathered from several space probes to the Red Planet over the past decade.
It all adds up to the possibility that Mars could have supported life during its first 1 billion years of existence. For the past 3.5 billion years, its conditions have been too harsh to sustain life as we know it. It became too cold and too dry for even the basic forms of live, microbes, to exist.
The findings of the research team were recently published in the journal Science. A team of international space experts has been studying the data gathered from various space missions.
In its first 600 million years, Mars likely had plenty of water, temperate weather and low acid levels. The research team has been able to figure that out by examining the oldest rocks they’ve found from the missions. Those rocks have been exposed on Mars’ surface due to erosion, cratering and large temblors.
Exactly were the water may have been on Mars is still up for debate. The research team keeps open the possibility that the planet’s surface never had large amounts of water covering it. Clay deposits, a key link to the presence of water on Mars, have been found beneath the planet’s surface. And the few exposed sections of clay may have been formed below the surface and later pushed up or exposed.
The tame first segment of the planet’s life was followed by 500 million years of great volcanic activity that filled the atmosphere with sulfur. Those particles fell back down in the form of sulfuric acid, while at the same time Mars began to lose its atmosphere. Then over the course of the next 300 million years, Mars got to its icy-cold, rusty-red look that it has still today.
All of this information is helping scientists plan where they want to send future Mars probes to get even more answers to these questions on Mars’ origins.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is scheduled to begin orbiting Mars on March 10th, seven months after leaving Earth on August 12, 2005.
Designed to study Mars in a low orbit, the MRO will have to make a tricky maneuver before the orbit is achieved. As the MRO approaches Mars, NASA expects to receive a signal around 3:24 Central time from the MRO indicating that it has turned its main thrusters forward and begun a 27-minute engine burn meant to slow the spacecraft down enough to allow Mars' gravity to capture it. The engine burn will end during a 30 minute window when the MRO is behind Mars and out of radio contact, so controllers will have some time to sit and worry. And there is good reason to worry. Past NASA missions sent to orbit Mars have had only a 65% success rate. If the engine burn is successful the MRO will be in a very elliptical 35-hour orbit. In order to get the MRO into the desired circular 2-hour low orbit it will continue to use Mars' atmosphere to slow it down. This process, called aerobraking, is also very tricky as Mars' atmosphere is unstable and can swell unpredictably. Current Mars orbiters in higher orbits will monitor the atmosphere to help keep the MRO at a safe and effective orbit.
Once the desired orbit is achieved, scientific operations can begin. The MRO carries six scientific instruments on board that are designed to collect more data than all of the previous Mars orbiters combined. Information on the weather, radar images of the surface and sub-surface, water sensors, and color images of the surface will be gathered to increase our overall understanding of Mars, as well as to help NASA select future landing sites for unmanned, and possibly manned, missions to the surface. The MRO is also designed to relay information from planned missions to the surface of the planet as well, including the Phoenix Mars Scout (set to land near the polar ice cap in 2008) and the Mars Science Laboratory (scheduled for launch in 2009).
A podcast about the mission is available from NASA. You can also check out where the MRO is now, check out a Quicktime movie about the process of just getting the MRO to this point, and more at the MRO page.
This morning at 7:43 AM EDT NASA successfully launched the new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into space to begin its long journey to the red planet.
This new mission to Mars will put the satellite into a low orbit to examine the planet in the highest detail ever captured. The orbiter will travel for 8 months before it goes into orbit around Mars.
One of the main goals of this mission is to scout out information that will help us in future missions that will actually land on Mars. So once it gets there it will deploy six new instruments to analyze the atmosphere, scour the surface, and even image deep below the surface of the planet.
Learn more about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other NASA Mars programs
What do you think is the most important reason to travel to Mars? To mine its resources? For human colonization? To find out it there was/is life on Mars? Something else?