On Mars, There’s No Asphalt

Curiosity's right-middle and rear wheels, bearing the scars of 488 sols of rough roving. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s right-middle and rear wheels, bearing the scars of 488 sols of rough roving. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you’re like me, you hang off every news release and new photo from our tenacious Mars rover Curiosity. The awesome one-ton, six-wheeled robot is, after all, exploring a very alien landscape. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the mission, Mars is far from being a truly alien place. Sure, we can’t breath the thin frigid air, but we can certainly recognize similar geological processes that we have on Earth, and, most intriguingly, regions that would have once been habitable for life as we know it. This doesn’t mean there was life, just that once upon a time parts of Gale Crater would have been pretty cozy for terrestrial microbes. Personally, I find that notion fascinating.

But, way back in May, I noticed something awry with our beloved rover’s wheels. Curiosity’s beautiful aircraft-grade aluminum wheels were looking rather beaten up. Punctures had appeared. Fearing the worst I reached out to NASA to find out what was going on. After a friendly email exchange with lead rover driver Matt Heverly, I felt a lot more at ease: The damage was predicted; dings, scratches, even holes were expected to appear in the thinnest (0.75 mm thick) aluminum between the treads. On Mars, after all, there is no asphalt. Also, erosion is a slower-paced affair in the thin winds and dry environment — sharp, fractured rocks protrude, embedding themselves into the wheels at every slow turn.

Then, on Friday, in a news update on Curiosity’s progress, JPL scientists mentioned that they would be commanding the rover to drive over a comparatively smooth patch to evaluate the condition of the wheels as their condition is getting worse. But isn’t that to be expected? Apparently not to this degree. “Dents and holes were anticipated, but the amount of wear appears to have accelerated in the past month or so,” said Jim Erickson, project manager for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

So what are we looking at here?

curiosity-wheels-08-670x440-131220

All of the wheels are exhibiting wear and tear, but this particular ‘rip’ in aluminum is by far the most dramatic. But what does that mean for Curiosity? We’ll have to wait and see once JPL engineers have assessed their condition. Although this kind of damage has inevitably been worked into the the structural equations for the wheels’ load-bearing capabilities, whichever way you look at it, damage like this is not good — especially as Curiosity hasn’t even roved three miles yet.

But in the spirit of Mars exploration, Curiosity will soldier on regardless of how rough the red planet treats her.

Read more in my coverage on Discovery News, a location you’ll find me during most daylight (and many nighttime) hours:

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Jovian Joviality: Juno is a Healthy Spaceship, On-Track for 2016 Jupiter Rendezvous

Artist's impression of the Juno flyby (NASA)

Artist’s impression of the Juno flyby (NASA)

Last week’s Juno flyby of Earth was an exciting event. NASA’s Jupiter-bound mission buzzed our planet on Wednesday (Oct. 9) only 350 miles from the surface, providing amateur astronomers with an opportunity to snapshot Juno as she flew past, stealing a little momentum from Earth and sling-shotting toward the largest planet in the Solar System. Alas, the flyby event wasn’t without incident.

The spacecraft dropped into “safe mode” shortly after its terrestrial encounter. Safe mode is a fail safe on spacecraft that protects onboard instruments from an unexpected condition. This can come in the form of a power spike or some other instrumental error. It is not known at this time what triggered this particular event, but the upshot is that Juno is back in its nominal state.

From a Southwest Research Institute news release:

“Onboard Juno, the safe mode turned off instruments and a few non-critical spacecraft components, and pointed the spacecraft toward the Sun to ensure the solar arrays received power. The spacecraft acted as expected during the transition into and while in safe mode.”

Juno’s planned trajectory was not impacted during the flyby and it is expected to make orbital insertion around Jupiter in July 2016.

The mission was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2011 and, through a wonderful bit of orbital mechanics, was commanded to do one 2-year orbit around the Sun. Then, last week, it ended up where it started to use our planet as a speed booster, flinging it further out into the Solar System toward Jupiter’s orbit. This acceleration “freebie” was needed as the launch vehicle, an Atlas V rocket, didn’t have the oomph to propel the spacecraft deeper into space.

Once Juno arrives at Jupiter, it will give the gas giant a thorough full-body examination, investigating what lies beneath its clouds, how it generates its powerful magnetic field and how it evolved. The repercussions of Juno’s one-year primary mission will hopefully expose not only how Jupiter is formed, but how Earth evolved into its current state.

As Juno sped past on Wednesday, I allowed myself an early celebration of some fine flying by NASA scientists with a Gin & Tonic (or a Juno & Tonic) in my special JPL-bought Juno glasses.

Good luck Juno, will look forward to seeing you at Jupiter in a little under three years time!

MORE: Read my Discovery News post about the possibility of Juno exhibiting the mysterious “flyby anomaly.”

Curiosity Obsessing: Odd Mars Rock in Gale Crater

Panorama mosaic taken by Curiosity's Mastcam on Sol 413 of its mission inside Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Panorama mosaic taken by Curiosity’s Mastcam on Sol 413 of its mission inside Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, edit by Ian O’Neill

As NASA has been shuttered by the insane U.S. government shutdown, there’s been little in the way of news releases from NASA (site offline) or NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (site still online, but no recent updates posted). In this Mars Science Laboratory science lull, I’ve found myself obsessively trawling the mission’s raw image archive so I can get my fix of high-resolution imagery from Curiosity’s ongoing mission inside Gale Crater.

While getting lost in the Martian landscape once more, I started tinkering with Curiosity’s raw photos; zooming in, adjusting the contrast, brightness and color. One thing led to another and I found myself stitching together various photos from the rover’s Mastcam camera. Being awash with photographs with little professional insight from mission scientists (as, you know, a noisy minority at Capitol Hill has gagged them by starving the agency of funds), I started to tinker in Photoshop, blindly trying to stitch a selection of Mastcam photos together to see an updated Martian panorama once more. This is the result.

Of particular interest, I found myself staring at the precariously-shaped boulder to the far right of the panorama. I can only guess what geological processes shaped it that way — Wind action? Ancient water flow? — or whether it had simply landed that way after getting blasted from an impact crater, but I was curious as to what JPL mission scientists are making of it. Alas, we’ll have to wait a little longer for the awesome Mars science to begin flowing again.

Here’s that rock:

curiosity-pano-mastcam-sol-413-131009-ins

It felt nice to be absorbed in the Mars landscape again. The photo stitching is rough in places (by far the hardest task was getting the brightness and contrast correct in each photo) and I lack any calibration tools to ensure the color is correct or that the orientation is sound, but it satisfied my curiosity as to what Curiosity was up to on the Red Planet. It has, after all, been over a year since the historic landing of the NASA mission and the regular news updates from NASA and JPL have become something of an intellectual opiate.

Going cold turkey, apparently, makes a space blogger itchy.

Image sources (from left to right):
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0413ML1707000000E1_DXXX&s=413
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0413ML1707001000E1_DXXX&s=413
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0413ML1707002000E1_DXXX&s=413
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0413ML1707003000E1_DXXX&s=413
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0413ML1707004000E1_DXXX&s=413

Voyager 1, You’re Officially An Interstellar Mission

Voyager 1 is serious this time. Graphic by Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker)

Voyager 1 is serious this time. Graphic by Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker)

It’s kind of like landing on the moon. It’s a milestone in history. Like all science, it’s exploration. It’s new knowledge.” — Donald Gurnett.

After endless speculation, guesswork and data interpretation over the past year, it’s official: Voyager 1 is now an interstellar mission. It’s the first man-made object to leave the heliopause and enter the interstellar medium. This is history.

Read more: “Voyager: Goodbye Solar System, Hello Interstellar Space” on Discovery News.

Special thanks to Alex Parker for the image above, it sums the moment up quite nicely.

R2-D2 On The Moon? Why Not!

"R2, where are you?" On the moon... Credit: NASA/Corbis/Ian O'Neill/Discovery News

“R2, where are you?” On the moon… Credit: NASA/Corbis/Ian O’Neill/Discovery News

Sometimes, all it takes is the slightest of hints before I start Photoshopping stuff on the Moon that shouldn’t be there.

We’ve seen the Banff crasher squirrel steal Buzz Aldrin’s thunder.

We’ve seen the Sarlacc monster gobble up the LCROSS booster.

(Meanwhile, on Mars, something odd happened to rover Spirit.)

And now! We have R2-D2 trundling across the lunar surface as the perfect Moon rover design for dodging levitating Moon dust. Don’t ask me, it’s SCIENCE!

(Note: The inspiration for R2-D2 was not my idea, blame Astronomy Now’s Keith Cooper for that stroke of genius. But the ‘shopping is totally my doing. I have a lot of time on my hands, apparently.)

Read more: Why R2-D2 Would be the PERFECT Moon Rover

Iain M. Banks, Science Fiction Genius, Dies at 59

Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks

It’s always hard when a person who inspired you in life dies. And for me, there are only a handful of people beyond my circles of family and friends who have, in some way, shaped my thinking.

But through his novels, Scottish writer Iain Banks had such a powerful impact on my teenage years that he, in no small way, gave me a new appreciation for science fiction and in doing so helped me pursue a higher education in astrophysics. Sadly, as he announced with his trademark wit only two months ago, Iain had terminal gall bladder cancer and today has died at the heartbreaking young age of 59. He will be sorely missed by the fiction and science fiction communities — he was a plain-speaking, powerful voice in life and a skillful genius when describing the worlds he created on paper.

My signed copy of Iain M. Banks' "Matter" -- my mum sat in on one of Iain's book readings in Bristol that I couldn't attend and got a signed copy of the novel for me -- one of my most precious books.

My signed copy of Iain M. Banks’ “Matter” — my mum sat in on one of Iain’s book readings in Bristol that I couldn’t attend and got a signed copy of the novel for me — one of my most precious books.

Now, I’m not the biggest of readers, but when you pick up an Iain Banks (a.k.a. Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels) book, it’s hard to put down. His first science fiction novel Consider Phlebas introduced us to the epic Culture universe — a vast interstellar multi-species civilization, of which Earth and humanity had been enveloped. The very notion of a post-scarcity, pan-galactic race seemed to hit the sweet spot of my imagination, so I hungrily read all of Iain’s Culture series, feeling the very notion of what science fiction is change in my brain. In a particularly tumultuous period of my life, I took on Iain’s fictional writing too, reading the deeply unsettling The Wasp Factory.

Iain’s writing is a constant source of surprise to me — he has this unique ability to shock, enlighten and entertain while creating such a fine tapestry of plot twists and deep characters that you quickly become lost in his words.

But for me, Iain’s imagination forced the very limits of science fiction, expanding my thoughts on what is possible in our Universe. This is why, while struggling with mathematics in my undergraduate years at the University of Aberystwyth that Iain M. Banks’ work became a welcome escape. When I began questioning some of the fundamental ideas behind physics and developed a thirst for advanced and, quite frankly, unfathomable concepts in astrophysics, Iain’s books became a huge source of inspiration.

Although many facets of my life threw me on a course that would eventually see me tackle a PhD in coronal physics and send me on a life-changing trip to Hawaii and ultimately land me in California, with my beautiful wife Debra, 5 rabbits and a job with the task of communicating awe-inspiring space science to the world, Iain’s fictional universe has always been there, complementing my life in a very real way.

I will always remember Iain and will continue reading his novels so that inspiration endures beyond his death. People who inspire you are few and far between, so when someone changes the way you think through the medium of their writing, you should never let them go.

Goodbye Iain, the Culture will forever be my inspiration.

The British (Astronauts) Are Coming!

Lucky sod: Major Tim Peake, training British astronaut (BNSC)

Lucky sod: Major Tim Peake, British astronaut (BNSC)

Really, we are. But for the love of god old chap, make sure the first 2015 space station cargo run is packed to the brim with tea bags!

Ever since I heard the first UK government-funded astronaut was being trained to join the European Space Agency in 2009, I nearly wet myself. You see, when you’re a kid growing up in the UK, you can say: “I want to be a fireman,” “I want to be a policeman,” or “I want to be a doctor,” (I said the latter, which, as it turned out, wasn’t too far off.) You can’t say, for example: “I want to be an astronaut!” — to do that you’d have to emigrate, something my mum would never have endorsed to a starry-eyed 10-year-old.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s government deemed human spaceflight too expensive for our little island nation to shoulder in the 1980s, we Brits have been relegated to spectators in the human spaceflight arena (robotic spaceflight, however, is a whole different matter). But now, that’s beginning to change with the announcement that Major Tim Peake has been selected as a 2015 space station crew member.

Luvly jubbly.

Read more: UK to Send First Astronaut to Space Station

Colonists Beware: Don’t Camp at the Bottom of Martian Hills!

Trails of Mars rocks that have rolled down the slope of a crater rim as imaged by the HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona.

Trails of Mars rocks that have rolled down the slope of a crater rim as imaged by the HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona.

It’s always fascinating to see evidence of active geological processes on Mars. And with the help of the armada of robots in orbit and roving the Red Planet, there are plenty of opportunities to see the planet in action.

Take this recent image from the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) for example. In this striking scene — which is a little over one kilometer wide — the bright trails of rocks that have rolled down a sloping crater rim after being dislodged from the top are visible from space. The rocks have obviously bounced on their way, leaving dotted impressions as they rolled. Some have reared in wide arcs, following the topography of the landscape. Others have hit other rocks on their way down, dislodging them, creating secondary cascades of smaller boulders.

“The many boulder tracks in this image all seem to emanate from a small alcove near the rim of the crater,” describes HiRISE Targeting Specialist Nicole Baugh. “They spread out downslope and finally terminate near the crater floor. A high-contrast stretch of the area where the tracks stop shows lots of boulders, some still at the ends of the tracks.”

A rough estimate from the high-resolution imagery suggests some of these Mars boulders are over a meter wide. Future Mars astronauts beware: don’t camp out at the bottom of Martian hills! There’s no vegetation to hold big rocks in place or slow their speed. As previous observations of Mars “avalanches” suggest, weathering through the expansion of water ice (frost action) and/or rapid vaporization of carbon dioxide ice likely trigger pretty extreme downfalls of debris. It would be a bummer to travel all the way to Mars, survive the ravages of solar radiation, a daring descent and landing only to get flattened by a wayward chunk of rock when you set up camp.

I’ve always had a special joy for surveying HiRISE observations; it’s a very privileged window to this alien landscape that, in actuality, has many similar geological processes we find on Earth. And so here we have a collection of boulders that, somehow, became dislodged and stormed down from the rim of a crater. If we saw such an event in person, we might note the unnatural bounce these boulders have in the roughly one-third Earth gravity. But we’d also have to find shelter fast, as just like rolling boulders on Earth, those things will flatten you.

About Those ‘Habitable’ Exoplanets (RT America Interview)

On Monday, I appeared on RT America’s live news broadcast to talk exoplanets — particularly the three small (possibly rocky) worlds that orbit the stars Kepler-62 and Kepler-69. It was a lot of fun discussing ‘Goldilocks Zones’ and the possibilities of extraterrestrials. Enjoy!

Discovery News coverage of Kepler-62:

We Are The 4.9%

The AMS attached to the space station's exterior (NASA)

The AMS attached to the space station’s exterior (NASA)

This month is Global Astronomy Month (GAM2013) organized by my friends Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). There is a whole host of events going on right this moment to boost astronomy throughout the international community, and as a part of GAM2013, AWB are hosting daily blogs from guest astronomers, writers, physicists and others with a background in space. Today (April 11) was my turn, so I wrote a blog about the fascinating first results to be announced on the International Space Station instrument the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer — or AMS for short.

Although the AMS’ most recent findings suggest positrons with a signature energy indicative of the annihilation of dark matter — particularly hypothetical weakly interaction massive particles (WIMPS) — it isn’t final proof of dark matter (despite what the tabloid press might’ve told you). But still, it’s exciting and another component of our enduring search for 95.1% of the mass-energy of the universe that is locked in the mysterious and perplexing dark matter and dark energy.

You can read my blog on the AWB website: “Dark Matter: We Are The 4.9%