After dragon slayer and space shuttle pilot, yes, I think driving rovers over the Martian terrain is high up there on the list of best jobs ever…
Source: Best Jobs Ever (thanks Ryan for the tip!)
Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is in trouble again. She’s stuck.
The tenacious little robot has suffered traction problems before and has even been dragging around a broken wheel for the last three years, leaving the other five to take up the slack. Then there’s the dust storms that have hindered the life-giving solar panels ability to collect sunlight. And most recently, the on-board computers have been rebooting and Spirit’s flash memory has been forgetting to record data.
A little help here? Spirit has driven into soft ground, burying her wheels halfway. Engineers are working plans to extricate her. –A distress tweet from @MarsRovers
Now, she’s stuck in the Martian dirt after slipping backwards down a slope during a series of backward drives around a plateau called “Home Plate.”
“Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL project manager John Callas said. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”
At JPL, a team have been assembled to try to find a solution to the problem with a model of the situation here on Earth. Unfortunately the wheels are stuck fast, half-buried, and scientists are increasingly worried that any attempts to free the struggling rover could make matters worse. The concern is for the chassis under the robot. Should it make contact with the rocks underneath, it would effectively beach itself, completely losing traction that could be used to free the wheels. In short, the situation is not good, but NASA is working overtime to find ways to get the rover on the road once more.
Fortunately, wind has helped the ailing rover recently, clearing excess dust off the solar panels, giving Spirit a much needed energy boost, but will it be enough to get her out of this difficult situation? If there’s a way, Spirit will find it, as let’s face it, she’s lived through a lot of hard knocks…
This just came in from the Telegraph, apparently Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has spotted a random skull on the Martian surface. This is obviously the only interpretation… as we know what an alien looks like, don’t we? Big head, big eyes, pasty grey skin. Something like this? Or, more likely, like this? Or this? Wow, it could be any one of them.
However, it’s not quite that exciting.
It’s a rock, as you may have already guessed. And no, the Telegraph isn’t taking it seriously either. (Although The Sun’s microreport could be taken either way.)
Although the newspaper’s article resembles a badly conditioned April Fools gag, there is one glaring error, well two actually. No, three.
Firstly, Spirit is not a camera – it’s a whole robot with a camera attached (called the Panoramic Camera, or Pancam for short). If it was just a camera, could you imagine the movie location costs?
Second, I’m not sure why this was filed in “Science News”. It obviously needs to be filed under “It’s a Slow News Day, We’ll Report Anything”.
And thirdly, I seriously doubt this image got “space-gazers talking”. When I last looked at one of Opportunity’s panoramic shots, I could see all kinds of strange things in the Mars dirt. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d love poking around the shapes and shadows, thinking I could see skulls, flying hubcaps and mysterious plant-like features. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m a “space-gazer”, but I’m not “talking”.
As it’s late, I’ve given up trying to find the source of the article (no links – come on Telegraph, if you’re gonna play blogging for the day, at least reference your lead!). Apparently some “UFO hunters” were being serious, but then joking, about this rock that looks like a skull. So, what the Telegraph is really trying to tell us is:
A stone. On Mars. Might look like a skull. Doesn’t really. Even ufologists don’t take it seriously. So it’s not really news. Move along.
I’m not suggesting the Telegraph isn’t a good newspaper, on the contrary, but really, what’s the point?
Why did I even bother to report on this? Oh yeah: It’s a stone that looks like a bunny skull. Now try explaining how a rabbit got up there…
Of all the places I’d want to visit on Mars, this would be high on my list. After travelling to the bottom of Hellas Planitia (for the thick atmosphere and possibly finding liquid water) and the summit of Olympus Mons (for the view), I’d be sure to have a scout around Ariadnes Colles, in the southern hemisphere (pictured above).
The Ariadnes Colles region may not be a household name, but looking at these new high resolution images coming from the Mars Express orbiter, I can’t help but be impressed…
On August 27th, 1911 the New York Times Sunday magazine ran an article entitled “Martians Build Two Immense Canals In Two Years”. Astronomer Percival Lowell had been studying the Red Planet and sketched what he saw, in this case, a growing complex of apparent canals on the Martian surface. There was even a nice little story that went along with this canal-building alien civilization theory. Lowell said, “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” that the Martian civilization was dying and they were building canals to reach the water ice in the Martian poles.
It turns out he was right about the water ice, but there’s no trace of this canal-building race on Mars… in fact there’s little trace of anything biological on the Red Planet. So apart from a few historic anecdotes, there’s still no life on Mars. The search continues.
Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years. — Excerpt from the 1911 New York Times article.
Source: The Futility Closet (an awesome site)
This strange image was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) camera–the amazing High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE)–as it passed over one of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System, Pavonis Mons.
Located near the equator of Mars, atop the Tharsis bulge, Pavonis Mons is the second highest volcano after the huge Olympus Mons (towering over the Martian surface 27 km high). Pavonis Mons is still much higher than anything the Earth can muster, towering 14km into the atmosphere (compare that with the altitude of Mt. Everest’s peak height of 8.85 km).
So why is this picture so blurry? Is HiRISE suffering a malfunction? Did mission control send the wrong commands? Actually, HiRISE is working just fine. It’s the dust-covered surface that’s blurred.
As the ancient volcano is reaching so high into the Martian atmosphere, the air becomes very thin. The atmosphere was already thin; the average ground level atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of the Earth’s. At Pavonis Mons’ peak, the atmospheric pressure is ten-times thinner. Therefore any wind at these altitudes is extremely weak.
The extreme planet-wide dust storms that regularly engulf Mars dump huge quantities of dust on the top of the Martian volcanoes, but when the dust settles, there’s nothing to transport it elsewhere. Therefore, the thick layer of fine material remains where it is, tickled by the light-weight winds, rarely moving.
In the high resolution image, you can see some resolved features such as the odd impact crater and small ripples. Other than that, it’s a thick, smooth dust blanket that covers the Pavonis Mons summit, hiding any interesting geology for below, giving the impression any images of the summit are out of focus…
For more, check out The Blurry Summit of Mars’ Pavonis Mons on the Universe Today.
Good news for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, a windy day on the Martian surface has cleared a layer of dust off its solar panels.
Opportunity is currently trundling across the undulating dunes of Meridiani Planum on its way to Endeavour crater, a destination it wont reach for another two years. It needs all the energy it can muster. So, like the fortuitous gust of wind that gave Spirit a 3% boost in energy in February, Opportunity has received what may appear to be a small hurricane in comparison. This gust of wind shifted so much dust caked on the rover’s solar panels, the robot has had an energy increase of 40%.
As of Sol 1850 (April 7, 2009), Opportunity’s solar array energy production has increased to 515 watt-hours. Atmospheric opacity (tau) remains elevated at around 0.95. The dust factor has improved to 0.642, meaning that 64.2 percent of sunlight hitting the solar array penetrates the layer of accumulated dust on the array. The rover is in good health with a rested actuator and extra energy. — NASA Opportunity updates
Since Opportunity arrived on Mars five years ago until April 7th, the tenacious rover has travelled 15,114 meters (9.39 miles). For a mission that was only slated to last three months, that’s not a bad distance its clocked up.
Mars is far from being geologically active when compared with the Earth, but it isn’t geologically dead either. In a stunning visual study by Stuart Atkinson over at Cumbrian Sky, he has done some desktop detective work on high-resolution HiRISE images of the Martian surface and turned up some astounding images. One scene shows a huge chunk of material, slumped down a slope, but in the detail are the familiar divots etching out the tracks of bouncing boulders after being disturbed by the Martian avalanche…
It might not look like much from space, but this depression in the Martian landscape might be considered to be a priceless feature when viewed by future Mars colonists.
In December 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flew silently over the Tharsis bulge, the location of a series of ancient volcanoes. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) captured what appears to be a deep hole. This kind of feature has been seen before, like a Martian pore, deep and foreboding. Usually these sinkholes aren’t as deep as they look, but they are deeper than the surrounding landscape. They are also similar to their terrestrial counterparts in that they have very steep sides (unlike the gentle, eroded slopes of crater rims) and they are caused by a lack of material below. On Earth, sinkholes often form due to water flowing beneath, removing material, causing the overlying rock/soil to slump, forming a sudden hole. In the example above, the sinkhole (or “collapse pit”) was caused by tectonic activity. In this case, it is likely that the material dropped into a void left over by magma-filled dykes (lava tubes from old volcanoes).
The result is a hole with very steep sides. It has been suggested that these sink holes may be useful to future Mars colonists, as they can use the natural feature for shelter. On Mars, humans would be subject to an increased dosage of radiation (due to the tenuous Martian atmosphere and lack of a global magnetic field), so it is preferable to find any form of natural shelter to build your habitat. The depth of this kind of sinkhole will afford some protection, and drilling into the cavern side would be even better. Perhaps even put a dome over the top? No need to build walls around your building then. Also, there’s the interesting–if a little frightening–prospect of accessing underground lava tubes. Therefore, colonists won’t need to dig very far to create a subterranean habitat with all the radiation protection they’ll ever need (the insulation would also be impressive).
Although this scenario might be a little far-fetched, and probably only suitable for an established human presence on Mars (after all, the numerous valleys would probably suffice for most permanent habitats drilled into cliff faces), it does go to show that the current missions in orbit around Mars are doing a great job at seeking out some possible housing solutions for our future Mars settlers…
I always get concerned when I hear about one of our invaluable robotic explorers switching into safe mode. This time, it is the turn of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that re-booted itself after an “event” in Mars orbit. It seems likely that a direct cosmic ray hit could be to blame…