The ESA Pasteur Rover, the Mercedes Benz of Martian roving (ESA)
Preparations for the European ExoMars mission appear to be in full swing for a 2013 launch to the Red Planet. This will be a huge mission for ESA as they have yet to control a robot on another planet. Yes, us Europeans had control of the Huygens probe that drifted through the atmosphere of Titan (and had a few minutes to feel what it was like to sit on another planet before Huygens slipped into robot heaven), but it’s been NASA who has made all the strides in robotic roving technology. Although Russia gave the rover thing a blast back in 1971, the roads have been clear for the 1998 Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover and the current NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Spirit and Opportunity are still exploring the planet (regardless of the limping and stiff robotic arms), several years after their warranty expired. But the Exploration Rovers won’t be the most hi-tech robotic buggies to rove the Martian regolith for much longer.
Enter the ESA Pasteur Rover, possibly the meanest looking rover you will ever see, with the intent of probing Mars to its core…
It was a breaking story that held so much promise: Phoenix uncovering something more “provocative” than discovering water in the search for the “potential for life” on Mars. Unfortunately it would seem the source for Aviation Weekly’s report was either inaccurate or overly enthusiastic (unless NASA really is covering something up, but I really doubt it). It turns out that Friday’s news was more of a pre-emptive scramble to get some incomplete science into the public domain. Phoenix had actually found perchlorate in a MECA sample and the mission scientists were trying to find supporting evidence with one of the TEGA ovens. This is was what caused the delay according to NASA; Phoenix HQ did not want to make a public announcement about this potentially toxic substance until they had corroborative data from a second experiment. Sensible really. However, in the aftermath of the weekend’s frenzy that glittered with conspiracy theories and excitement, Phoenix scientists have vented their frustration at having to disclose incomplete science in an announcement forced by a misunderstanding, rumours and allegations of cover-ups…
The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)
Oh dear. It’s the possible result that 23% of Astroengine readers (who voted that they wanted Phoenix to find “A strong indicator for the presence of organic compounds” as of August 5th, 3am) did not want to see. According to Phoenix mission control, recent analysis by the MECA instrument on board the lander appears to have discovered something bad hiding in the Martian soil. Perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance appears to have been detected just under the icy top-layer of the surface, possibly hindering the development of life (certainly the possibility of current life, perhaps past life too). Over the weekend the Internet exploded with reports that we were on the verge of a major discovery, leading to some reports indicating Phoenix had discovered life on the planet (nah, couldn’t happen). However, there were more grounded theories that further evidence for organic compounds may have been found or there was something more compelling than the discovery of water. But no, it looks like the forthcoming press conference (Tuesday, 11am) might have some bad news for us. A chemical that would actually halt the development of life may have been unearthed, possibly hindering the future of manned exploration of the Red Planet…
Right from the robot's mouth - Phoenix disagrees with reports (Twitter screenshot)
So the plot thickens… Ever since the primary source for the “Phoenix Affair” hit the blogosphere, it spread like a rampaging virus (with the help of the Universe Today and Astroengine.com, ehem). In the early hours of this morning, it was Aviation Week who broke the news that they had been in contact with an unnamed source, leading to the implication that Phoenix had discovered something and the NASA team had set off to Washington for an audience with the President’s Science Advisor. Having waited the whole day for a Phoenix/NASA response to this news, I’ve been frustrated with the lack of weekend activity at Mars HQ. That is until now. Right from the robot’s mouth, Phoenix has disputed the White House claims. On the Phoenix Twitter feed, the perky little robot exclaimed: “Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect,” (from MarsPhoenix).
The Phoenix Mars lander has thoughts too (NASA/JPL/UA)
Today, two of my Phoenix Mars Lander articles hit the front page of Digg knocking Astroengine.com offline intermittently. The reason for the popularity? It would seem that after Aviation Week reported an undisclosed Phoenix team source’s views that an “even bigger” discovery (than the scientific proof of water) was to be announced this month, only after consulting with the US President’s science advisor. Naturally many readers of the articles are suspicious of this move, after all, why consult with government officials after two months of public transparent scientific study? Surely any discovery that supports the Phoenix mission objective to understand whether the Martian landscape could support past, present or future life forms should be discussed after a clear public statement? It would appear that both the TEGA and MECA instruments have been used to derive this new data, so what has Phoenix uncovered? Let’s hope it’s not a storm in a teacup…
Before reading on, join the fun on Digg:
The Mars vista as seen by Phoenix (NASA/JPL/UA)
On Thursday, NASA held a press conference to announce that the recent TEGA experiment on board Phoenix had confirmed the presence of water in the Martian soil. Whist exciting, Phoenix scientists were expecting that result. However, behind the scenes, something else was being discussed and it had little to do with melting water…
The Mars walker taking a stroll across the Red Planets surface (AboveTopSecret.com)
So the new X-Files movie has been released (awesome), there’s been a surge in alien stories (on YouTube, the most reputable scientific resource), NASA astronauts are citing that UFOs are actually extraterrestrials visiting Earth (of course), and now we have beings with big heads having a stroll on the Martian surface. It must be the season for it…
A mosaic of the position of the Sun above the Martian landscape over 11 sols (NASA/JPL)
Phoenix is still working hard on the surface of Mars, scraping and digging into the frozen regolith, preparing samples for the next TEGA bake. This next sample to be dropped into one of the eight on board ovens will intensify the excitement for the confirmation of water ice (in abundance) on the Martian surface. The Phoenix Mars lander has been working on the Red Planet for 57 Sols (a.k.a. Martian days) since it landed on May 25th, the robot has pretty much operated as planned, exceeding all expectations (to be honest, I was relieved it touched down in one piece, anything else was a bonus!). But today, the lander releases a stunning image from its Surface Stereo Imager that really brings the whole mission into perspective: Martian midnight Sun…
Mystery mounds - we know it's a mystery, but please give us a clue? (HiRISE/NASA)
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is a stunning piece of kit. It is generating a vast quantity of images, all lovingly displayed on the HiRISE and other NASA websites. New views of the Mars landscape appear almost daily, with technical information on the projected scene, a polished display image, raw files and a little bit of text telling us what we are looking at. So far so good. That was until recently… Generally speaking, articles with compelling images do rather well online, plus I’m a big believer in “a picture speaks a thousand words,” so I jumped on the chance of running an article about some mysterious shapes that have recently been seen on the planet. Obviously the writer of the HiRISE image was of the same mind by letting the picture do the talking and… well, forgetting to mention where these mysterious features were located…. a mystery indeed…
This is just one of those niggles I’ve felt ever since I started working on Mars projects and articles. How can “Mars soil” be an accurate description of the stuff that sits on the surface of Mars? You see it written everywhere, from NASA to New Scientist, writers have referred to Martian regolith as soil. Why is this? Is regolith and soil that much different? Perhaps I was just getting my knickers in a twist for no reason; perhaps they were the same thing after all. So back to basics, I grabbed for my trusty old dusty dictionary and stopped leafing through the pages at “S”… there, soil. Now for “R”… got R but no regolith (wasn’t that a word in 1980?), just regorge (that isn’t pretty). So I get online and do my research 21st Century style: Google.
I found my answer, but it turns out recent data from the Phoenix Mars lander has complicated matters… apparently the writers at NASA and New Scientist were right all along (even though they didn’t realise it)…