Warren Olney Show: Mars Curiosity Landing — Featuring JPL’s Allen Chen and… Me!

JPL's Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

JPL’s Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

As the Mars dust settles — figuratively and literally — after a hugely successful Mars Science Laboratory landing, I was asked to appear on KCRW’s “To the Point” radio show with Warren Olney. I’ve chatted with Warren a few times and it’s always fun — he’s is a knowledgeable and inquisitive host with a passion for all things space. But Monday’s show was a little bit special. The “voice” of NASA JPL’s mission control was also invited.

Throughout Sunday night’s excitement, JPL’s Allen Chen calmly announced each stage of Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing from mission control. As Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team, it was Allen’s job to remain cool, calm and collected throughout. Listen to hear what he had to say to Warren and myself:

Here’s Allen in action:

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Sol 0: Curiosity Bathes in First Martian Sunset (Photos)

This is the view from the front Hazcam of the Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity." Mount Sharp is in shot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the view from the front Hazcam of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity.” Mount Sharp is in shot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is the first high-resolution photograph to come from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity that landed in the guts of Gale Crater last night. In the shot from the front “hazcam” is an amazing view of the now-famous Mount Sharp. In the photo below, the rear hazcam has captured the Sun low in the sky — the first of, hopefully, thousands of sunsets Curiosity will experience.*

Read more on Discovery News…

The view from the rover's rear hazcam, featuring the rim of Gale Crater and the light of a setting Martian Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view from the rover’s rear hazcam, featuring the rim of Gale Crater and the light of a setting Martian Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

*CORRECTED: This post originally misinterpreted the time of the photograph to be in the Martian morning. The images were actually taken shortly after Curiosity’ landing during the Martian evening.

Mars Rover Curiosity Begins its Martian Domination

Now THAT’s how you land a rover!

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” has landed inside Gale Crater in a damn-near perfect entry, descent and landing (EDL). What’s more, the first photos from the Martian surface were also received only minutes after confirmation of touchdown, depicting a wonderfully smooth plain littered with small rocks.

The first low resolution photo from Curiosity’s hazcam showed a horizon plus one of the rover’s wheels. And then a higher-resolution hazcam view streamed in. Then another — this time showing the shadow of the one-ton rover — an image that will likely become iconic for tonight’s entire EDL. The concerns about the ability of NASA’s orbiting satellite Mars Odyssey to relay signals from Curiosity rapidly evaporated.

Curiosity had landed and it was already taking my breath away.

After a long night in the “Media Overflow” trailer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. On the one hand, I was blown away by ingenuity of mankind — the fact we can launch such ambitious missions to other worlds is a testament to exploration and science in its purest form. But I was also overwhelmed by the spirit of JPL’s scientists and engineers who made this happen. I was humbled to be a member of the media covering the event from mission control. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Tonight is a night to forget politics, this is a night to celebrate NASA and the incredible things they do.

I’ll post more soon, including photos from the event, but for now I need sleep.

What a night.

Welcome to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Welcome to Gale Crater. Credit: NASA

Epic Mars Rover Curiosity Video of the “7 Minutes of Terror”

This video has been doing the rounds, so I posted it on Discovery News on Tuesday. My favorite comment from a reader was: “I need a clean pair of shorts.” That means only one thing; it’s time for some epic NASA-created CGI of the entry, descent and landing (a.k.a. “EDL”) of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” set for landing on the Red Planet on August 5 at 9:30 p.m. (PST). To be honest, the video speaks for itself, so I’ll hand over to EDL Engineer Adam Stelzner (who really needs his own TV show — love his monolog).

Life: Not So Grim On The Galactic Rim?

M80 -- an old globular cluster in the Milky Way -- is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

M80 — an old globular cluster in the Milky Way — is full of metal-poor stars. Do they still have exoplanetary potential? (NASA)

The galaxy may be brimming with habitable small worlds and many older star systems could possess the conditions ripe for advanced alien civilizations to evolve. This prediction comes in the wake of new analysis of data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and ground based observatories by a team of Danish and American astronomers.

Led by Lars Buchhave of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the team has revealed that stars containing low quantities of heavy elements — known as “metal poor” stars — are still capable of nurturing exoplanets with Earth-like qualities.

“I wanted to investigate whether planets only form around certain types of stars and whether there is a correlation between the size of the planets and the type of host star it is orbiting,” Buchhave said.

After analyzing the elemental composition of stars hosting 226 small exoplanets — some as small as the rocky planets in the Solar System — Buchhave’s team discovered that “unlike the gas giants, the occurrence of smaller planets is not strongly dependent on stars with a high content of heavy elements. Planets that are up to four times the size of Earth can form around very different stars — also stars that are poorer in heavy elements,” he concluded.

The Kepler mission, for example, is actively carrying out a search for exoplanets that pass in front of their host stars (events known as “transits”). With Kepler’s sensitive eye, it is capable of detecting exoplanets of similar size to Earth, or even as small as Mars.

Interestingly, as it surveys Sun-like stars, Kepler can detect tiny, rocky worlds that orbit within the “habitable zones” of their stars. It’s no huge leap of the imagination to think alien life may have evolved on some of these worlds.

But a problem facing astronomers hunting for bona fide “Earth-like” exoplanets is that many older stars have low quantities of heavier elements (such as the silicon and iron) that small rocky worlds need to become… well… rocky. But Buchhave’s discovery suggests that stars once considered infertile may in fact have a shot at birthing small exoplanets.

Jill Tarter, Chair of the SETI Institute, points out that this could be a boon for the search for intelligent extraterrestrials. “The idea that very old stars could also sport habitable planets is encouraging for our searches,” she said in a SETI press release on Wednesday.

Tarter also highlights the fact that life took a long time to evolve into an advanced technological state on Earth. Therefore, should there be small habitable rocky worlds orbiting ancient stars (as this research suggests), perhaps alien life far older and more technologically advanced than ourselves are out there.

Although this seems to make logical sense, it may not make biological sense. Metal-poor stars might have the ability to create small worlds, but just because there are likely many small worlds out there, it doesn’t mean life can be nurtured. But then again, regions of the Milky Way once considered to be devoid of exoplanets may now have a stab at providing a planetary habitat for extraterrestrial biology to gain a foothold. Whether or not these metal poor stars host the right ingredients for the building blocks of life probably won’t be known for some time.

In 2009, I wrote an article (see “Life Is Grim On The Galactic Rim“) that grabbed the attention of National Geographic writer Ken Croswell who quoted my Astroengine.com article in the December 2010 edition of the magazine. In the text, I discussed some research that investigated the strange lack of protoplanetary disks around a selection of metal-poor star clusters in the outermost regions of the galaxy. The lack of a protoplanetary disk means a lack of exoplanet-birthing potential and a grim outlook for life to evolve in regions of the galaxy distant from the galactic core.

The conclusion of this 2009 work appears to contradict these most recent findings and the suggestion that advanced alien civilizations may have evolved around metal-poor stars. Whether these stars are the exception rather than the rule, or whether their low metallicity influences the size or visibility of their protoplanetary disks would be an interesting factor to consider.

Although SETI searches have yet to turn up any signal from an advanced alien technology, Kepler is proving that stars — regardless of their metallicity — have the ability to host small rocky worlds. Should life have taken hold on these worlds, then perhaps, some day, we may intercept an interstellar phone call from one of them.

This topic and a myriad of others will be discussed on June 22-24 where the world’s leaders in the field of alien and exoplanet hunting will meet at the Hyatt Santa Clara hotel in California’s Silicon Valley for SETIcon.

UPDATE: After tweeting this article, @spacearcheology retweeted my link with the following comment:

This is something I neglected to consider in the original post. If there are indeed many more small rocky worlds out there — particularly around metal-poor stars that are, by their nature, ancient — why the heck haven’t we detected any ancient extraterrestrial intelligences yet? This has just become the Fermi Paradox PLUS…

Mars Flips Us The Bird

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

A curiously shaped Mars dune (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Is that a bird? Yes, I can see a bird! A bird on Mars! Aliens must have created it to send us a message! Actually, no, it’s a curiously shaped dune on the Martian surface. My subconscious brain has just processed a familiar shape and my conscious brain did the rest.

Captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), this dune is located in the north polar sand sea (commonly referred to as the “north polar erg”) and it is undergoing the process of defrosting. As the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere is entering springtime, the increased intensity of sunlight is causing carbon dioxide ice (and some water ice) to sublimate into the atmosphere. The ice can be seen as frosty white patches, whereas the dark patches are likely freshly deposited particles from carbon dioxide geysers erupting from the surface.

This is all well and good — how amazing it is to be witnessing the onset of Martian spring at such high resolution! — but it’s the bird head (possibly some kind of falcon?) that drew me into reading about this fascinating HiRISE update in the first place.

This is a fantastic example of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that makes us see familiar images in apparently random assortments of shapes. It’s the same phenomenon that makes us see the shapes of bunnies in clouds and the face of Jesus in burnt toast. Interestingly, the HiRISE folks didn’t point out the bird head in this particular photo, but considering they recently brought us the “Elephant On Mars,” I’m thinking this is no coincidence. Those sneaky scientists. During the fun elephant escapade earlier this month, HiRISE scientist Alfred McEwen decided to use the “elephantolia” as an opportunity to teach some really cool Martian geology and make us aware of Martian pareidolia. (Apparently an elephant couldn’t outrun an ancient flood of Mars lava, who knew!)

Right around the same time, images were released of the shape of a parrot in a Martian mesa. Unfortunately, the parrot researchers weren’t joking — they seem to wholeheartedly believe some form of alien intelligence is involved. But as demonstrated by the new HiRISE image, the parrot research is totally based on pareidolia (or “parrotolia”). They saw a parrot, and they have spent years proving it’s a parrot. The logical misstep is astonishing.

In fact, I found this whole thing so astonishing that I plucked this particular parrot to death in my most recent Al Jazeera English op-ed. And yes, I used Monty Python to emphasize my point.

Many thanks to Jason Major for pointing out the HiRISE pareidolia!

Mystery Mars Cloud: An Auroral Umbrella?

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

The strange cloud-like protursion above Mars' limb (around the 1 o'clock point). Credit: Wayne Jaeschke.

Last week, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke noticed something peculiar in his observations of Mars — there appeared to be a cloud-like structure hanging above the limb of the planet.

Many theories have been put forward as to what the phenomenon could be — high altitude cloud? Dust storm? An asteroid impact plume?! — but it’s all conjecture until we can get follow-up observations. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite might be able to slew around and get a close-up view. However, it appears to be a transient event that is decreasing in size, so follow-up observations may not be possible.

For the moment, it’s looking very likely that it is some kind of short-lived atmospheric feature, and if I had to put money on it, I’d probably edge more toward the mundane — like a high-altitude cloud formation.

But there is one other possibility that immediately came to mind when I saw Jaeschke’s photograph: Could it be the effect of a magnetic umbrella?

Despite the lack of a global magnetic field like Earth’s magnetosphere, Mars does have small pockets of magnetism over its surface. When solar wind particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere, highly energetic particles are channeled to the poles and impact the high altitude atmosphere — aurorae are the result. On Mars, however, it’s different. Though the planet may not experience the intense “auroral oval” like its terrestrial counterpart, when the conditions are right, solar particles my hit these small pockets of magnetism. The result? Auroral umbrellas.

The physics is fairly straight forward — the discreet magnetic pockets act as bubbles, directing the charged solar particles around them in an umbrella fashion. There is limited observational evidence for these space weather features, but they should be possible.

As the sun is going through a period of unrest, amplifying the ferocity of solar storms, popping off coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, could the cloud-like feature seen in Jaeschke’s photograph be a bright auroral umbrella? I’m additionally curious as a magnetic feature like this would be rooted in the planet’s crust and would move with the rotation of the planet. It would also be a transient event — much like an atmospheric phenomenon.

The physics may sound plausible, but it would be interesting to see what amateur astronomers think. Could such a feature appear in Mars observations?

For more information, see Jaeschke’s ExoSky website.