Sol 2: Welcome to Gale Crater… A Martian “Mojave Desert”

The view from Curiosity's Navcam -- panorama mosaic of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The view from Curiosity’s Navcam — panorama mosaic of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is only just beginning its mission and it is already showing us a completely different Martian landscape. However, the rover’s mast has just been raised and returned an eye-level view through the mission’s Navcam to reveal a landscape that looks like the… Mojave Desert. During Wednesday’s NASA press briefing, Curiosity’s Chief Scientist John Grotzinger remarked on the striking familiarity of the “Earth-like” plain with the crater rim in the distance. There is even a little haze in the air that Grotzinger likened to “LA smog.”

While we wait for more incredible views of Mars seen through the eyes of our robotic emissary, it’s easy to get lost in this raw image and imagine how familiar this scene will look when we see it in color.

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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:

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

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.

The Funky Craters of Mars

A menagerie of strange divots (NASA/HiRISE/Univ. of Arizona)

A menagerie of strange divots (NASA/HiRISE/Univ. of Arizona)

As 2011 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on my absenteeism from Astroengine. But it’s not my fault, I’ve been typing like a madman for these guys.

But that’s enough excuses, 2012 promises to be a huge year for space, and if I get my time management skills back up to scratch, there will be a whole lot more of the blogging thing going on over here too. So to kick things off I thought I’d share a cool slide show I’ve been working on for Discovery News with Ari Espinoza of the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) — the awesome camera currently orbiting Mars aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

With the help of Ari, we managed to collect some weird-looking Mars craters (for the hell of it) and create a slide show with some of the strangest. Below are a few of my favorites, but be sure to check out the full slide show for more oddities!

Sometimes, You Just Have To Make Chocolate Mars Rover Cake

It's a chocolate Mars rover! Photo credit and cake-making skills: Will Gater

It's a chocolate Mars rover! Photo credit and cake-making skills: Will Gater

OK, so Astroengine has been a little quiet of late due to some uber-cool space news writing over at Discovery News, but to kick off an era of increased productivity (and not just Photoshop fun), I just had to share this superb chocolate-covered tribute to Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.

Created by my mate Will Gater, science writer and editor of Sky at Night Magazine, this is Mars rover Spirit, complete with silica-churned (white chocolate) Mars regolith in its tire tracks. I’ll be back in the UK next week Will, I hope you saved me a slice!

Latest news on Spirit: Mars Rover Down? Spirit Stays Silent

Speaking of Mars rovers, in case you missed it, I had the awesome fortune to visit the next Mars rover to be launched to the Red Planet later this year. Seeing the nuclear-powered, laser-toting, car-sized rover up close is something I’ll never forget. For more, take a look at the Discovery News slide show I created with pictures from my NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory adventures.

This is me, in the NASA JPL clean room housing Mars rover Curiosity. As you can see, I'm very happy to be there.

This is me, in the NASA JPL clean room housing Mars rover Curiosity. As you can see, I'm very happy to be there.

What Happened to Mars Rover Spirit?

“A big rusty transporter came over the hill and the Jawas sold it for scrap metal…” — Paul Quinn

NASA is giving Mars rover Spirit one more month to signal that she’s still alive before search operations are scaled back and attention shifted to her sister rover Opportunity. Unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good. It’s been a little over a year since Spirit last communicated and it’s looking increasingly likely she’s succumbed to a lack of energy and freezing conditions on the Martian surface.

But… something else might have happened.

“A big rusty transporter came over the hill and the Jawas sold it for scrap metal…” — Paul Quinn (via Facebook)

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before, in a galaxy far, far away…

Credits: Main Mars vista with Spirit superimposed: NASA. Jawa sandcrawler and Jawa figures: LucasArts. Edit: Ian O’Neill/Astroengine.com. Inspiration: My mate Paul Quinn!

The Ultimate Paternity Test: Are We Martian?

"Dad?" A scene from War of the Worlds.

This rather outlandish, sci-fi notion comes straight from the fertile minds of researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University who are proposing a biology experiment that could be sent on a future Mars surface mission. If their hypothesis is proven, we wouldn’t only have an answer for the age old question: Are we alone? but we’d also have an answer for the not-so-age-old question: Did life from Mars spawn life on Earth?

The idea goes like this: countless tons of material from Mars has landed on Earth. We know this to be true; meteorites have been discovered on Earth that originate from the Red Planet. These rocks were blasted from the Martian surface after eons of asteroid impacts, and the rocks then drifted to Earth.

If there was once life on Mars — a concept that isn’t that far-fetched, considering Mars used to boast liquid water in abundance on its surface — then perhaps some tiny organisms (not dislike the hardy cyanobacteria that is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of life to evolve on our planet) hitched a ride on these rocks. If some of these organisms survived the harsh conditions during transit from Mars to Earth and made it though the searing heat as the meteorite fell through our atmosphere, then perhaps (perhaps!) that is what sparked life on Earth.

You may have heard a few variations of this mechanism, it is of course the “panspermia” hypothesis. Panspermia assumes that life isn’t exclusive to just one rocky body like Earth, perhaps life has the ability to hop from one planet to the next, helped on its way by asteroid impacts. Not only that, but perhaps (perhaps!) tiny microorganisms could drift, encased in interstellar dust, akin to pollen drifting in the wind, seeding distant star systems.

Naturally, when considering the distance between the planets (let alone the light-years between the stars!), one might be a little skeptical of panspermia. But it certainly would help us understand how life first appeared on Earth. After all, it’s not as if the solar system has a natural quarantine system in place — if Mars had (or has) bacteria on its surface, perhaps they have been spread to Earth, like an interplanetary flu bug. Also, as experiments are showing us, microorganisms have an uncanny ability to survive in space for extended periods of time.

So, according to my esteemed Discovery News colleague Ray Villard, the MIT team led by Christopher Carr and Maria Zuber and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, are proposing to build an instrument to send to Mars. But this instrument won’t be looking for signs of life, it will be testing the hypothetical Martian DNA and RNA. Should this interplanetary paternity test prove positive, proving a relationship between Earth Brand™ Life and Mars Brand™ Life, then this could be proof of some extraterrestrial cross-pollination.

Although this is complete conjecture at this time, as there is no proof that life has ever existed on Mars (despite what research in dodgy research journals tell us), it is certainly an interesting idea that would not only test the hypothesis of panspermia, but also give us a clue about the potential human colonization of Mars.

To quote Ray:

This could give us pause about sending humans to a germ-laden alien world. It would be an ironic twist on the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” where invading Martians succumb to the common cold from Earth microbes.

See, Wells’ Martian warriors should have done genome testing first.