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:


The White House Approves NASA’s ‘James Bond’ Asteroid Bagging Mission

Screengrab from the NASA "Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission" animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)
Screengrab from the NASA “Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission” animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)

It’s been a looooong time since I last updated Astroengine.com, so first off, apologies for that. But today seems as good a time as any to crank up the ‘engine’s servers as the White House has rubber-stamped a manned NASA mission to an asteroid! However, this isn’t what the President originally had in mind in 2009 when he mandated the US space agency with the task of getting astronauts to an asteroid by the mid-2020’s.

In a twist, it turns out that NASA will be basing their manned asteroid jaunt on a 2011 Keck Institute study. To cut a long story short (you can read the long story in my Discovery News article on the topic: “NASA to Hunt Down and Capture an Asteroid“), NASA will launch an unmanned spacecraft to hunt down a small space rock specimen, “lasso” it (although “bagging” it would be more accurate) and drag the wild asteroid to park it at the Earth-moon Lagrangian point, L2. Then we can treat it like a fast food store; we can fly to and from, chipping off pieces of space rock, return samples to Earth and do, well, SCIENCE!

Great? Great.

Overall, this robotic capture/manned exoplration of an asteroid saves cash and “optimizes” the science that can be done. It also lowers the risk associated with a long-duration mission into deep space. By snaring an asteroid in its natural habitat and dragging it back to the Earth-moon system, we avoid astronauts having to spend months in deep space. The EML2 point is only days away.

But when watching the exciting NASA video after the news broke today, I kept thinking…


But that wasn’t the only thing I was thinking. I was also thinking: what’s the point? It’s flashy and patriotic, but where’s the meat?

The human component of this asteroid mission has now been demoted to second fiddle. Sure, it will utilize NASA’s brand new Orion spacecraft and be one of the first launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), but what will it achieve? Astronauts will fly beyond Moon orbit, dock with the stationary space rock and retrieve samples as they please, but why bother with astronauts at all?

It is hoped that the robotic asteroid bagging spacecraft could launch by 2017 and, assuming a few years to steer the asteroid to EML2, a human mission would almost certainly be ready by the mid-2020s. But by that time, sufficiently advanced robotics would be available for unmanned sample retrieval. Heck, as telepresence technology matures, the EML2 point will be well within the scope for a live feed — light-time between Earth and the EML2 point will only be a few seconds, perhaps a little more if communications need to be relayed around the Moon. Robotics could be controlled live by a “virtual astronaut” on Earth — we probably have this capability right now.

The most exciting thing for me is the robotic component of asteroid capture. The advances in asteroid rendezvous and trajectory modification techniques will be cool, although scaling the asteroid bagging technique up (for large asteroids that could actually cause damage should they hit Earth) would be a challenge (to put it mildly). At a push, it may even be of use to a theoretical future asteroid mining industry. The rationale is that if we can understand the composition of a small asteroid, we can hope to learn more about its larger cousins.

The human element seems to be an afterthought and purely a political objective. There will undoubtedly be advancements in life support and docking technologies, but it will only be a mild taster for the far grander (original) NASA plan to send a team of astronauts into deep space to study an asteroid far away from the Earth-Moon system. The argument will be “an asteroid is a stepping stone to Mars” — sadly, by watering down the human element in an already questionable asteroid mission, it’s hard to see the next step for a long-duration spaceflight to Mars.

From this logic, we may as well just keep sending robots. But that wasn’t the point, was it?

Take a look at the video and decide for yourself:

Shhhhh… Do You Hear That? That’s The Sound Of The World Not Ending

Perfect solstice sunrise by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK)
‘Perfect solstice sunrise’ by @STONEHENGE (Stonehenge UK on Twitter)

Now, call your friends, grab a beer and celebrate the end of the Maya Long Count calendar’s 13th b’ak’tun and the winter solstice. (Sorry doomsayers, I will not be giving you a reference for your post-doomsday interview, you did a crappy job of the Apocalypse.)

Also, send your congratulations to my sister, Colette! IT’S HER 30TH BIRTHDAY! Congrats Sis!!

On a side note, a few of us appeared on the #TWISmageddon 21 hour marathon to talk about the end of the world (or lack thereof), science and the human propensity for believing the Mayan doomsday bunkum. Thanks to Kiki Sanford, Justin Jackson, Scott Lewis, Blair Bazdarich, Nicole Gugliucci and Andy Ihnatko for a terrific Google+ Hangout. Who knew doomsday would be so much fun! (We start at about 1hr 45mins into the Hangout.)

EDIT: Is John Cusack skiing? He’d better be — that’s what he told me during the premier of “2012” in 2009! More: “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.

“Skiing” he told me. Skiing.

Read more: No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide (Discovery News)

A Martian Storm Is Brewing

This nearly global mosaic of observations made by the Mars Color Imager on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 18, 2012, shows a dust storm in Mars' southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA
This nearly global mosaic of observations made by the Mars Color Imager on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 18, 2012, shows a dust storm in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA

As the sols march on, NASA’s brand new nuclear-powered rover Curiosity has detected a dramatic change in its surrounding atmosphere. A once-clear vista of the distant rim of Gale Crater now looks smoggy — almost like the gray-brown-yellow stuff that hangs above Los Angeles on a hot summer’s day. So what’s causing this change in opacity?

As can be seen in the above global view of Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a near-continuous observation of the planet on Nov. 18 with its Mars Color Imager. The mosaic has picked out an assortment of geographical features, but there’s one rather ominous atmospheric feature (white arrows) that grabbed the attention of Malin Space Science Systems’ Bruce Cantor.

A regional dust storm is brewing and Cantor first observed the storm on Nov. 10. He reported the detection to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover team who manage Opportunity. Although the storm is over 800 miles from the tenacious rover, dust storms are of a concern for any solar powered surface mission, especially for a rover that has outlived its expected mission lifetime by several years. Opportunity’s solar panels are already covered in dust, so should there be an additional dip in sunlight due to a dusty atmosphere there could be an impact on its mission. Additional dust layers on the panels wouldn’t help either.

Opportunity does not have a weather station, but its cameras have detected a slight drop in atmospheric clarity. Curiosity, on the other hand, does have a weather station — called the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) — and has been closely monitoring the atmospheric variability over the last few days, detecting a decreased air pressure and a slight rise in overnight low temperature. This is in addition to the dramatic loss in visibility. In short, it sounds like Curiosity can sense a storm in the air.

With the help of Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society, a nifty animation by Egorov Vitaly that highlights the change in visibility has been showcased:

Six Navcam images pointed toward the horizon taken over the course of Curiosity's time near Rocknest document changes in the transparency of the atmosphere.  NASA / JPL / Egorov Vitaly ("Zelenyikot")
Six Navcam images pointed toward the horizon taken over the course of Curiosity’s time near Rocknest document changes in the transparency of the atmosphere. NASA/JPL/ Egorov Vitaly (“Zelenyikot”)

“This is now a regional dust storm. It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze, and it is in a part of the planet where some regional storms in the past have grown into global dust hazes,” said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “For the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s, we are studying a regional dust storm both from orbit and with a weather station on the surface.”

Now this is the cool bit. We currently have an armada of Mars orbiters, plus two generations of Mars rovers doing groundbreaking work on opposite sides of the red planet. We are in an unprecedented age of planetary exploration where a network of robots all work in concert to aid our understanding of how the planet works. In this case, local weather changes are being observed around two surface missions while corroborating data is being gathered hundreds of miles overhead.

From the NASA JPL press release:

Starting on Nov. 16, the Mars Climate Sounder instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected a warming of the atmosphere at about 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the storm. Since then, the atmosphere in the region has warmed by about 45 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). This is due to the dust absorbing sunlight at that height, so it indicates the dust is being lofted well above the surface and the winds are starting to create a dust haze over a broad region.

Warmer temperatures are seen not only in the dustier atmosphere in the south, but also in a hot spot near northern polar latitudes due to changes in the atmospheric circulation. Similar changes affect the pressure measured by Curiosity even though the dust haze is still far away.

We’re monitoring weather on another planet people! If that’s not mind-blowing, I don’t know what is.

Note: Apologies for the Astroengine.com hiatus, I’ve been somewhat distracted with writing duties at Discovery News and Al Jazeera English. If you’re ever wondering where I’ve disappeared to, check in on my Twitter feed, I tweet a lot!

Unleash the MAHLI!

The first image to come from Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) with the dust cap off. Credit: NASA/MSL-Caltech
The first image to come from Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) with the dust cap off. Credit: NASA/MSL-Caltech

Ah! That’s better! Curiosity can see clearly through its robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) for the first time since landing on Mars on Aug. 5.

Although the dust cap has been in place up until now, the camera was used to grab Curiosity’s first fuzzy color landscape pic and, only last night, it was used to snap a fuzzy “self portrait” of Curiosity’s “head” — but that was achieved by looking through the semi-transparent dust cap still attached to the lens. Today, the very first crystal-clear “open” MAHLI image has been acquired after mission controllers sent the command for the re-closable dust cap to swing open. The picture shows a patch of Mars dirt next to the rover measuring about 86 centimeters across. The large pebble at the bottom of the frame is about 8 cm wide.

This may be a very preliminary image, but the MSL team are already using it to do science. “Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image,” says the image description on the MSL mission site. “The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it.”

Mars pebble science FTW!

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong inside the lunar module "Eagle" after his first moonwalk. Credit: NASA
Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong inside the lunar module “Eagle” after his first moonwalk. Credit: NASA

“The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.”Neil Armstrong

Discovery News:
BIG PIC: Neil Armstrong, Apollo Legend, Has Died
PHOTOS: Remembering Neil Armstrong: Humanity’s Hero


The magnetic loop containing hydrogen and nitrogen plasma evolves over 4 micro-seconds. Credit: Bellan & Stenson, 2012
The magnetic loop containing hydrogen and nitrogen plasma evolves over 4 micro-seconds. Credit: Bellan & Stenson, 2012

There’s no better method to understand how something works than to build it yourself. Although computer simulations can help you avoid blowing up a city block when trying to understand the physics behind a supernova, it’s sometimes just nice to physically model space phenomena in the lab.

So, two Caltech researchers have done just that in an attempt to understand a beautifully elegant, yet frightfully violent, solar phenomenon: coronal loops. These loops of magnetism and plasma dominate the lower corona and are particularly visible during periods of intense solar activity (like, now). Although they may look nice and decorative from a distance, these loops are wonderfully dynamic and are often the sites of some of the most energetic eruptions in our Solar System. Coronal loops spawn solar flares and solar flares can really mess with our hi-tech civilization.

A coronal loop as seen by NASA's Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE). Credit: NASA
A coronal loop as seen by NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE). Credit: NASA

In an attempt to understand the large-scale dynamics of a coronal loop, Paul Bellan, professor of applied physics at Caltech, and graduate student Eve Stenson built a dinky “coronal loop” of their own (pictured top). Inside a vacuum chamber, the duo hooked up an electromagnet (to create the magnetic “loop”) and then injected hydrogen and nitrogen gas into the two “footpoints” of the loop. Then, they zapped the whole thing with a high-voltage current and voila! a plasma loop — a coronal loop analog — was born.

Although coronal loops on the sun can last hours or even days, this lab-made plasma loop lasted a fraction of a second. But by using a high-speed camera and color filters, the researchers were able to observe the rapid expansion of the magnetic loop and watch the plasma race from one footpoint to the other. Interestingly, the two types of plasma flowed in opposite directions, passing through each other.

The simulation was over in a flash, but they were able to deduce some of the physics behind their plasma loop: “One force expands the arch radius and so lengthens the loop while the other continuously injects plasma from both ends into the loop,” Bellan explained. “This latter force injects just the right amount of plasma to keep the density in the loop constant as it lengthens.” It is hoped that experiments like these will ultimately aid the development of space weather models — after all, it would be useful if we could deduce which coronal loops are ripe to erupt while others live out a quiescent existence.

It’s practical experiments like these that excite me. During my PhD research, my research group simulated steady-state coronal loops in the hope of explaining some of the characteristics of these fascinating solar structures. Of particular interest was to understand how magnetohydrodynamic waves interact with the plasma contained within the huge loops of magnetism. But all my research was based on lines of code to simulate our best ideas on the physical mechanisms at work inside these loops. Although modelling space phenomena is a critical component of science, it’s nice to compare results with experiments that aim to create analogs of large-scale phenomena.

The next test for Bellan and Stenson is to create two plasma loops inside their vacuum chamber to see how they interact. It would be awesome to see if they can initiate reconnection between the loops to see how the plasma contained within reacts. That is, after all, the fundamental trigger of explosive events on the Sun.

Read more in my Discovery News article: “Precursors to Solar Eruptions Created in the Lab

Mars Shot First: Curiosity’s Wind Sensor Damaged

Hi-res self-portrait of Curiosity -- taken with the mast-mounted Navcams. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Hi-res self-portrait of Curiosity — taken with the mast-mounted Navcams. Debris can be seen scattered across the deck. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During Mars rover Curiosity’s dramatic landing on Aug. 5, the rocket-powered sky crane blasted debris onto the rover’s deck. The first question that came to mind concerned the safety of exposed and potentially vulnerable instrumentation. I was in the very fortunate position to raise my concerns during the Aug. 9 NASA news briefing. The response from MSL mission manager Mike Watkins was cautious optimism that little to no damage was caused by the unexpected ejection of material from the ground.

Alas, it would seem that some damage was sustained.

“It does appear that some small rocks became lofted in the winds that were generated by the plumes during landing and probably just fell upon the rover deck,” said Curiosity deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., during a conference call on Tuesday (Aug. 21).

“Some of these rocks may have fallen on these exposed circuit boards and damaged the wires. That’s just one potential cause. We don’t know for sure and we don’t really have a way of assessing that at this point any further,” he added.

It appears that one of the booms on the Mars Science Laboratory’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) — located on the rover’s mast — may have been the hardware that got sandblasted or smashed by Mars rocks. REMS now only has one (of two) booms operational. The booms’ purpose is to take measurements of wind speed on the Martian surface. Although this is a setback (and, so far, the ONLY setback), mission scientists are confident they’ll find a workaround.

“We’ll have to work a little harder to understand when the wind may be coming from a direction that would be masked by (Curiosity’s) mast … but we think we can work around that,” Vasavada said.

So, it would appear that Mars shot firstbut Curiosity shot back. (Thanks @absolutspacegrl and @ArchLundy!)

Just in case you have no idea what we’re referring to:

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:

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