Finally, proof that water has been found on Mars. The Phoenix Mars lander took a scoop of regolith on Sol 20 (June 19th), exposing a white powdery substance. Immediately, scientists announced that the substance was either some form of ice or salt deposits. The prime mission objective for Phoenix is to look for evidence for water, past and present, in the uppermost layers of the surface. Although tests on excavated material are ongoing inside the onboard oven instrument (the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA), baking the sample and analysing the vapour produced, Phoenix scientists have discovered water ice simply by taking two photographs four days apart…
Its images like these that restore your faith in mankind’s exploration spirit. After the flawless entry, descent and landing of Phoenix on Sunday night at 16:54 PST (00:54 GMT Monday morning), I took some time to contemplate the enormity of what the amazing team at NASA and the University of Arizona had achieved. I was a bit concerned as to whether the lander would make it through the “7 minutes of terror”, especially when thinking back to the silence that followed the UK’s Beagle 2 landing on Christmas Day, 2003. But it did make it, and with bags of confidence. Then we are flooded with news and images from the Red Planet, but one photo stood out from the rest. A photo, from an orbiting Mars satellite, looking down on Phoenix, floating through the Martian atmosphere, with a 10 km-wide crater as a backdrop. It doesn’t get much better than this… Continue reading “Phoenix Descent Captured by HiRISE – A Breathtaking View”
On our travels last week, we decided to stop off at the Eden Project down near St. Austell in Cornwall for a few hours. It’s been one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, especially since my involvement with the Mars Foundation. Well known in the UK for its “Biomes” – huge geodesic domes composed of hexagonal cushions of flexible but durable plastic – the project supports a huge number of plants and animals from around the globe. So, apart from looking pretty cool, why have I decided to mention it on astroengine? Well, Eden hasn’t only inspired environmentalists, it could aid the future design and implementation of structures beyond Earth… Continue reading “The Eden Project and Mars Settlement”
The sand dunes on the surface of Mars closely resemble their terrestrial cousins, only bigger. Formed from wind-driven sand and dust, the Martian versions can grow ten-times bigger than any dunes we have on Earth. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been taking shots of these distinctive shapes, and although there are examples all over the planet, they seem to have the same characteristics no matter where they form or how they swarm. Now researchers are investigating how these Mars dunes grow and why they are so large…
On the 11th April, I reported on some new HiRISE images of barchan sand dunes that appeared to form on the Red Planet. In this particular case, a flat-topped mountain (or mesa) was being ravaged by the Martian wind, sweeping fine grains of sand and dust downstream. What formed in the mesa’s wake turned out to be quite impressive. Long strands of sand banks, stretching hundreds of miles beyond the mesa mixed with swarms of similarly-shaped dunes. What struck me were the impressive similarities with Earth-based sand dunes we find on our beaches and deserts.
Since this initial report, I have found HiRISE to be quite a prolific dune-seeker. On April 16th, HiRISE released more images of sand dunes in the northern polar regions of Mars, some heavily eroded (pictured below), and others tightly packed and clumsily shaped. I was intrigued. As you may have noticed from some of the Mars stories I cover, I like to see terrestrial processes happening on the surface of Mars. Seeing an impressive Mars avalanche, or a simple rock rolling down a hill, I love it. I think it gives us a special connection with an alien world when we can see processes we commonly associate with Earth happening on an eroding Mars.
So what processes are behind these giant Mars dunes? It might seem obvious (wind blowing sand ain’t that hard to understand after all), but researchers at the Federal University of Ceará in Fortaleza, Brazil have been modelling the effects that the tenuous Mars atmosphere and weak gravity have on sand dune construction. Murilo Almeida and his team have found that when blown around on the surface of Mars, grains of sand “bounce” much higher than their terrestrial counterparts. In fact, they bounce 100 times higher and further. They are also blown 10 times faster. This has the effect of producing a series of sand dunes with very long wavelengths.
This also has a knock-on effect as a possible mechanism that drives the savage dust storms in the thin atmosphere. As there is more bouncing action in Martian grains of sand than here on Earth, more dust particles are thrown aloft and suspended in the air.
Imagine that you have just set up camp on Mars. Everything is up and running. You and your team have not only survived the journey from Earth, you’ve also made it through fiery re-entry and landed within a metre of your planned location. Success! So you crack open a miniature bottle of vintage whisky bottled in the year 2000 and share a sip with your companions. You want to tell the world, you want to check in with your family to say that you are “OK”.
It would be very poor if you were restricted to relaying a message though mission controllers. Simply “phoning home” for a chat wouldn’t be possible (the lag time between sentences would be at least 16 minutes). Could there be a way of sending emails? Possibly; voice messages will be fine too. But could our explorers set up a website or some “Mars blog” to document their travels? This could obviously be done remotely, with a terrestrial website, but there are strong arguments for a distributed Internet service on the Red Planet too. Can a “MarsNet” or “RedNet” be integrated with Earth’s Internet, establishing an “Interplanetary Internet”? Continue reading “Will the First Mars Settlements have Internet Access?”
It’s been a while since I last posted as I’ve been flying from the US to the UK and have only just gotten my office up and running. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. On the Universe Today, I’ve posted quite a few articles ranging from quite an elaborate April Fools story (but not quite as elaborate as Virgin and Google’s Virgle prank), to a black hole hiding in the middle of Omega Centauri, to rocks rolling around on Mars… here’s a round up of the most interesting… Continue reading “Astroengine.com Roundup and Opinion”
This week has been an exciting week for astronomers. The largest explosion ever seen in the Universe was observed on Wednesday. This gamma ray burst, produced when a star collapses in on itself to create a black hole, is a record breaker. Not only is it the biggest explosion mankind has seen since records began, it is also the furthest and oldest “thing” we have ever observed… Continue reading “Daily Roundup: The Mars Curse and the Biggest Explosion in the Universe!”
It doesn’t get much better than this. A robotic orbiter snaps a photo hundreds of miles above the surface of an alien planet, capturing a geological event as it happens. Yes, we’ve seen Io’s immense volcanoes erupt, and we’ve seen huge storms rage on Jupiter, but often these large-scale planetary events are too massive for us to put into context and so we file them under “astronomy”. But, when we see an event like an avalanche on Mars, we can relate it with events on Earth, we have a “feel” for what this means. Suddenly an avalanche on Mars holds a special meaning to us; we instantly have a connection with other planets in our Solar System.