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

Soyuz Floating On Clouds

The Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft parachute contrasts with the cloud over Kazakhstan minutes before touchdown. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA
The Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft parachute contrasts with the cloud over Kazakhstan minutes before touchdown. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

In the early hours of Sunday morning (Pacific Time), a Russian cosmonaut, NASA astronaut and a European Space Agency astronaut returned to Earth after a 6-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers landed safely on the Kazakhstan steppes after the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft fired its soft landing rockets, blasting a cloud of dust into the air. But before touchdown and after the violence of reentry, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls was able to photograph this beautiful aerial view of the Soyuz and deployed parachute above the clouds. What a ride that must have been.

Read more about the successful Soyuz landing on Discovery News.

Special thanks to NASA astronaut Nicole Stott (@Astro_Nicole) for tweeting this photo!

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!

Welcome To My Lava Tube, Premium Lunar Condo Living*

This 65-metre-wide hole in the lunar surface extends at least 80 metres down and could be an opening into a larger lunar cave (Image: ISAS/JAXA/Junichi Haruyama et al.)

Let’s face it, us soft and squidgy humans don’t react particularly well to radiation, the vacuum of space or hypervelocity meteoroids. This being the case, how do we ever hope to settle on other worlds, particularly worlds with dust for a backyard and a sky flooded in radiation from the Solar System’s biggest nuclear reactor (the Sun)? To put it mildly, it’s not going to be easy. In fact, exploring and settling on other celestial bodies will the the biggest challenge us terrestrials will face in the next century.

So we start thinking locally, we start thinking “familiar”; where could we build a habitat that’s a stone’s throw from Earth, where we can do a full-scale practical test of our colonizing skills but be only a couple of days from home?

The Moon is that world and we are currently stumbling our way toward that goal. In fact, it is (currently) one of NASA’s main priorities, to get man back to the Moon by 2020 (although the Augustine Commission report was released today and presents many more options for the future of NASA). Once we do eventually get back to the Moon, our lunar explorers will use man made habitats, but what about longer, more permanent settlements?

We’re going deeper underground

In-situ mining of materials for building habitats and using the landscape to protect settlers isn’t a new idea, but we are beginning to acquire better observations of the Earth’s only natural satellite. And now, observations from the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft (that was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface in June) have been used to scout out a possible location for a future permanent habitat.

Cavemen 2.0 (NASA)
Cavemen 2.0 (NASA)

It may be hard to believe, but the Moon was once a very hot body, where molten rock began to cool shortly after formation. This molten rock eventually solidified, but in doing so, lava burrowed out long channels known as sinuous rilles. These rilles are a sure sign that lava once flowed there. However, scientists have known for some time that beneath these rilles, lava tubes may also hide. The lava tubes formed when the remaining molten rock flowed away, leaving an encrusted layer of rock surrounding a closed network of tunnels.

A lava tube with a view

However, this is the first time a hole in the roof of one of these lava tubes has been found. This hole, for obvious reasons, has been dubbed “a skylight,” and Junichi Haruyama and the SELENE/Kaguya team have been working hard to seek out such features. Their hard work has just paid off.

This is the first time that anybody’s actually identified a skylight in a possible [lunar] lava tube,” said Carolyn van der Bogert, a co-investigator on the team from University of Münster in Germany, of the discovery in a region of the Moon’s near side in Marius Hills.

The skylight measures 65 metres wide and it is thought to extend 80 metres deep. The hole is right in the middle of a rille, indicative of the presence of a lava tube 370 metres across. It is currently unknown whether the skylight allows access to the lava tube (access may be blocked by rubble or solidified magma), but there is the tantalizing possibility that this hole could be used by astronauts to access an underground cave.

Anti-radiation living

Basalt is an extremely good material for radiation protection. It’s free real estate ready to be exploited and modified for human use,” said Penny Boston of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. It’s not exactly a leap of the imagination that locations like the Marius Hills skylight could become very valuable regions when space agencies and potential lunar companies need a permanent foothold on the Moon.

A scene from the movie "Moon" with Sam Rockwell

Until we are able to set foot back on the Moon’s surface, we must rely on robotic explorers to do the reconnaissance work (indeed, that is the main priority for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite capable of snapping images 10× sharper than this Kaguya picture), but the fact remains, features like this are very appealing to help protect us humans from the ravages of space.

Bored of the Moon? Set up home in a Martian divot!

Speaking of extraterrestrial housing options, Mars has some trendy sinkholes that might be a little more spacious than your average lunar lava tube

*Technically, it would be a “condo“; anyone living in the lava tube would own the space inside, they wouldn’t own the lava tube itself. We all know that no one can “own” the Moon don’t we? You can throw away that “Congratulations! You’re Now The Proud Owner Of One Acre Of Lunar Real Estate!” certificate, it’s about as valid as those “I Need Your Bank Account Details To Deposit $1 Million” Nigerian royalty emails.

Source: New Scientist. With a special thanks to @foundonmars for the tip!

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times

No Matter How You Spin It, A Hole is Still a Hole

Mars Express to Beagle 2: But you forgot your... ah, never mind.
Mars Express to Beagle 2: "But you forgot your... ah, never mind." (ESA)

Over Christmas in 2003, I was watching the BBC news with my grandfather, hoping to hear that ESA or NASA had picked up a signal from the Martian surface. We waited.

We waited a bit more. However, it wasn’t until some weeks later (if I remember correctly) that the UK’s Beagle 2 Mars lander was officially declared dead (although I suspected as much in the 30 minutes of silence after the time it was supposed to touch down). The little lander’s taxi ride across millions of miles of space, the Mars Express, was working just fine, but Beagle 2? Not so much.

This was incredibly sad on so many levels. From a patriotic viewpoint, I was shattered. The chance to have a British presence on the Red Planet would not only have been inspiring, it may have given funding a small boost for the UK science community. Also, personally, only the week before, I’d been defending the mission to some friends who were convinced that the crazy idea of sending a British probe to Mars was pointless, as it was never going to make it.

What ever came before that December in 2003, it was all academic. Beagle 2, for whatever reason, didn’t phone home. Game over.

Of course, that wouldn’t be it. For months after, Martian satellites hunted for any evidence for a mini Beagle-shaped divot in the red dirt. Eventually, they found it, two years later.

So what happened to the little robot? Why did it turn into a meteorite and not a lander? Well, back in 2008, Madhat Abdel-Jawad and his engineer team at the University of Queensland thought they’d worked it all out. Apparently, Beagle 2’s gyroscopic spin was too fast, causing it to become unstable during re-entry. This may have caused it to tumble as it entered the Mars atmosphere. Obviously, tumbling isn’t good, so it hit the ground like scrap metal.

As it turns out, the Beagle 2 team are far from convinced this happened at all. Arthur Smith of Fluid Gravity Engineering in Emsworth, Hampshire, points out that Abdel-Jawad’s team did not simulate re-entry in a gravity field, and they failed to realize the lander had an offset centre of gravity. This means the simulation wasn’t complete, indicating the “tumbling Beagle” may not be the final explanation.

Now, Smith and his team will be publishing a paper with their findings

All our assumptions were valid over the time of flight we analysed,” Abdel-Jawad said in response to this news. “We would be delighted to accept the findings of the Beagle team’s new study if it were found to be valid after we review their analysis.”

Whether the Australian team is correct or not seems rather academic. Something went terribly wrong during re-entry, this is true, but there are so many variables that I’m not sure if we’ll ever hit on the real reason why Beagle 2 dropped from the sky that 2003 winter. Sure, it might aid future development of future landers, but unless they find a gaping design flaw or construction mistake (like the NASA Genesis “woops, I installed the accelerometer backwards” mission mishap), Beagle 2 made a crater in the Martian surface, and there won’t be a crash recovery team to pick up the bits for a long while yet…

Source: New Scientist

Let The Planet Seeding Begin! Comets Have Amino Acids Too…

comet_tempel

Yesterday, NASA announced exciting news about a discovery made by a NASA mission that did a cosmic dance with comet Wild 2 back in 2004. The Stardust mission managed to scoop an amino acid called glycine from the comets dusty tail, thereby proving it’s not just asteroids that contain this critical ingredient for life.

It’s not a particularly unexpected discovery that glycine is in a comet — we’ve found amino acids in meteorites before — but it does show that comets are another way that amino acids could have come to Earth,” lead researcher Jamie Elsila, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Irene Klotz from Discovery News.

Elsila and colleagues are responsible for developing a technique to extract and study the deposits of glycine from the aluminium foil that lined the probe’s collection plates. They confirmed the glycine was in fact of extraterrestrial origin (rather than contamination here on Earth), as the carbon atoms in the glycine molecules had an extra neutron in the nucleus. This means the glycine was formed in space.

We see in this comet that amino acids were forming at the earliest time in our solar system,” Mike Zolensky, a comet dust researcher from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said.

Zolensky suspects that heat from the radioactive decay of short-lived particles melted a piece of comet ice laced with organic compounds and water. This may have allowed the cosmic amino acid to form.

Now that an amino acid has been scraped off the collection plate of the Stardust mission, it would appear the building blocks for life are widely available throughout the Solar System (assuming comet Wild 2 isn’t a special case). Asteroids contain amino acids, as do meteorites, now it looks as if comets carry the building blocks for life too. This means early-Earth certainly had plenty of opportunities to acquire extra-terrestrial sources of amino acids…

Source: Irene Klotz, Discovery News Space Correspondent

Spirit And The Amazing Technicolour Dust Devils

spirit_dust_devils

What are they? I’ve seen some odd photos from the Martian surface, but when I first saw this image, the pinks, blues and yellow smudges looked… alien. The surprise probably comes from the fact that we are so used to the rusty red pictures to come from the various rovers, landers and satellites, that any colour not a variation of red comes as a shock.

Although it looks odd, there is in fact a sensible answer to these ghostly splodges on the horizon. This photo was snapped by Mars Expedition Rover (MER) Spirit back on sol 1919 of the MER mission on May 27th, 2009.

Using its panoramic camera (Pancam), Spirit performed a number of exposures, each one using a different colour filter. With some luck during the photography session of the Martian landscape, a dust devil (a mini whirlwind) meandered through the Pancam’s field of view. In each frame taken with different filters, the only feature moving would have been the swirling dust, so that’s why it appears as a different hue than the surrounding landscape.

Dust devils occur on both Mars and on Earth when solar energy heats the surface, resulting in a layer of warm air just above the surface. Since the warmed air is less dense than the cooler atmosphere above it, it rises, making a swirling thermal plume that picks up the fine dust from the surface and carries it up into the atmosphere. This plume of dust moves with the local wind.NASA/JPL

Dust devils have provided some unexpected fun for the rovers, often tuning up unannounced. These make for interesting observations of local weather conditions, but they also provide an essential mini-undusting service for the wheeled robot’s solar panels.

And now they’ve been pictured in technicolour. How nice.

Source: NASA/JPL

Atlantis Launch… Infrared-ed

The STS-125 Atlantis launch today, as seen through the lens of an infrared digital camera (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
The STS-125 Atlantis launch today, as seen through the lens of an infrared digital camera (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

I thought I wouldn’t see anything as impressive as the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch in high-definition, but it appears I was wrong. This is probably one of the most unique views of a shuttle launch I’ve seen to date; a high resolution, infrared photograph of the beginning of the STS-125 mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

This would make a nice wallpaper… yes, it does 🙂

Source: Gawker

Mars Rover Spirit is Stuck in the Regolith

Spirit is stuck (NASA)

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is in trouble again. She’s stuck.

The tenacious little robot has suffered traction problems before and has even been dragging around a broken wheel for the last three years, leaving the other five to take up the slack. Then there’s the dust storms that have hindered the life-giving solar panels ability to collect sunlight. And most recently, the on-board computers have been rebooting and Spirit’s flash memory has been forgetting to record data.

A little help here? Spirit has driven into soft ground, burying her wheels halfway. Engineers are working plans to extricate her. –A distress tweet from @MarsRovers

One of Spirit's buried wheels as taken by the front hazard-avoidance camera on Sol 1899, May 6th (NASA)
One of Spirit's buried wheels as taken by the front hazard-avoidance camera on Sol 1899, May 6th (NASA)

Now, she’s stuck in the Martian dirt after slipping backwards down a slope during a series of backward drives around a plateau called “Home Plate.”

Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL project manager John Callas said. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”

At JPL, a team have been assembled to try to find a solution to the problem with a model of the situation here on Earth. Unfortunately the wheels are stuck fast, half-buried, and scientists are increasingly worried that any attempts to free the struggling rover could make matters worse. The concern is for the chassis under the robot. Should it make contact with the rocks underneath, it would effectively beach itself, completely losing traction that could be used to free the wheels. In short, the situation is not good, but NASA is working overtime to find ways to get the rover on the road once more.

Fortunately, wind has helped the ailing rover recently, clearing excess dust off the solar panels, giving Spirit a much needed energy boost, but will it be enough to get her out of this difficult situation? If there’s a way, Spirit will find it, as let’s face it, she’s lived through a lot of hard knocks…

Source: NASA, AP