Sunday, April 30, 2006

Birds eye view of Mars

NASA have an excellent website set up to promote the incredibly innovative ARES mission to Mars. Standing for "Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey", the ARES is an unmanned aircraft capable of travelling upward of 800 km once delivered to the planet. It's a beautiful looking aircraft, and while it is still only on the drawing board, one can only hope that the mission gets a chance to fly. The site has a wealth of material and some fantastic animations and mockups of the craft. Check it out at the ARES homepage.

Nanedi Valles valley raises questions

A new set of images, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA's Mars Express spacecraft, show the 800-kilometre valley long Nanedi Valles valley system. This steep-sided feature may have been formed in part by free-flowing water, but this is open to debate. Some researchers suggest the impressive feature may have been caused by sapping (erosion caused by ground-water outflow), while others suggest that flow of liquid beneath an ice cover or collapse of the surface in association with liquid flow is responsible for the valley's formation.

Cartoon Mars

Colin Pillinger, the leader of the ill-fated Beagle II mission to Mars has helped to compile a collection of several hundred cartoons that feature the planet Mars. The cartoons cover a wide spectrum of subject, many of them political. "It's just amazing how many people have been sent to Mars by cartoonists, particularly political figures" says Pillinger on the BBC news site. Lots of the cartoons feature wry comments on the loss of Beagle II, but Pillinger is unfazed by the attention. ""If there's a picture of Beagle in a crater, it gives me the chance to tell people why that might have happened so it's just a vehicle to me" he says. The exhibition is running now at the London Cartoon Museum.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Russia eyes Mars

At a press conference last Tuesday, Energia Aerospace Corporation head Nikolai Sevastyanov announced that his company is planning a Martian expedition spacecraft, which may be launched in 2020-2030. The project will include a test mission to the Moon followed by a launch to Mars as soon as 2020. Soyuz FG AND proton rockets will deliver spacecraft elements to orbit and a modernized Soyuz 2 and new Angara rockets will be then take over. Soyuz manned spaceships and Progress freighters will be servicing the project until 2015, and then the new Klipper spacecraft (still on the drawing board) will be used afterwards. The full story can be found on the TASS website. Alas we get these stories quite frequently from Russia, and the best laid plans never seem to come to fruition. One suspects there is a constant battle in the Russian space program for funds and prestige amongst the various space design companies, and part of that requires a lot of blue sky thinking.

A new face on Mars

The European Mars Express orbiter has returned a great image that does a lot to dispel the nonsensical notions that ancient Martian inhabitants have been carving bizarre figures into the surface. The famous face on mars has been proposed for many years as proof of an extraterrestrial presence in the solar system. No way say the believers could the features first imaged by Viking be natural. So what do they make of this new image I wonder? It just shows you that on a planet with a surface area as big as Mars, just about any odd convergence of natural features is possible.

Williams nominated for 'Soundtrack Composer of the Year'

John Williams is going up against Harry Gregson-Williams for "Kingdom of Heaven" and Dario Marianelli for "Pride and Prejudice" for Soundtrack Composer of The Year
at The Classical Brit Awards. The ceremony will be held on Thursday, May 4 in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Mars Orbiter returns first colour image

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to sucessfully bed itself into orbit with the receipt at mission control of several new test images, including the first to be received in colour. The image is not natural colour as seen by human eyes, but infrared colour. It can be seen at the Mars Reconnaissance site.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lockheed turns up the heat

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Jefferson County have won a NASA contract to develop and build a heat-resistant space capsule for transporting the next-generation of robotic rover to the surface of Mars. The Mars science laboratory rover is planned to arrive on Mars in 2009 and will build on the success of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Both Spirit and Opportunity were provided with head shields built at the Lockheed Jefferson County facility. According to Lockheed, the heat shield for the new rover would be the largest ever built, spanning 15 feet in diameter. The heat shields for the two existing rovers measured just 8.5 feet and an Apollo capsule heat shields measured 12.8 feet.

Harvard Prof says life once on Mars

Andrew Knoll, professor of natural history and earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University delivered a lecture at Lehigh University last Monday in which he made very positive statements in favour of past life on Mars. Knoll and his team at Harvard were actively involved in the 2004 missions, which landed the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (now in their second year of exploration) on Mars. One attendee was less than overwhelmed by Knoll's conclusions, (see more at the Lehigh student newspaper) but I was personally struck by his evocative use of the word "canals". Obviously Knoll is not proposing anything like the canals made fashionable a hundred years ago by Percival Lowell, but it is kind of touching to see the word appear in a scientific discourse. Lowell would be delighted.