"We won't find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system," renowned professor Stephen Hawking said in a lecture this week, but in the short term he thinks Mars or the moon might make viable bolt-holes for the human race in the event of some disaster befalling the home world. I've long held the same view (not wanting to put myself on the same footing as Hawking), as it seems obvious that we are in a very precarious position on this little spinning rock of ours. Global warming, war or a meteor strike are all likely events that might trigger a mass extinction, so it's about time we started thinking seriously about spreading ourselves out a bit. If only a few thousand could survive in space, then their descendents might one-day reclaim a recovered Earth.
A UK led team is developing a key science instrument for the 2011 ExoMars mission. The European built and financed probe will deliver a highly complex rover to the surface, equipped with a drill to delve deep beneath the Martian surface. Samples will then be transferred to the "Pasteur Laboratory" aboard the rover. One of the key devices in the lab will be the Life Marker Chip (LMC) which will test soil samples for specific molecules that can be associated with life. Essentially, the test is a "lock and key" procedure, in that certain molecules associated with life will only bind with other molecules of a particular shape. If one of the target molecules is present, it will bind to a prepared receptor in the experiment. The BBC has a detailed piece on the science of the mission.
It may be old news, but this must rate as one of the strangest interviews ever. Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, bemused but pretty game, endure a bizarre interview in Japan. A truly compelling experience you can share here.
After a 3 day meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, 120 scientists ranked the top 30 contenders for possible landing sites for the 2009 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. The rover and landing technology has advanced recently, meaning that it is hoped to be able to land the rover within 20km of any targeted landing site. Some of the areas shortlisted are the Nili Fossae (interpreted as a complex of grabens and fractures related to the formation of the Isidis impact basin) which might have water deposited clays. Another potential site for the new rover is Candor Chasma, which rises three kilometers above surface levels.
NASA has announced that an Atlas V rocket will carry The Mars Science Laboratory when it lifts off in 2009. The contract requires that principal work for the Atlas V Centaur propellant tank will be performed at Lockheed Martin's facility in San Diego, while the primary work location for the Atlas V booster propellant tank's production will be done at Lockheed's facility in Waterton, Colorado.
A new five issue comic book version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess Of Mars is due to launch in August of 2006. Published by IDW, who also created an excellent comic book adapation of The War Of The Worlds last year, the new series will be written by Dan Taylor with art by War Of The Worlds artist Ted McKeever.
The next probe being readied for a flight to Mars is the Mars Science Laboratory, due for a launch in 2009. The probe should be a considerable improvement on the two rovers presently at work on Mars, but a landing site has yet to be decided. This weekend, engineers in Pasadena will be meeting for the first of many discussions to shortlist a selection of landing sites. Of course if there is life still clinging to Mars and assuming it is not widespread (as previous missions would seem to indicate), then hitting it is going to be a tall order. A number of areas are likely to fall under the microscope, including the vast Valles Marineris, though there is a balance to be made between interesting sites and the practicality of getting the lander down in one piece.
In one of the strangest stories to emerge from Mars, The Sun newspaper in the UK (a tabloid with a less than impeccable record for accuracy) is reporting that components of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers used salvaged materials from the 9-11 World Trade Centre wreckage in their construction. The engineer responsible is reported to be one Stephen Gorevan, an engineer at Honeybee Robotics. That certainly cements the Mars connection, as he and his team worked on the RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool) devices carried by the rovers. According to The Sun, "Engineers used metal left after the 9/11 attacks in building credit card-sized shields for the craft." Gorevan described it as a "quiet tribute."