Sunday, December 23, 2007

Possible active Glacier discovered on Mars

The European Space Agency's (Esa) Mars Express spacecraft has spotted what appears to be an active Glacier on the Martian surface, located in the Deuteronilus Mensae region between Mars' rugged southern highlands and the flat northern lowlands. While Glaciers have been identified before on Mars, previous sightings have been of very old formations (in the region of millions of years old.) This newly identified Glacier may only be several thousand years old. Distinctive glacial ridges have been spotted with white tips that can only be freshly exposed ice. This is an extremely rare occurrence, since as soon as water is exposed to the Martian atmosphere, it sublimates (turns from a solid state directly into gas). More detail can be found at the BBC News website.

NASA delays 2011 mission

Mystery surrounds a decision by NASA to disband a board whose job it was to select the winning proposal for the $475 million Mars atmospheric probe. Citing a serious conflict of interest, NASA disbanded the original board and formed an entirely new one. The administrative delay means that the mission schedule has slipped and the probe will not be able to launch until 2013. NASA is keeping the precise nature of the problem to itself because revealing details would compromise the selection process, saying only "In preparing for the evaluation of Mars Scout Concept Study Reports for the final selection, NASA identified an organizational conflict of interest. NASA determined action had to be taken to resolve the conflict in order to maintain a fair competition."

Mars lining up for impact in 2008

A 100-meter wide asteroid with the destructive potential of the infamous 1908 Tunguska impact has been detected on a possible collision course with Mars. The odds are 75 to 1 that the asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, will hit Mars by January 30th, but on cosmic terms, this adds up to an incredibly close shave for the Red Planet. If it does hit, the impact will be barely visible from Earth even through powerful telescopes, but several orbiting probes may well be able to see something when it slams into an area near Martian equator. Rather worryingly, the impact is likely to be close by Nasa's long lived Opportunity rover.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Greenhouse solution to Martian water mystery

The abundant evidence accumulated over recent years for the existence of a water rich atmosphere in the distant Martian past has been vexing scientists. While some clues point dramatically to water having once existing on the surface, other evidence flatly contradicts it. The problem may be that in trying to reconcile the evidence, we have been applying an Earth-like process to Mars when in fact we need to be thinking of something uniquely Martian. The key problem is that probes have uncovered plenty of sulphur minerals on the surface but no limestone as on Earth. The two should go hand in hand, since on Earth, Silicate rocks remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and with water to hand, convert it into calcium carbonate, commonly known as limestone. The lack of limestone has been particularly puzzling, but now a new theory suggests that sulphur dioxide may have taken the place of carbon dioxide. On Earth, sulphur dioxide is quickly oxidised to sulphate, but on an early oxygen poor Mars, the sulphur dioxide would have lingered in the atmosphere for much longer, acting as a greenhouse gas and warming the planet. It's a neat theory, and may finally prove the conclusive step in our understanding of the early Martian atmosphere. More can be read at the BBC website.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

NASA outlines Mars mission timeline

NASA has begun to outline some of the specifics of its plan to put a human presence on Mars. The proposed mission vehicle is going to weigh in at a hefty 400,000kg (880,000lb) and is intended to put a "minimal" crew on the surface in 2031. Three or four of NASA's new Ares V rockets will be needed to loft the ship into space, which will require assembling in orbit. An advanced cryogenic fuel propulsion system would propel the mission to Mars on a six to seven month voyage. A cargo lander and surface habitat would be dispatched ahead of the crew vehicle and astronauts will be expected to grow their own fruit and vegetables during their trip. The mission will require an unparalleled degree of expertise from the astronauts, who will be required to respond to any likely situation or emergency far from any possible help. The plan as outlined is still extremely tentative and very likely subject to change, but with other countries eyeing the red planet, the coming decades are shaping up to be very exciting.

Spirit breaks free from Tartarus sand trap

NASA mission specialists are racing against time to get Spirit into the optimum position to survive the long Martian winter, but thought they might be in trouble when the rover got itself stuck in a sandy area they named "Tartarus" after a deep, underworld dungeon in Greek mythology. The rover is now free, but has about 25 metres more of equally difficult terrain to cross before it reaches a slope, which it is hoped will provide an optimum spot to soak up enough sunlight to survive the winter.

China sets launch date for Mars probe

China is shaping up to be one of the big players in space exploration and has am ambitious set of missions on the drawing board. Newly announced is a launch date for a Mars Orbiter. A final name for the probe has yet to be decided, though the China Daily is calling it Yinghuo-1, which appears to translate as Firefly. The 100kg probe will be lofted into orbit on a Russian launch vehicle in October 2009, marking a new closeness with Russia. Yinghuo-1 is expected to spend a year in orbit about Mars, but the mission has the potential to be extended by a further year. The probe will conduct a variety of scientific observations and return images of the planet.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Spirit bedding down for Winter

In what has become a regular yearly occurrence, the Spirit rover is looking for a comfortable warm spot to spend the Martian winter. Spirit is heading toward a north-facing slope, where it is hoped the rover can eke out enough sunlight to keep its systems ticking over until Summer. A number of such slopes were considered and rejected, and Spirit is now heading toward a particular promising one at the northern end of Home Plate, an intriguing geologic feature that had taken up several months research time for the rover. The 60-meter drive is worth the risk, as the slope provides a 25-degree incline that will maximise the available sunlight. Spirit can't afford to be cavalier about where it hunkers down for winter. After a long dust storm, the solar panels are covered in dust, so every extra bit of power will be crucial to survival this year. Unlike the rover’s sister Opportunity, they cannot count on a lucky gust of wind to clean the cells. Opportunity is in a windy locale; the area that Spirit is traversing now is almost windless. It is hoped that Spirit can be bedded down by the 1st January 2008, but it may then have to stay under cover for eight months.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Mars Express orbiter probes Medusae Fossae

The European Mars Express orbiter has been looking beneath the surface of Mars, at a particularly odd area known as the Medusae Fossae. The Medusae Fossae roughly forms the divide between lowland and highland regions along the Martian equator and has long intrigued geologists because the material it is composed of has been seen to absorb radar waves, leading to them been referred to as called "stealth" regions. Until now, no one has been sure how thick these deposits are, or what they might be composed of. The only reasonable certainty is that the material is relatively new, at least in a geologic sense, as there is little sign of disturbance by impact craters. Now the Mars Express Orbiter, which uses longer wavelengths than Earth-based radar experiments, has been able to make some intriguing observations.

The material it turns out is in places up to 2.5 kilometres (1.4 miles) thick in places, but there is still some uncertainty as to their composition. They could be volcanic ash deposits from now-buried vents or nearby volcanoes, or perhaps deposits of wind-blown materials eroded from Martian rocks. Most excitingly, they could be ice-rich deposits, somewhat similar to the layered ice deposits at the poles of the planet, but formed when the spin axis of Mars tilts over, making the equatorial region colder. Unfortunately, this later scenario seems the most unlikely, as the water vapour pressure on Mars is so low that any ice near the surface would quickly evaporate. The electrical properties of the layers suggest that they could be poorly packed, fluffy, dusty material, but this also has its detractors, since if it hard to understand how 2.5 kilometres of dust could retain such a lose composition. So the mystery of the Medusae Fossae endures, but we are step closer to understanding it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rovers warranty extended again

For the 5th time since landing on Mars, the remarkable Spirit and Opportunity rovers have had their mission time extended, possibly as far as 2009. It's an amazing achievement given that they were expected to last at best 90 days. Yet the two rovers have been hard at work since January 2004 and despite many problems, including dust on their solar panels and a dragging wheel on Spirit, they continue to return valuable scientific data. To date, Spirit has driven 7.26 kilometers (4.51 miles) and has returned more than 102,000 images. Opportunity has driven 11.57 kilometers (7.19 miles) and has returned more than 94,000 images.

Mars water debate ebbs and flows

Has there been, or is there even now, water on Mars is a question that provokes vigorous debate amongst scientists. Just in the last month, data from Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was re-examined and previously promising evidence for free flowing water some time in the planets past was downgraded from a probable to a maybe. Alfred McEwen from the MRO project suggested that incredible images which appeared to show sudden explosive outpourings of water in just the last year might not even have been water. "The thing we've found with six examples is that they all occur on some of the steepest slopes, steep enough that dry movement, dry flow, could have been sufficient to explain these deposits," said Professor McEwen.

But don't give up on that watery Mars yet. Just in the last few days University of Guelph researchers say they may have identified visible signs of water, in a white, salty substance churned up by the wheels of the Spirit rover. If the material is indeed what they think it is, then the deposits spotted in the Columbia Hills region of the planet could contain up to 16 per cent water. Normally the chemical analyser on Spirit, called an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer would not be able to extract this sort of information, but some clever work on the data has revealed the evidence for water, which had previously been dismissed as interference. So it's not the most conclusive piece of evidence, but the debate is clearly not yet closed.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cold Case on Mars

The long running television crime drama Cold Case is celebrating its 100th episode in great style, with a story that will dig up the bones of a crime committed amidst the chaos of the Orson Welles War Of The Worlds radio broadcast. The episode is called "World's End" and will air on Sunday, November 4. The Cold Case series stands out amongst the numerous crime dramas on our screens by taking the interesting angle of resurrecting cases that were left unsolved years ago. By applying modern forensic technology and investigative techniques, the cold case team hopes to put to rest these old mysteries. Little is known at present about the episode Worlds End, will it will apparently involve the case of a woman strangled to death and dumped in a well.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pixar mission to Mars

Trailblazing computer animators Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Cars) are reported to have concluded a deal with the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs to bring a trilogy of movies to fruition based on the John Carter of Mars novels. It's a concept that has been back and forth through development hell for many years, with any number of attempts made and shelved, but this has got to be the most exciting and yet most worrying to date. Pixar have never tackled anything like this before. This is potentially no kiddie cartoon and it will be interesting to see if they have the nerve to stay true to the source material, which had its fair share of nudity and violence. If they can stick to the spirit of the source material, we can anticipate an extraordinary cinema experience. Reports indicate that representatives of Pixar recently spent a day looking through the huge Burroughs archives for inspiration and have the full support of Burroughs representatives, Danton Burroughs, Sandra Galfas and Jim Sullos. But we've got a long wait: the first movie is expected in 2012.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Race to Mars: Thoroughbred or also ran?

Discovery Channel Canada premieres its ambitious looking 10-hour mini series on Sunday September 23rd. The series is as one would expect from the channel, a highly detailed and scientifically accurate look at the way in which the first human explorers might get to Mars, though on the evidence of the trailer, it looks wearisomely similar to other attempts to dramatise such a mission, with the inevitable, one might also obligatory technical failure along the way, giving rise to the usual heroics to get the mission to Mars safely. Anyway, I'm not sure when we'll see this in the UK, so if anyone would like to post comments and reviews after the first episode airs, feel free. The official website is here, and for those in the UK who would like to watch the trailer, I suggest here, since the official site detects UK IP addresses and refuses to play.

Not a whole lot after all?

A few months ago there was great excitement when a number of mysterious dark features were discovered on the surface of Mars. It very much looked like these might be cavernous entrances to underground caves, but a new image shot from a different angle has unfortunately demolished this theory. It looks like rather than caves, these features are pits. The newest image, with the sun shining from the west, shows the side of the pit, allowing geologists to make a good guess at the true size and nature of the feature, which it must be said, is still pretty impressive.

From the shadow of the rim cast onto the wall of the pit, it seems it is at least 78 meters (255 feet) deep and 150 x 157 meters (492 x 515 feet) across. Something similar has been observed here on earth, where pits form on volcanoes in Hawaii. These "pit craters" generally do not connect to long open caverns but are the result of deep underground collapse.

A shame then that the secret entrances to a long lost Martian civilisation have not been discovered, but a good lesson that it's worth waiting for the Fat Martian to sing before jumping to conclusions.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Going where no Gerbil has gone before

10 Gerbils have been blasted into space for a 12-day mission to test the possible effects on humans of a flight to Mars. The Gerbils were launched from Kazakhstan on Friday 14th September aboard a Foton-M spaceship. The mission will study the physiological and biological effects of long-term flights. The 10 are all sand rodents, praised as "a very interesting object for research" because they "can live for more than a month without using liquids," said Anatoly Grogoryev of the Russian Academy of Science. Day and night will be simulated aboard the spacecraft and the tiny cosmonauts filmed throughout their mission. Unfortunately it will not be a happy ending for all the Gerbils, as several will be dissected on their return to earth. You can't help wishing for a malfunction, and the poor little things go off course and fetch up on a nice little tropical island.

Mars had 40 ice ages

Norbert Schörghofer of the University of Hawaii at Manoa has proposed a new Martian climate theory, which suggests the planet has gone through at least 40 ice ages during the past five million years. These regularly send the planet's permanent ice sheets toward the equator before melting backward. These cyclical fluctuations are likely caused by shifts in the planet's orbit that alter the amount of sunlight reaching the planet's surface. The large volumes of ice found across the planet has puzzled scientists, with the prevailing theory being that the ice was laid down some 5 million years previously as snowfalls, but explaining how the ice water has survived so long has proven difficult. Schörghofer's theory explains the presence of the ice by suggesting it was laid down much later than thought, some perhaps only half a million years ago. National Geographic has the full story.

Opportunity begins Victoria descent

After an initial cautious probe a few days ago to check for wheel slippage, mission controllers have now committed the Opportunity rover to a full exploration of the large Victoria crater. Opportunity re-entered the crater during the rover's 1,293rd Martian day, or sol, (Sept. 13, 2007) to begin a weeks-long exploration of the inner slope. John Callas, the Mars rover project manager has described the exposed rock features in Victoria as like a bathtub ring, with hopes high that the impact which caused the crater will have exposed million year old geological evidence. Opportunity is now about 20 feet (6 meters) inside the rim, with the aim being to reach a layer of light-coloured rock exposed along the crater's inner slope within about a week. The total mission time within the crater is scheduled to last 3 months.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Opportunity scouts Victoria crater

With the dust storms that threatened the Opportunity and Spirit rovers now abated sufficiently to resume operations, the Opportunity rover has taken a first cautious drive into Victoria crater. The crater, measuring approximately one half-mile across and about 200 to 230 feet (70 meters) deep has been a top target for the rover for quite some time. Within the crater, about 40 feet (12.2 meters) below the rim, is a bright band of rocks that is intriguing scientists and which they hope will provide another revealing glimpse into the history of the planet. But this may be a one-way trip for the rover. Once in, it may not be able to get back out again, though there is plenty to explore inside the crater. Opportunity did not drive all the way in on this occasion, but far enough in -- about four meters (13 feet) -- to get all six wheels past the crater rim. Then it backed uphill for about three meters (10 feet). Commands were relayed to the rover to stop driving if the wheels suffered more than 40% slippage. This did indeed happen, so the rover automatically stopped and it is now perched on the rim with just the front wheels over the edge. Mission scientists will now examine the telemetry received back and plan how best to get Opportunity all the way safely.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rovers are roving again

After many weeks of frustrating inactivity, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have begun to tentatively wake from a slumber imposed by Mission Control to conserve energy while a planet wide dust storm raged. The storm is now showing some signs of abating, Opportunity is receiving some 230-240 watt hours of energy, while Spirit is getting 313 watt-hours of energy per day and has already made a short 42 centimetre drive. Spirit is now expected to begin the drive to Home Plate, an interesting geological feature that geologists believe may be the remains of a volcano. Opportunity meanwhile is poised to begin the long delayed descent into Victoria crater, a move that may well signal the end for the plucky little robot, as it may well not be able to climb back out again. Spirit is suffering from a layer of dust on the lens of the camera mounted on the end of the rover’s robotic arm and various options are under discussion to try and shake it off. In order to avoid the same problem occurring with Opportunity, the mission controllers are delaying opening the dust cover for now. The solar panels on both rovers may also become impacted by dust, as it begins to settle as the storm dies down, but it is hoped that gusts of wind that have previously helped cleanse the cameras may come to the rescue again.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Canada gears up for Mars

A consortium of Canadian universities is planning to send a lander to Mars in 2009. At just $20 million dollars, the mission is going to cost a fraction of the recently launched Phoenix mission. Though the Northern Light robot will weigh a petite 35 kilograms, far less than Phoenix, it is expected to carry a varied range of instruments, such as a spectrometer, seismic and environmental sensors, plus a rover named Beaver with a 1km range. The rover will also come equipped with a number of useful instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a rock grinder. The mission is not government sponsored, but hopes to raise the $20 million needed via private contributions and sponsorship. Costs will be kept low by using an off the shelf launch system, such as the Russian Rockot system, which is made from converted Soviet era ballistic missiles. More info can be found at the Northern Light website.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Mars Phoenix Mission lifts off

NASA has successfully launched the Mars Phoenix lander from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop a Delta II rocket. It was a textbook lift-off, brilliantly lighting up the night sky. The launch was delayed from Friday because of bad weather, but the rescheduled launch in the early hours of the morning went smoothly. Unlike the Spirit and Opportunity missions presently on Mars, Phoenix is not mobile, but the lander carries with it a 2.4m (7.5ft) robotic arm that will dig into the Martian polar region surface in search of complex carbon-based chemicals (organics) in the soil that could provide tell-tale signs of life.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Mars invades in boxes

August seems to be the silly season for Mars as inboxes fill with a perennial hoax e-mail that arrives at about this time every year. The mail tells readers that Mars is due to an incredibly close approach, so close in fact that it will appear as it the Earth has two moons in the sky. The story seems to have originated from the genuine close approach of August 2003, when the planet came within 35 million miles of us. By no stretch of the imagination did it appear as large as our own moon, but it was some 6 times large than normal and 85 times brighter. From this has sprung the hoax mail, which somehow re-emerges every year no matter where Mars is in the firmament. Alas, to get anything like a repeat of the 2003 show, you’ll have to wait for 2018, though it won’t actually be until 2287 that we’ll get an approach as close again.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Rovers in peril

The Opportunity and Spirit rovers are facing the most serious threat yet encountered on their 3 year sojourns on Mars, with a massive dust storm reducing power levels to their lowest ever levels. Opportunity is the worst effected of the two rovers, with direct sunlight levels to its solar panels reduced by up to 99% in the last few days. Mission scientists have been scaling back science operations for both Rovers, switching off instruments and basically hunkering the machines down in the hope that they can survive. The biggest problem is that they can't simply switch the rovers off and on again after the storm clears. A minimum amount of power is required to run heaters that keep vital core electronics from becoming too cold and Opportunity is coming perilously close to the point where it will not be able to cope. Power levels dipped on Wednesday 18th to an unprecedented 128 watt hours, prompting scientists to take the extraordinary action of suspending some of the regular communication sessions with the Rover, a contingency that has never been enacted before.

Planting the seed of an idea for a green Mars

With an eye to the eventual greening of Mars, Scientists in Mexico are examining Pine trees living on the side of a volcano to see how they cope with the adverse conditions. The snow-capped Pico de Orizaba is not only a dormant volcano but also Mexico's tallest mountain, so the Trees that cling to the side are a hardy breed. Learning how they survive may give clues as to how to one day cultivate plants on Mars, but first we'll need to warm the planet up. Scientist Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez of Mexico City's UNAM University thinks the idea is not necessarily the stuff of science fiction. Global warming here on Earth gives a clue to the process required. If we can introduce highly insulating gases like methane or nitrous oxide in sufficient volume, we could heat Mars. If we can raise the temperature to 41 degrees Fahrenheit from the present minus 67 F, this would match temperatures where trees grow at 13,780 feet on Pico de Orizaba. NASA scientist Chris McKay believes we might see Trees on Mars within 100 years, and sees them as a vital component of any terraforming effort, since Trees are the major "engines of the biosphere."

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Opportunity descent into Victoria delayed

Fears that a growing dust storm on Mars will deplete power to the Opportunity rover have caused mission planners to delay by a few days the descent into Victoria crater. Opportunity has been surveying the edge of the crater for months, looking for a safe place to begin the perilous descent, but with dust cutting nearly half the available power to the rover, (from 765 watt-hours to 402 watt-hours per day) the decision has been taken to keep the rover in sleep mode as much as possible, with a tentative date of July 13th pencilled in for a full resumption of the mission. The storm has been growing since June, and while mission scientists remain confident that it will abate and be no threat to Opportunity and Spirit, there is some concern that the storm may go global. Such storms are not uncommon, seeming to follow a rough pattern of occurring every 6 years. The last global storm was in 2001, so the planet is due one.

Mars drier than thought, but glass still half full

An ancient Mars of rolling oceans is an image pregnant with implications and one that has gained a lot of currency amongst researchers in recent years, but it is good to be occasionally reminded that this is just a theory, and there are plenty of other ways of interpreting the evidence. New Scientist magazine is reporting this week that results from Mars Express cast some doubt on the idea that Mars was once a very wet environment, because it appears to have lacked the necessary carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere to make this possible. Since the sunlight reaching Mars is 25% less than that on Earth, a very effective greenhouse effect powered by large concentrations of CO2 would have been needed to generate a warm thick atmosphere, 80% more than is experienced on Earth. Analysis of clays, or phyllosilicates, found on the planet by the OMEGA spectrometer on Mars Express seems to indicate that the presence of these clays rules out a large amount of CO2 in the atmosphere since this would have prohibited their formation. Methane, which can also act as a greenhouse gas has been proposed as an alternative driver of a greenhouse effect, but Methane in any significant volume would need an extremely active biosphere, and while it is nice to imagination a tropical Mars in the past, this does not seem very likely. Intriguingly, another alternative has it that large meteor impacts may have caused very brief flurries of wet activity on Mars, in the order of a few thousand years at a time. The question then arises, would a few thousand years of rain (even repeated multiple times) have been sufficient to carve out the river valley like features seen on Mars. Read the article at New Scientist.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dust storm threatens rovers

A powerful new dust storm is developing on Mars and may threaten the safety of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. The storm is thought to now be several thousand miles in diameter and is some 560 miles (900 KM) east of Opportunity, which is presently working at Meridiani Planum. The fear is that the storm will become global in nature, as last happened in October 2001, when a giant storm blanketed the entire planet in an impenetrable gloom. Ironically, high winds have been the saviour of the rovers before, as dust accumulating on their solar panels appears to have been blown off, restoring power that had been steadily in decline. The storm is not yet big enough to worry mission planners unduly, but a press conference called for Thursday will discuss the possibility that a planned drive by Opportunity into the massive Victoria Crater may be cancelled.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Martian tilt may explain lost ocean

When the Viking spacecraft arrived over Mars in the 1970's they saw what appeared to be the ancient shorelines of a long dead Martian ocean, but this theory was largely discredited bv the later Mars Global Surveyor mission of the 1990's. The far more sensitive Mars Global Surveyor imaged the surface to a resolution of a few hundred metres, and that seemed to prove that the opposite shores of the "ocean" varied in elevation by several kilometres, making for a very unusual ocean indeed, in fact an ocean that simply could not have existed. Until now this is the view that has prevailed, but scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Toronto and the Carnegie Institution in Washington have now re-accessed the data, and their startling conclusion once again puts an ocean on Mars, and a very deep one at that. The scientists have changed their mind because a new theory suggests that Mars has undergone some major upheavals, at the heart of which is an exotic event called true polar wander, a process in which the very poles of the planet shifted, resulting in massive deformation of the surface. If this is the case, then those improbable shorelines may indeed be the edges of an ancient ocean, one that once covered an entire hemisphere of the planet to a depth of several kilometres. If that is the case, then the next question to answer is, where did all the water go? The Independent Newspaper has an excellent indepth article on the new theory.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

ESA opts for big Mars mission

In a further sign of the importance national space agencies are assigning to exploration of the red planet, the ESA has moved a step further forward approving a much enhanced vision for the 2013 ExoMars mission. The proposed upgrade would see a 205kg robot lift off on a heavy-lift rocket such as an Ariane 5 or a Proton. The probe would carry a 16.5kg instrument package, including a weather station (or Geophysics/Environment Package - GEP) but a request to include an orbiting communications platform was not approved. This means that ExoMars will be reliant on aging American hardware already in orbit about Mars. The project teams now have the go-ahead to refine the concept over the coming months, though the final design may still be subject be rejection when it comes up for final review in a years time. More information can be found on the BBC website.

ESA air bags demonstrates less bounce

In an important step toward a European mission to Mars, scientists have successfully tested a new kind of air bag landing system that they believe could bring the proposed ExoMars mission to a much speedier and safer stop than previous designs. The American Spirit and Opportunity rovers presently on Mars used airbag technology, but the method employed required the landers survive up to 25 bounces and travel some 200 metres before coming to a standstill. The ESA design, known as a vented, or dead-beat system, uses sensors to deflate the squashable bags on touchdown, reducing the bounce factor and meaning that the payload can be delivered right side up. There is still a lot of testing to be done, but if successful, the bags will also mean a significant weight saving, leaving more room for the science payload. The BBC website has an extensive story.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Storm in a puddle growing on Mars

The prestigious publication New Scientist magazine is reporting on controversial findings that open water was found on the surface of Mars two years ago. Open water should not be possible on Mars due to the harsh surface conditions, (though very strong photographic evidence has been found for occasional small flash floods) so if true, this is a real bombshell. Physicist and Lockheed engineer Ron Levin has looked at images returned several years ago by the Opportunity Rover while it was exploring a crater called Endurance. Creating stereoscopic reconstructions from paired images from the rover's twin cameras, he seems to have found some compelling evidence. The picture shows a one metre square area with a distinctly bluish tint, and indeed it looks just as you would imagine water would look if it were puddling in low depressions in the ground. It is also free of dust and other detritus, suggesting that if it is water or ice, it formed recently. Levin has previously theorised that water might exist briefly on the surface in a regular daily cycle, evaporating away as the day progresses. This however is a very contentious theory, as it would require some very precise circumstances to come about. It is worth mentioning that Levin's father Gilbert Levin was one of the scientists on the old Viking missions to Mars, which found no official evidence for life, though both father and son have been vigorous proponents of the idea that the scientific instruments on Viking did find life, but the results were incorrectly interpreted. I mention this because Levin may well have an axe to grind here, and just as conspiracy theorists are constantly finding signs of an ancient civilisation on Mars, this may be a case of the eye seeing what the mind wants it to see. However, it is equally fair to say that the picture is compelling, so here is hoping that NASA is open minded enough to take a look at this, and have Spirit and Opportunity keep their cameras trained for further examples. As Levin has pointed out, it only requires that they poke the surface with the Rover’s drilling tool to test out his theory. If it’s water, then the drill will make no visible impression. If it’s anything else, it will leave a mark.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

ESA Mars rover talks inconclusive

The ExoMars mission to Mars has been the subject of intense discussion over the last few days, as European Space Agency delegates attempt to finalise the design for the ambitious probe. At the heart of the discussion is the proposal by mission scientists to beef up the mission in order to address several worries they have. The most costly change is the request to send a combined orbiter and lander configuration, a proposal driven by several imperatives. For one thing, scientists are concerned that without an orbiter to relay data back to Earth, the ExoMars mission will be relying on American orbiting hardware for the crucial link home, and another failure such as recently befell Mars Global Surveyor would be catastrophic. Equally concerning, a recent change to the launch date from 2011 to December 2013 now means ExoMars would arrive in 2014, at a time of increased dust storm activity. Without an orbiter to wait out the storms, the lander would have to risk a perilous descent in these conditions. These changes mean a far bigger payload requiring a more powerful launch vehicle. That all adds up to substantial cost increases, and that means the member nations of the ESA will have to dig a lot deeper into their pockets to fund it. The worry is that some ESA members may decide to cut and run, threatening the entire project, which is a key plank of highly ambitious European plans to explore and eventually return material from Mars. The discussions to date appear to be veering toward acceptance of the more expensive option, but a final decision has been deferred to a later meeting on June 11th.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spirit digs up more evidence for water

It was an entirely accidental event, but when a gummed up wheel on the Spirit rover scuffed up some Martian dirt it revealed something that literally had NASA scientists gasping with amazement. Beneath the regular dirty red Martian earth was a layer of intensely bright material, which analysis revealed to be extremely high in silica, so much in fact (90 percent) that it almost certainly required water to produce. One possible origin for the silica may have been volcanic activity, with the silica brought about through the interaction of water, the soil, and acid vapours from the volcano. The material could also have formed in water in a hot spring environment. Either way, it offers yet more compelling evidence for a high water presence on Mars in the past, and that can only increase speculation that Mars may once have enjoyed an environment much closer to Earth than it does today.

Garden from Mars wins at Chelsea

The Chelsea Flower Show is an institution in Britain amongst dedicated gardeners. For one week in May, the cream of the countries garden designers descend on London to show off their skills, but this year something a little odder has landed. "600 Days with Bradstone" is the title of a garden designed by Sarah Eberle for a 600 day stay on Mars, and it's scooped the top Gold award for 2007 and "best in show." Sitting beneath an imaginary dome, the garden is divided into two distinct parts. At one end of the garden is a section designed to draw water from the Martian permafrost; at the other a section designed with the mental well being of the astronauts in mind. The design of the garden has been closely modelled on Mars, and even the plants have been picked for their likely survival properties in the harsh Martian environment. Alas all the tickets are gone, but for more detail on the winning garden, you can visit the website of the Royal British Horticultural Society or take a look at the official 600 days with Bradstone website.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Big bang makes splat on Mars

The Spirit rover, incredibly still working on Mars over 1000 days after its arrival, has made another important discovery, spotting what appears to be a "bomb sag." This may not sound terribly interesting, but to a geologist, this is heady stuff. A bomb sag is a kind of material formed in volcanic explosions on Earth. Rock is ejected up by the explosion and then falls into soft deposits, deforming as it lands. Spirit has snapped just such an object, preserved in layered rocks on the lower slopes of a plateau called Home Plate. Also spotted by Spirit are signs in the surrounding rock of of tiny spherical particles that look like accretionary lapilli. These are coagulated bits of ash that typically rain down after a volcanic explosion, so the evidence suggests that this was a genuine volcanic explosion, rather than the fallout from a meteor strike. What has the scientists interested is that they are seeing lots of evidence from photographs snapped from orbit that this sort of feature is very common, so it looks like Mars had a very violent past. Additional evidence places water at the scene as well. There is for instance a great deal of chlorine evident, which points toward the presence of a briny fluid, and it looks like the bomb sag landed with a splat. The fact that the material it sits on is basalt is also telling. Basalt is not normally associated with explosions, except when it meets water and you then get a steam-driven blast.

Phoenix Mars Lander arrives at Kennedy Space Centre

The August launch of the Phoenix Mars Lander has taken another important step forward with the arrival of the craft at the Kennedy Space Centre, where it will be prepared for a launch on August 3rd. The Phoenix lander is the latest in a series of probes built on the mantra of "follow the water." Equipped with a robotic digging tool, it is hoped the probe will touch down on a Martian ice plain, but at a time of year when the ice will have receded sufficiently so as to have revealed fresh soil. The probe comes equipped with a number of scientific instruments that may solve one of the big mysteries of mars; what happened to all the water scientists think the planet was once blessed with. Amongst the experiments planned, soil will be dissolved to look for salt deposited in ancient floods and an oven will be used to break down samples for chemical analysis. The mission is planned to last 3 months, but on past experience, there is every chance the lander may last longer.

Friday, April 20, 2007

MoonTwins mission paves way to Mars

Aerospace company Astrium is working at the request of the European Space Agency on a two probe mission to the Moon, and is being promoted as a proving flight for technologies required for a Mars sample return mission. The MoonTwins mission (Moon Technological Walk-through and In-situ Network Science) would be launched together on the same rocket, but split up in Earth orbit for independent travel to the Moon. Once in lunar orbit, the probes would first practice linking up (a crucial part of any mission to retrieve material from Mars) and then descend seperately to the surface. One of the probes would likely be targeted for the so called Peak of Eternal Light, close to the rim of Shackleton crater. This is thought of as an excellent potential target for human settlement due to its near continuous exposure to sunlight, important for power generation. More detail on this story can be found at the bbc.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Fond farewell to Mars Global Surveyor

It operated for 4 times longer than expected and returned a stunning array of data, but on November 2nd 2006, the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft made its last call home to Earth. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has now released the preliminary conclusions of a report by an internal review board, and it appears the reason for the failure may have its origins in a computer mistake made 5 months previously. A routine update in September 2005 sent to onboard computers caused inconsistencies in the spacecraft's memory. When engineers tried to fix the problem they compounded the error by sending further incorrect software commands, and then did not catch these new mistakes because the existing procedures to do so were inadequate. The spacecraft continued to function, but on November 2nd, the spacecraft was ordered to perform a routine adjustment of its solar panels which triggered a series of alarms. Though it then reported that the situation had stabilised, the spacecraft re-orientated to an angle that exposed one of two batteries carried on the spacecraft to direct sunlight. This caused the battery to overheat and in turn caused the 2nd battery to degrade. By now the spacecrafts antenna were unaligned with Earth and so the spacecraft could not report its plight to ground controllers, which sealed its fate.

The report points no specific finger of blame as the team followed procedures correctly, (which were themselves flawed), and JPL rightly emphasises the successes of Mars Global Surveyor. The mission was undoubtedly a spectacular success, with the highlight been a series of before and after images of gullies on Mars which appeared to show strong evidence that water had run on the surface in just the last few years. Other discoveries include the identification of the remnants of a magnetic field which would have shielded Mars from deadly cosmic rays and Laser altimeter measurements that produced an incredibly detailed topographic map of the planet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Aliens smell the coffee

The Grover's Mill Coffee co is looking to purchase 163 Cranbury Road in Grover's Mill in order to turn it into a War Of The Worlds themed Coffeehouse. West Windsor Councilman Franc Gambatese and his wife and business partner Mickey DeFranco were in attendance at Thursday's Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting to seek use variances for the 163 Cranbury Road site. The Grover's Mill Coffee co has cleverly associated itself with the hamlet famous as the landing site for the Martians in the Orson Welles panic radio broadcast of 1938, and even arranged on one occasion for Ann Robinson (star of the 1953 movie) to visit. The Princeton Packet has more information on the meeting (which ended inconclusively) and you can check out the Grover's Mill Coffee co website here. For more on Grover's Mill itself, click here. Best of luck to the Grover's Mill Coffee co on this great idea.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Go to Mars without leaving home

I particularly like that on the list of qualities required of candidates volunteering to spend 500 days on a simulated trip to Mars, under the heading "Requirements for investigators-volunteers" you are requested to list your "bad habits". Is this a call for candour, or are the organisers actually hoping to find some intolerable person to relieve the boredom? It would be fun to think that telling them you snore or seldom wash might actually be as good a qualification as a degree in astrophysics. After all, if astronauts really are to go to Mars and spend 500 days away from Earth in a tiny tin can of a space ship, they are going to have to learn the patience of saints, unless of course this is really a secret reality TV show. In fact, this is a very serious attempt to figure out how people will cope on such an arduous trip. Six candidates will spend at least 520 days (perhaps 700) cooped up on the Mars-500 mission. Communications with the outside world will even be time delayed to simulate the increasing lag as the "ship" travels away from the Earth. So far, over 120 people from 21 countries including Argentina, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Ukraine have applied for the jobs. If you fancy signing up, you can visit the official site here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Red Star for Red Planet

China is confirmed to supply a micro-satellite for a planned Russian mission to Mars in 2009. The strange sounding Phobos-Grunt mission (the Grunt means soil as the mission is also intended to return a sample from the Martian moon Phobos) is the first Russian mission to Mars since they lost a probe in 1996 to a booster failure. The China-Russia deal was actually first reported last year, but the deal was only formally inked during Chinese President Hu Jintao's current visit to Moscow. If all goes according to plan, after entering Mars' orbit, the Chinese micro-satellite will be detached from the Russian spacecraft, and probe the Martian space environment. The "Phobos Explorer" spacecraft, will also carry some equipment developed by the Hong Kong Polytechnic.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Caves on Mars

Potential openings to large caves have been spotted on the Martian surface. Glen Cushing, from the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Flagstaff, Arizona has reported on the findings, which he spotted in THEMIS (Mars Odyssey's Thermal Emission Imaging System) images of the Arsia Mons region near the equator of Mars. The caves (if caves they are) were given away by what look to be collapsed roofs, with the holes ranging in size from 100 to 252 metres. Several of the dark spots have been probed using thermal infrared imaging which reveals their temperature to be suspiciously consistent at any time of day or night. This suggests the dark spots are not simply pits, which would have sunlit sides and nor do they have the expected telltale rays of ejected dust that would indicate an impact origin. If they are indeed caves, then they may contain water in stable conditions, in which case their existence would be very beneficial to any future long term manned missions to Mars. The caves would make ideal ready-made dwellings for the astronauts, unless of course … they’re already occupied. More at

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ice boosts terraforming dream

One of the abiding dreams of science fiction writers and space scientists is the idea of turning Mars into a planet capable of supporting life on an Earth-like scale. This dream now looks a step closer to reality (though we probably couldn’t do it anytime in the next few hundred years) with the confirmation that huge new deposits of ice water have been discovered on Mars. In fact, Mars's southern polar ice cap contains enough water to flood the entire planet approximately 36 feet deep if melted. Radar measurements from the Mars Express orbiter have found ice fields that are up to 2.2 miles (3,500 meters) thick in places. Equally intriguingly, the ice is very pure, with only about 10 percent dust contamination. Yet this still only accounts for a small percentage of the original water volumes thought to once exist on Mars. Either it is still there, locked up beneath the surface in as yet undiscovered places, or it has leaked slowly away into space through the thin Martian atmosphere. But the more water is discovered, the more plausible becomes the idea that we might one day be able to melt it and start the stupendous job of creating a second Earth in the solar system.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Martian Civilisation: Proof at last

Mars is warming up says NASA, and the climate change denial lobby is having a field day, claiming that this proves that a warmer Earth is simply part of a solar system wide process caused by increased radiation levels from the sun. Well I think they are dangerously, disastrously wrong, and we should all be really very worried indeed. We all know of course that the Martian civilisation retreated underground centuries ago, and clearly their War Machine is now cranking up production. Secret underground factories are even now at full capacity, cranking out thousands of Cylinders and Tripods. All that waste heat has to go somewhere, so I would implore NASA to turn their resources to seeking out the thermal vents used by the Martians to dissipate the waste heat. Then we can launch a pre-emptive strike on these hidden factories, before they can deploy their Weapons Of Mass Destruction against us.

Well, if you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything, but climate change deniers are asking people to swallow an equally outrageous whopper. It is absolutely true that NASA have said “"for three Mars summers in a row, deposits of frozen carbon dioxide near Mars' south pole have shrunk from the previous year's size, suggesting a climate change in progress” but this does not imply that Earth and Mars are suffering the same shared effect.

There are far more differences than similarities between Earth and Mars to start making grand comparisons like this. To begin with, the changes have been observed around the South Polar Cap, and not the entire planet, so this is hardly conclusive evidence of a planet wide effect. We must also consider the impact of the eccentricity of the Martian orbit combined with its obliquity (the angle of its spin axis to the orbital plane), which means that it not only periodically swings closer to the Sun (perihelion), but also wobbles in its orbit. As a result the climate is prone too much greater seasonal swings than we experience on Earth. This effect is also exacerbated by the lack of a large moon to dampen down the wobble. Then there are also things like seasonal dust storms to consider, which are large and long lasting enough to swing temperatures through several degrees of variation.

So there are plenty of alternative reasons for the observed warming on Mars, but please do what I did to write this posting. Go out and research the facts and make up your own mind. The information is out there and pretty easy to find. Here’s a good start at which does a much better job of summarising the flaws in the Mars climate change argument than I can.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rosetta Mars flyby

The Rosetta comet rendezvous mission has made a gravity assist manoeuvre around Mars, using a close pass of the planet to boost it toward its destination, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The probe switched on the camera aboard Rosetta's Philae lander (which will be attempting the first landing on a comet in May 2014) just four minutes before the spacecraft reached closest approach to the Red Planet. It returned some stunning images, including one showing elements of the Rosetta probe itself with the planet 1000 kilometres below, plus some nice images showing traces of the Martian atmosphere taken by the OSIRIS wide-angle camera. In addition, the ROMAP instrument was also switched on, collecting data about the magnetic environment of Mars. The approach gave mission scientists the first chance to switch the Philae lander into fully autonomous mode, completely relying on the power of its own batteries. Full story at the Rosetta site.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Candor Chasma had a watery past

Yet more persuasive evidence has arrived from Mars supporting the theory that the planet had a very wet past indeed. Newly analysed images from Europe's Mars Express orbiter show an area known as Candor Chasma, a small part of the great Martian rift valley Valles Marineris. The Valles Marineris is as long as the United States and in places plunges miles down, but in the Candor Chasma region, scientists have spotted some intriguing geological features. Seen in the images is a hilly landscape composed of alternating bands of light and dark coloured rock. It could have been wind or volcanic forces which forged these features, but water (and water in vast quantities) seems the most likely agent. Further supporting this contention, the striped landscape also boasts a network of cracks, known as joints. These are surrounded by prominent haloes of bleached rock. The same features have been identified here on Earth and what this seems to indicate, say a team from the University of Arizona, is "a clear indication of chemical interactions between fluids circulating within the fracture and the host rock". Most promisingly, these features are millions of years old and have been exposed slowly by the elements. Locked underground at the time the water was present in liquid form, this would have provided a very hospitable place for primitive life to take hold. The BBC has the full story.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lost And Found On Mars

NASA is evaluating the use of RFID Chips for a trip to Mars. Radio Frequency ID chips are increasingly being used as a way to monitor stock levels in warehousing, but the technology may find a new and vitally important home in space. Losing things in space is a notorious problem that has long plagued astronauts. Put down a screwdriver and the odds are it will float away, so if you can tag it so that it radiates a signal all the time, it could be a real time saver, perhaps even a life saver. For instance, according to, in 2003, the International Space crew were missing "over 100 items listed in the IMS (inventory management system.) " This included critical equipment such as filter cartridges, and spares designed to support station systems operation. On a trip to Mars, losing things becomes even more critical, as there will simply be no way of getting replacements to the astronauts. The first stage in testing the durability of RFID chips will be to store a selection in a box on the outer skin of the Space Station. Further tests will then be conducted on a long range mission to the moon.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fascists On Mars

This looks totally insane, but a film that has been made in Italy is actually called Fascists On Mars, and no, its not allegorical, this film really is about fascists who travel to Mars. Called Fascisti su Marte in Italian, it's an extraordinary story set in 1939, telling of a group of fascists who decide to transplant their warped political philosophy to Mars. The mastermind (if that's the right word) behind this cinematic marvel is 42 year old Corrado Guzzanti, a comedian of enormous stature in Italy, famous for his biting satires and attacks on prominent politicians and institutions. The film is apparently narrated by an off camera voice, as in the news reels of the time, and you can see from the trailer that this method is extended to the visuals, which look like something out of an old Flash Gordon serial, with silver tail finned rockets and flaming meteors. It's very hard to judge exactly what is going on in this film from a trailer (especially as I don't speak the lingo) but it looks utterly out of this world, full of larger than life situations and broad slapstick comedy. The trailer can be found here and there are a good many clips (don't ask about the legality, I'm just pointing them out) at Youtube.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Boston shocker

A lot of news sites are drawing comparisons this week with the Orson Welles War Of The Worlds radio broadcast and an advertising stunt that went badly wrong in Boston. Bizarrely, the culprit was The Cartoon Network, or to be more precise, an ad agency working on their behalf. It appears that The Cartoon Network hired a company called New York-based Interference Inc to run a gorilla ad campaign for the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. This involved pasting up flashing electronic signs across the city. These were spotted and the alarm was raised, with the police called out and a massive anti-terrorism response triggered. Part of the problem was that the signs bore a slight resemblance to circuit boards, but probably the biggest single reason for the panic that resulted was the choice of location. Sticking them on bridges and underpasses was really asking for trouble in the present climate, but equally you have to wonder how people were so concerned at something that clearly looked so innocuous; it hardly seems likely that Al Qaeda would build bombs to look like cartoon characters (or am I giving them ideas?) Why indeed did the same campaign pass off without comment in other cities? I guess this really does show how easy it would be to trigger one hell of a panic with the right triggers, though I think the really interesting part of this story is that just about every news item I have read in the past few days concerning this event references Orson Welles. It’s actually a bit of a weak connection to make, but it proves there's life in the old dog yet.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

BBC wants you

Continuing on from their recent excellent season of programs looking at the history of British science fiction, the BBC is inviting you can contribute to the My Science Fiction Life website, where fans can record and share their recollections and experiences on the part science fiction has played in their lives. It's not limited to British science fiction and there is a great timeline that you can browse and add to. Naturally there is a place on the site for The War Of The Worlds, so if there is something you would like to say about the novel (and if you're reading this, you must have something to say) then get over to the BBC and make your mark.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Digging deeper

Researchers from the University College London have suggested in a new paper published January 30th (in the journal Geophysical Research Letters) that finding life on Mars will require deep drilling in choice locations. Because the planet lacks sufficient atmosphere to ward off harmful radiation, there is no chance that microbes could have survived on the surface or even relatively deep within the ground. The researchers estimate that only microbes that have been buried several meters below the surface could survive, but finding such deeply hidden evidence is a task beyond the scope of any hardware presently on Mars. There is a chance that the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission (due to land 2013) could get deep enough, but what we really need are human hands. The new research looked at a number of different soil configurations, to estimate the best likely place to look: dry soil, frozen soil containing layered permafrost, and ice. Ice turns out to be the best medium, with a particularly good target identified as the frozen sea at Elysium, which is thought to have surfaced in the last five million years. Such a geologically young feature will not have received as much radiation as other older areas of the planet, thus increasing the likelihood of some microbes surviving.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Checking the air and water

Conventional wisdom has it that one of two things might explain the lack of air and water on Mars. First is the idea that it simply leaked away over the eons, dribbling away into space as the solar wind stripped molecules from the top of the planet's atmosphere. Another more colourful theory has it that some catastrophic impact blasted the atmosphere away in one titanic event. Either way, the planet now shows little sign of either water or air, though a recent set of photographs snapped from orbit did offer the tantalising possibility that water may still occasionally flow over the surface. Measurements taken previously have suggested the ongoing loss was quite rapid, but new observations from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter are throwing those measurements out, though not necessarily with the bathwater, because that still seems to be there in potentially vast quantities. New figures from Mars Express put the rate of leakage at 20 grams per second of oxygen and CO2, which is 1% of the measured rate by the 1989 Phobos 2 mission. If correct, and extrapolating backwards into its history, it means that Mars has lost a lot less water than air than previously calculated, perhaps only in the region of a few centimetres of water. This is very exciting news, because based on observations of geological formations on the surface, it has been estimated there was once enough water on Mars to fill oceans half a mile deep! So if Mars hasn't lost its water and air, where is it? The only real possibility is underground, which returns us to the fascinating discovery of what looked like a very recent (in the region of years) outpour of water on Mars. Was this little dribble the tip of a huge iceberg buried beneath the Martian sands? Could be, but don't forget the other possibility that a giant asteroid blew away the atmosphere sometime in the distant past. But it certainly is a food for thought (or should that be water to glug and air to breath) because if it is there, locked away beneath the surface, we have even more reason to get a human presence on Mars as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mars photo winners announced

NASA has just announced the winners of a survey conducted amongst the public to find the best pictures sent back from Mars by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. At deserved first place is the hugely evocative moment that Spirit caught the sun sinking beneath the rim of Gusev Crater on May 19, 2005. It's a stunningly beautiful image, simple but haunting. Let's hope that one day in the not too distant future, human eyes get to experience this in person. The site hosting the winners is well worth a visit just to remind yourself of what an amazing achievement the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been. The relatively small expense of these missions makes the amazing return in terms of science more than worthwhile, but these photographs represent more than just facts and figures. They reveal a world that is both alien and yet strangely familiar. They are the best argument possible for placing a human presence on this most earth like of worlds. See all the pictures from mars here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

John Carter bound for Disney?

The idea of a John Carter of Mars movie is almost as old as the books themselves, but it has never managed to escape from development hell. The first attempt came in 1931 when animation pioneer Bob Clampett interested the Burroughs family in the idea of a feature length cartoon. There was considerable interest from Burroughs and his son, and much preparation took place, including the creation of a test reel, but interference from Studio Execs destroyed the project. Several other attempts have been made since, most recently with Paramount pictures. The project even got as far as working through a number of potential directors. Word now comes that since Paramount have dropped the property, there is interest coming from Disney, who see great franchise potential in the project. This is very much breaking news (rumour might be a better word) so take it with a pinch of salt. See tmz for the breaking story.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

New probes go head to head, one crashes and burns

NASA announced on Monday that initial funding had been granted to run feasibility studies on two new Mars missions (as part of the Scout programme) with a tentative launch date for the winning proposal of 2011. Both missions to be considered are concerned with learning more about the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN stands for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, and will focus on upper atmosphere dynamics. The "Great Escape mission" (a much nicer name) would perform a similar mission, but might also be able to measure atmospheric constituents such as methane. Both probes are at the very earliest stage of development and some $2 million will be spent over the next nine-months before NASA picks one of the two missions for full development. The total mission cost is expected to be in the region of $475 million. Also announced at the same time was further funding to develop greater ties with the European effort to explore Mars. The full NASA press release can be read here.

Unmentioned in the above press release is the sad news that a great proposal to send an aircraft to Mars was not selected in this round of approvals. Scientists at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton were understandably disappointed that their trail-blazing idea did not get the go-ahead, but the possibility exists to resubmit the proposal at a later date. The site for the Ares craft is here.

Safe landing for Phoenix proves a rocky road

With a launch due in August 2007, the mission planners for the Phoenix probe to Mars are still struggling to identify a safe landing site near to the northern polar region. The already orbiting Mars Odyssey has been using a thermal camera to look down at night and identify hot spots from cooling rocks on the surface. Unfortunately, the prime landing area proved to harbour a minefields worth of rocks that would make a landing there extremely perilous. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is also getting into the act, using its High Resolution Science Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera to take daytime shots. The primary mission of Phoenix is the search for water, hence the importance (and restrictions) of finding a polar landing site. Once down, the probe will use a robotic tool to dig up to 3 feet down into the Martian surface. has the full story of the ongoing effort to find a safe landing spot.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Viking missions may have killed Martians

A little dramatic perhaps, but a controversy has been rumbling on for many years about the scientific data returned by the 1976 Viking Missions to Mars. For many, the results signalled the final death knell for the long cherished hope that Mars might still harbour some primitive form of life, but not everyone agreed. Conspiracy theorists like to say there was a cover-up of the results, but far more plausible is the belief that the scientists running the probes simply got the results wrong or mis-interpreted them. One such proponent of this theory is Dr. Gilbert V. Levin, who was actually one of the mission scientists in charge of the Viking Labelled Release (LR) experiment. This was designed to detect the uptake of a radioactively tagged liquid nutrient by microbes in the soil. The idea was that gases emitted by these microbes would show the radioactive tagging. Initial results were in line with this prediction but the overall results proved inconsistent. Dr. Levin has since argued vigorously that his experiment did show signs of life, but now we have a new take on the experiment that suggests the probes actually killed any existing Martian microbes. In a paper presented to the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, geology professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch has suggested that the microbes may have been a hydrogen peroxide based life form and that in heating the soil sample during the experiment, the Viking probes would have very effectively killed their intended targets. A NASA scientist is now looking at using the forthcoming Phoenix mission to look into the theory, though it will mean some science on the fly to find a way of adapting the existing instrument package to look for hydrogen peroxide based microbes. ABC News has the detailed story.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

War Of The Worlds gets sporty

It looks like there is a new War Of The Worlds date to enter into your calendars. I have not been able to find a specific website that gives any great detail on this event, but apparently the West Windsor-Plainsboro North school, whose address happens to be none other than 90 Grovers Mill Road, is now into its fourth year of running a large and successful sporting tournament known locally as "The War Of The Worlds." Schools apparently gain points for each win they chalk up, with the grand winner taking home a trophy that resembles the Grover’s Mill red barn where the fictional War of the Worlds story took place in 1938. The competition has been held over several weeks running through to the first week of January. If anyone happens to have any further information on this event and particularly anything that explains the genesis of the event, I would love to hear from you.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mars rovers get smarter

They were only meant to last a few months on inhospitable Mars, but on January 3rd 2007, the Spirit rover will incredibly begin its fourth year of operation and a few weeks later so will Opportunity. Both rovers have survived many trials, such as jammed wheels and dusty solar panels, but they are also getting smarter thanks to software upgrades beamed to them from Earth. Newly added for 2007 is the ability to pick out significant changes between images, a very useful capability in the search for dust devils. Both rovers have snapped dust devils on Mars, but with the new software, they will be able to pick out the fast moving weather features and beam those specific images back to Earth, saving much bandwidth. Similar thinking will also help the rovers spot interesting cloud formations. Several other upgrades to give the rovers greater autonomy have also been added, and this unexpected chance to test new ideas in live laboratory conditions is sure to provide useful experience for mission planners working on future missions. A detailed review of the upgrades can be found at the spaceflightnow site.