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.