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.