Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mars may have harboured life giving water

Recent observations of Mars have suggested the planet may have been covered in vast reserves of water, but that it was too acidic to support life. But now NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is reported to have discovered carbonates on the surface that could not have survived in the harsh water thought to have dominated the surface. This strongly suggestes that there were pockets of water on the surface much more conducive to life. Read more at

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Russia and China plan joint Mars Mission

New details have emerged of a joint Russian/Chinese mission to Mars, following the signing of a co-operative agreement in March 2007. Yinghuo-1 and the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe will be dispatched together on board a Russian Zenit rocket from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, with an October 2009 launch date penciled in. On Arrival after an 11-month voyage, Yinghuo-1 will go into orbit, where it will study the magnetic field, the interaction between ionospheres, escape particles, and solar wind. It also carries cameras, which will image the surface and the moons of Mars. The Chinese probe will draw power during it's flight to Mars from the Russian vehicle, but Chinese scientists are still apparently working to solve potential power problems when their 110 kilogram solar powered probe detaches and goes into orbit, where it will encounter frequent periods when it will be in shadow. Meanwhile Phobos-Grunt will attempt a highly ambitious touchdown on the moon Phobos, where it will collect samples for return to earth. The main body of the lander will continue operating on Phobos for up to a year.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

New 3D images of Mars released

Scientists working with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, (HIRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been busy accumulating a stunning new set of 3D images of the Martian surface. 362 of these have now been released by the HIRISE team on their web site, and all you need is a cheap pair of 3D glasses to view these remarkable images. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been a stunning success, with over 800,000 image assets now released. These latest set includes a simply heart stopping image of Sixty-meter tall fractured mounds, probably composed of solidified lava, on the southern edge of Elysium Planitia and extraordinary layers below the rim of Candor Chasma, which is a large canyon in the Valles Marineris. To view all the images, visit the HIRISE site.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Mars Science Laboratory delayed to 2011

NASA plans for further exploration of Mars have suffered a blow with the announcement that their Mars Science Laboratory mission has been delayed due to overruns on the technical development of the rover. With a massive payload 10 times the weight of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the mission is extremely ambitious, but problems with the 31 actuators that control the steering mechanism, drill and robotic arm are been blamed on the delay. Because missions need to be launched every 26 months when Earth and Mars are their optimum positions, the sensible decision was taken to allow the launch date to slip rather than try to rush the process of perfecting the actuators. More on this story at the LA Times.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

China has eye on Mars

A report in the Times of India indicates that China is aiming to become the latest nation to dispatch a probe to Mars. According to the story, the probe will take 11 months to reach Mars and will be powered by a Russian built spacecraft. Wang Li, an official with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, said. "The satellite will conduct a range of explorations such as the probe of space environment, solar winds as well as magnetic fields on the planet. " Said Wang Li, "The move signifies China has made a solid leap forward in Mars exploration." The full story can be read at the Times of India website.

Force Field would protect astronauts on Mars trip

British scientists based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and universities of York and Strathclyde have made a major breakthrough that offers the promise of a safe trip to Mars by astronauts. One of the biggest worries facing mission planners for a trip to Mars is the issue of Solar Storms. Astronauts leaving the safety of the earth's magnetic field face the very real danger of exposure to lethal levels of radiation. The Apollo missions left the earth's protective field for only a few days, but an 18 month round trip to Mars would almost certainly encounter one or more of these storms. The effect would pound the spacecraft's electronics and quite likely kill the crew. It has been proposed that a crew with adequate warning of a storm could orientate their craft so as put as much of its bulk between them and the incoming radiation, or to carry very heavy shielding, but this new line of research proposes manufacturing a portable magnetic field to protect the craft. This mini-magnetosphere would be housed in two outrider satellites in front of the spacecraft. The system is in the process of being patented and a working prototype could be built within 5 years.

Monday, November 03, 2008

NASA's Phoenix Lander signing off

The onset of the Martian winter and chilling temperatures as low minus 141 degrees Fahrenheit means that mission controllers of NASA's Phoenix Lander are facing the possibility that the probe may well be about to sign off for good. Communications in the last few days have been patchy to say the least, with the craft showing great reluctance to talk to mission control. As energy levels on the craft plummeted, mission control switched off various power hungry devices including 2 heaters, but it was touch and go if Phoenix would be able to stir back into life. 2 Nail biting days went by (29th, 30th Oct) before a signal was received. Though Phoenix is now back in touch, it is felt that the craft may only have a few weeks left before it finally succumbs to the harsh environment, though it has lasted several months longer than originally planned.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Grovers Mill cartoons

It's always nice to see that The War of the Worlds continues to mean something even in this day and age, and that people are still able to mine the events of 1938 for fresh inspiration. With the 70th anniversary fast approaching, the artist Robert Hummel (who happens to live near to Grovers Mill) is producing a great series of cartoon illustrations that bring the Martians back to Grovers Mill. You can check out his work at his blog at

Friday, August 01, 2008

Make mine a cold one

In a landmark discovery by NASA scientists, it has been announced that the Mars Phoenix lander has detected water in a sample scooped from the surface. It has been known from orbital observations that water ice existed beneath the surface, but this is the first tangible evidence. The frozen water was discovered in a sample from a trench dug by Phoenix and dubbed "Snow White." Said team member William Boynton, "We've finally touched it and tasted it. It tastes very fine." The sample itself has been named "Wicked Witch" We named it after the witch from Hansel and Gretel, who saw her final demise by being pushed into an oven," said Boynton at the press conference announcing the discovery. The ice discovered is tiny, but with Phoenix continuing to work flawlessly and the mission extended to September, it is hoped that further discoveries can now be made.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Phoenix shakes and bakes

After a tense few days for mission scientists, when it seem possible that the primary science experiment on the Phoenix lander would fail, it has been announced that a soil sample has been successfully delivered to Oven number 4, and that testing is to begin with the TEGA (Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer). The landing and deployment of Phoenix's robotic arm had gone flawlessly, but when a first sample of Martian soil was scooped up and delivered to the Oven, problems began. The experiment is designed to allow only a small amount of fine material into the Oven, but it looked like the Martian soil was so densely clumped that it was unable to pass through the filter to the Oven. NASA scientists sent several commands to try and shake the soil through, but these appeared to fail. After six attempts there was no luck, but then scientists rechecked the oven and found that against all expectations, it was full. Speculation is that the cumulative effect of the shaking or some changes to the cohesiveness of the soil unclogged things, but thankfully the mission is now back on track.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mars Phoenix lander touches down

JPL scientists were jumping for joy today when the Mars Phoenix lander completed a flawless touchdown in the unexplored far north of the red planet. Designed to search for evidence of the necessary conditions to support life, the probe has already returned the first photographs and will deploy a robotic scoop to examine soil samples. Touchdown was confirmed by a signal at 2353 GMT on 25 May (1953 EDT; 0053 BST on 26 May). The first photographs show an extremely flat Arctic plain, with little in the way of the rocks, boulders and rough terrain encountered by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Super powered sands of Mars explained

It may be that Martian sand particles are a cut above the average. Murilo Almeida, a physicist at the Federal University of Ceara in Brazil is proposing that a process called saltation may explain why huge sand storms can be whipped up on Mars, despite the fact that wind speeds seldom pick up sufficient energy to power them. The saltation process is effectively a chain reaction, as dust particles crash into the surface, kicking up yet more dust. Using computer modeling, Almeida and his team found that sand grains on Mars have super powers, leaping a hundred times higher and longer than their puny counterparts on Earth, while reaching speeds five to ten times faster than sand on Earth.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Salt shakes up life debate on Mars

Last month salt was the villain in the on again, off again debate about the possibility that life may once have existed on Mars. Then it was a case of too much salt, but recent observations from the orbiting Mars Odyssey probe have uncovered chloride salts at more than 200 locations in the Red Planet’s southern hemisphere and this time it seems to be the right kind of salt. No mention is made of the earlier negative results obtained by the Opportunity Rover, and the reports, carried by publications such as the British Times newspaper and National Geographic are extremely upbeat for the case that these deposits are prime sites for life to have taken hold. Paul Knauth, a geologist at Arizona State University is reported to be particularly excited about the discovery, and has gone so far as to say that some of the 3.8 billion year old deposits may still yet be "actively oozing." An excellent article goes into depth regarding this theory at National Geographic.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Massive water deposits spotted on Mars

Evidence presented at the 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference here in Houston, Texas indicates that significant volumes of water ice have been discovered in Mars' mid-northern latitudes. The Sharad radar experiment on Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been looking at distinctive geological features called lobate debris aprons (LDAs). These dome-shaped structures are concentrated around the mid-latitudes in the planet's northern and southern hemispheres. By penetrating the domes with the Sharad radar, scientists were able to judge their geological makeup. Very little attenuation (reduction in signal strength) was detected, suggesting they were predominantly made of ice. Commenting on the likely concentration of water bound up in the features, lead scientist Dr Jeff Plaut estimated, "robustly, more than 50% ice by volume - but it could be much more." The ice is thought to have formed during the mid to late Amazonian era, the cold, dry period of Martian history which began around 1.8 billion years ago and lasts to the present day.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Holden crater - cup of life?

It may have have only held water for a few thousand years, but evidence gathered by the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may well show that life had a chance of finding a foothold in Holden crater. The HiRise camera has spotted a jumble of house-sized rocks, called megabreccia, in the 154-kilometre-wide Holden Crater. They were probably formed in the impact that created the crater, but a spectrometer on MRO, called CRISM has discovered that the rocks are covered by layers of fine sediments and clay. Such material forms through prolonged contact with water. The evidence points to two wet periods in the history of the crater. The first would have lasted several thousands years, then later water from a network of large channels called the Uzboi Vallis system inundated the surrounding landscape. The crater wall held back the water for a time, before it rose high enough to flood the interior. This wet period would have lasted several hundred years, but it was this rapid flood that scattered the megabreccia and exposed clay that had been covered over by sediments from the first lake. Holden crater is one of 6 prime landing sites under consideration for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory, and this discovery is sure to increase its chances of selection.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Pouring salt on Mars

The continuing seesaw of evidence for and against life on Mars (past or present) took another swing back toward the negative today when NASA announced new findings from the Opportunity rover. While both rovers on Mars continue to accumulate compelling evidence that the planet was once awash with water, the data from Opportunity seems to suggest that this water would have been very salty and acidic, which would be far from ideal for live to prosper. However, let's not get too despondent. News stories published today all seem to be keen to headline the negative, but read the details and it's not at all cut and dry. Yes, the water would have been pretty nasty, but Rover team member Dr Andrew Knoll is reported as saying "It was really salty - in fact, it was salty enough that only a handful of known terrestrial organisms would have a ghost of a chance of surviving there when conditions were at their best." So not a slam-dunk for the absence of life. Something could have survived, and lets not forget either that Opportunity has surveyed a tiny fraction of the land surface of Mars. Were an alien probe to land in some of the truly inhospitable locations on earth, it would send back gloomy messages as well. This case is definitely not closed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Nicolas Sarkozy urges Mars vision

Visiting the Ariane rocket launch site in French Guiana, French president Nicolas Sarkozy urged great international cooperation on a Mars mission. Said Sarkozy, "I am convinced that an exploration programme can only be global, without exclusivity or appropriation by one nation or another... Each will be able to take part with their capabilities, their strengths and their choices." Sarkozy pointed out that Europe boasted "skills in robotic exploration, transport and technology", while the US had the dollars and would bring "technical and scientific competences" to the project. Sarkozy said he would ask the ESA and European Union to "co-operate on a framework for dialogue with the US and other space powers on a joint initiative".

Cooperation needed for Mars

A conference of 50 astronauts, public interest advocates, aerospace industry executives and scientists meeting at Stanford University have urged the US government to consider greater co-operation with space faring nations if the goal of sending humans to Mars is to be achieved by the early 2030's. According to figures released by the conference, the US is about 3 billion dollars a year short of the needed funds to achieve its aims. Plans to return first to the Moon were also criticised as a distraction from the greater goal of sending humans to Mars.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Have we photographed a Martian?

An extraordinary imaged snapped by NASA's Spirit rover on Mars has set the Internet abuzz with theories as to what it really shows. Undoubtedly it is perplexing picture, though it took an eagle-eyed Internet blogger to spot the tiny detail. Blown up, what you see looks exactly like a person striding across the Martian surface, but is that really what it shows, or is it just a trick of light, shadow and perspective. For my two cents, clearly it looks nothing like the Martians that H.G. Wells wrote about, so it can't be the real deal. Others have speculated it's bigfoot (on vacation?) or Osama Bin Laden. NASA is said to be puzzled, but apparently no one from NASA has actually commented, and I don't imagine they will. There is a dedicated band of armchair explorers who have irked NASA over the years by picking out tiny details from Martian photographs, everything from signs of standing water, to vegetation and details of old masonry and statues. Perhaps that's what this is, an old statue from a long dead Martian civilisation. It's a lovely thought, but alas I think this will turn out to be a red heron. It seems highly unlikely that two legged upright beings are somehow surviving on Mars, unless of course it's not a Martian. Could it be an American astronaut sent there in some ultra secret black budget anti gravity spacecraft, or even an alien from another star system out for a stroll, having parked his flying saucer over the next ridge? See, even I'm at it now.

You can see the full image at this site, but here's a close up for you.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Czech artists face jail over television fake

An extraordinary highjack of a Czech weather television broadcast might land a group of maverick artists in Jail. Echoing the 1938 War Of The Worlds broadcast, viewers were stunned to see a nuclear mushroom cloud rise over a mountain during a live weather broadcast. The imagery is incredibly realistic, but was a complete fake inserted by the Ztohoven collective artists group, who are thought to have hacked into the television signal. They have now been charged with scare mongering and propagating false information, and if found guilty could face three years in jail. In a statement Ztohoven said:

"We are neither a terrorist organization nor a political group, our aim is not to intimidate the society or manipulate it, which is something we witness on daily basis both in real world and in the world created by the media.Whether the reasons are political interests, market interests, financial interests or interests of supranational companies – we meet hidden manipulation and attempt to invade the subconscious mind of citizens with specific products or ideology, using all available means. We do not think that a subtle distortion of such system or an appeal to pure common sense of people and their ability to remain unaffected are harmful, not even in a democratic society. That is why, several years ago, the art group “Ztohoven” penetrated the public sphere of Prague, questioned the space given to advertisement generally and the space given to specific adverts. On the 17th of June 2007 this group attacked the space of TV broadcasting. It distorted it, questioned its truthfulness and its credibility. It drew attention to the possibility of using images of the world created by the media in place of the existing, real world. Is everything we see daily on our TV screens real? Is everything presented to us by the media, newspapers, television, Internet actually real? This is the concept our project would like to introduce and remind of. We believe that even the free space of public service broadcaster is able to endure such action and such impeachment. We hope our action will become an appeal for the future and remind the media of their duty to bring out the truth. Thank you for independent media and free space for our society."

Unfortunately for their artistic aims, it appears that several viewers suffered heart attacks, believing they were watching the beginning of a third world war. You can watch the footage at the BBC.