Friday, July 31, 2009

War of the Wolds: Not a typo!

No, it's not a typo. This really is The War of the Wolds, and it's fantastic! Made by film maker Robin Smith on a shoestring budget, this is a short film in the style of a trailer for a War of the Worlds movie. It's been entered into the Virgin Media Shorts competition. You should check it out and if you like it as much as me, show your support. So what is a wold? In this case, it's an area in the North Lincolnshire area of England. Specifically, Smith has his Martians laying siege to the town of Barton.

This is an extraordinarily professional looking piece of work, with stunning special effects. The moment a Martian Tripod straddles an underpass under which a group of people are trapped is jaw dropping. If Smith can win, he bags £30,000 of film funding to shoot their next film with the UK Film Council and Virgin Media. My hope is that he takes his speculative trailer and amps it up to a full on movie.

Check out the full entry below.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Spirit is willing, but the wheels are weak

The Spirit rover continues to be stuck up to its hubcaps on Mars, but JPL engineers have put together a simulation of the conditions Spirit has encountered and are busy attempting various scenarios to drive the plucky rover free of its sand trap. The same technique got sister rover Opportunity out of a similar jam back in 2005, so JPL are hopeful they can work the same magic again. A fully operating twin of Spirit is now in a box of sand in Pasadena and Wired magazine have an excellent article online detailing the preparations to build the simulation.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Europe's Mars rover launch delayed

The European ExoMars mission, seen as one of the most ambitious yet mounted to the red planet, has suffered a further setback (its 3rd delay) with a new launch date now likely to be in 2018. Mission planners are putting a brave face on things, pointing out that the delay will have benefits, rolling the mission up with the NASA program. The plan now envisages an American Atlas launcher delivering an orbiter in 2016 which will hunt for methane traces (a key indicator of life) and it is also possible that their might be payload room for a static lander. Then in 2018, ExoMars, accompanied by a smaller rover based on the Spirit/Opportunity design would arrive, targeted toward any promising Methane finds from the 2016 orbiter. So we've got a bit of a wait, but the payoff could be enormous is this combined mission finds evidence of actual life now on Mars. The full story is on the BBC website.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bolden hints at refocused NASA

Details have emerged of a meeting at NASA at which the new NASA head Charles Bolden introduced himself to staff and laid out some of his vision for the agency. While precise details were lacking, it is clear from his comments that Bolden believes the agency is burdened down with too many conflicting projects and is lacking the vision and focus needed to get a manned mission to Mars. Encouragingly, Bolden repeated again his determination to get a NASA mission to Mars off the ground. A two-time space shuttle commander and retired Marine Corps major general, Bolden looks to be the sort of decisive leader the agency needs.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mars predictions say presence by 2019

There's a big debate brewing right now about the path NASA should take in the coming years. Former President George W Bush tasked NASA with a return to the Moon prior to a Mars mission, but it seems new President Obama is not so keen, and we're not really sure yet what this bodes for Mars, though as previously noted in this blog, we've got a Mars focused NASA administrator and now Dr. Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has chimed in with his predictions. Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, he was very upbeat for the prospects for manned exploration of the solar system, predicting a presence on Mars by 2019! That seems a tad optimistic to me, but it's good to see more senior people in the American space program pushing for this kind of commitment. Elachi also brought with him a super cool full scale model of the 2011 Mars rover named Curiosity.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

NASA's administrator aims for Mars

Nice to hear that NASA's new Administrator Charles Bolden Jr is firmly supporting the prospect of a manned mission to Mars. Speaking to The Associated Press, Bolden sounded every inch the enthusiast, making the goal of reaching Mars sound pretty personal to him, which is exactly the passionate attitude you want in someone in his position. Bolden told the AP that, "In my lifetime, I will be incredibly disappointed if we have not at least reached Mars." Given that he's in his early 60's, it sounds like we can expect fast progress under Bolden's tenure. Even better, he went on to observe that he "did grow up watching Buck Rogers and Buck Rogers didn't stop at Mars." A science fiction fan in charge at NASA? The sky may not be the limit! Read the full AP story here.

Red hot and molten

New research published in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that the planet spent a considerable period of time with its surface in a molten state, with temperatures in the region of 1000 degrees celsius curtailing the chances of life developing for at least the first 100 million years of its existence.

International scientists from the USA, Belgium, and Australia looked at a rare type of Martian meteorite called a Nakhlite (named after Nakhla in Egypt where the first one was found.) By measuring radioactive traces of exotic elements such as Hafnium, Lutetium, and Neodymium, the team were able to postulate that the early atmosphere would have been composed of a thick steam, keeping the surface trapped in a molten state.

Eventually the surface tipped over, allowing the crust to solidify. More detail can be found at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo Astronauts push for Mars

Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins have called for a mission to Mars rather than the present NASA focus of a return to the Moon. Speaking at a gathering of the Apollo 11 astronauts, including a rare appearance by Neil Armstrong, both Aldrin and Collins expressed a desire to see a Mars landing. Praising the achievements of the Apollo program, Aldrin nevertheless said, "The best way to honour and remember all those who were part of the Apollo programme is to follow in our footsteps; to boldly go again on a new mission of exploration." Collins added, "Sometimes I think I flew to the wrong place. Mars was always my favourite as a kid and it still is today." The return to the moon program is of course by no means certain, and the Obama administration has been somewhat ambivalent about the idea. What this might do for the prospects of a Mars mission is presently anyone’s guess.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Life on Mars tantalisingly closer

Analysis of images from the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera, on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter seems to indicate that warming weather on Mars may have melted ice-rich soils as recently as 2 million years ago. The geographical features that point to this event were originally thought to have been volcanic in origin, but Matthew Balme, a research scientist with the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute has looked afresh at the images and now believes they were formed by the expansion and contraction of ice due to freeze/thaw cycles. If true, then the equator region would be an ideal place to look for signs of past life.