Mars Recon Orbiter may have photographed 1971 Soviet mission remains

In 1971, the Soviet Union and the United States were both busy with missions to explore the Red Planet. The Soviets at the Mars series of missions, the States had the Mariner 9. The Americans beat the Russians to the goal in that year, with Mariner becoming the first human space craft to successfully achieve orbit around another planet.

Unfortunately for the Russians, not only were they last, they also miscalculated the fuel needs for the mission and ended up losing their Mars 3 orbiter after a short 12-hour orbit, half the time they had planned. Forty years later, Russian space enthusiasts viewing publicly-available NASA JPL images think they may have spotted three remnants of that long-ago mission.

Vitali Egorov from St. Petersburg, Russia, heads the largest Russian Internet community about Curiosity, at . His subscribers did the preliminary search for Mars 3 via crowdsourcing. Egorov modeled what Mars 3 hardware pieces should look like in a HiRISE image, and the group carefully searched the many small features in this large image, finding what appear to be viable candidates in the southern part of the scene. Each candidate has a size and shape consistent with the expected hardware, and they are arranged on the surface as expected from the entry, descent and landing sequence.

Score one for crowdsourcing and planetary exploration. Now, if only we could get the White House to quit gutting the single most successful space exploration program in the NASA JPL budget. That would be a score, too…


Mars Curiosity wins SXSW social media award

What is simultaneously amazing and obvious about social media – and in this case, especially Twitter – is how easily our shared meat-based existence becomes an intimate of our virtual social worlds. Some things, like the ill-begotten Weather Channel flurry naming system, register as powerful but brief blips on our trending topics ( #nemo ugh ). The light that burns twice as bright, and all that.

Other topics, such as the saga of the retiring Pope and his subsequent replacement, generate multiple trending topics and hash tags. They bounce in and out of our social existence periodically, making their presence known only when there is some new thing to report and discuss.

But still other things, like the Mars Curiosity Rover, have launched entire new communities around both the technology and the people who make up the program. At the South by Southwest shindig this week, @MarsCuriosity and its attached social phenomenon were awarded the Interactive Award for Best Social Media Campaign. Along with the Curiosity Twitter account, the social media team at NASA also engaged the Twitter audience directly with heavy campaigning around the landing of the Rover:

NASA Tweetup and NASA Social events added a “you are there” element to the campaign. Social media followers were randomly selected to go behind the scenes for launch and landing. They met with scientists and engineers, took pictures, asked questions and shared the experience via their own social media accounts, making them citizen journalists and ambassadors for the mission.

Is it amazing that a car-sized hunk of metal gets 1.3m followers and its own parody account ( @SarcasticRover ) with 100k followers of its own? Or does this phenomenon speak to the power of space exploration in our collective consciousness?


PHOTO Science

Did this Martian crater once have a lake?

Fresh analysis of spectrometric data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that a crater named for NASA astronomer Dean McLaughlin may have at one time been the basin for a ground-water fed lake. Scientists base this on the deposits of what are known as “carbonate rocks,” detected by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) array housed on the Orbiter.

Carbonate rocks are sedimentary rocks that form when carbon precipitates out of water. Over centuries, small amounts of minerals form larger and larger coatings, eventually becoming the rocks that the MRO scientists were looking to find. But, because there don’t seem to be any obvious tributaries – rivers or streams – present as there are elsewhere on Mars, the assumption is that this lake was formed by water seeping up from beneath the crater to fill the basin:

The new information comes from researchers analyzing spectrometer data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which looked down on the floor of McLaughlin Crater. The Martian crater is 57 miles (92 kilometers) in diameter and 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) deep. McLaughlin’s depth apparently once allowed underground water, which otherwise would have stayed hidden, to flow into the crater’s interior.

McLaughlin Crater is approximately 100 miles from the landing site of the short-lived Pathfinder expedition, which launched in 1996. It is about 160 or so lines of longitude away from the Curiosity rover, so it stands to reason that this is not a feature of Mars that Curiosity will be exploring. You can see in the image the concentric circular shapes that scientists believe are the layers of sedimentary rock.

Space Porn

The comet coming in fall that could be brighter than the moon

Just yesterday, we reported on NASA’s use of “Solar Grazing Comets” to study the magnetic field of our Sun. But today, I want to talk about another SGC that has a lot of people in the space community very, very excited.

No, it doesn’t look like much right now. But that’s because ISON is very far away from the Sun. Once it gets closer and the Sun’s heat begins to create the atmosphere around the comet that creates the glow and tail we all generally know comets to have, then we’re going to see something amazing. We will hopefully see a comet that outshines the moon for at least an evening or two.

Because astronomers believe that ISON’s composition is similar to that of a comet that passed in 1680 and was reported to have been as bright. How do they know what the composition of the comet from 1680 was? Well, I don’t have the foggiest notion, and neither do most of the reports I’m reading.

However, most comets including this one are believed to come from the Oort Cloud, a hypothesized haze of ice and rock nearly a lightyear away from our Sun and a quarter of the distance between our Sun and our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri. It is believed to be composed of the last snowy bits of material that formed our solar system and exists at the hypothetical edge of our Sun’s gravitational pull.

Astronomers predict that ISON will make its presence known in the night sky around October of this year. The moon-dimming display depends on a couple of things, however. Since heating up a ball of space snow has about as much chance of breaking it apart in space as it would on Earth, there’s every chance that ISON may just fracture into a bunch of smaller comets. Secondly, the comet has to come close enough to the Sun to create a tail, but not so close that it just gets disintegrated altogether. The current estimate is that ISON will pass within 800,000 miles of the Sun. That’s about 100 times closer to the Sun than the Earth. Mercury, by contrast, is about 36,000,000 miles from the Sun.

One interesting and unique ripple in this story is the fact that our Mars Curiosity and Mars Orbiter should be in a position to give us close up views of ISON’s passage before we get good views here on Earth. Imagine that? Pictures of a comet passing another world, then seeing it pass ours.


Radiation may make a trip to Mars the most forgettable adventure in a lifetime.

News out of the University of Rochester this week that a research paper, printed in PLOS ONE, will show evidence that certain types of cosmic radiation may speed the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in astronauts. Research was done at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratories and analyzed by researchers at the U of R.

The findings hinge on research done by exposing mice to radiation at levels scientists predict are similar to that encountered in space, where our fragile eggshell minds must survive without Earth’s natural radiation shield. The research focused on high-mass radiation particles like iron, as shielding astronauts from such particles poses significant engineering problems. Basically, we can’t right now. And if we’re going to put humans into space for the anticipated three-year journey to Mars, we’re probably going to want to work on that:

The brains of the mice also showed signs of vascular alterations and a greater than normal accumulation of beta amyloid, the protein “plaque” that accumulates in the brain and is one of the hallmarks of [Alzheimer’s] disease.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said O’Banion. “This is yet another factor that NASA, which is clearly concerned about the health risks to its astronauts, will need to take into account as it plans future missions.”

Mind you: even without any ill effects to your noggin, low-level, constant bombardment by radiation for the next three years would certainly take its toll. The threat of Alzheimer’s is just one more bit of the puzzle, and one that may need to be addressed.

The article leaves me wondering, though. How do they know that the plaque buildup is irreversible? Other studies at the U of R have shown that the loss of “white matter” in the brain, which is essentially the repair and maintenance crew, also may lead to Alzheimer’s. If the white matter stays intact and the plaque build up occurs, might the brain’s natural defenses right the wrongs done by space travel?

I’ve got a call in to see if I can get some clarification on all this. I’ll report back when I find out.

This Week on Mars

Martian blueberries, dry ice snowfalls and Curiosity tests robotic arm

The rate at which we are getting data back from Mars continues to amaze me. We have two working robots on the surface of Mars, plus the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, all beaming back new information in what seems like daily increments. With that in mind, I thought I’d summarize the current state of the Mars project as it happens.

“Blueberries” and.. not “blueberries”:

A subject on which I’m just catching up now. Apparently, the Mars rover Opportunity has been studying what scientists have nicknamed “blueberries” on the surface of Mars since it landed. The blueberries are actually round pellets of iron-rich sedimentary rock that scientists believe were formed when Mars still had liquid water on its surface.

But what Opportunity has discovered nowis a bit of a mystery. They look similar, but apparently have a completely different composition. Scientists used a laser spectrometer to analyze the contents and discovered that the new spherules have concentric spheres of composition. “They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle,” says Steve Squyres of Cornell University.

So… apparently, Mars is the Home of the Whopper? Time will tell..

Dippin’ Dots, my ass.

Curiosity flexes its arm:

Curiosity continues to go through system-wide diagnostics as it preps for its mission. One major component of the Mars Curiosity Rover is its robotic arm, loaded to the gills with scientific whiz-bang. Since September 5th, JPL engineers have been testing out the 7 foot long arm and its tools, getting ready for Curiosity to touch its first Martian rocks.

The robotic arm includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), which is the same technology Opportunity used to test the composition of the blueberries. The arm is also equipped with a camera which it can use to take close-up, color photos of rocks. The press release notes that this is the fifth week of a two year mission, but doesn’t say what the next step will be.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!:

For those of you dreading the oncoming Rochester winter, take heart! There is in fact a place with even shittier winters: the southern pole of Mars.

Scientists analyzing data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered the best evidence yet that winter on Mars brings carbon dioxide snowfalls to its south pole. While scientists have known about carbon dioxide ice on the polar caps for decades, this represents the first time they’ve been able to show evidence that the atmosphere produces carbon dioxide clouds that grow thick enough to produce precipitation. Carbon dioxide, remember, freezes at -193°.

So, like, buck up, Rochesterians!

Rochester Science

Beyond Curiosity: Rochester’s commitment to off-world civilization.

As if last week’s landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars weren’t cool enough news on its own, that landing also contained an acknowledging nod towards our very own Rochester, NY.

Street cred? Nah, Man. Space cred – something Rochester apparently has had for quite some time, albeit, slightly under the radar.

When you think of cities rich in space technologies, you probably think of Houston or Cape Canaveral. But Rochester? 8 years ago during the summer of 2004, NASA and Xerox announced a technology partnership, formed to help NASA implement the then Vision for Space Exploration.  The Constellation Program ended with last summer’s final Endeavor launch, but space investigation is not dead – far from it.  Our Greater Rochester Area continues to be of help in space discovery – which brings us back to the Curiosity.

NASA’s Curiosity, a robotic rover now on the surface of Mars, carries a little piece of home with it.  A variety of optics manufactured by Optimax Systems Inc., a Wayne County optics firm, is used in the cameras that are attached to Curiosity’s remote sensing mass. Additionally, the rover is operating with image sensors manufactured by Truesense Imaging Inc. of Rochester. That’s 2 points for the home team!

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of New York’s three chapters of the National Space Society (the other two both hosted in the New York City area) calls Rochester home. This non-profit, grassroots organization dedicates itself to the creation of civilization in space and is widely touted as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space. Rochester’s NSS chapter is made up of local space enthusiasts who are all very passionate regarding the future of space travel and is extremely active in promoting space education throughout schools and exhibits at area events. Any member will adamantly confirm for you that although the space shuttle program has ended, space travel is only just beginning.

To learn more about NSS membership or their upcoming plans for space travel, check out their mission statement. Even if you never got to go to Space Camp like you dreamed of as a kid, the next best thing may just be in your backyard!


PHOTO Science

NASA JPL reveals new satellite images of #MarsCuriosity

With new photos coming in every few days, you might think this could get boring. It won’t but you might think that.

The most amazing thing about the current batch of photos is just how well-documented the landing actually is. Several images reveal the Curiosity landing area and all its various parts, all predictably arranged on the surface. Enjoy:

PHOTO Science

Curiosity beams back amazing photos, stop-motion video of its descent onto Mars

The Curiosity rover is already paying dividends in amazing photography, as it has just beamed back a series of photos showing its descent to the Martian surface. The amazing sequence of snap shots includes a series of images of the heat shield that protected Curiosity for most of the descent falling away as the rover continues on with its mission. Even more amazing, NASA JPL put together a stop-motion video piecing together multiple shots into a single mesmerizing stop-motion animation of Curiosity’s descent which you can watch here.


“One ton of American ingenuity” lands on Mars. (#MarsCuriosity roundup)

The excitement at Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars was felt well beyond Mission Control last night, as directors, White House officials and science geeks of all varieties took to Twitter and press releases to express their enthusiasm.

The gold star for American rah-rah goes to White House Science Advisor John Holdren, who put it this way:

“And if anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there is a one-ton automobile sized piece of American ingenuity that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now,”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went even further:

Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future. This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.

And Scientist and television personality Neil Degrasse-Tyson went with a more Trekkie take:

Given the hammering he’s taken on Fox News and elsewhere over his (entirely sane, well-supported) opinions on global climate change, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s take is even more amusing:

While the official Mars Curiosity Twitter feed asked us something bigger:

President Obama’s remarks on the touch down read in part:

Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination… I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.

Already, the mission is paying dividends, proving that the unique – read: right on the edge of wacky – design for the “Sky Crane” could do its job. By allowing the Rover to be set down in a precise location, the new lander paves the way for much more accurate landings and telemetry. The previous two landers were bounced across the surface of Mars in giant airbag cocoons.

Mission Control believes that the first real operations on the ground will take place sometime in September, after extensive diagnostics are performed. In the meanwhile, Curiosity stands at the foot of an enormous mountain in the middle of a crater the size of the San Fernando Valley, awaiting its next command.

Photo courtesy The Universe Facebook group.
Science Technology

Remembering Ray Bradbury: NASA’s JPL recalls his last visit to the labs

If there is a thing Ray Bradbury is most closely associated with in the world of Science Fiction, it is Mars. From The Martian Chronicles to Mars is Heaven!, Bradbury seems to have had a life-long love for the Red Planet.

And in 2007, Ray Bradbury visited the labs where his dreams began to come true, in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, where the Mars Rover’s command and control are. On June 8th, JPL released this video of Ray’s visit (note: for some reason, video takes a while to load, sometimes):



Space: Maybe Not, Indeed

Christian Science Monitor has an article up on their online edition featuring the top nine priorities for planetary exploration as expressed by the National Research Council. Perhaps the National Research Council should have cross-checked with the bean counters at NASA before they went to press with this info, as the top priority of a joint EU/US mission to Mars is already in jeopardy.

Europa or bust? Maybe not. Top 9 priorities for planetary research missions – Mars Astrobiology Explorer–Cacher: MAX-C –