Curiosity Killed the Critics . . . Part 2

Here we have a detailed outline of the projects goals;

  • Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
  • Inventory the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur)
  • Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes (biosignatures)
  • Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials
  • Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils
  • Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes
  • Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide
  • Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons

This rover is equipped with not only cameras, but also lasers! Yay! But these lasers are not for randomly blowing shit up like i know you thought they were, nope, they are for detecting types of material and also to see what is below the surface. What is most exciting to me is the overall goal here, which is to put humans on Mars. Yes, we are interested in the collected samples from a scientific stand point, but lets be real, we want spread our collective seed as far as we can reach, it is literally in our nature! This data collection will be the launch pad for the companies already planning on sending the first humans to Mars.

Why are companies and not governments trying to send people to Mars? Well simple answer is we can not afford to do this at all as a nation. The costs are astronomical (ba dum ching) and we have enough problems here on earth that require our full and almost undivided attention. What do you think? Should we funnel money out of the defense fund and into the hands of these rocket scientists and such? Is it worth it to us and our kids to see that our species can do this and perhaps even save us from extinction in the future? I know that last question is a little far fetched but all of these things must be considered before we go slashing NASA’s budget like usual.

Thanks woofthisway!

Curiosity Killed the Critics . . . Part 1

A strong desire to know or learn something, that is the basic definition of curiosity. Is there really a better way to go about the world than being curious about it? Perhaps, but I don’t really know one. Curiosity is the name of the rover that is the latest invention by the teeming minds over at NASA and it is quite a spectacular piece of machinery that some still can’t believe made it to the surface without incinerating itself.

In other words, Curiosity is like all of a nerd’s dreams coming true at the same moment. Let’s begin with the landing of the craft.

With so many steps in place , each having to hit the timing right on the money, there were many critics that said it couldn’t be done, that it was too complicated and inefficient. The builders of curiosities landing sequence mechanisms must have been on a hell of an emotional roller coaster while waiting for the reports to come in. Can you imagine spending years and years on just one little aspect of this sequence only to see it all come together so beautifully? Pretty incredible night for those guys.

Anyways, back to the rover. It is pretty much an investigation machine that will conducts a huge array of experiments on geology, climate, life possibilities because of water presence and also how well humans would fare on this barren, strange world. It could get all this information with the cameras, spectrometers, detectors and imagers that are on board. We are just in the beginning stages of awakening curiosity and we will begin to get loads of new information in in the future.

Just look at that technology, look at it, look.

Highs and Lows of Rovers, Orbiters & Probes . . . Part 5

       The pathfinder mission, although it only lasted about three months, far exceeded the goals set forth for the mission. It had far reaching affects on our understanding of the planet and, especially, the technology that was used. Our grasp on the possibility of water was tightening and all the pieces were falling into place.

      Odyssey and Express were next in line to extract what they could from Mars and that definitely did that. They used spectrometers to measure hydrogen levels and when they found areas where the readings began to go off the charts, they knew that was happening only in the presence of large amounts of water ice, and very close to the surface.

      As we know now, one success leads to another attempt, especially in the space industry. The Pathfinder, Odyssey and Express missions were very informative but NASA wanted to get closer, deeper into what was going on at surface level. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which was in essence a $720 million camera, was launched and began taking pictures of areas of landing interest all over the planet. Weather patterns were followed closely and meanwhile the scientist slowly were narrowing down areas for future landing sites. Also a new system of data transfer to and from Mars was being tested and as it turns out was a much quicker method of data transfer.

example of quality of the MRO camera

      These landers, orbiters, probes and rovers were the front runners of Martin exploration and will always be held in high regard for their contributions to a greater understanding of a complex planet. As is a theme in most of my posts, there needs to be a sense of momentum building for the public to catch on and for the money to start flowing into these projects. Nothing does that better than a series of successes that are accompanied by great photos and irrefutable evidence of a watery/icy planet. NASA took this new found Curiosity and ran with it.

 

 

Highs and Lows of Rovers, Orbiters & Probes . . . Part 4

After Viking’s foray into the great unknown, we amassed so much more information that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves yet we spent the next few decades focusing our space efforts on things with more immediate effects. It wasn’t until the 1990s that NASA really took another hard look at Mars and was like “Let’s %&*$@#! do this $*%!” Well it probably didn’t happen just like that but something similar took place I’m sure.

Mars Global Surveyor was the next project that NASA poured themselves into, along with the Pathfinder/Sojourner which I will talk about later. MGS was a fantastic success from it’s inception and provided NASA with a huge amount of high resolution photos that went unmatched for many years. More than that it was also equipped to check out the condition of the atmosphere and “weather”. This was crucial not only for knowing sake but also because the Pathfinder was already on its way to Mars, and any extra information on its landing area would not go unappreciated. Pathfinder was a lander that, when it realized it was on stable martian land, gave birth to a little solar powered baby named Sojourner that would be the one doing to grunt work. It was more or less a roving probe that examined, in great detail, the area surrounding the Pathfinder.

Sojourner

Taking samples and translating that into data transferred back to earth was a technology that became much more dependable this time around. This whole mission proved to be a “proof of concept” for lots of other technologies that would later be mainstays in rovers to come

 

Highs and Lows of Rovers, Orbiters & Probes . . . Part 3

      Following the Mariner program, NASA stepped up to the plate with the Voyager program. This consisted of two orbiters and two landers, which were the first ones to land on Mars without a hitch. One of the biggest accomplishments in space exploration had just occurred and now NASA was in position to relay as much information, from the lander to the orbiter to Earth, as possible. The fact that we had touched down gracefully on Mars sent a shockwave through the science community and spirits were raised and hope in the future of space exploration began to grow again.

Sagan with Viking Model

      Viking was not just there for a photo shoot with Mars though, biological testing was done on the soil to search for organic compounds, anything that would point to an environment that could’ve supported life/water. Speaking of water, the orbiters were not only relaying data to and from earth, but also acted as ariel photographers of the strange landscape. This is where, I feel, the program was most successful. The photos showed incredible evidence of a watery history. Flood plains, tear drop shaped islands, valleys, erosion, it was all pointing to the backbone of life, water. By 1976, allthe orbiters and landers had stopped working and NASA decided to call off the mission a few years later, in order to make room for the next generation of scientists to pick up where the others left off.

      Viking had been a great success and it kept the momentum up for people and more importantly, money to start moving into the direction of more space exploration. But it will again be many years until success and luck find their way back into the space program.

Teardrop shape is indicative of water flowing past a stable object.

Highs and Lows of Rovers, Orbiters & Probes . . . Part 2

After all the failures, the thought of succeeding must hae been a pipe dream, but come November 27, 1971 there came a glimmer of nerdy hope. The Mars 2 was an orbiter/lander that was destined for the martin surface. On this date, the lander became the first manmade object to touch down on Mars, a fairly huge accomplishment. But “touch down” is a bit of a misnomer as it was more of a “slammed down and broke instantly” type of landing. It’s successor, just five days later, had an actual soft landing but transmission cut out only 15 seconds later. Despite what sounds like unsuccessful missions, there was still data that was transferred back to earth with information on the gravity and magnetic fields of Mars, along with a handful of pictures. This was enough info keep the ball rolling for the Soviets.

One of the first images of the surface of Mars

Lets go back in time a bit and take a look at USA’s attempts at a Martian connection in 1965. The Mariner Program was set up to begin attempts at reaching Mars. Mariner 3 was a pretty big failure but Mariner 4, which was launched very soon afterwards proved to be the golden ticket, providing us with the first close up images of the surface (image on left). Mariner 4 sent back so much useful information that NASA had to go back and rethink some of their lander concepts they had brewing. Mariner 9 became the next real success story after entering orbit, photographing Phobos, the larger of Mars’ moons and also got more insight on the geography of the surface.

Failures galore, as we know, were what was needed to finally get successful missions going. These missions began to give us confidence to get the soft landing needed to get the next level of information.

Highs and Lows of Rovers, Orbiters & Probes . . . Part 1

Ahh, the mission to Mars. Doesn’t it just roll off the tongue? But this romanticized version that we have in our heads of successful missions is not at all the case of our history with the red temptress. She’s out there, here mere existence taunting us, pushing our curiosity buttons. What do we have to show for 50+ years if trying to land her? Not as much as you’d expect when you look at the amount of attempts that have been made to extract information. Two out of every three missions to mars have failed before completing their missions! To me that is an astonishing number, but when you are on the bleeding edge of technology, stuff just isn’t going to go as planned. So my hat is off to all those crazy scientists that pushed past the doubt and the criticism.

The scientists believed that they could make it work, and sometimes it did, but the earlier missions seemed to be a trial by fire that allowed us see what can and can’t work. The Soviets, our space competition, set us humans off on the road to Mars with their first attempts at a fly-by in the early 1960s. They were, of course, a series of failures that usually ended up as explosions in the sky, but hey, baby steps right? Baby steps indeed, failure after failure happened for the Soviets and I can only imagine the pressure building as each mission failed in sequence.

All this effort wasn’t in vain though, they were learning with every failure and by the end of the 60′s the Soviets had enough under their belt to draw from that progress was inevitable, but the USA was also making head way and this competition fueled the technology fire that is in part responsible for the devices we use today.

The first soviet spacecraft meant to do a fly-by of Mars.

 

An Alien Land

Olympus Mons, 3x the height of Mt. Everest

When I say Beer, what do you first think of? If it is a delicious, cold and alcoholic beverage, then you are a normal human being. If you think of Beer and Mädler, the namers of geographic regions on the moon and Mars, then you are a total and complete geekazoid. With that already on the table, allow me to explore the details of the Martian landscape and its unusual naming process.

I’ve always wondered, as kid, where these stars got their names from and if it was a unanimous vote or a first come first serve type of deal. I’ve always suspected scientists to be the sneakier type of person so it seems to me that they went around discovering and naming as many things as they could after themselves / family. That may be (hopefully) the case for far off stars that are a dime a dozen, but what about the features on one of our closest and most mysterious neighbors. The largest of features on Mars still retain the classical mythology names that they were given when they first were focused into telescopes in the mid 19th century, yet the smaller features follow a more unique naming scheme. Craters that are larger than 37 miles will have names of deceased scientists and writers who have been a part of Martian history. Craters smaller than 37 miles are named not after people but cities and towns that have populations less than 100,00 people.

Sites have aslo been renamed to highlight certain aspects of features or just changed out of sheer boredom with the name it’s been given for 150 years. The tallest known mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, was once called Nix Olympica after, I’m assuming, they decided that it really needed an updated name. Smaller features like caves and minor impact craters seem to carry the names of scientists’ children and pets, like “Nikki”, “Dina” and “Wendy”, continuing the legacy of selfish and inane naming systems. If given the chance to name a couple features, they would probably be Fred and Gareth.

Just Add Water…

      Water, on Earth, is everywhere. It is so abundant here that there must be some on the planet that is right next to ours, right? Well, as most things go on Mars, it’s not that simple. There is ice on mars, it is located on the ends. “But Alex, ice is the same as water” you might ask, but it isn’t. Water in ice form doesn’t have the same ability to support life at all, so therefore it is almost like false hope. But as the scientists took a closer look at the land features on Mars, they saw quite a bit of similarity with the features here on Earth. These features were a result, they hypothesize, of water flowing across the surface at some point in it’s history.

What Mars would look like if it’s ice caps melted

Gullies, channels, deltas, alluvial fans and what looks like eroded mountains point towards a history of water that probably melted off the glaciers and ice caps present. Mars is, considering its lack of atmosphere, a surprisingly cold planet. It rarely gets above freezing and down by the Polar caps, it drops to -225 degrees farenheight. This keeps all water locked up in ice form.

      But Mars, scientists say, did have water flowing on the surface as little as a few million years ago (a short time ago, relatively speaking). The existence of certain types of minerals like hematite and goethite also point to a wet history.

Life? The Big Question

      After the rumors of life thriving on mars died down, people began to, clear headedly, think about the actual possibility of Mars sustaining life. Was there life in the past, life right now and the ability of life to exist (weather or not in cramped pods, like we will be living) in the natural environment? It seems as though Mars, at times, lies in the habitable zone (far enough away from the sun to not fry everything on the surface, yet close enough to keep the temp comfortable), and this fact alone is enough for many a scientist to get their knickers in a bunch. Mars has two things going against it; it doesn’t have magnetic poles like we do on Earth and it’s atmosphere is incredibly thin. This means that the surface is susceptible to any and everything the sun throws at it, including it’s sunshine (which would give you the worst sunburn you could think of times 10) and solar winds. Not to mention the incredible dust storms that blow through all the time.

      And yet! We still persist in our never-ending search for life because evidence is building that Mars once was much more

An extremeophile.

habitable than it is today, that is our our silver lining that we cling to. In the mid 1970′s we sent probes to Mars but nothing very conclusive, life wise, came from that, just more fuel for both sides of the debate. Extremeophiles, organisms that live in parts of the world that are incredibly hot/ acidic/ should never support life, are a new discovery for us and the tests done in the 70′s didn’t take these organisms into account. Armed with our knowledge of extremeophiles that need these crazy environments, we had to go back to the drawing board when brainstorming how and where life would live on the lonely planet.

      Yes, the jury is still out, but is that such a bad thing? Sometimes the unknown is more intresting and motivating then knowing all the answers. On a positive note, when we put Lichens into a simulated Mars environment, they lived. Take that, Mars.