Curiosity’s Mission So Far – In Timelapse

One of the best things about the Curiosity mission is that the folks at JPL make all (and I mean every single last one) of the raw images available to the public to download and play around with. Indeed, this is what a lot of space bloggers have been doing like Emily Lakdawalla and @mars-stu‘s Gale Gazette (both are essential reading). I noticed however that a timelapse had yet to be done.

So, on my day off the other day with nothing much to do, thanks to the rain, I spent a few hours downloading every single (or the majority of) images from Curiosity’s left navigation camera. Slap em together at 6 frames per second, add some music and this is what you get…enjoy.

I am also working on a front hazard camera timelapse, but you will need to wait for more photos to be taken as there haven’t been as many yet. Stay tuned.

Welcome to the new Mars

A nuclear powered rover, the size of a mini, has landed on the surface of Mars. It pulled off one of the most complicated landings ever attempted. I still can’t quite believe they did it. For me this event topped off anything and everything that has happened at this years’ Olympics.

Landing the Mars Science Laboratory rover was, by any measure, the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration.

We’ve got at least 2 years of amazing discoveries ahead of us (it could last for a decade or more though). Every time we’ve landed on Mars we’ve seen Mars anew. And here she is:

Welcome to the new Mars

There will be better, full panoramic images to come in the coming days, so be sure to check out the MSL homepage.

And to those of you who think this is a waste of money, that we won’t benefit from this at all, and that the money should have been spent on more ‘worthwhile’ things, please read this.

It is far better to dare mighty things even though we might fail than to stay in the twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

 

 

The Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror

It’s a little over a month until NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), lands on the surface of Mars (Anticipated landing time is 0531 GMT, 0631BST on the 6th August – subject to refinement).

The hardest part of this mission? Entry, Descent and Landing. Curiosity will hit the Martian atmosphere at a little over 13,000mph and it’s got to get to 0mph…in 7 minutes. This fantastic video shows you the difficulties that will be faced and the technology designed to overcome it. Trust me, you’ll be impressed!

I’m thankfully on a day off on the said date, and will be getting up early to follow the EDL’s progress and the first pictures that come through. I think the hashtag #MarsCuriosity will be used on Twitter. So join in!

The Secrets of Gale Crater: Why Curiosity Isn’t Looking for Life

The Mars Science Laboratory Rover ‘Curiosity’

It’s about four months until Curiosity, NASA’s new Mars rover, plunges into the thin Martian atmosphere at a good few thousand miles per hour, releases a parachute and then finally uses a retro-rocket jet pack to place her safely down on the surface…hopefully (watch this great video of the landing sequence). She’s a well equipped machine with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator as her power source and a large swathe of spectrometers, microscopes, cameras and sensors. All these gadgets aren’t going to help her look for life though. Why is that? Why hasn’t NASA loaded a Martian rover, sent it Mars (somewhere where we think life may be) and decided not to go hunting for it? It all stems back to NASA’s first missions to land on Mars, the Viking missions, back in 1976. These were two landers that were equipped to look for life. What went wrong?

Mars from Viking 2

The Viking landers consisted of 3 biology experiments along with two other supporting instruments. I want to focus on one of the biology experiments and one of the supporting instruments. I should note first though that two of the biology experiments provided results consistent with non-biological processes. The two aspects I’m focusing on are the labelled release (LR) biology experiment and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS).

A GCMS is a device used to identify different substances in a test sample and the LR experiment was designed to test for metabolic activity of any microorganisms that consumed nutrients that were provided by the experiment. The results were confusing and yet intriguing.

The LR experiment produced results showing positive life detection. The experiment basically involved a small sample of ‘soil’ being moistened with a nutrient of distilled water and organic compounds that had been labelled with radioactive 14C. Any microorganisms that appeared would consume the nutrient and give off gases containing 14C. In the actual experiment labelled gas was emitted (suggesting the presence of microorganisms) but further additions of nutrient caused the gas level to decrease and then increase slowly again. This was very bizarre if this was due biological activity.

The GCMS, however, didn’t find any evidence of organic compounds at the surface thus making all the biology experiments redundant as they were designed to test organic matter.

This is all a very confusing result. One experiment saying there’s no organic matter so there can be no life whilst another says there could be life here. It’s now thought however the the LR experiment can be explained non-biologically and that all the biology experiments showed chemical processes.

So the overall result? Inconclusive. Although some scientists have started to question the LR experiment recently saying that it did actually find life (see ‘Is this proof of life on Mars?‘). They don’t seem to answer questions about there being no organic matter though.

NASA have since taken the view of ‘follow the water’. They don’t want to spend millions or billions of dollars on a mission to get another inconclusive result. So they’re more recent missions have been to understand the geology and chemical processes, and to figure out where the water has been. After a while we may find evidence of an area that could have extant or extinct life, only then will NASA be confident enough to send a life searching mission to Mars.

Gale crater with Curisoity’s landing site

Gale crater, Curiosity’s destination, is an interesting place though. It appears to have been an old lake bed where sediments have been laid down over long periods of time when Mars had water. A good habitat for life? Possibly, but we’re not going to find out conclusively for a long time yet.

Book Review: My Life on Mars

My Life on Mars: The Beagle 2 Diaries - Click image to be redirected to Amazon

My Life on Mars: The Beagle 2 Diaries by Prof Colin Pillinger.

First of all, please bear in mind that it has taken me quite a while to read this book – I’ve been rather busy over the last few months with OU studies and so on.

I was 13 on Christmas Day 2003, when Beagle 2 was due to land on Mars. I had got up extra early to pop and the news and see what had happened. It wasn’t good news.

Since then though I have always been astonished that we actually sent a mission to land on Mars, we the British people had made a lander to look for the signs of life on another world. I needed to know how it was done – finally Colin’s book came out.

It’s quite an intense book, there’s a lot of information, a lot of names to follow. I found at times that this made it slightly difficult to read, having to head back a few pages to figure out which person was being discussed now. I understand that in a project as grand as this a lot of people are involved, and at the end of the day the story needs to be told.

In this book we learn about Colin’s family history, his youth, how he became interested in science and eventually how he sent a lander to Mars. I had no idea how difficult it could be. The meetings, the letters, the phone calls, the arguments. I was very surprised about the European Space Agency, this book has changed my opinion of them, and not in a good way. Infact near the end I quite liked this quote regarding ESA ‘The way things are going the Universe will end before ESA arrives on Mars’, this referring to their Aurora programme.

If you’re interested in space exploration and want to understand how a space mission works and is put together this is a must read. It had me laughing and gasping in shock, you’ll enjoy it.

It’s 4 out of 5 from me!

Next book – The God Delusion by Prof Richard Dawkins (finally!)

Curiosity: Launch Day Approaching

The launch day of NASA’s next Mars mission is fast approaching. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), named Curiosity, is pretty damn awesome. It’s the size of a modern mini and it’s nuclear powered. It is quite literally a nuclear powered mini.

That isn’t the only impressive fact about this mission. It’ll be the first Mars mission to use precision landing techniques, employing a ‘skycrane’ and rockets to lower it to the surface (see video below), seemingly making this the most ambitious landing on another planetary body ever undertaken.

It’s going to reinforce a lot of the discoveries (and surely make a heck of a lot of new ones) made by the smaller rovers Spirit and Opportunity that were operating on Mars over the past few years (in fact Opportunity is still roving around today, more than 7 years since it landed!) Curiosity is mainly a geological mission, that is it doesn’t carry instruments to detect life, but it’ll be able to asses the planets habitability (past and present) and figure out if Mars is or was ever able to support life. It even carries a weather station which excites me as a met geek!

The rover will be carrying loads of cool equipment one of which is a laser that’ll vaporise a rocks surface layer in order to analyse whats beneath. It has a drill so it can grab a sample of rock and actually insert it into a special compartment in the rover to analyse it.

After much debate it was decided MSL will land at Gale crater, an area of Mars showing signs of past aqueous activity.

She’ll be launching atop an Atlas V rocket on the 25 November at 1521GMT so do tune in to NASA TV to watch the show. I’ll be keeping you updated with the progress!

Why Leave Earth?

I’m often called mad, delusional and insane when I say ‘We need to leave the planet’. People say, the Earth is perfect, the climate is good, there’s water. Yes there are a few natural disasters every now then, but they’re not a major problem. And they’re pretty accurate. The Earth is a darn good home, for now.

Here I want to set out why we should leave the planet, our home, planet Earth and set sail for Mars before moving on far beyond the Solar System.

We all almost weren’t here, almost gone, vanished, extinct. 75,000 years ago almost all the of the human species died out (it’s estimated that only 10,000, or even less, survived). Why? What happened? Quite simply it was a volcanic eruption, not just any eruption but a VEI 8 eruption (the largest on the scale), a super-eruption. We even know which volcano was responsible. It was Toba in Indonesia.

The Lake Toba Caldera – The remains of the volcano

We all, here in Europe, now know that volcanoes don’t just affect the immediate area. We just need to look back to Iceland and that almost unpronounceable volcano ‘Eyjafjallajökull‘. That grounded air traffic for nearly week and affected a vast swathe of Europe.

What’s the problem with these eruptions though? The problem is is that they are Plinian eruptions. That’s an explosive eruption that causes that big pillar of smoke to bellow out high into the sky. In these plumes are lots of gases, as well as ash particles and so on. The nasty gas in here though is sulphur dioxide.

Let’s scale this up. A massive super-eruption happens. Millions and millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide are thrown high up into the atmosphere, so high in fact that it all gets into the stratosphere. What happens? Well sulphur dioxide is very good at absorbing radiation from the Sun, so good in fact that a lot of it doesn’t reach the surface, and it cools. Not only that, so much stuff would be thrown into the atmosphere that it could blot out the Sun. A normal nice summers day (like this Indian summer in the UK at the moment) would be dark, equivalent to a night with a full moon. Photosynthesis stops.

You can start to see how bad things would get now. Not only that, a lot of the sulphur would mix to form acid rain, killing off yet more vegetation and poisoning animals. Animals and plants start to die, quickly. The world is plunged into a volcanic winter for years or even decades. I for one don’t think we, with all our technology and infrastructure, would cope very well given such a disaster. I think a number of us would survive, but civilization?

What if the volcanic eruption was even worse? Perhaps it was a massive continental flood basalt. 1000’s of times worse than the worst VEI 8 eruption, and lasting for millions of years. These massive lava flows are credited with starting off the dinosaurs demise. They weren’t doing too well 65 million years ago, well on the way to extinction and then just to top it off, BANG, an asteroid. A volcanic nuclear winter. Pretty bad huh.

The thing is all this will happen again. There will be more super-eruptions, there will be an asteroid and there’s nothing we can do about them.

So why leave Earth? Well, for the most practicable reason imaginable…staying alive. By spreading ourselves throughout the Universe we safeguard our species. If there was a catastrophe somewhere, no bother, the species wouldn’t become extinct.

And so we’ll just be fulfilling our basic instincts. Survival.  And we can start now, and we have indeed started now. We are looking for other habitable planets with the Kepler space telescope and many others. We’re sending missions to Mars, learning about the atmosphere, the history, the possible existence of life. One day I imagine we will terraform Mars, and that will be the beginning of the human expansion to space.