What do you get when you have two little moons, and the sun is in just the right spot? Why, a pair of partial solar eclipses of course! The Curiosity rover on Mars has done a fantastic job of capturing the path of each of the moons of Mars, Phobos (March 26) and Deimos (March 17), passing in front of the sun. The mighty little rover used it’s “Mastcam” and a solar filter to be able to stare directly at the sun and record the fantastic footage.
This observation is important for several reasons. From a scientific point of view, the precise orbit of the moons of Mars had been a little tricky for astronomers to work out prior to having so much hardware over at the red planet. Observations such as this continue to shore up our understanding of the behavior of these bodies.
But what is of more immediate importance is the societal impact that observations such as this can have on the growing understanding and awareness of Mars among the general population. The ability to tie regular events that we experience here on Earth to those same events that are being experienced on another planet helps to make that distant place feel more familiar, and hopefully one day, like home.
NASA is hard at work on their new Mars 2020 rover, which is intended to make planet-fall in early 2021. Bundled with this rover is an extra added bonus, of a small exploration-ready helicopter! The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) will mark the first time a human craft has flown on another planet. The potential for exploration is hard to overstate – while the rover programs have been tremendously successful, they are hampered by careful and deliberate navigation of difficult terrain, one inch at a time. An airborne solution suddenly releases scientists from that 2-dimensional constraint, and will open new avenues of research and discovery.
Of course – it also presents technical and AI-related challenges, because the copter must be able to maneuver autonomously in large part, due to the communication delay with the red planet.
What, you may ask, of the atmosphere? Well, that’s a great point! Mars has an atmosphere which is only 1% as dense as that of Earth, but it turns out that is still sufficient for the proposed little copter to take flight. It simply requires blades which are larger, more rigid, and which rotate quite a bit faster than an Earthly counterpart. For more excellent detail, see NASA’s 10 things article all about the copter!
As a summary of the engineering required for the craft, the body of which will be about the size of a softball:
* The Mars Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to tip.
* At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster than an Earth helicopter.
* The blades are much stiffer than any terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be.
* The helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).
The NASA Mars rover Curiosity is still out there, day in and day out, doing Science for us all! The latest discovery to come from this hard working and vastly in-extra-innings ‘bot centers around the 3 mile tall Mount Sharp, located in Gale crater on the Martian surface. Using an improvised gravimeter, rigged from the existing accelerometers on board the vehicle, they have found strong evidence that the towering mountain was created through a long process of stacking wind blown material as it was driven into the crater. This is the far less likely result, geologically speaking, but thanks to the new ability to measure the surprisingly low density of the material comprising Mount Sharp, the stacking model looks more likely than one of erosion over time.
The best takeaway here, is of course that it’ll still make a great ski slope in a few years, but may need a little firming up in places. Also, that Curiosity is still working hard, along with the Earth-side engineers who continue to wring valuable Science from our future spare home planet, every hour of the day!
(Image Credit: NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)
In a paper just published on January 4th, Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid discusses the impact that human exploration of Mars is likely to have on that planet. The Anthropocene is a term used to describe the massive changes that have taken place to the Earth resulting from human interaction and activities, and for a similar effect to take place on Mars in a few decades would make it the first multiplanetary geological period.
The changes to be expected on Mars range from unavoidable microbial contamination of the environment to wholesale geographical changes necessitated by habitats and eventual pizza joints (per Musk) that will spring up over time.
One hopes that lessons we can take from the treatment of our own planet, which in many ways hastens the need to find a spare one, could help inform how we should treat our potential new home. How that plays out, and with what wisdom, we will know in the fullness of time, or at least our Grandchildren will.
A lot of Mars news has been coming out over the past few weeks, fellow red planet enthusiasts, and we are certainly behind in discussing it! Suffice to say, the successful touchdown of NASA’s InSight Lander on November 26th has opened up a new era of science on our brother world. Along with a ton of cool pictures, what really is exciting is the first even audio recording of the martin wind. Behold!
It’s sometimes difficult to wrap the mind around what it would really be like to leave the Earth and voyage to Mars. Well, back on May 5th the Gazette reported on the launch of the NASA Mars InSight Lander, and now that lander is several weeks away from landing on the red planet! The landing is projected to be on November 26th, with touchdown taking place at 11:47am Pacific Time, so set your watches.
The lander will utilize a supersonic parachute once it enters the martian atmosphere, and according NASA Chief Engineer Rob Manning, will decelerate from 12,300mph to 5mph at which point retro rockets will bring it to a soft landing on Elysium Planitia.
Remember that the intended mission of this lander is to study the interior of Mars, including gaining insight into Marsquakes. Through this research, additional knowledge about planetary formation and interiors will be gained, allowing us to better understand our very own homeworld.
For all of the additional information you can possibly want on the landing, be sure to check out the official Press Kit.
(Image Credit: NASA)
The culmination of excitement and tech know-how has finally appeared to produce the perfect storm to get us on our way to Mars in the next decade or so. This is great news, and brings with it so many exciting challenges. You thought getting Tang from the original NASA space program was a boon? Just imagine the technologies and techniques we will have to invent and refine in order for the first hearty souls to live off-world.
As such, research is being done on how we can produce food to keep those early settlers alive and fed. Hydroponics is of course a strong area of study, as well as how to coax food from the martian surface. Turns out that poisonous regolith is not the most advantageous or friendly material in which to try to grow potatoes. However, as humans often do, we are finding ways to make it work, or at least some possibilities. At the Florida Institute of Technology as well as Villanova (both excellent links – follow those), students are running experiments with core crops including lettuce, peas, peppers and hops (Mars Bars!) in a variety of soil types simulating martian conditions.
While it is widely accepted that some sort of treatment will need to be done to the martian soil before it is able to produce crops, or frankly not kill us outright, the methods to speed up that remediation and align the hostile environment with human-supporting conditions as quickly as possible seem to get a little better every day.
It’s such a wonderful thing when electronics intended to last for months end up lasting years. One of my personal favorite examples of this is arcade equipment from the 1980s, which was cycled into and out of arcades extremely rapidly owing to their massive popularity at the time. These machines were not really “built to last”, but since it was the 1980s, they were built. As a result, we can still experience the joy of an original arcade or pinball machine, which requires surprisingly little TLC to get it back to prime.
Fast forward to 2003, when the Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity was launched, and subsequently landed on Mars in 2004. This was a mission intended to last for 90 days, and by all accounts the rover was designed for that time scale as well. However, 14.5 years into the mission it has surpassed all expectations and certainly paid for itself many times over with the science it has enabled. Sadly, the massive Martian dust storm of the last month may have finally brought that mission to an end, by covering the solar panels on the rover and effectively putting it to sleep. NASA and outposts around the world are anxiously listening for any slight signal from the rover, but as days drag on this seems less and less likely.
Steven Squyres (Ph.D Cornell 1981) who has been the principal investigator of the Mars missions for all this time, explains the situation in clear terms in a new article fittingly published in Cornell’s campus paper The Daily Sun. What is most likely to kill the rover will be the bitter cold it will be subjected to without power to stay warm. The -80 degree Celsius nights on Mars will subject the stalwart rover to component expansion and contraction – stresses which will be increasingly difficult to endure.
Overall, everyone is more than satisfied with the mission outcome, it’s just that after a piece of science equipment is nearly old enough to get a drivers license, you get a little attached.
So – we wish the rover the best. And we also look forward to a time when it has a place of honor in the first Natural Science museum to be built on the red planet.
The good folks at NASA have conducted the first flight test of a new foldable heat shield on September 12th, with great success. This new concept is touted as a transformative technology that will enable larger and lighter ships to perform more advanced missions, not the least of which will be both cargo and crew missions to Mars with an enhanced ability to survive the rigors of reentry using a vastly slimmed down system. Any time you can save weight on a spacecraft, that savings can be redistributed to more critical areas, namely additional cargo and scientific apparatus (and pizza ovens).
Called the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT), a backronym worthy of Gary Busey, it consists of a 3D-woven carbon fibers arranged in a thick layer, formed on top of a structure which can flex and deploy the shield. This is in contrast to the traditional rigid, heavy, difficult to construct plastic shielding which has been used for decades. It’s this sort of novel and creative thinking which will allow us to accomplish more important and ambitious flight objectives, and is another great sign that key decision makers are aligned correctly to move us forward.
You can check out a video of the heat shield here!
The good folks at NASA, ever managing to be on the leading edge, have just launched a competition encouraging teams to develop a system to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. Why is this important? Well, sugar-based biomaterials are plentiful on this planet thanks to our helpful plant life. That will not be the case as we set out among the stars! Developing bioengineering methods to create base materials that will be in short supply (such as easy to metabolize sugars like glucose) from materials that are in great abundance (carbon dioxide) will be a crucial step towards facilitating our successful advancement.
This competition is broken into two phases:
Phase 1: Teams submit a design and description of a method to perform the stipulated conversion. Up to 5 teams will be awared $50,000 each, as will be announced in April 2019.
Phase 2: Actually building a working system to perform the conversion. The successful team will walk away with $750,000.
This new contest is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which was initiated in 2005, intended to directly engage the public in advanced technology development. Basically, NASA is being very observant and starting to crowd-source ideas and research, which makes a great deal of sense in our current world.