SpaceJibe

August 28, 2012

Mars rover sends amazing photos, 1st human voice from red planet

This photo from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the layered geologic history of the base of Mount Sharp, the 3-mile-high mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater. Image taken on Aug. 23, 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

This photo from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows the layered geologic history of the base of Mount Sharp, the 3-mile-high mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater. Image taken on Aug. 23, 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has beamed home the first human voice ever sent from another planet, as well as some spectacular new images of its Martian environs.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover broadcast a pre-loaded greeting from NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, who congratulated the mission team for getting the huge robot to Mars safely. While the significance of the audio accomplishment is largely symbolic, NASA officials hope it presages a more substantial human presence on the Red Planet down the road.

“With this, we have another small step that’s being taken in extending the human presence beyond Earth, and actually bringing that experience of exploring the planets back a little closer to all of us,” said Curiosity program executive Dave Lavery, invoking the famous line late astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

“As Curiosity continues her mission, we hope the words of the administrator will be an inspiration to someone who’s alive today, who will become the first to stand upon the surface of the planet Mars,” Lavery told reporters Monday. “Like the great Neil Armstrong, they’ll be able to speak aloud — in first person at that point — of the next giant leap in human exploration.”
‘[Curiosity is] the next giant leap in human exploration.’
– NASA administrator Charlie Bolden

The mission team also unveiled today a stunning 360-degree panorama of Curiosity’s Gale Crater landing site, showing in crisp detail some of the landforms scientists want the six-wheeled robot to explore.

Searching for habitable environments
Curiosity touched down inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5, tasked with determining whether the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

For the next two years, Curiosity is slated to explore Gale and the crater’s 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) central peak, the mysterious Mount Sharp. The $2.5 billion rover is outfitted with 10 different science instruments to aid its quest, including a rock-zapping laser and gear that can identify organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.

Curiosity’s ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, where Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs of long-ago exposure to liquid water. These interesting deposits lie about 6 miles (10 km) from the rover’s landing site as the crow flies.

The new 360-degree panorama, which is composed of 140 images snapped by Curiosity on Aug. 8 and Aug. 18, shows Mount Sharp’s many-layered foothills, as well as its upper reaches stretching into a brown-tinged Martian sky.

The mosaic has Curiosity’s scientists licking their chops.

“I think when those of us on the science team looked at this image for the first time, you get the feeling, ‘That’s what I’m talking about,'” said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at Caltech in Pasadena. “That is why we picked this landing site.”

While researchers are most excited about the potential discoveries that await them on Mount Sharp’s flanks, the scenic beauty captured in the panorama got their hearts racing, too, Grotzinger said.
The terrain “looks like it was something that comes out of a John Ford movie,” he said.
A year away?

Though Curiosity took its first short test drive last week, it still hasn’t strayed far from its landing site, which the mission team dubbed “Bradbury Landing” in honor of the late sci-fi author Ray Bradbury.

The rover should be ready to head out in a few days, Grotzinger said — but Curiosity won’t be going straight to Mount Sharp. Rather, the first stop is Glenelg, a site 1,300 feet (400 meters) away where three different types of terrain come together in one place.

It’ll likely take the rover a month or two to reach Glenelg, where it will spend another large chunk of time performing science operations. Curiosity could be ready to turn its wheels toward Mount Sharp by the end of the year, Grotzinger has said.

But it’ll take Curiosity a while to reach the mountain. The rover will probably cover a maximum of about 330 feet (100 m) per day after it’s fully checked out, researchers have said. And it may stop along the way to Mount Sharp to study interesting landforms.

“It’ll probably take us a year to get there,” Grotzinger said.

Also today, Curiosity scientists announced that tests of the rover’s onboard chemistry laboratory, SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), are going well. SAM can detect organics in Martian soil, and it will sniff the Red Planet’s atmosphere for methane, which may be a sign of life as organisms here on Earth are known to generate the gas.

The SAM tests are part of an ongoing checkout of Curiosity and its science instruments, which has proceeded very smoothly so far.

“Curiosity, as you’ve gathered by now, is a very complicated beast with lots of parts, and the project’s being very systematic about testing things out,” said SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“We think of ourselves a little bit as the nose of Curiosity, and we’re getting ready to start sniffing,” Mahaffy added.

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/08/28/mars-rover-sends-human-voice-from-red-planet/?intcmp=features#ixzz24qqsqQ1O

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August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong’s Photo Legacy: Rare Views of First Man on the Moon

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Military, Moons, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 1:18 pm

There is only one photograph of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and in it, he has his back to the camera.

The first man to set foot on a planetary body other than Earth was not camera shy. It was just that for most of the time he and Buzz Aldrin were exploring the moon in July 1969, the checklist called for Armstrong to have their only camera.

When the news broke Saturday (Aug. 25) that Armstrong, 82, had passed away, it is likely that many people’s memories of the first man on the moon were of black and white television images or color film stills. If they did recall a photo captured during the Apollo 11 moonwalk, it was almost certainly one of Aldrin, whether it was of him saluting the flag or looking down at his bootprint.

In fact, perhaps the most iconic photo taken of an astronaut on the surface of the moon is also of Aldrin. A posed shot, he is facing the camera with the reflection of his photographer, Armstrong, caught in Aldrin’s golden helmet visor.

Neil Armstrong, seen here aboard Gemini 8, was the first U.S. civilian to fly into orbit. Armstrong had retired from the U.S. Navy in 1960. This photo was relatively rarely-seen until it was used as the cover of Armstrong's authorized biography, "First Man" by James Hansen. (NASA)

Neil Armstrong, seen here aboard Gemini 8, was the first U.S. civilian to fly into orbit. Armstrong had retired from the U.S. Navy in 1960. This photo was relatively rarely-seen until it was used as the cover of Armstrong’s authorized biography, “First Man” by James Hansen. (NASA)

Of course, there were photographs taken of Neil Armstrong at other points during the moon flight, and on his previous mission, Gemini 8. Cameras were ready when he was named an astronaut seven years before walking on the moon, and were more than ever present after he returned to Earth as a history-making hero.

A few of those other photos ran alongside obituaries in the numerous newspapers that told of Armstrong’s death in their Sunday editions. But they — the photos, not necessarily the obituaries — only told part of the story. A great many lesser seen photos capture Armstrong as the research pilot, astronaut, engineer and, as his family described in a statement, “a reluctant American hero.”

To help illustrate that record, collectSPACE.com asked RetroSpaceImages.com to search their extensive archives of NASA photographs and pick out those that showed the Armstrong that the public didn’t always get to see. The three dozen photos they chose have been presented chronologically, with one exception: the gallery begins with the rare photo of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

Click through to collectSPACE to view the full gallery of Neil Armstrong’s photo legacy.

Source

Astronauts mourn Neil Armstrong’s death

Filed under: Cosmology, Inner Solar System, Life, Military, Moons, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:43 am
Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin's panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only (NASA)

Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only (NASA)

The news of the iconic astronaut Neil Armstrong’s death Saturday plunged American astronauts and spaceflyers around the world into mourning, with some expressing their sadness on Twitter.

Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, died at age 82 sue to complications from recent heart surgery, his family said. Armstrong had heart bypass surgery earlier this month to clear blocked arteries.

Many astronauts with NASA and other space agencies cited Armstrong as a major inspiration in their lives in their Twitter messages. Others reflected on the legendary astronaut’s modesty, despite his global fame.

“I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning Neil’s passing — a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew,” wrote Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked with Armstrong on the moon on July 20, 1969, in his Twitter post. He writes as @TheRealBuzz.
‘[Armstrong was] a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew.’
– Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin

Several active and former NASA astronauts wrote that Armstrong inspired them to pursue dreams of flying in space.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Neil Armstrong,” wrote former astronaut Leroy Chiao (@AstroDude), four-time spaceflyer and commander the International Space Station. “He was my childhood hero, who inspired me to become an astronaut myself.”

Former shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space, agreed.
“As young girl watching #NeilArmstrong step on the moon, the stars came a little bit closer & my world & expectations quite a bit larger,” Jemison wrote as ‏@maejemison.

Christopher Ferguson, the commander of NASA’s last space shuttle mission (STS-135 in July 2011), was touched by Armstrong’s modest demeanor despite his great feats in space.
“Today we lost a legend,” Ferguson wrote Saturday as @AstroFerg.” Neil was a source of personal inspiration and a humble and unassuming American hero.”

But Armstrong was more than just an American icon. His legacy reached out across the entire world, as astronauts from Japan, Canada and Europe pointed out.
“RIP #NeilArmstrong, the 1st moonwalker. He inspired me to fly high,” wrote astronaut Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (@Astro_Soichi), who included a photo of the moon in one of his two posts. ” Salute to #NeilArmstrong, the 1st moonwalker. He inspired me deeply, long before I become spacewalker.”

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is currently training to command the International Space Station’s Expedition 35 crew, cited Armstrong as an inspiration to all to excel.
“Neil Armstrong is one of my heroes. He inspired and challenged us all to work at the edges of what’s possible. A life well-lived. RIP Neil,” Hadfield wrote as@Cmdr_Hadfield.

Here are more astronaut reflections via Twitter mourning the death of Neil Armstrong:

NASA astronaut Ron Garan (‏@Astro_Ron)
Honor Neil Armstrong’s example of service accomplishment + modesty Next time UC the moon think of Neil + #WinkAtTheMoon

European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, of Sweden (@CFuglesang)
I’m sad. Neil Armstrong, 1st on Moon, incredible astronaut, fantastic person has passed away. I was very impressed the few times I met him.
NASA astronaut Leland Melvin (@AstroFlow)
Rest In Peace CDR Armstrong.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, of Italy (@AstroSamantha)
I’m grateful for this recent, one-hour interview w/ #NeilArmstrong. A man w/ so much to teach! http://thebottomline.cpaaustralia.com.au/

NASA astronaut Mike Foreman (@foreman_mike)
Definitely a sad day. He was a great American hero.
NASA astronaut Dorothy Lindenburger ‏(@AstroDot)

The astronaut family lost many this year, but each member contributed and lived so fully that ALL of the world has gained.
NASA astronaut Nicole Stott (‏@Astro_Nicole)

Neil Armstrong -his 1 small step will inspire generations to come. “the dream remains -there are places to go beyond belief.”

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August 21, 2012

Mirrors finished for NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets, Life, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 8:48 pm
Eighteen beryllium primary mirror segments are packed up and ready to ship to NASA for the James Webb Space Telescope. (Ball Aerospace)

Eighteen beryllium primary mirror segments are packed up and ready to ship to NASA for the James Webb Space Telescope. (Ball Aerospace)

One of the most challenging parts of NASA’s huge new space telescope, the building of its ultrasophisticated mirror system, is now finished, and the mirrors are ready for delivery.
Send-off ceremonies held here at Ball Aerospace on Aug. 15 saluted the completion of 18 beryllium primary mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is billed as the successor to NASA’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Ball is also responsible for JWST’s secondary and tertiary mirrors, a fine steering mirror assembly and several engineering development units.

Ball is the principal subcontractor to manufacturer Northrop Grumman for the JWST optical technology and lightweight mirror system at the heart of the telescope — an astronomical project that is now pegged to cost roughly $8.7 billion and to be lofted in the fall of 2018.
‘Hubble is the size of a school bus. [James Webb] is the size of a tennis court.’
– Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute

Success story
The JWST mirror system includes 18 gold-coated, ultrasmooth, 4.2-foot (1.3 meters) hexagonal mirror segments that comprise the 21.3-foot (6.5 m) primary mirror. When launched, it will be the largest mirror ever flown in space. [Photos: Building the James Webb Space Telescope]

Down on the floor where the packaged mirrors are ready for shipping to NASA, labels such as “do not stack…this side up” and “critical space flight hardware” are visible.
A folding scheme allows the primary mirror segments to fit atop Europe’s Ariane 5 launcher for their eventual unfolding in space. Aligning the mirror segments and adjusting the primary mirror’s curvature will occur over approximately two months.
It has taken about eight years to complete the fabrication of the mirrors, said Paul Lightsey, a Ball mission systems engineer for the optical system on JWST.

“We actually have a real nice success story,” Lightsey told SPACE.com. “We’ve been able to show how long it took to polish the first mirror, then each successive mirror. By the time we got up to the later mirrors, we were taking half the time than it took for the first mirror.”

Working together as one mirror, those 18 beryllium mirror segments are adjusted by computer-controlled actuators. They adjust each of the mirror segments to correct any errors and are key to giving JWST the power to produce high-quality, sharp images.
“One of the difficulties in making mirrors is to make the curvature exactly what you want,” Lightsey said. JWST’s mirrors can be pushed and pulled a little to get the curvature right, as well as moved up, down and sideways, he said.

Lifetime at L2
Allison Barto, JWST program manager at Ball Aerospace, said the beryllium mirrors couldn’t be too heavy.

“We had to take out over 90 percent of the material in the back of the mirrors to make them light enough to launch 18 of them into space,” she said.

Since JWST is an infrared telescope, the mirrors and actuators must function at temperatures as low as minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 240 degrees Celsius).
Lightsey said the JWST project is set to be a five-year mission, but has a goal of 10 years beyond commissioning. Outfitted with a five-layer sunshield, JWST will operate at supercold temperatures at a spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth known as Lagrange Point 2, or L2.

At L2, the balance of gravitational pull means that the telescope will keep up with the Earth as it goes around the sun. The gravitational forces of the sun and the Earth can nearly hold a spacecraft at this point, so that it takes relatively little rocket thrust to keep the spacecraft in orbit around L2.

JWST’s to-do list
JWST should help scientists search for the first light after the Big Bang, determine how galaxies evolved and observe the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems, NASA officials have said.

But JWST’s astronomical to-do list now includes eyeing alien planets, too.. The instrument will also investigate the properties of planetary systems and, perhaps, the origins of life.

“That wasn’t part of the original plan … but this instrument can look at planets orbiting other suns,” said Blake Bullock in JWST business development at Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the huge spacecraft. The telescope has the ability to look for biomarkers, such as water in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another sun, she said.

“It’s not going to give you the pale blue dot … but it could give you a squiggly line that says there might be carbon … there might be an ocean,” Bullock said.

Geoff Yoder, NASA’s JWST program manager, told SPACE.com that the telescope is on track for an October 2018 liftoff. Still to come, however, are key integration tests of the fully assembled and instrumented observatory.

Yoder said work has been completed this month on an Apollo-era test chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, modified to test the integrated JWST at cryogenic temperatures — at minus 424 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 Celsius) or colder.

Back to the beginning of time
Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, noted the size of JWST.

“Hubble is the size of a school bus,” Mountain said. “JWST is the size of a tennis court.”

JWST’s mirrors are so flat that if you stretch them all out across the United States, “the largest bump would be no bigger than two inches. That’s how smooth these mirrors are,” Mountain added.

NASA’s chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati, underscored JWST’s future abilities. “The things that are blurring to Hubble will be in sharp focus. And the things that Hubble doesn’t know are out there will be observable, back to the beginning of time as we understand it.”

Source

August 20, 2012

Superhard Diamond-Denting Material Created

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 5:14 pm
Simulated structures showing the starting material (left) of carbon-60 “buckyballs” (magenta) and m-xylene solvent (blue) and its superhard form (right) after being compressed by more... (Lin Wang, Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Simulated structures showing the starting material (left) of carbon-60 “buckyballs” (magenta) and m-xylene solvent (blue) and its superhard form (right) after being compressed by more… (Lin Wang, Carnegie Institution of Washington)

August 17, 2012
by Mike Ross
A superhard mixture of crushed carbon spheres and a hydrocarbon solvent is the world’s first hybrid crystalline/amorphous material. Its creation by an international scientific team that included Wendy Mao, a Stanford University professor and SLAC researcher, was announced in this week’s issue of Science magazine.

The new material is one of a class that is hard enough to dent diamond, the hardest known material. The team created it by squeezing a mixture of soccer-ball-shaped carbon-60 molecules (popularly known as “buckyballs”) and a xylene solvent to extremely high pressures – up to 600,000 times atmospheric pressure – in a device called a diamond anvil cell. The cell holds a tiny amount of material that is pressed between the flattened tips of two opposing diamonds. Scientists can shine lasers or X-rays through the transparent diamonds to observe and identify any atomic-scale changes caused by the rising pressure.

These new materials were created at Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source by a team mostly associated with the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. A former Geophysical Lab scientist herself, Mao has continued to collaborate on projects there since she moved to Stanford and SLAC in 2007.

Unlike earlier pressure-created carbon materials that Mao has created, this one retained its superhard compressed structure after the pressure was released, so it may ultimately find some industrial application, such as a wear-resistant protective coating.

“Although we haven’t yet tested its properties directly, we know it’s superhard because it dented the diamond anvil face,” Mao said. “Our next step is to test this new material’s properties. If they prove desirable, then we’d want to devise an economical way of making it. The diamond anvil cell is a great tool for discovery, but not for high-volume manufacturing.”

Most intriguing scientifically is that this material retained the long-range, regular molecular pattern that is characteristic of crystals even after the intense pressure crushed its major constituents – the buckyballs – into jumbled, amorphous blobs of carbon. The scientists determined that the solvent molecules played a crucial role in preserving the material’s crystallinity.

“Hybridization of crystalline and amorphous structures at an atomic level hasn’t been experimentally observed, although scientists believed such structures could be created,” said the paper’s first author, Carnegie scientist Lin Wang. “The finding in this paper should be the first of its kind.”

Mao is a member of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, a joint institute of SLAC and Stanford.

Source

NASA’s Mars rover zaps rock with laser

PASADENA, Calif. –  NASA’s Curiosity rover has zapped its first Martian rock, aiming its laser for the sake of science.

During the target practice on Sunday. Curiosity fired 30 pulses at a nearby rock over a 10-second window, burning a small hole.

Since landing in Gale Crater two weeks ago, the six-wheel rover has been checking out its instruments including the laser. During its two-year mission, Curiosity was expected to point the laser at various rocks as it drives toward Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain rising from the crater floor.

Its goal is to determine whether the Martian environment was habitable.

In several days, flight controllers will command Curiosity to move its wheels side-to-side and take its first short drive.

The $2.5 billion mission is the most expensive yet to Mars.
Source

August 14, 2012

Air Force tests hypersonic aircraft with speeds of 3600 mph

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 5:06 pm
An X-51A WaveRider hypersonic flight test vehicle is uploaded to an Air Force Flight Test Center B-52 for fit testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Four scramjet-powered Waveriders were built for the Air Force. The Los Angeles Times says the unmanned X-51 WaveRider is expected to reach Mach 6 _ or about 3,600 mph _ Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, when it's dropped by a B-52 bomber and takes flight off the Southern California coast near Point Mugu. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Chad Bellay)

An X-51A WaveRider hypersonic flight test vehicle is uploaded to an Air Force Flight Test Center B-52 for fit testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Four scramjet-powered Waveriders were built for the Air Force. The Los Angeles Times says the unmanned X-51 WaveRider is expected to reach Mach 6 _ or about 3,600 mph _ Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, when it’s dropped by a B-52 bomber and takes flight off the Southern California coast near Point Mugu. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Chad Bellay)

The Air Force plans a key test of an experimental aircraft designed to fly at six times the speed of sound, or about 3,600 mph.

The Los Angeles Times reports the unmanned X-51 WaveRider is expected to reach Mach 6 Tuesday when it’s dropped by a B-52 bomber and takes flight off the Southern California coast near Point Mugu.

Engineers hope it sustains its top speed for 300 seconds, twice as long as it’s gone before.
Last year in its most recent test, the X-51 fell for about four seconds before its booster rocket ignited, but the aircraft failed to separate from the rocket and plunged into the ocean.

Designed by Boeing Co., the aircraft is intended to allow the Pentagon to deliver strikes around the globe within minutes.

August 9, 2012

New Mars rover photos reveal ‘Earthlike’ landscape

These are the first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface from the Navigation cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover, which are located on the rover's "head" or mast. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen in the distance beyond the pebbly ground. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These are the first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface from the Navigation cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which are located on the rover’s “head” or mast. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen in the distance beyond the pebbly ground. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mars looks remarkably like the California desert in a new photo beamed home by NASA’s Curiosity rover, researchers said.

In the new black-and-white image, Curiosity’s Gale Crater landing site bears a striking resemblance to the desert landscape a hundred miles or so east of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover was built, scientists said.

“You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture.”

– John Grotzinger, Curiosity chief scientist

 

“To a certain extent, the first impression that you get is how Earthlike this seems, looking at that landscape,” Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena, told reporters.

“You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture,” Grotzinger added. “A little L.A. smog coming in there.” [Gallery: First Mars Photos from Curiosity]

The high-resolution photo looks to the north, toward the rim of the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) crater. An area of disturbed ground is visible in the foreground, perhaps 6 feet (2 meters) from Curiosity, researchers said.

During Curiosity’s landing, the thrusters on the rover’s rocket-powered sky crane blasted away enough dirt in this spot to expose some bedrock, which excites the mission team.

“Here we’ve already got an exploration hole drilled for us,” Grotzinger said. “We got a freebie right off the bat.”

The photo is a composite of two images taken by Curiosity’s navigation cameras, which are now fully checked out. The mission team has stitched many navcam thumbnail photos into a panorama, and they’re expecting to do the same with the high-res versions of the images once enough of them have come down to Earth.

Researchers also released several other Curiosity images today, including a high-resolution navcam shot showing the rover’s 7-foot-long (2.1 m) robotic arm, which remains stowed, and the shadow of Curiosity’s head-like mast, which was deployed to its vertical position yesterday (Aug. 7).

Another stunning shot was taken by the rover’s Mars Descent Imager camera, or MARDI, about 2.5 minutes before Curiosity touched down. It captured the rover’s heat shield a few seconds after it was jettisoned and began to fall away from Curiosity’s spacecraft.

A thumbnail version of this image was already available, but the full-frame shot is a vast improvement.

“This is the good stuff,” said MARDI principal investigator Mike Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. “It’s quite spectacular.”

Curiosity touched down inside Gale Crater Sunday night (Aug. 5). The rover is set to spend the next two years or more cruising around Gale, investigating whether or not the area can, or ever could, support microbial life.

While some of the rover’s early photos may remind Curiosity’s handlers of home, they’re eager to get a feel for the otherworldliness of Gale.

“We’re looking at a place that feels really comfortable,” Grotzinger said. “What’s going to be interesting is going to be to find out all the ways that it’s different.”
Source

August 8, 2012

‘Curiosity’ returns photos from surface of Mars

NASA’s rover ‘Curiosity’ has survived a harrowing journey to Mars and has lived to tweet about it, as its engineers celebrated back home. Only minutes after touchdown, the rover’s cheerful Twitter account began posting photos, saying, “No photo or it didn’t happen? Well lookee here.”

This image released by NASA on Wednesday Aug. 8, 2012 taken by cameras aboard the Curiosity rover shows the Martian horizon. It's one of dozens of images that will be made into a panorama.

This image released by NASA on Wednesday Aug. 8, 2012 taken by cameras aboard the Curiosity rover shows the Martian horizon. It’s one of dozens of images that will be made into a panorama.

See the other 15 images.

August 7, 2012

Enceladus: home of alien lifeforms?

Mars dominates the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, but a growing number of scientists believe Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, is a much better bet

The mosaic of fractures, folds and ridges in the surface of Enceladus, captured by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft. (Nasa/JPL/Space Science Institute)

The mosaic of fractures, folds and ridges in the surface of Enceladus, captured by Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft. (Nasa/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Enceladus is little bigger than a lump of rock and has appeared, until recently, as a mere pinprick of light in astronomers’ telescopes. Yet Saturn’s tiny moon has suddenly become a major attraction for scientists. Many now believe it offers the best hope we have of discovering life on another world inside our solar system.

The idea that a moon a mere 310 miles in diameter, orbiting in deep, cold space, 1bn miles from the sun, could provide a home for alien lifeforms may seem extraordinary. Nevertheless, a growing number of researchers consider this is a real prospect and argue that Enceladus should be rated a top priority for future space missions.

This point is endorsed by astrobiologist Professor Charles Cockell of Edinburgh University. “If someone gave me several billion dollars to build whatever space probe I wanted, I would have no hesitation,” he says. “I would construct one that could fly to Saturn and collect samples from Enceladus. I would go there rather than Mars or the icy moons of Jupiter, such as Europa, despite encouraging signs that they could support life. Primitive, bacteria-like lifeforms may indeed exist on these worlds but they are probably buried deep below their surfaces and will be difficult to access. On Enceladus, if there are lifeforms, they will be easy to pick up. They will be pouring into space.”

The cause of this unexpected interest in Enceladus – first observed by William Herschel in 1789 and named after one of the children of the Earth goddess Gaia – stems from a discovery made by the robot spacecraft Cassini, which has been in orbit of Saturn for the past eight years. The $3bn probe has shown that the little moon not only has an atmosphere, but that geysers of water are erupting from its surface into space. Even more astonishing has been its most recent discovery, which has shown that these geysers contain complex organic compounds, including propane, ethane, and acetylene.

“It just about ticks every box you have when it comes to looking for life on another world,” says Nasa astrobiologist Chris McKay. “It has got liquid water, organic material and a source of heat. It is hard to think of anything more enticing short of receiving a radio signal from aliens on Enceladus telling us to come and get them.”

Cassini’s observations suggest Enceladus possesses a subterranean ocean that is kept liquid by the moon’s internal heat. “We are not sure where that energy is coming from,” McKay admits. “The source is producing around 16 gigawatts of power and looks very like the geothermal energy sources we have on Earth – like the deep vents we see in our ocean beds and which bubble up hot gases.”

At the moon’s south pole, Enceladus’s underground ocean appears to rise close to the surface. At a few sites, cracks have developed and water is bubbling to the surface before being vented into space, along with complex organic chemicals that also appear to have built up in its sea.

Equally remarkable is the impact of this water on Saturn. The planet is famed for its complex system of rings, made of bands of small particles in orbit round the planet. There are seven main rings: A, B, C, D, E, F and G, and the giant E-ring is linked directly with Enceladus. The water the moon vents into space turns into ice crystals and these feed the planet’s E-ring. “If you turned off the geysers of Enceladus, the great E-ring of Saturn would disappear within a few years,” says McKay. “For a little moon, Enceladus has quite an impact.”

Yet the discovery of Enceladus’s strange geology was a fairly tentative affair, says Professor Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London. She was the principal investigator for Cassini’s magnetometer instrument. “Cassini had been in orbit round Saturn for more than six months when it passed relatively close to Enceladus. Our results indicated that Saturn’s magnetic field was being dragged round Enceladus in a way that suggested it had an atmosphere.”

So Dougherty and her colleagues asked the Cassini management to direct the probe to take a much closer look. This was agreed and in July 2005 Cassini moved in for a close-up study. “I didn’t sleep for two nights before that,” says Dougherty. “If Cassini found nothing we would have looked stupid and the management team might not have listened to us again.”

Her fears were groundless. Cassini swept over Enceladus at a height of 173km and showed that it did indeed possess an atmosphere, albeit a thin one consisting of water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen. “It was wonderful,” says Dougherty. “I just thought: wow!”

Subsequent sweeps over the moon then revealed those plumes of water. The only other body in the solar system, apart from Earth, possessing liquid water on its surface had been revealed. Finally came the discovery of organics, and the little moon went from being merely an interesting world to one that was utterly fascinating.

“Those plumes do not represent a torrent,” cautions McKay. “This is not the Mississippi pouring into space. The output is roughly equivalent to that of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone national park. On the other hand, it would be enough to create a river that you could kayak down.

“The fact that this water is being vented into space and is mixed with organic material is truly remarkable, however. It is an open invitation to go there. The place may as well have a big sign hanging over it saying: ‘Free sample: take one now’.”

Plumes spurting ice particles, water vapor and trace organic compounds from the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Plumes spurting ice particles, water vapor and trace organic compounds from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Collecting that sample will not be easy, however. At a distance of 1bn miles, Saturn and its moons are a difficult target. Cassini took almost seven years to get there after its launch from Cape Canaveral in 1997.

“A mission to Enceladus would take a similar time,” says McKay. Once there, several years would be needed to make several sweeps over Enceladus to collect samples of water and organics. “Then we would need a further seven years to get those samples back to Earth.”

Such a mission would therefore involve almost 20 years of space flight – on top of the decade needed to plan it and to construct and launch the probe. “That’s 30 years in all, a large chunk of any scientist’s professional life,” says McKay.

McKay and a group of other Nasa scientists based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are undaunted, however. They are now finalising plans for an Enceladus Sample Return mission, which would involve putting a probe in orbit round Saturn. It would then use the gravity of the planet’s biggest moon, Titan, to make sweeps over Enceladus. Plume samples would then be stored in a canister that would eventually be fired back to Earth on a seven-year return journey.

Crucially, McKay and his colleagues believe such a mission could be carried out at a relatively modest cost – as part of Nasa’s Discovery programme, which funds low-budget missions to explore the solar system. Previous probes have included Lunar Prospector, which studied the moon’s geology; Stardust, which returned a sample of material scooped from a comet’s tail; and Mars Pathfinder, which deployed a tiny motorised robot vehicle on the Red Planet in 1997.

“The criteria for inclusion in the Discovery programme demand that any mission must cost less than $500m, though that does not include the price of launch,” says McKay. “We think we can adapt the technology that was developed on the Stardust mission to build an Enceladus Sample Return. If so, we can keep the cost below $500m. We are finalising plans and will announce our proposals in autumn.”

Such a mission is backed by Dougherty. “I think Enceladus is one of the best bets we now have for finding life on another world in our solar system. It is certainly worth visiting but it is not the only hope we have. The icy moons of Jupiter – such as Ganymede, Callisto and Europa – still look a very good prospect as well.”

And there is one problematic issue concerning Enceladus: time. “Conditions for life there are good at present but we do not know how long they have been in existence,” says McKay. “They might be recent or ancient. For life to have evolved, we need the latter to have been the case. At present, we have no idea about their duration, though geologists I have spoken to suggest that water and organics may have been there for a good while. The only way we will find out is to go there.”

The late entry of Enceladus in the race to find extraterrestrial life adds an intriguing new destination for astrobiologists in their hunt for aliens. Before its geysers were discovered, two main targets dominated their research: Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter. The former is the easiest to get to and has already received visits from dozens of probes. On 6 August, the $2.5bn robot rover Curiosity is set to land there and continue the hunt for life on the Red Planet. “For life to evolve you need liquid water, and although it is clear it once flowed on Mars, its continued existence there is debatable,” says Cockell. “By contrast, you can see water pouring off Enceladus along with those organics.”

Many scientists argue that water could exist deep below the Martian surface, supporting bacteria-like lifeforms. However, these reservoirs could be many metres, if not kilometres, below Mars’s surface and it could take decades to find them. Similarly, the oceans under the thick ice that covers Europa – and two other moons of Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto – could also support life. But again, it will be extremely difficult for a robot probe to drill through the kilometres of ice that cover the oceans of these worlds.

Enceladus, by these standards, is an easy destination – but a distant one that will take a long time to reach. “No matter where we look, it appears it will take two or three decades to get answers to our questions about the existence of life on other worlds in the solar system,” says Cockell. “By that time, telescopes may have spotted signs of life on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Our studies of extra-solar planets are getting more sophisticated, after all, and one day we may spot the presence of oxygen and water in our spectrographic studies of these distant worlds – an unambiguous indication that living entities exist there.

However, telescopic studies of extra-solar planets won’t reveal the nature of those lifeforms. Only by taking samples from planets in our solar system and returning them to laboratories on Earth, where we can study them, will we be able to reveal their exact nature and mode of replication – if they exist, of course. The little world of Enceladus could then have a lot to teach us.

 

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