“Landing a lab on Mars”

methanemslWill MSL now land close to a methane rich area (in red)? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The recent story about methane being detected in Mars’ atmosphere has lead to huge interest around the world, simultaneously renewing fervent media speculation of the “is there/isn’t there life on Mars?” question. There is, as there often is in these things, a lot of excellent analysis of the news out there in the blogosphere. So I’ll point you to Emily at The Planetary Society and Discovery Space’s “Wide Angle” for the run-down, as well as Chris and Dave who tackle aspects of the political and journalistic back-story of the result.

One thing that has already been noticed by some, including Nature’s Eric Hand, is that one of the places that the methane appears to be originating from was also on the potential landing site list for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. It’ll be exciting now to see if the MSL, due for a 2011 launch, will be sent there or another of the methane rich areas. Wherever MSL is sent it will have to be able to touchdown right where the scientists want it to; which brings me nicely onto my plug. In the February issue of Sky At Night Magazine I have a new feature entitled “Landing a lab on Mars”, all about how the MSL will use an ingenious landing system to get down safely and precisely onto the red planet’s surface.

As for if there are gassy microbes on Mars? Well, MSL’s drill probably won’t be large enough to get deep enough beneath the Martian surface to sample what’s there. Maybe the planned ExoMars rover will just reach, with its 2 metre long drilling capability. But who knows exactly how far below the surface these processes (geological or biological) are actually occuring? It may be some time before a direct sample is made.

Doug Ellison’s Open University Mars talk

I’ve just started ‘following’ unmanned spaceflight expert Doug Ellison on Twitter and, out of curiosity, I went back and had a look at a few of his most recent tweets. I’m glad I did, because I spotted a mention from him about a talk he recently gave to the Open University about Mars. Entitled “Exploring Mars – A crash course on the Red Planet”, the talk is a comprehensive run down on the exploration of Mars from Schiaparelli’s ‘canali’ and ground based images of Mars to the up close exploration of the MERs.

Doug is the founder of the Unmanned Spaceflight forum and his expertise and enthusiasm really comes through in this talk. He uses images and animations from the recent Mars missions, to illustrate the talk, which he sews together with his commentary. If you want a summary of humankind’s recent robotic exploration of Mars, this video is a great way to spend an hour on a wintry Saturday afternoon. The video is available in an high quality version as well, so you can read the notes that Doug occasionally puts up on the screen. The video is below (wide-screen & high quality version on the YouTube site) and a link to Doug’s Twitter feed is here.

“Exploring Mars”. Credit: Doug Ellison/The Open University

Phoenix: 21 sols in

Phoenix has now been on Mars for 21 sols (I guess that’s still 3 Mars weeks right?!) and it’s great to see the probe doing so well. At first it sent back some brilliant pictures (and even seems to have spotted ice underneath itself!) and now is sending back the real science – the results from the microscope, weather station and hopefully soon some results from TEGA (Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer), which has a little set of ovens used to bake and study the martian soil. Originally there was a snag in that clumpy, cohesive soil clogged up the sieve which is used to weed out the larger particles from going into the oven (where they might block it). At one point it looked as if that oven would be blocked. Thankfully though the Phoenix team used a spinning mechanism on the TEGA instrument to vibrate the sieve and after a few days of shaking and vibrating the oven canister was suddenly filled with batch of martian soil. The team will be using a different method of sprinkling the soil (see the animation below) into the TEGA ovens in future, to assure that this doesn’t happen again.

One particular thing that has struck me about this mission, so far, is how well it has been covered in new media outlets. If you have already seen it Mars Phoenix has a Twitter feed here and it even has several blogs and a (iTunes) podcast here. Oh yes and NASA and the Phoenix team sure know how to make an outreach movie! Have a look at the video below to recall those few minutes of sheer excitement (and a similar amount of nerves) that we all shared a few weeks ago.

Top image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Lower image credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M
Video credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

An image that has to be seen to be believed…

I’ve spent a good part of today marvelling at this image (below) from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). I simply can’t take my eyes off it. It’s just stunning. Two nights ago NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander tore through the martian atmosphere on its way to the northern plains of Mars. As it unfurled its parachute it descended down to the surface a tremendous speeds. At the same time MRO was orbiting above relaying the signal from Phoenix to teams on Earth. Luckily its camera was also pointing in the direction of Phoenix and in one of the most remarkable, stunning [insert more superlatives here] images I have ever seen, the MRO team snapped this picture; Phoenix encased in its backshell, with parachute billowing above it, as it fell to the surface. You can even see the thin tethers that are connecting the parachute to the lander! Phil has a great video on his site here which sums up brilliantly what a lot of us are feeling about this image right now.

Phoenix with parachute on its way down to the surface.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

The MRO team also released this image this evening, during the last press conference, (small version below) of Phoenix on the surface with its solar panels outstretched and gathering the sullen Arctic sunlight. Click on the image (below) to go to a larger labelled image, showing the position of the parachute and backshell. If this and all the other images, so far sent back, are a taster of things to come then this is going to be an incredible 90 days with Phoenix and its friends, at Mars.

Phoenix on the surface from MRO.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

NASA’s Phoenix probe successfully lands on Mars

A few minutes ago NASA’s latest mission to Mars, Phoenix, successfully landed on the northern Arctic region of the red planet. The lander is now sitting almost exactly where it was expected to come down, on a slope which is tilting the lander by about a 0.25 degrees. Phoenix is also aligned beautifully east-west so should be perfectly positioned for catching the pale arctic sunlight with its solar panels.

I’ve been watching for a few hours and the last minutes of the descent, as Phoenix was travelling those last hundred or so metres, were truly exhilarating. A night I won’t forget in a while! It’s ten past one in the morning here in the UK so the first images won’t be in for another hour and a half.

We now have to wait for the solar panels to deploy but the hardest part is now over for Phoenix. Let’s look forward to 90 days (and hopefully more) of great images and even greater science.

Update: I’ve just added some of the first images which have just arrived (3:00am UK time).

Top image: The first horizon image from Phoenix
Lower image: One of Phoenix’s footpads on the martian surface.
Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Phoenix lands tonight!

The NASA Phoenix probe will come to the end of its journey to Mars tonight/tomorrow morning, landing on Mars at about 12:53am UK time. To keep up-to-date with how the probe is doing there are lots of blogs and live TV feeds for you to read and ‘tune’ into. NASA will have a live feed on NASA TV starting at 6pm EDT (or 11pm tonight if you’re in the UK).

The University of Arizona has a blog here, though they might be a bit to busy to blog during the landing phase! Emily at The Planetary Society has lots of info. here and will be at JPL for the landing and press briefings. Last but by no means least Chris and Doug Ellison have a dedicated Mars Live website about the Phoenix landing here.

I’ll also be updating my shiny new Twitter feed with updates on how Phoenix is doing throughout the night. Oh yes and if it hasn’t already got enough work to do, the Phoenix probe has its own Twitter feed here.

The lure of ‘life’ on Mars

With less than two weeks until the NASA Mars Phoenix mission arrives on Mars there’s been a lot of news about how the probe is going to go about looking for life on the red planet. It’s an exciting mission and one I’m really interested in, but we have to be careful when talking about exactly what it is actually going to do. My worry is that, if people get fixed on the idea we are looking directly for ‘life’ with Phoenix they are going to miss the other important results that will, no doubt, come back from this mission.

Phoenix’s instruments will be examining the north polar regions of Mars, scrutinizing the soil there, hopefully taking the first ever direct sample of Martian ice and investigating the environment of the region. What it will not (at least intentionally*) be doing is carrying out a direct search for life, such as microbes or any other of microscopic living organism. We will almost certainly need a sample return or some extensive in-situ studies to prove that.

However, what Phoenix will be doing is using an advanced spectrometer to look for the fingerprints of important organic molecules in the gas of vaporised martian soil. A special instrument, called the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA), will be looking to see if there are any molecules or signatures in the soil samples which might signify past ‘biological processes’.

Those results will be extremely important. Previous probes such as the Viking spacecraft have done similar experiments with ambiguous results. It will be later missions (possibly the giant rover Mars Science Laboratory) that will tackle the direct search for life, potentially with a sample return mission. More importantly Phoenix will be looking at the broad overview of the martian north pole and its history.

By studying the geological history of this region it will be looking at whether the conditions for life were there in the past. That’s first and foremost a big question. If (and of course that is one big if) there was life on Mars in the past that would clearly have big implications on the search for it, on Mars, today. It’s fair to say as well that if life didn’t arise in the past, that would have just as big an implication. So how is it going to do this?

Phoenix is going to study the history of water around this region of Mars. With an advanced weather station and other sensing instruments its going to be examining both the atmosphere and the ground. With the robotic arm it will hopefully gather some of the ice and soil for analysis. These results will tell us a great deal about the habitability of the martain soil. It might be that only a few centimetres below the surface the conditions there permit life to survive against the paucity of water and harsh UV radiation. Most exciting for me is the possibility that there may be what the NASA scientists call ‘short-lived’ liquid water sitting in the cracked icy layers of soil. Although it won’t last long on the surface, if this water is there it might give us a fleeting hint of what lies beneath.

It’s certainly an exciting time for Phoenix, let’s just keep our fingers crossed for 25th May. Keep up with the mission here.

* There is a caveat here that a few missions have, through serendipitous discoveries, been able to make discoveries that they were never intended to make. It’s possible (I suppose) that Phoenix might make just such an interesting discovery.

New Mars image and an update

I’m always impressed by the images that come back from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). This new one released a few days ago (below) is no exception. It shows a region called Hebes Chasma, a vast gauge into the martian surface around 8 kilometres deep! The incredible feature is located just above the main canyon on Mars, the impressive and truly staggering in size (3000km long!), Valles Marineris. Each pixel in the image corresponds to 15 metres on the martian surface.

Scientists studying the image believe it shows evidence of landslides, depositions and other hints of a terrain shaped by erosion, large-scale geological activity and water. In fact recently the spectrometer on-board Mars Express detected signs of water-bearing minerals around Hebes Chasma showing that there have clearly been, according to ESA, “significant quantities of water” there in the past. To see more images as well as the high-res versions visit the ESA page here. If you have got some 3D specs then have a look at the anaglyph below to see Hebes Chasma in perspective.

Also a quick mention to thank all the people who came to my Hubble talk in Torquay on the 20th. It was good to visit Torbay again and to see many faces from the Torbay Astronomical Society which I haven’t seen for a while. I’m going to be heading over to Belfast on Tuesday for a few days for the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting 2008. When I get a moment I will post about some of the fascinating discoveries and announcements that always come up at NAM. It seems I will be in good company!

Top image: Hebes Chasma from the HRSC on Mars Express
Bottom image: A 3D anaglyph of the Hebes Chasma region
Image credits: ESA/ DLR/ FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

2008 so far…

Well it’s been a long time since a post due to an extraordinarily busy time (without-Internet) over the festive season, but I am finally back from Germany and connected to the blogosphere again. A lot has happened in the astronomy world in the past month and a bit, not least the AAS astronomy meeting in Austin, Texas; the announcement of Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo; the continuing threat of cuts to UK astronomy and physics and loads of absolutely awesome space stuff like the Messenger probe to Mercury!

Apparently also Bigfoot’s been hiding on Mars!? Well not really. It’s actually a small rock only a few metres from Spirit. Just a little rock that has been victim of a media hyping frenzy – nothing else. If you don’t believe me then I refer you to the many great explanations by Chris, Emily and the master himself Phil. What I found most disappointing about this story, is something which Emily at the Planetary Society touches on. Everyone is concentrating on the little pixellated corner of the image that might or might not look vaguely like something that it really isn’t.

But to everyone who’s mesmerized by the little rock; Open up the full size panorama on Emily’s blog. Take a look at Spirit and Opportunity’s other images. Aren’t those views so much cooler? Look – dust devils, meteorites and volcanoes! Those rovers are on the surface of Mars trundling around and exploring; carrying out amazing new science on Mars showing us what Mars is like and what it might have been like in its past. That’s a fact! My jaw dropped when I read one news outlet’s coverage of this story that said that scientists had been originally disappointed with the views from the Rovers! What? I don’t know of anyone who was disappointed with this!

Anyway, back to Earth! I’ve just started in my new job with BBC Sky At Night magazine so look out for my first feature in the March issue of the magazine! I’ve been talking to lots of nice people on the radio over the past couple of weeks about various missions and what we can look forward to in the night sky, so hello to everyone who was listening to BBC radio stations in Oxford, Jersey, Three Counties and Kent. Also tune in to BBC Radio Oxford tomorrow morning where you can hear Phil Mercer and I chatting about the Messenger mission to Mercury. Stay tuned for more.