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Curiosity’s amazing self-portrait from a few weeks ago. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA scientists have created lots of buzz over the past two days because of an NPR story in which Curiosity’s chief investigator John Grotzinger is quoted as saying the latest round of data from Curiosity’s soil analysis instrument is “gonna be one for the history books.” That’s all the information we’ll get, though, at least for a few weeks. While the scientists are very excited about what they’re seeing, they have to run multiple tests and replicate the results in order to be sure the initial interesting result is not a fluke or a glitch. The instrument in question (SAM) looks for organic molecules in the Martian soil, which are the basic building blocks of life as we know it. While none of the instruments on Curiosity can directly detect the presence of life on Mars, they CAN detect basic organics. Even a confirmation of organic molecules would be a huge, MONUMENTAL discovery.

In the past, scientists that have “blown their load” by prematurely announcing exciting results have been burned by it, so this team really wants to be sure of the accuracy and interpretation of their data before going public. One needn’t look further than NASA’s Martian meteorite fossil fiasco in 1996, or their arsenic-based life announcement in 2010┬áto know that letting your excitement/amazement at your discovery get in the way of un-biased, fact-based analysis can be disastrous.

I certainly hope that the results they’re guarding/confirming point to organic molecules in the soil they’ve analyzed. Curiosity’s findings thus far prove that large amounts of water once flowed on the surface, right where the rover is exploring. It would make sense to me that some form of basic life once existed there. It also wouldn’t surprise me if one day we discover that the DNA from life there mixed with DNA from life here, and that we’re all part Martian, as the idea of panspermia suggests. Those discoveries are likely years or even decades away from happening, but this is still a very exciting time for science!

This will be my last post before Thanksgiving, so have a happy one!

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Credit: NASA/JPL

This bizarre-looking animation is not some kind zit popping (which is the first thing that came to mind when I first saw it), but in fact the hole left behind in some Martian soil after the Curiosity rover zapped with a high-powered laser in order to study its chemical composition. Curiosity has been steadily traveling across its home, Gale Crater, and doing lots of good science along the way. This latest experiment zapped the soil 30 times to heat it up to a temperature so hot that it glows. Each element glows at a specific color of light when heated to those temperatures, and an instrument called a spectroscope reads those colors emitted and can discern exactly what elements the glowing material is made of. Curiosity also recently took several scoops of soil from the surface which will be delivered to various onboard instruments this week, which will directly examine its mineral makeup. I’m looking forward the release of those results, as they could tell us whether or not Mars could’ve supported life in the past. But I couldn’t resist posting this bizarre animated GIF… just keep staring at that for a while.

(Via Bad Astronomy and NASA)

Just a quick roundup of some news and updates in the science world:

  • Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic, record-setting skydive attempt was delayed until Tuesday morning due to weather concerns. The balloon launch is scheduled for around dawn, so I’ll try to tune into the interwebs tomorrow morning to see how it goes. More at Discovery News.
  • Space X successfully launched its first official, non-demonstration mission to the ISS last night. The launch was successful despite the Falcon 9 rocket losing one of its 9 main engines about 90 seconds into the launch. The faulty engine was immediately shut down and the onboard computer recalculated the flight trajectory, adding the necessary burn time to get its Dragon capsule to the correct orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has the full deets.
  • The Mars Rover Curiosity successfully scooped up a sample of soil and agitated it in a bin this past weekend. Instruments on board will soon run a series of tests to determine if the soil could have supported microbial life in the past. Check out this video created from a couple hundred photos taken of the sample as it was being agitated.

From the department of Holy Fucking Shit Nature Is Awesome: Scientists have hooked up squid skin to an iPod and made its pigment cells dance in time to Cypress Hill. They took the electronic waveform of the music and turned it into tiny electric impulses that caused the pigment cells, called chromatophores, to react in time with the music. The result is utterly fascinating:

(Via Kottke.org)

The MSL team at NASA has been as busy as ever testing, calibrating, and tweaking Curiosity’s cameras and instruments. A lot of great things have been accomplished over the last week or so, but two things are most interesting to me. The first recorded song ever to be beamed back from another planet was a song specially composed and recorded by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. The song was called “Reach for the Stars.” While I’m not really a Black Eyed Peas fan, I’m really happy that such a big-name pop culture figure is trying to get kids more involved and interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). The other bit of news from Curiosity that really impressed me is this new image from the rover’s 100mm MASTCAM:

Click to enlarge. Seriously, you want to see this full size! Credit: NASA/JPL

This photo, to me, is much more interesting to look at than the other, wider images taken thus far. The reason is that it’s using a 100mm telephoto lens, which makes the scale and depth of the scene more prominent. Also, the photo was taken near sunrise or sunset when the angle of sunlight was low, which makes the jagged rock formations on Mt. Sharp more prominent and dramatic. Notice how there are many flat layers of rock exposed on the side of the mountain? They look just like the layers of bedrock along the sides of canyons and mountains here on Earth! The layers you see on Earth were formed by water, when sediments collected on the floor of oceans and lakes and eventually hardened into rock over millions of years. Therefore, scientists are pretty sure the rock layers seen in this photo on Mars were formed the same way, at the bottom of bodies of water on the surface millions of years ago. The big question we still have to answer is, what caused the water to disappear? Also, was there any life in or around that water millions of years ago? I can’t think of anything more exciting than answering those questions about Mars’ past.

NASA announced that it has selected the InSight Mars lander for its next Discovery mission. (Discovery missions are NASA’s lowest cost tier of science missions, such as Kepler, Dawn, Messenger, Mars Pathfinder, and more.) You may be thinking, “ANOTHER mission to Mars? What for?” Well, despite all the awesome science that Curiosity will do, it can’t tell us much about the deep interior of Mars, or what Mars’ seismic activity is like. The InSight lander will be a stationary robot much like the Phoenix lander. In addition to measuring seismic activity, it will deploy a probe that will drill deep below the surface to measure the flow of heat inside Mars. These measurements will help scientists understand how Mars formed and what happened in the past that changed the surface from one of flowing water (and possibly life) to the barren dry wasteland it is today. (Via Universe Today)

Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity completed its first set of driving maneuvers on Mars. This image was the first that showed the wheel tracks, confirming that the rover drove successfully. This was only a test of Curiosity’s driving systems, the first of several. Tests of every science instrument and every other system on the rover will continue for at least a month or so before they’ve established a solid baseline for how everything behaves now that it’s actually on Mars. Only then can the scientists begin run the real experiments the rover was designed to carry out. Science is sometimes very tedious and slow, but the results and knowledge gained is very much worth it.

The base of Mt. Sharp, Curiosity’s main destination. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been one resounding success after another, and every step of preparation and equipment testing has gone perfectly. The latest success was an upgrade to the rover’s software programming, changing its computer from landing mode to roving mode. The process took 4 days, but went swimmingly. For more details on that visit this Discovery News article.

There have been enough high resolution images made available from the rover that photographer Andrew Bodrov was able to create this absolutely STUNNING 360 rotating panorama of the rover’s surroundings. Seriously, this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while. Brodov used images from NASA’s other rovers Spirit and Opportunity for reference to add-in the sun and sky components. (Via Universe Today)

Keep your browser on NASA’s JPL website for the latest images from this amazing mission.

It’s a great day to be a human. We just, you know, built a nuclear powered 1-ton robot, sent it into space a huge rocket on a trip to another planet, and landed it there with a hovering jetpack skycrane. Oh, and the whole hovering jetpack skycrane thing was all automated. NO BIG DEAL.

Everything went absolutely perfectly. And we even got back images from the rover just minutes after touchdown. Not only that, but I’ve seen tweets that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to capture images of the capsule descending during its parachute phase. Those images should be out later today. In the meantime, here is the first image of the rover’s shadow. In the coming days we’ll have many amazing, full-color, high-resolution images of the surroundings.

Image

UPDATE: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter did in fact get the shot of the capsule and parachute! Just consider this a victory lap for NASA. Check it out:

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