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Mars rover Curiosity updates

February 14, 2013

It’s been a hot minute since I mentioned the Mars rover Curiosity. She’s been slowly but surely working her way across Gale Crater, stopping to take photos along the way and investigate anything interesting she comes across. Recently she came across this bizarre-looking rock protrusion that looks a bit like a shiny door handle or knob:

mars-shiny-closeup-430x580

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It was a pretty interesting and puzzling find, but NASA scientists think they have an explanation. Indeed, it’s not a knob or hood ornament, nor is it made by aliens. A much more logical explanation is uneven weathering and erosion. For the full details head over to Universe Today. But in short, Ronald Sletten from the Mars Science Laboratory team at NASA/JPL explained in a press release that the object is a small part of the rock that is different in composition from the rest. The shiny part is made up of a harder type of rock than its surroundings. Since the surface of Mars is home to lots of dust/wind storms, there is quite a bit of wind erosion, and the softer surrounding rock erodes aways much faster than the harder rock. The shininess is also a by-product of erosion- certain types of rocks have a tendency to become smooth and shiny from erosion rather that just being blown away. NASA also posted a PDF with some good photos comparing the Mars image to similar phenomena on Earth. What I’m wondering is- what is that harder part of the rock made of? Why is there? Are there any other formations like it nearby? I know that on earth some volcanic rocks have a smooth & shiny appearance, so could this be a chunk of volcanic rock that was flung from an eruption and landed in water, then moved to its current location by fast-moving water and deposited in a muddy area that subsequently hardened into sedimentary rock? Maybe more theories will come out soon.

In other Curiosity news, the final instrument yet to be used/tested was the percussive rock drill. The drill was successfully tested and then used on Feb. 8th to drill the hole seen on the left in this image:

PIA16726

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The rover has now successfully tested all of her science instruments and everything is working perfectly. A sample of the pulverized rock was taken, and will be analyzed in the days to come. This rock is suspected of having been altered or eroded by flowing water on the surface many millions of years ago. I’m looking forward to seeing what they find to confirm (or deny) this theory and what else is learned about Mars’ watery past.

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

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

It’s been a very crazy week, and I know this may be old news already for some of you, but I had to post about NASA’s announcement on the Curiosity mission findings that caused such an uproar on the internet a few weeks back. For a detailed explanation of what was found and what it means, check out this article on Universe Today. In short, this was the first time all of Curiosity’s instruments had been used in concert together, and the consistency of the results was exciting. It pointed to organic compounds in the Martian soil, but they can’t say for sure that the Carbon in those compounds is of Martian origin. First they have to determine if the Carbon is actually from Mars, and not a contaminant from earth air trapped in the instruments, then they have to determine whether the Carbon is from a biological or non-biological source. There are lots of possibilities that must be ruled out before we will know for sure what’s in the soil, and where it came from. At the announcement, Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger is quoted as saying, “We’re doing science at the speed of science. But we live in a world that’s sort of at the pace of Instagrams. The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team has about what’s going on here, I think it was just misunderstood.” That was after he was questioned about the wild speculation that resulted from his comments in an NPR story about a possible “Earth-shaking” discovery by Curiosity. I just love that a NASA scientist compared the speed of science to the “pace of Instagrams.” Instagram and Science! In the same sentence! That must mean science is hip, right? RIGHT?

In other NASA-related news, it was announced on Tuesday that NASA will build and launch in 2020 another Mars rover very similar to Curiosity. While that may not be the most exciting thing to hear, it shows that NASA is building confidence in its abilities to do mind-blowing things like land a nuclear-powered, car-sized roving science lab on another planet with a rocket-powered sky crane. The more we learn about Mars, the closer we get to putting a man there. Who knows, maybe a prime objective of this new mission will be to actually look for signs of past or current life. No mission to Mars yet has actually had that as an objective. For more on this new mission read this article on New Scientist.

While these next two items aren’t necessarily science-y, they are quite awesome:

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.

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:

You’d have to have been under a rock to no know that NASA’s latest and greatest Mars rover is about to land on the Red Planet. It’s been all over the news lately… but here are a few more deets that you may not know, including when and how to watch the coverage.

As usual, Universe Today is on top of the coverage, and this infographic was particularly interesting. They will also be teaming up with Google, CosmoQuest, and the SETI Institute to do a live webcast via Google+ to cover the event. Among the cast of hosts is one of my favorite fellow science enthusiasts/skeptics Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. That begins at 10pm central time. The actual landing is scheduled for 12:31am central time. For more on the webcast check out the post on Universe Today.

Some random cool facts:

  • This is the most complex landing procedure ever carried out by a NASA interplanetary mission.
  • The supersonic parachute that slows the lander during the descent phase is a whopping 51 feet in diameter.
  • The rover itself is about the size of a Mini Cooper.
  • The rover weighs 1,982 pounds (on earth… on Mars it weighs about 747 pounds)
  • The rover is powered by a small nuclear reactor.
  • Curiosity will land inside Gale Crater, near the base of Mount Sharp, which has layers of exposed minerals that the rover will sample and study.
  • The total cost of the mission is $2.5 billion.

Friends/readers- my apologies for being a bit behind on the blog this week. I’m juggling a lot this week and have been stretched pretty thin. But here are a couple of tidbits I’ve rounded up that piqued my interest.

Credit: SpaceX

The current leader in the commercial spaceflight race for ferrying NASA’s astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They decided to combine the next two missions into one sometime last year, but the combined mission has faced several delays recently. Originally scheduled to launch late last year, this mission will be the first commercial mission to launch and dock with the ISS. That’s why this flight is so important and why they are double and triple checking to make sure they’ve dotted all their i’s and crossed all their t’s. If all goes well the Falcon 9 rocket will blast off from Cape Canaveral at 4:55 AM EDT Saturday morning. For more visit NASA or Bad Astronomy.

In other space-related news, NASA’s Messenger mission has been busy orbiting and making detailed maps of planet Mercury. Having no atmosphere, Mercury’s blistering surface is nothing but craters, and thus the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has been busy naming those craters. Andy Warhol was the latest celeb to get a crater named after him, and to celebrate, the mission managers created this image of the Warhol crater in the style of the pop art screen prints he’s famous for:

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Some fantastic news from NASA today: The astoundingly successful and productive Kepler Mission has been extended through 2016! This is a huge relief for space nerds like me who eagerly watch science news blogs for the next big news item from missions such as Kepler. As you may know, Kepler is a space telescope which looks for planets in other star systems. Most specifically, the mission is looking for earth-like planets in other star systems. The mission has already racked up over 1,000 potential planets, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will find and confirm the first true earth-twin in these next 4 years. There was a lot of concern over the future of the mission due to recent NASA budget cuts- many thought the mission might not get funding to extend it even till 2014, so getting funding till 2016 was actually a pleasant surprise. The funding will, however, be up for review again in 2014. Still, this is a huge relief because Kepler has already seen what could be earth-twins, we just have to wait for a second transit to occur to confirm the initial observation. Since these are truly earth-like planets, it takes them roughly one earth year to orbit their parent star. The major worry was the mission would be ended before a second transit could be observed to confirm the planets’ existence. Thankfully we no longer have to worry about that, and it’s only a matter of time before the holy grail of planet-hunting is found.

(Via Universe Today and Bad Astronomy)

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