Curiosity did not kill the cat…

So as I’m sure you’ve all heard, NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of yesterday morning (east coast time). In an earlier post, I relayed the video by NASA of the harrowing entry that Curiosity needed to go through to reach the Martian surface safely and highlighted that the entire elaborate landing procedure was 100% automated since it takes double the time the landing would take to occur for information to be relayed back to Earth. And all the taxings of a mission so complicated, despite all the finesse and delicacy needed to execute such a bold attempt, and despite all the things that could go wrong, the scientists and engineers at NASA succeeded. Honestly, if you watch the 7 Minutes of Terror video, realize that scientists built and programmed a machine that could do that all automatically, millions of miles away from Earth (352 million to be exact) while moving at thousands of miles per hour and have it work flawlessly, and aren’t awed and impressed, then well you should probably check your pulse.

The Mars Science Laboratory’s mission is to investigate the interior of the Gale Crater for signs of microbial life. Top left: A profile of Curiosity’s landing site, Gale Crater. Top Right: A simulation of Curiosity’s proposed mission. Bottom: A map showing the distribution of NASA’s missions to the Martian surface. Credit: BBC News

In addition to being the largest rover we’ve ever sent to another world, twice as long (about 10 feet)  and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration RoversSpirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, Curiosity also has new equipment that allows it to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them, and then distribute them to various scientific instruments it carries for analysis; that internal instrument suite includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer with combined capabilities to identify a wide range of organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the ratios of different isotopes of key elements. There’s clearly a reason why the mission is called the Mars Science Laboratory.

This illustration from NASA shows the size and instrumentation of Curiosity that will help it to investigate the possibility of microbial life on Mars. (A) Six independent wheels allowing the rover to travel over the rocky Martian surface. (B) Equipped with 17 cameras, Curiosity will identify particular targets and then zap them with a  laser to probe their chemistry. (C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. (D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body. (E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next. Credit: BBC News

According to NASA, Curiosity carries with it “the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.” All that gear will be important as Curiosity investigates its main science objective: whether or not there is evidence of microbial life (past or present) in Martian rocks. Although both Spirit and Opportunity listed the search for life as among their scientific goals, neither rover was really equipped to search for microbial life; the twin early generation rovers were more specifically looking for water or the evidence of past water on the Martian surface and then whether that water could sustain life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is specifically equipped to look for microbial life (or evidence of it) in the rocks and soil of the Red Planet. More than just the roving explorer that its forebears were, Curiosity is for all intents and purposes a laboratory on wheels.

This image of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface with its parachute was taken by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The rover is descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe Aeolis Mons. Credit: NASA

And it’s not just the instrumentation that Curiosity is equipped with that make NASA rover 2.0 better than previous generations, but the technology it used to get to the Martian surface is leaps and bounds ahead of how Spirit and Opportunity landed. If you watch this NASA movie that highlights the landing process for the Mars Exploration Rovers (which only had six minutes of terror), you’ll notice that most of the landing procedure seems similar to Curiosity’s. Extremely high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere, heat shield, parachute, rocket thrusters, etc. Until you get to the last step, when Spirit and Opportunity wer basically dropped onto the Martian surface at nearly 60 mph, surrounded by huge air bags, and allowed to bounce three or four times until they settled. Compared to the fine precision placement of the Curiosity rover earlier this week, the previous rovers’ landings were downright barbaric, like trying to hunt a deer by throwing rocks.

This image, one of the first returned by Curiosity, shows the rover’s shadow on the Martian surface and one of the main targets of its mission, Aeolis Mons, on the distant horizon. Credit: CNN

Rather than violently smashing the $2.6 billion rover into the surface and hoping for the best, this descent involved a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute, which allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the specific landing area that NASA scientists had meticulously chosen. That landing area is roughly 12 km (7.5 miles) from the foot of the Martian peak previously known as Mount Sharp. Aeolis Mons, as it’s now known, is the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak at the center of Gale Crater, previously known as Mount Sharp. The stratified composition of the mountain could give scientists a layer-by-layer look at the history of the planet as Curiosity attempts its two-year mission to determine whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life.

Possibly the biggest piece of the NASA Curiosity puzzle has been the enormous PR campaign that NASA has thrown behind the rover. Not only has the rover and it’s 7 Minute of Terror video been all over the internet, TV news, newspapers, and other media outlets, but NASA has even gone out of its way to get high-level stars in the fold. Last week they released this video (above) of William Shatner, most famously known as Capt. James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek, narrating a preview of Curiosity’s “Grand Entrance” to Mars. There was also another video featuring narration by Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

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7 Minutes of Terror…

Hello all! So I made it successfully back to NASA Goddard from Snowmass Village, Colorado. The conference went well, but as with all scientific conferences, it was quite daunting. However to help me recover, this weekend I visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to see the recently retired Space Shuttle Discovery. As I’ve chronicled in the past, Discovery is by far the most accomplished of the five Shuttles that have flown (of which only three survive)– an impressive resume that puts it in the upper echelon of American vessels right alongside the USS Enterprise (that’s the Navy aircraft carrier, not the fictional starship…). Seeing Discovery in person was extremely impressive. Being able to see the scorch marks from reentry on the underbelly of the nose and then realizing that each individual tile is labeled was very cool. Up close, the Shuttle looked much more like a patchwork of different components than the sleek space-faring plane that I’m used to seeing in photos. The size also caught me off guard. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always assumed that the Space Shuttle must comparable in size to a commercial airplane that most of us are used to, like a Boeing 747, but it’s not, it’s much smaller. I guess in a way it was both bigger and smaller than I expected…if that makes any sense. Below are some pictures of Discovery.

Moving on to other cool space things. Have you ever wondered what it would be like travelling to Mars? Well a new short video from the great folks at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) out in Pasadena, CA shows how harrowing the journey might actually be. The team working on the new Mars rover, Curiosity (part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission) have released a new video, entitled 7 Minutes of Terror, detailing the rover’s planned 7-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere and onto the surface of the Red Planet. If you’ve ever doubted the ingenuity or ability of NASA scientists and engineers then you should definitely watch this short video (it’s much less than seven minutes long). The sheer magnitude of the problem that they are attempting to tackle is impressive enough (aka landing something the size of a couch on an object millions of miles away), let alone the fact that they are doing it without any communication with the spacecraft (the entire landing process will have been completed in the time it takes communication to reach Earth from Mars) and dealing with insanely sensitive and delicate instrumentation. It’s just a great look at how insanely talented and inspiring the folks at NASA are. Kudos to them.

Curiosity will be the third functioning NASA rover on Mars, joining its Mars Exploration Rover brethren Spirit and Opportunity who landed in 2004 (Opportunity is still functioning), and will specifically be investigating the habitability of Mars. Curiosity was specifically designed to study layers in Martian mountains that hold evidence about wet environments of the planet’s early existence and assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support microbial life forms. The rover, launched on November 26, 2011, is scheduled to land on the Martian surface, near the base of a mountain inside Gale Crater, close to the Martian equator, early on August 6, 2012 (EDT) to begin its two-year prime mission.

NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity, on a test drive. Credit: NASA/JPL

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Thank you very much, Mr. Robonauto…

Humans aren’t the only Earthlings who have left our rocky home world, although we are probably the only ones who have done it willingly. Five nations besides the U.S. have launched non-human organisms into space: Russia/USSR, France, China, Japan, and Iran. You can find a comprehensive history lesson pertaining to animals in space here on NASA’s website, but I’ll just give you a quick overview.

The U.S. was the first nation to send animals into space when it launched fruit flies aboard a V2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The U.S. continued its animal astronaut program by launching the first monkey (a Rhesus monkey named Albert II) and the first mouse into space in 1949 and 1950, respectively. In January 1951, the Soviet Union launched a flight carrying the dogs Tsygan and Dezik into space, but not into orbit. Both space dogs survived the flight, although one would die on a subsequent flight. On November 3, 1957, the second-ever orbiting spacecraft carried the first animal into orbit, the dog Laika, launched aboard the Soviet Sputnik 2 spacecraft (nicknamed ‘Muttnik’ in the West). Laika died during the flight, as was intended because the technology to return from orbit had not yet been developed. At least 10 other dogs were launched into orbit and numerous others on sub-orbital flights before the historic date of April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In many cases, animals like dogs or chimps achieved major milestones in space flight before humans did.

To date, the list of animals that have traveled to space includes squirrel monkeys, rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, guinea pigs, frogs, rats, cats, parasitic wasps, flour beetles, tortoises, wine flies, meal worms, nematodes, fish, spiders, newts, chicken embryos, turtles, brine shrimp, desert beetles, quail eggs, crickets, snails, carp, medaka, oyster toadfish, sea urchins, swordtail fish, gypsy moth eggs, stick insect eggs, silkworms, carpenter bees, harvester ants, Japanes killifish, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, moth larvae, South African flat rock scorpions, seed-harvester ants, tardigrades, and painted lady and monarch butterfly larvae. Oh right, and humans.

Apparently Robonaut 2 does Shakespeare in his spare time… Credit: NASA/JSC

But now, NASA is looking into sending another form of life into space, an android. And before any arguments start up about machines not being living beings, blah blah blah, I direct you to this Sci-Fi/equal rights gem. In any case, NASA’s newest spacefarer actually missed his 2010 flight window. The second-generation dexterous humanoid robot (Robonaut 2) was built and designed at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As JSC explains on their website, “Our challenge is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space. Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, the robonauts will expand our ability for construction and discovery.” Although Robonaut 2 or R2, like its predecessor Robonaut 1, is capable of handling a wide range of extravehicular activity (EVA) tools and interfaces, R2 is  up to four times faster, more compact, more dexterous, and includes a deeper and wider range of sensing than R1. Advanced technology allows R2 enough dexterity to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and its humanoid design means that Robonaut 2 can take over simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks on places such as the International Space Station.

While it’s awesome that robotics is making such amazing advancements, I for one, am hoping that robonauts will become companions for astronauts and not replacements. Although apparently the New Jersey State Police might need all the help they can get. This article from NJ.com concerns ongoing attempts to solve  a 35-year-old mystery.  A supply of rock samples from the Apollo missions to the Moon were supposed to go on public display starting in 1976, when an astronaut presented the Governor’s Office with the goodwill tokens from Apollo 17, the last manned lunar landing. But last year, researchers, curators and former Governor Brendan Byrne admitted to a New Jersey newspaper that they had no idea where the gift went. Now, state police confirm they are looking for leads on the rocks, whose estimated black-market value is $5 million.

The first of many…

Last week, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft discovered the first terrestrial (rocky) exoplanet orbiting a star about 560 lightyears away from Earth. This marks the first rocky, Earth-like planet found outside of our solar system and brings the total exoplanet count to a whopping 500. If you’re really interested in keeping up to date with the exoplanet count, I suggest checking out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planetquest that features an up-to-date exoplanet count  (they even offer a downloadable exoplanet counter widget) and fun interactive exoplanet activities and multimedia.

The new exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-10b, is the tenth exoplanet discovered by the Kepler mission, a mission which is proving capable of fulfilling its primary science objective to “Determine the abundance of terrestrial and larger planets in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars” [1]. Unfortunately for Kepler though, as I reviewed in a previous post, the techniques we currently use to find exoplanets make it much easier to find larger planets (usually gas giants like Jupiter) than smaller rocky ones. Unfortunately, Kepler-10b is not in its star’s “habitable zone” or the correct distance from the star for water ice to exist on the planet; it’s twenty times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. If a planet is too close to its star then all the water will evaporate and if its too far away it will all freeze. Scientists are assuming that planets with liquid water will have the highest chance of supporting life (like Earth which has a surface 70% covered by water). Kepler-10b’s extreme proximity to its parent star probably means that the surface of the planet is either scorched arid rock or possibly even covered with a layer of molten lava. In any case though, the discovery of this first terrestrial world is a great sign of things to come.

Shifting gears…

January has been a big month for crazy astronomical stories gone awry in the media. After the zodiac controversy that hit last week, this week a new craze has exploded after an interview with Dr. Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, published by news.com.au. In the interview, Dr. Carter talks about the expected supernova of the red giant star Betelgeuse (yes, it’s pronounced Beetlejuice…Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice). The article is riddled with inaccuracies and just downright wrong information. First of all, the writer, Claire Connelly, tries to inaccurately spin the story to appeal to Star Wars fans by making it seem like Earth will have two suns like the fictional world of Tatooine. Connelly says, “[I]t’s not just a figment of George Lucas’s imagination – twin suns are real. And here’s the big news – they could be coming to Earth. Yes, any day now we see a second sun light up the sky, if only for a matter of weeks.” While it is true that “twin suns” are in fact real (we know that roughly half of the stars in are galaxy exist in multiple-star systems), there is no way that the Earth can ever have twin Suns. Binary star systems usually form together, meaning the other Sun would have to have been created at the same time as our Sun (which obviously did not happen). I suppose a very rare case could occur where a star comes in close contact to another star and the effect of gravity causes them to fall into mutual orbit, but the Sun is way too far away from any other stars (the closest is 4.2 lightyears away) and if that ever did happen, the planets in our solar system would probably be flung out of their orbits altogether. While it’s true that when Betelegeuse does supernova (which could be tomorrow or in another million years), we will be able to see the supernova during the daylight hours (much like how we see Venus in the early morning hours before sunrise), it doesn’t mean that we’ll have two suns or that “one day, night will become day for several weeks on Earth.” The supernova will just look like an extremely bright star in the sky that will be visible at night and during the day for a few weeks. The article goes on to make allusions to the Mayan 2012 apocalypse predictions, imply associations between the word “Betelgeuse” and the devil, and to erroneously state that Betelgeuse is the “second biggest star in the universe” (it’s the second largest in its constellation, Orion).

Of course, even though several reputable new sources quickly tried to convince people that the claims in this article were nonsense (see FoxNews and Discovery), others quickly tried to jump on the lead and continued to erroneously echo the story (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post). Just another example of how poor journalism can fuel public paranoia and misinformation.

Betelgeuse is the red giant star that makes up Orion’s left shoulder in the sky.

Anyways, to wrap up this post, I figured I’d give you some fun information about Betelgeuse and its constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is the reddish star seen in the upper left of Orion, commonly seen as his left shoulder (see image above). It’s roughly 10 million years old and large enough that if it replaced our Sun, it would extend all the way out past the orbit of Jupiter. Orion, known as the famous hunter of the Greeks who was killed by Scorpio because he refused to acknowledge the gods, is also known by several other names around the world. In Egyptian lore, he is the god Osiris, who rules over the afterlife and judges the dead. In Arabic mythology, he is known as Al-Jabbar or The Giant and the name Betelgeuse, which comes to us from Arabic like many other star names, is said to loosely translate to “the Giant’s armpit”.

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Arsenic and old lakes…

Earlier this week, NASA announced that it had it was going to hold a big press conference on Thursday to make a major announcement. For most of the week, the blogosphere was crazy with speculation. Had NASA found extraterrestrial life? Did they find an Earth-like exoplanet? Were they finally going to reveal secret mission of the X-37B space plane? Nope. NASA threw the proverbial screwball on Thursday that it had in fact discovered alien life…in California.

Before any Area 51/Roswell/government conspiracists start screaming “I told you so!”, NASA found “alien”, not “extraterrestrial” life. The 760,000 year-old Mono Lake is located just east of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It has been cut off from its freshwater sources for over 50 years, so it’s chemical composition of the water has increased drastically in salinity (saltiness), alkalinity, and now has a large percentage of arsenic. Arsenic is notoriously poisonous to humans and other multicellular life because of its chemical similarities to phosphorus, one of the main building blocks of life. Phosphorus is elemental in the development of the energy-carrying molecule found in all cells (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) and the phospholipids that make up all cell walls; phosphorus (along with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur) is considered to be one of the six basic building blocks of all known life. Notice the lack of arsenic in that list.

A NASA-funded research project that was researching the ecology of Mono Lake found a new strain of the common bacteria group of Gammaproteobacteria that successfully substituted arsenic for phosphorus in all of its cellular structures. The new strain, GFAJ-1, is the FIRST and ONLY living organism ever found to incorporate arsenic in its cellular makeup; it’s also the only organism ever discovered to not have phosphorus in its cellular makeup. The new microorganism’s DNA has been characterized as “unlike anything ever seen before on Earth”.

Life just never ceases to amaze us. No matter where we look for life, no matter how harsh or improbable the environment is, we seem to find life there: rocks miles underground, the very depths of the ocean, areas deprived of oxygen, areas of extreme heat and cold. The extremely resilient, unique organisms that can survive these odd environments are known as extremophiles. I’ve said it before: no matter what, life finds a way. The discovery is huge (and bankrolled by NASA) because it has major implications as we continue to search for extraterrestrial life. It was believed that any life that we found beyond Earth would be similar to that found on Earth (and therefore probably found in similar environments), but this new expansion of the definition of life on Earth opens the door to new possibilities. Some scientists have speculated that there may be non-carbon-based lifeforms on other worlds (all life on Earth is carbon-based) or that life exists that could be methane- or ammonia-soluble (life on Earth is water-soluble). We know that Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has large liquid methane seas and oceans covering its surface, so if methane-soluble life does exist, Titan would be a great place to look.

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