The Cosmic Distance Ladder, part 1…

For the past few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my position as Manager of the UNH Observatory, in helping to prepare for the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival. The event, lovingly known as NEFAF, is a family-friendly astronomy-related event that will be hosted by the UNH Physics Department in partnership with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society. As you can imagine, this is quite an undertaking, but in an incredibly exciting turn of events, we just found out that Dr. Alex Filippenko, noted astronomer from UC-Berkeley and member of the research team that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, will be giving the keynote talk at NEFAF 2012! In addition to being a highly acclaimed professor, Filippenko is also the co-author of an extremely popular astronomy textbook and a frequent contributor to the documentary series The Universe on The History Channel.

Dr. Alex Filippenko, the newly announced keynote speaker for the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival to be held at the UNH Observatory.

That extremely exciting news has inspired me to do a couple of posts about the expansion of the universe, the area of research that Dr. Filippenko works on. But before we can really get into talking about that, we need to cover a very basic aspect of astronomy, but something that most non-astronomers don’t really know about. I was at a public session at the Observatory this weekend when a guest who had never studied astronomy before asked me what she thought might be an “ignorant” question: she wanted to know how exactly astronomers knew the distances to objects in space. This is by no means an ignorant question, in fact it’s a very fundamental and very involved question that really gets at the very nature of astronomy.

Astronomy by definition is an observational science. Unlike many other scientific disciplines, astronomers can’t really do experiments in a laboratory (although some do). But the stereotypical astronomer can’t throw his subject (a star or galaxy) on a lab bench and dissect it or set up an experiment to test it, so astronomers need to observe and record data. Okay, so we observe light, that tells us what something looks like, where it is, and how bright it is. Big deal, is that really that helpful scientifically. Well, not really. So we have to come up with ways to get more information from observing the light. The main way we do that is by breaking the light up in a spectrometer, an instrument that breaks light down into a spectrum of colors. This breakdown of light can reveal an abundance of new information including what the object is made up of, how hot it is, how fast and in what direction it’s moving, how old it is, and more.

The question of how astronomers calculate the distance to an astronomical object varies depending on how far away the object is. Because most of these techniques only work up to a certain distance, there is actually a progression of different approaches that astronomers use to measure distance to celestial objects. This list of methods of measuring astronomical distances is known as the Cosmic Distance Ladder (or less poetically, the extragalactic distance scale).

A graphical representation of the distance-measuring techniques that make up the Cosmic Distance Ladder. “1 A.U.” is 1 astronomical unit or approximately 93 million miles, the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A “pc” is a parsec, equal to 3.2 lightyears (206,265 A.U.) or about 20 trillion miles. “Mpc” stands for “Megaparsec” or millions of parsecs. Credit: University of Rochester

In our solar system

The first step in our exploration of the universe was to our own celestial neighborhood. The first step was precise measurement of the size scale of the solar system, which started with the determination of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. As I’ve explained before, this measurement was originally calculated via observations of transits of the planet Venus across the disk of the Sun. Early on in the 20th century, observations of asteroids also played an important role in this measurement. But today the distance from the Earth to the Sun, defined as 1 Astronomical Unit or “AU”, is measured with high precision using radar ranging. By bouncing a radar beam off another planet, usually Venus, and measuring the time that beam takes to return to Earth, scientists can very accurately determine the difference in the size of the two planets’ orbits. Using that difference and the ratio of the two orbital sizes, we can very easily calculate the distance the Earth must be from the Sun. We use a similar process even closer to home. During the Apollo missions of the late 1960s-early 1970s, astronauts deployed the lunar laser ranging experiments, arrays of mirrors that allowed scientists to measure the distance to Earth’s only natural satellite with extreme precision using lasers. This radar ranging is how we’ve calculated the distance to most of the objects in our solar system. More recently, we can also use spacecraft in orbit around other planets as a tape measure by measuring the time it takes for a signal to travel from the spacecraft to its controllers on Earth.

Another  way we can get measure the distance to the planets and to nearby stars is a phenomenon known as stellar parallax. This method is less accurate than radar ranging for planets, but is very good for stars in our local stellar neighborhood. Parallax is something you experience almost every day. Hold your thumb up at arm’s length. Close one eye, then open that one and close the other. Notice how your thumb appears to shift with respect to the objects far off in the distance? That’s parallax! Astronomers take measurements of a planet or star a two points in Earth’s orbit (6 months apart) and measure the angular shift of an object with respect to the background stars between those two measurements. Then, because we know the distance the Earth is from the Sun, we can use some basic geometry to calculate the distance to that star or planet in the foreground.

This diagram shows how parallax is used to find the distance to planets in our solar system and nearby stars. Scientists make two observations 6 months apart, measuring the angle that an object (the red dot) makes with regard to the background stars between the two observations. Then using the distance from the Earth to the Sun (1 A.U.) and some simple geometry, the distance to the object (d) can be calculated. Credit: Hyperphysics

It was using parallax, that Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini was able to roughly calculate the distance to Mars in 1672. His calculation was a little bit off though, because instead of taking two measurements 6 months apart, he sent his colleague to Cayenne, French Guiana (on the northern coast of South America) to make observations while he stayed in Paris. Then Cassini could make the same parallax calculation using the known distance between the two observation points (~4400 miles) instead of the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This single direct measurement of the distance to Mars, which is now easily calculated and heavily used by missions such as Curiosity, actually allowed for the calculation of the distances to all the planets. Since geometry and Kepler’s Laws governed the basic ratios the Sun-planet distances, you only needed to measure one Earth-planet distance to be able to easily calculate them all. This major contribution and several others in planetary science (including the discovery of four of Saturn’s moons and joint discovery of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) prompted NASA to name the Saturn-bound spacecraft mission after the him.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

[To be continued…]

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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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Ride, Sally Ride…

Sally Kristen Ride (1951-2012) Credit: NASA

Sally Ride, who sadly passed away on Monday from pancreatic cancer, was an American hero. She was a scientist, an explorer, and a pioneer. Not only did she break into a world (or beyond a world really) dominated by men, but she also secretly lived her life as the only confirmed homosexual astronaut. I don’t want to dwell on Ride’s sexual orientation because I feel like that will only put a label on her, but I do feel like it’s an important fact that underlines the impact that Sally Ride had on American society and the magnitude of the obstacles that she must have faced and overcome to achieve what she did. On June 18, 1983, she flew as part of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. She served as an inspiration and role model for millions of young girls to whom science and space seemed an inaccessible “boys club” and spent most of her post-NASA career encouraging young people, specifically girls, to pursue careers in the sciences. As this CNN article reports, Ride’s influence and legacy can be seen in the huge growth in female involvement and success in the sciences. Since Ride, 44 more American women have flown in space (compared to 299 American men)– that’s about 13% of all American spacefarers.

Sally Ride was born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles, California. Her father, Dale, was a political science professor at Santa Monica College and her mother, Carol, worked as a volunteer counselor at a women’s correctional facility. Both of her parents were extremely involved in the Presbyterian Church; in fact Sally’s sister, Karen (known as “Bear”), is a Presbyterian minister. After high school, Sally attended Swarthmore College for three semesters, took physics courses at UCLA, and then entered Stanford University as a junior where she double majored in English and Physics. She continued on at Stanford for her graduate education, earning both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Physics. In 1978, the same year she received her Doctorate, she was selected out of over 8,000 applicants as an astronaut candidate by NASA.

Sally attended flight school as part of her astronaut training. She enjoyed it so much that it became a regular hobby. Credit: Women@NASA

Sally spent the next year in astronaut training, studying parachute jumping, water survival, weightlessness, radio communications, and navigation. In fact, she enjoyed flight training so much that flying became one of her hobbies. During the second and third flights of the space shuttle Columbia, she worked on the ground as a communications officer, relaying messages from mission control to the shuttle crews. She was part of the team that developed the robot arm used by shuttle crews to deploy and retrieve satellites.

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, experiencing zero gravity. Credit: Women@NASA

As part of the first-ever five-person Space Shuttle crew for the June 1983 STS-7 mission that made her the first American woman in space and the youngest American in space (at age 32) , Ride participated as the crew deployed satellites for Canada (ANIK C-2) and Indonesia (PALAPA B-1); operated the Canadian-built robot arm to perform the first deployment and retrieval with the Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS-01); conducted the first formation flying of the shuttle with a free-flying satellite (SPAS-01); carried and operated the first U.S./German cooperative materials science payload (OSTA-2); and operated the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES) and the Monodisperse Latex Reactor (MLR) experiments. In fact, during the mission Ride became the first woman to operate the shuttle’s robotic arm.

“The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.” – Sally Ride on her first flight in space

Sally would go on to fly again with the 13th Shuttle mission, STS 41-G, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 1984. She was assigned to fly again in 1986 on STS 61-M, but all mission training was halted in January after the Challenger explosion. Sally served on the Presidential Commission investigating the tragedy. After the investigation was completed, she was assigned to NASA headquarters as special assistant to the administrator for long-range and strategic planning. There she wrote an influential report entitled “Leadership and America’s Future in Space,” and became the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration. She also served on the panel investigation the Columbia disaster in 2003; she’s the only person to have served on both investigative panels.

After she retired from NASA in 1987, Sally joined Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control. She later became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and she served as president of SPACE.com from 1999 to 2000. Driven by her belief and commitment to encourage young people, especially girls, to study science, she started the Sally Ride Science, a science outreach company, in 2001. She also wrote five science-related children’s books: To Space and Back; Voyager; The Third Planet; The Mystery of Marsand Exploring Our Solar System.

It goes without saying that Sally Ride was among the most influential American women of the 20th century. Her excitement about space and dedication to encouraging young people to study science has benefitted our country immensely. She will be remembered and missed. From all the countless children, boys and girls alike, who want to go to space, thank you Sally for boldly going where no American woman went before.

Famous Scientist Profile: Nikola Tesla…

Think about your favorite scientist. Okay, so realistically you probably don’t have an actual “favorite” scientist, but most of you probably thought Einstein, right? Not surprising. Albert Einstein is without a doubt the most notable and famous scientist of the last century, having reached a celebrity status that no scientist before him and very few after have even come close to. Now some of you more hip, savvy science-minded cats out there may have said Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Feynman or others, but those guys are more famous for being science popularizers than scientists (well Sagan and deGrasse Tyson at least), and I’d say any of those three is perhaps in the parking lot of the same ballpark as Einstein. Einstein’s kind of a big deal, people know him. You have to be pretty “nerdy” to know Feynman. In any case, some might say that Einstein was simply a character that was created by the popular media of the day (photography, radio, magazines, early TV, etc.) which allowed a greater spread of information (the same way TV and the internet have helped Sagan and deGrasse Tyson), but the bottom line is that Einstein basically became the personification of genius. His name become synonymous with superior intelligence. Now that my friends, that’s notoriety.

Nikola Tesla: that mustache can’t hide the genius!

In any case, I guarantee that none of you answered the question of who your favorite scientist is with the man pictured above. That’s Nikola Tesla. And that’s really a shame because he probably had a more significant impact on the development of the modern era than any single person in history. And when you hear “Tesla”, you probably think of loud coil things that shoot out awesome sparks or fancy electric cars. But I’m sure you probably know very little about the actual genius and significance of the man that basically gave birth to modern electricity.

Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, a small mountain village in what is now Croatia, but what was then just part of the Austrian Empire. Nikola was born to Milutin Tesla, a Serbian Orthodox priest, and his wife Đuka, who interestingly enough never even learned to read. Nikola was the fourth of five children and the only surviving son (his older brother was killed while riding a horse when Nikola was 5). From very early on, it was clear that Nikola was special. While in school he could supposedly do integral calculus in his head, a feat so astounding that his instructors were convinced that he was cheating. (Note: I don’t know if you’ve ever done integral calculus, but it’s pretty difficult to do with a textbook and a calculator, let a lone doing in your head.) It also didn’t hurt that he supposedly had a photographic memory.

In any case, he attended to the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, Austria and studied to be an engineer. He never even finished his degree, but was genius enough that he had no problem finding engineering work without it. He ultimately moved to Budapest in 1880 and began working for the Hungarian National Telephone company.

Now around the same time, the guy who we all think of as the father of electricity, you know Thomas Edison (pictured below) was working like a madman in his Menlo Park, NJ laboratory, trying to supply the world with all of his new electrical inventions. By the way, Thomas Edison DID NOT invent the light bulb, in fact, in their book Edison’s electric light: biography of an invention, authors Robert Friedel and Paul Israel compiled a list of 22 inventors who came up with incandescent lamps before Edison. Edison’s light bulb was just way better. And he was able to produce and sell it. It’s similar to Galileo and the telescope: it wasn’t his invention, but he popularized its use for astronomy and history favors the victors, as they say.

Thomas Edison: American inventor & villain

Anyway, Edison was working like a crazy electrical fool in New Jersey, trying to supply the United States and Europe with his amazing new electrical inventions. In 1882, Tesla got a job in Paris working for the Continental Edison Company, basically improving Edison’s designs as they got shipped over to Europe from the States. In 1884, Tesla moved to the U.S. and got a job working for Edison. This must have been similar to Heisenberg working under Bohr in the 1930’s. Edison knew he had a prized asset in Tesla, and he exploited the bejeezus out of him. A perfect example:  In 1885, Tesla told Edison that he could vastly redesign and improve the horribly inefficient Edison motors and generators and Edison offered Tesla $50,000 if he could actually follow through with it. After a few months of work, Tesla succeeded and when he went to Edison to ask for the reward, Edison shrugged him off and said that he was only kidding. Edison did offer him a raise though, an extra $10 on top of his $18 a week salary. Tesla promptly refused and quit.

After that Tesla bounced around from electric company to electric company and for stints had to work as a ditch-digger to make ends meet. He partnered up with George Westinghouse and for awhile worked at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. In fact, it was while partnering with Westinghouse that Tesla helped to supply electricity to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The success of that feat was huge because the pair were able to successfully demonstrate the safety and reliability of alternating current (AC) to Americans who were being lied to about it by Edison. Oh right, so here’s where you find out about the other side of Thomas Edison, the side the history books and encyclopedia articles don’t tell you. Edison was totally the villain in this story. In the “War of Currents”, Edison became a fierce rival of Tesla and Westinghouse because he was trying to sell/promote the direct current (DC) system of supplying electricity, as opposed to the alternating current system that Tesla came up with. You can click here to get a quick explanation of the differences in AC and DC currents, but it basically boiled down to the fact that AC was more efficient because it operates with a lower current, so there is little power and energy dissipation, even over exceptionally long distances. Anyways, Edison, with his crazy fame, power, and influence over the American people, began a huge smear campaign against Tesla and alternating current, even going so far as to electrocute puppies as a “demonstration” of how dangerous AC power could be. Even though Tesla’s AC system was more efficient (and is now what we all use in our homes today), Edison’s smear campaign took its toll and is probably one of the biggest reasons why Americans have very little idea who Tesla even is, let alone the impact he had on the world.

Nikola Tesla would often run alternating current (AC) through his own body to demonstrate to the public that it was not as unsafe as Thomas Edison claimed.

In addition to the invention of alternating current (which in itself was amazing), Tesla is also recorded having come up with the idea of the radio before Guglielmo Marconi and radar before Robert A. Watson-Watt. He also supposedly discovered X-rays before Wilhelm Röntgen, theorized the electron before J.J. Thomson found it, built the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, experimented with cryogenic engineering way before anyone else, was the first person to record radio waves from outer space, discovered the resonant frequency of earth a half-century before anyone else, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…the list of amazing accomplishments goes on and on. Basically what it boils down to is that Nikola Tesla was AMAZINGLY BRILLIANT and super ahead of his time AND BARELY ANYONE EVEN KNOWS ABOUT HIM!! Oh and I almost forgot, he also died alone in a NYC hotel room, in love with a pigeon. I mean if that story doesn’t scream Academy-Award-winning caliber movie, I really don’t know what else does. I can see Robert Downey, Jr. playing an amazing Tesla.

Which is why I proudly celebrate Nikola Tesla Day every July 10 (you can still celebrate it belatedly), in memory of this truly awesome man. Oh and if you want a really amazing little recap of why Nikola Tesla is so awesome, I point you to possibly my favorite comic from The Oatmeal, entitled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” or the Tesla post on bad***oftheweek.com, with the disclaimer that both have some adult language.

<I apologize that these links here at the end have adult language, but I can’t censor them. And apparently people just get very emotional when talking about Nikola Tesla. In any case, I definitely feel that their benefits outweigh the negative of them including bad language.>

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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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Voting for the 3QD Science blogging competition is open!!…

ATTENTION Readers: Voting for the 3 Quarks Daily Science blogging competition is open!

Here’s how you can get involved:

1) Check out my nominated post: Saturn’s rings explained…

2) Go here and check out the other 100+ nominated blog posts that span all of the sciences

3) If you like my blog and think it worthy (or any of the others nominated), please go here and vote by 11:59pm on Saturday, June 16

4) Please share this with your friends, there’s tons of great science writing to be had!!

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Into the belly of NASA…

Last week I was lucky enough to get to go on a tour of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with a group of other interns. Let me tell you, this place is amazing. I could try to do this all in words, but I think a lot of these pictures just need to be seen to be believed. So please enjoy the gallery below!

Here are links for more information about the NASA missions mentioned above:

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