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Aussie students to explore Mars

Mars Yard

The Mars Yard at the Powerhouse Museum, will expose thousands of students to real science and engineering in action.

A NEW EDUCATION AND RESEARCH project Pathways to Space featuring a spectacular Mars research exhibit where experimental Mars rovers will operate, was launched this week at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney by the Honourable Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

Combining a school education programme with robotics, astrobiology and science education research, this project will expose thousands of students to real science and engineering in action.

Its aim is to encourage students to consider science and engineering university courses, enabling them to become future participants in an emerging Australian space programme.

School students in years 10-12 will have the opportunity to plan and execute a simulated robotic mission to Mars in association with university researchers working on real space science and engineering goals.

They will have access to astrobiologists and robotics engineers in Australia and overseas via the high-definition video conferencing technology, Cisco TelePresence, in the Museum’s Thinkspace digital studios, as they consider the science and engineering factors critical to the success of a Mars mission.

Martian rover

Students will get to drive rovers around the Mars Yard.

Specially created software will allow the students to drive a virtual Mars rover before actually controlling one of the two roving vehicles in the Mars Yard.

Students unable to visit the Powerhouse will still be able to participate in the project, using the Cisco TelePresence facility via the NSW Department of Education ‘Connected Classrooms’ network.

The 140-square-metre Mars Yard has been created with materials closely resembling those actually found on Mars. It also features several genuine artefacts—an Australian meteorite (similar to those found by NASA’s rovers on Mars) and examples of fossilised stromatolites (a form of ancient microbial life that may eventually be found on Mars).

In addition to offering a unique experience for students, Pathways to Space researchers will be carrying out a study to discover the long-term effectiveness of the project and whether it achieves its goal of nurturing a future pool of scientific and technical skills.

Pathways to Space is collaboration between universities, industry and the Powerhouse Museum, with funding from the Australian government.

It has been developed by a consortium of partners led by the University of New South Wales (Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Schools of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, and Physics), in conjunction with the University of Sydney (Australian Centre for Field Robotics), Cisco and the Powerhouse Museum.

The project is supported under the Federal Government’s Australian Space Research Program, a Super Science initiative to develop Australia’s niche space capabilities.

Adapted from information issued by Powerhouse Museum.

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Mars rover learns to reach out

NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity—also known as the Mars Science Laboratory—is taking shape in advance of its launch next year. The video above recounts the latest milestone…the attachment of the rover’s robotic arm.

About the size of an SUV car, the rover has six wheels with their own electric motors. All up, the wheel mobility system has 10 motors—four for steering the rover and six for driving.

Due to land on the Red Planet in August 2012, Curiosity will be the largest rover ever sent to Mars. It will carry 10 instruments that will help assess an intriguing region of the planet for two things: environments where life might have existed, and the capacity of those environments to preserve evidence of past life.

The video below shows Curiosity taking its first “baby steps” in the laboratory.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Mars landing movie

  • Mars Science Laboratory due to land August 2012
  • Downward facing camera will record landing
  • Video and still pictures sent back to Earth

A downward-pointing camera on the front-left side of NASA’s Curiosity rover will give adventure fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.

The Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will start recording high-resolution video about two minutes before landing in August 2012.

Initial frames will glimpse the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover, revealing a swath of Martian terrain below illuminated in afternoon sunlight. The first scenes will cover ground several kilometres (a few miles) across. Successive images will close in and cover a smaller area each second.

The full-colour video will likely spin, then shake, as the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s parachute, then its rocket-powered backpack, slow the rover’s descent. The left-front wheel will pop into view when Curiosity extends its mobility and landing gear.

The spacecraft’s own shadow, unnoticeable at first, will grow in size and slide westward across the ground. The shadow and rover will meet at a place that, in the final moments, becomes the only patch of ground visible, about the size of a bath towel and underneath the rover.

Dust kicked up by the rocket engines during landing may swirl as the video ends and Curiosity’s surface mission can begin.

Models of Sojourner, a Mars Exploration Rover, and MSL.

Full-scale models of three generations of Red Planet rovers: front, the Sojourner rover (about the size of a microwave oven) landed as part of the Pathfinder mission in 1997; left, one of the twins, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004; and right, the Mars Science Laboratory, due to land in August 2012.

All of this, recorded at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame, will be stored safely into the Mars Descent Imager’s own flash memory during the landing.

But the camera’s principal investigator, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, and everyone else will need to be patient. Curiosity will be about 250 million kilometres (about 150 million miles) from Earth at that point. It will send images and other data to Earth via relay by one or two Mars orbiters, so the daily data volume will be limited by the amount of time the orbiters are overhead each day.

“Each of the 10 science instruments on the rover has a role in making the mission successful,” said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.

“This one will give us a sense of the terrain around the landing site and may show us things we want to study. Information from these images will go into our initial decisions about where the rover will go.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / MSSS.

Please note that the video above was made prior to the decision to defer the launch date of MSL. Disregard the reference to October 2010 at the end of the video.

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Become a Mars explorer!

An artist's impression of the Curiosity rover

Hundreds of thousands of names of members of the public, will be stored on microchip and carried to Mars by the Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2011.

  • NASA collecting names for Mars missions
  • Will be stored on a microchip
  • Sent to Mars in 2011 aboard new mission

NASA is inviting members of the public from all over the world, to submit their names for its next Mars mission. The names will be stored on a microchip carried to the Red Planet by Mars Science Laboratory mission, scheduled to launch in 2011.

The Mars Science Laboratory—named Curiosity—is a rover that will assess whether Mars ever was, or still is, an environment able to support microbial life.

As of the beginning June, over 750,000 people from dozens of countries had submitted their details for the flight. The top ranking countries at the time of writing are:

  • USA – 293,302 names
  • UK – 49,784
  • Brazil – 40,985
  • India – 33,265
  • Canada – 27303
  • Turkey – 25243
  • Australia – 21960

After you’ve entered your name, you can print a certificate and view a map showing where all the other contributors are from.

NASA web site: Send your name to Mars!

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

Red Planet rover sets a record

A view of the Martian surface from NASA's Opportunity rover.

A view of the Martian surface from NASA's Opportunity rover. Opportunity now holds the record for the longest-surviving spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

  • Opportunity passes Viking 1’s survival record
  • Now more 6 years and 116 days on Mars’ surface
  • Slowly heading for a crater 13km away

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project passed a historic Martian longevity record on May 20, when the Opportunity rover surpassed the duration record set by NASA’s Viking 1 Lander of six years and 116 days operating on the surface of Mars.

Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, began working on Mars three weeks before Opportunity. However, Spirit has been out of communication since March 22. If it awakens from hibernation and resumes communication, that rover will attain the Martian surface longevity record.

Spirit’s hibernation was anticipated, based on energy forecasts, as the amount of sunshine hitting the robot’s solar panels declined during autumn in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Mobility problems prevented rover operators from positioning Spirit with a favourable sun-facing tilt toward the north.

The rovers’ fourth winter solstice, the day of the Martian year with the least sunshine at their locations, was Wednesday, May 12.

“Opportunity, and likely Spirit, surpassing the Viking Lander 1 longevity record is truly remarkable, considering these rovers were designed for only a 90-day mission on the surface of Mars,” said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Passing the solstice means we’re over the hump for the cold, dark, winter season.”

Unless dust interferes, which is unlikely in the coming months, the solar panels on both rovers should gradually generate more electricity. Operators hope that Spirit will recharge its batteries enough to awaken from hibernation, start communicating and resume science tasks.

A view of Opportunity's arm reaching out to the Martian surface.

A view of Opportunity's arm reaching out to the Martian surface.

Opportunity’s long trek

Unlike recent operations, Opportunity will not have to rest to regain energy between driving days. The gradual increase in available sunshine will eventually improve the rate of Opportunity’s progress across a vast plain toward its long-term destination, the Endeavour Crater.

This month, some of Opportunity’s drives have been planned to end at an energy-favourable tilt on the northern face of small Martian plain surface ripples. The positioning sacrifices some distance but regains energy sooner for the next drive. Opportunity’s cameras can see a portion of the rim of Endeavour on the horizon, approximately 13km away, across the plain’s ripples of windblown sand.

“The ripples look like waves on the ocean, like we’re out in the middle of the ocean with land on the horizon, our destination,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University. Squyres is the principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit. “Even though we know we might never get there, Endeavour is the goal that drives our exploration.”

The team chose Endeavour as a destination in mid-2008, after Opportunity finished two years examining the smaller Victoria Crater. Since then, the goal became even more alluring when orbital observations detected clay minerals exposed at Endeavour. Clay minerals have been found extensively on Mars from orbit, but have not been examined on the surface.

“Those minerals form under wet conditions more neutral than the wet, acidic environment that formed the sulphates we’ve found with Opportunity,” said Squyres. “The clay minerals at Endeavour speak to a time when the chemistry was much friendlier to life than the environments that formed the minerals Opportunity has seen so far.”

“We want to get there to learn their context. Was there flowing water? Were there steam vents? Hot springs? We want to find out.”

This map shows the travels of Opportunity during its first 250 Martian days (up to August 21, 2004).

This map shows the travels of Opportunity during its first 250 Martian days (up to August 21, 2004).

The previous record holders

Launched in 1975, Project Viking consisted of two orbiters, each carrying a stationary lander. Viking Lander 1 was the first successful mission to the surface of Mars, touching down on July 20, 1976. It operated until November 13, 1982, more than two years longer than its twin lander or either of the Viking orbiters.

The record for longest working lifetime by a spacecraft at Mars belongs to a later orbiter: NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor operated for more than 9 years after arriving in 1997.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey, in orbit since in 2001, has been working at Mars longer than any other current mission and is on track to take the Mars longevity record late this year.

Science discoveries by the Mars Exploration Rover have included Opportunity finding the first mineralogical evidence that Mars had liquid water and Spirit finding evidence for hot springs or steam vents and a past environment of explosive volcanism.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

Russia’s lost Moon rover found!

Tracks left by Lunokhod 2

An LRO image showing Lunokhod 2 and the tracks it left in the lunar dust.

A Canadian researcher has helped solve a 37-year old space mystery using lunar images released yesterday by NASA and maps from his own atlas of the Moon.

The new images and data come from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The LRO, scheduled for a one-year exploration mission about 50 kilometres above the lunar surface, is producing a comprehensive lunar map, searching for resources and potential safe landing sites, and measuring lunar temperatures and radiation levels.

Using an lunar atlas he produced in 2007 and the new NASA images, University of Western Ontario professor Phil Stooke has pinpointed the exact location of the Russian rover Lunokhod 2, by finding the tracks left by the lunar robot 37 years ago after it made a 35-kilometre-long trek. The journey was the longest any robotic rover has ever been driven on another celestial body.

As soon as the NASA photos were released, scientists around the world, including Stooke, began work to locate the rover. Stooke set up a searchable image database and located the photograph he needed, among thousands of others.

Lunokhod 2 landed on the Moon in 1973, and drove a record 35 kilometres.

Lunokhod 2 landed on the Moon in 1973, and drove a record 35 kilometres.

As soon as the NASA photos were released, scientists around the world, including Stooke, began work to locate the rover. Stooke set up a searchable image database and located the photograph he needed, among thousands of others.

“The tracks were visible at once,” says Stooke.

“Knowing the history of the mission, it’s possible to trace the rover’s activities in fine detail,” he adds. “We can see where it measured the magnetic field, driving back and forth over the same route to improve the data.”

“And we can also see where it drove into a small crater, and accidentally covered its heat radiator with soil as it struggled to get out again,” says Stooke. “That ultimately caused it to overheat and stop working. And the rover itself shows up as a dark spot right where it stopped.”

The find will mean that older maps published by Russia will now need to be revised.

Adapted from information issued by The University of Western Ontario / NASA / GSFC / ASU.

Martian “blueberries” intrigue rover scientists

Artist's impression of the Mars rover Opportunity

Artist's impression of the Mars rover Opportunity

Weird coatings on rocks beside a young Martian crater remain puzzling after a preliminary look at data from examination of the site by NASA’s Opportunity rover.

The rover spent six weeks investigating the crater called “Concepcion” before resuming its long journey this month. The crater is about 10 metres (33 feet) in diameter. Dark rays extending from it, as seen from orbit, flagged it in advance as a target of interest because the rays suggest the crater is young.

An image from orbit showing Opportunity beside Concepcion

An image from orbit showing Opportunity (black dot in the 1 o'clock position) beside crater Concepcion.

The rocks ejected outward from the impact that dug Concepcion are chunks of the same type of bedrock Opportunity has seen at hundreds of locations since landing in January 2004: soft, sulphate-rich sandstone holding harder peppercorn-size dark spheres like berries in a muffin. The little spheres, rich in iron, gained the nickname “blueberries.”

“It was clear from the images that Opportunity took on the approach to Concepcion that there was strange stuff on lots of the rocks near the crater,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit. “There’s dark, greyish material coating faces of the rocks and filling fractures in them. At least part of it is composed of blueberries jammed together as close as you could pack them. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Opportunity used tools on its robotic arm to examine this unusual material on a rock called “Chocolate Hills.” In some places, the layer of closely packed spheres lies between thinner, smoother layers. “It looks like a blueberry sandwich,” said Matt Golombek, a rover science-team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

An image of the strange Martian rock coating dubbed "blueberries".

An image of the strange Martian rock coating dubbed "blueberries".

Initial analysis of the coating’s composition does not show any obvious component from whatever space rock hit Mars to dig the crater, but that is not a surprise, Golombek said. “The impact is so fast, most of the impactor vaporizes,” he said. “Thin films of melt get thrown out, but typically the composition of the melt is the stuff that the impactor hit, rather than the impactor material.”

The composition Opportunity found for the dark coating material fits at least two hypotheses being evaluated, and possibly others. One is that the material resulted from partial melting of blueberry-containing sandstone from the energy of the impact. Another is that it formed from filling of fractures in this type of rock before the impact occurred.

“It’s possible that when you melt this rock, the sandstone melts before the blueberries do, leaving intact blueberries as part of a melt layer,” Squyres said. “As an alternative, we know that this type of rock has fractures and that the sandstone can dissolve. Long ago, water flowing through fractures could have dissolved the sandstone and liberated blueberries that fell down into the fracture and packed together. In this hypothesis, the impact that excavated the crater did not play a role in forming this material, but split rocks along fractures so the material is exposed on the exterior like a coating.”

Golombek said, “One consideration that jumps out is that we’ve been driving around this part of Mars for six years and never seen this stuff before, then we get to this young crater and it’s coating rocks all around the crater. Sure looks like there’s a connection, but it could just be a coincidence.”

The observation that the rocks thrown from the crater have not yet eroded away much is evidence that the crater is young, confirming the suggestion from the dark rays. Squyres said, “We’re not ready to attach a number to it, but this is really young. It is the youngest crater we’ve ever seen with Opportunity and probably the youngest either rover has seen.”

One question Opportunity’s visit did answer was about the dark rays: “We wondered before getting to Concepcion why the rays are dark,” Golombek said. “We found out that the rays are areas with blocks of light-toned sandstone ejected from the crater. They look dark from orbit because of the shadows that the blocks are casting when the orbital images are taken in mid-afternoon.”

Since departing Concepcion on March 9, Opportunity has driven 614 metres (2,014 feet) farther along the route to its long-term destination at Endeavour Crater, about 19 kilometres (12 miles) in diameter and still at a drive distance of more than 12 kilometres (7 miles).

Squyres said, “We’re on the road again. We have a healthy rover and we have enough power for substantial drives. We want to get to Endeavour with a healthy rover. It takes a compelling target for us to stop and study. And Concepcion was a compelling target.”