Monday, January 31, 2011

Phobos, Mars' Large and Incredibly Close Moon

Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons, is a fascinating place. The moon, discovered back in 1877, is small -- only about 17 miles long -- and orbits incredibly close to the surface of its host planet. Phobos, in fact, is so close to Mars that it moves around the planet faster than the planet itself rotates. If you were standing on the surface of Mars, you would see Phobos rise in the west and move across the sky in only a little more than four hours before disappearing to the east. And it's speeding up. As the orbital radius decreases, Phobos moves closer to the planet's surface and will one day either smash into Mars or break up into a planetary ring.
"[Its] origins are still something of a mystery, and the surface featured on Phobos are not totally understood either," Phil Plait wrote at Discover last week after these new photographs were taken. "Specifically, all those parallel grooves are pretty weird! The current thinking is that they were actually caused by impacts on Mars! It works like this: some giant rock hits Mars and blasts vast quantities of material up and out, some of which reaches up into space. Phobos plows into this material, and the direct impacts with big chunks can form craters."
These new images were taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe after it passed within 66 miles of Mars' surface.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Saturnian moon's ocean full of gas

New data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft indicates the Saturnian moon Enceladus may have a fizzy ocean capable of harbouring life.
The findings could explain the vast icy plumes of water that spray into space through fissures - known as tiger stripes - on the moon's frozen surface.
Lead Cassini planetary scientist Dr Dennis Matson from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, says "geophysicists expected Enceladus to be a lump of ice, cold, dead and uninteresting".
Instead scientists have recently discovered the moon is covered with geysers shooting plumes of water vapour, icy particles and organic compounds.
Matson says many researchers viewed the icy jets as proof of a large subterranean body of water.
Pockets of liquid water with temperatures around 0°C near the surface could explain the watery plumes.
Cassini's instruments detected have carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and various hydrocarbons in the plumes gas.
In 2009, the spacecraft's cosmic dust analyser found sodium and potassium salts together with carbonates locked in the plumes' icy particles, strengthening the underground ocean hypothesis.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chinese Mars 500 volunteer to be on 'Mars' for Spring Festival

Wang Yue, Chinese volunteer for the Mars 500 simulation of a manned spaceflight, will step out of the cabin of the experiment's "spaceship" and walk on a simulation of the Martian surface just in time for Chinese New Year, according to the website of China Manned Space Engineering.

The experimental cabin will land on the Mars on Feb. 1. At the end of Jan. 23, the Mars 500 experiment, which simulates a round-trip voyage to the red planet, had completed its 234th day.

As planned, the crew members will participate in a 30-day simulated landing on the surface of Mars.

It is reported that the Chinese participant, Wang Yue, has displayed a strong sense of teamwork and perseverance while conducting his research.

Li Yinghui, the Chinese team's deputy chief designer under the Mars-500 project, said considering the current carrying capacity, the Mars 500 project is a three-stage experiment, including a 250-day virtual flight to Mars, a 30-day stay on the planet and a 240-day journey back to earth

Monday, January 24, 2011

High tides mean it must be a full moon

High tides at the weekend left their mark on the South Canterbury coast.
On Brown's Beach, east of Temuka, driftwood and other debris were carried to the top of the beach at high tide early on Saturday morning, with some deposited on the stopbank separating the beach from farm paddocks beyond it.
The debris left a pool between the high point of the beach and the stopbank.
Environment Canterbury's duty flood controller, Graham Sullivan, said the tides over the past few days were higher than normal because it was a spring or perigean tide, which meant it coincided with the full moon.
He said the tide was below swell warning level and usually lasted about four days, with today being the last day.
The MetService website showed yesterday's high tide was 2.5 metres at 6.37am, followed by 2.4m at 7.02pm.
Today's high tides are expected to be at 7.32am and 8.01pm – 2.5m and 2.4m respectively.
From tomorrow tides should begin to ease, but are expected to rise to 2.5m again on February 18, which will be a full moon, and peak at 2.6m in the two days that follow.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Multiple Asteroid Strikes May Have Killed Mars’s Magnetic Field

Once upon a time, Mars had a magnetic field, just like Earth. Four billion years ago, it vanished, taking with it the planet’s chances of evolving life as we know it. Now scientists have proposed a new explanation for its disappearance.
A model of asteroids striking the red planet suggests that, while no single impact would have short-circuited the dynamo that powered its magnetism, a quick succession of 20 asteroid strikes could have done the job.
“Each one crippled a little bit,” said geophysicist Jafar Arkani-Hamed of the University of Toronto, author of the new study. “We believe those were enough to cripple, cripple, cripple, cripple until it killed all of the dynamo forever.”
Rocky planets like Earth, Mars, Mercury and even the moon get their magnetic fields from the movement of molten iron inside their cores, a process called convection. Packets of molten iron rise, cool and sink within the core, and generate an electric current. The planet’s spinning turns that current into a magnetic field in a system known as a dynamo.
Magnetic fields can shield a planet from the constant rain of high-energy particles carried in the solar wind by deflecting charged particles away from the surface. Some studies have suggested that Earth’s magnetic field could have protected early life forms from the sun’s most harmful radiation, allowing more complex life to develop. But traces of magnetism in the Martian surface reveal that the red planet lost its magnetic field some four billion years ago, leaving its atmosphere to be dessicated by the harsh solar wind.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lunar Mining Sparks Race to the Moon

Lunar geologists and space entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly intrigued by the concept of lunar mining now that researchers have discovered an abundance of water on the moon. But others are suggesting that many obstacles need to be overcome before such a project can be executed.
The discovery of lunar water has raised questions as to whether other resources such as helium 2 and rare Earth elements could be found on the moon as well. Now, certain countries are looking to race to the moon.
Paul Spudis, Ph.D., a lunar geologist and Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, has expressed interest in lunar mining and has even devised a plan for returning to the moon despite the fact that the Obama administration has no plans to return to the moon at all due to its cancellation of the Constellation program. Spudis' plan involves "robotic resource extraction and the deployment of space-based fuel depots" using water from the moon before any humans return to its surface.
On the other hand, Mike Wall, editor of, believes lunar mining should not be attempted before ironing out a few technical and legal issues. For instance, an international agreement consisting of property rights, a salvage law and a mining law would be needed in order to decide who owns the resources once they are extracted. The Outer Space Treaty does not allow nation states to claim territories on the moon, but it does not mention anything regarding resource mining, and laws need to be set before any mining on the moon begins.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Phoenix Mars Mission: Onto The Ice

Join Principal Investigator Peter H. Smith and the Phoenix Lander Team in Phoenix Mars Mission: Onto the Ice, a behind-the-scenes look at the first successful landing on the Mars polar region and the beginning of a new era in the search for signs of life on our neighboring planets.
A continuation of the enthralling story of last year's attempted NASA Mars exploration, Phoenix Mars Mission: Onto the Ice documents the difficult journey towards a successful Mars landing, behind the scenes and through the eyes of the people responsible for the mission’s success.
Phoenix Mars Mission: Onto the Ice follows the Phoenix Mars Lander's 422-million mile journey through space. The final destination is a carefully selected landing site in the northern Martian plains. But before the Lander can begin touching, tasting and sniffing Martian soil in search for signs of life, it first must land on the planet safely. From practice landings with simulated devastating malfunctions, through the heart-pounding "seven minutes of terror," decent onto the Red Planet, Phoenix Mars Mission: Onto the Ice follows the international team of talented and dedicated scientists, engineers and researchers as they work to successfully land on Mars and search for signs of life.
The solar powered Phoenix Lander was initially scheduled for a 90 day run on the surface of Mars. The Phoenix team must make every day and every experiment count in the battle with the ever sinking sun. The teams must race to extract every bit of data before the Martian winter plunges temperatures to minus 100 degrees Celsius. And when the lander can no longer phone home and the end of the lander phase of the mission is declared, what will the Phoenix Mars Mission have discovered? And, once the Mars winter is over, will the team be able to resurrect the Mars lander yet again?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

China to launch 1st Mars probe in 2013

Qi Faren, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and chief designer of Shenzhou spaceships, indicated on Jan. 16 that China is expected to launch the first Mars probe in 2013.

The probe, Yinghuo-1(YH-1), was due to blast off in October 2009 with Russia's "Phobos Explorer" from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but the launch was postponed.

Qi Faren disclosed that China and Russia will launch the first Mars probe this year. By 2013, there will be a minimum distance between the Mars and the Earth, which will be a good time to launch the Mars probe. If this opportunity is missed, China will have to wait several years to launch another. Therefore, China will consider launching its first Mars probe independently.

Qi said that this is only a consideration of the aerospace industry and not the Chinese government's formal decision-making at present. However, China's space industry is fully capable of successfully launching the Mars probe.

China's space industry plans important developments in the coming years, which will culminate in the construction of a space station by 2020, Qi said.
He explained that China will build the space station to solve four stages of difficult problems in research and development. China successfully and independently put a man into space in the first stage.

In the second stage, China will launch Tiangong-1, an unmanned space module, in the first half of 2011 and the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft in the second half of the year to carry out the nation's first-ever space docking.

Monday, January 17, 2011

NASA Prods Hibernating Mars Rover

Contrary to its name, the Sprint Mars rover remains decidedly stuck, and after nine months of waiting incommunicado NASA is fighting to restart communication with the antisocial android before winter turns the Red Planet blue. If scientists cannot reestablish communication before the end of Martian spring—mid-March—the rover may not survive winter.
Spring is the time to revive the rover. "The amount of solar energy available for Spirit is still increasing every day for the next few months," explains John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager. "As long as that's the case, we will do all we can to increase the chances of hearing from the rover again."
The extraterrestrial's troubles began when its wheels cracked through the planet's crusty surface and sunk in the sand below. Despite numerous efforts to dislodge the vehicle, scientists declared it stuck last January. Since last spring, the rover has rested in low-power hibernation to conserve energy.
Sprint needs enough solar energy to thaw itself through winter. While NASA engineers have tried to position the robot's solar array towards the sun, if debris blows onto the panels, it won't absorb enough energy to wake.
Sprint and its sibling Opportunity have roamed the surface of the Red Planet for the past five years, considerably exceeding their expected mission of three months. Despite Sprint's recent troubles, Opportunity has stayed true to its name: the rover to continues exploring and sending back data. Last winter NASA even upgraded its firmware, enabling the robot to stop and analyze rocks as it roves the Martian surface. Now if only we could get software updates for five-year old hardware back home.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mars' Water - Too Salty To Support Life

"Liquid water is required by all species on Earth and we've assumed that water is the very least that would be necessary for life on Mars," says Nicholas J. Tosca, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. "However, to really assess Mars' habitability we need to consider the properties of its water. Not all of Earth's waters are able to support life, and the limits of terrestrial life are sharply defined by water's temperature, acidity, and salinity."

Together with co-authors Andrew H. Knoll and Scott M. McLennan, Tosca analyzed salt deposits in four-billion-year-old Martian rock explored by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, and by orbiting spacecraft. It was the Mars Rover whose reports back to Earth stoked excitement over water on the ancient surface of the Red Planet.

The new analysis suggests that even billions of years ago, when there was unquestionably some water on Mars, its salinity commonly exceeded the levels in which terrestrial life can arise, survive, or thrive.

"Our sense has been that while Mars is a lousy environment for supporting life today, long ago it might have more closely resembled Earth," says Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural Sciences and professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard. "But this result suggests quite strongly that even as long as four billion years ago, the surface of Mars would have been challenging for life. No matter how far back we peer into Mars' history, we may never see a point at which the planet really looked like Earth."

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A Few Facts About Lunar Tides

The gravitational force of the moon is one ten-millionth that of earth, but when you combine other forces such as the earth's centrifugal force created by its spin, you get tides.

The sun's gravitational force on the earth is only 46 percent that of the moon. Making the moon the single most important factor for the creation of tides.

The sun's gravity also produces tides. But since the forces are smaller, as compared to the moon, the effects are greatly decreased.

Tides are not caused by the direct pull of the moon's gravity. The moon is pulling upwards on the water while the earth is pulling downward. Slight advantage to the moon and thus we have tides.

Whenever the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned, the gravitational pull of the sun adds to that of the moon causing maximum tides.

Spring tides happen when the sun and moon are on the same side of the earth (New Moon) or when the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth (Full Moon).

When the Moon is at first quarter or last quarter phase (meaning that it is located at right angles to the Earth-Sun line), the Sun and Moon interfere with each other in producing tidal bulges and tides are generally weaker; these are called neap tides.

Spring tides and neap tide levels are about 20% higher or lower than average.
Offshore, in the deep ocean, the difference in tides is usually less than 1.6 feet

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Life On the Moon

Scientists are looking for life in space. So far, they haven't found any life beyond Earth itself. We seem to be getting closer to discovering life somewhere else in our own solar system
, with Mars, and some moons of Jupiter and Saturn being considered likely hiding spots for microbes.
Could there be life closer to our home planet? Probably not, but it's worth considering what could be lurking on the Moon.
We've discovered evidence that the polar regions of the Moon are the coldest natural places in the solar system. It's not the sort of environment that's friendly to life. Anything that tried to survive there would certainly freeze. But what could these conditions preserve? Could the Moon be a storehouse of chemicals and structures that have disappeared from other regions of the solar system?
Part of the reason why we explore space is not only to discover life, but to find the precursors to life. Outer space holds the records of what conditions were like when the Earth was young, and life could have been getting started on our planet.
If certain regions on the Moon have been frozen for eons, the Moon could be one of our most promising areas for biotic chemistry research.

Friday, January 07, 2011

NASA Research Team Reveals Moon Has Earth-Like Core

State-of-the-art seismological techniques applied to Apollo-era data suggest our moon has a core similar to Earth's.

Uncovering details about the lunar core is critical for developing accurate models of the moon's formation. The data sheds light on the evolution of a lunar dynamo -- a natural process by which our moon may have generated and maintained its own strong magnetic field.

The team's findings suggest the moon possesses a solid, iron-rich inner core with a radius of nearly 150 miles and a fluid, primarily liquid-iron outer core with a radius of roughly 205 miles. Where it differs from Earth is a partially molten boundary layer around the core estimated to have a radius of nearly 300 miles. The research indicates the core contains a small percentage of light elements such as sulfur, echoing new seismology research on Earth that suggests the presence of light elements -- such as sulfur and oxygen -- in a layer around our own core.

The researchers used extensive data gathered during the Apollo-era moon missions. The Apollo Passive Seismic Experiment consisted of four seismometers deployed between 1969 and 1972, which recorded continuous lunar seismic activity until late-1977.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

NASA Tests New Propulsion System For Robotic Lander Prototype

NASA's Robotic Lunar Lander Development Project at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has completed a series of hot fire tests and taken delivery of a new propulsion system for integration into a more sophisticated free-flying autonomous robotic lander prototype. The project is partnered with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., to develop a new generation of small, smart, versatile robotic landers to achieve scientific and exploration goals on the surface of the moon and near-Earth asteroids.

The new robotic lander prototype will continue to mature the development of a robotic lander capability by bringing online an autonomous flying test lander that will be capable of flying up to sixty seconds, testing the guidance, navigation and control system by demonstrating a controlled landing in a simulated low gravity environment.

By the spring of 2011, the new prototype lander will begin flight tests at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal Test Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The prototype’s new propulsion system consists of 12 small attitude control thrusters, three primary descent thrusters to control the vehicle’s altitude, and one large "gravity-canceling" thruster which offsets a portion of the prototype’s weight to simulate a lower gravity environment, like that of the moon and asteroids. The prototype uses a green propellant, hydrogen peroxide, in a stronger concentration of a solution commonly used in homes as a disinfectant. The by-products after use are water and oxygen.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Rover Will Spend 7th Birthday at Stadium-Size Crater

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a Dec. 31, 2010, view of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on the southwestern rim of a football-field-size crater called "Santa Maria."

Opportunity arrived at the western edge of Santa Maria crater in mid-December and will spend about two months investigating rocks there. That investigation will take Opportunity into the beginning of its eighth year on Mars. Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 24, Pacific Time) for a mission originally planned to last for three months.