Curiosity Rover Examines Possible Mud Cracks Preserved in Martian Rock
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I saw this image and immediately thought: dried mud; then I saw where the image came from: the Curiosity Rover on Mars! Reports of water having once flowed in Mars’ ancient past, currently flowing seasonally, and as sub-surface ices have been numerous over the past few years. On Earth, “where there’s water, there’s life;” and water has been found everywhere in the solar system. The Mars 2020 rover will have scientific instruments used to search for signs of past life on the red planet. From JPL Press Release 2017-009: Scientists used NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in recent weeks to examine slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Curiosity science team member Nathan Stein. He is a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, who led the investigation of a site called “Old Soaker,” on lower Mount Sharp, Mars. If this interpretation holds up, these would be … Continue reading

When is a week not a week ? When its Science Week 2016 of course !
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Science Week 2016 was the 21st iteration of this infectious annual event . My involvement has been ongoing since 2007. A multitude of varied engagements are supported and promoted by Science Foundation Ireland. The aim is to stimulate interest in a broad range of sciences. Science Week makes the often complex world of science totally digestible to every person who embraces it. The programs are targeted towards school children and their teachers plus the public at large. Science Week touches almost everyone in this country via TV, Radio, Social media, publications and apps. Nationwide road shows, workshops and talks go directly to schools,libraries and other centres. The magic and wonder of many sciences shared with tremendous enthusiasm and smiles by a host of participants. This year my offerings were two drawing workshops Deadly Moons and Marvellous Mars plus a special Constellation session for local cub scouts. The workshops were attended by 800 children in 10 venues over 11 days in … Continue reading

Venus and Mars in the Evening, Jupiter in the Morning
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Venus is low and bright, and Mars is high and dim in the southwestern sky after dusk. Jupiter is low in the predawn sky to the southeast. Venus orbits the Sun faster than the Earth, and as it catches up with the Earth over the next couple months, it will continue to appear higher in the evening sky. In mid-February, Venus will start to appear lower in the sky each evening, until it disappears into the glare of the Sun in early March. Venus will reappear in the predawn sky starting in early April. Mars will continue to dim as the Earth puts more distance between the two planets, until it disappears into the glare of the Sun in mid-April. Mars will reappear in the predawn skies in late September. Jupiter will be visible in the predawn skies for several months, slowly moving from east to west; it will appear high in the southern sky in January, and low in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2011 Following the Phobos session at the joint European-American Planetary Science Conference, held[in 2011] in Nantes, France, my colleague Dan Britt commented, “You know the origin of Phobos and Deimos…” These moons of Mars, named for the Roman gods of fear and terror, are 10-km sized potato-shaped piles of rubble. Pockmarked by craters, they look just like the kind of dark bodies you see in the neighbouring asteroid belt. “They’re captured asteroids, right?” I replied. “That’s what we think in America,” Dan replied. “But in Europe, apparently, everyone is convinced that they are actually made from material splashed off the crust of Mars by a giant impact.” For years, Dan had been trying to convince NASA to spend a spacecraft to Phobos. He argued that if you could collect enough rocks from its surface and bring them back to Earth, you would get not only asteroidal material but also an occasional rock that might … Continue reading

Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016
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“Space: the final frontier. ” The opening line of the famous quote from Star Trek, the missions aim ” to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. ” During Spaceweek 2016 I had the opportunity to take 360 children and their teachers on an exploration of moons in our solar system and the very topical planet Mars . Through listening and drawing they experienced a small awakening to the robotic images which are unveiling the beauty of other worlds, increasing our understanding with every single pixel. My workshop Deadly Moons now includes the stunning New Horizons image of Charon Pluto’s largest moon. The children loved the Star Wars names on its craters . They enjoyed linking Charon’s features to familiar books and movies. The workshop also showcases the incredable images of Saturn’s moons taken by the Cassini Spacecraft. In order to make my workshop Marvellous Mars extra interesting for the groups I made a model of Mars … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
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This column first ran in The Tablet in August, 2008 A friend has a home on the western shore of Lake Huron, with a glorious view of the lake from her living room window. She tells how once she showed the sunrise over the lake through that window to her visiting four year old grandson. The boy took in the colorful display with rapt amazement. The next morning, she heard a shout from the living room. “Come quick, grandma!” cried the little boy. “It’s doing it again!” The [2008] discovery by the Phoenix spacecraft of ice in the Martian soil had all the inevitability of the sun rising yet again. But the scientists who found it were just as thrilled as that four year old boy. For thirty [now going on 40!] years we’ve known there must have been water on Mars. The spacecraft that orbited the planet in the 1970s sent back images of dried up river beds. (But were … Continue reading

Mars Opposition 2016
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Orbital mechanics, being what they are, means that objects orbiting closer to their parent body are moving faster than those orbiting further out: Earth being closer to the Sun, orbits faster than Mars. About every 26 months, the Earth will “catch up to and pass by” Mars. The point where the Earth and another planet are closest in their orbits is called an “opposition.” The best time to observe a planet through a telescope is during an opposition – and that’s happening RIGHT NOW with Mars (May 22, 2016). Groups and individuals across the globe will be holding public “Mars Vigils.” The NASA Night Sky Network has a list of events across the U.S., and Meetup may have listings for your area. I highly encourage everyone on planet Earth to get eyeballs to eyepieces and have a look at the red planet! NASA released this stunning Hubble image of Mars on May 19, 2016 showing cloud formations near Mars’ southern … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2008. From a glass-enclosed visitor’s gallery at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, I watched three technicians, encased in white suits, slowly affix bits of equipment to a large aluminum frame, the platform of an SUV-sized rover to Mars. Two sets of steering rockets were already attached; two large metal spheres painted black and gold were seated nearby. “Those are the fuel tanks, right?” I asked my friend Steve, an engineer on the project who guided my tour. “Like the ones that blew up the Mars Orbiter in the 1980s?” Every piece has a necessary function, and every piece has a history of what can happen if it goes wrong. Even with a recent string of triumphs, Mars probe failures still outnumber the successes. Each piece is added in a carefully scripted order, with a quality-control specialist looking on: the torque wrench must not overtighten a nut, the accelerometer must not … Continue reading

ExoMars Orbiter and Lander Begin 7 Month Journey to the Red Planet
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The first mission of the European Space Agency’s  ExoMars programme has lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and is on its way to Mars. The mission includes the Trace Gas Orbiter, plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. The mission will arrive at Mars in October of 2016. The main objectives of the mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes, and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to future Mars missions. Three days before reaching Mars, the Schiaparelli lander will detach from the orbiter, and coast towards atmospheric entry. It will enter the atmosphere at 21,000 km/hr, aerobraking and then deploying parachutes. A thruster system system will be used for the final stage of its descent. The lander will operate on the surface of Mars for 2-4 sols (Martian days). The scientific mission for the Trace … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
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An edited version of this article first appeared in The Tablet in January, 2004. It was the first column I wrote for them. I spent Christmas morning [2004] with my brother Edwin, amid the snow and frigid winds whirling across Lake Superior and around the tiny city of Marquette, Michigan. Between Christmas Mass and Christmas dinner, I kept an eye all day on my computer, checking the BBC web site every few hours, hoping to hear news of the British Mars lander, the Beagle II. Alas, though the Beagle had landed, we never heard it bark. I felt for my friends on the science team, Colin and Ian and the others, watching with ever fainter hope as the dream they’d pursued through the years of planning and fund-raising, constructing and testing, launching into space and guiding to the surface of the planet, finally at the last minute failed. Landing a probe successfully on Mars is a very difficult proposition; the … Continue reading

Water Flows on Present Day Mars
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I must say, the announcement by NASA that there is flowing water on the planet Mars didn’t really come as much of a surprise… more like “finally!” But it is a very exciting finding. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary society once commented about her hesitation to write yet another story about “more evidence for water on ancient Mars.” When the Curiosity rover started doing science operations, more and more evidence of water having one flowed on the surface of Mars kept being discovered. And then, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of streaks on the side of several slopes and crater walls. These streaks disappeared after a time, and then reappeared – seasonally. In the press release below, a Mars scientist mentions that the BIG advantage to having a probe in orbit around other solar system bodies is that you can observe changes over time. i.e.: Cassini, LandSat, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Dawn etc… I could not agree more. I … Continue reading

September Morning Sky, and October Conjunction
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In the past couple weeks, I’ve been asked multiple times, as has my wife from her students: “What planet is that in the morning sky?” The one high and bright is Venus. Mars is below Venus, and a little to the north – right above the bright star Regulus. Jupiter is lower, near the horizon. On 17 Oct 2015, there will be a conjunction: Mars will be 24′ from Jupiter. That’s REALLY close, and I expect to see some spectacular images of the two posted later that day. Below is an illustration of the locations of the planets during the conjunction. They may look close together in the sky from your vantage point here on Earth, but they are anything but! … Continue reading