Friday, December 29, 2006

NASA makes fake Moon dust

Ruff Ruff

New tricks for Mars Rovers:
Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

News Release: 2006-152 December 28, 2006

NASA Mars Team Teaches Old Rovers New Tricks to Kick Off Year Four

NASA's twin Mars rovers, nearing the third anniversary of their landings, are getting smarter as they get older.
The unexpected longevity of Spirit and Opportunity is giving the space agency a chance to field-test on Mars some new capabilities useful both to these missions and future rovers. Spirit will begin its fourth year on Mars on Jan. 3 (PST); Opportunity on Jan. 24. In addition to their continuing scientific observations, they are now testing four new skills included in revised flight software uploaded to their onboard computers.

One of the new capabilities enables spacecraft to examine images and recognize certain types of features. It is based on software developed for NASA's Space Technology 6 "thinking spacecraft."

Spirit has photographed dozens of dusty whirlwinds in action, and both rovers have photographed clouds. Until now, however, scientists on Earth have had to sift through many transmitted images from Mars to find those few. With the new intelligence boost, the rovers can recognize dust devils or clouds and select only the relevant parts of those images to send back to Earth. This increased efficiency will free up more communication time for additional scientific investigations.

To recognize dust devils, the new software looks for changes from one image to the next, taken a few seconds apart, of the same field of view. To find clouds, it looks for non-uniform features in the portion of an image it recognizes as the sky.

Another new feature, called "visual target tracking," enables a rover to keep recognizing a designated landscape feature as the rover moves. Khaled Ali of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., flight software team leader for Spirit and Opportunity, said, "The rover keeps updating its template of what the feature looks like. It may be a rock that looks bigger as the rover approaches it, or maybe the shape looks different from a different angle, but the rover still knows it's the same rock."

Visual target tracking can be combined with a third new feature -- autonomy in calculating where it is safe to reach out with the contact tools on the rover's robotic arm. The combination gives Spirit and Opportunity a capability called "go and touch," which is yet to be tested on Mars. So far in the mission, whenever a rover has driven to a new location, the crew on Earth has had to evaluate images of the new location to decide where the rover could place its contact instruments on a subsequent day. After the new software has been tested and validated, the crew will have the option of letting a rover choose an arm target for itself the same day it drives to a new location.

The new software also improves the autonomy of each rover for navigating away from hazards by building better maps of their surroundings than they have done previously. This new capability was developed by Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and JPL.

"Before this, the rovers could only think one step ahead about getting around an obstacle," said JPL's Dr. John Callas, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers. "If they encountered an obstacle or hazard, they'd back off one step and try a different direction, and if that direction didn't work they'd try another, then another. And sometimes the rover could not find a solution. With this new capability, the rover will be smarter about navigating in complex terrain, thinking several steps ahead. It could back out of a dead-end cul-de-sac. It could even find its way through a maze."

This is the most comprehensive of four revisions to the rovers' flight software since launch. One new version was uplinked during the cruise to Mars, and the rovers have switched to upgraded versions twice since their January 2004 landings.

Callas said, "These rovers are a great resource for testing software that could be useful to future Mars missions without sacrificing our own continuing mission of exploration. This new software will be a baseline for development of flight software for Mars Science Laboratory, but it's also helpful in operating Spirit and Opportunity." NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is a next-generation Mars rover in development for planned launch in 2009.

Spirit and Opportunity have worked on Mars for nearly 12 times as long as their originally planned prime missions of 90 Martian days. Spirit has driven about 6.9 kilometers (4.3 miles); Opportunity has driven about 9.8 kilometers (6.1 miles). Spirit has returned more than 88,500 images, Opportunity more than 80,700. All the raw images are available online at .

Currently, Spirit is investigating rocks and soils near a ridge where it kept its solar panels tilted toward the sun during the Martian winter. Opportunity is exploring "Victoria Crater," where cliffs in the crater wall expose rock layers with clues about a larger span of Mars history than the rover has previously examined.

Opportunity's key discovery since landing has been mineral and rock-texture evidence that water drenched and flowed over the surface in at least one region of Mars long ago. Spirit has found evidence that water in some form has altered mineral composition of some soils and rocks in older hills above the plain where the rover landed.

Among the rovers' many other accomplishments:

-- Opportunity has analyzed a series of exposed rock layers recording changing environmental conditions from the times when the layers were deposited and later modified. Wind-blown dunes came and went. The water table fluctuated.

-- Spirit has recorded dust devils forming and moving, events which were made into movie clips. These provide new insight into the interaction of Mars' atmosphere and surface.

-- Both rovers have found metallic meteorites on Mars. Opportunity found one rock with a composition similar to a meteorite that reached Earth from Mars.

NASA's Mars Technology Program and New Millennium Program sponsored development of the new capabilities included in the new flight software.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. For images and information about the rovers, visit . For descriptions of technologies being developed for future Mars missions, see . For information about the New Millennium Program's Space Technology 6 mission, see .

2006 Space Review

Everyone's space effort is on the rise!

Don't forget to vote:

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Comet receipe

Don't forget the "on to Mars" part

Hot, Hot, Hot!!

Venus that is...

Mars Rover Update

New pictures from Spirit (King George Island -> hematite ):

and Opportunity (Cape Verde -> layers):

Come one come all

The NASA Moon base will have standard architecture so that other nations can build modules that will fit.

X-ray Vision (almost)

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Peter Golkin 202-633-2374
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

NEWS RELEASE: 2006-149 December 13, 2006

Geologists Finding a Different Mars Underneath

Mars is showing scientists its older, craggier face buried beneath the surface, thanks to a pioneering sounding radar co-sponsored by NASA aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.

Observations by the first project to explore a planet by sounding radar strongly suggest that ancient impact craters lie buried beneath the smooth, low plains of Mars' northern hemisphere. The technique uses echoes of waves that have penetrated below the surface.

"It's almost like having X-ray vision," said Dr. Thomas R. Watters of the National Air and Space Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Washington. "Besides finding previously unknown impact basins, we've also confirmed that some of the subtle topographic depressions mapped previously in the lowlands are related to impact features."

Studies of how Mars evolved aid understanding of early Earth. Some signs of the forces at work a few billion years ago are more evident on Mars because, on Earth, many of them have been obliterated during Earth's more active resurfacing by tectonic activity.

Watters and nine co-authors report the findings in the Dec. 14, 2006 issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers used the orbiter's Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding, which was provided to the European Mars mission by NASA and the Italian Space Agency. The instrument transmits radio waves that pass through the Martian surface and bounce off features in the subsurface with electrical properties that contrast with those of materials that buried them.

The findings bring planetary scientists closer to understanding one of the most enduring mysteries about the geologic evolution of the planet. In contrast to Earth, Mars shows a striking difference between its northern and southern hemispheres. Almost the entire southern hemisphere has rough, heavily cratered highlands, while most of the northern hemisphere is smoother and lower in elevation.

Since the impacts that cause craters can happen anywhere on a planet, the areas with fewer craters are generally interpreted as younger surfaces where geological processes have erased the impact scars. The abundance of buried craters that the radar has detected beneath Mars' smooth northern plains means the underlying crust of the northern hemisphere is extremely old, "perhaps as ancient as the heavily cratered highland crust in the southern hemisphere."

Learning about the ancient lowland crust has been challenging because that crust was buried first by vast amounts of volcanic lava and then by sediments carried by episodic flood waters and wind.

Co-authors are Carl J. Leuschen, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; Jeffrey J. Plaut, Ali Safaeinili and Anton B. Ivanov of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Giovanni Picardi, "La Sapienza" University of Rome, Italy; Stephen M. Clifford, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston; William M. Farrell, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Roger J. Phillips, Washington State University, St. Louis; and Ellen R. Stofan, Proxemy Research, Laytonsville, Md.

Additional information about the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding is available at . JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages NASA's roles in Mars Express for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

The Center for Earth and Planetary Studies is the scientific research unit within the Collections and Research Department of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. The Center's scientists perform original research and outreach activities on topics covering planetary science, terrestrial geophysics and the remote sensing of environmental change.


Get off my sand dune!

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

News Release: 2006-148 Dec. 13, 2006

NASA Spacecraft Read Layered Clues to Changes on Mars

SAN FRANCISCO -- Layers on Mars are yielding history lessons revealed by instruments flying overhead and rolling across the surface.Some of the first radar and imaging results from NASA's newest Mars spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, show details in layers of ice-rich deposits near the poles. Observed variations in the layers' thickness and composition will yield information about recent climate cycles on the red planet.NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has photographed patterns in the layering of crater-wall cliffs that are the clearest evidence of ancient sand dunes the rover has seen since arriving at Mars nearly three years ago. The science team for Opportunity's twin, Spirit, is using new orbital images of the rover's surroundings to interpret how some rocks with minerals altered by water fit into the area's complex layered structure."The combination of instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is such a great advantage," said Dr. Jack Mustard of Brown University, Providence, R.I. He is deputy principal investigator for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, a mineral-identifying instrument on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Researchers are using mineral information from analyses of spectrometer observations, combined with images from the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, to seek the source of the mineral gypsum in dunes near the Martian north pole and clay minerals elsewhere. Gypsum and clay minerals are indicators of formerly wet conditions.Other new images from that camera show mysterious pitting in the layered terrain near the north pole. Nearby, a steep slope exposing the layers appears to be shedding blocks of icy material that disappear instead of accumulating at the bottom of the slope."Observations of the polar layered deposits are telling us about the material properties there," said Dr. Ken Herkenhoff of the U.S. Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Ariz. "These deposits record relatively recent climate variations on Mars, like recent ice ages on Earth."The Shallow Subsurface Radar instrument on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has begun probing through similar layered deposits at Mars' south pole. "The radar is penetrating through the entire thickness of these deposits and revealing the fine-scale internal layering," said Dr. Roger Phillips of Washington University, St. Louis, the deputy team leader for that instrument.

Far from the poles, Opportunity is navigating the scalloped rim of Victoria crater about half a mile in diameter, stopping at promontories along the way to look at cliff walls of adjacent promontories. The top part of the stack of layers exposed in the cliffs appears to be rocky rubble thrown outward by the impact that dug the crater. "We see an abrupt transition between the jumbled-up material and intact layers below it that are still in place from before the impact," said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the rovers. Some of the intact layering resembles fossilized dunes in the U.S. Southwest. Spirit recently found water-altered minerals in disturbed soils and granular rocks near where the rover spent the Martian winter. An image of the region from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is aiding interpretation of how different parts of the terrain, such as a bright platform nicknamed "Home Plate," are related to others. "It appears likely that these rocks came from one or more volcanic explosions that produced 'Home Plate,'" said Dr. Ray Arvidson, also of Washington University, deputy principal investigator for the rovers.Dr. John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for the rovers, said, "The biggest news about the health of the rovers is that it is essentially unchanged from nine months ago. Each rover has operated more than 1,000 Martian days on the surface of Mars. They are well past their original design life of 90 Martian days, and there is always the possibility that a critical component on either rover could stop functioning at any time, so we operate the rovers with that in mind and value each additional day they continue to work."Researchers are describing the latest findings of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the twin rovers today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. New images from the orbiter and rovers can be seen at: .

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Exploration Rover missions for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the orbiter. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., provided and operates the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the instrument was built by Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp., Boulder, Colo. The Shallow Subsurface Radar was provided by the Italian Space Agency and its operations are led by the INFOCOM Dept., University of Rome "La Sapienza."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Meteor shower starting Wednesday night.

Lava Tube on Mars

Look out below

Meteors on Mars. Another thing for visitors to worry about...

Titan's Massive Mountains

Sounds like we need a Titan orbiter.

Carolina Martinez 818-354-9382
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

News Release: 2006-147 Dec. 12, 2006

Massive Mountain Range Imaged on Saturn's Moon Titan

The tallest mountains ever seen on Titan -- coated with layers of organic material and blanketed by clouds -- have been imaged on Saturn's moon Titan by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

"We see a massive mountain range that kind of reminds me of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the western United States. This mountain range is continuous and is nearly 100 miles long," said Dr. Bob Brown, team leader of the Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

During an Oct. 25 flyby designed to obtain the highest resolution infrared views of Titan yet, Cassini resolved surface features as small as 400 meters (1,300 feet). The images reveal a large mountain range, dunes, and a deposit of material that resembles a volcanic flow. These data, together with radar data from previous flybys, provide new information on the height and composition of geologic features on Titan.

If Titan were Earth, these mountains would lie south of the equator, somewhere in New Zealand. The range is about 150 kilometers long (93 miles) and 30 kilometers (19 miles) wide and about 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile) high. Deposits of bright, white material, which may be methane "snow" or exposures of some other organic material, lie at the top of the mountain ridges.

"These mountains are probably as hard as rock, made of icy materials, and are coated with different layers of organics," said Dr. Larry Soderblom, Cassini interdisciplinary scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Ariz.

He added, "There seem to be layers and layers of various coats of organic 'paint' on top of each other on these mountain tops, almost like a painter laying the background on a canvas. Some of this organic gunk falls out of the atmosphere as rain, dust, or smog onto the valley floors and mountain tops, which are coated with dark spots that appear to be brushed, washed, scoured and moved around the surface."

The mountains probably formed when material welled up from below to fill the gaps opened when tectonic plates pull apart, similar to the way mid-ocean ridges are formed on Earth.

Separately, the radar and infrared data are difficult to interpret, but together they are a powerful combination. In the infrared images, one can see the shadows of the mountains, and in radar, one can see their shape. But when combined, scientists begin to see variations on the mountains, which is essential to unraveling the mysteries of the geologic processes on Titan.

A fan-shaped feature, possibly a remnant of a volcanic flow, is also visible in the infrared images. The radar instrument imaged this flow and a circular feature from which the flow seems to emanate on a previous flyby, but not in this level of detail.

"The evidence is mounting that this circular feature is a volcano," said Dr. Rosaly Lopes, Cassini radar team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "With radar data alone, we identified it as a possible volcano, but the combination of radar and infrared makes it much clearer."

Near the wrinkled, mountainous terrain are clouds in Titan's southern mid latitudes whose source continues to elude scientists. These clouds are probably methane droplets that may form when the atmosphere on Titan cools as it is pushed over the mountains by winds.

The composition of dunes that run across much of Titan is also much clearer. "The dunes seem to consist of sand grains made of organics, built on water-ice bedrock, and there may also be some snow and bright deposits," Brown said.

Titan is a complex place and scientists are uncovering the secrets of the surface, one flyby at a time. Scientists hope to get more clues from the next Titan flyby, on Dec. 12.

For the new infrared images of the mountains visit: and and . Additional information on NASA news from the American Geophysical Union conference is at .

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer team is based at the University of Arizona where this image was produced. The radar instrument team is based at JPL, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

Own a piece of the rock!

Mars that is...

I agree with this author. I would buy some land on Mars.

Review of NASA's "Why the Moon"

Good discussion of the issues.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Mars Rover Update

Status (Spirit is driving again after a long winter's nap, Opportunity drove to Cape St. Mary along Victoria Crater):

No new pictures.

The Moon is a waystation to Mars

and beyond!

Phoenix Mars Lander

Launching to a planet (Mars) near you in August 2007!

Landing in May 2008.

Movie about Mars Water

NASA's press release about water on Mars

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2006-145 Dec. 6, 2006

NASA Images Suggest Water Still Flows in Brief Spurts on Mars

WASHINGTON - NASA photographs have revealed bright new deposits seen in two gullies on Mars that suggest water carried sediment through them sometime during the past seven years.

"These observations give the strongest evidence to date that water still flows occasionally on the surface of Mars," said Dr. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, Washington.

Liquid water, as opposed to the water ice and water vapor known to exist at Mars, is considered necessary for life. The new findings heighten intrigue about the potential for microbial life on Mars. The Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor provided the new evidence. The deposits appear in images it took in 2004 and 2005 but not in a 1999 image of one site or a 2001 image of the other site.

"The shapes of these deposits are what you would expect to see if the material were carried by flowing water," said Dr. Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. "They have finger-like branches at the downhill end and are easily diverted around small obstacles." Malin is principal investigator for the camera and lead author of a report about the findings published in the journal Science.

The atmosphere of Mars is so thin and the temperature so cold that liquid water cannot persist at the surface. It would rapidly evaporate or freeze. Researchers propose that water could remain liquid long enough, after breaking out from an underground source, to carry debris downslope before totally freezing. The two fresh deposits are each several hundred meters, or yards, long.

The light tone of the deposits could be from surface frost continuously replenished by ice within the body of the deposit. Another possibility is a salty crust, which would be a sign of water's effects in concentrating the salts. If the deposits had resulted from dry dust slipping down the slope, they would likely be dark, based on the dark tones of dust freshly disturbed by rover tracks, dust devils and fresh craters on Mars.

Mars Global Surveyor has discovered tens of thousands of gullies on slopes inside craters and other depressions on Mars. Most gullies are at latitudes of 30 degrees or higher. Malin and his team first reported the discovery of the gullies in 2000. To look for changes that might indicate present-day flow of water, his camera team repeatedly imaged hundreds of the sites. One pair of images showed a gully that appeared after mid-2002. That site was on a sand dune, and the gully-cutting process was interpreted as a dry flow of sand.

Today’s announcement is the first to reveal newly deposited material apparently carried by fluids after earlier imaging of the same gullies. The two sites are inside craters in the Terra Sirenum and the Centauri Montes regions of southern Mars.

"These fresh deposits suggest that at some places and times on present-day Mars, liquid water is emerging from beneath the ground and briefly flowing down the slopes. This possibility raises questions about how the water would stay melted below ground, how widespread it might be, and whether there's a below-ground wet habitat conducive to life. Future missions may provide the answers," said Malin.

Besides looking for changes in gullies, the orbiter's camera team assessed the rate at which new impact craters appear. The camera photographed approximately 98 percent of Mars in 1999 and approximately 30 percent of the planet was photographed again in 2006. The newer images show 20 fresh impact craters, ranging in diameter from 2 meters (7 feet) to 148 meters (486 feet) that were not present approximately seven years earlier. These results have important implications for determining the ages of features on the surface of Mars. These results also approximately match predictions and imply that Martian terrain with few craters is truly young.

Mars Global Surveyor began orbiting Mars in 1997. The spacecraft is responsible for many important discoveries. NASA has not heard from the spacecraft since early November. Attempts to contact it continue. Its unprecedented longevity has allowed monitoring Mars for over several years past its projected lifetime.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, manages the Mars Global Surveyor mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

Russia wants to go to the Moon with NASA

I'm not sure what they could contribute unless the Constellation project was substantially revised.

Water on Mars!

Mars Global Surveyor last long enough to produce this interesting result. Hopefully Mars Polar Lander (launching in 2007) will give us some more clues.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Canadian Meteor may be older than the Sun

That is a startling claim.

Space Tethers to get the Moon and Back?

Ask the Russians:

I'll believe it when I see it. Basic tether testing in Low Earth Orbit has been very problematic.

Another article about NASA Moon plans

Telescopes on the Moon?

My guess is it will be a long time before there are any telescopes on the Moon. The free space telescopes (like the Hubble) work fine. There will also be advances in Earth based telescopes.

Large solar flare

Not pointed at the earth, but look for a sunspot soon.

Made in the Shade!

A novel way to find new planets:

Who needs the Terrestrial Planet Finder?

Alternatives to "The Stick" for Project Constellation

The direct launch idea is interesting:

but still takes two launches to return to the Moon, so it sounds like you are only saving the development of a separate heavy lift launcher. The problem with that is that we need a heavy lift launcher anyway.

Instead of the Moon, why not go to L2?

I don't think it is going to happen because the Moon gives us practice at building things out of local materials and has the potential for "living off the land" if we can find water to extract. L2 is just space...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Spirit and Viking from Mars orbit

The new MRO pictures in are in:

Water ice on Ceres?

Hopefully Dawn (launching in June 2007) will find out:

Leonids hitting the Moon

Future Moon walkers watch out!

Stable Moon orbits are tricky

Who knew?

Blame it on the Earth. Luckily an epliptical orbit will work.

Pluto Probe Update

Some problem with thrusters (using up too much fuel)

Sounds like a lot of good science is going to happen during Jupiter flyby.

MRO spots Opportunity Landing Site

Other landers (including Viking) to follow.

NASA answers: Why the Moon?

Don't forget, "On to Mars!".

Here are the briefing slides:

They do mention Mars in there.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ohio Spaceport

Perfect for John Glenn and Neil Armstrong!