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Phoenix Lands on Mars

After a long, strange trip, Phoenix has landed near the Martian north pole.

The image from orbit of the lander descending under parachutes is pretty darned cool.

Not So Risky

Aw, darn. Better luck next time.

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Looks like Spirt and Opportunity (and their orbital brethren) may have excellent seats for some upcoming fireworks:

“We’re used to dealing with odds like one-in-a-million,” Chesley said. “Something with a one-in-a-hundred chance makes us sit up straight in our chairs.”

The asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, is about 160 feet across, which puts it in the range of the space rock that exploded over Siberia. That explosion, the largest impact event in recent history, felled 80 million trees over 830 square miles.

The Tunguska object broke up in midair, but the Martian atmosphere is so thin that an asteroid would probably plummet to the surface, digging a crater half a mile wide, Chesley said.

The impact would probably send dust high into the atmosphere, scientists said. Depending on where the asteroid hit, such a plume might be visible through telescopes on Earth, Chesley said.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is mapping the planet, would have a front-row seat. And NASA’s two JPL-built rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, might be able to take pictures from the ground.

And we thought we were lucky when Galileo was almost in position for Shoemaker-Levy…if it happens, this ought to make for some fun pictures, not to mention some interesting science.

It’s a pity we couldn’t steer a bunch more asteroids (or more appropriately, comets) to hit Mars. A few billion tons of water injected into its atmosphere might do wonders for near-future settlement prospects.

I’m curious, though, as to where this particular asteroid came from — is it one that astronomers have known about for a while, which was only recently perturbed? Or has it only recently appeared on the scene? If the latter, what is the likelihood that a similar asteroid could appear unexpectedly, giving us only six weeks to prepare for a possible impact (such that we could)?

Funny Red Christmas Star

It turns out this year’s Mars opposition will occur on Christmas Eve Day.

Holes on Mars

Looks like Odyssey may have found caves on Mars.

The description seems quite different from caves one finds on Earth (these caves are on Mars, after all), sounding more like sinkholes. Being at high altitudes on Arsia Mons and 300-800ft across, they’re probably too remote and too large to use for early settlements.

Problems With MRO?

There are few things in life as frustrating as taking a long, long-planned, and expensive trip, only to discover once you arrive that your camera is on the fritz:

In November, scientists operating the probe’s high-resolution camera noticed an increase in image “noise,” such as bad pixels.

A problem also developed in an instrument that maps temperature, ice clouds and dust in the atmosphere. Scientists discovered the instrument had a skewed field of view. The errors became more frequent last month, and engineers have decided to temporarily halt work with the instrument.

The RMN appears to have extracted a little more detail out of nearby Ball Aerospace:

NASA engineers and their partners at Boulder’s Ball Aerospace are troubleshooting a “serious” problem with the most powerful camera on the $720 million Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter…

The camera contains 14 light-sensitive chips, known as charge-coupled devices or CCDs, that convert starlight into digital signals. Problems have surfaced with the electronics attached to seven of the 14 CCDs, said lead HiRISE scientist Alfred McEwen, of the University of Arizona.

Electronic noise in the system is degrading picture quality, though NASA said in a Wednesday news release that the current impact is small. The big concern is that the situation will worsen.

Warming the camera’s electronics before taking HiRISE pictures reduces or eliminates the noise. That’s how mission engineers are coping – for now.

“We have mitigation by warming things up, so the chances are we can keep returning useful data for years to come,” said McEwen, who characterized the problem as “serious.”

“In a worst-case scenario, things are going to get worse and worse until there’s no longer anything we can do,” McEwen said. “In the worst case, it would spread to all of them (the CCDs), and we couldn’t take useful images anymore.”

Happy Birthday, MGS

Mars Global Surveyor’s mission will be ten years old on Tuesday.

UPDATE: Uh-oh…looks like MGS’ ten-year warranty must have expired, right on schedule:

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor has been out of contact with Earth for nearly a week and engineers tried Friday to re-establish communication with the craft, which may be showing its age after 10 years in space.

The space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena lost contact with the probe for two days last week, then received a weak carrier signal with no data on Sunday. Since then, Surveyor has not confirmed receiving a command to point one of its transmitters to Earth, project manager Tom Thorpe said.

Lost Moon Tapes Discovered…

…just not quite the tapes NASA was looking for: Lost Moon landing tapes discovered

After addressing Earth, the American astronaut set up a package of scientific instruments, including a dust detector designed by an Australian physicist. The data collected by the detector was sent back to ground stations on Earth and recorded on magnetic tapes – copies of which are as rare as the ‘misplaced’ original video footage of the 1969 touchdown.

Last week, up to 100 tapes, clearly marked “NASA Manned Space Center”, turned up after a search in a dusty basement of a physics lecture hall at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. One of the old tapes has been sent to the American space agency to see whether it can be deciphered and ‘stripped’ of any important data which may have survived the ravages of time.

The data are a daily record of the environmental conditions and changes taking place at the lunar site after the Eagle landed safely in the Sea of Tranquility. The most important data were collected after the lunar module blasted off the surface later that day, leaving the still-running instrumentation behind.

The information showed that scientific instruments could be affected by setting them up around landing or take-off sites. They also proved that NASA did go to the Moon.

Shouting at the Cosmos

David Brin looks at the SETI community’s new obsession, and wonders if it’s such a great idea to do this without discussion.

More Mars Imaging to Come

MRO’s CRISM imaging spectrometer instrument has been activated. Shouldn’t be long before we start getting some really interesting information about the planet’s surface composition:

CRISM will look for areas that were wet long enough to leave a mineral signature on the surface, searching for the spectral traces of aqueous and hydrothermal deposits, and mapping the geology, composition, and stratigraphy of surface features. The imager will map areas on the martian surface as small as 60 feet (about 18 meters) across, with the orbiter at its average altitude of about 190 miles (300 kilometers).

Offering greater capability to map spectral variations than any similar instrument sent to another planet, CRISM will read 544 ?colors? in reflected sunlight to detect minerals in the surface. Its highest resolution is about 20 times sharper than any previous look at Mars in near-infrared wavelengths. By identifying sites most likely to have contained water, CRISM data will help determine the best potential landing sites for future Mars missions seeking fossils or even traces of life.

2012 Prometheus Award Finalist

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A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.

April 2014
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