August 1st, 2013

Happy New Mars Year! The Planetary Society

They’re too far apart to have a party, but today Curiosity and Opportunity could have rung in the New Mars Year. Today Mars reached a solar longitude of zero degrees and the Sun crossed Mars’ equator, heralding the arrival of spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern hemisphere. This is the date that Martian climatologists have identified as the zero-point for Mars’ calendar. Mars Year 31 was a good one, with Opportunity active at the rim of Endeavour crater and Curiosity arriving at Gale. Mars Year 32 should be even better, as Opportunity rolls up Solander point and maybe even Cape Tribulation, and Curiosity should explore the rocks in the mountain that drew her to Gale in the first place. And there’ll be two orbiters arriving (we hope). MAVEN and the Mars Orbiter Mission’s capabilities should warm the hearts of the climatologists who care about how one Mars year differs from the next enough to need to make up a calendar to mark their passage!

April 3rd, 2013

Ice Cap to Ice Cap with Mars Odyssey The Planetary Society

On March 23, 2013 the Mars 2001 Odyssey spacecraft completed 50,000 orbits around the Red Planet. If it’s not a mixed metaphor to call a solar-powered robotic orbiter a workhorse, then Mars Odyssey is a serious contender for the title of Workhorse of the Solar System. In December 2010 Odyssey broke the previous record to become the longest-working spacecraft at Mars.
In addition to mapping the planet, Odyssey also serves as a crucial communication link, relaying signals between Earth and several rovers as they land and drive on the Martian surface.
Since the spacecraft entered orbit in October of 2001, the teams managing Odyssey’s thermal emission imaging system have captured nearly 670,000 images in visible and infrared light.

June 23rd, 2007

Mars Science Laboratory is going to be HUGE The Planetary Society

Yesterday I deposited the baby with her grandmother and went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a press junket to the opening of their new Mars Yard. (I did ask if I could bring Anahita along but I guess it’s too complicated to get kids under 12 access to the Lab. Too bad, I think she would have enjoyed it!)
The Mars Yard is an outdoor facility where the robotics lab test-drives their rovers. For a long time, it has been an area roughly the size of a softball infield, perfectly flat, peppered with rocks ranging in size from pebbles to a soccer ball or so. This was adequate for developing and testing the Rocky series of rovers that led to Sojourner, the subsequent FIDO and its sister rovers, and the Mars Exploration Rover, but once the rovers were on Mars the robotics lab ran into a problem: there were no sloping surfaces in the Mars Yard for test-driving. They had to truck a bunch of dirt in to the loading dock of the building where they housed the engineering model to build a slope. Clearly, the Mars Yard needed upgrading. Yesterday’s opening showed us the new-and-improved Mars Yard, which was six times larger, contained much larger rocks, and included one area with a variably sloping surface.
All of which was interesting, but that wasn’t the best part of the day. They used the opportunity to unveil to the press the mobility model of the next Mars rover, Mars Science Laboratory or MSL.

June 1st, 2007

The next generation Mars rover The Planetary Society

Go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website and check out the newest video showing the Mars Science Laboratory mission, and you’ll see the latest and greatest design for a roving mission to Mars. I’ve clipped and posted a few screen caps below.
The first part of the video shows the landing, which will not be at all like the last three successful Mars landings. Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity all landed by means of an absolutely crazy scheme where the whole hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars’ worth of spacecraft was encased in airbags and smashed at a relatively high speed onto the surface of Mars, bouncing a dozen or more times until rolling to a stop. That system produced three successful landings in three attempts, so the engineers clearly knew what they were doing, but I have got to say that, to me, that seems like no way to treat a spacecraft.
Mars Science Laboratory (abbreviated MSL) is much bigger than Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity and absolutely cannot use the same landing technique, so the engineers had to go back to the drawing board. They’re using a heat shield and parachute to decelerate through Mars’ upper and middle atmosphere, the same as Pathfinder and the rovers, but after that the landing system changes. In the video, you’ll see the heat shield fall off and — surprise! — there’s no lander; while MSL is still way up in the air, the six wheels are already out and ready to touch Martian soil. Retrorockets fire, slowing the descent, much like Viking. The descent slows and slows. Then the rover is lowered on cables to the ground as the backshell — retrorockets still firing — floats overhead.

February 6th, 2007

Last Chance to Hitch a Ride to Mars The Planetary Society

Only a few days remain to fly your name – or those of family members and friends – to Mars.
This summer, The Planetary Society will send a DVD containing the names of individuals from around the world to Mars aboard NASA’s first Scout mission, Phoenix. Once a name is entered on The Planetary Society website, a certificate can be downloaded, stating the name’s inclusion on the archival message from Earth to Mars. So far, about 200,000 people from more than 70 countries have signed up to send their names.
The deadline for submitting names has just been extended to February 12, 2007 at Noon, Pacific time. People everywhere are encouraged to submit names to fly to Mars, including those of children and grandchildren, classmates, or even a favorite family pet.
The disk will also include “Visions of Mars,” a collection of 19th and 20th century stories and art by some of Earth’s visionaries.

April 3rd, 2006

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Begins Aerobraking The Planetary Society

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) began the six-month aerobraking phase with rehearsals or drag passes last Friday and tomorrow night the spacecraft will dip down for its first “taste” of the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
“We’re putting the spacecraft through its paces,” said Peter Xaypraseuth, MRO flight engineer in an interview with The Planetary Society earlier today. “We’re telling it to do the exact things it would be doing for each upcoming aerobraking pass, except that we’re actually not going to be touching or sensing the atmosphere. It’s kind of a mock rehearsal.” In other words, everything is real, he said, “except the altitude.”

May 31st, 2005

Scientists Solve Mystery of Mars’ Off-Center South Pole The Planetary Society

For more than 150 years, astronomers and skywatchers have noticed that Mars’ south pole is off center, and Mariner 4 confirmed it in the mid-1960s with the first close-range images of the Red Planet. But why the cap is offset from its geographical pole has remained an enigma all these years — until two summers ago when a group of planetary observers and theoreticians decided to take on the challenge at the first annual Mars Polar Atmospheric Interactions Workshop, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now, with publication of their research earlier this month* the mystery is officially solved — and not so surprisingly Mars’ dynamic topography is at the heart of it.

February 11th, 2005

Planetary Society Invites Congress on Martian Journey The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society will present

November 19th, 2004

The Case for Methane Expands, but Theories of Abundance and Source Diverge The Planetary Society

The case for the presence of methane in Mars’ atmosphere expanded, but the theories about its abundance and source floated in different directions as Vladimir A. Krasnopolsky, of Catholic University of America, and Michael J. Mumma, of NASA, updated their previous findings at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) annual meeting held in Louisville, Kentucky last week. Using Earth as the analogue, Krasnopolsky maintained that the methane is uniformly distributed in the atmosphere of Mars, and took the hypothetical leap that living bacteria under the surface are “a plausible source” of the odorless and colorless gas. Mumma, on the other hand, reported the methane to be significantly “enhanced” in some areas, and veered out of the (Earth) box, suggesting that distinctly Martian processes may be in play.

May 3rd, 2004

Aim for Mars! The Planetary Society

The proposed U.S. national space policy would direct NASA to shift its focus from low Earth orbit to the human exploration of the solar system. Robotic trailblazers, such as Spirit and Opportunity now on Mars, can prepare the way, but they cannot replace the human explorers that will one day walk the canyons and plains of the Red Planet. For over 30 years-since the last Apollo astronaut left the Moon-human explorers have been restricted to circling their home world. Now is the time to direct our vision to other worlds. It is time to Aim for Mars! The Planetary Society is leading the drive to redirect human space endeavors through this bold new vision. You can take action today to ensure that the vision becomes reality.