Earth’s orbit is carrying it to a rendezvous with a planetary neighbor in August that is virtually unprecedented in all of human history. On Aug. 27, Earth and Mars will share what in celestial terms could be considered a face-off when the planets pass within 34.7 million miles of each other in a phenomenon astronomers call opposition — when Earth reaches a point on a direct line between the sun and one of the other planets. Although opposition is a routine event — it occurs between Mars and Earth about every two years and 50 days — this particular one carries a special distinction. Astronomers have calculated it will be the closest proximity of Earth and the red planet in 73,000 years.
Spying the ‘red planet’ up close United Press International
NASA pitching nuclear power for probes United Press International
The U.S. government wants to restart research on nuclear propulsion systems for space probes and buy radioactive plutonium generators to power the robots for long-duration missions where the sun doesn’t shine. “It’s been a long time since you could say the N-word in Washington,” said NASA’s space sciences chief Ed Weiler. “But this is the right thing to do.” With nuclear propulsion, even the farthest corners of the solar system, such as Pluto, which has never been explored, will be within reach, say scientists who have been pushing for a new research and development initiative for years. NASA has no plans to use nuclear systems to propel probes off the launch pad. Rather, the nuclear reactors, which like nuclear power plants on Earth would use enriched uranium, would not be started up until they were in orbit.
Mars may have underground water reservoirs United Press International
Mars may conceal giant reservoirs of liquid water underneath its dusty surface, which future explorers might one day tap for long-term expeditions on the red planet. “What a perfect medium for life on Mars,” added Mars expert Bill Hartmann at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. “These findings may have huge implications for the search for life there.” Evidence for underground aquifers is found in decades-old pictures of craters taken by the Mars Viking Orbiter, reports a research team led by Nadine Barlow of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. These craters, ranging from 5 to 50 kilometers (3 to 30 miles) in diameter, were blasted out from Martian soil by impacts with meteors. Scientists have suggested the patterns in the ejecta — the debris around the impact craters — indicate the presence of water underground.
Scientists report ‘alien’ life United Press International
Scientists in Wales said they discovered what may be a tiny form of primitive alien life that a passing comet may have dropped into Earth’s atmosphere, London’s Daily Mail newspaper reported today. Researchers said that in the filter of a high-flying balloon operated by the Indian Space Research Organization, they found a strain of bacteria unlike anything on Earth. The bacteria were found at an altitude of 10 miles and scientists from the ISRO, Cardiff University and the University of Wales College of Medicine said it may have come from a comet on a close approach to earth, according to the Daily Mail. Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe, who is based at Cardiff University, said the discovery marked “the first time we have had direct evidence for the hypothesis that comets seed life on other planets.”
NASA knew Mars Polar Lander doomed United Press International
The disappearance of NASA’s Mars Polar Lander last December was no surprise to space officials, UPI has learned. Prior to its arrival at Mars, a review board had already identified a fatal design flaw with the braking thrusters that doomed the mission, but NASA withheld this conclusion from the public. The probe was lost while attempting to land near the martian south pole on December 3.
NASA denies hiding Mars probe flaws United Press International
A NASA spokesman vigorously denied a United Press International article that NASA knew that the Mars Polar Orbiter was doomed prior to its December crash into Mars but kept the information from the public. Brian Welch, director of public affairs at NASA headquarters in Washington, said “we think the story is whacko in every particular.”
Russians, NASA meet secretly to plan manned Mars missions United Press International
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration quietly concluded a three-day seminar with Russian space experts Friday, to discuss better ways to send humans to Mars.