News From Space: Walk on Mars with VR

oculus-rift-omni-treadmill-mars-nasa-640x353Virtual Reality, which was once the stuff of a cyberpunk wet dream, has grown somewhat stagnant in recent years. Large, bulky headsets, heavy cables, and graphics which were low definition and two-dimensional just didn’t seem to capture the essence of the concept. However, thanks to the Oculus Rift, the technology known as Virtual Reality has been getting a new lease on life.

Though it is still in the development phase, the makers of the Oculus Rift has mounted some impressive demos. Though still somewhat limited – using it with a mouse is counter-intuitive, and using it with a keyboard prevents using your body to scan virtual environments –  the potential is certainly there and the only question at this point is how to expand on it and give users the ability to do more.

Oculus-RiftOne group that is determined to explore its uses is NASA, who used it in combination  with an Omni treadmill to simulate walking on Mars. Already, the combination of these two technologies has allowed gamers to do some pretty impressive things, like pretend they are in an immersive environment, move, and interact with it (mainly shooting and blowing things up), which is what VR is meant to allow.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, however, went a step beyond this by combining the Omni and a stereoscopic 360-degree panorama of Mars to create a walking-on-Mars simulator. The NASA JPL team was able to give depth to the image so users could walk around an image of the Martian landscape. This is perhaps the closest normal folks will ever get to walking around on a “real” alien planet.

omni_treadmillAlong with the Martian terrain, JPL created a demo wherein the user could wander around the International Space Station. The JPL team also found that for all the sophisticated imagery beamed back to Earth, it is no substitute for being immersed in an environment. Using a rig similar to the Rift and Omni could help researchers better orient themselves with alien terrain, thus being able to better plan missions and experiments.

Looking to the long run, this kind of technology could be a means for creating “telexploration” (or Immersive Space Exploration) – a process where astronauts would be able to explore alien environments by connecting to rover’s or satellites camera feed and controlling their movements. In a way that is similar to teleconferencing, people would be able to conduct true research on an alien environment while feeling like they were actually in there.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedAlready, scientists at the Mars Science Laboratory have been doing just that with Curiosity and Opportunity, but the potential to bring this immersive experience to others is something many NASA and other space scientists want to see in the near future. What’s more, it is a cheap alternative to actually sending manned mission to other planets and star systems.

By simply beaming images back and allowing users to remotely control the robotic platform that is sending them, the best of both worlds can be had at a fraction of the cost. Whats more, it will allow people other than astronauts to witness and feel involved in the process of exploration, something that social media and live broadcasts from space is already allowing.

As usual, it seems that the age of open and democratic space travel is on its way, my friends. And as usual, there’s a video clip of the Oculus Rift and the Omni treadmill bringing a walk on Mars to life. Check it out:


Mercury Mapped for the First Time

mercury_mapMercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System and has the closest proximity to our sun. As a result, it’s one of the most neglected when it comes to scientific study. While Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn have been probed and photographed in exquisite detail during the space age, the closest planet to the Sun has had to make do with a few flybys from the Mariner 10 spacecraft in the early 1970s.

However, that is now changing thanks to NASA’s Messenger spacecraft. In addition to confirming the existence of ice and organic molecules back in November, the probe has also transmitted thousands of images of the planet over the past year. These have allowed NASA personnel to construct the first high-resolution maps of the planet, its own high-resolution maps, down to the scale of kilometers.

Global Map Of Mercury From Messenger.According to David Blewett, a scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University and part of the Messenger team, part of the reason it has taken more than 30 years to revisit the planet since the Mariner 10 flybys was because a lack of public interest. Messenger, he claims, has changed all that. Speaking ahead of a briefing on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Blewett had this say:

“Messenger has revealed Mercury to be a fascinating, dynamic and complex world. We know now that it is an oddball planet. It’s the smallest of the eight planets but has the highest density. The interior structure is different than the other planets. The geologic surface is different to the moon and Mars. The surface composition is enigmatic because … it consists of rock types that we don’t have much experience with. It has a global, Earth-like magnetic field, Venus and Mars do not.”

messenger_mercuryThe new global map is an enhanced image that shows the different compositions of rocks on the surface of Mercury by color-coding them. The more orange areas are volcanic plains while the make-up of the rocks in the deep blue areas is unknown. Though Messenger was able to detect an abundance of individual elements on Mercury’s surface – including iron, titanium, sulphur and potassium – without rock samples to study, scientists cannot determine the exact compounds or minerals in which those elements are arranged.

But the biggest surprise came on the surface, where there was an abundance of relatively volatile elements such as potassium and sulphur was seen to be very high. Most of the models for the formation of Mercury predict that these elements should have evaporated away during the planet’s formation. So in addition to learning more about its surface features, scientists are now presented with the opportunity to study and learn more about the planet’s early history as well.

But of course, much of that information and research are going to have to wait for future generations of Rovers. These are likely to be similar in nature to Curiosity, in that they are remote controlled, networked robots with internal labs. But unlike those currently combing the Red Planet, these ones will have to be able to withstand surface temperatures in excess of 400 C and some dangerous surface activity. Hard to know exactly when NASA will be rolling any of those out, but the simplest answer is, not too bloody soon!

Check out the video of Mercury’s new color map as it rotates to show its fully-detailed surface. And FYI, this bit of breaking news has become my 900th post! Woohoo!


The Latest From Mars: Water, Drilling, and Night Photos

curiosity_drilling2And we’re back from Mars with another slew of updates and breaking news! It seems that ever since the Curiosity Rover landed back in early August, the revelations and interesting facts have been pouring in non-stop. With each bit of news, we learn a little more about the Red Planet’s composition, its history, and how both are so similar to our own.

And in recent weeks, ever since Curiosity moved into Yellowknife Bay, there have been a number of interesting developments. One came back in January when the Rover found a series of calcium-rich deposits, similar to the kind observed here on Earth. These types of deposits are observed wherever and whenever water circulates through cracks and rock fractures. This is just the latest in a long string of discoveries which support the conclusion that Mars was once home to vast rivers.

curiosity_calciumThe images above show the similarity between the sulfate-rich veins seen by Curiosity rover to sulfate-rich veins seen on Earth. The view on the left is a mosaic of two shots from the remote micro-imager on Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument which were taken on Dec. 14, 2012, or the 126th sol (Martian day) of operations. The image on the right is from the Egyptian desert here on Earth, which a pocket knife included for scale.

curiosity_night1The next bit of news came on January 25th when Curiosity’s high resolution robotic arm camera – also known as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – snapped its first set of nighttime images. The images were illuminated by both an ultraviolet and white light emitting LED’s (shown above and below). The rock outcropping – named “Sayunei”, located at the site of the “John Klein” outcrop – was just one of many to be found in Yellowknife Bay where Curiosity has been conducting ongoing surveys.

curiosity_nightIn this case, it was breaking the rock apart in an effort to try and expose fresh material, free of obscuring dust. Once exposed, the pictures were meant to determine the internal makeup of the rock. “The purpose of acquiring observations under ultraviolet illumination was to look for fluorescent minerals,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. “If something looked green, yellow, orange or red under the ultraviolet illumination, that’d be a more clear-cut indicator of fluorescence.”

In addition, certain classes of organic compounds are also fluorescent. Yes, that search continues!

Curiosity_drillAnd last, but not least, came the news at the end of January that indicated that Curiosity’s long-awaited test of its high-powered drill will finally be taking place. This first drilling operation entailed hammering a test hole into a flat rock at the John Klien formation for the purposes of making sure everything works as needed. If things pan out, then the team would conduct many more tests and collect the drillings for analysis by the Rover’s CheMin and SAM analytical labs in the coming days.

In anticipation of the planned drilling operation, the rover carried out a series of four ‘pre-load’ tests on Monday (Jan. 27), whereby the rover placed the drill bit onto Martian surface targets at the John Klein outcrop and pressed down on the drill with the robotic arm. Engineers then checked the data to see whether the force applied matched predictions. The next step was an overnight pre-load test, to gain assurance that the large temperature change from day to night at the rover’s location would not add excessively to stress on the arm while it is pressing on the drill.

curiosity_drilling1The photo above shows the before and after shots of the rock where the drill conducted its hammering. And as you can see, the rock powered and is of a different color inside – slate gray as opposed to rust red. If the MSL lab deems the slab suitable, a number of test holes are likely to be drilled – using the rotation as well the percussive action – before a powdered sample is picked up and delivered to Curiosity’s onboard laboratories.

And so far, according to Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, things are looking good:

“The drilling is going very well so far and we’re making great progress with the early steps. The rock is behaving well and it looks pretty soft, so that’s encouraging,” he told BBC News.”

Ultimately, the purpose of the rover’s mission is to try to determine whether Gale has ever had the environments in the past that were capable of supporting bacterial life. Detailing the composition of rocks is critical to this investigation as the deposits in the crater will retain a geochemical record of the conditions under which they formed. Drilling a few centimetres inside a rock provides a fresh sample that is free from weathering or radiation damage, both of which are common to the Martian surface.

There is more to follow, for sure. And in the meantime, check out this video of the Mars Science Labs providing the latest Curiosity Rover Report explaining their finds for the month of January and plans for February.

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New Anthology Sample!

gliese 581Hi folks. Life has been pretty busy and distracting of late, but after a few busy weeks I find myself with some time on my hands once again the freedom with which to write. And so I have, specifically on my second contribution to the Yuva Anthology – the Prologue known as “The Torch”. Though the story is not yet complete, I am finally reaching the climax of the tale, where the main character Magid Muktari is arriving to meet his benefactor and the man who intends to make sure his dream of exoplanet colonization becomes a reality.

But of course, there is still the question of terms to consider, some details that need to be ironed out, and an explanation or two as to why this is all happening. But I won’t bore you with a big summation. Instead, I present you with the latest installments in the story where Muktari takes his first commercial flight into space and doesn’t much enjoy it! Relying on research I’ve been doing on Virgin Galactic, the “Skylon” engine, and other sources, this is basically my take on what commercial space flight will look like in the near future.

What’s more, the chapter includes some ideas on the subject of orbital living pods, habitation complexes, and private space stations which may also become a reality in a few decades. Yes, as the technology improves and more and more people find themselves going into space, to the Moon, and beyond, Earth’s orbit could become the new international waters, where just about anything is legal, people do their “off-world banking”, and the rich live and play in low-gravity environments. Enjoy the chapter and please feel free to offer any and all constructive criticisms or comments…


“Treat” was hardly the word Muktari would have used. After a strenuous take off, the plane pulled into a sharp ascent, engaged its hypersonic engines, and was soon breaking the sound barrier several times over. Thus far, the trip was conforming to his expectations, which could only mean things would get worse before they got better. For the duration of their ascent, he had only one thought on his mind.

Why am I doing this? Was entertaining a possible job offer really this important to him? Would a few years in Oslo and the North Atlantic be so bad by comparison? Of course it would, but that didn’t make this personal first any more pleasant.

Of course, it was obvious why Harding had such a place available to him. More and more, one heard of corporate offices being placed in orbit, where the laws were laxer and off world authority was still being established. Most financiers found that they had at least another few decades before the law caught up to them and some interplanetary body would be created that could monitor their floating financial holdings or havens.

Nevertheless, the idea of breaking orbit and enduring near-weightlessness was not something he thought too highly of. Heights had been known to give him vertigo. How would standing above an entire planet feel in comparison?

Things did not improve until they hit atmo, at which point, weightlessness returned all of the blood which had been pooling in his legs to his head . He grunted loudly as the transition hit him, making his headache feel all the more noticeable.

“Don’t drink much do you?” asked Natalia, seated across from him.

“No,” he replied heavily. “Ironically, I think I could use a drink right now.”

She smiled. Pressed the button on the side of her seat. “What can we get you? This flight comes with a full refreshment service.”

“Nothing, please. I doubt I could keep it down right now.” He raised his hand as he said this. The effort to bring it to face height was incredibly easy, and he began to stare at it and everything around him as the ship coasted into the upper atmosphere. Everything that wasn’t anchored in place seemed to be floating carelessly, as if underwater. The sight of it seemed ethereal, almost entirely incorporeal.

He looked out the cabin window and spotted the thin blue layer of the upper atmosphere that was slowly pulling away from them. He had heard of the effect of seeing the great blue marble from orbit, but had imagined it would feel somewhat differently. Looking down at it all, he did not feel particularly grandiose or tiny, as he’d been told to expect. He mainly felt empty, as if some sense of pathos was struggling to be realized within him. He didn’t understand why, nor did he particularly want to think about what it meant…

“Folks, we’re about to engage the third stage drive. Please hang on and remain seated.”

“Oh dear,” Muktari breathed, tightening his grip on the arm rests. Natalia raised her voice to be heard over the sound of the gentle warning bell that began to fill the cabin with its chimes.

“Don’t worry. It’s nothing like breaking orbit. You’ll barely feel it at all.”

She was right too. It was marginally better. As soon as the noise died down, they felt a push that pushed Muktari into his seat and pulled Natalia against her restraints. But the force was relatively calm compared to the concerted effort it took to get them from the ground into the lower atmosphere. It almost felt soothing by comparison, and ended quicker too.

When the engine cut out, they began to coast again and things once again seemed to float everywhere. Muktari leaned back once more and took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Better?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. I love the irony of it too.”

“Irony? What irony?”

He opened his eyes, saw the look of genuine confusion on her face. He considered explaining it to her, how the very man who seemed to be proposing that some segment of humanity break the bonds of Earth and travel to the stars was terrified of doing it himself. That in itself seemed like irony enough, but the deeper implications of that were not something he felt like discussing. It was not simply a joyous experiment, he knew, but a possible necessity.

Mankind would either slip the bonds of Earth forever, or risk perishing below as it became less and less hospitable.  How could he explain that to one such as her, someone still young and from all outward appearances, happy to be alive in her time?

“Never mind,” he said. “It’s a moot point. All that matters is, you’re father wants to see me and I’m obliging him. As I imagine all people do.”

“He does seem to have that effect on people.”

Muktari hummed thoughtfully. “And does he make them all go through the effort of coming topside to see him or does he deign to travel to meet them from time to time?”

Her eyes grew distant and she looked away as she answered. “Not for some time now.”

It was Muktari’s turn to look confused, but nothing more seemed forthcoming and he didn’t feel like asking. He was sure all things would be made plain enough once they reached Harding’s particular module. Then he could marvel over the engineering achievement of such a thing and stroke Harding’s ego by telling him he had never seen one up close. He was sure he would find that flattering enough, and might even choose to intrigue Muktari by describing it’s construction in detail to him. He was sure he would find any discussion of a module’s internal ecology quite interesting to.

After a moment of strained silence, Natalia smiled to him again and retrieved her Flexpad. For the duration of the flight, they said nothing more to each other. Only the occasional corrective burst from the retro rockets seemed to break the smooth monotony of their course. Earth disappeared out the port side window too and all he could see after that was a background of stars. Looking at the rotating star field was likely to trigger vertigo, so he simply closed his eyes and tried to rest until they arrived.

It wasn’t until sunlight broke through the window that he chose to open them again.

“Oh! Oh my!” he said, shielding them from the harsh light. Once more, he was suffering terribly from the effects of a single night of irresponsibility.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, just let me know when the window’s adjusted.”

He heard her giggle. “It already has, so you’re safe. And you really should look. You can see it from here.”

“See what?”

“Curiosity,” she said plainly. That brought his eyes open. Anything with such an abstract name was something he had to see. Straining to adjust his eyes, he looked out the tinted window and waited for something other than the glowing ball in the background to become apparent to him.

And then it came to him. Twinkling in the night, it’s solar arrays stretching to the side like long, shining filaments, the small satellite hung before them. He could make out the hub in the center of it, discernible by its flashing status lights. As they neared, this bulbous middle section elongated and became a cylindrical structure, the lights flashing on it surface indicating that it was rotating. Only a small band at the very center of it remained steady, where the long arrays were mounted.

Towards the bottom end, where they seemed to be heading, a large aperture loomed. Bright lights shined out from within, and more blinking lights moved before his eyes as the doors on which they were mounted seemed to be sliding open to admit them.

Some more corrective bursts, and the entire thing shifted towards the nose of their craft. Slowly, Earth filled the window again and its yellow and green continents and shimmering skies were all that they could see. Another burst pushed him forwards against his restraints, and he felt them slowing.

And then, his window went grey. A long wall overtook them, metal, lighting and composite materials swallowing their ship and closing in behind them. More bursts, more corrective movements, and then a loud clang reverberated through the hall and he felt them come to a stop.

He felt blood trickle back into his feet and was struck by a slight dizziness. He lifted his arm again and noted the return of gravity, albeit just by a fraction. Clearly, the station was simulating barely a quarter g, if that much at all. He would find walking quite disorienting at first, then perhaps a bit adventurous. He would have to be careful.

Natalia’s voice was like a trumpeter call when she announced that it was time.

“Come on. I’ve arranged a short tour before we see my father. You’ll be quite interested to see what Curiosity has to offer.”

Muktari’s ears registered her voice like a harsh disturbance. At the moment, they were attuned to every noise in the ship, every din coming through the walls from the outside.  He could hear the sound of buzzing and whirring at work, coming through the walls fro somewhere to their fore. No doubt, a docking collar was extending from somewhere inside the bay and was busy mounting itself on the ship’s hatch.

“Are you coming?” she said, getting to her feet.

He very carefully undid his restraints, raised himself to his feet, and then sat back down.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I think I’ll wait. Don’t want to exit too soon. Decompression and all that.”

She didn’t laugh or giggle this time. After dealing with all his other hang ups, she appeared to be getting just the slightest bit tired of him. She extended her hand and addressed him the way a mother might address a child.

“I assure you, Doctor. No one is going to let you step off before the collar is fully fixed and pressurized. No one has ever died or suffered from asphyxiation while in my father’s care.”

She imbued his title with some degree of emphasis, he noticed. Perhaps she was seeking to remind him he was a man of science and such behaviors were supposed to be beneath him.

He shook his head. “Even so…”

She sighed once more and took hold of his hand. “Don’t worry,” she said calmly, but firmly. “I’ll be there with you in case anything bad happens. But I promise you, nothing will.”

He looked down at her hand, touching his, then to her face. Her eyes were insistent, but still soft and charming. And her hand felt warm against his, quite warm. Suddenly, he forgot about his dizzy spell and the remote chance he might die as he stepped off the craft. Even his headache seemed a distant memory right now…

A Look at “Living Mars”

Living-Mars With the confirmation that Mars with once home to oceans and rivers, and with speculation that a terraformed Mars will once again, there are many who wonder what a “Blue Mars” would look like. As it happens, a software engineer named Kevin Gill took it upon himself to create a series of images showing what a “living Mars” might look like.

Relying on his own imagination and a series of combined source material, the Red Planet gets a makeover, with aesthetically pleasing results! In an interview via email, Gill said the following of his process:

“This was something that I did both out of curiosity of what it would look like and to improve the software I was rendering this in. I am a software engineer by trade and certainly no planetary scientist, so with the exception of any parts derived from actual data, most of it is assumptions I made based on simply comparing the Mars terrain to similar features here on Earth (e.g. elevation, proximity to bodies of water, physical features, geographical position, etc) and then using the corresponding textures from the Blue Marble images to paint the flat image layer in a graphics program.”

Living-Mars.2For example, the view above is of the western hemisphere of Mars, with Olympus Mons on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. The placement of clouds and the atmosphere was mainly to achieve a sense of scale and grandeur, but the rest is in keeping with information obtained by NASA over the years.

And these are just some of the images Gill has made over the years. His Flickr is awash in visualizations, many of which are of Mars, the Moon, and of course Earth, all of which are rendered from orbit. He also makes 3D models of geographic features, which comes in handy when its time to construct large-scale models.

More News From Curiosity!

Last weekend, Curiosity began conducting the “scooping” portion of its mission; in essence, taking samples of Martian soil from the area known as the Rocknest, and examining them using it’s array of sensors. In the course of doing so, it came across another interesting find – a series of shiny objects, not unlike the small shard of plastic it had discovered ten days earlier.

However, NASA indicated after a preliminary examination that unlike that shard of plastic, these objects did not come from Curiosity itself. According to John Grotzinger, a project scientist with the Mars Science Laboratory, “As the science team thought about it more and more, the bright object is about the same size as the granules that it’s in and it is not uniformly bright. We went back and forth, and the majority of the science team thinks this is indigenous to Mars.”

One hypothesis is that the specks are natural geologic material that might have a broken-off from larger crystalline formations, known as a cleavage, and became dispersed through the soil. These crystalline minerals are more adept at reflecting sunlight than the soil that contains them, hence why they appeared after Curiosity’s scooping exposed them to Martian daylight.

According to Grotzinger, the next step is to examine them using the ChemCam, “a remote sensing tool that has spectacular spatial resolution, and aim it right on that fleck. Then we’ll aim it on another darker grain and try to decide if it is a different class of mineral.” And that’s just one of the fancy tools it will be employing. Another is the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, which analyzes samples of dirt to determine what minerals the sample contains. The team announced at a press conference the rover successfully placed a small sample of soil inside this sensor, and expects results in short order.

Stay tuned for more new from Mars!

Source: Universe Today

Curiosity Has Landed!

Yesterday, at precisely 10:23 pm Greenwich Mean Time, NASA announced the successful landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover! After blazing through Mars’ atmosphere at over 21,000 km/h, Curiosity’s unique landing system deployed and brought the rover in for a nice, controlled landing.

Needless to say, pandemonium ensued at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where the landing was being monitored. All those on hand began jumping, hooting, hollering and hugging each other, much as they used to do whenever a successful launch was made or men touched down on the moon. Times may have changed, but the basic goal remains the same: to conquer the unknown and take the next big leap. And when that happens, you can expect the people who work so hard to make that happen to get a little giddy 😉

In addition, the HiRISE team (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), caught this beautiful and perfectly-timed photo from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The photo shows Curiosity at left deploying its chute and descending to the surface.

Immediately after touching down, Curiosity began sending photos back to NASA of Mars surface. The first two were of its landing zone in Mars’ Gale Crater, shown here:

To mark this momentous occasion, President Obama had this statement to make:

“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.

The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.

Tonight’s success, delivered by NASA, parallels our major steps forward towards a vision for a new partnership with American companies to send American astronauts into space on American spacecraft. That partnership will save taxpayer dollars while allowing NASA to do what it has always done best – push the very boundaries of human knowledge. And tonight’s success reminds us that our preeminence – not just in space, but here on Earth – depends on continuing to invest wisely in the innovation, technology, and basic research that has always made our economy the envy of the world.

I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.”

Yes, this is certainly is history in the making. Needless to say, Curiosity is expected send back some interesting finds as it wanders the Martian surface, takes soil samples, and scans them to determine what secrets and mysteries the surface holds. In time, all this information could become intrinsic to settlement and terraforming, the creation of human civilization on a planet other than Earth! Exciting times we live in!

In the meantime, check out this compilation video of the landing paired with footage take from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab:

Via: Universe Today

Upcoming Mars Landing

I recently came across this story on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, a science show dealing with all things science and tech related. Somehow, with the recent passing of Bradbury, Canada’s 145th birthday, and my obsession with colonization, this story just spoke to me on so many levels. For those who’ve been monitoring the news or NASA’s regular updates on their website, the Curiosity rover is on its way to Mars and is schedules to land on August 5th.This Martian rover is slated to roam the surface for years, looking for signs of life. And it just so happens that this vehicle carries a special Canadian instrument.

Curiosity’s position and distance to Mars as of July 4th, 2012 (NASA)

The Curiosity spacecraft, artists rendition (NASA)

Once it arrives, the Curiosity, the largest rover ever sent to Mars, will execute the most complicated powered landing, in the roughest area, that a robotic lander has ever attempted on Mars. The landing site is the Gale Crater, 155 kilometres across, with a mountain rising 5 km from its centre. Curiosity is aiming for a pinpoint landing on the crater floor, right at the base of the mountain. Once there, it will begin by exploring the lower slopes of the mountain (named Mt. Sharp after a NASA geologist) and spend the next two years looking for signs of ancient water activity and possible Martian life.

The Gale Crater, the landing point indicated with a black oval (NASA)

Here’s where the Canadian technology comes in. In the course of conducting its analyses of the surface, one of the instruments that it will use is a an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. This device was built by a team of scientists at the University of Guelph, Ontario, with Dr.Ralf Gellert acting as the principle investigator. With the help of this an other instruments and on-board mini-laboratory, the Curiosity will analyze soil samples to look for chemical signatures of past or present life.

As many people know, this elusive search has been ongoing, ever since astronomers first looked at Mars through telescopes and thought they saw artificial canals. Those hopes were quickly dashed when more detailed analyses indicated that the planet was sterile and the atmosphere too thin to support life as we know it. But once rovers began to be sent and soil samples examined, the hope of finding life once again became a matter of hard science. Though there might not be little green men dwelling on the surface, or in underground facilities, life of a sort does appear to exist within the Red Planet’s oxidized soil.

On top of all that, this information will prove useful in helping scientists to determine whether or not Mars could be terraformed to suit human needs. If that should prove to be the case, then Mars may very well become our home away from home in the not too distant future. Bradbury certainly thought as much, and look how popular he became 😉

The landing, and results it produces over the next two years, are sure to be exciting! In the meantime, check out this computer-simulation of Curiosity’s landing, as produced by NASA: