News from Space: MOM Arrives!

MOM_orbiterHistory was made this week as India’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully fired its braking rockets and arrived in Mars’ orbit. The arrival of India’s maiden interplanetary voyager was confirmed at 7:30am, India Standard Time (02:00 UTC, or 8:00pm EDT in the U.S. on Tuesday, Sept 23rd). MOM is the nation’s first attempt to explore the Red Planet, and represents a new era is space exploration.

By putting a probe in orbit around Earth’s neighbor, India has officially joined the elite club of only three other entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – i.e. Russia, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also represents an expansion in the space exploration, a competition once confined to two superpowers, to five major participants – the US, Russia, ESA, India and China.

India_Mars_Orbiter1It took over ten months for MOM to cross the roughly 225 million kilometers (140 million miles) of interplanetary space that lie between Earth and Mars. Nevertheless, the 12.5 minutes that it took for the signal to reach Earth were far more intense and exciting. And the good news, which arrived at 10:30pm EDT (Sept. 23rd) or 8:00 IST (Sept. 24th) was met with wild applause and beaming smiles at India’s Bangalore mission control center.

MOM’s Red Planet arrival was webcast live worldwide by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency which designed and developed the orbiter. ISRO’s website also gave a play by play in real time, announcing the results of critical spacecraft actions along the arrival timeline just moments after they became known. Indian PM Narenda Modi was watching the events unfold at ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC).

MOM_arrivalUpon the announced arrival, Modi addressed the team, the nation and a global audience, lauding the accomplishment and outlining the benefits and importance of India’s space program. In a speech that echoes John F. Kennedy’s own from 50 years ago, Modi also implored the team to strive for even greater space exploration challenges:

India has successfully reached Mars! History has been created today. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion… We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination. We have accurately navigated our spacecraft through a route known to very few. And we have done it from a distance so large that it took even a command signal from Earth to reach it more than it takes sunlight to reach us.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21. Together, they will assess the extent to which Mars’ atmosphere decayed over the course of billions of years, and hopefully be able to reconstruct what it once looked like, and how it came to deteriorate. From all this, scientists hope to learn whether or not Mars once hosted life, and still is in some form.

maven_tv_backdropMOM now joins Earth’s newly fortified armada of seven spacecraft currently operating on Mars surface or in orbit – which includes MAVEN, Mars Odyssey (MO), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Express (MEX), Curiosity and Opportunity. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN Principal Investigator, related well-wished on behalf of NASA in a post on the ISRO MOM Facebook page:

Congratulations to the MOM team on behalf of the entire MAVEN team! Here’s to exciting science from the two latest missions to join the Mars fleet!

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The flight path of the approximately $73 Million probe was being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to maintain its course.

MOM_trajectoryThe do-or-die breaking maneuver that put MOM into orbit, known as the Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI), involved the craft’s engines firing for 24 minutes and 13 seconds. The entire maneuver took place autonomously under the spacecrafts preprogrammed sole control due to the long communications lag time and also during a partial communications blackout when the probe was traveling behind Mars and the signal was blocked.

As the ISRO said in a statement:

The events related to Mars Orbit Insertion progressed satisfactorily and the spacecraft performance was normal. The Spacecraft is now circling Mars in an orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The inclination of orbit with respect to the equatorial plane of Mars is 150 degree, as intended. In this orbit, the spacecraft takes 72 hours 51 minutes 51 seconds to go round the Mars once.

MOM_pathMOM is expected to investigate the Red Planet for at least six months. Although it’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, it will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface using five indigenous instruments – including a tri color imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM). Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today. This will shed light not only on whether or not Mars supported life in the past, but if it still does in some form, and could possibly do so again.

This is an exciting time for space exploration, when ground-breaking news is happening on a regular basis and promises to lead to potentially Earth-shattering news in the future! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video that recap’s MOM’s historic mission and arrival, courtesy of WorldBreakingNews:

And this animation of the MAVEN and MOM orbit:

Sources:, (2),

News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.


News from Mars: MAVEN Orbiter Arrives!

maven_tv_backdropIn November 2013, NASA launched the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe from Cape Canaveral. Described as a “time machine” for Mars, the orbiter would spend the next ten months traversing space, assuming an orbit around the Red Planet, and look for an answer as to how Mars went from being a planet with an atmosphere and water to the dried out husk that we know today.

And this evening, after trekking some 711 million kilometers (442 million-mile) across our Solar System, MAVEN will have arrived in orbit around Mars and will begin its year-long mission to study the planet’s upper atmosphere. The arrival will be broadcast live, courtesy of NASA TV and The live webcast will run from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. EDT (0130 to 0245 GMT), and if all goes well, MAVEN will enter orbit around Mars at 9:50 p.m. EDT (0250 GMT).

maven_launchAs David Mitchell, NASA’s MAVEN project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement:

So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars. The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.

Though plans to study Mars’ atmosphere in detail have been in the works for years, the MAVEN program received a big push from the ongoing efforts from the Curiosity rover. During its ongoing mission to study the surface of Mars, Curiosity was able to confirm that Mars had extensive surface water billions of years ago. This revelation came very early in the mission, and indicated some rather interesting things about Mars’ past.

Mars-snow-header-640x353For instance, although Mars is now too cold for flowing water today, it might have had a thicker atmosphere in the past that warmed its surface and allowed the liquid to remain stable on the surface. And while scientists have a pretty good idea how it was lost (i.e. too far our Sun, too low a gravity field), the rate of loss and when it disappeared are just some of the questions that MAVEN will attempt to answer.

Much of what scientists know about Mars’ upper atmosphere comes from just a few minutes’ worth of data from the two Viking landers that took measurements as they made their way to the Martian surface in the 1970s. This time around, NASA will be able to collect data for an entire year, gathering far more data than either the Viking landers or any other spacecraft has since had the opportunity to do.

maven_atmo1As Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, explained it:

The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go. These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.

NASA scientists understand that Mars’ upper atmosphere acts as an escape zone for molecules floating dozens of miles from the planet’s surface. They theorize that as the solar wind hits the atmosphere, the radiation strips away the lighter molecules and flings them into space forever. To test this hypothesis, MAVEN will be examining the state of Mars’ upper atmosphere, and ionosphere to determine its interactions with the solar wind.

maven_atmosphereIn so doing, NASA hopes to determine what the current rates of escape are for neutral gases and ions, and thus get a better picture of how long it took for the atmosphere to degrade and when it began degrading. The upper atmosphere of Mars likely changes as the sun’s activity increases and decreases, which is why MAVEN investigators hope to run the mission for longer than a year.

MAVEN will began making science measurements around Nov. 8, due to it taking a short break from its commissioning phase to watch Comet Siding Spring pass close by on Oct. 19. The $671 million MAVEN spacecraft is one of two missions that launched toward Mars last November and which are making their arrival this month. The other probe is India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched just before MAVEN and will arrive at the Red Planet this Wednesday (Sept. 24).

It is an exciting time for space exploration, and the coming years are sure to be characterized by an escalating and accelerating rate of learning. Be sure to head on over to to watch the arrival broadcast live. And be sure to check out the following videos – the Mars Arrival trailer; NASA Goddard Center’s “Targeting Mars” video; and the NASA MAVEN PSA, hosted by LeVar Burton:

MAVEN Mars Arrival Trailer:

Targeting Mars:

LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story:

Sources:, (2),

News From Mars: Jelly Donut Rock Mystery Solved

mars_donut1In the course of investigating the surface of Mars, NASA has uncovered some rather interesting and curious rock formations. And if once in awhile those rocks should resemble something odd and Earth-like then one should expect the media maelstrom that follows. And the sudden appearance of what people referred to as the “jelly doughnut” rock in January was no exception to this rule.

Much the Martian “rat” discovered last summer, the appearance of the doughnut rock was met with all kinds of speculation. The rock – now dubbed “Pinnacle Island” – first appeared on January 8th in a series of pictures taken by the Opportunity Rover. Measuring only about 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) in diameter with a noticeable white rim and red center, the rock quickly picked up the nickname “jelly doughnut”.

mars_donutAccording to pictures taken just four days earlier by Opportunity, during which time it had not moved an inch, that area had been free of debris. In response, wild theories began to emerge, with some thinking it was an indication that rocks were falling from the sky. Others, looking to explain how something so odd in appearance could suddenly have appeared, claimed it was a heretofore undetected Martian surface beings.

Luckily, the ongoing work of mission scientists solved the by determining that the rock was actually created by an “alien invader” – the Opportunity Rover! Apparently, the mysterious rock was created when Opportunity unknowingly drove over a larger rock formation on Solander Point, where she is currently located. It then crushed the rock, sending fragments across the summit.

Opportunity-Route-map_Sol-3560_Ken-KremerOne piece, the ‘Pinnacle Island’ fragment, unwittingly rolled downhill where Opportunity caught it on camera a few days later. This explanation became apparent when the Opportunity was moved a tiny stretch and took some look-back photographs. Another fragment of the rock that was eerily similar in appearance to the ‘Pinnacle Island’ doughnut appeared, indicating that it had left a trail of such debris in its wake.

Ray Arvidson, Opportunity’s Deputy Principal Investigator, explained in a recent NASA statement:

Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance. We drove over it. We can see the track. That’s where Pinnacle Island came from.

Opportunity-and-Pinnacle-Island_Sol-3540_1_Ken-KremerTo gather some up-close clues before driving away, the rover deployed its robotic arm to investigate ‘Pinnacle Island’ with her microscopic imager and APXS mineral mapping spectrometer. According to Arvidson, the results revealed high levels of the elements manganese and sulfur which suggest that:

[these] water-soluble ingredients were concentrated in the rock by the action of water. This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently, or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels.

The Solander Point mountaintop is riven with outcrops of minerals, including clay minerals, that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – a potential scientific goldmine. Thus, the presence of such water-soluble minerals in this particular rock indicates quite strongly that the Opportunity brought it with her while rolling through the area.


Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp and just crested over the Dingo Gap sand dune. She celebrated 500 days (Sols) on Mars on New Years Day, 2014. And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify Earth’s invasion fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

So expect more surprises from the Red Planet soon enough, which will include more information on surface conditions and the history of Mars’ atmosphere and how it disappeared. And maybe, just maybe, one of the rovers will uncover the existence of the long-sought after organic molecules – thus demonstrating unequivocally that life still exists on Mars.

Stay tuned!




Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2),, news.cnet, listosaur,

News from Mars: Spirit Rover’s Tenth Anniversary

opportunityTwo days ago, another major milestone passed for one of NASA’s famed rovers. But this time around, it wasn’t the spotlight-hogging Curiosity or the die-hard Opportunity rover that was the subject of interest. It was the Spirit rover, the other half of NASA’s now legendary Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that landed on the Red Planet over a decade ago.

Yes, January 3rd of this year marks the 10th anniversary since the safe landing of NASA’s renowned Spirit rover on the plains of Mars, making her the oldest rover in operation on the planet’s service. Opportunity, her twin sister, landed on the opposite side of the Mars three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004. The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.

mars_roverTogether, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth. It was these findings that have since been followed up on by Curiosity rover in its ongoing search for water and organic particles in the soil, and MAVEN’s planned surveys of the Martian atmosphere.

And it was a decade ago that the famous robot survived the 6 minute plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere, which involved scorching atmospheric heating, and then bounced some two dozen times inside cushioning airbags before coming to a stop. It then gradually rolled to a stop inside 161 km (100 mile) wide Gusev Crater. This landing was known as the “6 minutes of Terror”.

spiritrover_landerThe three petaled landing pad then opened and Spirit was deployed in what was a milestone event. This deployment will be forever remembered in the annuls of history, mainly because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued, not to mention the unbelievable longevity of the twins. And while Spirit did not make it past 2010 – effectively remaining in service for six years – she accomplished quite a bit in that time.

Before they were launched atop a series of Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 from Cape Canaveral, the dynamic, solar powered robo duo were expected to last for only 90 Martian days (Sols). NASA engineers firmly believed that dust accumulation on the life-giving solar panels, an engineering issue or the extremely harsh Martian environment would terminate them before long.

SpiritAndOpportunity_ByTheNumbers1-580x423But in reality, both robots enormously exceeded expectations and accumulated a vast bonus time of exploration and discovery in numerous extended mission phases. In part, the harsh Martian winds occasionally cleaned their solar panels to give them both a new lease on life. And more importantly, the rovers’ components just kept working miraculously.

And she kept working faithfully for six years until communications officially ceased in 2010. Altogether, Spirit drove 7.73 kilometers (4.8 miles) across the Martian surface – about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission – and transmitted over 128,000 images. And shortly after landing, Spirit scaled Husband Hill and found evidence for the flow of liquid water at the Hillary outcrop.

Columbia_Hills_from_MER-A_landing_site_PIA05200_br2This was especially impressive, seeing as how the rovers were not designed to climb hills. But eventually, she managed to scale the 30 degree inclines and collect a series of rock samples using her Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT). The samples were then inspected using her on-board spectrometers and a microscopic imager. Eventually she drove back down the hill and made even greater scientific discoveries.

These occurred in 2007 in an area known as “Home Plate”, where she unexpectedly got mired thanks to an ancient volcanic feature named ‘Home Plate’ that prevented the solar arrays from generating. In the process, her right front wheel churned up a trench of bright Martian soil that exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, which was formed in a watery hot spring or volcanic environment.

Spirit-Sol-2175c-_Ken-KremerThree years later, in February of 2010, Spirit once again got mired and took her last panorama (pictured above), which was stitched together from raw images by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. After several attempts to save her, NASA eventually declared Spirit dead in the water, her last resting place being the same as where she made her landing – the Gustev Crater in the Aeolis quadrangle.

At one time, many billions of years ago, the Ma’adim Vallis channel – a natural river-like depression running from the crater – probably carried liquid water and/or ice into Gutev. NASA scientists believe this has left sediments in the crater that could be up to 915 meters (3000 feet) thick. Spirit all but confirmed this when her tire turned up a patch of silica in 07, thus providing the first conclusive evidence of this theory.

Mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004 after deployment
Mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004 after deployment

The rovers’ principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., described some of the key findings in a NASA statement, starting with what Spirit found after driving from the crater floor where it landed into the Columbia hills to the east:

In the Columbia Hills, we discovered compelling evidence of an ancient Mars that was a hot, wet, violent place, with volcanic explosions, hydrothermal activity, steam vents — nothing like Mars today.

At Opportunity’s landing site, we found evidence of an early Mars that had acidic groundwater that sometimes reached the surface and evaporated away, leaving salts behind. It was an environment with liquid water, but very different from the environment that Spirit told us about.

When Opportunity got to the rim of Endeavour Crater, we began a whole new mission. We found gypsum veins and a rich concentration of clay minerals. The clay minerals tell us about water chemistry that was neutral, instead of acidic — more favorable for microbial life, if any ever began on Mars.

Because of the rovers’ longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two.

maven_orbitMeanwhile, NASA’s new Curiosity rover just celebrated 500 Sols on Mars and is speeding towards Mount Sharp from inside Gale Crater – which is about the same size as Gusev crater. And a pair of newly launched orbiters are streaking towards the Red Planet as we speak – NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

In short, we are not finished with Mars yet. And the past, ongoing and future efforts of our many rovers, orbiters and (someday) astronauts are likely to keep providing us with a slew of new discoveries and revelations about our celestial neighbor.


News from Space: Titan’s Seas Mapped in Detail

titan_cassiniIt’s been an eventful year for NASA, thanks to the ongoing efforts of its many space probes and landers. In addition to some breathtaking discoveries made on Mars (proof of the existence of water and an atmosphere in the past), the MESSENGER probe discovered ice around the poles of Mercury, captured impressive footage of the surface, and mapped out the planet for the first time.

And while all this was happening in the Inner Solar System, the Cassini space probe was doing some rather impressive things in the Outer Solar System. In addition to taking part in the “Smile at Saturn” event, surveying the Jovian satellite of Europa, and unlocking the strange secrets of Saturn’s moons, Cassini also provided the most detailed map yet of the Saturnalian giant known as Titan.

titan_surfaceAnd now, using the data provided by NASA’s spacecraft, scientists have created this beautiful mosaic mapping the northern hemisphere of Titan, which is full of rivers, lakes, and seas. Ever since Cassini started mapping the world in 2004, it has been known that Titan boasts natural bodies of water that are composed not of water, but liquid hydrocarbons.

However, Cassini’s scans missed the true extent of some seas, including the biggest one of all: Kraken Mare. This new map fills in almost all the area of Titan’s north pole and provides scientists with important answers to some of their questions. These include how the geographic distribution of these natural bodies of water came to be.

titan_surface1For instance, while the northern hemisphere is dotted all over with hundreds of tiny lakes, the large seas seem confined to a specific area (see the lower right side of the image above). As geophysicist Randolph Kirk of the U.S. Geological Survey pointed out during a press conference at the American Geophysical Union conference, geological forces are most likely at work here.

Basically, the team thinks that Titan’s crust has fractured here when active tectonics created almost straight lines of parallel mountain chains. The low-lying areas are what gets filled with liquid, creating Kraken Mare and its smaller neighbor, Ligeia Mare. The scientists think the process may be analogous to the flooding which created large bodies of water in Nevada some 12,000 years ago.

titan_lakesOther tectonic processes are probably behind the smaller dotted lakes too, though scientists don’t yet know precisely what. Some of the lakes could be the infilled calderas of former active volcanoes, which would spew molten water instead of lava. But there isn’t enough volcanic activity on the moon to account for all of them.

Instead, many were probably created when liquid hydrocarbons dissolved the frozen ice, in the same way that water on Earth dissolves limestone to create features like the Bottomless Lakes in New Mexico. According to Kirk, “this creates a kind of exciting prospect that under the northern pole of Titan is a network of caves.” Such caves on Earth are often filled with all manner of life, so these ones could be as well.

Moons_of_Saturn_2007Other radar data has shown the depth and volume of Ligeia Mare, the second largest sea in the northern hemisphere. According to NASA scientists, the sea has a maximum depth of about 170 meters, as deep as Lake Michigan, and about twice its volume. Alas, beyond the comparative size of these bodies of water, Titan’s liquid bodies could not be more different than those on Earth.

As already noted, Titan’s lakes, rivers and seas are composed of liquid hydrocarbons, most likely ethane and methane. Ordinarily, these exist in gaseous form. But given Titan’s surface conditions, where the average temperatures is -180 degrees Celsius (-292 Fahrenheit), these hydrocarbons are able to exist in liquid form.

TitanNevertheless, finding evidence of such chemicals on planets beyond Earth is a rare and impressive find. Combined with the discovery of propelyne in Titan’s atmosphere – an organic compound that is a byproduct of oil refining, fossil fuel extraction, and thought not to exist beyond Earth – this moon is proving to be full of surprises!

And be sure to enjoy this video which simulates a flyover of Titan, as complied by NASA from the data provided by the Cassini space probe:


News From Space: MAVEN Launched

maven_launchYesterday, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe was finally launched into space. The flawless launch took place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at 1:28 p.m. EST atop a powerful Atlas V rocket. This historic event, which was the culmination of years worth of research, was made all the more significant due to the fact that it was nearly scrapped.

Back in late September, during the government shutdown, NASA saw its funding curtailed and put on hold. As a result, there were fears that MAVEN would miss its crucial launch window this November. Luckily, after two days of complete work stoppage, technicians working on the orbiter were granted an exemption and went back to prepping the probe for launch.

NASA_mavenThanks to their efforts, the launch went off without a hitch. 52 minutes later, the $671 Million MAVEN probe separated from the Atlas Centaur upper stage module, unfurled its wing-like solar panels, and began making its 10 month interplanetary voyage that will take it to Mars. Once it arrives, it will begin conducting atmospheric tests that will answer key questions about the evolution of Mars and its potential for supporting life.

Originally described as a “time-machine for Mars”, MAVEN was designed to orbit Mars and examine whether the atmosphere could also have provided life support, what the atmosphere was like, and what led to its destruction. This mission was largely inspired by recent discoveries made by the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, whose surface studies revealed that Mars boasted an atmosphere some billions of years ago.

maven_atmo1During a post launch briefing for reporters, Bruce Jakosky – MAVEN’s Principal Investigator – described MAVEN’s mission as follows:

We want to determine what were the drivers of that change? What is the history of Martian habitability, climate change and the potential for life?

Once the probe arrives in orbit around Mars, scheduled for September 22nd, 2014, MAVEN will study Mars’ upper atmosphere to explore how the Red Planet may have lost its atmosphere over the course of billions of years. This will be done by measuring the current rates of atmospheric loss to determine how and when Mars lost its atmosphere and water.

maven_atmosphereFor the sake of this research, MAVEN was equipped with nine sensors the come in three instrument suites. The first is the Particles and Fields Package – which contains six instruments to characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars – that was provided by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The second suite is the Remote Sensing Package, which ill determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere and was built by CU/LASP. And last, but not least, is the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, built by Goddard, which will measure the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

As for the long term benefits of the mission and what it could mean for humanity, I’d say that Dr. Jim Green – NASA’s Director of Planetary Science at NASA HQ in Washington, DC – said it best:

We need to know everything we can before we can send people to Mars. MAVEN is a key step along the way. And the team did it under budget! It is so exciting!


Dead in Space: Government Shutdown, NASA and Mars

marsAs the government shutdown goes into its second week, there is growing concern over how it is affecting crucial programs and services. And its certainly no secret that a number of federally-funded organizations are worried about how it will affect their long term goals. One such organization is NASA, who has seen much of its operations frozen while the US government attempts to work out its differences.

In addition to 97% of NASA’s 18,000 employees being off the job, its social media accounts and website going dark, and its television channel being shut down, activities ranging from commercial crew payouts, conferences, and awards and scholarship approvals are all being delayed as well. Luckily, certain exemptions are being made when it comes to crucial work on Mars.

NASA_mavenThese include the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter. Following two days of complete work stoppage, technicians working on the orbiter were granted an exemption and permitted to continue prepping it for launch. And not a moment too soon, seeing as how a continued shutdown would have caused the orbiter to miss its crucial launch window.

Designed to survey the Martian atmosphere while orbiting the planet, NASA hopes that MAVEN will provide some clues as to what became of the planet’s onetime atmosphere. MAVEN was been scheduled to blast off for the Red Planet on Nov.18 atop an Atlas V rocket from the Florida Space Coast until those plans were derailed by the start of the government shutdown that began at midnight, Oct. 1.

But as Prof. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s chief scientist, stated in an interview just two days later:

We have already restarted spacecraft processing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) today. [Today, we] determined that MAVEN meets the requirements allowing an emergency exception relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Curiosity-roverAnother merciful exception to the shutdown has been the Curiosity Rover. Since contract workers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) oversee the rover’s mission, the Curiosity team is not subject to the same furloughs as other NASA employees. At JPL, the technicians and workers at the lab are employed by the California Institute of Technology, and are therefore able to keep the mission going.

However, the management at JPL and Cal Tech will continue to assess the situation on a weekly basis, and it’s possible the team may not remain completely intact in the event of a prolonged shutdown. This would be particularly detrimental for Curiosity since the Mars rover requires daily maintenance by scientists, engineers and programmers and cannot run on autopilot.

curiosity_sol-177-1As Veronica McGregor, a media relations manager at JPL, said in a recent interview:

Right now, things continue on as normal. Curiosity is one where they literally look at the data each day, sit down, create a plan, decide what science instrument is going to be used tomorrow, they write software for it and upload it. [It’s] is kind of a unique mission in that way.

Other programs running out JPL will also continue. These include the Opportunity and Odyssey rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the HiRISE camera, Dawn, Juno, and Spitzer space probes, and the Voyager satellites, APL, MESSENGER, and New Horizons.  In addition, operations aboard the International Space Station will continue, but with the bare minimum of ground crew support.

cassini_spaceprobeRobotic missions that are already in operation – such as the Cassini spacecraft circling Saturn, or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) winging its way to the moon – will have small crews making sure that they are functioning properly. However, no scientific analysis will be conducted during the shutdown period.

As the shutdown continues, updates on which programs are still in operation, which ones will need to be discontinued, and how they will be affected will continue to be made available. One can only hope the politically-inspired deadlock will not become a prolonged affair. It’s not just current programs that are being affected after all.

Consider the proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, or the plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth. I can’t imagine how awful it would be if they were delayed or mothballed due to budget constraints. Politics… bah!

Sources:, (2),

Happy Anniversary Curiosity!

curiosity_sol-177-1Two days ago, the Mars Rover known as Curiosity celebrated a full year of being on the Red Planet. And what better way for it to celebrate than to revel in the scientific discoveries the rover has made? In addition to providing NASA scientists with years worth of valuable data, these groundbreaking finds have also demonstrated that Mars could once have supported past life – thereby accomplishing her primary science goal.

And it appears that the best is yet come, with the rover speeding off towards Mount Sharp – the 5.5 km (3.4 mile) high mountain dominating the center of the Gale Crater – which is the rover’s primary destination of the mission. This mountain is believed to contain vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment, thus making it a veritable gold mine of scientific data!

curiosity-anniversary-1To take stock of everything Curiosity has accomplished, some numbers need to be tallied. In the course of the past year, Curiosity has transmitted over 190 gigabits of data, captured more than 71,000 images, fired over 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of rocks and soil, and drilled into two rocks for sample analysis by the SAM & CheMin labs housed in her belly.

On top of all that, the rover passed the 1 mile (1.6 km) driving mark on August 1st. Granted, Mount Sharp (aka. Aeolis Mons) is still 8 km (5 miles) away and the trip is expected to take a full year. But the rover has had little problems negotiated the terrain at this point, and the potential for finding microbial life on the mountain is likely to make the extended trip worthwhile.

curiosity-anniversary-20But even that doesn’t do the rover’s year of accomplishments and firsts justice. To really take stock of them all, one must consult the long-form list of milestones Curiosity gave us. Here they are, in order of occurrence from landing to the the long trek to Mount Sharp that began last month:

1. The Landing: Curiosity’s entrance to Mars was something truly new and revolutionary. For starters, the distance between Earth and Mars at the time of her arrival was so great that the spacecraft had to make an entirely autonomous landing with mission control acting as a bystander on a 13-minute delay. This led to quite a bit a tension at Mission Control! In addition, Curiosity was protected by a revolutionary heat shield that also acted as a lifting body that allowed the craft to steer itself as it slowed down in the atmosphere. After the aeroshell and heat shield were jettisoned, the rover was lowered by a skycrane, which is a rocket-propelled frame with a winch that dropped Curiosity to the surface.

2. First Laser Test: Though Curiosity underwent many tests during the first three weeks after its landing, by far the most dramatic was the one involving its laser. This single megawatt laser, which was designed to vaporize solid rock and study the resultant plasma with its ChemCab system, is the first of its kind to be used on another planet. The first shot was just a test, but once Curiosity was on the move, it would be used for serious geological studies.Curiosity-Laser-Beam3. First Drive: Granted, Curiosity’s first drive test was more of a parking maneuver, where the rover moved a mere 4.57 m (15 ft), turned 120 degrees and then reversed about 2.4 m (8 feet). This brought it a total of about 6  m (20 ft) from its landing site – now named Bradbury Landing after the late author Ray Bradbury. Still, it was the first test of the rover’s drive system, which is essentially a scaled-up version of the one used by the Sojourn and Opportunity rovers. This consists of six 50 cm (20-in) titanium-spoked aluminum wheels, each with its own electric motor and traction cleats to deal with rough terrain.

4. Streams Human Voice: On August 28, 2012, Curiosity accomplished another historical first when it streamed a human voice from the planet Mars back to Earth across 267 million km (168 million miles). It was a 500 kilobyte audio file containing a prerecorded message of congratulations for the engineers behind Curiosity from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and demonstrated the challenges of sending radio beams from Earth to distant machines using satellite relays.

curiosity-anniversary-45. Writes a Message: Demonstrating that it can send messages back to Earth through other means than its radio transmitter, the Curiosity’s treads leave indentations in the ground that spell out JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) in Morse Code for all to see. Apparently, this is not so much a gimmick as a means of keeping track how many times the wheels make a full revolution, thus acting as an odometer rather than a message system.

6. Flexing the Arm: Curiosity’s robotic arm and the tools it wield are part of what make it so popular. But before it could be put to work, it had to tested extensively, which began on August 30th. The tools sported by this 1.88 m (6.2-ft) 33.11kg (73 lb) arm include a drill for boring into rocks and collecting powdered samples, an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), a scooping hand called the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA), the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and the Dust Removal Tool (DRT).

curiosity-alluvialplain7. Discovery of Ancient Stream Bed: Curiosity’s main mission is to seek out areas where life may have once or could still exist. Therefore, the discovery in September of rocky outcroppings that are the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater, was a major achievement. It meant that there was a time when Mars was once a much wetter place, and increases the chances that it once harbored life, and perhaps still does.

8. First Drilling: In February, Curiosity conducted the first robot drill on another planet. Whereas previous rovers have had to settle for samples obtained by scooping and scraping, Curiosity’s drill is capable of rotational and percussive drilling to get beneath the surface. This is good, considering that the intense UV radiation and highly reactive chemicals on the surface of Mars means that finding signs of life requires digging beneath the surface to the protected interior of rock formations.Curiosity_drillings9. Panoramic Self Portrait: If Curiosity has demonstrated one skill over and over, it is the ability to take pictures. This is due to the 17 cameras it has on board, ranging from the black and white navigation cameras to the high-resolution color imagers in the mast. In the first week of February, Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 130 high-resolution images, which were assembled into a 360⁰ panorama that included a portrait of itself. This was just one of several panoramic shots that Curiosity sent back to Earth, which were not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also provided scientists with a degree of clarity and context that it often lacking from images from unmanned probes. In addition, these self-portraits allow engineers to keep an eye on Curiosity’s physical condition.

10. Long Trek: And last, but not least, on July 4th, Curiosity began a long journey that took it out of the sedimentary outcrop called “Shaler” at Glenelg and began the journey to Mount Sharp which will take up to a year. On July 17, Curiosity passed the one-kilometer mark from Bradbury Landing in its travels, and has now gone more than a mile. Granted, this is still a long way from the breaking the long-distance record, currently held by Opportunity, but it’s a very good start.

curiosity_roadmapSuch was Curiosity’s first 365 days on Mars, in a nutshell. As it enters into its second year, it is expected to make many more finds, ones which are potentially “Earthshaking”, no doubt! What’s more, the findings of the last year have had an emboldening effect on NASA, which recently announced that it would be going ahead with additional missions to Mars.

These include the InSight lander, a robotic craft which will conduct interior studies of the planet that is expected to launch by 2016, and a 2020 rover mission that has yet to be named. In addition, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter as just arrived intact at the Kennedy Space Center and will be blasting off to the Red Planet on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast atop an Atlas V rocket.

maven_orbitThese missions constitute a major addition to NASA’s ongoing study of Mars and assessing its past, present and future habitability. Between rovers on the ground, interior studies of the surface, and atmospheric surveys conducted by MAVEN and other orbiters, scientists are likely to have a very clear picture as to what happened to Mars atmosphere and climate by the time manned missions begin in 2030.


Stay tuned for more discoveries as Curiosity begins its second year of deployment. Chances are, this year’s milestones and finds will make this past years look like an appetizer or a warm-up act. That’s my hope, at any rate. But considering what lies ahead of it, Curiosity is sure to deliver!

In the meantime, enjoy some of these videos provided by NASA. The first shows Curiosity’s SAM instrument singing “happy birthday” to the rover (though perhaps humming would be a more accurate word):

And check out this NASA video that sums up the rover’s first year in just two minutes: