Recently, I learned that there’s an actual Martian calendar, known as the Darian Calendar. It was crafted by aerospace engineer Thomas Gangale in 1985, who named it after his son Darius. It was also adopted by the Mars Society in 1998 and will be the official calendar of Martian settlers (if and when permanent settlements are built on Mars someday).Continue reading “Behold! The Venus Calendar!”
In the latest ambitious plan to make space exploration accessible to the general public, Uwingu has unveiled a new campaign where people can send messages and pictures to the Red Planet. It’s called “Beam Me to Mars”, and the company is inviting people to contribute, for a fee, to a “digital shout-out” that will send messages from Earth to Mars on Nov. 28 — the 50th anniversary of Mars exploration.
The first successful Mars mission, NASA’s Mariner 4 – launched on Nov. 28, 1964 – performed the first flyby of the Red Planet and returned the first pictures of the Martian surface. This was the first time that images were captured of another planet and returned from deep space. and their depiction of a cratered, seemingly dead world largely changed the view of the scientific community on life on Mars.
According to representative from Uwingu, “Beam Me to Mars” celebrates that landmark effort in a new and original way by inspiring people to get on board with Martian exploration. Other goals include raising lots of money to fund space science, exploration and education (Uwingu’s stated chief purpose) and letting policymakers know how important space exploration is to their constituents.
As CEO Alan Sterm, a planetary scientist and former NASA science chief, said in an interview with Space.com:
We want it to inspire people. There has never been an opportunity before for people of Earth to shout out across the solar system their hopes and wishes for space exploration, for the future of mankind — for any of that… We want to make an impression on leaders. The more messages, the bigger impression it makes. If this thing goes viral, and it becomes the thing to do, then it’ll make a huge impression.
For $4.95, people can beam their name (or someone else’s) to Mars, whereas $9.95 gets people a chance to beam a name and a 100-character message. $19.95 gets a 1,000-character note instead of the shorter one, and for those willing to spend $99 will be able to send their name, a long message and an image of their choosing. All messages submitted for “Beam Me to Mars” will also be hand-delivered to Congress, NASA and the United Nations.
Submissions must be made via uwingu.com by Nov. 5. And the company – whose name means “sky” in Swahili – and its transmission partner, communications provider Universal Space Network, will use radio telescopes to beam the messages at Mars on Nov. 28 at the rate of 1 million bits per second. The transmission, traveling at the speed of light, will reach the Red Planet on that day in just 15 minutes.
For comparison, it took Mariner 4 more than seven months to get to Mars a half-century ago. The probe didn’t touch down, but its historic flyby in July 1965 provided the first up-close look at the surface of another planet from deep space. Mariner 4’s observations revealed that Mars is a dry and mostly desolate world, dashing the hopes of those who had viewed it as a world crisscrossed by canals and populated by little green men.
Already, several celebrities have signed on to the campaign, including actors Seth Green and wife Clare Grant, George (“Sulu”) Takei of Star Trek fame and his husband Brad, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, astronaut and former ISS commander Chris Hadfield, commercial astronaut Richard Garriott, former NASA senior executive Lori Garver, Pulitzer winning author and playwright Dava Sobel, and Author and screenwriter Homer Hickam.
This is not the first Mars effort for Uwingu, which was founded in 2012. In February, the company launched its “People’s Map of Mars,” asking the public to name Red Planet landmarks for a small fee. To date, people have named more than 12,000 Mars craters, and Uwingu has set aside more than $100,000 for grants. And when it comes to getting the general public involved with space science and travel, they are merely one amongst many. The age of public space exploration is near, people!
Two weeks ago, the Curiosity rover spotted an object on the surface of Mars that bore a striking resemblance to a femur (aka. athigh bone). This sighting caused a bit of a media stir and fueled speculation – mainly by conspiracy and UFO theorists – that proof of life on Mars had finally been found. This claim was quickly picked up by media outlets and began to spread like a bad strain of flu.
Alas, NASA has since announced that the finding, much like the Martian “donut” and “rat”, was just another piece of oddly-shaped rock. Mission scientists believe that here too, the rock was sculpted into its unusual shape by wind or water erosion. NASA announced all this when they released Curiosity’s “thigh bone” photo with a science explanation on Thursday (Aug. 21). In the caption, they said that:
No bones about it! Seen by Mars rover Curiosity using its MastCam, this Mars rock may look like a femur thigh bone. Mission science team members think its shape is likely sculpted by erosion, either wind or water.
If life ever existed on Mars, scientists expect that it would be small simple life forms called microbes. Mars likely never had enough oxygen in its atmosphere and elsewhere to support more complex organisms. Thus, large fossils are not likely.
In short, the long-sought after signs of life that NASA is searching for have yet to be found. The Curiosity rover has found evidence that Mars was once a habitable place in the ancient past, mainly by determining with certainty that it once held water and a viable atmosphere. However, to date, there is no evidence that creatures large enough to leave a bone behind ever existed on the planet.
There is a long tradition of seeing shapes in Mars rocks that don’t reflect reality. The phenomenon in which the human brain perceives faces, animals or other shapes that aren’t really there is known as pareidolia; and when it comes to Mars, there is a long and fertile history of this taking place. In fact, in 1877 when astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli looked up at Mars when it was in opposition, he spotted a network of lines that ran along the planet.
Later astronomers confirmed these sightings and erroneously thought them to be canals, an observation which was quickly seized upon by the popular imagination and spawned an entire mythos of there being a civilization on Mars. This civilization, made up of little green men known as Martians, is the entire basis of alien mythology which would go on to inspire 20th century works as The War of the Worlds and The Martian Chronicles.
And for those old enough to recall, the “Martian face”, which was captured by the Viking Orbiter in 1976, is a more modern example. As you can see from the picture below (lower right hand), the low-resolution photos of the Cydonian mesa led many people to see a human face in it. This led to much speculation and more than a few crackpot theories about a civilization on Mars.
However, high-res photos taken in 2001 by the Mars Global Surveyor probe (center) put these claims largely to rest by showing that the “face” was just an optical illusion. However, many of these same theorists moved on to claim that pyramid-like formations in that same region (Cydonia) so closely resembled those of Giza that there had to be a common explanation – i.e. aliens built the pyramids.
And in all cases, the golden rule seems to apply: never let little a thing like the facts or plausibility get in the way of a good story! As the rover continues on its long mission to find evidence of life on Mars, I am sure there will be plenty more pictures being seized upon by oddball theorists who are looking to peddle their oddball theories. Some of them are sure to be entertaining, so stay tuned!
Remake season continues for me, this week with the 2012 remake of the 1990 original movie Total Recall. Back when it came out, I was seriously questioning what the hell was going on in Hollywood, as this was just another remake in a summer that was packed full of them. But as the saying goes, “put up or shut up” – i.e. if I’m going to complain about the tide of remade movies, I might as well know what I’m talking about.
And much like last time, I figure that a review of this movie should start by paying a little lipservice to the original (which this remake did in spades!)
Total Recall 1990:
The film is set in the not-so-distant future, where a man named Douglas Quaid is haunted by dreams of Mars and a mysterious woman and seeks an escape from his humdrum life as a metal worker. He learns of a memory-implant service named Rekall which he believes might be the solution, since they can provide a simulated adventure that he has always wanted – to go to Mars and live a life of adventure.
He then goes to Rekall and selects a package that includes a simulation where he is a special agent on a top-secret mission. However, things go terribly wrong when he begins acting out his secret agent character before the company has even had a chance to implant it. They sedate him and put him in a car, hoping to wash their hands of the incident. But when he wakes up, his friends and wife try to kill him, claiming he is not who he says he is.
He is given a briefcase by a former associate which contains a recording, in which he is telling himself that he’s really a man named Carl Hauser, and that the governor of Mars (Cohaagen) erased his memory because of a secret he carries. Quaid/Hauser then goes to Mars, retracing the path his old self has given him, and finds his way to Melina and the resistance. She then takes him to Kuato, leader of the resistance, to unlock his memories.
They help him recover the secret he’s been carrying – which involves the discovery of an alien artifact under the surface of Mars – but the base is then found and overrun. He and Melina are taken prisoner, and he learns that Hauser was never a double-agent, but a mole working with Cohaagen all along to lead them to the resistance. They strap him and Melina into chairs and try to force Hauser to recover his old self.
However, Quaid and Melina escape and enter the alien artifact. Cohaagen tries to stop them, claiming its a doomsday device that will destroy the planet, but Quaid manages to activate it before the three of them are sucked out onto the surface. The reactor turns out to be an atmospheric generator that turns Mars’ icy core into breathable air, which then pours out onto the surface, saving Melina and Quaid and making the planet livable.
Quaid kisses Melina, still not sure if what he has experienced is real or a dream.
Total Recall 2012:
At the end of the 21st century, the world has been devastated by chemical warfare, rendering all but two regions unihabitable. Whereas the wealthy live in the northern hemisphere – in the United Federation of Britain (UFB) – and in the Colony (former Australia). Tensions between the two are high due to the latter demanding independence, and a series of terrorist bombings attributed to a man named Matthias.
Enter into this Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who makes the transit between the Colony and the UFB every day on a massive subterranean lift called “The Fall”. At night, he dreams of fleeing for his life with a woman, and then being taken captive. He attributes these dreams to feeling trapped in his dead end life, and then hears of the memory-implant service known as Rekall.
Against his friend Harry’s recommendation, he goes to Rekall and requests a memory in which he is a intelligence service agent. The chief technician reveals that any duplication will cause problems, and then stops the process when he learns that Quaid really is a secret agent. Federal agents then break in and shoot everyone and try to take Quaid prisoner. However, he kills his captors and escapes.
Coming home to his wife Lori, he tells her of what happened and she tries to kill him as well. After escaping again, a pursuit begins, and Lori is told by UFB Chancellor Cohaagen to bring Quaid in alive. Meanwhile, Quaid is told by a former coworker to find the “key”, and a hidden message in the call leads him to a safety deposit box containing fake IDs, a holographic disguise, and a recording in which he explains what is happening.
Apparently, Quaid is actually a man named Hauser who worked for UFB intelligence. He was given the task of infiltrating the Colony’s resistance until he met Melina, who convinced him to change sides. He is instructed to go to the UFB and find it, but upon arrival, he is found out and forced to flee again. He is then rescued by the woman he keeps seeing in his dreams and escape Lori for the second time.
Together, they make it away and Quaid takes them to his old apartment to hide. Here, he finds the “key”, which is a recorded message on his piano that tells him that Cohaagen has been behind the bombings, and that he is planning an invasion of the Colony with an army of synthetics so he can level it and rebuild it as a new living space for the UFB. Luckily, Hauser discovered a kill code for the synthetics, which he must get to Matthias to stop the invasion.
As they attempt to leave his apartment, they are interrupted by Harry, who claims Quaid is still at Rekall and that he is an implant there to help him wake up to reality. Quaid chooses to shoot him and save Melina, and they are once again pursued by Lori and once again escape. They travel via the Fall to the Colony, where they meet with Matthias to hand over the memory that contains the kill code.
Unfortunately, the memory proves to be a recording of Cohaagen telling them they’ve been had. He then shows up with Lori and several security forces, kill Matthias, and take Melina away. Hauser is told he was given a false code to lead them to the resistance, and that a backup of his memories that predate his betrayal will be restored. Hauser realizes his old colleague is with them, has left his restrain undone, and escapes.
A fight takes place aboard the Fall, and Hauser and Melina plant a series of bombs on the rails. The Fall arrives and the synthetics begin to deploy, and Hauser begins fighting it out with Cohaagen and his forces. Hauser and Melina defeat Cohaagen and then detonate the bombs, which causes the Fall to begin falling backwards towards the center of the Earth where it explodes.
Hauser loses consciousness and wakes up with Melina inside a medical vehicle. He realizes it is actually Lori wearing his holographic disguise and they fight again, and he finally kills her. He and Melina are reunited, and they stand together and hear how the Colony is now expecting full independence. He sees a Rekall signs and has a moment of doubt, but ignores it and kisses Melina.
Once again, I am forced to give this one to the original. Whereas the remake had some signs of quality, which included decent enough performances from Farrel, Biel, Beckinsale, and Cranston. But unfortunately, some decent sets, a whole of lot of chase scenes and big budget special effects were not enough to save this movie from a relatively weak plot and a whole lot, too much CGI, and a whole lot of borrowing.
First of all, why did they do away with the whole Mars plot? The story which both the original and the remake are based on – “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K Dick – centered on Mars, though it did not take place there. Including it in the plot seems like a no-brainer. But for some reason, the writers of the remake wanted a story focused on Earth and the dangers of chemical warfare and rezoning.
Second, the story did away with a crucial element this time, which was the good old fashioned mind-fuck of the original. In that version, not only did we not know for certain whether or not Quaid/Hauser was dreaming the whole thing, we truly thought he was a good guy up until they showed otherwise. The plot involving replacing his memories was a ruse by Cohaagen in order to get Hauser past Kuato’s psychic detection.
In other words, in order to infiltrate the resistance, he had to believe he was an actual traitor. Thus began the convoluted process of making the resistance think he was genuine by erasing his memory and dumping him on Earth, then leading him to retrace his path and find his way to Kuato. Though the information he had about the Martian artifact was real, it was just the bait they dangled in front of the resistance’s nose to get them to give up their location.
Which brings me to item two in the weak plot front. The fact that Quaid/Hauser was actually a good guy in this version made me respect the plot way less. It was cool finding out the hero was a villain, and then seeing him chose to remain with his implanted identity rather than allow himself to be turned back into his old self. It was a big reveal, added a solid twist to the plot, and even raised an existential question or two.
And then there was the key moment where Quaid/Hauser has to decide what is real. In both versions, this takes the form of someone telling him he’s still dreaming and has to do something he won’t like in order to wake up. In the original, it involved Quaid being handed a pill which the man from Rekall says is a symbol of his desire to wake up, but could just as easily be a sedative. He realizes the man is a fake by the way he’s sweating and shoots him.
In the remake, it takes the form of him being confronted by his friend Harry who tells him he’s dreaming and to shoot Melina, a figment of his imagination. He chooses to shoot his friend Harry and accept that what he is experiencing is real because Jessica Biel begins to cry. But isn’t that be exactly what a fantasy woman would do in that situation? Seemed like quite the gambit there.
Also, the “secret” that Hauser had stumbled upon in this version was really quite lame. In the original, it involved an alien artifact, which is oodles more interesting than than Cohaagen planning to rezone Australia for more living space. Sure, the idea was laden with scientific inaccuracies – melting an ice core doesn’t instantly terraform a planet! – the ridiculousness of it could always be circumvented by arguing that it really was all a dream.
Last, but not least, there were the many parts of this remake that were obvious shout outs or references to the original. First, you had the three-breasted hooker, who was well cast and easy on the eyes. You also had key lines like – “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” “How would I know? I just work here.” And of course, the redheaded woman at the customs line. But these seemed a bit too many and obvious to be a simple wink and a nod.
Also, Bill Knighy had barely any screen time at all, and only really comes on to paraphrase what Kuato said in the original film. And the bad guys? No comparison! While Kate Beckinsale was believable enough as a villainess, Brian Cranston simply did not hold a candle to the original’s Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. Those two were perfectly cast as the evil, somewhat over-the-top bad guys, the perfect counter to Arnie’s over-the-top good guy.
But getting past that, there’s the matter of what the movie kinda-sorta did right. The settings were all quite artistic, with the world in the Colony being gritty, crowded, dirty looking, and consisting of a great deal of cultural influences. By contrast, the UFB looked cleaner, brighter, and the design seemed singular by comparison. And the emphasis of shortages of space was summed up nicely by the massive, overlapping layers of structures.
And the “synthetics” were artfully done and kind of cool looking. As were the flying cars, the aerial traffic lanes, and the three-dimensional elevator pods that crisscrossed the sky. And “The Fall” was a pretty neat idea, especially with the whole “gravity reversal thing”. But in just about all cases, these things have been done before. The sets are reminiscent of Blade Runner, with it’s gritty, crowded streets, signs in Asian characters, and the synthetic humans wandering around.
The robots also looked like a cross between Storm Troopers and the machines from I, Robot, and the flying cars called to mind another Philip K Dick adaptation, namely Minority Report. What can be said about a movie who’s set designs and concept art are quite impressive, but which borrow heavily from several other franchises? It’s like this movie is subtly mocking itself for a lack of originality – which makes sense since it’s a remake.
And with all the special effects, things looked entirely too fake. People today might find the Kuato puppet and the molded plastic suits of the mutants to be outdated, but those showed a lot of heart versus the extensive use of CGI in this one. In fact, seeing movies like these make me long for the days of old-style effects where costumes, real actors and real sets were built rather than generating everything digitally. George Lucas, I’m looking at you as I say this!
I’d say its blatantly obvious at this point, but this one definitely goes to the original. And much like the Robocop remake, it begs the question: why redo a movie when the original got it right? Sure, the 1990 version of Total Recall wasn’t perfect. It had a lot of cheesy elements and some massive scientific inaccuracies, but it managed to both entertain and impress with the way it played with perceptions, twisted things around and kept people guessing until the end.
In this remake, there really is no mystery, the plot is simplified, the most important element (i.e. Mars) is dropped, some of the best elements are missing, and it borrowed too heavily from multiple sources – not the least of which was the original. So really, why was it even made? In this season of remake review, I find myself asking that question quite a lot! Not a good way to start…
Okay, onto new things. Which may, at this point, include The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles relaunch. No promises though 🙂
Two 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.
Together, 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”.
The 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.
But 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.
This 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.
Three 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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
The recent discoveries and accomplishments of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have been very impressive. But for some, these successes have overshadowed the limitations that are part of the rover designs. Yes, despite their complexity and longevity (as evidenced by Opportunity’s ten years of service) the robot rovers really aren’t that fast or agile, and are limited when it comes to what they can access.
Case in point, Curiosity is currently on a year-long trek that is taking it from the Glenelg rocky outcropping to Mount Sharp, which is just over 8 km (5 miles) away. And where crevices, holes and uneven terrain are involved, they’ve been known to have trouble. This was demonstrated with the Spirit Rover, which was lost on May 1st, 2009 after getting stuck in soft soil.
As a result, the European Space Agency is planning on a sending a different type of rover to Mars in the future. Basically, their plan calls for the use of robot snakes. This plan is the result of collaborative study between the ESA and SINTEF – the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia – that sought to create a rover that would be able to navigate over long distances and get into places that were inaccessible to other rovers.
They concluded that a snake-like robot design would open up all kinds of possibilities, and be able to collect samples from areas that other rovers simply couldn’t get into. In addition to being able to move across challenging surfaces, these snake-bots would also be able to tunnel underground and get at soil and rock samples that are inaccessible to a land rover. Curiosity, which despite its advanced drill, is limited in what it can examine from Mars’ interior.
The researchers envisage using the rover to navigate over large distances, after which the snake robot can detach itself and crawl into tight, inaccessible areas. A cable will connect the robot to the vehicle and will supply power and tractive power – i.e. it can be winched back to the rover. Communication between the pair will be also be facilitated via signals transmitted down the cable.
According to Pål Liljebäck, one of the researchers developing the snake robot at SINTEF, the challenge presents several opportunities for creative solutions:
We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together. Since the rover has a powerful energy source, it can provide the snake robot with power through a cable extending between the rover and the robot. If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it. One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle’s arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently.
An additional benefit of this rover-snake collaboration is that in the event that the rover gets stuck, the snake can be deployed to dig it out. Alternately, it could act as an anchor by coiling itself about a rock while the rover using the cable as a winch to pull itself free.
Liljebäck and his colleague, Aksel Transeth, indicate that SINTEF’s Department of Applied Cybernetics has been working closely with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Engineering Cybernetics for many years. However, it was only recently that these efforts have managed to bear fruit in the form or their robot snake-rover design, which they hope will trigger a long-term partnership with the ESA.
In addition to researching rover design, Transeth, Liljebäck and other researchers working with the ESA are looking for ways to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. At present, soil and other materials taken from Mars are analyzed on board the rover itself, and the results communicated back to Earth. If these samples could be physically transported home, they could be studied for years to come, and yield much more fascinating information.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the robot snake in action:
Sources: dvice.com, sintef.no, phys.org,
The researchers are busy working on a feasibility study assigned to them by the ESA. The ESA and the researchers believe that by combining a rover that can navigate over large distances with a snake robot that can crawl along the ground and can get into inaccessible places, so many more possibilities could be opened up.
When it comes to classic and hard science fiction, there are few concepts more inspired, more audacious, and more cool than the Space Elevator. Consisting of a cable (or tether) attached the Earth near the equator and a station in geosynchronous orbit, a structure of this kind would allow us to put objects, supplies and even people into orbit without the need for rockets and space ships.
And perhaps I am a bit biased, seeing as how one of the writer’s featured in the Yuva anthology happens to have written a story that features one – Goran Zidar, whose story “Terraformers” includes an orbital colony that is tethered to the planet by a “Needle”. But I’ve found the concept fascinating for as long as I have known about it, and feel like its time for a conceptual post that deals with this most awesome of concepts!
The first recorded example of the space elevator concept appeared in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He considered a similar tower that extended from the ground into geostationary orbit (GSO) in space. Objects traveling into orbit would attain orbital velocity as they rode up the tower, and an object released at the tower’s top would also have the velocity necessary to remain in orbit.
However, his concept called for a compression structure, which was unfeasible given that no material existed that had enough compressive strength to support its own weight under such conditions. In 1959, another Russian scientist named Yuri N. Artsutanov suggested a more feasible proposal, a tensile structure which used a geostationary satellite as the base from which to deploy the structure downward.
By using a counterweight, a cable would be lowered from geostationary orbit to the surface of Earth, while the counterweight was extended from the satellite away from Earth, keeping the cable constantly over the same spot on the surface of the Earth. He also proposed tapering the cable thickness so that the stress in the cable was constant. This gives a thinner cable at ground level that becomes thicker up towards the GSO.
In 1966, Isaacs, Vine, Bradner and Bachus, four American engineers, reinvented the concept under the name “Sky-Hook”. In 1975, the concept was reinvented again by Jerome Pearson, whose model extended the distance of the counterweight to 144,000 km (90,000 miles) out, roughly half the distance to the Moon. However, these studies were also marred by the fact that no known material possessed the tensile strength required.
By the turn of the century, however, the concept was revitalized thanks to the development of carbon nanotubes. Believing that the high strength of these materials might make an orbital skyhook feasible, engineer David Smitherman of NASA put together a workshop at the Marshall Space Flight Center and invited many scientists and engineers to participate. Their findings were published in an article titled “Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium”.
Another American scientist, Bradley C. Edwards, also suggested using nanotubes to create a 100,000 km (62,000 mile) paper-thin cable that would be shaped like a ribbon instead of circular. This, he claimed, would make the tether more resistant to impacts from meteoroids. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts began supporting Edwards’ work, allowing him to expand on it and plan how it would work in detail.
In 1979, the concept of the Space Elevator was introduced to the reading public thanks to the simultaneous publications of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Charles Sheffield’s The Web Between the Worlds. In the former, engineers construct a space elevator on top of a mountain peak in the fictional island country of Taprobane, which was loosely based on Clarke’s new home in Sri Lanka, albeit moved south to the Equator.
In an interesting and fact-based twist, the purpose for building the elevator on Earth is to demonstrate that it can be done on Mars. Ultimately, the protagonist of the story (Dr Vannevar Morgan) is motivated by his desire to help a Mars-based consortium to develop the elevator on Mars as part of a massive terraforming project, something which has been proposed in real life.
Similiarly, in Sheffield’s Web, which was his first novel, we see a world famous engineer who has created extensive bridge networks all over the world using graphite cable. In hoping to achieve the unachievable dream, he begins work on a space elevator code named the “Beanstalk”. This brings him into an alliance with a corrupt tycoon who wants to make rockets obsolete, and intrigue ensues…
Three years later, Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Friday features a space elevator known as the “Nairobi Beanstalk”. In Heinlein’s vision, the world of the future is heavily Balkanized, and people exist in thousands of tiny nation states and orbital colonies which are connected to Earth via the Beanstalk, which as the name suggests, is located in equatorial Africa.
In 1993, Kim Stanley Robinson released Red Mars, a sci-fi classic that remains a quintessential novel on the subject of Mars colonization. In the novel, the Martian colonists build a space elevator that allows them to bring additional colonists to the surface, as well as transport natural resources that were mined planetside into orbit where they can be ferried back to Earth.
In 1999, Sid Meier’s, creator of the famed Civilization gaming series, released the sci-fi based Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri that deals with the colonization of the planet “Chiron” in the Alpha Centauri system. In the course of the turn-based strategy game, players are encouraged to construct special projects as a way of gaining bonuses and building up their faction’s power.
One such project is the Space Elevator, which requires that the faction building first research the technology “super tensile solids” so they have the means of building a super-tensile tether. Once built, it confers bonuses for space-based unit production, allows orbital drop units to be deployed over the entire planet, increases production rates for satellites, and removes the need for aerospace facilities. In David Gerrold’s 2000 novel, Jumping Off The Planet, we are again confronted with an equatorial space elevator, this time in Ecuador where the device is once again known as the “beanstalk”. The story focuses on a family excursion which is eventually revealed to be a child-custody kidnapping. In addition to this futuristic take on domestic issues, Gerrold also examined some of the industrial applications of a mature elevator technology.
In 2001, Alastair Reynolds, a hard sci-fi author and creator of the Revelation Space series, released Chasm City, which acted as a sort of interquel between the first and second books in the main trilogy. At the opening of the novel, the story takes place on Sky’s Edge, a distant world where settlers travel to and from ships in orbit using a space elevator that connects to the planetary capitol on the surface.
And in 2011, author Joan Slonczewski presented a biological twist on the concept with her novel The Highest Frontier. Here, she depicts a college student who ascends a space elevator that uses a tether constructed from self-healing cables of anthrax bacilli. The engineered bacteria can regrow the cables when severed by space debris, thus turning the whole concept of tensile solids on its head.
Attempts to Build a Space Elevator:
Since the onset of the 21st century, several attempts have been made to design, fund, and create a space elevator before the end of this century. To speed the development process, proponents of the concept have created several competitions to develop the relevant technologies. These include the Elevator: 2010 and Robogames Space Elevator Ribbon Climbing, annual competitions seeking to design climbers, tethers and power-beaming systems.
In March of 2005, NASA announced its own incentive program, known as the Centennial Challenges program, which has since merged the Spaceward Foundation and upped the total value of their cash prizes to US$400,000. In that same year, the LiftPort Group began producing carbon nanotubes for industrial use, with the goal of using their profits as capital for the construction of a 100,000 km (62,000 mi) space elevator.
In 2008, the Japanese firm known as the Space Elevator Association, chaired by Shuichi Ono, announced plans to build a Space Elevator for the projected price tag of a trillion yen ($8 billion). Though the cost is substantially low, Ono and his peers claimed that Japan’s role as a leader in the field engineering could resolve the technical issues at the price they quoted.
In 2011, Google was reported to be working on plans for a space elevator at its secretive Google X Lab location. Since then, Google has stated that it is not working on a space elevator. But in that same year, the first European Space Elevator Challenge (EuSEC) to establish a climber structure took place in August.
And in 2012, the Obayashi Corporation of Japan announced that in 38 years it could build a space elevator using carbon nanotube technology. Their detailed plan called for a 96,000 long tether, supported by a counterweight, that could hold a 30-passenger climber that would travel 200 km/h, reaching the GSO after a 7.5 day trip. However, no cost estimates, finance plans, or other specifics were made at this point.
Despite these efforts, the problems of building are still marred by several technical issues that have yet to be resolved. These include the problems of tensile strength, dangerous vibrations along the tether line, climbers creating wobble, dangers posed by satellites and meteoroids, and the fact that such a structure would be vulnerable to a terrorist or military attack.
Though we may never be able to resolve the problems of building a space elevator on Earth, scientists are agreed that one could be made on other planets, particularly the Moon. This idea was first devised by Jerome Pearson, one of the concepts many original proponents, who proposed a smaller elevator that would be anchored by Earth’s gravity field.
This is a necessity since the Moon does not rotate and could therefore not maintain tension along a tether. But in this scenario, the cable would be run from the moon and out through the L1 Lagrangian point. Once there, it would be dangled down into Earth’s gravity field where it would be held taught by Earth gravity and a large counterweight attached to its end.
Since the Moon is a far different environment than planet Earth, it presents numerous advantages when building a space elevator. For starters, there’s the strength of the materials needed, which would be significantly less, thus resolving a major technical issue. In addition, the Moon’s lower gravity would mean a diminished weight of the materials being shipped and of the structure itself.
[T]o lift a thousand tons per day off the lunar surface, it would take less than 100,000 tons of elevator to do it — which means it pays back its own mass in just 100 days, or somewhere between three and four times its own mass per year — which is not a bad rate of return… You don’t need nanotubes and very, very high strength materials. But the higher the strength, the more of the ratio you can get for hauling stuff on the moon.
In fact, LiftPort is already deep into developing a “Lunar Elevator”. Plans to build one by 2020 were announced back in 2010, and since that time, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the funding necessary to conduct tests that will get them closer to this goal. These consisting of sending a tethered robot 2km from the surface to conduct stress and telemetry tests.
Ultimately, the company estimates that a Lunar Elevator could be made at the cost of $800 million, which is substantially less than a “Terran Elevator” would cost. Similarly, it is likely that any manned missions to Mars, which will include eventual settlement and plans to terraform, will involve a Martian elevator, possibly named the “Ares Elevator”.
Much like SpaceX’s attempts to resolve the costs of sending rockets into space, the concept of a space elevator is another means of reducing the cost of sending things into orbit. As time goes on and technology improves, and humanity finds itself in other terrestrial environments where resources need to be exported into space, we can expect that elevators that pierce the sky will become possible.
In the meantime, we can always dream…
Ever since astronomers first looked up at Mars, they discerned features that few could accurately identify. For many years, speculations about irrigation, canals, and a Martian civilization abounded, firing people’s imaginations and fiction. It was not until more recently, with the deployment of the Viking probe, that Mars’ surface features have come to be seen for what they are.
Thanks several more probes, and the tireless work of rover such as Opptorunity and Curiosity, scientists have been able to amass evidence and get a first hand look at the surface. Nevertheless, they are still hard-pressed to explain everything that they’ve seen. And while much evidence exists that rivers and lakes once dotted the landscape, other geological features exist which don’t fit that model.
However, a recent report from Brown University has presented evidence that snowfall may be one answer. It has long been known that ice exists at the polar caps, but actual snowfall is a very specific meteorological feature, one that has serious implications for early Martian conditions. This is just another indication that Mars hosted an environment that was very much like Earths.
And this is not the first time that snow on Mars has been suggested. In 2008, NASA announced having detected snow falling from Martian clouds, but it was entirely vaporized before reaching the ground. The Brown researchers claim that snowfall in the past, and buildup on the surface leading to melting and runoff, could have created many of the tributary networks observed near tall mountain-ranges.
To back this claim up, the team used a computer simulation from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique called the Mars global circulation model (GCM). This model compiles evidence about the early composition of the red planet’s atmosphere to predict global circulation patterns. And since other models predict that Mars was quite cold, the program indicated the highest probability of snowfall over the densest valley systems.
Lead researcher Kat Scanlon also relied on her background in orographic studies (science for “studying mountains”) in Hawaii to arrive at this hypothesis. This includes how tall mountains lead to divergent weather patterns on either side, with warm, wet conditions one and cold, dry ones on the other. NASA’s Curiosity rover also was intrinsic, thanks to recent information that might explain why Mars no longer displays this kind of behavior.
In short, Curiosity determined that the planet is losing its atmosphere. It has taken detailed assays of the current atmosphere, which is almost entirely carbon dioxide and about 0.6% the pressure of Earth’s at sea-level. More notably, it has used its ability to laser-blast solid samples and analyze the resulting vapor to determine that Mars has an unusually high ratio of heavy to light isotopes — most importantly of deuterium to hydrogen.
The main explanation for this is atmospheric loss, since light isotopes will escape slightly more quickly than heavy. Over billions of years, this can lead to non-standard isotope levels the show a loss of atmosphere. One major theory that might explain this loss say that about 4.2 million years ago Mars collided with an object about the size of Pluto. An impact from this body would have caused a huge expulsion of atmosphere, followed by a slow, continued loss from then on.
All of this plays into the larger question of life on Mars. Is there, or was there, ever life? Most likely, there was, as all the elements – water, atmosphere, clay minerals – appear to have been there at one time. And while scientists might still stumble upon a Lake Vostok-like reserve of microbial life under the surface, it seems most likely that Mars most fertile days is behind it.
However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t once again host life-sustaining conditions. And with some tweaking, of the ecological engineering – aka. terraforming – variety, it could once again.
It’s a good thing I’ve come down with a cold and have little to do but sit at my computer. Because in the last week, some very interesting news stories have been piling up that just scream for recognition. And wouldn’t you know it, more than a few have to do with our big red neighbor Mars, that world many human beings will one day think of as home.
The first story comes to us from the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, where noted astronomer Robert McNaught recently sighted an new comet. From his observations, the icy interloper appeared to have originated in the Oort Cloud – a hypothetical cloud surrounding the solar system and containing billions of icy planetesimals that were cast out from our Solar System billions of years ago.
After news of the discovery was released, the astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona looked back over their observations to find “prerecovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012. These observations placed the orbital trajectory of the comet – now known as C/2013 A1 – through the orbit of Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. This means, in essence, that this comet could very well strike the Red Planet late next year.
Luckily, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has run the calculations and indicated that their close approach data suggests the comet is most likely to make a close pass of the Martian surface. And by close, they mean at roughly 0.0007 AU, or approximately 100,000 kilometers (63,000 miles) from the Martian surface. So in all likelihood, Curiosity and Opportunity will be safe from a serious impact that could turn them into scrap metal!
But of course, predicting its exact trajectory at this time is subject to guess work, and ongoing observations will be needed. No doubt, the predictions will be refined a the next 20 months go by, and we’ll know for sure if this comet plans to miss Mars completely, or slam head-on into the surface at 200,000 km/h (126,000 mph).
The second bit of news comes to us from the good-ole Curiosity Rover! Roughly four weeks after conducting the first drilling operation into the Martian surface, the Rover ate its first sample of the grey dust that resulted. The delivery of the two aspiring-sized tablets of dust took place on Feb. 22nd and 23rd respectively after the robotic arm delivered them into the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratories for analysis. Results expected in two weeks!
Among other things, the results from the analysis are expected to give clues as to what the color change between the red surface and the grey interior means. One theory is that it might be related to different oxidations states of iron that could potentially inform us about the habitability of Mars inside the rover’s Gale Crater landing site.
At the same time, the Mars Science Laboratory team expects to find further evidence of what life was like in previous geological eras. The Curiosity team believes that the area inside the Gale Crater, known as Yellowknife Bay, experienced repeated exposure to flowing liquid water long ago when Mars was warmer and wetter – and therefore was potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life.
The rover will likely remain in the John Klein area for a month or more to obtain a more complete scientific characterization of the area which has seen repeated episodes of flowing water. Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a year long trek to her main destination: the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of the 5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp.
And last, but not least by any stretch of the imagination, is the discovery of “hieroglyphs” on the Martian surface. While they might appear like ancient glyphs to the untrained eye, they are in fact evidence of past subsurface water. The images were caught by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed the surface area known as Amazonis Planitia.
Known as ‘rootless cones,’ these geological features are the result of an explosive interaction of lava with ground ice or water contained within the regolith beneath the flow. Vaporization of the water or ice when the hot lava comes in contact causes an explosive expansion of the water vapor, causing the lava to shoot upward, creating what appears to be a button hole on the surface.
In the past, Mars scientists have used geological patterns on Earth to make sense of similar ones found on Mars. For example, when the Curiosity Rover discovered veins of hydrated calcium in the rock surface in the Gale Crater, they compared them to similar patterns found in Egypt to determine that they were the result of long-term exposure to water flows. In this case, the rootless cones found in Amazonis Planitia are comparable to those found in Iceland’s Laki Lava Flow (as seen above).
According to Colin Dunas, from the US Geological Survey, the cones are rather large and most likely very old:
“The cones are on the order of a hundred meters across and ten meters high. The age of these specific cones isn’t known. They are on a mid- to late-Amazonian geologic unit, which means that they are young by Martian standards but could be as much as a few hundred million to over a billion years old.”
Only time will tell if any subsurface water is still there, and hence usable by future teams of terraformers and settlers. According to Dundas, the odds are not so good of that being the case. Given the surface depth at which the ice was found, not to mention that at the low latitude at which it was found (22 degrees north), shallow ground ice is unstable. Dundas added that since ice stability varies as the obliquity changes, it’s even possible that ice has come and gone repeatedly since the lava erupted.
Too bad. That could have come in really handy for hydroponics, fuel cells, and even restoring surface water to the planet. Guess future generations of Martians will just have to look for their ground and irrigation water elsewhere, huh? Just another challenge of converting the Red Planet to a green one, I guess 😉
Stay tuned for more news Mars. As it stands, there’s plenty to be had! Stick around!
The credit goes to photographer Andrew Bodrov for creating this new and stunning interactive self-portrait of the Curiosity Rover. Relying on several recent images taken at the “John Klein” drilling sight, he was able to create a full 360-degree panorama. What’s more, the picture is interactive, giving viewers the option of clicking, zooming, and surveying the entire “John Klein” drilling sight.
The mosaic stretches about 30,000 pixels width and includes the self-portrait, which consists of 66 different images (seen above) taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013 here on Earth), along with 113 images taken on Sol 170 and an additional 17 images taken on Sol 176.
The full and non-interactive photo appears above. If you look closely, you can see the drill holes directly beneath the rover. In addition, the shiny protuberance which was noticed earlier this month. And if you pan around the sky, you get a look at what a typical Martian day looks like, at least in Yellowknife Bay.
Click here to see the panorama and tinker with it some! And stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet!