Tag Archives: Mars

Martian Persistence

This weekend marks the opposition of Mars and it is the closest one since 2003.  However, this opposition has Mars low in the southern sky, not good for observers in the Northern hemisphere.  On top of that, there is a dust storm going on that is obscuring the view of the surface features.  One side effect of the storm is that Mars is appearing a bit brighter than expected.

So, in honor of the opposition as well as the recent discovery by the ESA Mars Express probe of a deposit of liquid water (though it could very easily be a layer of thin, salty mud) about a mile underneath the Martian South Pole, here is a post about one aspect of the Red Planet that still persists amongst many in society even to this day.

The recently past July 20th marks two space anniversaries.  The better known one is the 49th anniversary of the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landing on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.  The men who took part in that mission are American heroes and their deed deserves to remembered.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a holiday for it.  My late father felt that, if Columbus could get a holiday, the landing on the Moon should be likewise honored.   But this blog post is not about Apollo 11.

Also on July 20th, back in 1976, the Viking 1 lander touched down on Chryse Planitia on Mars, the first probe to successfully land on Mars and function (the Russians landed a probe a few years earlier, but they only got a few seconds of useless telemetry from it before they lost contact.  It is generally thought that the probe landed during a global dust storm and a gust of wind caught the still-attached parachute and toppled the probe over).  Viking 2 landed later in Utopia Planitia.  After a hiatus of a number of years, orbiting probes, landers, and now even rovers have been sent to Mars.  A good number are still operating after years in the Martian environment and we know pretty much what conditions are like there.  The atmosphere is only about one-percent that of Earth, the temperature is sub-zero during the day, but can get as low as -150 degrees F. at night, liquid water cannot exist at the surface, and the conditions at the surface are extremely hostile to all known forms of life.  But does everybody know?

480px-Mars_and_Syrtis_Major_-_GPN-2000-000923

Mars as it is today and as it has been for at least hundreds of millions of years.

It seems that there are quite a few people who through stupidity, lack of education, or willful ignorance, still hold on to the old discredited ideas about Martian conditions even after all these years of Martian exploration.

One recent example is from a man who should know much better.  Ben Bova wrote a series of books where it seemed there was life all over the solar system.  In a couple of them, the discovery of an ancient civilization on Mars figured into the plot and Bova implied that it met its demise fairly recently (in geological terms).  These stories were written back in the days when the Internet was mostly text and Sci-Fi Channel (I prefer the spelling they had back then instead of that “SyFY” they use now) had online chat sessions with authors and other such notables.  I actually confronted Ben Bova about this, pointing out that all the available evidence indicates that the period of time that Mars may have been able to support life was billions of years ago and that the window of time such conditions existed in was extremely short, therefore any such civilization was totally implausible.  He essentially pooh-poohed my comment.

Another more recent example was in the series “Supergirl”.  I’ll grant that the show is a fantasy.  Since the protagonist comes from a planet far from our solar system with different characteristics, they can be excused as well.  However, one character proves that the writers have zero knowledge of our own solar system.  On the show is a being known as the Martian Manhunter who is a bit over 300 years old.  He seems to function well on Earth, which would indicate that he lived under somewhat Earth-like conditions.  Yet, most of us (especially people intelligent enough to read this blog) are well aware that Mars was in the condition we see it now for a very long time.  Three hundred years ago, Mars was no different than today.  One would have figured that they would have changed the character’s planet of origin to a planet in another solar system and neatly solve the problem.  But they didn’t.

Some folks do get it right though.  The recent film “The Martian” is a prime example of an accurate depiction of Martian conditions, though the winds of the dust storm were far stronger than anything that could be produced under current conditions.  There have been books and short stories that have been accurate as well.

Why is it that, with Mars having been explored robotically for about 40 years, some people still cling to the idea of Martians?  Centuries ago, people wrote wild stories about creatures that existed in very far off lands.  Yet, once those lands were explored and those creatures were found not exist, the stories stopped.  Yet, in the case of Mars, we still have die-hards.  One reason I suspect is due to lack of imagination.  Imagining things on a planet in another solar system takes some work.  But it is easier to ignore science and set your action closer to home.  Another reason is that interstellar flight is nearly impossible in reality.  So, writers would rather not imagine implausible interstellar travel and imagine an implausible Mars to give Earth humans a chance to interact with (or at least discover evidence for) aliens.  It could also be that the writers perceive their audiences as stupid and ignorant.  Therefore, they wouldn’t mind a Mars that runs counter to everything we know about it.

Of course, there could be other reasons that I have missed.  If you have any, please post.

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Could This be Historic?

First off, many apologies for the lack of postings in the last several weeks.  Unfortunately, it was a case where work obligations, the holiday rush, and a computer project conspired against blogging.  Now on to the post.

Unnoticed by the lamestream media as it was recovering from their New Years’ Eve hangovers, reporting on the effort to retrieve bits and pieces of plane wreckage from the Java Sea, and covering the violent rampage in France, a discovery was made that could potentially be one of the greatest in the history of history.

The last several months, the websites that deal with weird stuff of dubious validity would carry reports of someone claiming to spot something in the images from the Curiosity Mars rover that look like one kind of odd object or another.  However, someone recently came forward and announced that they saw something amazing in some of those images.

According to this Space Daily article,  Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, noticed something familiar in an image taken of a sedimentary rock formation.  What appeared in the image resembled a sedimentary layer that contained the fossil remains of a microbial mat, a flat, slime-like mass of microorganisms that forms in bodies of water under favorable conditions.  When alive, sediment grains get stuck in the mat and that leaves telltale markings when the sediments turn into rock.

Noffke has studied microbial mats and the fossils they form for over twenty years and she claims that, after very detailed analysis of the images from Mars, these features do bear very strong similarity to known microbial mat fossils on Earth.

If this can be confirmed, these would be the first fossils found outside of Earth and the first evidence of extraterrestrial life.  But that is the problem.  While Curiosity did take detailed images, it turns out the rover is not well equipped to confirm whether these are indeed fossils.  It is quite likely that any organic compounds in the material have long since disappeared and it has also been announced that one of the analytical instruments on Curiosity suffered some contamination on landing, therefore compromising any effort at detailed measurements.

So, it may be a very long time before we can either send a probe with advanced instruments capable of testing for microfossils, return samples to Earth, or have human geologists examine them on Mars.

To her credit, Noffke is keeping an open mind to the possibility that the markings are of strictly geological origin.  While this would not be as amazing a discovery as microfossils, it would still indicate that Martian geology has some surprises, which would be of scientific significance as well.

Any opinions?

Orion Oversold?

December 4th is the date set for the first test flight of NASA’s new Orion capsule.  It will be launched into Earth orbit using a Delta IV rocket at about 7:05 AM.  Then, Orion will circle the Earth twice, conduct some test maneuvers, then enter the atmosphere at about 80% of the velocity the capsule would have if it was returning from the Moon.  If the reentry systems work properly, Orion should splash down in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego, California before noon.  Unless it lands like the capsule in “Gravity”, Orion will be bobbing at the surface and picked up by a waiting ship.

NASA has been loudly promoting Orion, claiming that it is the vehicle that will take American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to destinations such as the Moon and Mars.  Much ink and many pixels have been used to promote Orion as a truly advanced spacecraft.  But let’s see it for what it is.

I dimly recall back in the early 1970’s there was a proposal to build a larger version of the Apollo-era command module.  The plans were all drawn up for it, then it was decided that there was no need for it.  Orion looks like the resurrection of this project.  Of course, Orion does have some updated technology, such as new heat shield material, far superior computers, nicely decorated interior, and touchscreen panels (like the controls you would find on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or on an Asgard ship from the “Stargate” franchise, if you prefer).  But don’t be fooled, it is still based on your father’s (or grandfather’s depending on your age) Apollo command module.

Actually, there is something about Orion that is actually inferior to the original Apollo-era vehicle.  The Orion will use a service module that is based on the ESA’s (European Space Agency) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) that has been used to send supplies up to the ISS.  This ATV-derived service module will use solar panels instead of fuel cells to generate electrical power and will certainly have far less powerful engines than the original Apollo-era service module did.

Then, there was a statement made about the Orion by a Russian commentator who pointed out that, for a vessel that is supposed to house a crew for up to three weeks or so, it lacked certain amenities.  While on a short trip to the Moon, that might not be a big deal since the original Apollo astronauts didn’t complain about the lack of a convenience, it could pose a problem for longer trips.

What bothers me is how NASA keeps pushing the idea that Orion will take astronauts to Mars.  It is simply way too small for the job (unless someone manages to develop the technology used to create the sub-light propulsion systems of mainstream science fiction programs).  Even Robert Zubrin (creator of the Mars Direct concept of a reasonably priced program of Mars exploration) and his colleagues and the folks at Mars Direct have put more thought into designing a spacecraft to take people to Mars.

Why has NASA gone so far overboard in promoting Orion?  Probably because that it is about the only idea they have left for manned spaceflight (besides the Space Launch System – SLS – heavy rocket).

Hopefully the test flight of Orion will go well and not wind up exploding, running out of power,  sinking on splashdown, or anything like that.  But do you think that Orion’s “Back to the Future” approach is the way to go or do you think it’s another one of NASA’s ideas that will fall well short of the mark?