Tag Archives: Mars

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?