February 6 – The Sky’s A Rockin’!

Today’s factismal: Nearly 42,000 meteorites hit the Earth every year.

Odds are, you’ve seen the really cool dashboard video of the meteor that light up the sky in Illinois and Wisconsin last night. Right now, we don’t know much about this particular meteor other than it was big and bright. We don’t know if it landed somewhere on Earth like the 42,000 other meteorites than come to ground each year or if it headed back out into space like the The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972. We’re not even sure where it came from – was it a piece of a comet or a chunk of an asteroid?

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972 (Image courtesy and copyright James M. Baker)

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972 (Image courtesy and copyright James M. Baker)

What we do know is that there will be nearly 70 different chunks of rock and ice that speed by the Earth in February alone! They’ll zoom past at distances ranging from just outside the atmosphere to 78 times the distance to the Moon. They range in size from the size of a tiny house (about 36 ft) to the size of a tiny village (about a mile across). These rocks are made up of chunks of comets and asteroids and even bits of Mars and the Moon that have been blasted into space by impacts from other chunks of rock!

A meteor streak across the Milky Way (My camera)

A meteor streak across the Milky Way
(My camera)

What is important about these chunks of rock is that they tell us how dynamic our Solar System is. Instead of being a dead old system with an orbit for everything and everything in its orbit, the Solar System is a dynamic, ever-changing system with the planets and comets and asteroids interacting to change orbits and thrown new stuff in new places. And they can provide us with samples from other planets and from the earliest formation of the system. Besides which, they are just plain pretty!

A meteorite as seen from above the atmosphere  (Image courtesy NASA/Ron Garan)

A meteorite as seen from above the atmosphere
(Image courtesy NASA/Ron Garan)

But the best thing about meteor is that you can help scientists learn more about them! If you download NASA’s Meteor Counter App (available for iPad, iPhone, and iWannaMeteor), then you’ll be able to send NASA scientists valuable information on the number of meteors that hit during the shower. They’ll then use that information to help us understand how likely it is that we’ll get hit. To learn more, go to NASA’s web site:
http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/13dec_meteorcounter/

November 28 – Red Headed Menace

Today’s factismal: There have been 55 probes to Mars since the first one launched 52 years ago today.

Back in 1964, the US and the USSR had one thing in common – neither one of them could get a spacecraft to Mars. The two countries were engaged in a space race, trying to show that they could do more and go further than the other but all of their probes to Mars failed. The USSR had launched five different probes to Mars, only one of which had made it out of Earth orbit. The US had launched just one probe but the cover on it had failed to separate, meaning that the probe couldn’t make it to Mars. And then came Mariner IV.

A close-up of a crater on Mars (Image courtesy NASA's HiRISE)

A close-up of a crater on Mars
(Image courtesy NASA’s HiRISE)

Based on the successful Ranger probes that had explored the Moon, the Mariner was designed to take photos of Mars’ surface and send them back to Earth; it also would measure cosmic rays in space, look for changes in solar wind and plasma, and discover how much dust was in the Solar System. All of these things would be important if we were ever to travel to Mars. At 2:27:23 PM UTC on November 28, 1964, atop an Atlas missile with an Agena booster, the Mariner probe headed for the skies and then for Mars. It would fly past the Red Planet 228 days later and send back the first close-up images ever taken of the planet.

The first close-up picture of Mars (Image courtesy NASA)

The first close-up picture of Mars
(Image courtesy NASA)

Today there are eight different probes in orbit around or exploring the surface of Mars. They are telling us about its climate, its atmosphere, its composition, how it has changed over time, and (most importantly) if it has life living below its surface. And the best part of the exploration of Mars is that you can be a part of it. Just fly over to Planet Four: Terrains and tell them what you see in each image (craters, sand dunes, little green men). The scientists will use your classifications to help them understand how Mars has changed over the years. To learn more, land on:
https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/mschwamb/planet-four-terrains/about/research

August 9 – The Dead Planet

Today’s factismal: Mars has more surface area than all seven continents combined.

If you hang around JPL or the Russian launch center at Baikonur for any length of time, you’ve probably heard them talking about the Great Galactic Ghoul. According to legend, this monster hides out near Mars and lives off of the space probes that it eats. And what a diet it has had! Over the past five decades, the Great Galactic Ghoul has eaten about half of the probes sent to Mars. For example, on August 9, 1973, the USSR sent Mars 7, one of four different probes to Mars that they would launch that summer.  All four probes would be eaten by the Great Galactic Ghoul.

Percival Lowell's drawing of the martian canals (Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

Percival Lowell’s drawing of the martian canals
(Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

Of course, nobody actually thinks that there is a giant space monster out there eating our probes. (Well, maybe a few politicians.) The Great Galactic Ghoul just symbolizes how difficult it is to send a probe to another planet. So why do we keep doing it? In a word: science. By sending rovers and landers and orbiters to Mars, we can learn a lot about the planet. For example, we’ve learned that Mars is not covered with canals, that Mars is covered with ground water, and that there might be life on Mars (in the form of bacteria living deep in the soil).

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twwelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Whatney!) (Image courtesy NASA)

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Whatney!)
(Image courtesy NASA)

But Mars is a planet with more surface area to explore than all seven continents combined. Thus far we’ve explored that enormous area with seven landers and four rovers supplemented with ten orbiters. That’s like saying that we’ve explored Earth by driving half-way from Washington DC to New York City while stopping at the Chicago, Albuquerque, and Moscow airports. Needless to say, there’s a lot left to explore.

A dust devil on Mars as seen by Spirit (Image courtesy NASA)

A dust devil on Mars as seen by the Spirit rover
(Image courtesy NASA)

And that’s where you come in. It turns out that one of the most important parts of planning a mission for a lander or rover is deciding where it should land. And in order to that the scientists need to look at every image of Mars’ surface taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO for short). But there are a lot of images to sort through. The MRO has three cameras and has been in orbit for a decade now; all told, it has taken more than 250,000 pictures of Mars’ surface. So the scientists need ordinary folks (that’s you) to look through the backlog of pictures and help them decide what they are looking at. Is it sand dunes? Is it flat plains? It is valleys? Or mountains? To take part, head over to Planet Four – just mind the Great Galactic Ghoul!
https://www.planetfour.org/

 

January 26 – Mars Needs Probes

Today’s factismal: All of NASA’s unmanned probes (except space telescopes) are run out of JPL.

Back in the 1990s, NASA had problems, especially at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. Underfunded and over-mandated, they had to find a way to do more with less. One way that they did so was by developing a new class of missions that would be faster, better, and cheaper than what went before. (JPL wags immediately told management that they could “pick two”.)  And perhaps the most successful mission to come out of that program was the Mars Exploration Rover. NASA built two and with the inevitability of government-speak called them MER-A and MER-B. These rovers would launch from Florida in self-contained packages. Once at Mars, they would fall through the atmosphere until they were slowed by a parachute and rockets; at the appropriate time, they would fall to the ground and bounce around on air bags, just like those used in cars. Once the package had reached the ground, it would unfold, revealing the rover within. Though the landing might sound complicated and more than a little silly, it was necessary, given Mars’ thin atmosphere; fortunately, MER-A and -B had an older sibling (the aptly-named Pathfinder and Sojourner) that had field-tested the process and shown that it could work.

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twwelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Whatney!) (Image courtesy NASA)

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Watney!)
(Image courtesy NASA)

So on July 7, 2003, MER-B was launched from Earth. For more than a year it flew toward the red planet before beginning what NASA wonks called “the most expensive controlled crash-landing in the history of space”. Fortunately, everything worked and the probe rolled out to start its 90 day mission on January 25, 2004. (Think 90 days is short? Sojourner had been given a seven day mission; it ended up lasting for 83 days.) And soon MER-B was following the JPL tradition of exceeding all expectations. It drove further than any other rover before. It collected more data and more images than any other rover. And it discovered more new things about Mars than any other rover. But MER-B was unwieldy to say, and so JPL renamed it “Opportunity”. And, for the past twelve years, Opportunity has kept  on knocking down our ideas of what rovers can do. As of today, it has spent 4,384 Earth days (4,266 Mars days) on Mars; that works out to be 12 Earth years (6 Mars years and 5 Mars months).. All told, Opportunity has exceeded our expectations 48 times over!

One of the high points of Opportunity's voyage, this panorama was taken from the dizzying height of 440 ft! (Image courtesy NASA)

One of the high points of Opportunity’s voyage, this panorama was taken from the dizzying height of 440 ft!
(Image courtesy NASA)

And in that twelve years, the rover has collected a lot of data. It has collected so much data that there are images that the scientists haven’t completely analyzed yet. And that’s where you come in! If you want to explore Mars but don’t want to spend twelve years at it, why not head on over to Planet Four: Terrains? This site asks you to look at images of Mars taken from orbit. You’ll classify the image based on a simple set of choices and help the scientists to build up a catalog of neat things that they might want to send the next rover to explore! To learn more, rove over to:
https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/mschwamb/planet-four-terrains/faq

July 14 – The Friendly Red Planet

Today’s factismal: The first close-up images of Mars were sent by Mariner 49 years ago today.

Mars has always fascinated people, from the days when the Bablyonians called it Nergal and blamed it for catastrophes like war, famine, and single-party tickets. Today we don’t blame Mars for our disasters (though we do wonder about the Great Galactic Ghoul) but we are still as fascinated as ever. Is there life on Mars? Can people live on Mars? How many illudium 36 explosive space modulators do they have?

Though the last question is a little silly, the other two are quite serious. In the 1800s, telescopes had finally improved enough for people to see Mars as something more than just a blurry dot; it was now a big, blurry dots. And when people (like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell) see blurry things, they tend to describe things that may or may not actually be there, like the canals of Mars. And those things that get described can lead people to do all sorts of crazy things (like panic over a Halloween joke)

Percival Lowell's drawing of the martian canals (Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

Percival Lowell’s drawing of the martian canals
(Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

The first close-up picture of Mars (Image courtesy NASA)

The first close-up picture of Mars
(Image courtesy NASA)

The only way to stop the panic is to get a good view of what is actually on Mars and the only way to do that is to go there. And, in 1965, that’s exactly what we did. We sent a probe called the Mariner 4 to Mars, where it sent back 22 close-up images; the first images of the red planet. Though none of the images would win an award today, in 1965, they had an Earth shattering effect (but there was no ka-boom). They showed that the Earth wasn’t alone and that there were other planets where people might live.

A close-up of a crater on Mars (Image courtesy NASA's HiRISE)

A close-up of a crater on Mars
(Image courtesy NASA’s HiRISE)

The exploration of Mars continues today. And today they are taking pictures using cameras like the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), an orbiting camera that could see a martian newspaper laid out on the ground. If you’d like to take part in the exploration, why not head over to NASA’s HiRISE Public Suggestion Page to tell them where you think the next pictures should be taken, or just to glory in all of the amazing images that have already been captured.
http://www.uahirise.org/hiwish/

June 10 – Grok This

Today’s Factismal: The Spirit Rover was launched eleven years ago on a ninety-day mission; it would spend more than six years exploring Mars.

Though it is only about the size of Earth’s core, no other planet captures the imagination like Mars. From Schiaparelli’s first mistaken sketches of the fictional canals to the brazen Martian attack on our holiday traditions and attempts to take over the Earth to our current exploration program, Mars has intrigued, exasperated, and enticed us as no other planet can. Unlike the other planets, it is just barely possible for a human being to survive on Mars (provided he wears a scuba suit and a space heater), making it our best option for colonization and human exploration.

Mars as seen from Texas (My camera)

Mars as seen from Texas
(My camera)

But before we can send humans, we have to send probes to scout out the lay of the land. Right now, we have probes mapping the landscape with lasers, probes checking the atmosphere, and probes taking high resolution photos of the  landscape. But the problem with most probes is that they stay in one place on the ground or orbit high above the planet. In order to truly know the planet, we need to land on it and move around a bit. We need a rover.

A simulated image of Spirit on Mars (Image courtesy NASA)

A simulated image of Spirit on Mars
(Image courtesy NASA)

And the Spirit Rover was one of the best. Launched on June 10, 2003, it landed on Mars just six months later and spent more than six years moving around the surface, providing us with more information about where water might once have flowed. And water wasn’t the only thing that Spirit helped us look for; it also found such surprising things as a dust devil flitting about the surface and unusual rock formations.

A dust devil on Mars as seen by Spirit (Image courtesy NASA)

A dust devil on Mars as seen by Spirit
(Image courtesy NASA)

And the exploration of Mars goes on today with Spirit’s twin Opportunity and their younger but much bigger brother Curiosity. If you’d like to get involved, then why not Be A Martian? The NASA site allows you to explore Mars using actual photographs and other data taken by the Martian rovers. Who knows? You may discover something exciting!
http://beamartian.jpl.nasa.gov/welcome

July 14 – The Friendly Red Planet

Today’s factismal: The first close-up images of Mars were sent by Mariner 48 years ago today.

Mars has always fascinated people, from the days when the Bablyonians called it Nergal and blamed it for catastrophes like war, famine, and single-party tickets. Today we don’t blame Mars for our disasters (though we do wonder about the Great Galactic Ghoul) but we are still as fascinated as ever. Is there life on Mars? Can people live on Mars? How many illudium 36 explosive space modulators do they have?

Though the last question is a little silly, the other two are quite serious. In the 1800s, telescopes had finally improved enough for people to see Mars as something more than just a blurry dot; it was now a big, blurry dots. And when people (like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell) see blurry things, they tend to describe things that may or may not actually be there, like the canals of Mars. And those things that get described can lead people to do all sorts of crazy things (like panic over a Halloween joke)

Percival Lowell's drawing of the martian canals (Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

Percival Lowell’s drawing of the martian canals
(Image courtesy Percival Lowell)

The first close-up picture of Mars (Image courtesy NASA)

The first close-up picture of Mars
(Image courtesy NASA)

The only way to stop the panic is to get a good view of what is actually on Mars and the only way to do that is to go there. And, in 1965, that’s exactly what we did. We sent a probe called the Mariner 4 to Mars, where it sent back 22 close-up images; the first images of the red planet. Though none of the images would win an award today, in 1965, they had an Earth shattering effect (but there was no ka-boom). They showed that the Earth wasn’t alone and that there were other planets where people might live.

A close-up of a crater on Mars (Image courtesy NASA's HiRISE)

A close-up of a crater on Mars
(Image courtesy NASA’s HiRISE)

The exploration of Mars continues today. And today they are taking pictures using cameras like the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), an orbiting camera that could see a martian newspaper laid out on the ground. If you’d like to take part in the exploration, why not head over to NASA’s HiRISE Public Suggestion Page to tell them where you think the next pictures should be taken, or just to glory in all of the amazing images that have already been captured.
http://www.uahirise.org/hiwish/