Mars Science Lander…?

Oh, hello again, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I know there’s not been an update for a while, but that’s because there’s not been much to report from Gale Crater. In fact if you can hang on a minute, I just nede to check something… be right back…

(click click… scroll… click… scroll… click… Save Image…”

Ah, yes, I was right, I didn‘t just imagine it. Look…

Yep, Curiosity HAS got wheels! She IS a rover! I didn’t just  imagine it after all!

I was beginning to wonder if the “L” in MSL stood for “Lander” instead of Laboratory, because our favourite nuclear-powered, laser-toting, rock-crunching Barsoomian battle wagon – having driven to the border of a geological Narnia, now surrounded on all sides by breathtakingly-beautiful rocks and layered hills, and with the great bulk of Mt Sharp looming over her – hasn’t moved for almost three weeks now; she’s been too busy playing by a dune with her dinky little scoop, filling it up with dust, tipping it out again, then filling it up again, like a kid from the big city playing on a beach for the first time! ;-)

I’M JOKING!!!!! I know this is an absolutely crucial part of the mission, and they need to check-out the scoop and the soil delivery systems thoroughly before doing any real science, and Curiosity will move again when she’s good and ready.

But over on the other side of Mars, Opportunity is zipping around the slopes of Cape York like Roadrunner, “Meep! Meep!”ing her way between and around various outcrops of rock there on the edge of Endeavour Crater, in pursuit of those precious phyllosilicates.

The faint sound you can hear being carried on the martian wind is Opportunity laughing “You might have a laser, and a fancy little scoop, but look at me go! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…!!!!!”

Of course, Curiosity hasn’t just been standing there looking at her feet, she’s been taking lots of photographs of the landscape around her, including some – I think – really beautiful images of the rocks and boulders scattered across and around Glenelg, which show a fantastic varioety of shapes, textures and colours. Images like this (click to enlarge)…

…and this…

…and what the ???? is going on on THIS rock…?

When the time is right, and Curiosity does move away from her dusty playground, I think we’ll see even more beautiful pictures. And I’m hoping that we’ll soon have a view of Earth shining in the pre-dawn sky too. I really, really want to see that! :-)

Don’t even THINK about it…!

Right, I’m just going to jump in and say this now before some tin foil hat-wearing, X-Files obsessed, parents basement-dwelling, conspiracy theory-believing fruit loop posts it on their badly designed website and announces to the world what they’ve “found”, and/or what NASA is “covering up”, ok?

Look at the rock at the bottom of this picture…

Notice anything funny? Look more closely…

Ok, as the great man said… Listen very carefully, I shall say zees only wance…

THAT IS NOT A FOSSIL!!!!!! THAT IS NOT THE FOSSILISED REMAINS OF SOME ANCIENT MARTIAN SQUID OR GIANT SPIDER!!!! DO NOT – I REPEAT – DO NOT REVEAL TO THE WORLD THAT YOU’VE FOUND PROOF OF NASA COVERING UP EVIDENCE OF LIFE ON MARS!!! THAT’S JUST ROCK!!!!

Ok?

Good. Just enjoy it for what it is – a cool-looking, aeons-old rock on the surface of an alien planet… :-)

Note: for some proper, informed, scientific insight into what the markings on this rock actually *are* take a look at the comments. Thanks Nahum! :-)

Update: I love Twitter! After asking for input from any geologists who might Follow me there, I had some fantastic feedback. So, THANK YOU to Matthew Surles ( @minimicrite ) for these links…

Liesegang Rings

pseudofossils

…and to Rochelle Buenviaje ( @orcelb) for the information about komatite

 

Looking closely…

There are some really beautiful images coming back from Mars now, courtesy of Curiosity, and I don’t just mean the wide angle views of Gale Crater’s rim, mountain and rockfields. Some of the images zooming in on individual rocks are just as stunning, like this one…

See what I mean? Pretty impressive. Ah, but when you look at a smaller scale, such as right inside the trench dug by the rover’s dust scoop, you can see all sorts of martian jewels. Not *real* jewels, of course; I mean individual stones, of different shapes and colours, standing out against the orange and crushed digestive biscuit dust of the martian surface. Take a look – click on the image to enlarge it, and just enjoy looking at all the different grey, blue and tan colours of the stones down there…

Beautiful, isn’t it? Imagine you’re there, on Mars, inside Gale Crater, standing right next to Curiosity… you kneel down beside the rover, steadying yourself with a gloved hand on its cold metal side, and reach down with your other hand to trail it through the dust, picking up a handful of surface material. Some trickles through the gaps between your fingers, but there’s plenty left in the palm of your hand, and raising that hand up to your face, mere inches from your visor, you see all those small stones and chips of rock shining and glinting amidst the dust, little martian jewels shining in the golden sunlight…

 

On Mars… at last…

I’ve been looking at – ok, drooling over – images of Mars for a long time now. A loooong time. My first real martian swoon came when I was taking my A Levels, way back in 19(cough cough!) when I stumbled upon a pile of old National Geographic magazines in a corner of the school art room. One of those magazines was a “Mars special” from 1976, and it had a section of photographs taken by the Viking landers. That image burned itself into my consciousness, as soon as I saw it, and ever since that afternoon I have been in love with Mars. This is that very image…

Compared to what we have now it’s nothing special. Its colours are a bit… strong … it’s not particularly sharp… but oh, the beauty of it! I looked at that magazine for a good half hour that day, and yes, I’ll admit it, I looked at it again that evening, at home, the magazine having somehow fallen into my bag before I left (I know, shameful of me, but I like to think I actually rescued that Nat Geo from being cut up by some spotty A level art student who wanted to make a collage out of other photos inside it, so I did A Good Thing, I think..!), and in the years since ‘ve gone back to it again and again, reliving that moment when I saw Mars, and I mean truly saw Mars, for the first time. The rocks, some jagged, some smooth; the dust, blown into drifts and dunes by the martian wind; the orange-pink sky, alien but familiar-looking at the same time. That was a world, a real place. And it had abducted me.

In the following years lots of Mars images appeared, as we explored Mars with increasingly sophisticated robots. But somehow none of the pictures sent back by those probes captured my imagination, or made me catch my breath, in the same way that Viking 1 picture did. In fact, to the best of my recollection, only one image of Mars wrapped itself around my heart and squeezed as hard as that one from Nat Geo, and it was a painting, not a photograph. Painted by a legendary space artist, it showed a dramatic, dynamic Mars, a world of ancient battered rock and violent dust storms. No, not a Chesley Bonestell painting, but the creation of Ludek Pesek, one of the illustrations from a book on the solar system which he illustrated. That book contained Viking images too, but it was this painting which made me stop flipping the pages and smile, as I was reunited with an old, long lost friend…

And again, after that, nothing. Mars… MY Mars… stayed hidden inside my head. None of the images I saw in any book or magazine showed it.

The next time I encountered “my” Mars was in the pages of a book, a science fiction novel called “Red Mars” by an author I hadn’t previously heard of, Kim Stanley Robinson. I saw it on the shelf in a bookstore, and knew I had to have it. It was martian lust at first sight…

When I started reading the book I was lost in it within minutes. It was like being hit on the head by a large piece of martian basalt. Somehow KSR had looked inside me, seen My Mars, and written about it, described it perfectly in minute, exquisite, faithful detail. He saw the beauty in the rocks, canyons and volcanoes. He saw the beauty in the blushing pink sky. He saw the beauty in the planet’s alien sunrises and sunsets. He Got It.

Two more books in the series followed, as the epic tale of the terraforming and taming of Mars reached its conclusion, but as incredible as the descriptions of Green and Blue Mars were, and they were absolutely beautiful, they never somehow came close to me to capturing the beauty of Red Mars, and certainly didn’t convert me to the terraforming cause! No, for me Mars is, and always will be, the Red Mars explored by John Boone and loved by Ann Clayborne, and eventually, by grumpy old Sax Russell too…

Another gap then until My Mars was seen – when Opportunity finally, after that long drive across the Meridiani desert, pulled up on the edge of Victoria crater and saw – this

Dear… god… look at that… that was almost exactly how I imagined Mars…!

Almost.

But still the real Mars, My Mars, hid in my head, out of sight of everyone else. It was so frustrating!! By now images were coming back from Mars daily, and I was even able to make my own out of them, tweaking, enhancing and altering them in the hope of capturing “my” Mars and showing it to everyone else so I could shout “LOOK!! THIS IS WHAT I MEAN!!! THIS IS WHY I THINK MARS IS SO BEAUTIFUL!!! DO YOU SEE NOW?!?!?”

As succesful as the Phoenix mission was, not one single image from that mission showed “My” Mars, and since Oppy left Victoria, reaching Endeavour Crater after yet another impossible drive, not even she has sent back an image that showed the planet as I see it. Frankly, I was beginning to give up hope that I would ever see it.

Then last week, Curiosity sent back a stream of images from the dusty, once-wet floor of Gale Crater, that finally took me back to My Mars.

I stitched them all together to make a long, sweeping panorama, which I thought was pretty beautiful. Click on it to enlarge it and see it properly…

But when I looked at that image, one section of it really jumped out at me. There, over 4 of the dozen or so frames I’d stitched together, was My Mars, clear as day, right there on the screen…

…and with a bit of work, I finally, finally, was able to see My Mars on my computer screen…

When I see that image, I’m there. On Mars. I can believe that I’m standing on that dusty ground, with rocks both jagged and smooth scattered all around, stretching as far as the eye can see. I can feel my boots crumping into the dusty ground as I walk across it to that low ridge, then step up it, to stand on its top and survey the landscape around me. And out there, on the far horizon, dimmed by the dust hanging in the air, are hills, too many of them to count, each one beautiful in its own right. And although the image itself doesn’t show it, I can imagine tilting my head back and staring up, up into an enormous, open, empty, lemon-pink sky, feeling as small as a dust mite staring up at the ceiling of a vast cathedral from its cold, stone floor…

That, my friends, is the Mars the first human explorers will be faced with when they set foot on the Red Planet, following in the imaginary footsteps of John Carter, John Boone, and Ann Clayborne. That is the Mars I grew up wanting to see for real, through the curved visor of a spacesuit helmet, but know now I will never see. That is the Mars which waits for us, as a species, if we can just grow up and start working together on something epic, noble and bold, instead of fighting among ourselves over scraps of land and barrels of oil on this fragile little world of stone and water.

That image, then, links me to the past – to that already-faded, slightly tattered, paint-spattered National Geographic I nicked borrowed from my school art room all those years ago – and connects me to the future, to a future I might not live to see myself, when men and women from Earth step off their spacecraft and lift their eyes to see the beauty of Barsoom.

It’s a dreadful cliche, I know, but beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is a very personal, subjective thing. I know people who see beauty in the colours of the feathers on a pigeon’s chest, or the flash of light off a caught fish’s scales. I know people who see beauty in the profile of a skyscraper, or the petals of a flower, just as  I know people who look at Formula 1 cars, or tractors, or the stripped down engine of an airliner and think they’re the most beautiful, most elegant things they’ve ever seen, when all I can see are shaped metal panels, oily gear mechanisms and rivets. I can’t see the beauty they see, just as they can’t see the beauty I see when I look at the landscapes of Mars. And for years I’ve struggled to find an image that might help me show people who don’t “get it” just why Mars is so beautiful in my eyes.

I’ve known that beauty was there all along. Now, thanks to Curiosity – her drivers, her engineers, her image takers, her scientists and everyone else on the team – everyone else can see it, too.

* Thanks to everyone who’s already looked at and shared this image with others; it’s been fantastic to show the “real” Mars to so many people already.

What’s *that*..?

So, there’s a big kerfuffle going on at the moment about a shiny little ‘something’ spotted on one of the images Curiosity sent back after taking her first scoop of martian dust. It’s only small, and it doesn’t exactly jump out at you when you look for it…

…but it’s there…

Zooming in on it doesn’t help much…

But when you take one of the ChemCam images, clean it up a bit and flatten out the distortion you get a slightly clearer view…

What the heck is that?

There’s a lot of speculation on the internet (No! Really?!?! Speculation? On the internet? Wow, that’s a first…!!) about what It might be. Many people are worried that “a bit fell off the rover”, maybe having been shaken loose when that scooped-up dirt sample was vibrated to level it off, but I’m wondering if it’s a piece of thin plastic or foil from somewhere else that’s been blown here by the soft martian winds..?

Think about it. When Curiosity landed she landed softly and safely. But the *other* bits that came down through the atmosphere – the heatshield and the descent stage – came down rather less softly, smashing into the martian surface with a hell of a whump. Curiosity even saw the plume of dirt and debris which rose up into the sky after the spent descent stage hit the ground…

If you look at that descent stage…

…you can see it’s covered in lots of insulation foil, and tape, and whatever. When that mass sf metal and material slammed into Mars, a lot of that stuff must have been sent flying in all directions. Not too hard to imagine some of it flew towards Curiosity’s location, and has, in the past month, travelled across the surface, blown slowly like metallic tumbleweed across the dusty, rocky ground by the martian winds. True, the winds on Mars aren’t that strong, but there are winds at work, we’ve seen that many times, so yes, I’m wondering if the shiny thing spotted close to Curiosity is a piece of crud from another part of the assembly which dropped out of the sky on August 6th.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. They’ve stopped work while the nature of the shiny something is clarified, and I’m sure Curiosity will get on with analysing that dirt sample soon. I mean, it;s not as if they saw this, is it..?

:-)

It’s Scoopin’ Time!

It looks very much like Curiosity has used her “scoop” for the first time…

There should be some pictures of the dust sample *in* the scoop later today, I think, but they’re not down yet. But that picture above is a sign that Curiosity is, essentially, all checked out and stepping up a gear in her scientific mission, taking in dust and dirt samples to study and analyse and interrogate. Here’s a 3D view…

This isn’t the first time NASA has dug its fingers into the dirt and dust of an alien world, not by a long way. Probes have been rummaging and scraping about “Out there” for decades. I put together a picture to show this proud tradition of travelling to exotic, alien worlds, landing on their surfaces, and then wrecking them… :-)

Visions of Home…?

If you were standing on Mars beside Curiosity what would you see? Well, obviously rocks – a lot of rocks. And boulders. And stones.

What about if you tore your eyes away from the ground, away from the scenery around you, and looked up, what would you see then? The sky, of course – the huge, open, (almost) cloudless martian sky, a huge cathedral dome of butterscotch, lemon and pink -

In the daytime, that is. The dawn or dusk sky is very different, more metallic blue/grey in colour. And if you’re lucky, at certain times, you would see a bright planet shining in the sky just above the horizon too. And if you were REALLY lucky, one of those planets would be…

Earth.

Imagine seeing that. Earth, shining in the martian sky! What would that look like?

It would look like this, actually…

That image was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover SPIRIT on March 8th 2004. And that little white dot, centre, is Earth. ( On the original raw image, Earth was harder to see; the above pic was enhanced – not by myself – to make Earth more obvious ).

Now, I don’t know about you, but looking at that image I can’t help but wonder what kind of portrait of Earth Curiosity would be able to take, with her more advanced cameras and “extended working hours”. If she ever gets the chance, that is.

Turns out she has a perfect chance – right now… :-)

This is what Curiosity is seeing at the moment, looking east as the sky brightens before dawn breaks over Gale Crater…

Wow… look at that… Earth shining in the martian dawn, with Jupiter beneath it… and Mt Sharp to their right… what a photograph that would make! Seen in close-up…


Earth and Jupiter shining amongst the stars and star clusters of Taurus… I’d love to see that…

But can Curiosity take such a picture? Is she able to do “astrophotography” like this? I’ll have to try and find out from someone on the MSL team. In the meantime, let’s get in the Gale Gazette’s own private TARDIS and jump forwards in time to October 29th…

Now THAT would be something to see, a close conjunction of Earth and Jupiter! By the 29th the planets will have changed places – Earth will be nearer to the horizon than Jupiter. Who wouldn’t love to see a colour Curiosity portrait of such a planetary pairing?

I hope they at least try to take some pictures of this, but if they don’t, for whatever reason (and they will be rather busy I imagine, preparing to scoop up the first dust sample), well, I’m sure they will at some point, if only for the slap-across-the-face obvious Outreach value of such a portrait.

Note: these views were created using the freeware Stellarium software, with a brilliant and beautiful landscape file created by the unmannedspaceflight.com forum’s Ant103. Thanks, Ant!

Dust and dents…

Some really pretty pictures came back from Mars over the last day or so. Curiosity is really sending back some lovely images now.

This one I like in particular because it is a super close-up view of the martian surface. So, just for a moment, imagine you’re on Mars, standing there beside Curiosity, and you catch sight of an interesting patch of dirt at your feet. Kneeling down in the dust you bend your head down so your helmet visor is almost touching the ground… and then click on the image below, because this is what you’d see a couple of inches from your face…

Next… a simply jaw-dropping view of Curiosity’s wheels (well, some of them!) standing proud on the floor of Gale Crater. I made a version with the horizon flattened to horizontal, but it didn’t have quite the same impact somehow, so just enjoy the orginal…

Now when I saw that image my first thought – my very first thought – was WOW! My second thought was “Owww… look at the state of those wheels…!” Look at this crop…

Bit beaten up, isn’t it? But no need to worry; those wheels are very sturdy, and those are just little dings. Curiosity won’t be pulling into the garage for a wheel change just yet.

Not that she, er, could, but you get the point! :-)

One giant leap – for a rover…

Curiosity is now parked up in front of a martian dust dune, surrounded by rocks and stones, preparing to use her dust scoop for the first time. The scenery around her is beautiful, but it’s the windblown dust at her feet/wheels/whatever that have the mission scientists excited, and very soon the rover will dig into that dust and begin a new phase of her mission – which is, would you believe, now almost 60 days old…

Here’s one of the images sent back by Curiosity showing the ground at her feet…

Click on that to enlarge it and you’ll see some very fine detail, both on the gnarled rock to the left and on the ground itself. You can almost reach out and trail your fingers through that dust, can’t you?

Curiosity recently “bumped” forward – moved forward just a little – and left the imprint of one of her wheels in that very same area of dust. Take a look…

Click on that to bring up the full size version and you’ll see individual teeny tiny stones in the rover’s wheel tracks, minute martian pebbles. Love that.

When the rover pulled back, she took some images of her own “footprint”, which, when you stitch them together, look strikingly familiar…

Remind you of anything? How about this wider angle view..?

Yep, you’ve got it…

When that historic footprint was pressed into the ash grey dust of the Moon, many people thought – predicted, even – that within a generation equally historic footprints would have been pressed into the cinnaom-hued martian dust. They were wrong, of course. Having reached the Moon, human beings allowed themselves to be imprisoned in Earth orbit, and since the last lunar module lifted off from the Moon in that slow motion shower of sparks, people have ventured no further from the Earth than the airlock of the International Space Station. Astronauts GO NOWHERE today. They go up to the ISS, do “work” there, take lots of photos of the Earth, throw food at each other, hilariously, in the micro-gravity environment, wave for the cameras, then come home again. There should be a sign on the ISS airlock hatch saying “No human beings allowed beyond this point – you don’t deserve it.”

Oh, every now and again some group announces plans to go back to the Moon, or to an asteroid, or even Mars, but it’s all just BS. There are no firm plans to do so, no timetables, no dates, just lots of fancy Powerpoint presentions, computer graphics and words, lots and lots and lots of words. What a ****** waste. We should be ashamed.  The great and glorious ocean of space calls out to us, its waves and swells of galaxies glittering and shining and blazing with the light of a billion, billion suns, and we just stand on the beach, shivering, hugging oursleves, afraid to even tiptoe to the water’s frothy edge and get our toes wet.

Good god, we will be judged harshly by future generations for our timidity and cowardice.

Thankfully, the people involved in unmanned space exploration continue to thrill and excite us, and inspire us with their vision and ambition. We have probes orbiting, or en route to, multiple worlds and bodies scattered across the solar system. And we have not one, but two rovers working on Mars, conducting breathtaking science and sending back beautiful images day after day after day. At Meridiani, Opportunity is exploring the eroded rim of an enormous, ancient impact crater. At Gale Crater, Curiosity is on a mission to look for traces of ancient martian life in the time-scuplted rocks of a mountain. Just think about that for a moment.

There are no human footprints on Mars as you read this. No man or woman has stepped down on the surface of the red planet and walked across its ruddy sands, leaving a trail of bootprints in the orange dust. No martian Buzz Aldrin  has yet pointed his or her camera down and recorded his own mark on the New World. One day… one day… Maybe by the time I’m sat in a corner of a care home, with a rug over my knees and my pale urine dripping into a catheter bag tied to my leg people will walk on Mars, and I’ll glimpse it through cataract-dimmed and tear-filled eyes, thinking what might have been, cursing today’s politicians for being so ****ing cowardly and shortsighted and today’s scientists for not making a better, more convincing case to send people to Mars, but I’m not even sure about that.

In the meantime, Curiosity is our generation’s Buzz Aldrin, and has pressed a pseudo human footprint into the martian dust at Gale Crater, a gift / knife in the heart for all of us post-Apollo space mad kids who were sure, so sure, so very, very sure, that by the time we had grown up there’d be people on Mars, standing beneath a peach-coloured sky, surrounded by rocks, dust and dunes, waving at us from our TVs…