Just a rock…?

I have been positively drooling over the latest high resolution images being returned by Curiosity, each one has seemed more jaw-dropping than the last. But when I saw one particular rock it really leapt out at me, especially when I stitched three frames centred on it into a single mosaic (click to enlarge)…

When that image appeared on my computer it reminded me of an astropoem I wrote about martian rocks, way back in 2006… Bit of a slow news day on Barsoom, so I’ll share it with you here. I hope some of you enjoy it…


                                                                                                                                                                       Oh god, she sighed, peering

over my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot,

don’t you ever get tired of staring

at those things? They all look the same

to me. They would, I said,

but only in my head; not her fault

her eyes aren’t tuned to the beauty

of Barsoom’s long twilights,

can’t see the love that goes into

each embroidered Navcam panorama

stitched with joy by image mages in their caves.

It’s just the same thing, day

after day, she mused, clearly bemused

and baffled by my eyes’ bright glint

at just a hint of layering in the stone

shown in all its grainy glory on the screen.



Oh no, oh no, it’s not, I said,

but only in my head; not her fault

her heart can’t catch or match the rhythm

of Time’s relentless march across

the gracious face of Mars,

that she doesn’t hear the silence of its sands.

They’re just rocks, she laughed,

but not unkindly, as another ochre outcrop

scrolled to life before our eyes,

drawn by dial-up download line by line;

Time’s diary entries etched on the flat

and fragile faces of its slanted standing stones.

Just rocks? Why can’t you see? I said,

but only in my head; not her fault

she wasn’t taught the tender purity

of a pebble on the beach, can’t trickle

shingle through her fingers without a smile.

Each rock, I cried, but only in my mind,

is a gleaming white, fresh page

in the dusty, strange Great Book of Martian History!

Each boulder a short story, its plot

another puzzle piece revealed;

its characters alive with tales of happier times

when rivers ran like giddy children

and oceans’ edges surged with surf

and frothed with foamy spray.

Look again and see, please! I begged

but she had already turned away.


                                                                                                                                                                  Let her go, leave her be, sang

my rocks from the screen;

not all look upon us and know that mere stone

is the key to all that Was, Is and Shall Ever Be.

This watery world of rain-soaked trees

and seas of life-soaked green is Home

to her; our dusty plains, not kissed by rain

for a million times a million years could never

make her sigh, or mist her eyes

with tears of wanting like yours do.

Some beauty is reserved by the Universe for only a few…

Which is true, of course;

though many layered, rocks never lie:

when you live a billion years there’s

too much time for false words to return

and haunt you.

But staring at them on the screen,

draped in dust, meteorite-pitted and pelted,

chiselled by chilled winds and scoured

by great glaciers and storms

how I wished she saw them as I do,

saw what I hope to live to see.

Somewhere on Ares is a rock

destined to be The First – the first plucked

from the rusted ground by a trembling gloved

hand and held aloft for all of watching Earth to see

on a billion HD TV screens. It will be seen

wrapped protectively in monkey fingers

made fat and white by Kevlar cocoons.

Billions of souls will leap as, in close-up,

it smiles serenely at its screaming fans

before being bagged and tagged and dropped into

a case marked simply “Sample 001.”


Elsewhere, another stands innocently on

the edge of  mighty Marineris, unaware

its destiny is to be the first stone thrown

over the canyon’s crumbling edge, its death dive

watched by grinning “Look at that!!!” explorers,

each agonising ricochet and shattering bounce

filmed in sweet slow-mo for Earth’s audience

to see in prime time, time-delayed glory.

As it cracks and smacks ‘gainst other rocks

on its descent will it shatter to shards, or fall

to the floor in a Roadrunner puff of dust?


In yet another corner of John Carter’s Mars

stands a stone destined for a life of interplanetary crime,

fated to be contraband, picked secretly

from the surface on some innocent EVA and,

while others’ attention is aimed elsewhere,

hidden hastily away, smuggled sunwards

in our sneaky astronaut’s bag or sock to be

revealed years later in the quiet of the family

home and gifted, with love, to a loved one.

Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Husband? Wife?

“This is for you, stolen from Mars. From Mars…”


One other red stone – on its own nothing special

or worthy of a second look  – will one day

be selected by some suddenly-inspired martian

and carved, in their spare time, into the first piece

of Native Martian Art. A rover, or rocket, a portrait

of the first man or woman to leave their boot-print

in the dust? Or a dog, or cat or bird, some other monster

plucked from the unlikely myths of misty Earth?

Right now that poor little rock has no idea its destiny

is to stare into a spotlight’s glare, in a far future

imprisoning Museum of Mars…


Other boulders’ future fates are far less glamorous.

Physical, more practical their ends.

Groaning with their weight, even in low-G,

heaving 21st century settlers will lift them

from their ancient resting places and carry them away

in a cruel Highlands Clearance of stone,

devastating once-packed rocky plains, leaving them

barren and bare, using their robbed riches to build

the first factories and farms.

Mere red rock igloos at first, thrown up in haste,

more waste than art, but a declaration of Man’s intent to stay.

Aram Chaos emptied next; its whale-sized blocks

of slumped and shattered sandstone carved

and cut into more manageable slabs,

then piled high at huge construction sites,

Giants’ Bricks prepared for play until one day

imposing Atreiades palaces of red and ochre stone

will roam the heights of Mars’ salmon sky!

Basking in the glow  of damson blue dusks and

marmalade dawns their turrets and towers will shine like gold,

all built of stones split, shaped, carved and quarried

from Utopia and Chryse’s plains…


…and each passing century will see such wonders

worshipped with more and more bewildered awe;

pale tourists and architecture addicts from

Old Earth, green Selene and all the settled icy moons

between the Sun and sweeping Pan will swoon

at their first sight of the martians’ Taj Mahal

and poppy-pillared Acropolis standing proud

upon the ruddy face of Mars. As twin moons skate

across the sky how many sighs will greet the Sun’s slow

fall behind tall turrets of Hesperian stone..?

Their building blocks are there, but unaware.


All rocks, I said, but only in my head.

I wish that you could see it.

Why can’t she see that some of those rocks dismissed

so lightly are likely to be loved by the first

giggling children on Mars, the Children Of Mars,

the First True Martians..?

Think about that. Picture laughing little aliens,

long-limbed and milk-skinned, kangaroo-bounding

from rover to rubble pile, slow-mo twirling in mid-

meagre air, landing in puffs of cinnamon dust,

scanning the ground for shards, chips and pieces

of pale flaking outcrops just the right weight

and size to sculpt into castles and Habs –

Or maybe she sees more than I..? Does the grim

gravel scream at her No! Not all we stones

have his fairytale future in store!

Does she see the Dark Truth: when Mars

finally is the Frontier then starry-eyed Settlers,

world-building warriors, women and men,

their beloved children and friends will weaken and

die in that dust, gasping for air, grasping

with terror-clawed hands at their lives as they slip away.

Gathered stones will cover their bodies;

mark their graves on martian Boot Hills.


I prefer to think of The Rock. The One that

will change everything in the history-shaking

moment it is found, lying on the ground

surrounded by myriad others smaller, larger,

heavier, lighter… It will look no different to

our tired astronaut’s eyes – just another stone

dark with dust and rough of edge – yet later,

in the lab, smacked and cracked open with hammer or

carefully incised by laser knife its treasure chest

heart will be revealed: jade-green bands or

spiralling fossil lines? Either: the stuff of Life..!


                                                                                                                                                                     So no, not just rocks, I said,

but only in my head.


One day she’ll know.


© Stuart Atkinson 2006

Always look on the bright side of (martian) life…

Right, I’m going to have a personal rant here. I’m giving you all fair warning, so if you’re only here for the pretty pictures, or the science, this might not be the post for you. But hey, it’s my blog, something’s bugging me, and I need to vent, so stay and read on, or click that little red box with a cross in it up at the top right there and go, it’s up to you. 🙂


There’s a lot of what’s now called “internet buzz” about the imminent announcement from the MSL team about whatever the hell it is that they have or haven’t found in the dust samples scooped up, eaten and analysed by by the rover. And while some space bloggers and writers have been going absolutely gaga over the story, insisting that NASA is about to announce the discovery of anything from traces of martian amino acids to the actual dried up, fossilised bodies of martian critters, quite rightly, serious science journalists have been covering the story rather more responsibly, urging caution, suggesting everyone calm down and just wait for the MSL team to tell us what they’ve found. Which I agree with, and support, totally.


It seems to me there’s now an undercurrent of hostility towards the story, and some people are now going too far the other way. Waaaay too far. It’s gone from sensibly urging caution and patience, to dismissing or even mocking the science results before they’re even announced to the world. This is wrong, very unfair, and very disrespectful to the MSL science team too. They can’t win, can they? If they had told everyone what they *thought* they *might* have found right away, without waiting for confirmation, they’d have been ripped to pieces by the media and the scientific community alike. They’re now being criticised for holding on to the story until they’re sure what they’ve got, and for revealing their findings at a major international science conference instead of to a few bored-looking journalists at a hastily-arranged JPL media conference. Give me a break. Give THEM a break.

So, what has MLS found? We don’t know. The smart money is going on the discovery of organics, which – despite what some grinches will tell you – will be an important step towards answering the question of life on Mars, past or present. But some commentators and bloggers are now treating the SAM discovery with derision even before it’s announced, and downplaying the significance of the discovery of organics, and sneering at the whole idea of life on Mars.

This isn’t a new thing. Anyone speaking or writing about “Life on Mars” now faces hostility from many sides. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the whole ALH84001 thing, when Clinton stood on the Whitehouse lawn and said what he said. Or maybe it was the methane thing, or the repeated “historic discovery” of water on Mars by one orbiter after another. But somewhere along the line it became fashionable and trendy to look down on martian astrobiology, and on those who are interested in it and passionate about it.

So, while many people are unmoved by the imminent science conference announcement, and some are actually looking forward to it being over so things can “get back to normal”, I’m counting the days, and will count the hours and minutes, until it’s made and we all know what’s going on because I find it incredibly exciting and inspiring.

Why? Simple. They’ve found Something. We don’t know what that Something is, but it’s Something, Something exciting enough to get scientist John Grotzinger excited enough to describe it, wisely or not, as “Earth-shaking”*. That was, perhaps, a poor choice of words, because it led to this blood-soaked cyber feeding frenzy of rumour and guesswork, but I personally think it’s fantastic that a serious, cautious scientist has been so excited by something he’s found, after many years of hard work, that he maybe let his emotions get the better of him for an unguarded moment and let out the beaker equivalent of a clenched fist “Look at that! Yes! get IN there!” Whatever he’s found it’s got him excited, and that means I”m excited too.

* (UPDATE: since writing this post it’s become clear – and has been pointed out to me by several people too – that John never actually used the term “Earth-shaking, it was the NPR journalist who said that. I’m happy to make that correction here, and want to acknowledge my own mistake in this rather than just change the post. )

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting here thinking “They’ve found life on Mars! Woo hoo!!!” I know that they haven’t, because 1) MSL isn’t designed to actually do that, and 2) such a discovery could not, in this modern age, be kept secret, it just couldn’t. Word would get out. And I know that this “discovery” isn’t going to change the world, or herald a new scientific age, but it’s still an amazing thing, and we should be celebrating it more, not shrugging our shoulders with a grumpy “huh”.

Think about it, just take a moment to backtrack and think about it. We designed and built a nuclear powered rover, hurled it away from Earth on the top of what was basically a very long bomb, landed it safely on a hostile alien world using untried technology, drove it away from its landing site to an area of rich geology mapped by *another* amazing spacecraft orbiting that alien world, made it scoop up and eat martian dust, and then an unbelievably complicated and advanced laboratory cocooned inside the rover found something exciting in that dust. When the hell did we start taking that for granted? When the hell did we start looking down on, or ridiculing, that? I can’t get my head around it.

Ok, so MSL hasn’t found the dried up husks of martian critters in its dusty snack, and it hasn’t coughed up the gritty remains of the fossilis of Barsoomian bugs, but if it’s detected organics of any kind in that soil sample, simple or complicated, native or incomers from meteorites, after we’ve been hunting for them for all this time, after Viking’s infamously inconclusive results, after the tragic loss of Beagle 2, that’s incredible, an astounding achievement, and another piece in the puzzle of the existence of life on Mars.

Yes, I said it – Life on Mars. Oops, I said it again, see? I hope that didn’t offend anyone. I know that “life” has somehow become a four letter word to some scientists and writers, an obscenity almost, and even a casual mention of it in an article or blog post about Mars is about as welcome  as dog dirt on a wedding dress, but I just wish people would be honest about it. Come on! For all the noble words about ‘advancing science’ and ‘adding to Mankind’s knowledge’, we’re not spending all this money going to Mars to “ooh!” and “aah!” over the rusty red rocks and the windblown dirt’; we’re not investing all this time on collecting enough  data to allow us to accurately model the weather systems; the scientists aren’t dedicating their careers and their lives to finding out how cold it is after sunset. No. It’s all, all of it, being done to see if there is life on Mars now, or ever was life there, and to help us plan for taking life there in the future – us. People.

So yes, I’m looking forward to The Announcement, whatever it is, because it’s new science, from Mars, which is incredible in itself, but even more incredible when you consider the bigger picture, the higher goal – the search for extraterrestrial life. Whatever John Grotzinger tells us when he takes the stage on Dec 4th, I’ll celebrate, because he and his team deserve to have their work celebrated, and because we’ll be a little closer – maybe just a very little closer, maybe just a single step closer – to the day when we learn if Mars had, or still has, life.

You see, I want to know, I NEED to know, if there’s life Out There. It’s one of my passions, one of my personal beliefs, and has been ever since I was knee high to R2D2. The possibility of extraterrestrial life fascinates, intrigues and inflames me, in my core. That might sound sappy, or naive, but that’s just the way it is. It’s part of me. I’m 47 now (WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?), and my adult passion for space exploration and astronomy manifests itself in computers, magazines, telescopes and cameras. I blog about it. I spend hours making pictures from raw images sent back by Opportunity and Curiosity. I download .pdf  files of scientific papers and books and read them on my phone in my breaks. I give talks to schoolkids and community groups, standing at the front of modern classrooms or damp church halls, ‘spreading the word’ about space. It’s all distressingly grown up.


Inside I’m still the same space mad kid who fell in love with the universe before he’d even learned how to ride a bike. I’m still the same 7 year old who sneaked back into school in breaktimes to hide in the library, reading the astronomy sections of the science books while everyone else ran around the playground outside, shouting and screaming. In *here* I’m still the same kid who was given a telescope for Christmas by his ever tolerant and supportive mum, and who felt his heart almost jump out of his chest when he looked at Mars through it for the first time, seeing its tiny, Spangle-orange disc shimmering in the eyepiece on a frosty December night, wondering if that dark, almost-not-there shark tooth shape on the disc was Syrtis Major, and if the white dot at the top of the disc actually was its polar cap. I’m still the same teenager who sat glued to the TV watching “COSMOS”, and feeling something shift inside me, Carl Sagan’s vision and poetry triggering an emotional earthquake inside of me which I’ve never recovered from, and hope I never do.

So, ok, no life on Mars. Fine. But it’s Something, Something New, so let’s try to drop the cynicism and embrace the moment, shall we? Because this is an amazing time to be alive, and we should enjoy every minute of it.

The sound… of silence…

After the initial firestorm of speculation and outrageous guessing that followed John Grotzinger’s now famous/infamous interview with a journalist on NPR, things have calmed down a little, and NASA actually appears to be backtracking a little too, attempting to dampen down expectations and excitement.  So far no-one’s managed to ferret out whatever the hell it is that Curiosity has actually found/discovered/detected at Gale Crater, so I guess all we can do now is wait until the Dec 3rd announcement of the discovery at that big science conference, and admit that we know NOTHING. If you want to read up some more about this, just Google search for “Curiosity+life on Mars” or “Curiosity+discovery” and you’ll unearth many, many articles, features and blog posts which will feed your hunger. But the bottom line is this – we don’t know WHAT Curiosity has found yet. We’ll just have to be patient.

At the moment Curiosity is sitting under a very hazy sky, and seeing her horizon vanish, as a dust storm takes effect at her landing site. If you take a look at these two images, taken twenty five days apart, you can clearly see just how hazy everything is getting for Curiosity…

Have to keep an eye on that…

An Android on Mars…


I upgraded to an Android phone recently, and love it to bits. It’s like having a PC in my pocket, but unlike my actual ageing PC it is faster than a snail with a wheel clamp on it, and doesn’t take so long to boot up I have time to pull on my jacket and go up into Kendal to do a bit of shopping before it’s ready to do some actual work.

If I’m honest, I upgraded to my phone mostly because I wanted to be able to use planetarium apps on it, apps like Sky Safari that tell you what you are seeing when you point your phone at the sky. But since getting it I’ve found so many brilliant astronomy apps my home PC now growls at my phone, it’s so jealous of it. I have apps which help me track and predict passes of the space station and Iridium flares, apps which help me monitor space weather and alert me to the possibility of an auroral display, and apps which provide me with a high resolution Moon map I can use at the eyepiece of my telescope.

I also have more than a few apps which are Mars-related, as you might expect, and some of them are helping me follow Curiosity’s mission at Gale Crater. I thought I’d tell you about them. They’re all available through Google Play. As for cost, well, some are free, others aren’t, but as I’m heading out to work soon I don’t have time to go back and check what they cost – that might have changed by now anyway. So, take a look, and if you fancy trying any or all of these for yourself, wander on over to Google Play and find out more.


If you ever find yourself wondering “What time is it on Mars right now, for both Opportunity and Spirit?” well, this app is for you. It was written by rover driver Scott Maxwell, and does exactly what its name suggests – gives you the time on Mars…

You’ll note Scott’s app also gives the time for Spirit. Well done, Scott. Gone, perhaps, but forgotten? Never.


This app lets you browse the latest images sent back by both Curiosity and Opportunity. Images are initially displayed as thumbnails, and tapping one brings it up as a larger version…

A very nice feature of this app is how it can generate 3D anaglyphs from pairs of images, so if you have a pair of funky red and blue 3D glasses handy while you’re using it you can see Mars in 3D…

I like that app a lot. 🙂


Another app which lets you browse the latest images from Curiosity, but this one presents them as colour thumbnails, and does a lot more besides…

Of course, tapping one of those thumbnails brings up a full size, higher resolution version. The app lets you select images taken by the rover’s individual cameras…

…and can also provide you with information about the weather at Gale Crater…

That part of the app doesn’t appear to update daily, so I don’t rely on it too much, to be honest. Interesting tho… and I love the “– %” figure for rainfall… 🙂


Not an app as such but a widget which displays lots of Curiosity- and Mars-related information in a tiny window on your phone…

Tapping any element of that mini screen brings up a wealth of information, it’s really a snapshot of where Curiosity is and what it’s like there…

I’m really enjoying playing about with using that app for serious Outreach.


Ahhh, my new favourite spacey app, and one I simply can’t stop looking at every time I go to my phone. CURIOSITY CLOCK offers a graphic and from what I can tell VERY accurate representation of Curiosity’s view at Gale Crater, complete with Mt Sharp looming over it. Text on the screen tells you when local sunrise and sunset occurs. But by sweeping a finger on the time bar at the top right you can animate the display, and watch the Sun rising or setting.. and it just looks beautiful, the next best thing to standing there. The butterscotch-hued sky darkens, changing colour from a biscuity brown to a slatey grey-blue as the Sun sinks down to the horizon…

And really that’s all it does. No additional info, nothing about air temperature, Earth transit times, whatever,  just sunrise or sunset as seen by Curiosity. And that’s good enough for me, I think it’s brilliant!

So, there you go. Those are the Curiosity-related apps I use, you might find them useful too. If you use any I haven’t found yet, I’d love to hear about them.

…and relax…

Well, the internet hasn’t actually melted yet, but lots of people are, as predicted, now speculating feverishly about what The Big News From Mars is, and when it will be announced to the world. That last one is easy to answer : according to Space.com it’s going to be announced at a big annual science conference being held at the beginning of December, so there’ll be nothing official until then, but I honestly will be *amazed* if at least some vague, wispy details of the discovery leak out before then; even as you read this blog post there will be people chipping away at the MSL team’s wall of secrecy, trying to make a hole big enough to wiggle their hand through and pull out something interesting.

But for now, at least, we don’t know anything more, so let’s all take a step back from the Grotzinger Interview and take a look at the beauty around us – at the beauty of the martian landscape itself. Some rather lovely new images have come back from Curiosity overnight (that’s overnight for me, living in the UK) which I’ve assembled into mosaics which, I hope, show the true beauty of Mars in general and the geology of the interior of Gale Crater in particular. So, dear reader, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to browse the following gallery of images and to wander around the martian landscape with me, as we walk alongside Curiosity and drink in the view… if you are old (and British!) enough to remember the “Gallery” music from ‘Vision On’ or ‘Take Hart’ you can hum that to yourself too… all the while, of course, wondering what amazing, Earth-shaking secrets lie beneath those rocks and the cinnamon- and paprika-hued dust they sit on…

Keeping mum about SAM…

If you detected a disturbance in the Force earlier today, here’s why. It was the Internet – specifically the space communities on the internet – lighting up like a Christmas tree sat in an electric chair, after John Grotzinger, the head MSL scientist, gave an interview to a journalist on NPR (National Public Radio) and said this…

Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.

Oh boy. Here we go. Usually all it takes is the vaguest hint of a whiff of a rumour of Something Interesting having been found on Mars and the net goes absolutely nuts, every forum (except UMSF), every Mars blog, every popular science site suddenly goes into “Life found on Mars! I TOLD you!!!” spasms, but this time we have an actual head scientist openly ADMITTING they’ve found something amazing, something that is big news, but not revealing just what it is.

What COULD it be? Well, it’s not *that* hard to put the pieces of this puzzle together and come up with a rough idea of what’s going on, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to come up with a theory. SAM is the rover’s onboard laboratory, that basically eats martian dirt, chews it up, and sees what it’s made of. And MSL has gone to Mars not to look for life itself, as many still think, but to test the martian dirt for chemical evidence that Mars might once have been habitable. Some martian dirt was recently gobbled up by SAM, and tested, as planned. And the analysis has revealed something that’s got the team mega excited, but it’s potentially such big news that they have to be extremely careful before saying anything, and will have to be absolutely, totally sure about their analysis before telling us.

Which is fair enough; it’s really not a good idea to jump the gun in these situations, unless you want to end up with a rather large dollop of scientific egg on your face. No, we’ll all just have to be patient, and wait and see what the news is. I’m sure that won’t be a problem, right?

Yeah, right!!!!!!!! Hahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!

No. What will happen now is that web speculation is going to go absolutely freaking inSANE. Soon everyone will have their own theory, their own idea, their own “inside info”, and until the news is actually released officially by the MSL team it’s just going to be a feeding frenzy of rumour and guesses. Every little thing the MSL team says will be jumped on and analysed to death, by people desperate to know what’s going on, desperate to get the scoop on the story.

And what might the Big News be? Well, there are really only two possibilities: SAM either found Nothing Special or Something Special in its bellyful of dirt after it had finished chewing, and I’m pretty sure that a savvy, streetwise, naturally cautious scientist like Grotzinger wouldn’t be flinging around terms like “Earth-shaking” and talking about the “history books” if SAM had found nothing. No, they found something alright, and it must be related to MSL’s quest for organics on Mars. And it must be somethng positive.

(Above: the SAM laboratory carried by Curiosity, image from Astrobiology magazine)

So, let’s just jump in and assume MSL has found traces of organics in its dust sample. That, all on its own, would be pretty amazing news, as previous missions have failed miserably to do that, and the detection of organics on Mars makes the possibility of live having once existed there a lot greater. After all, as Nancy Atkinson put it so brilliantly and accurately in her post on this subject for Universe Today, “Life as we know it cannot exist without organic molecules; however they can exist without life.”. So this story is, essentially, about the story of the quest to discover life, past or present, on Mars. And a whole new chapter might be about to be written in that story.

BUT… hang on a minute… organics found by MSL might not be native, tests might suggest they were brought to Mars by meteorites, what about that idea? Well, that would still be pretty big news because it would show that organics, wherever they’re from, can survive *on* Mars, meaning its environment might not be as deadly to life, and the stuff of life, as previously thought. And that would be very cool too.

But when will we know? Well, the NPR story says:

Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding. In the meantime he’ll fend off requests from pesky reporters, and probably from NASA brass as well.

Now that is a direct challenge to science bloggers and journalists if ever I heard one!

Several weeks? Not a chance. I give it a week at most. Even though it’s run off to hide behind the sofa, and won’t be lured out, the cat is well and truly out of the bag now, and it’s going to be a race between word leaking out from the MSL team itself and an enterprising astronomy blogger ferreting out the truth and breaking it to the world, forcing NASA to hastily arrange a media conference and press briefing so they can announce the discovery properly and accurately, and ensure that the scientists behind it are given due credit and their well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

Several weeks? Naah. We’ll know by December, you’ll see.

Mars hates giving up its secrets, we all know that. But I think one has escaped. We’ll know which one  soon.

Read more about SAM here…


It’s alive! ALIVE!!!!!

Prepare yourselves for a shock – in fact, grab a chair, you might go a bit dizzy when I break this news to you…

Curiosity has moved. Yes, you read that correctly, she’s moved! Her wheels, bless them, have turned again, and she has edged away from the top of the Rocknest dust dune where she’s been playing about with her scoop in the martian dust…

And a leaked photo shows just why the rover spent so long there, and what she was actually up to with all that ‘scooping’…

Seriously, though, this is great news. Not just because it means Curiosity is now actually on the move again, after setting up camp at Rocknest for so long, but because it means the science team must be pleased enough with the results of all that scooping to feel confident they can move the rover on to another location, and begin the real hard science campaign. It’s all good.

And, of course, it will be great to have a change of scenery! Not a huge change of course, Curiosity won’t be racing off like she was starring in  “Fast And Furious 7: Gale Getaway”, but angles will change, and the landscape will open up just a little bit more.

Over the past few days I’ve been intrigued by a group of rocks close to the rover…

In 3D they look even more interesting…

…but in colour, ah, those rocks look really pretty… click to enlarge…

*Curse* those missing frames at the bottom!

Check back soon for an update on Curiosity’s progress.

Preparing to move…

NASA held one of its “telecon” events today, updating reporters and rover followers on the latest news from Curiosity at Gale crater. Right now people who have a lot more time than I do, and who write about space exploration as a job, are beavering away at their computers, writing up the teleconference in great detail, so if you want to learn all the complicated stuff I’ll post links to a couple of those write-ups later. But for now, here are the basics…

> It looks like Curiosity is FINALLY done scooping! Yaaaay! #1

> Curiosity will probably be driving away from the “Rocknest” dust dune within a couple of days! Yaaaay! #2

> By the end of the year, Curiosity should finally be heading towards Mt Sharp! Yaaaay! #3

> The science team have been getting some really useful data from the radiation detectors onboard the rover, which will be extremely helpful when the time comes to seriously start planning manned missions to Mars. Which, at this rate, will be just after the first manned expedition to bloody Narnia.

> The weather station instruments on the rover have shown that there are a lot of dust devils in Gale Crater, and some of them have come very close to – if not passed over- the rover. More info on this to come.

As I said, other bloggers will be posting very detailed analyses of this telecon’s content, so I’ll let them fill you in properly. For now, tho, here’s a new panoramic view of the surface of Mars as being seen by MSL… click on it to enlarge it, then take a good long look at the beautiful hills forming the rim of the crater, just magnificent, aren’t they?

What IS MSL..?

I had something of an epiphany this morning. That sounds very grand, I know, but it actually happened. No, a light didn’t shine on me from Heaven, and I didn’t hear a voice booming out from the ice blue sky as I stood at the Cenotaph in Kendal for the two minutes’ silence. I was looking at the latest “overnights” from both Opportunity and Curiosity, the latest images to be beamed back to Earth by them, and flicking between the two different websites a basic plain truth hit me, like a wet fish across the face. They’re two very, very different creatures, Oppy and Curiosity.

Opportunity is a rover. Curiosity isn’t.

I know, I know, Curiosity has been marketed as a rover, and most people think of it *as* a rover, and looking at that picture it’s got wheels, six of them, big and bad and black and, now, dented and dinged. But Curiosity isn’t a rover really. And we have to stop thinking of it as one.

I know what you’re thinking. Ok, smartarse, if it isn’t a rover, what is it then?

Well, the clue is in the name.

In “MER” the R stands for Rover, and even a casual glance at Oppy’s images, on almost any day, show the truth of that – she drives, often and far. We see her tracks in the martian dust, leading up or downhill, towards , around and past outcrops and ridges; to and around craters and faults; up to and past meteorites and gravestone-like blocks of ejecta. Look at the image gallery of Curiosity and you see lots of gorgeous images of rocks, and dust dunes, trenches and a far horizon, and dozens upon dozens of images of that ***** scoop, but what you don’t see are tracks. Curiosity hasn’t moved for weeks.

Not through laziness, or because of any problem, but because – and this will be a hard pill for some to swallow – it’s not actually her job to move. That’s not why she was sent to Mars. Her job is to do science, deep science, hard science, after finding somewhere or something interesting. Driving just gets in the way of that.

No. In “MSL” the L stands for Laboratory. And that’s exactly what Curiosity is – a big, incredibly sophisticated laboratory, that is carried briefly from place to place by six wheels, before being set down again and getting down to work.

You know, I’m starting to to think of Oppy as a young, keen field geologist, in cut-off jeans, racing around the martian landscape in scuffed trainers and with a bandana wrapped around her head, keeping *most* of her hair in place, running up and down slopes, looking at one exciting thing after another, as giddy as a kid in a zoo dashing from cage to cage. MSL on the other hand, is far more serious, far more focussed. She’s clearly senior to Oppy, with her hair scraped back in a practical and severe bun, and she wears serious canvas trousers, with lots of pockets, and heavy, thick-soled hiking boots, with steel toe caps. She doesn’t rush anywhere. She walks, slowly, from A to B, then kneels down in front of B, looks at it closely, carefully, from all angles, head tilting this way and that like a raptor sizing up Sam Neil, before formulating a plan of how best to study it with all the equipment in the heavy, neatly-packed rucksack slung over her shoulder.

MSL is a “rover” in the same way that a Swiss Army Knife is a knife. Sure, it can be used *as* a knife, but it only once in a while. The rest of the time it does other things.

And I don’t mean that unkindly, no-one should think that. I’m just seeing, probably for the first time, the truth of the situation. And actually, it’s Opportunity’s fault. We’ve been spoiled by Oppy’s rushing about over in Meridiani, running from one Amazing Place to another with her tail wagging wildly and her ears pricked up. In contrast, MSL’s lack of movement is frustrating many, and has, I’ll admit, been frustrating me too. Every day I have found myself growing more and more impatient with the rover for NOT MOVING YET!!!!!! And yes, I am, I will admit, heartily sick of seeing pictures of that bloody scoop when I go to the MSL images galleries, even though I know, as a serious and lifelong space exploration enthusiast and Mars exploration fanatic, how important it is to make sure it and all her other systems are working properly before pointing her towards the foothills of Mt Sharp and letting her off the leash.

So, time for a realignment of perception (oooh, that sounds flash, I’ll use that again!). From now on, I’m going to consider there to be two robots exploring the surface of Mars – but only one rover, and that’s Opportunity, which is driving around the rim of Endeavour Crater, showing us ‘stuff’. On the other side of Mars, having landed safely three months ago, a big, incredibly sophisticated laboratory is working patiently in Gale Crater, painstakingly surveying its surroundings and carrying out a detailed examination and analysis of the rocks, dust and gases there. It will drive off when it is absolutely ready, find another excellent location to continue its work at, and then settle down and get back to work again there, leaving Opportunity to carry on the genuine roving, running from place to place, eyes bright and tongue lolling, as the sols fly by.

And that’s fine by me. 🙂

Pretty pictures…

Pretty pictures. Nothing wrong with them. Even though the very term “Pretty pictures” is often used in a derisory way – usually by people who place more importance on “hard science” and data than on mere images, however beautiful they are – it’s fair to say that most of the people who follow space missions would much rather see a picture of an actual place, be it covered in ice, dust or lava, than a graph or a chart. So, although I can appreciate a good error bar, and can find beauty in a plot of data points, my main love in astronomy is, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, the images sent back to Earth by our robot ambassadors scattered across the solar system. And at the moment, Curiosity is way, waaaay ahead in the “Best Photographer in the Solar System” contest.

Here’s a mosaic I made of a great bucketful of indiviual images taken of Mt Sharp, the mountain that dominates the centre of Gale Crater… Click on it to enlarge it, as usual…

Next: I was struck yesterday by how much this image (actually a mosaic of two separate images) of part of Curiosity with the rocky floor of Gale Crater in the background…

…reminded me of one of the images taken by Viking 2, all those years ago…

And finally for this time, another version of that now iconic “self portrait” taken last week…

Ok now, cards on the table, I have messed about with that something *rotten* to make it look that way, so if you’re wanting a realistic view of the rover’s camera mast, in front of the martian landscape, well, that ain’t it! What it is is an unashamedly “pretty picture”, created to look – hopefully – wonderful… 🙂

Amazingly, more than a few people have criticised NASA for taking that image, saying it was a waste of money, or arrogant, or worse. One particular plonker,  who posted one arrogant, self-satisfied, smug diatribe (often with incorrect spellings and bad grammar, ironically) after another over on the UNIVERSE TODAY forum until he got banned, ranted on about how the image was a symbol of American arrogance, etc etc… Prat. He just didn’t Get It. And I honestly think that picture, that self portrait, was taken for People Who Get It, and not for the general public. I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful, not at all. I just think it was taken for people who can find beauty in a close-up image of a single martian rock, or a dusty, blank sky, or a mesa or butte, dimmed and blurred by distance. It was taken for people who find wonder in the very thought of a robot driving across Mars, taking photos and collecting data. It was taken for people who look up at Mars, shining in the sky like a drop of candle-lit amber, and smile because they know there are rovers on it, all those millions of miles away, exploring on our behalf.

People like you…  🙂