Bubbles and bumps…

Curiosity is on the move again, and has reached what looks to be a pretty spectacular and fascinating place. Mars image magician Damien Bouic assembled a bucketload of new MSL images into this beautiful, sweeping panorama, which you’ll need to click on to enlarge and see in all its glory…


Oh, there’s SO much amazing geology waiting here!! Just look at those layers and outcrops! Go get em Curiosity!

But wait… there is some weird stuff here too… What the heck is this?

bubble enh

Let’s zoom in on that…

bubble enh crop

Hmmm… ok… that looks like it was originally a bubble-like structure that either collapsed or just eroded away, doesn’t it? Or was there a rock there that got covered in dust, and when the rock eroded away over time it left a crust behind which has collapsed over time? No idea! But there are more than one of those things around Curiosity…

bubble enh2b

See? There are 4 of the critters visible just on that one small area… Fascinating!

Can’t wait to see what Curiosity sees next…! 🙂

Big day tomorrow…

…or rather, “not a very big day tomorrow at all”, because NASA has *finally* put out a statement clarifying the position re the “Earth-shaking” data being collected by Curiosity. The “thunk! thunk! thunk!” sounds you will hear whilst reading this are the final, rusty nails being driven with a mixture of relief and glee by NASA’s press office into the coffin of the story of the ‘historic discovery’ of organics on Mars…


November 29, 2012

PASADENA, Calif. — The next news conference about the NASA Mars rover Curiosity will be held at 9 a.m. PST(12 p.m. EST) Monday, Dec. 3, in San Francisco at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect. The news conference will be an update about first use of the rover’s full array of analytical instruments to investigate a drift of sandy soil. One class of substances Curiosity is checking for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life. At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.

The Mars Science Laboratory Project and its Curiosity rover are less than four months into a two-year prime mission to investigate whether conditions in Mars’ Gale Crater may have been favorable for microbial life. Curiosity is exceeding all expectations for a new mission with all of the instruments and measurement systems performing well. This is spectacular for such a complex system, and one that is operated so far away on Mars by people here on planet Earth. The mission already has found an ancient riverbed on the Red Planet, and there is every expectation for remarkable discoveries still to come.

Audio and visuals from the briefing also will be streamed online at: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl .

For more information about the mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mars and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl .

Veronica McGregor/Guy Webster 818-354-9452/ 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
veronica.c.mcgregor@jpl.nasa.gov/ guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov


Well, that’s pretty clear isn’t it? No organics have been discovered by Curiosity yet, so there’s no “life on Mars” angle here, just a fairly standard operational report. Curiosity is driving well, all her instruments have checked out, she’s doing great science, and the best is yet to come! But if you’re wanting the MSL team to stand up at the AGU conference tomorrow and announce to the world, with tears of pride and joy streaming down their faces, that their nuclear-powered Barsoomian behemoth has found evidence of past life on Mars, well, you’re going to be disappointed. Nope.  Nothing to see here, move on, move on…


That’s still pretty amazing, isn’t it? Curiosity is working GREAT, sending back hundreds of new images every day for us to drool over, and sending back enough data to keep planetary scientists busy and usefully occupied for many yearsto come. And she’s just got started on her adventure, don’t forget. Where she is now is really just the car park outside the martian mall. There’s a huge geologists’ toy store over there, in all those lovely layers up the slope of Mt Sharp, and soon she’ll turn towards the mountain and start driving towards it.

So, everyone, be not downhearted! This beast of a story ran away with itself a bit, and then took on a life of its own. It’s now safely back in its cage tho, and sleeping, so we can all catch our breaths and just enjoy the reality of the situation – which is that Curiosity is seeing spectacular views like these… click to enlarge, as usual…

pano3 dec2b

pano2 dec 2csh

(LOVE that one, just look at all the different shapes, textures and colours of the rocks!!!)

pano4 dec2b2

REALLY pleased with that one. I’m NOT claiming it’s accurate or realistic, cos frankly I’ve played about with it a lot, unil I made a view which just struck me as beautiful. So, take that image as you will – it’s my portrait of a tiny, tiny part of a crater on a world millions of miles away…

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?