Aug 302014
 

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Computer memory housekeeping

Three month tour, ten years later and still working. The view from NASA's Mars rover Opportunity in August 2014. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Three month tour, ten years later and still working. The view from NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity in August 2014. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ever been frustrated with a computer that just keeps rebooting? Software running slow or glitchy? Found it necessary to “wipe the cache” or (as many Windows users know) “reformat the drive” and start from scratch? These analogies might be slightly overkill, but even Martian rovers sometimes need the technician’s magic touch.

Computer resets have become increasingly frequent for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (Oppy, to friends on Twitter). The science team here on Earth plans to reformat Oppy’s flash memory to address the problems.

For the uninitiated, flash memory maintains information on equipment even when powered off. In everyday use on earth, you rely on flash memory to store music and pictures on your cell phones and cameras. And just like when sections of your carpet wear out from always walking in the same space, sections of flash memory can wear out from repetition. Reformatting finds the worn out cells, marks them to be avoided, and clears everything out to start fresh again.

“Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets,” said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, project manager for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project. “The flash reformatting is a low-risk process, as critical sequences and flight software are stored elsewhere in other non-volatile memory on the rover.”

Opportunity landed on Mars with twin rover Spirit ten years ago, in early 2004. Spirit logged six years of scientific exploration and Opportunity remains active even though the original mission was only planned for three months. Talk about some amazing tech support: JPL’s rover team continues to work with Oppy from 125 million miles away. Go, team!

Science from up above

Digital Terrain Model (DTM) images of terraced craters on Mars (image credit: Ali Bramson)

Digital Terrain Model (DTM) images of terraced craters on Mars (image credit: Ali Bramson) 

Off the Mars surface, high overhead in the Martian skies, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) delights researchers from many institutions, not just NASA. Over at the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, graduate student Ali Bramson studies ice under the surface of Mars. This week, she shared some of her observations in Martian Diaries blogs from MRO.

“Imagine if there was a layer of ice as tall as a 13-story building underneath the entire state of Texas. We have found a layer of ice that big under a region of Mars called Arcadia Planitia,” Bramson writes. “I am using impact crater measurements to learn more … [and] studying the radar signals that bounce off the ice and go back to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft’s SHARAD (Shallow Radar) instrument. The radar measurements are telling us about the composition of the ice.”

Layers of ice, rock and ice, or just rock react differently when impacted by meteors, asteroids, or other debris. Many of the impact craters on Mars appear to have terraced structures indicating layers with different compositions. Equipment on the Orbiter can take stereo images of these craters, allowing scientists to better measure the depths of the layers. These visual measurements are combined with radar measurements that bounce different through ice than off the surface of rock.

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Aug 232014
 

Testing 'Bonanza King' yields results and new plans to drive elsewhere (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Testing ‘Bonanza King’ yields  unfortunate results and new plans to drive elsewhere (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Not a martian bone yard, move along, nothing to see but us rocks (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Not a martian bone yard, move along, nothing to see but us rocks (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

 

This is why the scientists do their homework first: Sometimes plans must change. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover executed a test drill experiment to determine whether the nicknamed “Bonanza King” paving stone would be a good candidate for the fourth drilling mission. Initial tests showed some instability, disqualifying it as a stable target for a full drilling.

The rover started a mini-drill procedure, first creating the starter hole with a percussive drill. The rock budged slightly and protective software halted the test, allowing the rover team to evaluate their next steps. Determining that this target remained too unstable for further drilling, the team has resumed driving plans to bring Curiosity closer to their long-term destination at Mount Sharp. They may also stop for scientific observations at a closer outcropping, named “Pahrump Hills.” Two weeks ago, on the trek toward Mount Sharp, Curiosity encountered some extensive sand in “Hidden Valley” and slipped a bit.

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

Sight Seeing Rocks on Mars

While on driving missions, Curiosity continues to take photos of the environment and send postcards home. This week’s view included these rocks, one of which some people might think looks remarkably like a femur bone here on Earth. Science team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe this shape occurred naturally from either wind or water erosion. Large fossils remain unlikely, according to the current evidence of conditions on ancient Mars.

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Aug 182014
 
The Iberian peninsula at night. Photo by NASA.

The Iberian peninsula at night. Photo by NASA.

by Brandy Grote, contributing writer

NASA has sent out a request for help to all “citizen scientists.” NASA is making available photographic images ranging from the Mercury missions in the 1960′s through current ISS photos. The catalog contains over 1.8 million photos, a majority from ISS, and about 30% taken at night.

Images taken from ISS before 2003 were a bit blurry, because the station moves so quickly. In 2003, astronaut Don Pettit cobbled together a “barn door tracker,” which was the predecessor to the European Space Agency’s Nightpod, installed in the International Space Station in 2011. Its motorized tripod compensates for the station’s speed, providing what NASA scientist William Stefanov says are the highest-resolution night images from orbit. These devices helped make the images less blurry, but it is now harder to pinpoint where exactly the camera is pointing.

This is where we come in. The Complutense University of Madrid is spearheading the cataloging efforts, and have broken down the photos into three categories. The first one, called “Dark Skies,” requires no real scientific skill. These photos merely need to be sorted and identified. Is the subject a star, a city on our planet, or even the moon? Humans have been found to be much better at complex image analysis than any algorithm (Captchas, anyone?), so a glance at the photograph can identify the subject.

The second category is photos of cities at night. If you’re familiar with a city, perhaps you can identify it from these night photos.

The last category is “Lost at Night.” In this category, the subject may be a smaller town within a photo with a 310 mile radius. It could be oriented sideways or even upside down, depending on how the space station was positioned and how the astronaut positioned the camera.

Although about 20,000 of the photographs have been classified, NASA wants multiple views to help ensure accuracy. Gathering this data will help us learn more about light pollution and patterns, improve understanding of atmospheric chemistry, save energy, generate light maps of cities, and help plan for better street lighting for safety.

If you want to participate in this project, go to The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Then click “For Fun” on the left side, then select “Image Detective.”

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Aug 162014
 

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

'Bonanza King' target drilling candidate (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

‘Bonanza King’ target drilling candidate (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Preparation for the fourth drilling

Engineers working with NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover are buckling down to evaluate the next drilling site on Mars. Nicknamed ‘Bonanza King,’ the pale paving stone appears to have ridges that might reveal possible mineral veins.

“Geologically speaking, we can tie the Bonanza King rocks to those at Pahrump Hills. Studying them here will give us a head start in understanding how they fit into the bigger picture of Gale Crater and Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Long-term science plans include extensive studies at Mount Sharp, likely made up of layers that could reveal environmental changes in ancient Mars. The outcropping appears different from the sandstones examined so far by Curiosity. And differences could mean everything to these researchers.

Images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicate the tumbled path of an irregulary boulder (path from upper left to middle right) (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicate the tumbled path of an irregularly shaped boulder (path from upper left to middle right) (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Rolling boulders

When various tweets appear to focus on “Rock Rolls Down Hill!” you might be tempted to wonder which satire news source has been active. But this time, what seemed like comedy was another exciting detail in the lives of researchers training their observational skills on other planets in our solar system. Not all our knowledge about Mars has been coming from our surface rovers. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provides the aerial research component and provided evidence that boulders careen down hills on Mars, just as here on Earth.

Satellite imagery shows a trail down the slope, where the irregularly shaped Martian boulder finally landed, tall end up, casting high-contrast shadows for the Orbiter.

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Aug 092014
 

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Two Years and Going Strong

Happy 2 Years, Curiosity! (photo credit: NASA JPL)

Happy 2 Years, Curiosity! (photo credit: NASA JPL)

Two years ago this week, on Aug. 5, 2012, thousands of scientists, enthusiasts, and fans celebrated the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Looking back over the accomplishments of the Curiosity rover gives cause for further celebration. Exploration yielded evidence of an ancient lakebed and all the elements considered supporting the possibility of microbial life in that environment, billions of years ago. “Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.”

Where Were You When Curiosity Landed on Mars?

Whether you took part in any of the live viewing parties or found yourself glued to your computer two years ago, or you missed the live events as they unfolded, you can still re-live this historic success with this compiled video from JPL.

Fresh tracks in Hidden Valley help reveal this fun fact: The tire tracks on Curiosity leave a repeating pattern that can be used for visual reference to measure distance. Of course, the pattern spells out JPL in Morse code. (photo credit: JPL NASA)

Fresh tracks in Hidden Valley help reveal this fun fact: The tire tracks on Curiosity leave a repeating pattern that can be used for visual reference to measure distance. Of course, the pattern spells out JPL in Morse code. (photo credit: JPL NASA)

“‘Dare Mighty Things’ is actually a motto for the [JPL] laboratory. We want to be known for doing the things that nobody else can, pushing the edge,” Project Manager Jim Erickson said.

Happy two years on Mars from the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). May you always dare mighty things! #2YearsOnMars

Happy two years on Mars from the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). May you always dare mighty things! #2YearsOnMars

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Aug 062014
 

By Nur Hussein, staff writer

The 'rubber duck' shape of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

The ‘rubber duck’ shape of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

This has been a space rendezvous 10 years in the making; the Rosetta robotic space probe has travelled 400 million kilometers from Earth and has arrived at the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and is now sending back photographs.

Rosetta is a space probe built by the European Space Agency (ESA), and lauched in March 2004. It’s a two-part probe that consists of an orbiter and a lander. It carries 12 scientific instruments aboard the orbiter, and 9 on the lander. The spacecraft will eventually launch the robot lander, named Philae, to soft-land on the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to perform readings and send back data.

This landing is scheduled for November this year. Until then, the probe will be buzzing around the comet until it eventually settles into an orbit around it. The low-gravitation field of the comet means that the initial orbit of the craft will be a “controlled triangle” at a distance of around 100km from the comet, before it loops in tighter into a circular orbit around 30km from the comet.

Close up of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Close-up of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

The November landing of the Philae lander is something ESA scientists await with excitement, and one imagines no small amount of trepidation too. Once Philae detaches from the probe, the scientists cannot control its descent; the robot will have to rely on its own programmed logic to land safely. Analysis of the comet has identified landing sites mostly likely to be most suitable, most of them around the “head and shoulders” of the “duck”.

The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a wonder unto itself too. 2 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, it appears to consist of two distinct halves, which some say resembles a giant rubber duck. The surface is strewn with giant boulders, and there are craters and cliffs. The comet will come to perihelion on 13th August 2015, where it will be closest to the sun and the ice will start to melt and form a tail. Rosetta will be there to witness the entire show.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken by Rosetta on August 3rd, 2014

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken by Rosetta on August 3rd, 2014

Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for further reports about Rosetta’s progress mapping the comet. Till then, enjoy the pictures!

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