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Oct 112014
comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Mars and Earth are both looking to the skies, for a once-in-a-million-year visit from an Oort Cloud comet. NASA held a press conference last evening with representatives from the various teams who are preparing for the close approach of comet Siding Spring to Mars on October 19, 2014. “Close” is a relative term: at its closest, the comet will be 88,000 miles from the center of Mars. Although the comet itself is “only” 5 miles in diameter (about 109 tons of material), its tail would reach half the distance from Earth to the moon. This is the closest any comet has come to Earth in the past 500 years, and with NASA, ESA, and ISRO having so many instruments on and around Mars, mankind has a ringside seat for this rare event.

The comet was discovered in January 2013, at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, by astronomer Rob McNaught. Scientists believe that the comet formed in the first million years of our solar system, somewhere between Jupiter and Neptune, and was then thrown by some force out to a multi-million-year orbit. It was knocked into its current orbit by the passage of a star near the Oort Cloud, where the comet had been traveling.

This is the first opportunity we’ve had to image an Oort Cloud comet. A huge variety of scientists and instruments are coordinating to “maximize the science” from this encounter. Preliminary studies of the comet show that it’s made up of about half rocky dust and half volatile organic ice, made of volatiles like methane. As the comet came closer to the Sun than ever before, the intensity of light from comet increased, then dropped. Scientists hope to find more evidence to explain this, but one current hypothesis is that some of the hypervolatiles may have burned up when the comet got closer. As one scientist explained, “kind of like nitrous oxide would behave in a car engine.”

So, NASA, ESA, and ISRO are preparing their planetary instruments on Earth and Mars and orbital instruments to capture every shred of data possible. They’ll gather a x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared images; collect data from Mars’ ionosphere, upper and lower atmosphere, and surface. The Hubble telescope is already observing the nucleus of the comet and the dust coming off of it, while the Spitzer space telescope observes the dust and carbon dioxide. NASA’s Swift satellite is observing the water molecules in and around the comet; about half the ice had come off by June 2014). The NASA ISRF telescope on Mauna Kea is preparing to make daytime observations of the comet’s composition, and its effects on the Martian atmosphere. The Chandra x-ray Observatory will monitor the ions and neutral particles around Mars, looking for changes as the comet approaches. About 25 hours after the comet’s closest approach to Mars, the Kepler Observatory will be able to make unprecedented observations with its photometer.

Graphic courtesy of NASA

Graphic courtesy of NASA

It’s a mind-boggling cooperation, and it doesn’t end with the professional scientists at the various space agencies. A group called Coordinated Investigations Of Comets (CIOC) has enlisted and organized the efforts of “a global army of eager amateur and pro-amateur astronomers.” A NASA representative explained, “amateur photos provide the legacy data and reference system against which to place hi-res images.” They also provide global coverage for the event.

What is the comet’s nucleus really made of? Will there be meteors as a result of its passage? How will the Martian atmosphere react? We don’t know, but it’s going to be really exciting to find out! Stay tuned for lots more coverage, and updates on planned “comet social” events on line and in person.


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Oct 092014
Alyssa Carson and Bill Nye

by Gene Turnbow, station manager

Thirteen-year-old Alyssa Carson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has an indomitable dream: to be the first human to set foot on the planet Mars. She may just have a shot at it. She’s been training for nine years so far. She’s been to NASA Space Camp eleven times already, and NASA Space Academy three times. She’s the first person ever to complete all three Space Camps on Earth, and the first person ever to complete the NASA Visitors Center Passport program.  She speaks Spanish, French, Chinese, and English, as well as some Turkish, and studies classes in these languages.  She’s got her whole academic career planned out years in advance, and she’s possibly been to more space-science-related facilities than any single person in history.  From the age of three, she’s known she wanted to be an astronaut.

What motivates her? On her web site,, Carson writes:

I would love to go to Mars because it is a planet that no one has been to before. It’s about the same size as the Earth and there are ice caps at the top and bottom of Mars. That means there is water on Mars. This could possibly be our next Earth. Just think about all the things that are in Space. For example: planets we have never explored, galaxies that we have never heard of, stars that are just babies, black holes that are as wide as the Sun to Pluto multiple times and has the mass of a billion suns, parts of the universe that we have never seen. Just think of all that stuff just floating around. It’s more than you can imagine. I AM THE MARS GENERATION.

Carson’s drive and dedication are unmatched. She has already given a TEDx talk in Greece, and according to her blog, has already graduated from the National Flight Academy in Pensacola; the VA Space Flight Academy at the NASA facility in Wallops Island, Virginia; and the Gladiator School in Rome.

NASA currently hopes to launch a manned expedition to Mars in 2033. Before then, Carson is planning on improving her knowledge and study at the Cambridge and International Space University. Paul Carson, NASA’s spokesperson, said that they take people like Alyssa Carson seriously. He added that she is doing all the correct things to help her become an astronaut and potentially visit Mars one day.

Will she make it to Mars? We’re not sure.  A lot can happen in 20 years. But we think she has the right stuff.  In her own words, “Failure is not an option.”

- 30 -


Oct 032014
RAW image from the Back to Front Hazcam, Sol 3800 (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Mars Teams Focus on Comet Siding Spring

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With the recent arrival of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), five scientific missions at Mars are now joining forces to observe the Comet Siding Spring, expected October 19, 2014. From the skies: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and MAVEN each have their assigned observation objectives. And providing ground support, the two working rovers–Curiosity and Opportunity–plan to take measurements and send observational data back to their respective teams.

Oppy Still Working

RAW image from the Back to Front Hazcam, Sol 3800 (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

RAW image from the Back to Front Hazcam, Sol 3800 (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“The Little Rover That Could” continues to take photos on Mars, taking driving instruction from the team back on Earth, and perform scientific analysis. And after 3800 Sols (a solar day on Mars, roughly 24 hours and 39 minutes), the view from NASA’s Opportunity rover looks fantastic.

Currently, Opportunity is headed towards “Marathon Valley” while taking photos on the west rim of Endeavour Crator. Oppy’s team intends to have the rover collect panoramic images of the ejecta field of a small crater named “Ulysses.” Also, the rover has been taking twilight test photos help the team prepare for the Comet Siding Spring expected on October 19, 2014.

Since the flash memory reboot in early September, Opportunity has driven an additional 0.14 miles this past month, displaying a total mission odometer at 25.34 miles. In addition to driving and photography, Opportunity continued to use the Rock Abrasion Tool brush, collect some material attempt to process scientific observations and calculations. And although the rover occasionally still experiences anomalies with the Flash file system, the team reports Oppy is “otherwise in good health.”

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Sep 272014
First sample drilling hole at the base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

The skies about Mars may seem a little more crowded this week. Celebrations and congratulations from around the world rang loud and long with the arrival of two more scientific missions: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

MAVEN Arrived

Congratulations MAVEN!

Congratulations MAVEN!

Teams around the world celebrated last week when NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived and successfully entered orbit Sunday night (7:00 p.m. PDT). MAVEN’s mission will pioneer studies of the upper atmosphere of Mars.

“As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”

Just eight hours after entering orbit, MAVEN’s imaging ultraviolet spectrograph sent various images of the Martian atomsphere which were selected as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APoD). Imagery captured for analysis included the hydrogen, oxygen, and reflected sunlight above Mars.

Congratulations to India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)!

Congratulations to India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)!

MOM Arrived

Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) not only successfully entering orbit around Mars on September 24, but has distinguished India as the first country to do so on a maiden voyage. ISRO can also proudly claim to be the fourth agency to successfully bring a spacecraft into orbit around Mars.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was on hand at ISRO Mission Control in Bangalore for the event, and after its success, gave a rousing speech, brimming with national pride, and he commended the ISRO team:

Awesome image from twitter of celebrating scientists in India after MOM's successful insertion into orbit around Mars (Source:

Awesome image from twitter of celebrating scientists in India after MOM’s successful insertion into orbit around Mars.

“To the scientists at ISRO, you have made it a habit of achieving the impossible! You have that self-reliance … often in the face of hostile circumstances … You have honored our forefathers and inspired our future generations. You truly deserve all the love and admiration you get from a proud nation … the success of our space program is a symbol of what we are capable of as a nation.”

Celebrations in India were broadcast live and images tweeted such as these.

“We congratulate the Indian Space Research Organisation for its successful arrival at Mars with the Mars Orbiter Mission,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It was an impressive engineering feat, and we welcome India to the family of nations studying another facet of the Red Planet. We look forward to MOM adding to the knowledge the international community is gathering with the other spacecraft at Mars.”

  • Follow @isro on Twitter


Fun with Captions

Scientists have fun captioning images from Curiosity. (Source: (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have fun captioning images from Curiosity. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Lest anyone think that scientists and engineers are all work and no play, some of the photos sent back from NASA’s Curiosity rover sometimes show up on Twitter with the most amusing captions. Some of the Raw Images for Sol 759 (labeled September 24, 2014) were ideal for making puns about MOM watching over Curiosity’s work below on the surface on Mars.

Curiosity Drills

Curiosity hasn’t been idle this week, either. Mount Sharp has been the big destination for scientific exploration and this week Curiosity sent back images of the first sample collection hole drilled at the base of the mountain, measuring just 0.63 inches wide but more than four times deeper at 2.6 inches. A hammering drill works through the rock and a sampling chamber collects the powder from the drilling.

“This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. “This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth.”


First sample drilling hole at the base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

First sample drilling hole at the base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)


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Sep 232014
MOM Logo

MOM Logoby Nur Hussein, staff writer

Hot on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN is another Mars orbiter; India’s Mangalyaan, or the Mars Orbital Mission (MOM) which has traversed 484 million miles (780 million kilometers) to Mars and is now successfully in orbit around the red planet. This craft is from India’s state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and was launched on 5 November 2013 from Sriharikota, India. The craft was launched on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a homegrown rocket developed by India’s ISRO. At 7:24 a.m. IST, the Mangalyaan probe successfully accomplished insertion into a Martian orbit. This is the first time any nation has successfully carried out a Mars mission on its first try. ISRO’s headquarters and mission control in Bangalore was visited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who observed the orbital insertion with the mission crew. The lag between Earth and the MOM craft is about 12.5 minutes in each direction, thus like the MAVEN mission, it was a nail-biting affair before orbital insertion was confirmed.

The mission’s budget was $73 million USD, a fraction of the $671 million of NASA’s MAVEN mission. The reason for this is the cheaper parts and labor available in India helped ISRO manage to perform a similar mission for a tenth of the cost. However, the equipment payload for ISRO’s orbiter is also relatively less complex than MAVEN’s. The Mangalyaan was designed primarily to develop India’s technological capabilities for interplanetary travel of probes to Mars. Now that it has reached Mars, its mission is to analyze the Martian atmosphere for methane, and to observe the Martian surface topology. The payload for the probe consists of five sets of scientific instruments:

  • Mars Color Camera (MCC) – For imaging the Martian surface.
  • Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) – Measures the thermal emission of the soil and minerals.
  • Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) – Measures the methane content of the atmosphere.
  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) – A quadruple mass spectrometer.
  • Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP) – Measures deuterium and hydrogen content, and is useful for gathering data about where Mars’ missing water went over the ages

At launch, the mass of the craft was 1,337 kg which included 852 kg of propellant fuel. It spent about a month in low earth orbit and performed a series of orbit-raising maneuvers. On 30 November 2013, it finally started its journey to Mars via a trans-Mars injection, which flung the craft into the trajectory that let it be captured by Mars’ gravitational field, after it was sufficiently slowed down by the thruster burns of its engine. Three of the four course-correcting maneuvers planned by ISRO were carried out by the probe to keep the craft on the right trajectory (the fourth was deemed unnecessary as the probe was well on course at the scheduled trajectory correction time).

The onboard engine is a modified version of ISRO’s Liquid Apogee Motor which was developed by the Indian agency for over 8 years. It is capable of generating 440 Newtons of thrust. On Monday, one of the major challenges of the mission was achieved without a hitch; restarting the dormant engines after 300 days of being idle. The engines fired briefly for 4 seconds, and made a brief course correction that took the craft to its destination.

ISRO is India’s national space exploration agency. It grew out of an Indian state effort called the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), set up in 1962 with the drive by first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and with support from the United States. In 1969, INCOSPAR led to the creation of ISRO. Initially, ISRO satellite launches hitched rides on Soviet satellites. By 1980, India had developed its own launch capabilities. With the success of the Mars Orbital Mission, India is now the fourth space agency which has successfully launched missions to the red planet, after the Soviets, NASA and the ESA.

After the succesful insertion, Prime Minister gave a speech so rousing, it had me quelling with pride, and I’m not even Indian! He said, in part:

We have reached out and achieved the near-impossible! I congratulate all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion. Traveling an incredible distance … we have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise. We have navigated a spacecraft through a route known only to very few … Out of 51 space missions attempted so far, a mere 21 had succeeded so far, but we have prevailed … With this spectacular success, India joins the elite group of only 3 other agencies to have succeeded in putting a craft in orbit around Mars … and India has succeeded on our first attempt.

Uncertainty is part of the journey …the thrill of discovery is not for the faint-hearted. Innovation, after all, by its very nature, involves risk. As you are trying to do something that has not been done before, it is a leap into the dark … space is, indeed, the biggest unknown out there.

To the scientists at ISRO, you have made it a habit of achieving the impossible! You have that self-reliance … often in the face of hostile circumstances … You have honored our forefathers and inspired our future generations. You truly deserve all the love and admiration you get from a proud nation … the success of our space program is a symbol of what we are capable of as a nation. You have advanced the quality of life, quality of government, the quality of humanity, strengthening our economy and improving our lives.

We also have a great responsibility to our ancestors to understand the mysteries of the heavens. Modern India must continue!

My dear friends, let me conclude by saying that in contrast with the nature of western philosophy, in eastern philosophy, we know that there is no beginning or end. There is only a continuous, unending cycle of dispassionate reason. Let today’s success drive us with even greater vigor ….push our boundaries, and then push some more. Push some more. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore [from the poem “Let My Country Awake”]: ‘Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action/Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake’.”


Sep 212014
Artist concept of NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrival (Image Credit: NASA/GSFC)

by Nur Hussein, staff writer

[updated with additional information and corrections given at NASA press conference, September 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m. EDT]

Huge cheers just went up across the nation as NASA’s MAVEN probe successfully transitioned from its heliocentric orbit to an elliptical, 35-hour orbit around Mars! It was a nail-biting 33 minutes as the probe autonomously reversed itself and initiated a burn from its 6 main engines, in order to slow itself enough for Mars’ gravitational field to be able to ”catch” it. Part of this maneuver caused MAVEN’s high-gain antenna to be temporarily pointed away from Earth. Because it takes signals 12.5 minutes to reach Mars from Earth (and at a data rate of 40 bps: no mistake! Forty bits per second!) using the low-gain antenna, there was no way for MAVEN’s teams to give it any assistance or corrections; the intrepid little orbiter did it on her own.

On November 18, 2013, the Atlas V 401 rocket carrying the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) space probe took off from Cape Canaveral and started its trek into the inky void of space towards Mars. Its mission is to study the Martian atmosphere to determine, among other things, how the once-abundant supply of water on Mars was lost over the ages. Today, the MAVEN spacecraft has crossed 442 million miles and successfully reached Mars and is in orbit around the red planet.

One of the biggest challenges for the probe was actually getting it into orbit around Mars. With the spacecraft traveling at intensely high speeds, almost doubling in velocity in the last few hours before transition, it needed to reduce its velocity from about 12,800 MPH to approximately 10,000 MPH before it was captured by the Martian gravitational field. To do this, it had to fire its thrusters in the opposite direction and burn fuel for about 33 minutes. Its initial orbit is now an elongated 35-hour orbit. Tim Priser, chief spacecraft systems engineer at Lockheed Martin explained that MAVEN’s burn was, “a little bit underperforming, relative to predictions,” and so it burned for a little longer than expected tonight.

Over the next couple of weeks, MAVEN will initiate 5 more short burns to adjust its orbit, and will ultimately settle into a 4.5-hour orbit, which will be almost circular. Once it achieves that tighter orbit, the teams will deploy MAVEN’s science instruments, and the main body of research will begin.

But MAVEN hasn’t been sitting idle as she traveled. She’s been gathering data on the solar winds between Earth and Mars, because it’s thought that these winds are a significant factor in what happened to the atmosphere and water on Mars.

It’s a huge collaboration between industry, academia, and government. Lockheed Martin Denver managed the engineering of the probe. JPL is in charge of monitoring navigational and telemetry data. The onboard instrumentation for MAVEN was built by three different facilities; the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory built the Particles and Field (P&F) package, the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics built the Remote Sensing (RS) package, and the Goddard Space Flight Center built the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) package.

MAVEN will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes to allow extrapolation backward in time.

In addition to gathering data for this main focus of study, MAVEN will get a rare, up-close look at a comet as it passes by Mars, at about one-third the distance from Mars to Earth. As a safety precaution, MAVEN will be on the other side of Mars when the comet makes its closest approach, but MAVEN will get plenty of chances to gather data about the comet and its effect on Mars’ atmosphere.

With any luck, MAVEN won’t be alone in orbit for long. India has another probe named MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) on its way, and set to make Martian orbit in November 2014. MOM’s study will also focus on the Martian atmosphere, searching for the signature of methane (CH4) in the Martian atmosphere, which has previously been detected from Martian orbit and telescopes on Earth. CH4 has a short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, meaning that some source on the Mars must replenish it. About 95% of the methane on Earth is produced by microbes, so there is some speculation that Mars may be hiding a biosphere beneath its surface. Geologic processes can also produce methane, so that’s another intriguing line of questioning.


David Mitchell, MAVEN’s project manager, said at NASA’s press conference, “This was a very big day for MAVEN. We’re very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet. The commissioning phase will keep the operations team busy for the next six weeks, and then we’ll begin, at last, the science phase of the mission. Congratulations to the team for a job well done today … You get one shot with orbital insertion, and MAVEN nailed it tonight We’re really happy for the crew and their families … things looks great with the orbit a this point … Duration of the burn was 34 minutes, 26 seconds: about 11 seconds longer than nominal. The observed navigational data is all within the nominal range, and tracking data shows we’re in a stable orbit. In the next couple of days, we’ll do our second burn. I’m looking forward to that.” Asked whether the riskiest parts of the mission were over, Mitchell added, “I personally will breathe a lot easier come November 8, once the science starts and we can see that everything is working.”

“NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Maven will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers—and those of our partners around the globe—to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth.”

MAVEN’s principal investigator, Bruce Jakosky said, “I think my heart’s about ready to start again! We’ve been developing this mission for about 11 years now, and I can’t tell you how [much went into] this flawless performance tonight … It’s a real testament to the team. We’ve had over 600 people working on MAVEN over the course of its life … They have put their heart and soul into doing each and every task that helped us get here tonight …We are anxiously awaiting the arrival in 2 days of the Indian MOM mission. We wish them all the best luck from everyone on the MAVEN team.”

Over the next 6 weeks, the various teams will commission the spacecraft, deploy the booms, which have instruments that must be turned on, tested, and calibrated, and will be sending and receiving data from the Curiosity rover. MAVEN then will begin its one Earth-year primary mission, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

As MAVEN goes through her walk-down manuevers, her orbit height will go from periapsis (lowest orbit altitude) of 93 miles (150 kilometers) to about 77 miles (125 kilometers). She’ll be collecting atmospheric data as her altitude changes, which will show where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

On October 19, 2014, Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) will pass Mars at a distance of only 82,021 miles (132,000 kilometers). MAVEN will take 5 days, centered on the comet’s closest approach, to observe and record the comet’s effects on the Mars environment.

The press conference ended with a question from Twitter user. Are there any superstitions that the MAVEN team observes? Mitchell replied, “It’s a common tradition to bring peanuts to launches and orbital insertions. Peanuts are good luck. This mission, [someone also brought] Mars bars. I think we may adopt that as a new tradition!”

Congratulations to all of MAVEN’s teams for this breathtaking achievement! Despite the fact that we’ve been in space for decades, it’s still amazing every time. Having a spacecraft put itself into planetary orbit sounds so much like science fiction brought to life.