Clouds From Mars

I actually showed this on the air today. It is very cool… well, I think it’s cool. It is a photo of the Martian sky.

The picture comes from the Mars Rover Opportunity. As you probably remember, there are two rovers exploring the surface of Mars. There was a lot more publicity earlier on, like with a new toy.

The rovers had a short predicted life. In fact, by now they should have stopped working. They haven’t.

With all the planned projects complete, and the rovers living on borrowed time, NASA drove them to places they wouldn’t have risked earlier. It was possible they’d go down a slope and not be able to get up the other side or otherwise get bogged down. The pressure was off. Why not?

I check back from time-to-time, looking at the photos both rovers sent back. This one really excited me.

In this picture of the Martian sky there are what look like cirrus clouds. In fact that’s what the scientists involved in the project think they are: cirrus clouds made of tiny ice crystals… water ice crystals. The only way they’d get up there was if water evaporated from the Martian surface.

This is yet another hint that water has existed on the surface of Mars. Does it mean Mars once supported life? Probably not. It’s still very neat and worth pondering some more.

There’s one more thing to think about. This ‘discovery’ is being done robotically – safely without risk to people. Space travel is still very dangerous. Robots are expendable. People are not.

Big Weekend For NASA

There are big headlines coming from NASA this weekend. Two missions reaching milestones.

The Spirit rover will be touching down on the surface of Mars (how cool to even be able to type those words – and they’re true!) inside Gusev Crater at 04:35 Jan. 4, 2004, Universal Time (11:35 p.m. Jan. 3, EST.) Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, will reach Mars three weeks later.

Compared to earlier Mars explorers, these two rovers are more sophisticated and should bring back better and more complete scientific data. Scientists are constantly intrigued by the twin possibilities of water and life on Mars – though we would be talking about life much simpler than found on Earth… more like complex chemistry than what you’d consider living things.

As sexy as that is, I think the really exciting mission is the one that will get less publicity.

A few hours ago, the Stardust mission flew by the Comet Wild 2 (pronounced ‘vilt’) and, in an aerogel container, captured some bits of the comet’s tail. Aerogel is such a low density material that the cometary particles should be stopped without being destroyed… even with the spacecraft doing 17,000+ mph

In a few years, Stardust will return to Earth with its samples and parachute down to the Utah desert. It will be the first time ever that science has traveled to a comet and brought back samples.

A comet is a great place to visit because it is suspected that they were formed at about the same time as the Solar System. And, since the cometary particles have been protected inside the comet’s icy crust, they should be much the same as they were 4.5 billion years ago!

To me, this is much more exciting than men travelling to space. Because manned space travel is a government project, we’ve become very timid in what we do there. Much of manned spaceflight is a worthless excercise with little scientific purpose. Intelligent machines can do a lot more with a lot less risk.