Thursday, September 27, 2012

Water on Mars Revisited

From Giovanni Schiaparelli to Robert Heinlein the notion of water-filled "canals" on the surface of Mars was a popular one in science and science fiction during some of the late 19th and early 20th century. By the time I discovered science (fiction), the hypothesis of straight canals with flowing water on Mars had long since been dispelled. By the time I began to study Mars, Mariner and Viking had already sent back images from the Martian surface that meant I didn't have to imagine it. I could just look up the images. As I looked at Martian landscapes apparently devoid of any visible water, the notion of streams with flowing water on Mars appeared quaint and naive. 

Now, Curiosity has sent back images from Gale Crater that contain evidence of ancient, quick-flowing water on Mars. NASA's newest rover on the Red Planet found a tilted block of rock that is part of an ancient streambed, along with gravelly rocks whose shape and size indicate they were formed by having been tumbled in water, for a long time. The gravel is too heavy to have been shaped by wind. This is the first time that water-transported gravel has been found on Mars.

Evidence of an ancient streambed on Mars (left), compared to a similar formation on Earth

The size and shape of the gravel also provides clues about flow rate and duration: The water was between ankle- and hip-deep and flowed at a rate of 3 feet (1 meter) per second. That is a pretty brisk-moving stream. When water did flow on Mars in this location, it flowed for a very long time, a very long time ago.

We are certain to find additional clues as Curiosity continues its journey towards the Glenelg area of Mt. Sharp on Mars. In the meantime, I am left with a whole new, awesome dimension of Martian geological history. While Gale Crater was picked as the rover's landing site partly because orbital data indicated the presence of an alluvial flow, I have to ask: If Curiosity practically landed in an ancient Martian streambed, how common was water on Mars back when Gale Crater sported at least one knee-deep, briskly moving stream of water? Was it common or rare? Did the flowing water environment support any life? What happened to the planet between then and now? How did it change from an environment supporting liquid water to what it is today? Where did all that water go? 

We may not have reliable answers to these questions for a while but the fact that we can now ask them and look for clues in data directly from the Martian surface is a spectacular achievement of planetary science. 

Go Curiosity!

For my coverage of Curiosity's landing on Mars from Planetfest 2012, click here and here

For my coverage of the NASA/JPL tweetup featuring Curiosity in June 2011, click here

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Welcome to Los Angeles, Endeavour!

Space Shuttle Endeavour arrived safely and to a huge welcome at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, September 21, 2012.

Since it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing a space shuttle soar overhead on top of a modified 747 (aka SCA = shuttle carrier aircraft) let's take a look at a rare photograph first. Below is Endeavour in her full splendor docked to the completed International Space Station during her last mission to space. Italian Astronaut Paulo Nespoli snapped this picture on May 23, 2011 from a Soyuz capsule. While there are a number of photos showing parts of shuttles photographed from inside the ISS, this is the only picture showing all of Endeavour docked to the completed ISS. This picture shows her doing what she was made for: Spaceflight. Building and servicing the International Space Station. An amazing machine that gave us the ability to construct a human outpost in orbit. Endeavour may be ready for retirement now and I can't wait to visit her at her new home at the California Science Center. I'm sure she will be breathtaking. 

But to me she was never more magnificent than doing what she did best - In Space.

Photo credit: Paulo Nespoli / NASA

Around 9 a.m. on Sept. 21, I started making my way to LAX a few miles away. I took the bus and train to avoid the predicted traffic chaos and shortage of parking at the location I had in mind: The East Side of Aviation Blvd, at the end of LAX's south runway. If you know the area, this stretch of road is located north of the Proud Bird restaurant. The runway starts on the other side of the street. It's a great spot for watching incoming planes fly low before touchdown. 

I arrived at the location at 10:30 a.m, as planned, for a shuttle landing time of 11 a.m., just as I learned that landing time had been postponed to 12:45 p.m. Aviation Blvd. is not one of those quaint, picturesque L.A. streets. It's a major four-lane airport access road and the ambiance is razor wire fence-industrial. The "sidewalk" is a narrow strip of gravel.  (Note: If you ever find yourself stranded on a narrow strip of gravel for a long wait, do so with a Southwest flight attendant who has a carry-on. They have everything you need in that bag for hot, dusty, historic space events!)

When I arrived, the crowd was still relatively thin. I settled in for a 2+ hour wait. Twitter dropped in and out of being accessible during that time so my #spottheshuttle tweets from the location are a bit... spotty. 

As I have found to be the case at all space events, nothing is easier than striking up a conversation with strangers. I met two flight attendants from Southwest Air, one who had come from Minneapolis, the other Las Vegas. I met an engineer who had worked on Endeavour's SSMEs. A mother who had brought her kid to see the shuttle; they had been waiting since 6 a.m. Two film students with professional equipment who planned to get footage of the landing and use it in their film project this semester, and many more. As a bonus, I got a ferocious sunburn despite SPF50. No matter.

By noon, the crowd had grown considerably and was now clustered along Aviation Blvd. in both directions as far as anyone could see. The cops amused us trying to contain everybody on the gravel strip, keeping them out of the bike path and street. This was a doomed effort. The bike path was ours. During the shuttle's final landing approach, the cops caved in, stopped traffic and let us take the street. That is when the long, dusty, brutally hot wait paid off. This is what we saw - no zoom, no filters, a glorious moment:

Photo credit: Tanya Ehret

The aircraft in the upper right is an F-19 fighter aircraft, one of two that accompany the shuttle carrier aircraft (SCA), a converted 747, flying space shuttles across the country. While the shuttle program was active, NASA maintained two SCAs to return shuttles from California. Shuttle landings were diverted to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California on a number of occasions.

Video credit: Tanya Ehret

The landing approach was Endeavour's third pass above us. We first glimpsed the plane carrying Endeavour as a speck in the northwest, from the direction of Santa Barbara, heading inland over Santa Monica, beginning its flyby of L.A. landmarks, including Griffith Observatory and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The SCA then headed south, where it flew over Disneyland, Boeing and the U.S.S. Iowa. It then returned to LAX and gave us two approaches: The first one much higher than the above pic; even though it looked like it might land. At the last moment, the 747 pulled up and completed one last long loop to the southeast toward its final landing approach.    Welcome to Los Angeles, Endeavour! We are proud to have you. I will see you again during the parade to the CA Science Center on October 12. Below is a collection of some of my favorite photos.  

Endeavour began her journey to Southern California with flyovers of Sacramento and San Francisco 

Endeavour over Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

The two photos above were taken by a photographer for the L.A. Times from a skyscraper rooftop in nearby downtown Los Angeles

 A sight that was never before seen over downtown Los Angeles - 
and never will be again

 Endeavour soars over NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena 

 Touchdown at LAX

 You don't see this every day: Angelenos stop and get out of their cars along a busy airport access road to get a better look at History in the Making. 

By Saturday afternoon, Endeavour had been de-mated from the SCA. This marks the first time Endevour was seen nose-to-nose with a NASA shuttle carrier aircraft

Thursday, September 20, 2012

SpaceX, Santa Maria & Space Coast West

While Mars rover Curiosity, Space Shuttle Endeavour and NASA have been getting most of the media attention lately, SpaceX has been busy. 

The company announced today that it is targeting October 7 as the launch date for its first cargo supply flight to the International Space Station under contract with NASA. Space X's Dragon supply craft will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Meanwhile, in California, SpaceX's official signage went up at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles. SpaceX is building its own launch pad there designed to launch both crewed and robotic spacecraft into orbit - and beyond. 

Photo credit: SpaceX

SpaceX's brand-new sign at Vandenberg Air Force Base

This is not the first time that ambitious plans have been forged for VAFB's launch capabilities. I discovered this the last time I visited the Santa Maria Museum of Flight, near the base. One of the retirees working there as a volunteer museum guide shared interesting details with me regarding VAFB's role as a future space shuttle launch site that first emerged in the late 1970s, as the shuttle concept was being developed. 

He showed me group photos of engineers in front of a shuttle mockup, signed posters, starting to yellow with age, of Enterprise in flight position on a launch pad at Vandenberg, taken years prior to the first actual shuttle flight in 1981. He also showed me a heat tile from the doomed shuttle Challenger, acquired by the Museum as a reminder of what could have been. 

By the time Columbia made its successful maiden voyage into orbit and back again, Santa Maria was already positioning itself to become the city behind Vandenberg, a community ready to welcome an influx of skilled labor, money, vitality and tourism. During the early 80s, NASA was planning to expand its shuttle launch capability to VAFB, to create, in essence, a Space Coast West location. The people of Santa Maria were eager to step into that role. 

Those hopes and dreams, like so many others, were dashed in an instant due to the Challenger disaster in 1986, as NASA cancelled plans to launch the space shuttle from Vandenberg.
Space Coast West never came to be. 

Until now. 

SpaceX has revived this dream, as the company is planning an ambitious launch schedule, both from Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg. Santa Maria looks like it is perched at the brink of reviving its dream to re-invent itself as a city rooted in the excitement, promise and economic boon that is spaceflight. 

As far as I know, the only space shuttle that has ever been at Vandenberg was Enterprise, never meant to fly in space. Please let me know if you know of any other shuttles that have been at Vandenberg for any reason. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

~ What I See On Mars ~

Ever since this jaw-dropping panoramic view from Curiosity became available last month, I have been exploring it at least once a day.
(Copyright: Hans Nyberg,

And still, I see something new each time I look at it. 

I see a stunning landscape, on another planet, alien, yet hauntingly familiar.

I see a robot from Earth, a marvel of human accomplishment and ambition, an electronic ambassador to a planet that will have a human presence in most of our lifetimes.

I see a vista of Mars that no human eyes have ever taken in before. 

I see colonies, settlements, domes, tented canyons, rovers, landers, power plants, space elevators, greenhouses and playgrounds.

I see humans from Earth utilizing the sum total of human scientific and technological advancements to build new lives on Mars, to begin again in ways we cannot on Earth.

I see communities, villages, cities, centers of commerce, with names such as Bradbury Landing, Endeavour, Heinlein Station, B5, Tatooine, Elysium, Roddenberry Center, Chandor Chasma, Mars Prime, Argyre, Chryse and Noctis Labyrinthus Overlook.

I see Olympus Mons, a volcano of a size and scale almost beyond the comprehension of human dimensions.

I see two moons in the sky at night, and the same sun as on Earth, but dimmer, fainter, much, much colder.

I see Mars populated by millions of humans - not nearly enough to create much of a crowd on a planet with so much land and no oceans.

I see generations of Martian-born humans, clearly descendants of Earth, yet separate and distinct as they evolve and adapt to live in a Martian environment, Martian atmosphere, Martian climate, a true Martian culture.

I see that culture reach out and travel beyond Mars, to the asteroid belt, to Titan, Io, Europa, and on. 

I see the day when we find a way to travel or project ourselves through interstellar space with billions of galaxies to explore.

And it all begins on Mars.

For we are human. 

We are explorers. 

We are curious, and we will go.

What do you see?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stunning Visuals - Mars Curiosity and PlanetFest 2012

By now, Curiosity has already sent back a treasure trove of thousands of images. They are all archived and accessible here, with new images added daily.

Below is a collection of images and videos that are among my personal favorites so far. Enjoy.

This is the very first image from Mars Curiosity, sent within minutes of the rover's touchdown. One of the wheels is visible in the lower right. We saw this live at Planet Fest 2012 in Pasadena on August 5, 2012, as the image came in. 

If you look below, just to the left of the center on the horizon, you will note what looks like three dots, one sitting on top of the other two, which in turn touch the horizon. Astute observers of this initial image noted that this feature was not in comparable images taken by Curiosity later on. The initial buzz over this discrepancy soon calmed down, as NASA confirmed that what we're looking at in the image below is the dust plume thrown up into the Martian atmosphere upon Skycrane's impact. That is why this "feature" is no longer visible in later images.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is orbiting Mars, used its HiRISE instrument to snap this picture of Curiosity under its descent chute, just prior to touchdown on Mars at Bradbury Landing:

One of the most stunning images that Curiosity has sent back so far, is this interactive panoramic view of Bradbury Landing and Gale Crater. Click and explore the surface of Mars in color! (Copyright: Hans Nyberg,

Everyone who has been following Curiosity's wondrous journey, has seen this NASA video, dubbed "7 Minutes of Terror", which details the intricacy, complexity and engineering precision required to land Curiosity on target and intact:


And then, of course, there is this spoof video (not made by NASA) that quickly went viral. You'll see why (if you haven't already).      

Finally, a friend and I having fun inside one of XCOR's Lynx 2-seater space plane mockups at PlanetFest:       

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Planet Fest 2012 - Curiosity Has Landed!

When was the last time you were part of a crowd of 3,000 people cheering wildly and chanting the name of a government agency for minutes on end?

Yeah, that had never happened to me either - until the evening of August 5, 2012, around 10:30 pm PDT at Planet Fest 2012 in Pasadena, a weekend-long celebration hosted by The Planetary Society that culminated in Curiosity's landing on Mars. I was at Planet Fest with a friend. About an hour before the scheduled landing time we had secured two seats in the second row from the front in one of two large auditoriums with several over-sized screens that allowed us live views of the JPL control room and let us interact with other Curiosity Celebrations around the world: Canada, Australia, Times Square. The whole world was watching.

As 10:30 pm drew closer, we endured a nail-biting wait as Curiosity performed a picture-perfect landing at Gale Crater. One after another - with a 15-minute time delay due to the distance between Mars and Earth - Curiosity hit every milestone of her entry, descent and landing phases. 

Bruce Betts was on stage with Bill Nye, who had engaged, entertained and interacted with the audience all evening. In the final minutes of the landing phase, as we awaited the signal that Curiosity was safely on the ground, both Bill Nye and Bruce Betts were riveted to the screens, their backs turned to the audience. Then we heard the signal - Curiosity was on the ground, on another world! 

The cheers and jubilation that ensued were a wonder to witness and experience. At first it was clapping, cheers and yells, then a few "USA! USA! USA!" emanated from the crowd, which quickly morphed into "JPL! JPL! JPL!". The entire audience joined in for several minutes. I was literally jumping up and down. 

It came as a total surprise to me when I suddenly found myself face to face with a cameraman and a reporter, who thrust an ABC 7 microphone into my face and said: "You seem pretty excited. What do you think?" I am usually very, very reserved around news media, especially broadcast media, so I don't know what came over me that night. I yelled "I think this is the most exciting thing humans have ever done!" into the mic. (Yes I know that's arguable. But I was biased. We'd just landed a giant freaking nuclear-powered robot with lasers on Mars!) In retrospect, I overdid it for the camera. I don't believe ABC 7 ever aired my excited outburst, whereas my friend, who wasn't quite acting as much as a madwoman as I was, found herself all over the local evening and morning news.  

So yes, I flubbed my chance to reach a large TV audience that night with a pithy sound bite because my excitement got the better of me. I don’t ever apologize for my enthusiasm for space exploration. But next time a TV reporter sticks a microphone into my face and asks me to comment on a planetary science mission, I will know exactly what to say and how to say it so that I will actually get some air time!