Mars – why do we want to go there?


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Curiosity scheduled to land on Mars

On August 6, 2012, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, Curiosity, is expected to land on the surface of the Red Planet.

From UniverseToday website
4 Aug 2012: Here’s an intriguing look at Gale Crater, the landing spot for the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover. This image was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on the Mars Express spacecraft and it is color-coded based on variations in terrain. The lower elevation, shown in purple, is the target landing area, but scientists and engineers want to get the rover as close as they can to the big mountain, Mount Sharp — which rises 5.5 km above the crater floor — where all the interesting geologic features are.

Orbiting spacecraft have already identified minerals and clays there that suggest water may have once filled the area, and as Curiosity slowly makes its ascent of the mountain region, it will analyze samples of these materials with its onboard laboratory in search of the building blocks of life.

Read more:

Why are human beings so fascinated by Mars? Why are we sending multi-million dollar science labs there? Here is an excellent explanation, from one of the many NASA websites.

Mars Atmospheric Resources

Upon reaching Mars, we again have a world with resources that can be used to expand our capabilities. The martian atmosphere, consisting mostly of carbon dioxide, can be processed to release oxygen for life support or propellant use. Carbon monoxide, which could be a moderate performance rocket fuel, is the coproduct. By combining this oxygen with a small amount of hydrogen, water for a variety of uses could be produced for only a fraction of its mass if brought from Earth. One good aspect of atmosphere utilization is that no mining is involved. Simple gas handling equipment can be used, providing a much more reliable system.

Life support technologies routinely deal with the conversion of CO2 to other compounds, including methane. This process was discovered nearly one hundred years ago and is still used in many chemical plants today. A direct application of this technology to the martian atmosphere would allow for the production of oxygen, methane, and water by bringing only a small amount of hydrogen. Thus, large quantities of propellant could be leveraged from minimal import mass. As described earlier, a rocket engine using methane and oxygen could be developed for use in both lunar and martian spacecraft. This could enable another large cost savings for the SEI by utilizing those materials available at the Moon or Mars.

Planetary scientists agree that water is available at the poles of Mars in the form of ice. It is likely, but not certain, that water is available elsewhere on the planet, perhaps as a permafrost layer or bound as a mineral hydrate. If the robotic missions in the early stages of the SEl provide evidence of water, there is every reason to believe that a process can be developed to make it available for human use. It is likely that one could even extract enough water to produce both hydrogen and oxygen propellant for the launch back to orbit and even the return trip to Earth, thus reducing the size of the spacecraft leaving Earth for Mars. Telerobotic mining at distances as far as Mars is not practical, however, and totally automated systems would need to be developed. And, at the more accessible latitudes near the equator, any water is likely to be found at a lower depth, compounding the problem.

The two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, may also be rich in water. Processing at the extremely low gravity present on these bodies will require some innovative equipment. While early exploration scenarios suggest it would be difficult to bring this promise to fruition, future operations on or near Mars could easily make use of the potential within these bodies. Many asteroids are believed to be of similar composition and are also likely targets for utilization once we have honed our ability to operate highly complex equipment at distances so remote that teleoperation is not feasible. For the near term, however, the SEI requires the development of an ISMU program which focuses on the Moon and Mars.

Olympus Mons, a volcano on Mars, is 15 miles high and .~75 miles across at its base, dwarfing all other known volcanoes in the solar system. This view shows the caldera protruding through a cloud layer in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The presence of an atmosphere provides a Mars program with a resource unavailable at the Moon. Chemical procedures exist to convert carbon dioxide, which is 95 percent of the atmosphere, into products such as oxygen, water, and methane.

Carbon Dioxide as a Raw Material

The carbon dioxide (CO2) that makes up 95 percent of the atmosphere of Mars can be a valuable starting material for the manufacture of critical products. Unlike lunar resources, CO2 can be had by merely compressing the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide itself can be used to support plant growth at an advanced outpost. Both carbon and oxygen are important elements which have many possible uses at an outpost. There are several well understood chemical reactions that we can use to produce oxygen, methane, water, and perhaps other materials.

Oxygen can be produced by passing CO2 through a zirconia electrolysis cell at 800 to 1000deg C. Twenty to thirty percent of the CO2 dissociates into oxygen and carbon monoxide. Separation is accomplished by electrochemical transport of oxide ion through a membrane. A prototype reactor using this chemistry has been run for over 1000 hours. Using such a scheme, we could bring a small unit to the surface of Mars which would then continuously make oxygen for life support, propellant use, or further processing. The only additional item we would need to supply is the power to run it: a 12kW unit would produce about one metric ton of oxygen per month.

This oxygen can be converted into water if we also bring a small supply of hydrogen. Since the molecular weight of hydrogen is 2 and the molecular weight of water is 18, we can leverage 2 kilograms of hydrogen into 18 kilograms of water. The mass savings would, at some manufacturing rate, pay back the mass of the oxygen production unit. After that, we would get water for only the price of getting the hydrogen to Mars.

If we choose to import hydrogen, there are other things we can do with it in addition to making water. A chemical reaction which converts CO2 into methane (CH4) was discovered in 1899. This is known as the Sabatier reaction. Along with the CO2, hydrogen is passed over a finely divided metal catalyst at an elevated temperature. Methane and water vapor are produced. By taking this water vapor and splitting it to obtain oxygen and hydrogen (which is recycled), we can completely convert the imported material into 4 times its mass of fuel. We also get the oxygen we need to burn this fuel in a rocket engine, fuel cell, or internal combustion engine. When combined with the production of additional oxygen via the zirconia process described above, only 4 kilograms of hydrogen can be converted into 72 kilograms of a rocket propellant mixture.

Other well known reactions have been practiced for decades which can also accomplish similar conversions. Fischer-Tropsch chemistry is practiced in the petrochemical industry in a variety of ways. It converts carbon monoxide and hydrogen into methane and water. The Bosch reaction can convert CO2 and hydrogen into carbon and water. The carbon could, perhaps, be used for advanced material production at an outpost once fabrication facilities are available.

Eventually, we will obtain water from the environment of Mars. We would then not need to make water from imported hydrogen. Indeed, we could turn the situation around and use this water as a source of hydrogen, thus continuing to utilize the chemical processing capabilities we have developed. For instance, it would be even more favorable to produce methane from the atmospheric CO2 and water derived hydrogen. This would require the production of much less water than if we switched the space transportation system to a hydrogen-oxygen propellant system. It is also much easier to liquefy methane than hydrogen.

With a large amount of hydrogen available, and a ready supply of CO2, we may consider going the next step and developing the ability to produce a large variety of products. If ethylene were produced from hydrogen and a carbon source, polyethylene can be made using technology available today. This material, or other carbon-based polymers, can then be extruded or molded to form habitats, furniture, pipes, and a variety of useful items. The petrochemical and natural gas industries can contribute a great deal of expertise in this area.

Terraforming of Mars
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Image: Artist’s conception of the process of terraforming Mars. The terraforming of Mars is the hypothetical process by which the climate, surface, and known properties of Mars would be deliberately changed with the goal of making it habitable by humans and other terrestrial life, thus providing the possibility of safe and sustainable colonization of large areas of the planet. The concept relies on the assumption that the environment of a planet can be altered through artificial means; the feasibility of creating a planetary biosphere is undetermined. There are several proposed methods, some of which present prohibitive economic and natural resource costs, and others which may be currently technologically achievable.

Reasons for terraforming

In many respects, Mars is the most earthlike of all the other planets in our Solar System. Indeed, it is thought that Mars once did have a more Earth-like environment early in its history, with a thicker atmosphere and abundant water that was lost over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

Future population growth and demand for resources may necessitate human colonization of objects other than Earth, such as Mars, the Moon, and nearby planets. Space colonization will facilitate harvesting the Solar System’s energy and material resources.

Image: Artist’s conception of Mars Terraformed. Additionally, in the event of a catastrophic extinction event, such as the meteor thought to have killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, Earth’s species, including humans, could live on this second habitable planet.

Click on the link below to continue reading this fascinating entry, updated on Wikipedia 1 Aug 2012.

Radiation storm in progress


RADIATION STORM: A low-level radiation storm is underway as solar protons swarm around our planet. Ranked S1 on NOAA space weather scales, the storm poses no serious threat to astronauts or satellites.

Nevertheless it is a nuisance. Minor radiation storms can cause occasional reboots of computers onboard spacecraft and add “snow” to spacecraft imaging systems. This SOHO coronagraph image of the sun, taken during the early hours of July 20th, is a good example:

Each of the speckles in the image are caused by protons hitting the spacecraft’s CCD camera. During minor storms it is possible to see through this kind of snow. During severe storms, such images become practically opaque.

The protons were accelerated toward Earth by an M7-class solar flare on July 19th. Although the blast site (sunspot AR1520) was on the farside of the sun, the protons were able to reach Earth anyway, guided toward our planet by backward-spiralling lines of magnetic force.

X-Flare possible 4 July 2012


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4 July 2012

Sunspot AR1515Photo: AR1515, image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

CHANCE OF X-FLARES: The chance of an X-flare today is increasing as sunspot AR1515 develops a ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field that harbors energy for the most powerful explosions.

The sunspot itself is huge, stretching more than 100,000 km (8 Earth-diameters) from end to end. The behemoth has been growing and turning toward Earth over the past five days.

If any X-flares do occur today, they will certainly be Earth-directed. The sunspot is directly facing our planet. Radio blackouts, sudden ionospheric disturbances, and geomagnetic storms could be in the offing.

Severe Space Weather–Social and Economic Impacts


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Interesting information from the Science.nasa/gov website, an article dated January 21, 2009.

Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?

That’s the surprising conclusion of a NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. In the 132-page report, experts detailed what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a “super solar flare” followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm. They found that almost nothing is immune from space weather—not even the water in your bathroom.

Auroras over Blair, Nebraska, during a geomagnetic storm in May 2005. Photo credit: Mike Hollingshead /

The problem begins with the electric power grid. “Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend,” the report notes. Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather.

Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours.

According to the report, power grids may be more vulnerable than ever. The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand.

On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense—but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging “cascade failures.”

To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power.

The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with “water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.”

Above: What if the May 1921 superstorm occurred today? This is a US map of vulnerable transformers with areas of probable system collapse encircled. Credit: National Academy of Sciences.

“The concept of interdependency,” the report notes, “is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power–and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site.”

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen.

Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921.

“A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly.

Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.

Above: A web of interdependencies makes the modern economy especially sensitive to solar storms. Source: Dept. of Homeland Security.

What’s the solution? The report ends with a call for infrastructure designed to better withstand geomagnetic disturbances, improved GPS codes and frequencies, and improvements in space weather forecasting. Reliable forecasting is key.

If utility and satellite operators know a storm is coming, they can take measures to reduce damage — e.g., disconnecting wires, shielding vulnerable electronics, powering down critical hardware. A few hours without power is better than a few weeks.

NASA has deployed a fleet of spacecraft to study the sun and its eruptions. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the twin STEREO probes, ACE, Wind and others are on duty 24/7. NASA physicists use data from these missions to understand the underlying physics of flares and geomagnetic storms; personnel at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center use the findings, in turn, to hone their forecasts.

At the moment, no one knows when the next super solar storm will erupt. It could be 100 years away or just 100 days. It’s something to think about the next time you flush.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Venus transit of the sun 2012


APOD 7 June 2012

Occurring in pairs separated by over a hundred years, there have now been only eight transits of Venus since the invention of the telescope in 1608. The next will be in December of 2117.

But many modern telescopes and cameras were trained on this week’s Venus transit, capturing the planet in rare silhouette against the Sun. In this sharp telescopic view from Georgia, USA, a narrowband H-alpha filter was used to show the round planetary disk against a mottled solar surface with dark filaments, sunspots, and prominences.

The transit itself lasted for 6 hours and 40 minutes. Historically, astronomers used timings of the transit from different locations to triangulate the distance to Venus, while modern astronomers actively search for planets that transit distant suns.

Powerful solar tsunami 3 June 2012


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The Watchers online
4 June 2012

New sunspot 1496 unleashed an impulsive M3-Class solar flare on June 3rd at 17:55 UTC. The explosion hurled a coronal mass ejection (CME) into space. The cloud does not appear to be heading for Earth, although this conclusion could be revised by further analysis. A powerful solar tsunami was produced at the blast site as well. Fortunately, amateur astronomer Thomas Ashcraft was monitoring the Sun from New Mexico when the flare occurred and he video-recorded the event.

Solar tsunamis pose no direct threat to Earth. They were discovered back in 1997 by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). In May of that year, a CME came blasting up from an active region on the sun’s surface, and SOHO recorded a tsunami rippling away from the blast site.

Sunspot and coronal hole map

Meanwhile, a big dark hole in the sun’s atmosphere, a ‘coronal hole’, is turning toward Earth spewing solar wind. Last night we experienced minor geomagnetic storming. Coronal holes are places where the sun’s magnetic field opens up and allows the solar wind to escape.

The stream of solar wind flowing from this coronal hole will reach Earth on June 5th – 7th, possibly stirring geomagnetic storms again. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.

New Telescope to Take First-Ever Black Hole Photo


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Simulated view of a black hole in front of the Large Magellanic Cloud.
CREDIT: Alain R. | Wikimedia Commons

A group of astronomers are meeting this week to plan out an ambitious and unprecedented project — capturing the first-ever image of a black hole.

The researchers want to create an Earth-size virtual instrument called the Event Horizon Telescope, a worldwide network of radio telescopes powerful enough to snap a picture of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy.

“Nobody has ever taken a picture of a black hole,” Dimitrios Psaltis, of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, said in a statement. Psaltis is a co-organizer of the conference, which began today (Jan. 18) in Tucson, Ariz. “We are going to do just that.”

An elusive target

Black holes are exotic structures whose gravitational fields are so powerful that they trap everything, even light. They were first postulated by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Astronomers have detected plenty of black holes in our galaxy and beyond via indirect means. It’s thought that most, if not all, galaxies harbor a supermassive black hole at their cores.

However, scientists have yet to image a black hole. Researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope — named after a black hole’s “point of no return,” beyond which nothing can escape — hope to change that.

“Even five years ago, such a proposal would not have seemed credible,” said Sheperd Doeleman of MIT, the project’s principal investigator. “Now we have the technological means to take a stab at it.”

Doeleman and his team want to create a network of up to 50 radio telescopes around the world, which will work in concert to get the job done.

“In essence, we are making a virtual telescope with a mirror that is as big as the Earth,” Doeleman said. “Each radio telescope we use can be thought of as a small silvered portion of a large mirror. With enough such silvered spots, one can start to make an image.”

This artist’s illustration depicts scientists’ new understanding of the giant black hole at the core of galaxy M87. The bright radio ‘core’ of the jet base is located very close to the central black hole no larger than about 10 times the size of the event horizon. CREDIT: NAOJ/AND You Inc.

Imaging a black hole’s ‘shadow’

The team plans to point the Event Horizon Telescope at the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s center, which is about 26,000 light-years away and is thought to hold as much mass as 4 million suns.

That’s pretty big, but picking the object out at such a great distance is equivalent to spotting a grapefruit on the surface of the moon, researchers said.

“To see something that small and that far away, you need a very big telescope, and the biggest telescope you can make on Earth is to turn the whole planet into a telescope,” said Dan Marrone of the Steward Observatory.

Researchers hope to get a picture of the black hole’s outline, or “shadow.”

“As dust and gas swirls around the black hole before it is drawn inside, a kind of cosmic traffic jam ensues,” Doeleman said. “Swirling around the black hole like water circling the drain in a bathtub, the matter compresses and the resulting friction turns it into plasma heated to a billion degrees or more, causing it to ‘glow’ — and radiate energy that we can detect here on Earth.”

General relativity predicts that the black hole’s shadow should be a perfect circle. So the Event Horizon Telescope’s observations could provide a test of Einstein’s venerable theory, researchers said.

“If we find the black hole’s shadow to be oblate instead of circular, it means Einstein’s theory of general relativity must be flawed,” Psaltis said. “But even if we find no deviation from general relativity, all these processes will help us understand the fundamental aspects of the theory much better.”

The team hopes to keep adding more instruments to the telescope over time, providing a sharper image of our galaxy’s central black hole as the months and years go by.

Each telescope in the network will record its observations onto hard drives, which will be physically shipped to a central processing center at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, researchers said.

Radio rather than optical telescopes are the right tool for the job, they added, since radio waves can penetrate the murk of stars, dust and gas between Earth and the galactic center.

Sun spots, solar flares and CME’s


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Coronal hole emitting solar wind
Solar wind flowing from this coronal hole hit Earth’s magnetic field during the late hours of May 8, 2012 stirring geomagnetic activity and auroras over parts of Europe. The pair of CMEs en route to Earth (see below) could add to the effect of the solar wind stream, igniting even brighter auroras during the next 24-48 hours. NOAA forecasters estimate a 40% chance of geomagnetic storms on May 9th.

TWO INCOMING CMEs: A pair of solar eruptions on May 7th hurled coronal mass ejections (CMEs) toward Earth. Forecast tracks prepared by analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab suggests that clouds will arrive in succession on May 9th at 13:40 UT and May 10th at 07:54 UT (+/- 7 hours). The double impact could spark moderate geomagnetic storms. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.

SUNSPOT SUNSET: Sunspot AR1476 is so large, people are noticing it without the aide of a solar telescope. The behemoth appears at sunrise and sunset when the light of the low-hanging sun is occasionally dimmed to human visibility.


Two M-Class Flares / Sunspot 1476

Solar activity increased to moderate levels thanks to newly numbered Sunspot 1476 (see image above). This new region rotated into view off the northeast limb and has so far produced a pair of M-Class flares. The latest event was an M1.3 at 23:01 UTC Saturday evening (May 8, 2012). Solar activity is again increasing.