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Oppy spots a meteormight…

Opportunity is now scooting at a fair old speed across Meridiani Planum, so fast that you’d think she saw something crawling about inside “Block Island” that scared her…! Now she has spotted something else up ahead that might, or might not, be another meteorite…

BI2b

Here’s a 3D view of the new “mysterious rock”, which you’ll need your funky 3D glasses to view…

BI23d

Will Oppy stop at this new rock for a closer look, or keep on rollin’ ? I think she’ll stop; if that is a meteorite it must, surely, be related to Block Island, so studying it will provide very useful insight into the history of this part of Mars.

Interesting days ahead..! 🙂

FAO Moon Hoax believers: Look! A new LRO image of Tranquility Base!

You might remember that earlier this year I wrote a piece on here predicting that it was unlikely that the images released by NASA’s Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, showing the Apollo landing sites, would finally silence the people who insist that the Moon landings were faked. Although my predictions turned out, sadly, to be true, it was very gratifying to receive a lot of positive feedback about that post, and to have it linked to and even praised on some high profile websites. But some “Moon Hoaxers” took exception to it, and gave me a hard time, in emails and on comments here. Which is fair enough. You write something like this and you’re leaving yourself wide open to criticism or even attack. It goes with the whole “Blogging” thing, doesn’t it?

One comment – a very polite one, don’t get me wrong – was recently posted here accusing me of not having an “open mind. Really? 

I do have an open mind, about a lot of things. I have an open mind re the existence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and many other stories torn straight off the “Wall of Weird”. I have an open mind re the possibility of Jim Carey getting through a movie without gurning dementedly. I even have an open mind re the chances of turning on one of Sky’s music video channels later, and not seeing a hip hop or rap or R n B video playing. Hey, it might happen, one day..?

What I don’t have an open mind about is Apollo, and whether or not we “went to the Moon”, because no open mind is needed. We went to the Moon. Fact. Absolute, undeniable, proved-god-knows-how-many-times FACT. The many tens of thousands of people who worked on, reported on and watched Apollo say so. The TV networks that covered the missions say so. The Russians – who desperately, desperately wanted to be first to the Moon – say so. Photographs taken by LRO say so.

The men who WENT TO THE FRAKKING MOON say so.

And a new image released today says so, too.

LRO has flown over the Apollo 11 landing site again, this time with the Sun shining much higher in the sky, throwing – literally, haha! – a whole new light on the area. Details that weren’t visible in the first LRO portrait of Tranquility Base are now face-slappingly obvious. But don’t just take my word for it, see for yourself. First, a wide angle view that I cropped myself from the full size image…

Apollo 11 second look

If you zoom in on that, here’s what you can see…

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I’ll just give you a moment to click on that so you can see the full sized version… there you go…

See? Those are trails of footprints running between the LEM, the crater to the right, and the instruments close to the Eagle. See? That’s the camera! See? That’s HARDWARE, equipment we built and set up On The Moon!

But will these new images finally convince the unbelievers that people really did walk on the Moon? No. Never. Never ever ever. Not in a million, gazillion years, because a) that would mean admitting they were wrong all along, and b) it would mean they suddenly had a whole load of free time on their hands without a clue how to fill it.

I honestly believe that it LRO actually fell on top of the Eagle lunar module and took one last picture, showing the rivets in the spacecraft and bags of urine on the Moon’s surface the hoax believers would STILL say it was all faked.

Now, free speech is great, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, but there’s a difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom to be a bloody idiot”. So, please, if, after seeing these new pictures you STILL believe the Moon landings were hoaxed, then fine, you go on believing that. You have, after all, a right to persist in believing that crap. And hey, if it makes your days go a little quicker, if it gives you something to believe in, then go for it.

But please, don’t come here and tell me I’m wrong, ok? Don’t come here to peddle your ludicrous conspiracy theories and preach your utter garbage, because my fingers will hit the correct combination of keystrokes and mouse clicks required to delete your comments so quickly they’ll make a sonic boom audible in Antarctica. Because, you know what?  I have pictures like this

LRO ap 14

… and this…

apollo200907191

… and now this…

Apollo 11 second look b

… and you have nothing.

Nothing. 🙂

So that’s it. My days of trying to reason with you Are Over. I have no time for you. We’re through. And if you don’t like that position, if you feel that is restrictive or undemocratic or antisocial, then awwwwww, boo-hoo.

🙂

Carnival of Space #122

boots2

Welcome to the 122nd Carnival of Space!

If you’re a Carnival regular, then you’ll know exactly what to expect, and you should feel free to skip this part and just scroll down and start reading this week’s entries. But if you’re a newcomer, directed here from another website or a Google search, or a friend’s recommendation, let me explain what’s going on here…

The internet is a big place, as you know. There are, by now, literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of space- and astronomy related websites on it. You’d think that was a good thing for people who are “into space”, but it can be quite the opposite. There are now so many space probes exploring other worlds, telescopes scanning the deep black for alien Earths and discoveries being made that tracking down accurate information and simply keeping up to date with all the news, all the discoveries, and all the exciting stuff that’s going on can be a daunting, even an impossible task. Oh, if only there was a way of hacking through all the cyber-undergrowth and finding just what you actually need to know..?!!

There is, and this is it – the weekly “Carnival of Space”! Every week a different blog or website hosts a collection of blog posts written during the previous week, submitted by their authors. The idea is that the Carnival not only provides people interested in spaceflight and astronomy with a quick and easy way of “catching up” with events of the previous week, but also offers them an opportunity to learn about new subjects and topics they might not come across otherwise.

This is the 122nd Carnival, and it’s good to have you here, whether you’re a Carnival regular or a first-timer!

Ok, on with this week’s Carnival!

Right. Can anyone guess what the most popular topic for our bloggers was this week? Hands up… yes… yes, that’s right – the discovery of “water” on the Moon. Hardly surprising, as the story got more news coverage than any other at the end of last week. Watching some of the breathless TV news reporting of the story you really would have thought that an ocean – full of plesiosaurs and mermaids, and criss-crossed by sleek, luxury lunar liners – had been spotted from space. The truth is, well, rather less dramatic or exotic, as our bloggers told their readers…

In a post on his Gish Bar Times blog entitled “Water on Dry Worlds“, Jason Perry writes all about the discovery from an Io perspective.

Brian Wang, over on the “Next Big Future” blog, looks at the “water story” from a different angle. Brian takes a look at some of the possible practical applications for the “water” found on the Moon, particularly for manufacturing fuel. definitely food for thought there, Brian…

If you’re a net-savvy space enthusiast/advocate/geek you’ll have the next three blogs bookmarked or favourited already for sure, they’re three of the biggest “big guns” booming on the web, so you’ll probably have read these posts already, but newcomers might not be aware of them. “Bad Astronomy” is the blog of “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait, one of the loudest and clearest voices of reason on the internet. Phil is on a mission to ensure truth triumphs over stupidity, both on the internet and out in the real world, and he writes and broadcasts with great passion about science every chance he gets. So of course the “water story” caught his eye, and his post takes a look at it from his usual slightly irreverent, eyebrow-raised-like-Spock point of view.

Universe Today” is, like “Bad Astronomy”, a website that demands daily – sometimes, if there’s a big story brewing or breaking, hourly – visits. If there’s something happening up or out there, it will be covered in depth on “UT”, and usually by Nancy Atkinson. Nancy wrote about the “water story” soon after it hit the streets, and you can find her typically thoughtful and eloquent post “Water on the Moon- what does it mean?” here.

The third of our “big guns” to take aim and fire at the “water story” is Emily Lakdawalla, who writes the popular blog for the Planetary Society. At the risk of embarrassing her I feel I have to say here that Emily’s blogging of astronomy- and space exploration-related stories is a masterclass of writing that puts the reporting of many so-called “professional journalists” to shame. She is so thorough and concise, her blog entries really should be required reading for anyone studying for a career as a science reporter. Emily covered the discovery of “water” on the Moon in a two part post that is crammed full of the facts and speculates about its true significance, too. You can read the first part of her coverage – “The water on the Moon hoopla!” – here, and from there you can go right on reading part 2! 🙂

(Oh, and I wrote about the discovery here on Cumbrian Sky, too. You can either scroll down the page to find it or just click here to go right to my rambings and rantings! You’ll find, if you didn’t know already, that there was another water-related announcement made last week, concerning Mars, a story that I (and many other people) think was actually much more exciting and important.. but you’ll have to go read the post for yourself to find out what it was, if you haven’t guessed already…)

Okay, okay, enough with the Moon, and water! What else did our bloggers find to write about last week?

Step forward Kimberley Kowal Arcand, who writes the ChandraBlog which is, as you probably guessed, the place to go to read and learn all about the fascinating work being done by the Chandra Telescope.  In her post “Beginning Chandra’s next decade of Discovery”, Kimberley reports on a meeting of about 200 scientists in Boston, where they gathered to describe, discuss, and dissect the past ten years of Chandra science. As Kimberley reports, “The symposium, dubbed “Chandra’s First Decade of Discovery,” has some exciting happenings. Also, there will be ideas and discussions about what Chandra might be able to accomplish — both on its own and in concert with other telescopes — in the future.” Sounds fascinating, and I’m sure Chandra’s future will be very exciting!

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Everyone is aware now, I think, that the space shuttle flight is going to be retired in the not-too-distant future. The first shuttle flew in 1981 (yes, 1981!!! That’s almost thirty years ago!) and now, after serving Mankind faithfully for a generation, launching satellites and space probes, deploying and delivering repair (sorry, ‘servicing’) crews to Hubble, and helping us to build a beautiful space station, retirement is looming, and there are only a handful of missions left to fly. What will happen to the beautiful, sleek orbiters when they’re banished from space and replaced – maybe, we’ll have to wait and see – by the (in my opinion) pug-ugly, snub-nosed, less-versatile Orion capsule? Well, Robert Pearlman over at collectSpace.com discusses this very topic in his contribution to this week’s Carnival, which looks at how NASA is offering museums and schools the first choice of space shuttle artifacts.

( Personally I’ll be sad to see the shuttles retired. For all their financial and technical shortcomings they are stunningly beautiful spacecraft, and I hate the idea of our brave astronauts plummeting back to Earth strapped into tin cans like sardines again, I thought we’d evolved past that, and I think they deserve better, but hey, what do I know…? 😦  )

And while we’re on the subject of the space shuttle, everyone’s favourite “Babe In The Universe“, Louise Riofrio, has some thoughts on the imminent retirement of the shuttle fleet, and about its past too, in “Shuttle reconsidered”.

With the remaining members of the shuttle fleet due to be packed off to a care home soon, other spacecraft are starting to take over their roles. Over at Ian O’Neil’s Astroengine, there’s a fascinating post describing how a skilled Dutch astrophotographer, who had already taken stunning images of the ISS with his telescope, managed to take a picture of Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle, HTV-1 as it closed in on the ISS recently.

Paul Glister, who writes the thought-provoking Centauri Dreams blog, took another look at solar sails last week. Solar sails are being looked at very seriously by many people as a way of propelling the spacecraft of the future, so you should read this post – and keep an eye on the blog – if you want to keep up with what’s going on in that field.

I’m sure many of you are tired by now, after all that reading, so let’s take a break. Go and put the kettle or coffee-maker on, open a packet of biccies (or “cookies” if you live across the pond) then come back, put your feet up and listen to a podcast from Steve Nerlich’s Cheap Astronomy blog, which will tell you all about the famous HR Diagram. What? You don’t know what the HR Diagram is? Well, download the podcast and find out! 🙂

Time to – literally – come back down to Earth now, with a visit to Steve’s Astrocorner, where Stephen Tilford is waiting to tell us all about the great time had during a visit to the planetarium attached to Southern Cayuga Central School, near Ithaca in New York.  Sounds like you had a wonderful time there, Steve, and I hope your blog post inspires many more people to visit the planatarium, too.

Next, we’ll wander over to Mike Simonsen’s blog, Simostronomy, where he has an enlightening interview with South African amateur astronomer, Berto Monard, who has had, as Mike puts it, “an amazing string of supernovae discoveries.” I really enjoyed reading this interview – Berto is quite a character! – and I’m sure you will, too.

On his blog Commercial Space, which focusses on ‘Canadian money-making activities high above the skies’, Chuck Black is waiting to tell you all about “The Difference Between Butter Knives and Bayonets”. No, I’m not going to try and explain that post title, you’ll have to go and check it out for yourself. But I’m a little worried for the safety of anyone going to Chris’ house for dinner, if he’s writing something like that… 😉

If you want to read a blog that not only makes you think, but makes you think “Hmm, the future might not be so bad after all!”, then Bruce Cordell’s 21stCentury Waves is the place to go. Although Bruce doesn’t have a crystal ball he has a window on the future of a different kind. I’ll let Bruce explain on his blog, I’ll just mess it up if I try. For this week’s Carnival he has provided a link to his post that looks forward to the forthcoming, much-anticipated crash of LCROSS into the Moon. An opportunity for a party? Bruce thinks so!

Peter Lake – who describes himself as “an Australian amateur astronomy nut with a keen interest in Web 2.0 technologies” – writes a blog called AARTScope Blog, (“AART” stands for Australian Amateur Research Telescope ), and for this week’s Carnival this accomplished observer of variable stars invites us all to consider the effects of weather on observing campaigns. I’ve always admired variable star observers – that field of astronomy requires so much patience, commitment and dedication I know I simply couldn’t contribute anything even remotely useful to it – and reading “When you wish upon a star” on Peter’s blog just made me admire them even more…

UPDATE:

Thanks To Cosmic Web blogger Olaf Davis for contributing to this week’s Carnival! Olaf’s very enjoyable post – looking at portrayals of astronomical subjects in art – got lost in the cyber-ether somewhere, so I’m happy to be able to add it here

marsrover

Finally, to close this Carnival with something just a little different, I’d like to invite you all to drift over to my own “Barsoom Tales” blog to read “Descent“, my latest short story inspired by those amazing Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers are still exploring, studying and photographing Mars, long, long after they were supposed to have perished on the dusty, frigid plains of Barsoom, and I’m convinced that their greatest, most startling discoveries are yet to come. I’m also convinced that in future centuries, when Mars is a colonised world, with thriving settlements across its surface, native martian children sitting at their school desks will listen to their teacher telling them all about ” Spirit and Opportunity – the Lewis and Clark of Mars”… 🙂

And that’s it for this week’s Carnival! Thank you to everyone who contributed (bloggers – if I didn’t receive your entry in time, email me and I’ll try to add it), and an even bigger thank you to you for stopping by.

New MER short story…

I’ve just posted a new MER short story, “Descent”, over on my “Barsoom Tales” blog, if anyone would like a look…

http://barsoomtales.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/descent/

🙂

Look up! There’s water, water everywhere…

WaterPlanet

…or so it seems! Unless you’ve been living in a cave on Miranda the past week you’ll know that last Thursday there were two big announcements concerning the discovery of water “out there” in the solar system- well, one big, in fact one HUGE announcement, and one not-so-big-but-WAS-ACTUALLY-MORE-IMPORTANT!!! announcement. The first one came after a day of feverish speculation across the internet, fed, as is usual now, by Twitter. Rumours were circulating all through the previous day, Wednesday, that there was” big news” from the Moon, that something had been found on it. No-one was suggesting it was a black monolith, or anything like that, but Something Was Definitely Going On, and everyone was really impatient to hear what it was, and we were all counting down the hours until the media conference began on NASA TV on Thursday evening (UK time) when the beans would be spilled, so to speak. Many science journalists already knew what the news was – they are briefed in advance of big announcements like this to give them time to prepare their stories – but they couldn’t say anything because the story was “embargoed”, i.e. they were all under strict instructions to keep their great traps shut –  until the press conference began. And so, like many people, I sat here, at this very computer, frequently refreshing my Twitter page, happy to follow the speculation, just killing time until the embargo was lifted…

Of course, someone blabbed, didn’t they – most people seem to agree it was a journalist based in India – and then the story broke over the internet like a tidal wave. Soon everyone knew what it was, and it was fascinating: no fewer than three different spaceprobes had found undeniable proof of the existence of water, or at least a form of water, on the Moon!

Moon. Water. Water… on the Moon.

Gulp!

This was Big News because we have always thought that the Moon was staggeringly dry, I mean “drier than a bone that’s been baked in an oven for a  year” dry, and that any water there was going to be found lurking in very small quantities on the floors of steep-sided polar craters, in the form of “dirty ice”, or really just soil that was “a bit icy”. To hear that the Moon had actual water, on its surface, was a textbook-ripping-up event. Soon the story was everywhere, being forwarded, copied and “re-tweeted”, and by the time the NASA TV event began only the few penguins living at the south pole without internet access didn’t know what was going on. The media feeding frenzy was quite incredible, and if you read or listened to some of the more breathless reports you honestly would have thought lakes or even oceans had been discovered on the Moon, such was the level of excitement.

The truth, of course, was rather less exciting.

I’m not going to go into all the chemistry of the story, you know, the technical stuff about elements and nuclear bonds and atoms, etc, I’ll leave that to Emily Lakdawalla to explain, over on her always-wonderful-to-read Planetary Society blog, where you’ll find a brilliant two part disection of the hard scientific facts behind the story, but to put it simply, what had actually been found on the Moon were traces of water, molecules of water, i.e. tiny, tiny amounts of water, all mixed up in the very top dusty layer of the Moon’s surface, spread thinly across vast areas of it. This meant that the Moon was still far, far drier than the driest desert on Earth, just a little less so than we’d thought previously. So the BBC’s claim that the Moon was “damp” was at best misleading and, at worst, bang-your-head-against-the-wall-in-frustration stupid.

Actually, that’s a bit unfair. This really was a big news story, a huge news story, because it does, in a way, mean that human exploration, and ultimately settlement, of the Moon will be easier than we’d all previously thought, because there is water there to be mined and used as a resource, and it’s not going to need climbing gear to get to it. But really, the level of hype enjoyed by the story was completely unjustified, especially when there was actually an even bigger water-related story waiting in the wings – but more of that later…

So, let’s get this straight. The Moon is NOT slopping about in water; there are no great puddles on it to splish and splosh through like a kid in yellow plastic wellies; there are no splodgy pools of lunar mud to squelch through; future lunar astronauts will not need to wear wellington boots or fishermen’s waders when they explore, and they won’t leave great dirty muddy footprints on the airlock floor when they return to base after a hard day of collecting rocks and samples, ok?

boots

This “water” isn’t really water as we know it, or as we think of it, it’s not even remotely a “dampness”. It’s a chemical trace or signature of molecules, and if you were standing on the Moon but didn’t have the special instruments required to detect it , you wouldn’t have a clue it was there. You’d see no glistening dewdrops on the rocks around you, no rivulets of crystal clear water trickling around, between or over the ancient boulders standing on the landscape. The Moon hasn’t suddenly been revealed to be an Earth-orbiting Brigadoon, a lush green valley with ponds and streams and waterfalls; it’s still a dusty, lifeless desert, many times dustier, more lifeless and more dusty than even the most hospitable desert on Earth.

Let’s look at some figures, that will bring this all – ahem – down to Earth.

Okay… how much lunar soil, or dirt, would you have to collect and refine until you had collected from it enough water to fill a drinking glass? You ready for this? You’ll be surprised, and disappointed, I warn you… The answer is 730 square metres.

And if you wanted to fill a litre bottle of water, how much dirt would you have to mine? A tonne of it. A tonne!!

So, you see, the “water” there is not only hiding, and very good at it, but is in bits that would have to be gathered up and then put back together again before they could be used for anything useful.

So yes, this is good news, but contrary to what you might have heard, or read, we’re a long, long way away from being able to use it to make a lunar “Walnut Grove” and live off the land there, like the pioneers of the Old West. The only “discovery” that could possibly speed up the return of US astronauts to the Moon, and lead to its colonisation or commercialisation, would be this…

 oil

Sorry, but there it is.

However… on the very same night that the news about the “Water on the Moon” was announced, there was another announcement, one that, for some bizarre reason, didn’t get anywhere near as much publicity. Buried by the avalanche – or should I say flood? haha! – of coverage of Chandrayaan’s results was news that the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter probe had spotted ice on the surface of the red planet. Yes, ice. Real ice, ice as in “frozen water”. Not tonnes of dirt with a few molecules of water scattered through it, but the drop-into-a-glass cold stuff you could pick up, hold, and even suck on if you wanted to…

Ice Cube

Here’s what had happened. MRO had spotted several fresh new craters on Mars – and this time ‘fresh’ doesn’t mean ‘were made some time in the last twenty million years’ but were blasted out of Mars during the past year or so, as you can see from this pair of HiRISE images, taken just weeks apart…

388646main_mro20090922-600

The probe then began monitoring them, checking them and photographing them again to look for any changes – and it found them. In the original images, taken soon after they were formed, the new craters were either surrounded by, or had, at their centres, deposits of blue-white… stuff. In the later images, these deposits had either shrunk or vanished altogether. Look at this pair of MRO images of the same crater and you’ll see what I mean…

388654main_site2_fading 3months

Those two images were taken just 3 months apart, and show significant changes occurred inside that crater during that time. That alone would be enough to set alarm bells ringing. But further investigation and study showed that MRO had, this time, found one of the long-awaited Holy Grails of Mars exploration: water ice, underneath the surface of Mars, far away from the poles. Look at this next image and you’ll see we’re not just talking about traces of ice, not just meagre scrapings or fluffs of it, but large amounts of it, fridge freezer compartmentfuls of the stuff…

site3_10625_2360_200pc_50meters_across_preview

THIS news is potentially historic because it means that future martian explorers, settlers and colonists will have an almost embarrassing amount of water to use once they get there, right beneath their feet.

In a way this isn’t “news” as much as it’s another brick in the wall of our growing understanding of just how icy and wet a world Mars really is. We already knew Mars had a lot of ice: the poles are covered in layer after layer of it, Phoenix famously found ice in the dirt beneath it when it landed at the pole last year, and at least one crater near the north pole has been found to have a huge skating rink of the stuff inside it…

Mars_Ice_craterSMALL

(click here for a great 3D view of that crater)

But this discovery really is important because it proves that there is ice beneath the ground far away from the poles, across vast areas of Mars, most importantly in the very areas where the first manned expeditions will probably land.

So this is nothing less than absolutely incontravertible proof of the existence of useful, accessible water on Mars. Not “fake” water, not “false” water like the Moon’s molecule-thin film of ‘water’, but real water, albeit frozen. If you were a crew member of the first manned mission to Mars in 20Whenever you could step out of your lander, drop to your knees, dig down into the red dirt with your gloved fingers and claw out some genuine, honest to god water ice. You could lift it in your hand, hold it up to your faceplate and, with your own eyes, see it glistening and shining there as it sublimated away, eventually vanishing. How cool (sorry!) is that?!

Chandrayaan and other probes found water on the Moon, which is a fantastic achievement and the teams involved all deserve all the praise they’re receiving. But let’s get things in context: Chandrayaan found teaspoons of water spread out over thouands of miles of the Moon’s surface, that will take new technology and a monumental engineering effort to collect, refine and use. MRO has found bloody great frozen swimming pools of water just beneath huge areas of the planet, ice that future astronauts will be able to dig out and use almost right away.

Put it that way, which is the more important discovery?

Here are a few pictures I made, using the IAS Viewer to crop MRO images, showing some of these “smoking gun” craters…

ic1

wrth

Imagev2

I honestly get goosebumps looking at those..! 🙂

But that’s not the end of the story. It turns out that, if things had been just a little different,  this discovery could have been made more than three decades ago…

Back in 1976, on September 3rd to be precise, the US Viking 2 probe touched down in Utopia Planitia on Mars. Like Phoenix it had a robotic arm with a digging tool and scoop on the end, so it could dig a trench in the martian surface, gather up some of the material from beneath that surface and bring it onboard for analysis in a small but sophisticated chemistry set. Here’s an image showing one of the Phoenix-like trenches being dug by Viking 2 on Mars…

viking5

The robot arm then brought the dirt and rocks back onboard for testing. One of the main aims of the Viking mission was to look for life on Mars, and the hope was that the analysis of material from the trenches would turn up evidence of past life, or even life itself. Sadly, that didn’t happen – although, before anyone posts a comment about it, there is some controversy about those results – which was a crushing disappointment, and went a long way towards colouring that generation’s view of Mars as a cold, dry lifeless wasteland of a planet…

It now turns out that if Viking 2 had dug down just a little deeper, perhaps just a few inches deeper, it probably would have made a staggering discovery. Look at this chart…

Ice-depths-580x341

… and you’ll see that V2 landed at the same latitude as the craters (labelled “sites” on the image) revealed to have ice beneath them on those pictures unveiled to the world last week… so it’s more than possible that the Viking 2 team just missed out on what would have been one of the scientific triumphs of the decade – the discovery of subsurface water ice on Mars.

Just imagine, it’s September 1976, and several days after its successful landing, Viking 2 begins digging its trenches, and sends back this image…

v2 ice

The Viking 2 scientists can’t believe their eyes – that white/blue stuff in the trench… is that..? Could it be..? It is! It’s ICE! Viking 2 has found ice, frozen water, beneath the surface of Mars!!

It’s impossible not to play “What might have been…” here. What would have happened next? Which direction would Mars exploration have taken after such a discovery? When  the Vikings failed to find life on Mars, interest in the planet definitely fell off, both amongst the general public and within NASA itself. But if Viking 2 had dug up ice in 1976, which would have been very encouraging for the people convinced Mars could harbour life if it has water beneath its surface, surely public and scientific interest in Mars would have soared, and NASA would have focussed its attentions on the Red Planet instead of turning its eyes towards the outer solar system as it did. Then what..?

Perhaps a Viking 3 and a Viking 4 would have travelled to Mars in one of the next launch windows, equipped with better, stronger robot arms to allow them to dig even deeper, and more sophisticated chemical labs onboard to allow them to make a more thorough study of the soil samples in the hunt for life? Perhaps we’d have seen rovers on Mars a decade earlier, and a nuclear-powered “Spirit” or an “Opportunity” would have been roaming on Mars for a decade by now. It’s very likely that at least one international sample returm mission would have been undertaken, and that by now we’d be studying several pounds of Mars rocks in hi-tech laboratories around the world.

And maybe, just maybe, if Viking 2 had sent back this image…

vl2_sol957_959_compare2

… then we’d already have witnessed the historic first manned landing on Mars, instead of sitting here, heads in hands, listening to the Augustine Commission reporting how NASA’s cupboard is bare and wondering if we’ll even get to see people walking on Mars in our lifetimes…? 😦

I don’t know, there’s no way we can know. But personally I’m pretty sure that if Viking 2 had found ice on Mars, Mars exploration would have received such a boost, Mars exploration would have become so ‘sexy’, that we would have found out by now if there is life on Mars. I just feel that in my gut.

And feelings are important when it comes to the aftermath of discoveries like this. As I was finishing this post, and uploading it onto WordPress, I happened to look out the window – and there was the Moon, almost at First Quarter, hanging just above the roof of the house opposite my flat. After this latest announcement I wanted it to look different, to feel different, to move me in a new way… but it didn’t. I so wanted it to look… I don’t know, bluer? More alive? I wanted it to inspire me all over again,  to make me, even if it was only for a second, forget my beloved Mars and feel love for the Moon…

But it was just the same old Moon, a mottled, lemony-blue-grey ball, glowing in the butterscotch-hued southern sky of a Cumbrian autumn sunset.   My feelings for the Moon haven’t changed one bit.

But I know that when I get up early tomorrow morning, and hunt down Mars, shining in the brightening eastern sky like a tiny red garnet, my love for it will be even stronger, and standing on the dewey grass I’ll marvel at the thought of all that lovely, lovely ice hiding just beneath the surface… and I’ll wonder if there’s anything living within it.

I think we’l know the answer to that soon.

Gorgeous gullies… :-)

The latest release of images from the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera includes a picture of a crater wall streaked with some of the famous “gullies” that planetary scientists and armchair astronauts alike find so intriguing. I was looking at it this morning, zooming in on sections of it with the wonderful IAS Viewer, and noticed something interesting…

Here’s a wide view of the area that caught my eye… I’ve colourised it from the original HiRISE image to make it look (I think, anyway) a little more realistic… as usual click on it and the other images to bring up larger versions of them…

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If you look slightly to the left side of that image, between two dark rocky nubby outcrops at the top of already-existing gullies, there’s something interesting…

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Is that shallow, short cleft…thing… a gully just starting to form? Taking a closer look…

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… it does look like some sort of collapse or subsidence is going on there, don’t you think?

Interesting… 🙂

It’s Carnival time…!

Want to catch up on the best of the week’s space- and astronomy-blogging? Ees seemples! Just go to the 120th Carnival of Space, which is being hosted this week at the “Music of The Spheres” blog…

How to see the International Space Station…

Recently, I’ve had so many comments and emails asking for advice on how to see the International Space Station in the sky that I’ve updated the “Space Station” page, turning it into a “Beginner’s Guide” to space station spotting.  You can go there by clicking on the “Space Station” tab at the top there, or by clicking on the direct link below…

https://cumbriansky.wordpress.com/space-station-spotting

Farewell Block Island…

Opportunity has left the meteorite “Block Island” and is now heading north and west again. Rather than look back at her studies of this fascinating meteorite here, I’ve resurrected my “The Road To Endeavour” blog with a post all about it there… I hope you’ll go take a look! 🙂

http://roadtoendeavour.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/oppys-2009-tour-of-block-island

Stop worrying, the shuttle is fine… :-)

Quite a few of the people who posted comments on my blog last night after watching the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station crossing the sky (and hey, all of you, welcome, wherever you’ve come from! Thanks for stopping by my blog! 🙂 ) were clearly worried by something they saw – a bright “flash” from the shuttle, and/or a strange glowing haze around it. Had there been an accident? Had they witnessed an explosion?

Thankfully, no, there hadn’t, and they didn’t. The shuttle and its crew are all fine. What was it then? Well, if I tell you that there’s a link to that great scene in the great film “Apollo 13” where one of the crew makes a joke about the constellation “Urine”, you’ll get the idea…! 😉

Full story on Spaceweather.com