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Old 07-31-2012, 02:32 PM  
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With Mars mission and rover Curiosity, NASA hunts building blocks of life

http://www.washingtonpost.com/nation...ALX_story.html

The last time the United States landed a mission on Mars to look for extraterrestrial life or its building blocks, Gerald Ford was president and the nation had just finished celebrating its 1976 bicentennial.

Next week, the long-delayed second attempt will try to deposit a rover on the planet’s surface.

The descent and landing in the early hours of Aug. 6 will be the most complex and hair-raising in planetary history. The destination is a deep crater with a three-mile-tall mountain that NASA could only dream about using as a landing site until very recently.

It’s the most ambitious, the most costly ($2.5 billion) and the most high-stakes mission ever to another planet. It was also described last week by the agency’s top scientist, former astronaut John M. Grunsfeld, as “the most important NASA mission of the decade.”

“There is no doubt that this is a risky mission, and that is coming from a human-spacecraft guy,” Grunsfeld said. “It’s hard to get something this big and complex to the surface of Mars, and then to get it to start roving. Thousands of people around the world working on it will be feeling their lives are riding on the mission landing successfully. We’ll all know soon if the risk was worth it.”

What the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its rover named Curiosity bring to Mars is a capacity to analyze the planet with much more sophistication than before, and to do it over a sizable and scientifically rich expanse.

The goal is not to find Martian life per se but rather to ferret out carbon-based organic compounds that are building blocks of life, and then to determine whether the Gale Crater landing site was ever suitable for creatures. Both are integral parts of the science of astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

A fully loaded SUV

At 10 feet long and seven feet high at the top of its camera mast, Curiosity is the size of an SUV and weighs almost a ton, about three times more than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers sent to Mars in 2003 on a primarily geological mission. Its robotic arm for digging soil and drilling rock is seven feet long, almost three times longer than previous rover arms. This tool will provide more and better samples for the lab’s instruments, which will do their analysis on Mars and send back the results to scientists here.

Curiosity will have numerous ovens to bake soil and rocks up to 1,800 degrees and analyze what comes out; it will have a laser zapper to free up potentially important targets in rocks; it will have cameras with unprecedented capabilities, including one that will take video of the last several minutes of the high-drama landing, now dubbed “seven minutes of terror” by NASA.

Getting to Mars, and especially landing on it, is difficult. Forty-four missions — flybys, orbits and landings — have been sent to the planet by NASA, the former Soviet Union, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China, and about one-third have made it. All six successful landings were flown by NASA. (A Soviet capsule made a soft landing in 1971 but then sent back only 14 seconds of data, so it is not considered to have succeeded.)

Curiosity’s descent — after a voyage that began last Nov. 25 and covered 354 million miles — will be particularly stressful because the weight of the spacecraft required a new landing technique. The capsule containing Curiosity will enter the atmosphere at 13,200 mph and have less than seven minutes to slow down enough to drop the rover gently onto the surface of the planet.

Much of the technology is new or being used in a novel way and, while the component parts have been tested and retested, the landing as a complete sequence has never been tried. “Actually, the landing will be our first test that the systems can work,” said the project’s chief engineer, Robert Manning.



But the risk goes beyond the difficulty of the landing and the complexity of Curiosity’s 10 major instruments. That’s because Curiosity will land just as Congress and the administration debate a plan to slash NASA’s Mars and planetary programs significantly. NASA officials and Mars aficionados hope the rover will make discoveries that will limit the cuts, while knowing that a crash landing or failed instruments could further curtail the programs.

“I think a major discovery by Curiosity, such as finding the building blocks of life or any other indication of life, would certainly lead us to reconsider our science approach at Mars,” said James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division. “Why? Because if there is, or was, life on Mars, then we’d have to assume life is everywhere in the galaxies. We would have to rethink our place in the universe.”

‘Our place in the universe’

One reason that NASA has not sent a life-detecting mission to Mars in so long is that the first one came back with very disappointing results. The twin Viking landers touched down in 1976 with great anticipation that not only the building blocks of life but also life itself would probably be found.

Instead, the Viking mission found a cold, desert planet that came to be seen as virtually incapable of supporting life. While one life-detection experiment using nutrients brought to Mars and tagged with radioactive carbon did show positive results several times, NASA officials and other scientists concluded that those findings were most likely in error. More disheartening, the instrument designed to identify organic molecules came back with a finding of “no organics.” Without organics, virtually all scientists say, there can be no life.

But in the past decade, NASA scientists and others have produced evidence that the planet was once much warmer and wetter. They know, for instance, that the Gale Crater site was once covered in water, and they know that it has minerals and clays that can be formed only in the presence of water.

In addition, NASA astrobiologist Michael Mumma reported in 2009 finding plumes of methane gas erupting at specific spots and at predictable times on Mars. More than 90 percent of methane on Earth is formed as a byproduct of biology, from cows’ digestive systems and rotting trees to the life cycle of tiny microbes. It remains unknown whether some of the methane on Mars also comes from biological sources.

And finally, a paper in May from Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institution of Washington identified organic material in meteorites known to have fallen to Earth from Mars. An expert in the contamination of rocks that fall to Earth from space, Steele concluded that some of the organic material he found was clearly not from Earth, and so it either came from Mars or was picked up by the meteorite as it flew through space.

Climbing the mountain

Combining the promising new science about Mars with the capabilities of Curiosity, NASA science chief Grunsfeld said he considers it likely that organic materials will be found this time. Gale Crater is a much more promising site than the plains where the Viking landers did their work, and Curiosity has more than 35 years of improved technology and know-how.

The rover will also be the first to approach, analyze and then partially climb a Martian mountain. The layered outcrops of what has been named Mount Sharp will provide a geological history of the crater and perhaps the planet, and so are an integral part of the Curiosity mission.

Geologists will be looking at those layers to determine when water was present in the crater, whether it moved like a river or was like a lake, what elements and compounds were in the soil and air, and even what temperatures and other atmospheric conditions existed. The lead scientist for the rover is John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, and he is a geologist.

“We have never had an opportunity even close to this on Mars before,” he said, referring to the exposed and “readable” cliffs of Mount Sharp. “We’re just waiting with bated breath.”

An additional Curiosity goal is to learn more about how to protect astronauts who may someday fly to Mars. The landing of a large vehicle is part of that learning curve, but so too is Curiosity’s radiation assessment detector, a toaster-size instrument that will measure and identify high-energy and potentially harmful radiation on the Martian surface, such as protons, energetic variations of common elements, neutrons and gamma rays.

The Curiosity mission is scheduled to last for another two years, but it could continue much longer if funding becomes available. The rover’s power source is a nuclear battery that, if all goes according to plan, could move the rover and keep it warm for years longer.

There is precedent for prolonged rover missions: The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were designed to operate on Mars for 13 weeks, but Spirit sent back information until 2009, and Opportunity is still traveling. So if the landing succeeds and the rover and instruments work as planned, Curiosity might be telling us about Mars for years to come.
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:45 AM   #166
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Amazing. MRO snapped a picture of Curiosity descending under the parachute:

Thats frikken awesome on so many levels. Sometimes I think doing astrophotography is insanely difficult and then I see stuff like this.
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High Tech is Sorcery and the people who are really powerful are literally telling people to commit crimes using the psychic interspace created by the WWW and Wireless. They are controlling peoples actions like drones . The two things are deeply intertwined. The more man's brain interfaces with machines the creepier it gets. They use brains separate from a human body in a supercomputer and you have The Image of the Beast. The military has been doing this since the 50s
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:46 AM   #167
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:46 AM   #168
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Originally Posted by Donger View Post
Another:

HTF can they take those kinds of pictures? Amazing.
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:47 AM   #169
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In a perfect world, I think government shouldn't do big projects in a good economy and build up their resources to do projects in a bad economy. In a bad economy they'll get better pricing on goods and services because firms are hungry, and they'll also help regulate the economy by filling in the trough at the bottom of recessions. It's an all-around win.

Of course, a long-term project like this or the Interstate Highway System or whatever will likely transcend short-term economic fluctuations. It's probably more for local governments or maybe state government. If I was building a library or airport or something that takes five years or less, I'd want to use this system if I'm a smart local government.

The challenge, of course, will be holding on to your resources during the good times without making it look like you're hoarding. If we trusted our government and if our government really looked out for our money, it would work, but I'm not sure that either is really true.
not so sure they can be trusted....they did spend $600 for hammers and $300 for toilet seats in the past
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:48 AM   #170
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Originally Posted by Donger View Post
Amazing. MRO snapped a picture of Curiosity descending under the parachute:

Holy shit that's one of the coolest things ever......
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:51 AM   #171
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Originally Posted by vailpass View Post
HTF can they take those kinds of pictures? Amazing.
That was apparently taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO, which is in orbit around Mars.
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Old 08-06-2012, 10:56 AM   #172
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That was apparently taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO, which is in orbit around Mars.
Wicked. Thanks for posting.

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Old 08-06-2012, 11:02 AM   #173
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For those who are curious, this isn't the first time MRO has taken such a picture. Here's what MRO took of the Phoenix lander:

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Old 08-06-2012, 11:09 AM   #174
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Computers: The two identical on-board rover computers, called "Rover Compute Element" (RCE), contain radiation hardened memory to tolerate the extreme radiation from space and to safeguard against power-off cycles. Each computer's memory includes 256 KB of EEPROM, 256 MB of DRAM, and 2 GB of flash memory.[19] This compares to 3 MB of EEPROM, 128 MB of DRAM, and 256 MB of flash memory used in the Mars Exploration Rovers.[20]
The RCE computers use the RAD750 CPU, which is a successor to the RAD6000 CPU used in the Mars Exploration Rovers.[21][22] The RAD750 CPU is capable of up to 400 MIPS, while the RAD6000 CPU is capable of up to 35 MIPS.[23][24] Of the two on-board computers, one is configured as backup, and will take over in the event of problems with the main computer.[19]
The rover has an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that provides 3-axis information on its position, which is used in rover navigation.[19] The rover's computers are constantly self-monitoring to keep the rover operational, such as by regulating the rover's temperature.[19] Activities such as taking pictures, driving, and operating the instruments are performed in a command sequence that is sent from the flight team to the rover.[19]

One would think that the computers in this rover would be a bit more robust.
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Old 08-06-2012, 11:12 AM   #175
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Is one of its 10 functions the ability to make crop circles? when are we gonna get back at them?
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Old 08-06-2012, 11:12 AM   #176
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Its nice to be able to move the MRO's orbit to capture photos like these.
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Old 08-06-2012, 11:22 AM   #177
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Its time to put a man on Mars
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Old 08-06-2012, 11:22 AM   #178
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For those who are curious, this isn't the first time MRO has taken such a picture. Here's what MRO took of the Phoenix lander:

I wouldn't have wanted to be there when that crater was created.
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Old 08-06-2012, 11:24 AM   #179
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Its time to put a man on Mars
I don't really see what the benefit would be, we can just devote the funding and effort to sending ever more advanced landers.

It would be horrendously costly to try to get meat there just to say we did.
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Old 08-06-2012, 11:25 AM   #180
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Its time to put a man on Mars
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manned_...ars#Challenges
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