Get Set for Spirit

When Pathfinder arrived at Mars back in 1997, I kept a tiny video window open on my desktop to watch every moment of the mission – all thanks to the Internet. It was pretty choppy at times, so hopefully NASA has more bandwidth this time.

Spirit is expected to arrive in Gusev Crater on Mars on January 4 at 0435 UTC (11:35 pm EST, 8:35 pm PST January 3). Live coverage on NASA television begins about two hours before landing and will continue all through Sunday and into Monday. You can access the NASA television page here. The main NASA TV link will probably overwhelmed, so I highly recommend you try out some of the alternative links. We’ll try and keep track of links to video streams in the forum which are able to handle the bandwidth.

Come on Spirit!

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Life Found Under 1,350 Metres of Rock

Image credit: NASA

A team of scientists have discovered bacteria inside a hole that was drilled 1,350 metres into the volcanic rock near Hilo, Hawaii. The hole began in igneous rock on the Mauna Loa volcano, and then passed through lava from Mauna Kea. At 1,000 metres they encountered fractured basalt glass which formed when the lava flowed into the ocean. Upon close examination, they found that this lava had been changed by microorganisms. Using electron microscopy, they found tiny microbe spheres, and they were able to extract DNA. Scientists are finding life in more remote regions of the planet, and this gives hope that it might be on the other planets in our solar system as well.

A team of scientists has discovered bacteria in a hole drilled more than 4,000 feet deep in volcanic rock on the island of Hawaii near Hilo, in an environment they say could be analogous to conditions on Mars and other planets.

Bacteria are being discovered in some of Earth’s most inhospitable places, from miles below the ocean’s surface to deep within Arctic glaciers. The latest discovery is one of the deepest drill holes in which scientists have discovered living organisms encased within volcanic rock, said Martin R. Fisk, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

Results of the study were published in the December issue of Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union and the Geochemical Society.

“We identified the bacteria in a core sample taken at 1,350 meters,” said Fisk, who is lead author on the article. “We think there could be bacteria living at the bottom of the hole, some 3,000 meters below the surface. If microorganisms can live in these kinds of conditions on Earth, it is conceivable they could exist below the surface on Mars as well.”

The study was funded by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology and Oregon State University, and included researchers from OSU, JPL, the Kinohi Institute in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The scientists found the bacteria in core samples retrieved during a study done through the Hawaii Scientific Drilling Program, a major scientific undertaking run by the Cal Tech, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The 3,000-meter hole began in igneous rock from the Mauna Loa volcano, and eventually encountered lavas from Mauna Kea at 257 meters below the surface.

At one thousand meters, the scientists discovered most of the deposits were fractured basalt glass – or hyaloclastites – which are formed when lava flowed down the volcano and spilled into the ocean.

“When we looked at some of these hyaloclastite units, we could see they had been altered and the changes were consistent with rock that has been ‘eaten’ by microorganisms,” Fisk said.

Proving it was more difficult. Using ultraviolet fluorescence and resonance Raman spectroscopy, the scientists found the building blocks for proteins and DNA present within the basalt. They conducted chemical mapping exercises that showed phosphorus and carbon were enriched at the boundary zones between clay and basaltic glass – another sign of bacterial activity.

They then used electron microscopy that revealed tiny (two- to three-micrometer) spheres that looked like microbes in those same parts of the rock that contained the DNA and protein building blocks. There also was a significant difference in the levels of carbon, phosphorous, chloride and magnesium compared to unoccupied neighboring regions of basalt.

Finally, they removed DNA from a crushed sample of the rock and found that it had come from novel types of microorganisms. These unusual organisms are similar to ones collected from below the sea floor, from deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and from the deepest part of the ocean – the Mariana Trench.

“When you put all of those things together,” Fisk said, “it is a very strong indication of the presence of microorganisms. The evidence also points to microbes that were living deep in the Earth, and not just dead microbes that have found their way into the rocks.”

The study is important, researchers say, because it provides scientists with another theory about where life may be found on other planets. Microorganisms in subsurface environments on our own planet comprise a significant fraction of the Earth’s biomass, with estimates ranging from 5 percent to 50 percent, the researchers point out.

Bacteria also grow in some rather inhospitable places.

Five years ago, in a study published in Science, Fisk and OSU microbiologist Steve Giovannoni described evidence they uncovered of rock-eating microbes living nearly a mile beneath the ocean floor. The microbial fossils they found in miles of core samples came from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. Fisk said he became curious about the possibility of life after looking at swirling tracks and trails etched into the basalt.

Basalt rocks have all of the elements for life including carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen, and need only water to complete the formula.

“Under these conditions, microbes could live beneath any rocky planet,” Fisk said. “It would be conceivable to find life inside of Mars, within a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, or even on a comet containing ice crystals that gets warmed up when the comet passes by the sun.”

Water is a key ingredient, so one key to finding life on other planets is determining how deep the ground is frozen. Dig down deep enough, the scientists say, and that’s where you may find life.

Such studies are not simple, said Michael Storrie-Lombardi, executive director of the Kinohi Institute. They require expertise in oceanography, astrobiology, geochemistry, microbiology, biochemistry and spectroscopy.

“The interplay between life and its surrounding environment is amazingly complex,” Storrie-Lombardi said, “and detecting the signatures of living systems in Dr. Fisk’s study demanded close cooperation among scientists in multiple disciplines – and resources from multiple institutions.

“That same cooperation and communication will be vital as we begin to search for signs of life below the surface of Mars, or on the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.”

Original Source: OSU News Release

Eighth Attempt to Reach Beagle 2 Fails

Image credit: Beagle 2

The search for Beagle 2 continues. Operators announced on December 31 that the British lander had failed to report in for the eighth time. At this point, the lander will have switched to a new mode where it tries to communicate twice a day. Although unlikely, it’s possible that Beagle 2’s onboard timer was reset during the landing, which would mean it was trying to communicate out of sync with Mars Odyssey and Earth-based radio telescopes. Mars Express will start searching on January 5, which operators believe will bring their best chances of finding it.

News on the outcome of today’s communication attempt via Mars Odyssey was delayed for several hours because NASA’s Deep Space Network is also being used for the Mars Exploration Rover and Stardust missions, which will be reaching their climax in the next few days.

As from last night, Beagle 2 should have switched to an emergency mode known as ‘ communication search mode 1′ (CSM 1). When the lander switches to CSM 1, it attempts to communicate twice every Martian day (sol), during the best daytime and best night-time pass by an available orbiter.

Meanwhile, ESA’s Mars Express orbiter was successfully inserted into a polar orbit around the Red Planet yesterday morning. This manoeuvre means that Mars Express will be ideally placed to communicate with Beagle 2 when it passes over the landing site in Isidis Planitia in a few days’ time.

An updated list of future opportunities to communicate with Beagle 2, including pre-programmed sessions with Mars Express, is posted on the Beagle 2 Web site.

The next Beagle 2 press briefing is scheduled to take place at the Media Centre in Camden on Sunday 4 January. Details will be confirmed on the Web sites at a later date.

Original Source: PPARC News Release

Hubble Finds a Distant Proto-Cluster of Galaxies

Image credit: Hubble

An international team of astronomers have gathered evidence that galaxies formed very quickly after the Big Bang. The team found a proto-galaxy cluster more than 12 billion light-years away – the galaxies are so young that astronomers can see a flurry of stars forming inside them. This means they’re only 1.5 billion years old, a time when the Universe was only 10% of its current age. It’s believed that these clusters formed so quickly because these areas were incredibly dense with material.

Looking back in time nearly 9 billion years, an international team of astronomers found mature galaxies in a young universe. The galaxies are members of a cluster of galaxies that existed when the universe was only 5 billion years old, or about 35 percent of its present age. This compelling evidence that galaxies must have started forming just after the big bang was bolstered by observations made by the same team of astronomers when they peered even farther back in time. The team found embryonic galaxies a mere 1.5 billion years after the birth of the cosmos, or 10 percent of the universe’s present age. The “baby galaxies” reside in a still-developing cluster, the most distant proto-cluster ever found.

The Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was used to make observations of the massive cluster, RDCS 1252.9-2927, and the proto-cluster, TN J1338-1942. Observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory yielded the mass and heavy element content of RDCS 1252, the most massive known cluster for that epoch. These observations are part of a coordinated effort by the ACS science team to track the formation and evolution of clusters of galaxies over a broad range of cosmic time. The ACS was built especially for studies of such distant objects.

These findings further support observations and theories that galaxies formed relatively early in the history of the cosmos. The existence of such massive clusters in the early universe agrees with a cosmological model wherein clusters form from the merger of many sub-clusters in a universe dominated by cold dark matter. The precise nature of cold dark matter, however, is still not known.

The first Hubble study estimated that galaxies in RDCS 1252 formed the bulk of their stars more than 11 billion years ago (at redshifts greater than 3). The results were published in the Oct. 20, 2003 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. The paper’s lead author is John Blakeslee of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

The second Hubble study uncovered, for the first time, a proto-cluster of “infant galaxies” that existed more than 12 billion years ago (at redshift 4.1). These galaxies are so young that astronomers can still see a flurry of stars forming within them. The galaxies are grouped around one large galaxy. These results will be published in the Jan. 1, 2004 issue of Nature. The paper’s lead author is George Miley of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.

“Until recently people didn’t think that clusters existed when the universe was only about 5 billion years old,” Blakeslee explained.

“Even if there were such clusters,” Miley added, “until recently astronomers thought it was almost impossible to find clusters that existed 8 billion years ago. In fact, no one really knew when clustering began. Now we can witness it.”

Both studies led the astronomers to conclude that these systems are the progenitors of the galaxy clusters seen today. “The cluster RDCS 1252 looks like a present-day cluster,” said Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and co-author of both research papers. “In fact, if you were to put it next to a present-day cluster, you wouldn’t know which is which.”

A Tale of Two Clusters

How can galaxies grow so fast after the big bang? “It is a case of the rich getting richer,” Blakeslee said. “These clusters grew quickly because they are located in very dense regions, so there is enough material to build up the member galaxies very fast.”

This idea is strengthened by X-ray observations of the massive cluster RDCS 1252. Chandra and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton provided astronomers with the most accurate measurements to date of the properties of an enormous cloud of hot gas that pervades the massive cluster. This 160-million-degree Fahrenheit (70-million-degree Celsius) gas is a reservoir of most of the heavy elements in the cluster and an accurate tracer of its total mass. A paper by Piero Rosati of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and colleagues that presents the X-ray observations of RDCS 1252 will be published in January 2004 in the Astronomical Journal.

“Chandra’s sharp vision resolved the shape of the hot gas halo and showed that RDCS 1252 is very mature for its age,” said Rosati, who discovered the cluster with the ROSAT X-ray telescope.

RDCS 1252 may contain many thousands of galaxies. Most of these galaxies, however, are too faint to detect. But the powerful “eyes” of the ACS pinpointed several hundred of them. Observations using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) provided a precise measurement of the distance to the cluster. The ACS enabled the researchers to accurately determine the shapes and colors of the 100 galaxies, providing information on the ages of the stars residing in them. The ACS team estimated that most of the stars in the cluster were already formed when the universe was about 2 billion years old. X-ray observations, furthermore, showed that 5 billion years after the big bang the surrounding hot gas had been enriched with heavy elements from these stars and had been swept away from the galaxies.

If most of the galaxies in RDCS 1252 have reached maturity and are settling into a quiet adulthood, the forming galaxies in the distant proto-cluster are in their energetic, unruly youth.

The proto-cluster TN J1338 contains a massive embryonic galaxy surrounded by smaller developing galaxies, which look like dots in the Hubble image.

The dominant galaxy is producing spectacular radio-emitting jets, fueled by a supermassive black hole deep within the galaxy’s nucleus. Interaction between these jets and the gas can stimulate a torrent of star birth.

The energetic radio galaxy’s discovery by radio telescopes prompted astronomers to hunt for the smaller galaxies that make up the bulk of the cluster.

“Massive clusters are the cities of the universe, and the radio galaxies within them are the smokestacks we can use for finding them when they are just beginning to form,” Miley said.

The two findings underscore the power of combining observations from many different telescopes that provided views of the distant universe in a range of wavelengths. Hubble’s advanced camera provided critical information on the structure of both distant galaxy clusters. Chandra’s and XMM-Newton’s X-ray vision furnished the essential measurements of the primordial gas in which the galaxies in RDCS 1252 are embedded, and accurate estimates of the total mass contained within that cluster. Large ground-based telescopes, like the VLT, provided precise measurements of the distance of both clusters as well as the chemical composition of the galaxies in them.

The ACS team is conducting further observations of distant clusters to solidify our understanding of how these young clusters and their galaxies evolve into the shape of things seen today. Their planned observations include using near-infrared observations to analyze the star-formation rates in some of the target clusters, including RDCS 1252, to measure the cosmic history of star formation in these massive structures. The team is also searching the regions around several ultra-distant radio galaxies for additional examples of proto-clusters. The team’s ultimate scientific goal is to establish a complete picture of cluster evolution beginning with the formation at the earliest epochs and detailing the evolution up to today.

Original Source: Hubble News Release

Stardust Gets Ready for Comet Encounter

Image credit: NASA/JPL

In less than 2 days, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft will fly past Comet Wild 2 – on January 2 at 0740 UTC (2:40 am EST). The spacecraft has already entered the comet’s halo; the cloud of dust and gas surrounding its nucleus. This is a dangerous part of the journey because the spacecraft could collide with particles from the comet which are moving at 6.1 kilometres per second. In order to minimize any damage, Stardust has several shields made of composite material which dissipate the energy from colliding particles. The spacecraft will collect particles from the comet and then return them to Earth in 2006.

T-minus 48 hours and counting to a historic rendezvous, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft has officially entered a comet’s coma, the cloud of dust and gas surrounding the nucleus. Stardust is scheduled to hurtle past comet Wild 2 on January 2, 2004, at approximately 2:40 a.m. EST.

“Just like in Star Trek we have our shields up,” said Tom Duxbury, Stardust program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. “The spacecraft has entered Wild 2’s coma, which means at any time we could run into a cometary particle. At 6.1 kilometers per second (approximately 3.8 miles per second), this is no small event.”

To protect Stardust against the blast of expected particles and rocks as it travels approximately 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the Wild 2 nucleus, the spacecraft rotated, so it is flying in the shadow of its “Whipple Shields”. The shields are named for American astronomer Dr. Fred L. Whipple. In the 1950s, he came up with the idea of shielding spacecraft from high-speed collisions with bits and pieces ejected from comets.

The system includes two bumpers at the front of the spacecraft, which protect Stardust’s solar panels, and another shield protecting the main spacecraft body. Each of the shields is built around composite panels designed to disperse particles as they impact. Blankets of Nextel ceramic cloth that dissipates and spreads debris augment them.

Stardust has traveled approximately 3.7 billion kilometers (approximately 2.3 billion miles) since its February 7, 1999 launch. It is closing the gap with Wild 2 at 22,000 kph (approximately 13,640 mph).

On Jan. 2, Stardust will fly through the halo of dust and gas that surrounds the nucleus of comet Wild 2. While large portions of the spacecraft will be hidden behind Whipple shields, others are designed to endure the celestial sandblasting as they collect, analyze and store samples. The Stardust spacecraft will return to Earth in January 2006, and its sample return capsule will make a soft landing at the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. The collected microscopic particle samples of comet and interstellar dust will be taken to the planetary material curatorial facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, for analysis.

Stardust’s cometary and interstellar dust samples may help provide answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. More information about the Stardust mission is available on the Internet, at:

Stardust is part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost, highly focused science missions. It was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, and is managed by JPL for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. The principal investigator is astronomy professor Donald E. Brownlee of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Spirit Makes a Minor Course Correction

Image credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Spirit rover made a slight correction to its trajectory on December 26, when it fired its thrusters for 3.4 seconds. The maneuver went flawlessly, and put the lander right on course to land in Mars’ Gusev Crater on January 4 at 0435 UTC (11:35 pm EST January 3). This was Spirit’s fourth trajectory correction maneuver since its launch on June 10, and two more might still happen in the final days if its flight is a little off-target. As with Beagle 2, the most dangerous part of the mission will happen when the rovers have to pass through Mars atmosphere and land safely on the planet.

NASA’s Spirit rover spacecraft fired its thrusters for 3.4 seconds on Friday, Dec. 26, to make a slight and possibly final correction in its flight path about one week before landing on Mars.

Radio tracking of the spacecraft during the 24 hours after the maneuver showed it to be right on course for its landing inside Mars’ Gusev Crater at 04:35 Jan. 4, 2004, Universal Time (8:35 p.m. Jan. 3, Pacific Standard Time.) Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, will reach Mars three weeks later.

“The maneuver went flawlessly,” said Dr. Mark Adler, Spirit mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

This was Spirit’s fourth trajectory correction maneuver since launch on June 10. Two more are on the schedule for the flight’s final three days, if needed. Adler said, “It seems unlikely we’ll have to do a fifth trajectory correction maneuver, but we’ll make the final call Thursday morning after we have a few more days of tracking data. Right now, it looks as though we hit the bull’s-eye.”

The adjustment was a quick nudge approximately perpendicular to the spacecraft’s spin axis, said JPL’s Chris Potts, deputy navigation team chief for the NASA Mars Exploration Rover project. “It moved the arrival time later by 2 seconds and moved the landing point on the surface northeast by about 54 kilometers” (33 miles), Potts said. The engine firing changed the velocity of the spacecraft by only 25 millimeters per second (about one-twentieth of one mile per hour).

For both NASA rovers approaching Mars, the most daunting challenges will be descending through Mars’ atmosphere, landing on the surface, and opening up properly from the enclosed and folded configuration in which the rovers arrive. Most previous Mars landing attempts, by various nations, have failed.

Each rover, if it arrives successfully, will then spend more than a week in a careful sequence of steps before rolling off its lander platform. The rovers’ mission is to examine their landing areas for geological evidence about past environmental conditions. In particular, they will seek evidence about the local history of liquid water, which is key information for assessing whether the sites ever could have been hospitable to life. Opportunity will land halfway around Mars from Spirit.

As of 13:00 Universal Time (6 a.m. PST) on New Year’s Day, Spirit will have traveled 481.9 million kilometers (299.4 million miles) since launch and have will have 5.1 million kilometers (3.2 million miles) left to go. Opportunity will have traveled 411 million kilometers (255 million miles) since its July 7 launch and will have 45 million kilometers (27.9 million miles) to go, with three remaining scheduled opportunities for trajectory correction maneuvers.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington.

Additional information about the project is available from JPL at and from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., at

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Mars Express Changes Its Orbit

Image credit: ESA

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express completed a major orbit maneuver, bringing the spacecraft from an equatorial orbit to a polar orbit around Mars. The spacecraft’s main engine was fired for four minutes. Now that it’s in a polar orbit around Mars, the spacecraft will be able to begin its scientific analysis of Mars, using its MARSIS radar to search up to several kilometres under the surface for reserves of water and ice. Mars Express will fly directly over the Beagle 2 landing site on January 7, 2004 and attempt to communicate with it.

This morning, at 09:00 CET, the first European mission to Mars registered another operational success. The Mars Express flight control team at ESOC prepared and executed another critical manoeuvre, bringing the spacecraft from an equatorial orbit into a polar orbit around Mars.

All commands were transmitted to Mars Express via ESA’s new Deep Space Station in New Norcia, Australia. This morning, the main engine of Mars Express was fired for four minutes to turn the spacecraft into a new direction, at a distance of 188 000 kilometres from Mars and about 160 million kilometres from Earth. On 4 January 2004, this new polar orbit will be reduced even further.

Fascinating ESA science mission ahead
In a polar orbit, Mars Express can now start to prepare its scientific observation mission as planned, working much like an ‘Earth-observation satellite’ but around Mars. From the second half of January 2004, the orbiter’s instruments will be able to scan the atmosphere, the surface and parts of the subsurface structure of Mars with unmatched precision.

The MARSIS radar, for example, will be able to scan as far as four kilometres below the surface, looking for underground water or ice. The High Resolution Stereo Camera will take high-precision pictures of the planet and will begin a comprehensive 3D cartography of Mars. Also, several spectrometers will try to unveil the mysteries of Martian mineralogy and the atmosphere, as well as influences from the solar wind or seasonal changes.

Mars Express closes in on Beagle 2 landing area
The change of orbit by the Mars Express orbiter will allow increasingly closer looks at the Beagle 2 landing site, which measures 31 kilometres by 5 kilometres. In this narrowing polar orbit, the orbiter will fly directly over the landing site at an altitude of 315 kilometres on 7 January 2004, at 13:13 CET. The reduced distance, the ideal angle of overflight and originally foreseen communication interfaces between the ‘mother’ and ‘baby’ will increase the probability of catching signals from the ground.

Ongoing European co-operation and international support
The Mars Express flight control team of ESA in Darmstadt, Germany, is in regular contact with its colleagues of the Beagle 2 team and with NASA ground stations. In addition, ESA receives regular support or offers of support from the Jodrell Bank radio telescope in the UK, Westerborg telescope in the Netherlands, Effelsberg telescope in Germany and Stanford University’s telescope in the USA. ESA is grateful for this spirit of dynamic international co-operation on its first mission to Mars.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Top Space Stories for 2003

2003 was quite a year for space and astronomy, with the loss of Columbia and Chinese making their first successful human space launch. It was definitely a year of highs and lows. Join Universe Today as we look at the top space stories of the year. In no particular order…

Columbia Disaster
Space exploration is an extremely dangerous business. This lesson was hammered home in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke up above Texas as it was on approach to land in Florida. The lives of seven astronauts were lost in a few firey moments on February 1, 2003. Months of investigation revealed that a chunk of foam fell off the external fuel tank and smashed a hole in the shuttle’s carbon-fibre wing panels. When Columbia was returning to Earth at the end of its mission, the open hole in the wing allowed hot gasses to penetrate the shuttle’s heat protection. The Columbia Accident Investigation board placed the blame on the foam, but said that NASA’s lack of safety allowed the accident to happen in the first place. While NASA is implementing the safety recommendations to get the shuttles flying again, the US administration is said to be planning a bold new program in space.

Columbia Accident Investigation website

Chinese Space Launch
Previously unknown, astronaut Yang Liwei became an instant celebrity on October 15, when he became the first human the Chinese space program sent into space. Liwei was launched from the Jiuquan desert launch site and orbited the Earth only 14 times in 21 hours. Only the United States and Russia have ever been capable of sending humans into space before this year. Riding high on their accomplishments, the normally tight-lipped Chinese revealed more details of their space program this year: additional human launches, a space station, probes to the Moon, and eventually humans on the Moon. NASA was one of the first to congratulate the Chinese on their accomplishment, but some space industry experts believe that this will spur the agency on to a new spirit of competition.

SpaceShipOne Goes Supersonic
The space community was expecting US President George Bush to make some announcement about the future of US space exploration on December 17, the 100th anniversary of the first Wright Brothers flight. He didn’t, but on that day Scaled Composites – an aircraft manufacturer in California – made news with the first rocket test flight of SpaceShipOne; their suborbital rocket plane. The unique-looking aircraft was carried to an altitude of 14,600 metres by the White Knight carrier plane and then released. It fired its hybrid rocket engine and blasted up to an altitude of 20,700 metres; breaking the sound barrier as it went. SpaceShipOne is considered the top contender to win the $10 million X-Prize which will be awarded to the first privately-built suborbital spacecraft which can fly to 100 km.

Scaled Composites website

Disappearance of Beagle 2
In a perfect world, this would be a tribute to the successful landing of Beagle 2; Britain’s $50 million, 70-kg Mars lander which traveled to the Red Planet on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft. Unfortunately, it looks like Mars has swallowed yet another spacecraft, and at the time of this writing the lander has failed to communicate home; either through Mars Odyssey orbiting above, or Earth-based radio observatories. Beagle 2 was supposed to land in the relatively safe Isidis Planitia region of Mars and then search for evidence of microbial life for 180-days with a suite of sensitive instruments. The best opportunity to communicate with Beagle 2 comes in 2004, though, when Mars Express reaches its final orbit and will attempt to make contact. Maybe the recovery of Beagle 2 will make one of the top stories in 2004.

Beagle 2 website

Mars’ Closest Approach to the Earth
Mars took centre stage this summer when it made its closest approach to the Earth in over 60,000 years. Because of their orbits, the Earth and Mars get close every two years, but on August 27 they were only 55,758,000 kilometres apart. The mainstream media picked up the story, and for a while it was Mars mania. Astronomy clubs and planetariums that held special Mars observing nights for the public were totally overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up to have a peek through a telescope. And they weren’t disappointed. Even with a relatively small 6″ telescope and good observing conditions, it was possible to see details on Mars like its polar caps, dust storms, and darker patches. If you missed it this year, don’t worry, Mars will be even closer in 2287.

Biggest Solar Flare Ever Observed
Our Sun showed a nasty side this year, with a series of powerful flares and coronal mass ejections. On November 4, 2003, the Sun surprised even the most experienced solar astronomers with the most powerful flare anyone had ever seen. It was so powerful that it momentarily blinded cameras designed to measure flares, so it actually took a few days for astronomers to calculate just how bright it was. In the end, it was categorized as an X28 flare. But this was just one of a series of powerful flares, many of which were aimed directly at our Earth, sending wave after wave of material our direction. Incredibly, there were very few problems on the Earth – contact was lost with a Japanese satellite, and some communications were disrupted – but we got through it largely unharmed. The auroras, however, were awesome.

SOHO website

Farewell Galileo
On September 20, 2003, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft finally ended its 14-year journey to the Jovian system with its triumphant crash into the giant gas planet. Galileo was plagued with problems right from the start, including a series of launch delays, and a failure of its main antenna. But NASA engineers were able to overcome these obstacles, and use the spacecraft to make some incredible discoveries about the Jupiter and its moons. Photos taken by the Galileo gave scientists proof that three of the moons might have liquid water under their icy surfaces. Passing through Jupiter’s massive radiation took its toll on the spacecraft, and various instruments started to fail, including its main camera, which went offline in 2002. With the spacecraft failing, controllers decided it would be best to crash Galileo into Jupiter, to protect potential life on the Jovian moons from contamination.

Galileo website

Age of the Universe
This is the year we learned how old we are – well… how old the Universe is. Thanks to a comprehensive survey of the sky performed by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), astronomers were able to calculate that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, give or take 200 million years. WMAP, launched in June 2001, measured the sky’s cosmic background radiation, which was unleashed 380,000 years after the Big Bang – when the expanding Universe had cooled down enough for the first atoms to form. This wasn’t the first survey of the cosmic background radiation, but the WMAP is so sensitive, it was able to detect extremely slight temperature changes in the radiation.

Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe website

Spitzer Space Telescope
The last of great observatories, the Spitzer Space Telescope (previously named SIRTF) was finally launched into space on August 25, 2003. Almost every object in the Universe radiates heat in the infrared spectrum, which Spitzer is designed to detect. So objects which might be hidden to visible light telescopes, like Hubble, can be seen in tremendous detail with Spitzer. The observatory completed its 60-day on-orbit checkout period and calibration, and just before the end of the year the operators released four incredible photographs that demonstrated the potential of this instrument. Spitzer will help astronomers look at the dusty hearts of galaxies, young planetary discs, and cool objects like comets, and brown dwarfs. Spitzer may even help astronomers understand the nature of dark matter.

Spitzer Space Telescope website

Mars Express Arrives
The search for the missing Beagle 2 lander overshadowed the success of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, which went into a perfect orbit on December 25, and then performed additional maneuvers flawlessly. This is the Europe’s first mission to the Red Planet, and it’s got an important job to do. In addition to helping out the search for Beagle 2, Mars Express will begin mapping the surface of Mars with a powerful radar system which should reveal underground deposits of water and ice.

Mars Express website

Martian Crater Could Have Swallowed Beagle 2

Image credit: Malin

Lord Sainsbury, the UK Minister of Science and Technology reinforced today that they haven’t given up hope on Beagle 2, and continue to be optimistic that the lander will be found. A “tiger team” of engineers and scientists are working through all the scenarios that could help to explain what’s wrong with Beagle 2 (other than it’s all smashed up on the Martian surface). One theory is that the lander might have fallen into a kilometre-sized crater which was in the landing zone; although, the chances of this happening are pretty remote.

The latest attempts to communicate with Beagle 2 via the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft have been unsuccessful. However, the Beagle 2 team has not given up hope and continues to be optimistic that efforts to contact the lander will eventually be successful.

This message was also reinforced by Lord Sainsbury, UK Minister for Science and Innovation, who this morning joined members of the Beagle 2 team to answer questions about the status of the project.

“While we’re disappointed that things have not gone according to plan, we are determined that the search should go on, both the search to make contact with Beagle 2 and also (the search) to answer the long term question about whether there is life on Mars,” said Lord Sainsbury.

“There’s clearly still a good opportunity to make contact with Beagle 2 with Mars Express when it comes into action, and that has to be the first priority at this point. I think everything is being done by the ‘tiger team’ in Leicester to make contact with Beagle 2 and I want to wish them every success in their efforts.”

“We are looking at a number of possible failure modes that we might do something about,” said Dr. Mark Sims, Beagle 2 mission manager from the University of Leicester.

“We are working under the assumption that Beagle 2 is on the surface of Mars and for some reason cannot communicate to us. In particular, we’re looking at two major issues. One is communications, and there are also related timing and software issues.

“We’ve got a few more Odyssey contacts, the last one being on 31 December. Then we have four contacts with Mars Express already pre-programmed into Beagle, assuming the software is running, on 6, 12, 13 and 17. The 6 and 12 are when Mars Express is manoeuvring into its final orbit, so they are not optimum for Beagle 2 communications. The 13th and 17th are very good opportunities for Mars Express.”

According to Dr. Sims, one of the scenarios the team was investigating – a timer and hardware reset – now seems unlikely, and can probably be ruled out. However, other possible slips of the onboard time may have been caused by software or problems of copying data between various parts of memory. Possibly, all of the stored command times have been lost.

“None of these can yet be eliminated,” he said.

After the tenth contact attempt, Beagle 2 will move into communication search mode 1 (CSM 1), taking advantage of the ability of the software on board Beagle 2 to recognise when dawn and dusk occur on Mars by measuring the current feeding from the solar arrays.

“When we get into CSM 1 mode, Beagle 2 will start putting additional contacts on its time line, independent of the clock value,” said Mark Sims. “This will happen after 31 December.”

The team is also looking at sending blind commands to Beagle 2. This is helped by Beagle going into CSM 1 mode.

“The team has come up with a method of fooling the receiver into accepting commands without having to talk back to the orbiter,” said Dr. Sims. “We have an agreement with JPL to reconfigure Odyssey to provisionally attempt this on 31 December, the last programmed Odyssey pass.”

Malin Space Science Systems has also provided the Beagle 2 team with a picture of the landing site taken by the camera on Mars Global Surveyor 20 minutes after the spacecraft’s scheduled touchdown. It shows that the weather was quite good on the day Beagle landed, so it was unlikely to be a factor in the descent. The next opportunity to image the landing site with Mars Global Surveyor will not be until 5 January.

The image showing the centre of Beagle 2’s landing ellipse also shows a 1 km wide crater. There is just an outside possibility that the lander could have touched down inside this crater, resulting in problems caused by steep slopes, large number of rocks or disruption to communication from the lander. This image is now available on the Beagle 2 and PPARC Web sites (see link on the right hand side).

While the Lander Operations Control Centre in Leicester continues its efforts to communicate with the Beagle 2, Lord Sainsbury took the opportunity to inform the media that the UK government is keen to continue the innovative robotic exploration effort begun with the lander.

“Long term we need to be working with ESA to ensure that in some form there is a Beagle 3 which takes forwards this technology,” he said. “I very much hope that the Aurora programme, which is now being developed by ESA, will take forward this kind of robotic exploration.

“We’ve always recognised that Beagle 2 was a high risk project, and we must avoid the temptation in future to only do low risk projects.

“I’d like to use this opportunity to add my thanks to all those helping our efforts to make contact with Beagle 2. I think the amount of international collaboration one gets on these occasions is very, very impressive and very encouraging to the team.”

“We should not ignore the importance of Mars Express, which has three British-designed instruments on board and which looks set for success,” he added.

“Finally, can I use this opportunity to wish the Americans every success with its two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.”

Original Source: PPARC News Release

Book Review: Rocket Man

In his newest book, Rocket Man, David Clary took on the challenge of describing the person that was Robert Goddard the father of the rocket program in the United States. Through an excellent chronological depiction of the events and people of Goddard’s life, Mr. Clary presents significant moments and actions in an effort to give a sense of his personality. Mr. Clary acknowledges that he was quite hampered by the efforts of Goddard’s retinue who had filtered and moulded material so as to fit only their desired image. Without giving his own conclusions, Mr. Clary presents a very readable passage on Goddard’s life.

The image that Mr Clary portrays is of a very bright and capable man who accomplished amazing feats yet whose personality might have been as much a hindrance to achieving space travel as it was in driving it forward. Paramount in this was Goddard’s belief that rocketry was his and only his domain. Parties showing any interest in helping technically were considered interlopers or trespassers and dealt with disparagingly. The advantage of this was that there was one focal point for rocketry in the United States. The detriment to this was that Goddard had to become a specialist in many related fields such as chemistry (e.g. obtaining liquid oxygen) and metallurgy (e.g. constructing nozzles and chambers) and also disparate fields such as publicity and marketing. It seems that by spreading himself across all this activities and protecting his fiefdom meant Goddard was unable to progress on those tasks which his natural abilities favoured.

There were two other consequences to being this type of generalist. One is that Goddard treated the activities as a hobbyist. For example, Mr Clary describes Goddard as wanting his office by his men in the machinist’s shop where Goddard would build mock ups by hand soldering tin cans and metal pieces. The other consequence is that Goddard seemed incapable of setting an achievable goal and then preparing a path to reach this goal. Much can be argued that this is typical whenever a person is at the forefront of a new field and is trying to advance it. However getting support for his project without clearly showing either plans or progress appears to have alienated potential supporters. Nevertheless, Mr. Clary does note that “Goddard had received more money for his research than any other civilian scientist for a single project before World War II ” And considering much of this was granted during the worldwide depression of the 1920’s, this is no small feat.

This book does give a glimpse of the person that was Robert Goddard. By listing many of the significant events of his life the reader can draw an impression of who this man was. However, as Clary clearly acknowledges, so much of the available information regarding Goddard has been purposely manipulated that Goddard the man is difficult to pinpoint. In consequence, Mr. Clary’s writing reads like a list of events woven together with text. Further, this joining text drifts and can seem a bit superfluous at times. Yet, the reader does get a flavour of who the rocket man was and especially of the challenges they faced.

Note that this book describes the man. There is little information on Goddard’s technical activities however it does have many references to publication with this information.

Rocket Man is an enjoyable read and will tell you something of Goddard and much of his trials and tribulations he faced as he pushed forward the new field of rocketry. Upon finishing the book, I couldn’t help but see a similarity between Goddard, his rocket Nell and his supporters the Guggenheims with today’s Burt Rutan, his vehicle SpaceShipOne and his supporter Paul Allen. I hope their visions come to fruition in a more auspicious manner than that of Goddard’s.

Review by Mark Mortimer

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