Digging on Mars Won’t Be Easy

Because of the tremendous distance to Mars, human explorers will probably process local materials to get their air, fuel, and even building supplies. But extracting resources from the Red Planet is going to be hard, especially when the environment is so hostile. Scientists are studying how the dry Martian soil will likely behave in the low gravity and air pressure, to help engineers build equipment that can dig and move dirt. NASA’s upcoming Phoenix lander will help put some of this research to the test when it arrives on Mars in 2008; it will be digging trenches about a half-metre deep (20 inches).

What’s Up This Week – Nov 8 – 14, 2004

Greetings fellow skywatchers! We’re in for more excitement this week as the Moon occults not one, not two, but three observable planets! But that’s not all the action, while we’re in a “planetary” frame of mind, we’ll also study two planetary nebulae, the M57 and M27, as well as seek out a “planetary” located inside a globular cluster. Other studies for both telescopes and binoculars will include instructions for “visiting with Vesta” as we explore one of our Solar System’s brightest asteroids. We’ll learn about easily observed variable stars and double your pleasure – double your fun as we explore two open clusters instead of just one! This week will also include a minor meteor shower and things for the Southern Hemisphere skywatchers to do. There are challenges here, as well as a bit of history and a lot of fun! So mark your calendars – because here’s “What’s Up”!

Giant Infrared Space Observatory Considered by NASA

NASA is considering a new space-based telescope that would be the equivalent of a 40-metre (120 ft) observatory. The proposed Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope (SPIRIT) mission would consist of two infrared telescopes at opposite sides of a rail that could be positioned perfectly to combine their images into a single, giant telescope. SPIRIT is being considered as part of NASA’s Origins program, which is looking to answer fundamental questions about the beginning of the universe. If selected, it would launch in 2014.

Our Solar System Could Be Special

Researchers from the UK believe that our Solar System could have formed differently from many other star systems, making places like our home much more rare in the Universe. After examining the 100 or so known extrasolar planetary systems, they found that they probably formed in a manner different from our own Solar System – in a way that’s hostile to the formation of life. Planets could form in several different ways, and how the Earth formed is actually quite rare. It will still be 5 more years or so before astronomers have equipment with the resolution to confirm this.

Deeper Analysis of Phoebe Flyby

Scientists working with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have stitched together photos taken by the spacecraft to build a complete picture of Phoebe, a moon of Saturn that the spacecraft passed on June 11. The tiny moon is likely an ancient collection of ice, rock and carbon-containing compounds similar to Pluto and Neptune’s moon Triton. Planetesimals like this could be very common in the outer reaches of the Solar System, as they were ejected during the early formation of the planets. Phoebe was probably captured early on by Saturn, perhaps 4 billion years ago.

Look for Dust to Find New Earths

Instead of looking directly for Earth-sized planets, it might be easier to just try to find the ring of dust that is the fingerprint of terrestrial planet formation. This is according to a new computer model created by astronomers from the Smithsonian Center and Astrophysics and the University of Utah. Their model predicts that stars with disks will be a little brighter in the infrared spectrum than stars without disks; astronomers should be able to predict the size of its planets just from the brightness of its disk in infrared. The recently-launched Spitzer space telescope should be the perfect tool to measure these disks.

Why is Mars So Dry?

Since Earth and Mars were probably formed much the same way; through the accretion of rocky material from the inner solar system, they should have roughly the same amount of water, but Mars is pretty much bone dry compared to the Earth. So what happened to make it so dry? Some scientists believe that Mars used to have the same amount of water as Earth, but it evaporated into space. Others believe that the Red Planet never had much water in the first place; that it started out as a collection of dry materials from the asteroid belt.

Rosetta Launch Date Approaching

At the end of February 2004, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft is expected to launch on board an Ariane 5 launcher from the space centre in Kourou, French Guiana. Rosetta will travel 675 million kilometres, including multiple planet flybys to reach Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 – it will orbit the comet and then actually land on its surface. This journey will be a long time coming, since Rosetta has been in development since 1997, and missed several launch opportunities.