Curiosity Mars Rover Almost Complete


NASA’s massive ‘Curiosity’ rover is almost ready to begin the first leg of its long trek to the surface of the Red Planet. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are nearly finished with assembling and testing all the components of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission (see photos above and below).

The MSL team plans to ship Curiosity as well as the cruise stage, descent stage and back shell to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in May and June. After arriving at KSC, all the pieces will be integrated together and tested during final assembly in a clean room. The rover will then be installed inside a 5 meter diameter nose cone, shipped the short distance to Cape Canaveral and then bolted atop an Atlas V rocket (photo below).

Top of Mars Rover Curiosity's Remote Sensing Mast.
The remote sensing mast on NASA Mars rover Curiosity holds two science instruments for studying the rover's surroundings and two stereo navigation cameras for use in driving the rover and planning rover activities. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The launch window for Curiosity extends from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011. The first stage of the powerful Atlas V rocket will be augmented with four solid rocket boosters. The Atlas V has previously launched two planetary missions; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Take a long gander at the 3 meter long rover because its appearance is now very much how it will look while it’s roving along intriguing martian landscapes for at least two earth years after landing in August 2012.

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity at JPL, View from Front Left Corner.
Support equipment is holding the Mars rover Curiosity slightly off the floor. When the wheels are on the ground, the top of the rover's mast is about 2.2 meters (7 feet) above ground level. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mini-Cooper sized Curiosity rover is equipped with 10 science instruments to investigate Martian soil and rock samples in far greater detail than ever before. Curiosity’s science payload weighs ten times more than any prior Mars rover mission.

The goal is to search for clues to environmental conditions favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether Martian life ever existed in the past or today. NASA is scrutinizing a list of four potential landing sites for the best chance of finding a habitable zone.

Arm and Mast of Curiosity Mars Rover.
Curiosity's arm and remote sensing mast carry science instruments and other tools for the mission. This image, taken April 4, 2011, inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL shows the arm on the left and the mast just right of center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
An Atlas V rocket similar to this one with a 5 meter diameter nose cone – but with 4 solid rocket boosters added - will launch Curiosity to Mars in late 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V launch vehicle will blast Curiosity to Mars

“Astrobiology” Parody Video of Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R”

Wanna get turned on by … “Astrobiology” ?? Are we alone in the universe?

Well check out just this newly-released music video parody of Ke$ha’s hit song “We R Who We R” – “Astrobiology.”

Suspend your disbelief. It’s different. It’s cool. And it’s very clever.

And .. It’s even better the second time around when you listen to the lyrics more closely … combined with the shocking video .. Featuring beautiful maidens and alien dolls galore. Continue reading ““Astrobiology” Parody Video of Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R””

If the Earth is Rare, We May Not Hear from ET

Earth - Moon System

If civilization-forming intelligent life is rare in our Milky Way galaxy, chances are we won’t hear from ET before the Sun goes red giant, in about five billion years’ time; however, if we do hear from ET before then, we’ll have lots of nice chats before the Earth is sterilized.

That’s the conclusion from a recent study of Ward and Brownlee’s Rare Earth hypothesis by Duncan Forgan and Ken Rice, in which they made a toy galaxy, simulating the real one we live in, and ran it 30 times. In their toy galaxy, intelligent life formed on Earth-like planets only, just as it does in the Rare Earth hypothesis.

While the Forgan and Rice simulations are still limited and somewhat unrealistic, they give a better handle on SETI’s chances for success than either the Drake equation or Fermi’s “Where are they?”

“The Drake equation itself does suffer from some key weaknesses: it relies strongly on mean estimations of variables such as the star formation rate; it is unable to incorporate the effects of the physico-chemical history of the galaxy, or the time-dependence of its terms,” Forgan says, “Indeed, it is criticized for its polarizing effect on “contact optimists” and “contact pessimists”, who ascribe very different values to the parameters, and return values of the number of galactic civilizations who can communicate with Earth between a hundred-thousandth and a million (!)”

Building on the work of Vukotic and Cirkovic, Forgan developed a Monte Carlo-based simulation of our galaxy; as inputs, he used the best estimates of actual astrophysical parameters such as the star formation rate, initial mass function, a star’s time spent on the main sequence, likelihood of death from the skies, etc. For several key inputs however, “the model goes beyond relatively well-constrained parameters, and becomes hypothesis,” Forgan explains, “In essence, the method generates a Galaxy of a billion stars, each with their own stellar properties (mass, luminosity, location in the Galaxy, etc.) randomly selected from observed statistical distributions. Planetary systems are then generated for these stars in a similar manner, and life is allowed to evolve in these planets according to some hypothesis of origin. The end result is a mock Galaxy which is statistically representative of the Milky Way. To quantify random sampling errors, this process is repeated many times: this allows an estimation of the sample mean and sample standard deviation of the output variables obtained.”

Forgan simulated the Rare Earth hypothesis by allowing animal life – the only kind of life from which intelligent civilizations can arise – to form only if homeworld’s mass is between a half and two Earths, if homesun’s mass is between a half and 1.5 times our Sun’s, homeworld has at least one moon (for tides and axial stability), and if homesun has at least one planet of mass at least ten times that of Earth, in an outer orbit (to cut down on death from the skies due to asteroids and comets).

The good news for SETI is that a galaxy like ours should host hundreds of intelligent civilizations (though, somewhat surprisingly, there is no galactic goldilocks zone); the bad news is that during the time such a civilization could communicate with an ET – between when it becomes technologically advanced enough and when it is wiped out by homesun going red giant – there are, in most simulations, no other such civilizations (or if there are, they are too far away) … we, or ET, would be alone.

But it’s not all bad news; if we are not alone, then once contact is established, we will have many phone calls with ET.

To be sure, this is but a work-in-progress. “Numerical modeling of this type is generally a shadow of the entity it attempts to model, in this case the Milky Way and its constituent stars, planets and other objects,” Forgan and Rice say; several improvements are already being worked on.

Sources: “A numerical testbed for hypotheses of extraterrestrial life and intelligence” (Forgan D., 2009, International Journal of Astrobiology, 8, 121), and “Numerical Testing of The Rare Earth Hypothesis using Monte Carlo Realisation Techniques” (arXiv:1001:1680); this too will be published in IJA, likely in April.

Mars 2016 Methane Orbiter: Searching for Signs of Life


The new joint Mars exploration program of NASA and ESA is quickly pushing forward to implement an agreed upon framework to construct an ambitious new generation of red planet orbiters and landers starting with the 2016 and 2018 launch windows.

The European-led ExoMars Trace Gas Mission Orbiter (TGM) has been selected as the first spacecraft of the joint initiative and is set to launch in January 2016 aboard a NASA supplied Atlas 5 rocket for a 9 month cruise to Mars. The purpose is to study trace gases in the martian atmosphere, in particular the sources and concentration of methane which has significant biological implications. Variable amounts of methane have been detected by a martian orbiter and ground based telescopes on earth. The orbiter will likely be accompanied by a small static lander provided by ESA and dubbed the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).

The NASA Mars Program is shifting its science strategy to coincide with the new joint venture with ESA and also to build upon recent discoveries from the current international fleet of martian orbiters and surface explorers Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix (see my earlier mars mosaics). Doug McCuiston, NASA’s director of Mars Exploration at NASA HQ told me in an interview that, “NASA is progressing quickly from ‘Follow the Water’ through assessing habitability and on to a theme of ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’. Looking directly for life is probably a needle in the haystack, but the signatures of past or present life may be more wide spread through organics, methane sources, etc”.

NASA and ESA will issue an “Announcement of Opportunity for the orbiter in January 2010” soliciting proposals for a suite of science instruments according to McCuiston. “The science instruments will be competitively selected. They are open to participation by US scientists who can also serve as the Principal Investigators (PI’s)”. Proposals are due in 3 months and will be jointly evaluated by NASA and ESA. Instrument selections are targeted for announcement in July 2010 and the entire cost of the NASA funded instruments is cost capped at $100 million.

Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA
Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA

“The 2016 mission must still be formally approved by NASA after a Preliminary Design Review, which will occur either in late 2010 or early 2011. Funding until then is covered in the Mars Program’s Next Decade wedge, where all new-start missions reside until approved, or not, by the Agency”, McCuiston told me. ESA’s Council of Ministers just gave the “green light” and formally approved an initial budget of 850 million euros ($1.2 Billion) to start implementing their ExoMars program for the 2016 and 2018 missions on 17 December at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France. Another 150 million euros will be requested within two years to complete the funding requirement for both missions.

ESA has had to repeatedly delay its own ExoMars spacecraft program since it was announced several years ago due to growing complexity, insufficient budgets and technical challenges resulting in a de-scoping of the science objectives and a reduction in weight of the landed science payload. The ExoMars rover was originally scheduled to launch in 2009 and is now set for 2018 as part of the new architecture.

The Trace Gas orbiter combines elements of ESA’s earlier proposed ExoMars orbiter and NASA’s proposed Mars Science Orbiter. As currently envisioned the spacecraft will have a mass of about 1100 kg and carry a roughly 115 kg science payload, the minimum deemed necessary to accomplish its goals. The instruments must be highly sensitive in order to be capable of detecting the identity and extremely low concentration of atmospheric trace gases, characterizing the spatial and temporal variation of methane and other important species, locating the source origin of the trace gases and determining if they are caused by biologic or geologic processes. Current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of methane in the martain atmosphere nor its rapid appearance and destruction in space, time or quantity.

An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer
An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer

Among the instruments planned are a trace gas detector and mapper, a thermal infrared imager and both a wide angle camera and a high resolution stereo color camera (1 – 2 meter resolution). “All the data will be jointly shared and will comply with NASA’s policies on fully open access and posting into the Planetary Data System”, said McCuiston.
Another key objective of the orbiter will be to establish a data relay capability for all surface missions up to 2022, starting with 2016 lander and two rovers slotted for 2018. This timeframe could potentially coincide with Mars Sample Return missions, a long sought goal of many scientists.

If the budget allows, ESA plans to piggyback a small companion lander (EDM) which would test critical technologies for future missions. McCuiston informed me that, “The objective of this ESA Technology Demonstrator is validating the ability to land moderate payloads, so the landing site selection will not be science-driven. So expect something like Meridiani or Gusev—large, flat and safe. NASA will assist ESA engineering as requested, and within ITAR constraints.” EDM will use parachutes, radar and clusters of pulsing liquid propulsion thrusters to land.

“ESA plans a competitive call for instruments on their 3-4 kg payload”, McCuiston explained. “The Announcement of Opportunity will be open to US proposers as well so there may be some US PI’s. ESA wants a camera to ‘prove’ they got to the ground. Otherwise there is no significant role planned for NASA in the EDM”.

The lander would likely function as a weather station and be relatively short lived, perhaps 8 Sols or martian days, depending on the capacity of the batteries. ESA is not including a long term power source, such as from solar arrays, so the surface science will thus be limited in duration.

The orbiter and lander would separate upon arrival at Mars. The orbiter will use a series of aerobraking maneuvers to eventually settle into a 400 km high circular science orbit inclined at about 74 degrees.

The joint Mars architecture was formally agreed upon last summer at a bilateral meeting between Ed Weiler (NASA) and David Southwood (ESA) in Plymouth, UK. Weiler is NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and Southwood is ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. They signed an agreement creating the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) which essentially weds the Mars programs of NASA and ESA and delineates their respective program responsibilities and goals.

“The key to moving forward on Mars exploration is international collaboration with Europe”, Weiler said to me in an interview. “We don’t have enough money to do these missions separately. The easy things have been done and the new ones are more complex and expensive. Cost overruns on Mars Science Lab (MSL) have created budgetary problems for future mars missions”. To pay for the MSL overrun, funds have to be taken from future mars budget allocations from fiscal years 2010 to 2014.

“2016 is a logical starting point to work together. NASA can have a 2016 mission if we work with Europe but not if we work alone. We can do so much more by working together since we both have the same objectives scientifically and want to carry out the same types of mission”. Weiler and Southwood instructed their respective science teams to meet and lay out a realistic and scientifically justifiable approach. Weiler explained to me that his goal and hope was to reinstate an exciting Mars architecture with new spacecraft launching at every opportunity which occurs every 26 months and which advance the state of the art for science. “It’s very important to demonstrate a critical new technology on each succeeding mission”.

More on the 2018 mission plan and beyond in a follow up report.

Mars from orbit.  Valles Marineris and Volcanic region
Mars from orbit. Valles Marineris and Volcanic region