Friday, June 3, 2011

The Cassini Mission: The Movie

CASSINI MISSION from cabbas on Vimeo.

[You'll probably want to watch this with HD and full screen turned on.]

This is footage from the Cassini Imaging Science System by the hard workers at NASA. The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for nearly 7 years now, tracking moons, rings, and the planet. Many thousands of images have been sent back to Earth and have been enjoyed by the public over the past few years.

Videographer Chris Abbas got the idea to string them together into a video. The result was an eerily beautiful look at the sixth planet using raw, unprocessed data. You can see some of the 'defects' that astronomers tend to work around since it gets in the way of the science being done. But in the case of art, the dark donuts created by dust in the camera, cosmic rays hitting the detector, and imperfections in the camera itself; they all add to the beauty of things.

Abbas included a quote of Carl Sagan with the video, a quote that inspiring with this video:
"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
(If you have problems getting the embedded Vimeo video to play, you can watch the video here.) 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Other Life on Mars

I felt like I haven't done a good astrobiology article in awhile. And I wanted to do something a bit different then the normal way we tend to think about life in the Universe. This one is about life on Mars, but in a different sense. It also pulls on an idea I talked about in the Life on Ceres article from a couple weeks back.

Lets just go ahead and throw the big-worded-phrase out there: Unintentional Anthropogenic Panspermia. More simply: human activity might have accidentally brought life to another planet. Specifically, Mars in this case.

OK? Yeah, it is kind of a crazy idea, along with lots of questions of hows and whys. But, like the classic idea of panspermia (that life on Earth was formed somewhere else and seeded here through natural [meteor, asteroid, or comet impact] causes), this idea is purely conjecture. It stands as a pretty fun thought in some astrobiologist heads since there is no way to determine anything definitive right now.

Unlike the idea of the Earth being seeded with life, if humans unintentional brought life to Mars, we may be able to prove it... eventually.

Mars: frozen desert or thriving ecology? (Image Credit: Spirit Rover, NASA)

First, lets take a step back and figure out how exactly Earth-based lifeforms would have made it to Mars. It is a bit ironic that the first missions being sent to Mars to search for life, might have been the ones to have brought it there. After it was clear that the United States had one the race to the Moon in 1969, the Soviet Union turned its eyes towards Mars. A red planet for the red army, the space race was still on.

It turns out that getting to Mars, even with just a probe, was more expensive and difficult than putting a man on the Moon. And if getting there was hard, putting a lander on the surface was even harder. There were numerous failed missions, some of which barely got off the launch platform, others missed Mars entirely and sailed of into space, never to be heard from again.

A few of those probes actually made it to Mars, and the Soviet Union had managed to get six landers to Mars before the famous USA Viking mission. They were known as Mars 2-7 (Mars 1 failed during launch). These were actually fairly sophisticated landers for the time, but they involved little more then crashing a probe into the planet and seeing how long it would last. They didn't provide the wealth of information that the highly successful Viking mission did, but they were many properties of Mars that were previous unknown.

Mars 3 Lander model at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Russia. (Source)

Unfortunately, after this point, the USSR was beginning to run into problems with its space program. They had already been cutting corners, which was beginning to show with the multiple launch failures. But all these failures and the faltering politics brought to an end some of the most ambitious Mars missions on the chalkboard, including sample returns. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been only one failed attempt by Russia to return to Mars, but there are currently plans for a lander on Mars' moon Phobos that will return samples.

So that is a little bit of the early Mars exploration history, with a larger context on Soviet activities. There is a specific reason why to highlight those missions, Mars 2-7. With the exception of 4 and 7, they all made it to the Martian surface. And I also mentioned that the Soviets had been cutting corners. See, they didn't have quite the same idea of procedure we have today. These landers were often poorly decontaminated, if at all. They were likely crawling with microorganism.

Before I have mentioned just how extreme and hardy life can be. This could very well be the case, that some amazing extremophile from our Earth survived a 60 million kilometer trip that lasted months to the surface of Mars. It sounds amazing, it sounds fantastic, it sounds plausible! In the crater of some old Soviet probe in the middle of the cold, dusty Martian desert there could be life from our muddy blue marble, so far from home.

Tardigrade, AKA Water Bear, AKA the baddest animal on Earth, and maybe Mars.

How would our distance brothers be doing? That is a point of contention. The probes could have been entirely sterilized from solar and cosmic activity. Or the microorganisms could still be in a frozen hibernation that they have been in since launch, waiting for the right conditions. Or they might have found just the littlest amount of liquid water nearby and have created a thriving community around the landing site, perhaps even seeping deep into the warmer crust.

If our brothers from Earth have flourished underground, they might have found Martian life not to different from themselves. A recent finding of 'worms' deep in the Earth's crust provides hope for life in similar environments on Mars and other locations. There could be a proverbial 'War of the Worlds' going on between tiny Soviet invaders and native Martians. This is also part of the reason why there is a push for decontamination these days, to not destroy any potential life that might exist or ruin alien environments.

Like I said before, this is conjecture, but it is entirely plausible. And it is testable. If we get to Mars and discover life, it would be fairly simple to determine if the similar to modern Earth-based lifeforms. They would likely carry signatures similar to all other life on Earth, unlike something that developed in a totally isolated Martian environment, which would expect to have a markedly different genetic history.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 2011 Highlights

As with previous months, I am delivering another summary of the great astronomical events you can expect this upcoming month. It definitely feels like Summer here, the Sun doesn't set until nearly 8:30 pm, and the heat has been sweltering this past Memorial Day weekend. All the more reason to spend more of the day at the pool and go out in the cooler evenings to take a look at the stars.

June 1: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth.

June 1: Partial Eclipse of the Sun: The partial eclipse will be visible in most parts eastern Asia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and other high latitude locations in the northern hemisphere. Begins at 19:25, ends at 23:06 UT. (UT stands for Universal Time, equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time)

June 9: First Quarter Moon: The Moon is halfway through the waxing phase, a great time for observing as the shadows provide wonderful contrast.

June 10: Saturn & Moon Conjunction: In the evening sky, you can expect to find Saturn and the Moon near each other.

June 13: Mercury at Superior Conjunction: Mercury swings around the opposite side of the Sun and passes into the evening sky.

June 15: Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse: Begins at 19:22 UT and ends at 21:03 UT. Mid-eclipse at 20:13 UT. Partial phases begin at 18:22 UT and end at 22:02 UT. The Moon will appear red-orange in color during totality (the Earth's shadow). Total eclipse visible from eastern South America, Africa, Europe, central Asia, and western Australia. This moon, in the Native American tradition of naming the full moons throughout the year, is known as the Strawberry Moon, because this is the time of year when strawberries are naturally in season.

June 21: June (Summer) Solstice: Summer is definitely here for the northern hemisphere! In the southern hemisphere, it is Winter. The Summer Solstice occurs when the Sun reaches the point farthest north of the equator (the Tropic of Cancer at 23.44 degrees north latitude) marking the start of summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. It is also the longest day of the year for the north, while the shortest for the south.

June 23: Last Quarter Moon: Halfway through the Moon's waning phase, The next New Moon will be July 1st.

I'm going to be enjoying my long, warm June days. And you guys in the south keep warm, you'll be rubbing it in our faces come December. Have a great month everyone!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Infographic: OSIRIS-REx

Last week NASA announced its asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx. It has similarities to a previous mission, Stardust, which collected samples from a comet. The good people over at put together an infograph for it that you can see below.

Anyways, I feel bad about posting two infographics in the same week, but hey, there's been a lot of news and it's Memorial Day weekend. I reserve the right to dial it in every once in awhile. Oh yeah, OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (isn't that a mouthful), but it certainly is a cooler name then the subject of the previous infographic, the MPCV.