The Mars Laser and the Future of Space Exploration

MSL Using ChemCam

The coming Mars Science Lab mission will be employing a most unusual device for examining the surface of another planet. When MSL reaches Mars around 2010 it will be rolling about the surface of Mars zapping rocks and soil with an on-board laser beam generator. The beam is part of a science package that practices laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS for short. First, scientists on the ground will determine which objects or features imaged with normal on-board cameras seem worthy of further examination. Once a target is selected, a beam is generated and focused upon a small area of that target. This will burn or superheat the material into a plume of particles that expands at supersonic speeds as it cools. It is at this cooling time that the spectrometer will image the cloud and use the widest range of electromagnetic wavelengths possible — from infrared light through visible light and all the way to the ultraviolet. Since every element we know of has a signature of some wavelength within that wide range, the spectrometer will be able to determine all the materials present in the sample (even to simple trace amounts) by detecting and imaging the specific wavelength signatures present in the cloud.

What is most exciting about the instrument is that it is yet another example of NASA really employing non-traditional methods of exploring space. Gone are the old flyby probes of the 70’s and 80’s that simply pick a target and speed by with 95% of its mission goals completed in hours. So far this decade, NASA has chased a comet and collected comet dust in a grid of aerogel; intentionally slammed a heavy probe into a comet to form a man-made crater; they delivered 2 rovers to the surface of Mars that got there from a bounce landing; performed an impromptu landing of a non-lander type probe on the surface of an asteroid and now we will be shooting rocks on Mars. It provides us hope that once we are through the current financial speed bump of retiring the Shuttle fleet and completing our International Space Station commitments we can expect some really exciting new missions to our extended Solar System family. Some have already suggested such missions like air-probes on Mars and Saturn’s Titan; more aerogel collector type missions at Saturn’s Enceladus to collect geyser dust and most exciting of all would be a tunneling probe that could melt its way through the icy crust at Jupiter’s Europa in order to release a submarine type probe into Europa’s vast underground ocean.

It is stunning when you consider the near perfect scorecard for NASA’s unmanned space missions in the last 10-15 years and yet the organization is currently saddled with the image of being ineffective, stodgy and even sloppy. All these perceptions are coming from the manned side of its operations which hasn’t really done anything inspirational since apollo and the initial shuttle years. If only NASA was able to transfer some of the bold ambitions of the unmanned wing of its operations to the manned side of things, then maybe this image could just go away. I propose that even with the occasional tragedy and loss of life (which is inevitable on such endeavors) people would be much more accepting of such losses if astronauts died in the pursuit of doing something remarkable like going to Mars or even the moon for a second time. I mean, who wants to die so that we might hand deliver another component to the space station?

It is high time for us to be inspired by something again… on a grand scale. Time to focus at least some of our attention on something other than the fear of being blown up by terrorists or waging another war on a culture we know so little about. It is truly time to forget about Paris Hilton, forget about reality television and all the other pointless distractions that keep us from dreaming. In many ways it is bigger than just doing science in space — we need to give the next generation something better to think about. Something so exciting that the trivialities of the day that seem to dominate the national consciousness will at least be challenged by something so great that it will be hard to ignore.

We need to get going.

Mars Science Lab Animation

Mars Science Lab Frame 2 The coming Mars Science Lab mission video is available with various resolution options here (they are also downloadble!). This animation doesn’t focus as much on the trip to Mars as the MAAS ones have in the past, I would imagine that NASA wanted to highlight all the advanced science this mission will be performing instead of focusing on the long cruise to get there.

Mars Science Lab Frame 3

Take a look especially at the part of the mission where apparently they actually shoot a laser beam at various targets and take measurements of, what I would imagine, are the gasses emitted from such a burn. It also illustrates the process by which MSL will be taking soil and rock samples for in-depth investigations. This mission is exactly what it claims to be… a roving Science Lab on Mars. This is as close to having astronauts on the surface as our current technology can allow… that is… without actually sending someone… which our current technology does allow.

Stardust Extended Mission Target Is…

Soon after the Stardust mission flew in close and collected tiny samples of comet dust in Jan 2004 from the comet Wild 2, the spacecraft was placed into hibernation mode – only to be awakened for occasional health status calls.Tempel 1 Impact Image A proposal to extend the mission into Stardust-NExT suggests the spacecraft be sent on a trajectory to encounter comet Tempel 1. The main objective of this mission would be to image the crater left behind by the Deep Impact mission of 2005. That mission did not manage to image the resulting crater due to the huge amount of dust blasted off from the impact (pictured above-left) which blocked the view until well after DI’s cameras were out of range to see any details on its surface. The final decision on this extended mission is expected this May/June and should it be approved… it is expected that Stardust-NExT would reach Tempel 1 at some point around 2010.

I Drew the Cassini Spacecraft

So, I am tentatively planning to make a poster for the Cassini mission at Saturn. I always wanted to get a real nice graphic poster of some mission to Mars, Jupiter or Saturn… but the posters out there are always data driven and not so celebratory or artful. So I have decided to make my own and I started with drawing the spacecraft itself. I have no idea how accurate some of the instruments are as I was unable to find many visual references of them apart from the usual renderings.

Cassini Drawing 01

Rosetta at Mars

This gorgeous true color full globe of Mars may become the definitive Mars portrait image for the planet. For those may not have noticed, I have tried to apply a “portrait” label on at least one image per body as being the best representative full globe image of that world. The image I currently have tagged for Mars is that great image of Valles Marineris cutting across a near full disc of Mars taken by Viking. Rosetta at Mars True Color Full Globe

Also worth posting is this semi-color image of Mars seen from behind the solar panels of the probe itself. It was taken by the lander attached to Rosetta which will one day detach itself from the parent probe and make an attempt to actually land on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. It looks as if it was originally a black and white image and someone at ESA just applied a color tone to the Mars globe, although I could be wrong.

Rosetta at Mars 2007 Portview

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Got Good Eyes

Jupiter From MarsThis is a great way to truly understand the capabilities of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This image of Jupiter is taken from Martian orbit which is 357 million miles away. It is comparable to the what the New Horizons is seeing as it actually approaches Jupiter, which is currently 38 million miles away. So if you were wondering how MRO can get those incredibly detailed images of rovers and landers on the surface from orbit… now you can scratch your head and wonder how it can see Jupiter as good as a probe that is actually approaching a flyby in a few weeks. Wallpaper: Jupiter From Mars

Okay, so not as exciting a wallpaper as most… but it was taken from Mars and you can see (i’m guessing) is Europa, Ganymede and Callisto in the same shot.

Wallpapers: Three From Apollo

Wallpaper: Lunar Orbit A few decades ago, about 12 men walked upon the surface of another celestial body for the first time in history. At one point, Neil Armstrong looked up at Earth and blotted it out with his thumb and thought the significance of that simple act. “That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam”. While these were not Armstrong’s words, but instead Carl Sagan’s, it is clear that it is along these similar lines he was thinking.

Wallpaper: Lunar Walk

It is easy to forget how incredible those moments were as they happened so long ago, and the first of these was some months before I even existed as a person. We have grown accustomed to these images of men walking on the moon, in no small part because a follow up is so long overdue that they seem antiquated or quaint. So it seemed to me that out of 50 wallpapers uploaded it might be appropriate to include man’s first exploration of any of these places as part of the collection.

Wallpaper: Lunar Drive

Phoenix: Failure Avoided

Phoenix Boulders
The above image was returned to the team assigned the task of selecting a landing spot for this summer’s launch of the Phoenix lander. This has been considered for years and once the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was placed in orbit around Mars, one of it’s highest priority tasks was the image this proposed area. As you can see, what was previously thought to be a fairly flat safe place to put down a lander has turned out instead to be littered with boulders that compare in size to the lander itself. Many missions to Mars in human history have ended in failure, especially when including the many Russian probes which were lost to various problems. Attempting to touch down in this area could certainly have spelled doom for the Phoenix lander and we would never have known without the high resolution eyes of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Maybe NASA would have gotten lucky again, but this looks to many as a disaster avoided.

Beyond: Visions Of The Interplanetary Probes

Beyond: Visions Of The Interplanetary Probes

In my surfing for the best possible images from interplanetary probes, I stumbled upon this site from kinetikon pictures which had been set up to support a book which I was not even aware had existed. Today, so much of my work and interests are so completely ruled by the internet that I suppose I miss what might be great moments in the world of print.

The book runs predictably from the inner solar system to the outer, but much like what I am trying to do here… it’s central objective is to simply show beautiful imagery. These images range from old 1960’s Lunar Orbiter missions to the Moon to the 1990’s mission to Jupiter and Galileo (notably missing from the book are images from today’s Cassini mission at Saturn).

As it is with the freelance image processors linked on the main page in the right column (or from the previous post), this book is also reworking old and new data with today’s superior technology and filling in some gaps. Going back to old files and reprocessing them provides a nice pay-off for everyone concerned with space exploration and this book prooves it. Some of the images are just made better and are familiar views, others have just been over-looked, and others are whole new image composites not previously entertained with lesser technologies. This means that some of these new composite images have been stitched together from different orbits and some images even contain composites which include data from different missions in one take. The latter approach to making composite images really would have been impossible before today’s available computing technologies.

if you are somewhat familiar with images from the last 40 years of robotic space exploration, this book is an exciting fresh look at these historic missions anew. If you think you have seen it all… look again.