Archive for June, 2007
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.
Scored another one. This time it is hi-res and I think this came out around 1996. I also just happened to get a copy of “Mars Underground” (unrelated) on DVD just yesterday which is about Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” concept of getting men (and women!) on Mars. I am thinking perhaps now this may finally be embraced as NASA’s Mars 2.0 plan going forward?
I tend to not get many of the small bodies in here simply due to the fact that they tend to not be geologically active, are grey in color and lack the grandeur of size. But here is a tiny moon that orbits just outside Saturn’s A-ring and is only about 40 by 20 kilometers in size. What makes this tiny body notable to me, is its shape which many assume is due to the collection of ring particles upon its surface.
As the rings of Saturn are so very flat, the materials all appear to have collected all along Atlas’s equator and as this material piles up it elongates the shape of the moon. This has erased any craters that may have existed on the tiny moon and created one of the Solar System’s more unusual surface features. The piled up equator of Atlas looks more like it is covered with snow and has ultimately given us our first naturally formed flying saucer (see inset side view). You can almost see the truly original form of Atlas somewhere in the middle hidden by the massive amounts of “ring-fall” over its many ages.
For those keeping score… the active bodies in the Solar System list may now include Dione and Tethys at Saturn. See article here - spacespin.org.
Once upon a time I did a large number of book covers (or dust jackets) for a Sci-Fi publisher known as Tor Books. While looking through old back-up files today I found this one that featured Saturn’s rings and it’s now famous moon Titan. Since I am currently working on a poster that celebrates the Cassini mission, I thought I should post this design on here as it happens to be one of my favorites.
I would have to guess that I have been involved with designing around 200 book jackets designs for Tor, both before and after starting the Chopping Block. Among some of the more famous titles I got to work on were Jonathan Lethem’s “Gun with Occasional Music”, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Three Californias” trilogy and vampire title, (soon to be a major motion picture) “I am Legend”. The Lethem and “Legend” books had provided artwork, but we also got to do a few other Lethem titles where we did all the art as well as the design.
Image Note: I found this file (not shown) I thought was the hard cover artwork, but instead it was the less impressive mass market edition of the jacket. I will upload a better hi-res version next week when I get back to the office. In the meantime I found this version online of the hard-cover and tried to clean up the jpg artifacts the best I could.
It is believed that these valleys may have originated from flash flood waters which came from melting ice many ages ago. But the conditions on Mars do not allow water to stay liquid for very long. That water would have frozen pretty quickly and then flowed down any depressions… which when you think of it - sort of makes an “instant glacier”.