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Over here I post a ton of physics / math / general interesting posts in an attempt to make your brain feel good. My aim is to be as informative as possible, all while posting fascinating things that hopefully enlighten us both a little to the mysteries of our truly wondrous universe(s?). Plus, how would you know if the blog exists or not unless you observe it? Boom, just pulled the Schrödinger’s cat card. Now you have to check it out - trust me, it said so in an equation somewhere.

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Curiosity Rover Prepares to Drill Into Rocks That May Have Once Been Wet

NASA’s Curiosity rover has explored a new area on Mars called Yellowknife Bay, which shows plenty of evidence of flowing water. The rover is preparing to drill into a rock nicknamed “John Klein” in the location in the next couple weeks, investigating its composition and searching for organics. This will be the first time that engineers have drilled into the surface of another planet.

Scientists already know that Curiosity’s explorations have taken it to a place that was basically an ancient riverbed. Now they are uncovering the complex geologic history of the area and have stumbled across many interesting features.

“The scientists have been let into the candy store,” said engineer Richard Cook, project manager for Curiosity, during a NASA teleconference on Jan. 15.

For the last few weeks, the rover has been moving from the plateau it landed on down a slope into a depression. As it descended, it passed through layers of rock that are increasingly older, taking it backwards into the planet’s history. Geologists are finding a lot of different rock types, indicating that many different geologic processes took place here over time.

Some of the minerals are sedimentary, suggesting that flowing water moved small grains around and deposited them, and other evidence suggests water moved through the rocks after they had formed. Tiny spherical concretions scattered through the rock were likely formed when water percolated through rock pores and minerals precipitated out. Other samples are cracked and filled with veins of material such as calcium sulfate, that were also formed when water percolated through the cracks and deposited the mineral.

“Basically these rocks were saturated with water,” said geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, Curiosity’s project scientist, who added that these rocks indicate the most complex history of water that researchers have yet seen on Mars.

Curiosity brushed some of these rocks to remove their dust covering and then peered at them close-up with its high-resolution Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. The rocks are sandstones containing larger grains up to 2 mm long surrounded by silt grains that are “finer than powdered sugar but coarser than sugar used to make icing,” said geologist R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute, a scientist on the MAHLI team.

Many of the grains are rounded, suggesting they were knocked about and worn down somehow. Because the grains are too large to have been carried by wind, they were most likely transported by water flowing at least 1 meter per second (2.2 mph). All these investigations suggest if you could go deep into Mars’ past and stand at the same spot as the rover, you’d probably see a river of flowing water with small underwater dunes along the riverbed.

The next step for Curiosity is to drill 5 centimeter holes into some of these rocks and veins to definitively determine their composition. Grotzinger said that the team will search for aqueous minerals, isotope ratios that could indicate the composition of Mars’ atmosphere in the past, and possibly organic material.

The drilling will probably take place within two weeks, though NASA engineers are still unsure of the exact date. The procedure will be “the most significant engineering thing we’ve done since landing,” said Cook, and will require several trial runs, equipment warm-ups, and drilling a couple test holes to make sure everything works. The team wants to take things as slowly as possible to correct for any problems that may arise, such as potential electrical shorts and excessive shaking of the rover.

Tracking Mars: Curiosity Makes Its Mark on the Red Planet

Since Curiosity landed on mars on Aug. 6, the rover has traveled hundreds of feet over the Martian surface. In the process, it has tracked up the sandy, dusty terrain, leaving tire marks, scoop divots, Morse code and one tiny piece of itself behind.

Unlike the Apollo astronauts’ footprints on the moon, Curiosity’s trails will probably be wiped away by the planet’s frequent wind and sand storms. But there is still something so incredible about these little ephemeral marks we are making on another world.

Though the physical traces won’t last, their impact lives on in the images the rover is sending back to Earth. Here are some of our favorite shots of Curiosity’s tracks on Mars.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Curiosity Rover’s Secret Historic Breakthrough? Speculation Centers on Organic Molecules
Much of the internet is buzzing over upcoming “big news” from NASA’s Curiosity rover, but the space agency’s scientists are keeping quiet about the details.
The report comes by way of the rover’s principal investigator, geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, who said that Curiosity has uncovered exciting new results from a sample of Martian soil recently scooped up and placed in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.
“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” Grotzinger told NPR in an segment published Nov. 20. Curiosity’s SAM instrument contains a vast array of tools that can vaporize soil and rocks to analyze them and measure the abundances of certain light elements such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen – chemicals typically associated with life.
The mystery will be revealed shortly, though. Grotzinger told Wired through e-mail that NASA would hold a press conference about the results during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco from Dec. 3 to 7. Because it’s so potentially earth-shaking, Grotzinger said the team remains cautious and is checking and double-checking their results. But while NASA is refusing to discuss the findings with anyone outside the team, especially reporters, other scientists are free to speculate.
“If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect,” says planetary scientist Peter Smith from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Smith is formerly the principal investigator on a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix lander, which touched down at the Martian North Pole in 2008. “It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting.”
Smith added that he is not in contact with anyone from the Curiosity team about their results and offered his assessment as an informed outside researcher.
Organic molecules are those that contain carbon and are potential indicators of life. During its mission, Phoenix heated a sample of soil to search for organics but these efforts were stymied by the presence of perchlorates, chemical salts that sit in the Martian soil. Perchlorates react to heat and destroy any complex organic molecules, leaving only carbon dioxide, which is abundant in the Martian atmosphere.
The Viking landers, which explored opposite sides of Mars in the late 1970s, also conducted a search for organic molecules and came up empty. For decades afterward, astronomers considered Mars to be a dead planet, with conditions not very conducive to life. After the results from Phoenix, scientists realized that perchlorates were probably messing with those earlier findings as well, and could account for their negative outcome.
Curiosity’s suite of laboratory instruments are able to slowly heat a sample in a way that doesn’t trigger the perchlorates. They can also weigh any molecules present, determining how much carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen they are made from. Simple organic compounds wouldn’t be completely shocking, said Smith, since these probably come from meteorites originating in the asteroid belt and probably are around on present-day Mars. But they would indicate that the building blocks for life are present on Mars and might only need the addition of water, which Mars had in the past, in order to produce organisms.
“If they found signatures of a very complex organic type, that would be astounding,” said Smith, since they would likely be leftovers from complex life forms that once roamed Mars. But the odds of finding such a startling result in a sample of sand scooped from a random dune are “very, very low,” Smith said.
Smith cautioned against speculating too much, since rumors have a way of spreading rapidly when it comes to any discussion of potential life on Mars. During his tenure on the Phoenix mission, his team was evaluating the interesting perchlorate results, which they kept secret during analysis. Rumors got out and then became worse when some unsubstantiated report claimed a member of his team meeting was meeting with the White House.
“When you keep things secret, people start thinking all kinds of crazy things,” he said.

Curiosity Rover’s Secret Historic Breakthrough? Speculation Centers on Organic Molecules

Much of the internet is buzzing over upcoming “big news” from NASA’s Curiosity rover, but the space agency’s scientists are keeping quiet about the details.

The report comes by way of the rover’s principal investigator, geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, who said that Curiosity has uncovered exciting new results from a sample of Martian soil recently scooped up and placed in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” Grotzinger told NPR in an segment published Nov. 20. Curiosity’s SAM instrument contains a vast array of tools that can vaporize soil and rocks to analyze them and measure the abundances of certain light elements such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen – chemicals typically associated with life.

The mystery will be revealed shortly, though. Grotzinger told Wired through e-mail that NASA would hold a press conference about the results during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco from Dec. 3 to 7. Because it’s so potentially earth-shaking, Grotzinger said the team remains cautious and is checking and double-checking their results. But while NASA is refusing to discuss the findings with anyone outside the team, especially reporters, other scientists are free to speculate.

“If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect,” says planetary scientist Peter Smith from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Smith is formerly the principal investigator on a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix lander, which touched down at the Martian North Pole in 2008. “It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting.”

Smith added that he is not in contact with anyone from the Curiosity team about their results and offered his assessment as an informed outside researcher.

Organic molecules are those that contain carbon and are potential indicators of life. During its mission, Phoenix heated a sample of soil to search for organics but these efforts were stymied by the presence of perchlorates, chemical salts that sit in the Martian soil. Perchlorates react to heat and destroy any complex organic molecules, leaving only carbon dioxide, which is abundant in the Martian atmosphere.

The Viking landers, which explored opposite sides of Mars in the late 1970s, also conducted a search for organic molecules and came up empty. For decades afterward, astronomers considered Mars to be a dead planet, with conditions not very conducive to life. After the results from Phoenix, scientists realized that perchlorates were probably messing with those earlier findings as well, and could account for their negative outcome.

Curiosity’s suite of laboratory instruments are able to slowly heat a sample in a way that doesn’t trigger the perchlorates. They can also weigh any molecules present, determining how much carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen they are made from. Simple organic compounds wouldn’t be completely shocking, said Smith, since these probably come from meteorites originating in the asteroid belt and probably are around on present-day Mars. But they would indicate that the building blocks for life are present on Mars and might only need the addition of water, which Mars had in the past, in order to produce organisms.

“If they found signatures of a very complex organic type, that would be astounding,” said Smith, since they would likely be leftovers from complex life forms that once roamed Mars. But the odds of finding such a startling result in a sample of sand scooped from a random dune are “very, very low,” Smith said.

Smith cautioned against speculating too much, since rumors have a way of spreading rapidly when it comes to any discussion of potential life on Mars. During his tenure on the Phoenix mission, his team was evaluating the interesting perchlorate results, which they kept secret during analysis. Rumors got out and then became worse when some unsubstantiated report claimed a member of his team meeting was meeting with the White House.

“When you keep things secret, people start thinking all kinds of crazy things,” he said.

New NASA Mars Mission Scheduled for 2016
Hot on the heels of Curiosity’s successful landing, NASA has decided to send another mission to Mars. The project, called InSight, involves drilling 16 feet into the crust of Mars. The mission, set to launch in 2016, will provide detailed information about the planet’s core, in particular determining whether it is liquid or solid.
“This is the first time we’re looking at the interior of Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator in the science mission directorate, during a press conference on Aug. 20. “There are many science questions we’re dying to learn the answer to.”
Though NASA currently has several probes on Mars — including the remaining MER rover, Opportunity, the new and popular Curiosity rover, and the high-flying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odysseyspacecrafts — future Mars exploration has been looking pretty sparse. Other than the MAVEN orbiter, set to launch next year, NASA had no further Mars missions on its plate. The U.S. agency had formerly partnered with ESA to send probes to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, but those plans were terminated when NASA’s last budget made deep cuts to planetary science. The new InSight mission puts Mars back on NASA’s radar.
Unlike Curiosity and its complex sky-crane maneuver, InSight will use Phoenix lander-type technology to reach the Martian surface. It will carry a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras as well as instruments to measure Martian seismic activity and the planet’s rotation axis. A small drill-like instrument will vibrate to wiggle down into the soil and penetrate a few feet into the crust to make temperature measurements.
Though a rocky planet like Earth, Mars is much smaller than our home world and has evolved quite differently. Unlike Earth, the Red Planet has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field. It remains an open question whether Marsquakes shake its surface and how much.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery-class program, which aims to produce top notch science on the cheap. The mission is capped at $425 million, a steal compared to the recent flagship $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Insight was competing for selection as the next Discovery mission against two others, the Comet Hopper, which would have explored the body of a comet, and the Titan Mare Explorer, which planned to land a small boat-like probe on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Image: JPL/NASA

New NASA Mars Mission Scheduled for 2016

Hot on the heels of Curiosity’s successful landing, NASA has decided to send another mission to Mars. The project, called InSight, involves drilling 16 feet into the crust of Mars. The mission, set to launch in 2016, will provide detailed information about the planet’s core, in particular determining whether it is liquid or solid.

“This is the first time we’re looking at the interior of Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator in the science mission directorate, during a press conference on Aug. 20. “There are many science questions we’re dying to learn the answer to.”

Though NASA currently has several probes on Mars — including the remaining MER rover, Opportunity, the new and popular Curiosity rover, and the high-flying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odysseyspacecrafts — future Mars exploration has been looking pretty sparse. Other than the MAVEN orbiter, set to launch next year, NASA had no further Mars missions on its plate. The U.S. agency had formerly partnered with ESA to send probes to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, but those plans were terminated when NASA’s last budget made deep cuts to planetary science. The new InSight mission puts Mars back on NASA’s radar.

Unlike Curiosity and its complex sky-crane maneuver, InSight will use Phoenix lander-type technology to reach the Martian surface. It will carry a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras as well as instruments to measure Martian seismic activity and the planet’s rotation axis. A small drill-like instrument will vibrate to wiggle down into the soil and penetrate a few feet into the crust to make temperature measurements.

Though a rocky planet like Earth, Mars is much smaller than our home world and has evolved quite differently. Unlike Earth, the Red Planet has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field. It remains an open question whether Marsquakes shake its surface and how much.

InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery-class program, which aims to produce top notch science on the cheap. The mission is capped at $425 million, a steal compared to the recent flagship $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Insight was competing for selection as the next Discovery mission against two others, the Comet Hopper, which would have explored the body of a comet, and the Titan Mare Explorer, which planned to land a small boat-like probe on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Image: JPL/NASA

Photos of Curiosity on Mars and the Environment

These photos taken from space shows of Curiosity’s landing site and the stunning environment that the rover may explore over the coming year on Mars.

Ever since Curiosity landed last week, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been snapping pics ofthe rover from space. This latest shot, taken using the satellite’s HiRISE camera, is the first to capture Curiosity and the surrounding environs in vivid (false) color.

The northernmost part of the image, representing the area nearest to Curiosity, is fairly flat and uniform. The rover itself can be seen sitting in a discolored spot, surrounded by dust that was blasted when the sky crane’s rockets brought Curiosity down for a safe landing.

Farther south are enormous sand dunes and various geologic features that the rover may visit as it travels to the base of its eventual target: Mount Sharp. These colorful outcrops include hydrated minerals, clays, and sulfates that will help scientists unravel the complex watery history of Mars. Curiosity may be sitting atop similarly interesting features right now but dust obscures their view from orbit. With the rover on the Martian surface, geologists are eager to start probing that environment.

A person in orbit around Mars would not see this area in these colors — in reality the bluish regions are more of a gray color. HiRISE took the photo in infrared wavelengths, and the image was then enhanced to bring out subtle differences. Rocks tend to be bluer while dusty regions are redder. As well, rougher surface materials are redder, showing off the different textures that Curiosity may visit.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona [Full-resolution 1500 x 13400 pixels]

Incredible Images From Space Shows Curiosity on Surface of Mars

Images:

1) The full portrait of Curiosity and its components.

2) The Curioisity rover on the surface.

3) The rover’s parachute.

4) The crashed sky crane. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Stunning photographs from space shows NASA’s Curiosity rover sitting safely on the surface of Mars. Taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, the picture captures incredible details of the surface along with the robotic components that helped Curiosity stick its landing.

“This is like the crime scene photo here,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist during a NASA press conference Aug. 7.

Zooming in close, black streaks can be seen where the rover’s rockets disturbed bright surface dust, revealing darker soil underneath. Researchers have used these streak patterns to infer Curiosity’s orientation, which matches up nicely with information from the rover’s first pictures on the surface.

Down and to the right is the rover’s heat shield, which protected the probe as it plummeted through the Martian atmosphere. It is sitting about 4000 feet from Curiosity on the surface. The backshell and parachute — over to the lower left in the image — sit about 2000 feet from the rover while the sky crane, which gently lowered the rover to the ground, is above and to the left about 2100 feet from Curiosity. NASA engineers will continue poring over the photo for clues of exactly how Curiosity’s complex landing sequence unfolded.

How an Unknown Grad Student Saved Apollo 13 - and how NASA covered it up.

Either via movies, news reports or by word of mouth, you’ve likely heard of the ill-fated Apollo 13 space mission. Next to Apollo 11, it’s one of NASA’s proudest achievements — returning three men to Earth against insurmountable odds. That return was only possible thanks to the bright idea of a NASA scientist who claimed that slingshotting the craft around the moon was the only way back. Now, a former NASA staffer has revealed that it wasn’t NASA’s idea at all, and the internet is on a quest to find who it was.

The bold claim that NASA didn’t actually save Apollo 13 came from the space agency’s ex-deputy chief of media relations during the time of the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. He’s 97 years old now and like the good sport he is, took part in a Reddit ask me anything with the aid of his grandson.

He was asked pretty early on in the caper about Apollo 13, and whether or not he thought the crew would make it back to Earth. He said he had no hope for the crew’s survival, but that didn’t stop him and everyone else at NASA from staying awake for 7 days straight to try to bring the astronauts home.

That was before he dropped this bombshell:

All the engineers and everybody else at NASA in Houston were working hard at recovering the moonshot, and they were in real trouble, weren’t sure they could get it back. They got a phone call from a grad student at MIT who said he knew how to get them back. They put engineers on it, tested it out, by God it worked. Slingshotting them around the moon. They successfully did. They wanted to present the grad student to the President and the public, but they found him and he was a real hippy type — long hair and facial hair. NASA was straight-laced, and this was different than they expected, so they withdrew the invitation to the student. I think that is a disgrace.

According to the grandson who was relaying the answers, the 97-year old had been keeping this secret his whole life based on how hard the story was to tell. NASA apparently made a concerted effort to bury the grad student’s involvement in the mission.

History recounts the decision to slingshot around the moon as one that was weighed against what’s known as a “direct abort”. That is, burning every last drop of fuel in the craft to put it into an about face and return it to Earth. Flight Director Gene Kranz reportedly made the decision to slingshot around the moon in a bid to get the astronauts home. No grad student has yet been mentioned in the pages of history.

Redditors called on the ex-NASA member to right the wrong by outing the name of the grad student, but got no response. As a result, the community is now on the hunt for the name of the student.

Curiosity Landing in LESS THAN AN HOUR

Curiosity, NASA’s largest and most complex Mars Rover ever, is scheduled to land in LESS THAN AN HOUR - starting at approximately 1:31 am EST. It takes approximately 7 for the rover to decelerate from 13,000 mph to 0! To NASA scientists, this has been called the “seven minutes of terror.” You can watch the live stream from NASA TV here