Friday, July 22, 2011

Onward to Mars!


It is tempting to keep saturating myself in all the minutiae of the Space Shuttle. Many space geeks are certainly experiencing a reluctance to let go, particularly if we were lucky enough to be spectators at the launch or landing. Atlantis had a picture perfect touch down early yesterday, and since then, Twitter and Facebook groups have exploded with tributes, memorials of the fallen astronauts of the Shuttle program, and general gratitude toward NASA for 30 years of Shuttle activity... but...

Happy Mars Day! We're moving on, as we always do. Exploration never stops, and pioneering new frontiers shouldn't either. An advanced probe will soon launch for Jupiter in August, and this winter, the Mars Science Laboratory, aboard the Curiosity Rover, will conduct the most sophisticated tests upon the planet Mars.

Who knows what this will bring us in terms of astrobiology? What is the overall biological potential of the red planet? How can we conduct detailed measurements on the surface?

This morning, NASA and the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum hosted a press conference where geologists, project engineers and MSL scientists announced that Curiosity will land near the Gale Crater on Mars.

Gale Crater
Gale Crater is 154 kilometers in diameter (about 96 imperial miles) and includes within it a 5-kilometer high mountain (3 miles of layers) above the crater floor. Three different environmental settings are thought to exist in and around Gale, which may indicate overall habitability of the planet in terms of the water cycle.

Is Gale an ancient lake deposit? Was there microbial life there? Orbiters have detected "signatures" of clay minerals and sulfate salts, known for being distributed by water. The scientists who spoke stressed that this was not a "life detection mission" and MSL is not necessarily looking for fossils -- but simply carbon traces, in terms of determining habitability.

Google Mars
Named in 1991 after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, the Gale Crater is in the Elysium Planitia, is the second largest volcanic region on Mars, and estimated to be about three and a half billion years old.

Definitely check out Google Mars for precise coordinates of the Gale Crater from varied distances, and also click here for the Topographic elevation map of Gale. It's going to be hard to wait until 2012 to hear all about the landing and roving adventures!