It is Friday the 13th and human beings have a robot digging up stuff on Mars…will it find a haunted ancient burial ground? Probably not but it is finding good science. We also have the final word of the status of what the heck to call Pluto. Plus there is planetary weather, the launch of a new satellite, an early holodeck and NASA is planning a mission to the sun…perhaps they will go at night (rimshot).
Phoenix Updates: Scooping soil, Baking Baby Bear, and the Snow Queen
The Mars Phoenix Lander seemed to have a tough time getting started with Martian soil analysis. But, after an initial setback, the scoop and the thermal soil analyzer seem to be in good health. Earlier this week, scientists weren’t receiving confirmation of the soil’s deliverance into the analyzer, but NASA now reports that “delivery of scooped-up soil for inspection by the lander’s Optical Microscope marks the second success for getting samples delivered to laboratory instruments on Phoenix’s deck”, so it appears that the problem has been resolved.
The lander performs a “sprinkle test”
Once all this soil is scooped, it is to be analyzed by the Phoenix “oven”. The Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer instrument, or TEGA, has eight separate tiny ovens to bake and sniff the soil to assess its volatile ingredients, such as water. The lander’s Robotic Arm delivered a partial scoopful of clumpy soil from a trench informally called “Baby Bear”, seen below, to the number 4 oven on TEGA last Friday, June 6.
The Martian trench known as “Baby Bear”
There is even more exciting news for ice at the Phoenix landing site, as predicted by scientists when they saw a “light-colored substrate” under the lander in some of the early photos sent back to Earth. Further images have this substrate looking more and more like ice. In fact, the patch of unknown substance has been deemed the Snow Queen by Phoenix scientists. This is a very exciting prospect, as it would me that Phoenix will have the chance to deliver loads of new data from the Red Planet once that substrate is sampled.
A shiny feature dubbed the Snow Queen
Pluto the Plutoid
The International Astronomical Union has decided on the term “plutoid” as a name for dwarf planets like Pluto. This decision comes almost two years after the IAU stripped Pluto of its planethood and introduced the term “dwarf planets” for Pluto and other small round objects that often travel highly elliptical paths around the sun in the far reaches of the solar system. The two currently known and named plutoids are Pluto and Eris.
Pluto and Eris, the two Plutoids
GLAST off for NASA’s newest telescope
From Earth, the night sky can look peaceful and unchanging, but the universe as seen in gamma-rays is a place of sudden and chaotic violence. Using gamma-ray telescopes, astronomers witness short but tremendously intense explosions called gamma-ray bursts, and there is nothing more powerful. Last Wednesday, NASA’s Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) left Earth onboard a Delta II rocket. GLAST will explore the most extreme environments in the universe, searching for signs of new laws of physics, investigating the nature of dark matter, and much more.
Artist’s conception of a gamma ray burst
Space weather interfering with GPS
You can’t always trust your GPS gadget. As scientists have long known, perplexing electrical activity in the upper atmospheric zone called the ionosphere can tamper with signals from GPS satellites. Now, new research and monitoring systems are clarifying what happens to disruptive clouds of electrons and other electrically charged particles, known as ions, in the ionosphere. The work may lead to regional predictions of reduced GPS reliability and accuracy.
The Aurora Australis as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery
Gadget of the Week: HoloVizio aka Holodeck 1.0?
Star Trek’s holodeck is a famous science fiction concept, but last year researchers took the first, confident steps towards its realisation with the Coherent project. This EU-funded research project, developed a commercial, true 3-D display that could one day be called Holodeck version 1.0. It is called HoloVizio, a 3-D screen that will allow designers to visualise true 3-D models of cars, engines or components. Better yet, gesture recognition means that observers can manipulate the models by waving their hands in front of the screen. [Thanks Judy & Gar!]
Seeing is believing in this video, but I’d bet it’s even more impressive in real life
Here’s a warp-speed look at science tid-bits that didn’t quite make the cut, but nonetheless merit mention.