Science Saturday: Mars Mission Launch Today + Underwater Brinicle + Botched Russian Spacecraft + More

Welcome back to Science Saturday! This week: watch the launch of Mars Science Laboratory today, live on NASA TV, witness the underwater “icicle of death” caught on film for the first time, and duck and cover from falling botched Russian Mars mission. All this and more, plus our gadget of the week: NeverWet superhydrophobic spray.


Mars Science Laboratory Launch Today
The highly anticipated next mission to mars — Mars Science Laboratory aka Mars Curiosity Rover — will launch today in an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air force Station in Florida. The launch window is open from 10:02am – 11:45am EST. NASA reports a 70% chance for favorable weather conditions during the launch window. NASA TV has already started pre-launch programming.
Don’t forget to watch the launch live on NASA TV.

Click to watch at NASA TV

Underwater “icicle of death” Caught on Film for First Time
A BBC crew used time-lapse cameras to capture what some call the “icicle of death” for the first time ever on film. Extremely cold saltwater ice (well below freezing) flows into fresh water. The freshwater immediately freezes creating an icy shell around the flowing saltwater. This underwater icicle eventually reaches the sea floor, where it kills everything it touches. Check out the amazing video below.

Click to watch at the BBC

Failed Russian Mars Mission Phobos-Grunt Now Threat to Earth
The Russians launched an ambitious mission to Phobos, one of the moons of the Red Planet, to collect a soil sample and return to Earth. Their plans were derailed when Phobos-Grunt stalled in Earth orbit after its launch on November 8th. Scientists only just received telemetry from the spacecraft earlier this week, but now it’s too late for the mission to be completed — the travel window has passed. Phobos-Grunt will eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but, as it was set to go to Mars, it’s full of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuels and rather explosive. Reports say that Phobos-Grunt may be the dirtiest thing to ever re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, but won’t make it to the surface before burning up according to analysts. Just hope their right and the thing won’t crash into your house.

Phobos-Grunt was supposed to travel to Mars’ moon and back

Gadget of the Week: NeverWet Superhydrophobic Spray
Now you can have perfectly clean clothes without the need to wash ever again! The NeverWet superhydrophobic spray repels water, oils, basically anything liquid. According to our sources, NeverWet products will be available for consumers in early 2012. Check out the video below to see it in action.

Science Bytes
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a peek.


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Good luck MSL!! Fingers crossed…. may you boldly go where no rover has gone before. ;-)

Thank you very much to the people working on this site for the comprehensive Star Trek news and for science updates like this. You do an amazing job and I’m very appreciative of the time you all put into this labor of love.

T minus four minutes and counting… Looking forward to the launch!

First time I am seeing an Atlas launch… Very elegant rocket!

Watched a perfect launch of the new Mars rover with my son! Great way to start the day!

Totally cool. You got this posted just in time for me to catch the launch on the interweb.

Dark matter? Yeah, I got like 3 graphs in before my eyes crossed. Interesting, though… I guess.

So, I can now wear any color clothes, as long as they’re white? Great.

Thanks, Kayla!!

Excited to see what Curiosity will uncover. I had such a good time watching the other two rovers do their thing on the Red Planet (one of which I believe is still rolling around). Nice to see NASA back in the spotlight with what will hopefully be another successful program.

Acquisition of Signal through Australia. MSL Curiosity is alive and well on its way to Mars.

“Ice finger of death”… really cool… and, a good name for a movie, I think…

“Star Trek: The Ice Finger of Death”……………:-) :-)

hmm. Mqaybe Stephen King will make a movie about the ice Finger of Death. Lol.
kool Rocket launch. Almost as good as the one on Star Trek. Assignment Earth.

Two thumbs up. Looking forward to the returns from Curiosity.

Here’s the NASA animation of what it will do:

(Hope that thing lands OK!)

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the launch of MSL Curiosity.

Now the anticipation begins concerning the all-important skycrane landing. This landing method is unique among spacecraft.

Those of a certain age may recall that the two Viking landers back in the 1970’s used a rocket-powered soft-landing method. The last several Mars missions that landed on the planet’s surface used airbags. The skycrane method has never been used, however, and I know I will be nervously looking forward to its pioneering success a little nine months from now.

Perhaps one day we will land a rover near one of the Viking spacecraft to see how it’s done after all these years.

On one of the Apollo missions, our astronauts deliberately set out to take photographs of an earlier Surveyor spacecraft that had landed on the lunar surface, taking a piece of it back home. The returned part showed the existence of microbial life after many months on the lunar surface, although this result was deemed the probable result of post-mission contamination by a worker with the common cold or flu.

Imagine what we could learn from the results of a return of a part from the Viking spacecraft after four decades on Mars.

I don’t like the idea of a nano particle based spray-on product. These particles can spread around, and are not usually found in our environment or in our bodies. We have not evolved with these particles and our bodies, and nature, do not have the defenses to deal effectively with them. Nano particles can cross cell membranes that larger particles cannot. I will not buy such a product until it is proven safe for humans, animals, and the environment.

MSL Curiosity an Example of Planetary Cooperation

Those who witnessed the launch of MSL Curiosity from Cape Canaveral earlier today are in for a treat in eight and a half months when a car-sized rover weighing around a ton is to descend from a rocket-powered crane onto the surface of Mars. If all goes according to plan, NASA’s latest and largest ever planetary lander will rove across a vestige of a wetter period in Martian history, sampling the fossilized lakebed with 75-kilogram’s worth of sophisticated instruments, including a high resolution camera located nearly seven feet off the surface.

The launch of Curiosity is also a lesson in terrestrial cooperation. One of the ten high-tech instruments designed to test for the telltale signs of life on Mars is made in Canada. Equally important, the Atlas V carrier rocket features a Russian-made rocket engine, the RD-180, a dual-chambered, six-ton behemoth at the center of the first stage common core. The RD-180 is the world’s most powerful rocket engine currently in operation, developing more than 850,000 pounds of thrust at sea level and more than 930,000 pounds of thrust in a vacuum. Manufactured in Russia, it is imported and customized by a joint U.S.-Russian venture by the name of RD AMROSS, an LLC endeavor of NPO Energomash of Russia and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of the United States. Augmenting the first stage were four 0.5-stage solid rocket boosters manufactured by the American firm, Aerojet.

The second stage rocket is centered around Pratt & Whtiney Rocketdyne’s RL10A4-2, manufactured in the United States. Also referred to as the Centaur Upper Stage, this powerful engine is supplemented by twelve steering thrusters also manufactured by Aerojet.

Atlas V is an example of a powerful carrier rocket family incorporating the best of Russian rocket technology with American high technology and know-how and a formidable complement for the Delta IV boosters manufactured by Boeing. Both rocket families are presently available for use under the United Launch Alliance of Lockheed and Boeing. Without planetary cooperation, it’s likely the MSL would never have gotten off the ground.

Hat Rick

I must also second those who have put forth there thanks forr those who take the time to put up the great science, sci-fi, and star trek news on this site. You guys totally get that Star Trek fans are not just about Star Trek, and I thank you for that. Please keep it coming.

^^ I “third” that motion, TJ.

There’s been some talk about sending Fobos-Grunt on an alternative mission to Luna, if it can be revived.


Luna? Is that anywhere near the Moon?



Since the spacecraft’s mission is to go to one moon, I thought it should be clarified WHICH moon they’re talking about for an alternate mission and ‘Luna’ is the formal name for Earth’s moon.

Hat Rick… the reason for the Sky Crane landing system is because the images returned by the Vikings scared the hell out of the project engineers. There were big rocks all around both landers. Had a lander hit one of the rocks… mission over. Viking got lucky. So the engineers went back to the drawing board for Pathfinder/Spirit/Opportunity and used the airbag system. But the airbag system is limited to smallish landers. Curiosity is too heavy for them. Curiosity can’t use a traditional rocket landing, because the rocket exhaust and dust thrown up by it will obscure the landing site, meaning “hit the big rocks” would still be a danger. So the Sky Crane leaves the rockets up high where the exhaust and dust won’t be as bad and winches the rover down to the ground.

This is going to be the nail-biter or all nail-biters for unmanned landings next August.

If it works, Europe’s ExoMars lander in 2017 or so will use the Sky Crane landing system as well.

Thanks, Thorny. Well, we’re all going to be on the edge of our seats in August watching the folks at JPL bite their nail to the quick. And possibly whatever live video feed and telemetry is available. I wish there was some way there could be clear video of the actual attempt, but I doubt the resolution of the cameras of the orbiters around Mars would be sufficient to catch anything more than a glint of the descending package — if that, and even if the positioning of the vehicles were just right.

There might be on-board video, though, which, if so, would be nice to see, but it would be strictly from the standpoint of the spacecraft or its aeroshell and so perhaps not so easy to make sense of. On the other hand, the landing videos of the Apollo LEMs, from the perspective of the ships themselves as they were descending, were very impressive, so maybe we’re in for a treat!

I remember seeing coverage of the JPL control room when Pathfinder and the Rovers made their respective landings, and those were sights to remember. Happier scientists I’ve never seen!

May the Great Bird of the Galaxy smile on MSL Curiosity eight and half months hence!

Hat Rick…

Actually, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the Mars Phoenix lander in flight in 2008. They caught Phoenix descending under its parachute.

Google “The HiRISE parachute image just got even better” an article at the Planetary Society to see the absolutely spectacular photo. It is mind-boggling when you realize this is a photo of another spacecraft at another world.

I’m sure MRO and Europe’s Mars Express will be watching Curiosity next August. Probably wouldn’t help much if something goes wrong with Curiosity, though.

do you have a favorite science news website ?
Just curious.

Thorny, amazing stuff. After I posted, I happened to view one of the NASA videos on the MSL available on its website and I was reminded of that MRO imaging event by the response of one of the presenters to a question about whether one of the landers already on the surface could catch a glimpse of the descent. His response was that there had been a video capture by one of the orbiters of the descent phase of one of our previous landers, but your description is much more detailed. Thanks again.

For anyone who may be interested in the Atlas V’s prospects, here’s a reasonably lengthy recent article, with lots of links, on its potential and some of the politics surrounding its past, present, and possible future.

I personally like the Atlas V but I’m also a fan of the Delta IV.

I note that the article describes Europe’s Ariane 5 as “industry-leading.” I’ll have to read up on why this claim is made.

As I recall, has been fairly critical of some of NASA’s decisions in the past. There’s a discussion in the article about what the best options for manned spaceflight might be.

Orion still lives, albeit in reduced form, but the original Constellation program is only a memory. The whole Constellation/Orion thing strikes me as very convoluted in any event. The putative successor to Constellation, the SLS, is essentially still on the drawing boards, although some of its components apparently are drawn from the Constellation or Shuttle design.

I think a central thesis of the article appears to be that Atlas V can easily be human-rated and the way that the ULA option was previously discarded by NASA was inadvisable.

why do we import Russian rocket garbage only to have all the major components modified in the U.S so the engine will work reliably. By the time all the money is spent upgrading a RD-180 we could make our own engine. Or we could just make tons of money rebuilding russian junk so they dont spread Hydrazine, tetroxide Chernobyl stupidity all over the atmosphere.

I may have overstated the extent of U.S. work on the RD-180 when I used the word “customize.” The RD-180 is entirely manufactured in Russia and appears not be significantly modified in any way prior to installation aboard the Atlas V. RD AMROSS is stated to provide sales and support for the engine, which itself is essentially self-contained.

There is probably an inevitable degree of systems integration as well as certification work that Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (P&W) does related to the engine. However, P&W appears to have a very high opinion of the reliability and efficiency of the engine, including its ability to minimize pollution.

See, e.g., (sales brochure).

Delta IV, general contracted by Boeing, uses a U.S.-designed, U.S.-designed main engine. It has no Russian engine components. Delta IV is of the same generation as the Atlas V and the heavy versions of both are more or less comparable. Delta IV may even have the edge in certain specialized applications. However, there appears to be a preference for the Atlas V over the Delta IV relating to NASA’s LEO manned program, for whatever reason.

The Delta IV in its various forms has had a record of at least 16 successes and one partial failure, according to the Wikipedia. As I said earlier, it remains on offer by the ULA and has recently successfully launched in one of its most powerful versions.

For further information and some striking visuals of the Delta IV, which is both taller and more massive than the Atlas V in their more capable configurations, see:

Both the Atlas V (at around 195 feet) and Delta IV-H, at up to 235 feet) are taller than the now-retired Space Shuttle stack (at around 185 feet). However, all three have similar LEO lift capabilities.

^^I meant to say that Delta IV uses a U.S.-designed, U.S.-manufactured main engine. It has no Russian engine components.

Reminds me of the Mars Global Observer. Of course, that was due to not converting units to metric.

26. Go Away… The Russians have a huge lead on the U.S. when it comes to hydrocarbon (kerosene) engines. A HUGE lead. Russia has had problems recently, but they haven’t been with their large engines. The Progress loss in August was due to an upper stage failure. The Fobos-Grunt loss was also due to upper stage (incorporated into the spacecraft) failure. RD-180 burns refined kerosene (same as the classic U.S. Atlas and Delta), not hydrazine (which powers Proton and the now-defunct U.S. Titan IV.

27. Hat Rick… If memory serves, Aerojet gets the engines from Russia and then adds western electronics to them so they can communicate with and be controlled by the western avionics of the Atlas V. That’s the modification/customization.

Aerojet has the authority to license-build RD-0180 here in the United States, but the flight rate, current and projected doesn’t warrant that.

Delta IV is generally thought to be at least 50% more expensive than Atlas V, hence NASA’s preference for Atlas and McDonnell-Douglas/Boeing’s (now ULA’s) lack of effort to sell Delta IV launches commercially (Atlas 5 gets a few, but not many.) Part of the reason for this is McDonnell Douglas’s decision to go with an all-hydrogen booster. Hydrogen itself is very efficient and produces high iSp (fuel mileage, if you will) but it also requires very large propellant tanks to carry it, leading to a larger rocket for a given payload than, say, a rocket powered by kerosene. That leads to larger everything, and all else being equal, a more expensive architecture. (McDonnell-Douglas’s decision, in turn was based on the maturity of the RS-68 engine compared to any modern kerosene engine in the US. RS-68 descends from the canceled Space Transportation Main Engine of the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

Be warned that United Launch Alliance is being a tad disingenuous when they claim Atlas V has a perfect record. AV-009 in 2007 dumped its payload in a much lower than planned orbit. Fortunately the payload had enough on-board horsepower to make up the difference. This was essentially the same problem as with the first Delta IV Heavy, but for some reason ULA counts the Delta IV Heavy under-performance as a “partial failure” while ignoring the AV-099 under-performance. Marketing, I guess.

29. VZX… That was 1998’s Mars Climate Orbiter, not 1995’s Mars Global Surveyor or 1992’s Mars Observer. The explanation I’ve read is that the numbers came from a European partner. The US thought that the Europeans had not converted the numbers to US imperial (pounds force, I think it was), but they actually had, so the US converted them again, and MCO was too far off course and speed to save by the time they spotted the error. Too little money for testing before launch, or the mistake would have been easily caught. Such are the dangers of trying to go too cheap on space exploration.

Good luck! Be curious out there ;)

Thorny, you are simply a fount of fascinating information about all things astronautical. I really look forward to your posts and thank you, yet again, for sharing your knowledge.

I was wondering if you meant that Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, rather than Aerojet, did the electronics customization for the RD-180.

I have to tell you that since I was much younger, I have had a very strong impression of Rocketdyne in that not only was it a national company with a storied history, but it was a local concern employing thousands of well-paid workers. I have a strong affinity for all things Rocketdyne, even to the point of whooping it up when I saw the Rockwell International logos in “Close Encounters.” (Rockwell is no longer in existence, but Rocketdyne survives!)

In any event, I also thoroughly support Boeing, even before it sold its interest in Rocketdyne to P&W. I’m a huge supporter of Boeing for its commercial airlines division and just can’t get enough of its recent delivery of the Dreamliner, as well as its ultrasuccessful 777 jumbo jet, the 737, etc.

I guess I’m just an aerospace nut.

Anyway, good times, and thanks for all your information.

(By the way, no less a luminary than Charleton Heston said, in one of those submarine movies a few decades ago, that he thanked God and “General Dynamics” for surviving the crisis du movie moment…. I also think that General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and other American defense contractors have served this country well, despite the oft-repeated accusation that they enjoy a form of “corporate welfare.” I do wish that we would have more opportunities for them to develop spacecraft of which I know we, as a country and as a species, are well capable. But that’s a whole different rant altogether….)

Hat Rick… Dang! You’re right, it is Pratt & Whitney/Rocketdyne that does the RD-180 modifications. Aerojet is doing the same thing for the NK-33 engine for Taurus II.

Well, I do have to keep up with P&W because I often go to the Best Buy right next to its HQ in Canoga Park and so I can’t help but be reminded of its giant role in space history.

BTW, I think I bought my HD TV from that exact Best Buy a few years ago via which I saw ST2009 a few days ago.

I also patronize the Westfield Topanga mall just a block down, which is quite a nice place to go for anything you might want, from Apple products to luxuries from Cartier. (Not that I could afford the latter, of course.)

I even remember noticing the first time they swapped the Boeing logo on the building for P&W.

If you go up to the mall’s garage, you can get a good view of the entire plant and a sense of what resources we still have available to conquer the final frontier.

After Obama canceled the moon mission I am glad these Mars missions are still proceeding a pace.

Also, after hearing about how plasma rockets can reach Mars in 39 days as apposed to conventional rockets taking 3-4 months those manned missions are sounding more and more plausible :D!

Wow, Thorny. I bow down to your superior space history knowledge. I did google what I stated after I wrote it and was going to correct it, but then got side-tracked. All those Mars missions just started to run together in my head. And yeah, it was a part of those “better, faster, cheaper” days of NASA.

I like to use it as a good example of unit-conversion-use in my class.

I peeked out reading about Plutonium – 238 last night.. I can’t wait to see the images MSL brings back.. Isn’t this the machine James Cameron worked on?

^^ Administrator Daniel Goldin often gets a lot of grief for that phrase.

As for me, I’d like a balanced approach. Space isn’t your average frontier and you really can’t go at it with nickels and dimes on your mind. Go big, or go home, is my motto for space exploration.

On the other hand, I do like the idea of having a variety of missions and not just the primo, Cadillac-scale missions the MSL represents, where you’re putting a lot in one basket.

I kind of like what NASA’s done over the last seven or eight years.

I’m still following the New Horizons mission to Pluto that everyone’s forgotten about.

BTW, in 2008 I posted a lot of stuff on my blog about the Phoenix. I should reactivate my blog and/or figure out what I posted back then, since I’ve forgotten so much about it. This was the same blog where I posted exclusive (yes, exclusive, since I took them!) pictures of the shoot they had at Oviatt Library a.k.a. Starfleet Academy, for Star Trek (2009).

I still get a huge kick out of how they’ve made the Oviatt Library in Northridge part of an entire 23d Century cityscape complete with dozens of supertall buildings that are entirely CGI.

Of course, Nero would have wanted to suck all of those supertalls down into a superdense black hole.

Now at least I know what the extras were supposed to be staring across the lawn at three years ago.

On the failed Phobos mission, maybe that was a good thing it didn’t make it. It could bring back demons from Hell. I keed. I keed. That’s a Doom joke.

As for NASA’s Curiosity Rover, it’s huge compared to previous rovers. It’s one ton and as large as a car. Link. It would be huge if it found existence that life once existed on Mars. But the report says it’s looking if conditions in the past that were conducive to life. Anyway, BRAVO NASA!,8599,2100310,00.html

Oops, sorry. Forgot about the cool icicle of death video. It’s part of BBC’s series Frozen Planet. Hope to see it on Blu-Ray. BBC’s Planet Earth on Blu-Ray is a must have for your hardware. Stunning photography.

One thing I wanted to say just for fun: Both the existing rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, and Curiosity remind me a bit of Johnny Five from Short Circuit. The mast portions, anyway.

I loved that movie. It was such fun.

I think I even remember some of the dialogue even though I haven’t seen it for many years: One of the government guys is rushing to deal with the situation and he and the military aide (the same guy who plays the comic foil in the Police Academy movies) have this exchange: “It’s called a chopper now, not a whirlybird.” “Why wasn’t I informed?” Something like that.

Another thing: The Charleton Heston movie I referred to earlier was Gray Lady Down. Ronny (Captain Jellico, Enterprise-D skipper during the events of “Chain of Command”) Cox is in it. Cox also played the baddie in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall and also in Robocop (he’s the top corporate guy who is fired at a very convenient moment and then shot up because the computer protocol preventing his death is thus removed).

Ah, the movies.

^^ I think the government guy is played by the same guy who played Alf’s owner in the TV series of the same name. (“Alf” — Alien Life Form. Who else here remembers that old cat-lover (so to speak), Alf?)

Alf was awesome. It’s the Big Bang Theory of older days lol… Thanks commenters for all the details on the various missions. It was really great to pop on and not see anything negative :) Plus it’s kinda cool since my late great uncle used to help design rockets back in the day. I can’t remember which ones specifically but he consulted on various related tech right up until the end.

I saw a HUGE shooting star last night… Wasn’t that Russian rover, was it? :-P

44 (jamesingeneva), I’m glad you remember Alf, as well. Such a fun show.

45 (Ctrl-Opt-Del), I think it must have been just a shooting star.

^^ Well, I just did a search and it wasn’t Max Wright in Short Circuit. I believe it was Austin Pendleton (see: ) who looks a bit like Max Wright. In fact, I think the two could pass for brothers. Cousins, at least.

Okay, it’s not science, but the USS Enterprise is marking 50 years of service today, and is about to embark on her last tour of duty before being decommissioned.,0,2291617.story
I think there are a few people out there who can appreciate this.

Cleary Douglas (comment #2) wasn’t around those times content just stopped appearing for 2/3 weeks at a time.


Thanks for the link, Phil.
I’ve heard rumors the Enterprise had a break-in in 1986 by a Russian spy.