Tag Archives: MSL

Daydreaming about exploration wearing Mars-coloured glasses

29 Dec

The frontiers of exploration have had many faces throughout history. In ages past, what is today London, England would have been a striking, though desolate, find. Today it’s a central hub of the Western world.

Ditto my hometown of Toronto, Ontario. Just 300 years ago it was wilderness. And you don’t have to venture very far from the city limits to return to that untamed world.

And there are many places around the world that are still, in the truest sense of the word, frontiers of exploration.

Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest, the ocean floor (a massive ‘new world’ right here on Earth), Madagascar, the high Arctic – all places that most human will never venture and no doubt hold secrets that could both amaze and bewilder our understanding of the world and perhaps life itself.

Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario

Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario

Consider for example the extremophiles (life that exists in extreme environments) that live inside rocks many kilometers beneath the surface – far from any sunlight – that use the rock itself as an energy source.

Or the life that persists on volcanos.

Or the life that flourishes in Lake Vostok – an underground Antarctic lake that has been cut-off from the outside world for perhaps 15 million years beneath 4km of snow and ice.

These discoveries have changed how we think about life, and rightly so. We have learned that life can persist – and proliferate – in places that only a few years ago were considered too harsh.

The goldilocks zone right here on Earth has ballooned.

Places that were once thought of as too extreme in some way – too hot, too cold, too dry, too little sun – are now all environments where there is life.

And significantly, they’re not just places where life is theorized. It’s not just that someone says there ‘could be’ life there.

There really is life there. We have seen it. Measured it. Tested it. Compared it.

Our exploration has taught us an important lesson for Planet Earth: life finds a way.

And as I sit in my chair explore the ice world I see out the window of the house Ashley grew up in, those four words stick with me.

Life finds a way.

I know gazing out the window that my view is teeming with life.

In the sky, under the ice, in the snow.

Everywhere there is life, and it’s abundant. Our exploration of Earth has proven this to be true.

Then I put on my Mars-coloured glasses, and start to think…

When the first people arrive on Mars in the next decades, the view they’ll be faced with may be remarkably similar to what I see here, sitting in North Bay on the shore of Lake Nipissing.

A landscape shaped by the cold, by wind, by water – by weather.

It’s a landscape that is utterly beautiful, but also incredibly harsh.

Lake Nipissing or Mars?

Lake Nipissing or Mars?

The one I see is a present day lake and the one on Mars will be an ancient lake – one that has long since dried up. But I’d be willing to bet that the first people to visit Mars will touchdown at a place where we’re confident there used to be water (and maybe still is, just trapped under the surface in permafrost).

Our Martian explorers will lift the veil on some of the secrets of the Red Planet. They will walk and rove. They’ll set up camps and hunker down when dust storms approach. They will keep warm on the cold Martian nights.

And as I think about the incredibleness of discovery that awaits our pioneers, it occurs to me that we’ve been here before. This has already happened.





Earth used to be the undiscovered country (and in a meaningful way, we’ve only scratched the surface of it).

We are born to explore, and now there is a new frontier that tugs at our souls – and our emissaries are already there. But they are only wetting our appetite.

Missions to Mars have been flying for five decades. They have answered some fundamental questions – about water, about canals (or lack thereof), about volcanos, about the atmosphere and ancient environment.

They have also raised poignant questions, the latest of which – the origin of methane spikes detected by MSL – often circle around the question of life.

Was it ever there? What was its nature? When did it emerge? How long did it survive? Is it still there today? Are we related?

The answers to these questions – significant in their own right as they help us to understand the history of Mars – are also fundamental in determining our place in the cosmos.

Are we alone? Does life jump from planet to planet on asteroids? Is the chemistry of life common?

Answering these questions – in either the affirmative or the negative – will have profound impacts.

Exploration in the 21st century will take us to new frontiers, but it will similarly be true to our history. Humans yearn to explore, and this is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago.

The names of the explorers may be different, the frontier’s further afield, and our ships different in appearance, but these are only superficial transformations.

The essence is the same.

We want to explore new challenges, new destinations, new landscapes, new people – new worlds.

What do those places feel like? How do they smell? Is there life? Are there resources that will help people survive and travel on further?

Mars, like Earth, is a place that offers endless possibilities of exploration.

I wonder what we’ll find.

North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?

North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?

A new photo of home: Earth as seen from Mars in January 2014

15 Feb

In March 2004, the Spirit rover on Mars captured the first image of Earth ever taken from the surface of another planet.

A couple weeks ago, NASA’s newest Mars rover accomplished the same feat, snapping a photo of the Earth and the Moon in the sky of another world.

The Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) captured this image on the evening of January 31, 2014 from inside the Gale Crater on Mars. The image was taken using the left eye camera of Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) about 80 minutes after sunset. Mars and Earth were 160 million kilometers apart when the photo was taken.

You, along with everyone you have ever known or heard of, is here. (click image for larger version)

You, along with everyone you have ever known or heard of, is here. (click image for larger version)

(Click here to download 18mb TIFF file)

If (when) a human is on Mars and looks up into the sky, they’ll see Earth and the Moon as two evening or morning stars – similarly to how Venus appears in the evening and morning sky here on Earth.

In this photo taken by Curiosity, the Moon appears just below the Earth as a fainter, though still distinct, object.

I particularly enjoy photos like this due to rare the perspective it affords us. To be able to see our entire world, our “vast” civilization, take up only a few pixels in an image from another world is an important reminder that we are apart of something much larger.

It makes our problems and petty differences here seem less significant.

It provides inspiration for us to aim for bigger, better things.

Keep ’em coming, NASA. We all need to see things like this more regularly.

Earth & Moon - the bright objects in the sky - as seen from Mars by the Curiosity Rover on January 31, 2014

Earth, as seen from Mars, by the Curiosity Rover on January 31, 2014

And not to be forgotten is the famous Pale Blue Dot image captured by Voyager 1 from a distance of six billion kilometers in 1990.

Curiosity has landed

6 Aug

Curiosity, aka The Mars Science Laboratory, touched down as scheduled at 1:31am EDT on the morning of August 6, 2012 (10:31pm PDT August 5, 2012) after a 254-day journey that covered some 567 million kilometres.

And here is an image from descent captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), one of three satellites that is in orbit around Mars:

The MRO captures this image of Curiosity during descent, seen with its parachute deployed

After watching that video and seeing this image, my only real question is: Who needs science fiction or reality television? What you just watched in that video actually happened – IN REAL LIFE – last night, on another planet 248 million kilometres away.

Simply incredible.

Everything you need to know about Curiosity landing on Mars

29 Jul

Panorama of Mars created by the Opportunity Rover between December 2011 and May 2012

The landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), or Curiosity as it is usually called, is now very much within sight. To get you prepared to watch the landing, here are some things you probably want to know:

#1) What is Curiosity?

In a nutshell, Curiosity is a compact car-sized rover (approx 2.8m x 3m x 2.1m) that left Earth in November 2011 on top of an Atlas-V Rocket. Its 8 month journey to Mars is about to end. It will then start its two-year primary mission to explore a region of Mars inside the Gale Crater, near Mount Sharp, just south of the Martian equator. Curiosity is searching for evidence regarding the past presence of water on Mars and the possibility of past life, amongst various other objectives. The NASA homepage for the mission is: NASA.gov/Mars

If you want to read in detail about the mission you can download the NASA Press Kit PDF by clicking here.

#2) When to watch?

The magic time is 1:31am EDT on August 6 (or 10:31pm PDT on August 5). We will know then whether or not Curiosity has successfully landed. It would probably be a good idea to flip on the TV or the web browser a little bit before this to make sure you don’t miss anything, but truthfully there won’t really be anything to see. There will probably be some interesting discussion from knowledgeable people though if you’re watching on NASA TV. Also, fair warning: don’t expect a live hi-def video feed from Mars. The deep-space communication network does not have that sort of capacity.

NASA TV will start a live feed from their control rooms at 11:30pm EDT (8:30pm PDT) on August 5, which is about two hours prior to touchdown.

Interesting fact: It will be about 3pm “local time” at the landing site on Mars when Curiosity touches down.

Interesting fact #2: only about 40% of missions to Mars are successful. So as you watch, there is a very real possibility that the landing will be unsuccessful.

#3) Where to watch?

NASA TV will be the best place. If you have cable or satellite, check your local listings. You may very well have NASA TV on your dial. Interesting aside: NASA actually doesn’t charge your cable/satellite company anything to carry the channel, so if they don’t carry it they ought to.

In the USA if you have DirecTV go to ch346 or on Dish Network ch212 and you’ll find NASA TV.

In Canada if you have Rogers digital cable you’re in luck: NASA TV is on ch254, or ch579 for the HD feed.

NASA TV is also available live, free, and around the world online right here: Official NASA TV Site

If you have your own satellite dish, click that link to NASA TV as well. You will find instructions on where to point your dish and how to set it up to receive NASA TV. I would also hope that major news networks will pick up the story live, so you can always check in with CNN, FoxNews, SkyNews, BBC World, etc. if you can’t get on with NASA TV.

Sunset on Mars captured by the Spirit rover on May 19, 2005

#4) What about the time-delay because Mars is so far away?

An excellent consideration! However the folks at NASA report times as “Earth Reception” times. So when they say that Curiosity lands on Mars at 1:31am EDT, what they really mean is that we will receive the signal at 1:31am EDT. Curiosity will have actually touched down (or crashed) 13.8 minutes earlier, but because of the distances involved (approx 248 million km) it takes that amount of time for the speed-of-light radio signal to arrive here at Earth from Mars. So if you’re watching at 1:31am EDT, you’ll see it “live” then.

#5) I’ve heard of something called “7 Minutes of Terror” – what’s that about?

The 7 Minutes of Terror refers to the amount of time it takes for Curiosity to land. From when it first touches the top of the atmosphere on Mars to when it’s six wheels are on the ground – is seven minutes. The other part of this to consider is that when we get the first signal that Curiosity has begun the landing process (i.e. it’s hit the top of the atmosphere on Mars) the rover will have actually already been on the surface – alive or dead – for seven minutes (seven minutes to land + seven minutes sitting on the surface = 14 minutes, which is = to the Mars/Earth radio time delay).

To read more about this and watch a truly awesome NASA video about the 7 Minutes of Terror, read this blog post of mine from June 29, 2012.

Mars Landing Sites

#6) Where is Curiosity going to land?

Just south of the equator, inside the Gale Crater, close to Mount Sharp. To be precise: 4.6 degrees south latitude, 137.4 degrees east longitude.

#6) Why did they pick this landing spot?

Geological diversity. NASA researchers believe this spot is likely the bottom on an ancient lake on Mars. There are possibly high concentrations of minerals. It’s near crater impacts and large hills/mountains. If we are going to find evidence of past life on Mars, researchers believe this is the best place to look.

#7) How do we receive communications from Curiosity?

Curiosity is primarily going to make use of three spacecraft that are already in orbit around Mars to relay signals back to Earth: Odyssey, The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and The Mars Express. Those signals will then be received by the antennae of the Deep Space Network here on Earth. There will be some direct Curiosity-Earth communication though as well.

#8) I heard one of the spacecraft orbiting Mars had a problem that would stop it from relaying signals back to Earth?

The Odyssey Spacecraft did indeed have a problem a couple weeks ago. The craft entered “safe mode” and its orbit was such that it would not have any line-of-sight towards Curiosity during its landing, preventing it from both observing the landing and relaying communications. The fine folks at NASA have taken care of this however. Odyssey has been roused from safe mode and it executed a six-second rocket burn to speed up its orbit by six-minutes, so it will now be in position to observe the landing and relay communications from Curiosity back to Earth in real-time. You can read more about this here.


#9) Why is it so important to have Odyssey in the right spot? There are two other spacecraft in orbit around Mars, and can’t Curiosity just send the signal directly to Earth itself?

Odyssey is the only one of the three orbiters around Mars that is capable of relaying communications in real-time. Both the MRO and Mars Express spacecraft will be in position to observe and record data from Curiosity, however it takes some time for them to transmit the data back to Earth. And Curiosity cannot send the information directly because, from its perspective, Earth will set below the Martian horizon part way through descent – making direct communication impossible. So if we want to know in real-time if Curiosity was successful in landing, Odyssey is the only option.

#10) Why do I care about any of this?

This is a question that always comes up when talking about space exploration, particularly when budgets are tight. It’s a good question, considering that space exploration is an expensive endeavour. The Curiosity mission, for example, is costing about $2.5 billion (USD).

But this sort of exploration is vital. First, it brings people together in cooperative missions. Nations and peoples that used to be bitter enemies are now partners (USA & Russia being the best example in space exploration). It also helps us to understand how our world works. The simple fact is that we cannot explain how everything right here on Earth works, so by better understanding how things work in other places it allows us to figure out stuff here – since the rules of physics and chemistry are the same on Mars as on Earth.

The other part of exploration – and this is the part that is most significant to me – is the romance of it. We simply do not know what we do not know. We don’t even know exactly what questions we need to be asking are. So if we don’t get out there are start poking around, trying to figure things out, we’ll be stuck at the starting line forever.

Don’t get me wrong, we have made amazing discoveries and we have a solid understanding of certain things, but when you get right down to it we’ve truly only been exploring space for 50-odd years (and if you want to be very generous, call it 400 years, from when telescopes first came about) – but however you want to measure it, we are just at the very beginning of our cosmic journey. There are places, things, and discoveries out there that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. And it is our responsibility to carry the journey forward.

Science is awesome.