Put ‘er here, R2.
Fans of intergalactic exploration both real and fictional, rejoice: Future NASA missions may incorporate tractor beams, lasers that can pick up objects at a distance. “We’re caught in a tractor beam and it’s pulling us in!” is a long way off, but NASA has just awarded a team of scientists $100,000 to explore three different methods of trapping objects with laser light and reeling them in.
Dust, rather than Corellian light freighters, are the objects in question: the hope is to use tractor beam tech to collect atmospheric particles or grab dust from a planet’s surface without resorting to using a drill, as the Mars rovers have. And indeed, one of the three methods—optical tweezers—has been used by biologists for decades to hold microscopic particles, including viruses and bacteria, in place for experiments.
The challenge will be developing techniques that will work in all the different environments that an exploratory craft might explore. Optical tweezers won’t work in the vacuum of space, for example, but could be useful on a planet with an atmosphere. The other techniques, which use solenoid beams and Bessel beams, could work at a variety of distances and perhaps without an atmosphere—the NASA team will spend the next decade or so exploring how they might be developed and incorporated.
What’s the News: On Friday, after five years of deliberation over 100 candidates, NASA announced its choice of landing site for Curiosity, the next Mars rover: Gale crater, a massive pit with a three-mile-high mound in its center. The mission’s primary goal is to assess whether conditions suitable for microbial life ever existed on the Red Planet; Gale was selected over the three other finalists in part because its mountain promises access to layered sediments extending deep into the Martian past.
The British team that described its design in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A isn’t the first to suggest a hopper. But unlike previous designs, this hopper wouldn’t rely on solar power for fuel, but would instead by powered by radioactive isotopes and the plentiful carbon dioxide in Mars’s atmosphere.
The ability to hop from place to place would enable the new explorers to cover more of the Martian landscape, and visit rough terrain that earlier rovers couldn’t handle. The 2004 rover Opportunity is just hitting 15 miles of surface driving after almost seven years on Mars.
Dr Richard Ambrosi [who worked on the project], at the Leicester Space Research Centre, commented: “The improved mobility and range of a hopping vehicle will tell us more about the evolution of Mars and of the Solar System and may answer questions as to whether there was life in the past, whether Mars was wetter in the past and if so where that water went.” [Press Release]
Spirit just can’t help itself. Even stuck in a sand trap from which it will never escape, the Mars rover finds clues that reveal more about the nature of Mars and the water cycle on the Red Planet.
It was earlier this year that NASA gave up on freeing Spirit: With a broken wheel, the rover simply could not extricate itself from the loose terrain that ensnares it. But as the rover team drove Spirit back and forth, it dug deeper and deeper into the Martian ground. Says team member Ray Arvidson:
“We’re driving backwards, the right front wheel doesn’t work, so wherever we went we had to drag it along. It’s like pushing a shopping cart with a bad front wheel. You don’t push it, you pull it, but the wheel has torque.” [Discovery News]
It’s hard to say goodbye to old friends. We’ve known since the springtime that NASA’s Spirit rover, which roamed the surface of Mars for more than six years, was probably doomed to a frozen death. But in the last week, NASA has repeatedly called the rover, hoping that the endurance explorer somehow managed to conserve enough power during the martian winter to respond.
So far, no luck. Spirit has not phoned home.
Spirit’s been on Mars since January 2004 and already survived previous winters, which run from May through November. With sunlight reaching Spirit at a weak angle, the rover hibernates and uses the scant solar power to recharge batteries and heat itself to –40 degrees [Scientific American].
But this winter it could not. With a wheel caught in the loose martian terrain, Spirit could not drive to an opportune position to capture some sunlight. As a result, the rover probably dropped to -67 degrees during the brutal winter on the red planet, too cold for its heaters or machinery to function.
NASA’s next Mars rover took its first tiny test drive at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Friday. If all goes well, it will be en route to the Red Planet by late next year on a mission to look for environments that could have once harbored life.
Spacecraft technicians and engineers attached the Curiosity rover’s neck and head (called the Remote Sensing Mast) to its body, and mounted two navigation cameras (Navcams), two mast cameras (Mastcam) and the laser-toting chemistry camera (ChemCam). Curiosity was also sporting a new set of six aluminum wheels, each about 20 inches (about half a meter) in diameter, as it took its first drive on Earth. The large rover now stands at about 7 feet (2 meters) tall [MSNBC].
With its major pieces attached, Curiosity is about the size of an SUV. It dwarfs the overachieving Spirit and Opportunity rovers that have been on the martian surface since 2004. JPL scientists broadcast a live feed of the rover’s first roll back and forth.
In January 2004, the Mars rover Opportunity, along with its brother Spirit, landed on the Red Planet. Eight months later we were wowed by their longevity, as both the machines had crawled long past their expected 90-day lifetimes. This year Spirit got intractably stuck in the sand and NASA announced that its days of wandering were finally at an end. But not Opportunity: The less mechanically troubled of the twins, Opportunity continues to rove the surface of Mars, and this week it passed the duration record for time on Mars set by NASA’s Viking 1 lander when it died in 1982. As of today, Opportunity has been operating on Mars for six years and 118 days.
By this March, Opportunity had driven more than 12 miles on the surface of Mars (on the far side of the planet from Spirit). But even a plucky rover needs breaks, especially now when the light level doesn’t allow constant driving. This image shows Opportunity’s tracks on a journey from one well-lit spot to the next, where it could recharge. However, the light level is increasing where the rover is located, so soon it should be able to take longer drives.
Click through for some more of Opportunity’s best images.
After entertaining the entire planet with the movie Avatar, director James Cameron is now taking his expertise to space–specifically to Mars. He’s helping NASA build a 3D camera for its next rover, Curiosity.
The space agency announced that Cameron is working with Malin Space Science Systems Inc. of San Diego to develop the camera, which will be the rover’s “science-imaging workhorse.” The rover, which was previously known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is scheduled for launch in 2011.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had recently scaled back plans to mount a 3D camera on the rover, as the project was consistently over-budget and behind schedule. But Cameron lobbied NASA administrator Charles Bolden for inclusion of the 3-D camera during a January meeting, saying a rover with a better set of eyes will help the public connect with the mission [Associated Press]. Cameron, whose 3D spectacle Avatar earned more than $2 billion at box offices worldwide, had developed a special 3D digital camera system for the film, and felt the space agency could benefit from his expertise.
It’s a robot that could change the way scientists gather data from underwater sources. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California have developed a new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), and like other AUVs this sophisticated robot can slip under the waves, sweep the ocean floor, collect data, and perform programmed tasks. But the “Gulper” goes one step further–it doesn’t just follow its program, it can also make decisions on its own, and can plan its own route, avoiding hazardous currents and obstacles [BBC].
Explaining how the robot functions, Kim Fulton-Bennett from MBARI said: “We tell it, ‘here’s the range of tasks that we want you to perform’, and it goes off and assesses what is happening in the ocean, making decisions about how much of the range it will cover to get back the data we want” [BBC]. The ocean-going bot has also been described as “a microbiology laboratory in a can,” because it can analyze some samples in situ. The ‘ecogenomic sensor’, which is packed into a roughly 1-metre-long canister, can test for proteins released by microorganisms and even run DNA tests match DNA to determine which species are present [Nature News]. Findings can instantly be relayed to the shore, saving scientists the cumbersome task of transferring samples from site to lab.
After more than six years of exploring the Red Planet, the Mars rover Spirit will rove no more. The robotic adventurer is mired in a sand bed, and NASA has officially given up on trying to extricate it.
While it will continue to operate as a “stationary research platform” for the time being, there’s no denying that the rover’s swashbuckling days are over. No longer will Spirit spot an interesting landmark in the distance and gamely trek towards it, with the possibility of a fresh scientific discovery around every corner and under every rock. This photo gallery is a well-deserved eulogy for Spirit, in which we’ll survey its travels and achievements.
In 2003, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, on a three-month mission to investigate Martian terrain and atmosphere on opposite sides of the planet. The solar-powered rovers surpassed NASA’s wildest dreams, extending their missions by nearly 25 times their anticipated lengths.
Since landing on Mars in January 2004, Spirit has snapped more than 127,000 pictures. The robot probed beneath the worn surface of Mars, analyzing the microstructure of rocks and soil with a sophisticated array of instruments: spectrometers, microscopic imagers, and other tools. Spirit has also gathered strong evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface, which could have created a hospitable environment for microbial life.
Spirit and its twin rover (which is still traveling on) will be replaced by more advanced machines that will roll onto the Martian soil in the coming decades. But Spirit will be remembered long after its operating system flickers off for good. Like a robotic Neil Armstrong, the rover has earned its place in the space explorers’ hall of heroes.
All text by Aline Reynolds. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell