Mars Science Laboratory descending
to the surface, as seen by Mars
It has been quite a morning, science fans.
In the wee hours, after traveling Mars-ward for months, the Mars Science Laboratory executed its nail-biting landing maneuver, nicknamed by NASA engineers “Seven Minutes of Terror.” The $2.5 billion craft, bearing the largest-ever Mars rover, Curiosity, autonomously sped into the Martian atmosphere, threw out a parachute, blew off its heat shield, blasted rockets downwards to slow itself, split in two, and lowered one half of itself, the rover, down to the surface, where Curiosity opened its camera eyes and began sending pictures back to Earth.
Get excited: the new Mars rover Curiosity is set to land early next week. And the Internet wants you to be prepared, circulating articles, explanations, and lots of videos, the highlights of which we’ve collected here:
Why Do We Have Curiosity?
Considering that we already have one working rover on the surface of the Red Planet, what’s with all the brouhaha over this one? To find out why we’re sending Curiosity to Mars, Ph.D Comics went to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to talk to scientists, ogle the full-sized replica of Curiosity, and learn about the new rover’s scientific instruments, which include, among other things, a rock-shooting laser.
The Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, is spectacularly hot—far, far hotter than the Sun’s surface. Why this is is still something of a mystery, and scientists watching the Sun’s surface have built software that looks at the heating and cooling occurring in the corona in an attempt to understand how fast temperature changes happen.
Above is an ultraviolet image of a small patch of the sun’s corona. The right half has been processed with a computer program so sections that are growing cooler over a 12-hour period are colored yellow, orange, and red, while heating sections are labeled blue and green.
Colorado’s Waldo Canyon forest fire spread over almost 30 square miles, forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents, and destroyed 346 homes, more than any other fire in the state’s history. NASA’s Terra satellite snapped this visible and infrared image of the devastation while the fire was still burning but had been mostly contained. In the photograph, vegetation shows up as red, partially burned areas look light brown, and severely burned ones are dark brown.
The image shows the extent of the fire’s reach, the damage it inflicted on the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, and just how close it was to the Air Force Academy and Colorado Springs.
Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video / flickr
A year and a half ago, NASA announced that one of its scientists, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, had found a bacterium that could use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA. This revelation, published in Science, had enormous implications for our understanding of what’s necessary for life—we’ve always thought phosphorus was essential and arsenic poisonous, and having that disproven might mean life could exist in environments where it had been thought impossible.
Almost immediately, though, scientists and science journalists began to pick apart this paper. DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer rounded up the case against in a Slate article shortly after the paper’s publication. Ever since, he’s kept track of the story’s evolution—including experiments posted by microbiologist Rosie Redfield on her blog that provided evidence against the claim—here on his blog.
All the way along, Wolfe-Simons refused to comment on Redfield’s experiments, saying she would wait until they were published by a peer-reviewed journal. Now, Redfield’s paper and one other paper finding no evidence of arsenic life have been published by Science, the same journal that published the original claim. The researchers found no evidence of arsenic being used in the bacterium’s DNA.
It’s been a rocky few years for spaceflight. NASA’s budget isn’t getting any bigger. And though the Space Shuttle program was expensive, dangerous, and kept better designs from being developed, once it ended last year, US astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian rockets, which are themselves not too reliable. But this morning’s launch of SpaceX’s first International Space Station supply rocket was a bright spot.
NASA is betting on the private sector to bring about the next great space age. It has made grants to various private space flight companies, including PayPal founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, colloquially known as SpaceX, to develop space taxi technologies and supply the International Space Station.
And early this morning, after an aborted launch attempt on Sunday, SpaceX’s first rocket left Earth, carrying a capsule bound for the space station. You can watch the unmanned vehicle take off in the video above, and you can hear in the excitement in the NASA launch commentator’s voice as the fiery ship takes off through the night.
For a strangely hypnotic minute and a half, check out this visualization of the Earth’s ocean currents. It flies you across the globe–past small blue swirls and over the bright lines of the Gulf Stream. More ocean current photos and videos, all based on data from NASA’s ECCO2 project, are available to watch and download at the Scientific Visualization Studio.
On December 13, 1972, on the surface of the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 17 paused in their lunar ramblings to pick up a chunk of rock about 10 centimeters long. After showing to their video camera, they brought the rock back to Earth, where it was named Sample 70017 and broken into hundreds of fragments, 366 of which were each embedded in plastic, glued to a plaque, and presented by the United States to the leaders of the world’s nations as a symbol of peace.
A new piece of narrative journalism published at The Atavist by Joe Kloc tells the story of that 10-centimeter rock and all its far-flung daughters, which, over the last 40 years, have variously disappeared in coups, been forgotten on museum shelves, or made their way by mysterious avenues to the black market. At the heart of the story is Joseph Gutheinz, a former NASA special agent driven by a kind of mania to return stolen moonrocks to their places of honor—even if few others see the value of his quest. I asked Kloc explain the power of these tiny fragments of the moon.
VG: What is it about moonrocks that exert this pull for some people?
JK: The answer isn’t the same for everybody. For [Gutheinz], I think it is about the time in history they capture. He sees them as a way to inspire kids to get back to that time, to become dreamer-scientist-explorers. And then the people who try to sell them for millions [on the black market] obviously want money. But in each case, the idea behind the desire is ultimately that sort of intangible fascination we all have with the moon.
But these particular moon rocks—the fragments presented to the nations of the world in 1973—seem bizarrely at odds with that kind of sacred viewpoint. They were a PR stunt, despite the stated purpose of giving them as emblems of peace. That they are embedded in plastic and glued to plaques makes them unlikely objects of worship.
Maybe the best way to think about it is that the moon missions were always two things: on the one hand a Cold War-sized political power play, on the other a monumental—perhaps the most monumental—human achievement. Now the rocks embody that same positive-negative duality. On the one hand they are a Cold War power play that some want to sell for millions; on the other, they are this relic of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
Along the top of this satellite image lies the coast of South Africa, but follow the sheets of clouds south about 500 miles, and a beautiful, incongruous-looking blue swirl appears. That plankton-laced eddy, which is 90 miles wide, is the oceanic version of a storm, spun off from a larger current and caused by roiling of water instead of air. Eddies in this region bring warm water from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic, and they can even pull nutrients up from the deep sea, fertilizing surface waters and causing blooms of plankton in areas that are otherwise rather devoid of life. It is just such a bloom that lends this eddy its cerulean hue.
Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory
Archaeologists, historians, and governments take great care to preserve human history across the globe, protecting monuments of our civilizations and traces of our origins. Even what may seem, at first, like the detritus of existence—footprints left millions of years ago, the contents of well-preserved wastebins—can serve as tangible, informative links to the past.
Now, scientists and officials are working preserve some of humanity’s best-known footprints, left by a giant leap for mankind, by extending those same sorts of historical protections to the Apollo missions’ lunar landing sites. The tricky part is, many such protections require that a site be on the territory of a state or nation—and the US government can’t claim sovereignty over any part of the moon, and doesn’t want to appear as though it’s trying to. But NASA and the New Mexico and California state governments have gotten onboard with the effort to safeguard the sites, spearheaded by New Mexico State University anthropologist Beth O’Leary. A NASA panel recently issued recommendations for protecting the sites that suggest future explorers give a wide berth to the astronautical artifacts left behind, Kenneth Chang reports at the New York Times: