Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Elon Musk doesn’t just want to send a person to Mars — he wants to send 80,000.

This still from a SpaceX mission concept video shows a Dragon space capsule landing on the surface of Mars. SpaceX's Dragon is a privately built space capsule to carry unmanned payloads, and eventually astronauts, into space. CREDIT: SpaceX

According to Space.com, the billionaire founder and CEO of the private spaceflight company SpaceX gave details about his hopes for a future Mars colony during a talk at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on Nov. 16.

Earlier this year, SpaceX became the first private U.S. company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Musk has never been shy about his ambitions to take human colonists to another planet, mentioning in the past that he wants to provide flights to Mars for about $500,000 a person. But now he’s talking about building a small-city-sized settlement on the Red Planet, starting with a 10-person crew in the coming decades to begin establishing and building infrastructure.

"That first flight would be expensive and risky but once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars,” Musk told Space.com. "Then I think there are enough people who would pay that much to live on Mars to have it be a reasonable business case.”

Musk added that he sees the future 80,000-person colony as a public-private enterprise costing roughly $36 billion.

Science-fiction inspired plans are one thing. Musk still has many challenges ahead of him before such a scheme could become reality, including figuring out exactly how to deal with radiation on the way to Mars, how to land humans on the planet’s surface, and how to keep them alive once there. Wired Magazine Editor Chris Anderson interviewed Musk in the November issue, here he outlines a few ways that could help us get there: 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For now, though, we'll have to wait to see what's got Mars rover scientists itching to say what they found.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity dug up five scoops of sand from a patch nicknamed "Rocknest." A suite of instruments called SAM analyzed Martian soil samples, but the findings have not yet been released. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it's a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.It's a bind scientists frequently find themselves in, because by their nature, scientists like to share their results. At the same time, they're cautious because no one likes to make a big announcement and then have to say "never mind."

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

It's a bind scientists frequently find themselves in, because by their nature, scientists like to share their results. At the same time, they're cautious because no one likes to make a big announcement and then have to say "never mind."

The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. "We're getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting," John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That's where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. "The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down," says Grotzinger.

SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of.

Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good," he says.

Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping he'll tell me what the heck he's found, but he's not providing any more information.

So why doesn't Grotzinger want to share his exciting news? The main reason is caution. Grotzinger and his team were almost stung once before. When SAM analyzed an air sample, it looked like there was methane in it, and at least here on Earth, some methane comes from living organisms.

But Grotzinger says they held up announcing the finding because they wanted to be sure they were measuring Martian air, and not air brought along from the rover's launchpad at Cape Canaveral.

"We knew from the very beginning that we had this risk of having brought air from Florida. And we needed to diminish it and then make the measurement again," he says. And when they made the measurement again, the signs of methane disappeared.

Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding. In the meantime he'll fend off requests from pesky reporters, and probably from NASA brass as well. Like any big institution, NASA would love to trumpet a major finding, especially at a time when budget decisions are being made. Nothing succeeds like success, as the saying goes.

Richard Zare, a chemist at Stanford University, appreciates the uncomfortable position John Grotzinger is in. He's been there. In 1996, he was part of a team that reported finding organic compounds in a meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica. When the news came out, it caused a huge sensation because finding organic compounds in a Martian rock suggested the possibility at least that there was once life on Mars.

"You're bursting with a feeling that you want to share this information, and it's frustrating when you feel you can't talk about it, "says Zare.

It wasn't scientific caution that kept Zare from announcing his results. It was a rule many scientific journals enforce that says scientists are not allowed to talk about their research until the day it's officially published. Zare had to follow the rules if he wanted his paper to come out.

He did break down and tell his family. "I remember at the dinner table with great excitement explaining to my wife, Susan, and my daughter, Bethany, what it was we were doing," says Zare. And then he experienced something many parents can relate to when talking to their kids.

"Bethany looked at me and said, 'pass the ketchup.' So, not everybody was as excited as I was," he says.
Zare says in a way, scientists are like artists. Sharing what they do is a big part of why they get out of bed in the morning.

"How many composers would actually compose music if they were told no one else could listen to their compositions? How many painters would make a painting if they were told no one else could see them?" says Zare. It's the same for scientists. "The great joy of science is to be able to share it. And so you want to say, 'Isn't this interesting? Isn't that cool?' "

Was there Life on Mars?

Today, November 20, 2012, a discovery was made that N.A.S.A. is not ready to reveal to the public, but Curiosity chief scientist, John Grotzinger stated, “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good”. They say that they are delaying their revelation to the public until they have an opportunity to check and recheck their data, but that they will be revealing this exciting news at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which takes place December 3-7 in San Francisco.

This discovery was made by using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, which is controlled by a robotic arm. Sam is Curiosity’s onboard chemistry lab, and it is capable of identifying organic compounds, which are the carbon containing building blocks of life. Sam obviously has detected something very interesting and exciting while taking and analyzing samples, and the excitement that is being presented suggests that whatever was found will not only answer all the questions we have had about life on Mars, but will change the way we view the planet that we have speculated about for centuries. It is exciting to know that we may finally have the answers that we have searched so long for.

This has been a great year for the scientific community and for the American people. We will be waiting for this exciting announcement with great anticipation. Congratulations N.A.S.A. on your new discovery, and thank you for all your hard work and dedication to this mission.

As always, thank you to my loyal readers, and if you enjoyed this article, please be sure repost the article to your Facebook or Twitter page so others can enjoy it. I wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. I hope you have a great day with your family and friends.

A special thank you goes out to Space.com  the facts for this article.

Friday, November 9, 2012

No Methane. No Life on Mars.

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover Curiosity has  found no methane in the Martian atmosphere, making it unlikely that there is  life on Mars. Mars Rover Curiosity  took this self-portrait.
The methane discovery (or lack thereof) comes from the first analysis of Martian atmosphere, taken by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument aboard Curiosity. SAM took a small gulp of Martian air and analyzed it with the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer and the Tunable Laser Spectrometer — and in both cases, the sensors failed to detect any methane. This does not mean that there’s no methane at all, but it means there is no measurable amount  methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere.