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10 July 2009

Solar System Creator

As I mentioned last month, on top of research and grad school duties, I’m in the process of planning out a sci-fi novel. It began with the month-long outlining challenge “Midsommer Madness” over at the Liberty Hall writing site, and I am continuing with it in my spare time. I am trying to make my novel grounded in reality whenever possible. It is set in a known star system, 55 …


6 May 2009

"Alien Skull" on Mars

Are you kidding?! Guys. That’s a rock. A chunk of vesicular basalt to be specific. As far as pareidolia goes, it’s not even very good! I had to stare for a while before I saw a face. The human brain loves to see familiar shapes in everything, so it’s pretty easy to find examples of rocks on Mars that look like anything you want. Here, take a look at this …


10 April 2009

The Thermodynamics of Life

Markus Hammonds over at Supernova Condensate has a really interesting post about a recent paper showing that 10 of the 20 amino acids used by life are thermodynamically favored to form in all sorts of environments. That means that it’s very likely that life elsewhere in the universe would have the same most fundamental building blocks! Here’s a quote from the paper: Our results also indicate that a certain degree …


26 January 2009

SETI and Spore

I recently started getting Seed magazine, and am consistently impressed with how good it is. My favorite part is the “Seed salon” where they take two really smart people from fields that might not typically interact, put them in a room together and get them talking. I just discovered that they post videos of the Seed Salon online! Take a look at this one, where Jill Tarter, a pioneer in …


22 January 2009

Mars Methane: the Paper

After all the to-do about the confirmation of methane on Mars and its possible implications, I decided that I should take a look at the actual Science article and post a distillation of it here. The paper that caused this uproar is called “Strong Release of Methane on Mars in Northern Summer 2003”, by Mumma et al. Before this paper, methane had been detected on Mars, maybe. The evidence was …


20 January 2009

Mars Methane Movie

NASA has put together a nice movie of Dr. Mike Mumma summarizing his discovery of methane on Mars. He brings up the possibility that the methane detection might influence landing site selection for MSL. I suspect that the Nili Fossae site will get some more attention because it was identified as one of the methane-producing regions, but it was taken off the list of finalist sites mostly due to safety …


18 January 2009

Methane on Mars

If you follow space news, you’ve probably heard by now the announcement that methane has been detected with confidence in the martian atmosphere. This is a big deal because methane is broken down very quickly on Mars, so the fact that it is detectable means that there must be a source somewhere, indicating either geologic or biological activity. It’s important to point out that this is not evidence of life …


24 October 2008

Big Picture: Enceladus

Check it out, The Big Picture is featuring views of Saturn’s moon Enceladus today! I have a soft spot for Enceladus because when I was in NASA academy, we chose to come up with a mission concept to Enceladus. Go check out the stunning photos!


14 October 2008

DPS 2008 Day Three: More Titan, More Exoplanets

This morning I spent my time in the Titan Subsurface and Interior sessions, and I’m glad I did because there were some cool talks. There were a couple that showed possible evidence for cryovolcanism (that is, “volcanoes” where the “lava” is actually water freezing to become ice). One talk by Rosaly Lopes showed radar images of locations called Hotei Arcus and Western Xanadu, and suggested that the lobate features that …


11 October 2008

DPS 2008 Day One: Mars, Exoplanets, Defining Planets and Enceladus

Today was the first day of the Division for Planetary Sciences conference here at Cornell. All the talks are being live web-streamed, but since most of you probably don’t have time to sit and watch esoteric scientific talks online all weekend, here are the highlights from the sessions I saw today. In the morning, the first session that I went to was Mars Surface and Surface/Atmosphere Interactions. DPS is an …


8 October 2008

25km Enceladus Flyby!

Tomorrow the Cassini spacecraft will fly within 25 km of the surface of Enceladus. Yes, you read that right. Twenty five kilometers. Not 2500, not 250. Holy crap. I’ll let you read about all the details over at the Planetary Society blog. I just wanted to call attention to how freakin’ amazing it is to be able to command a spacecraft that is currently ~1,525,300,000 km away from Earth and …


26 September 2008

Plumbing on Mars: HiRISE Reveals Groundwater Cracks

This image from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, shows cracks in the rocks on Mars that once formed the underground plumbing through which groundwater traveled. Groundwater flow on Mars has been speculated for a long time, but it takes powerful cameras like HiRISE to actually find the evidence. These cracks resisted erosion because they were filled with minerals deposited by groundwater, so now we can see them …


17 September 2008

MSL Workshop Presentations!

For those of you playing along at home, I thought I should point out that most of the presentations so far are posted at the “marsoweb” landing site website, so I encourage you to go check them out. Also, in case you were wondering, I have no idea which sites I want to survive this process. I have one or two that I am skeptical of, but I am really …


Potential MSL Site: Gale Crater

I am sort of breaking my own protocol here by posting about Gale crater before I hear the presentations today, but since we will immediately go into discussion and decision making after it is presented this morning, I figured that it would be good to familiarize you with it now. Gale is a ~100 km diameter crater on Mars with a huge 5 km tall mound of sediments in the …


Potential MSL Site: Mawrth Vallis

The Mawrth Vallis landing site is actually a set of four possible landing ellipses in an area with huge clay mineral signatures that is cut by a meandering outflow channel. There was some grumbling in the past about the fact that Mawrth advocates proposed four ellipses when everyone else followed the rules and only submitted one, but in the end I think it hurt them. They ran way over time …


Potential MSL Site: Eberswalde

The Eberswalde site is interesting because it is unarguably the best example of a delta on Mars. It is in a small crater that was partially obscured by the Holden impact and forms an enclosed basin with clear inflowing channels. (we know the source and the sink!) The hypothesis is that it was a long-lived lake with a large delta. A delta environment is great because it is a location …


Potential MSL Site: Holden Crater

The next landing site that we heard about was Holden Crater. Holden is a 154 km diameter crater formed early in martian history that happened to fall smack in the path of an extensive fluvial system. There was a long chain of craters connected by water-carved channels¬† and then the Holden impact occurred and interrupted that flow. It looks like Uzboi vallis, one of the channels, then breached the rim …


16 September 2008

Potential MSL Site: Nili Fossae Trough

This morning we hit the ground running and heard about a very interesting site: the Nili Fossae Trough. This site would land in a big canyon formed when a block of crust dropped down. To the southeast of the site is the giant Isidis impact basin, and to the south is the Syrtis Major volcano and associated lava flows. Just east of the trough is a somewhat fresher crater whose …


Potential MSL Site: South Meridiani

The south Meridiani landing site is a newcomer to the bunch. It was added earlier this summer as a replacement for the north meridiani site. The south Meridiani site is about 100 km due south of the Opportunity rover landing site and about 100 km due east of the Miyamoto site. What makes the south Meridiani site interesting is that, just south of the landing ellipse, you transition from Meridiani …


Potential MSL Site: Miyamoto Crater

Miyamoto crater is an ancient crater about 150 km southwest of where the Opportunity rover is right now. It probably formed in the earliest stage of Mars history, and was then subject to lots of erosion by water, followed by being partially or completely buried by the same material that make up the Meridiani plains. Then, erosion exposed it again. The potential landing site has some interesting mineralogy, particularly evidence …