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Three different spacecraft bound for Mars this month

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Mars is about to be invaded by planet Earth – big time.

Three countries – the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates – are sending unmanned spacecraft to the red planet in quick succession beginning this week, in the most sweeping effort yet to seek signs of ancient microscopic life while scouting out the place for future astronauts.

The U.S., for its part, is dispatching a six-wheeled rover the size of a car, named Perseverance, to collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade.

“Right now, more than ever, that name is so important,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said as preparations went on amid the coronavirus outbreak, which will keep the launch guest list to a minimum.

Each spacecraft will travel more than 300 million miles (483 million kilometres) before reaching Mars next February. It takes six to seven months, at the minimum, for a spacecraft to loop out beyond Earth’s orbit and sync up with Mars’ more distant orbit around the sun.

Scientists want to know what Mars was like billions of years ago when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed simple, tiny organisms to flourish before the planet morphed into the barren, wintry desert world it is today.

“Trying to confirm that life existed on another planet, it’s a tall order. It has a very high burden of proof,” said Perseverance’s project scientist, Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena, California.

The three nearly simultaneous launches are no coincidence: The timing is dictated by the opening of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimizes travel time and fuel use. Such a window opens only once every 26 months.

Mars has long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination but has proved to be the graveyard for numerous missions. Spacecraft have blown up, burned up or crash-landed, with the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50%. China’s last attempt, in collaboration with Russia in 2011, ended in failure.

Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India.

The United Arab Emirates and China are looking to join the elite club.

The UAE spacecraft, named Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, is an orbiter scheduled to rocket away from Japan on Wednesday, local time, on what will be the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The spacecraft, built in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, will arrive at Mars in the year the UAE marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.

“The UAE wanted to send a very strong message to the Arab youth,” project manager Omran Sharaf said. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you can do much more. … The nice thing about space, it sets the standards really high.”

Controlled from Dubai, the celestial weather station will strive for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometres by 44,000 kilometres) to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change.

China will be up next, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter sometime around July 23; Chinese officials aren’t divulging much. The mission is named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven.

NASA, meanwhile, is shooting for a launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral.

Perseverance is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. China’s much smaller rover will aim for an easier, flatter target.

To reach the surface, both spacecraft will have to plunge through Mars’ hazy red skies in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” – the most difficult and riskiest part of putting spacecraft on the planet.

Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission. Brand-new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer the craft away from hazards. Ground controllers will be helpless, given the 10 minutes it takes radio transmissions to travel one-way between Earth and Mars.

Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites.

Where there was water – and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago – there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater. But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers.

Perseverance will hunt for rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.

It will drill into the most promising rocks and store a half-kilogram (about 1 pound) of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover. To prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the samples, the tubes are super-sterilized, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

“Yep, I’m staking my reputation on it,” he said.

While prowling the surface, Perseverance as well as China’s rover will peek below, using radar to locate any underground pools of water that might exist. Perseverance will also release a spindly, 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter that will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet.

Perseverance’s cameras will shoot colour video of the rover’s descent, providing humanity’s first look at a parachute billowing open at Mars, while microphones capture the sounds.

The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere. Extracted oxygen could someday be used by astronauts on Mars for breathing as well as for making rocket propellant.

NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and send them from there to Mars in the 2030s. To that end, the space agency is sending samples of spacesuit material with Perseverance to see how they stand up against the harsh Martian environment.

The tab for Perseverance’s mission, including the flight and a minimum two years of Mars operations, is close to $3 billion. The UAE’s project costs $200 million, including the launch but not mission operations. China has not disclosed its costs. Europe and Russia dropped plans to send a life-seeking rover to Mars this summer after falling behind in testing and then getting slammed by COVID-19.

Perseverance’s mission is seen by NASA as a comparatively low-risk way of testing out some of the technology that will be needed to send humans to the red planet and bring them home safely.

“Sort of crazy for me to call it low risk because there’s a lot of hard work in it and there are billions of dollars in it,” Farley said. “But compared to humans, if something goes wrong, you will be very glad you tested it out on a half-kilogram of rock instead of on the astronauts.”

Source: – CP24 Toronto’s Breaking News

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This rocks! Western University student spots never-before-seen asteroid – Belleville Intelligencer

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A Western University astronomy student from Chatham, who’s been stargazing since he was a kid, has discovered an asteroid through remote access to a telescope in Spain.

Graduate student Cole Gregg, 22, was using a telescope based at an observatory known as Astrocamp to troll the night sky when he spotted the small, fast-moving, flashing object.

His find — an asteroid estimated to be about 50 to 100 metres long — came after months of seeing nothing notable during his studies. It was, to put it mildly, “unexpected,” Gregg said Wednesday.

“It was quite shocking. You are not really ready for it,” he said. “It takes you by surprise and it was very exciting.”

Using the telescope located on a Spanish mountaintop, Gregg said he observed the asteroid as it sped close to Earth, moving through near-space across Europe.

Gregg’s astronomy professor, Paul Wiegert, called it “a rare treat to be the first person to spot one of these visitors to our planet’s neighbourhood.”

Added Wiegert: “Astronomers around the globe are continuously monitoring near-Earth space for asteroids so this is certainly a feather in Cole’s cap.”


Western astronomy student Cole Gregg monitors the night skies. Gregg discovered the asteroid ALA2xH a week ago.

Gregg spotted the asteroid, given the temporary designation ALA2xH, on Nov. 18. Data collected about the asteroid was sent to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., to determine whether the observation was unique or not.

From there, it goes on their near-Earth object confirmation page.

Gregg used a website called Itelescope, which allows the public to access telescopes via the internet.

“A lot of people use them for the pretty astrophotography pictures, but they are quite capable of science as well,” Gregg said. “My project is proving that these small telescopes are quite capable of science.”

Despite their efforts, Gregg said they have not spotted the asteroid again “due to weather and unavailability of the telescopes.”

Gregg said he has been fascinated with space since he was camping as a boy and relished looking up at stars in the dark skies. “It sparked my interest.”

After completing his PhD in astronomy, he hopes to continue his research and teach.

“I’m interested in asteroids and comets and how they move, how they exist in the solar system and where they come from,” he said. “And how we can learn from our own solar system to understand . . . other solar systems in the galaxy.”

HRivers@postmedia.com


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This rocks! Western University student spots never-before-seen asteroid – Kingston This Week

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A Western University astronomy student from Chatham, who’s been stargazing since he was a kid, has discovered an asteroid through remote access to a telescope in Spain.

Graduate student Cole Gregg, 22, was using a telescope based at an observatory known as Astrocamp to troll the night sky when he spotted the small, fast-moving, flashing object.

His find — an asteroid estimated to be about 50 to 100 metres long — came after months of seeing nothing notable during his studies. It was, to put it mildly, “unexpected,” Gregg said Wednesday.

“It was quite shocking. You are not really ready for it,” he said. “It takes you by surprise and it was very exciting.”

Using the telescope located on a Spanish mountaintop, Gregg said he observed the asteroid as it sped close to Earth, moving through near-space across Europe.

Gregg’s astronomy professor, Paul Wiegert, called it “a rare treat to be the first person to spot one of these visitors to our planet’s neighbourhood.”

Added Wiegert: “Astronomers around the globe are continuously monitoring near-Earth space for asteroids so this is certainly a feather in Cole’s cap.”


Western astronomy student Cole Gregg monitors the night skies. Gregg discovered the asteroid ALA2xH a week ago.

Gregg spotted the asteroid, given the temporary designation ALA2xH, on Nov. 18. Data collected about the asteroid was sent to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., to determine whether the observation was unique or not.

From there, it goes on their near-Earth object confirmation page.

Gregg used a website called Itelescope, which allows the public to access telescopes via the internet.

“A lot of people use them for the pretty astrophotography pictures, but they are quite capable of science as well,” Gregg said. “My project is proving that these small telescopes are quite capable of science.”

Despite their efforts, Gregg said they have not spotted the asteroid again “due to weather and unavailability of the telescopes.”

Gregg said he has been fascinated with space since he was camping as a boy and relished looking up at stars in the dark skies. “It sparked my interest.”

After completing his PhD in astronomy, he hopes to continue his research and teach.

“I’m interested in asteroids and comets and how they move, how they exist in the solar system and where they come from,” he said. “And how we can learn from our own solar system to understand . . . other solar systems in the galaxy.”

HRivers@postmedia.com


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Dinosaur-era bird with scythe-like beak sheds light on avian diversity – CANOE

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“Amazing, small, delicate, fragile, challenging to study – all at the same time,” said Ohio University anatomy professor Patrick O’Connor, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

An illustration depicting the bird Falcatakely forsterae amidst non-avian dinosaurs and other creatures 68 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period in Madagascar. Photo by Illustration by Mark Witton /Handout via REUTERS

“Bird fossils are particularly rare in part because they have such delicate skeletons. Hollow bones aren’t great at surviving the fossilization process,” added paleontologist and study co-author Alan Turner of Stony Brook University in New York.

“Because of this, we need to be aware that we are probably under-sampling the Mesozoic diversity of birds. A newly discovered species like Falcatakely provides a taste of the tantalizing possibility of a greater diversity of form waiting to be discovered,” Turner said.

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Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs about 150 million years ago. Early birds retained many ancestral features including teeth. The Falcatakely fossil has a single conical tooth in the front part of the upper jaw. Falcatakely probably had a small number of teeth in life.

It belonged to an avian group, enantiornithines, that did not survive the mass extinction event 66 million years ago, ending the Cretaceous Period.

“Unlike the earliest birds such as Archaeopteryx, which in many ways still looked dinosaurian with their long tails and unspecialized snouts, enantiornithines like Falcatakely would have looked relatively modern,” Turner said.

It was in the underlying skeletal structure where its differences were more apparent, O’Connor added, with more similarities to dinosaurs like Velociraptor than modern birds.

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