News from ‘Mars’

A couple of bits not really from Mars… but related.

The first thing not on Mars, but which eventually will be is the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity rover. You can see this live now on Ustream until 11:30pm BST, and there’s various people chatting about it over there too. It isn’t doing much, as it is sitting in a clean room getting assembled, but a bit of a Big Brother look at work in a robotics factory and an idea of the scale of this beast compared to those building it.

Another project not on Mars, but related to attempting to get people on it is Mars500, in which six men are currently spending 520 days in isolation, hoping to get an idea of what the psychological impact of this is on them as well as testing recycling and other processes. Romain is in the diary room, having just celebrated a birthday in the capsule.

There are mass spectrometers on Mars, as well as other planetary bodies, including on Earth. I once worked in a factory that used one to test the composition of food products. They simply ionise a sample and accelerate it along a magnetic field that curves. The charge points the ion in the direction of the field, the mass and therefore momentum pushes the ion to continue on forward and different charge to mass ratios end up following different curves. An explanation of how these things work and what they’re used for is in this video from NASA.

However, there is a bit or two of actual Martian news to digest. Odyssey, the satellite that has been quietly orbitting Mars since 2001, relaying data from the two Mars Rovers as well as the Phoenix lander mission, has had a success and a problem reported today. The satellite has three main instruments; THEMIS, which is an infrared imager and includes TES, an infrared spectrometer; The Gamma Ray Spectrometer, including the neutron spectrometer; and the Mars Radiation Investigation Experiment, which is a particle spectrometer. THEMIS has been collecting high resolution images of the Martian surface for the past eight and a half years. On the ground, researchers have modelled the response of the instrument to light and used that to convert data retrieved into the highest quality format possible. Using the data, they have constructed the highest resolution map of Mars yet available. Or at least they’ve aligned the images to within a few pixels and turned them over to the public, who can do the fine tuning via this website. Images from every Mars mission since the seventies can also be found at this site. So what’s the glitch? On the 14th of July, the satellite went into safe mode. It detected a problem with the gimbal controlling the spin of the solar arrays about a certain axis and switched immediately to the low gain antenna. It has since been switched back and a resolution to the problem is expected soon.

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