May 2008

Venus 05.30.08 The European Space Agency’s probe orbiting Venus, appropriately named Venus Express, took this picture of Venus at left on July 27, 2007.It is a false-color image in ultraviolet of the Southern hemisphere of the planet; the south pole is shown at the bottom.   

Cloud shape changes dramatically from the equator to the pole while the lower latitude cloud shape is fragmented due to vigorous convective movement. This movement is powered by the sun’s radiation heating the atmosphere. The bright white visible above the darker cloud deck is made of freshly formed droplets of sulphuric acid. Toward mid latitude, the convective clouds become streaky shapes. In higher latitudes, clouds appear dense and featureless, a type of haze. The dark, circular feature visible at the right edge of the image is a dark streak usually present in the polar region, indicating atmospheric spiralling towards the pole.

The image at right, taken July 22, 2007 shows the cloud cover over Venus’s equator; the bright white indicative of the sulphuric acid mentioned above.

All these images are credited to: ESA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA.  


Venus2  05.30.08
Venus3  05.30.08 The image at left is of the equatorial area of Venus taken August 22, 2007.Again, sulphuric acid can be spotted in the cloud cover.

Just think of the acid rain this could create on Earth!  


The image at right was taken July 27, 2007, by the Venus Monitoring Camera on Venus Express, as were the other images in this post.It shows the transition between the equatorial area and the mid-latitude area; or, the convection clouds vs. the streaky clouds.   

Venus4  05.30.08
Venus5  05.30.08 The image at left is more recent, taken February 25, 2008. All these images are false-color UV.It is the south polar area showing dark streaks indicative of strong jet-winds around the pole.   


NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this picture of the Phoenix Lander gliding to the surface of Mars while it orbited overhead.

The Lander will soon be testing its robotic arm; first by unlatching its wrist and then flexing its elbow. This is critical to the success of the mission as the arm will be scooping soil samples of ice for analysis.Phoenix landing

 Image: NASA/ JPL/ Caltech/ Univ of Arizona











This image shows the Phoenix craft parachute during its descent on May. It landed near the Heimdall crater at at distance of 12 miles in front of the crater. NASA is using both the MRO and another vehicle orbiting Mars, Odyssey, to communicate with the Phoenix Lander. Commands have been sent for the Lander to take pictures of the area around it and to begin to move its robotic arm.

During the next three months, the arm will dig in the soil near the lander and scoop samples of soil and ice to instruments on the lander deck. Following the commands this morning, its movements will begin with unlatching the wrist, then moving the arm upwards in a stair-step manner. These movements are schedule for Wednesday, May 28.

Overall, the Lander team is quite pleased with the landing of the craft and the position where it is situated on the surface of Mars.

The image below was taken today and relayed with other information to the MRO this evening, which transmitted the image and data to earth from its orbit around Mars.

Lander image 052708

At fifty-three minutes past 6 pm, Central Standard Time, the Phoenix Lander confirmed to Mission Control that it landed in the northern polar region of Mars. The first successful landing without airbags to cushion the landing on the planet since Viking 2 landed in 1976. Thruster jets were used to control the landing. Over the next three months, its mission will be to use its robotic arm to dig for frozen water.

Phoenix 05.25.08

The photo at left is a picture of one of the feet of the lander and the photo below is of the surrounding Martian landscape. Credit for the photo’s: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of Arizona.

During its 422-million-mile flight from Earth to Mars, which launched on August 4, 2007, Phoenix relied on electricity from solar panels during the spacecraft’s trip, known as the cruise stage. The cruise stage was jettisoned seven minutes before the lander, encased in a protective shell to protect against heat from entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, entered the Martian atmosphere proceeding toward the surface of the planet. Batteries provided electricity until the lander’s own pair of solar arrays spread open.

Another critical deployment will be the 7.7-foot-long robotic arm on Phoenix, which will not be attempted for at least two days. Scientists will use the robotic arm during the weeks ahead to obtain samples of soil and ice and put them into laboratory instruments on the lander deck.

Pulled by Mars’ gravity, Phoenix was speeding along at 12,700 mph before it entered the atmosphere, which slowed the craft so it could pop out a parachute and fire thruster rockets to glide softly to the ground.

The journey took 10 months and spanned a distance of 423 million miles. NASA attempted a landing on Mars’ south pole in 1999, but a problem developed during the final minutes of descent and ended the mission.

NASA canceled its next Mars lander but successfully deployed Spirit and Opportunity to the planet’s equatorial region to search for signs of past surface water.Mars landing area

Phoenix was created from spare parts out of the failed Polar Lander mission and a mothballed probe. Unlike the rovers, Phoenix did not bounce to the planet’s surface in airbags, which are not suitable for larger spacecraft.

Instead, like the 1970s-era Viking probes and the failed Polar Lander mission, Phoenix used a jet pack to lower itself to the ground and fold-out legs to land on.

This is a picture of the landing site that the Phoenix lander is heading to on Mars. Phoenix landing site The landing should be at around 6:50 pm CST. 










You can watch the operations center here on NASA tv. 

Not much is happening right now, the odd communications, people sitting in front of monitors, a photographer walking around taking pictures. I would expect the excitement level to pick up closer to the landing time.

Here is a web link for the lander:

A discovery of silica deposits on Mars detected in 2007 is featured in a paper in the May 23, 2008 issue of Science.  The Mars rover Spirit detected these deposits which were formed by volcanic vapors or hot-spring-type events that could hold traces of past life. Mars sunset














The above image, taken in 2005, shows the sun setting above the Martian horizon casting a blue glow above the rim of Gusev Crater.

On Earth, these deposits are associated with living organisms and fossil remains of microbes. This means that the environment in this part of Mars could be friendly to microbial life. Silica is a medium that can capture and preserve traces of this microbial life.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been operating on Mars since January 2004. On Sunday, May 25, a new Mars lander named Phoenix will arrive to take ice samples out of the Martian soil for analysis.

Ever wonder what the weather is like on Mars? You can find out by viewing this link which gives a narrative description of the Martian weather as well as a Quicktime movie of the planet. The movie shows a week of planetary rotation where clouds and dust storms can be seen on Mars.

Mars pic The movie is courtesy of the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft.  This is a low-resolution camera that scans Mars as the MRO orbits the planet, producing a global map at a pixel resolution of 1 to 10 km. This map provides a daily weather snapshot on Mars, gathering data on seasonal and annual variations, and maps the existence of water vapor and ozone in the Martian atmosphere.

For example, the weather report for the week of May 12, 2008 through May 18, 2008 is as follows:

Martian weather this past week continued to be fairly typical for northern spring. Afternoon water ice clouds concentrated over the major shield volcanoes, in the equatorial region, and west of Argyre. While Hellas continued to be clear and relatively free of dust, another dust storm developed at the seasonal north polar cap edge north of Tempe and lofted a diffuse cloud of dust onto the perennial cap for several days. This storm occurred northeast of the Phoenix site, where Phoenix intends to land on May 25. Although the storm occurred somewhat near the landing site, it did not affect weather conditions at the site. The two MER rovers (at Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum) continued to experience dust storm-free skies with some partial cloud (condensate) cover throughout the week. Some of these condensate clouds reached heights of 69-83 km altitude (mesosphere).

There is also a reference map provided so that you can pinpoint the location of the places named in the weather report.

Mars reference map









I find the Mars weather information interesting to compare with our weather on this planet. In place of rain or other precipitation, the active ingredient in Martian weather is dust.

Internet traffic is booming and yet the United States ranks fifteenth among major industrial countries in average broadband speed at 4.9 megabits per second. This means it takes two minutes plus to download an average sized movie in Japan through iTunes whereas in the U.S., the same download takes nearly thirty minutes. This is in a country where most of the infrastructure, going back to DARPA in the seventies, originated.

Some sample speeds of various countries are below taken from the Wall Street Journal based on October 2007 data of the OECD and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Japan 63.6
South Korea 49.5
Finland 21.7
France 17.6
Sweden 16.8
Netherlands 8.8
Portugal 8.1
Norway 7.7
Canada 7.6
Austria 7.2
Belgium 6.3
Iceland 6.1
Germany 6.0
Denmark 4.6
Italy 4.2
Slovak Republic 3.5
Hungary 3.3
Luxembourg 3.1
United Kingdom 2.6
Average 9.2


We rank eleventh in terms of broadband-access affordability and tenth in broadband penetration. Cost per megabit is $12.60 versus $3.09 in Japan or $5.29 in England. Only 57% of American households have broadband compared with 93% in South Korea.

It’s time for a unified broadband policy in the United States, something the presidential candidates need to spend more time developing with their policy experts. Although not a critical issue at present, information technology is a big income generator for this country. We need to ensure we aren’t left behind the rest of the world. I believe a national board of some type should be set up to develop goals on how we want this infrastructure to look in the next 5 to 10 years, including broadband access for schools where affordability can be a problem, and what mix of private versus public investment is desired.


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