June 2008

This picture shows the fine-grained material at the tip of the Robotic Arm scoop aboard NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, taken on June 20, 2008. The soil consists of small clumps of fine, fluffy, red soil particles.

Martian soil sample 06.26.08

Tests are under way to analyze the soil but so far it appears to be similar to soils in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica here on Earth. Scientists say it is clear the soil has interacted with water in the past due to salts contained therein and which are being analyzed.

More information should be coming out soon regarding this interesting sample. This is the first time any type of wet chemistry analysis has been performed on Martian soil samples.


Everyone is familiar with storms on Jupiter, particularly the Great Red Spot, which scientists believe is over 300 years old! Less is known about storms on Saturn. The planet has a region where storm intensity has been severe since the Cassini mission first began to photograph Saturn in early 2004.

Storm Alley on Saturn

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
This picture taken May 19 of this year shows that region of intense storm activity on Saturn called “Storm Alley” by scientists.  The interesting part of the picture are the dark vortices. One can imagine winds running at hundreds of miles per hour, as the winds on Saturn’s are known to be among the swiftest in the solar system.  Voyager measured winds at 1,800 km/h or about 1,200 miles/hour during its flyby of the planet.

Saturn’s winds are banded much like Jupiter’s but are fainter and wider, especially near the equator.  Otherwise Saturn’s storms are a bit bland. The planet does have an interesting “Great White Spot”. In 1990, Hubble spotted an enormous white cloud near Saturn’s equator not present during the Voyager flybys. In 1994, another smaller storm was observed. The 1990 storm was an example of a Great White Spot. This is a unique but short-lived phenomenon which occurs once every Saturn year, or about every 30 Earth years. Great White Spots were observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, and 1960, with the 1933 storm being the most famous. If the patterns holds, another storm will occur in about 2020.

Scientists working with the Mars Lander mission believe the robotic arm on the lander has found ice crystals in the Martian soil. Crumbly bits of bright material like shown in the picture below have been unearthed, (or is the term here unmars-ed?),  but later disappeared after exposure to the sunlight.

The thinking is that it must be ice, for if it was a substance like salt, it would still be present. As ice, frozen water that is, it would have vaporized shortly after being uncovered by the robotic arm.

More digging by the robotic arm and further testing should help confirm this hypothesis.

Mars Lander 06.19.08

My guess is that it is ice. There is still a ways to go to determine how much is present and if any pools of water lie below the surface. It’s an interesting development. More data should be available later.

The Hubble Space Telescope was first talked about in a 1946 RAND report. Yes, that is correct, 1946. It took 20 years for the project to gather momentum. However, after the Apollo missions, more focus and budget money were given over to social programs and the amount for space exploration reduced.

Hubble was estimated to cost as much as $900 million and to get the project off the ground; the scientists in charge said it would cost $300 million, for no particular reason other than it seemed to be the politically acceptable number.

Thus, the mirror was shrunk in size, quality control sacrificed and poor lens grinding due to costs pressures incurred. If not for the fact that the telescope was made to be serviced in space, hence the later lens repair mission a few years after Hubble’s launch in 1990, it would have been a disastrous failure.

A new book by Robert Zimmerman, “The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It“, was published in May.

Cover Image

It looks to be an interesting account of the Hubble project along with the political intrigue and budget considerations as well as the science behind the program. It is on my list to buy as soon as I can catch up on some other books I’ve partially read.

I’m finally participating in online banking. I pay bills online and save the cost of postage. A side benefit is the ability to schedule the date of payment and coordinate when it will be deducted from my checking account. I no longer receive paper statements, instead opting for online statement delivery. It’s pretty slick; except when the web site is down and I can’t access my account. Admittedly, this is a rare occurrence, but when it does occur, and it does from time to time; it’s very annoying.

A couple of weeks ago, I needed to rent a pickup truck. So on a Thursday morning I went to U-Haul’s web site, put in my information including the fact that I wanted to pick the truck up two days later on Saturday morning. I received an immediate reservation email which said someone would call me back within an hour to confirm, and someone did. I went in Saturday to pick the truck up and as they were completing the paperwork and getting the key, another individual came in to ask about renting a truck. They were all booked up and didn’t have any available. I commented to the U-Haul employee that I reserved my rental through the web and got a call back to confirm; that it was nice and I appreciated the convenience. His reply was, “Yeah, it’s pretty slick when it works.” I didn’t realize, not being in the habit of doing of lot of renting, that it would not work.

I have a Flickr photo sharing account and ordered some prints this weekend, designating the local Target store as the place where I would like to pick them up. The web site said the photo department at Target opens at 9:00 and that the photos would be ready in one hour. I had some errands to do and arrived at Target three hours later to pick up my photos. Unfortunately, their photo processor was out for the day and my pictures would not be ready until the following day. I remembered the U-Haul rep’s comment, “It’s pretty slick when it works.” The problem is, people are involved, not just computers. Computers can do their bit, but then people have to carry out their part to make it look “slick”.

The U-Haul rep’s comment is applicable to many things about the online age, and it also a warning. Whether it’s Internet Explorer, Windows Vista, wireless networking, cell phones, cd’s you burned, online banking, online reservations, etc. It’s pretty slick, when it works. The warning being the fact that you should always have a back up plan, and don’t be overly surprised if the online processes don’t work like you expect.

It even applies to my blogging software, which I have been through several frustrations with. It’s pretty slick, when it works.



The pictures that Cassini takes of Saturn and its moons continue to be phenomenal.

The Cassini spacecraft took this photo of Saturn’s moon, Tethys, 15 degrees above Saturn’s ringplane. It’s quite a contrast when you consider the fact that Tethys is 1,062 km, or 660 miles in diameter while Saturn is 60,268 km, or 37,200 miles wide.

Tethys 06.11.08

This image utilized visible red light with Cassini’s wide-angle camera. Taken on May 13, 2008, the spacecraft was 1.3 million km, or 836,000 miles from Saturn.

The robotic arm of the Phoenix Lander is scooping Martian soil that appears to be clumping together. This is not ideal for the tests the spacecraft is designed to perform on the soil.

Engineers are testing a revised method in light of the clumpy soil problem. The soil is intended to pass through a screen for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) to test. After 20 minutes of vibrating the screen, only a few particles fell from the clumpy soil to pass through the screen.

The revised method will hold the scoop at an angle above the delivery target and attempt to sprinkle out a small sample through vibrating the scoop which is assisted by a motorized rasp on the bottom of the scoop.

Hopefully the tests will be able to go forward with this new method. I’d like to know why the soil is clumpy. It is wet clumpy or merely clay clumpy?

Phoenix mission 06.08.08

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