Mars Update

The planet-wide dust storm (image on right) has cleared. Here’s an update on humanity’s active missions to the Red Planet.

About to make headlines in next 30 days


Update, November 8, 2018:

Active spacecraft on or around Mars

Per Wikipedia:

  1. Mars Odyssey (NASA); also keeps Earth in touch with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers
  2. Mars Express (ESA)
  3. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)
  4. Curiosity rover (NASA); currently has a glitch. Update:

  5. Mangalyaan; Mars Orbiter Mission (ISRO)
  6. MAVEN

In need of a Matt Daimon-style rescue mission

Opportunity rover (NASA).

Remember how H. G. Wells began his novel The War of the Worlds?

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Well, no one in the 19th or early 20th century would have believed that soon we would know what the view of Earth from Mars actually looks like!

Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel transient at all. But my mind is boggled!

Featured image: NASA


Guest Video: Planet Hunting with TESS

September 22, 2018: TESS has already found two new planets, per preliminary reports.

Original post:

NASA released the first images from TESS today.

What is TESS?

Here is today’s image:


There are more planets than stars in the Milky Way–and these are mostly stars. (Source)

TESS mission page.

Featured image: Yaquina Head Lighthouse, BLM Oregon and Washington/Daniel Gomez

Meanwhile, at Ceres . . .

. . . the Dawn mission is coming to an end. Remember those shiny spots on the asteroid? They’re still making headlines!

Here is an overview of Dawn’s accomplishments:

Mission page and “What we learned from the mission.”

Update, September 17, 2018: More on Ceres’ three-mile-high ice volcano.

November 3, 2018: Good night, Dawn. And thanks.

Guest Videos: OSIRIS-REx Mission to Bennu

November 5, 2018: They’re getting close enough to image the asteroid now, and have found something intriguing:

We’ve gone into a space a lot this week–let’s keep going and celebrate the launch of OSIRIS-REx on September 8, 2016.

Mission page

Here’s an update. (Note: Look at the graphic on the wall behind her when they tell you what DSN is – that’s actually showing the Deep Space Network in real-time operation, and the moving lines are transmissions to and from various spacecraft.)

And here’s the basic mission . . .

WAIT! WHAT ABOUT ME????!!!–Asteroid Bennu

Oh, all right, Bennu:

Now then, here’s the basic OSIRIS-REx mission video.

Featured image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Guest Videos: Juno and Jupiter

Meanwhile, at Jupiter . . .

Another bumped post. This is turning into a Blog Carnival of Space, but it’s worth it in sheer awesomeness. It’s too bad ongoing space exploration just doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the news. (PS: Work on the domestic cat ebook is going slowly but progressing steadily.)

September 5, 2018: Juno has found that Jupiter’s magnetic field is unique (also the Lego figures and, more importantly, the spacecraft’s electronics are holding, thus far, during the dives close to the giant planet.

Update, July 10, 2018: This week, NASA released a summary of the Juno Mission’s accomplishments over the last two years.

Original post:

We have three Lego figures orbiting the planet Jupiter now.


Why are the instruments in a titanium vault?

Well, for one thing, Jupiter “roars” at you, even before you get there: Continue reading

Guest Reblog: “Opportunity Under Threat,” by The Road To Endeavour

November 15, 2018: Hopes were raised briefly of a signal, and then dashed, apparently.

October 30, 2018: As the 45-day deadline arrives, NASA has decided to continue trying to raise Opportunity until January and then review things again.

Jason Major was just a tad pumped about this.

Per NASA’s statement, released yesterday afternoon:

After a review of the progress of the listening campaign, NASA will continue its current strategy for attempting to make contact with the Opportunity rover for the foreseeable future. Winds could increase in the next few months at Opportunity’s location on Mars, resulting in dust being blown off the rover’s solar panels. The agency will reassess the situation in the January 2019 time frame.

Per Aragorn Mr. Major:

. . . when the dust devils start whirling and twirling inside Endeavour, and winds start to whip up its slopes, the MER team will be there to takew advantage of it, shouting out Oppy’s name from Earth’s doorstep and urging her to “phone home” rather than just sitting inside with the TV on hoping to hear a plaintive call from outside…

This is a big deal, it really is. It means there is now a much better chance of cintact being re-established with Opportunity. So, good luck to all the MER team who have already worked so hard to get to this place – and best wishes to them as they continue their efforts.

What he said. Go, MER team! And Oppy, please phone home. We miss you.

October 27, 2018:

Opportunity Updates

sols 5238 to 5244, Oct. 18, 2018 – Oct. 22, 2018: Still No Signal From Opportunity

The dust storm on Mars has ended and atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site hovers around a typical seasonal value between 1.0 and 1.1.

No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). Opportunity likely experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. The team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver since loss of signal. In addition, more recently they have been commanding “sweep and beeps” throughout the daily DSN pass to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within mission clock fault.

Total odometry is unchanged at 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers).

October 24, 2018: They’re certainly giving Opportunity every possible chance. C’mon, Oppy . . . phone home!

Opportunity Updates

sols 5230 to 5237, Oct. 10, 2018 – Oct. 17, 2018: Actively Listening for Opportunity

The dust storm on Mars has ended with atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site down to around typical values of 1.0 to 1.1.

No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). Opportunity likely experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. The team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver since loss of signal.

In addition, more recently have been commanding “sweep and beeps” throughout the daily DSN pass to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within mission clock fault.

Total odometry is unchanged at 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers).

October 13, 2018: Not looking good, per the MER update page:

OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Efforts To Communicate With Opportunity Continue – sols 5224 to 5229, Oct. 4, 2018 – Oct. 9, 2018:
The dust storm on Mars has effectively ended with atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site down to around 1.0 to 1.1, values are typical for storm-free conditions this time of year.

No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). As stated previously, it is expected that Opportunity has experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. The science team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver since loss of signal.

The team has been commanding “sweep and beeps” throughout their daily DSN pass. They are addressing a possible complexity with certain conditions within the mission clock fault.

Total odometry is unchanged at 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers).

October 1, 2018: From the Mars Exploration Rover Mission status page:

OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Opportunity Remains Silent For Over Three Months – sols 5210 to 5216, Sept. 19, 2018 – Sept. 25, 2018:
No signal from Opportunity has been heard in over 115 sols, since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018).

It is expected that Opportunity has experienced a low-power fault. Perhaps, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault, as well. The dust storm on Mars continues to subside with atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site at around 1.3.

The science team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver. In addition, commanding “sweep and beeps” throughout our daily DSN pass to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within the mission clock fault.

Total odometry is 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers.

September 26, 2018: And here is a close-up from The Road to Endeavour blog:

Phone home, Oppy!

Update, September 25, 2018: They can see Oppy, even if it remains silent:

It’s that little speck in the center of the white box, per NASA.

Update, September 22, 2018:

sols 5203 to 5209, Sept. 12, 2018 – Sept. 18, 2018: No Signal Has Been Heard From Opportunity for Nearly 100 Days

The Opportunity team is increasing the frequency of commands it beams to the rover via the dishes of NASA’s Deep Space Network from three times a week to multiple times per day.

No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). That’s nearly 100 sols (days) without communication. It is expected that Opportunity has experienced a low-power fault, perhaps, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. The dust storm on Mars continues its decay with atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site below 1.5. The project has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times using the Deep Space Network Radio Science Receiver and commanding “sweep and beeps” to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within the mission clock fault.

Total odometry is 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers.

NASA/MER program

September 11, 2018:

Updated at 2:45 p.m. PDT on Sept. 11, 2018

Scientists reviewing data from the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have determined that the tau estimate (a measure of the amount of haze in the Martian atmosphere) in the skies above the rover Opportunity has been below 1.5 for two consecutive measurements. With more sunlight reaching the rover’s solar array, the Opportunity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are increasing the frequency of commands it beams to the 14-plus-year-old rover via the dishes of NASA’s Deep Space Network from three times a week to multiple times per day. Passive listening for Opportunity will also continue to be performed by JPL’s Radio Science Group, which records radio signals emanating from Mars with a very sensitive broadband receiver…”


Update, September 10, 2018: Still waiting . . .

Original post:

I shared this on Twitter after reading it yesterday but gave it some thought before reblogging it here. After all, Oppy has served long past its “expiration date”; as well, NASA is under pressure–for example, reportedly, Russia won’t be carrying our astronauts up into space any more, starting next year.

But NASA is composed of human beings, who are not perfect. And people everywhere, in every line of work, make questionable decisions; they set overly ambitious goals for themselves (although, give NASA its due–that’s their business, and they usually come through, eventually). People compete. They rise up the ladder and lose touch with some basics.

It’s a part of being human.

I don’t have the knowledge to say whether the 45-day cut-off is a good thing or not; however, I do recognize that we need to reward the ability to design rovers (Spirit was a laster, too) that are even better than expected and to continue their missions as long as possible.

Hopefully, Opportunity will respond soon. But if it doesn’t, let’s give it more time. The people behind it, past and present, deserve that.

Humanity is going into space eventually. Lets bring as much of that 60s spirit of wonder and exploration with us as possible, and only what little “business as usual” mindset is absolutely necessary to keep basic operations functioning.

In the long term, that will work out best for everybody.

For background, here’s the news release that inspired the reblogged post below.

When I started writing this blog – almost ten years ago now – I thought that Opportunity had two, maybe three more years of roving ahead of her. Five at the most. She had already travelled so far, seen so much, made so many discoveries, that to expect many more years than that seemed not […]

via Opportunity Under Threat — The Road To Endeavour

Guest Video: Sniffing Out Methane on Mars

On April 10, the European Space Agency announced that the trace gas orbiter–Part 1 of its ExoMars mission to the Red Planet–has finished aerobraking:

Here’s why they are so interested in Martian methane.

NASA also has a 2020 mission planned and is hoping to retrieve some rocks. (Uh, guys, you’ve already got some!)

Featured image: ESA/ATG medialab

Near-Earth Objects

Late this week, I watched a small asteroid zoom past Earth about 70,000 miles away.

An astronomer in Rome, Italy, working with the Virtual Telescope Project and Arizona’s Tenagra Observatories live-streamed the close encounter.

Because it was so close to our planet, this space rock really zipped across the telescope field, compared to the background stars, but the astronomer was still able to track it – and on a full-moon night, too, when there is a lot of skyglow. That’s amazing!

During the livestream, the asteroid – called 2018 DV1 – looked like a little dot of light, sometimes bright, sometimes faint. The astronomer explained that it has an irregular shape and was tumbling through space, sometimes reflecting more light, sometimes less.

I thought it was adorable. Had it been on a collision course with Earth instead of just flirting with the planet from 70,000 miles away, it would not have seemed so cute.

Here’s what a space rock only about 20 feet bigger than 2018 DV1 did when it hit us in 2013:

This Chelyabinsk meteor was only about the size of a city bus, but it was moving so fast that it had enough kinetic energy to mimic a blast some 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. ( W )

It approached with the Sun behind it, so astronomers had no idea this near-Earth object existed until it arrived over the Ural Mountain region.

2018 DV1, on the other hand, was detected on Monday, February 26th, and reached its point of closest approach on March 1 (Pacific time).

There was just a few days’ warning. What would we have done if it had been on a collision course?

A better way to phrase that question is, what will we do when (not if) an asteroid detected, say, on a Monday is due to collide with Earth on Friday?

I know what you’re thinking of right now: the dinosaur-killing asteroid that shut down the Cretaceous period.

Well, unlike the Chelyabinsk meteor, such an impactor would be a global game-changer, not the much more common near-Earth object that astronomers have seen and tracked recently.

However, since I looked up the K/T event at my other blog for an over-long and over-detailed post on cat evolution, let’s check that impact out briefly.

The K/T extinction

Since that post was about cats, my focus was on the most likely mammalian ancestor of carnivorans–Cimolestes, the “Bug Thief.”

One of the unclassified little furballs cowering in the bushes [as T-Rex or even a veggie dinosaur lumbered by] was Cimolestes. It had very sharp cheek teeth that it probably used to devour insects. (Rose)

Perhaps that’s why scientists have given it a name that means “Bug Thief.”

Along with other mammals, as well as tyrannosaurs, Triceratops, and other dinosaurs, the Bug Thief lived in a closed-canopy rainforest on swampy lowlands. The area was near a great inland sea that covered central North America in those days, and it would eventually become the US state Montana. (Prothero, 2006; Rose; Sewall and others; Stoffer; Sweet)

This shallow sea was connected to the Gulf of Mexico (Stoffer and others) where, almost 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) south of Cimolestes, the Yucatan platform sat – a big, inviting space target. (From Sweet, Figure 2)

The Bug Thief’s tropical home was rich in “low-energy sedimentary environments” (Sweet), but one day something shook it up badly.

Hundreds of square miles of semisolid mud on the sea floor chaotically mixed together or curled up into rolls and curvy folds. The direction of this movement was always to the south. (Stoffer and others)

Today the deformed seabed is frozen in place as a layer in rock outcrops. Geologists say that the movement here was toward the right (south).

Sediment structures like sand boils and other features that only appear during earthquakes also formed. (Stoffer and others)

And after that there are no more Cretaceous bone fragments or mollusk fossils, despite an intensive five-year field search for some. (Stoffer and others)

Researchers suspect that the cause of all those changes was the bolide impact that excavated the Chicxulub crater around 65 Ma. (Stoffer and others)

A 6- to 9-mile-wide (10-14 kilometers) (Kring) space rock hit Earth there, on the Yucatan peninsula, causing magnitude 11 earthquakes and collapsing the Yucatan platform. (Schulte and others)

Yes, that kind of shaking could have rolled up the seabed near the Bug Thief thousands of miles away, though it’s not certain that impact-generated tsunamis could have traveled so far north. (Stoffer and others)

The details of what happened on Earth after this impact are controversial. (Oppenheimer)

The only unquestioned evidence has already been mentioned: Something big hit Earth around K/T boundary time.

Beyond that basic fact, every discussion about impacts and the K/T extinction, as far as I can tell, is hypothetical only.

And this means there are some wild but still plausible ideas about the K/T extinction.

Because of my forestry background, I like the following description, based on plant evidence, of how the impact affected western North America where Cimolestes lived.

Per the paper by Sweet in the source list at the bottom of this post:

  • The Chicxulub impact melted tons of rock and blasted it all sky-high.
  • Some of the rock turned into molten glass that then rained down on the Bug Thief’s world, igniting the forest canopy.
  • Crown fires raced northward, spreading on winds that reached hundreds of miles an hour (Kring), but the understory of ferns and flowering plants was generally untouched.
  • Dust from the impact rained out of the darkened skies for months until, finally, the Sun broke through again.

Understory plants, released by the death of the former canopy forest, now thrived.

First, pioneer plants came in. Then slowly, over hundreds to thousands of years, the green world restored itself.

Eventually the same dense rainforest once again shaded the swamps. Only a few exotic flowering plants had vanished from it.

But some other living beings were missing, too.

During this extended catastrophe, dominant life forms, including but not limited to Earth’s land and marine nonavian dinosaurs, disappeared.

So did most mammals, including enough marsupials to give the surviving placental mammals dominance in North America. (Prothero, 2006; Rose)

Even with that edge, it wasn’t easy for them. Terrestrial ecosystems collapsed as completely as they had in the Permian extinction, although the global environment fared better this time around. (McGhee and others)

But Cimolestes and some other mammals somehow made it through and started the new age. (Rose)

Yeah. If something that big ever hits Earth again, let’s just hope it comes from the direction of the Sun, like the Chelyabinsk meteor did, so we won’t know about it until it’s here.

Fortunately, recent Earth-approaching asteroids have been much smaller. Too, scientists boosted up their game once they realized, back in the 1980s, that gradualism is only one part of geological history.

Near-Earth objects

According to NASA’s online Center for NEO Studies, another asteroid – 2018 DC – is passing by today.

2018 DC is an “Apollo object,” per its Small-Body Database entry. Such objects are the most common near-Earth object group. (Wikipedia)

If I’m reading the approach information correctly, 2018 DC will get within 22.3 million miles (36 million kilometers) of Earth today – much farther away than the one I watched on the livestream – before heading back out on its orbital path. This looks like the closest approach it has made since the first data entry, from 1926, but after 2018 it stays farther away from us when swinging through the neighborhood.

Another Apollo object, 2018 DS1, is also visiting today, according to the Minor Planet Center, though I can’t make heads or tails out of its data page. It was first observed on February 23, 2018.

There are many thousands of known NEOs out there, with an average of 30 more added each week, per NASA. There are also probably tens of thousands of unrecognized asteroids and comets, not to mention an occasional Tesla Roadster.

NASA, the United Nations, and a variety of national, international, and private groups are on the lookout for NEOs.

Here is a video that NASA made recently for International Asteroid Day:

Asteroid impact defense

Aside from either a K/T-level impactor or the involvement of Hollywood, the planet’s best minds are working out a number of possible defensive measures, summarized in this Wikipedia article.

Here is NASA’s planetary defense FAQ page.

NASA also keeps a list of potential impact risks. This is science in action, which means that it is all very tentative. This automated program has little information to go on, and people have to step in and determine exactly how much risk there is.

Fortunately, most NEOs that show up here are eventually taken off the list. And, from what I’ve read, there appears to be very little risk of an impact from any known object.

The ones that haven’t been seen yet, or can’t be seen (like the Chelyabinsk meteor), well…

A hundred years ago, no one had a clue that disaster can strike so abruptly.

Now, after learning of the K/T asteroid, we laypeople have swung to the other extreme and worry about catastrophe happening at any moment.

That’s possible, of course, but not very likely. Today we have the best knowledge and finest equipment humanity has ever had to meet the challenge, if it arises.

Not only that, we can sit at home and watch a live-stream as adorable little near-misses occasionally pass us on their otherwise lonely journey around the huge and mostly empty Solar System.

Featured image: Proposed fly-eye telescope to watch for near-Earth objects. ESA/A. Baker. CC BY-SA 3.0.


Clemens, W. A., and Kielan-Jaworowska, Z. 1979. Multituberculata, in Mesozoic Mammals: The First Two-Thirds of Mammalian History, ed. J. A. Lillegraven, Z. Kielan-Jaworowska, and W. A. Clemens, 99-149. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kring, D. A. 2007. The Chicxulub event and its environmental consequences at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 255:4-21.

McGhee, Jr., G. R.; Sheehan, P. M.; Bottjer, D. J.; and Droser, M. L. 2004. Ecological ranking of Phanerozoic biodiversity crises: ecological and taxonomic severities are decoupled. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 211:289-297.
Oppenheimer, C. 2011. Eruptions That Shook The World. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prothero, D. R. 2006. After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals. Bloomington and Indianapolis : Indiana University Press.

Rose, K. D. 2006. The Beginning of the Age of Mammals. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schulte, P.; Alegret, L.; Arenillas, I., and others. 2010. The Chicxulub asteroid impact and mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Science. 327:1214-1218.

Sewall, J. O.; van de Wal, R. S. W.; van der Zwan, K.; van Oosterhout, C.; Dijkstra, H. A.; and Scotese, C. R. 2007. Climate model boundary conditions for four Cretaceous time slices. Climate of the Past. 3:647-657.

Stoffer, P. W. 2003. Geology of Badlands National Park: A preliminary report. United States Geological Survey Open-file Report 03-35.

Stoffer, P. W.; Messina, P.; Chamberlain, Jr., J. A.; and Terry, Jr., D. O. 2001. The Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary interval in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. United States Geological Survey Open-file Report 01-56.

Sweet, A. R. 2001. Plants, a yardstick for measuring the environmental consequences of the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary event. Geoscience Canada. 28(3):127-138.

Wikipedia. Chelyabinsk meteor. Last accessed March 3, 2018.

Guest Video: Exploring the Inner Solar System




In this six-part series, NASA Goddard’s chief scientist, Jim Garvin, gives a talk on what scientists have found out about Mercury, Venus, Mars, some near-Earth objects, and the Moon. He explains it in a way that helps us to understand our own planet better.


Time is a bit tight this week, so there will be guest videos through Thursday, and then a big post about firestorms on Friday.

Where Does Gold Come From?

We’ve looked at gold’s history and multiple uses. Now…where does it come from?

No one knows for sure, but the answer lies in the stars.

The PGE iridium is found in the KT boundary that marks the mass extinction event that killed off many dinosaurs.  Source

The KT boundary contains iridium, a platinum-group element. Source

Where is gold found?

Gold and platinum are both rare elements, but they’re found in different places.

Platinum-group elements (PGEs) are so closely associated with impact craters that field researchers can identify a probable impact by the presence of PGEs, even if weathering has hidden or erased the crater walls and floor.

Gold, on the other hand, is found in a wide variety of geologic environments and in many different types of rock. There is no clear association with impact craters, although a lot of people claim one exists in South Africa at the 2-billion-year-old Vredefort astrobleme, where the richest gold deposits on Earth are found.

It isn’t a true association, though.
Continue reading