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Meanwhile Back On Mars....

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#1 of 7 OFFLINE   Peter Kline

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Posted December 22 2004 - 07:29 AM

From newswires:

Active Volcanoes May Still Exist on Mars

December 22, 2004 3:03 PM EST

Photographs taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mars indicate that active volcanoes may still exist on the red planet, further eroding its image as a dead world and offering prime sites to prospect for signs of Martian life.

Images from the European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter indicate geologically recent volcanic activity in the summit craters of five Martian volcanoes, with some areas showing activity as recently as 4 million years ago. Though long in human terms, 4 million years amounts to the most recent 1 percent of Martian history - a strong suggestion that the planet retains a capacity for volcanic activity.

"I suspect that as we get more spacecraft in orbit that it will increase the chances of seeing some kind of active eruption," said Jim Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He is one of more than 40 scientists who contributed to an analysis of the images to be published in this week's issue of the British journal Nature.

In the last few years researchers have found abundant evidence of ice at the Martian surface and signs that water flowed there in the past - most recently with the United States' twin robotic rovers still exploring Mars.

There have also been signs of recent volcanic activity. The latest work suggests that water could still bubble up in hydrothermal springs on some of the planet's spectacular volcanic peaks.

"This is of great interest to biologists," said Michael Carr, a planetary scientist in the Menlo Park, Calif., office of the U.S. Geological Survey.

In recent years researchers have discovered that hydrothermal environments on Earth are remarkably rich in life. Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor and hot springs on land provide the nutrients and energy to sustain rich ecosystems. Some biologists even argue that life began in such places.

Martian hydrothermal systems would probably look much like the steaming pools and spouting geysers of Yellowstone National Park, Carr said. If such environments do exist on Mars, they would be a critical place for future missions to investigate.

The Mars Express orbiter has been taking three-dimensional images of the Martian surface since January. The European Space Agency expects that by the end of its mission late next year Mars Express will have photographed the entire planet to a resolution of 33 feet.

The researchers determined the age of the Martian volcanic features by counting craters on the Martian surface. When a volcano erupts and spreads lava over the landscape, it creates a smooth surface that is gradually pocked with craters as the planet is bombarded over the millennia by asteroids, comets and meteors.

The rate of that bombardment has been established using a number of different methods. So by counting the number of craters in a patch of Martian terrain researchers can tell how recently it was resurfaced by volcanic activity.

#2 of 7 OFFLINE   Peter Kline

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Posted December 24 2004 - 12:05 AM

.... and at the fringes of our planetary system:

Posted Image

Cassini ready to launch European probe to Titan
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — With a gentle shove on Christmas Eve, the Cassini spacecraft will launch the European Space Agency's Huygens probe on a course that should send it plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn's big moon Titan.

The probe must be released precisely on course because it has no means of maneuvering and will remain dormant until a timer wakes it up for entry into Titan's hazy, hydrocarbon-laced atmosphere and a parachute descent to the surface on Jan. 14.

Confirmation of a successful release should be received by NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in Spain and Goldstone, Calif., just before 11 p.m. ET Friday, Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

The $3.3 billion Cassini-Huygens mission, a project of NASA, ESA and the Italian space agency, was launched on Oct. 15, 1997, from Cape Canaveral, to study Saturn, its spectacular rings and many moons.

During the nearly seven years Cassini took to reach the ringed planet, the attached probe was powered through an umbilical cable and awakened from sleep mode every six months for tests.

Cassini entered orbit around Saturn in June and has made several passes by Titan in preparation for the probe's release.

Friday evening, tension-loaded springs will push Huygens away from Cassini on a free-fall toward Titan.

On Monday, Cassini will perform a course change to avoid following the probe into Titan.

Huygens is designed to make a 2½-hour descent by parachute to the surface of the moon, which, according to some theories, could have lakes of methane.

Instruments aboard the probe will investigate the atmosphere's chemistry and cameras will try to record images of the surface. It's not known whether Huygens will drop into liquid or onto a hard surface, where it may operate for a few minutes.

As long as it is operating, Huygens will be transmitting data back to Cassini, which will later turn around to point its antenna at Earth and send the data to the Deep Space Network and on to ESA's Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

#3 of 7 OFFLINE   BrianW



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Posted December 24 2004 - 02:41 AM

It's been a great year for planetary science. I never imagined that the Mars rovers would still be alive when the Huygens probe is launched. Here's hoping that the launch of the Huygens probe will be a kickoff to another remarkable year of discovery.
Come, Rubidia. Let's blow this epoch.

#4 of 7 OFFLINE   BrianShort


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Posted December 24 2004 - 10:18 AM

It's definitely an exciting time for space exploration. I hope everything with the Huygens probe goes well. It's going to be fun to see the pictures of Titan below the haze, hopefully on January 15th.

I've also been continuing to watch the progress of the Mars rovers. I too am amazed that both are still working so well. I've read that Spirit is getting about 400 watt/hours of power now, down from 900 at the beginning of its mission. Opportunity, on the other hand, while it was down to about 500 watt hours, has gone up recently, and has even come close to having its original 900 watt hours of power. Something has been cleaning off its solar panels. Has anyone read where NASA plans on driving Opportunity after it visits its heatshield? If Spirit lasts long enough, I think it would be neat if they could drive to the wall of the crater, though I don't hold any illusions that it would actually last that long.


#5 of 7 OFFLINE   BrianShort


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Posted December 24 2004 - 05:28 PM

Huygens has been released from Cassini, and should hopefully be on an uneventful coast to Titan. I'm curious about how much light will be on Titan when it gets into the atmosphere. How clear will the images of Titan be? I was reading a bit about Huygens, and the imagers are pretty low res, something like 190x250 pixels.

I imagine NASA will eventually launch a specialized orbiter/lander to Titan, though probably not until after the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter is launched, and that won't happen until at least 2011.


#6 of 7 OFFLINE   Robert_Gaither



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Posted December 25 2004 - 05:38 PM

I wish they could put out some form of light reflecting satellite to help recharge the batts on the mar's rovers. It would be nice to have the ability to keep these toing for years/decades so the world can learn so much more and possibly be the stepping stone of future colonization.

#7 of 7 OFFLINE   Peter Kline

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Posted December 26 2004 - 04:26 AM

The rovers cannot last forever, even with what you propose - which is impractical. Dust is the major culprit. It gets on to the solar panels, into the gears, equipment, etc. The batteries inside can only be rechraged so many times before they give out. Also, the rovers will have done exactly what they were designed to do. Staying on the surface much longer won't yield any additional science. Back here at JPL they have years and years of analysis and study to do. If there are martians, perhaps we could outsource their participation and have them service the vehicles, however. Posted Image

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