Sunday, November 27, 2011

Words just cannot describe this...

So I won't even try. 
Mars Science Laboratory is shown here in this picture I took at the parking lot of OFB-1 (our shelter in case of a launch failure), near the VAB at Kennedy Space Centre and 6 miles from pad 41 at 10:02:09.2 AM on Saturday, November 26, 2011, 9 seconds after the main engines of the Atlas-V started it on its way to Mars. Best of luck, little rover - our thoughts, prayers and hopes go with you.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Marking Time in an Astronaut's Playground

On today's tour we got the briefest glimpse from the coach of MSL sitting across the bay on pad 41. We're all suited up and ready to go!

I knew that I would only be able to stay in Florida for two days, so I picked the 25th and 26th in the hopes that the launch would occur within one of the first two windows. However, with the battery failure in the Atlas-541 abort system, the launch was pushed back one day to the 26th. This opened up a hole which SMD graciously filled by adding a Kennedy Space Centre tour to our schedule. We got to go to some interesting places that the public doesn't always get to see and we were pre-cleared for the launch and issued special MSL VIP badges. You can take a look at some of the pictures I took (now updated with images from launch day!) along the way today.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dreams and my Date with Destiny

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Amongst us planetary scientists, the answer is almost always: "An Astronaut." I can certainly understand the appeal. Who wouldn't want to explore an alien place and do it in the style with which we associate Buck Rogers, Captain Kirk or any of our other intrepid science fiction heroes?

But that doesn't quite capture what I imagined at that age. Let me explain what I mean by that statement by using an example. When I was much, much younger, my parents allowed me to stay up for one show alone - NOVA on PBS. It was a real treat because the show came on at 9:30 PM in Newfoundland which is pretty late for an eight year old. For those of you who know the show, there's quite a variety of topics that end up getting covered from medicine to military technology and everything in between. 

However, I did have a favourite episode. I just couldn't get enough of the results that came back from the Voyager probes. That story had everything: cutting edge tech, an audacious plan with dramatic twists and turns, and wonders revealed that felt so much more satisfying than anything from SciFi because they were actually real. Central to the whole process was the mission controller and that holy of holies for me, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yes, I was one of those eight year olds who dreamed of one day being part of JPL.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Getting Ready for the Cape

MSL Arrives at Launch Complex 41 inside its 5m fairing just before dawn on November 3. In the days ahead, this fairing will be mounted atop an Atlas-V 541 EELV for a launch to Mars no earlier than November 25. 

After some consideration, I've decided to bite the bullet, take a chance and head on down to Cape Canaveral next week to help see off Mars Science Lab (MSL). Better known as the Curiosity Rover, MSL is an exciting mission to Mars that will take a close-up look at the km-thick layered deposits inside Gale Crater. It's an exciting place to try for and the rover team is looking forward to a successful launch, landing and the scientific results that will be returned. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the spectacular night launch of Phoenix in 2008. So this will be my first launch, assuming that delays don't push the launch back until after I need to fly home.  While I have some idea what to expect from video and images, I have no idea what the experience will be like in person.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dr. Hojatollah Vali's CATP Seminar

 Astrobiology's favourite martian meteorite, Alan Hills 84001 is shown alongside a Magnetosome, a bacteria that fixes iron within its body to form magnetite and gives itself a free ride (or orientation) courtesy of the Earth's magnetic field. Could the tiny magnetite crystals serve as biomarkers long after the host is gone? And what is the origin of these kinds of features in ALH84001?

Recently, we kicked off the CATP  seminar series for the 2011-2012 season! The first talk of the year comes from McGill University's Hojatollah Vali. Dr. Vali's work is mainly concerned with the ability of iron-fixing bacteria to serve as biomarkers long after the bacteria have long since passed away. It's just one way that we can answer the question of how to detect past biological activity in the absence of well-developed morphologically distinct fossils.