Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fog on Mars

One of the things about Martian Surface Missions that appeals so much to me is how no other place in the solar system is so distant, yet so familiar and comprehensible on a human scale. Other places make your imagination run wild. Underneath the ice of Europa? Skimming the rings of Saturn? Standing on distant Pluto? They make for great art, and we can picture the locations, but their appeal is mostly intellectual, not guttural. But what about Mars? Exotic? Yes. But still it remains within the realm of places that feel familiar, where we could picture ourselves sitting and watching a sunset in person:

The sun setting over the columbia hills in Gusev Crater, Mars. If the sunset weren't blue, we could easily mistake this scene for one shot on Earth, say in Morocco or the Gobi Desert, or perhaps even the badlands of Alberta.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Conversations at the LPSC Series: Interview Subject Green Room

Time to put this internet business to good use!

Last year I put together a 6-part interview series for the "Live at York U" program over on Astronomy.fm as part of my attendance at the DPS meeting (profiles of our interviewees are available here: Jason, Catherine,  DavidBrittanyDave and Jonathan). It was very well recieved with our listenership surging up to the 1000 level for the last live show. This Spring I hope to do it all over again at LPSC. Right now I'm trawling my memory and the internet for good interview subjects so if you will be at the conference and would like to be interviewed, leave me a comment below and I will get back to you.

Also, if you came here via twitter, this is the right post to leave your comment!

In the extremely unlikely event that I get a large response, I'm planning on keeping the list of subjects relatively short, between 4 and 6 to make things manageable. I don't know my schedule for the conference yet, but if you're available over the first weekend, it would be easier for me to add you to the schedule.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ed Cloutis' PSERF: Feb 4, 2011

Plumes of methane on Mars as detected by Mike Mumma's group using the IRTF facility. Top concentrations are 45 ppb or so and are centered on the Nilli Fossae region of Mars.

Ed's talk was all about Methane on Mars, the discovery of which in the Martian atmosphere has, in his words, reinvigorated our exploration plans for the planet. Where in the past Martian Exploration was all about "Follow the Water" Ed contends that it is now "Follow the Methane." Certainly that makes sense from a Canadian Analogue Mission perspective with two separate groups (the other being led by Mike Daley of York University) running analogue missions to examine the problem of how rovers can help ferret out the sources of methane.

WEaT: The Sequel

One of Cassini's most spectacular images of Saturn echoes Voyager's "Pale Blue Dot Image." If you look closely, you'll see the Earth as a mote caught in a sunbeam within the rings in the upper left hand side. I ended my talks with this slide.

First of all, I'd like to thank my great audiences for my "Worlds Enough and Time" talk chronicling "The past 50 Years of Robotic Planetary Exploration." I've now presented the talk at RASC-Toronto, RASC-Mississauga and, most recently, last week at RASC-London. It has been a pleasure to speak with you all and to answer your insightful questions. I have to thank each centre for being very accommodating to my schedule. However, with the new Planetary Decadal Survey (TM) due out in a few weeks at LPSC I feel that the time has come to retire WEaT in its current form.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dr. Ralph Pudritz's CATP Seminar, January 14, 2011

Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life (Cambridge Astrobiology)
Some of the previous work by McMaster's Ralph Pudritz, a member of the Origins Institute and CATP Speaker on January 14, 2011 (Image is from Amazon.com)

Dr. Pudritz's CATP Seminar was built around the work he has done understanding the thermodynamics of biomolecules on the early Earth. The reason that this is interesting is because life is known to rely heavily on certain very specific compounds as building blocks, but not others. While there are almost an unlimited number of possibilities for carboxylic acids (which amino acids resemble) only 20 different amino acids are used by all life with an additional two found in some organisms, but not others.

Adding to the mystery is chirality, a sort of molecular handedness. Just like you could tell a right hand from a left one, if you found it on its own, all amino acids (with the exception of glycine) have at least two possible configurations. Since both forms are very similar, chemically speaking, nature produces essentially equal amounts of each through abiotic (that is, non-biological) processes. But where life is concerned, only one form is actually used. This incredible selectivity of biological processes is surprising, and sufficiently odd that it has often been talked about as a biomarker; a smoking gun that we have run across a biology or its byproducts.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Raymond Francis' PSERF, January 28, 2011

Raymond Francis is a doctoral candidate at UWO and part of the CPSX family. While we both wear Iron Rings and he shares my Engineering/Science duality, he is definitely an Engineer at heart.
You can tell from the suit! 

To those of us who live in North America, we are understandably focused on NASA when it comes to the science and exploration of Space. It makes some sense - NASA was one of the first space agencies, it spends more money than any other (and five times more per capita than the next largest agency), and has a very slick marketing machine. Without a doubt, NASA generally sets the tone of the discourse and dominates when it comes to the more visible aspirational projects, such as planetary exploration and human space flight.

But there are other space agencies in the world and many countries that you might never have suspected of hosting a space agency do have one. The reason for this is simple: once you get beyond the aspirational side, exploitation of space makes direct economic sense for nearly every state actor. While the South Africans may not have a direct economic interest in putting a South African on Mars, they do have a deep and valuable interest in being able to predict the weather, create accurate topographic maps and do remote sensing that could allow resource exploitation and management. 

Dr. Paul Wiegert's PSURF, January 21, 2011

(Sorry for the delays! Fuller updates are on the way!)

Can life, or at least meteorites, travel between the stars? If so, how would we know where they had come from? Paul Wiegert addressed this question in his PSERF talk on the 21st of January, 2011

This week's PSURF Talk (a link will be posted here once it is online) dealt with a topic of eminent importance to us Astrobiologists - the concept of panspermia. What is panspermia, you might ask? Well, basically it describes a theory wherein life does not need to originate separately one each body where it is found. Life could originate at one place, at one time, in conditions that are truly extraordinary and then propagate to other worlds and other situations. If you believe the theory, then there is no need to be bounded by the conditions of the early Earth when considering life's abiotic origins. Instead, we can also consider whether life got an easier start on Mars, or inside a differentiated asteroid (this was discussed extensively at the York University Physics and Astronomy Journal Club last week; last week's CATP seminar, which I will post soon!) or even within Giant Molecular Clouds.

Of course, wherever life formed, it needs some way to get from there to here. This is where Paul Wiegert's research comes in. Paul is part of the meteor group at UWO in Physics and Astronomy. Together, this group operates a network of ground stations which examine a particular volume of sky in Southwestern Ontario for meteors. From the triangulation that the network makes possible, it is possible to back out the trajectory of the incoming particles, their speeds, and if they are big enough (fireballs) where any meteorites might land.