Archive for May 2008

Phoenix on Ice. Maybe

May 31, 2008

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up Yet.

Ice-Nine From MarsThere’s quite a bit of analysis that needs too be done, but yes, there’s a chance, maybe even a good one, that Phoenix is sitting on exposed ice and has already photographed it.

I’ll caution that the automatic contrast stretch applied to raw images may make something that’s simply lighter than its surroundings look bright white in the raws when it’s actually just light brown, but still…this, as they say, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. I can’t wait to hear what the science team has to say about this, whether they’ll be abandoning the usual scientist’s caution and proclaiming: “Look! I told you so! There’s ice right under the surface!”

Emily is being cautiously optimistic. Here’s what NASA has to say.

Scientists have discovered what may be ice that was exposed when soil was blown away as NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft landed on Mars last Sunday, May 25. The possible ice appears in an image the robotic arm camera took underneath the lander, near a footpad.

“We could very well be seeing rock, or we could be seeing exposed ice in the retrorocket blast zone,” said Ray Arvidson of Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., co-investigator for the robotic arm. “We’ll test the two ideas by getting more data, including color data, from the robotic arm camera. We think that if the hard features are ice, they will become brighter because atmospheric water vapor will collect as new frost on the ice.

“Full confirmation of what we’re seeing will come when we excavate and analyze layers in the nearby workspace,” Arvidson said.

Very nice, indeed! My only question is, if they’ve found ice already, what will NASA do with the remaining three months of the mission, hum?

The mission is going flawlessly – almost. Emily reports that a minor glitch aboard Phoenix has indeed occurred.

One of the instrument teams, for the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer or TEGA, is working on an anomaly: TEGA head William Boynton reported that it looks like they have an intermittent short circuit in one part of their instrument, the ion source. He said, “We are working on some diagnostic patches to send up in the next few days. We are optimistic that we have some workarounds that will allow us to operate the instrument with nearly the full capabilities.” TEGA was probably going to be the first instrument to receive a soil sample, but they probably won’t want to touch any soil until they’ve figured out how to work around the short circuit, so it appears that the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) is now going to get the first chance at a sample.


What The Young Man Doesn’t Know

May 29, 2008

I put $60 worth of gas in my car this week, and I’ll be doing it again tomorrow. Have to – there’s not much unnecessary driving these days, and the necessary driving is a slightly Type-A creating, headache of a twice-daily experience. It kills the soul and saps energy faster than it empties the pocketbook.

Funny thing is that I can afford the gas (worked hard a lot of years to be able to say that). Getting a raise wouldn’t do a thing to fix the problem I’ve got. I can’t afford the calories!

I mean, the commute has exhausted me, making me far too sedentary and even “uninteresting” (which saps even more energy – see “vicious circle” in your Funk and Wagnall’s). So being prone to getting overweight easily (not to mention high cholesterol and acid reflux), I have to watch the diet carefully. The days of beer and Buffalo Hot Wings at the neighborhood pub are a distant memory.

Ah – youth lost!

Did you get that? Here I am, with half of China and Burma destroyed, politics a frustrating mess and the economic uncertainties at home enough to make you fear for your job, and I’m complaining about calories! [Where are your priorities, man? You had it so easy in your youth that you only worry about your waistline now??? – ed.]

Well, let me tell you, I hated those days of working in a cafeteria line for meals, and being a long way from people I knew – just like everyone else. It’s sort of natural.

It’s an ugly way to be, feeling sorry for yourself, you know. And sooner or later – later, in my case – you have to own up to the fact that you’re being an idiot when you do that. There are much tougher rows to hoe, after all, than the ones we suffer through as youth in this country, and sometimes you just have to make yourself count your blessing. It’s hard to see that sometimes the cards you’re dealt are good enough.

So to get out of the funk I started counting the good times. Literally. Made a list. What surprised me was that, after counting the one or two absolute best experiences that I had been lucky to have, I wanted to count some other good days too – days that were exceptional in their own right, but not quite up there with the one or two that made the top of my list. Then the “top” of my list had to include them, and it got harder to decide what the best time of my life was. There were quite a few contenders, it seems.

And the list keeps getting longer. No, it’s not that I’m getting older, that’s not what I mean. I mean that the number of times that I consider Goodtm now, but didn’t then, grows. Things and people that had just passed over me began to mean something, and sometimes they were people I met only once or twice. Even the hard times had some good in them, and what I didn’t know, was that stuff – both good and bad – was right around the corner. Lots of it.

Funny how that works, young man.

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time

It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.


May 29, 2008

A Child’s Toy

Even the simple is sometimes too complex.

French skydiver Michel Fournier’s bid for a record-breaking parachute jump from Earth’s stratosphere was aborted Tuesday when the balloon that was to carry him into the far reaches of the sky slipped away from his flight crew.

Ah – the records he would have set… the longest free fall, the fastest free fall, the highest altitude reached by balloon. This would not have been easy to accomplish, and like usual, that translates into complexity and $s.

He has spent two decades and nearly $20 million in his quest to send him to the heavens in a stratospheric balloon. According to his Web site, Fournier sold virtually all his possessions to finance the launch of this project.

He’ll try again.

But until then, we must remember that balloons are just a simple child’s toy.

More Amazing Phoenix Pictures

May 27, 2008

Not by Phoenix, but of Phoenix, on the surface, taken by the HiRISE camera from orbit aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Mission. (For another stunning view of the lander, the heat shield and the parachute in context, click here.

We expect to find three main pieces of hardware: the parachute attached to the backshell, the heat shield, and the lander itself.The parachute (bottom) is easy to identify because it is especially bright, and this image also clearly shows the backshell. We can even see the stripes on the parachute.

The dark marking (middle right) appears most consistent with disturbance of the ground from impact and bouncing of the heat shield, which fell from a height of about 13 kilometers.

The last object (top) is the lander, and we can clearly see the solar arrays on each side. The solar arrays were relatively dark in the image acquired 11 hours after landing, but are brighter than the Mars surface in this daytime image acquired with the HiRISE blue-green filter.

I appreciate all the hits I’ve been getting on these reports of this lander. It’s great to see so much interest! But my reports are secondary to The Planetary Society‘s reports (see here, too) and especially Phil Plait, who really picked up the slack when the Planetary Society’s servers came under a DOS attack.

The Whistler

May 27, 2008

You Don’t Know His Name, But You Know His Tune

That’s the way he introduced himself to my class four decades (or so) ago.

Earle H. Hagen, who co-wrote the jazz classic “Harlem Nocturne” and composed memorable themes for “The Andy Griffith Show,” “I Spy,” “The Mod Squad” and other TV shows, died Monday. He was 88.

Hagen, who is heard whistling the folksy tune for “The Andy Griffith Show,” died at his home in Rancho Mirage, his wife, Laura, said Tuesday. He had been in ill health for several months.

For us, he whistled many tunes, most with a patriotic theme that accompanied his patriotic message – a brave thing to do in those days just preceding My Lai. He whistled two tunes at once – perfectly. That was enough to surprise and amuse us kids.

For television, he composed original music for more than 3,000 episodes, pilots and TV movies, including theme songs for “That Girl,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”

“He loved it,” his wife said. “The music just flowed from him, and he would take off one hat and put on another and go on to the next show.”

It seem so to me, too.

Phoenix Seen From Orbit

May 26, 2008

The HiRISE Camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this amazing photograph of Phoenix in decent, with the parachute, and even the tether line clearly visible. (Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.) Stunning.

Camera pointing for the image from HiRISE used navigational information about Phoenix updated on landing day. The camera team and Phoenix team would not know until the image was sent to Earth whether it had actually caught Phoenix.

“We saw a few other bright spots in the image first, but when we saw the parachute and the lander with the cords connecting them, there was no question,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen, also of the University of Arizona.

“I’m floored. I’m absolutely floored,” said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

I first found notice of this at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy site, where he credits The Planetary Society Blog. The Planetary Soc.’s site, however, has been down this evening. Emily blamed the outage I noted yesterday on a “denial of service” attack.

Phoenix Lands And Returns Pictures

May 25, 2008

Ain’t the 21st century grand?

They may have been holding their collective breath at JPL this evening, but already, barely 2 hours and two Mars specials on the Discovery Channel, the Phoenix lander touched down, successfully deployed it’s solar arrays and began to return pictures. In the rocket science biz, this is know technically as A GOOD THING. Very good, in fact. Failure to accomplish any of those meant instant mission failure.

For the next few hours, mission specialists will be “shaking down” the instruments and determining exactly where Phoenix landed within the landing ellipse.

At 10:30 pm, EDT, it appears that the Planetary society’s web server had melted from the load. When they come back, the main (and only!) thrust of Emily Lakdawalla‘s reporting will be on the Phoenix, live from JPL.

In the mean time, here is the U. of Arizona’s main mission site.

NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft landed in the northern polar region of Mars today to begin three months of examining a site chosen for its likelihood of having frozen water within reach of the lander’s robotic arm.Radio signals received at 4:53:44 p.m. Pacific Time (7:53:44 p.m. Eastern Time) confirmed the Phoenix Mars Lander had survived its difficult final descent and touchdown 15 minutes earlier. The signals took that long to travel from Mars to Earth at the speed of light.

Update: Picts. are coming in every few minutes now, and being shown almost instantly at the Phoenix site.