Saturday, October 28, 2006

Getting Busy On And Around The Red Planet.

Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems (here) spoke today at San Diego's Reuben Fleet Science Center (here). He spoke of the various missions at Mars today and showed lots of great pictures of the red planet. His was a general speech for the general public and contained some interesting observations.

* Mars has never been so busy. Just ten years ago there were no active missions at Mars. Today there are two rovers still roaming the surface and four orbiters. NASA is continuing the practice begun under Dan Goldin of sending missions to Mars every 26 months.

* The rovers examine Mars in detail but are confined to small areas because of their limited range. Orbiters cover the whole planet and each new orbiter is capable of viewing more and more detail.

* Malin Space Science Systems has 240,000 photos of Mars taken by its cameras orbiting Mars.

* One of the advantages of long orbiter missions is the ability to do long-term studies of specific areas of Mars. Edgett showed a slide with two different images of the same polar region taken six years apart. The changes to the region were evident, even to the naked eye of a lay observer.

* Mars Global Surveyor has enough fuel to last until 2017. Whether its equipment lasts that long is a different question.

* Asked to provide a possible geological explanation for the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, he punted a bit and then talked about a third possible explanation other than life and volcanism. First, he expressed doubt whether the data show the true presence of methane in the atmosphere. Michael Caplinger, also of Malin, has expressed similar doubts at public forums in San Diego. Second, accepting that the date is correct, he said that some scientists "under the radar" are looking at the possibility that certain chemical reactions of minerals in a highly acidic environment with a carbon dioxide atmosphere could generate methane without life or volcanism. That was about as detailed as his answer got.

* He also said that one of the significant findings from the rovers that isn't talked about much is the sulfur content on Mars. He didn't elaborate but he suggested the sulfur could have implications for the history of Mars development, life, and the possibilities for Mars in the future.

Edgett was a very engaging speaker and he showed flashes of a quick and spontaneous sense of humor during his presentation. The Fleet Science Center is also showing the IMAX film, Roving Mars, on its big dome. It's well worth the price of admission just to see that film on the really, really big screen.


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