Life on Mars, spacewalks, comets and more

By Benjamin Vermette

VOYAGER 1 / PALE BLUE DOT

The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral on September 5, 1977 to study the outer solar system. Now traveling at a velocity of 61,000 km/h, it is the farthest space probe from Earth. A gold-plated audiovisual disc is attached to it carrying photos of the Earth and its life forms, scientific information, spoken greetings from different cultures around the Earth and a medley “Sounds of Earth” that includes sounds of whales, babies crying and a collection of music ranging from Mozart to Chuck Berry.

In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, which is what we call the space between the stars, but what is that disk doing there? It would serve as an informational snapshot of life on Earth in the event that the spacecraft is found by intelligent life forms from other planetary systems.

On February 14, 1990, American astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to use Voyager 1’s camera to take a picture of the Earth across a great expanse of space, more precisely from a distance of 6 billion kilometres.

  See that pale blue dot? This is our home, the Earth, condensed into less than one pixel. This revolutionary image that changed our way of seeing Earth and humanity just turned 25 years old this past February. 

See that pale blue dot? This is our home, the Earth, condensed into less than one pixel. This revolutionary image that changed our way of seeing Earth and humanity just turned 25 years old this past February. 

“Twenty-five years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward Earth and saw a pale blue dot, an image that continues to inspire wonderment about the spot we call home,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission. The picture also inspired Carl Sagan to write one of the most beautiful and famous passages known, called “Pale Blue Dot”:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. […] The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. […] To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

 THREE RECENT SPACEWALKS

Between February 21 and March 1 of this year, NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts, as well as European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti were all onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Throughout their time on the ISS, Wilmore and Virts performed spacewalks under the orders of Cristoforreti, a spacewalk choreographer and robotic arm operator who remained onboard the ISS.

A spacewalk consists of putting on a spacesuit and literally walking out into space alone. It is very useful for performing repairs outside the ISS. The first spacewalk, or extravehicular activity, occurred on February 21 and consisted of rigging a series of power and data cables and routing 340 feet of cable outside the ISS. The spacewalk was supposed to take 6 hours and 30 minutes in total, but Wilmore and Virts took 11 minutes more.

The second spacewalk on February 25 consisted of a similar mission. Wilmore and Virts had to lay more cables and lubricate one of Canadarm2’s two Latching End Effectors, which serve as the base of the arm. All the rigging, routing and laying of cables were precisely for one goal: readying the ISS for a pair of International Docking Adapters, which are designed to let future capsules dock with the ISS. It was also a 6 hour and 30-minute planned spacewalk and this time the spacewalkers took 13 more minutes. Virts had water floating in his helmet, but it was only a small amount so he was fine.

The third spacewalk on March 1 was to install C2V2 equipment. Commercial spacecraft delivering crews to the space station will use it to dock with the station’s orbital laboratory.

 NASA’S DAWN MISSION

NASA launched Dawn in 2007 from Cape Canaveral. It was the first spacecraft to visit Vesta, one of the largest known asteroids in the solar system, entering its orbit in July 2011. Upon entering Ceres’ orbit on March 6, 2015, it became the first spacecraft to visit Ceres and to orbit two separate alien bodies.

Ceres and Pluto are both dwarf planets, but as Dawn entered Ceres’ orbit, and as New Horizons is starting to study Pluto, scientists will acquire new knowledge from these two missions and 2015 will be the year in which NASA makes its final decision: are Pluto and Ceres planets or only dwarf planets?

Unlike the larger planets, Ceres, like Pluto, “has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit,” according to the International Astronomical Union definition. This was one of the reasons Pluto got demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet” in 2006.

In 2004, Hubble Space Telescope (HST) took a picture of Ceres and found a bright spot on its surface. It amazed everybody. That picture has been puzzling scientists ever since.

As Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres, it took a high-resolution picture that surprised scientists. Two bright spots sit one next to the other on the surface of the dwarf planet. The bright spot that HST saw on Ceres has a neighbour! ... and it is very mysterious. “This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” explained Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission.

As NASA scientists receive higher-quality images of Ceres, they hope to understand more about its origin and evolution, and also find out what these two bright spots are. “The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size, it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Dr. Andreas Nathues of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

 MARS RISES IN POPULARITY

On February 7, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its forty thousandth orbit of the planet, orbiting it since 2006.

Have you heard about the Mars One organisation, which plans on establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars? The plan is that every two years, starting in 2024, they’ll send a crew of four to colonise the planet, and crews will come back… Wait. Crews will never come back: they agreed to die on that unknown planet. Well, we shouldn’t get too excited about it. Yes, the Mars One organisation is very confident that their plan will work, but MIT scientists are less optimistic.

According to their study, a lot more machinery will be needed than the Mars One organization thought, racking up an initial bill of $4.5 billion USD. Crews on Mars will be totally dependent on what they are provided in the beginning and what they can squeeze out of Mars, like water from the soil. The problem lies in the fact that current technologies aren’t ready to squeeze anything out of Mars just yet.

MIT scientists predict the first fatality will occur on day 68 due to the absence of an adequate air system, which is way before the Mars One organization expected. If somehow crewmembers do not die from hypoxia for whatever reason, they may starve to death. An area of 200m3 will be needed for crops to keep astronauts healthy, which is four times larger than what the organization has proposed.

Let’s not say the Mars One mission is impossible, but perhaps that more concrete plans are needed to start taking this seriously. If you want, you can meet the hundred candidates left in the race to be part of Mars One’s crew on their website. They were chosen among a quarter million people and only 24 will make the final cut.

In other news, take a look at this footage of a mystery plume on Mars taken by amateur astronomers:

Interesting, isn’t it? “At about 250 kilometers, the division between the atmosphere and outer space is very thin, so the reported plumes are extremely unexpected,” said Agustin Sánchez-Lavega from País Vasco University. Some ideas have been considered to explain this mystery, such as: a reflective cloud of water/ice; the plumes may be related to an auroral emission; volcanic eruptions, etc. Of course, many think it is due to martians but astronomers don’t yet know the answer to that puzzling question: What is causing hundreds-of-kilometer-high plumes on Mars?

 COMETS: WHAT ARE THEY?

You may have seen Comet Lovejoy recently but do you actually know what a comet is?

A comet is a small solar system body made primarily of rock and covered in ice which passes very close to the sun at rapid speeds then at the very outmost part of the solar system due to its unconventional orbit. While getting closer to the Sun, it heats up and begins to release a bunch of gases trapped in its ice sometimes displaying a tail. More precisely, the heat evaporates the comet’s gases, causing it to emit microparticles (ions and electrons) and as the pressure of the sun’s radiation affects them they form a tail.

After passing by the Sun, their highly elliptical orbit makes them travel far out into the solar system making them freeze again. Some comets take several years to complete an orbit but others can take up to several millions of years.

How did they form? The entire solar system was created about 4.6 billion years ago by the collapse of a giant cloud of dust. A lot of matter merged into planets, but some remained in the outer level of the solar system where temperatures are cold enough to freeze water. With this far-away matter collapsing the comet came to be!

 LAUNCH SCHEDULE

In mid-February, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched their Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) for a 100-minute mission and it was a success. The IXV resembles a mini, 5-metre interpretation of the American Space Shuttle. It was testing new designs, new technologies and materials for possible future orbital flights. Note that it was the first time the ESA succeeded in a controlled re-entry. Congratulations ESA for a successful mission!

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) is scheduled to launch on March 12 and its primary mission is to study the mystery of magnetic fields around the Earth.

Perhaps the most entertaining launch of the month is planned on March 27 and it’s the launch of the crew of the ISS One Year mission. From Kazakhstan, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will take off onboard a Soyuz Rocket on its way to the International Space Station and they’ll spend a whole year in space.

Every major launch is streamed live on the Internet and you can watch here.