Life on Mars

Late one evening back in July 1997, I was alone in the lab writing my Ph.D. thesis, several months behind schedule. I fired up the web browser (probably Mosaic in those days) on our single computer and discovered that a tiny rover was about to land on Mars. Live, on the web!

When people use the phrase “web design circa 1996″, this is what they mean. It was all very exciting back then. Up came the first image, in near-real-time. Wow!

I’ve been a Mars geek ever since. Yesterday morning there I was again, except this time I was watching live streaming video of the Phoenix lander. After a near-perfect landing, the science is set to begin and it could be pretty exciting. Phoenix is the first lander since the Viking program to dig into and analyse the Martian surface. If there ever was (or is?) microbial life there, Phoenix has a pretty good shot at finding the signs.

Get the news as it happens from:

Comet McNaught update

Comet McNaught Still bright last night with a clearly-visible tail. I had to get a better view and image than the the last attempt, so I wandered up the road to Dutton Park which has clear views west and is reasonably dark.
Image at left links to Flickr, which I’ve resolved to make better use of this year (with thanks to Duncan for spurring me on).

Comet McNaught

comet+car Each night this week around sunset I’ve left the house, wandered up the street, squinted in disgust at the clouds on the western horizon and gone back inside. Last night, we finally got lucky with the weather.

The visual experience is a good deal more impressive than these pictures suggest. I managed to choose a location with the highest concentration of suspended power lines in Brisbane, balanced the camera on a wheelie bin in the middle of the road and hoped for the best.

The first shot includes a passing car for dramatic effect. The second shows the tail quite nicely, if you can ignore the cables and the glaring street lamps. The third is a cropped version of the first.

All in all, not a great photographic experience which only enhanced my desire to live in the country! Still, I can say that I witnessed the great comet of 2007 and captured it for posterity.

Wikipedia has put together a very nice Comet McNaught entry with plenty of useful links and a great image gallery. Also try Comet McNaught as a Flickr tag.


Science snippets

  • New Scientist have published their most clicked online stories for 2006. My favourite is Imagine Earth Without People. If we all vanished tomorrow, there’d be almost no traces of us left within just a few million years.
  • The American Astronomical Society are holding their 2007 meeting. In the news – suggestions that the Viking landers might have destroyed the microbial life that they were looking for back in the 1970s, because extremophilic adaptations weren’t understood at the time. It raises questions such as “how do you design experiments when you don’t know what you’re looking for” and “if there’s life other than what we know – how can we know it”? I tell you, Gilbert Levin will be vindicated any day now.

Is there hype on Mars?

The recently-demised Mars Global Surveyor has left us a legacy – evidence for flowing water today on Mars. Here’s the NASA press release and a BBC Science News story. The findings will be reported in Science tomorrow.

Let’s not get too excited. Planetary photogeology is a very interpretive science. Interpretations have been wrong before and always seem to split scientists into “for” and “against” – in this case the water versus CO2 camps. On the other hand, the possibility of subterranean water is very exciting. I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Gilbert Levin, the Viking mission scientist who maintains that the Viking lander has already found evidence of microbial life. One of his arguments is that surface water is quite possible based on temperature/pressure measurements from Viking. It would be fun if the evidence finally brought NASA around to his position after all these years.

update – Science abstract, also reports present-day impact craters.

More amazing MRO images

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to amaze. The latest press release links to images of the Spirit rover and the Viking landers (the latter touched down in 1976). Vehicles, heat shields, backshells and parachutes are all clearly visible – you can even see the folds in the Spirit parachute.

These are great publicity demonstrations for MRO – let’s hope that they continue to inform us of the science from the mission.