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Ask the Expert

Danger Mars Colonists! Need for Predicting Space Storms

March 29th, 2010

Future inhabitants of Mars (those that are not already there, perhaps) are in need of a space storm monitoring system.

That’s the advice of Roger Dube, professor in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York.

NASA’s vision for a permanent human presence on Mars is penciled in as soon as 2028. If so, the first group of colonists won’t need umbrellas; they will need safe houses with 30-foot thick walls made of Martian clay that can withstand radiation storms.

During a space storm, hurricane-force gusts hit Mars at full force. Those winds, containing X-rays and particle rays emitted from solar flares and coronal mass ejections — clumps of high-energy particles belched by the Sun — sweep past the planet’s weak magnetic field and atmosphere and strike the surface directly.

Dube has won NASA funding to develop a monitoring system that will provide a level of protection for people on Mars, underneath the red planet’s thin atmosphere.

Double Whammy

There’s a double whammy to Dube’s work.

As an additional benefit, the technology will give advanced warning of space storms threatening the critical infrastructure here on Earth, including the power grid, GPS navigation and sensitive communication satellites.

The system Dube envisions includes sensors and small solar observatories at the Mars colony or near the planetary pole for continual view of the solar surface.

Special purpose satellites already positioned between the Sun and the Earth will require advanced sensors and algorithms to detect signs of a dangerous flux of particles in order to provide warnings to both Earth and Mars.

“The technology we’re building uses existing satellites and solar telescopes that are in orbit or in space,” says Dube in an RIT press statement.

“Our innovation will be to add artificial intelligence to the recognition of space storms. Initially the technology will be used to calculate the probability of the Earth being hit by a space weather storm, and once we’ve got that we’ll determine the orbital calculations for Mars,” Dube explains.

“Mars does not enjoy the defenses against such storms that Earth has,” Dube adds.

According to Dube, his work to create a better monitoring system is one that could provide at least three days advanced warning for people living on Earth and Mars.


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Ask the Expert

Cassini at Saturn: “Outta Sight” Imagery of Mimas

March 29th, 2010

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn continues to churn out mind-blowing imagery.

Collected last month during its closest flyby yet of Saturn’s “Death Star” looking moon, Mimas, new imagery is available for your perusal.

The verdict from Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader and Director of CICLOPS at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado:

“They are outta sight! After much deliberation, we have concluded [that] Mimas is not boring. Who knew?!”

According to Porco, you’ll see details in the moon’s craters that reminded imaging folks of features they had seen on Phoebe and Hyperion. You’ll discover that Mimas, she adds, has a very peculiar thermal signature that they can’t yet explain. And best of all … be sure you have a pair of red/green glasses handy because you won’t want to miss peering into gigantic Herschel crater in 3D!

To see all our spectacular images, mosaics, thermal results and more, go to:



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This Week in Space

March 29th, 2010

From Spaceflight Now

“VSS Enterprise” takes flight and “space for the rest of us” moves a step forward, the Martian Rite of Spring commences while the folks at JPL prep a “rover on steroids” for departure for the Red Planet, the Wizard Nebula is ready for its close-up, Roller Derby on Saturn’s rings, Discovery is “go” for launch, orbital Olympics, the crew of STS-134 prepares to go where no one has gone before, and Buzz “Twinkle-Toes” Aldrin wows the judges on “Dancing with the Stars” – or (ahem!) not.


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Our Solar System

Cosmic Rays and Uncontrolled Acceleration

March 29th, 2010

From Discovery

Toyota has suffered from crippling bad press after the car manufacturer recalled millions of vehicles to address a fault that causes an inexplicable acceleration when driving. This fault is having deadly consequences and has been blamed for more than 100 possible deaths.

The company has been busy looking for the cause of the issue, repairing mechanical faults (such as sticky pedals and floor mats) with 13 affected models, but are they looking in the right place?

Although this might sound like an “out there” theory, federal regulators are now investigating whether this ‘sudden acceleration’ is being triggered by high energy particles from space.

Mars Attacks

Cosmic rays are known to impact our atmosphere and we know they can damage sensitive electronics in space.

Many space probes have had dealings with the cosmic menace — including NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — often forcing onboard computers to switch to safe mode to spare the system from further damage.

In the case of the MRO, high-energy protons are thought to be behind a recent outage, originating from the sun (after being accelerated by explosive magnetic events such as flares) or from deep space, possibly blasted our way from supernovae (although deep space particle acceleration mechanisms are not fully understood).

But the MRO is in the vacuum of space; how could cars be hit by high energy protons when we are blanketed in a protective atmosphere?

Terrestrial Assaults

Cosmic rays can penetrate deep into our atmosphere, colliding with atmospheric molecules on the way. Even the Large Hadron Collider’s (LHC) sensitive particle detectors measure cosmic ray events, routinely detecting the particles generated after impact.

But should a computer’s processor suffer a direct hit, data can become corrupted, generating calculation errors. Sometimes these errors can cause a lot more than just interrupting your Wii Fit training session, people’s lives have been put at risk.

In 2009, it’s thought that a cosmic ray event was to blame for the bizarre behavior of a Quantas Airbus flight off Australia’s northwest coast. The aircraft took two rapid dives, seriously injuring an attendant and passengers, before control was regained. An investigation revealed the onboard computers were functioning perfectly, but new programming was added to the Airbus fleet to filter out cosmic ray “spikes” detected in the computer’s calculations.

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Things Getting Chilly for Spirit

March 29th, 2010

Spirit is parked for 4th martian winter in the embedded area called "Troy" on the west side of Home Plate in Gusev Crater. On Sol 2174 (Feb. 13, 2010), the robotic arm (IDD) was positioned to the most favorable orientation for winter. Documentary imaging was collected of the terrain and rover. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer NASA/JPL/Cornell
From Universe Today

“Spirit is hanging in there … remarkably good, all things considered”, Steve Squyres told me in a rover update this week. Squyres is the Scientific Principal Investigator for the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

I asked Squyres whether the rover team would give extrication efforts a top priority if Spirit survives the harsh freezing temperatures of the looming winter season ?

Squyres replied that, “If Spirit survives the winter then we’ll start turning wheels again when there’s enough power to do so, and we’ll see what happens. Even if we only get tens of centimeters of motion, there’s great scientific value in doing so”.

That’s because the Martian terrain where Spirit has been mired in a sand trap since April 2009 has proven to a scientific bonanza and yielded some of the best evidence for past episodes of flowing liquid water. Spirits wheels are buried in sulfate-rich deposits which were formed by water-related processes when volcanism was active around the location dubbed ‘Home Plate’.

With Martian winter in the southern hemisphere fast approaching and power declining as the sun rises lower in the martain skies, Spirit’s rover electronics module (REM) has now reached a new record low temperature of minus 41.5 degrees Celsius (minus 42.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

As of today, Spirit has survived for 2217 Sols, or martian days, compared to the 90 Sol “Warranty” stipulated at launch. If she survives for approximately three more weeks, she’ll smash the record for longevity of any human made robot on Mars. Viking 1 is the longest lived surface mission and sent her last signal on Sol 2245 on November 11, 1982 for a total operating time of 6 Year and 116 days.

The rover team has projected that the temperature experienced by the critical electronics will likely drop down a bit further to perhaps minus 45 degrees Celsius as Spirit endeavors to endure an unprecedented 4th extreme winter at Gusev Crater on Mars while stuck in a sand trap at the place called Troy. “The temperature could go lower… but not by a great deal,” Squyres added.

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Education Station

Spirit of Innovation Awards: Vote Now!

March 29th, 2010

Awaiting your vote! Josh Neubert, Executive Director of the Conrad Foundation and Clementine Ntshaykolo, Student Liaison and Logistics Coordinator of the Conrad Awards. Credit: Barbara David/CSE
Your Vote Needed! Spirit of Innovation Awards

Want to lend a hand in shaping the future?

You’ve got a vote in the Spirit of Innovation Awards – akin to a technological version of “Revenge of the Nerds” meets “American Idol.”

The Spirit of Innovation Awards is an innovative competition by the Conrad Foundation, built upon astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad’s history of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Conrad was an extraordinary human whose accomplishments spanned the entire history of U.S. piloted space flight. Although he passed away in 1999, Conrad’s legacy continues through the Conrad Foundation’s rich programs that combine education and entrepreneurship in a revolutionary model of incentivized competition.

Here’s your chance to take part!

From Monday, March 29th through April 9th, you have the opportunity to vote for your favorite high school innovators!

Online Voting: Real Science Gets Real

Twenty-four of the top high school teams have been designing the future. And it’s not science fiction. Rather, it is where education meets innovation and entrepreneurship…where real science gets real.

Teams have created innovative products to solve some of the grand challenges facing society: From rural water collection devices, to robotic astronaut assistants and Navajo Solar Frybread Ovens.

Categories involve Aerospace Exploration Finalists; Renewable Energy & Green School Finalists; as well as Nutrition Finalists.

“These students will rock your world,” says Joshua Neubert, Executive Director of the Conrad Foundation. “Now they need you to help select the winners of the Spirit of Innovation Awards by voting online for your favorite teams. Finalists have created videos, blogs, photos and more to show off their products. You can help a generation of 21st century innovators change the world, one vote at a time”

For information on the teams, their products, and to submit your vote, go to:


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