Digging Out Information

In a positive story about the handicapped, albeit a machine, the Mars Spirit rover is dredging up evidence of life-supporting minerals on the Red Planet.

Spirit was built with six wheels, but one of them no longer spins and just drags along. The dragging does something that Spirit was never designed to do. It cuts a deep track into the soil. Spirit can then be turned around to examine the churned up soil.

In this case, the rover’s thermal emission spectrometer has found a high silica content. This would require water to form. And of course water is the stuff of life.

For me, the big question is not whether life once existed on Mars, but rather what it says about how Mars could contribute toward the sustainability of imported life and terraforming. Either way, it is a big development.

The rovers were expected to last about 90 days. They have been working for almost 1,200. And the discoveries just keep happening. I can’t help but think of how rapidly major discoveries would be made with actual eyes and hands (and a well supplied lab) on the planet. They could do in a few weeks far beyond what the rovers have done over the course of years.

Three Become Two

I was saddened to learn of the death of pioneering astronaut Wally Schirra on Thursday. The fifth American in space and the third in orbit, he was the only man to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

He was also a friend of my late Uncle Larry. I think they met at the Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. Wally went to NASA and Larry went to the 7th Fleet.

When Wally splashed down he was picked up by the USS Kersarge. I looked up information about the cruises of the Kearsarge and it appears that Uncle Larry was on it at the time. Uncle Larry was also on the Kearsarge when it picked up Gordon Cooper in October 1963, but he was lost at sea in August when his plane went down.

There are now only two Mercury astronauts still alive, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. It just brings home how historic the early space programs are now.

Wally’s fame insures that his memory will be eternal. May he rest in peace.

Ibidah on the ISS

It was an issue that had to rise eventually.  How does a Muslim pray facing Makkah if he’s circling the earth sixteen times a day?

Malaysia has been given a slot on a Russian mission to the International Space Station in October, in exchange for an arms deal. Not only are there the daily prayers issues, but the mission falls during Ramadan. How do you fast during daylight hours if the sun rises and sets 16 times day? Then there is the matter of bringing a separate supply of halal food for the evening, whenever that is.

Two other Muslims have been in space before and they worked out their faith issues on their own. The Malaysian government isn’t quite so committed to religious freedom. They have commissioned Islamic scholars to study the matter and pronounce upon how Islamic requirements will be fulfilled.  As noted in The Times:

Malaysia insists. . . that maintaining Islamic beliefs “is mandatory for Muslims in every situation, time and place”. Mustafa Abdul Rahman, the head of its Department of Islamic Development said: “Circumstances on the ISS that are different from circumstance on Earth are not an obstacle for an astronaut to fulfil a Muslim’s obligations.”

I wonder what will happen if a Muslim ends up on a Mars mission.

Red Moon

One place where there is no parking regulation is the Moon. There are currently three vehicles that are in long-term parking, with no real plans to move them. It’s just that there are no wardens or clampers to bother them. And even if they were clamped, it will be a long time before someone is there to complain about it.

There will soon be a fourth lunar vehicle. The Chinese have plans to put a rover on the Moon in 2012. It’s quite a bit bigger than NASA’s Mars rovers, but basically does the same stuff. And unlike the parked NASA vehicles already on the lunar surface, it has no seats.

If you want to keep up with what the Chinese are doing (to the extent that they are willing to reveal it), their equivalent of NASA has a version of its website in English.

Lunar Atheism

Though she has been the subject or object of various urban legends, the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair did manage to influence affairs beyond the confines of this blue planet. I learned tonight that her litigious nature even reached at far as the Moon.

When Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin were landing the Falcon on the lunar surface they followed a series of craters that marked the way to the landing site. They had been named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Index. They couldn’t call the last one John because they were afraid of O’Hair.

After the crew of Apollo 8 had read from Genesis during their Christmas Eve 1968 broadcast in lunar orbit, O’Hair sued NASA. She lost the suit, but she won the day because NASA chiefs were thereafter put off religious names for fear of repeated litigation. I suppose they figured if they only included the Synoptic Gospels, they would be safe. Apparently the plan worked.

Casting a Different Light

Not surprisingly NASA has two STEREO satellites. STEREO is an acronym for Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory. The STEREO craft are trying to get a new angle on the Sun by travelling ahead and behind the Earth in its orbit.

STEREO-B took the photo below at a distance of 1.6 million miles from the Earth. It is of a lunar eclipse – or what at this distance seems more like a lunar transit. The satellite took the pictures using four different extreme ultraviolet light wavelengths.


The Whole of the Moon

While I’m marking Year 9 exams (still) and writing Year 9 reports (still), I keep popping outside to see the lunar eclipse.  It is has been completely shadowed by the umbra for the last six minutes and this will last until 11:58.