Space Sunday: the sand dunes of Mars and flying to the ISS

CuriosityThe Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, continues to climb the flank of “Mount Sharp” (formal name: Aeolis Mons), the giant mount of deposited material occupying the central region of Gale Crater around the original impact peak. For the last three weeks it has been making its way slowly towards the next point of scientific interest and a new challenge – a major field of sand dunes.

Dubbed the “Bagnold Dunes”, the field occupies a region on the north-west flank of “Mount Sharp”, and are referred to as an “active” field as they moving (“migrating” as the scientists prefer to call it) down the slops of the mound at a rate of about one metre per year as a result of both wind action and the fact they are on a slope.

Curiosity has covered about half the distance between its last area of major study and sample gathering and the first of the sand dunes, simply dubbed “Dune 1”. During the drive, the rover has been analysing the samples of rock obtained from its last two drilling excursions  and returning the data to Earth, as well as undertaking studies of the dune field itself in preparation for the upcoming excursion onto the sand-like surface.

While both Curiosity and, before it, the MER rovers Opportunity and Spirit have travelled over very small sand fields and sand ripples on Mars, those excursions have been nothing like the one on which Curiosity  is about to embark; the dunes in this field are huge. “Dune 1”, for example, roughly covers the area of an American football field and is equal in height to a 2-storey building.

"dune 1" in the "Bagnold Dunes", imaged here by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is roughly 300 metres across and as tall as a 2-storey building. The image is in false color, combining information recorded by HiRISE in red, blue-green and infrared frequencies of light.
“dune 1” in the “Bagnold Dunes”, imaged here by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is roughly 300 metres across and as tall as a 2-storey building. The image is in false colour, combining information recorded by HiRISE in red, blue-green and infra-red frequencies of light.

While the rover will not actually be climbing up the dune, it will be traversing the sand-like material from which it is formed and gathering samples using the robot arm scoop. This is liable to be a cautious operation, at least until the mission team are confident about traversing parts of the dune field – when Curiosity has encountered Martian sand in the past, it has not always found favour; wheel slippage and soft surfaces have forced a retreat from some sandy areas the rover has tried to cross.

Study of the dunes will help the science team better interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago, and also understand how wind action my be influencing mineral deposits and accumulation across Mars.

On Earth, the study of sand dune formation and motion, a field pioneered by British military engineer Ralph Bagnold – for whom the Martian dune field is named – did much to further the understanding of mineral movements and transport by wind action.  Understanding how this might occur on Mars is important in identifying how big a role the Marian wind played in depositing concentrations of minerals often associated with water across the planet, as opposed to those minerals accumulating in those areas as a direct consequence of water once having been present.

A mosaic of images taken on September 25th, 2015 (Sol 1,115) captures by the right lens of the rover's Mastcam system. .The view is toward south-south-west and reveals the "Bagnold Dunes" as a dark band across the middle of the image, blending with mesas beyond them
A mosaic of images taken on September 25th, 2015 (Sol 1,115) captures by the right lens of the rover’s Mastcam system. .The view is toward south-south-west and reveals the “Bagnold Dunes” as a dark band across the middle of the image, blending with mesas beyond them

Next NASA Rover to Have its Own Drone?

In January I wrote about ongoing work to develop a helicopter “drone” which could operate in concert with future robot missions to Mars. Now the outgoing director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has indicated the centre would like to see such a vehicle officially included as a part of the Mars 2020 rover package.

Weighing just one kilogramme (2.22 pounds) and with a rotor blade diameter of just over a metre (3.6 feet), the drone would be able to carry a small instrument payload roughly the size of a box of tissues, which would notably include an imaging system. Designed to operate as an advanced “scout”, the drone would make short daily “hops” ahead of, and around the “parent” rover to help identify safe routes through difficult terrain and gather data on possible points of scientific interest which might otherwise be missed and so on.

Since January, JPL has been continuing to refine and improve the concept, and retiring JPL Director Charles Elachi has confirmed that by March 2016, they will have a proof-of-concept design ready to undergo extensive testing in a Mars simulation chamber designed to reproduce the broad atmospheric environment in which such a craft will have to fly. The centre hopes that the trials will help convince NASA management – and Congress – that such a drone would be of significant benefit to the Mars 2020 mission, and pave the way for developing drones which might be used in support of future human missions on the surface of Mars.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the sand dunes of Mars and flying to the ISS”

Home-grown stories, milky tales and Thanksgiving anecdotes

It’s time to kick-off another week of fabulous story-telling in voice, brought to our virtual lives by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s Second Life home at Bradley University, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, November 22nd

14:00: Tea Time with Caledonia

Caledonia Skytower reads the final story from her soon to be published collection Two Houses.

18:00: Magicland Park – Fortunately, the Milk

fortunately the milk“This is quite possibly the most exciting adventure ever to be written about milk since Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Milk. Also it has aliens, pirates, dinosaurs and wumpires in it (but not the handsome, misunderstood kind), also a never-adequately-explained-bowl-of-piranhas, not to mention a Volcano God.”

– Neil Gaiman.

What do you do when your wife is away on a business trip, you pop down to the corner shop to get a pint of milk for the kids’ breakfast, get caught in conversation and eventually return home to the accusing stares of your two children delivered across milk-less bowls of cereal? Do you admit that yes, in fact you had been gossiping, or do you opt for the safer way out and offer-up the most outlandish tale?

Guess which course of action this particular father took?

Join Caledonia Skytower as she gives an encore reading of Neil Gaiman’s delightful tale in the art of trolling the kids, which will take place at Magicland Park.

Monday November 23rd, 19:00: Murder Will In

Gyro Muggins presents a short story by Frank Herbert, which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1970, and most recently formed one of the stories in the collection Eye, published in 2014.

Tuesday November 24th 19:00: Mama Makes Up Her Mind

Mama makes up her mindWelcome to the unique world of Bailey White. Her aunt Belle may take you to see her bellowing pet alligator. Her uncle Jimbuddy may appal you with his knack for losing pieces of himself. Most of all, you may succumb utterly to the charms of Baileys mama, who will take you to a joint so raunchy it scared Ernest Hemingway or tuck you into her antique guest bed that has the disconcerting habit of folding up on people while they sleep.

White’s indelible vignettes of Southern eccentricity have entranced millions who have heard her read them on NPR. Mama Makes Up Her Mind is as sweetly intoxicating as a mint julep and as invigorating as a walk in Whites own overgrown garden.

Join Trolley Trollop, Kayden Oconnell, and Caledonia Skytower as they commence a romp through this wonderful series of vignettes

Wednesday, November 25th 19:00 The Wonderful World of Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl’s short stories are known for their unexpected endings and his children’s books for their unsentimental, macabre, often darkly comic content, featuring villainous adult enemies of the child characters. Join Faerie Maven-Pralou as she brings more of these tales to life.

Thursday, November 26th 11:00: Alice’s Restaurant Massacree

restaurantYou can get anything that you want
At Alice’s restaurant.
You can get anything that you want
At Alice’s restaurant.
Walk right in, it’s around the back,
Just a half-a-mile from the railroad tracks
,
And you can get anything that you want
At Alice’s restaurant
.

As Thanksgiving arrives in the United States, Shandon Loring presents singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie’s famous 1967 musical monologue, Alice’s Restaurant Massacree (also popularly known as Alice’s Restaurant, and the inspiration of the 1969 Arthur Penn film of that name, starring Guthrie himself).

Aside from the opening and closing chorus, the song is delivered as the spoken word accompanied by a ragtime guitar. The story is based on a true incident in Guthrie’s life when, in 1965, he (then 18) and a friend were arrested for illegally dumping garbage from Alice’s restaurant after discovering that the town dump was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.

So, join Shandon for what is a Seanchai tradition for Thanksgiving as he reading this convoluted tale which encompasses fines, blind judges, guide dogs, 27 8×10 copiously annotated glossy photos related to the littering, frustrated police officers, the Vietnam War draft and, ultimately, the inexplicable ways in which bureaucracy moves to foil itself, just when you’ve given up hope of foiling it yourself.

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Please check with the Seanchai Library SL’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule.

The featured charity for October – December is Reach Out and Read, one of the most highly rated literacy charities in the USA which reaches 4.4 million children annually and distributes 1.6 million books.

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