Right now, five human spacecrafts study Mars by hanging out near it. Two do it from the Martian surface—the Curiosity rover, which began its mission in 2012, and the more-than-a-decade-old Opportunity rover—and three do it while orbiting around the red planet.
Earlier this month, one of those kinds of spacecraft happened to see the other.
On April 11, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed near Aeolis Mons, a mountain near the equator in the planet’s eastern hemisphere. It photographed a hilly region nearby known as the Kimberley, and there it caught a robot that’s been hanging out among the hills for the past few months: the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Read more. [Image: NASA]
When human space travel made its transition from pipe dream to reality, one of the unknowns humans contended with concerned not just the physics of space, but the psychology of it. How would the human mind react to the final frontier? Would microgravity, combined with the isolation of a spaceship, cause a kind of claustrophobia? Would propulsion outside of Earth’s bounds, in the end, cause astronauts to experience a psychic break? Was there such thing, as science fiction writers had long feared, as “space madness”?
Space, fortunately, does not drive us crazy. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped caring about the effects its new environments will have on our psychology. The new version of the old “space madness” question is how time away from our home planet will affect us—in the long term. What could life on Mars do to that that other cosmic mystery: the human emotional state?
NASA is hoping to find out. This week, in partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the agency launched the latest version of its Mars simulation experiment, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission. On Hawaii’s Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level, conditions are as Martian as they can be on Earth: Mauna Loa’s volcanic soil is quite similar to the volcanic regolith that can be found on Mars. HI-SEAS in general aims to replicate, as closely as is possible on Earth, what life would be like on Mars—and its latest iteration will put human emotions to the test.
Read more. [Image: NASA/HI-SEAS]
Yesterday, a NASA test vehicle lifted off from the ground in Florida, flew freely through the air, and landed about 650 feet away. It landed, crucially, in the same position it launched—upright—and that makes it look kind of like a science fiction film.
Read more. [Image: NASA]
Space, on top of everything else, is cold. Really cold. The cosmic background temperature—the temperature of the cosmic background radiation thought to be left over from the Big Bang—is 3 Kelvin, or -455 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet there’s variation within that. Solar winds can reach millions of degrees Fahrenheit. And then there’s the Boomerang Nebula, the cloud of gas puffed out by a dying star in the constellation Centaurus. The Boomerang Nebula clocks in at a slightly-more-frigid-than-average -458 degrees Fahrenheit, making it, officially, the coldest spot in the known universe.
But that’s about to change. Soon, it seems, the coldest spot in the known universe will be … the International Space Station.
Yep. Meet the Cold Atom Lab, the “atomic refrigerator” NASA has planned for launch in 2016—a device that will, it’s hoped, allow the agency to study quantum mechanics in a controlled environment. “We’re going to explore temperatures far below anything found naturally,” JPL’s Rob Thompson told ScienceatNASA.
In October of 2018, the James Webb telescope will launch into space, where it will travel beyond the moon to peer, as NASA puts it, into “the beginning of time.” The Webb, all in all, is roughly the size of a tennis court. And it is, as space telescopes generally are, packed with tools and instruments that will allow it simultaneously to orbit the sun and to seek (NASA again) “the unobserved formation of the first galaxies.”
But you can’t very well launch a telescope with all its assorted gadgetry—mirrors, solar arrays, gyroscopes—into space as-is. Instead, you have to pack it all up, strategically. And then deploy its tools once the object has made its forceful departure from Earth.
After a two-month hiatus, the Messenger spacecraft has resumed sending home images of the sun’s closest companion.
Read more. [Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington]
News footage from one of the early tragedies of the U.S. space program
Water Falls is a beautiful combination of science and art. But to see it, you’ll need some pretty special equipment.
It doesn’t throw its own feces, but that’s mostly because it doesn’t have them.
Meet the Robosimian, a four-limbed robot designed to look and act, as its name helpfully suggests, like a primate. Created by the Robotics team at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the pseudo-simian (nickname: “Clyde”) finished fifth in DARPA’s recent Robotics Challenge in Florida. And it has now been named a finalist in that competition—which means that Clyde, along with seven other automatons, will be receiving continued DARPA funding and a spot in the agency’s Robotics Finals in late 2014.
As a matter of engineering, the Robosimian is impressive. As a matter of entertainment, the Robosimian is hilarious.