This week’s Carnival of Space is up over at Visual Astronomy.
… it’s a rock. Remember the Martian bigfoot from last week?
It seemed that my anger struck a chord, and I’ve been literally deluged with a email asking me to commemorate the fact that it’s a rock. I couldn’t resist marking the momentous discovery of a rock, so you’re welcome to wander over to cafe press and acquire something that will remind everyone you meet…
The online version of this month’s Times Sky at Night column is written in a style that might be familiar to some of you.
And seriously, do go and look at the eclipse in a couple of weeks.
I spent Monday helping film the next Sky at Night, which is all about the MESSENGER mission to the planet Mercury. How could it not be? It’s shown us part of a planet (a real planet, not this Pluto nonsense) that we have never seen before. The first results have been stunning; at first glance it’s a world that looks like the Moon, but in detail it’s very different.
There’s a press conference going on now which you can watch online and I’ll write about everything they announce that didn’t make it into the program tomorrow.
You may find it annoying that after months of virtually ignoring the rover missions, there is finally a much-discussed news story, and it’s on something as silly as a humanoid-shaped rocky outcropping — but please suppress your annoyance and try to use this as a teaching moment.
Well, yes, that’s what I wish the BBC had done, but let’s have another look at that picture. Not the close-up (it’s a rock!), but the panorama. What do you see if you look at it with an astronomer’s eyes? (Sadly, not a planetary geologists eyes, but you can’t have everything).
The first thing I noticed was how dusty the solar panel visible at the front of the picture was (the first clue that the picture was from late in the mission, not from 2004 as was widely reported). Spirit relies on these panels to get the energy it needs to keep itself alive. The Martian nights are cold (too cold for even Bigfoot, I would guess) and without enough energy to heat itself the rover’s electronics will stop working. Dust on the solar panels has always been a good bet for what will kill the rovers eventually; they had some respite when a freak gust of wind cleaned the panels but things are obviously still pretty bad.
Actually, that’s the reason Spirit’s here at all. Mars is tilted on its axis by almost the same amount as the Earth, and so has seasons just as we do. It’s heading toward being winter for Spirit, and that means short days, long nights and little Sun, just as it does for us here in England. Spirit’s driven back to this point, near a place called Home Plate, where it can tilt its dust-encrusted solar panels toward the Sun and hope to wait out the worst of the winter.
Now what about the landscape? There are hills on the horizon, not the Columbia hills Spirit has been exploring as part of its role as the first Martian mountain climber – they’re off to the right – but a reminder that Mars is a world. No matter how much longer Spirit lasts, it’ll never explore these distant features but they’ll be waiting for us.
There are plenty of features nearby to keep us busy in the meantime. The rocks are weathered, I would say, but not by the action of water – this isn’t an old Martian river bed. The weird structures, including Bigfoot (it’s a rock!) are probably the result of erosion by either local or large scale dust storms, like the one that engulfed Mars last year. Sand carried by wind can be quite abrasive – a natural sandpaper, if you like.
Excitingly, many of the rocks seem to have layered structures (see, the close-up is useful for something after all). That suggests to me that they are sedimentary rocks, with each successive band laid down by successive flooding. Even if that’s not true, the presence of layers gives us the prospect of reading these rocks as a history book, working backwards through Mars’ past. If there was ever water in large quantities here, the minerals in these rocks might hold the evidence.
It’s hard for me to forget the bigger picture, too. This is a place, and a view, that Spirit was never meant to see. It travelled long and hard to get here, surviving long past the 90 days it was designed to last. The least we can do is appreciate that the rovers are still working; Emily gets it right once again:
While they’re still there, we should do them the honor of thinking of them every day, checking on the results of their daily toil, because one day all too soon they’ll both fall silent, never to be heard from again..
Update: I decided the occasion needed marking.
This week’s Carnival of Space is up, in a fantastic 50s detective story style. It – and all the links within it – are definitely worth a read.
I really believe that the correct way to talk to people about astronomy is to assume that they’re intelligent and interested and move on from there. Yes, explain things simply, but you don’t have to talk as if your audience has the attention span of a stupid goldfish. There are times when I wonder, though.
This started as a joke. The images below, taken by Spirit, are supposed to show a ‘human like’ form.
They don’t. As Rob says it’s a rock. I haven’t had a chance to look at the papers, but I think this was in the Sun this morning. Fair enough – an amusing story. And then I notice it on BBC news online as once of the most emailed articles. BBC News online? Everyone’s favourite internet news source, right? What to expect from them? Perhaps an interesting article using the article as an excuse to write about Spirit’s journey? Or a reflective piece commenting on our human need to see faces everywhere, linking to the excellent Mars Express images of the old face on Mars? Oh no…Here’s their article (currently one of the most emailed) in full with my comments.
BBC : Mystery image of ‘life on Mars’
Chris : There is no mystery. It’s a rock.
BBC : An image of a mysterious shape on the surface of Mars, taken by Nasa spacecraft Spirit, has reignited the debate about life on the Red Planet. A magnified version of the picture, posted on the internet, appears to some to show what resembles a human form among a crop of rocks.
Chris : There is no mystery. It’s a rock. By ‘reignited the debate’ they mean ‘some people on the internet get easily overexcited’.
BBC :While some bloggers have dismissed the image as a trick of light, others say it is evidence of an alien presence.
Chris : Is this supposed to be balanced reporting? It’s a rock.
BBC :The image is a recent Nasa posting of the Spirit’s landing in 2004.
Chris : Is this even English? I think the word ‘site’ is missing. It’s still a rock, though.
Update : The image was taken on sol 1367, more than three (Earth) years after Spirit landed on Mars. So even if it were life and the BBC sent a reporter to do the interview, they’d be in the wrong place.
BBC :When the robotic rover set down on 24 January 2004, its images disappointed space-watchers hoping for signs of extraterrestrial life.
Chris : What? Who are they? Who expected Spirit to take pictures of ‘extraterrestrial life’? This is just rubbish – Spirit is a robot geologist, looking for rocks to study. What’s that you can see in the picture? Yes, a rock!
BBC :Now they appear convinced that this image provides the evidence they have been trawling Nasa’s photo files for.
Chris : I’m glad ‘they’re’ convinced. How many of them are there? Will the BBC be giving them airtime? Do their views outweigh everyone with common sense?
BBC :The blown-up image seems to resemble a figure striding among the Martian rocks.
Chris : As long as the figure is only a couple of centimeters high.
BBC :The internet has been abuzz with postings offering theories. One said it was a garden gnome, another that it was the Virgin Mary. A third suggested Bigfoot, the hairy bipedal mountain beast that appears in various guises in a number of legends around the world.
Chris : And that’s supposed to be good enough to make a news story, is it?
BBC :But the consensus seemed to be that it bore a striking resemblance to the Little Mermaid statue in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Poster “Madurobob” said it was a statue “obviously built by an ancient civilisation that later departed Mars and settled Denmark”.
Chris : The ‘internet’ as news source. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s article discussing where Elvis really is.
BBC :Badastronomy.com tried to apply some perspective: “A man? It’s a tiny rock only a few inches high. It’s only a few feet from the rover!”
Chris : And with that, we wake up and realise it was all a bad dream, right? I’m clinging to the hope that what they’re trying to do is write an amusing article, but somehow I doubt it. Every week there is at least one excellent press release from either Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Express or MRO. And this is what makes it onto the front page? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps we get the journalism we deserve. Aggggggghhhhhhhhhhhh…..
Update : Weirdly, it’s not visible in the ‘science and nature’ index at all, although it’s still on the most emailed section. Perhaps they’re ashamed of it?
I’m publishing a conversation with Mark Hempsell, designer of a proposed British addition to the International Space Station. For the first part of the debate, see this post, and then come back to read Mark’s latest.
I do not agree that, in the context of Government spending, £500
million is a lot of money and indeed UK space based astronomy and space science
is already funded at this level (a third of the UK civil space spend).
This is why we had Beagle 2 and Britain will have involvement in Exomars. It
is also a myth that human space flight is expensive, on average the cost
of science by robotic spacecraft and science on Space Stations is about
the same – around £20 million per experiment.
So let us look at the HEM, we need to add a science funding programme
to exploit the opportunity HEM would open up and the total would be £600
million. This funding and the logistics space available in the two HEMs
to carry science would enable around 100 separate UK experiments to be
conducted, that is £6 million per experiment well below the average
space science average.
Is the science worth it? Yes of course it is, and it includes essential
preparation for human exploration of Mars, but with so many different
disciplines involved I do not know of any one place to get the complete
case for Space Station science – but then I have never seen the one
place that presents the complete case for space based astronomy. But for a
taster of microgravity science I suggest “Challenges of Human Space
Exploration” by Marsha Freeman (Springer-Praxis 2000).
Finally the deal you offer; that if the UK were to invest in human
space flight we should go for Moon Mars and by pass the ISS? Well if we did
want involvement in the Moon / Mars initiative we would have to cooperate
with some or all the partners on the ISS. The HEM is not only a politic way
to demonstrate the UK can be a partner in such enterprises but the design
we have presented would develop radiation protection, plastic habitat
structures and a generic avionic suite – all of which would be new and
valuable contributions to missions to Moon and Mars.
I’m logged on to Parliament Live trying to watch the select committee inquiry into physics funding. There’s no sound at the minute, although people are still filing in (I’m spending most of my time trying to recognise the members of the public sitting at the back). If sound doesn’t appear, I’ll update this once the transcript comes out.
Here’s a picture – that’s Michael Rowan Robinson, RAS president talking (front row, right). In the first row of green seats, second from the left is Keith Mason, the head of STFC. No luck with the sound – I can hear what’s happening in the main House of Commons chamber, so I don’t think it’s my system that’s at fault.
Update : I’ll be writing this up once the transcript is released on the committee’s website.
Today sees the House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee undertaking an investigation into what’s gone wrong with the STFC budget. The fun begins at 4.15pm UT, and can be watched live on Parliament TV. It comes with a promise from the committee’s chairman, Phil Willis, that
“ .. my committee’s going to examine .. who is responsible, where the fault lies, and indeed what can be done to save physics and particle physics in the UK ” so should be worth watching.
I’ll provide a commentary here if I can, but as background the Royal Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society and Institute of Physics have issued statements.