The Upcoming Transit of Venus

This June, Venus is going to make a rare transit across the disk of the sun as observed from Earth. Transits of Venus are rare. They come in pairs eight years apart, but each pair is separated by 105.5 years or 125.5 years. The upcoming transit is the pair to one that occurred in 2004, so if you miss this one you won’t have a chance to see another until 2117.  (Left, three views of the 2004 transit.)

Since it’s highly unadvisable to look directly at the sun, watching a transit is best done with protective eye gear or by looking at the sunlight reflected off something. That’s what the Hubble Space Telescope is going to do. Like us, Hubble can’t look directly at the sun, so its going to observe the transit of Venus by measuring the light reflected off the Moon. It’s an amazing method, and the observations Hubble makes will go towards answering questions about our planet and our place in the Universe. Read the full story about Hubble’s plans for the transit of Venus at Discovery News.

Can Russia Save ExoMars?

The latest budget for NASA for FY 2013 sees the agency’s Mars exploration program taking a huge hit – it will get $318 million less than FY 2012. This funding cut has forced NASA to withdraw from the ExoMars, the joint mission with the European Space Agency designed to culminate with a sample return. Without NASA, ExoMars is left in pieces and ESA is hoping the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will take NASA’s place. This partnership could be without payoff since neither country has had great luck with Mars, particularly Russia whose missions have been thwarted by the mythical galactic ghoul. NASA’s withdrawal brings other questions to the forefront as well, like whether the agency has lost its way and will it soon lose its prestige in space. My whole article on the subject was published yesterday on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog. (Left, an artist’s concept of ESA’a Beagle 2 falling through the Martian atmosphere.)

Sounds of Space

Have you ever stopped to wonder why, during planetarium presentations filled with stunning images from other worlds, there is always a classical music soundtrack? That’s because no one has managed to capture planetary sounds, but not for lack of trying.  NASA’s Mars Polar Lander carried a microphone but the spacecraft crashed during its descent in 1999, and a French mission designed to record sound on Mars never flew. NASA’s successful Mars Phoenix Lander carried a microphone, but it failed to return any audio data during its 2008 mission. Simulated sounds, on the other hand, are easier to capture. Adjusting sound waves to reflect the environments on other bodies, we can start to get a sense of what space sounds like. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, Mars rover Opportunity’s half self portrait. 2004.)

Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?

On February 13, President Obama unveiled the proposed budget for NASA for the fiscal year 2013: $17.7 billion. That’s $59 million less than FY 2012, and a number that’s expected to remain constant over the next five years. Hardest hit was the Mars program, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of exploration on our cosmic neighbour. NASA has had great luck with creative and cost-efficient Martian missions in the past, so it’s possible that the next decade on Mars will be fruitful, it might also look different than anticipated. (Left, Mars’ atmosphere.) Continue reading “Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?”

Repurposing Curiosity

The recent cuts to NASA’s budget (after many delays, my article about the budget will be up tomorrow) has effectively killed the agency’s plan of returning Martian samples to Earth within a decade. But could Curiosity, the rover currently en route to Mars, be modified to collect samples? The rover could theoretically become the first stage in a sample return mission, requiring just one follow-up mission to collect and return the samples. That is, if everything works perfectly. Check out the full article on Motherboard. (Left, an artist’s impression of the rover Curiosity on Mars. It is about the size of a Mini Cooper.)

More Mystery Surrounding Venus

I’ve always been fascinated with Venus, the planet closest to Earth in size that is different in every other respect. It rotates in the opposite direction, not just from Earth but from every planet in the Solar System. A day on Venus is longer than a year – its day is 243 Earth days while its year is only 225. It’s also hot with an average surface temperature of 460 degrees Celsius. (Left, Venus.)

Now, a new piece of Venus’ mysterious puzzle has come to light. The planet’s rotation is slowing down. Its day has gotten 6.5 minutes longer in the last 16 years. The rate of a planet’s rotation varies, but this is a significant change for so short a time. So what exactly is going on with Venus? Check out my full article on Motherboard.

NASA’s Manned Mission to Venus

In the mid-1960s, NASA was already looking ahead to what it would do after the Apollo program. Where could the organization send astronauts after the moon that would make use of everything it had learned getting them to our satellite? What emerged was the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), a program designed to give the technologies generated from Apollo direction towards long term objectives in space. AAP goals were varied. They ranged from Earth orbital research, an extended and more permanent lunar exploration program, and manned planetary missions. Within this latter category, Mars was on the table but wasn’t the only target. In 1967, NASA looked at what it would take to send men to Venus (pictured).

Continue reading “NASA’s Manned Mission to Venus”