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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Mars Science Laboratory Landing Site Decided: Gale Crater

In an update to my post earlier this week, NASA has decided that the Mars Science Laboratory’s target landing site will be Gale Crater.

Gale crater is about 96 miles (154 kilometers) wide and has a mountain at its center that rises higher, from the crater floor up, than Mount Rainer near Seattle. The crater, which is named after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, is so large that the U.S. states of Connecticut and Rhode Island could fit inside it, NASA officials said.

Launch is set for November of this year, with touchdown expected in August 2012.

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Mars Science Laboratory: Down To 2 Potential Landing Sites

And then there were two.   Two potential landing sites are possible for the Mars Science Laboratory, which is slated to blast off no earlier than November 25th, 2011.  It is due for arrival at the Red Planet in August 2012.

The two sites are:

Gale crater and Eberswalde crater

Eberswalde could have been part of an ancient river delta (liquid water did once exist on Mars, though now it does not).  Gale crater has a mountain nearly 3 miles high.  For what it’s worth, I’m pulling for Eberswalde.  It seems to have more promise for delivering information regarding potential for life.

The MSL is about the size of a Mini Cooper.  Its primary mission is to help assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.  It will also be the first probe flown that will utilize a precision-landing technique.

Much more if you want it from Space.com.


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Mars Science Lab Delayed; Hubble Repair Mission; James Webb Telescope Sun Shield

NASA made a decision this week to delay the launch of the Mars Science Lab (MSL – wikipedia; MSL – mission page) until 2011, instead of next year (2009).  Problems with the rover’s actuators, which will control every moving piece on the rover, were cited as the cause for delay.

The two year delay comes about as a result of the desire to launch when Mars and Earth are in the best position with respect to one another.  Flights can technically be launched at any time, but additional fuel and time are needed outside of the prime windows.  The delay is expected to add $400 million to the cost of the mission, which unfortunately is likely to mean other probe’s and rovers’ work and launches will be similarly delayed.

It’s for this reason that I wish science was a higher priority for the U.S.  I think there should be secondary missions that can be worked on and launched if primary missions aren’t ready.  Their schedules could be offset from the primary missions’ by approximately one year.  If a primary and secondary missions are both ready, launch them both.  But if one or the other isn’t ready, something should be prepared to take their place.

Longer term, it means human exploration and settlement of Mars could also be delayed.  I want to see humans explore and settle Mars in my lifetime.  ‘This delay frustrates that desire.

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A date has been selected for the next Hubble repair mission, which was supposed to take place back in October.  STS-125 is now scheduled for May 12, 2009.  The mission was delayed due to the failure of a data handling unit days before its original scheduled lift-off.  Missions planners have scheduled 5 spacewalks over 11 days to upgrade the Hubble.

The James Webb Telescope, scheduled for a 2013 launch, will have a revolutionary sun shield.  It will be the size of a tennis court once it is unfolded in space and be membrane-based.  The 21.3 foot diameter shield will have 5 layers of a material called Kapton, which is mylar-like, and aluminum and silicon coatings to reflect heat back into space.  Engineers had to figure out how to fold the coated membranes, which make up the layers of the sun shield, to make sure they didn’t get tangled upon opening and so that the unfolding didn’t rub off any of the coatings.


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News Items 10/14/08

NASA has kept October 2009 as the target launch date for Mars Science Laboratory, despite hardware and software delays.  It is the flagship mission in NASA’s plans for Mars.  Decisions to be made for future missions depend on data gleaned from MSL.  MSL is a wheeled rover, and much larger than Spirit and Opportunity (which continue to function!).  After landing in July 2010, MSL should be able to move up to 20km away from the landing site.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken a closer look at Saturnian polar storms.  After pictures of Saturn’s south pole a couple years ago showed a hexagonal band surrounding a giant cyclone, scientists’ interest was piqued.  They wanted to take a look at conditions over the north pole and compare the two.  Conditions turned out to be similar between the two poles.  Clouds are circling Saturn’s north pole at about 325mph, vastly higher than wind speeds found over Earth.  It turns out that vigorous convective storms form inner rings of both cyclones, much like hurricanes do on Earth.  The difference between storms on the two planets is hurricanes move across Earth’s oceans while the cyclones over Saturn’s poles don’t move.  Fascinating stuff.

Republicans’ inability to admit responsibility for anything continues.  The sub-prime mortgage crisis?  CONServatives are saying it’s the fault of poor people.  And the government.  Which is strange, since this is what really happened: more than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions.  CONServatives got exactly what they wanted in 2005 and 2006 after winning elections in 2004: no government regulations on those private lenders.  CONServatives are busy pointing their fingers at everyone else, again.

John McCain has lied 132 times so far in the 2008 presidential race.  Heroes don’t lie.

George Bush sets yet another all-time record – 73 percent disapproval [h/t DailyKos]:

Banks around the world are being nationalized.  Do CONServatives realize that their president and their party’s elected officials in Congress and their party’s appointments to the government have socialized massive portions of the U.S. economy?  In the future, any time a corporate-con talks about how Democrats want to socialize things and how horrible it would be if they got away with it, it will be easy to point to the largest socialization project in world history.  The Republican “socialization” talking point is now moot.

Erin Rosa has a piece up at Colorado Independent about one of the Amendments Coloradans will vote on this year.  Amendment 54 would restrict political contributions by certain unions and from family members of union officials.  Advocates for A54 have described it as being a ‘clean government’ intiative.  Why then have $405,000 in individual contributions come in … from anonymous sources.  Unsurprisingly, the nonprofit accepting these donations has ties to the Independence Institute, a right-wing “think-tank”.

A majority of Coloradans want a new administration to decide how to treat 4.4 million acres of roadless areas in forest lands.  It’s another vote of no confidence in the current administration’s 8-year long effort to open up the public’s forests to loggers, drillers and miners.

20 out of 22 candidates for federal office in Colorado haven’t responded to Environment America’s questionnaire.  There are a lot of things going on in America and in Colorado right now – I understand that.  But I’d sure like to go into 2009 equipped with the answers to the following questions:

Do you support or oppose mandatory limits to reduce global warming pollution 80% by 2050?

Do you support or oppose producing at least 20% of America’s electricity from clean power sources?

Do you support or oppose additional subsidies to build new nuclear power plants?

Do you support or oppose more federal funding for public transportation?

Do you support or oppose increasing fuel efficiency standards to at least 50 mpg by 2030?

A majority of respondents support issues 1, 2, 4 and 5.  A minority support additional subsidies for new nuclear power plants.  Overall, good news.  Garnering additional answers will help activists channel their efforts appropriately next year.


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Mars & Space News Roundup

On Sunday, May 25, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Phoenix Lander is scheduled to physically land on the Red Planet, near Mars’ arctic region. Phoenix is designed to study the history of water and the habitability potential in the Martian arctic’s ice-rich soil. Science museums across the country will carry a live feed from NASA during the landing sequence. If you’re in the Denver area, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is already selling tickets to the event. Some details:

Phoenix on Mars—Live!
Sunday, May 25
4:00 – 9:30 p.m.
Phipps IMAX Theater
$7 member adult, $10 nonmember adult, $5 child/student
For reservations, call 303-322-7009 or 1-800-925-2250, Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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Additional Mars news includes revitalized plans for a sample return mission. The Mars Science Laboratory could begin the process of collecting samples. A dedicated sample return mission could launch in 2020. Scientists and engineers are busy poring over the avalanche of data already sent by current Mars probes.

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Weekend Random Stories

  • NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is running into technical problems and cost over-runs. Currently, it’s scheduled for a 2009 launch. I don’t think either issues is something to be worried about. Technical problems always crop up during a developmental phase. They’ll continue to appear during an operational phase. That’s why scientists and engineers are employed: to take care of things like a heat shield that needs to be redesigned. Added costs? They’re around $20 million, which isn’t much when the project was budgeted for $1.8 billion. Now, maybe those numbers are a little too high. But I think we’ll get considerably more out of that $1.8B than we do from spending a similar amount to occupy Iraq.
  • A good story showed up in today’s Denver Post. Counter to the pro-fossil fuel stance, it turns out that once renewable energy companies are established, they have a tendency to attract similar busineses to an area. Vestas, the Danish turbine-maker, is going to open a plant near Windsor this week. Vestas is the world’s largest wind-energy manufacturer. As such, a number of firms that will serve as vendors to the Windsor plant are looking to establish locations near the Windsor plant. That means more good paying jobs in the region.

The article goes on to mention that the plant was supposed to employ 400 workers on four production lines. It turns out that that projection is wrong. Instead, 650 workers on six production lines will be needed due to growth in demand in the wind turbine market. Wait, wait, wait. Conservatives wail that renewable energy will hurt the economy and cause job losses. An extra 250 workers will earn an average of $37,000 per year than originally planned in an area of the state that could use some more good paying jobs. And that’s just the beginning. Research continues on turbine efficiency, requiring highly educated personnel who also command good salaries. If only the companies had CEOs pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the story would likely rank as a success in conservative circles.

The culprit behind all of this do-gooder news? Voters in 2004 who passed an alternative-energy mandate and then in 2006 elected Gov. Bill Ritter. Ritter actually has a plan for renewable energy development as part of a New Energy Economy. Pat each other on the backs if you were forward-looking enough to recognize the opportunities that are beginning to manifest themselves. If you didn’t like Amendment 37 or Ritter, please continue to howl about renewables into your obscurity.

  • Disappearing ice in the Arctic has been attributed to global warming.  Now, Inupiat Eskimos are suing nine oil companies, 14 electric-power companies and one coal company to pay to move their village, which is under siege by waves of the frigid ocean, once blocked by Arctic ice.

If nothing else, the case should build a factual record.  Fossil fuel corporations have engaged in the largest disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry in the mid-1900’s.  Unfortunately, this won’t be the last suit.  Will the record be established in time to do something to save not only the Inupiat, but millions of others now at risk to rising sea levels?