Cape Canaveral, Nov 26 (AP/UNB) — With just a day to go, NASA's InSight spacecraft aimed for a bull's-eye touchdown on Mars, zooming in like an arrow with no turning back.
InSight's journey of six months and 300 million miles (482 million kilometers) comes to a precarious grand finale Monday afternoon.
The robotic geologist — designed to explore Mars' insides, surface to core — must go from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs.
It is NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved are understandably anxious.
NASA's top science mission official, Thomas Zurbuchen, confided Sunday that his stomach is already churning. The hardest thing is sitting on his hands and doing nothing, he said, except hoping and praying everything goes perfectly for InSight.
"Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration," noted InSight's lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt. "It's such a difficult thing, it's such a dangerous thing that there's always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong."
Earth's success rate at Mars is 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries dating all the way back to 1960.
But the U.S. has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past three decades. With only one failed touchdown, it's an enviable record. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.
InSight could hand NASA its eighth win.
It's shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks. This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet (5 meters) down to measure the planet's internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens for possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been attempted before at our smaller next-door neighbor, nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) away.
No experiments have ever been moved robotically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.
By examining the deepest, darkest interior of Mars — still preserved from its earliest days — scientists hope to create 3D images that could reveal how our solar system's rocky planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.
Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the deltas and lakebeds are now dry, and the planet cold. Venus is a furnace because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a surface that's positively baked.
The planetary know-how gained from InSight's $1 billion, two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets "and how they fit into the story that we're trying to figure out for how planets form," he said.
Concentrating on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detecting capability. That will be left for future rovers. NASA's Mars 2020 mission, for instance, will collect rocks for eventual return that could hold evidence of ancient life.
Because it's been so long since NASA's last Martian landfall — the Curiosity rover in 2012 — Mars mania is gripping not only the space and science communities, but everyday folks.
Viewing parties are planned coast to coast at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where InSight's seismometer was designed and built. The giant NASDAQ screen in New York's Times Square will start broadcasting NASA Television an hour before InSight's scheduled 3 p.m. EST touchdown; so will the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.
But the real action, at least on Earth, will unfold at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to InSight's flight control team. NASA is providing a special 360-degree online broadcast from inside the control center.
Confirmation of touchdown could take minutes — or hours. At the minimum, there's an eight-minute communication lag between Mars and Earth.
A pair of briefcase-size satellites trailing InSight since liftoff in May will try to relay its radio signals to Earth, with a potential lag time of under nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats will fly right past the red planet without stopping. Signals also could travel straight from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take longer to hear from NASA's Mars orbiters.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said he's trying his best to stay outwardly calm as the hours tick down. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like crazy and screaming.
"Just to warn anybody who's sitting near me ... I'm going to unleash my inner 4-year-old on you, so be careful," he said.
Dhaka, Nov 24 (UNB) - Scientists are proposing an ingenious but as-yet-unproven way to tackle climate change: spraying sun-dimming chemicals into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The research by scientists at Harvard and Yale universities, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, proposes using a technique known as stratospheric aerosol injection, which they say could cut the rate of global warming in half, reports CNN.
The technique would involve spraying large amounts of sulfate particles into the Earth’s lower stratosphere at altitudes as high as 12 miles. The scientists propose delivering the sulfates with specially designed high-altitude aircraft, balloons or large naval-style guns.
Despite the technology being undeveloped and with no existing aircraft suitable for adaptation, the researchers say that “developing a new, purpose-built tanker with substantial payload capabilities would neither be technologically difficult nor prohibitively expensive.”
They estimate the total cost of launching a hypothetical system in 15 years’ time at around $3.5 billion, with running costs of $2.25 billion a year over a 15-year period.
The report does, however, acknowledge that the technique is purely hypothetical.
“We make no judgment about the desirability of SAI,” the report states. “We simply show that a hypothetical deployment program commencing 15 years hence, while both highly uncertain and ambitious, would indeed be technically possible from an engineering perspective. It would also be remarkably inexpensive.”
The researchers also acknowledge potential risks: coordination between multiple countries in both hemispheres would be required, and stratospheric aerosol injection techniques could jeopardize crop yields, lead to droughts or cause extreme weather.
The proposals also don’t address the issue of rising greenhouse gas emissions, which are a leading cause of global warming.
And despite the conviction of the report’s authors, other experts were skeptical.
“From the point of view of climate economics, solar radiation management is still a much worse solution than greenhouse gas emissions: more costly and much more risky over the long run,” said Philippe Thalmann of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, an expert in the economics of climate change.
David Archer of the Department of Geophysical Science at the University of Chicago said, “The problem with engineering climate in this way is that it’s only a temporary Band-Aid covering a problem that will persist essentially forever, actually hundreds of thousands of years for fossil fuel CO2 to finally go away naturally.
“It will be tempting to continue to procrastinate on cleaning up our energy system, but we’d be leaving the planet on a form of life-support. If a future generation failed to pay their climate bill they would get all of our warming all at once.”
Los Angeles, Nov 24 (Xinhua/UNB)-- Scientists have proposed a new way to tackle climate change by spraying sun-dimming chemicals into the Earth's atmosphere, according to a study published Friday.
Scientists at Harvard and Yale universities have proposed using a technique known as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), which they believe could cut the rate of global warming by half, according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The technique would involve spraying large amounts of sulfate particles into the Earth's lower stratosphere at altitudes as high as 12 miles (19.3 km).
However, no existing aircraft design -- even with extensive modifications -- can reasonably fulfill this mission, said the paper.
The scientists propose developing a new purpose-built high-altitude tanker with substantial payload capabilities to deliver the sulfates.
The estimated cost of deploying material is about 2.25 billion U.S. dollars a year over 15 years, according to the paper. Scientists calculate the number of flights at 4,000 for the first year, linearly increasing by 4,000 a year.
The report also acknowledges that the technique is purely hypothetical.
"We make no judgment about the desirability of SAI. We simply show that a hypothetical deployment program commencing 15 years hence, while both highly uncertain and ambitious, would indeed be technically possible from an engineering perspective. It would also be remarkably inexpensive," the paper said.
San Juan, Nov 22 (AP/UNB) — A rarely seen shark embryo. Corals up to 7 feet (2 meters) high. Sponges with sharp edges.
These were among the hundreds of findings reported by U.S. scientists who have wrapped up a 22-day mission exploring waters around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the deepest dives ever recorded in the region. Guided by other land-based scientists watching live feeds, they collected 89 samples and will now start to analyze them, Daniel Wagner, expedition coordinator with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"When they tell you, 'I've never seen that before,' it's a good indication that it's a new species or something that's new to this region," he said.
It will take several years for scientists to establish whether any new species were discovered, but in the meantime, they will ship all the coral branches, pieces of sponge, brittle starfish and rocks they collected to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Wagner said.
Scientists aboard the 224-foot (68-meter) Okeanos Explorer also identified some 30 species of fish, including some in areas where previously they hadn't been spotted. These include commercially popular fish such as snappers and groupers, which were seen about 100 meters (330 feet) deeper than reported to exist.
"That's a great thing," Wagner said.
In addition, they mapped geological features up to 3 miles (5,000 meters) deep, covering an area close to 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles), he said.
The 19 dives performed by remotely operated vehicles over 145 hours were streamed live and drew a lot of online attention. One especially popular video was that of a catshark embryo attached to a coral branch some 800 feet deep near an uninhabited island off Puerto Rico's west coast.
Overall, the ecosystems appeared healthy, although scientists also saw pieces of trash on a few dives and the occasional fishing line, he added.
"It's a sad thing, but a healthy reminder that our things go down to the deep sea," he said.
The sites explored were chosen from a list of 80 submitted by scientists worldwide, including the location of a 1918 earthquake that generated a tsunami, killing more than 100 people in Puerto Rico.
Sydney, Nov 19 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Four blind Australians have had their vision partially restored through the implantation of bionic eyes, the company responsible for the technology announced on Monday.
Bionic Vision Technologies ran a trial for patients who had lost vision due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, making them able to sense light and dark but unable to see a hand waving in front of them.
Now the company said patients can perceive the world around them in "pixelated grayscale", meaning they are able to navigate without the need for a guide dog, cane or other assistance.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Penny Allen told local media that the technology could have a dramatic effect on the lives of the one-in-4000 Australians who suffer from the currently incurable genetic condition.
"We've been very happy with how they're progressing and they're really happy; and that is the best thing of all," Allen said.
The system works by capturing images through a camera attached to a pair of glasses, and then feeding the information via an external processing unit, to the patient's scalp, and then to the implanted device in the patient's eyes.
Following the success of initial tests in a laboratory setting, researchers hoped that subjects would be able to take the devices home and start applying them to their everyday lives.
"We are working with them to identify things they want to do at home, normal tasks we all do," Allen said.
"One patient is sorting washing, colours from whites, and one patient wishes to be able to navigate independently to some things in the backyard, like the lemon tree."