Posted on Jan 16, 2015
It was announced today that Beagle 2 had been spotted on the surface of Mars by recent images from the HiRISE camera. For the full story and fantastic images head on over to HiRISE, The Planetary Society, ESA, BBC, Guardian etc…
Here I’ve put up some context images that I made from public data for the press conference, but ended up not being used. Please feel free to use them for whatever you want them for, but keep an eye on the credit lines.
So, in getting closer to the surface order:
1. MOLA elevation map 1 + ellipse (NASA / JPL / GSFC)
2. MOLA elevation map 1 + ellipse + place names (NASA / JPL / GSFC)
3. THEMIS Daytime IR 1 + ellipse (NASA / JPL / ASU)
4. MOLA elevation map 2 + ellipse (NASA / JPL / GSFC)
5. THEMIS Daytime IR 2 + ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (NASA / JPL / ASU)
6. HRSC image 1 + ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (ESA / DLR / FU Berlin)
7. HRSC image 1 + elevation + ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (ESA / DLR / FU Berlin)
8. CTX image 1 ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (ESA / DLR / FU Berlin)
9. CTX image 1 + HRSC elevation + elevation + ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (NASA / JPL / MSSS / ESA / DLR / FU Berlin)
10. HiRISE image 1 + elevation + ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (NASA / JPL / University of Arizona / Birkbeck)
11. HiRISE image 2 + elevation + ellipse + ellipse centre + objects (NASA / JPL / University of Arizona / Birkbeck)
13. HiRISE image 4 + elevation + objects (NASA / JPL / University of Arizona / Birkbeck)
14. HiRISE image 4 (NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)
Posted on Dec 15, 2014
It’s been nine months since the last workshop about where the next rover will land on Mars. During that time there have been some fantastic space firsts, including the European Space Agency landing on a comet, and NASA testing a spacecraft that will take humans back into deep space.
But we’ve always kept one eye on Mars. Over the summer the proposed eight landing sites for the ExoMars rover were officially reduced to four. We were really pleased that our two sites got through, but we’ve now got a lot of work ahead of us.
Last week we were in Italy to discuss the detailed geology of the final four landing sites. With ExoMars trying to find life on Mars, we have to decide which one place offers the best chance of finding it. Such a tough call meant it was a fascinating meeting, as each site offers its own advantages and challenges.
The final four sites are Mawrth Valles, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Valles and Aram Dorsum. Despite all four being in the same region of the planet, they show a diversity that you’d expect from an overall area the size of Western Europe.
Mawrth Vallis, named after the Welsh name for Mars, is a candidate as strong as its namesake’s rugby team. Mawrth made it through to the final four choices for the Curiosity rover, due to its thick sequence of clay minerals – a sure sign of past water that’s also probably neutral in pH (and presumably good for life).
Oxia Planum is about 400 km from Mawrth, and shows similar thick, clay layers, but with the added bonus of a channel that may have emptied into a shallow lake. This means we can be even surer of water, which we think is a prerequisite for life.
The landing site at Hypanis Valles is actually at the end of the channel of the same name, and most likely represents ancient delta deposits. Here we think sediments, and hopefully life, were laid down in a low energy environment. This site is good because it might concentrate the evidence for life, thus increasing our chances of finding it.
And finally Aram Dorsum, which was such an unknown before the last meeting it actually had a different name. At the time there was no feature nearby that we could use to name our landing site. So in the end we had to officially apply to name the site. Despite my attempts to name it after the River Irwell, whose tiny tributary flowed through my village when I was growing up, it was deemed to be a positive relief feature and thus needed a different name. So Aram Dorsum it is. It also seems that my attempt to never again have to pay for a pint in Lancashire was thwarted.
That positive relief at Aram is something that isn’t immediately familiar, although there are quite a few similar features on Earth. It’s basically an inverted river system, where water carves a channel, deposits sediments that then become cemented, while everything outside is eroded away by billions of years of erosion. After this you’re left with a river system, albeit with positive relief. So again, water was flowing through this region, probably about 3.8 to 4 billion years ago, a time when life was probably just getting started on Earth, and possibly Mars.
Now it’s a matter of figuring out the complicated history of what has followed at all sites since the water disappeared, and what it means for the possible evidence of life. Can rocks rich in fossilised microbes survive the bombardment from meteorites? Do these meteorite impacts actually make it easier to get at the deeper rocks, which could have been warmer and wetter?
So part of what we did last week was to assess the complex histories at each site, discuss the likely habitability of the environments we think were around when the features formed, and ultimately what it all means for life.
The other part was to listen to the safety assessments carried out so far on the sites. All the four sites met the global engineering constraints, but local factors such as small, but steep slopes, or the presence of too many sand dunes, increase the risk when it comes to landing on Mars.
So although the science might be great, we’ve got to hope that there are no engineering show-stoppers at this stage. As the Philae lander showed, landing on another planetary body is difficult. So I’m happy to keep figuring out the science of where we’ll go, while the engineers work out how to get there in one piece.
Posted on Mar 24, 2014
If you had to pick just one place to find life on Mars, where would you go? For the last twenty years, exploring Mars has been a case of “follow the water” – a search that boils down under the martian atmosphere in my northern vernacular to “has tha nowt moist?” The thinking goes that without water there won’t be life. That could well be true, but it’s only part of the story.
Back when I was doing my PhD, I lost count of the number of times that my supervisor would start a story with a casual “I remember one time…” before launching into some unbelievable story of derring-do or knowing cheekiness.
A few stick in the mind, like “…when flying to the USA I convinced the pilot to descend to a few thousand feet and circle Surtsey as it was erupting…” or “…a student took a secret comfort break on a fresh lava flow and then emerged in a sprint, pants around their ankles, as they were surrounded by steam and thought that the volcano was erupting again…”
But, the wee story aside, one in particular had an effect on me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few months.
In the 1970s John Guest worked on the NASA Viking mission to Mars. Twin orbiters, twin landers, nobody builds missions like that these days. As a geologist, John helped to decide where one of the landers would touch down. John told me how he and his friend Ron Greeley only had a couple of days’ worth of images from the orbiters, at a frighteningly low-resolution by today’s standards. They had to choose a landing site that wouldn’t leave the landers in pieces and would still be scientifically interesting. I thought that the pressure and responsibility of that decision must have been massive. John seemed nonplussed by my concern.
I remembered this story because the European Space Agency has recently asked the same question again, and which people are trying once more to answer.
But this is no longer the Mars that Ron and John knew with Viking. Back then Mars was a world of giant volcanoes and enormous rift canyons – planet-scale processes. Today we talk about fluvial sediments and river deltas, redox reactions and energy gradients, clay minerals and organic compounds. We talk about it like we do the Earth.
And we no longer have to rely on just a handful of low-resolution images and a rushed decision. Instead we have hundreds of terabytes of data at our fingertips to call upon in the search.
Technological advances have changed the way we see and explore Mars. The latest images from the HiRISE camera can see things on the surface, from orbit, that are only 25 cm across. It can make out individual rocks. In fact, if you look at modern images of the Viking landing sites, it’s pretty obvious that we would never land somewhere like that again. My god the boulders! It’d be considered far too unsafe nowadays, but I guess that’s testament to the engineering of the Viking landers.
How the decision will be made this time is very different too. It’s a reassuringly long and detailed process these days, carried out in the open by many different scientists.
After the initial call for landing sites back in December, the first discussion workshop will be held in Madrid later this week. Here Mars scientists will come together to champion their own site, debate the pros and cons of others, and generally make sure that no one place is missed. A few months later a shortlist of three or four sites will be drawn up.
Over the following few years, each of these sites will be studied in possibly more detail than any other place on Mars. And then, the year before launch, the European Space Agency will make the final decision.
And I can’t say I envy them. It will come down to a delicate yet familiar balance between engineering constraints and scientific goals.
As it happens, because of the way that we tend to land on Mars, most of the planet is immediately ruled out. All landers use a parachute to slow themselves down as they come through the thin atmosphere. To make sure that the parachute has enough time to do its job, the landers need to touch down at as low an elevation as possible – the more atmosphere it travels through the longer it has to slow down. So, there go all the interesting high areas.
Next, because it’s solar-powered (I presume – there might be communication considerations too), the ExoMars rover has to land in a latitude band straddling the equator that’s only 30 degrees from top to bottom. That’s the polar caps out then.
Finally, landing on another planet isn’t a pinpoint process. There’s a certain probability of landing within a given distance of the target. This uncertainty is known as the landing ellipse, and for ExoMars it’s the equivalent of trying to land in Manchester, but knowing you might end up in Liverpool or Sheffield. Can you imagine the horror? The ellipse for ExoMars is also over four times the size of the ellipse for the recent Curiosity landing, so forget any ideas you had of going to the sites rejected for that mission. Or Manchester.
So that doesn’t leave all that much. And we haven’t even started yet on the actual scientific goals of this mission, essentially why we’re going there.
The goals of ExoMars are pretty clear, and pretty bold. The first though has the most control on choosing where to land: to search for signs of past and present life on Mars.
Most of the evidence that we’ve gathered since Viking says that the earlier parts of Mars’s history were the most hospitable to life. It was certainly wetter, probably warmer, and with a much thicker atmosphere than today. So ExoMars has to land somewhere with ancient rocks that are a record of that environment. That means landing somewhere older than 3.6 billion years old. That’s about the same age as some of the oldest rocks on Earth.
And bearing in mind what we know about life on Earth, there has to be evidence of water too, both in the shape of the landscape and in the minerals in the rocks. ExoMars is going to drill two metres into the sub-surface, as exposure to the radiation at the surface might have broken down any evidence of life. So the rocks to drill, core and study are soft, sedimentary rocks that can be read like a history book. Finally, there have to be as many of these targets as possible close to the centre of the ellipse, and as little dust cover as possible.
Over the last few months I’ve been part of a group of UK-based scientists who have been trying to help answer the question of where to land. We knew that other people would propose most of the other well-known sites. So we’re not exactly rooting for the underdog, rather making sure that nowhere is missed. From our own list of about thirty sites, we narrowed it down to just two that met all of the criteria, and which we’ve now sent off for consideration with everybody else’s suggestions.
Later this week we’ll be in Madrid discussing all these sites. I’m looking forward to it, and have to admit that it’s exciting and humbling to have even a small part in the process.
But it’ll be sad for me too. Both John, who was a mentor and friend, and Ron died recently, less than a year apart. They’ll both be missed. It’s strange to think that they’ll both be missing the latest stage of our exploration of Mars that they helped to pioneer.
I’m sure we’ll raise a glass to them. And I hope that wherever ExoMars does land, it’ll be an adventure worthy of future story-telling.
Posted on Aug 29, 2013
So, you’re at UCL for EPSC 2013 and you need somewhere to, er, network. And maybe possibly with a beer.
Avoid the tourist traps with my all-time top 5 drinking holes within spitting distance of UCL, selflessly compiled by me. Hic.
View EPSC 2013 Refreshment Holes in a larger map
So, in reverse order:
5. The Jeremy Bentham
What can I say – it’s the nearest pub to UCL. You can sit outside, listening to the ambulances go by, but it’s south-facing so you can get sunburnt while you get beered. Arrive early (like 2 pm) if you don’t want to fight off PhD students moaning about their supervisors. Or vice versa. It’s basically close enough to grab a quick drink in between talks, and that’s good enough.
Hidden gem this one. One of the best selections of ales anywhere around here. Ok, it might seem a bit spit and sawdust, but the beers are outstanding and the pies are famous. Well, it’s an award-winning pub after all. This is a good place for an all-nighter (or afternooner).
Surprise entry here. A bit further than the others, being about a 10 minute walk up the busy Hampstead Road, but worth it if you fancy something different and need some hard liquor. It’s cocktail o’clock up here.
Ok, this is gastropub clone territory, but it figures pretty high on my list as it’s where my lab tends to hunker down. Actually, apart from Friday evening when it gets busy (only until 8 when people stumble for their trains back Oop North) it’s not bad at all. Very good selection of beers, and the food will see you through (although it still seems wrong to pay so much for a fish finger buttie). This is where the UCL kids in the know will be hanging out.
You have to go here. It’s tiny, cramped, and you’ll end up drinking in a bus station (but, I mean, WHO HASN’T!), but it’s brilliant. An unbelievable selection of beers from all over the shop, you’ll be an instant hipster even if you don’t have a beard and a fixie bike. Totally worth popping over in the afternoon or evening, even if it’s just before you head for a curry on Drummond Street. And don’t forget the Cider Tap on the other side of the bus station entrance. I’ve whiled away a good few hours here, imaging the grandeur that was once Euston Station.
Extra Bonus Pub!
Come on, you’re in London, explore a little! Just a 10 minute bus ride from Warren Street, or a 20 minute walk from Euston, and you’ll be in another world. If you’ve never been to Camden, then you must go, you’ll love it. If you have been to Camden before, then it’s ok, you can hide from it all in this pub. Grab an early table, get a pint of Punk IPA and let it blow your head off. Your taste buds will thank you forever.
Posted on Aug 28, 2013
Pop quiz hotshot: what do the stars in the logo represent?
I’ll genuinely offer a prize* to the first conference attendee who can work out the answer.
Admittedly I seem to pay much more attention than my peers to this sort of logo design thing. And don’t get me started on default Excel charts in papers (it’s a slippery comic sans slope). But, seeing as I’ve got a few other EPSC things going on, I thought I’d explain the logo for the conference at UCL this September.
There’s nothing I love more than an internal logo competition, and so I spent way too much of my spare time thinking of ideas that reflected what the conference would be about. I thought it had to show both recognisable London landmarks, and also fairly obvious planetary references (which would probably be less well-known). I also wanted the conference to have an alright-looking logo rather than the usual Photoshopped planets montage.
So above is the logo that won in the end. Hopefully most people will get the references in there, but maybe you didn’t get them all.
The biggest feature is the whacking great big Saturn-type planet looming large over London, and extending out of the logo itself. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of one of the many beautiful Cassini images of Saturn. But I guess it’s images like this that I’m trying to mimic.
Next is London itself. From left to right:
The Houses of Parliament (technically the Palace of Westminster I think)
The London Eye (technically The Millennium Wheel)
The Gherkin (technically 30 St Mary Axe).
Crikey, we really do like colloquial names for buildings.
The pods on the London eye now reflect the phases of the Moon. Not as they would appear, but how they fit prettily onto the wheel. Yeah, I do that sort of thing. Although making the animation did take a stupid amount of time plotting great circles onto spheres in Matlab, so at least they are sort of accurate. Best not to mention libration.
And the Gherkin is now a rocket. Not technically planetary, but I love the classic design of comic style rocket shapes. I guess I’m trying to channel my Tintin ‘On a Marché Sur La Lune’ poster that’s framed in my kitchen. Of course it’d be much more interesting if the Gherkin really could take off. I’m thinking Grasshopper style.
The official print logo is all grey, as I knew that it would rarely be printed in colour. There was also a nice bit of white breathing space at the bottom, until I had to include the Europlanets logo at the last minute. And keep your text out of my logo exclusion zone!
And the last thing, well, that’s the stars. They represent something, but I’m not telling you what. Bear in mind how I was thinking above, and hopefully someone should get it. Although I should warn you that I’m not sure it’s that easy. (Hint: the twinkling doesn’t mean anything).
Again, I’ll genuinely offer a prize* to the first conference attendee who gets it.
* I reserve the right for the prize to possibly be some London-themed tat.