We’ve known for a long time now that Mars once contained vast reservoirs of water and that even in its apparently dry state there was indications of water still hiding in various places. The search for water on Mars is a twofold with the two main objectives being finding environments suitable to life and secondly for potential use by future manned missions. Whilst we’ve succeed in confirming that yes, water once covered Mars and it still exists there today, we’re still finding out just how extensive the reservoirs are. As it turns out Mars may be flush with more water than we first expected and it’s been right under our noses this entire time.
The surface of Mars is a barren wasteland, covered in the same monotonous coloring that gives it that signature red tinge. The poles are the exception to this, harboring large water ice caps that get blanketed with a layer of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) in the winter. The reason for this is that due to the low pressure of Mars’ atmosphere exposed water anywhere else on the planet simply subliminates, turning straight from ice to water vapor before being swept away by Mars’ turbulent winds. However new research from the University of Copenhagen has revealed that water ice has managed to survive in other places around Mars and has done so in great quantities.
As it turns out many of the geological features we’ve observed on Mars that we’ve assumed to simply be mountains or hills are in fact dust covered glaciers which pepper the martian surface near the poles. This thick layer of dust has protected them from Mars’ atmosphere, preventing the ice from sublimation away. This dust also makes them appear like any other geological feature that you’d find on Mars’ surface instead of the towering walls of ice that we’re used to seeing here on Earth. The researchers were able to determine that these were water ice glaciers by using radar measurements from the numerous spacecraft we have orbiting the red planet and how they’re flowing under their protective dust blankets.
The amount of ice that these glaciers contain is quite staggering, enough that if it was spread out over the surface of Mars it would blanket it in a layer 1.1m thick. Such giant reservoirs provide huge opportunities for both exploration and scientific purposes and potentially paves a way for a sustainable human settlement. Whilst liquid water is always the most viable place to look for life we’ve found dozens of examples of microbial life living in some pretty harsh conditions and these glaciers might be a great place to start looking. That and water is one of the main components in several types of rocket fuel, something we’ll need if we want to do multiple return missions to Mars.
It’s incredible to note that our view of Mars has changed so drastically over the past couple decades, going from a barren wasteland that could never have housed life to a viable candidate, flush with water reserves everywhere. This latest discovery just goes to show that we can’t simply rely on visual data alone as even a well studied planet like Mars can still hide things from us and can do it in plain sight. The next step is to dig beneath Mars’ thick dust blanket to peer into these glaciers and, potentially, find something wriggling down there.
The time is fast approaching when one of the most iconic spacecraft in history will no longer be soaring off into the blackness of space. Long time readers of this blog will know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me emotionally and every bit of shuttle news always feels bittersweet as I know we’re not far away from never seeing these birds flying again. Still NASA has been working incredibly hard to make sure that not only do the shuttles continue to perform as expected they’ve also managed to jam a heck of a lot of cargo into what was supposed to be the final flight of the shuttle but that honor is now reserved for STS-135. That doesn’t detract from this last mission at all, however.
STS-134 is the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and it launched late last night at around midnight AEST. I managed to catch some of the action as it was happening on Twitter having forgotten that the flight had been scheduled for Monday after experiencing several delays thanks to trajectory conflicts (in essence traffic problems in space) and problems with the APU heaters which form part of the shuttles hydraulics. The launch went without a hitch however and the shuttle lifted off in its usual spectacular glory.
Amongst the giant payload list that’s currently in orbit with the space shuttle Endeavour is the main reason why this mission is being flown, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. About 13 years ago a prototype AMS was sent up with STS-91 to test a wide array of particle physics experiments like dark matter, anti-matter and cosmic rays. It also happened to be flying on the last ever shuttle mission to the Mir space station. It’s sucessor, the AMS-2, faced the axe thanks to a lack of shuttle flights in the wake of the Columbia disaster. This and the cancellation of a lot of other International Space Station components lead to quite a controversy over whether the ISS was worth the expense and eventually the AMS-2 was reinstated and is currently en-route to the ISS now.
Apart from the usual affair of spare and replacement parts for the ISS STS-134 also carriers with it parts for upgrading the docking mechanisms for the upcoming Orion space capsule. They’re not just installing it either, part of the mission objectives is to also test the new docking hardware to make sure it functions as expected. This means that the STS-134 crew will be performing a series of maneuvers including docking, undocking, fly around and a full separation. It’s quite a bit of flying around for the shuttle which usually just sits docked to the side of the ISS for the entire time and I’m sure there will be some amazing footage of its on-orbit aerobatics when the tests are completed.
Endeavour will also be leaving behind part of itself, namely the Orbital Boom Sensor System. It’s become a standard piece of equipment on every flight since the Columbia disaster and is used to inspect the shuttle whilst in orbit to look for signs of damage to the space craft. It has also been used once to aid in a repair operation back in STS-120 and proved an invaluable aid in that task. It was such a help during that operation that NASA decided that one of the arms should have a permanent home on the ISS and Endeavour’s was chosen.
There are also numerous smaller payloads that make up the rest of Endeavour’s manifest. It is carrying 4 payloads for the Department of Defence, all of which require some use of the boosters whilst in orbit. Endeavour will also be bringing up another materials experiment, MISSE 8, and will be returning the previous one back down to earth for analysis. A new Glacier unit, basically a freezer for science experiments on the ISS, is being brought up and the old one returned as well. Finally Endeavour will carry with it some Lego kits with it as part of an educational program as well as some specialized nutrition bars created by a pair of high school sisters to encourage students to get into the fields of science, technology, education and math.
The final mission of Endeavour is set to be an exciting time for all of those involved and the massive payload it is going to deliver will make sure of that. Whilst it may have been stripped of the title of the final shuttle flight ever it will still be remembered for a long time to come, especially since it will leave behind a critical piece of itself once it departs. It does hit me with a twinge of sadness however as I now know there’s only one more flight to go and then the world will be without this iconic craft soaring high above its atmosphere. Still they have given us so much that I can’t help but also feel a sense of pride which makes my heart soar like nothing else.