September 3: What's Jen Clicking on Between Newscasts?

This shot of a crater on Mars is the equivalent of what you'd see out of an airplane window, coming in for a landing on the red planet

Check out what's coming out of JPL right now, even as the smoke clears and the evacuated parts of the campus are re-inhabited.  Thousands of high resolution pictures from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that are giving us views of the red planet the likes of which we've never seen.  Scientists say the orbiter "has returned more data about the planet than all other past and current missions to Mars combined."

It's been quite a week for all things space, and the resources we have to see them here in Southern California.

It looks like we can relax now - firefighters say the imminent fire danger to Mount Wilson and its treasured observatory has passed.  The telescopes atop the mountain are priceless, having been the scene of so many discoveries that have shaped what we know about the universe. Click on this picture of Einstein looking through one of Mount Wilson's telescopes to read my earlier post on the topic.

I couldn't resist a little jaunt through the new batch of high resolution pictures.  The press release says the "newly released images from more than 1,500 telescopic observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show a wide range of gullies, dunes, craters, geological layering and other features on the Red Planet."

Take a look at some of the pictures in the gallery to the left.

So many things that have been the stuff of folklore or science fiction are becoming fact now, with the discoveries from the Mars orbiter.

One of the project's Scientists, Sue Smrekar, has a blog on the site and one of the posts called "Got Water?" offers some insight to the history of what we know, for starters, about water on the red planet:

A theme of Mars exploration is “Follow the Water,” since understanding the history of water on our planetary neighbor will help us understand if there were environments favorable for life to occur and how climate has changed over time. This is because all life on Earth requires water and we assume the same applies elsewhere in the universe. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has made numerous discoveries that have provided new insights into past wet environments on Mars, water vapor in the planet’s current atmosphere and ice in the subsurface. However, so far, liquid water remains elusive.

The orbiter has a Shallow Radar instrument, called "SHARAD," which is designed to detect water up to a half mile beneath the surface of Mars.  And while the orbiter has found gullies scientists say had liquid water in them as recently as 5-10 years ago, SHARAD has come up, well, dry:

To date, the Shallow Radar instrument’s observations of dozens of regions containing gullies show no evidence of liquid water. Since slopes of the cliffs where the two new gullies occur are extremely steep, some scientists put forth an alternate hypothesis in which dry debris tumbling downhill could have formed the latest channels. Yet many of the features observed at these and other gullies strongly suggest that liquid water had at least some role in carving the channels. These channels may have formed when a past climate change caused subsurface ice to melt. Or perhaps liquid water was trapped in a past aquifer. But for now, liquid water, if it exists today on Mars, remains out of reach of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

So, who cares about what's going on way out there on Mars, when we have so many things to deal with here on our home planet?  Plenty of science fiction from the early days of entertainment has become fact.  Maybe life on Mars isn't too far off?  It would take a lot longer for us to develop a global warming problem there, seeing as the warmest temperature on the 4th planet from the sun is about 70 degrees.  Winters, at -80, may be a bit of a tougher sell.

See what else Jen is clicking on ... 

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