Archive for August 8th, 2010

Mars Society conference: Saturday

This morning’s first plenary session was Carol Stoker of the NASA Ames Research Center, talking about the Drilling on the Moon and Mars in Human Exploration (DOMMEX) program from last season at the MDRS. The first half of her presentation was an overview of MDRS, which largely overlapped with my own presentation from yesterday, but I’m not going to fault her for that; she’s on deadline and probably wasn’t even here yesterday. It was interesting to see a different take on the same material, and (dropping modesty for a moment) to analyze the things that make my presentation more interesting and entertaining.

The DOMMEX part of the presentation was also interesting, because I’d read the emailed field reports and wanted to know more about it. Drilling will be an important part of any Mars mission (because so many interesting things are below the surface) and the DOMMEX experiments are intended to demonstrate different drilling technologies. The Mars Underground Mole (MUM), a self-driving impact-driven sampling robot, barely managed to embed itself completely in the soil, while a human-operated gas-powered backpack drill worked much faster and was more adaptable to unexpected situations. Bottom line: humans are more efficient and effective than robots. Other technologies tested included ground-penetrating radar and a manual core sampler (basically a small post hole digger, good for samples up to 1 meter in depth).

Dr. Stoker’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion on Obama‚Äôs new space policy. None of them like it, particularly for the cancellation of the Ares heavy lift vehicle. The good news is that the Senate doesn’t like it either and has restored funding for that program in their budget. We were all encouraged to write our representatives and ask them to support the Senate version of NASA’s budget.

Carol Stoker returned after that with a presentation on the habitability of the Phoenix Lander site. She went into some detail on the factors that govern habitability (defined as suitability for Earth-like microorganisms, either in the present or in the past), what the Phoenix lander did to test for them, and how the site stacks up on each of them.

The items required for habitability are: liquid water, energy in forms usable by living things, the presence of the chemical building blocks of life, and the absence of factors inimical to life such as radiation and toxins. Phoenix had an extensive suite of instruments to detect most of these things. Its landing site (selected for the highest concentration of ice outside of the north ice cap itself) had plenty of direct and indirect evidence of water; chemical energy in the soil in the form of perchlorates and iron; solar energy available for photosynthesis, plus mica rocks in the soil which are transparent to visible light but opaque to damaging UV; and most of the chemical building blocks of life (except for nitrates, which might be present but were not tested for). Unfortunately, temperatures at this near-polar location are too low for life most of the year. However, in the distant past Mars had a much larger axial tilt and during the northern summer this part of Mars could get warmer than Antarctica does on Earth today. The Phoenix lander site is more habitable than any other site visited and deserves a follow-up expedition to search for signs of ancient life below the surface (which ties into her previous presentation on drilling).

After that plenary session I stuck my head in on Mars Camp, a family-friendly event that was open to the public. It was just hopping with kids and parents, flying flight simulators, working in a glove box, directing robot arms, and enjoying an inflatable planetarium. A very keen addition to the conference. I also picked up a couple of cool Mars coloring books.

I skipped the afternoon program in favor of a visit to the Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a mere 15 minutes’ drive away. I’d been told that it has a better collection of airplanes than the Smithsonian, and I have to agree with that assessment. Here are just a few photos of some of my favorite bits:

The Bockscar, the bomber that dropped the Fat Man A-bomb on Nagasaki

A German V-2 rocket

A U-2 spy plane

The one and only Berlin Airlift Dog Parachute

An East German Trabant automobile and a section of the Berlin Wall (okay, this is not an airplane by any stretch of the imagination, but it is associated with the Berlin Airlift)

In the evening we had the annual banquet, with pretty good food and an awesome presentation by Dr. Carolyn Porco, director of the Cassini mission’s CICLOPS Saturn Imaging Team. Her collection of amazing images of Saturn, its rings, and its moons (over 60 moons are now known) was like a year of Astronomy Pictures of the Day all at once, and she was excellent at explaining what we were seeing and why it was exciting. I had not known that we learned some amazing things about Saturn’s rings at its equinox, when the sun shines directly across the rings and we can see the long shadows of any variations in height within them. The wobbles in the ring on either side of the moon Daphnis, for example, were revealed to be mile-hile walls of rubble thrown up by the moon’s passage (the ring itself is just 30 feet thick). I had also not seen the amazing photos from the surface of Titan returned by the Huygens probe, or the plumes of salty water erupting from the surface of the moon Enceladus.

I had convivial table companions for the banquet, handed out many business cards, and made some professional contacts whose potential is very exciting. About which more later, if any of them should happen to pan out. For now, to bed.