Archive for June, 2015

Sailing to Mars with an E-Sail

Think about jetting off to another planet sometime in the future and the rocket with its propellent is the most common image in the mind of any science fiction fan. Perhaps that is why when you are asked to consider a propellent less E-Sail the imagination is left grasping at straws. So what is this new technology and just how viable is it?

“The E-sail utilizes long, charged tethers to convert natural solar wind momentum flux into spacecraft thrust.” Yes, that is just like a sail boat on the ocean back on Earth. There is no fuel involved, its all solar wind powered by a technology that was invented in Finland in 2006.

Finnish Meteorological Institute researchers hope that the technology will be able to make manned flights to Mars a possibility. Here’s what the official line is, “Electric solar wind sail facilitated Manned Mars Initiative (EMMI) makes continuous bidirectional manned Mars flights possible by utilising water mined from the asteroids. In the heart of this scheme is the electric solar wind sail which provides propellantless transportation within the solar system, thus enabling economical asteroid mining.”

Just how viable this E-sail is likely to be in interplanetary distances is a fact that is yet to be tested by this science project.

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Curiosity Gets New Vision

The Mars rover Curiosity has something called the ChemCam instrument which is short for Chemistry and Camera. This is able to provide information about the chemical composition of rock structures it reaches by pulsing a laser beam at them. The zap induced sparks are then studied with reference to a spectrometer to determine just what the rock is composed of.

The ChemCam had been out of commission due to a laser malfunction and this had made the instrument worthless. However with help from the instrument’s team members at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and in France automated repairs have been conducted on the laser and they seem to have worked.

The repairs included an alternative auto-focus method following loss of use of a small laser. This laser had served for focusing the instrument during the Curiosity rover’s first two years of exploration on Mars. The team took several images using the auto focus and determined which were the best after having them transferred to Earth, before reverting these setting to the actual instrument on Mars

The tedious but successful repairs of the science project have allowed the Curiosity rover to continue in its quest with the newly refurbished rock vision.

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Traffic Jam Above Mars?

That we are obsessed with our neighboring planet is no surprise. Mars is one of the closest celestial bodies that human beings have been able to study from the surface. Sending in probes to the red planet has been a common enough mission. In fact NASA now counts five active mission orbiters around the planet.

Given the fragile nature of the orbiters, and their rather complex systems it is a full time job to ensure that none of the five orbiting space crafts manage to bump into each other as they fly around the planet. So what are these orbiters? NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) joined the 2003 Mars Express from ESA (the European Space Agency) and two older ones from NASA called the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) last year.

An enhanced collision-avoidance process guidance system ensures that these critters stay out of the way from each other and avoid the big bang that could end a number of science projects riding on them. Perhaps there is a future for air controllers in the skies of Mars as humans keep sending more and more probes out to orbit and study the planet.

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Virtual Dig Site

If you have always thought about digging for fossils and artifacts but never really got off to enrolling in an archeological expedition, you will enjoy visiting the virtual lab at The website showcases a number of finds from the Lake Turkana region in East Africa.

As the website explains, “the digital collection of animals, human ancestors, as well as ancient stone tools offers a unique tool for scholars and enthusiasts to explore and interact with the collection online. It also provides an opportunity to download models for 3-D printing as well as to comment and share images of your favorite printed fossil objects on our forum.”

The 3D models of fossils are quite interesting in their digital form. As a visitor you can sort them into fossils of hominids, animals and tools. There is even an age filter that you can use to get fossils from a specific time period. If looking at digital images of fossils is not exciting enough, consider visiting the virtual excavation sites.

A time lapse collection of photographs allows you to see just how a dig proceeded. You can watch the tools of our ancestors being unearthed as well as some bone of people who used them. This is one science project that allows you to participate from the comfort of your own home.

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What are Plastiglomerates?

New materials are constantly being discovered by researchers in laboratories, however some new and rather strange looking things can be seen outside the lab as well. Specifically speaking some strange items have been spotted on Kamilo beach in Hawaii. These alternative rocks look like chunks of garbage, but are actually a new type of stone called plastiglomerates.

These stones are formed when plastic litter melts in the heat of bonfires and mixes with wood, sand, basalt fragments and other rubbish. Needless to say they look like a pile of junk, but are as hard as the collective strength of all that they contain. Besides being a very physical evidence of what plastics are doing to the environment today, they are going to play an important role in the future as well.

Patricia Corcoran is a sedimentologist who feels that plastiglomerates will serve as markers for the era where human beings began to use plastics and discard them en mass into the environment. Perhaps some day in the future a child will hold a plastiglomerate in his hand and work on a science project trying to figure out just what the exact components of the rock are!

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