April 2006 Archives

Speaking of Mars...

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Just as on Earth, the southern hemisphere winter is arriving on Mars; the autumn equinox was on 22 January, and the winter solstice will be on 08 August (there's a very good table of Martian seasons here). Differently from Earth, though, the Martian winter lasts for six months (in fact, the southern winter is almost one month longer than the southern summer), and this has strong implications for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Both rovers are in the Martian southern hemisphere, but Spirit is much farther south, at a latitude of around 15 degrees (Opportunity is closer to the equator, at less than 2 degrees south). This means that, during the long Martian winter, Spirit will receive much less sun light than it is used to, and this, in turn, will affect the amount of energy it will have available to function. For this reason, NASA spent the last few weeks trying to take Spirit to a safe location where it could park for the winter in a slightly northern inclination.

Last weekend, after spending some time almost stuck in a sandy area, Spirit arrived at such a safe location and is now parked with a Sun-facing tilt of 11.5 degrees; this has already bumped its power reserves up by more than 20%, and it is likely that the rover will remain at this location for the whole winter.

Spirit had such a problem with that sandy area, in part, because one of its six wheels has stopped working weeks ago and is being dragged around without spinning. This increases the rover's power consumption and affects its ability to negotiate the Martian terrain. Still, both rovers are in excellent shape, and have already exceeded their "warrantly" by over 700 (Earth) days.

Venus Express arrives

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Venus Express, the ESA's sister mission to Mars Express, arrives today; the orbit insertion maneuver starts in a few hours (just after 5pm Melbourne time, 7am UTC).

The ship is basically an upgraded version of Mars Express, minus the ill-fated Beagle 2 lander. It was launched in November of 2005, and the expected duration of the mission is of two Venusian days (that is, some 500 Earth days). It will study in detail the Venusian atmosphere and try to image (through the cloud cover) the full surface of the planet. There is much our scientists still don't understand about the Venusian weather and erosion patterns, and this mission will try to find some explanations. Differently from most Martian explorer satellites, Venus Express will settle into a highly elliptical orbit, ranging from a distance of 250 to 66,000km from the planet.

As with Mars Express, one of the main sites on Earth receiving data from Venus Express will be the ESA ground station in New Norcia, Western Australia. New Norcia is more famous for being centered around a monastery (it's "Australia's only monastic town"), but it was already advertised as being the first place on Earth that would hear about news of life in Mars. There's no such expectation for Venus, of course, but New Norcia (and Australia) continues to play an important role in space exploration.

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