Week in Geek: Missions to Mars, and how birds spot impostor eggs

Not one but two new spacecraft arrived at Mars this past week. That brings the total number of manmade objects on or in orbit around the planet (dead or alive) to approximately 18! The two new kids on the planetary exploration block are MAVEN and MOM.

MAVEN (or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) is NASA’s latest mission to Mars and the first to focus on studying the upper atmosphere of the red planet (video). MAVEN launched from Cape Canaveral last November and successfully arrived at Mars on Sunday night, Sept. 21 EDT. MAVEN is designed to investigate how the loss of volatiles (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water, and methane) in Mars’ atmosphere could have contributed to changes in the planet’s climate history and habitability. To do this, MAVEN will be in a highly elliptical orbit, swinging as close at 93 miles above the surface of Mars to as far as 3728 miles away. The spacecraft will pass through the upper Martian atmosphere with each orbit, so it sample the gas content directly. On the opposite end of the orbit, additional instrumentation will be imaging the entire planet in ultraviolet light as part of studying the reaction of the atmosphere to solar radiation.
MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission, or Magalyaan “Mars-craft” in Sanskrit) is the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) first interplanetary mission, making India the first country to ever successfully put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars on the first attempt (no small feat!). MOM also launched last November, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in southeast India, and arrived at Mars on Wednesday morning, Sept. 24 IST. MOM will also be in an elliptical orbit, but not come nearly as close to Mars as MAVEN will (between 263 and 50,000 miles). That’s because MOM is actually more of a technology demonstrator as opposed to a scientific spacecraft. The primary goal of the mission is to test the design and technology developed to launch an orbiter to Mars and maneuver it into orbit around the Red Planet. They did put scientific instruments aboard to take advantage of the successful placement in Mars orbit. MOM’s secondary mission is to study Mars’ surface mineralogy as well at its atmosphere. 
If you think all the excitement is over for now, stay tuned for the inevitable flood of new Martian desktop backgrounds.
In other more earthly geek, I’ve been on summer hiatus, so here is some geek to catch up on:
  • Scientists find unique patterns on eggs that allow birds to tell the difference between their own and those of impostor species.
  • Lonesome George, the famous bachelor tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, was the last of his subspecies. He pass on in 2012, but he is now visiting the American Museum of Natural History, in taxidermy form, through the new year in New York.
  • A Japanese optics company made a Rube Goldberg machine powered almost exclusively by LIGHT.

  • This poetry billboard in Sheffield, England, fights air pollution while also speaking out about it.
  • New York City Department of Health uses reviews on Yelp to track down foodborne illness outbreaks.
  • Google Maps moves the digital shadow of the Washington Monument to reflect the current position of the Sun.
  • The nerdiest sci-fi poster ever shows every science fiction ship side by side.
  • The European Space Agency has built a camera to record the burn-up of a spacecraft from the spacecraft’s point of view.
  • There is now a 3D printer in space on the International Space Station.
  • Check out this stunning gallery of winning photos from the Royal Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest.

Welcome to a new season of geek!



Rachel Maddow Show Geek

Week in Geek: Missions to Mars, and how birds spot impostor eggs