Space & Planetary Science: January 2009 Archives

NASA Mars Rover Team Diagnosing Unexpected Behavior With Spirit

"The team operating NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit plans diagnostic tests this week after Spirit did not report some of its weekend activities, including a request to determine its orientation after an incomplete drive.

On Sunday, during the 1,800th Martian day, or sol, of what was initially planned as a 90-sol mission on Mars, information radioed from Spirit indicated the rover had received its driving commands for the day but had not moved."

Editor's note: Philippe Crane has tried to set the record straight vis-a-vis NASA funding for Keck access. This email from Philippe Crane at NASA SMD has been widely circulated in the past few days. Have a look. Note underlined sections:

"Date: Fri, 23 Jan 2009
Subject: KECK
From: Philippe Crane

How important is access to KECK thru NASA time to your work?? There seems to be a major shift in approach that may affect your work. In particular, there does not appear to be any funds for KECK after FY12.

For the moment, it appears that this issue will get some attention here at HQ, but it is not clear what the outcome will be. Therefore, it would be very helpful to have some broad idea of the impact of losing Keck to the Planetary community. Any inputs you and your colleagues may have will be helpful.

Many thanks, Phil"

Editor's note: Here is Crane's response from today's special edition of the Planetary Exploration Newsletter (it was not sent to NASA Watch by NASA SMD PAO - thanks Dwayne):

"Many of you may know about the January 26th posting on NASA Watch titled: "Weiler Seeks to Cut NASA Access to Keck Observatory." Just to make things unequivocally clear, there is absolutely no change in NASA's position to honor the 5-year cooperative agreement for KECK operations that was put in place last fiscal year. Also, Dr. Weiler has not been involved in any discussion relevant to KECK since he has returned to NASA Headquarters in the Spring of 2008.

The KECK Observatory provides important support for the Planetary Science Division's goals and objectives. The Planetary Science Division is committed to maintaining this support. Recent email and web traffic have not accurately reflected the actual situation. My email to a KECK user, informally soliciting information from observers to support the Planetary Science Division's position, led to this. I regret any misunderstanding that may have been engendered. Please be assured that we can move forward knowing that KECK will be around a long time to support our mission needs. If you are still have concerns, I urge you to talk directly to me or Jim Green, the Planetary Science Division Director.

Philippe Crane
Planetary Astronomy Discipline Scientist
Planetary Science Division
NASA Headquarters"

Editor's note: Crane was the one who said "it is not clear what the outcome will be". Small wonder the space science community was concerned. Either Crane was acting without Ed Weiler's consent/permission (not good) or he was (not good either). That said, given the standard operating procedure in cases such as this, much nastiness will issue forth from Ed Weiler's SMD.

Editor's note: According to multiple sources in the space science community, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, Ed Weiler, is planning to end NASA support for access to the telescopes at the Keck Observatory. Funding for that access would halt in FY 2012 if Weiler has his way. If this is allowed to happen, NASAs ability to do a variety of astronomical research will be greatly decreased. In addition to basic astronomy and astrophysics, much of the preparatory work needed for planning and then optimizing planetary science missions would also come to a halt.

What a nice start for NASA under the Obama Administration. President Obama calls for quality science and Ed Weiler seeks to cut it. Ed Weiler will go ahead and do this unless the affected scientists and project managers speak up - with attribution.

Editor's update: I just got an email from SMD PAO's Dwayne Brown. What is odd about this statement is that Ed Weiler's own people are sending out emails to the space science community warning that funding is coming to an end. Yet in these emails they make no mention of what is claimed in the official PAO response below. Alan Stern left NASA almost a year ago - yet Ed Weiler still finds that blaming Stern for anything and everything to be a convenient management tool. That includes bad mouthing Stern any time his name is mentioned in a conversation as being a possible Administrator candidate (Ed, people have heard you do this multiple times). How sad that Ed Weiler needs to define his budget in this fashion i.e. by blaming others for his current problems. Weiler did the same thing to his predecessor Wes Huntress during Weiler's last stint at SMD. There is an unfortunate behavior pattern at work here - and acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese is not at all inclined to stop it. Not a good sign of things that lie ahead.

"Keith: This should clear up any concerns from your audience. I had planned to send it as a comment, but since folks out there need the real facts, perhaps it's best to put it as an update on your front page. If you have follow up questions, I've cc'd the heads of astrophysics and planetary to respond via email. Thanks DB


The FY09 budget plan, prepared under former Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Alan Stern, reflects only the current 5-year agreement in place for Keck. That plan ends funding in 2012. NASA officials will consider continued funding for projects such as Keck when they meet in the coming months to discuss the next 5-year planning cycle. This is part of the normal annual federal budget deliberations. Given the success and work of the observatory, it is expected funding will continue. In fact, the science directorate, under the current leadership of Ed Weiler, finished renewing a five-year cooperative agreement to continue its support of Keck based on recommendations from the science community during last year's NAC-subcommittee meetings.


NASA highly values its investment in Keck as a strategic research tool that enhances the scientific return of NASA missions. The observatory provides unique capabilities for making important scientific observations that affect future mission planning. One example is finding methane in the Martian atmosphere that was recently announced.

Dwayne C. Brown
Senior Public Affairs Officer"

Mars and Me - The unofficial diary of a Mars rover driver

"Spirit Sol 18

Oops. Due to some overly aggressive sequencing, yesterday's master sequence had a command to wait until a time that was about 18 seconds too late. So the spacecraft, following the rules, rejected it. The ops team noticed and fixed this during the day, so they missed the morning science but got our IDD sequences kicked off.

Another oops, this one mine: I was supposed to be available for some phone interview at 6 AM or so -- a live interview on WITI-6 TV, a Fox affiliate in Milwaukee (save your Mary Tyler Moore jokes). I thought the interview was later in the day. But I called the guy back and got it set up for tomorrow.

But even if everything here on Earth is screwed up, at least Spirit is doing well. Specifically, the MI is healthy and is sending back beautiful data (which everyone immediately crowds around in the science downlink assessment meeting). Arvidson gives everyone a little time to admire the images, then says, "OK, can we get back to work now?" And someone says, "No!"

Editor's note: Although the author is blogging day-by-day activities from 2004, the insight they often is still very relevant.

Name That Rover

Deadline Nears for Student Contest to Name NASA's Next Mars Rover

"NASA is issuing a last call to the nation's youth for entries in a contest to name the agency's next Mars rover. The naming contest, in partnership with Disney-Pixar's WALL-E, invites ideas from students 5 to 18 years old and enrolled in a U.S. school. The contest began two months ago. Entries will be accepted until midnight Jan. 25. Entrants should submit essays explaining why their suggested name for the rover is the right fit. In March, the public will have an opportunity to rank nine finalist names via the Internet as additional input for judges to consider. In April, NASA will announce the winning name."

Nasa reveals life on Mars, The Sun

"ALIEN bugs are responsible for strong plumes of methane gas detected on Mars, it was claimed tonight."

Reader note: I'm not certain what press release these folks read - or which press conference they watched - but no one "claimed" that the Methane found on Mars is produced by "Alien bugs" or any other biological process. But I guess this headline will sell more newspapers.

Discovery of Methane Reveals Mars Is Not A Dead Planet

"A team of NASA and university scientists has achieved the first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This discovery indicates the planet is either biologically or geologically active. The team found methane in the Martian atmosphere by carefully observing the planet throughout several Mars years with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The team used spectrometers on the telescopes to spread the light into its component colors, as a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The team detected three spectral features called absorption lines that together are a definitive signature of methane."

Michael Meyer: "Today we are going to hear that Mars is active - whether it is due to geology or biology - we do not know."

Michael Mumma: "Most of you have read this paper in Science."

Reader note: Actually, Dr. Mumma, most of us have not read the paper. I asked NASA PAO for a copy of the paper and they sent me this PDF file which represents what they submitted to Science. This paper represents the work of NASA civil servants and is in the public domain according to PAO.

Life On Mars, The Sun

"NASA will hold a science update at 2 p.m. EST, Thursday, Jan. 15, to discuss analysis of the "ALIEN microbes living just below the Martian soil are responsible for a haze of methane around the Red Planet, Nasa scientists believe. The gas, belched in vast quantities in our world by cows, was detected by orbiting spacecraft and from Earth using giant telescopes. Nasa are today expected to confirm its presence during a briefing at their Washington HQ. And the find is seen as exciting new evidence that Martian microbes are still alive today. Some scientists reckon methane is also produced by volcanic processes. But there are NO known active volcanoes on Mars."

Has Nasa found life on Mars?, Guardian

"If a newspaper headline ends in a question mark, the answer is almost always "no". And so it is in this case. Later today, Nasa scientists will announce they have detected enormous releases of methane from Mars. Could it be evidence of martian life? Undoubtedly yes. Is it proof of life on Mars? Certainly not."

Water and methane together equal life on Mars?, Times of India

"A report to be carried in Friday's issue of the journal Science details the observations, made using three telescopes in Hawaii. "The most compelling question relates to the origin of methane on Mars. The methane we detected is of unknown age--its origin could be ancient or perhaps recent," Michael Mumma of NASA and colleagues wrote. The methane appears to have been produced in plumes from certain areas on Mars as temperatures warmed, they said. "Living systems produce more than 90 percent of Earth's atmospheric methane; the balance is of geochemical origin. On Mars, methane could be a signature of either origin," they added."

Clouds of Methane May Mean Life on Mars, Fox News

"(American media outlets are not yet reporting the story because they're honoring an "embargo," a promise to not run a story until a designated time, in this case 2 p.m. EST, when NASA is expected to hold a press conference. The Sun "broke" the embargo, prompting other British papers to follow suit.)"

Editor's update: Classic exaggerated arm waving from the British press - as linked to by the Drudge Report.

Meanwhile, if this embargo information is true (I am checking) then I'd really like to know why news outlets in foreign countries are provided with official NASA news before American taxpayers - the people who actually paid for the research. Indeed, one of the papers above engages in soft porn with their "page 3" photo spreads.

Update: NASA HQ PAO tells me that they have not released anything under embargo. I have not been sent anything under embargo from anyone else so I do not know what is being referred to. But the Times of India is apparently quoting an article in Science magazine - so someone at Science must have sent something out that found its way to them.

This is NASA research and NASA PAO is not even in on the embargo. Michael Mumma is a NASA employee and the research is being announced at a NASA press conference. Very strange. Stay tuned.

NASA Science Update to Discuss Mars Atmosphere Activity

"NASA will hold a science update at 2 p.m. EST, Thursday, Jan. 15, to discuss analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity. The briefing will take place in the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E St., S.W., Washington, and carried live on NASA Television."

Lockheed Martin-Built Stardust Spacecraft to Fly By Earth Jan. 14 - Stardust-NExT on Its Way to Explore Comet Tempel 1

"On Jan. 14, NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft will fly by Earth during a gravity assist maneuver that will increase its velocity and sling shot the spacecraft into an orbit to meet up with comet Tempel 1 in February 2011. Flight operations for the spacecraft are performed from Lockheed Martin's Mission Support Area in Denver, Colo. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. provides the precision navigation need for the flyby and the journey to Tempel 1. The Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft's closest approach will happen at 12:33 p.m. MST as it comes within 5,690 miles (9,157 km) of Earth. At its closest point, the spacecraft will fly over the California/Mexico border south of San Diego at a speed of approximately 22,400 miles per hour (36,000 kilometer per hour)."

Editor's note: NASA PAO doesn't seem to be aware of this cool flyby. There is no mention here or here at these official NASA Stardust websites or at JPL's main site. Oh well, at least Lockheed Martin is paying attention.

NASA Science Update to Discuss Mars Atmosphere Activity

"NASA will hold a science update at 2 p.m. EST, Thursday, Jan. 15, to discuss analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity. The briefing will take place in the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E St., S.W., Washington, and carried live on NASA Television."

The Martian Methane Surprise - Interview with Mike Mumma, Astrobiology Magazine

"In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine editor Leslie Mullen, Mumma explains how they detected the methane, and what it could mean for the chance for life on Mars."



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This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from January 2009.

Space & Planetary Science: December 2008 is the previous archive.

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