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Around the Solar System

Methane Gas in the Martian Atmosphere

by on Jan.20, 2009, under Around the Solar System

Methane on Mars

Methane on Mars

In a paper published in Science last week, a team led by Michael J. Mumma of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, confirmed the presence of methane gas in the Martian atmosphere.

The gas was first detected using Earth based telescopes in 2003. However, spacecraft based instruments did not completely support these observations. It has taken several years of careful observation to confirm the results.

Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon. It has four hydrogen atoms attached to a single carbon. Sunlight breaks methane down, so its presence in the Martian atmosphere points to it being actively replenished. The gas could be the product of life, or of geochemistry. There is not enough data to decide which.

“We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane,” co-author Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America told a Washington press conference. “The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air.”

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, due for launch in 2011, will have the ability to measure the isotopic composition of the gas. The may shed further light on the origins of the methane on Mars.

 

Picture Credit: NASA

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Tonight’s Moon Brightest for Seven Years

by on Jan.11, 2009, under Around the Solar System

The Moon

The Moon

The night of Sunday the 11th January 2009 will be the brightest Moon of the year. This full Moon will be only slightly dimmer than the one on 19th December 2008. This will be the last chance to see such a glorious sight for seven years.

The Moon does not follow a circular path around the Earth. It follows a slightly squashed circle, known as an ellipse. At its closest point to the Earth, called the perigee, the Moon is 50,000 kilometres (31,000 miles) nearer to the Earth than when it is at its furthest point, the apogee.

The Moon will be closest to the Earth on the night of Saturday, 10th January, but it will not be a full Moon on that night. The full Moon is on Sunday night. Tonight’s Moon will be 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than typical full Moon.

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Does Obama Want the Moon?

by on Dec.18, 2008, under Around the Solar System, Politics

Reports of a public row between NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Lori Garver, a member of Barack Obama’s transition team, has reignited speculation on the future of NASA’s manned Moon mission.

The Moon

The Moon

The Orlando Sentinel reported a “heated” 40-minute conversation between a “red-faced” Griffin and Garver at a book-publication party at NASA headquarters last week According to witnesses Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama.

President Elect Obama has sent teams to every government agency in order to ensure smooth transition between administrations. Their job is to dig through budgets and plans to find anything that may cause problems for the incoming administration. The Bush White House has ordered full cooperation.

Griffin appears to consider this a personal insult. Witnesses to the “animated conversation” reported Garver as saying, “Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood.”

“If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar,” Griffin replied. “Because it means you don’t trust what I say is under the hood.”

Griffon Worried

Griffin was appointed by President Bush four years ago to lead NASA in the efforts for a return Moon shot by 2020 and then on to Mars. He has overseen the selection of Constellation, with its NASA-designed Ares I rocket and Orion capsule for the job. Griffin would like to stay on under the new administration, “under the right circumstances.”

Budgetary problems and technical issues with Constellation have been the subject of the transition team’s scrutiny. They have asked NASA how much could be saved by cancelling the Area I rocket. They have also asked about accelerating the program. The cancellation question has obviously worried Griffin.

The Orlando Sentinel also reports Griffin is orchestrating a campaign to defend Constellation. It says Griffin is:

“…scripting NASA employees and civilian contractors on what they can tell the transition team and has warned aerospace executives not to criticize the agency’s moon program.”

NASA’s Chief of Strategic Communications, Chris Shank denied there was an argument or that Griffin is trying to keep information from the Garver’s team. He denied that Griffin is seeking a meeting with Obama.

He did acknowledge that Griffin felt the team lack the expertise to assess some of the information they have been given. Griffin, an engineer, has said the Garver is “not qualified” to make decisions on NASA’s rocketry program.

Garver has refused to comment, but people close to her say she has confirmed “unpleasant” exchanges with Griffin and other NASA officials. Garver recently told a Washington meeting of aerospace representatives, “there will be change” to NASA policy. She hinted that there would be a new administrator soon.

Obama’s Shifting Position

The situation is exasperated by Barack Obama’s lukewarm support for the Moon shot during his election campaign. His position early in the primaries was to see more NASA spending on education at the expense of the Moon landings. He shifted several times during the campaign.

Obama only came out firmly in support of the new Moon shot when if became obvious that the loss of jobs in important battleground states such as Florida could derail his bid for the Presidency.

However, these pledges were made when the federal budgetary considerations was very different from those today. It would not be hard to find justification for cutting NASA’s budget.

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