Uwingu Funds Travel Grants

April 8, 2014 at 8:00 am | Leave a Comment

Planetary Science Students Eligible

I’ve written several times about the Uwingu group and their ongoing efforts to raise funds for science research and outreach. Their most recent project, naming craters on a Mars map has been quite successful, enabling the awarding of grants to several groups. Today, the Uwingu fund announced that it is soliciting applications from PhD student planetary science candidates to fund travel to present their research at professional meetings. Doing such presentations is an important part of a scientist’s training; he or she must be able to share his or her work with peers and gain the necessary feedback that improves their work. According to Dr. Alan Stern, the CEO of Uwingu, giving these grants for travel to professional meetings is an important part of the group’s efforts in fostering the next generation of scientists.  “We are excited to begin making grants to students and to supporting their research, and look forward to selecting the best applications we receive for funding,” he said. “We expect to make more and more grant solicitations as revenues from our Mars Map Crater Naming Project continue to grow.”

I remember when I presented my first paper at a professional meeting. It was an important part of my scientific upbringing, which made it doubly stressful. Luckily, at the time, I did have some travel funds from our group’s research grants, so I didn’t have to worry about paying for such travel out of a meager student paycheck. It was a rite of passage in a way, and an important one. So, I can easily understand and support the idea of Uwingu using some of the money from its Mars mapping fundraiser to help support other students who need the same help I did to get up there and explain their research.

If you’re interested in supporting the Uwingu fund, surf on over and pick out a crater or two or three to name. You can spend as little as $5.00 to name a crater on a map that the Mars One crew will use. In return a student somewhere will get some of his or her travel expenses paid to give that all-important research presentation at a meeting. It’s win-win all the way around.

If you’re one of those PhD planetary science students looking for help to get to a meeting, head on over to the Uwingu travel application page and put in your request. The deadline is April 30, 2014.


Mars: It’s a Helluva Ride

April 7, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Leave a Comment

Mars Exploration by Humans

An artist’s concept of Mars One habitats on Mars. Courtesy Mars One project.

Want to go to Mars? So do about 200,000 other people who responded to the first calls for Mars explorers by the Mars One team last year. It reminded me of S. R. Hadden in the movie Contact, showing Dr. Arroway his secretly built launch complex and asking her, “Wanna take a ride???”

In this case, a LOT of people wanna.  And, I don’t blame them. Mars is a new frontier, it represents a huge challenge, and there’s this romantic SF-ized idea that going to Mars will allow us a new start on a new planet. Not an unfamiliar concept to humanity: don’t like it where you are? Go somewhere else and colonize. That’s part of our history.

Make no mistake about it, however, going to Mars isn’t going to be a walk in the park. The applicants for the Mars One mission will be facing an entirely different kind of climate, gravity, and magnetic field environment on Mars from what they’re used to on Earth. Just the 210-day trip to get there once they leave Earth is going to be a psychological and physical challenge. They’re going to be in space, in weightlessness for much of that time, and then land on a planet that has gravity they’ll have to adapt to. Granted, it’s a lower gravitational pull than Earth’s, but it will still be a change.

The Mars One team has outlined a pretty ambitious time line for exploration that looks like we could have people on Mars in about 11 years from now. That’s very interesting, because I’ve been saying for a long time that the first Marsnauts will be our kids, or maybe our grandkids. That’s changed now. They could be our neighbors, our friends, ourselves. Before they leave on this one-way trip to Mars (and yes, it is one-way, for now), they will have trained for eight years to become proficient in living in the hostile conditions of the Red Planet. They’ll be ready to do whatever work they need to do on Mars to continue the explorations our rovers and mappers have begun for us over the past few decades. Mars is worthy of exploration, and in the long run, it may well prove to be a second home for humanity. The scientific payback could be huge, particularly in planetary science, where researchers will have at least two (three, if you count the Moon) sources of data about how rocky planets work, how they formed, how they evolve, and what ongoing processes change them.

The main points of the Mars One mission are familiar to most of us who have followed plans for taking people to the Red Planet over the years. Some years ago I was part of the original Mars Underground, a group of people who continued to plan Mars missions after NASA’s focus on human missions slewed to the Space Station and Shuttles. We had meetings every so often, and focused on such issues as timelines to Mars, practice runs on Earth and the Moon to train for Mars, propulsion systems, human health and medicine, the sociology of going to Mars, utilizing resources ON Mars to survive there, precursor missions to locate those resources (water, etc.) as well as appropriate places to land, and the psychological issues that could arise during such a mission. I see much of the same kind of enthusiasm and planning in the Mars One mission guidelines, and even more important — appropriate business decisions about how to fund such a mission. It’s not a single nation’s ride anymore. It’s multinational, something we knew back in the days of the Underground.

So, it’s all good. I like where Mars One is going. Maybe someday I’ll sign up (they do signups every so often to keep the astronaut pool replenished). For now, I’m following their progress with great interest. Very soon they’ll be building simulation habitats here on Earth to use in training the first crews. They have a business model in place, they’re partnering with organizations like Uwingu and others to raise funds, they’re inviting supporters to join and make community decisions about the eventual missions. They’re moving forward. I like that. I envy the first mission folk — they’ll have a helluva ride in front of them, and they’ll be paving the way for the rest of us who want to set foot on Mars in our lifetimes.

Water in the Solar System

April 3, 2014 at 13:50 pm | Leave a Comment

Enceladus Has a Watery Ocean

Back when we knew much less about the solar system than we do now (and I’m talking maybe the middle of the last century), people who studied the solar system thought that Earth was about the largest primary source of water in the solar system. Oh, they knew about comets and their watery makeup, but for the most part, it seemed like Earth had the corner on the water market.

This diagram illustrates the possible interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus based on a gravity investigation by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and NASA’s Deep Space Network, reported in April 2014. The gravity measurements suggest an ice outer shell and a low density, rocky core with a regional water ocean sandwiched in between at high southern latitudes. Courtesy NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/CalTech

It turns out, Earth is not quite the oasis in a water-poor solar system we once thought. Water is everywhere, we just have to use the right tools to find it. Today, astronomers on the Cassini Solstice Mission, which operates at Saturn, have gathered more evidence to confirm that the icy moon Enceladus (which is small — about 500 kilometers across) has a subsurface ocean of liquid water. Enceladus is one of Saturn’s moons and is best known for its geysers of particles streaming out from cracks in its surface, which scientists long suspected was coming from some body of water beneath this moon’s frozen crust.

What evidence helped to confirm that Enceladus has an ocean? Sami Asmar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained that it was a combination of Cassini observations and measurements of signals received from the spacecraft by the Deep Space Network. That’s right, it was deduced by using radio signals and how they’re affected  by gravity.

“The way we deduce gravity variations is a concept in physics called the Doppler Effect”, he said. “It’s the same principle used with a speed-measuring radar gun. As the spacecraft flies by Enceladus, its velocity is perturbed by an amount that depends on variations in the gravity field that we’re trying to measure. We see the change in velocity as a change in radio frequency, received at our ground stations here all the way across the solar system.”

In layman-speak, the Cassini spacecraft “feels” the gravitational tug of Enceladus, and that tug changes depending on what part of Enceladus the spacecraft is closest to. The changing tugs slow down or speed up its orbital velocity just a tiny amount. That change in speed also changes the frequency of the radio transmissions from Cassini. When the ground stations receive the signal, scientists analyze the signals and can tease out the Doppler effect. That gives them a clue as to the gravitational tug the spacecraft feels as it goes past Enceladus. The gravitational tug of a region full of water is different than the tug of a region that is mostly ice.

The gravity measurements independently suggest a large, possibly regional, ocean about 10 kilometers) deep, beneath the thin icy shell that makes up Enceladus’s surface. That shell is probably around 30-40 kilometers thick in places.

So, is there life on Enceladus?

What does this confirmation of a watery on Enceladus mean for the search for life on other worlds? For one thing, it adds to the list of places where water exists in the solar system. We know there was lots of water on Mars in the past and there is still some there today. How much, we don’t know yet. We also know there’s water at the Moon, but the amount of it (particularly water “encased” in rock) is still under debate. Jupiter’s moon Europa has long been suggested as another place for water, and its frigid surface is made largely of water ice. It’s likely there’s a water ocean under that surface, as well. Of course, the comet reservoir out in the Oort Cloud is known as a “sink” for water ice, given that so many comets show water in their chemical signatures. So, water isn’t an unknown thing beyond Earth anymore.

The first thing that comes to mind when you think about water somewhere on a planet or moon (or even a comet) is life. If there’s water there, could there be life? That’s a reasonable question to ask, actually. Water is always touted as one of the Big Three Ingredients for Life, along with food and heat (energy). We know life happened here on Earth, where there’s lots of water, so it’s logical to assume that it could happen in other wet places. You just need to look for warmth and something for the life to munch on.

At Enceladus, the existence of a subsurface ocean puts it on a short list of places in our solar system that could host microbial life. Couple that evidence with the very obvious gushers of water coming from fractures that planetary scientists have been seeing for some years now, and you have a place that could be hospitable to life. That’s IF it has a source of warmth for microbial life. The food comes along in the form of organic materials that have been detected in the salty spray erupting from beneath the Enceladus surface.

There’s no evidence (yet) that life exists in the Enceladan ocean. That’s a story that requires more data, more study, and more analysis. The big news here is that we’re adding yet another watery place to our list of solar system places where life could exist, given the right conditions.

Thanks to Cassini Director of flight operations Carolyn Porco, who is also the mission Imaging Lead for clarifying the nature of this amazing work!

What’s Up This Month?

April 1, 2014 at 19:04 pm | Leave a Comment

April Stargazing

Now that the spring and autumn weather (depending on where you live) is nice enough for stargazing without having to wear TOO many clothes, you should get out there and check out what’s up.  What’s to see?  I do a monthly “star cast” on Astrocast.TV called Our Night Sky, which you can watch below. It covers the highlights of the month, including planet gazing, star-hopping, and the lunar eclipse of April 14-15 (the variable date depends on where you live). It will be mostly visible to folks in North and South America, and the South Pacific.  For more information on it, visit MrEclipse.com.

There’s also a good possibility that the Lyrid meteor shower will perk up and deliver some serious hourly rates.  It will peak on April 23, in the early morning hours and its meteors will look like they’re coming from the constellation Lyra, the Harp. Some observers estimate there would be 200-1000 meteors per hour. If you do go out, be sure to dress warmly, since early spring and autumn morning hours are bound to be chilly!

Finally, there’s an annular solar eclipse on April 29th this month. If you live in Australia, are reading this from Antarctica, or points between, this one’s for you! Details can also be found at MrEclipse.com

Happy stargazing this month!


Uwingu Furthering Space and Astronomy Education

March 31, 2014 at 15:00 pm | Leave a Comment

CUSEDS and Astronomers Without Borders

Partner with Uwingu

Remember the Mars Map crater-naming initiative introduced by Uwingu a few weeks ago? You pay a few bucks, name a crater on their Mars map, and the proceeds go to help fund science education. We named a couple of craters (you can read about them here and here) and then found out that the maps with the names will be used by the Mars One people when they start sending their spacecraft to the Red Planet in a few years.

The fruits of this unique fundraiser are starting to ripen up. With approximately 500,000 craters originally available for personalized naming as a part of Uwingu’s Mars mapping project, the company hopes to raise $10 million for distribution in the form of grants to space scientists, educators, companies, and organizations. The opening weeks of fundraising through the Mars Map Crater Naming initiative has been good enough that Uwingu recently announced grants to the University of Colorado’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (CUSEDS) group, as well as the internationally known Astronomers Without Borders organization. Previous grants have gone to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the Galileo Teachers Training Program (GTTP), the Search for Extraterrestrial  Intelligence (SETI), and the Mars One project.

Dr. Alan Stern, the CEO of Uwingu said, in announcing the grant to CUSEDS, “We’re very proud to award our first student grant from our latest project to SEDS students, an important university student organization dedicated to advancing space exploration, research, and education,” he said. “Given the popularity we’re seeing from people who want to help name craters on our new Mars map, we expect to generate many more grants as our Mars Map Crater Naming Project moves toward its goal of completing the naming of the over 500,000 unnamed, scientifically cataloged craters on Mars by the end of 2014, the 50th year of Mars exploration!”

That’s a lot of naming, and all for a good cause. So, What will CUSEDS do with their grant? Brandon Seifert, President of the group points out that it is involved in many education and outreach efforts. “We’re thankful for Uwingu’s generous grant and are excited to put it to use supporting local outreach initiatives, collegiate science experiments, and student/community events.”

Uwingu and Astronomers Without Borders

Astronomers Without Borders is a global astronomy community founded with the idea that boundaries between peoples and countries disappear when we all look up at the sky. Members include people from all walks of life on this globe, all celebrating our common celestial heritage. This international outreach is something that Uwingu wanted to encourage, and so the group awarded a grant to AWB from proceeds of the project’s first two weeks of public engagement, and has honored AWB with the first province to be named on its map. Prices for naming craters in the AWB province vary, depending on the size of the crater, and begin at $5 dollars.

You can find Astronomers Without Borders Province on Uwingu’s map of Mars in a heavily-cratered region on the edge of Chryse Planitia, not far from Vallis Marineris, with many features named for great astronomers and physicists.  Sagan and Galileo are two of the closest, along with Da VinciSchiaparelliCassiniFlammarionHuygens, and Halley. Other scientists are commemorated in nearby craters such as CurieRutherford, and Pasteur. This region on Mars also includes craters named after science fiction and entertainment greats AsimovOrson Welles, and Roddenberry.

To celebrate Global Astronomy Month (organized each year in April by AWB), the organizations are hoping to get all the craters named in the province by the end of the month. It’s a great way to pay forward the investment all of us made in Uwingu with our crater names on the Mars map, and to further Uwingu’s aims of funding even more educational outreach in science.

Interested in participating in naming craters in Astronomers Without Borders Province? Go to Uwingu’s website and in the bottom left of the screen search  for “Astronomers Without Borders”. You’ll see the province in the center of the screen. Use the + and – on the left of the map to zoom in and see more craters. Drag to take a look around. Name your crater and it will also Astronomers Without Borders in its location description forever.

Why do I think this is such a cool idea?  I’m thinking about future generations on Mars, really. Compare them to the first generations of explorers that traveled across unknown lands and seas on Earth? They had to make up names as they went along, and for a time some places had more than one name.  The idea of naming things on Mars — a planet we can SEE in high resolution quite well — ahead of time is very engaging. Getting the public involved — the very people who will be paying for (and sending their relatives on) the mission, makes incredibly good sense.

Finally, presenting our explorers with a completed map literally gives them a gift from the people of Earth to take with them. It will contain our thoughts, our wishes, our hopes and our dreams encoded on it, even before they set foot on the planet. It’s one less thing for them to worry about, particularly in the first mission or two when simply gaining a foothold and surviving will be their number one tasks.

It’s not often we get to wave our brave explorers on to a new world; giving them a map with names that remind them of us left at home will be a powerful gift, too.

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