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Mars Rover May Contaminate The Red Planet With Earth Life

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Mankind has been speculating about life on Mars for over a century, from the days where we envisioned canals stretching across the red sands, to our modern search for microscopic life hiding in pockets of ice. While we’ve never found any little green men, life might finally have appeared on the surface of the red planet. Only, er, we might have accidentally shipped it there.

Space.com reports that NASA’s Curiosity rover, which launched on November 26th and is currently headed for Mars, may have been contaminated. The problem stems from a set of drill bits which were not sent through the final step of the program’s ultra-cleanliness procedures. The space program has extensive steps, called the “planetary protection protocols,” which are designed to prevent any Earth contaminants from reaching other planets via NASA spacecraft. Instead of keeping all the drill bits in a sterile box, which would have been opened by the rover once planetside, the NASA crew decided it was safe to go ahead and attach one of the bits to the rover’s drill head. The appropriate paperwork to approve the step was filed, but it didn’t reach NASA’s planetary protection officer (that’s one hell of a business card) until it was too late to fix it.

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NASA Launches A New Mission To Mars

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No one seems entirely certain what the future holds for NASA anymore. Opinions vary from the “Obama is going to shut them down” crowd to the “they’ll have humans back in space next year” bunch. For now they’re all about robots, and over the Thanksgiving weekend they sent a new one to Mars.

On November 26th America’s space agency launched the Mars Science Laboratory. Inside the Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral 10:02 a.m. EST is a robotic rover named Curiosity. It’s the size of a car. It’s the biggest, most advanced package sent to Mars yet. It even has a laser.

Here’s NASA’s official description of the rover’s mission…

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NASA Launching New Mars Rover On Saturday

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Unlike the Orion project (which will launch three years ahead of schedule), the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission has been delayed two years.  Now, after 8 years of planning, its centerpiece rover will finally launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday.  The Mars rover Curiosity is being sent on a projected two year mission to assess whether Mars ever did or could support microbial life.  It will touch down in August at the Gale Crater after being lowered to the surface via a rocket-powered sky crane. Yes, you read that right.  The new Mars rover will be lowered to the Martian landscape via a rocket-powered sky crane to lay the groundwork for future searches for (microbial) life on Mars.

Curiosity is a behemoth compared to Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers that came before it.  Not only does it weigh five times more than its older brothers, it carries twice as many scientific instruments.  In addition to its fancy scientific gadgets, Curiosity has a good old-fashioned drill with which to peek at the insides of Martian rocks.  Instead of traditional solar cells, the new rover has radioisotope thermoelectric generators.  These spiffy generators use radioactive decay of plutonium to generate electricity, which makes Curiosity far better suited to Martian winters than previous rovers.  The combined force of all this makes for what MSL scientist Ashwin Vasavada calls “a Mars scientist’s dream machine”: “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another plaanet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out.”

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NASA Finds Liquid Water On Europa

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Europa, Jupiter’s largest moon, has often been the second most desired location to explore in the universe after Mars. Now NASA has provided more analysis of the icy moon that includes the possibility of liquid lakes amidst the frozen oceans. The salt water oceans of Europa contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined, but the possibility of miles thick ice precluded a reasonable chance that life could be sustained there.

These new findings show that there’s a lake below the surface equal in volume to the Great Lakes in North America. If this is true then there’s a chance that a flow of nutrients could exist between the surface and the oceans below the icy shell. Of course, the data will have to be studied thoroughly before anything solid can be shown.

Water is important in astrobiology because without water there can be no life. Whatever the finding of liquid water actually means for any signs of life, no matter how simplistic, we won’t know for a long while.

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NASA Hiring New Astronauts, Do You Have The Right Stuff?

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Yesterday we told you here that, somehow in spite of ongoing budget cuts, NASA is working on resuming its manned space program by 2014. That means they’ll need Astronauts, and so now they’re hiring.

Today NASA posted the following “help wanted” notice on their website

Want a career that’ll take you full circle? Adventure. Commitment. Leadership. Achievement. These are the core values of NASA’s distinguished astronaut corps. They’re also the rewards of fulfilling work. The 21st century astronaut will serve on long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station – and future deep space missions. NASA is going places where there are no boundaries. Your unique talents and experiences can take you there too.

Because NASA understands it is what makes us different that makes us successful as a nation, it seeks fresh perspectives to take us out of this world.

All U.S. civilians and active duty military personnel with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, science or math and three years of professional experience meet the requirements to apply to become the next highest class of astronaut candidates on Earth.

Apply to explore with us. Fly NASA, where the sky is not the limit.

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NASA Returns To Space In 2014

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For an organization that was supposedly going the way of the dodo bird, NASA sure is in the news a lot lately.  They’re announcing new solar sails experiments, working on tractor beams, and (maybe?) getting what funding they still have slashed some more.  Well, here’s another NASA news item:  an unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014, three years earlier than originally planned.  Yes, it’s an unmanned flight, but one with great implications for future human deep space exploration.  The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) features a new Space Launch System (SLS), which the NASA press release says “will take astronauts farther into space than ever before, create U.S. jobs, and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human spaceflight efforts.”

Orion will be launched into space, orbit twice “to a high-apogee” (basically, to a good distance from the Earth), then bust back through the atmosphere at high speeds.  Orion will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla, and make a water landing after re-entry.  The hope with EFT-1 is that it will provide essential data in figuring out how to design a spacecraft that can survive speeds upwards of 20,000 mph and return astronauts safely from greater distances outside of Earth’s orbit.  NASA says it’s developing Orion to bring humans to the moon, asteroids, Mars, “and other destinations” via SLS, but being able to travel at high speeds and still re-enter safely is also a basic requirement for any kind of craft for manned deep space exploration.

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for space exploration and NASA nerds of late, but moving a test flight up instead of postponing it might show there is hope yet.