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NASA Proposes Holodecks And Motion-Controlled Rovers

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Holodeck

You wouldn’t expect NASA to be a crowd-pleaser at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), but sometimes when the government cuts back on a chunk of your funding, you have to appeal to the demographic that still loves you.

For a presentation titled “We Are the Space Invaders,” NASA public speaker Dr. Jeff Norris — who also happens to manage to Planning and Execution Systems Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) out of Pasadena, California — opened the panel with a video of the first man to orbit Earth, Yuri Gagarin, juxtaposed next to a video of one of the earliest video games, Spacewar!, which was created in 1961, the same year as Gagarin’s famed flight. So what’s the connection? A one-ton, Kinect motion-controlled rover that another presenter, NASA’s Victor Luo, walked over a simulated asteroid surface located at JPL, as well as showing off the motion-controls to maneuver robotic hands and to land a Mars Rover in the Kinect-controlled game Mars Rover Landing. The presentation also showed other ways in which NASA has used the gaming industry in its research and development.

Of course, the loftier and slightly out-of-reach goal is what drew the saliva from the corners of everyone’s mouths: showing a picture of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Enterprise D before bringing up the holy grail of the holodeck. Norris went on to explain his wishes and goals, which are definitely his alone and have never been discussed at end by sci-fi fans for years.

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Infographic Shows How Far We’ve Traveled On Celestial Bodies

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Luckily, my commute to work is only 12 minutes, with a six-mile travel distance. But until my wife and I bought our current house, I was having to drive 26 miles from home to job, taking around 35-40 minutes with no traffic. A lot of people travel much farther and deal with heavier traffic than I do. And I think most of us agree it’s one of the most frustrating non-life-threatening problems out there. Well, let’s all thank our billions of lucky stars that we aren’t in the passenger seat on any of the Rovers that have ever traveled in space. You can only ironically listen to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for so long before wanting to smash your face into the windshield. And yes, I’m aware the Rovers have neither seats nor windshields, nor eight-track players.

Karl Tate of SPACE.com has created an infographic laying out just how far all the Rovers have roved, both on Mars and on the Moon. If I wasn’t familiar with some of this data already, I would have thought hundreds and hundreds of miles would have been traveled, based on absolutely nothing but a childhood of RC cars. Match your predictions with the graphic below.

View the list of extraterrestrial vehicles and distances traveled on other worlds.

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Mars Rover Finds Minerals Deposited By Water

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The new Mars rover Curiosity is on its way to the red planet, but that doesn’t mean its brother still on the planet is slacking off.  The Mars rover Opportunity continues to truck around the Martian landscape just as it has since 2004, collecting data and transmitting it back to Earth.  At the American Geophysical Union’s conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, NASA announced that Opportunity found a mineral vein on Mars that was likely deposited by water.

NASA describes “bright veins of a mineral” occurring on an apron around a portion of the rim of Endeavour Crater.  Researchers have nicknamed the vein most closely observed by Opportunity “Homestake” and it and its kin are unlike any other veins Opportunity has observed on the planet’s surface since it’s been there.  The spectrometer on Opportunity’s arm identified a ratio of calcium and sulfur that points to relatively pure calcium sulfate and the multi-filter data from the rover’s Panoramic Camera suggests the form of this calcium sulfate is gypsum.  Calcium sulfate is a big deal, because its high concentration could mean less acidic and more hospitable water conditions than what is suggested by other sulfate deposits previously observed on Mars.  The gypsum was likely formed by groundwater coming up through the planet’s crust, which carried up calcium sulfate formed when calcium from volcanic rocks combined with sulfur from other volcanic rocks or volcanic gas.

In addition to suggesting that there was not only water on Mars but water amenable to more types of life than previously thought, researchers think it could explain other gypsum observed on Mars.  Orbital observations found a dune field of gypsum sand on northern Mars that looks like those in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, but the origins of those dunes were previously unknown.  Basically, as Steve Squyres – principal investigator for Opportunity – puts it, the calcium sulfate veins discovered by the rover tell “a slam dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock. […] [gypsum isn’t] uncommon Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”

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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.”