Two Mars Orbiters Chatted For Atmospheric Science

Mission extensions for interplanetary robot explorers are usually continuations of their primary mission. But sometimes the hardware already on board are put to novel uses. European Space Agency has started using radio equipment on board two Mars orbiters to probe the Martian atmosphere.

The scientific basis is straightforward: radio signals are affected by whatever they had traveled through. When transmitting data, such effects are noises to be minimized. But we can also leverage it for atmospheric science here on Earth. ESA applied the same concept at Mars: by transmitting a known signal from one Mars orbiter to another, changes in the received signal tells scientists something about the Martian atmosphere between them.

So the theory sounds good, but the engineering implementation took some work. Most radio equipment on board ESA’s orbiters were not designed to talk to each other. In fact they were deliberately different to minimize interference. However, both Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter were designed to act as data relays for surface probes, and not just the one they each carried to Mars. Thus their related radio gear were flexible enough to be adapted to this experiment.

These two machines launched over a decade apart. Yet they could now communicate with each other in Mars orbit using radios originally designed for talking to the surface. In the near future such chatter will probably be limited, as Trace Gas Orbiter is still in the middle of its primary mission. But this success lets ESA think about how much further to push the idea in the future. In the meantime Mars Express will continue its observation of Mars, doing things like giving us context on Perseverance rover landing.

Recreating Ben Franklins kite experiment with a drone

Drone Replaces Kite In Recreation Of Famous Atmospheric Electricity Experiment

Finally, someone decided to answer the question that nobody was asking: what if [Benjamin Franklin] had had a drone rather than a kite?

Granted, [Jay Bowles] didn’t fly his electricity-harvesting drone during a thunderstorm, but he did manage to reach some of the same conclusions that [Dr. Franklin] did about the nature of atmospheric electricity. His experimental setup was pretty simple: a DJI Mini2 drone with enough payload capacity to haul a length of fine-gauge magnet wire up to around 100 meters above ground level. A collecting electrode made of metal mesh was connected to the wire and suspended below the drone. Some big nails were driven into the soil to complete the circuit between the drone and the ground.

[Jay] went old-school for a detector, using a homemade electroscope to show what kind of static charge was accumulating on the electrode. Version 1 didn’t have enough oomph to do much but deliver a small static shock, but a larger electrode was able to deflect the leaves of an electroscope, power a beer can version of a Franklin bell, and also run a homemade corona motor. [ElectroBOOM] makes a guest appearance in the video below to explain the physics of the setup; curiously, he actually managed to get away without any injuries this time. Continue reading “Drone Replaces Kite In Recreation Of Famous Atmospheric Electricity Experiment”

Exploring The Clouds Of Venus; It’s Not Fantasy, But It Will Take Specialized Spacecraft

By now, you’ve likely heard that scientists have found a potential sign of biological life on Venus. Through a series of radio telescope observations in 2017 and 2019, they were able to confirm the presence of phosphine gas high in the planet’s thick atmosphere. Here on Earth, the only way this gas is produced outside of the laboratory is through microbial processes. The fact that it’s detectable at such high concentrations in the Venusian atmosphere means we either don’t know as much as we thought we did about phosphine, or more tantalizingly, that the spark of life has been found on our nearest planetary neighbor.

Venus, as seen by Mariner 10 in 1974

To many, the idea that life could survive on Venus is difficult to imagine. While it’s technically the planet most like Earth in terms of size, mass, composition, and proximity to the Sun, the surface of this rocky world is absolutely hellish; with a runaway greenhouse effect producing temperatures in excess of 460 C (840 F). Life, at least as we currently know it, would find no safe haven on the surface of Venus. Even the Soviet Venera landers, sent to the planet in the 1980s, were unable to survive the intense heat and pressure for more than a few hours.

While the surface may largely be outside of our reach, the planet’s exceptionally dense atmosphere is another story entirely. At an altitude of approximately 50 kilometers, conditions inside the Venusian atmosphere are far more forgiving. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude is almost identical to surface-level pressures on Earth, and the average temperature is cool enough that liquid water can form. While the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not breathable by Earthly standards, and the clouds of sulfuric acid aren’t particularly welcoming, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that simple organisms could thrive in this CO2-rich environment. If there really is life on Venus, many speculate it will be found hiding in this relatively benign microcosm high in the clouds.

In short, all the pieces seem to be falling into place. Observations confirm a telltale marker of biological life is in the upper levels of the Venusian atmosphere, and we know from previous studies that this region is arguably one of the most Earth-like environments in the solar system. It’s still far too early to claim we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life, but it’s not hard to see why people are getting so excited.

But this isn’t the first time scientists have turned their gaze towards Earth’s twin. In fact, had things gone differently, NASA might have sent a crew out to Venus after the Apollo program had completed its survey of the Moon. If that mission had launched back in the 1970s, it could have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the planet; and perhaps even our understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Continue reading “Exploring The Clouds Of Venus; It’s Not Fantasy, But It Will Take Specialized Spacecraft”

DIY Barometer: It’s For Your Health!

[Taciuc Marius] and his colleague noticed that days with low atmospheric pressure plus caffeine in their system meant a spike in blood pressure. Considering how this might impact his cardiovascular health, he decided to make a relative pressure barometer out of a jar to help him decide whether he should really have another cup of coffee.

Aside from a 3D printer, you’ll need to assemble a small jar with a lid, some screws, lock washers, nuts, and a flexible membrane — a piece of a rubber glove or balloon will do nicely. [Marius] details the build process on his project page, advising others to print the parts at 0.2 resolution — potentially even upping the extrusion multiplier to 1.1 — to prevent gaps in the print that would compromise the airtight seal needed for the barometer to work properly.

Additionally, thick glue or epoxy is recommended for the rest of the assembly process — it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does need to be sealed! The final product can be easily tested by simply holding the jar.

While this barometer helps one make healthy choices, not all are created equal. This one tells you flat out how you should consider getting to work, while others have been tricked into behaving like touch sensors.

Crowdsourcing The Study Of An Eclipse’s Effect On Radio Propagation

If you are an American, you’ll probably now find yourself in one of three camps. People who are going to see the upcoming solar eclipse that will traverse your continent, people who aren’t going to see the eclipse, and people who wish everyone would just stop going on incessantly about the damn eclipse.

Whichever of those groups you are in though, there is an interesting project that you can be a part of, an effort from the University of Massachusetts Boston to crowdsource scientific observation of the effect a solar eclipse will have on the upper atmosphere, and in particular upon the propagation of low-frequency radio waves. To do this they have been encouraging participants to build their own simple receiver and antenna, and make a series of recordings of the WWVB time signal station before, during, and after the eclipse traverse.

This is an interesting and unusual take upon participation in the eclipse, and has the potential to advance the understanding of atmospheric science. It would be fascinating to also look at the effect of the eclipse on WSPR contacts, though obviously those occur in amateur bands at higher frequencies.

If you are an EclipseMob participant, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Does your receiver perform well?

Thanks [Douglas] for the tip.

Living On Mars: The Stuff You Never Thought About

In The Martian we saw what kind of hacking was needed to stay alive for a relatively short while on Mars, but what if you were trying to live there permanently? Mars’ hostile environment would affect your house, your transportation, even how you communicate. So here’s a fun thought experiment about how you’d live on Mars as part of a larger community.

Not Your Normal House

Mars One living units under regolith
Mars One living units under regolith, Source video

Radiation on Mars comes from solar particle events (SPE) and galactic cosmic radiation (GCR). Mars One, the organization planning one-way trips to Mars talks about covering their habitats in several meters of regolith, a fancy word for the miscellaneous rocky material covering the bedrock. Five meters provides the same protection as the Earth’s atmosphere — around 1,000 g/cm2 of shielding. A paper from the NASA Langley Research Center says that the largest reduction comes from the top 15 to 20 cm of regolith. And so our Mars house will have an underlying structure but the radiation protection will come from somewhere between 20 cm to a few meters of regolith. Effectively, people will be living underground.

On Earth, producing water and air for your house is not something you think of doing, let alone disposing of exhaled CO2. But Mars houses will need systems for this and more.

Continue reading “Living On Mars: The Stuff You Never Thought About”

Growing Plants On Mars… On Earth

One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.

The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.

While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.

Continue reading “Growing Plants On Mars… On Earth”