Window In The Skies: Why Everyone Is Going To Mars This Month

Mars may not be the kind of place to raise your kids, but chances are that one day [Elton John]’s famous lyrics will be wrong about there being no one there to raise them. For now, however, we have probes, orbiters, and landers. Mars missions are going strong this year, with three nations about to launch their rockets towards the Red Planet: the United States sending their Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 mission, and the United Arab Emirates sending their Hope orbiter.

As all of this is planned to happen still within the month of July, it almost gives the impression of a new era of wild space races where everyone tries to be first. Sure, some egos will certainly be boosted here, but the reason for this increased run within such a short time frame has a simple explanation: Mars will be right around the corner later this year — relatively speaking — providing an ideal opportunity to travel there right now.

In fact, this year is as good as it gets for quite a while. The next time the circumstances will be (almost) as favorable as this year is going to be in 2033, so it’s understandable that space agencies are eager to not miss out on this chance. Not that Mars missions couldn’t be accomplished in the next 13 years — after all, several endeavors are already in the wings for 2022, including the delayed Rosalind Franklin rover launch. It’s just that the circumstances won’t be as ideal.

But what exactly does that mean, and why is that? What makes July 2020 so special? And what’s everyone doing up there anyway? Well, let’s find out!

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NASA Knows Where The Meteors Are

NASA has been tracking bright meteoroids (“fireballs”) using a distributed network of video cameras pointed upwards. And while we usually think of NASA in the context of multi-bazillion dollar rocket ships, but this operation is clearly shoe-string. This is a hack worthy of Hackaday.

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The basic idea is that with many wide-angle video cameras capturing the night sky, and a little bit of image processing, identifying meteoroids in the night sky should be fairly easy. When enough cameras capture the same meteoroid, one can use triangulation to back out the path of the meteoroid in 3D, estimate its mass, and more. It’s surprising how many there are to see on any given night.

You can watch the videos of a meteoroid event from any camera, watch the cameras live, and even download the meteoroid’s orbital parameters. We’re bookmarking this website for the next big meteor shower.

cameraThe work is apparently based on [Rob Weryk]’s ASGARD system, for which the code is unfortunately unavailable. But it shouldn’t be all that hard to hack something together with a single-board computer, camera, and OpenCV. NASA’s project is limited to the US so far, but we wonder how much more data could be collected with a network of cameras all over the globe. So which ones of you are going to take up our challenge? Build your own version and let us know about it!

Between this project and the Radio Meteor Zoo, we’re surprised at how much public information there is out there about the rocky balls of fire that rain down on us every night, and will eventually be responsible for our extinction. At least we can be sure we’ll get it on film.