Failed Russian Mars Spacecraft Phobos-Grunt Crashes Into The Pacific Ocean

The Phobos-Grunt Mars Moon spacecraft has hit water! According to Russian defense ministry reports, the re-entering satellite fragmented and fell into the Pacific Ocean about 1,250 km west of Wellington Island, an island to the west of the Patagonian Ice Field, Chile. The crash took place at 18:45 CET, say several sources.

More details from our previous report:

The craft…

There was initial panic and both Roskosmos and NASA played crucial roles in assuring the public that the fears were unfounded. The fears of a toxic nuclear fuel spill were allayed by statements by NASA on their website.

Initial reports indicate that no spill has taken place. There have also been no reports of any debris falling on habited areas.

… And the dreams surrounding it.

The spacecraft was supposed to land on Mars’ moon, Phobos, in order to study the satellite. It was supposed to collect soil samples and return to Earth. Unfortunately for the $170 billion craft, it failed right during the launch and was stuck in orbit for a long time. It had even gone off the radar. After several unsuccessful attempts at locating and communicating with the craft, it was finally found. Several attempts were made by both Russian and American scientists to bring the craft safely back to Earth or to steer it to its original mission. All efforts failed. Left with no options and a potentially dangerous craft hanging mid-air, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, along with NASA, decided to send the craft to a watery grave.

Russian Mars Moon Probe Phobos-Grunt To Crash Into Atlantic Ocean Tomorrow Amid Widespread Concerns

It’s just at the stage of concern at the moment, but the time when it’ll suddenly change to panic is not far away. The doomed Russian Mars spacecraft Phobos-Grunt, is scheduled to plunge into the water tomorrow. The problem is that no one knows where it’ll hit.

Estimated location: South of Buenos Aires, in the Atlantic Ocean near Falkland Islands.

Estimated time of impact: 8:22 PM GMT


What could have been! Artist's impression of the craft on Phobos, a moon of Mars. (Courtesy:

The craft had been launched on November 9th, but got stuck in orbit soon afterwards. There were several attempts made to get it working, but nothing came of those. Now, the Russian space agency wants to bring it down permanently.

Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, added to this atmosphere of confusion with a wrong prediction. They had initially said that it would fall somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but later retracted that statement and said that it would hit somewhere in the Atlantic. Its official statement, as told to Interfax:

Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere over Argentina and have its fragments splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The latest estimate by Roscosmos showed that the craft will descend somewhere south of Buenos Aires, but that puts the Falkland Islands in some danger of being hit. The time of the crash was supposedly Sunday afternoon, but Roscosmos modified that to late evening, with the new time being 1622 GMT.

Serious Concerns

The concerns arise from two main sources.

Large Size

Firstly, the craft is quite big. It is dwarfed only by the Mir Space Station when it comes to objects that have been pulled down from orbit and plunged into the ocean. The craft is big enough to allow about 20-30 pieces of debris, each weighing more than 200 kg, to survive the fall and hit earth.

Nuclear spill

Secondly, the big fear is that of a toxic nuclear spill. The craft was packed with enough nuclear fuel to take it to Mars. Obviously, in just 2 months only a fraction has been burnt up. NASA has, however, played down the fears saying that the fuels batteries are made of aluminum instead of titanium. Aluminum will rupture and allow the fuel to be burnt during freefall. NASA reported on its official website:

According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth.

(Mr. Johnson refers to Nicholas Johnson, one of NASA’s chief scientists).

Roscosmos has promised to keep all concerned nations and the United Nations posted on developments about the craft.

An embarrassing setback

The Phobos-Grunt mission represents a serious setback for the Russian space agency, which is well past its peak. The mission was quite ambitious, and success would’ve been glorious, especially in the backdrop of the retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet. However, the Russians seem quite ill-equipped to seize this golden moment provided by History.

The craft might end tomorrow, but the embarrassment will live on for quite some time.

Hubble Pinpoints Farthest Protocluster of Galaxies Ever Seen

NASA announced in a press release yesterday, that astronomers using Hubble’s wide field camera discovered a cluster of galaxies at the beginning stages of development. This is the farthest away that a cluster such as this has ever been observed in the early Universe.  Michele Trenti, of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, presented the results to the American Astronomical Society.

5 Galaxies
This composite image shows 5 bright galaxies clustered together nearly 13 billion light years away. (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

Early Cosmic Get-Together

Hubble was used to do a random sky survey when it came across these five small, but bright, galaxies clustered together in the farthest reaches of space. It is estimated that these galaxies were formed just 600 million years after the big bang. Clusters are the largest objects observed in our universe. They are usually comprised of hundreds of thousands of galaxies that are bound to each other by gravity. It’s sort of like a cosmic game of Pac-Man. These galaxies collide and swallow each other up to form larger galaxies. The galaxies observed in the image above are smaller than our own; however, they match ours in brightness.

“These galaxies formed during the earliest stages of galaxy assembly, when galaxies had just started to cluster together,” said  Trenti.  “The result confirms our theoretical understanding of the buildup of galaxy clusters. And, Hubble is just powerful enough to find the first examples of them at this distance.”

Long Distance Challenge

One of the biggest challenges is finding clusters bright enough to be seen 13 billion light-years away. Finding galaxy clusters this far back is challenging because they are so dim and scattered across the sky.  Trenti expressed the need to examine many different areas as she said, “the search is hit and miss. Typically, a region has nothing, but if we hit the right spot, we can find multiple galaxies.”

Because the systems were so dim, the astronomers honed in on the brightest galaxies. The brighter the galaxy, the more mass it has which, in turn, marks a spot where cluster construction is most likely to occur. Astronomers use computer simulations to determine the way that these clusters likely formed. It is likely that there are many other galaxies in the same region that are just too dim to see.  Based on the simulations, astronomers suspect that these bright galaxies form the central core of the cluster and will eventually form an elliptical giant similar to a closer cluster nearby, Virgo Cluster’s M87.

There is still some work to be done. The distances were measured based on color and the team will soon use spectroscopic observations, which measure the expansion of space. This will help astronomers precisely calculate the cluster’s distance and the velocity of the galaxies, which will show whether they are gravitationally bound to each other.


China Trying To Get An Astronaut On The Moon By 2025!

China is fast becoming the biggest threat’ to the American supremacy in space. They plan to put their very own astronaut on the Moon. The intention of a manned spacecraft to the Moon comes after the Chinese had revealed extravagant plans to build its own space station. An officially written white paper provides the future goals for the Chinese space program.

A more common scene? (Courtesy: The Washington Post)

China plans to enter the space exploration grand stage in three steps. The first one involves the said lunar mission. The next one involves replicating what NASA has done with the LRO, viz. putting a satellite around the moon. The last one involves returning lunar samples to study back to Earth.

The proposed Chinese space station

This is probably the worst news for NASA’s space program. It is still to recover from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet and is dependent heavily on the Russians for trips to and from the space station. Also, the weakening economy is not helping things.

The Chinese have a long way to go, though, before they can even begin to think about challenging the US supremacy. No hard deadline has been given, but unofficial word indicates that the Chinese would like to put up the space station by 2020 and the man on the Moon by 2025.

Ken Pounds, a researcher at Leicester University, UK, thinks this might be a blessing in disguise for the faltering US space program:

Assuming the Chinese are serious, which recent history suggests they are, then I believe the impact could be game-changing. “It is very unlikely the U.S. would not respond. That could breathe new life into their space exploration programme, which is currently going nowhere.

Space exploration is a great idea, but history tells us a grim and different story about two powers trying to outdo one another in that regard. Let us just hope that space remains a peaceful frontier for man, for ever!

NASA Telescopes Find Rare Distant Galaxy

Researchers using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble telescopes have discovered a galaxy burning brightly in the distant reaches of our universe. The galaxy, labeled  GN-108036, appears to be giving birth to stars at an alarming rate. Using data from the Spitzer and Hubble telescopes, it is estimated the galaxy is churning out the  equivalent of 100 of our suns per year. That is 30 times what the Milky Way galaxy produces.  Seeing the galaxy is like looking back in time. It is believed to have appeared about 750 million years after the theoretical “Bing Bang”.

GN-108036 As Viewed From Spitzer/Hubble Telescopes
Courtesy of

The international team of astronomers, led by Masami Ouchi of the University of Tokyo, Japan were the first to recognize the galaxy. They used the  Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and later confirmed the distance using the  W.M. Keck Observatory, which is located in Mauna Kea as well. Infrared readings from Spitzer and Hubble telescopes were crucial in determining star formations in the galaxy. The galaxy appears to be about 12.9 billion light-years away.

Astronomers use a measurement called “redshift” to measure the distance of stars. As light travels over great distances the wavelengths are stretched and become “redder” due the expansion of the universe. Objects with a larger “redshift” are more distant and further back in time.  GN-108036 has a redshift of 7.2. To put this in perspective, very few galaxies have been discovered with a redshift of 7. Only two have been confirmed to be higher than GN-108036. It’s like looking at a cosmic time capsule.

What makes this such an amazing discovery is that the galaxy is so small yet it is producing a lot of stars. Galaxies that formed this early in time did not gather the mass that galaxies like our own have. GN-108036 was likely a player in a time called the “dark ages” of our universe. This was a time when shortly after the “Big Bang” a thick fog of hydrogen permeated the universe. As galaxies like GN-108036 formed, they essentially burned through the fog causing the barrier to become transparent.  “This was therefore a likely ancestor of massive and evolved galaxies seen today,” said Bahram Mobasher, a team member from the University of California, Riverside.

For more information about the Spitzer program  you can visit  and

Vatican Preserves Ancient Texts Using NASA Technology

You might say they make strange bedfellows. The Vatican isn’t exactly known for the way it embraces science and technology, just ask  Galileo. Oddly enough though, the Vatican finds itself in a bit of a  quandary. How can one of the oldest known libraries preserve ancient texts for future generations? The answer to that question comes from a NASA developed technology used to preserve images from satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Vatican Library

Archivists at the library have already begun the task of scanning the delicate Tomes that it houses into a file format called FITS. FITS stands for Flexible Image Transport System and was developed by NASA in the late 1970’s. The format is open source and designed to always be backwards compatible. According to Wikipedia, there is a saying “once FITS, always FITS” to describe how all future implementations of this format must be backwards compatible. The format stores more than just an image. It contains a text header that contains instructions for processing the data it contains. An overview of FITS can be found on NASA’s website here.

The problem for the Vatican Library staff is that every time the ancients texts are handled, it presents the possibility to damage them.  Luciano Ammenti, director of the Vatican’s Information Technology Center, chose FITS because of its open-source approach, its longevity over several decades, and the fact that it’s not owned by any one company.  Having a format like FITS that will be compatible with computer systems long into the future will cut down on the necessity of having to handle these Tomes again just to convert them to the next big fad in imaging technology.

I think this all goes to show that science and religion don’t always have to be mortal enemies. Through the advances of science, people of faith will be able to delve deep into their origins for years to come, and scientists, such as anthropologists, will be able to see a timeline of human behavior and development over the course of  many years. Sounds like a win-win to me.

NASA Wants You to “Rock It” to Third Rock Radio

When you think NASA, you think rocket, right? Now, you can “rock it” to the space age sounds of NASA’s newest endeavor, Third Rock Radio. NASA has launched an out-of-this-world project which will be a “custom-produced Internet music radio station that is crafted specifically to speak the language of tech-savvy young adults.” The  New Rock/Indie/Alternative format station goes live today.

Main Page

Third Rock is produced by RFCMedia out of Houston, Texas. It is supported by private advertisers and all of this is supposed to be done at no expense to the government. The station’s intent is the discovery of “New Rock” as well as, reaching a young audience and building interest in the space program.

“NASA constantly is looking for new and innovative ways to engage the public and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said David Weaver, associate administrator for the Office of Communications at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We have led the way in innovative uses of new media and this is another example of how the agency is taking advantage of these important communication tools.”

This is an interesting partnership between public and private entities that will hopefully serve as a model for future endeavors. NASA has suffered a lot of budget cutbacks and scrutiny over the last few years. It is  imperative for its survival that NASA continues to build the interest of young people and remain relevant to a new generation. One really neat thing Third Rock Radio will be doing is allow partner companies to fill high-tech job openings in the engineering, science and IT fields via the website.  NASA hopes to make the station available to Apple iTunes and the Android market soon, but for now it is available online at NASA.GOV or

NASA Finds Most Definitive Evidence Of Water on Mars

This is the strongest evidence of the presence of water yet, on the Red Planet. The Mars Rover, Opportunity, has discovered some sediments of a shiny mineral called gypsum, which most definitely was deposited by liquid water. When that sediment was deposited, is not quite known, but it is definitely millions (or even billions) of years old.

Gypsum is an extremely common mineral on Earth and is frequently processed to make Plaster of Paris.

We had earlier reported about evidence of possible flowing water here.

The Mars Rover Opportunity

The Discovery

This discovery was made at the rim of the crater Endeavour, a 14 mile wide crater on Mars. The mineral veinwas found to be about 50 cm (or about 20 inches) long and about 3 cm wide. Opportunity studied this mineral deposit with both optical range camera as well as its X-Ray spectrometer. They concluded beyond doubt that this was gypsum,   or moist calcium sulphate. The mineral vein is called “Homesteak” and NASA released an official photo of it in its press release.

Homesteak (Courtesy: NASA)

There is really no second option, says Steve Squyres of Cornell University, attached to the Opportunity mission as its principal investigator. Why? He clarifies:

This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock…  There was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum precipitated from the water. End of story. There is no ambiguity about this, and this is what makes it so cool.

He adds:

Here, both the chemistry, mineralogy, and the morphology just scream water. This is more solid than anything else that we’ve seen in the whole mission.

Why the excitement? Squyres obliges yet again:

This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.

What is most interesting is the fact that gypsum forms in nearly neutral water, i.e. the water is neither acidic or alkaline. This is more suitable to the presence of Earth-like lifeforms. Earlier discoveries of minerals like Jarosite pointed to the presence of highly acidic water, which wasn’t all that conducive to life as we know it.

Hardy Robots

Scientists have long been trying to detect the presence of water on Mars. The new Mars Rover Curiosity’ will soon reach Mars (in August, 2012) and begin a more in-depth study. Spirit and Opportunity have been invaluable in this regard. Both are well past their proposed period of operation, and while Spirit has been declared dead earlier this year, Opportunity is still in great shape.

Please note that a direct evidence of water may be hard to find, but this is surely exciting. Even the possibility that Mars once harbored life is a tantalizing prospect!

Flowing water? Earlier discovery by NASA:

The 10 Coolest Things About The Mars Rover “Curiosity”

The new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is the most high-tech way to explore Mars. The most technologically sophisticated spacecraft ever designed to land on an alien world is due to launch on Saturday, 26th November. We take a closer look at the Wall-E-like spacecraft and pick out the 10 coolest things about the rover.

The Curiosity Rover still at the JPL. Photo taken last year. Photo Courtesy: JPL/NASA

1. Magnifying Glass? All the better to see you with, dear

The Curiosity Rover will carry a high-power magnifying lens, only more sophisticated and maneuverable than the ordinary ones. It’s called Mars Hand Lens Imager or MAHLI. It will be loaded at the end of the Robotic Arm of the rover (see below) and be able to see objects as tiny as 12.5 micrometers (a hair’s width) in size! It’s like having a portable microscope to look at rock samples with the facility of being able to point it anywhere.

2. Plutonium Juice!

The rover will run on Plutonium power. The plutonium used will be the non-weapons grade and will be used for heating a rod of Lead Telluride. Lead Telluride is a thermoelectric material and generates electricity if there is a temperature gradient. The plutonium battery’ doesn’t depend on the external condition, like temperature, so even if the outside is a frigid -840C, it doesn’t matter. You need not worry about the battery freezing or draining out too fast. The juice will last for 23 months, which is longer than the period of the mission. The 10 pound battery is located at the rear end of the rover and will produce 110W of power. We’ve managed to put nuclear power on the Red Planet; surely, that’s an achievement.

Graphic showing the different parts of the Mars Rover. (Courtesy: JPL/NASA and

3. Robotic Arm

This is one of the coolest things about the Mars Rover. The rover is fitted with a 7-foot robotic arm, which is quite maneuverable. On the end of the robotic arm sits MAHLI. It also includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

4. Analysis on Mars The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM)

For scientists, just looking at a material means nothing they need to know what it is made up of. The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM) is just the tool to do the job. It’s also the Hulk of all the modules there, weighing at a hefty 38 kg, about half the weight of all the instruments onboard Curiosity. SAM will look at the rocks in three different ways, thanks to the three instruments that it carries a mass spectrometer, a laser spectrometer and a gas chromatograph. It will thus give all relevant data, like density and chemical composition. SAM will also drill for rock samples from deep inside the Martian surface and this has got everyone excited!

5. Capturing some scenes with the MastCam

Curiosity is expected to send us some pictures of the Martian surface to drool over and the MastCam is the instrument for the job. The name suggests that a camera is mounted on an adjustable mast and, no surprise, that is exactly what it is. The MastCam is also responsible for being the eyes of the rover, allowing Earth-based controllers drive the machine on the alien surface.

Spectacular Satellite Photo Of The Giant Hurricane Kenneth

A giant storm is the new talk of the town, as the massive Hurricane Kenneth continues to bear down upon the eastern Pacific seas, yet to make landfall. The giant storm grew from a large Tropical Storm to a giant Hurricane in a span of two days. Kenneth’s windspeeds were recorded at 230 kmph, which means that it is a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

Kenneth is a rare late-November tropical hurricane. On 21st November, the windspeeds were clocked at 140 kmph, but quickly gathered strength from the warm seas surrounding the eye of the storm. Her’s a photo the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite snapped on 21st November:

This photo of Kenneth was taken on 21st November by Terra. Courtesy: NASA

The storm continues to move eastwards. It has weakened somewhat, but is still a Category 4 storm. There has been no warning issued, as it is not expected to make landfall. Its current location is off the west coast from Baja California, New Mexico.

Here’s a more recent image from the NOAA’s premier GOES-13 satellite:

Hurricane Kenneth as seen by NOAA's GOES satellite on 22nd November. The eye is clearly visible. (Courtesy: NOAA/NASA)

The storm is expected to weaken further as it moves northwest. It’s late season giant, but is not expected to cause any damage on land.