My apologies for the long absence. Some wise people -- Chris Anderson, for example, and now Rob Carlson -- have come up with the excellent and synergistic idea of a blog as a way of working on their next book. Blogging about the subject of your previous book, as I was doing here, is a rather less productive approach. So I stopped for a while in order to immerse myself in the current book project, the recently written parts of which have been both historical and biochemical, and thus have kept my mind quite a long way from matters planetary. It's possible that I feel the urge to start again now -- in a slow and no-long-term-commitment sort of way -- in part because I've now reached a more planetary-compatible part of the project.
Also, frankly, after Ischia the news didn't really compel me back. I felt that I, and you, had said more or less all there was to say about the methane and so on. And most of the rest of what was going on was, by comparison, slightly small beer (though the goethite in Gusev is certainly very interesting).
The other reason for coming back now is that I thought I'd want to blog the Huygens descent on Friday, and it would thus be tidy-minded of me to clear up some martian matters first.
So, first off: congratulations to Spirit for a year on site and to Mars Express for a year on orbit, and let's hope Opportunity makes it too. I sort of expected the MERs to last longer than the statutory 90 sols if they landed and checked out OK -- it's always best to define complete success as something that is in fact quite achievable -- but I really didn't imagine they'd make it through the winter, especially not with the temperature sensitive mini-TES systems apparently intact and still functional (not that you'd know it from their website, but then who am I to criticise a lack of updates...). A generous budget and a great team have really paid off well.
The rolling-over-the-surface adventure has been great, and so has the science. As it turns out, I suspect Opportunity would have been able to make it to an outcrop from a lot of landing sites -- but to end up opposite one was something else. Worth noting that, as I understand it (and I really haven't been reading up as thoroughly as I should) the Meridiani deposits aren't utterly sealike; some layers in the crater looked a lot more like sub-aerial dunes that later got soaked in brine.
In other news, the payload for the Mars Science Laboratory has been announced, and is extremely impressive, in fact aggressive, in its development ambitions. CheMin, the compact x-ray diffraction/fluorescence system is a whole new idea and a very brave one. Using a laser ablation system to zap rocks at a distance and read off their composition is also a pretty gutsy approach. In terms of the instruments, this is not a MER follow-on (MER teams have very few instruments on MSL) -- it's something rather grander. (It's also good news for Mike Malin and his merry men, chosen to provide a descent camera and both of the cameras on board -- way to go, PI Ken!)
The ambitious instrumentation is probably just as well. Great as they have been, the MERs haven't managed everything that one might have wanted from them. In particular, it seems to me that the idea of using the mini-TES as a way of scouting out the next target from many metres away has not been as successful as it might have been, perhaps due to bandwidth constraints. In general, the MERs' mineralogy has been rather indistinct; what exactly is all that salty mineral goodness?
So MSL is pleasingly ambitious: indeed, so much so that one has to wonder if it's really a mission that can be done on the '09 timescale. I was talking with someone before Christmas (this year spent happily not in Camden) who suggested that there was a real possibility of MSL slipping to 2011, in which case there might conceivably be a MER reflight in 2009. (That last bit sounds a little optimistic to me, not least because there were no other safe landing sites as good as the two that were taken, and I'd imagine a reflight would not be capable of tackling sites that weren't on the table for the original mission.) It may be that, if people at NASA are as enthused about the MSL payload as, at first blush, I am, they might want to send two of the things - in which case I'd imagine 2011 was pretty much a certainty.
If this delay is upsetting, it's worth remembering that at one point MER, in the form of Athena, was an 01 payload. I doubt there are many on the MER team who think they'd have got good, or possibly any, results if they'd flown a single rover two years earlier. It's likely that the 09 mission is in better shape now than the 01 mission was in 97, but it's still something to bear in mind.
Meanwhile, back on earth, our friends the prokaryotes have been discovered up to some interesting new tricks of martian relevance. Deep in the Mediterranean, they are living in incredibly salty brines that you wouldn't have though they could stand. And in the Pacific, it appears, some of them are actually producing ethane in significant amounts, as well as methane (there's mention of this here: check out the summary and, for a little more detail, the report on site 1227, both pdfs). If that's true, it must surely be worth looking for an ethane line or two on Mars (since no one, as far as I know, thinks that ethane comes from volcanoes or serpentinisation).
Enough for now. As I said (though to whom I've no idea - who reads blogs so long dormant? To people reading on an xml feed, I suppose) I don't know how regularly I'll be posting from here on in, but I'll try and be at least a bit more frequent.
And happy new year. To the rovers too.