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Our world from the International Space Station Ken Perrott Mar 19

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Baikal

Photo by Chris Hadfield / NASA: Lake Baikal, Siberia. Immensely old and deep, it holds one-fifth of all the Earth’s fresh water. 26 Feb 2013, 7:31 PM (Click photo to enlarge)

Anyone following Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) on Twitter will have seen some of his gorgeous photos taken from the International Space Station (ISS). Somebody should collect them together so we can browse them.

Well, someone has done that with photos taken by Hadfield and other members of the ISS crew. Have a look at the web site Our World From The ISS or click the screen image below.

ISS-photos

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The Russian meteor – what we know Ken Perrott Feb 17

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Here is a nice infogram summarising information on the meteor which exploded over the Urals, in Russia, last Friday. Click twice to enlarge.

Meteor5

Credit - UK Telegraph: Meteor5.png .

But talk about a cosmic coincidence. here we were looking in one direction to watch the flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 (see Should we be prepared?) when another one, previously undetected, scores a direct hit coming form another direction. Imagine if the Russian one had flown by while the larger asteroid 2012 DA14 hit directly. The damage would have been far greater.

Sort of underlines the need for humanity to develop better systems for early detection of near earth objects, and the ability to divert them where necessary.

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Should we be prepared? Ken Perrott Feb 15

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Tomorrow morning the asteroid Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass by the earth. At its nearest approach Friday (Feb. 15, Morning of February 16 NZ time), the 150-foot-wide (45 meters) asteroid 2012 DA14 will be just 17,200 miles (27,000 kilometers) from Earth (within the orbits of geosynchronous communications, weather and navigation satellites) — the closest encounter with such a large space rock that researchers have ever known about in advance.

This brief video provides some information.

Thanks to: Science Today – Asteroid 2012 DA14

NASA TV will also run a live commentary of the flyby  February 15 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST) US time – 8 am NZ time.

Should we worry?

Nothing to worry about they tell us!

But here’s what worries me.

This asteroid was only discovered a short time ago (within the last year). The fact that it will pass so close indicates a reasonable chance we could actually be hit by an asteroid that size any time. One capable of destroying a major city.

There are larger asteroids out there. Some large enough to cause world-wide damage – even extinction of life.

Shouldn’t we be doing something about this possibility?

Yes, I know we are busy finding and mapping orbits of near earth objects. But what would we do if we actually found one that was on target for a direct hit? With notice of only a few month?

We should be working hard to develop the spacecraft and techniques capable of diverting such objects. And have them ready, able to do the diversion with very little notice.

I suspect we already have the technology and ideas to produce such craft.

Several years ago I was shocked at the reaction of some US space enthusiasts when the Russians announced they were putting effort into systems for diverting asteroids. They seemed to think the idea was fanciful.

Fortunately, since then the US has announced plans of their own to at least develop the ability to make manned visits to asteroids.

Surely space-faring nations should be working together to urgently develop the ability to divert near earth object? The future of our species may depend on it.

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Amazing photos of Shuttle Endeavour flight deck Ken Perrott Jan 14

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I have enjoyed watching live the launches and landing of the manned space vehicles going to, and coming from, the International Space Station.

The Shuttle launches were always dramatic. The gliding landings of the Shuttle and the parachute assisted landing of the Soyuz vehicles had their own suspense. But something I really missed was on-board video of the astronauts during Shuttle launches and landings.

In contrast we always got views of the three cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz craft during launching. But very rarely anything showing the far more complex flight deck of the Shuttles. I suspect this had something to do with secret technology.

So it was great to find these great photos of the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Endeavour (see Amazing! Must See Shuttle Flight Deck Photos). This was fully powered for one of the last times before it was retired.

Endeavour_flight_deck-web

Click to enlarge

Another view -  just imagine having to know what all those switches and knobs did!

Endeavour_flight_deck_12

See also: Best Photos of 2012: Spaceflight

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Seven Minutes of Terror Ken Perrott Jun 27

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Although recent US probes to Mars have been very successful there have certainly been a lot of failures in both US and Russian attempts in the past.

However, we all have our fingers crossed for the Curiosity probe which will attempt the landing of a rover on Mars in early August. But the landing itself will be very stressful. There are just so many problems to overcome – not the least  the 15 minutes radio messages take to get from Mars to Earth – one way.

I don’t know what odds to bookies place on a successful landing – but after watching this video I don’t think it can be very high.

Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror – YouTube.

Still, a lot of people are hoping for success and no doubt we will be able to share the tension, excitement and (hopefully) joys of the NASA engineers involved in real-time on the internet and via Twitter.

Mindboggling Ken Perrott Feb 27

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Click image for larger version

Douglas Adams says in The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

The immensity of the galaxy almost seems beyond human comprehension. But this image does start to bring it home to me. It shows the extent of penetration of human radio signals into our galaxy since we have had radio. It’s that small blue dot, 200 light years in diameter, you can see in the enlarged section.

And our galaxy is only an extremely small and irrelevant part of the universe.

Christmas gift ideas: Working on Mars Ken Perrott Dec 12

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Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

This is ideal for anyone interested in exploration of the solar system. And topical with the latest US Mars probe, Curiosity, safely on its way to Mars.


Book Review: Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Price: US$18.16; NZ$42.97; eBook NZ$20.95
Publisher: Pegasus (April 15, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1605981761
ISBN-13: 978-1605981765

This book describes Andrew Kessler’s experience when he left home and went to live on Mars. Well – almost. As he describes it:

’I spent three months in mission control with 130 top NASA scientists and engineers as they explored, photographed and dug up Mars. I was the first outsider ever granted unfettered access to the physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists and rocket scientists in the control room of a planetary mission to Mars. . . . For 90 days, I sat with the crew of the Phoenix mission working to explore the Martian arctic. Martian Summer is my non-fiction account of the strange life inside mission control and the people behind digging for dirt on Mars.’

This was possible because of an initiative by Peter Smith, Head of the Phoenix Mission. He organised to bring Kessler on to the team to provide some of the science outreach. Kessler had co-produced Mars: The Quest for Life, a Discovery Channel documentary about the mission. He was now ’embedded’ into the team at the University Of Arizona in Tucson for the 90 days of the early Phoenix programme ’Martian Summer’ is the result.

Phoenix Mars Lander

So the book is about the scientists and engineers in the team handling the Phoenix Mars Lander which landed on Mars May 25, 2008. It’s about the people actively involved in today’s exploration of Mars, and their work. Given the problems and cost of manned space exploration by interplanetary and planetary robots is currently the only game in town. The vehicles, and the teams running them, comprises modern interplanetary discovery.

’Martian Summer’ is a non-fictional, almost historical, account. But it has its fair share of excitement, frustration, stress, personality conflict, bureaucratic problems, financial problems debate and scientific discovery. Anyone who has worked in a scientific research programme will recognise the general problems.

I have worked in a scientific institute so know they can provide plenty of human interest stories. With strong characters, human frailties, comedy, sex, scandal and murder – as well as science. Personally I think they could be the basis of good TV soap operas.

But interplanetary research using robots has its own unique set of difficulties. And the Phoenix Lander compounded these with its own set of problems.

Mars sol vs Earth day

Depending on where it is in its orbit Mars is between 75 and 375 km from the earth. Obviously that meant a 10-month delay between the launch and Mars landing. But it also meant that communication with the Lander involved at least a 15-minute delay (or a ’round trip’ of 30 min) — just because of the speed of light. On top of that communication relied on relay by the Mars Orbiter, a satellite in orbit around Mars. So communicating with, and controlling Phoenix, was a complicated and long-winded affair.

The small memory (100 MB of flash memory) aboard Phoenix for storing new commands and collected data was another limit. Memory was expensive when the Lander was designed. Phoenix was basically the spacecraft built for the Mars Surveyor Program 2001 Lander. It contained scientific instruments from the Mars Polar Lander. Both those missions were unsuccessful and the name Phoenix was chosen because the mission was created from the embers of earlier Mars endeavours.

There was a large risk of losing data and power availability depended on sunlight producing another important limit. Temperature needs of the instruments on-board Phoenix limited operations to the Martian daytime and they required a power-consuming warming period before data collection.

As if that wasn’t enough there is a misfit between the Martian day (called a sol) and the earth day — 24 hours and 40 minutes compared with 24 hours. Doesn’t seem much but it meant the team had to work according to the Martian sol. So each individual was living a Martian sol instead of an earth day. They came to work at strange times, had blacked out windows in their workplaces to avoid confusion, ate, slept and celebrated at strange times, etc. The mismatch between the earth day and Martian sol meant they worked in a continuously changing time zone (and suffered long-term ’jet lag’) over a 40-day cycle. They effectively lost one earth day every 40 days.

And the unusual time shift can be a source of psychological and health problems. A Counter Fatigue Group of psychologists and physicians monitored and studied the teams. Partly to help, partly for research. And one result was the common presence of bottles of urine being passed on to monitors.

Management nightmares

The whole management of the Phoenix Lander was complicated enough without progressively shifting times zones and permanent jet lag. One team handled the upload of new commands and work plans for the Lander. Another handled the download of collected data. Both these had to fit in with the Mars Orbiter and the sol/night cycle at the Lander. Then there was the work of coding new commands. This also involved working with the sister Lander in the sand pit at Tucson – an on-site construction modelling the Mar’s landing site for testing each planned action. And that itself had problems because of the different gravity on Mars.

Then there was the science. Decisions were needed about where to collect samples using the robotic arm, and what instrument to deliver them to. And depending on results (and bureaucratic demands) plans had to be changed and new code written. Often under the pressure of deadlines.

The new discoveries

Many readers will be familiar with the new discoveries made by the Phoenix Mars Lander. The discovery of solid ice below the soil surface. The unusual presence of perchlorate in the soil. Soil nutrients. Observation of snow and clouds. Liquid water on the Lander legs. The unusual flow properties of the soil. And so on.

These discoveries were the outcomes of the mission approach — to look for water and evidence of its past presence. Mission leader Peter smith has reported some of these findings in a scientific paper (Smith, Peter. ’H2O at the Phoenix Landing Site.’ Science. 3 July 2009: Vol. 325, no. 5936, pp. 58-61).

Problems

Kessler also outlines many problems the team had to confront. Electrical shorts on the Lander deck interfering with operation of some of the instruments. Jamming of the doors on the TEGA — the Thermal Evolved Gas Analysers (apparently because of inaccurate machining of parts replaced just before launch). Early inability of sample transfer from the scoop into the ovens. A bureaucratic demand from NASA to get a sample of ice rather than rely on observations which effectively lost 23 sols of sampling time. Automatic ’safing’ of instruments — defaulting into ’safe’ mode when actions went outside preset parameters or unforeseen obstacles were met. And so on.

Each problem meant long hours of rewriting code, replanning work and testing on the sister Lander in the sand pit at Tucson, and transmission of new work plans.

I guess all this is the reality of today’s planetary exploration. Hands-on exploration – but hands-on from a distance in time as well as space.

Don’t treat soil like dirt!

One bitch I have as someone who has researched soil chemistry — why call it ’dirt?’ The NZ Soil Science society had an important motto – ’Never treat soil like dirt.’ So it surprised me to hear scientists on the Phoenix team at the time talking about ’dirt’ samples. The book used ’soil’ fewer times than ’dirt.’ Sure, technically the term for Mars is ’regolith.’ But why use ’dirt?’

And the bloody acronyms the US Space programme loves. Kessler refers to an ’acronym dictionary.’ He says ’Yes it exists. And I love it.’ Seemingly he found it necessary in getting to grips with some of the regular talks given by team members (he described one as a ’nonsensical list of acronyms’). I just wish he had provided this dictionary in the book. Acronyms may be OK for people working together everyday on the same problems and instruments — but not for most readers. At times I was unsure which instrument he was referring to, or which team was presenting information. Perhaps he could have used the full terms more often.

Here are just a few examples of the over 30 acronyms I found. Instruments on the Lander included the TEGA (Thermal Evolved Gas Analyser), AFM (atomic force microscope), WCL (Wet Chemistry Lab), MET (Meteorological station), RA (robotic arm), ISAD (Icy Soil Acquisition Device), SSI (Surface Stereo Analyser), LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging Instrument) and MECA (Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyser).

Testing was done at the PIT (Payload Interoperability Testbed). Non-US Team members had restricted access to some information because of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation). And EOS was the End of Sol!

Mind you, I thought naming samples and sample sites was endearing. Refreshing to see reference to the “Rosey Red” and “Baby Bear” samples!

Conclusions

I enjoy realistic stories about science and much prefer them to the common fantasy sci-fi. So I welcomed the chance to review this book.

I found the writing a little over-enthusiastic in parts — especially at the beginning. But once Kessler got into the details of the science, the problems and the discoveries, the account was absorbing.

Just as you would expect in a good soap opera.

If you like science stories and realistic science fiction you will enjoy this book. Especially if interplanetary exploration appeals.

See also: Key publications

H2O at the Phoenix Landing Site
Abstract | Full Text
Smith, Peter et al

Detection of Perchlorate and the Soluble Chemistry of Martian Soil at the Phoenix Lander Site
Abstract | Full Text
Hecht, Michael et al

Evidence for Calcium Carbonate at the Mars Phoenix Landing Site
Abstract | Full Text
Boynton, William et al

Similar articles

Atlantis returns home — viewed from ISS Ken Perrott Jul 22

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This is a time exposure taken from the International Space Station (ISS). It shows the plasma trail of Atlantis as it travelled through the atmosphere on its final return from orbit.

Thanks to NASA – Station Crew Views Shuttle Landing.

Seven years of discovery Ken Perrott Jul 15

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While the Shuttle launches and the International Space Station get the media attention I am always impressed by the deep space research that is quietly going on.

This weekend NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will (hopefully) go into orbit around the asteroid Vesta. This photo of Vesta was taken by the spacecraft last weekend.

With a diameter of about 500 km Vesta is the second largest asteroid in the solar system. Dawn will spend one year orbiting Vesta and will then travel to the largest asteroid (1000 km diameter) Ceres. There it will spend 5 months in orbit carrying out similar studies.

Because these asteroids may have remained intact since formation of the solar system they should reveal information dating back to that time. They also have differences (Vesta formed a few million years before Ceres) which will also be illuminating.

This diagram shows the trajectory of Dawn’s trip, together with dates.

See also:
Dawn Spacecraft Poised to Enter Orbit at Vesta Asteroid: Scientific American.
All eyes on Vesta
Looming Larger: Dawn Approaches Vesta, Enters Orbit July 15-16

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Working on Mars Ken Perrott May 16

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Book Review: Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Price: US$18.16; NZ$42.97; eBook NZ$20.95
Publisher: Pegasus (April 15, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1605981761
ISBN-13: 978-1605981765

This book describes Andrew Kessler’s experience when he left home and went to live on Mars. Well – almost. As he describes it:

’I spent three months in mission control with 130 top NASA scientists and engineers as they explored, photographed and dug up Mars. I was the first outsider ever granted unfettered access to the physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists and rocket scientists in the control room of a planetary mission to Mars. . . . For 90 days, I sat with the crew of the Phoenix mission working to explore the Martian arctic.  Martian Summer is my non-fiction account of the strange life inside mission control and the people behind digging for dirt on Mars.’

This was possible because of an initiative by Peter Smith, Head of the Phoenix Mission. He organised to bring Kessler on to the team to provide some of the science outreach. Kessler had co-produced Mars: The Quest for Life, a Discovery Channel documentary about the mission. He was now ’embedded’ into the team at the University Of Arizona in Tucson for the 90 days of the early Phoenix programme ’Martian Summer’ is the result.

Phoenix Mars Lander

So the book is about the scientists and engineers in the team handling the Phoenix Mars Lander which landed on Mars May 25, 2008. It’s about the people actively involved in today’s exploration of Mars, and their work. Given the problems and cost of manned space exploration by interplanetary and planetary robots is currently the only game in town. The vehicles, and the teams running them, comprises modern interplanetary discovery.

’Martian Summer’ is a non-fictional, almost historical, account. But it has its fair share of excitement, frustration, stress, personality conflict, bureaucratic problems, financial problems debate and scientific discovery. Anyone who has worked in a scientific research programme will recognise the general problems.

I have worked in a scientific institute so know they can provide plenty of human interest stories. With strong characters, human frailties, comedy, sex, scandal and murder – as well as science. Personally I think they could be the basis of good TV soap operas.

But interplanetary research using robots has its own unique set of difficulties. And the Phoenix Lander compounded these with its own set of problems.

Mars sol vs Earth day

Depending on where it is in its orbit Mars is between 75 and 375 km from the earth. Obviously that meant a 10-month delay between the launch and Mars landing. But it also meant that communication with the Lander involved at least a 15-minute delay (or a ’round trip’ of 30 min) — just because of the speed of light. On top of that communication relied on relay by the Mars Orbiter, a satellite in orbit around Mars. So communicating with, and controlling Phoenix, was a complicated and long-winded affair.

The small memory (100 MB of flash memory) aboard Phoenix for storing new commands and collected data was another limit. Memory was expensive when the Lander was designed. Phoenix was basically the spacecraft built for the Mars Surveyor Program 2001 Lander. It contained scientific instruments from the Mars Polar Lander. Both those missions were unsuccessful and the name Phoenix was chosen because the mission was created from the embers of earlier Mars endeavours.

There was a large risk of losing data and power availability depended on sunlight producing another important limit. Temperature needs of the instruments on-board Phoenix limited operations to the Martian daytime and they required a power-consuming warming period before data collection.

As if that wasn’t enough there is a misfit between the Martian day (called a sol) and the earth day — 24 hours and 40 minutes compared with 24 hours. Doesn’t seem much but it meant the team had to work according to the Martian sol. So each individual was living a Martian sol instead of an earth day. They came to work at strange times, had blacked out windows in their workplaces to avoid confusion, ate, slept and celebrated at strange times, etc. The mismatch between the earth day and Martian sol meant they worked in a continuously changing time zone (and suffered long-term ’jet lag’) over a 40-day cycle. They effectively lost one earth day every 40 days.

And the unusual time shift can be a source of psychological and health problems. A Counter Fatigue Group of psychologists and physicians monitored and studied the teams. Partly to help, partly for research. And one result was the common presence of bottles of urine being passed on to monitors.

Management nightmares

The whole management of the Phoenix Lander was complicated enough without progressively shifting times zones and permanent jet lag.  One team handled the upload of new commands and work plans for the Lander. Another handled the download of collected data. Both these had to fit in with the Mars Orbiter and the sol/night cycle at the Lander. Then there was the work of coding new commands. This also involved working with the sister Lander in the sand pit at Tucson – an on-site construction modelling the Mar’s landing site for testing each planned action. And that itself had problems because of the different gravity on Mars.

Then there was the science. Decisions were needed about where to collect samples using the robotic arm, and what instrument to deliver them to. And depending on results (and bureaucratic demands) plans had to be changed and new code written. Often under the pressure of deadlines.

The new discoveries

Many readers will be familiar with the new discoveries made by the Phoenix Mars Lander. The discovery of solid ice below the soil surface. The unusual presence of perchlorate in the soil. Soil nutrients. Observation of snow and clouds. Liquid water on the Lander legs. The unusual flow properties of the soil. And so on.

These discoveries were the outcomes of the mission approach — to look for water and evidence of its past presence. Mission leader Peter smith has reported some of these findings in a scientific paper (Smith, Peter. ’H2O at the Phoenix Landing Site.’ Science. 3 July 2009: Vol. 325, no. 5936, pp. 58-61).

Problems

Kessler also outlines many problems the team had to confront. Electrical shorts on the Lander deck interfering with operation of some of the instruments. Jamming of the doors on the TEGA — the Thermal Evolved Gas Analysers (apparently because of inaccurate machining of parts replaced just before launch). Early inability of sample transfer from the scoop into the ovens. A bureaucratic demand from NASA to get a sample of ice rather than rely on observations which effectively lost 23 sols of sampling time. Automatic ’safing’ of instruments — defaulting into ’safe’ mode when actions went outside preset parameters or unforeseen obstacles were met. And so on.

Each problem meant long hours of rewriting code, replanning work and testing on the sister Lander in the sand pit at Tucson, and transmission of new work plans.

I guess all this is the reality of today’s planetary exploration. Hands-on exploration – but hands-on from a distance in time as well as space.

Don’t treat soil like dirt!

One bitch I have as someone who has researched soil chemistry — why call it ’dirt?’ The NZ Soil Science society had an important motto – ’Never treat soil like dirt.’ So it surprised me to hear scientists on the Phoenix team at the time talking about ’dirt’ samples. The book used ’soil’ fewer times than ’dirt.’ Sure, technically the term for Mars is ’regolith.’ But why use ’dirt?’

And the bloody acronyms the US Space programme loves. Kessler refers to an ’acronym dictionary.’  He says ’Yes it exists. And I love it.’ Seemingly he found it necessary in getting to grips with some of the regular talks given by team members (he described one as a ’nonsensical list of acronyms’). I just wish he had provided this dictionary in the book. Acronyms may be OK for people working together everyday on the same problems and instruments — but not for most readers. At times I was unsure which instrument he was referring to, or which team was presenting information. Perhaps he could have used the full terms more often.

Here are just a few examples of the over 30 acronyms I found. Instruments on the Lander included the TEGA (Thermal Evolved Gas Analyser), AFM (atomic force microscope), WCL (Wet Chemistry Lab), MET (Meteorological station), RA (robotic arm), ISAD (Icy Soil Acquisition Device), SSI (Surface Stereo Analyser), LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging Instrument) and MECA (Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyser).

Testing was done at the PIT (Payload Interoperability Testbed). Non-US Team members had restricted access to some information because of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation). And EOS was the End of Sol!

Mind you, I thought naming samples and sample sites was endearing. Refreshing to see reference to the “Rosey Red” and “Baby Bear” samples!

Conclusions

I enjoy realistic stories about science and much prefer them to the common fantasy sciFi. So I welcomed the chance to review this book.

I found the writing a little over-enthusiastic in parts — especially at the beginning. But once Kessler got into the details of the science, the problems and the discoveries, the account was absorbing.

Just as you would expect in a good soap opera.

If you like science stories and realistic science fiction you will enjoy this book. Especially if interplanetary exploration appeals.

See also: Key publications

H2O at the Phoenix Landing Site
Abstract  |  Full Text
Smith, Peter et al

Detection of Perchlorate and the Soluble Chemistry of Martian Soil at the Phoenix Lander Site
Abstract  |  Full Text
Hecht, Michael et al

Evidence for Calcium Carbonate at the Mars Phoenix Landing Site
Abstract  |  Full Text
Boynton, William et al

Similar articles

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