NASA Shuts Down “Almost Entirely” On Its 55th Anniversary

On the 55th anniversary of the day it began operations, NASA has been forced to furlough 97 percent of its workforce in accordance with the government shutdown.

According to the plan for shutdown, NASA is required to furlough nearly all of its 18,250 employees. The plan would allow for 367 full time employees to stay on the job to support activities which are exempt from the shutdown, such as operations related to the International Space Station and other NASA satellites.

NASA has been forced to furlough a greater percentage of its employees than any other agency affected by the shutdown. Being forced to send 97 percent of its workforce home, President Obama stated that “NASA will shutdown almost entirely,” going on to say that, “Mission Control will remain open to support the astronauts serving on the space station.”

The shutdown could potentially delay the launch of the Mars MAVEN mission, which is slated for November 18. The mission has a narrow launch window, which if missed could push back the launch to 2016. However, NASA’s newest Mars rover, Curiosity, will continue operating despite the government shutdown. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the rover, is a private contractor and thus its staff are not among the NASA employees that have been furloughed.

NASA’s online presence is also impacted by the shutdown, with the newly redesigned now displaying this message, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.” Additionally, NASA’s social media accounts have either halted all activity or disappeared entirely, as was the case with NASA’s Facebook page. NASA’s Twitter account posted this message on Monday in response to the shutdown, “Sorry, but we won’t be tweeting/responding to replies during the government shutdown. Be back as soon as possible.”

All of this occurring on the same day that NASA was supposed to be celebrating the 55th anniversary of the day NASA began operations on October 1, 1958.

Lacuna Passage: Video Game Brings Mars To Earth

What is Lacuna Passage
A recent crowdfunding campaign aims to let you explore Mars from the comfort of your own home. The project, Lacuna Passage, is a video game that provides a true-to-life representation of the Martian environment for players to explore.

According to the Kickstarter campaign page, “Lacuna Passage is a story-driven exploration and survival game set on Mars, drawing inspiration from titles like Dear Esther, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Pokemon Snap. You play as Jessica Rainer, the only survivor of the crashed Heracles mission, investigating the disappearance of the first ever manned mission to Mars. You have several tools at your disposal, but most important are your skills of observation. You will need to uncover mission logs, recorded audio files, and other physical clues left behind at critical mission locations in order to uncover the story. An interplanetary trail of breadcrumbs is waiting for you.”

Lacuna Passage
Check out that view.

Lacuna Passage is a grassroots video game project created by Random Seed Games. While not seasoned veterans of the game industry, it’s clear that every member of this volunteer team has a passion for this project and an abundance of talent.

Inspired by the successful landing of the Curiosity Rover on the Red Planet and it’s subsequent transmission of pictures from the planet’s surface, the Lacuna Passage team has been hard at work for nearly a year trying to bring this game to life.

The best part?

According to the developers, “All the terrain in the game is generated from actual Mars satellite elevation data. The Mars High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) provides us with a true-to-life game environment that allows for a space exploration experience unlike any other.”

The game uses real data to simulate being on Mars. It also includes real-life astronaut perspective and more accurate “medical monitoring” than is featured in most games, showing just how hard these creators have worked on making this a true first-person human experience.

Lacuna Passage 2
Lacuna Passage is being developed as a complete commercial game. It has a plot, main character, rich artwork, a soundtrack, and play availability for all of PC, Mac, and Linux. The team is also trying to remain an independent entity, which will allow them to have full creative control over this project and any future endeavors.

There are 14 days left to help Random Seed Games reach their Kickstarter goal for Lacuna Passage. If you dream of visiting Mars one day, consider contributing to this project and get a feel for the Red Planet without leaving the Blue Marble.


Curiosity Mission Update


Curiosity entered “safe mode” during the late evening on March 16. The rover put itself in the precautionary standby status when a command file failed a size-check by the rover’s protective software. NASA engineers quickly diagnosed the software issue, deleted the file that was causing the size error, and Curiosity was back to active status by March 19.

Now that the rover has exited safe mode, Curiosity is expected to begin science observations any day now. The mission’s science observations have been on hold since February 27 after a memory glitch on the A-side computer. Controllers commanded a swap from the A-side computer to the B-side computer. The A-side is now available as a backup for the rover, if needed.

The computer glitches Curiosity has recently experienced may seem worrisome, but NASA anticipates technological glitches and prepares accordingly. Missions have built-in redundancies in order to prevent an error from crippling a mission before completion, such as Curiosity’s two computers. Another great example of technological foresight is the Voyager I and II missions that were launched in 1977. These missions have experienced numerous instrument and computer issues, but remain healthy and continue to communicate with NASA thanks to such redundancies. On the Voyager spacecraft there are three different computer types and two of each. In 2010, Voyager II experienced scientific data format problems. Thanks to multiple computers engineers were able to put Voyager II in “engineering mode” and investigate the problem. The problem turned out to be a flipped bit on one of Voyager II’s computers. Engineers successfully reset the computer and Voyager II resumed processing data correctly. Learn more about Voyager and the data glitch of 2010.

Additionally, Curiosity’s commanders plan to suspend communication from April 4 to May 1 when Mars will be passing nearly directly behind the sun. This suspension of communication is a precaution against interference by the sun that could corrupt a command sent to Curiosity. During this time Curiosity will be able to continue science observations. Read more about this in a status update from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project is using Curiosity to investigate Mars’ Gale Crater. The project has found the conditions in the crater were once favorable for microbal life. If you want to support similar endeavors for scientific discovery, tell Congress to double NASA’s funding.

You can follow Curiosity’s mission on Facebook and Twitter and find out more information about Curiosity from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

First Results from Curiosity’s SAM Instrument

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory held a press conference today where they announced the first results of MSL Curiosity’s Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument. Organic compounds have been detected by the SAM instrument, they reported, but the science team are yet to determine whether or not the compounds are native to Mars or if they hitched a ride on Curiosity from Earth. The famed rover is currently resting at a place scientists are calling Rocknest, which is a few hundred meters from Bradbury Landing, where Curiosity landed on August 6, 2012.

Curiosity’s SAM instrument – an oven that cooks tiny samples and studies the gases that result – has indicated the presence of a small percentage of water and lesser amounts of carbon dioxide, oxygen and sulfur dioxide found in some “garden variety” Martian soil samples at Rocknest. Also involved in the detections was the presence of perchlorate, which was detected by a previous mission (NASA’s Phoenix lander). Of the water, the science team has found that the presence of a deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio that is five times greater than that of Earth – meaning water released from the Rocknest samples is “heavier” than the water in Earth’s oceans. This deuterium ratio will be helpful in determining how Mars wound up with such a thin atmosphere and perhaps whether or not standing water existed at Curiosity’s landing site.

Considering the organic compound detections, the science team has determined that the SAM instrument, one of the more important instruments at Curiosity’s disposal, is working perfectly fine.  In fact, they tested SAM several times in order to put to rest the fear that something might have been wrong with it. Curiosity’s project scientist, John Grotzinger, told reporters:

“The instrument, SAM, is working perfectly well. It has made this detection of organic compounds, simple organic compounds…we just simply don’t know if they’re indigenous to Mars or not. And so, it’s going to take us some time to work through that.”

When pressed for details on how to determine if the detected organic compounds were Martian or not, several team members said they were going to take it one step at a time. Several protocols were yet to be followed that would help rule out the uncertaintly surrounding the origin of the supposed organic compounds.

The scientists went on to say that they were proud of Curiosity’s development and that the “3 months of terror or tension,” where the team slowly and carefully tests each of Curiosity’s components for the first time, is almost over. Grotzinger and fellow scientists hope to test out the drill, one of the last mechanisms to be checked, sometime before the holidays. After that, Curiosity will be ready to head to Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater.

Mars Soil Sample May Reveal Earthshaking News

Earthshaking News from Mars?
NASA scientists working on the Mars rover mission may have discovered some earthshaking news. A recent soil sample taken by Curiosity is yielding some very exciting results that NASA is remaining very tight-lipped about.

NASA scientists are currently reviewing data they are receiving from a recent soil sample taken by the Mars rover’s SAM instrument. The SAM instrument is a collection of tools used by the Mars rover to determine the composition of soil and atmospheric samples collected on the Martian surface.

John Grotzinger, the principal investigator behind the Mars rover mission, isn’t releasing any details on the discovery just yet, as they want to be sure of their findings before they go public. When asked about the results they are receiving, Grotzinger told NPR, “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”

It may be a few weeks before we get an official announcement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to Grotzinger. His team is cautious not to release their findings too early because they almost ended up prematurely announcing the discovery of methane on Mars the last time they received exciting data like this.

When they analyzed an air sample using SAM, it returned evidence of methane. However, before they made an announcement they wanted to confirm that the sample they tested didn’t contain air that Curiosity brought with it from Earth. Upon conducting the test again, SAM showed no indication of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

If their findings turn out to be true, the news couldn’t come at a better time for NASA, as the space agency is facing potential budget cuts as we approach the fiscal cliff. With appropriators in Congress negotiating a compromise to put the United States’ fiscal house in order, a major discovery on Mars would be just what the space agency needs to demonstrate the value of investments in space exploration.