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Felix Grant finds plenty of uses for statistical software in astronomy


n the bizarrely nonsensical words from my school days, ‘Mary Voraciously Eats Mother’s Jam Sandwiches Under No Protest’. In case your own childhood

did not include that particular mnemonic phrase, it represented the sequence of planets outward from the sun. Pluto has since been demoted, and new

mnemonics have emerged, but that needn’t trouble us here, because the imaginative focus of interplanetary attention is now on Mother’s Jam: that is, on Mars and Jupiter. Last year, US president Barack Obama envisaged a human landing on Mars in the mid-2030s and NASA’s Ames Research Centre has jointly invested, with DARPA, in the idea of a one-way Mars colonisation project. Russian plans over similar time frames include robotic exploration of Mars’ moons. As you read this, NASA’s Juno mission will be several weeks into its five-year journey to Jupiter. At a less romantic, but perhaps more

Orbital image of the Ma’adim Vallis flow channel on Mars, entering the Gusev crater at the top of the frame Source: NASA


immediately practical level, there is also interest in the sweep of rocky space between them: the asteroid belt. On one level, it is a valuable scientific repository of ‘cosmological memory’. At another, all exploration has, behind its heroic image, investment in the hope of economic return. The asteroids hold out the tantalising dreams of achieving that return well within a human lifetime; Mars within a century; Jupiter only in the much more distant future. Obama’s vision for NASA includes not only the Mars mission, but an asteroid-ready heavy lift rocket design to be complete ‘no later than 2015’, and the realities of returning from asteroid to earth orbit are trivial compared to Mars. Mars has, of course, so far been

subjected to more extensive examination than any other extraterrestrial target apart

from Earth’s own moon. A dozen or so programmes have, despite numerous failures, built up a knowledge base upon which projected US, European, Russian and Chinese successors plan to build over the next decade or so. The asteroids have mostly been studied remotely, usually in passing while on the way to somewhere else, but greater direct attention is now being paid to them. From an economic standpoint, they represent a potential resource for materials which would otherwise have to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well (and finite supply) at immense cost. In all cases, however, before the economic

return comes investment in study – based upon huge programmes of data analysis. The next big event on the Martian

exploration calendar is the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled to launch later this year for arrival next summer. MSL plans centre on a nuclear-powered rover vehicle, named Curiosity, which will operate as a ‘robot geologist’ on the surface for a full 687-day Martian year. MSL will conduct experiments in situ and is provided with analytic hardware and software for the purpose. ChemCam, a new laser-induced

breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument suite designed for extraterrestrial applications, will get its first real-life outing on Curiosity. Using the laser to ablate material into a plasma plume from surfaces up to seven metres away, LIBS allows compositional study of any surface to which the rover can get a reasonably close line of sight. This will be the first time that direct data acquisition and analysis for light elements on the planet’s surface has been possible, and the primary object of the exercise[1]

is to identify ‘materials and

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