Environment Forum

A solar-powered all-terrain vehicle, on extremely unfamiliar terrain

On Earth, we consider design, fuel efficiency, and enduring power when thinking of “green” vehicles. But there’s one solar-powered all-terrain vehicle that has by some lights out-performed anything rolling around on Earth. It is the doughty little robotic rover Opportunity, doggedly using its seven-year-old solar array to chug over the rocky surface of Mars.
Opportunity, like its twin rover Spirit, was designed to drive about .6 mile (1 kilometer) along the martian surface; by last month, Opportunity had driven more than 30 times that distance. It completed its primary mission in 2004 and since then has made important discoveries about parts of ancient Mars that might have been hospitable to microscopic life.
Like many earthly vehicles that are a bit past their prime, Opportunity has a few quirks, according to NASA’s Dave Lavery, who spoke at a briefing on the rover’s latest findings.
“We’re no longer driving a hot sports car,” he said. “We’re now driving a 1965 Mustang that hasn’t been restored.”
Even though Opportunity’s “drivers” are on Earth, controlling the golf-cart-sized robot remotely, they plainly feel a fair amount of affection for the little craft. NASA’s John Callas described the rover’s status almost as if it were a spunky grandparent.

“We have a very senior rover that’s showing her age,” Callas told reporters. “She had some arthritis and other issues, but generally she’s in good health, she’s sleeping well at night, her cholesterol levels are excellent and so we look forward to productive scientific exploration for the period ahead.”

Operating it takes a bit of doing. First off, to avoid wear on some gear teeth, Opportunity drove most of her latest jaunt backwards. Her NASA operators also warmed up actuators to the rover’s wheels, which made lubricants flow better — like applying a heating pad to an arthritic joint before a game of tennis, Callas said.

The backwards-driving had to work around an antenna that was supposed to be on the back of the craft but was recently right in the center of the robotic vehicle’s “windshield” as it drove in reverse for miles. “It’s much like trying to drive a car and your child is waving a toy in front of your face,” according to Callas.

There was also some stiffness in the rover’s robotic arm, cutting back on its freedom of movement.

Amazon’s drought, seen from space

AMAZON/DROUGHTHow green is the Amazon?

Not as green as it used to be, as shown in an analysis of satellite images made during last year’s record-breaking drought.

Because greenness is an indication of health in the Amazon, a decline in this measurement means this vast area is getting less healthy — bad news for biodiversity and some native peoples in the region.

What does a drop in the greenness index look like? It looks gold, orange and red in a graphic accompanying an article to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters:

Appropriately enough, it’s National Tsunami Awareness Week

The U.S. government has announced this as National Tsunami Awareness Week, starting just days after a disastrous tsunami powered over Japan’s northeast coast. Not that anyone necessarily needed reminding.

This week’s advisory, which urges U.S. residents to be prepared for a damaging series of waves, was scheduled before the March 11 Japanese catastrophe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is the second annual observance of Tsunami Awareness Week. It’s too soon to tell if there might be a pattern emerging: last year’s observance came not long after a giant wave hit the Chilean port of Talcahuano following an 8.8 magnitude quake along Chile’s coast.

Here’s how the Japanese tsunami spread its force across the Pacific:

While the United States may not seem like a prime tsunami target, the Hawaiian Islands and Alaska have long been susceptible. NOAA notes the United States has more coastline than any country on Earth and is in proximity to several major fault lines. Any coastline is potentially in a tsunami’s path.

What’s up with all the earthquakes?

QUAKE-CHINA/

global_post_logo

This article by Julia Kumari Drapkin originally appeared in Global Post. The views expressed are her own.

The quake that hit China Wednesday was the latest in a string of earthquakes in the news lately. Many people are wondering what’s going on, so we decided to ask NASA. Eric Fielding is a geophysicist who uses satellites to study earthquakes at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California.

GlobalPost: So first question is the one on everybody’s mind. What on earth, literally, is going on? What’s up with the earthquakes?

A rocket man’s view of solar energy

After nearly 25 years in the computer science and aerospace industries, including a stint at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Doug Caldwell decided to pursue a career-long dream of putting his engineering skills to use for the environment. So the Southern California native left his own start-up, a company that builds cameras for spacecraft launch systems, to explore his options.

He didn’t have to look far, or for very long. Within months Caldwell had landed work on a solar power development project, recruited by an old buddy from his days launching model rockets in the desert. Perhaps more ironic is the company he ended up working for — Boeing Co.

Two years later, Caldwell, 47, is chief engineer of the project, which employs about 60 people in a $45 million endeavor to design a new type of photovoltaic solar technology for what would be a 20-megawatt power plant.

Antarctic ice expands — global warming at work?

Adelie penguins in Antarctica are photographed in this January 18, 2005 file photo. The pesticide DDT, banned decades ago in much of the world, still shows up in penguins in Antarctica, probably due to the chemical’s accumulation in melting glaciers, a sea bird expert said on May 9, 2008. REUTERS/Heidi Geisz/Virginia Institute of Marine Science/Handout (ANTARCTICA).Ice getting bigger hardly sounds like a sign of global warming but that’s apparently what is happening in the seas around Antarctica.

Leading climate scientists say that a tiny trend towards bigger ice in winter floating on the oceans around the frozen continent since the late 1970s — the maximum extent is around now, in September — is consistent with models of climate change that predict harsher winds and less warmer water at the surface.

It may even be that there’s more snow and rain falling onto the southern oceans because of climate change — that can raise the amount of fresh water on the surface and, hey presto, fresh water freezes at a higher temperature than salt water.

A green energy solution that’s out of this world

windoffshore.jpgThe quest for more renewable energy sources recently got a boost that’s out of this world.

NASA researchers this week said they are using global satellite data to create maps of ocean areas best suited for wind energy.

The maps will be useful in planning where to build offshore wind farms that can convert wind energy to electricity, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Islands of floating wind farms have the potential to generate 500 to 800 watts per square meter, according to research conducted by Tim Liu, a senior research scientist at the JPL.

  •