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It was auspicious to read in the recent news, during the last weeks of our Scott exhibition here at the Museum, that the wreck of the SS Terra Nova ship, which transported Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team on his last Antarctic expedition, has been found off Greenland. Terra Nova was the ship that lent its name to one of the most famous of all polar expeditions and it had been lost since 1943.

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Stills of the Terra Nova on its voyage to Antarctica, taken from Herbert Ponting's astonishing film of the journey, The Great White Silence.

Captain Scott and his polar party set off from Cardiff aboard the Terra Nova in 1910 on one of the most important Antarctic science missions in history. The legendary ship brought the survivors of the expedition back in 1913 and went on to be used by Antarctic coastal traders until it sank in 1943. It was found this month off the coast of Greenland, buried under 1,000 feet of icy water on the seabed.

 

One of our exhibition videos describes the background to the Terra Nova expedition:

 

 

Making my own personal last journey into Scott’s Last Expedition in the gallery today, it was especially poignant to watch the iconic footage of the ship’s outward journey taken by the expedition’s photographer, Herbert Ponting, in the Great White Silence film clip we show at the start of the exhibition.

 

It’s quite sad to think that the 100s of exhibits, unforgettable images and films that tell the unique stories of Scott and his team in the re-created Cape Evans base camp will be sailing off finally to New Zealand after the exhibition closes this Sunday, 2 September. They have really brought this incredible exhibition to life.

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This photo by Ponting captured a rare warm moment as Captain Scott (right) and other members of the Northern party, Evans, Bowers, and Wilson supped food from mugs in a tent around a stove, before their final journey to the South Pole. (c) Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Our exhibition here and the international 100th anniversary commemorations of Scott's Last Expedition over the last year have really made their emotive mark on many of us. I genuinely feel like Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers, Evans and the rest of the expedition team, including Ponting, have been man-hauling bravely among us over the past months.

 

I have often imagined them out in the treacherous blizzards, their meals together of seal soup and tinned asparagus, starting the day with enamel bowlfuls of hot Hunter's oatmeal (shown below), poring over penguin eggs, writing diaries and scientific notes… until the bitter end.

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If you haven’t experienced Scott’s Last Expedition, I urge you to visit before 17.00 this Sunday, 2 September. If you can't make it during the day, there may still be tickets available for tomorrow when it's open for our Friday Lates night.

 

After closing here, the exhibition goes on to open at the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand on 23 November 2012, and you can keep in touch with the work being performed by conservators on the real Cape Evans hut, which still stands today.

 

Book tickets online for Scott's Last Expedition

 

Browse the Scott's Last Expedition exhibition website

 

See the exhbibition gift range

 

Follow the work of the Antarctic Conservators in their blog

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The ruffled raven in John Mariott's Fluff-up and Steven Kovacs' freaky-faced jawfish, aptly entitled Father’s little mouthful, are two of the photographic stars that will appear in the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which opens to the public here at the Museum on 19 October.

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Today we announced tickets going on sale and now wait eagerly for September when all the commended images will be unveiled on our website. As the weeks go by, you'll see more of Mariott's portrait (left) which has been selected to be the publicity image for the exhibition.

 

Since the 2012 competition closed in February this year, the judges have spent many days and nights whittling over 48,000 international entries down to 100 winning pictures. There were photographs from 98 countries and new entries this year from Mozambique, Kazakstan, Svalbad and French Guayana.

 

As usual, the winners and runners-up from the competition are strictly embargoed until the award-winning ceremony in October, but I'm told that - unlike some previous years - all 18 categories have winners this year.

 

Father's little mouthful (below) is the only official preview image revealed now in all its gorgeous glory.

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Steven Kovacs' Father's little mouthful, one of 100 images entered into the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition which will light up the new exhbition. It shows the strange phenomenon of the male jawfish protecting its offspring in its mouth until they are ready to hatch. Select the image to enlarge it.

To get his technically challenging shot of the diligent dad jawfish, which was taken off the coast of Florida, Canadian photographer Steven Kovacs used three strobes and home-made snoots - tubes that control the direction and radius of light. He recalls:

 

'What struck me about this particular jawfish when I first encountered it was how docile and unafraid it was of my presence. Most jawfish will retreat into their burrows when approached closely, but this particular fish did not seem concerned and did not move at all even when I came very close.

 

'I had been recently experimenting with snoots placed over my strobes to create different lighting effects on my subjects so when I realized how cooperative this subject was I immediately knew it had potential...This jawfish allowed for ample time to work with different strobe positions at very close quarters.

 

'It always provides a great sense of satisfaction when all the elements come together in a technically difficult photograph. To create something different and beautiful is why I photograph. It has been a dream of mine for years to win a place in this competition.'


As judge Soichi Hayashi says of Kovacs' portrait: 'This image has a strong sense of mystery. Epecially impressive is the delicate and elaborate lighting, which gives it a ghastly power.'

 

We look forward to many more weird and wonderful wildlife apparitions when the exhibition opens on 19 October.

 

Visit the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition website

 

Book tickets for the 2012 exhibition

 

Join the wildlife photography community online

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Curiosity's surroundings on Mars'This mission has been in the works for 10 years. If it is successful it will be one of the greatest engineering feats of mankind,' declared Museum scientist Joseph Michalski shortly before that feat was pulled off with aplomb in the early hours of today. As NASA's Curiosity rover beamed back its first image from the surface of Mars it was 06:14 BST, but it was only after a 14 minute-long journey via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Canberra's Deep Space Network, and California's Mission Control, that it reached the large screen of our Mars Landing special event in the Museum's Flett Theatre.

 

The elated joy visible on screen at Mission Control was immediately mirrored by the eruption of cheers and applause from our audience. The relief was palpable, particularly as half of the previous missions to Mars have ended in failure; Michael Balme, panellist and - like Joe - one of the team of international scientists who worked on the mission, would later sum up the morning with, 'I expected the worst but hoped for the best, so today is now going to be like Christmas!'

 

Of the 7 minutes of terror during EDL (entry, descent and landing), if anything was going to go wrong it was the very last moments of the L as this was when an entirely new and untried mechanism for deploying a payload onto a planet's surface was put to the test. Although airbags had been hugely successful for Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, the near 900kg of Curiosity made the same approach highly impractical; instead, the brain-storming at NASA had produced 'sky crane', which Joseph described perfectly following the landing as something that '... looks bonkers, but it worked!'

 

From an altitude of tens of metres above the surface, this mechanism winched the Curiosity rover from its rocket-powered, hovering landing cradle gently onto the surface. In a very British style, Matthew Balme put it as, '... something you would call very Heath Robinson,' or, to paraphrase a tweet that flashed past on my phone at the same time, 'if you had put this crazy idea for a landing in a hollywood script, you would have been laughed out of the studio'.

 

nasa-jpl-caltech-mission-control.jpgThankfully, NASA's team of engineers did Heath Robinson and the rest of us proud and Curiosity has started its Martian-year-long mission (equvialent to about 2 Earth years) with great success. The first black-and-white 64x64 pixel thumbnail image and, soon after, the sharper 256x256 pixel version announced its perfect landing on the anticipated flat, slightly gravelly surface.

 

These were closely followed by shots of its wheel and shadow on the same, and the end of the beginning for this multi-billion dollar adventure was reached. Sadly for our audience, Martian time prevented more than this handful of snapshots being captured during our event as Odyssey promptly disappeared over the Martian horizon and thus the link back to Earth was lost until its next pass over the region some hours later.

 

At this point, our extremely relieved panel of mission scientists and Mars experts started to take questions from the audience. These ranged from the planning behind the mission to the future of Mars and space exploration. Panellist Peter Grindrod had the onerous task of trying to follow the excitement of the landing and did an admirable job.

 

He first explained how sky crane had permitted the EDL team to target a much smaller landing area than those of previous missions. The huge benefit of this focussed, and very gentle landing of a large rover was the amount of scientific equipment it could carry to the surface (his slide below helps put that in true perspective - the rover is huge).

 

rovers-compared.jpgPeter Grindrod's slide of the different rovers that have made it to Mars. Curiosity is on the right.

 

Further prompting from the audience led him to describe how Gale Crater had been chosen as the target for the mission - it was the combination of all the characteristics they were looking for, topographical, geological and chemical, that carried the day for Gale Crater although another 3 very good contenders had been shortlisted following an approximately 6 year-long selection process. It also happened to be Peter's favourite choice, 'I can only imagine the view Curiosity must have now.'

 

He then described in brief each of the 10 instruments on board, including the X-ray spectrometer (the first to be deployed on another planet) that will analyse samples collected from drilling a few centimetres below the surface. 'Context is key for geological analysis,' and so the ability to pick locations and drive the rover to them forms an important part of the mission. At this point, Joe chipped in with 'some sort of organic material would be excellent to discover,' which led Peter to state that, as with all previous missions, it is the things that the planners haven't anticipated that will prove the most exciting aspect of the mission.

 

More questions and more responses from all of the panellists followed, including a great fly-over of Gale Crater in Google Earth (that is, the Mars version) from Matthew to show the geology of the landing area and crater. These taught us that Gale will be an exemplar for many other locations on Mars as similar sedimentary rock formations have been observed elsewhere on the planet. Matthew and Joe told us how the landing area was a compromise between the demands of the scientists ('we want interesting and varied topography and geology - the equivalent of the Grand Canyon!') versus the engineers ('we want flat, boring and windless!').

 

matthew-hirise-image.jpgMatthew Balme shows imagery of Gale Crater on Mars captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

 

Joe described how the marginally smaller size of Mars relative to Earth is a possible explanation for why it doesn't experience any plate tectonics - incidentally, Earth is the only planet in our solar system that does - which is a good reason for going there to study it (we don't have access to any truly ancient rocks here on Earth due to the churn and change that our heated core causes at the surface).

 

The mound in the centre of the impact-generated Gale Crater was, according to Peter, probably there because it was once infilled, and erosion has cleared the surrounding basin while leaving the central peak preserved. This means the base of the mound is the old geology, the top the relatively new. And, of course, the tantalising evidence of previous water flow and clay formation as the principal reason for choosing Gale Crater featured heavily in the discussion as it is this that makes it ideal for the search for a potentially once-habitable environment.

 

A few of the many great questions from the audience are worth highlighting here (I've summarised the replies):

 

Q: 'Why haven't probes sent to Mars looked for life since the Viking missions [in the 1970s]?'
A: Because of the likelihood that very few locations will have any evidence of life. We have to first discover where could there have been life before we ask is there life and we have to be patient. Therefore Curiosity is looking for habitats that could have supported life rather than life itself.

 

Q: 'How long will the mission last'

A: It is guaranteed funding for one Martian year but, due to its nuclear power source, it could go on for many, many years if the instrumentation remains working and is still returning useful data. [N.B. Spirit and Opportunity were originally funded for a 90 day mission as their solar panels were expected to clog up with dust and cease functioning; in reality they lasted 8 years as the wholly unexpected benefit of dust devils on the Martian surface periodically cleaned the panels enabling them to keep charged for far longer than anticipated].

 

Q: 'What will happen to Opportunity now that Curiosity has landed safely?'

A: Opportunity has taken a lower priority for obvious reasons, but its mission will keep going for as long as it sends back useful data and the funding is there [N.B. Spirit got stuck in a location that meant it could no longer charge and it lost power, thus effectively ending its mission earlier].

 

During the post-landing Q and A we also had the pleasure of linking-live for a few minutes to the boisterous Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to talk with Dr Derby Dyer who worked on Curiosity's ChemCam instrument. She and her colleagues were walking around with big smiles on their faces, and not because of the cookies that had just been deployed in their office at that moment:

 

Q: 'What would have happened if the weather conditions hadn't been ideal for landing? Could the mission have been aborted?'

A: The landing was autonomous so we couldn't have aborted or changed it. However, the weather has been modelled for weeks in advance - if we had spotted potential issues a few weeks ago, we could have made a slight alteration to the landing schedule but there wasn't a lot of leeway.

 

Q: 'What would you recommend someone does to get involved in this type of project'

A: Learn how to be a critical thinker! Go to College [University] and be passionate about the science.

 

We were also joined by Ralph Cordey of Astrium, to talk about future missions to Mars. Astrium's prototype rover for the next major trip to Mars, the European ExoMars mission in 2018, was on display at the Museum today. Ralph explained how the Curiosity mission already contained a European element as it invovles the ESA's Mars Express as one of the orbiters capturing the data from Curiosity for transmission back to Earth.

 

For ExoMars, there are currently three prototypes of the rover: BRIDGET (Ralph believes it may be named after Bridget Bardot), BRUNO - which is being tested in Stevenage - and BRADLEY (Italy). The final rover will be smaller than Curiosity but will be designed to drill up to 2 metres below the Martian surface and look for biomarkers.

 

bridget.jpgMembers of the audience enjoy their look at BRIDGET, Astrium's prototype Mars rover

However, that mission is still to come, and from today we are looking forward to the first real results from Curiosity's in-built science lab and (hopefully) the excitement of seeing photos of its descent to the planet and video of the sky crane deployment as shot from the landing module. But, as must be the case with a 10 year long project, we will need to be patient over the next few days as all this data can't be sent at once and NASA's priority now is to perform tests to make sure everything is functioning as expected. That just leaves me to quote my favourite tweet from earlier today:

 

@Paul_Cornell: As Eugene Byrne put it: 'The nerds just took Gold in the 560 billion metres'

 

View NASA's multimedia gallery from the Curiosity mission

 

Follow @MarsCuriosity on Twitter

 

Find out more about our After Hours events

 

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After Hours Mars Landing event photos, Natural History Museum

Curiosity's surroundings, NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL Mission Control, NASA HQ PHOTO

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The Red Planet is on all our minds here at the Museum as we prepare for an exciting live-stream of the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in the early hours of Monday 6 August.

 

It'll be make, and hopefully not break, time for the largest rover that NASA has ever attempted to land on another planet, as the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity rover (image left, credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) reaches the nail-biting conclusion of its journey to Mars and begins its mission to find evidence for a life-supporting environment on the surface.

 

We'll be live-linking to Mission Control in California and the audience will be able put their questions to NASA's scientists during this once-in-a-lifetime event. And, if we are lucky, we may even see the first images transmitted back to Earth from Curiosity.

 

Also on hand during our live-link will be 3 former mission scientists and Mars experts, Dr Peter Grindrod from University College London, Dr Matthew Balme from Open University, and Dr Joseph Michalski from the Museum to talk us through planetary exploration, the technology behind NASA’s latest Martian endeavour, and the purpose of Curiosity’s mission.

Tickets are sold out but you can follow the #msl tag on Twitter to keep in touch with global coverage and experience the tension as NASA goes through the 7 minutes of terror of the landing.

 

 

Gale Crater, where Curiosity is destined to land, is known from other Mars missions to have been wet and contain clay minerals. Clays, other phyllosillicates and sulphates are known to form under liquid water conditions with life-supporting pH ranges. The wet environment at the landing site is long gone but the chemical signs of what could have been a habitable environment - and the geological context for it - could still be detectable and this is what Curiosity’s 10 scientific instruments will be studying during its stay on Mars.

 

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The intended landing area for NASA's Curiosity rover in Gale Crater is known to have been wet in the past. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

 

Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror

 

So, come Monday morning, it'll be fingers crossed that Curiosity lands safely and goes on to be as wildly successful as Opportunity and Spirit, NASA's last two rovers to journey across the surface of Mars ...

 

See what other After Hours events are happening at the Museum

 

Follow the latest news about Curiosity's mission via #msl on Twitter

 

Unable to join us early on Monday morning? Joseph will also be with the Nature Live team later in the day at 12:30 and 14:30 to give two free talks on the mission, so drop into the Museum's Attenborough Studio for Destination Mars.

 

P.S. Rose is currently on annual leave, but will be back soon to bring you What's new at the Museum.