It’s IYA, Baby!

After shaking off the daze induced by family, bubbly, and the vast amounts of tamales that accompany my winter holidays, I have washed up on the shores of Long Beach, California, where almost 2,500 astronomers are gathered for the 213th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The biggest astro-nerd fest of the year is even bigger for 2009, because the meeting is playing host to the U.S. kick-off of the International Year of Astronomy, tied to the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope. Woot!

Having peeked at the press conference sked and session lists, I can tell there’s some fun things in the works, including the imminent arrival of Galileo’s *actual* original telescope to the U.S. But that comes later.

In a neat little cosmic alignment, the start of the meeting also coincides with the five-year anniversary of the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, those plucky little workhorses that have been roaming the Martian landscape since 2004.

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Opportunity snaps dunes in Endurance Crater tinted blue in false color due to the presence of hematite-rich spherules known as blueberries

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL

The rovers are celebrated for having lasted for upteen times their projected life spans, risking personal injury to garner closer looks at intriguing craters, taking video of extraterrestrial dust devils, and finding some solid evidence that early Mars had liquid water.

In keeping with the global theme of our IYA coverage, the American rovers are slated to get some international companions right soon, starting this year with a joint Russia-China mission to the red planet.

The U.S. was supposed to add another rover to its robot team, the Mars Science Lab, in the fall of 2009, but testing upsets have delayed that launch until 2011.

When it does get off the ground, MSL will be closely followed by a probe from the Indian Space Research Organization set to launch in 2013, then another from ESA slated for 2016.

It would seem, from a robo-perspective, that colonization of Mars is off to a good start.

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Spirit’s wheel tracks cross the Martian plains

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL

Hopefully, at 4,222 miles (6,795 kilometers) wide, Mars is big enough for everyone headed up there to play nicely, and the planet named for the Roman god of war won’t live up to its namesake…

IMHO, NASA should use the international rush to Mars as a way to “outsource” some red planet research. After all, the bloated budget tied to MSL nearly killed the twin rovers early last year. So maybe it’s time to think about cooperation over competition.

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—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Brown

This approach seemed to work nicely for Chandrayaan-1, the Indian moon probe sent up in October. NASA piggybacked a mineral mapper on that mission that’s already been sending back some 3-D images of the lunar surface with colors worthy of a Holi festival that give scientists a whole new perspective on what makes up Mars.

Why not continue that model, at least to some degree. In times of economic strife, doesn’t it pay to band together, pool some resources? Just a thought, NASA.

Changing Planet