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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

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Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

A Heavy Tank made from a Blueberry carton and an Anchovy Can

I have been working hard on a children’s book about how to construct toy vehicles out of items from the rubbish bin.  Since I am getting close to finishing the 75 items required for the book, I thought I would share a few of my creations with you.  I have been using things I found in the garbage can, plus wooden hobby wheels, dowels, and paint from the craft store (although I think the wheels could be cut out of cardboard, and, in a pinch, straws or chopsticks could stand in for dowels).  Any feedback would be appreciated!

A Drag Racer Made out of a Coat Hanger and some Cardboard

The book is part of the “Green and Groovy Crafts” series from Downtown Bookworks, which has already featured titles such as The Lonely Sock Club: One Sock, Tons of Cool Projects! and Boy-Made: Green & Groovy which are available at those online links and at finer bookstores around the nation.  The theme of my book will be “Things that Go.” If the publishers like it, I am slated to make another one about how to create toy robots out of garbage!

The real shock of the project (other than realizing that 75 is a large number) is coming to terms with how much rubbish a household really produces.  I regard myself as an environmentalist in the sense that I care deeply for the earth, its ecosystems, and the organisms that dwell there (although I feel that a great deal of the contemporary green movement is misguided in its philosophy and its ends).  I don’t buy a lot of consumer goods (because they’re expensive and because many seem unnecessary).  I cook rather than ordering take-out. I don’t even drive an automobile: when I go somewhere I take the train or walk.  So, aside from the mixed-up-animal toys I design and produce (which are referenced in this post) I have always thought I have a fairly small ecological footprint.

A Helicopter made out of Cardboard, a Spool, and a Plastic Pod

Looking at all of the plastic bins, anchovy cans, milk cartons, syrup bottles, ointment jars, cups, rolls, bags, cans, bottles, and so on ad nauseum, that have showed up in my garbage certainly calls that view into question.

Anyway on to the rest of the pictures…. It has been fun to build a little society in miniature and my cat enjoyed stalking around the tiny vehicles and associated playscapes like she was Godzilla (you can see her there in a couple of the pictures).  I’ll try to post some more images closer to when the book is due to come out and, naturally, I’ll tell you when that happens.

A Riverboat made from a Shoebox, a Peanut Can, a Clip box, and a Toilet Paper Roll

A Steam Roller Made of a Coffe Can, an Almond Can, and a Shoebox

A Buggy made from a Detergent Bottle and a Coat Hanger

A Viking Boat Made from Carboard and Chopsticks (notice my cat ready to maraud)

A Regional Jetliner made from Cardboard, Spools, a Clothes Hanger, and a Paper Towel Roll

A Locomotive (Soapbox, Corks, Toilet Paper Roll, and Cut-up Bottle) and Caboose (Shoe Box, Milk Carton, and Toilet Paper Roll)

A Playscape with Hospital and Fire House

An Old-Fashioned Hearse Made From Cardboard

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