Parts of Mars Were Warmer than Earth this Winter!

Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA
Mars’ thin atmosphere, pictured here, causes a great deal of surface temperature variability. Credit: NASA

For the past two and a half years, the Curiosity Rover has been trekking across the surface of Mars, searching for clues as to what the planet looked like many eons ago. In addition to drilling, scanning, and occasionally taking breathtaking photos, it has also been monitoring data on the planet’s limited atmosphere, hoping to learn more about its composition and surface temperatures.

And according to the latest data obtained by the rover and processed by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), temperatures in the Gale Crater can reach a daytime high of -8 °C (17.6 °F). Meanwhile, here on Earth, cities in the northern US like Chicago and Buffalo were experiencing temperatures in the vicinity of -16 to -20 °C (2 to -4 °F). This means that, some parts of the United States are presently experiencing temperatures that are colder than on Mars!

Continue reading “Parts of Mars Were Warmer than Earth this Winter!”

Curiosity and the Case of the Martian “Coffin”

Hey folks! Thought I’d pop by to share a recent story that I was originally supposed to write about for UT, but which got delayed and then fell out of the news rotation. However, since I feel that the story is really relevant and was quite proud of it, I’d figured it could see the light of day over here. As the title says, it’s all about the recent “discovery” of a coffin on Mars, and all the wacko speculation that followed. Enjoy!

It’s whats known as pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon which refers to the human brain’s tendency to spot familiar things in random images. And when it comes to the Red Planet, there has been no shortage of incidents where people have seen familiar shapes and objects amidst the barren landscape.

First there was the Martian rat, followed shortly thereafter by the Martian doughnut, thighbone, and ball. And in the the latest case of curious objects spotted by the Curiosity rover, it appears that a long, flat rock has UFOlogists claiming there’s a coffin on the surface. Alas, it seems that Dracula is a Martian!

This picture was one of several sent back by the Curiosity Rover, which is currently drilling in the Gale Crater, looking for more samples of methane. After pouring over the photos at NASA JPL’s Mars Exploration Laboratory site, space blogger WhatsUpInTheSky37 noticed the odd shape and immediately posed about it.

Over on his site, which deals with the subject of “Mars Anomolies”, he posted sections of the photo that emphasized the long, box-like rock with the following comment: “Sure would love to know what’s buried in that coffin.”

The original Curiosity photo. The "coffin" appears near the bottom, whereas the "stonework" is distributed beyond it. Credit: NASA/JPL
The original Curiosity photo. The “coffin” appears near the bottom, whereas the “stonework” is distributed beyond it. Credit: NASA/JPL

Naturally, he since indicated on both his website and Youtube Channel that such observations were made facetiously. However, he was sincere in his belief that this rock, plus the apparent “stonework” arranged around it, are part of a growing mountain of evidence that Mars was once home to a flourishing civilization.

As he put it: “At sometime or even currently on Mars something was crawling around.  Something that was intelligent enough to work the stone and the landscape just like the beings here on Earth have for thousands of years.”

Very quickly, the photos went viral and attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists, who quickly took the internet to comment on this alleged coffin and NASA’s failure to comment. One blogger, writing for Top Secret Information, wrote the following in response to the image:

“This little box sure does look like a modern coffin concrete liner. As well as the stonework on the back part of the hill that looks like stairs or some left over stonework from some old civilisations constructions. It is incomprehensible that NASA takes no action to examine the stone box.”

Another blogger from UFO Sightings Daily – which also deals with suspicious photos and conspiracy theories – was quick to recommend that NASA inspect the box. “Coffins are made to stand the test of time, but this one is made from a stone like substance,” he wrote. “What would it take to get NASA to turn the rover around and examine the contents of this box?

Your typical "grey". Note the large eyes, grey skin, and compact dimensions. Perhaps for a tiny, stone coffin. Credit: 20th Century Fox Studios.
Your typical “grey”. Note the large eyes, grey skin, and compact dimensions – perfect for a tiny, stone coffin. Credit: 20th Century Fox Studios.

Said blogger also estimated the dimensions of the so-called coffin from the photos taken, saying that the dimensions are consistent with the size of a Martian. “It looks to be about one meter across and a foot and a half wide and high. Lots of alien species are short, including a species of greys.”

Greys, it should be noted, is a slang term aliens that have grey skin, no hair, big black eyes, and are short and hairless – a concept popularized by pulp science fiction and conspiracy theorists for many decades.

But as you can clearly see from the original, unedited photo, there are any number of rocks in the picture. Any one of them could be said to resemble something other than Martian stone. And human beings are renowned for their ability to pick out patterns from seemingly random objects, seeking the familiar in an otherwise confusing and chaotic universe.

The most well-known instance of this occurring in relation to Mars took place back in 1976, when the Viking 1 Orbiter snapped a photo of a long mesa in the Cydonia region that appeared to have a “face” staring out into space.

This photo became the basis for the “Face on Mars” controversy that would remain fixed in the public imagination for another two decades, until a slew of spacecraft visited the planet and took much sharper photos of the Cydonia region. These included NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image by its HiRISE camera of the "Face on Mars". Viking Orbiter image inset in bottom right corner. Credit: NASA/HiRISE
Image of the “Face on Mars”, taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. The Viking Orbiter image is visible in the bottom right corner. Credit: NASA/HiRISE

What they found, using their high-resolution cameras, dispelled the notion of a face being carved into the mesa by an intelligent species. Nevertheless, decades later, the popularity of a Martian civilization leaving clues of its existence persists – as demonstrated by this latest “coffin” controversy.

Needless to say, NASA has not yet offered any comment, nor have they shown any desire to indulge suggestions that Curiosity change course and investigate the “coffin”. As it stands, Curiosity’s schedule is full investigating the discovery of organic molecules on Mars, a finding which actually point towards the possibility of their once being life on the planet.

This is perhaps the greatest irony to arise out of this and other conspiracy theories regarding the Red Planet. All too often, these viral theories distract from the scientific research going on, not to mention the real implications it presents. Unfortunately, it is also a tendency amongst people to see significance where we want it to be rather than where it truly resides.

Like it or not, the human mind has always been determined to find patterns in the chaos, be it faces on Mars, portents in the heavens, fortunes in tea leaves and chicken entrails, or the face of Jesus in a gasoline rainbow. And if there’s one thing people love more than making sense out of their world, it’s a good old fashioned conspiracy involving aliens and evil government agencies!

And feel free to check out this video from What’s Up in the Sky which explains the “coffin and stonework” theory:

Bad New from Mars: First Colonists Doomed!

Mars_exploreWith the exploration of Mars continuing apace and a manned missions looming, there has been an explosion of interest in the idea of one day settling the planet. As the non-profit organization known as Mars One can attest, many people are  interested in becoming part of a mission to colonize the Red Planet. In fact, when they first went public, some 200,000 people signed on to become part of the experience.

The fact that the trip would be one-way and that the  plans for getting them there did not yet exist was not an deterrent. But if a recent study from MIT is to be believed, those who choose to go will and have the experience televised will be in for a rather harsh experience. According to a feasibility study produced by researchers at the Institute, the plan has potentially deadly and astronomically expensive flaws.

mars_revelationspaceAfter analyzing the Mars One mission plan, the MIT research group found that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days. The other astronauts would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The analysis also concludes that 15 Falcon Heavy launches – costing around $4.5 billion – would be needed to support the first four Mars One crew.

The technology underpinning the mission is rather nebulous; and indeed, that’s where the aerospace researchers at MIT find a number of potentially catastrophic faults. While the technology to set up a colony on Mars does technically exist, most of it is at a very low technology readiness level (TRL) and untested in a Mars-like environment. And the prediction that things will be worked out with time and crowdfunding does not appear to be sufficient.

Mars_one2Mars One will rely heavily on life support and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – squeezing water from Martian soil and oxygen from the atmosphere. But these technologies are still a long way off large-scale, industrial use by a nascent human colony on Mars. NASA’s next Mars rover will have an ISRU unit that will make oxygen from the Red Planet’s atmosphere of CO2 – but that rover isn’t scheduled to launch until 2020, just two years before the planned launch of Mars One.

Originally, Mars One’s sign-up list included some 200,000 candidates. That number has now been whittled down to 705 – a fairly even mix of men and women from all over the world, but mostly the US. Several teams of four astronauts (two men, two women) will now be assembled, and training will begin. The current plan is to send a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the first team of four to Mars in 2022 – just eight years from now. 

spaceX-falcon9The whole thing will be televised as a reality TV show, an instrinsic part of the plan since much of the funding is expected to come from media sponsors and advertisers. In the interim, a number of precursor missions – supplies, life-support units, living units, and supply units – will be sent to Mars ahead of the human colonizers. More colonists will be sent fairly rapidly thereafter, with 20 settlers expected by 2033.

The new feasibility study was led by Sydney Do, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done similar studies on other space missions. Do and his team ran a computer simulation based on publicly available information about the Mars One plan and the kinds of technologies it would rely on. The researchers entered data about the crew’s age, weight and activities to find out how much food, oxygen and water they would need.

Mars_GreenhouseThey took into account information from Mars One, such as its plan that “food from Earth will only serve as emergency rations” and the astronauts will mainly eat fresh food they grow themselves. The simulation monitored conditions in the Mars One habitat over 26 months – the amount of time between spaceships from Earth that would resupply them – or until the death of a crew member, whichever came first.

The results of their study were presented in a paper at the International Astronomic Union conference in Toronto last month. They suggest that serious changes would need to be made to the plan, which would either call for the astronauts to grow all their plants in a unit isolated from the astronauts’ living space to prevent pressure buildup in the habitats, or import all food from Earth instead of growing it on Mars.

mars_one2The researchers recommend the latter, as importing all the necessary food along with the first wave of colonists (not including the costs of development, operations, communications, and power systems) would cost $4.5 billion and require 15 Falcon 9 Heavy Rockets to transport it. Comparatively, flying all the equipment needed for the astronauts to grow their own food indefinitely which cost roughly $6.3 billion.

On top of all that, Do and his research staff have concluded that the project will not be sustainable financially. While Mars One says each subsequent manned mission will cost $4 billion, Do’s study found that each mission would cost more than the one before, due to the increasing number of spare parts and other supplies needed to support an increasing number of people.

mars_roverNaturally, Mars One replied that they are not deterred by the study. CEO and co-founder Bas Landorp – who helped develop the mission design – said the plan was based on the company’s own studies and feedback from engineers at aerospace companies that make space systems, such as Paragon Space Development and Lockheed Martin. He added that he and his people are “very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible”.

In any case, the study does not claim that the plan is bogus, just that it may be overreaching slightly. It’s not unreasonable to think that Mars One could get people to Mars, but the prospects for gradually building a self-sustaining colony is a bit farfetched right now. Clearly, more time is needed to further develop the requisite technologies and study the Martian environment before we start sending people to live there.

Mars_simulationOh well, people can dream can’t they? But the research and development are taking place. And at this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that a manned mission to Mars will be happening, along with additional robot missions. These will help lay the groundwork for eventual settlement. It’s only a question of when that could happen…


News from Space: We’re Going to Mars!

marsAs part of their desire to once again conduct launches into space from US soil, NASA recently awarded commercial space contracts worth $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX. But beyond restoring indigenous spaceflight capability, NASA’s long-term aim is clearly getting a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And in assigning the necessary money to the companies and visionaries willing to help make it happen, they just might succeed.

As per the agreement, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to finance the completion of the CST-100 spacecraft, and for up to six launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX is receiving $2.6 billion for its manned Dragon V2 capsule, and for up to six launches. NASA expressed excitement its collaboration with both companies, as it frees the agency up for bigger projects — such the development of its own Space Launch System (SLS).

elon-musk-on-mars-curiosity-self-640x353One person who is sure to be excited about all this is Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO, and  private space visionary. With this big infusion of cash, he has apparently decided that it’s time to bring his plans for Mars forward. Ever since 2007, Musk has indicated a desire to see his company mount a manned mission to Mars, and now he may finally have the resources and clout to make it happen.

These plans include flying astronauts to Mars by 2026, almost a decade before NASA thinks it will. By late 2012, he even spoke about building a Mars Colony with a population in the tens of thousands, most likely established sometime during the 2020’s. As of this past year, he has also revealed details about a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), an interplanetary taxi that would be capable of ferrying 100 people at a time to the surface.

Fan art concept of the MCT
Fan concept art of the MCT

And then in February of this year, SpaceX began developing the MCT’s engines. Known as the Raptor, this new breed of large engine reportedly has six times the thrust of the Merlin engines that power the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Now that the company has the financial resources to dream big, perhaps the MCT might move from the development stage to prototype creation.

And there is certainly no shortage of desire when it comes to sending people to the Red Planet. Together with Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, and Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, crowdfunded organizations are also on board for a manned mission. The case for settling it, which Musk himself endorses, is a good one – namely, that planting the seed of humanity on other worlds is the best way to ensure its survival. 

Earth_Mars_ComparisonAnd as Musk has stated many times now, a manned mission Mars is the reason there is a SpaceX. Back in 2001, while perusing NASA’s website, he was perturbed to find that the space agency had nothing in the way of plans for a mission to Mars. And the best time to go is probably in about 15 or 20 years, since Mars will be at its closes to Earth by then – some 58 million kilometers (36 million miles).

During this window of opportunity, the travel time between Earth and Mars will be measured in terms of months rather than years. This makes it the opportune time to send the first wave of manned spacecraft, be they two-way missions involving research crews, or one-way missions involving permanent settlers. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of people willing to volunteer for the latter.

Mars_one1When Mars One posted its signup list for their proposed mission (which is slated for 2025), they quickly drew over 200,000 applicants. And this was in spite of the fact that the most pertinent details, like how they are going to get them there, remained unresolved. Inspiration Mars, which seeks to send a couple on a round trip to Mars by 2021, is similarly receiving plenty of interest despite that they are still years away from figuring out all the angles.

In short, there is no shortage of people or companies eager to send a crewed spaceship to Mars, and federal agencies aren’t the only ones with the resources to dream big anymore. And it seems that the technology is keeping pace with interest and providing the means. With the necessary funding now secured, at least for the time being, it looks like the dream may finally be within our grasp.

Though it has yet to become a reality, it looks like the first Martians will actually come from Earth.

Sources:, (2),

News from Mars: Mysterious Martian Ball Found!

Mars_ballThe rocky surface of Mars has turned up some rather interestingly-shaped objects in the past. First there was the Martian rat, followed shortly thereafter by the Martian donut; and very recently, the Martian thighbone. And in this latest case, the Curiosity rover has spotted what appears to be a perfectly-round ball. Even more interesting is the fact that this sphere may be yet another indication of Mars’ watery past.

The rock ball was photographed on Sept. 11 – on Sol 746 of the rover’s mission on Mars – while Curiosity was exploring the Gale Crater. One of Curiosity’s cameras captured several images of the centimeter-wide ball as part of the stream of photographs was taking. The scientists working at the Mars Science Laboratory based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), immediately began to examine it for indications of what it could be.

mars-selfie-01-140501As Ian O’Neill of Discovery News, who spoke with NASA after the discovery, wrote:

According to MSL scientists based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., the ball isn’t as big as it looks — it’s approximately one centimeter wide. Their explanation is that it is most likely something known as a “concretion”… and they were created during sedimentary rock formation when Mars was abundant in liquid water many millions of years ago.

Curiosity has already found evidence of water at a dig site in Yellowknife Bay, which took place shortly after it landed in the Gale Crater two years ago. In addition, this is not the first time a Mars rover has found rocky spheres while examining the surface. In 2004, NASA’s Opportunity rover photographed a group of tiny balls made of a ferrous mineral called hematite. Opportunity photographed still more spheres, of a different composition, eight years later.

mars-blueberriesThe spheres likely formed through a process called “concretion”, where minerals precipitate within sedimentary rock, often into oval or spherical shapes. When the rock erodes due to wind or water, it leaves the balls of minerals behind and exposed. If in fact concretion caused the Mars spheres, then they would be evidence there was once water on the planet. However, some scientists believe the rock balls might be leftover from meteorites that broke up in the Martian atmosphere.

Curiosity is now at the base of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) – The 5.6 km-high (3.5 mile) mountain in the center of Gale Crater – scientists are excited to commence the rover’s main science goal. This will consists of more drilling into layered rock and examining the powder so scientist can gain an idea about how habitable the Red Planet was throughout its ancient history, and whether or not it may have been able to support microbial life.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AMission managers will need to be careful as the rover has battered wheels from rougher terrain than expected. Because of this, the rover will slowly climb the slope of Mount Sharp driving backwards, so as to minimize the chance of any further damage. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will also be on hand to help, photographing the route from above to find the smoothest routes.

Despite the wear and tear that the little rover has experienced in its two years on the Martian surface, it has discovered some amazing things and NASA scientists anticipate that it will accomplish much more in the course of its operational history. And as it carried on with its mission to decode the secrets of Mars, we can expect it will find lots more interesting rocks – spherical, rat-shaped, ringed, femur-like, or otherwise.



News from Mars: Soil Good for Growing!

Mars_GreenhouseWith numerous plans for a manned mission to Mars, some of which are scheduled to one-way settlement projects, the question of how and what people on Mars will eat is an important one. What will the Martian diet look like? How will they grow their food? Will it people subsist on endless supplies of freeze-dried rations, or will they get all the veggies, fruits and protein they need from hydroponic produce?

Well, according to Dutch ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the Martian settlers might just be able to grow their food in the local soil. In a series of experiments using soil tailored to fit extra-terrestrial environments, Wamelink was able to make a mustard seed sprout. The soil was provided by NASA, a sample which they had collected from the desert, dried out, and cleansed of certain nutrients that’s meant to replicate what Martian and lunar soil would be like.

martian_plantWamelink had ordered more than 100 pounds of each type to his research greenhouse in the Netherlands to see what kinds of plant life might prosper in greenhouses on other planets. He and his team planted tomato seeds, stinging nettle, carrots, rye, and a host of other wild species in the soils in a series of 840 pots, then published their results in PLOS One late last month.

As Wamelink, who works for the Alterra Institute at the University of Wageningen, explained:

I think we’re really the first to do that. We have looked at how plants see what [nutrients are] available in these soils, and it was unknown to NASA. They were very happy when we sent our results.

MarsGreenhouse2What was perhaps most impressive about the results was how well some plants fared in the imitation Mars soil. Some seeds germinated after just 24 hours and flowered within 50 days, something Wamelink had never expected. He knew that nitrogen might not be available in alien soils, but when he analyzed the Martian soil compared to nutrient-poor sand from the banks of the Rhine, he found that Mars actually had much more going for it than he thought.

The Martian atmosphere contains nitrogen, and gusts of gases from the sun charge the nitrogen into a form that is digestible for plants. The planet also contains phosphorus, ammonium, and nitrates – all essential for plant growth. Field mustard and a tough, wild Dutch species called “reflexed stone crop” produced some of the best results. Lunar soil, by contrast, didn’t provide very friendly turf for earthling plant species.

apollo_11_bootprint-e1405838911229Soil on the moon is thin, dusty, and full of aluminum and other heavy metals. Martian soil also contains lots of heavy metals, but it is aluminum that most plants don’t do too well in the presence of. So for the time being (or rather, if and when we settle the Moon), Lunar greenhouses will have to look to imports of Earth soil while Martian settlers can simple scoop the soil they need from outside their airlocks.

However, there are a few snags. For starters, even though Wamelink’s study provided some of the first evidence that species of Earth plants can grow on planets other than Earth, it still doesn’t show how eating those plants might affect humans. The Martian surface experiences lots of radiation, and eating radioactive plants full of heavy metals might not be the best idea for the human digestive system.

mars_growopNevertheless, Wamelink believes that some aspects of the Martian climate might actually be beneficial for plant growth. On a planet with a third of the gravitational pull of Earth, he suspects that plants might be able to grow taller than they ever would on their home planet. In his mind’s eye, he pictures plants encased in skyscraper Martian greenhouses. Alas, not all scientists agree with him, and he admits its an unresolved issue.

Still, its an exciting one that is loaded with potential. And who’s to say that after a little processing and decontamination, Martian soil would have everything the settlers need to grow their own food? The very fact that it is being considered and examined so seriously shows our commitment to making an enduring human presence on Mars a reality someday. And as that day get’s closer, more and more questions are likely to be addressed.

terraformingAnd figuring out how to grow our own crops in Martian soil will provide inevitable feedback on how we could use Earth plants to one day convert the ecology of the Red Planet and make it into something a little more suited to full-scale habitation. Who knows? In a few centuries time, Red Mars may become Green Mars. And perhaps even Blue Mars. Oh, Kim Stanley Robinson, you daring dreamer, you!


News from Mars: Curiosity Arrives at Mount Sharp

curiosity-mars-self-portrait-crop-640x353After two years exploring the Martian surface, the Curiosity Rover has finally reached its primary science destination – the foot of Mount Sharp, officially known as Aeolis Mons. Now that it’s there, it will begin its ascent of the rock formation, drill into rocks and analyze the different strata in the hopes of learning more about the history of the Red Planet. This is an event a long time in the making, and may prove to yield some of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made.

Located in the heart of the Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is like a layer cake, holding a chronology of past events reaching back billions of years. Because of this, it is an ideal place to find evidence that the Martian surface and atmosphere were once capable of supporting life. It took two years and one month for Curiosity reach the foot of this mountain, which lies some 5500 meters (18,000 feet) above the floor of Gale Crater.

MarsCuriosityTrek_20140911_AThe mountain is the central peak in a crater that measures 154 km/96 miles in diameter and which was formed when a meteor impacted the surface between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. Beyond a certain size, and depending on the gravity of the planet, craters like this all have a central peak. But Mount Sharp represents something much more, otherwise NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory wouldn’t be bothering with it.

Basically, Mars scientists believe that after its creation, the Gale crater was completely filled with sedimentary material from a series of huge floods, or by dust and ice deposits like those that happened at the Martian polar caps. The deposition over 2 billion years left a series sedimentary layers that filled the crater. Following the deposition of the layers, there was a long period of erosion which has finally led to the condition of the crater today.

mountsharp_galecraterThe erosion by some combination of aeolean (wind) forces and water (additional flooding), scooped out the huge crater, re-exposing most of the original depth. However, covering the original central peak are many sedimentary layers of debris. Gale crater’s original central peak actually remains completely hidden and covered by sedimentation. And it is this that attracted scientists with the Curiosity rover to the base of Mount Sharp.

Within the sedimentary layers is a sequential record of the environmental conditions on Mars going back over 2 billion years. While at the base, Curiosity will be able to examine the oldest sedimentary layers; but as it climbs the flanks of the mountain, it will be able to step forward in time. Each layer and its age will reveal information such as how much water was present, whether the water was alkaline or acidic, if there is any organic compounds.

john_klein_curiosity-2The discovery of organic compounds on Mount Sharp could be “Earth shaking”, since the discovery of organics is of very high importance to this mission. Already, over the two year trek, Curiosity has seen numerous signs of the flow of water and sedimentation. Interestingly enough, evidence began to turn up way back in Yellowknife Bay — one of its first destinations, which it visited almost two years ago. But as of yet, signs of organic compounds have remained illusive.

What’s more, Curiosity sadly lacks the necessary equipment to look for evidence of microbial fossils or other signatures of life. Fortunately, the next rover – the Mars 2020 rover – will be equipped with the necessary tools to work out whether Mars ever harbored life. In any case, because of the lack of organic compounds in Yellowknife, NASA decided to continue to Mount Sharp, which is currently the best place to dig up scientific data about Mars’ past.

MSL_TraverseMap_Sol0743-2048Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp, in a region called the Pahrump Hills, where it will continue on to the Murray Formation. Once there, it will take a drill sample of some rock and then continue up Mount Sharp towards the Hematite Ridge where two drill sites await. This farthest site is about 8 km (5 mi) away from its present position, and Curiosity has driven only 9 km since it landed in 2012. So there’s plenty of trekking and work ahead!

One of the greatest challenges is finding a path that will reduce the stress on Curiosity’s wheels, which have been put through some serious wear and tear in the past two years. Because of this, the rover is being driven in reverse for the time being, and the team is looking the path with the least amount of sharp rocks. However, the Mars Curiosity remains confident that the mobility system will be capable of surviving the ten year life span of the rover’s power supply.

And be sure to check out this “Curiosity Rover Report” that talks about this historic accomplishment, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:


News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


Settling Mars: The Mars Base Challenge 2014

mars-colonyLife on Mars can’t become a reality without some serious design concepts and engineering. And that’s why Thingiverse, in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, conduct the Makerbot Mars Base Challenge every year. Taking Mars’ extreme conditions into consideration, people are tasked with designing a utilitarian Mars base that can withstand the elements and make settlers feel at home.

The competition opened on May 30th and received some 227 submissions. The challenge brief asked entrants to take into account the extreme weather, radiation levels, lack of oxygen and dust storms when designing their Martian shelters. And the winning entries will each be awarded a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer in order to help them fully explore their designs for Martian abodes.

And although the applicants did not always nail the science, their designs have a novelty that has not been seen in some time. This can especially be seen in with this years finalists, which included a design for a Martian pyramid, a modular beehive and a three-tiered Acropolis.

MarsChallengeResultsThe Thingiverse community appears to have been hugely supportive, printing out the designs themselves and offering handy hints in the comment section beneath each entry. Some were dismissed for being impractical; for example, those that would be immediately flattened or kill all of its inhabitants if it were installed on the Martian surface. But one designer, Noah Hornberger, points out:

A toy car does not need fuel because it runs on the imagination of the child who drives it around. So it seems to me that I’m driving my toy car at full speed and you are here telling me what kind of fuel and oil it needs to run. I would rather leave the physics to the right people.

Luckily, that’s what NASA is on hand for – to ensure that it’s not just the mathematicians and engineers that have an interest or a say in our Martian future, but to make sure those designs and dreams that come from the public meet the basic scientific and engineering requirements. Bringing together inspired ideas and realistic needs, here’s how this year’s finalists measured up.

MarsPryamid-4_Feature_preview_featured This Mars structure is designed with resource consumption and allocation in mind, and also takes into account that the majority of activity would be taking place inside the structure rather than outside. As its creator, Valcrow. explained:

High traffic rooms all have ample natural Martian light to help with the crews extended isolation and confinement… This design focuses on looping essential systems into as many multi-functional roles as possible to ensure that the very limited resources are used and reused as much as possible.

This includes food created through a sustainable aquaponics system which would sit at the top of the pyramid, where it can get some light. A mirror-based series of solar panels will be responsible for collecting energy, with a nuclear generator for backup, and water would be stored near the main power center so that it heats up. The whole thing is inspired by the Pyramid of Giza, but unlike that beauty it can be reconfigured for science or engineering tasks and experiments.

Mars_beehiveThis second design, known as the Queen B because of its modular beehive configuration, comes with all the mod cons and home comforts you might expect on Earth – a kitchen, two bathrooms, a garden, and a 3D print lab and decompression room. Its creator, Noah Hornberger, chose a flat-panelled, low-level design that would be cheap and easy to build and allow for less heat energy to be lost. The hexagon shape was chosen for its durability and ability to form modular designs.

Depleted uranium would be used to create laminated panels that would shield out the elements, but would need to be sandwiched between other materials to make it safe for the occupants. An exothermic chemical reactor would meanwhile be used to heat an underground water container, which will provide heat for the basecamp. Excess steam could also power generators to supplement solar power.

Speaking on behalf of his creation, Hornberger said:

I have extrapolated on the idea of a fully functional apartment on Mars with all the modern amenities fitted inside 16-foot-diameter hexagons. I think that to present Mars life to people and actually make it appealing to the public it needs to feel like home and reflect the lifestyle trends of Earth living.

Mars_acropolisAnd last, but not least, there’s the Mars Acropolis – a design that blends materials used here on Earth to create a classic futurist design that looks like it would be at home in the classic Fritz Lang film. Concrete, steel and Martian soil help form the outer wall that protects the population, while carbon fibre, stainless steel, aluminium and titanium would be used to build the main body.

Three greenhouses contain the vegetation and help filter the air and produce oxygen, and there are decompression chambers at the entrance. On level two, residents can park their shuttles before entering the living quarters and labs, while level three acts as the nerve center – with flight operators and observation posts. It’s joined by a huge water reservoir that flows to the first level for purification.

Designer Chris Starr describes the layout as follows:

The structure serves as a mass research facility, to explore and develop means for additional colonization of the planet. Due to the water vapour contained in the Martian atmosphere, that vapour can be harnessed into usable liquid water, where the condensation is collected from the water vapour, which is filtered back into the reservoir.

mars_one2In all cases, the designs draw attention to the fact that any structures intended for life on Mars will have to achieve a balance between resource management, comfort and entertainment, and security against the elements. At this point, there’s no telling exactly what a Martian settlement will look like; but as always, the truth will likely be stranger than fiction. To see more designs that made it to the Mars Base Challenge this year, check out Thingiverse’s website.


News From Mars: Curiosity Celebrates 2 Years!

curiosity_peakEarlier this month, Curiosity marked its second year on the Red Planet, and this anniversary comes amidst plenty of exciting news and developments. Ever since the rover touched down at the Bradbury Landing site inside the Gale Crater on August 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm PDT (August 6, 05:31 GMT), it has been busily searching for signs that life once existed on Earth’s neighbor. And as it enters into its third year of exploration, it is getting closer to accomplishing this lofty goal.

The nuclear-powered explorer is the largest, most advanced rover ever built. And since nothing like it had ever flown before and the maintenance facility was over 160 million kilometers (1oo million miles) away, the first months that Curiosity spent on Mars involved an array of system tests before it took it first tentative rolls across the Martian sands on its roundabout path to Mount Sharp.

curiosity_roadmap1Curiosity’s main mission was to find out if there are any places on Mars where life could have once existed – specifically, areas displaying minerals and geology that could have been produced by water. The Bradbury Landing site, where it touched down, turned out to be very close to an ancient dried lake bed in an area named Yellowknife Bay. According to NASA, this lake bed may have been able to sustain microbial life billions of years ago.

And then, barely six months after landing, the scientists struck gold when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at Yellowknife Bay and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor. This was the first instance of Curiosity finding clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, which are a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

Curiosity_drillingsAs Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the Caltech said in a statement to mark the anniversary:

Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question. We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.

Compared to its first year, which was marked by many firsts – such as the first drilling operation on Mars, the first laser firing, and first UV night scans – Curiosity’s second year on the Red Planet has been more routine. However, it hasn’t been without its share of excitement. In February, the rover cleared a dune that blocked its progress and in July it negotiated a detour around rocky terrain at Zabriskie Plateau.

curiosity-2nd-year-2However, by far, the majority of the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet has been spent driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 9.0 kilometers (5.5 miles) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012, and her on board camera has snapped over 174,000 images – many of which have been transformed into panoramic shots of the surface.

The desired destination for the rover is now about 3 kms (2 miles) southwest of its current location. This consists of a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain known as Mount Sharp. As the primary destination on her ongoing mission, this layered mountain in the Gale Crater towers 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) into the Martian sky, and is believed to hold the most compelling evidence of life yet.

mountsharp_galecraterThe sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site. Using high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), they were able to determine the presence of deposits of clay-bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, a key sign that organic molecules could exist on the planet.

In late July of this year, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills”. Scientists anticipated that the outcrops here would offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing. However, the sharp edged rocks caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels, forcing it to make a detour.

Mars_rovermapThis detour will take Curiosity to a similar site called “Bonanza King” to carry out its fourth drilling mission. According to NASA, this is no great loss because the two areas are geologically connected and the space agency is keen to look at a formation that is different from the crater floor formations encountered so far. Engineers are studying Bonanza King to see if its is suitable for drilling by assessing whether or not the plates seen on the surface are loose.

When drilling operations resume, NASA will study alternative routes to Mount Sharp and determine how well the rover’s wheels can handle sand ripples. However, as Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, said during an interview during the rover’s second anniversary in Washington, DC : “Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year.”

Godspeed, little rover! And I do hope that it finds the long-sought-after organic particles it has been looking for since the mission began. This discovery will not only show that life once existed on Mars (and still does in some capacity) it will also be one of the greatest scientific finds of all time, and maybe even serve as the starting point for ensuring that it can exist again.


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