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:

Sources: universetoday.com, extremetech.com, jpl.nasa.gov, space.com

News from Space: NASA Showcases New Rover Tools

NASA_2020rover1Last Thursday at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, NASA unveiled more information about its Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to join Opportunity and Curiosity on the Red Planet by the end of the decade. The subject of this latest press release was the rover’s payload, which will consist of seven carefully-selected instruments that will conduct unprecedented science and exploratory investigations, and cost about $130 million to develop.

These instruments were selected from 58 proposals that were submitted back in January by researchers and engineers from all around the world. This is twice the usual number of proposals that NASA has received during instrument competitions in the recent past, and is a strong indicator of the extraordinary level of interest the scientific community is taking in the exploration of the Mars.

NASA_2020roverThese seven new instruments include:

  • Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE): this technology package will process the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. ISRU stands for In Situ Resource Utilization.
  • Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL): this spectrometer will use a high-resolution imager and X-ray fluorescence for detailed elemental analysis to a finer degree than possible with any prior equipment.
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC): this sensor suite will use an ultraviolet laser for fine-scale mineralogy, detecting organic compounds, and high-resolution imaging.
  • Mastcam-Z: an advanced camera system that will send home panoramic and stereoscopic images and assist with rover operations and help determine surface mineralogy.
  • SuperCam: an imaging device with super capacities to perform chemical composition analysis and more mineralogy. This tool will allow the rover to peer around hunting for organic compounds within rocks or weathered soils from a distance, helping identify interesting locations to sample in greater detail.
  • Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA): This sensor suite to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, and relative humidity. As dust is such a defining characteristic of weather on the red planet, it’s also going to measure dust size and shape, helping characterize how big of a hassle it will make housekeeping.
  • Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX): a ground-penetrating radar to imagine the subsurface to centimeter-scale resolution.

These instruments will be used to determine how future human explorers could exploit natural resources to live on Mars, pinning down limits to how much we could rely on using local materials. In addition, demonstration technology will test out processing atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, a key step towards using local resources for manufacturing oxidizers for rocket fuel and suitable for humans.

NASA_2020rover5This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the proposed mission, which is looking ahead to the possibility of manned Martian exploration and even settlement. To quote William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington:

Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible.

At the same time, and in keeping with plans for a manned mission, it will carry on in NASA’s long-term goal of unlocking Mars’ past and determining if life ever existed there. As John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, explained:

The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record. This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.

Mars_footprintNASA addressed these goals and more two weeks ago with their mission to Mars panel at the 2014 Comic-Con. This event, which featured retired astronaut and living legend Buzz Aldrin, spoke at length to a packed room about how Apollo 11 represented the “the first Giant Leap”. According to Aldrin, the Next Giant Leap could be “Apollo 45 landing humans on Mars.”

The panel discussion also included enthusiastic support of Orion and the Space Launch System which are currently under development and will be used when it finally comes time to send human explorers to join the rovers on Mars. The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed almost two years ago.

NASA_2020rover2Not only does it look virtually identical to Curiosity – from its six-wheeled chassis, on-board laboratory, and instrument-studded retractable arms – and will even be partly built using Curiosity’s spare parts.It will also land on Mars using the same lowered-to-the-surface-by-a-giant-sky-crane method. NASA als0 plans to use the rover to identify and select a collection of rock and soil samples that will be stored for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

These rock samples will likely have to wait until the proposed manned mission of 2030 to be picked up, but NASA seems hopeful that such a mission is in the cards. In the meantime, NASA is waiting for their MAVEN orbiter to reach Mars and begin exploring it’s atmosphere (it is expected to arrive by September), while the InSight Lander – which will examine Mars’ interior geology – is slated for launch by March 2016.

terraformingSo we can expect a lot more news and revelations about the Red Planet in the coming months and years. Who knows? Maybe we may finally find evidence of organic molecules or microbial life there soon, a find which will prove once and for all that life exists on other planets within our Solar System. And if we’re really lucky, we might just find that it could feasibly support life once again…

Sources: cbc.ca, fastcompany.com, nasa.gov, space.io9.com, (2), extremetech.com