News from Mars: Laser-Blasting and Soil Sampling

mars_lifeAs the exploration of Mars goes on, the small army of robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters continue to provide us with information, photographs and discoveries that remind us of how great a mystery the Red Planet truly is. For instance, in the past month, two major stories have been announced concerning the nature of Martian soil, its ancient history, and some of the more exciting moments in it’s exploration.

For example, Curiosity made news as its high resolution camera caught an image of sparks being generated as it zapped a Martian rock. In it’s lifetime, the rover has used its million watt Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser to zap over 600 rock or soil targets as part of its mission. However, this was the first time that the rover team was able to get the arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the action as it occurred.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamThe ChemCam laser is used to determine the composition of Martian rocks and soils at a distance of up to 8 meters (25 feet). By hitting targets with several high-energy pulses, it is able to yield preliminary data for the scientists and engineers back at Earth to help them decide if a target warrants a closer investigation and, in rare cases, sampling and drilling activities.

ChemCam works through a process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The laser hits a target with pulses to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Successive laser shots are fired in sequence to gradually blast away thin layers of material. Each shot exposes a slightly deeper layer for examination by the ChemCam spectrometer.

Mars_novarockAs Curiosity fired deeper into the target rock – named “Nova” – it showed an increasing concentration of aluminum as the sequential laser blasts penetrated through the uninteresting dust on the rock’s surface. Silicon and sodium were also detected. As Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam’s Deputy Principal Investigator at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, said in a statement:

This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created… Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.

During it’s first year on Mars, Curiosity has already accomplished its primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer. Currently, the rover is driving swiftly to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, where it hopes to find more.

Mars_soilIn that same vein, according to new geological information obtained by Curiosty’s images and soil examinations, samples that were pulled out of a crater that is estimated to be some 3.7 billion years old contain more evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. These findings were announced in a recent paper published in the online edition of Geology by University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack.

Unlike Earth, the Martian landscape is littered with loose rocks from impacts or layered by catastrophic floods. However, recent images from Curiosity from the Gale Crater reveal Earth-like soil profiles with cracked surfaces lined with sulfate, ellipsoidal hollows and concentrations of sulfate comparable with soils in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedRetallack, the paper’s lone author, studied mineral and chemical data published by researchers closely tied with the Curiosity mission. As a professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontology research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, he internationally known as an expert on the recognition of paleosols – ancient fossilized soils contained in rocks.

As he explains in the paper:

The pictures were the first clue, but then all the data really nailed it. The key to this discovery has been the superb chemical and mineral analytical capability of the Curiosity Rover, which is an order of magnitude improvement over earlier generations of rovers. The new data show clear chemical weathering trends, and clay accumulation at the expense of the mineral olivine, as expected in soils on Earth. Phosphorus depletion within the profiles is especially tantalizing, because it attributed to microbial activity on Earth.

dryvalleysThe ancient soils do not prove that Mars once contained life, but they do add to growing evidence that an early, wetter and warmer Mars was more habitable than the planet has been in the past 3 billion years. Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.

Since Curiosity is currently on its way to Mount Sharp, future missions will be needed to fully explore these features. But as Retallack explained, the parallels with Earth are quite exciting:

None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars. The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground.

The newly discovered soils indicate that more benign and habitable soil condition existed on Mars than previously expected. What’s more, their dating to 3.7 billion years ago places them within a transition period when the planet went from an early, benign water cycle to the acidic and arid Mars of today. This is especially important since major changes were taking place on Earth at around the same time.

Living-Mars.2Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying. But some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might indicate that life existed on Earth earlier may have been destroyed by tectonic activity, which did not occur on Mars. Basically, it may offer some credence to the theory that while flourished on Earth, it originated on Mars.

One person who supports this theory is Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida.  In the past, he has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email interview with Science Daily, Benner wrote that Retallack’s paper:

[S]hows not only soils that might be direct products of an early Martian life, but also the wet-dry cycles that many models require for the emergence of life.

So in addition to shedding light on the mysteries of Mars, Curiosity has also been pivotal in addressing some major questions which only increase the mystery of our own existence. Did life as we know it originate on Mars but flourish on Earth? Are there still some remnants of this microbial “Eden” being preserved deep within the soil and rocks? And could life exist there again some day?

All good questions that will no doubt keep robotic rovers, orbiters, landers, and even manned missions busy for many decades to come! In the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Curiosity’s spark-generating laser blast being caught on tape:


News From Space: Curiosity’s Latest Photos

curiosity_sol-177-1April was a busy month for the very photo-talented (and photogenic) Curiosity Rover. In addition to another panoramic shot of the Martian landscape – which included Curiosity looking back at itself, making it a “selfie” – the rover also managed to capture a night-sky image that captured two minor planets and the Martian moon of Deimos in the same picture. At a time when Curiosity and Opportunity are both busy on long-haul missions to find evidence of life, these latest pictures remind us that day-to-day operations on Mars are still relevant.

The first shot took place on April 20th (Sol 606), when rover scientists used the Mast Camera to capture the minor planets of Ceres and Vesta, as well as the moon of Deimos, in the same frame. Ceres is a minor planet with a diameter of about 950 km, and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 563 km, Vesta is the third-largest object in the asteroid belt. Deimos, meanwhile, is the smaller of Mars’ two moons, with a mean radius of 6 km.

curiosity_nightskyIn the main portion of the new image (seen above), Vesta, Ceres and three stars appear as short streaks due to the duration of a 12-second exposure. In other camera pointings the same night, the Curiosity’s camera also imaged Phobos and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are shown as insets on the left.  Dr Mark Lemmon from Texas A&M University, a Curiosity team member, explained:

this imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season… The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.

Deimos was much brighter than the visible stars, Vesta and Ceres in the same part of the sky, in the main image. The circular inset covers a patch of sky the size that Earth’s full moon appears to observers on Earth. At the center of that circular inset, Deimos appears at its correct location in the sky, in a 0.25 second exposure.

Curiosity_selfieAs for the latest in Curiosity’s long-line of panoramic self-portraits, this one comes to us courtesy of Jason Major. As a graphic designer and amateur space explorer, Major assembled the picture from about the dozen or so images acquired with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). In the background, one can see the 5.5-km-high (3.4 miles) Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) that sits in the center of the Gale Crater.

One thing that Major noted about the picture he assembled is the way the cylindrical RUHF antenna and the bit of the RTG that is visible in the lower center seem to form a “toothy (if slightly dusty) grin”. But, as he stated:

…with almost 21 Earth-months on Mars and lots of discoveries already under her robot belt, Curiosity (and her team) certainly have plenty to smile about!

And the best is likely to still be coming. As we speak, Curiosity is making its way towards Mount Sharp and is expected to arrive there sometime in August. As the primary goal in its mission, Curiosity set off for this destination back in June after spending months studying Glenelg area. She is expected to arrive at the foot of the mountain in August, where she will begin drilling in an effort to study the mountain’s vast caches of minerals – which could potentially support a habitable environment.

mountsharp_galecraterIf Curiosity does find evidence of organic molecules in this cache, it will be one of the greatest scientific finds ever made, comparable only to the discovery of hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge, or the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains. For not only will we have definitive proof that life once existed on Mars, we will know with some certainly that it may again someday…

Stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet. And in the meantime, keep on trucking Curiosity!


Happy Anniversary Curiosity!

curiosity_sol-177-1Two days ago, the Mars Rover known as Curiosity celebrated a full year of being on the Red Planet. And what better way for it to celebrate than to revel in the scientific discoveries the rover has made? In addition to providing NASA scientists with years worth of valuable data, these groundbreaking finds have also demonstrated that Mars could once have supported past life – thereby accomplishing her primary science goal.

And it appears that the best is yet come, with the rover speeding off towards Mount Sharp – the 5.5 km (3.4 mile) high mountain dominating the center of the Gale Crater – which is the rover’s primary destination of the mission. This mountain is believed to contain vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment, thus making it a veritable gold mine of scientific data!

curiosity-anniversary-1To take stock of everything Curiosity has accomplished, some numbers need to be tallied. In the course of the past year, Curiosity has transmitted over 190 gigabits of data, captured more than 71,000 images, fired over 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of rocks and soil, and drilled into two rocks for sample analysis by the SAM & CheMin labs housed in her belly.

On top of all that, the rover passed the 1 mile (1.6 km) driving mark on August 1st. Granted, Mount Sharp (aka. Aeolis Mons) is still 8 km (5 miles) away and the trip is expected to take a full year. But the rover has had little problems negotiated the terrain at this point, and the potential for finding microbial life on the mountain is likely to make the extended trip worthwhile.

curiosity-anniversary-20But even that doesn’t do the rover’s year of accomplishments and firsts justice. To really take stock of them all, one must consult the long-form list of milestones Curiosity gave us. Here they are, in order of occurrence from landing to the the long trek to Mount Sharp that began last month:

1. The Landing: Curiosity’s entrance to Mars was something truly new and revolutionary. For starters, the distance between Earth and Mars at the time of her arrival was so great that the spacecraft had to make an entirely autonomous landing with mission control acting as a bystander on a 13-minute delay. This led to quite a bit a tension at Mission Control! In addition, Curiosity was protected by a revolutionary heat shield that also acted as a lifting body that allowed the craft to steer itself as it slowed down in the atmosphere. After the aeroshell and heat shield were jettisoned, the rover was lowered by a skycrane, which is a rocket-propelled frame with a winch that dropped Curiosity to the surface.

2. First Laser Test: Though Curiosity underwent many tests during the first three weeks after its landing, by far the most dramatic was the one involving its laser. This single megawatt laser, which was designed to vaporize solid rock and study the resultant plasma with its ChemCab system, is the first of its kind to be used on another planet. The first shot was just a test, but once Curiosity was on the move, it would be used for serious geological studies.Curiosity-Laser-Beam3. First Drive: Granted, Curiosity’s first drive test was more of a parking maneuver, where the rover moved a mere 4.57 m (15 ft), turned 120 degrees and then reversed about 2.4 m (8 feet). This brought it a total of about 6  m (20 ft) from its landing site – now named Bradbury Landing after the late author Ray Bradbury. Still, it was the first test of the rover’s drive system, which is essentially a scaled-up version of the one used by the Sojourn and Opportunity rovers. This consists of six 50 cm (20-in) titanium-spoked aluminum wheels, each with its own electric motor and traction cleats to deal with rough terrain.

4. Streams Human Voice: On August 28, 2012, Curiosity accomplished another historical first when it streamed a human voice from the planet Mars back to Earth across 267 million km (168 million miles). It was a 500 kilobyte audio file containing a prerecorded message of congratulations for the engineers behind Curiosity from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and demonstrated the challenges of sending radio beams from Earth to distant machines using satellite relays.

curiosity-anniversary-45. Writes a Message: Demonstrating that it can send messages back to Earth through other means than its radio transmitter, the Curiosity’s treads leave indentations in the ground that spell out JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) in Morse Code for all to see. Apparently, this is not so much a gimmick as a means of keeping track how many times the wheels make a full revolution, thus acting as an odometer rather than a message system.

6. Flexing the Arm: Curiosity’s robotic arm and the tools it wield are part of what make it so popular. But before it could be put to work, it had to tested extensively, which began on August 30th. The tools sported by this 1.88 m (6.2-ft) 33.11kg (73 lb) arm include a drill for boring into rocks and collecting powdered samples, an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), a scooping hand called the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA), the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and the Dust Removal Tool (DRT).

curiosity-alluvialplain7. Discovery of Ancient Stream Bed: Curiosity’s main mission is to seek out areas where life may have once or could still exist. Therefore, the discovery in September of rocky outcroppings that are the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater, was a major achievement. It meant that there was a time when Mars was once a much wetter place, and increases the chances that it once harbored life, and perhaps still does.

8. First Drilling: In February, Curiosity conducted the first robot drill on another planet. Whereas previous rovers have had to settle for samples obtained by scooping and scraping, Curiosity’s drill is capable of rotational and percussive drilling to get beneath the surface. This is good, considering that the intense UV radiation and highly reactive chemicals on the surface of Mars means that finding signs of life requires digging beneath the surface to the protected interior of rock formations.Curiosity_drillings9. Panoramic Self Portrait: If Curiosity has demonstrated one skill over and over, it is the ability to take pictures. This is due to the 17 cameras it has on board, ranging from the black and white navigation cameras to the high-resolution color imagers in the mast. In the first week of February, Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 130 high-resolution images, which were assembled into a 360⁰ panorama that included a portrait of itself. This was just one of several panoramic shots that Curiosity sent back to Earth, which were not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also provided scientists with a degree of clarity and context that it often lacking from images from unmanned probes. In addition, these self-portraits allow engineers to keep an eye on Curiosity’s physical condition.

10. Long Trek: And last, but not least, on July 4th, Curiosity began a long journey that took it out of the sedimentary outcrop called “Shaler” at Glenelg and began the journey to Mount Sharp which will take up to a year. On July 17, Curiosity passed the one-kilometer mark from Bradbury Landing in its travels, and has now gone more than a mile. Granted, this is still a long way from the breaking the long-distance record, currently held by Opportunity, but it’s a very good start.

curiosity_roadmapSuch was Curiosity’s first 365 days on Mars, in a nutshell. As it enters into its second year, it is expected to make many more finds, ones which are potentially “Earthshaking”, no doubt! What’s more, the findings of the last year have had an emboldening effect on NASA, which recently announced that it would be going ahead with additional missions to Mars.

These include the InSight lander, a robotic craft which will conduct interior studies of the planet that is expected to launch by 2016, and a 2020 rover mission that has yet to be named. In addition, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter as just arrived intact at the Kennedy Space Center and will be blasting off to the Red Planet on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast atop an Atlas V rocket.

maven_orbitThese missions constitute a major addition to NASA’s ongoing study of Mars and assessing its past, present and future habitability. Between rovers on the ground, interior studies of the surface, and atmospheric surveys conducted by MAVEN and other orbiters, scientists are likely to have a very clear picture as to what happened to Mars atmosphere and climate by the time manned missions begin in 2030.


Stay tuned for more discoveries as Curiosity begins its second year of deployment. Chances are, this year’s milestones and finds will make this past years look like an appetizer or a warm-up act. That’s my hope, at any rate. But considering what lies ahead of it, Curiosity is sure to deliver!

In the meantime, enjoy some of these videos provided by NASA. The first shows Curiosity’s SAM instrument singing “happy birthday” to the rover (though perhaps humming would be a more accurate word):

And check out this NASA video that sums up the rover’s first year in just two minutes:

Interactive Panorama of Curiosity!

Curiosity_selfportraitThe credit goes to photographer Andrew Bodrov for creating this new and stunning  interactive self-portrait of the Curiosity Rover. Relying on several recent images taken at the “John Klein” drilling sight, he was able to create a full 360-degree panorama. What’s more, the picture is interactive, giving viewers the option of clicking, zooming, and surveying the entire “John Klein” drilling sight.

The mosaic stretches about 30,000 pixels width and includes the self-portrait, which consists of 66 different images (seen above) taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013 here on Earth), along with 113 images taken on Sol 170 and an additional 17 images taken on Sol 176.

curiosity_sol-177-1The full and non-interactive photo appears above. If you look closely, you can see the drill holes directly beneath the rover. In addition, the shiny protuberance which was noticed earlier this month. And if you pan around the sky, you get a look at what a typical Martian day looks like, at least in Yellowknife Bay.

Click here to see the panorama and tinker with it some! And stay tuned for more news from the Red Planet!


The Latest From Mars: Water, Drilling, and Night Photos

curiosity_drilling2And we’re back from Mars with another slew of updates and breaking news! It seems that ever since the Curiosity Rover landed back in early August, the revelations and interesting facts have been pouring in non-stop. With each bit of news, we learn a little more about the Red Planet’s composition, its history, and how both are so similar to our own.

And in recent weeks, ever since Curiosity moved into Yellowknife Bay, there have been a number of interesting developments. One came back in January when the Rover found a series of calcium-rich deposits, similar to the kind observed here on Earth. These types of deposits are observed wherever and whenever water circulates through cracks and rock fractures. This is just the latest in a long string of discoveries which support the conclusion that Mars was once home to vast rivers.

curiosity_calciumThe images above show the similarity between the sulfate-rich veins seen by Curiosity rover to sulfate-rich veins seen on Earth. The view on the left is a mosaic of two shots from the remote micro-imager on Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument which were taken on Dec. 14, 2012, or the 126th sol (Martian day) of operations. The image on the right is from the Egyptian desert here on Earth, which a pocket knife included for scale.

curiosity_night1The next bit of news came on January 25th when Curiosity’s high resolution robotic arm camera – also known as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – snapped its first set of nighttime images. The images were illuminated by both an ultraviolet and white light emitting LED’s (shown above and below). The rock outcropping – named “Sayunei”, located at the site of the “John Klein” outcrop – was just one of many to be found in Yellowknife Bay where Curiosity has been conducting ongoing surveys.

curiosity_nightIn this case, it was breaking the rock apart in an effort to try and expose fresh material, free of obscuring dust. Once exposed, the pictures were meant to determine the internal makeup of the rock. “The purpose of acquiring observations under ultraviolet illumination was to look for fluorescent minerals,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. “If something looked green, yellow, orange or red under the ultraviolet illumination, that’d be a more clear-cut indicator of fluorescence.”

In addition, certain classes of organic compounds are also fluorescent. Yes, that search continues!

Curiosity_drillAnd last, but not least, came the news at the end of January that indicated that Curiosity’s long-awaited test of its high-powered drill will finally be taking place. This first drilling operation entailed hammering a test hole into a flat rock at the John Klien formation for the purposes of making sure everything works as needed. If things pan out, then the team would conduct many more tests and collect the drillings for analysis by the Rover’s CheMin and SAM analytical labs in the coming days.

In anticipation of the planned drilling operation, the rover carried out a series of four ‘pre-load’ tests on Monday (Jan. 27), whereby the rover placed the drill bit onto Martian surface targets at the John Klein outcrop and pressed down on the drill with the robotic arm. Engineers then checked the data to see whether the force applied matched predictions. The next step was an overnight pre-load test, to gain assurance that the large temperature change from day to night at the rover’s location would not add excessively to stress on the arm while it is pressing on the drill.

curiosity_drilling1The photo above shows the before and after shots of the rock where the drill conducted its hammering. And as you can see, the rock powered and is of a different color inside – slate gray as opposed to rust red. If the MSL lab deems the slab suitable, a number of test holes are likely to be drilled – using the rotation as well the percussive action – before a powdered sample is picked up and delivered to Curiosity’s onboard laboratories.

And so far, according to Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, things are looking good:

“The drilling is going very well so far and we’re making great progress with the early steps. The rock is behaving well and it looks pretty soft, so that’s encouraging,” he told BBC News.”

Ultimately, the purpose of the rover’s mission is to try to determine whether Gale has ever had the environments in the past that were capable of supporting bacterial life. Detailing the composition of rocks is critical to this investigation as the deposits in the crater will retain a geochemical record of the conditions under which they formed. Drilling a few centimetres inside a rock provides a fresh sample that is free from weathering or radiation damage, both of which are common to the Martian surface.

There is more to follow, for sure. And in the meantime, check out this video of the Mars Science Labs providing the latest Curiosity Rover Report explaining their finds for the month of January and plans for February.

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