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.

 

Sources: cbc.ca, universetoday.com, news.discovery.com

News from Space: MOM Arrives!

MOM_orbiterHistory was made this week as India’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully fired its braking rockets and arrived in Mars’ orbit. The arrival of India’s maiden interplanetary voyager was confirmed at 7:30am, India Standard Time (02:00 UTC, or 8:00pm EDT in the U.S. on Tuesday, Sept 23rd). MOM is the nation’s first attempt to explore the Red Planet, and represents a new era is space exploration.

By putting a probe in orbit around Earth’s neighbor, India has officially joined the elite club of only three other entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – i.e. Russia, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also represents an expansion in the space exploration, a competition once confined to two superpowers, to five major participants – the US, Russia, ESA, India and China.

India_Mars_Orbiter1It took over ten months for MOM to cross the roughly 225 million kilometers (140 million miles) of interplanetary space that lie between Earth and Mars. Nevertheless, the 12.5 minutes that it took for the signal to reach Earth were far more intense and exciting. And the good news, which arrived at 10:30pm EDT (Sept. 23rd) or 8:00 IST (Sept. 24th) was met with wild applause and beaming smiles at India’s Bangalore mission control center.

MOM’s Red Planet arrival was webcast live worldwide by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency which designed and developed the orbiter. ISRO’s website also gave a play by play in real time, announcing the results of critical spacecraft actions along the arrival timeline just moments after they became known. Indian PM Narenda Modi was watching the events unfold at ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC).

MOM_arrivalUpon the announced arrival, Modi addressed the team, the nation and a global audience, lauding the accomplishment and outlining the benefits and importance of India’s space program. In a speech that echoes John F. Kennedy’s own from 50 years ago, Modi also implored the team to strive for even greater space exploration challenges:

India has successfully reached Mars! History has been created today. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion… We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination. We have accurately navigated our spacecraft through a route known to very few. And we have done it from a distance so large that it took even a command signal from Earth to reach it more than it takes sunlight to reach us.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21. Together, they will assess the extent to which Mars’ atmosphere decayed over the course of billions of years, and hopefully be able to reconstruct what it once looked like, and how it came to deteriorate. From all this, scientists hope to learn whether or not Mars once hosted life, and still is in some form.

maven_tv_backdropMOM now joins Earth’s newly fortified armada of seven spacecraft currently operating on Mars surface or in orbit – which includes MAVEN, Mars Odyssey (MO), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Express (MEX), Curiosity and Opportunity. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN Principal Investigator, related well-wished on behalf of NASA in a post on the ISRO MOM Facebook page:

Congratulations to the MOM team on behalf of the entire MAVEN team! Here’s to exciting science from the two latest missions to join the Mars fleet!

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The flight path of the approximately $73 Million probe was being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to maintain its course.

MOM_trajectoryThe do-or-die breaking maneuver that put MOM into orbit, known as the Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI), involved the craft’s engines firing for 24 minutes and 13 seconds. The entire maneuver took place autonomously under the spacecrafts preprogrammed sole control due to the long communications lag time and also during a partial communications blackout when the probe was traveling behind Mars and the signal was blocked.

As the ISRO said in a statement:

The events related to Mars Orbit Insertion progressed satisfactorily and the spacecraft performance was normal. The Spacecraft is now circling Mars in an orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The inclination of orbit with respect to the equatorial plane of Mars is 150 degree, as intended. In this orbit, the spacecraft takes 72 hours 51 minutes 51 seconds to go round the Mars once.

MOM_pathMOM is expected to investigate the Red Planet for at least six months. Although it’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, it will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface using five indigenous instruments – including a tri color imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM). Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today. This will shed light not only on whether or not Mars supported life in the past, but if it still does in some form, and could possibly do so again.

This is an exciting time for space exploration, when ground-breaking news is happening on a regular basis and promises to lead to potentially Earth-shattering news in the future! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video that recap’s MOM’s historic mission and arrival, courtesy of WorldBreakingNews:


And this animation of the MAVEN and MOM orbit:


Sources:
universetoday.com, (2), nasaspaceflight.com

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.

terraforming

Sources: universetoday.com, gizmag.com, (2)

News from Space: Coming Comet Flyby of Mars

Mars_comet_flybyEarth’s neighbor is once again making the news, but not for the usual reasons. Rather than groundbreaking discoveries or updates being provided by the small army of rovers or satellites, the NASA has now got its eyes firmly fixed on the Red Planet because of an incoming comet. And in the coming months, NASA is taking every precaution to make sure its orbiting spacecraft are out of the way.

Known as C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, the comet’s icy nucleus is predicted to flyby Mars on Oct. 19th, and will miss the planet by just 132,000 km (82,000 miles). That’s 17 times closer than the closest recorded Earth-approaching comet, Lexell’s Comet, which skittered by our world in 1770. And while this is certainly a record-breaking event, no one is concerned about it damaging anything on the Martian surface.

Mars_comet_sidingspringIn fact, it the dust particles embedded in the comet’s vaporizing ice that concerns NASA planners. As dust spreads into a broad tail that could potentially brush Mars’ upper atmosphere, it could also play havoc with or even strike an orbiter. While tiny particles are hardly a hazard on their own, when they are traveling at 56 km (35 miles) per second relative to a spacecraft, a single impact could spell disaster.

Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains:

Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars. The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.

mars-comet-NASAHence why NASA is looking to get its hardware out of the way. The agency currently operates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft with a third orbiter, MAVEN, currently on its way to the planet and expected to settle into orbit a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by.

Already, mission planners tweaked MRO’s orbit on July 2 to move it toward a safe position with a second maneuver to follow on August 27. A similar adjustment is planned for Mars Odyssey on August 5 and October 9 for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. The time of greatest risk to the spacecraft is brief – about 20 minutes – when the widest part of the comet’s tail passes closest to the planet.

MARS-COMET-surfaceAs for the rovers on the surface, there really isn’t much to worry about there. Similar to what happens with meteor showers here on Earth, Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough that cometary dust particles will incinerate before they reach the surface. And its expected that rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during the comet’s closest approach.

Despite concerns about dust, NASA knows a good opportunity when it sees one. In the days before and after the flyby, all three orbiters will conduct studies on the comet. According to a recent NASA press release, instruments on MRO and Odyssey will examine the nucleus, coma and tail and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere:

Odyssey will study thermal and spectral properties of the comet’s coma and tail. MRO will monitor Mars’ atmosphere for possible temperature increases and cloud formation, as well as changes in electron density at high altitudes and MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as it’s warmed by the sun. The team anticipates this event will yield detailed views of the comet’s nucleus and potentially reveal its rotation rate and surface features.

This is Comet Siding Spring’s first trip to the inner solar system, so we can expect plenty of news and updates as it passes Mars. And the icy vapor and dust it leaves behind, which has been in a state of deep freeze since the time the planets were formed, will make for some pretty interest research as well! And be sure to check out this Solar System Scope simulation of the comet’s path as it makes it way through our Solar System past Mars.

Source: universetoday.com, solarsystemscope.com

News from Mars: Opportunity Still at Work

opportunityAfter ten years in service (when it wasn’t supposed to last longer than nine months), one would think that left for the Opportunity rover to do. And yet, Opportunity is still hard at work, thanks in no small part to its solar panels being their cleanest in years. In its latest research stint, NASA’s decade-old Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is inspecting a section of crater-rim ridgeline chosen as a priority target due to evidence of a water-related mineral.

Orbital observations of the site by another NASA spacecraft – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – found a spectrum with the signature of aluminum bound to oxygen and hydrogen. Researchers regard that signature as a marker for a mineral called montmorillonite, which is in a class of clay minerals (called smectites) that forms when basalt is altered under wet and slightly acidic conditions. The exposure of it extends about 240 meters (800 feet) north to south on the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

Mars_Reconnaissance_OrbiterThe detection was made possible using the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) combined with rover observations some 3 kms (2 miles) north on the crater’s western rim. Rocks exposed there contain evidence for an iron-bearing smectite – called nontronite – as well as for montmorillonite. That site yielded evidence for an ancient environment with water that would have been well-suited for use by microbes, evidence that could boost our understanding of what Mars looked like billions of years ago.

Opportunity reached the northern end of the montmorillonite-bearing exposure last month – a high point known as “Pillinger Point.” Opportunity’s international science team chose that informal name in honor of Colin Pillinger (1943-2014), the British principal investigator for the Beagle 2 project, which attempted to set a research lander on Mars a few weeks before Opportunity landed there in January of 2004.

Beagle 2Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, had this to say about Pillinger:

Colin and his team were trying to get to Mars at the same time that we were, and in some ways they faced even greater challenges than we did. Our team has always had enormous respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which Colin Pillinger undertook the Beagle 2 mission. He will be missed.

Though selected as a science destination, Pillinger Point also offers a scenic vista from atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 22 kms (14 miles) in diameter. The picture below shows a section of a color shot taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam) upon arrival. A full-size view of this picture can be seen by going to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Exploration Rovers webpage.

Pillinger_pointInitial measurements at this site with the element-identifying alpha particle X-ray spectrometer at the end of Opportunity’s arm indicate that bright-toned veins in the rock contain calcium sulfate. Scientists deduce this mineral was deposited as water moved through fractures on Endeavour’s rim. The rover found similar veins of calcium sulfate farther north along the rim while investigating there earlier last month.

As Opportunity investigated this site and other sites farther south along the rim, the rover had more energy than usual. This was due to the solar cells being in rare form, says Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The solar panels have not been this clean since the first year of the mission. It’s amazing, when you consider that accumulation of dust on the solar panels was originally expected to cause the end of the mission in less than a year. Now it’s as if we’d been a ship out at sea for 10 years and just picked up new provisions at a port of call, topping off our supplies.

Both Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, benefited from sporadic dust-cleaning events in past years. However, on the ridge that Opportunity has been navigating since late 2013, winds have removed dust more steadily, day by day, than either rover has experienced elsewhere. The rover’s signs of aging – including a stiff shoulder joint and occasional losses of data – have not grown more troublesome in the past year, and no new symptoms have appeared.

mountsharp_galecraterJPL’s Jennifer Herman, power-subsystem engineer added:

It’s easy to forget that Opportunity is in the middle of a Martian winter right now. Because of the clean solar arrays, clear skies and favorable tilt, there is more energy for operations now than there was any time during the previous three Martian summers. Opportunity is now able to pull scientific all-nighters for three nights in a row — something she hasn’t had the energy to do in years.

During Opportunity’s first decade on Mars and the 2004-2010 career of Spirit, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project yielded a range of findings about wet environmental conditions on ancient Mars – some very acidic, others milder and more conducive to supporting life. These findings have since been supplemented and confirmed by findings by the Curiosity Rover, which hopes to find plenty of clues as to the nature of possible life on Mars when it reaches Mount Sharp later this summer.

Source: sciencedaily.com, marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov

News from Space: Mars Gets New Crater!

martian_craterThe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured this image of a 50-meter wide crater on the Red Planet back on March 28th, 2012. But the impressive thing is that this same crater was not there when the MRO took pictures of the area the day before. In other words, this crater was spotted less than a day after the impact that formed it. This is a record=setting events, since it usually takes a few years before the presence of new craters have been confirmed.

In this case, though, the constant sweep of the Mars weather camera (called the Mars Color Imager, or MARCI) picked up the black smudge that is a telltale sign of a fresh impact. Because the imager is low-resolution, it sees a large area of the surface, and does so all the time. It’s also the largest crater in the solar system ever seen with before and after shots. At 50 meters or so across, it’s half the length of a football field, so the impacting object was probably up to a few meters across.

mars_crater_marcimars_crater_marci2Something that small would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but given that Mars has a much thinner atmosphere (about 1 percent as thick of Earth’s) rocks of this size make it to the surface with ease. Once they make it to the ground, they hit hard enough to carve out a hole and blast out ejecta debris – which was how the crater was found. But the atmosphere is thick enough to cause a lot of pressure in front of the incoming meteoroid, which can break it up into smaller pieces.

As you can see from the images above – the top which was taken on March 27th and the bottom on the following day – there was one big crater, one smaller one, and quite a few even smaller ones around the main one. These may have been from pieces of the meteoroid that broke up as it came in. Not only that, but landslides were observed in the area that occurred around the same time, so they may have been caused by the seismic ground wave from the impact as well.

mars_avalanche4Events like this are not only novel, they are also very useful for scientists, since they help them to understand how impacts have shaped the Martian landscape. They also help determine the number of small impacts suffered by Mars (and by extrapolation, Earth), and in some cases reveal what’s underneath the surface of the planet (including ice). This latest impact is many ways a gift, since most craters are very old and the atmosphere have eroded them to the point that there results are no longer fresh.

Kudos to the MRO team for their fine work in spotting this new Martian surface feature. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video that explains this record find, courtesy of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Sources:
slate.com, space.IO9.com, mars.nasa.gov

News From Mars: New Impact Crater and Landslides

Mars_impact_craterThe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in operation around Mars since March of 2006, has provided ongoing observation of the planet. Because of this, scientists and astronomers have been able to keep track of changes on the surface ever since. This new impact crater, which was formed by a recent meteor impact, is just the latest example.

The image was taken by the Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Nov. 19, 2013. Since that time, NASA scientists have been working to enhance the image and rendering it in false color so the fresh crater appears.The resulting image shows the stunning 30-meter-wide crater with a rayed blast zone and far-flung secondary material surrounding.

Mars_Reconnaissance_OrbiterResearchers used HiRISE to examine this site because the orbiter’s Context Camera had revealed a change in appearance here between observations in July 2010 and May 2012, when the impact was thought to have occurred. After examining the impact site, scientists estimate the impact and resulting explosion threw debris as far as 15 kilometers in distance.

Before-and-after imaging that brackets appearance dates of fresh craters on Mars has indicated that impacts producing craters at least 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) in diameter occur at a rate exceeding 200 per year globally. But most of those are much smaller than this new one, and leave scars are as dramatic in appearance. This latest impact was definitely one for the history books.

Mars_dunesSpeaking of dramatic, these recent releases from the HiRISE laboratory captured some truly magnificent activity, which included a series of avalanches and defrosting dunes on the surface. Snow, dust and wind are combining to make the incredible images that were captured. The raw images appear in black and white (as the snowy dunes pictured above).

The colorized versions, as show below, indicate the presence of snow, ice and red surface dust. These latest pictures, perhaps more than any previous, illustrate the awe and wonder the Red Planet holds. And as humanity’s contact and involvement with the planet and continues, they remind us that nothing from that world is to be taken for granted.

mars_avalanche mars_avalanche1 mars_avalanche2 mars_avalanche3And as we get closer to 2030, when a manned mission is scheduled to take place – not to mention private missions that aim to put colonists there by 2023 – chance encounters with the surface like this are certain to inspire excitement and anticipation. Right now, these events and surface features are being watched from above or by rovers on the surface.

But someday soon, people will be standing on the surface and looking upon it with their own eyes. Their feet will be crushing into red sand, romping through Martian snow and ice, and standing in the middle of craters and looking up at Olympus Mons. What will they be thinking as they do it? We can only wonder and hope that we’ll be able to share it with them…

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

News From Mars: Curiosity and Opportunity On the Move

marsMars has been quite the source of news in recent weeks. And perhaps its the fact that I got to witness some truly interesting astronomical phenomena yesterday – i.e. Sunspots through a telescope – but all of them seem to have caught my attention at once. And given their importance to the ongoing exploration of Mars and our Solar System, I would be remiss if I didn’t pass them on.

The first bit of news began late last month, when the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the Curiosity rover as it made its way through the “Glenelg” area of Gale Crater. The rover appeared as a little more than a blueish dot in the picture, but much more visible was the rover’s tracks.

curiosity_hirise_tracks This unique photo was made possible thanks to a little maneuvering and a some serious alignment. Basically, the folks working at the Mars Science Laboratory were able to bring the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) into position between the Sun and curiosity, bringing the Sun, MRO, and the rover on the surface were in a near-perfect alignment.

HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen addressed the photos on the HiRISE website and explained how it was all made possible:

The rover tracks stand out clearly in this view, extending west to the landing site where two bright, relatively blue spots indicate where MSL’s landing jets cleared off the redder surface dust. When HiRISE captured this view, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward. The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. Specifically, the angle from sun to orbiter to rover was just 5.47 degrees.

Curiosity has since moved on and is now heading towards the large mound in Gale Crater officially named Aeolis Mons (aka. Mount Sharp).

curiosity_roadmapWhich brings us to the second news item in this week’s Mars bulletin. It seems that since July 4th, after finishing up a seven months survey in Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity has achieved a long-distance driving record as it made its way to Mount Sharp. This took place on Saturday July 21st (Sol 340), when Curiosity drove a distance of 100.3 meters (109.7 yards) in a single day.

To give you some perspective, that’s the length of a football field (at least in the US), a distance that is without equal since she first landed inside the Gale Crater nearly a year ago. The previous record for a one-day drive was about half a football field – 49 meters (54 yards) – and was achieved on Sept. 26, 2012 (Sol 50), roughly seven weeks after Curiosity made its tense, nail-biting landing.

Curiosity-departs-Glenelg-Sol-324_2a_Ken-Kremer--580x291Paolo Bellutta, a rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, explained what made the feat possible in a statement:

What enabled us to drive so far on Sol 340 was starting at a high point and also having Mastcam images giving us the size of rocks so we could be sure they were not hazards. We could see for quite a distance, but there was an area straight ahead that was not clearly visible, so we had to find a path around that area.

A combination of increased experience by the rover’s engineers and a series of intermediate software upgrades have also played a key role in getting Curiosity on its way to the 5.5 kilometer (3.4 mile) high Mount Sharp. This is expected to improve even more as soon as new driving software called autonomous navigation (or autonav) finishes development and is incorporated.

mountsharp_galecraterFollowing another lengthy drive of 62.4 meters (68.2 yards) on Wednesday, July 23 (Sol 342), the mission’s total driving distance  stands at 1.23 kilometers (0.81 mile) so far. But Mount Sharp still lies about another 8 km (5 miles) away at this point, so we can be expect to be hearing plenty from the rover between now and when it arrives.

For the record, it has already been discovered that the mountain contains vast caches of minerals that could potentially support a habitable environment. So when Curiosity arrives, we can expect another string of exciting finds!

Opportunity-nears-Solander-Point-Sol-3374-N1-crop_Ken-Kremer-580x309And it is this subject of mountain goals which brings me to the last, but by no means least, of the Martian updates. While Curiosity has been making its way towards Mt. Sharp to conduct research on potentially habitable environments, Opportunity is just days away from reaching Solander Point, another Martian mountain which NASA seeks to learn more about.

This comes on the heels of the rover’s ten year, ongoing mission that was only ever expected to last ninety days. According to an update from Ray Arvidson earlier today, the mission’s deputy principal scientific investigator from Washington University in St. Louis, the rover is now just 180 meters away from the new mountain.

opportunity_roadmapAs NASA had previously stated, Solander Point represents ‘something completely different’ for the rover, being the first mountain it will ever climb. What’s more, the mountains mineral wealth may possess the key chemical ingredients necessary to sustain Martian life forms, and the area exhibits signatures related to water flow.

In many ways, you could say Solander Point represents a chance for the Mars Science Laboratory to find the elusive “organic molecules” they’ve been searching for since Curiosity first landed. And if it’s the veteran rover that finds the first hard evidence of their existence, it would be quite the feather in the Opportunity team’s cap.

opportunity_bdayBut before moving onto the first leg of ascent, Arvidson explained that the rover will be making a brief pause in its current location to conduce some exciting experiments. Thanks to observations made of the area by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with its CRISM instrument (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometers for Mars), the rover will be conducting some on-the-spot analysis to see if there is indeed evidence of water.

This past spring, Opportunity made the historic discovery of clay minerals and a habitable environment on a low hill called Cape York, the rover’s prior stop along the rim of Endeavour Crater. Solander was selected as the robot’s next destination because it also offers a goldmine of scientific data. Another reason was because its north facing slopes will be a boon to Opportunity’s solar wings, ensuring it more power before Martian winter sets in.

opportunity_missionmapBut since Opportunity is currently sitting on a healthy supply of power and has some time before the onset of her 6th Martian winter, the team decided to take a small detour to the southeast and spend several days exploring the area for more evidence of water-bearing minerals.

If successful, this will be yet another accomplishment for the rover during its long tenure of service to NASA. Today marks the 3380th day of continuous service for the rover – aka. Sol 3380 – a mission which has resulted in numerous scientific finds, over 182,000 images, and a driving distance of roughly 38 kilometers (23.6 miles). This, as already mentioned, puts Opportunity in the top spot for the longest distance traveled on another planet.

Yes, it seems that the Red Planet is certainly doing all it can to keep explorers and scientists intrigued. No telling what we might learn between now and the point when manned missions take place, and human astronauts are able to see the surface and study its mysteries close up. Personally, I’m hoping for signs of existing supplies of water, not to mention those tricky organic molecules. If settlement and terraforming are ever to take place, we need to know we’ve got something to work with!

Sources: universetoday.com, (2) , (3), nasa.gov, space.com