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 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 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…

News From Space: More Happening on Mars!

marsIt seems like weeks since the Red Planet has been featured in the news. But that’s to be expected when the two biggest news makers – the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers – are either performing a long drive or climbing a tall mountain. Not much in the way of updates are expected, unless something goes wrong. Luckily, these rovers always find ways to surprise us.

After over a year on Mars, Curiosity has accomplished a long list of firsts. This latest occurred last week, when NASA announced that Curiosity picked up the pace of its long trek to Mount Sharp by completing its first two-day autonomous drive, in which the rover did one leg of an autonomous drive on Sunday, then completed it on Monday.

mars_scapePreviously, Curiosity’s autonomous drives were only executed after finishing a drive planned by mission control on Earth using images supplied by Curiosity. These images would then be uploaded its on board computer, and the rover would compare them with images taken by its navigation camera to plot a safe path. The drive completed Monday is the first where the rover ended an autonomous drive on one day, then continued it the next day by itself.

This is all thanks to the incorporation of the new autonomous navigation (or autonav) software, which NASA finished incorporating and debuted at the end of August. According to NASA, this new system not only allows the rover to drive itself for longer stretches of time, it also allows mission control to plan activities for several days, which could be implemented on Fridays and before holidays so the rover can continue to work while the staff are away.

curiosity_hirise_tracksAccording to NASA, on Sunday, the new software allowed Curiosity to drive about 55 m (180 ft) along a path planned by mission control, then switched to autonomous mode and traveled another 38m (125 ft) with the rover selecting waypoints and the safest path. It then stored navigation variables in its non-volatile memory, then reloaded them on Monday to drive another 32 m (105 ft).

In all, Curiosity covered about 125 meters (410 ft) in total. This brought it within about 80 m (262 ft) from “Cooperstown,” a rocky outcrop where the rover will be conducting another series of scientific examinations. These will be the first time that Curiosity has had the opportunity to use its arm-mounted instruments since September 22.

mountsharp_galecraterAccording to Kevin Lewis of Princeton University, who spoke about the upcoming studies in “Cooperstown”:

What interests us about this site is an intriguing outcrop of layered material visible in the orbital images. We want to see how the local layered outcrop at Cooperstown may help us relate the geology of Yellowknife Bay [on Mars] to the geology of Mount Sharp.

This stop will be only brief, as the rover team are anxious to get Curiosity back on its way to Mount Sharp. Once there, it will begin digging, drilling and generally seeking out the vast caches of minerals that the mountain is expected to have, ones which could potentially support a habitable environment. Exciting times ahead!

Sources: gizmag.com, jpl.nasa.gov

News From Space: We Come From Mars!

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356Men are from Mars, women are… also from Mars? That is the controversial theory that was proposed yesterday at the annual Goldschmidt Conference of geochemists being held in Florence, Italy. The proposal was made by Professor Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida and is the result of new evidence uncovered by his research team.

The theory that life on Earth originated on Mars has been argued before, but has remained contentious amongst the scientific community. However, Benner claims that new evidence supports the conclusion that the Red Planet really is our ancestral home by demonstrating that the elements for life here could only form on Mars, and came here via a Martian meteorite.

Asteroid-Impacts-MarsAccording to the theory, rocks violently flung up from the Red Planet’s surface during mammoth collisions with asteroids or comets then traveled millions of kilometers across interplanetary space to Earth. Once they reached Earth’s atmosphere. they melted, heated and exploded violently before the remnants crashed into the solid or liquid surface.

All that would be needed is for a few of those space born rocks to contain microbes from Mars surface. These building blocks of life would have to survive the journey through space and the impact on Earth to make this happen. But research into Exogenesis – the possibility that life was transplanted on Earth by meteorites – has already shown that this is possible.

curiosity_sol-177-1What’s more, NASA’s Curiosity Rover was expressly created to search for the the environmental conditions that would support life. Less than half a year into its mission it accomplished just that, locating proof of the existence of water and a habitable zone. Between it and the Opportunity Rover, the search to determine if life still exists – in the form of organic molecules – continues and is expected to yield results very soon.

But of course, Benner was quick to point out that there is a difference between habitability (i.e. where can life live) and origins (where might life have originated). The presence organic molecules alone is not enough when it comes to the mystery of life’s creation, and when it comes to making the great leap between having the necessarily elements and the existence of living organisms, scientists remain hung up on two paradoxes.

These are known as the tar paradox and the water paradox, respectively. The former paradox addresses how life as we know it comes down to the presence of organic molecules, which are produced by the chemistry of carbon and its compounds. However, the presence of these compounds does not ensure the creation of life, and laboratory experiments to combine and heat them has only ever produced tar.

mars_lifeAs he puts it, the origin of life involves “deserts” and oxidized forms of the elements Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo) – namely borate and molybdate. Essentially, these elements are the difference between the formation of tar and RNA, the very building block of life:

Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting. Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidized form of molybdenum was there too.

The second paradox relates to water, which is believed to be intrinsic for life to flourish, but can be also hazardous to its formation. According to modern research, RNA forms prebiotically, requiring mineral species like borate to capture organic elements before they devolve into tar and molybdate to arrange the material to give it ribose – organic sugars, also intrinsic to life.

Mars-snow-header-640x353This can only occur in deserts, he claims, because water is detrimental to RNA and inhibits the formation of borates and molybdates. And from a geological standpoint, there was simply too much water covering the early Earth’s surface to allow for this creation process to take place:

[W]ater is corrosive to RNA, which scientists believe was the first genetic molecule to appear. Although there was water on Mars, it covered much smaller areas than on early Earth. Various geologists will not let us have these [borates and molybdates] on early Earth, but they will let us have them on Mars. So IF you believe what the geologists are telling you about the structure of early Earth, AND you think that you need our chemistry to get RNA, AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars,

All of this has served to throw the previously-held theory – that life came to Earth through water, minerals and organics being transported by comets – into disarray. Based on this new theory, comets are a bad candidate for organic life since they lack the hot, dry conditions for borate and molybdate formation.

Living-Mars.2If the new theory is to be believed, Mars boasted the proper conditions to create the elements for life, while Earth possessed the water to help it flourish. If such a partnership is needed for the creation of organic life, then scientists will need to reevaluate the likelihood of finding it elsewhere in the universe. Between the existence of water and hot dry environments, life would seem to require more specialized conditions than previously though.

But of course, the debate on whether Earthlings are really Martians will continue as scientific research progresses and definitive proof is discovered and accepted by the majority of the scientific community. In the meantime, Curiosity is expected to rendezvous with Mount Sharp sometime next spring or summer, where it will determine if organic molecules and elements like Boron and Molybdenum exist there.

And on Nov. 18th, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter – which will begin studying the upper Martian atmosphere for the first time, determining its previous composition, and where all the water went and when was it lost. So we can expect plenty more news to come to us from our neighboring Red Planet. Wait and see!

Source: universetoday.com

News From Space: Penetrators to Explore Space

space_penetrator1As space exploration goes, we can do quite a bit within our own Solar System. We can land people on the Moon, rovers on Mars, and put satellites in orbit around the inner and outer planets. We even have the means of placing astronauts on Mars, presumably. But the cost are still prohibitively high, and when it comes to reaching distant celestial bodies, we remain pretty powerless.

Hence the new “space penetrator” program being contemplated by the European Space Agency. Basically, this amounts to a space missile that is fired in the direction of a celestial body, and which delivers a payload of sensors and equipment upon arrival on the surface. Classified as a “hard lander”, this program has been under development for ten years and offers many advantages over the standard soft lander.

space_penetratorFor starters, a soft lander not only has to slow down before landing (which requires rockets and a payload of fuel), but has to be built to land rather than just crash into the ground. And if a soft lander wants to collect subsurface samples or conduct readings, it requires additional equipment to drill and scoop. By contrast, a penetrator can simply smash through a planet’s surface layer, and requires no additional fuel or landing gears.

Of course, a space penetrator also comes with its share of issues, like ensuring that its payload survives the hard landing. This requires that a special spring mechanism be included in the outer shell that cushions the payload from impact. This “suspension system” is made out of Torlon polymer, which is able to provide a 2mm gap of insulation during a high deceleration. A retrorocket will be employed in order to soften the blow a bit as well.

space_penetrator2In order to rest the impact, the designers who built the steel penetrator fired it directly into a 10-ton block of ice. The missile traveled at 340m/s, just under the speed of sound, and turned the block into powder. But the penetrator’s casing and internal instruments remained intact and functional. Thanks to onboard sensors, the test impact will provide the developers of the missile, Rapid Space Technologies, with more information.

The space penetrator is intended to do more than just collect subsurface soil samples. Once in use, it will also help look for alien life by busting through icy surfaces, such as on Jupiter’s famous moon Europa. For years, scientists have suspected that the planet may support aquatic life beneath its icy surface. With the help of radio signals, the on-board sensors could send information up to an orbiting satellite, which could in turn relay that information back to Earth.

converted PNM fileThe European Space Agency has funded the project, but has not yet decided if it would ultimately use the space penetrator. Currently, the system isn’t designed to be launched from Earth, but rather a satellite or spaceship. There’s no telling if it will be used anytime soon, but it does present scientists and astronomers with an viable option for future interstellar exploration.

And there is huge potential as far as the exploration of Europa is concerned. Ever since it was postulated that subsurface oceans exist there – ones that are warm enough to support life – the Jovian moon has served as a source of inspiration for astronomers and science fiction writers alike. I for one am interested to see what resides underneath all that ice, provided we don’t disturb it too much!

And of course, there’s a video of the space penetrator test taking place. Check it out:


Sources:
extremetech.com, bbc.co.uk

The Arkyd 100: Crowdfunding Space Exploraiton

ARKYD-in-SpacePlanetary Resources made quite the impression last year when they announced their plans to begin prospecting near-Earth asteroids with in the intention of mining them in the near future. Alongside such companies as SpaceX and Golden Spike, they are part of a constellations of private interests looking to establish commercial space travel and tourism. But their latest proposal goes a step further, bringing crowdfunding and the realm of space exploration together.

That’s the idea behind a Kickstarter campaign that the company began to raise money for a crowdfunded space telescope. Known as the Arkyd 100, the company claims that this new telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

asteroid_miningTo make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Once the telescope is up and running, it will allow them to better map the asteroid belt, thus assisting them in finding the rocks they want to mine for precious metals and trace elements. And with public financial backers making it happen, anyone pledging money will be able to own a piece of the prospector!

During a webcast on May 28th to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, gave a rundown on the details of the telescope. And interestingly enough, the Planetary Resources’ technical team that designed it also worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover. So if you do choose to invest, you will do so with the knowledge that the same people who helped build the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are behind this project. If that doesn’t inspire investor confidence, I don’t know what will!

ARKYD-Space-SelfieA wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope. And those who invest will have the chance of recouping certain rewards, depending on how much they choose to pledge. Those pledging the minimum donation of $25 will receive the “Your Face in Space” benefit, where you will have you picture placed on the Arkyd and receive a picture of said photo the telescope with Earth in the background. Higher pledges will provide access to the telescope for students and researchers worldwide.

After less than 2 hours into their campaign, Planetary Resources had raised over $100,000. And as of this article’s writing, just one day shy of a week, the campaign has reached $710,945 of their $1 million goal, and they still have 27 days left. I guess people want a piece of this project. And who can blame them, since it is a scientific and historic first!

Check out the promotional video for the Arkyd and Planetary Resources below. To make a donation or get information about the Kickstarter campaign, visit the campaign page here.


Source:
universetoday.com