Parts of Mars Were Warmer than Earth this Winter!

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

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

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

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

Bad New from Mars: First Colonists Doomed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: cbc.ca, extremetech.com, web.mit.edu

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: MAVEN Orbiter Arrives!

maven_tv_backdropIn November 2013, NASA launched the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe from Cape Canaveral. Described as a “time machine” for Mars, the orbiter would spend the next ten months traversing space, assuming an orbit around the Red Planet, and look for an answer as to how Mars went from being a planet with an atmosphere and water to the dried out husk that we know today.

And this evening, after trekking some 711 million kilometers (442 million-mile) across our Solar System, MAVEN will have arrived in orbit around Mars and will begin its year-long mission to study the planet’s upper atmosphere. The arrival will be broadcast live, courtesy of NASA TV and Space.com. The live webcast will run from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. EDT (0130 to 0245 GMT), and if all goes well, MAVEN will enter orbit around Mars at 9:50 p.m. EDT (0250 GMT).

maven_launchAs David Mitchell, NASA’s MAVEN project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement:

So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars. The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.

Though plans to study Mars’ atmosphere in detail have been in the works for years, the MAVEN program received a big push from the ongoing efforts from the Curiosity rover. During its ongoing mission to study the surface of Mars, Curiosity was able to confirm that Mars had extensive surface water billions of years ago. This revelation came very early in the mission, and indicated some rather interesting things about Mars’ past.

Mars-snow-header-640x353For instance, although Mars is now too cold for flowing water today, it might have had a thicker atmosphere in the past that warmed its surface and allowed the liquid to remain stable on the surface. And while scientists have a pretty good idea how it was lost (i.e. too far our Sun, too low a gravity field), the rate of loss and when it disappeared are just some of the questions that MAVEN will attempt to answer.

Much of what scientists know about Mars’ upper atmosphere comes from just a few minutes’ worth of data from the two Viking landers that took measurements as they made their way to the Martian surface in the 1970s. This time around, NASA will be able to collect data for an entire year, gathering far more data than either the Viking landers or any other spacecraft has since had the opportunity to do.

maven_atmo1As Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, explained it:

The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go. These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.

NASA scientists understand that Mars’ upper atmosphere acts as an escape zone for molecules floating dozens of miles from the planet’s surface. They theorize that as the solar wind hits the atmosphere, the radiation strips away the lighter molecules and flings them into space forever. To test this hypothesis, MAVEN will be examining the state of Mars’ upper atmosphere, and ionosphere to determine its interactions with the solar wind.

maven_atmosphereIn so doing, NASA hopes to determine what the current rates of escape are for neutral gases and ions, and thus get a better picture of how long it took for the atmosphere to degrade and when it began degrading. The upper atmosphere of Mars likely changes as the sun’s activity increases and decreases, which is why MAVEN investigators hope to run the mission for longer than a year.

MAVEN will began making science measurements around Nov. 8, due to it taking a short break from its commissioning phase to watch Comet Siding Spring pass close by on Oct. 19. The $671 million MAVEN spacecraft is one of two missions that launched toward Mars last November and which are making their arrival this month. The other probe is India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched just before MAVEN and will arrive at the Red Planet this Wednesday (Sept. 24).

It is an exciting time for space exploration, and the coming years are sure to be characterized by an escalating and accelerating rate of learning. Be sure to head on over to Space.com to watch the arrival broadcast live. And be sure to check out the following videos – the Mars Arrival trailer; NASA Goddard Center’s “Targeting Mars” video; and the NASA MAVEN PSA, hosted by LeVar Burton:

MAVEN Mars Arrival Trailer:


Targeting Mars:


LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story:


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

News from Mars: Martian Water and Earth Organisms

curiosity_peakThis August, the Curiosity Rover will be celebrating its second anniversary of roving around the Red Planet. And ever since it made landfall, Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory has repeatedly uncovered signs that Mars was once very like Earth. Basically, it has become undeniable that water once flowed freely over the surface of this barren and uninhabitable world. And this finding, much to the delight of futurists and sci-fi enthusiasts everywhere, is likely to pave the way for human settlement.

Liquid water disappeared from Mars’ surface millions of years ago, leaving behind tantalizing clues about the planet’s ancient past—clues that the MSL has been deciphering for the past 22 months. This began last year when Curiosity found rounded pebbles in the Glenelg region, an indication that a stream once flowed at the site. This was followed by the discovery of rocky outcroppings where the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater.

mountsharp_galecraterThe rover has since moved to a location about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away from the Gale Crater landing site, where scientists expect to make even more discoveries. The new location is named Kimberly, after a region of northwestern Australia. As Dawn Sumner, a UC Davis geology professor and co-investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team, explained:

Our findings are showing that Mars is a planet that was once a whole lot like Earth. All the rocks we’ve seen on this mission are sediments that have been deposited by water. We’ve found almost no sandstone deposited by wind.

Sumner is working from Curiosity mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena while on sabbatical from UC Davis, exploring whether the planet ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life. She is also one of several UC scientists and engineers who have been vital to the success of the Curiosity mission, which is part of NASA’s long-term plan to pave the way for sending astronauts to Mars.

Living-Mars.2In that vein, research continues here on Earth to see exactly what kind of life can survive in the harsh Martian environment. And now,  research suggests that methanogens – among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth – could survive on Mars. These microorganisms are typically found in swamps and marshes, where they use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source to produce methane (aka. natural gas).

As an anaerobic bacteria, methanogens don’t require require oxygen or organic nutrients to live, and are non-photosynthetic. Hence, they would be able to exist in sub-surface environments and would therefore be ideal candidates for life on Mars. Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two species of methanogens to Martian conditions to see how they would fair on the Red Planet.

methanogens485These strains included Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum, both of which survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments. This consisted of testing the species for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms’ ideal growth temperatures. As she explained it:

The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day. If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars.

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She presented her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, which was held from May 17th to 20th in Boston.

maven_atmosphereThe two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures. Since the 1990s, Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one. According to Kral:

When they made that discovery, we were really excited because you ask the question ‘What’s the source of that methane?. One possibility would be methanogens.

Understanding the makeup of Mars atmosphere and ecology is another major step towards ensuring that life can exist there again someday. From Red Planet, to Blue Planet, to Green Planet… it all begins with a fundamental understanding of what is currently able to withstand the Martian environment. And once this foundation is secured, our ecologists and environmental engineers can begin contemplating what it will take to create a viable atmosphere and sustainable sources of water there someday.

terraformingSources: phys.org, (2)

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

Life on Mars: What it Once Looked Like

mars_oxygenBillions of years ago when the Red Planet was young, it appears to have had a thick atmosphere that was warm enough to support oceans of liquid water, and perhaps even life. Thanks to past and ongoing research conducted by the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, NASA scientists are certain that Mars once boasted conditions that would have supported life.

To dramatize these discoveries, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has created a video representation of what the environment might have looked like billions of years ago. The artist’s concept opens with Mars appearing as a warm, wet place, and then transitioning to the climate that we know today.  As the atmosphere gradually disappears, it changes from the Earthlike blue to the dusty pink and tan hues of Mars today.

As the description reads on NASA Goddard’s Youtube page:

The animation shows how the surface of Mars might have appeared during this ancient clement period, beginning with a flyover of a Martian lake. The artist’s concept is based on evidence that Mars was once very different. Rapidly moving clouds suggest the passage of time, and the shift from a warm and wet to a cold and dry climate is shown as the animation progresses.

By the end, Mars has transformed to the acrid environment of 2013 – all “dusty pink and tan hues”. One day, NASA believes it may be possible to bring the environment back from this fate. Though its a mere theory at this point, terraforming could transform Mars back into a warm, wet, and life-sustaining planet once more. Enjoy the clip!


Source: fastcoexist, svs.gsfc.nasa.gov