News from Space: Insight Lander and the LDSD

mars-insight-lander-labelledScientists have been staring at the surface of Mars for decades through high-powered telescopes. Only recently, and with the help of robotic missions, has anyone been able to look deeper. And with the success of the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, NASA is preparing to go deeper. The space agency just got official approval to begin construction of the InSight lander, which will be launched in spring 2016. While there, it’s going to explore the subsurface of Mars to see what’s down there.

Officially, the lander is known as the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, and back in May, NASA passed the crucial mission final design review. The next step is to line up manufacturers and equipment partners to build the probe and get it to Mars on time. As with many deep space launches, the timing is incredibly important – if not launched at the right point in Earth’s orbit, the trip to Mars would be far too long.

Phoenix_landingUnlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on the Red Planet by way of a fascinating rocket-powered sky crane, the InSight will be a stationary probe more akin to the Phoenix lander. That probe was deployed to search the surface for signs of microbial life on Mars by collecting and analyzing soil samples. InSight, however, will not rely on a tiny shovel like Phoenix (pictured above) – it will have a fully articulating robotic arm equipped with burrowing instruments.

Also unlike its rover predecessors, once InSight sets down near the Martian equator, it will stay there for its entire two year mission – and possibly longer if it can hack it. That’s a much longer official mission duration than the Phoenix lander was designed for, meaning it’s going to need to endure some harsh conditions. This, in conjunction with InSight’s solar power system, made the equatorial region a preferable landing zone.

mars-core_bigFor the sake of its mission, the InSight lander will use a sensitive subsurface instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). This device will track ground motion transmitted through the interior of the planet caused by so-called “marsquakes” and distant meteor impacts. A separate heat flow analysis package will measure the heat radiating from the planet’s interior. From all of this, scientists hope to be able to shed some light on Mars early history and formation.

For instance, Earth’s larger size has kept its core hot and spinning for billions of years, which provides us with a protective magnetic field. By contrast, Mars cooled very quickly, so NASA scientists believe more data on the formation and early life of rocky planets will be preserved. The lander will also connect to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to precisely track the position of Mars over time. A slight wobbling could indicate the red planet still has a small molten core.

If all goes to plan, InSight should arrive on Mars just six months after its launch in Spring 2016. Hopefully it will not only teach us about Mars’ past, but our own as well.

LDSDAfter the daring new type of landing that was performed with the Curiosity rover, NASA went back to the drawing table to come up with something even better. Their solution: the “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”, a saucer-shaped vehicle consisting of an inflating buffer that goes around the ship’s heat shield. It is hopes that this will help future spacecrafts to put on the brakes as they enter Mar’s atmosphere so they can make a soft, controlled landing.

Back in January and again in April, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tested the LDSD using a rocket sled. Earlier this month, the next phase was to take place, in the form of a high-altitude balloon that would take it to an altitude of over 36,600 meters (120,000 feet). Once there, the device was to be dropped from the balloon sideways until it reached a velocity of four times the speed of sound. Then the LDSD would inflate, and the teams on the ground would asses how it behaved.

LDSD_testUnfortunately, the test did not take place, as NASA lost its reserved time at the range in Hawaii where it was slated to go down. As Mark Adler, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project manager, explained:

There were six total opportunities to test the vehicle, and the delay of all six opportunities was caused by weather. We needed the mid-level winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet [4,500 meters to 18,230 meters] to take the balloon away from the island. While there were a few days that were very close, none of the days had the proper wind conditions.

In short, bad weather foiled any potential opportunity to conduct the test before their time ran out. And while officials don’t know when they will get another chance to book time at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, they’re hoping to start the testing near the end of June. NASA emphasized that the bad weather was quite unexpected, as the team had spent two years looking at wind conditions worldwide and determined Kauai was the best spot for testing their concept over the ocean.

If the technology works, NASA says it will be useful for landing heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet. This is one of the challenges the agency must surmount if it launches human missions to the planet, which would require more equipment and living supplies than any of the rover or lander missions mounted so far. And if everything checks out, the testing goes as scheduled and the funding is available, NASA plans to use an LDSD on a spacecraft as early as 2018.

And in the meantime, check out this concept video of the LDSD, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Sources:, (2),

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:, (2)

News From Space: Walk on Mars with VR

oculus-rift-omni-treadmill-mars-nasa-640x353Virtual Reality, which was once the stuff of a cyberpunk wet dream, has grown somewhat stagnant in recent years. Large, bulky headsets, heavy cables, and graphics which were low definition and two-dimensional just didn’t seem to capture the essence of the concept. However, thanks to the Oculus Rift, the technology known as Virtual Reality has been getting a new lease on life.

Though it is still in the development phase, the makers of the Oculus Rift has mounted some impressive demos. Though still somewhat limited – using it with a mouse is counter-intuitive, and using it with a keyboard prevents using your body to scan virtual environments –  the potential is certainly there and the only question at this point is how to expand on it and give users the ability to do more.

Oculus-RiftOne group that is determined to explore its uses is NASA, who used it in combination  with an Omni treadmill to simulate walking on Mars. Already, the combination of these two technologies has allowed gamers to do some pretty impressive things, like pretend they are in an immersive environment, move, and interact with it (mainly shooting and blowing things up), which is what VR is meant to allow.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, however, went a step beyond this by combining the Omni and a stereoscopic 360-degree panorama of Mars to create a walking-on-Mars simulator. The NASA JPL team was able to give depth to the image so users could walk around an image of the Martian landscape. This is perhaps the closest normal folks will ever get to walking around on a “real” alien planet.

omni_treadmillAlong with the Martian terrain, JPL created a demo wherein the user could wander around the International Space Station. The JPL team also found that for all the sophisticated imagery beamed back to Earth, it is no substitute for being immersed in an environment. Using a rig similar to the Rift and Omni could help researchers better orient themselves with alien terrain, thus being able to better plan missions and experiments.

Looking to the long run, this kind of technology could be a means for creating “telexploration” (or Immersive Space Exploration) – a process where astronauts would be able to explore alien environments by connecting to rover’s or satellites camera feed and controlling their movements. In a way that is similar to teleconferencing, people would be able to conduct true research on an alien environment while feeling like they were actually in there.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedAlready, scientists at the Mars Science Laboratory have been doing just that with Curiosity and Opportunity, but the potential to bring this immersive experience to others is something many NASA and other space scientists want to see in the near future. What’s more, it is a cheap alternative to actually sending manned mission to other planets and star systems.

By simply beaming images back and allowing users to remotely control the robotic platform that is sending them, the best of both worlds can be had at a fraction of the cost. Whats more, it will allow people other than astronauts to witness and feel involved in the process of exploration, something that social media and live broadcasts from space is already allowing.

As usual, it seems that the age of open and democratic space travel is on its way, my friends. And as usual, there’s a video clip of the Oculus Rift and the Omni treadmill bringing a walk on Mars to life. Check it out:


Judgement Day Update: Headless Ape Bot

robosimianIt goes by the name of Robosimian, an ape-like robot that was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Designed and built by JPL and Stanford engineers, RoboSimian was a recent competitor in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition where participants attempt to create strong, dextrous, and flexible robots that could aid in disasters as well as search and rescue missions.

Admittedly, the robot looks kind of creepy, due in no small part to the fact that it doesn’t have a head. But keep in mind, this machine is designed to save your life. As part of the DARPA challenge, they are intended to go places that would be too dangerous for humans. So I imagine whatever issues a person may have with its aesthetics would disappear when they spotted one crawling to their rescue.

robosimian1To win the challenge, the semi-autonomous robots will have to complete difficult tasks that demonstrate its dexterity and ambulatory ability. These include removing debris from a doorway, using a tool to break through a concrete panel, connecting a fire hose to a pipe and turning it on, and driving a vehicle at a disaster site. The competition, which began in 2012, will have its first trials in December.

Many of the teams in the challenge are creating fairly humanoid robots but RoboSimian, as its name implies, looks a bit more like an ape. And there is a reason for this: relying on four very flexible limbs, each of which has a three-fingered hand, the robot is much better suited to climbing and hanging, much like our Simian cousins. This makes it well-suited for the DARPA-set requirement of climbing a ladder, and will no doubt come in handy when the robot has to navigate difficult environments.

Robosimian2The demo video, featured below, shows the robots hands doing dextrous tasks as well as doing some pull ups. There’s also a computer renderings of what the final machine may look like. Check it out:


News From Space: Volcanic Eruption on Io!

Io.1Io, the innermost of Jupiter’s four largest moons, has always been a source of wonder for astronomers and scientists. In addition to its pockmarked and ashen surface, it is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System, with about 240 active regions. This is due to the immense tidal forces that Jupiter provides, which create oceans of lava beneath the surface and huge volcanoes blasting it hundreds of kilometers into space.

Naturally, these eruptions are not visible directly from Earth unless one is using infrared cameras. But recently, a new series of eruptions were observed by Dr. Imke de Pater, Professor of Astronomy and of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California in Berkeley. She was using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii on August 15, 2013 when it immediately became apparent something big was happening at Io.

Io_eruptionIn a telephone interview with Universe Today, de Pater claims this eruption is one of the top 10 most powerful eruptions that have been seen on Io, and she just happened to have the best seat in the house to observe it.

When you are right at the telescope and see the data, this is something you can see immediately, especially with a big eruption like that. It is a very energetic eruption that covers over a 30 square kilometer area. For Earth, that is big, and for Io it is very big too. It really is one of the biggest eruptions we have seen.

However, the fact that it occurred in the Rarog Patera region of Io, aptly named for a Czech fire deity, is somewhat unusual. While many regions of Io are volcanically active, de Pater said she’s not been able to find any other previous activity that has been reported in the Rarog Patera area, which the team finds very interesting.

Galileo_IoAccording to Ashley Davies of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, California, Rarog Patera was identified as a small, relatively innocuous hot spot by the Galileo spacecraft during its encounter with the Jovian moon during the late 90’s. However, the observations made indicated that the volcanic activity was at a level way, way below what was seen on Aug 15.

Though we cannot see the eruptions directly, observation using the Keck telescope in the past have ascertained there are likely fountains of lava gushing from volcanically active fissures. But unlike volcanic eruptions here on Earth, which are already awesome and frightening to behold, eruptions on Io would be roughly 1000 times as powerful.

And since Io has no atmosphere to speak of, and the planet’s mass is significantly less than that of Earth’s (0.015 that of Earth’s to exact), the lava shoots off into space. Thus, for anyone standing on the moon’s surface, the result would look very much like a space launch at night, with plumes of flames reaching from the ground and extending indefinitely into the sky.

Io_Earth_Moon_ComparisonAs de Pater further indicated in the course of her interview, volcanic activity remains quite unpredictable on the Jovian moon:

We never know about eruptions – they can last hours, days months or years, so we have no idea how long it will stay active. but we are very excited about it.

No data or imagery has been released on the new eruption yet since the team is still making their observations and will be writing a paper on this topic. One thing is clear at this point, though. Despite its mysterious nature, Io still has a few surprises left for Earth scientists.

And for more information on the mysterious planet of Io, check out this Astronomycast podcast, featuring an interview with Dr. Pamela Gay of Southern Illinois University:


News From Space: Eyes on Europa

europa-landerIt’s one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, named the Jovians by the famed astronomer – Galileo Galilee – who first discovered them. And from all outward appearances, the moon is an icy, inhospitable place, with surface temperatures never reaching above -160º C (-256º F). Yet, beneath that frozen outer shell is believed to be a liquid, saltwater ocean, one that draws warmth from its orbit around Jupiter.

If this should indeed be the case, then Europa would be about the best candidate for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System, albeit in microbial form. For decades now, NASA has been working under that assumption and preparing for the day that it might be able to send an expedition or probe to confirm it. And it now seems that that day may be on the horizon.

europa-lander-2According to NASA, this would likely take the form of a robot lander. Much like Curiosity, Opportunity, and other robotic research vehicles, it would packed with a variety of sensors and analytical equipment. But of course, the nature of that equipment would be specifically tailored to answer a series of unknowns pertaining to Europa itself.

Overall, the lander would have three priorities: discover the makeup of minerals and organic matter present on the moon; examine the geophysics of the ice and the ocean underneath; and determine how the geology looks (and therefore how it might have evolved) at a human scale on the surface. Basically, it would all boil down to looking at chemistry, water and energy – in other words, the conditions necessary for life.

And though NASA has not announced any official dates, it has begun to speak of the idea an indication of intent. A new article by NASA scientists published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology entitled Science Potential from a Europa Lander set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved.

europa-lander-4One area of focus would be Europa’s distinctive linear surface cracks which are believed to be the result of tidal forces. Europa’s eccentric orbit about Jupiter causes very high tides when the moon passes closest to the gas giant, so it is thought that this process would generate the heat necessary for simple life to survive. NASA thinks the cracks could contain biological makers, molecules indicating the presence of organic life, which have come from the ocean.

But of course, plotting a mission is not as simple as simply launching a robot into space. To ensure that such a mission would maximize returns requires that a “scientifically optimized” landing site be identified, and to do that, Europa’s surface must be thoroughly surveilled. Thus far, the little we know and think about Europa is based on a handful of flybys by Voyager 2 in the 70s and the Galileo probe in the 90s.

europa-lander-3Lead author Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory summed up the situation as follows:

There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.

At the present time, NASA’s exploratory itinerary is quite packed. In addition to wanting to tow an asteroid closer to Earth to study it, launching two more rovers to Mars, constructing a settlement on the far side of the Moon, and conducting a manned mission to Mars, it’s safe to say that a robot lander on Europa won’t be happening for some time.

converted PNM fileBut of course, the plans are in place and moving forward with every passing year. NASA is certainly not going to pass up a chance to examine one of the Solar Systems best candidates for extra-terrestrial life, and we can certainly expect more deep-space probes to be launched once Cassini is finished shooting pictures of Saturn.

I am willing to bet good money that any future probe sent into the outer reaches of the Solar System will be tasked with taking high-resolution photos of Europa as part of its mission. And from that, we can certainly expect NASA, the ESA, and even the Chinese, Russians and Indians to start talking turkey within our lifetimes.

What do you think? 2035 seem like a safe bet for a Europa lander mission?


Happy Anniversary Curiosity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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:, (2) , (3),,