News from Space: Curiosity Finds Water!

curiosity_drillsGood news (and bad) from the Red Planet! According to NASA, an examination of the fine-grained soil particles extracted by Curiosity, scientists have concluded that roughly 2 percent of Martian surface soil is made up of water. Though they did not find any traces of organic particles, this latest find confirms that water not only used to exist on the surface of the planet, but can still be found within.

These results bode well for future manned missions to Mars, wherein astronauts could mine the soil for water and study it to advance their understanding of Mars’ history. The findings, which were published today in the journal Science are part of a five-paper segment that began back in August of 2012 and is dedicated to Curiosity’s ongoing mission.

curiosity_drilling2Laurie Leshin, dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a NASA press release:

One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.

These tests were conducted using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a collection of instruments that includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. The first soil samples were collected back in February when the rover used its drill tool for the first time and created a series of holes that were a little over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) deep and collected the fine dust that resulted.

SAM_NASAOnce placed into the SAM assembly, the samples were heated to 835 degrees Celsius (1,535 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases that were released – which included significant portions of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds – were then analyzed. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also noticed that quantities of gaseous carbonite were found, which would suggests the presence of water in the Martian soil.

These positive findings were quite welcome, especially in light of the disheartening news last week that Curiosity has yet to crack the methane mystery. Back in 2003, scientists observed methane plumes coming from the planet, a strong indicator of microbial life, which sent scientific and professional interest in finding life on the red planet soaring.

Since that time, no traces of methane have been found, and it was hoped that Curiosity would finally locate it. However, the lack of methane thus far indicates that the rover has little chance of finding existing microbial life on the planet. But the existence of water in such great quantities in the surface soil brings scientists one step closer to piecing together the planet’s past potential for harboring life.

Curiosity_drillingsPaul Mahaffy, a lead investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had this to say:

This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments… By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.

Given the renewed interest of late in manned missions to Mars – from nonprofit organizations like Mars One, privatized transportation companies like SpaceX, and the unofficial plans to mount a manned mission to Mars by 2030 by NASA – these findings are reassuring. In addition to providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cells for a return craft, subsurface water will be a boon for settlers and terraformers down the road.

mars-one-brian-versteegLeshin confirmed a cubic foot of soil, as opposed to the tiny sample Curiosity analyzed, could yield nearly 2 pints of condensation when heated. So volunteers who are planning on signing up with Mars One, pack your buckets and stoves and be prepared to do a lot of condensing! And perhaps we can expect “moisture farms” to become the norm on a colonized Mars of the future.

Source: news.cnet.com

News from the Red Planet: Mars’ Bygone Atmosphere

??????In this latest video update from the Mars Science Laboratory team, Ashwin Vasavada, the mission’s Deputy Project Scientist, discusses the recent findings by the Curiosity Rover. As always, these include ongoing studies of Mars atmosphere, in addition to soil and rock analysis, to determine what the Martian landscape may have looked like millions of years ago.

And in its latest research breakthrough, the rover has determined that Mars doesn’t have the same atmosphere it used to. Relying on its microwave oven-sized Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, the rover analyzed a sample of Martian air early in April, and the results that came back provided the most precise measurements ever made of in the Martian atmosphere.

SolarConjunctionWhat it noticed in particular was the isotopes of Argon, a basic element that is present in Earth’s atmosphere, Jupiter’s and even the Sun. In Mars case, the mix of light and heavy Argon – two different isotopes of the element – is heavier than in all the other cases. What this suggests is that the Martian atmosphere has thinned over the course of the past few million years.

This data conclusively confirms another long-held suspicion by scientists, that Mars did indeed have an atmosphere capable of supporting life. Alongside the voluminous evidence obtained by Curiosity for the existence of water, we now know that Mars may have supported life at one time, and that it did not always have the arid, cold climate it now does. More good news for those looking to build a case for settling there one day…

solarConjunction02Check out the video below to hear Ashwin Vasavada speak about these latest findings, including the Solar Conjunction which kept them from communicating with the Rover until today. Now that the conjunction has ended, we can expect plenty more updates and interesting finds from the rover. Who knows? Maybe even some evidence about the existence of a Martian civilization.

Don’t be looking at me like that! It could happen…


Source: universetoday.com

More News from Mars… Lots More!

marsIt’s a good thing I’ve come down with a cold and have little to do but sit at my computer. Because in the last week, some very interesting news stories have been piling up that just scream for recognition. And wouldn’t you know it, more than a few have to do with our big red neighbor Mars, that world many human beings will one day think of as home.

The first story comes to us from the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, where noted astronomer Robert McNaught recently sighted an new comet. From his observations, the icy interloper appeared to have originated in the Oort Cloud – a hypothetical cloud surrounding the solar system and containing billions of icy planetesimals that were cast out from our Solar System billions of years ago.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014After news of the discovery was released, the astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona looked back over their observations to find “prerecovery” images of the comet dating back to Dec. 8, 2012. These observations placed the orbital trajectory of the comet – now known as C/2013 A1 – through the orbit of Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. This means, in essence, that this comet could very well strike the Red Planet late next year.

Luckily, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has run the calculations and indicated that their close approach data suggests the comet is most likely to make a close pass of the Martian surface. And by close, they mean at roughly 0.0007 AU, or approximately 100,000 kilometers (63,000 miles) from the Martian surface. So in all likelihood, Curiosity and Opportunity will be safe from a serious impact that could turn them into scrap metal!

But of course, predicting its exact trajectory at this time is subject to guess work, and ongoing observations will be needed. No doubt, the predictions will be refined a the next 20 months go by, and we’ll know for sure if this comet plans to miss Mars completely, or slam head-on into the surface at 200,000 km/h (126,000 mph).

Source: news.discover.com, astroblogger.blogspot.ca

Mars_curiosity_drillingThe second bit of news comes to us from the good-ole Curiosity Rover! Roughly four weeks after conducting the first drilling operation into the Martian surface, the Rover ate its first sample of the grey dust that resulted. The delivery of the two aspiring-sized tablets of dust took place on Feb. 22nd and 23rd respectively after the robotic arm delivered them into the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratories for analysis. Results expected in two weeks!

Among other things, the results from the analysis are expected to give clues as to what the color change between the red surface and the grey interior means. One theory is that it might be related to different oxidations states of iron that could potentially inform us about the habitability of Mars inside the rover’s Gale Crater landing site.

Living-Mars.2At the same time, the Mars Science Laboratory team expects to find further evidence of what life was like in previous geological eras. The Curiosity team believes that the area inside the Gale Crater, known as Yellowknife Bay, experienced repeated exposure to flowing liquid water long ago when Mars was warmer and wetter – and therefore was potentially more hospitable to the possible evolution of life.

The rover will likely remain in the John Klein area for a month or more to obtain a more complete scientific characterization of the area which has seen repeated episodes of flowing water. Eventually, the six-wheeled mega rover will set off on a year long trek to her main destination: the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of the  5 km (3 mile) high mountain named Mount Sharp.

Source: universetoday.com

mars_hieroglyphsAnd last, but not least by any stretch of the imagination, is the discovery of “hieroglyphs” on the Martian surface. While they might appear like ancient glyphs to the untrained eye, they are in fact evidence of past subsurface water. The images were caught by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed the surface area known as Amazonis Planitia.

Known as ‘rootless cones,’ these geological features are the result of an explosive interaction of lava with ground ice or water contained within the regolith beneath the flow. Vaporization of the water or ice when the hot lava comes in contact causes an explosive expansion of the water vapor, causing the lava to shoot upward, creating what appears to be a button hole on the surface.

rootlessConesIn the past, Mars scientists have used geological patterns on Earth to make sense of similar ones found on Mars. For example, when the Curiosity Rover discovered veins of hydrated calcium in the rock surface in the Gale Crater, they compared them to similar patterns found in Egypt to determine that they were the result of long-term exposure to water flows. In this case, the rootless cones found in Amazonis Planitia are comparable to those found in Iceland’s Laki Lava Flow (as seen above).

According to Colin Dunas, from the US Geological Survey, the cones are rather large and most likely very old:

“The cones are on the order of a hundred meters across and ten meters high. The age of these specific cones isn’t known. They are on a mid- to late-Amazonian geologic unit, which means that they are young by Martian standards but could be as much as a few hundred million to over a billion years old.”

terraformingOnly time will tell if any subsurface water is still there, and hence usable by future teams of terraformers and settlers. According to Dundas, the odds are not so good of that being the case. Given the surface depth at which the ice was found, not to mention that at the low latitude at which it was found (22 degrees north), shallow ground ice is unstable. Dundas added that since ice stability varies as the obliquity changes, it’s even possible that ice has come and gone repeatedly since the lava erupted.

Too bad. That could have come in really handy for hydroponics, fuel cells, and even restoring surface water to the planet. Guess future generations of Martians will just have to look for their ground and irrigation water elsewhere, huh? Just another challenge of converting the Red Planet to a green one, I guess 😉

Stay tuned for more news Mars. As it stands, there’s plenty to be had! Stick around!

Source: hirise.lpl.arizona.edu, universetoday.com