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Goddard alum engineer to head NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

Jim Watzin has been named the new director for the agency's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Watzin, whose duties begin Dec. 1, succeeds Jim Green, NASA's planetary sciences chief who had been the acting Mars director since December 2012.

"Jim brings the right leadership at the right time to the Mars program," said Green. "His experience and creativity will be instrumental in making the Mars 2020 rover a reality, guiding the success of the missions leading up to it, and bridging the gap from science to the future human exploration of the Red Planet. We're excited to have him join us."

Watzin most recently served as the technical director and deputy program executive for Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in Huntsville, Alabama. Among his other duties, he oversaw MDA's space development and test activities.

"Jim has a demonstrated track record of successfully leading innovative, cost-constrained and schedule-driven scientific space mission developments," said Green.

Watzin graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. In 1980, he earned a master's degree in aerospace dynamics and control from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland in 1980, where he began a career focused largely on challenging, paradigm-shifting space exploration programs.

With a hands-on background in systems engineering, Watzin has led multiple flight projects and program offices, serving as the NASA program manager for several programs that included Living with a Star, Solar Terrestrial Probes, and Robotic Lunar Exploration.

He was the founder of the Planetary Projects Division at Goddard, where he oversaw the development of the Mars Science Laboratory's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite and mentored the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission formulation teams. MAVEN reached Mars two months ago and has begun studying its upper atmosphere. OSIRIS-REx will launch in 2016 to visit an asteroid and bring a sample of it back to Earth.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers are on and around the Red Planet, paving the way for future human missions on a Journey to Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover's data are helping plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. The Mars 2020 rover will seek signs of past life and will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed more than two years ago, and currently is operating on Mars. The new rover will carry more sophisticated, upgraded hardware and new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover's landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life.

Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth's, so studying Mars helps us learn more about our own planet's history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?

"The Mars Exploration Program is one of the most exciting initiatives at NASA," said Watzin. "I'm looking forward to the challenge and thrilled to have the opportunity to help set the stage for the next decade of exploration."

Besides MAVEN, Curiosity and Mars 2020, the agency's Mars Exploration Program also includes the Opportunity rover, the Odyssey orbiter and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

In 2016, a Mars lander mission called InSight will launch to take the first look into the deep interior of Mars. The agency also is participating in the European Space Agency's (ESA's) 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of the astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

NASA's Mars Exploration Program seeks to characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and biological potential -- preparing the way for future human spaceflight to Mars.

 

Two NASA and one European spacecraft that obtained the first up-close observations of a comet flyby of Mars on Oct. 19, have gathered new information about the basic properties of the comet's nucleus and directly detected the effects on the Martian atmosphere.

Data from observations carried out by NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and a radar instrument on the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Mars Express spacecraft have revealed that debris from the comet added a temporary and very strong layer of ions to the ionosphere, the electrically charged layer high above Mars. In these observations, scientists were able to make a direct connection from the input of debris from a specific meteor shower to the formation of this kind of transient layer in response; that is a first on any planet, including Earth.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring traveled from the most distant region of our solar system, called the Oort Cloud, and made a close approach around 2:27 p.m. EDT within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the Red Planet. This is less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth.

Dust from the comet impacted Mars and was vaporized high in the atmosphere, producing what was likely an impressive meteor shower. This debris resulted in significant temporary changes to the planet's upper atmosphere and possible longer-term perturbations. Earth-based and a host of space telescopes also observed the unique celestial object.

"This historic event allowed us to observe the details of this fast-moving Oort Cloud comet in a way never before possible using our existing Mars missions," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "Observing the effects on Mars of the comet's dust slamming into the upper atmosphere makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm's way."

The MAVEN spacecraft, recently arrived at Mars, detected the comet encounter in two ways. The remote-sensing Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph observed intense ultraviolet emission from magnesium and iron ions high in the atmosphere in the aftermath of the meteor shower. Not even the most intense meteor storms on Earth have produced as strong a response as this one. The emission dominated Mars' ultraviolet spectrum for several hours after the encounter and then dissipated over the next two days.

MAVEN also was able to directly sample and determine the composition of some of the comet dust in Mars' atmosphere. Analysis of these samples by the spacecraft's Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer detected eight different types of metal ions, including sodium, magnesium and iron. These are the first direct measurements of the composition of dust from an Oort Cloud comet. The Oort Cloud, well beyond the outer-most planets that surround our sun, is a spherical region of icy objects believed to be material left over from the formation of the solar system.

Elsewhere above Mars, a joint U.S. and Italian instrument on Mars Express observed a huge increase in the density of electrons following the comet's close approach. This instrument, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS), saw a huge jump in the electron density in the ionosphere a few hours after the comet rendezvous. This spike occurred at a substantially lower altitude than the normal density peak in the Martian ionosphere. The increased ionization, like the effects observed by MAVEN, appears to be the result of fine particles from the comet burning up in the atmosphere.

MRO's Shallow Subsurface Radar (SHARAD) also detected the enhanced ionosphere. Images from the instrument were smeared by the passage of the radar signals through the temporary ion layer created by the comet's dust. SHARAD scientists used this smearing to determine that the electron density of the ionosphere on the planet's night side, where the observations were made, was five to 10 times higher than usual.

Studies of the comet itself, made with MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, revealed the nucleus is smaller than the expected 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). The HiRISE images also indicate a rotation period for the nucleus of eight hours, which is consistent with recent preliminary observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) also observed the comet to see whether signs of any particular chemical constituents stood out in its spectrum. Team members said the spectrum appears to show a dusty comet with no strong emission lines at their instrument's sensitivity.

In addition to these immediate effects, MAVEN and the other missions will continue to look for long-term perturbations to Mars' atmosphere.

MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mars Express is a project of the European Space Agency; NASA and the Italian Space Agency jointly funded the MARSIS instrument.

For more information about NASA's Mars missions, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

All Three NASA Mars Orbiters Healthy After Comet Flyby

All three NASA orbiters around Mars confirmed their healthy status Sunday after each took shelter behind Mars during a period of risk from dust released by a passing comet.

Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter all are part of a campaign to study comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere from gases and dust released by the comet. The comet sped past Mars today much closer than any other know comet flyby of a planet.

Read mission status reports from each of the three orbiters at:

› Mars Odyssey mission status report

› Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission status report

› MAVEN mission status report

 

NASA Prepares its Science Fleet for Oct. 19 Mars Comet Encounter


NASA's extensive fleet of science assets, particularly those orbiting and roving Mars, have front row seats to image and study a once-in-a-lifetime comet flyby on Sunday, Oct. 19.

Comet C/2013 A1, also known as comet Siding Spring, will pass within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the Red Planet -- less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth.

Siding Spring's nucleus will come closest to Mars around 11:27 a.m. PDT (2:27 p.m. EDT), hurtling at about 126,000 mph (56 kilometers per second). This proximity will provide an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to gather data on both the comet and its effect on the Martian atmosphere.

"This is a cosmic science gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency's diverse science missions will be in full receive mode," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system's earliest days."

Siding Spring came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical region of space surrounding our sun and occupying space at a distance between 5,000 and 100,000 astronomical units. It is a giant swarm of icy objects believed to be material left over from the formation of the solar system.

Siding Spring will be the first comet from the Oort Cloud to be studied up close by spacecraft, giving scientists an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the materials, including water and carbon compounds, that existed during the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Some of the best and most revealing images and science data will come from assets orbiting and roving the surface of Mars. In preparation for the comet flyby, NASA maneuvered its Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the newest member of the Mars fleet, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), in order to reduce the risk of impact with high-velocity dust particles coming off the comet.

The period of greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft will start about 90 minutes after the closest approach of the comet's nucleus and will last about 20 minutes, when Mars will come closest to the center of the widening trail of dust flying from the nucleus.

"The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus itself, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles -- or it might not," said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The atmosphere of Mars, though much thinner that Earth's, will shield NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity from comet dust, if any reaches the planet. Both rovers are scheduled to make observations of the comet.

NASA's Mars orbiters will gather information before, during and after the flyby about the size, rotation and activity of the comet's nucleus, the variability and gas composition of the coma around the nucleus, and the size and distribution of dust particles in the comet's tail.

 

MAVEN at Mars!

BY 

SPACEFLIGHT

 – SEPTEMBER 22, 2014POSTED IN: LATEST NEWS AND INFORMATIONSPACEFLIGHT

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 03.24 am BST on Monday, 22 September, where it now will prepare to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere as never done before. MAVEN is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars.

‘As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet’, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. ‘It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s’.

After a 10-month journey, confirmation of successful orbit insertion was received from MAVEN data observed at the Lockheed Martin operations centre in Littleton, Colorado, as well as from tracking data monitored at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory navigation facility in Pasadena, California. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna station in Canberra, Australia.

‘NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter’, said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. ‘Maven will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers-and those of our partners around the globe-to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth’.

Following orbit insertion, MAVEN will begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes manoeuvering into its final science orbit and testing the instruments and science-mapping commands. MAVEN then will begin its one Earth-year primary mission, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

‘It’s taken 11 years from the original concept for MAVEN to now having a spacecraft in orbit at Mars’, said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU/LASP). ‘I’m delighted to be here safely and successfully, and looking forward to starting our science mission’.

The primary mission includes five “deep-dip” campaigns, in which MAVEN’s periapsis, or lowest orbit altitude, will be lowered from 93 miles (150 kilometers) to about 77 miles (125 kilometers). These measurements will provide information down to where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

‘This was a very big day for MAVEN’, said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. ‘We’re very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet. The commissioning phase will keep the operations team busy for the next six weeks, and then we’ll begin, at last, the science phase of the mission. Congratulations to the team for a job well done today’.

MAVEN launched on 18 November 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying three instrument packages. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and Goddard, contains six instruments that will characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet. The Remote Sensing Package, built by CU/LASP, will identify characteristics present throughout the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, provided by Goddard, will measure the composition and isotopes of atomic particles.

The spacecraft’s principal investigator is based at CU/LASP. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center manages the project and also provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley provided four science instruments for MAVEN. JPL provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Program for NASA.

To learn more about the MAVEN mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/maven and http://mars.nasa.gov/maven/

 

MAVEN arrives at Mars Threshold

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is nearing its scheduled Sept. 21 insertion into Martian orbit after completing a 10-month interplanetary journey of 442 million miles (711 million kilometers).

Flight Controllers at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, will be responsible for the health and safety of the spacecraft throughout the process. The spacecraft's mission timeline will place the spacecraft in orbit at approximately 6:50 p.m. PDT (9:50 p.m. EDT).

"So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars," said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion."

The orbit-insertion maneuver will begin with the brief firing of six small thruster engines to steady the spacecraft. The engines will ignite and burn for 33 minutes to slow the craft, allowing it to be pulled into an elliptical orbit with a period of 35 hours.

Following orbit insertion, MAVEN will begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering the spacecraft into its final orbit and testing its instruments and science-mapping commands. Thereafter, MAVEN will begin its one-Earth-year primary mission to take measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars' upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

"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," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life."

MAVEN launched Nov. 18, 2013, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying three instrument packages. It is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars. The mission's combination of detailed measurements at specific points in Mars' atmosphere and global imaging provides a powerful tool for understanding the properties of the Red Planet's upper atmosphere.

"MAVEN is another NASA robotic scientific explorer that is paving the way for our journey to Mars," said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Together, robotics and humans will pioneer the Red Planet and the solar system to help answer some of humanity's fundamental questions about life beyond Earth."

The spacecraft's principal investigator is based at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at University of Colorado, Boulder. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the project and also provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley provided four science instruments for MAVEN. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations. JPL manages the Mars Exploration Program for NASA.

To learn more about the MAVEN mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/maven and http://mars.nasa.gov/maven/

More on Comet Siding Spring's threat to Mars Orbiters

This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. On Oct. 19, the comet will have a very close pass at Mars. Its nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers). The comet's trail of dust particles shed by the nucleus might be wide enough to reach Mars or might also miss it. See more information about this comet.
› Full image

July 25, 2014

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

The comet's nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers), shedding material hurtling at about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per second, relative to Mars and Mars-orbiting spacecraft. At that velocity, even the smallest particle -- estimated to be about one-fiftieth of an inch (half a millimeter) across -- could cause significant damage to a spacecraft.

NASA currently operates two Mars orbiters, with a third on its way and expected to arrive in Martian orbit just a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of the Red Planet when the comet is most likely to pass by.

"Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars," explained Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles -- or it might not."

During the day's events, the smallest distance between Siding Spring's nucleus and Mars will be less than one-tenth the distance of any known previous Earthly comet flyby. The period of greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft will start about 90 minutes later and last about 20 minutes, when Mars will come closest to the center of the widening dust trail from the nucleus.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) made one orbit-adjustment maneuver on July 2 as part of the process of repositioning the spacecraft for the Oct. 19 event. An additional maneuver is planned for Aug. 27. The team operating NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter is planning a similar maneuver on Aug. 5 to put that spacecraft on track to be in the right place at the right time, as well.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is on its way to the Red Planet and will enter orbit on Sept. 21. The MAVEN team is planning to conduct a precautionary maneuver on Oct. 9, prior to the start of the mission's main science phase in early November.

In the days before and after the comet's flyby, NASA will study the comet by taking advantage of how close it comes to Mars. Researchers plan to use several instruments on the Mars orbiters to study the nucleus, the coma surrounding the nucleus, and the tail of Siding Spring, as well as the possible effects on the Martian atmosphere. This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system's earliest days.

MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet's 

 

Curiosity MIssion ends June 24 with a YES: Life Could Have Grown ON MARs


Official mission ends, but Mars rover has years of exploration ahead

Curiosity team will hold celebration on Wednesday.

By Laurel Kornfeld, The Space Reporter 
Wednesday, June 25, 2014


 

The primary mission of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover officially ended June 24, but chief scientist, John Grotzinger, of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena expects the rover to continue exploring the Red Planet and do science for five to seven more years.Curiosity was sent to Mars to determine whether the planet could once have supported life. Data it provided indicates that in its ancient past, the planet did have an environment where microbial life could live and grow. Sometimes referred to as the “Goldilocks window,” that time period turned out to have been longer than scientists initially thought.Since the 1970s, scientists have believed that Mars once had an atmosphere but lost most of it approximately three billion years ago. This was confirmed by data Curiosity collected, Grotzinger said.About the size of a car, Curiosity is currently driving at its fastest speed yet, heading toward Mount Sharp while at the same time collecting and transmitting data about Mars’ surface and atmosphere.Many members of Curiosity’s mission team will transfer to the Mars 2020 mission, which will  send a new rover to Mars in six years. Some, including Grotzinger, will stay with Curiosity, hoping to get the rover to Mount Sharp by year’s end.Unlike previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity runs on nuclear power rather than solar. A radioactive device onboard generates heat that is then converted to electricity through a device known as a “thermocouple.”The mission team watches the rover continuously, which is how members can tell it is in good shape and should last at least another five years.In seven years, the amount of power will dwindle though there will still be enough to keep the rover alive and moving, Grotzinger said.He acknowledged that mission members develop emotional attachments to the rovers because they so vigilantly watch everything the vehicles do.“You can’t help but become emotionally attached to these robots even though they are mechanical devices. When something happens to Curiosity we not only feel the impact of the vehicle on Mars, but also on collective collaboration here.”The most difficult moment for team members came last December, when pictures showed the rover’s wheels had holes in them. Curiosity had just arrived at a location with terrain that posed a hazard to the wheels.After having to stop driving the rover, team members ultimately came up with a strategy to circumvent the problem, but the ordeal took an emotional toll on them, Grotzinger said.Before landing humans on Mars, we need to find a way to return rocks from the planet, a task that poses a challenge because any vehicle taking off from its surface would have to overcome its size and gravity, he noted. 
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RED PLANET: The planet Mars is seen in this recent undated handout image from NASA.

A sweeping review of Nasa's human spaceflight program has concluded that the agency has an unsustainable and unsafe strategy that will prevent the US from achieving a human landing on Mars in the foreseeable future.

The 286-page National Research Council report, the culmination of an 18-month investigation mandated by Congress, says that to continue on the present course under budgets that don't even keep pace with inflation "is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best".

The report makes a case for sending astronauts back to the moon. That's an idea that has been vocally opposed by President Barack Obama. Obama killed the Constellation program, which had been backed by President George W. Bush and would have included a return to the moon.

The key argument against the Constellation program was that it didn't pencil out — that there wasn't nearly enough money dedicated to the program to achieve the lunar landing it envisioned. But now the NRC committee has delivered essentially the same assessment of the Obama Administration's current Nasa program of record. If the goal is Mars, the committee said, the current strategy isn't going to work.

"Absent a very fundamental change in the nation's way of doing business, it is not realistic to believe that we can achieve the consensus goal of reaching Mars," committee co-chair and former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said Wednesday morning in an interview.

Nasa spokesperson David Weaver said the agency welcomed the report, and characterised it as being "consistent with the bipartisan plan agreed to by Congress and the Administration in the Nasa Authorization Act of 2010 and that we have been implementing ever since."

Weaver added, "Nasa has made significant progress on many key elements that will be needed to reach Mars, and we continue on this path in collaboration with industry and other nations."

The NRC's Committee on Human Spaceflight also probed the philosophical question of why we send humans into space to begin with. That question incited the formation of the US$3.2 million (NZ$3.8m) review effort, which was funded by Nasa.

The committee concluded that the purely practical, economic benefits of human spaceflight do not justify the costs involved, but said that the aspirational nature of the endeavour may make it worth the effort.

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The committee unsurprisingly identified Mars as the "horizon goal" of the agency. The report said the US should pursue international collaborations that would include China — currently treated as a space rival and not as a potential partner. Nasa officials are not permitted to speak to their Chinese counterparts, a policy the committee criticised.

The report sees three potential pathways to get to Mars, two of which involve a return to the moon. A lunar landing and habitat would help develop technologies that could later be used on a Mars mission, the report said.

"This committee found a number of compelling reasons to include the moon as a stepping stone on the way to Mars," co-chair Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell, said in an interview. "From the point of view of a destination — scientific, technical, and also in terms of our international partners — it is attractive."

The third pathway, which doesn't involve a return to the moon, is essentially the one that the Obama Administration has chosen, which includes, as a major step, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The NRC report is not bullish on the idea.

Nasa wants to grab a small rock passing close to the Earth in its natural orbit, and then redirect it to a new orbit around the moon. Astronauts would visit the rock and take samples, a mission that could double as an early shakedown cruise for the Orion capsule being developed by Nasa in tandem with a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS).

The asteroid mission has been politically controversial — Republicans in Congress tried but failed last year to forbid Nasa to do it — and it has technical challenges, not least of which is the difficulty in identifying an asteroid that could be plausibly captured by a robotic spacecraft.

The NRC report says that mission involves the creation of a large number of "dead end" technologies that don't get the US closer to a Mars landing.

There is also a safety issue in play. The current plan calls for long gaps between launches of the SLS — four years in some cases.

"The current program to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft for flight beyond LEO [low earth orbit] cannot be sustained with constant buying power over time, in that it cannot provide the flight frequency required to maintain competence and safety, does not possess the 'stepping-stone' architecture that allows the public to see the connection between the horizon goal and near-term accomplishments, and may discourage potential international partners," the report states.

John Logsdon, professor emeritus of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said the report had a familiar ring to it.

"They go through all this negative analysis and still conclude we ought to go to Mars. No one ever says 'let's lower our ambitions'. It's always 'increase the budget,' not 'lower ambitions'," he said.

As for going to Mars: "It's a dream. It's been a dream forever. And will remain a dream unless something changes."

Europe begins Mars site selection

Landing sitesThe ExoMars "longlist". Two proposals were received for Mawrth, but these were virtually the same

The European Space Agency (Esa) has published the "longlist" of eight sites it is considering as a destination for the ExoMars rover.

The 300kg vehicle will be put on the surface of the Red Planet in January 2019 to search for evidence of past or present life.

It should operate for at least seven months and will carry a drill to probe up to 2m underground.

The sites are generally clustered in a relatively tight zone close to the equator. They are: Hypanis Vallis, Simud Vallis, Mawrth, Oxia Planum (x2), Coogoon Valles, Oxia Palus and Southern Isidis.

The ExoMars Landing Site Selection Working Group is meeting now in Madrid to begin the process of downselection. The teams that proposed these locations will make their case during the Spanish gathering (two, virtually identical proposals were received for Mawrth).

It is hoped to have a shortlist of no more than four locations in June or July. These will then be intensively studied, calling on new high-resolution pictures and mineralogical data acquired by satellites in orbit at Mars.

Start Quote

I have to say, the height constraint is very taxing”

Dr Jorge VagoExoMars project scientist

A final decision is likely to be announced in 2017. This will probably take the form of a first choice and a back-up.

We've been talking about ExoMars for a long time. The project has had several ups and downs, but it is now moving positively in the right direction.

The venture is a joint undertaking with the Russians, who, as well as providing the launch rocket in May 2018, and some of the instrumentation, will also build the landing system. This will see the rover enter the Martian atmosphere in 2019 in a protective shell, deploying parachutes and retro-rockets to reduce the descent velocity.

The robotic vehicle will arrive at the surface on a legged lander, driving down a ramp to begin its grand traverse.

Everything hinges on a safe touchdown, of course. However, scientifically, it's vital ExoMars goes to the right place.

Euro-Russian mission to Mars

Bridget in the Desert
  • ExoMars rover set for launch in May 2018
  • Proton rocket will send it on its way
  • Russians also building landing system
  • Rover will look for biosignatures on Mars
  • Initial mission duration will be 218 Mars days

I have used two maps on this page to help explain how the final decision will be made.

They are both Mercator projections of Mars which will be familiar from Earth maps that also pull the 360-degree globe on to a flat surface.

For reference, I've marked the locations of the two current American rovers - Curiosity and Opportunity - on the top map.

Choosing a site is a trade-off between what's scientifically desirable and what's achievable with the available engineering.

ExoMars wants to look for life markers. Its best chance of finding these will be to go to places where there is abundant evidence for long-duration, or frequently reoccurring, water activity.

This will exist on the old terrains of Mars - ones that are billions of years old.

These are places where you would hope to roll across recently exposed fine-grained sediments; the kind of clay-bearing mudstones that Curiosity has been enjoying in Gale Crater.

If you get lucky, you just might hit upon preserved organic molecules that hint at some past biology.

But choosing the places you'd love to go is the easy part; having the capability to reach them is another question.

Mars on Earth: A guided tour of Stevenage's indoor version of the Red Planet

Engineers describe an ellipse of confidence into which they can put a Mars lander.

With the extraordinary skycrane used on Curiosity, this ellipse measured just 20km by 7km. It meant the US space agency had the belief to shoot for one of the deepest holes on Mars.

ExoMars, by comparison, will have a landing ellipse that measures about 105km by 15km - not dissimilar to Nasa's Phoenix mission of 2008.

So, this immediately rules out places like Gale Crater, for example. The greater uncertainty in landing performance would put ExoMars in danger of slamming into the crater's walls or its big central mountain.

Can the eight sites accommodate the Russian landing ellipse?

ExoMars drillExoMars will use a drill to get up to 2m below the surface of Mars

Another consideration: You need to give your parachutes time to work in Mars' thin atmosphere. This means that any terrain that lies above minus 2km datum (what we on Earth would think of as sea level) is out of reach.

And yet another: Although ExoMars will have a sizeable drill, it doesn't want to be probing through decimetres of dust, and there are places where Mars' ubiquitous "red dirt" is worse than others. These will be avoided.

In addition, energy is an important consideration. ExoMars will use radioisotope heating units to cope with the cold, but it will rely on solar panels for day-to-day power. Given that it is landing in the northern summer, optimal operations will be found in a band between latitudes of 5 degrees South and 25 degrees North.

And boulder fields - you need to avoid those, too. Although, the landers' legs will give a surface clearance of about 30-50cm, you want to try to avoid coming down on big rocks.

I could go on. The point is the scientists on the mission will be working very closely with the engineers to pick a destination that balances the highest return with the lowest risk.

"The eight sites all have possibilities," ExoMars project scientist Dr Jorge Vago told me.

"Some have more problems than others and we'll see how the discussions turn out. I have to say, the height constraint is very taxing. There is very little of Mars that is scientifically interesting that also fits the elevation bill."

And working group member Dr John Bridges of Leicester University added: "We've got some serious things to discuss, for sure. But I'm very positive about it; I think we've got some cracking sites on the list."

Mars mapTight constraints: The site cannot be too high, nor too dusty, and it must afford good solar potential
Landing  ellipses
  • The above graphic uses Gale Crater to illustrate past landings
  • Engineers define an ellipse in which they can confidently put down
  • Curiosity had the precision to get into the crater safely
  • Viking's ellipse was 300km across - wider than Gale Crater itself
  • Phoenix (100km by 20km) could not confidently fit in Gale
  • ExoMars' ellipse is very similar, and so Gale would be off-limits

NASA Scientists Find Evidence of Water in Meteorite, Reviving Debate Over Life on Mars

Geologists who are harping for samples from Mars cannot make up their minds about the samples already under study on Earth. How valuable is a sample return worth, if we cannot come to a resolution with the samples available? 
Is the truth evident that only living samples will solve the dilemns?
Microtunnels in Yamato Meteorite From Mars

This scanning electron microscope image of a polished thin section of a meteorite from Mars shows tunnels
 and curved microtunnels. Image Credit: NASA
› Full image and caption

February 27, 2014

A team of scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

 in Pasadena, Calif., has found evidence of past water movement throughout a Martian meteorite, 

reviving debate in the scientific community over life on Mars.

In 1996, a group of scientists at Johnson led by David McKay, Everett Gibson and Kathie 

Thomas-Keprta published an article in Science announcing the discovery of biogenic evidence 

in the Allen Hills 84001(ALH84001) meteorite. In this new study, Gibson and his colleagues 

focused on structures deep within a 30-pound (3.7-kilogram) Martian meteorite known as 

Yamato 000593 (Y000593). The team reports that newly discovered different structures and 

compositional features within the larger Yamato meteorite suggest biological processes might

 have been at work on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago.

The team's findings have been published in the February issue of the journal Astrobiology.

 The lead author, Lauren White, is based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Co-authors are 

Gibson, Thomas-Keprta, Simon Clemett and McKay, all based at Johnson. McKay, who led

 the team that studied the ALH84001 meteorite, died a year ago.

"While robotic missions to Mars continue to shed light on the planet's history, the only samples

 from Mars available for study on Earth are Martian meteorites," said White. "On Earth, we can 

utilize multiple analytical techniques to take a more in-depth look into meteorites and shed light

 on the history of Mars. These samples offer clues to the past habitability of this planet. As more

 Martian meteorites are discovered, continued research focusing on these samples collectively

 will offer deeper insight into attributes which are indigenous to ancient Mars. Furthermore, as

 these meteorite studies are compared to present day robotic observations on Mars, the mysteries 

of the planet's seemingly wetter past will be revealed."

Analyses found that the rock was formed about 1.3 billion years ago from a lava flow on Mars. 

Around 12 million years ago, an impact occurred on Mars which ejected the meteorite from 

the surface of Mars. The meteorite traveled through space until it fell in Antarctica about

 50,000 years ago.

The rock was found on the Yamato Glacier in Antarctica by the Japanese Antarctic Research

 Expedition in 2000. The meteorite was classified as a nakhlite, a subgroup of Martian

 meteorites. Martian meteoritic material is distinguished from other meteorites and materials

 from Earth and the moon by the composition of the oxygen atoms within the silicate minerals and trapped Martian atmospheric gases.

The team found two distinctive sets of features associated with Martian-derived clay. They found

 tunnel and nicro tunnel  structures that thread their way throughout Yamato 000593. The observed micro-tunnels display curved, undulating shapes consistent with bio-alteration textures observed in terrestrial basaltic glasses, previously reported by researchers who study interactions of bacteria with basaltic materials on Earth.ro-un

The second set of features consists of nanometer- to-micrometer-sized spherules 

that are sandwiched between layers within the rock and are distinct from carbonate

 and the underlying silicate layer. Similar spherical features have been previously 

seen in the Martian meteorite Nakhla that fell in 1911 in Egypt. Composition measurements

 of the Y000593 spherules show that they are significantly enriched in carbon compared

 to the nearby surrounding iddingsite layers.

A striking observation is that these two sets of features in Y000593, recovered from 

Antarctica after about 50,000 years residence time, are similar to features found in

 Nakhla, an observed fall collected shortly after landing.

The authors note that they cannot exclude the possibility that the carbon-rich regions

 in both sets of features may be the product of abiotic mechanisms: however, textural 

and compositional similarities to features in terrestrial samples, which have been 

interpreted as biogenic, imply the intriguing possibility that the Martian features 

were formed by biotic activity.

"The unique features displayed within the Martian meteorite Yamato 000593 are 

evidence of aqueous alterations as seen in the clay minerals and the presence of 

carbonaceous matter associated with the clay phases which show that Mars has 

been a very active body in its past," said Gibson. "The planet is revealing the presence 

of an active water reservoir that may also have a significant carbon component.

"The nature and distribution of Martian carbon is one of the major goals of the Mars 

Exploration Program. Since we have found indigenous carbon in several Mars meteorites, 

we cannot overstate the importance of having Martian samples available to study in earth-based

 laboratories. Furthermore, the small sizes of the carbonaceous features within the Yamato

 000593 meteorite present major challenges to any analyses attempted by remote techniques 

on Mars," Gibson added.

"This is no smoking gun," said JPL's White. "We can never eliminate the possibility of

 contamination in any meteorite. But these features are nonetheless interesting and show 

that further studies of these meteorites should continue."

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov 

Oh! Those were water ice clouds! 

NASA decides 37 years after Viking

 

 On the morning of Oct.1 1976 the Orbiter accompanying the Viking 1 lander clearly 

photographed these water vapor clouds scutting across the hills of Mars where,

 according to most of the experts, there could be no water and therefore no water 

vapor and therefore no water ice clouds.

 

The clouds were troublesome because they appeared at a latitude that argued 

persuasively against the accepted occurrence of carbon dioxide vapor clouds at the

Martian poles. They were also troublesome because the geologists were intently arguing

that the positive results of Dr. Gilbert Levin’s microbe-searching experiment; Gulliver 

must be incorrect because he used liquid water to deliver the microbe meal that was

consumed in his experiment and everybody knew there was no water on Mars.

 

Levin pointed to the diurnal changes in the water vapor in the atmospheric column to

bolster his explanation of the cyclical behavior of the specimen in his test sample. 

He pointed to at least 2 percent water in the soil beneath Viking 1 and 10 percent water beneath Viking 2.

 

But NASA would have none of it.

 

A paper was accepted for publication in June of 1977 for the Journal of Geophysical Research

 and later included among the giant NASA volume “Scientific Results of Project Viking.” It was titled

 Mars: Water Vapor Observations from the Viking Orbiters. It contained vast amounts

 of data and even more speculation. But it did not contain any photographs like the one below.

 

In fact this is the only photo of its kind because, as NASA has finally admitted (see item below)

 “Though other observations have since been made, no craft has performed a systematic 

observation of the sunrise and sunset region of the planet (Mars).”

 

Why, we might ask, has something as fundamental as a study of meteorological conditions

 at the sunset/sunrise boundary been ignored for 30 years since Viking found evidence of life

 on Mars. The answer is in the question. If there is no water the evidence of life must have been

 wrong. Since there is no water there is no need to move one of our orbiters or send a new one

 to study these phenomena.


Surprise Surprise

 

Now, surprise surprise, the billions NASA spent to “find the water” has not been squandered 

and NASA has found the water everywhere on Mars and we can begun to discuss where 

the water is running sufficiently to sustain living organisms. It has come to that. 

could it be NASA knew all along about the abundance of water but needed a certain conclusion 

to justify these Martian expeditions?

 

 

Although most are probably gone on to Viking heaven, the six scientists who designed and 

operated the spectrometers on the Viking orbiters will certainly revel in the fact that their 

suggestion for the last trimester of the 20th Century has been heeded.


In their conclusion they said, " The outstanding questions concerning the specific mechanisms 

controlling the seasonal redistribution of water vapor and its possible hemispheric migration, 

and the existence of a major subsurface reservoir of water ice at other than polar latitudes 

remain to be answered."

 

Their recommendation “Further insight should be gained in these areas as data

 for the rest of the Martian year are gathered in the course of the extended mission,” has finally 

moved from hope past apostasy and into scientific reality.

 

 

 

The NASA caption:

Martian Morning Clouds Seen by Viking Orbiter 1 in 1976

NASA Mars Probe Shifts Orbit to Study Early-Morning Fogs and Frosts

 

By Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com Contributor   |   February 20, 2014 02:03pm ET

 

Martian Morning Clouds Seen by Viking Orbiter 1 in 1976


It In 1976, NASA's Viking Orbiter spotted early morning water-ice 

clouds in the Valles Marineris region near the Martian equator. Though other

observations have since been made, no craft has performed a systematic 

observation of the sunrise and sunset region of the planet.

The longest-working Martian spacecraft recently made a slight change to 

its orbit that will allow it to make the first systematic observations of morning fog,

 clouds, and surface frost on the Red Planet.

 

On Feb. 11, NASA's Odyssey orbiter — which arrived at the Red Planet in 2001 —

 underwent a gentle acceleration to put it into the first sunrise and sunset orbit 

in almost 40 years.

 

"We're teaching an old spacecraft new tricks," Odyssey project scientist Jeffrey

 Plaut, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

 "Odyssey will be in a position to see Mars in a different light than ever before."

 [See photos from NASA's Mars Odyssey mission]

  

 



 

 

 

 

More truth about the liquid resources of Mars

When the Europeans and Russians scanned the Hephaestus Fossae region in the northern

 part of Mars with their high-resolution stereo camera aboard their Mars Express orbiter on 

28 December 2007 the results were clear but impossible to make public.

Back in 2007 NASA, lead by the scientists and geologists at JPL, continued to argue that Mars

 was bone dry and had been without liquid water for millions if not billions of years.

They had no proof. But NASA was compelled to argue against contemporary water because

 Dr. Gil Levin had discovered in 1976 clear evidence of life on Mars with his Viking lander

 experiment. He had also discovered water in the Martian soil at a ration of two parts to

 10 parts in 100.

Viking scientists Dr. Norman Horowitz and Bruce Murray at the time insisted Levin’s results

 could not be correct because the surface of Mars was lethally dry and covered with corroding salts. 

That misconception continued until long after 20o7 in fact until the time Curiosity proved that Mars 

was wet in recent history and damp today.

The cascade of honesty about water on Mars has allowed the European Space Agency to report this

 month that water is running down the slopes of several Mars valleys.

And it allowed the ESA to report clear evidence that there is enough water below the surface of Mars

 that it can be exploded to the surface at sufficient volume to fill a vast crater with some billions of 

gallons left over to spill out across the landscape into a system of rivers and streams.

On Feb. 10 the ESA released photos coloured to indicate the elevation of the terrain: green and

 yellow shades represent shallow ground, while blue and purple stand for deep depressions, down to

 about 4 km.

Scattered across the scene are a few dozen impact craters that cover a wide range of sizes, 

with the largest boasting a diameter of around 20 km.

The long and intricate canyon-like features that resemble riverbeds are the phenomenal aftermath

 of the same fierce impacts that created the largest craters.

When a small body such as a comet or an asteroid crashes at high speed into another object in the 

Solar System, the collision dramatically heats up the surface at the impact site.

In the case of the large crater seen in this image, the heat produced by such a powerful smash 

melted the soil - a mixture of rock, dust and also, hidden deep down, water ice - resulting in a

 massive overflow that flooded the surrounding environment. Before drying up, this muddy fluid 

carved a complex pattern of channels while making its way across the planet's surface.

The melted rock-ice mixture also gave rise to the fluidised appearance of the debris blankets

 surrounding the largest crater.

Based on the lack of similar structures near the small craters in this image, scientists 

believe that only the most powerful impacts - those responsible for forging the largest craters

 - were able to dig deep enough to release part of the frozen reservoir of water lying beneath the surface.

 

NASA Mars Orbiters See Clues to Possible Water Flows - again evidence of life on Mars

Color-Coded Clues to Composition Superimposed on Martian Seasonal-Flow ImageThis image combines a photograph of seasonal dark flows on a Martian slope with a grid of colors based on data collected by a mineral-mapping spectrometer observing the same area. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/JHU-APL 
› Full image and caption
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We are certain life as we know it requires a minimum amount of flowing water.

 We are equally certain that wherever we find a "goldilocks zone" including 

earth and mars, the opportunity for the growth of microbial life is ramified. 

So we have heard the message again, that we heard from Gerald Soffen 

during the Viking mission. With water and our current test results we would 

have to conclude we have evidence of life on mars.

February 10, 2014

NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars have returned clues for understanding seasonal features

 that are the strongest indication of possible liquid water that may exist today on the Red Planet.

The features are dark, finger-like markings that advance down some Martian slopes when

 temperatures rise. The new clues include corresponding seasonal changes in iron minerals

 on the same slopes and a survey of ground temperatures and other traits at active sites.

 These support a suggestion that brines with an iron-mineral antifreeze, such as ferric sulfate,

 may flow seasonally, though there are still other possible explanations.

Researchers call these dark flows "recurring slope lineae." As a result, RSL has

 become one of the hottest acronyms at meetings of Mars scientists.

"We still don't have a smoking gun for existence of water in RSL, although we're 

not sure how this process would take place without water," said Lujendra Ojha,

 a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, and lead 

author of two new reports about these flows. He originally discovered them while 

an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Tucson, three years ago, in images

 from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's

 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Ojha and Georgia Tech assistant professor James Wray more recently looked

at 13 confirmed RSL sites using images from the same orbiter's Compact

 Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument. They 

searched for minerals that RSL might leave in their wake as a way of understanding

 the nature of these features: water-related or not?

They didn't find any spectral signature tied to water or salts. But they did find distinct

 and consistent spectral signatures of ferric and ferrous minerals at most of the sites. 

These iron-bearing minerals were more abundant or featured distinct grain sizes in RSL-related

 materials as compared to non-RSL slopes. These results are in a paper published in the journal 

Geophysical Research Letters.

Ojha said, "Just like the RSL themselves, the strength of the spectral signatures 

varies according to the seasons. They're stronger when it's warmer and less significant

 when it's colder."

One possible explanation for these changes is a sorting of grain sizes, such as removal 

of fine dust from the surface, which could result from either a wet process or dry one.

 Two other  possible explanations are an increase in the more-oxidized (ferric) component of the minerals, 

or an overall darkening due to moisture. Either of these would point to water, even though no water was

 directly detected. The spectral observations might miss the presence of water, because the dark flows are

 much narrower than the area of ground sampled with each CRISM reading. Also, the orbital observations 

have been made only in afternoons and could miss morning moisture.

The leading hypothesis for these features is the flow of near-surface water, kept liquid 

by salts depressing the freezing point of pure water. "The flow of water, even briny water,

 anywhere on Mars today would be a major discovery, impacting our understanding of 

present climate change on Mars and possibly indicating potential habitats for life near 

the surface on modern Mars," said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project Scientist 

Richard Zurek, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

In related research, reported in a paper to be published by the journal Icarus next month,

 the Georgia Tech scientists and colleagues at the University of Arizona; U.S. Geological 

Survey, Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, used the Mars 

Reconnaissance Orbiter and NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter to look for patterns in where 

and when the dark seasonal flows exist on Mars. Their results indicate that many sites 

with slopes, latitudes and temperatures matching known RSL sites do not have any evident RSL.

They hunted for areas that were ideal locations for RSL formation: areas near the southern

 mid-latitudes on rocky cliffs. They found 200, but barely any of them had RSL. "Only 13 of

 the 200 locations had confirmed RSL," said Ojha. "The fact that RSL occur in a few sites and 

not others indicates additional unknown factors such as availability of water or salts may play 

a crucial role in RSL formation."

They compared new observations with images from previous years, revealing that RSL 

are much more abundant some years than others.

"NASA likes to 'follow the water' in exploring the Red Planet, so we'd like to know 

in advance when and where it will appear," Wray said. "RSL have rekindled our hope

 of accessing modern water, but forecasting wet conditions remains a challenge."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars

 Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey projects for NASA's Science 

Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver

 built both orbiters. The University of Arizona operates the HiRISE camera, which was

 built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., provided and operates CRISM.

For more about NASA's Mars exploration missions, see http://www.nasa.gov/mars and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov. The new research reports about recurring slope lineae are available athttp://wray.eas.gatech.edu/Ojha_etal2013-acceptedGRL.pdf and http://wray.eas.gatech.edu/Ojha_etal2014-acceptedIcarus.pdf .

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov 

Jason Maderer 404-385-2966
Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta
jason.maderer@comm.gatech.edu 

Four out of four sites on Mars identified 

as possible locations for life

 

 

Two NASA rovers are about 5,200 miles apart on the surface of Mars and will likely never meet.

But though they roam alone, Curiosity and Opportunity continue to reveal details about the Red 

Planet's former habitable conditions. New studies in the journal Science describe insights from 

each of those rovers about ancient environments where microorganisms could have once lived.


(The two sites investigated by the Viking landers also demonstrated evidence of life on Mars at

 those sites in 1976 along with ground water at 2% and 10%; details that have only recently been 

recalled by JPL scientists.)


In its current review of the Viking results NASA now says: 

The Viking 1 lander operated on Chryse Planitia until November 1982. The four Viking 

spacecraft provided numerous new insights into the nature and history of Mars, producing 

a vivid overall picture of a cold weathered surface with reddish volcanic soil under a thin, 

dry carbon dioxide atmosphere, clear evidence for the existence of ancient river beds and

 vast floods, and no detectable seismic activity.

Although no traces of life were found, Viking found all elements essential

 to life on Earth -- carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and phosphorus -- were present on Mars.

 

"These results demonstrate that early Mars was habitable, but this does not mean that Mars was

 inhabited," writes John Grotzinger, lead scientist on the Curiosity mission, in an introduction to 

the studies in the journal Science.


We've been hearing a lot about how the two-ton, car-sized Curiosity rover has been finding

 evidence that Mars may have hosted life at some point. Last year NASA came out and said

 that yes, Mars was once habitable.


The new research reinforces that statement from Curiosity's vantage point, and adds the 

perspective of the Opportunity rover, which has found a different ancient habitable environment

 on another part of the planet.

Follow CNN Science News

 

Opportunity is smaller -- weighing 384 pounds, and about 5 feet in both length and height -- 

and older, having landed January 25, 2004, at a place called Meridiani Planum. It has driven 

just under 25 miles in a decade, and is currently situated in a place called Endeavour Crater.

What Opportunity has found

Opportunity does not have the tools required to detect carbon or nitrogen -- chemicals required

 for life -- directly. But it has been able to find smectite clay minerals -- which form in the presence

 of water -- in rocks on the rim of Endeavour Crater, with supporting evidence from the Mars

 Reconnaissance Orbiter orbiting above.


Mystery rock - Jelly Stone-- spotted on Mars


Scientists directed Opportunity to a place on the crater rim where the orbiter suggested these clays

 could be found. There, Opportunity uncovered evidence of rocks that preexisted the formation

 of the crater. Scientists believe the crater's rim formed more than 3.7 billion years ago.


"These are rocks that were happy on the surface, and along comes the asteroid or the comet 

that formed Endeavour, and the rocks were uplifted on the rim, and then the ejecta was plopped

 right on top of them," said Raymond Arvidson, lead study author and planetary scientist with the 

rover missions.


The ancient rocks are called the Matijevic formation. They are fine-grained, layered rocks with dark

 veneers that are carrying iron clays that suggest water with a neutral to only slightly acidic pH was

 once in the area.

Opportunity showed scientists fractures across these ancient rocks they wanted to explore. The 

rover's rock-abrasion tool allowed scientists to uncover an aluminous clay that could be formed 

in only mildly acidic, and non-oxidizing waters.


"Whether or not life got started and evolved in that particular niche, in this groundwater 

percolating through the fractures, remains to be seen," Arvidson said.

 Curiosity Rover marks first anniversary

But in a younger rock formation called the Burns formation, which largely filled in the crater,

 the rover found evidence of a more acidic and very oxidizing environment. This suggests that 

the environment was less hospitable after the formation of Endeavour Crater.

Curious findings


Curiosity, on the other hand, landed in Gale Crater, and helped scientists determine that an

 area called Yellowknife Bay was habitable in ancient times. Here, from the rim of the crater 

came stream waters that formed "a lake-stream-groundwater system that might have existed

 for millions of years," Grotzinger wrote.


His other car is on Mars


Smectite clay minerals there indicate there was a moderate to neutral pH, and the lack of 

sulfate minerals suggest also that there was not an acidic environment, Grotzinger wrote.

This ancient habitable environment seems completely different from what Opportunity found

 at the Matijevic formation on Endeavour Crater, Arvidson said. Yellowknife Bay is probably 

younger, and definitely a sedimentary environment.

All this suggests three distinct periods in Martian history, Arvidson said.

In the first, in the early days, lots of water flowed on the surface, with lakes and groundwater

 flowing through, as represented by the Matijevic formation that Opportunity found and the

mudstone in Yellowknife Bay that Curiosity found. One theory is that these warm, wet surface

 conditions took place in early times, when the planet's iron-nickel core was still at least partially

 molten, Arvidson said. The molten core provided a magnetic field around it that shielded the 

atmosphere, scientists believe.


The Burns formation, as examined by Opportunity, represents a later period -- likely, a drying

 out of Mars -- with more acidic, oxidizing waters. Volcanic activity was probably dying down, 

and the magnetic field waning. Lake beds were turned into sand dunes.

"Then the whole system shut off," Arvidson said. The planet became what we see today: Cold

 and dry.

Curiosity is equipped to find organic molecules, but finding them may be difficult. Assuming 

such molecules were enriched, and not destroyed when sediment turned into rock, they would 

have also needed to survive ionizing radiation. Another new study in Science describes the

 radiation environment on Mars, and suggests that, in theory, organics could have been 

preserved from millions of years ago -- but the indication of them might be much weaker now.

What's next for the rovers


The Curiosity rover, representing a $2.5 billion mission, is now on its way to Mount Sharp, a 

sedimentary formation that will allow the rover to explore Mars' history by driving up the 

peak's slope and exploring rock chemical composition layer by layer.

NASA is planning to launch another Curiosity-sized rover in 2020, which could collect samples

 that later missions might return to Earth.

Opportunity will continue exploring Endeavour Crater, moving southward to see if there are 

more of these ancient rocks from a more livable time.

But Opportunity's twin, Spirit, isn't going anywhere.

Spirit also landed in January 2004, on the opposite side of the planet, and got stuck in the soft

 soil of a place called Troy.


That location turned out to be a scientific gold mine. Spirit showed evidence that water, possibly 

in the form of snow melt, had trickled into the subsurface relatively recently, and continuously.

Spirit has been defunct since it stopped communicating in 2010. The other rovers are too far 

away from it to pay their respects.

Objective of 2020 mission to Mars: Signs of life, NASA says

Follow Elizabeth Landau on Twitter at @lizlandau

 

 

Astrobiology Top 10: Where Life Could Thrive: Interview With John Grotzinger
Mars
Posted:   01/01/14 
Author:    Nola Taylor Redd
Summary: As 2013 draws to a close, Astrobiology Magazine highlights the year's top stories. At number 2, John Grotzinger, project scientists for Curiosity, talks about how the mission showed that conditions at its landing site may have once been suitable for life. (Originally published on 03/21/13)
On Tuesday March 13, NASA's Curiosity science team announced that the Martian rover had found the first confirmed site other than Earth where conditions were right to have once hosted ancient life, if it ever evolved on the red planet. 
John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity mission, offered his perspective on the rover's journey of exploration and the historic find at the John Klein drill site. 
A lot has happened in the seven months since Curiosity has landed. How does it feel to have accomplished so much in that time? 
It feels terrific. I think our team has a really strong feeling of accomplishment. Everybody’s worked really hard. We had a year of preparation for surface operations. Before we landed, we were able to get the orbiter data and do advanced mapping of the landing ellipse, that no matter where we landed, we would have an initial guess about where we might want to go. All of that preparation paid off. 
We always felt that the placement of the landing ellipse would put us in a good position to have potential for discovery. We never really felt that we had to race out of there right away. Between the particular place that we ended up landing and having done all that preparation, we were really in a good position to have a rapid path of discovery. 
However, you don’t know what you’ve got until you see your cards, and so until that, we’ve been nervously waiting for the drilling to happen to see what we would get into CheMin and SAM. It worked out just about as well as we could have hoped for. 
You mentioned that on reaching the site John Klein, the discoveries that were made were not serendipitous. They were not accidental or luck, but they were very deliberate in terms of actually getting to that point. 
Curiosity took a self-portrait while at the John Klein rock site. The rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which rests on the arm, captured two images. The extended arm was then cropped out. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Yes, finding the right geological place was something that we did very deliberately, working with the geological model that we began to develop before we landed, that we added to after we landed with the discovery of the ancient pebble bed. All the signs were directing us towards this area. 
Now, what was then serendipitous was the discovery of the clays and the sulfates. We would have been happy with either one of them, let alone both of them occurring simultaneously. 
Would you have come up with different conclusions if you had found only one rather than both? 
It’s possible and it depends. The clays point to a neutral pH environment. The calcium sulfate could be consistent with a variety of pH’s, but I think together it really adds up to a strong story for the habitable environment. 
This is the first definitive habitable environment outside of Earth. Would you like to speak to that? 
It feels pretty great. That’s always been the goal. Before Mars, we’ve been getting closer and closer all the time, and we’ve known that the very ancient [terrain] is the place to go to. We’ve done a decade of mapping from orbit and we’ve tried places on the ground with previous rovers. All of this has been adding up to an increasingly positive situation that we’ve now been finally able to demonstrate. 
In principle, this is an ideal kind of habitable environment for microbes, so we feel really good about that. It's the kind of thing that you look at and you realize as a team that we really have been able to do something pretty profound. We benefited from all those that came before us. We had state-of-the-art equipment and we had an incredibly capable rover with what seemed to be a highly improbable landing configuration. So we took risks where we needed to take risks and they were always what we viewed to be relatively small risks, but being aggressive in that kind of exploration has paid off and we feel really, really good about it. 
I think it’s kind of obvious how the orbiters have helped you with the mapping and pegging sites. How did previous rovers and the work that they’ve done help to lay the foundation? 
Opportunity showed us the vastness over which water can be active but it also showed us that chemically and mineralogically, just water alone isn’t enough. The environment at Meridani, which turned out to be a subsurface groundwater environment, was probably very acidic. It was probably extremely salty and we don’t see the chemical energy that we have at John Klein. So it provided a calibration point for the orbiters that were trying to map the sulfates. Because we had an instrument on Opportunity that was able to confirm the presence of sulfate minerals, we were then able to do a cross-correlation between the surface and the orbiter. Thus the orbiter was able to do a better job of mapping. 
After drilling into the Martian rock, Curiosity collected and analyzed a sample of powdered rock. The results revealed that the site could have once hosted life if it ever evolved on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Then with Spirit, at Gusev Crater, it took years and years and years of exploration to finally find something that was really good. When it did, it was very encouraging exploring the much more ancient part of Mars. We saw what looked like a hot spring deposit there that we weren’t able to do the full chemical characterization on, lacking instruments like CheMin and SAM, but we saw that water was able to exist in a different, more promising type of environment than it had existed in Meridiani. Now here at Gale, we’re exploring something that looks like an ancient river and lake type environment. 
Could you kind of touch on why John Klein has good preservation potential for organics? 
When you see the reducing compounds and the green color, it’s an indication that, all other things being equal, you’ve got a better environment for preservation of organics than one in which all the minerals are red, which means they’re more oxidized. If you introduce oxygen, at least in a chemical way, it can break down organics. That’s why I said that really the important thing, the learning point for us going forward as a community, including the media, is that there’s three parts to this preservation problem. It’s not just one. 
Initially, the issue is that of concentration of organic matter in the primary environment. The second thing is what’s going on chemically during the conversion of sediment to rock -- what we call diagenesis -- where lithification occurs. That’s where the color is relevant. If you have less oxygen available, then you have a better chance to preserve organics, but that presumes that there is something there to preserve to begin with. Then the third part is that, even if all that goes right and organics had accumulated and you also have the right colors, chemicals, and minerals, if you then expose the surface to radiation for a couple of billion years it can break those organics down. 
All three of these things are important for preservation. The good thing for us is that, looking at that grayer color and finding those clay minerals and seeing iron in a not-so-oxidized state helps, but it’s not the only thing. 
One of the comments made during the press briefing was that, since there were four potential landing sites, there was a 75% chance that the wrong one was selected. 
To be clear, the others could have also paid off. There were four final landing spots and we picked one that we thought was best for our payload. But with that we took a little bit of a risk, because within the landing site there was no evidence for sulfates or clays from orbit, which we considered to be potential leading indicators of not just water but also potentially the kinds of habitable environments that we would like to find. If we wouldn’t have gone to Gale, that’s not to say we wouldn’t have found those things elsewhere. All four of the landing sites were known to contain clays at least in one place that would have been accessible to the rover. 
The large landing ellipse targeted by Curiosity ensured that it would have plenty of opportunities to explore once it touched down. One of its first sites, the John Klein rock, was in the opposite direction of the eventual target of Mount Sharp, which is beyond the bottom of this image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
Gale just seemed to offer the greatest diversity weighed against the risk that there was no signal in the landing ellipse that there were clays or sulfates there. We were willing to accept that risk. Gale Crater is full of rock, but the reason you don’t see a signal from orbit is because it’s got a thin coating of dust. That turns out to be a real problem for the spectrometers that look from orbit. Even a few microns-thick layer of dust is enough to prevent the signal from being seen. 
So there could be other sites that have clays then that would be hidden from orbit. 
Right, yep. 
In preparation for solar conjunction, when the sun stands between Earth and Mars and you can’t communicate with Curiosity, what kind of things will the team be doing? 
We as a team will try to focus on getting more SAM and CheMin results. But mostly it will be the engineers working with Curiosity to make absolutely sure that she’ll be safe during conjunction, while we have no ability to communicate. 
There was a big hoopla over your NPR interview back in November. How did you feel going into that? 
It was just a simple misunderstanding. My enthusiasm was about the proven capability of the payload. 
Once you see an instrument as complex as SAM have everything work on it perfectly for the second time, that’s when you feel really good about the mission. I believe that, even without the results that we announced that, between the landing and the ability of the rover that was doing as well as it did and that all this sophisticated instrument payload technology was working as well as it has, that this would be historic. It means that we as explorers can continue to do this. Even if we didn’t find the stuff that we had set out to discover, you can at least turn around and say we have the capability to do this at one of the other landing sites. 
Curiosity drilled a hole in a rock known as John Klein. Powder from the process was collected and analyzed by instruments on the rover, which determined that the site was habitable billions of years ago. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Gale was a site that the team was just really happy with. It was one that we all embraced with very strong consensus as a place that harbored a lot of potential, though we didn’t think that we would know about it this soon. 
I think you look at something as complicated as this mission, and when you see it all working, that’s what makes you feel like it succeeded. 
What would you be most excited to see or discover on Mars with Curiosity? 
Well, this is it. I feel at this point the rover is not going to ride off into the sunset. We’re going to continue to be as aggressive and as focused and determined as we’ve been in the past to keep exploring. 
At this point it would be an issue of what additional things we would like to see. Geologically speaking, we as a science team see that the base of Mt. Sharp has different ancient environments. We have geologic evidence that suggests there are things there that are different than they are here, and I would like for Curiosity to discover as many potentially different habitable environments as possible. So we have more to go. 
Then of course, this is one that you can always hope for but you have to temper it with realistic expectation, and that is to find more complex organics.

Astrobiology Top 10: Where Life Could Thrive: Interview With John Grotzinger

           

           

 

Mars

Posted:   01/01/14

Author:    Nola Taylor Redd

Summary: As 2013 draws to a close, Astrobiology Magazine highlights the year's top 

stories. At number 2, John Grotzinger, project scientists for Curiosity, talks about how

 the mission showed that conditions at its landing site may have once been suitable for life.

 (Originally published on 03/21/13)

 

On Tuesday March 13, NASA's Curiosity science team announced that the Martian rover had 

found the first confirmed site other than Earth where conditions were right to have once hosted

 ancient life, if it ever evolved on the red planet.

 

John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity mission, offered his perspective on the 

rover's journey of exploration and the historic find at the John Klein drill site.

 

A lot has happened in the seven months since Curiosity has landed. How does it feel to 

have accomplished so much in that time?

 

It feels terrific. I think our team has a really strong feeling of accomplishment. Everybody’s 

worked really hard. We had a year of preparation for surface operations. Before we landed,

 we were able to get the orbiter data and do advanced mapping of the landing ellipse, that no 

matter where we landed, we would have an initial guess about where we might want to go. All

 of that preparation paid off.

 

We always felt that the placement of the landing ellipse would put us in a good position to 

have potential for discovery. We never really felt that we had to race out of there right away. 

Between the particular place that we ended up landing and having done all that preparation, 

we were really in a good position to have a rapid path of discovery.

 

However, you don’t know what you’ve got until you see your cards, and so until that, we’ve 

been nervously waiting for the drilling to happen to see what we would get into CheMin and

  SAM. It worked out just about as well as we could have hoped for.

 

You mentioned that on reaching the site John Klein, the discoveries that were made were not serendipitous. 

They were not accidental or luck, but they were very deliberate in terms of actually getting to that point.

 

 

Curiosity took a self-portrait while at the John Klein rock site. The rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI),

 which rests on the arm, captured two images. The extended arm was then cropped out. Credit: 

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Yes, finding the right geological place was something that we did very deliberately, working with the 

geological model that we began to develop before we landed, that we added to after we landed with

 the discovery of the ancient pebble bed. All the signs were directing us towards this area.

 

Now, what was then serendipitous was the discovery of the clays and the sulfates. We would have 

been happy with either one of them, let alone both of them occurring simultaneously.

 

Would you have come up with different conclusions if you had found only one rather than both?

 

It’s possible and it depends. The clays point to a neutral pH environment. The calcium sulfate could

 be consistent with a variety of pH’s, but I think together it really adds up to a strong story for the

 habitable environment.

 

This is the first definitive habitable environment outside of Earth. Would you like to speak to that?

 

It feels pretty great. That’s always been the goal. Before Mars, we’ve been getting closer and closer

 all the time, and we’ve known that the very ancient [terrain] is the place to go to. We’ve done a

 decade of mapping from orbit and we’ve tried places on the ground with previous rovers. All of this

 has been adding up to an increasingly positive situation that we’ve now been finally able to demonstrate.

 

In principle, this is an ideal kind of habitable environment for microbes, so we feel really good about

 that. It's the kind of thing that you look at and you realize as a team that we really have been able to 

do something pretty profound. We benefited from all those that came before us. We had state-of-the-art

 equipment and we had an incredibly capable rover with what seemed to be a highly improbable landing

 configuration. So we took risks where we needed to take risks and they were always what we viewed to

 be relatively small risks, but being aggressive in that kind of exploration has paid off and we feel really,

 really good about it.

 

I think it’s kind of obvious how the orbiters have helped you with the mapping and pegging sites. 

How did previous rovers and the work that they’ve done help to lay the foundation?

 

Opportunity showed us the vastness over which water can be active but it also showed us that chemically

 and mineralogically, just water alone isn’t enough. The environment at Meridani, which turned out to be 

a subsurface groundwater environment, was probably very acidic. It was probably extremely salty and we

 don’t see the chemical energy that we have at John Klein. So it provided a calibration point for the orbiters

 that were trying to map the sulfates. Because we had an instrument on Opportunity that was able to confirm

 the presence of sulfate minerals, we were then able to do a cross-correlation between the surface and the 

orbiter. Thus the orbiter was able to do a better job of mapping.

 

 

After drilling into the Martian rock, Curiosity collected and analyzed a sample of powdered rock. 

The results revealed that the site could have once hosted life if it ever evolved on Mars

Then with Spirit, at Gusev Crater, it took years and years and years of exploration to finally find

 something that was really good. When it did, it was very encouraging exploring the much more 

ancient part of Mars. We saw what looked like a hot spring deposit there that we weren’t able to

 do the full chemical characterization on, lacking instruments like CheMin and SAM, but we saw 

that water was able to exist in a different, more promising type of environment than it had existed

 in Meridiani. Now here at Gale, we’re exploring something that looks like an ancient river and lake

 type environment.

 

Could you kind of touch on why John Klein has good preservation potential for organics?

 

When you see the reducing compounds and the green color, it’s an indication that, all other things 

being equal, you’ve got a better environment for preservation of organics than one in which all the

 minerals are red, which means they’re more oxidized. If you introduce oxygen, at least in a chemical

 way, it can break down organics. That’s why I said that really the important thing, the learning point

 for us going forward as a community, including the media, is that there’s three parts to this 

preservation problem. It’s not just one.

 

Initially, the issue is that of concentration of organic matter in the primary environment. The second 

thing is what’s going on chemically during the conversion of sediment to rock -- what we call diagenesis

 -- where lithification occurs. That’s where the color is relevant. If you have less oxygen available, then

 you have a better chance to preserve organics, but that presumes that there is something there to 

preserve to begin with. Then the third part is that, even if all that goes right and organics had 

accumulated and you also have the right colors, chemicals, and minerals, if you then expose the 

surface to radiation for a couple of billion years it can break those organics down.

 

All three of these things are important for preservation. The good thing for us is that, looking at that 

grayer color and finding those clay minerals and seeing iron in a not-so-oxidized state helps, but it’s 

not the only thing.

 

One of the comments made during the press briefing was that, since there were four potential landing 

sites, there was a 75% chance that the wrong one was selected.

 

To be clear, the others could have also paid off. There were four final landing spots and we picked one

 that we thought was best for our payload. But with that we took a little bit of a risk, because within the

 landing site there was no evidence for sulfates or clays from orbit, which we considered to be potential

 leading indicators of not just water but also potentially the kinds of habitable environments that we would

 like to find. If we wouldn’t have gone to Gale, that’s not to say we wouldn’t have found those things 

elsewhere. All four of the landing sites were known to contain clays at least in one place that would have

 been accessible to the rover.

 

 

The large landing ellipse targeted by Curiosity ensured that it would have plenty of opportunities to 

explore once it touched down. One of its first sites, the John Klein rock, was in the opposite direction 

of the eventual target of Mount Sharp, which is beyond the bottom of this image. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Gale just seemed to offer the greatest diversity weighed against the risk that there was no signal

 in the landing ellipse that there were clays or sulfates there. We were willing to accept that risk. 

Gale Crater is full of rock, but the reason you don’t see a signal from orbit is because it’s got a thin

 coating of dust. That turns out to be a real problem for the spectrometers that look from orbit. Even

 a few microns-thick layer of dust is enough to prevent the signal from being seen.

 

So there could be other sites that have clays then that would be hidden from orbit.

 

Right, yep.

 

In preparation for solar conjunction, when the sun stands between Earth and Mars and you can’t communicate with Curiosity, what kind of things will the team be doing?

 

We as a team will try to focus on getting more SAM and CheMin results. But mostly it will be the engineers working with Curiosity to make absolutely sure that she’ll be safe during conjunction, while we have no ability to communicate.

 

There was a big hoopla over your NPR interview back in November. How did you feel going into that?

 

It was just a simple misunderstanding. My enthusiasm was about the proven capability of the payload.

 

Once you see an instrument as complex as SAM have everything work on it perfectly for the second time,

 that’s when you feel really good about the mission. I believe that, even without the results that we 

announced that, between the landing and the ability of the rover that was doing as well as it did and 

that all this sophisticated instrument payload technology was working as well as it has, that this would be

 historic. It means that we as explorers can continue to do this. Even if we didn’t find the stuff that we had 

set out to discover, you can at least turn around and say we have the capability to do this at one of the 

other landing sites.

 

 

Curiosity drilled a hole in a rock known as John Klein. Powder from the process was collected and 

analyzed by instruments on the rover, which determined that the site was habitable billions of years

 ago. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Gale was a site that the team was just really happy with. It was one that we all embraced with 

very strong consensus as a place that harbored a lot of potential, though we didn’t think that we 

would know about it this soon.

 

I think you look at something as complicated as this mission, and when you see it all working, 

that’s what makes you feel like it succeeded.

 

What would you be most excited to see or discover on Mars with Curiosity?

 

Well, this is it. I feel at this point the rover is not going to ride off into the sunset. We’re going

 to continue to be as aggressive and as focused and determined as we’ve been in the past to keep exploring.

 

At this point it would be an issue of what additional things we would like to see. Geologically speaking,

 we as a science team see that the base of Mt. Sharp has different ancient environments. We have 

geologic evidence that suggests there are things there that are different than they are here, and I would like for Curiosity to discover as many potentially different habitable environments as possible. So we have more to go.

 

Then of course, this is one that you can always hope for but you 

have to temper it with realistic expectation, and that is to find more complex organics.

 


 

 

A year of Curiosity

 

 

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

 

With a new year around the corner, redOrbit decided to take a look back at NASA’s most-prized rover’s accomplishments over the past year, looking at everything from breakthrough discoveries in Martian soil 

samples to Curiosity’s 100,00th laser shot.

 

Over the past year, Mars exploration has made the biggest headlines, particularly due to NASA’s Curiosity

 rover. This was the rover’s first full year on Mars, and even though its primary mission isn’t over yet, 

Curiosity has already accomplished what it set out to do.

 

Curiosity performed its first drill on a Martian rock back on February 8, drilling a 0.63-inch wide and 

2.5-inches deep hole. The drilling was symbolic of what discoveries lay ahead for NASA’s first Martian

 geologist if it continued to dig. It was not only the first time a rover ever drilled into Martian bedrock,

 but it also led to the biggest discovery yet on the Red Planet.

 

After drilling, the rover’s arm delivered samples from the “John Klein” rock into its Sample Analysis 

at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The sample was heated in a 

quartz oven to 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit, after which it revealed a huge clue into Mars’ history: the 

sample showed the Red Planet once had conditions that could have been favorable for life. This 

sample  showed the presence of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide and

hydrogen sulfide, giving any believer in  extraterrestrials more weight to their argument.

 

“A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable 

environment,” Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s

 headquarters in Washington, said at the time of the discovery. “From what we know now, the

 answer is yes.”

 

In July, Curiosity provided some clues as to how Mars lost some of its original atmosphere.

 Researchers reported in the journal Science that Mars’ atmosphere escaped from the top, 

rather than due to the lower atmosphere interacting with the ground. NASA’s recently launched

 MAVEN mission will be helping to add more to the story of Mars’ lost atmosphere, and what it

 might have looked like.

 

Curiosity celebrated its first year on Mars back on August 6, during which time the rover 

performed the “Happy Birthday” song for itself. NASA said at the time that the rover had

 already traversed over one-mile across Mars, transmitted more than 190 gigabits of data

 to Earth and fired its laser more than 75,000 times at 2,000 targets.

 

Engineers set up Curiosity to start using its autonomous navigation system at the end of 

August. By October the rover had completed its first two-day autonomous drive across the

 Martian landscape, bringing it to just 260 feet from “Cooperstown” on Mars.

 

RedOrbit performed an interview with Jeng Yen during this Curiosity phase, asking the 

engineer what it was like to drive a rover on the Red Planet.

 

“It feels great to brag about driving the most expensive car on the frontier millions of miles

 away,” Yen told redOrbit in an interview. “Especially when I talked the rover driver experience

 with kids, they often asked me how I did the driving of the rover so far away, I often answered 

with ‘not much different with playing a video game.’ They all think that I have the greatest job 

in the world and that science is very cool!”

 

In September, scientists said Curiosity actually discovered water on Mars during its first 

soil scoop. The team wrote in the journal Science that the rover’s first scoop contained fine

 materials that were several percent water by weight.  (This was reported as a "discovery" even

though Dr. Gilbert Levin both discovered and reported 2% water in the Martian soil in 1976 with his

Gulliver experiment on the Viking Lander. ed note)

Nevertheless, Nasa called the Curiosity discovery is a breakthrough for

 future missions because now we know human explorers of Mars will be able to use

 methods to obtain water from the Martian surface to survive on the Red Planet.

 

The rover gave a bit of a scare to everyone in November when a couple of malfunctions caused 

Curiosity to halt its operations on Mars. At the beginning of the month, Curiosity put itself in safe 

mode after an unexpected software reboot occurred during a communication pass with the Mars 

Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Curiosity team determined the root cause of the problem, only for

 another one to occur just a few weeks later when the rover experienced a voltage change.

 

NASA suspended its prized rover’s operations after learning that Curiosity was exposed to

 a “soft” short, which is a leak through a material that is partially conductive of electricity.

 The rover is designed to work throughout a range of voltages, but any problem at all with

 the rover is handled with precaution because it is a lot harder to fix the world’s most expensive

 wheeled vehicle from millions of miles away.

 

A few weeks after NASA decided to resume Curiosity operations, the rover fired off its 100,000th

 laser shot on Mars. One of a series of 300 shots was fired at a distance of 13 feet from the rover

 to investigate 10 locations on a rock called “Ithaca.”

 

Each of Curiosity’s laser shots deliver more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths

 of a second. This instrument has been used to help assess the composition of rocks on Mars.

 

A few days after Curiosity hit its laser milestone, scientists wrote in Science Express that they 

used data from the rover to analyze the age of rock samples. This was the first-ever geological

 analysis of a rock sample performed on another planet. The geochemical analysis performed is

 similar to what scientists do on Earth, involving a technique known as potassium-argon dating. 

The research team used Curiosity’s SAM instrument to determine that a rock in Yellowknife Bay

was between 3.8 and 4.5 billion years old.

 

One of Curiosity’s best findings out of a full year of discoveries was announced in December at

 the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. NASA scientists said Curiosity data 

revealed that a crater on Mars is actually an ancient lake bed that could have contained the

 proper conditions to supp

ort life.

 

The ancient lake bed, roughly the size of New York’s Finger Lakes, had the right ingredients 

for life to exist. The lake contained chemicals and minerals that are needed to support life,

 and it was around for as long as tens of thousands of years, which is long enough for life 

to have incubated.

 

“What we have found is that Gale Crater was able to sustain a lake on its surface at least once

 in its ancient past that may have been favorable for microbial life, billions of years ago. This is

 a huge positive step for the exploration of Mars,” stated Professor Sanjeev Gupta, a member

 of the Curiosity team from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College

 London and a co-author on the paper published in the journal Science.

 

Gupta said that for the next phase of the mission Curiosity will be exploring more rocky 

outcrops on the crater’s surface, which could hold the key to whether life did exist on Mars.

 

2013 has been a huge year for Martian exploration, and Curiosity has been behind the majority

 of the discoveries. For scientists, the $2.5 billion spent to develop Curiosity has already paid 

for itself ten-fold in knowledge that couldn’t have been obtained without it. For those skeptics

 who still need the rover to continue earning its keep, 2014 has the potential to be an even

 bigger year of Martian discoveries than this past year.

 

 

Source: Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

 

Read more at http://www.redorbit.com/news/space/1113033085/mars-curiosity-rover-end-of-year-122013/#c1ZUxXXYm6Mi7OSY.99

NASA Mars Spacecraft Reveals Water-like liquid er.. 

liquid …er.. pickle juice

 

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed to scientists slender dark markings 

-- possibly due to salty water - that advance seasonally down slopes surprisingly close

 to the Martian equator.

 

"The equatorial surface region of Mars has been regarded as dry, free of liquid or frozen 

water, but we may need to rethink that," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona

in Tucson, principal investigator for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution

 Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

 

Tracking how these features recur each year is one example of how the longevity of 

NASA orbiters observing Mars is providing insight about changes on many time scales. 

Researchers at the American Geophysical Union meeting Tuesday in San Francisco 

discussed a range of current Martian activity, from fresh craters offering glimpses of 

subsurface ice to multi-year patterns in the occurrence of large, regional dust storms.

 

The seasonally changing surface flows were first reported two years ago on mid-latitude

 southern slopes. They are finger-like features typically less than 16 feet (5 meters) wide

 that appear and extend down steep, rocky slopes during spring through summer, then fade 

in winter and return the next spring. Recently observed slopes stretch as long as 4,000 feet 

(1,200 meters).

 

McEwen and co-authors reported the equatorial flows at the conference and in a paper 

published online Tuesday by Nature Geoscience. Five well-monitored sites with these 

markings are in Valles Marineris, the largest canyon system in the solar system. At each

 of these sites, the features appear on both north- and south-facing walls. On the

 north-facing slopes, they are active during the part of the year when those slopes get 

the most sunshine. The counterparts on south-facing slopes start flowing when the season 

shifts and more sunshine hits their side.

 

"The explanation that fits best is salty water is flowing down the slopes when the temperature

 rises," McEwen said. "We still don't have any definite identification of water at these sites, but

 there's nothing that rules it out, either."

 

Dissolved salts can keep water melted at temperatures when purer water freezes, and they

 can slow the evaporation rate so brine can flow farther. This analysis used data from the 

Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and the Context Camera on the 

MRO as well as the Thermal Emission Imaging System experiment on NASA's Mars Odyssey

 orbiter.

 

Water ice has been identified in another dynamic process researchers are monitoring with

MRO. Impacts of small asteroids or bits of comets dig many fresh craters on Mars every year. 

Twenty fresh craters have exposed bright ice previously hidden beneath the surface. Five were 

reported in 2009. The 15 newly reported ones are distributed over a wider range of latitudes 

and longitudes.

 

"The more we find, the more we can fill in a global map of where ice is buried," said Colin

 Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. "We've now seen icy craters down

 to 39 degrees north, more than halfway from the pole to the equator. They tell us that either

 the average climate over several thousand years is wetter than present or that water vapor

 in the current atmosphere is concentrated near the surface. Ice could have formed under 

wetter conditions, with remnants from that time persisting today, but slowly disappearing."

 

Mars' modern climate becomes better known each year because of a growing set of data from

 a series of orbiters that have been studying Mars continually since 1997. That has been almost

 nine Martian years because a year on Mars is almost two years long on Earth. Earlier missions

 and surface landers have added insight about the dynamics of Mars' atmosphere and its

 interaction with the ground.

 

"The dust cycle is the main driver of the climate system," said Robert Haberle of NASA's

Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

 

One key question researchers want to answer is why dust storms encircle Mars in some 

years and not in others. These storms affect annual patterns of water vapor and carbon 

dioxide in the atmosphere, freezing into polar ice caps in winter and replenishing the 

atmosphere in spring. Identifying significant variations in annual patterns requires many

 Martian years of observations.

 

The data emerging from long-term studies will help future human explorers of Mars know 

where to find resources such as water, how to prepare for hazards such as dust storms,

 and where to be extra careful about contamination with Earth microbes.

 

Launched in 2005, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its six instruments have provided

 more high-resolution data about the Red Planet than all other Mars orbiters combined. 

Data are made available for scientists worldwide to research, analyze and report their findings.

 

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the MRO and Mars Odyssey 

missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space

 Systems in Denver built both orbiters. The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary 

Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. 

of Boulder, Colo.

 

For more information about NASA Mars exploration missions, 

visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mars For more about HiRISE, visit: http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu

First Mars life explorer files motion for unreleased 

Curiosity Rover data from Mars

 

 

 

Viking life search scientist Dr. Gilbert Levin has requested a Freedom of Information

seach for recent Mars life search data that has been accumulated by NASA through 

the Curiosity Rover.

 

 

 

December 9, 2013

 

foia@hq.nasa.gov

 

HQFOIA Officer

Room 2 X71

300 E Street, SW

Washington, DC 20546

 

ATTN:  Ms. Josephine Sibley

 

Dear Ms. Sibley:

 

Please accept and respond to this FOIA.

I seek data obtained, but not released to the public, from experiments and analyses performed 

by the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity.”  Specifically, I request:


  1. the data obtained by the liquid extraction method included in SAM for analyzing organic 
  2. compounds in the Martian surface material and in scrapings from rocks;
  3. hi-resolution, close-up images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager of some of the many
  4.  green spots Curiosity’s released images show on numerous rocks.

 

I am adjunct professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (the Beyond Center for 

Fundamental Concepts in Science) at the Arizona State University, and am Honorary Professor 

of Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham, UK

 

I was Experimenter of the Viking Mission Labeled Release (LR) life detection experiment landed 

and successfully performed on Mars in 1976.  I and my Co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, 

along with many colleagues, have concluded that the LR detected living microorganisms in the 

topsoil at both Viking landing sites.  The information I seek with this FOIA may be of great import

 to that conclusion.  As a consequence, I believe the requested data should promptly be made 

available and free of charge inasmuch as the public taxes have already paid for the entire mission.

  The legacy of Viking includes holding science news conferences soon after acquisition of 

experiment results.

 

The Viking LR executed nine tests on Mars.  Four were strongly positive, and five were control

 runs, all of which supported that the positive tests had detected life.  Although the pre-mission 

criteria accepted by NASA as evidence for life were more than satisfied, that interpretation of the

 data was not accepted.  Many alternatives have been raised to explain away the evidence for life 

over the intervening 37 years.  None has withstood scientific scrutiny, although two have persisted:

  the lack of organic material on Mars as indicated by the failure of the Viking molecular analysis

 (GCMS) instrument to find any; the supposed lack of liquid water in the surface material.  


Over the past several years, several scientific papers have concluded that the Viking GCMS may

 have failed because of inherent problems, or because it lacked sufficient sensitivity.  Moreover, 

it has recently been claimed that organic matter reported by the Viking GCMS was indigenous to

 Mars and not terrestrial contamination as claimed at the time.  Also, several Mars missions,

 including Curiosity, have confirmed liquid water in the Martian soil in amounts above those 

supporting microbial life in desert areas on Earth.  In recent years, as relevant data from Mars

 and Earth have accumulated, a number of scientists have come to accept that the Viking LR 

detected life, but the consensus remains against that conclusion.  

Unfortunately, since Viking, no life detection experiments have been sent to Mars. 

 

However, more than a score of landers and rovers, none of which were sterilized per COSPAR

 requirements, have impacted and roamed the surface, impugning future life detection

 experiments because of possible terrestrial contamination.  Therefore, the Viking LR data 

are the only pristine life detection data we will ever have from Mars.  Curiosity contains

 instruments that can possibly resolve the organics and liquid water issues that have been

 cited to deny the LR evidence for life. 

 

ChemCam and SAM have the ability to determine the presence of organic matter in soil or

 rock.  SAM contains a liquid extraction method of analyzing for organic compounds without 

heating the sample that possibly destroyed complex organic matter in the Viking GCMS and

 the Curiosity GCMS.  While Curiosity has reported the possible presence of simple organic

 compounds, support for the LR would be in the form of more complex organics.  This is what 

the SAM liquid extraction method can deliver.  Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012. 


 Knowing the hazards that can befall spacecraft and their communications, it would seem only

 prudent that critical assays, such as the search for complex organics, be performed early in

 the mission.  Thus, it seems likely these have been done.  However, no such results have

 been reported. 

 

Soon after landing, Curiosity released color images of the site that contained rocks with

 green patches on them, as was seen by Viking.  Spectral analysis of those patches by the

 Viking Imaging system that measured color frequency, intensity, hue and saturation, found 

them to be consistent with the same analysis of terrestrial lichen on rocks.  However, the Viking

 cameras did not have the resolution great enough to examine the colored patches for possible

 indications of biology, such as lobate patterns, thalli or other life-like forms.  Curiosity’s Mars 

Hand Lens Imager, with the reported ability to resolve features less than a fraction of the width

 of a human hair, has that ability.  While many thousands of Curiosity’s images have been released,

 none is of a close-up, hi-resolution image of such a colored patch.  The principal investigator 

of the Curiosity camera systems told me he intended to take such images, so it seems likely 

this has been done.  Despite my personal requests to him, none has been released.   

 

The issue of life beyond Earth, and, specifically life on Mars, remains a high NASA priority. 

 The requested data could have important impact on current and planned planetary investigation

 programs by the astrobiology community, affecting many millions of dollars in budgets.  Not only

 is the question of whether we are alone of paramount scientific importance, the lay public in the

U.S. and worldwide have long had an intense interest in the answer that could better define our 

place in the universe.   For all of these reasons, I hereby request prompt release of the data

 identified above.

 

Thank you,

 

Gilbert V. Levin, PhD

gilbert.levin@asu.edu

Cell phone: 443 695 0061    

 

 

 

 

New blather from Curiosity: Well er its organic but does it matter?

Scientifically explained as "organic matter of some sort"! Except for the one guy who

 said "This is combustion of organic matter, folks!" before they told 

him to hush. 

Then this other guy said it was either an oasis of life on Mars or a place where 

a lot of organic meteors all landed!

Curiosity’s new analyses of sediment from the bed of a long-vanished lake hint that

 Mars harbors substantial amounts of organic matter of some sort, although no one is 

yet willing to attribute it to ancient life. And in a martian first, Curiosity has determined 

how recently surface rocks have been exposed by erosion. That opens the way to more 

systematic searches for molecular fossils, by showing scientists how to maximize their

 chances of finding organic matter that was only recently exposed to the ravaging rain of cosmic rays 

that pours down on Mars.

The last time Curiosity scientists reported on the hunt for organic matter, things were a bit of a mess

. Perchlorate compounds—powerful oxidizers when heated—turned out to be ubiquitous on Mars.

 And because Curiosity’s onboard test for organic matter involves heating finely powdered rock

 by hundreds of degrees, any organic carbon compounds would be oxidized to carbon dioxide

 before the carbon’s original form could be determined. A few molecules did survive, but they

 seemed to come from a contaminant that leaks into Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)

 instrument package.

SAM team members now report that their contamination problem is behind them. The contamination

 “can’t explain it all,” says SAM team member Daniel Glavin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

in Greenbelt, Maryland. By analyzing empty sample containers, varying the amount of sample, 

and flushing out samples before analysis, the SAM team has concluded that the contaminant 

now accounts for only 1% to 3% of the carbon appearing as carbon dioxide.

The remaining 97% may well have come from martian organic matter. The SAM authors reached 

that conclusion after Curiosity took its first look beneath the planet’s surface. At a site called 

Yellowknife Bay, which has a rock outcrop that seems to have been the bottom mud of an ancient 

lake, the probe drilled 5 centimeters into the rock. The team then compared samples of windblown 

dust scooped off the surface with samples of rock powder from the borehole. The dust had been 

exposed to organics-destroying solar ultraviolet, cosmic rays, and radiation-activated perchlorates

 for many millions of years. The lakebed had long been shielded by encasing rock.

When SAM heated the samples, the lakebed samples emitted more carbon dioxide than equal-size 

dust samples did, and their carbon dioxide came off at lower temperatures. Those observations

 suggested that heating the dust had simply decomposed naturally occurring, inorganic 

carbonate minerals, but that heating the lakebed samples had burned organic matter. 

Most telling, as carbon dioxide from the lakebed surged, the level of oxygen gas from 

decomposing perchlorates dropped. On seeing those data, one SAM team member

 reportedly declared, “This is combustion of organic carbon, folks.”

Curiosity’s Glavin says the results are “exciting,” but he and the rest of the SAM team are more cautious in print. So is organic geochemist Mark Sephton of Imperial College London, who is not on the Curiosity team. The results are “very consistent with organic carbon,” he says, but he adds that so far they are “tantalizing” rather than definitive.

Tempering the excitement is Glavin’s ready admission that “we can’t say anything 

about the origin of this [organic] carbon.” That’s because a nonbiological source is

 close at hand: Tons of organic matter fall on Mars every year in meteorites and cosmic dust. Researchers estimate that these organic compounds, made not by living things but by chemical process

es in space, could have supplied Mars’s surface with between about 10 parts per million (ppm) and several hundred ppm of carbon—enough at the high end to account for all of the roughly 500 ppm of carbon that Curiosity has detected in the lakebed samples.

What’s more, the ancient environment around Gale crater does not appear to have been 

very hospitable to life, new (except for that lake that they say was very hospitable to life) 

analyses reported in the Science papers suggest. The lakebed deposits—which washed into

 the crater from surrounding high ground—show “very little evidence for chemical

 weathering” before arriving in the lake, says team member Scott McLennan of 

Stony Brook University in New York. That suggests that there was little liquid water 

around to alter the minerals and thus that “we’re dealing with very arid and/or cold

 environments,” McLennan says. The area may have resembled the hostile, hyperarid 

Atacama Desert of Chile, where water flows only during rare torrential rainstorms.

The muddy lake bottom might have been more hospitable. In their paper, Grotzinger 

and his Curiosity colleagues describe the bottom mud there as a “strikingly Earth-like

 habitable environment.” But to survive in the mud of an oxygen-free planet, any microbes 

would have had to derive energy from the chemical imbalances between minerals in

 the sediment—“eating rock” in a process called chemolithotrophy.

On Earth, “fully convincing” chemolithotrophy is known only in kilometers-deep rock

 exposed in South African gold mines, according to marine geochemist Steven D’Hondt

 of the University of Rhode Island in Narragansett. And levels of organic carbon there

 are minuscule compared with the 500 ppm of carbon reported on Mars. So if the martian 

carbon is indeed organic, the best guess now is that either Curiosity has stumbled across 

the remains of an unexpected subsurface oasis, or most of the carbon comes from meteorites.

Another of the recent results may make it easier to search for martian carbon—and 

ultimately sort out its origins. For the moment, carbon-hunters face a serious obstacle:

 Cosmic rays penetrate the rock down a meter or so, far beyond the reach of Curiosity’s drill, and over millions of years utterly destroy any organic matter.

In one paper, Kenneth Farley of Caltech and colleagues demonstrate an elegant solution: a way to identify rock that has been buried for eons beneath at least a couple meters of protective rock and only recently exposed by wind erosion. Using SAM’s mass spectrometer, they measured isotopes of helium, neon, and argon that cosmic rays generate as they pass through rock. The fewer of these isotopes they find, the more recently the rock has been exposed near the surface. Using the technique, they show that the 4-billion-year-old lakebed rock drilled by Curiosity was uncovered between 30 million and 110 million years ago as winds sandblasted away 2 meters of overlying rock. An ideal drill site would be tens of millions of years fresher, but it’s a start.

“It gives us a rational way to look for organics on Mars,” Grotzinger says. So next time, Curiosity’s handlers will just look for a sign of recent wind erosion, such as a step up in the rock, nuzzle the rover up to the step, and see just how freshly exposed the rock is. Voilà: a whole new approach to prospecting for past life on the Red Planet.

 

NASA fantasy of killer comet just missing Mars

Mars missions could be devastated by Comet C2013 next year

Mars Express, Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are

 dying, unfortunately, as their balancing wheels lose their

 ability to focus the antennae that send messages to earth.

To replace them the US sent MAVEN just last month and the

 Indians have launched MOM. Although both space agencies 

knew of the impending convergence of a comet and Mars as 

early as 2004, they decided to go ahead and send them to 

arrive just a month before the comet collision. Go figure


NASA never says things very plainly if it can say the 

same thing without attracting too much negative attention.


Thus, over the years NASA did not explain the risk of sending

Curiosity to Mars two years late and directly in front of a 

major solar storm cycle. The sun has tripped the breakers 

twice on Curiosity. But, so far so good.


Likewise NASA never really explained that Curiosity was designed

 to find life but a flaw in contamination-prevention caused a

 180 degree role reversal. Now the costly explorer must avoid 

any sign of life or even water, at all costs. It can only sniff 

about and look for places where life might have been. That 

was accomplished in its first month. Now it just wanders about

reconfirming 10 years of established geological information

gathered by the EU and Russia Mars Express Orbiter and

the US Odyssey.


Both were freed from their original missions when their 

companion landers crashed. So they orbited endlessly 

gathering data by  radar and a host of other measuring 

and photographic gizmos.They learned everything Curiosity

 has confirmed while servingas radio signal amplifiers

 sending rover messages back to Earth.


Mars Express, Odyssey and the equally hard-working Mars 

Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission are dying, unfortunately, 

as their balancing wheels spin millions of times a week, 

wearing out and losing their ability to focus the antennae

that send the precious data-rich messages from their 

observations and from the Mars surface back to earth.


To replace them the US sent MAVEN just last month 

and the Indians have launched MOM. Although both 

space agencies knew of the impending convergence of 

a comet and Mars as early as 2004, they decided to go 

ahead and send them to arrive just a month before the 

comet collision. 


Now that the end is on the horizon, listen and you

can hear the whisper of doom from NASA and beyond.


As it turns out, next October a very large comet will come 

within 173,000 kilometers of Mars' surface, according to a

 study published this week in Icarus, the journal of things 

that Science won’t publish.

According to the study, Comet C/2013 A1, 

also known as comet Siding Spring after the observatory in

New South Wales, Australia, where it was discovered, will cross 

Mars's orbit on 19 October 2014.


Since astronomers are wrong about as often as they are

 correct, there are three possibilities. The first, most recently

 discounted, is that Siding Spring will crash into Mars, 

obliterating almost everything that is mechanical on the

 surface and raising a cloud of debris that will turn the 

Red Planet into the orange fuzz ball, obscuring everything

 for years.


The guess about the 173,000 kilometer approach has 

now been challenged by a rival guess that the comet 

could even get as close as 89,000 kilometers. For comparison

, the closest a comet has come to Earth in recorded history 

was 3.5 million kilometers, and that was in 1770, according 

to Bill Cooke of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The scientific consensus is that a comet this big has a tail 

called a comet coma – a halo of gas and rocks that surrounds 

the comet nucleus fills space for a distance of a thousand 

times the width of the comet's nucleus. 

The comet is followed by a million-mile long trail of debris. 

And no matter which proximity they calculate it will engulf 

the entire planet and its natural and human-made satellites

 in a cloud or rocks, snow, dust pebbles and bad vibrations.


Cooke and his colleagues used data from past measurements

 of comet comas to estimate that during the 2 hours of the 

comet's closest approach, the Martian atmosphere will contain

 between 1000 and 10,000 times the density of space rocks

 that are normally present in low Earth orbit. Because it is 

NASA, Cooke did not say nor did the “science writers” ask 

just how many rocks are normally present in low Earth orbit. 

(Neither Google nor Wikipedia offer an answer)

Short of that information we can assume it to be a vastly

 understated way of saying the surface of Mars and its skies 

will be alive with the thunder of collisions.

"Any large particle traveling at the velocity at which the comet

 is passing Mars can be a threat to MAVEN," says the orbiter 

mission's principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of 

the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Although MAVEN is designed to be robust, Jakosky says the

 team is still taking this specific threat seriously. "We are in

 the process of defining the risk and the potential operational

 mitigations that can be taken to minimize the risk."

Meanwhile, Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University in 

College Station who apparently has an advanced degree

 from the University of PollyAnna thinks that our space craft

 and rovers will be just far enough away to safely watch this

giant go ripping by with a trail of rocks thousands of miles

 across and a million miles long.

Lemmon told reporters that the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers

 should be able to see bright meteors. He also hopes orbiters 

will be able to use radio waves produced in the storm to probe

 Mars's ionosphere.

"The joint experiment of using radio waves to probe the 

ionosphere and cameras to document how active the 

meteor shower is – that is something to look forward to," 

he says.

Cooke, also a grad of the University of PollyAnna said, "If I could

 have my druthers, I'd love to be on the surface of Mars 

for this event. It will probably be the most intense meteor 

storm on record."

 

NASA Mars rover Curiosity back up and running

Curiosity continues its mission after a short circuit shut

 down its Mars exploration activities for six days

 

By Sharon Gaudin

November 25, 2013 04:52 PM ET

3 CommentsinShare2

Computerworld - Problems that put the Mars rover Curiosity out of commission for six days have been fixed so the vehicle, and its robotic arm, are now back at work.

 

NASA electrical engineers traced the problem to an internal short circuit in Curiosity's power source, the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. The short circuit isn't expected to further affect either the power source or the rover's overall operations.

 

The short caused Curiosity's voltage level to drop from about 11 volts to about volts on Nov. 17. The rover has now returned to its normal voltage level.

 

A six-day analysis of the problem has been completed. "We made a list of potential causes, and then determined which we could cross off, one by one," said rover electrical engineer Rob Zimmerman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

Once the analysis determined that the rover was not in danger, it's efforts continued on Saturday.

 

Back in full operation, Curiosity used its robotic arm to deliver portions of powdered rock to a laboratory inside the rover. Curiosity, which landed in 2012, has been carrying the powered rock for six months -- ever since drilling into a rock dubbed "Cumberland."

 

Some of the powder had previously been studied by the rover's scientific instruments.

 

Curiosity is on a long journey to the base of Mount Sharp, where it is expected to do the bulk of its scientific work. The rover, which carries 10 science instruments and 17 cameras, is expected to study samples at the base of the mountain, as well at its summit.

Zapped! Mars rover Curiosity is down and out after a short circuit cuts voltage by 70 percent

NASA engineers work to boost power from 4 watts to 11.

By Sharon Gaudin

November 20, 2013 04:38 PM ET

Add a comment

2

Computerworld - NASA engineers have suspended the Mars rover Curiosity's work for a

 few days while they try to fix an electrical short circuit.

Technicians are running tests to find the cause of what they're calling a change in

 voltage that happened on Sunday. The electrical problem seems to be between the rover's

 chassis and the 32-volt power bus that distributes electricity to systems throughout the machine.

Curiosity has been running at about 11 volts since landing in August 2012. Now, 

however, it's at about 4 volts.

The robotic rover was designed with a floating bus, which enables it to operate

 anywhere within that range.

"The vehicle is safe and stable, fully capable of operating in its present condition, 

but we are taking the precaution of investigating what may be a soft short," said

 Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson, in a statement.

NASA describes a soft short as a leak through something that's partially conductive, 

as opposed to a hard short where electrical wires touch. Soft shorts can impair the 

rover's ability to tolerate any future shorts and could indicate that there's trouble 

with the component involved.

Over the next few days, engineers will send up instructions for Curiosity designed to

 check out the potential root causes of the problem.

So far, scientists have found that the short happened three times, intermittently, 

in the hours before the voltage changed for good.

Following a software update earlier this month, a glitch caused Curiosity to switch

 into safe mode. Engineers fixed that problem and it does not seem to be related 

to this electrical issue, NASA noted.

The rover suffered one other soft short.

According to the space agency, the first problem, caused by explosive release 

devices used during landing, happened the day the rover landed on Mars. 

It's not thought to have affected Curiosity's operations.

Curiosity is in the second year of a mission to explore the Martian surface,

 looking for clues as to whether the Red Planet has, or ever had, supported life, 

even in microbial form.

So far, the rover has discovered evidence of ancient water flows, as well 

as water currently in the Martian soil.

However, the rover has not been able to detect any methane, which generally 

is produced by living organisms, in the Martian atmosphere.

 

NASA launches Maven orbiter to probe mysteries in Mars' air

Alan Boyle, Science EditorNBC News

13 hours ago

Video: The orbiter Maven heads to Mars in hopes of helping scientists reveal the ancient mystery of the Red Planet's radical climate change.

NASA launched its Maven orbiter on Monday to begin a journey that could unravel the mysteries surrounding Mars' past and current atmosphere — and perhaps reveal how the planet lost its life-friendly environment.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket rose from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 in Florida at 1:28 p.m. ET, carrying the probe into space to kick off its $671 million mission.

"Hey, guys, we're going to Mars!" Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado who serves as Maven's principal investigator, declared afterward.

If all goes according to schedule, the bus-sized, 2.7-ton spacecraft will enter Martian orbit next September to study the Red Planet's upper atmosphere over the course of at least one Earth year.

What happened on Mars?
"Maven" is an acronym that stands for Mars Atmophere andVolatile EvolutioN. The mission's objective is to help scientists figure out how the Red Planet's environment changed from a warm, moist place into the chilly wasteland it is today.

Previous missions — including NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been working on Red Planet's surface for more than a year — have found ample geological evidence that Mars had enough liquid water on its surface to be hospitable to life billions of years ago. That's not the case anymore.

"Something clearly happened," Jakosky said.

Bill Ingalls / NASA

Great egrets take flight as an Atlas 5 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida on Monday, carrying NASA's Maven spacecraft into space.

The leading hypothesis is that Mars was too small to hang onto its global magnetic field over the long term. As a result, the planet lost the kind of magnetic shield that protects Earth's atmosphere from the damaging effects of solar radiation. In this scenario, electrically charged particles from the sun stripped away Mars' air from the top, leaving behind a carbon dioxide atmosphere that's only 1 percent as dense as Earth's. That kind of atmosphere can't retain heat, shield the surface from radiation or sustain liquid water.

There are also hints that some of Mars' atmospheric CO2 waslocked up as carbonates in the Red Planet's rocks. How much was stripped away from above, and how much was locked up below?

"We can't go back and study what happened over 4 billion years," Jakosky told reporters, "but we can go and look at how these processes are operating today, and how the processes have changed over time."

Maven's array of nine sensors, built into eight scientific instruments, can monitor the solar radiation hitting the top of Mars' atmosphere, gauge the current rate of atmospheric loss, and map the planet's localized, jumbled-up magnetic "umbrellas." Scientists plan to factor in all those readings to produce better models for the global climate shift that swept over Mars — and changed the odds for life in the process.

A team player
Maven won't be working in isolation: It will be joining three other orbiters and two surface rovers that are already on the job at Mars. Yet another orbiter — India's Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as the Mangalyaan probe — was launched earlier this month and is due to reach Martian orbit just after Maven's arrival.

The teams for Maven and Mangalyaan plan to collaborate in their studies of the Red Planet's atmosphere. For instance, there's been some evidence that methane is being released into the Martian atmosphere, which could hint at biological activity. Curiosity hasn't detected any methane at the surface, and Maven won't be measuring methane because that doesn't mesh with the mission's scientific goals. But Mangalyaan can take a closer look at the methane question, and its results could add to Maven's models.

A NASA video explains Maven's mission to Mars.

Maven is destined to be a team player in another sense: NASA's current Mars orbiters are well into their extended missions, and if one of them fails, Maven can help with the task of relaying data between the rovers on the Martian surface and radio antennas back on Earth. That relay function was considered so essential that theMaven team was exempted from the effects of last month's government shutdown.

The science team might give Maven yet another task: The spacecraft's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph could get pictures of Comet ISON, said the University of Colorado's Nick Schneider, who is the lead scientist for that instrument. "We should, if we have the time, get some really great observations," he said.

A key part of Maven's payload won't be used for observations at all, but will instead bring messages to Mars. The spacecraft carries a decorated DVD that contains the digital code for about 100,000 names, 377 student artworks and more than 1,100 haiku poems — all of which were submitted in response to the Maven team's public outreach campaign. One of the 17-syllable poems puts Maven's climate-centric mission into cosmic perspective: 

Amidst sand and stars
We scan a lifeless planet
To escape its fate

Update for 5:45 p.m. ET Nov. 18: Mission managers voiced satisfaction over Maven's launch during a news briefing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "So far, so good," said the mission's project manager, David Mitchell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The next major milestone comes on Dec. 3, when the Maven team plans to correct the spacecraft's trajectory if necessary and start activating its scientific instruments. Jakosky said Maven's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph could capture images of Comet ISON during the second week of December, after the comet's close encounter with the sun, "if everything goes smoothly." 

Jakosky looked back at the years of effort he put into preparing for launch day. "After 10 years of doing this, I don't have the words to describe what I'm feeling," he told reporters. "It's every possible emotion, but they're all positive."

That apparently wasn't the case before liftoff. "In the last 10 seconds before launch ... I was shaking," Jakosky said. When he was asked whether the experience was comparable to the "seven minutes of terror" that the Curiosity rover's mission team experienced just before last year's landing, Jakosky kicked it up a notch. "I think for me, it's 10 years of terror," he said. "There is no point at which you know it's occurred safely until it's occurred safely."

Jakosky joked that being the principal investigator for an interplanetary mission has been "the experience of a lifetime — and there's no way that I'll do it again."

NASA wants to do it again, however. The agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, praised the Maven team for giving the mission such a strong start while sticking within their budget. He said "I would hope that this mission will be a model for the ones that come after it," including human trips to Mars beginning in the 2030s.

More about Maven and Mars:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Logcommunity by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

 

Mars orbiter takes giant leap on its way to Red Planet

Srinivas Laxman, TNN | Nov 17, 2013, 04.59 AM IST

READ MORE Red Planet|Mars Orbiter|Mars Orbiter Mission

MUMBAI: The Rs 450-crore Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) took a giant leap early on Saturday when its apogee—the furthest point from the earth—was raised by about 1 lakh km, the biggest since it was launched on November 5. 

Isro said it was the fifth and the final orbit-raising exercise of the spacecraft before it begins its much-awaited 300-day journey to the Red Planetat 12.42am on December 1. It is expected to reach Mars on September 24, 2014

An Isro official present at the space agency's telemetry, tracking and command network in Bangalore told TOI that all the sequences relating to the orbit-raising exercise were pre-loaded into the on-board computer of the spacecraft and were executed flawlessly. 

The official said that in the next two weeks the spacecraft will gain velocity as it orbits the earth. "During this period, we will also be making preparations for the orbiter to begin its flight towards Mars and simultaneously test some of the payloads," he said.

 

NASA’s next mission to Mars, ready for Monday launch
Posted on:
7:48 pm
,
November 15, 2013
NASA’s next Mars probe is ready for a Monday launch to the Red Planet.
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe (MAVEN for short) is set to launch atop
a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket (powered, as are all Atlas first stages by Russian engines)
 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Monday at 1:28 p.m. EST.
You can watch MAVEN’s launch on Space.com, courtesy of NASA.
“This Wednesday, we just completed our flight readiness review,” Omar Baez, 
NASA launch director at Kennedy Space Center told reporters during a news briefing
Friday. “Yesterday we held our mission dress
rehearsal and this morning, we completed our NASA launch readiness review. All were
 very successful.” 
There is a chance that weather problems in Florida might delay MAVEN’s launch. At the moment,
 NASA puts the odds of good weather at 60 percent for Monday, but the odds become less favorable 
as the week goes on, launch weather officer Clay Flinn said in the briefing.
The spacecraft’s launch window officially extends from Nov. 18 to Dec. 7, but if the
 mission doesn’t lift off before Dec. 23, the team will have to wait until January 2016 
before Mars and Earth are ideally aligned for another attempt, MAVEN mission managers said.
NASA’s MAVEN mission will take about 10 months to reach Mars after launching from Florida
Once in orbit around the Red Planet, the spacecraft will study the planet’s upper atmosphere
 to help scientists determine how Mars turned into the cold desert it is today.
Scientists think that Mars was once a warm, wet world billions of years ago, but at some
point in the planet’s evolution that changed. Mars’ atmosphere was lost to space possibly 
due to the sun’s influence and other factors, and NASA is sending the school bus-sized 
MAVEN to Mars to look into how the planet actually lost its atmosphere, mission scientists
explained.
“If you look outside of the (science) community, there’s quite an interest in this mission,”
Baez said. “You wouldn’t think so in that it’s not as sexy as the rovers going over the
planet, (but) this is kind of like a weather satellite for Mars providing relay and it’s real science.”
The $671 million MAVEN mission will spend at least one Earth year investigating the Martian
 atmosphere, and will be the 10th orbiter NASA has launched to Mars. It will join three other
 probes currently active in orbit around Mars: Mars Odyssey, the European Space Agency’s
 Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Although the role has been understated, MAVEN will provide a critical backup to the aging 
Odyssey, Mars Express and Mars reconnaissance Orbiters which long ago exceeded their 
operational parameters while filling as relay stations for other orbiters that just didn't
make it to Mars.

 

OK Geeks try and find something as simple as Gulliver, 
the utimate Geek on Mars. Make it foolproof and devoid
of ambiguity! You have two years!


See Blog for ideas

NASA has released its announcement of an open competition for 

the planetary community to submit proposals for the science and 

exploration technology instruments that would be carried aboard 

the agency's next Mars rover, scheduled for launch in July/August 

of 2020. 


The Mars 2020 rover will explore and assess Mars as a potential

 habitat for life, search for signs of past life, collect carefully 

selected samples for possible future return to Earth, and 

demonstrate technology for future human exploration of the Red 

Planet. 


Officially called the Mars 2020 Mission Investigations

 Announcement of Opportunity (AO), this  competition 

solicits flight investigations for which each principal 

investigator or scientist is responsible for a complete 

space flight investigation, including 

instrument hardware, mission operations and data analysis. 

The total allocated cost for development of all the 

investigations selected and funded by NASA is

 approximately $130 million. 


The competitively selected instruments will be placed 

on a rover similar to Curiosity, which landed on Mars in

 August 2012. Using  Curiosity's design will help minimize

 mission costs and risks and deliver a rover that can

 accomplish the mission objectives. 

The Mars 2020 mission also would build upon the scientific 

accomplishments of Curiosity and other previous Mars 

missions. 


So what is different about Mars 2020? 

In January 2013, NASA appointed a Science Definition Team to 

outline objectives for the Mars 2020 mission. 

The team, composed of 19 scientists and engineers

from universities and research organizations, proposed

a mission concept that could accomplish several 

high-priority planetary science goals and be a major 

step in meeting President Obama's

challenge to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. 


According to the Science Definition Team, looking for signs of past 

life is the next logical step. 

"The Mars 2020 mission will provide a unique capability to address

 the major questions of habitability and life in the solar system," 

said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary  Science Division in 

Washington. "The science conducted by the rover's instruments also

  would expand our knowledge of Mars and provide the context 

needed to make wise decisions about whether to return any collected

 samples to Earth." 


This rover will make measurements of mineralogy and rock chemistry 

down to a microscopic scale, so that we might be able to understand

 the Martian environment surrounding the rover's landing site and 

identify evidence of possible past life. 


The 2020 rover could also make measurements and conduct

technology demonstrations  to help designers of a human 

expedition understand any hazards posed by Martian dust 

and demonstrate how to collect carbon dioxide, which could 

be a resource for making oxygen and rocket fuel. 


"The Mars 2020 rover will test technologies that are key to 

one-day landing human explorers on the Red Planet," 

said Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration  

Systems Division. 

"New technologies could allow astronauts to live off the land 

as they explore the ancient valleys of Mars. 

The capability to manufacture breathable air, rocket fuel, 

water and  more may forever change how we explore space." 


To view the Announcement of Opportunity online, 

visit: http://solicitation.nasaprs.com/Mars2020 .

 

2003 - Viking and Odyssey data re-examined - 2 percent water found in soil. Now confirmed again by Curiosity!


Viking Mission Scientist Strengthens Case For Life On Mars


Decades ago they went to Mars in twin billion dollar spaceships - The Vikings. Some say they found life.

Beltsville - Aug 01, 2003


Spherix Incorporated reported this week that recent data on the Martian surface sent by the Odyssey spacecraft will be interpreted as evidence for liquid water, life's most essential need, in a paper to be presented at the Astrobiology session of the SPIE (International Society for Optical Engineering) meeting in San Diego on August 4.

This is the latest, perhaps most compelling, round in the years'-long fight of the paper's author, Dr. Gilbert V. Levin, a life detection scientist in NASA's 1976 Viking Mission to Mars, to gain support for his conclusion that his experiment had succeeded in detecting microbial life.

In his analysis of the data from Odyssey's Neutron Spectrometer, Levin says that the vast quantities of ice it found close to the surface of Mars mean that life-sustaining liquid water was in the soil sampled by his Viking experiment.

Twenty-seven years after NASA said that its Viking Mission to Mars had found no evidence of life, Levin is battling to prove otherwise. It was not until 1997 that he finally announced that his Viking instrument had detected living microorganisms in 1976. Levin has tackled each of the many counterarguments raised. The most widely accepted one remaining is that liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars, making life impossible.

Odyssey scientists say they have found the soil very close to the surface over much of the planet to contain large amounts of ice. Just last week, they confirmed and elaborated on the findings.

However, the Odyssey scientists refer to the water as ice, with no mention of the possibility of its becoming liquid. Thus, they have made no statement as to the significance of their discovery to the long-standing debate over life on Mars.

Levin says that ice near the surface means liquid water in the topsoil. He bases this conclusion on a thermodynamic model applied to Viking and Pathfinder data, which he and his son Ron, a Ph.D. physicist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, published in 1998.

Locating the Viking test sites on the Odyssey map, Levin shows that the soil sampled by Viking 1 contains about 2 percent water, and that the water content at the Viking 2 site is about 10 percent. This, he says, adds considerable strength to his case for life on Mars.

Levin says he regrets that, despite NASA and the European Space Agency statements that the search for life on Mars remains their highest priority, none of their three spacecraft currently voyaging to Mars contains a life detection test.

Nonetheless, he predicts these missions will likely advance his cause by finding liquid water and an environment that could support microorganisms.

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2% water in Martian soil plus organic compounds

demand re-analysis of Viking Data


The summary from Science




Samples from the Rocknest aeolian deposit were heated to ~835°C under helium flow and

 evolved gases analyzed by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite. 

H2O, SO2, CO2, and O2 were the major gases released. Water abundance

 (1.5 to 3 weight percent) and release temperature suggest that H2O is bound within

 an amorphous component of the sample. Decomposition of fine-grained Fe or Mg 

carbonate is the likely source of much of the evolved CO2. Evolved O2 is coincident 

with the release of Cl, suggesting that oxygen is produced from thermal decomposition

 of an oxychloride compound. Elevated δD values are consistent with recent atmospheric 

exchange. Carbon isotopes indicate multiple carbon sources in the fines. Several 

simple organic compounds were detected, but they are not definitively martian in origin.

Soil on Mars contains 2% water

“which is kind of a lot,” according to Laurie Leshin, dean of the 

School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the study.

Scientists have discovered that soil on Mars contains about 2 percent water, according to research

 being hailed as a major breakthrough in the quest to discover if the red planet is, or ever has been, habitable for living organisms.

paper published today in the journal Science confirms earlier studies finding that ice is present under the Martian surface -- and the new report goes further, concluding that water can be extracted from soil samples.

It is the latest discovery using the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s Curiosity rover, which was launched from Cape Canaveral in 2011 and touched down on Mars’ Gale Crater in August 2012. The rover is tasked, in part, with finding out if Mars has ever hosted life.

Part of that mission entails looking for organic compounds in Martian soil. Curiosity -- a vehicle about the size of a Mini Cooper car, according to NASA’s website -- is equipped with 17 cameras and a robotic arm that allows it to 

collect and analyze soil samples, among other things.

The research published Thursday is among five different studies scientists have conducted with Curiosity and is 

based on results from the rover’s first-ever solid soil analysis. Curiosity collected a scoop of Martian soil into 

its belly and sieved it a bit at a time.

The rover used a microwave-oven-size instrument called SAM, for Sample Analysis at Mars, 

to heat the soil to 

about 815 degrees C (1,500 degrees F) to see what kinds of gases it released and get an idea of

 its composition.

What the scientists found was that the soil, when it reached a temperature between 

200 and 300 C, was made 

up of about 2 percent water -- “which is kind of a lot,” according to Laurie Leshin, 

dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the study.

The numbers mean that a cubic foot of Martian soil would have a few pints of water chemically 

bound into it.

“It’s likely that if astronauts went to Mars, anywhere you go, the dirt beneath your feet contains water that 

you could get out pretty easily,” Leshin said in a telephone interview.

Previous analyses of Martian soil by the Viking landers, as well as by the Pathfinder and the Spirit and 

Opportunity rovers, have shown that the soil’s chemical composition is relatively constant at different

 locations on the planet, so “the finer-grained fractions, in particular, may provide information about

 the average composition of the Martian crust,” the authors wrote in the study.

Martian water might not be immediately drinkable for humans, however. Curiosity also found in

 the planet’s soil a chemical called perchlorate, which can damage the proper functioning of the

 human thyroid. The chemical made up only about 0.5 percent of the soil sample, but as Leshin said,

 “This is why we send robotic explorers first, so we can understand the lay of the land … and 

understand what risks are there to be managed.”

This is not the first time scientists have found water or evidence of water on Mars. In 2004,

 the Mars Opportunity rover found minerals in the soil that are usually present only when

 water is, too. The shape and size of the layered rock formations were another indication

 that water had once been there.

And in 2008, the robotic arm of the Phoenix Mars lander dug into Martian soil and

 discovered the presence of ice.

Still, as Leshin says, this discovery is significant because "this is the best bulk measurement 

of water that we’ve done in any of the dirt."

Leshin, who previously held various roles at NASA planning human space missions, used an

 instrument similar to SAM back when she was a graduate student at the California Institute

 of Technology. In what she calls “a tiny little lab under the stairs,” she was heating 

up samples of rocks and analyzing their contents.

“Now we’re literally doing the same thing” on Mars, she said.

So what’s next for Curiosity? The rover will head toward the base of Mount Sharp

traveling at a rate of about 100 yards a day. When it arrives in a few months, Curiosity 

will drill into and examine the layers of rock there, looking for more clues.

“We’re just waiting to see what the planet wants to tell us about it,” Leshin said.

 

 

JPL's Webster seeks to correct the record:

Tons of methane could be entering the Mars 

atmosphere nothing in the report suggests

no active biology or geology


JPL Spokesman Guy Webster has asked that we correct some 

harsh and “misleading” statements made in our recent analysis

 of the JPL press release concerning Curiosity’s SAM experiment 

and its research seeking methane in the Martian atmosphere 

at Gale Crater.

 

The subhead to the text said, incorrectly “At Mars, 

Europe's Orbiter photographs methane plumes,

 but Curiosity’s SAM can’t find a trace and JPL

 insists the competition is in error.

 

The article continued, “The truth of the matter is that

the SAM experiment on the Curiosity rover driving across

the bottom of the Gale Crater took only six samples of 

the Mars atmosphere for its definitive conclusion that Mars

has no methane and therefore has no active biology 

or geology.”

 

 

Webster explained, “The SAM researchers did not conclude 

this: "its definitive conclusion that Mars has no methane 

and therefore has no active biology or geology."   They 

concluded that highest current amount of methane in the

 atmosphere is no more than 1.3 parts per billion. JPL did

 not "insist competition is in error." 

 

He said we should, “note that the JPL-NASA news release

gives the upper limit on atmospheric methane, from the MSL 

measurements so far, as 1.3 parts per billion (not zero) and

that translates to no more than 10-to-20 tons per year

(not zero) of methane entering the atmosphere.

 

Webster added, “Most importantly, the article's statement

that "JPL insists the competition is in error" is simply 

erroneous.”

 

In an effort to get things right, I suggested that this might 

be a correct assertion:

 

When questioned about the lack of qualifications for the 

assertion in the recent JPL press release:

 

 

"Data from NASA's Curiosity rover has revealed the Martian 

environment lacks methane."  Webster, the JPL spokesman

 explained  there was some qualification. He said "Lacks" 

does not mean zero,

 

 Webster also responded indirectly to the previous NASA

 press release that said:, “Methane is quickly destroyed 

in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our 

discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern

hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some  ongoing process

is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's 

Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern

mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to

that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in 

Santa Barbara, Calif."

 

He said that this statement from the press release included 

another exception – a scientific loophole --that did not

 undermine the earlier statement from Goddard:

 

The recent JPL press release about the Curiosity SAM results said:

 

 “Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years

 in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of 

the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there 

cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by

 any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet 

degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or 

interplanetary dust particles."

 

 Webster said “the second excerpt you cite from the release

 includes "Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere 

quicker.."  and "there cannot be much..."

 

 His entire rebuttal to this part of the discussion was:

 

 "Lacks" does not mean zero, and the second excerpt you 

cite from the release includes "Without a way to take it out

 of the atmosphere quicker.."  and "there cannot be much..."


We regret any misunderstand or misstatement.

The Stink Over Methane On Mars

At Mars, Europe's Orbiter photographs methane plumes, but

Curiosity’s SAM can’t find a trace and JPL insists the competition is in error.

By Rick Eyerdam

 

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some  ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."
 
“It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important," said the report's lead author, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
 "We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane." 

 

The truth of the matter is that the SAM experiment on the Curiosity rover driving across the bottom of the Gale Crater took only six samples of the Mars atmosphere for its definitive conclusion that Mars has no methane and therefore has no active biology or geology.

 

It is an incredible assertion for several obvious reasons:

 

1. Scientifically it is impossible to prove a negative.

 

2. Scientifically it is impossible to prove a negative when the results are based on only six samples of atmosphere at only one location.

 

3. Scientifically it is impossible to even assert a negative based on 6 samples from one location at the bottom of a crater, Gale Crater on a planet with complex weather patterns (see below).

 

4. Anyone who has driven from Flagstaff to Sedona Arizona can attest that the weather conditions are dramatically different when the observer is at the bottom of a walled-off natural structure. The sun rises later and sets earlier. Heavier air sinks to the bottom along with cooler, moist air. Yet JPL did not qualify its negative assertion about no methane on Mars when it could have correctly asserted Curiosity found no methane in Gale Crater.

 

5. Mars Express orbiter spent years mapping the atmosphere and chemical makeup of the entire planet. It confirmed the spectrographic signature of methane that was previously reported from high powered telescopes equipped with the most sophisticated spectrometers.

 

6. The Curiosity rover was no where near the specific location of the documented methane plumes.

 

7. The two different set of scientists who reported the methane plumes located them in precisely the same place and also reported that the atmosphere of Mars is such that methane in plumes would not persist. It would probably be expelled from a vault filled with the gas below the surface.

 

Nevertheless, the press office and JPL and at NASA headquarters collaborated for this press statement:

 

NASA Curiosity Rover Detects No Methane on Mars

This picture shows a lab demonstration of the measurement chamber inside the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument that is part of the Sample Analysis at Mars investigation on NASA's Curiosity rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Full image and caption

5

September 19, 2013

PASADENA, Calif. -- Data from NASA's Curiosity rover has revealed the Martian environment lacks methane. This is a surprise to researchers because previous data reported by U.S. and international scientists indicated positive detections. 

The roving laboratory performed extensive tests to search for traces of Martian methane. Whether the Martian atmosphere contains traces of the gas has been a question of high interest for years because methane could be a potential sign of life, although it also can be produced without biology. 

"This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars," said Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration. "It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don't generate methane." 

Curiosity analyzed samples of the Martian atmosphere for methane six times from October 2012 through June and detected none. Given the sensitivity of the instrument used, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, and not detecting the gas, scientists calculate the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere today must be no more than 1.3 parts per billion. That is about one-sixth as much as some earlier estimates. Details of the findings appear in the Thursday edition of Science Express. 

"It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important," said the report's lead author, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane." 

Webster is the lead scientist for spectrometer, which is part of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory. It can be tuned specifically for detection of trace methane. The laboratory also can concentrate any methane to increase the gas' ability to be detected. The rover team will use this method to check for methane at concentrations well below 1 part per billion. 

Methane, the most abundant hydrocarbon in our solar system, has one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms in each molecule. Previous reports of localized methane concentrations up to 45 parts per billion on Mars, which sparked interest in the possibility of a biological source on Mars, were based on observations from Earth and from orbit around Mars. However, the measurements from Curiosity are not consistent with such concentrations, even if the methane had dispersed globally. 

"There's no known way for methane to disappear quickly from the atmosphere," said one of the paper's co-authors, Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or interplanetary dust particles." 

The highest concentration of methane that could be present without being detected by Curiosity's measurements so far would amount to no more than 10 to 20 tons per year of methane entering the Martian atmosphere, Atreya estimated. That is about 50 million times less than the rate of methane entering Earth's atmosphere. 

Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012 and is investigating evidence about habitable environments there. JPL manages the mission and built the rover for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover's Sample Analysis at Mars suite of instruments was developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with instrument contributions from Goddard, JPL and the University of Paris in France

For more information about the mission, visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/msl , http://www.nasa.gov/msl andhttp://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl . To learn more about the SAM instrument, visit:http://ssed.gsfc.nasa.gov/sam/index.html .

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov 

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov 

As we reported earlier (see below) Curiosity was designed to duplicate the Viking life search. However, the mission criteria was changed because the Curiosity’s critical drill bits were contaminated or at least not sterilized.

 

Now Curiosity is compelled to avoid any place where there could be living organisms. The fact it found no methane in Gale Craters suggests it is doing an excellent job avoiding life.

 

It always helps understand the difference between fact and lore by reading what was claimed before the mission began.

 

 

SAM: NASA’s Attempt to Repeat Viking’s Search for Martian Organics

by DAVID WARMFLASH on MAY 3, 2012

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Artist concept of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Credit: NASA


After 36 years of debate, confusion, and failed attempts by other space agencies to answer a basic question, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is on its way to repeat the search for organic matter that eluded the two Viking probes.

With 96 days left until landing, MSL will touch down at the Gale Crater this August. The rover, called Curiosity, will be the largest vehicle delivered to our neighboring planet thus far. Weighing in at 900 kg, Curiosity is nearly five times as large as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed eight years ago, and more than 1.5 times as large as each Viking lander that arrived on planet in 1976.

Like the Vikings and Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity was conceived and launched, largely to gather information that may tell us whether the Red Planet harbors microbial life. Instrumentation launched for in situ analysis has been advancing steadily since the Viking era, yet each chapter in the story of the search for Martian life builds upon the previous ones.

Though usually mentioned only briefly in the days when Spirit and Opportunity were making headlines, the twin Viking landers were amazing craft, not only for their time, but even for today. The instrument suite of each Viking lander included a suite of three biology experiments, instruments designed for the direct detection of microbes, should the regolith at either of the two Viking landing sites contain any. While subsequent landing craft have carried instruments designed to assess Mars’ potential for life, none since the Project Viking has been built to look for Martian life forms directly.

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According to Viking investigator Gilbert Levin, the Viking landers already discovered Martian life. Back in 1976-1977, Levin’s instrument, known as the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, yielded positive results at Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, the two Viking landing sites. When treated with a solution containing small, organic chemicals labeled with radioactive carbon, regolith samples taken at the landing sites released a gas, indicated by an increase in radioactivity in the space above the sample.

While Levin believes the gas is carbon dioxide resulting from the oxidation of the organic chemicals, it’s also conceivable that the chemicals were reduced to another gas, methane. Either way, since heating the samples to a temperature high enough to kill most of the microbes that we know on Earth prevented the gas release, the Viking science team concluded initially that the LR had detected life.

Most of the science team, but not Levin, decided that the gas release in the LR must have resulted from a non-biological chemical reaction. This rethinking was due to variety of factors, but the most important of which was that the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) of each lander failed to detect organic matter in the samples. As the late Carl Sagan explained it on his television series, Cosmos, “If there is life on Mars, where are the dead bodies?”

While most astrobiologists and planetary scientists do not agree with Levin that the results of his 36 year-old experiment constitute conclusive evidence for Martian life, there is a growing number of Mars scientists who are equivocal on the issue. According to Levin, Sagan moved into the equivocal category in 1996, after astrobiologist David McKay and colleagues published a paper in the journal Science describing fossilized life in meteorite ALH84001, one of a handful of meteorites known to be from Mars.

The SAM experiment.

Traveling within Curiosity’s enormous instrument package is a suite of machines called SAM, which stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars”. After all of these years, SAM represents NASA’s first attempt to repeat Viking’s search for Martian organics, but with more advanced technology.

This is not to say that other attempts were not made during the intervening years. In 1996, the Russian Federal Space Agency launched a Mars-bound probe carrying not only organic chemistry equipment but an upgraded version of Levin’s experiment. Rather than treating regolith samples with a mixture of “right-handed” and “left-handed” forms of organic substrates (known in chemistry as racemic mixtures), the new LR would have treated some samples with a left-handed substrate (L-cysteine) and others with the substrate’s mirror image (D-cysteine).

Had results been the same for L- and D-cysteine, a non-biological mechanism would have seemed all the more likely. However, if the active agent in the Martian regolith favored one compound at the expense of the other, this would indicate life. Even more intriguing: if the active agent favored D-cysteine, it would have suggested an origin of life on Mars separate from the origin of life on Earth, since terrestrial life forms use mostly left-handed amino acids. Such a result would suggest that life originates fairly easily, implying a cosmos teaming with living forms.

But Russia’s Mars ’96 probe crashed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after liftoff. A few years later, the European Space Agency sent Beagle 2 to Mars, carrying an advanced organic detection package, but this probe too was lost.

While Curiosity’s SAM does not include an LR experiment of any sort, it does have organic matter detection capability that can operate in mass spectrometry (MS), or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS-MS) mode. In addition to being able to detect certain classes of organic compounds that the Viking GCMS would have missed in surface material, SAM also is designed to look for methane in the Martian atmosphere. Though atmospheric methane already has been detected already from orbit, detailed measurements of its concentration and fluctuations will help astrobiologists to determine whether the source is methane-producing microorganisms.



Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/94972/sam-nasas-attempt-to-repeat-vikings-search-for-martian-organics/#ixzz2fd9j996y

 

 

And then here is a NASA release from January 2009

 

Martian Methane Reveals the Red Planet is not a Dead Planet

01.15.09

 

This image shows concentrations of Methane discovered on Mars. Credit:NASA

> Larger, labeled image

 

Mars today is a world of cold and lonely deserts, apparently without life of any kind, at least on the surface. Worse still, it looks like Mars has been cold and dry for billions of years, with an atmosphere so thin, any liquid water on the surface quickly boils away while the sun's ultraviolet radiation scorches the ground.

But there is evidence of a warmer and wetter past -- features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that form in the presence of water indicate water once flowed through Martian sands. Since liquid water is required for all known forms of life, scientists wonder if life could have risen on Mars, and if it did, what became of it as the Martian climate changed.

New research reveals there is hope for Mars yet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates the planet is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Scientists don't yet know enough to say with certainty what the source of the Martian methane is, but this artist's concept depicts a possibility. In this illustration, subsurface water, carbon dioxide and the planet's internal heat combine to release methane. Although we don’t have evidence on Mars of active volcanoes today, ancient methane trapped in ice "cages" might now be released. Credit: NASA/Susan Twardy
> Larger image

 

Methane -- four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom -- is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It's of interest to astrobiologists because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. "Right now, we don’t have enough information to tell if biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma. "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means." Mumma is lead author of a paper on this research appearing in Science Express Jan. 15.

If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface, where it's still warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water, as well as energy sources and a supply of carbon, are necessary for all known forms of life.

"On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon," said Mumma.

"Gases, like methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons, connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or canyons," said Mumma.

"Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth," noted Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which partially supported the research. "If life ever existed on Mars, it's reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide."

However, it is possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide (rust) into the serpentine group of minerals creates methane, and on Mars this process could proceed using water, carbon dioxide, and the planet's internal heat. Although we don’t have evidence on Mars of active volcanoes today, ancient methane trapped in ice "cages" called clathrates might now be released.

The team found methane in the atmosphere of Mars by carefully observing the planet over several Mars years (and all Martian seasons) with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, run by the University of Hawaii, and the W. M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The team used spectrometer instruments attached to the telescopes to make the detection. Spectrometers spread light into its component colors, like a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The team looked for dark areas in specific places along the rainbow (light spectrum) where methane was absorbing sunlight reflected from the Martian surface. They found three such areas, called absorption lines, which together are a definitive signature of methane, according to the team. They were able to distinguish lines from Martian methane from the methane in Earth's atmosphere because the motion of the Red Planet shifted the position of the Martian lines, much as a speeding ambulance causes its siren to change pitch as it passes by.

"We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane," said Dr. Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. Villanueva is stationed at NASA Goddard and is co-author of the paper. "The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons -- spring and summer -- perhaps because the permafrost blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air. Curiously, some plumes had water vapor while others did not," said Villanueva.

According to the team, the plumes were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. For example, plumes appeared over northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra, the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano 1,200 kilometers (about 745 miles) across.

It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to discover the origin of the Martian methane. One way to tell if life is the source of the gas is by measuring isotope ratios. Isotopes are heavier versions of an element; for example, deuterium is a heavier version of hydrogen. In molecules that contain hydrogen, like water and methane, the rare deuterium occasionally replaces a hydrogen atom. Since life prefers to use the lighter isotopes, if the methane has less deuterium than the water released with it on Mars, it's a sign that life is producing the methane. The research was funded by NASA's Planetary Astronomy Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Related links:

> Press release
> Media briefing materials

 

 

Bill Steigerwald
NASA's
Goddard Space Flight Center

 

Mars Water-Ice Clouds Are Key to Odd Thermal Rhythm

June 12, 2013

 

This graphic depicts the Mars Climate Sounder instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter measuring the temperature of a cross section of the Martian atmosphere as the orbiter passes above the south polar region. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech › Full image and caption
 

PASADENA, Calif. - Researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found that temperatures in the Martian atmosphere regularly rise and fall not just once each day, but twice.

"We see a temperature maximum in the middle of the day, but we also see a temperature maximum a little after midnight," said Armin Kleinboehl of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who is the lead author of a new report on these findings.

Temperatures swing by as much as 58 degrees Fahrenheit (32 kelvins) in this odd, twice-a-day pattern, as detected by the orbiter's Mars Climate Sounder instrument.

The new set of Mars Climate Sounder observations sampled a range of times of day and night all over Mars. The observations found that the pattern is dominant globally and year-round. The report is being published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Global oscillations of wind, temperature and pressure repeating each day or fraction of a day are called atmospheric tides. In contrast to ocean tides, they are driven by variation in heating between day and night. Earth has atmospheric tides, too, but the ones on Earth produce little temperature difference in the lower atmosphere away from the ground. On Mars, which has only about one percent as much atmosphere as Earth, they dominate short-term temperature variations throughout the atmosphere.

Tides that go up and down once per day are called "diurnal." The twice-a-day ones are called "semi-diurnal." The semi-diurnal pattern on Mars was first seen in the 1970s, but until now it had been thought to appear just in dusty seasons, related to sunlight warming dust in the atmosphere.

"We were surprised to find this strong twice-a-day structure in the temperatures of the non-dusty Mars atmosphere," Kleinboehl said. "While the diurnal tide as a dominant temperature response to the day-night cycle of solar heating on Mars has been known for decades, the discovery of a persistent semi-diurnal response even outside of major dust storms was quite unexpected, and caused us to wonder what drove this response."

He and his four co-authors found the answer in the water-ice clouds of Mars. The Martian atmosphere has water-ice clouds for most of the year. Clouds in the equatorial region between about 6 to 19 miles (10 to 30 kilometers) above the surface of Mars absorb infrared light emitted from the surface during daytime. These are relatively transparent clouds, like thin cirrus clouds on Earth. Still, the absorption by these clouds is enough to heat the middle atmosphere each day. The observed semi-diurnal temperature pattern, with its maximum temperature swings occurring away from the tropics, was also unexpected, but has been replicated in Mars climate models when the radiative effects of water-ice clouds are included.

"We think of Mars as a cold and dry world with little water, but there is actually more water vapor in the Martian atmosphere than in the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere," Kleinboehl said. "Water-ice clouds have been known to form in regions of cold temperatures, but the feedback of these clouds on the Mars temperature structure had not been appreciated. We know now that we will have to consider the cloud structure if we want to understand the Martian atmosphere. This is comparable to scientific studies concerning Earth's atmosphere, where we have to better understand clouds to estimate their influence on climate."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, provided the Mars Climate Sounder instrument and manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

 

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite

SAM is a suite of instruments that will be onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover. The SAM team consist of scientists and engineers at GSFC, U. Paris/CNRS, JPL, and Honeybee Robotics, along with many additional external partners. SAM's five science goals will address three of the most fundamental questions about the ability of Mars to support life - past, present, and future.

  1. Question 1: What does the inventory of carbon compounds near the surface of Mars tell us about its potential habitability?

    1. Goal 1: Survey carbon compound sources and evaluate their possible mechanism of formation and destruction.
    2. Goal 2: Search for organic compounds of biotic and prebiotic importance expecially methane.
      1. Question 2: What are the chemical and isotopic states of the lighter elements in the solids and atmosphere of Mars and what do they tell us about its potential habitability?

        1. Goal 3: Reveal the chemical and isotopic state of elements (i.e., N, H, O, S and others) that are important for life as we know it.
        2. Goal 4: Evaluate the habitability of Mars by studying its atmospheric chemistry and the composition of trace species that are evidence of interactions between the atmosphere and soil.
          1. Question 3: Were past habitability conditions different from today's?

            1. Goal 5: Understand atmospheric and climatic evolution through measurements of noble gas and light element isotopes.
              1. Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS)
                1. Gas Chromatograph (GC)
                  1. Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS)

SAM will operate over the entire MSL surface mission. A set of pre-programmed analysis sequences available on SAM can be executed with a simple set of commands. SAM is also highly flexible and can respond to new discoveries with online re-programming. Consumables such as GC carrier are sufficient for more than 80 separate analyses over the nominal mission. A large subset of SAM science operations will continue after consumables are exhausted.

A fully capable SAM testbed facility will operate at NASA Goddard during MSL surface operations. Analog samples and sequences will be tested prior to execution on Mars. The SAM Science Team will participate, remotely and on-site, in MSL sequence definition.

The SAM GCMS is provided by the technical team that designed and fabricated the Cassini/Huygens GCMS, the first such instrument to be selected by NASA since the Viking Lander experiments more than 3 decades ago. Numerous elements of the Huygens GCMS are used in SAM. The TLS has a rich flight heritage including miniature instruments developed for Mars.

 
Sample Flow in SAM

Instruments

The QMS detects gases sampled from the atmosphere or those released from solid samples by heating.

The GC can separate out individual gases from a complex mixture into molecular components for QMS and GC stand alone analysis.

The TLS implements a sensitive search for methane and makes precision measurements of oxygen and carbon isotope ratios in carbon dioxide.

 

So it is clear MSL went to Mars with the tools to look for life and especially methane. Prevented from intentionally seeking life on Mars the Curiosity scientists decided to set the rover free in Gale Canyon and let it stumble on whatever it stumbled upon, living or dead.

But when the web site GeeksonMars.com revealed the strategy (see below) JPL regained control of Curiosity, brought it to a halt and gave it a specific task.

The next day, NASA and JPL announced the remarkable conclusion that based on six samples, the orbiters and earth-based observers were totally incorrect. Mars is dead because there is no methane. That is some of what is happening on Mars today.

 

What is really going on today on Mars?

Posted September 15, 2013

 

What is really going on at Mars?

The answers will surprise you!

 

 

"Unquestionably, Mars was a habitable planet in its ancient past," Dr. John P. Grotzinger, Curiosity’s chief scientist.

Very few Mars scientists have ever said the word “Unquestionably,” when speaking about life on Mars. NASA said hush. If we have an unquestionable answer, why are we spending billions answering the same question?

The answers will surprise you.

 

By Rick Eyerdam

Editor: GeeksonMars.com

 

 

 

While the world awaits the next wave of Mars missions from China, India, Europe and the United States a small fleet of aging space machines is rewriting the natural history of the solar system at Mars.

 

Others are confirming earlier discoveries and at least one is wandering around without any guidance from earth, hoping to stumble on a Martian microbe to take a sniff or a photo, from a safe distance. (Built to find life on Mars, a fatal flaw in decontamination procedures has doomed Curiosity to a mission of what might have been. Look but don’t touch.)

 

These are not the kinds of things you read about in the newspaper, or even the science sites on the internet. It is there but in fragments or code. However, every few summers the European Space Agency and National Aeronautical and Space Administration host dueling anniversaries for their various Mars missions and the real activity at Mars trickles out.

 

 

These could be thrilling events if any reporters other than the spacey press attended. But the spacey press and the space agencies share a covenant where the enlightened will tell us what we need to know when we need to know it. Until then they may speak in parables and offer mysteries of faith as imponderable as the Holy Trinity. For example, no one knows the meaning of the numbers in Einstein’s cosmic constant, Plank’s Constant or the Alpha constant; all of which are essential to space travel, time, electromagnetism, physics and quantum mechanics. It’s kind of like don’t ask, don’t tell. It works because one scientific sect cannot contradict the tenants of another without fear of excommunication. And that means a loss of funding.

 

Asking the correct question

 

So no one asked the one correct question of each of the Mars missions that still sap space science research budgets, long after they have reached their mission objectives.

 

They don’t ask this question: “Since the Mars Bumbler mission achieved all of its stated goals far ahead of schedule, why is the government still spending money on staff and facilities to deal with it instead of investing in new technology to gain new knowledge?”

 

The question could have been asked Aug. 9,  when NASA invited in the space press and public to review the first year’s activities of the Curiosity rover. Curiosity went to Mars two years behind schedule to try a new complicated landing method and it succeeded. It landed right were various Mars orbiters had previously suggested it would find clay formed by long submersion under low PH water. In short Curiosity found a habitat suitable at one time for life, right were the orbiters said it would.

 

And that is it. Curiosity did what it was sent to do under much more difficult circumstances than it would have encountered if it had been launched in 2009 as originally planned.

 

Between 1960 and 2010, 26 of the 43 missions to Mars from Earth – 60 percent – either failed completely or did not achieve the stated goals. So the success of the Mars Science Laboratory with Curiosity dangling by a string was gigantic, despite the part about the contaminated drill bits.

 

What Curiosity is not doing

 

Following the first anniversary of its landing NASA's Curiosity rover is headed across seven boring kilometers to the foothills of Mount Sharp, a 5,500-meter mountain whose rocks could provide clues to a time on Mars when life could have thrived.

 

Who cares? No one has asked why we care when life could have thrived at Mount Sharp.

 

No one asked why we are not making a bee line for the hot spots on Mars the Europeans are so excited about where there is evidence of contemporary life.

 

One answer could be that Curiosity wasn’t sent to find life. But that’s a lie. It was designed with the capability of finding life. But when NASA rushed the over-budget and long delayed mission to completion, NASA discovered too late that its drill bits were not sufficiently sterilized. A delay would have distorted the already contorted NASA Mars mission launch schedule. So instead of finding recent signs of life, the Curiosity mission directive was changed to the search for potential life-supporting habitats.

 

Now Curiosity’s prime directive is to stay far away from anything that seems alive to avoid contaminating alien biology with its polluted drill bits. But accidents can happen, especially when the Curiosity Rover is wandering around without direct human control, as it is right now.

 

 

JPL and NASA concede that the next year for Curiosity is likely to be empty of science. "Pretty much pure driving, pedal to the metal," said John P. Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist.

 

Curiosity got its job done last February 8 after 182 Martian days when it stumbled on an ancient streambed. At the site, in the first rock it drilled on February 8 (Sol 182), it struck the jackpot - clays. This rock in this part of Mars formed in watery conditions that were surprisingly Earthlike.

 

"Unquestionably, Mars was a habitable planet in its ancient past," Grotzinger, said.

 

Very few Mars scientists have ever said the word “Unquestionably when speaking of life on Mars.”  NASA said hush. If we have an unquestionable answer, why are we spending billions answering the same question?

 

Space craft tenure

 

 

The question of space craft tenure could also have been asked June 3 when the ESA invited the press in for the 10th Anniversary celebration of the Mars Express Orbiter.

 

Another Mars mission built in a hurry, hence the name Mars Express, the combination orbiter and lander was launched June 2, 2004 on its six-month journey from the Baikunor launch site in Kazakhstan on board a Russian Soyuz/Fregat rocket. It arrived at Mars in December 2004. Its 687 days (1 Martian year) mission was to seek out strange new life forms and some interesting geology.

 

It was the role of the ill-fated Beagle 2 lander rover to determine the geology and the mineral and chemical composition of the landing site while searching for, as the mission brief explained, “life signatures (exobiology).” Back then they still called it exobiology. The Beagle 2 landed with a thump and all that was left for its forlorn orbiter was to take photographs while it waited to transmit signals from the mute Beagle 2 way back to earth.

 

Gift from the dead Beagle

 

But they were not just any images. Freed from the tether to the dead Beagle, the Mars Express orbiter team “imaged the entire surface at high resolution (10 metres/pixel) and selected areas at super resolution (2 metres/pixel). It produced a map of the mineral composition of the surface at 100 metre resolution. It mapped the composition of the atmosphere and determined its global circulation. It determined the effect of the atmosphere on the surface; and determined the interaction of the atmosphere with the solar wind.”

 

The extremely high resolution images from Mars Express demonstrated with little doubt that Mars was once a planet where huge amounts of some kind of liquid ran in rivers and streams. As the current Mars Express mission scientist, Olivier Witasse explained recently, “I am interested in everything about Mars but particularly in three questions.

  • First, why is there methane in the atmosphere of Mars? One hypothesis is micro-organisms, but even if it is from geological processes, it means Mars is still active.
  • Second, how did the two little Martian moons form? They look like asteroids but cannot have been captured.
  • And finally, was there ever life on Mars in the planet’s early history? The OMEGA instrument on Mars Express has shown the presence of water in the past, so could life have evolved there?”

 

Carl Sagan once speculated that the moons of Mars are actually habitats for Martian evacuees. His fellow scientists on the Viking Mars mission hooted him out of the room in 1974.

 

Even before 2004 when Mars Express confirmed the discovery of several plumes of methane rising from hot spots on Mars, astronomer, astrochemist and spectrometer specialist Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Center for Astrobiology postulated the methane plume by analyzing images taken from super telescopes on Hawaiian mountain tops.

 

Since the Mars Express was already at Mars and had the tools to do it -- the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) – the Europeans searched for the methane and discovered a quantity of 10 parts per billion (ppb), with a maximum of 30 ppb, indicating that the concentration of the complex molecule varies over the globe. Seasonal plots show an increase of methane concentration over the northern polar cap during summer.

 

The Mars Express scientists also reported at the tenth anniversary gala that during summer at the north pole carbon dioxide ice turns to gas leaving a layer of water ice that is thousands of feet deep. And some of it also melts. In the liturgy of Mars scientists no one is allowed to look at two sets of results and suggest a sequence or cause and effect. That’s what we do.

 

The Europeans sent the Beagle 2 in 2004 to find life on Mars in the form of complex organic molecules. Beagle crashed. NASA reported the methane plumes in 2003 from earth observations and Mars Express confirmed them in 2004.

 

The stink about Methane

 


That immediately started another Mars argument that provided a partial justification for the expense of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars. The thing is that until scientists found methane for certain floating from Mars, every scientist on Earth would have told you that methane is a complex organic molecule that results from biological processes in 95 percent of the cases and the rest from active geology, say deep sea vents and volcanoes. The problem is that if known, historic, science is correct, the official version of the natural history of Mars is incorrect. It is not dead. Mars is alive either with biology at least at the microorganism level or it is geologically active cooking complex molecules.

 

How could that be? Methanogens are living microorganisms that produce methane as a metabolic byproduct in anoxic conditions. They are classified as archaea, a domain quite distinct from bacteria. On Earth they are common in wetlands, where they are responsible for swamp gas, and in the digestive tracts of animals such as cows and humans, where they are responsible for the methane content of belching in ruminants and flatulence in humans.

 

 

 

It was a rule of science that if we ever detected a spectrographic signature for methane gas at any other object in space, scientists would know for sure something was alive there and farting. But the surprising ubiquitousness of methane at Mars and other moons in the solar system and beyond has caused scientists to retreat from scientific certainty in hopes always dead rocks also expel methane, or there is a lot of life out there.

 

Other methanogens are extremophile microbes, found in environments such as hot springs and submarine hydrothermal vents as well as in the "solid" rock of the Earth's crust, kilometers below the surface. So the earth analog for the methane-producing archaea can and does dwell far beneath the earth’s crust from where the methane occasionally escapes.

 

On Mars, Mumma said the methane gas plume does not last long because the Martian atmosphere is made up largely of carbon dioxide that breaks down the methane gas much more quickly than on Earth. That means, he said, that the methane detected was almost certainly released recently from underground reservoirs, although it could have been stored there for a long time.

 

The plumes were detected above a handful of Martian hot spots hundreds of miles apart, including Nili Fossae, Syrtis Major and Arabia Terra. Previous research has shown that liquid water once covered some of that area and detected mineral deposits that require standing water in order to form. Images taken by a Mars Express (NASA refers to it as “a mars orbiter”) in 2005 also suggested that water, or liquids of some kind, might still flow at times on the surface.

 

Mumma left if for the science writers to link the incredible coincidence of methane on Mars emerging from deep below and the identical behavior of methanogens on planet Earth. NASA said hush. Mumma never said that the plumes were unquestionably anything, especially when Curiosity sniffed for methane on the other side of the planet and did not smell any.

 

 

The Europeans and their Russian partners could make a pretty strong case that they found unquestionable evidence of life on Mars, if not proof. But they didn’t. They didn’t because Dr. Gerald Soffen, the project scientist in charge of the Viking life search landers came to the same conclusion in 1976 and told the world “           

 

“There is plenty of evidence to support the notion that there is life on Mars” as a result of the Viking biology experiments. “But we don’t have proof.”

 

Soffen predicted the evidence for life on Mars would either turn to proof or be overturned in Earth laboratories in a few years.  NASA told him to hush. And the results of Viking remain a subject of debate as recently as the poll conducted in August 2013 by the Huffington Post after Viking’s Dr. Gil Levin and NASA’s Chris McKay made their cases on line.

 

Proof without certainty

 

The problem is proof. There is no such thing as absolute proof. Gil Levin and Viking found indisputable behavior that could only be attributed to living organisms. There is no doubt of that. But if it acts as an organism, does that prove it is an organism? Viking didn’t look for the expulsion of methane from living organisms. It measured the expulsion of radioactively labeled gas that could have been methane. But the fool-proof test in Dr. Levin’s Labeled Release experiment was to feed the microbes radioactive nutrients then see if they farted radioactive farts that could be detected by a Geiger counter. They did until they were killed. Then they stopped. They did again until they killed, then they stopped.

 

There is no doubt that Mumma from Goddard and the Europeans found indisputable traces of methane, a complex hydrocarbon that is the byproduct of biological processes except in the rare case of organic chemistry deep in active geology. It is a gas that permeates the solar system and common enough that we understand both kinds of origins.

 

Many scientists who do not get pay checks from American universities and the vast array of NASA-funded research facilities have said that Levin’s results employed a proven and repeatable scientific method and with a repeatable control. This was often the only standard for proof for a scientific discovery, until someone proved different. 

 

The search for life in space becomes far less urgent if the international consensus agrees that life in one form of another unquestionably exists here, there and everywhere.

 

But that puts a lot of people in the military-industrial-space-astrobiology-university laboratory complex out of business. Why go about asking the already answered question of whether Mars ever had conditions that were habitable for life? And yet that is what is really happening on Mars today and will be in the near future. JPL is challenging Goddard which is supporting ESA with Ames out there hoping it gets a space craft cash infusion before anyone else says the evidence of life questions have been answered with certainty.

 

Beginning in 1974 JPL exobiologist, Dr. Norman Horowitz spent his energy insisting that no life could have ever survived on Mars, ever, because it had never had water, it was roasted in radiation and its soil was chemically disruptive of life process, as we know them.

 

Of course, life as we knew it back in 1974 left out an entire branch of the family tree, the archaea and other extremophiles. We have known about water on Mars for decades, we have known of methane plumes on Mars for 10 years. And yet there remains a tidy living to be made landing a rover on Mars and sending it to find a place where, in the past, life was likely; instead of following up on evidence that might actually support the uncomfortable truth with additional evidence.

 

 

The Curiosity rover did that almost immediately because it landed in locations already identified by Mars Express and the 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as likely habitats. When Curiosity's JPL team took credit for the discovery of clay to define the lifestyle habitat, the orbiter teams were outraged. It was as if all that money and time they spent nursing more science out of elderly space craft was insignificant once Curiosity arrived where the orbiters told it to land.

 

Wheels wearing out

 

But the orbiters are getting very long in the tooth. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is now using its backup Inertial Measurement Unit 2. All the orbiters and most space craft rely on a complex inertial measurement unit (IMU) for information about changes in orientation. This information is important for maintaining spacecraft attitude and for pointing the orbiter's large antenna and science-observation instruments at Earth-based antennae.

 

MRO is lucky in that it has two identical IMUs that can be used with either of the spacecraft's redundant main computers. Each contains three gyroscopes and three accelerometers.

"The reason we're doing this is that one of the gyroscopes on IMU-1 is approaching its end of life, so we want to swap to our redundant unit early enough that we still have some useful life preserved in the first unit," said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission Manager Reid Thomas of Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 

MRO is the most robust of the orbiters and critical to timely communication with rovers on the planets surface. Testing the use of a radio frequency called Ka-band; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has demonstrated the potential for greater performance in communications using significantly less power.

 

The bad news is that the MRO primary mission ended on December 31, 2010 about five-and-a-half years after launch, Mars Express is working on almost 10 years borrowed time and Mars Odyssey has been working since the turn of the Century. According to NASA, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has provided more data about Mars than all other earlier and current missions combined. It also relays to Earth information from both of NASA's active Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, sharing that function with the NASA 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter.

 

Each of these fragile, light, golden space craft uses relatively massive reaction wheels to steady the spacecraft for observations and communication. By their nature however, the reaction wheels have a limited mechanical lifetime and they require frequent momentum desaturation maneuvers which can perturb navigation solutions because of accelerations imparted by their use of thrusters. No one expected the reaction wheels on the aged orbiters to last as long as they have.

 

And NASA can thank the 100 workers at Ithaco Space Systems, Inc., now a subsidiary of BF Goodrich, for their excellent craftsmanship. Ithaco's principal products include torque rods and reaction wheels that work together to assure that a spacecraft maintains the proper position in earth orbit or space transit. The torque rod is a highly accurate, low-speed motor that moves solar panels and other equipment precisely as required. The reaction wheel is a spinning mass that provides the counter balance necessary in space when the torque rods operate. 

 

Orbiter Death Watch

 

So the other thing that is going on at Mars is the death watch for the orbiters’ stabilization systems. And the hope is that the MAVEN, the next NASA Mars orbiter schedule for launch in November of 2013 will arrive safely and take over the duties or its elder sisters.

 

Meanwhile, however, the scientists who continue to operate the orbiters are answering the question: Why do we keep spending money on missions that reached the objectives 10 years ago? The answer, of course, is that objectives are made to be modified, as long as the funds continue to flow. There is nothing that smart engineers can’t accomplish given enough money and enough time.

 

So the Europeans with their Russian allies have rolled out the Mars Express discoveries to bolster their plans to find life on Mars by drilling down six feet when they launch ExoMars later this year.

 

An ocean at Mars north pole

 

And this is the other very cool part about what is happening on Mars. Because Mars Express was unleashed from Beagle and had the time and tools to do so, its OMEGA system focused on the north and south polar ice caps of Mars in great detail, monitoring their seasonal carbon-dioxide- and water-frost coverage over several Martian years.  Thus Mars Express has determined that the poles are in fact mostly water ice covered with dry ice.

 

Over the same years Mars Express took thousands of sections of the interior of Mars using its MARSIS ground-penetrating radar. The radar can see through the water ice layers at the poles and has determined that their vertical extent is 3.7 kilometers (2.29 miles) at the south pole, and 2 km at the north pole. These measurements also allow estimation of the quantity of water locked up in the ice.

 

At the south pole there is enough ice that if it melted it could cover the entire planet with a layer of water 11 meters deep; a planet-wide, freshwater ocean 36-feet-deep, the Mars Express scientists calculate.

 

 

What is really going on at Mars means a lot to Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a geoscientist at the University of Toronto who is part of a research team that will be looking for life forms in samples of water at the bottom of mine shafts in Timmins, Ont., where pockets of water trapped inside crystalline granite rock 2.7 kilometers below the surface have existed for at least a billion years, and may be as ancient as the geology itself — 2.7 billion years old.

 

That chemical-rich water is seeping, at times even pouring, out of mine bore holes and naturally occurring fissures.

 

"These are the oldest waters that have ever been identified," said Lollar,

 

"The Canadian Shield is some of the oldest rocks on Earth. These are billions of years old," she said. "And what we've shown is despite that, these fractures are still releasing water that are full of energy that could support life.

 

"We don't know yet if there's life in this, but what we've been able to show is it is habitable, meaning the potential to support life because of the energy that's there."

 

 

 

Put humans on Mars, new Buzz Aldrin book urges

NASA

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon on July 29, 1969.

By Space.com

Pioneering astronaut Buzz Aldrin made history as the second man to walk on the moon in 1969, just after Neil Armstrong during the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. More than four decades later, he wants NASA to set its sights on more ambitious destinations, far beyond the moon. Aldrin's target: Mars.

In his upcoming book, "Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration" (National Geographic Books), Buzz Aldrin argues that NASA should strive to put humans on the Red Planet by the mid-2030s and he lays out a plan for how to make it happen.

"Do not put NASA astronauts on the moon. They have other places to go," Aldrin said in the statement.

The book will apparently delve into Aldrin's past — including his service as an Air Force pilot during the Korean War, his initial rejection by NASA and his voyage to the moon — but also promises a critique of current space policy, examining the economic, political and technological viability of various options to explore the solar system.

In the 1980s, Aldrin adapted his expertise in orbital rendezvous to conceptualize the "Aldrin Mars Cycler," a spacecraft transportation system perpetually cycling between Earth and Mars that would make it possible to ferry astronauts back and forth to the Red Planet.

Aldrin has co-authored more than six books and the new one, which will hit stores on May 7, was co-written with space journalist Leonard David, who is a frequent contributor to Space.com.

Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Copyright 2013 Space.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Mars rover finds simple organics, but results not yet conclusive

Curiosity rover finds signs of simple organic compounds in a Martian soil sample -- but scientists say the finding won't be conclusive until tests confirm earthly contaminants aren't present.

by

Despite widespread speculation about a potentially significant discovery on Mars, the Curiosity rover's first detailed look at a Martian soil sample with an instrument capable of detecting organic compounds hasn't found any "definitive" signs of materials that play key roles in biological processes on Earth, scientists said Monday.

While the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, instrument detected signs of an oxygen-chlorine compound -- perchlorate -- and trace amounts of chlorinated methane compounds, which contain carbon, researchers say more tests are needed to make sure the carbon originated with the sample and was not brought to Mars aboard Curiosity.

The Curiosity Mars rover, parked near a sand drift in an area known as Rocknest. Along with tire tracks, four scoop marks can be seen where the robot arm (not visible in this composite image) collected soil samples for detailed analysis. A fifth scoop was collected after this image was assembled.

(Credit: NASA)

"Even though (SAM) detected organic compounds, first of all we have to demonstrate that they're indigenous to Mars," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "Then after that, we can engage in the question about whether they represent the background fall of cosmic materials that are organic in composition that fall on the surface of every terrestrial planet."

Only then, he said, can scientists "begin to get into the more complex questions of whether or not this might be some type of a biological material. But that's well down the road for us."

Grotzinger made the comments during a news briefing at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco.

Widespread speculation that Curiosity had made a major discovery began in the wake of SAM's first soil sample analysis and a National Public Radio interview with Grotzinger, who was reluctant to discuss the rover's findings before the AGU presentation.

Asked about lessons learned from the apparent conflict between public expectation and scientific reality, Grotzinger said, "I think certainly what I've learned from this is that you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science. We live in a world that's sort of at the pace of Instagrams.

"The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team has about what's going on here, I think was just misunderstood," he added. "There's not much more to say than that."

A closeup view of two sample excavations made by a scoop tool on the Curiosity rover's robot arm. Soil samples were deposited into a pair of laboratory instruments for detailed analysis.

(Credit: NASA)

Curiosity was lowered to the surface of Gale Crater by a rocket-powered backpack on August 6, kicking off a planned two-year mission to look for organic compounds and to find out whether the red planet has, or ever had, a habitable environment.

The first four months of the mission have been devoted to activating, testing, and calibrating its scientific instruments before the rover begins making its way to its ultimate target, the base of a central 3.5-mile-high mound of layered terrain in the center of Gale Crater that's known as Mount Sharp.

Most recently, Curiosity's robot arm has been put through its paces, scooping up sandy soil samples from a low dune and depositing them into a pair of on-board mini laboratories, SAM and another known as CheMin, for Chemistry and Mineralogy.

Scientists deliberately picked an average-looking dune made up of presumably commonplace, fine-grained soil. Several scoops were processed through the sample acquisition system and then discarded in an attempt to scrub away any traces of Earth's environment. Portions of third and fourth samples were processed by the CheMin instrument and the fifth by SAM.

NASA's Curiosity rover analyzes Martian soil for the first time (pictures)

     

"The instrument, SAM, is working perfectly well," Grotzinger said. "It has made this detection of simple organic compounds. We just simply don't know if they're indigenous to Mars or not. It's going to take us some time to work through that. I know there's a lot of interest in that. But the point is, Curiosity's middle name is 'patience' and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."

Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for SAM at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, agreed, saying, "We have to be very careful to make sure both the carbon and the chlorine are coming from Mars...There's more work to do."

And even then, he cautioned, the tentative results must be taken in context.

"If we take microbes that are living in some extreme environments on Earth that aren't very abundant, and we do this same type of experiment, we see a whole suite of organic structures produced," he said.

"What we're seeing here (on Mars) are some very simple compounds, and it's entirely possible they're coming from the very reactive chlorine that's released and picking up carbon from somewhere. We have to try to understand where that carbon is coming from. But the informative thing in really understanding a source of carbon, what we would have to have is a whole variety of compounds."

 

Elderly Mars Odyssey is Back

Up and Running This Time

NASA’s Mars Odyssey is Back Up and Running

NASA announced today that the Mars Odyssey orbiter has switched to a set of redundant equipment and has resumed its observational and relay duties. The equipment that was switched on, which included the orbiter’s backup main computer, had not been used since before the orbiter’s April 2001 launch from Earth.

 

“The side-swap has gone well,” said Gaylon McSmith, Odyssey project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “All the subsystems that we are using for the first time are performing as intended.”

Late Sunday, after switching to its redundant systems, Odyssey relayed data from Mars rover Opportunity to Earth using its “B-side” UHF radio. The radio is one of several redundant subsystems linked directly to the “B-side” computer. Later this week the orbiter is expected to relay data for Mars rover Curiosity and resume its own observations.

 

The switch took place because diagnostics indicated to project managers that the “A-side” inertial measurement unit has only a few months or more of useful life. The switch leaves a fully functioning A-side, which can be used temporarily in case any problem is encountered with the B-side system.

“It is testimony to the excellent design of this spacecraft and operation of this mission in partnership with Lockheed Martin that we have brand-new major components available to begin using after more than 11 years at Mars,” said McSmith.

 

Odyssey began orbiting Mars on October 24, 2001, making it the longest-working spacecraft ever sent to Mars. The orbiter functions as a relay for the two functioning rovers currently on Mars and also takes its own measurements, following the year-to-year seasonal changes on Mars.

(Image courtesy NASA/JPL)

 

Dr. Gil Levin, the last Viking life-search scientist has two comments on the

Curiosity Methane results (his experiment found evidence of life on Mars.)

 

 

No methane in no way impugns the Viking LR results.  Had methane been found, we would have had to suppose that we had detected a methanogen-methanotroph ecology.  Not at all indicated or required by the Viking LR results which could represent plain heterotrophic microbial activity. Had methane been found, however, it would have raised the possibility that at least part of the organisms detected by the Viking LR were methanotrophs.  More importantly, it would have shown that the Viking GCMS was defective, since it should have picked up methane.

 

 

 

                                        NO METHANE ON MARS

 

Life buffs deplore

No CH4,

Where, it was hinted,

Martian life glinted.

 

NASAyers now gloat

That life is remote,

Perhaps in the stars,

But not there on Mars.

 

Yet, life’s not a gas,

The methane may pass,

It’s the organics in soil

That will the NASAyers foil.

 

When SAM probes the ground

He’ll confirm all the sound

LR results of Levin and Straat –

Then they’ll know Mar’s where life’s at!

 

                                                                                    G.V. Levin

Nov. 3, 2012

Mars Methane? NASA's Curiosity Rover

 Finds None--Yet

Posted: Updated: 11/02/2012 4:12 pm EDT

By: Mike Wall
Published: 11/02/2012 02:42 PM EDT on SPACE.com

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has detected no methane in its first analyses of the Martian atmosphere — news that will doubtless disappoint those who hope to find life on the Red Planet.

Living organisms produce more than 90 percent of the methane found in Earth's atmosphere, so scientists are keen to see if Curiosity picks up any of the gas in Mars' air. But the 1-ton rover has come up empty in the first atmospheric measurements taken with its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, or SAM, researchers announced today (Nov. 2).

"The bottom line is that we have no detection of methane so far," Chris Webster, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters today.

"But we're going to keep looking in the months ahead since Mars, as we all know, may yet hold surprises for us," added Webster, who is instrument lead for SAM's Tunable Laser Spectrometer. [Mars Methane: Could It Mean Life? (Video)]

mars methane
This graph shows the percentage abundance of five gases in the atmosphere of Mars, as measured by the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer instrument of the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite on NASA's Mars rover in October 2012.

Methane mystery

Scientists have detected methane in Mars' atmosphere before, using a variety of instruments on the ground and in space. But measured concentrations of the gas have been quite low, ranging from 10 to 50 parts per billion or so.

The lack of a detection by SAM does not necessarily mean these previous observations are wrong, researchers said. Methane concentrations may vary somewhat by region and over time.

"At this time, we don't have a positive detection of methane on Mars," said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, a SAM co-investigator. "But that could change over time, depending on how methane is produced and how it is destroyed on Mars."

Possible non-biological sources of methane include comet strikes, degradation of interplanetary dust motes by ultraviolet light and water-rock interactions, researchers said. And the gas can be destroyed by photochemical reactions in the atmosphere or absorbed by the Martian surface.

Scientists believe that Mars' methane "sinks" are quite efficient, removing the gas from the atmosphere every few hundred years. That means any methane present in the Red Planet's air was likely generated recently.

"Stay tuned," Atreya said. "The story of methane has just begun."

Learning about the atmosphere

The new atmospheric measurements — based primarily on a few sniffs Curiosity took at a site called Rocknest — could also help scientists better understand how the Red Planet may have lost much of its original atmosphere, researchers said. Mars' air is currently just 1 percent as thick as that of Earth.

In measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, SAM detected a roughly 5 percent increase in heavy carbon isotopes, compared to estimated isotopic compositions at the time Mars formed. (Isotopes are versions of an element that have different numbers of neutrons in their atomic nuclei.)

This suggests that the top of Mars' atmosphere was likely lost to interplanetary space at some point, researchers said.

Curiosity landed inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5, kicking off a two-year mission to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life. The rover carries 10 different instruments, but SAM is Curiosity's heart, taking up more than half of its science payload by weight.

SAM is designed to detect organic compounds, the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it. The mission team hopes to feed the first soil samples into the instrument in the coming weeks.

We should expect to hear much more from Curiosity, and from SAM, as time goes on, scientists said.

"Let me emphasize — these are the first measurements," said Michael Meyer, Curiosity program scientist and lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "We can look forward to more discoveries as the instruments are tweaked, the measurements refined and as we move through time and the seasons of Mars."

Life on Mars? Non-Detection of Methane

Suggests No Modern-Day Microbes

Hypothetical sources and sinks of methane on Mars. The simple organic gas could be produced by microbes or active geological processes. So far, Curiosity has not detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech, SAM/GSFC

NASA’s Curiosity rover has sniffed the Martian atmosphere for methane and, so far, turned up empty. The much-anticipated measurement strikes a blow to the hope that previous hints of methane could have been an indication of life on Mars.

Methane, made of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, is one of the simplest organic compounds. On Earth, 90 to 95 percent of methane in the atmosphere comes from biological activity, mainly methanogenic bacteria and cow farts. Geological activity such as water-rock interactions could have also produced the methane, which would also have overturned astronomers’ view that Mars is geologically dead in the modern age. Curiosity’s latest measurements seem to refute both ideas.

“So far we have no definitive detection of methane,” said chemist Chris Webster, instrument lead on Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laser spectrometer, during at NASA press conference today. SAM is like the rover’s “nose,” able to test the Martian atmosphere and determine what chemicals are present.

In 2009, Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland used an Earth-based telescope and found hotspots of methane that appeared seasonally. Methane is quickly destroyed by ultraviolet radiation in the Martian atmosphere, usually after only a few hundred years, so the gas could not be left over from some era millions of years ago. The detection excited much of the scientific community because these hotspots could have been areas where underground Martian microbes were alive on modern-day Mars.

Later measurements by both Mumma and other scientists cast doubt on these methane detections, and one of Curiosity’s main tasks has been to provide evidence one way or another. The probe used its Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) and found the atmosphere is mainly composed of carbon dioxide, with trace amounts of argon, nitrogen, and oxygen.

Curiosity’s first sniff of the Martian atmosphere reveals the relative abundances of different gases. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech, SAM/GSFC

Despite the lack of current detections, Curiosity’s science team was quick to point out that future measurements may yet turn up methane. The gas could be produced only during some seasons or it could be destroyed too quickly right now for Curiosity to find it.

“SAM will continue to search for methane, to determine if methane does vary with time,” said space scientist Sushil Atreya, co-investigator on the SAM instrument, during the NASA briefing. “So stay tuned, the story of methane has just begun.”

In the meantime, Curiosity’s latest measurements could bolster the case that ancient Mars was a world conducive to life. SAM sniffed out different element isotopes in the Martian atmosphere and determined that the planet lost much of its atmosphere over millions of years. Curiosity found that lighter isotopes are in lower abundances in the modern atmosphere compared to measurements of the ancient atmosphere on Mars — which come from meteorites found on Earth than contain trace samples of Mars gas. The findings indicate that as much as half of the planet’s carbon dioxide could have floated off into space over millions of years, meaning that perhaps Mars was once warmer.

“We are making these measurements more precisely” than previous analysis on the Viking landers or other probes, said NASA geochemist Laurie Leshin, co-investigator on SAM and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instruments. Coupled with measurements of Martian rocks that Curiosity will take over the course of its mission, these findings could help unravel the complex history of gas, water, and soil on Mars.

Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to the Mystery of Mars’ Methane

NASA's Curiosity rover has found unexpectedly high concentrations of methane gas in Mars' atmosphere. Is this a sign that there was once life on Mars?

The Bunsen Burner | Sarah Rasher | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to the Mystery of Mars’ Methane

In August, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars and began gathering data on the planet’s geology and atmosphere. While NASA has not yet released the Curiosity’s data, expected among its discoveries is a controversial substance: methane. While scientists agree that trace amounts of methane should be present, the concentrations of the gas consistently exceed predicted quantities, leaving researchers to wonder what has produced it.

On earth, methane is an extremely common organic compound. It is colorless and odorless but highly combustible, making it useful as fuel. Methane is the principal component of natural gas and is produced by living organisms as diverse as cattle, termites, and anaerobic bacteria.

It is not so easy to explain how Mars got its methane. Scientists say they expect to see some traces of the gas on Mars, but not the concentrations that consistently appear to be present. Telescopes first detected Mars’ methane, but many researchers dismissed those readings as interference from Earth’s atmosphere.

 

Recent evidence, however, emphasizes that the methane really is there. The Thermal Emission Spectrometer on the Mars Global Surveyor, an orbiting satellite that collected data from 1996 until 2006, detected relatively high levels of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. MGS revealed that Mars’ methane levels vary by location and season: they are highest in summer and autumn, in regions with volcanoes or other geothermal activity. 

 

Chris McKay, a Mars specialist at NASA, told SPACE.com, ”Methane on Mars should have a lifetime of 300 years and should not be variable. If it is variable, this is very hard to explain with present theory. It requires unexpected sources and unexpected sinks.”

 

This makes it sound like the methane is produced by geology, not biology, but scientists are skeptical that geological processes can account for the quantity and variability of methane found. “Methane is really quite a rare gas in hydrothermal/volcanic exhalations,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Washington State University, said in an interview with SPACE.com.

While methane comprises less than 1% of Mars’ atmosphere, there is nonetheless a lot of methane in Mars’ air. Malynda Chizek, a graduate student in astronomy at New Mexico State University, uses a colorful image to describe to phys.org how much methane seems to be present. In order to produce the quantity of methane that MGS and other devices have observed, Chizek says that five million cows would have to generate 200,000 tons of methane per year.

Like many researchers, Chizek is eager to see what Curiosity will detect. The rover carries an advanced suite of chemical analysis equipment, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). SAM can “sniff” gases in Mars’ air, and it can heat or chemically treat soil and rock samples to extract gases from them. SAM’s precision and diversity of tools will likely provide information that will help scientists identify the source of the methane.

Researchers are cautious when they hypothesize that the methane could be a clue toward life on Mars, but it is clear that many of them hope SAM will reveal that Mars once supported life. As Michael J. Mumma, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told The Daily Galaxy, ”Based on evidence, what we do have is, unequivocally, the conditions for the emergence of life were present on Mars — period, end of story.” The samples that SAM collects could reveal whether those conditions actually produced life, and perhaps hint at the nature of that life and why it disappeared. Mars’ mysterious methane might be all that remains of ancient (and probably microscopic) Martians.

Mystery Over Shiny Particles On Mars Gets More Exciting

 

NASA's Curiosity rover had been on Mars 61 days when she gathered her first scoop of soil.

Before the one-ton robot could finish sifting through her first small bucket of dust, however, all the excitement shifted to a shiny object found in the sand near the rover.

After reviewing images, the Curiosity team determined that the bright material was probably a piece of plastic from the rover and not material from Mars.

Or so they thought.  

The rover collected its second scoop of Martian soil at the "Rocknest" site on Sol 66. More bright particles were found. Believing these particles were also tiny pieces of rover, the team decided not to run the dirt sample through Curiosity's analysis instrument to avoid contaminating the mechanism with Earth debris. The scoop was thrown away. That same day, however, Curiosity snapped an image showing part of the hole left when Curiosity took her first scoop. 

The team noticed something different this time. 

They saw that a light-toned particle was embedded in a clump of Martian soil, leading researchers to believe that the material could be native to Mars. This find completely overturned their original argument: These mystery particles are not something from the rover.

Following the discovery, a third scoop of soil was collected. This sample will now be run through Curiosity's Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument to figure out what it's made of, and hopefully find out what's making the sand so shiny.   

"Confidence for going ahead with the third scooping was based on new assessment that other bright particles in the area are native Martian material," NASA said in statement

The image below, taken on Sol 66, shows the rover's scoop hole. You can see a bright particle in a clod of soil at the top center of the image.  



Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/shiny-mystery-particles-on-mars-2012-10#ixzz29eqVRHpG

Mystery Particles on Mars Revealed by Curiosity’s Junk

Victoria Jaggard - New Scientist

Sifting through soil on Mars, NASA's rover Curiosity paused to take a picture - and exposed its own bad behaviour. The shot included a bright object lying in the Martian dirt, and a closer look suggests that the rover is guilty of littering: it appears the object is a piece of plastic wrapper that has fallen from the robot.

The discovery has put a twist on the rover's current mission to scrub out its soil scoop and take its first sample of Martian dirt for analysis. More bright specks of unidentified matter in the soil - at first thought to be from Curiosity shedding - may actually be Martian in origin, although what they might be is a mystery.

Curiosity had been in the midst of preparing to feed soil into its Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, which bounces thin beams of X-rays off a sample to read its mineral composition. This involved taking scoopfuls of soil, shaking them vigorously and then dumping them back out, to be sure that any lingering traces of Earthly particles didn't make it into the science equipment.

After the first scoop-and-shake revealed the unexpected object, Curiosity took a quick break to examine the find. It then got back on course, taking a second scoop of soil on 12 October. But the hole Curiosity dug also contained bright particles, forcing the team to dump the load due to worries that the rover was picking up pieces of its own robotic debris.

Mystery Particles on Mars Revealed by Curiosity's JunkFurther scrutiny now suggests that at least some of the unidentified particles are in fact native to Mars. Images show light-toned particles embedded in clumps of excavated soil, implying that they couldn't have been shed by the rover.

NASA is currently preparing to take a third sample from the site as well as more pictures, which should help them figure out whether the bright bits are unwelcome litter or something worthy of delivery to the rover's on-board lab equipment.

It wouldn't be the first rover glitch to uncover scientific treasure. In 2007, Curiosity's older cousin Spirit lost the use of one of its wheels and was forced to drag it across the Martian terrain. This scraped away a layer of soil, and when Spirit looked back, images showed the dead wheel had exposed a swath of bright material.

That patch turned out to be the first evidence of silica on Mars, and silica is a mineral that most often forms in the presence of hot water.

Images from NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Where is the Curiosity? Not the rover, but the agenda - the curiosity agenda?

 

 Now JPL says :The Mars aspirin is "completely inconsequential to the rover's function"!!

So is a cheese sub! But if you found something that looked like a cheese sub on Mars, wouldn't you want to know if it came from Philly? Or Demos? And yet, here is what JPL says and the Mars "journalists" just roll over again.



JPL said :

"Engineers also discussed the case of the mysterious plastic object that Curiosity had spotted several days ago while scooping bits of Martian soil. They concluded that it is likely a bit of bonding material that fell off the rover or a piece of tubing that came off the descent stage and was recently blown off the probe. In either case, “it’s completely inconsequential to the rover’s function” and no further pieces have been seen,"

 

Go to the News and events section for details about the shell game. They gotta new rock, hopefully nobody but us will ask why they fled the creek bed then dodged the Mars Aspirin question.

 

Isn't this fun? This is what I did with the Viking crew until they finally gave it up: evidence of life on Mars but severe career fear that required turning the truth into ambiguity. 

The mystery of the shiny Mars Aspirin- Never mind!

 

So they found the habitable environment complete with a stream bed and a ledge to protect ancient carbon molecule fossils. Then they drove away without doing any science with any of the 10 instruments designed to investigate this exact habitat. Grossinger said he wasn't ready, or the arm wasn't or ... perhaps the world wasn't.

 

Then they drive a few hundred meters and they find, just laying there, a shiny, perfectly round object that looks like a pill, a Martian aspirin. They look at it for a while and speculate it must have traveled 200,000 miles through space, endured the launch and the seven minutes of terror they say the landing on Mars entailed. They say it fell off the Curiosity space craft. And none of these space writer hacks even challenges them.

So this shiny Mars aspirin survived launch and landing and fell off the space craft. Wouldn't there be an inventory of each and every man-made object integrated into the MLS and Curiosity rover that might fall off? No?

Doesn't the Curiosity have 10 very slick scientific tools that could pick up any tiny interesting object, even a Mars aspirin? Why don't they pick it up and run a few tests on it, if for no other reason than to further calibrate the instruments? Isn' t this the reason for the mission, to find interesting Martian artifacts and process them in the science lab, the MSL?

Here is the non-answer we have so far:

Investigation of a small, bright object thought to have come from the rover may resume between the first and second scoop. Over the past two sols, with rover arm activities on hold, the team has assessed the object as likely to be some type of plastic wrapper material, such as a tube used around a wire, possibly having fallen onto the rover from the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's descent stage during the landing in August.

Heferdust!

10.04.2012

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Prepares To Search Martian

Soil for Hydrocarbons

 

"It is a Viking-size conumdrum. What do scientists and geologists say on earth when their instruments on Mars identify the precious "habitable environment" where water clearly flowed? Then what do they do in the first months of their mission when they find the last piece of the Mars life puzzle: organic molecules and  hydrocarbons in the soil?
 
Viking found evidence of life but the discovery was blurred by two challenges: No Water! No Organic debris!
 
If Viking is any example, the laboratories that require ambiguity and controversy to sustain their funding, to continue this and other missions, will find some way to undermine the science, the sample or the experimenters and call the results: the confirmation of flowing water, the lack of superoxides and the presence of organics "ambiguous."
                            .......Rick Eyerdam: author: Fact or Lore
                                                                              Inside NASA's curious search for life in space
 

 

 

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Curiosity rover is in a position on Mars where scientists and engineers can begin preparing the rover to take its first scoop of soil for analysis.

Curiosity is the centerpiece of the two-year Mars Science Laboratory mission. The rover's ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments is central to assessing whether its present location on Mars, called Gale Crater, ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mineral analysis can reveal past environmental conditions. Chemical analysis can check for ingredients necessary for life.

 

"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

 

The rover's preparatory operations will involve testing its robotic scooping capabilities to collect and process soil samples. Later, it also will use a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks. To begin preparations for a first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels Wednesday to scuff the soil to expose fresh material.

 

Next, the rover twice will scoop up some soil, shake it thoroughly inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces, then discard the sample. Curiosity will scoop and shake a third measure of soil and place it in an observation tray for inspection by cameras mounted on the rover's mast. A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From a fourth scoopful, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and to the sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which identifies chemical ingredients.

 

"We're going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it's what we want," said Daniel Limonadi of JPL, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars."

 

The rinse-and-discard cycles serve a quality-assurance purpose similar to a common practice in geochemical laboratory analysis on Earth.

 

"It is standard to run a split of your sample through first and dump it out, to clean out any residue from a previous sample," said JPL's Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team. "We want to be sure the first sample we analyze is unambiguously Martian, so we take these steps to remove any residual material from Earth that might be on the walls of our sample handling system."

 

Rocknest is the name of the area of soil Curiosity will test and analyze. The rover pulled up to the windblown, sandy and dusty location Oct. 2. The Rocknest patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet (2.5 meters by 5 meters). The area provides plenty of area for scooping several times. Diverse rocks nearby provide targets for investigation with the instruments on Curiosity's mast during the weeks the rover is stationed at Rocknest for this first scooping campaign.

 

Curiosity's motorized, clamshell-shaped scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide, 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long, and can sample to a depth of about 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters). It is part of the collection and handling Martian rock analysis (CHIMRA) device on a turret of tools at the end of the rover's arm. CHIMRA also includes a series of chambers and labyrinths for sorting, sieving and portioning samples collected by the scoop or by the arm's percussive drill.

 

Following the work at Rocknest, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards (about 100 meters) eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for use of its drill.

 

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project and built Curiosity.

 

For more about Curiosity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/msl or http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.

 

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity.

Here is some background: First we reduce the potential that the instrument will be challenged

  


CHIMRA: Scoops, Sieves and Delivers Samples

 

On Sol 58 (Oct. 4, 2012) Curiosity maneuvered its arm to use instruments for close-up examination of sandy material at the "Rocknest" site. The inspections with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) focused on targets in and near a wheel scuff that Curiosity made on the preceding sol to freshly expose material in a wind-sculpted ripple. These activities were preparation for planned first use of the rover's scoop.


Sol 58, in Mars local mean solar time at Gale Crater, ended at 9:45 p.m. Oct. 4, PDT (12:45 a.m. Oct. 5, EDT).

   

On the mission's 61st Martian day, or sol (Oct. 7, 2012), NASA's Mars rover Curiosity used its soil scoop for the first time, collecting a scoopful of sand and powdery material at the "Rocknest" site. Imaging verified collection of the sample. The collected material will be used for cleaning interior surfaces of the rover's sample-handling mechanism. It will be held and vibrated inside each chamber of the mechanism before the material is discarded. Curiosity's Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA) device, on the robotic arm, includes the scoop and the mechanism for sieving and portioning samples of soil and powdered rock.


A Sol 61 raw image from Curiosity's left navigation camera, at http://1.usa.gov/OMDbxy, shows where the soil collected by the scoop was removed from the ground. The scoop leaves a hole 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide.


The rover's ability to put scooped and sieved samples of soil into on board laboratory instruments is an important part of the mission. Those instruments -- Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) -- will play crucial roles in evaluating whether the study area has ever had a favorable environment for microbial life.



Once that is out of the way we must deal with the  corrupted drills



 Still to be used for the first time is the rover's capability to take powdered samples from rocks, using a percussive drill, for delivery to those same instruments.




 

 

OK we are not going to get the answer why Curiosity fled the stream bed. But here is the alternative Nasa/JPL offers: Fly to Mars and shake some dirt to clean Earthly contamination from the sample scoop!
 
 
This just in!
 
Can't find a source for this anywhere but the lady blogger at the Planetary Society tweeted this; no context, just this:
 
 
Grotzinger: We weren't ready to use the arm then, and that was so out into the future, so we made decision to drive away.
 
You would think they would have the courtesy of resonding to our e-mail request though official channels.
 
 
 
And now here comes this:

10.04.2012

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Prepares To Study Martian Soil

 

 

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Curiosity rover is in a position on Mars where scientists and engineers can begin preparing the rover to take its first scoop of soil for analysis.

Curiosity is the centerpiece of the two-year Mars Science Laboratory mission. The rover's ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments is central to assessing whether its present location on Mars, called Gale Crater, ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mineral analysis can reveal past environmental conditions. Chemical analysis can check for ingredients necessary for life.

 

"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

 

The rover's preparatory operations will involve testing its robotic scooping capabilities to collect and process soil samples. Later, it also will use a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks. To begin preparations for a first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels Wednesday to scuff the soil to expose fresh material.

 

Next, the rover twice will scoop up some soil, shake it thoroughly inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces, then discard the sample. Curiosity will scoop and shake a third measure of soil and place it in an observation tray for inspection by cameras mounted on the rover's mast. A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From a fourth scoopful, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and to the sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which identifies chemical ingredients.

 

"We're going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it's what we want," said Daniel Limonadi of JPL, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars."

 

The rinse-and-discard cycles serve a quality-assurance purpose similar to a common practice in geochemical laboratory analysis on Earth.

 

"It is standard to run a split of your sample through first and dump it out, to clean out any residue from a previous sample," said JPL's Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team. "We want to be sure the first sample we analyze is unambiguously Martian, so we take these steps to remove any residual material from Earth that might be on the walls of our sample handling system."

 

Rocknest is the name of the area of soil Curiosity will test and analyze. The rover pulled up to the windblown, sandy and dusty location Oct. 2. The Rocknest patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet (2.5 meters by 5 meters). The area provides plenty of area for scooping several times. Diverse rocks nearby provide targets for investigation with the instruments on Curiosity's mast during the weeks the rover is stationed at Rocknest for this first scooping campaign.

 

Curiosity's motorized, clamshell-shaped scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide, 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long, and can sample to a depth of about 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters). It is part of the collection and handling Martian rock analysis (CHIMRA) device on a turret of tools at the end of the rover's arm. CHIMRA also includes a series of chambers and labyrinths for sorting, sieving and portioning samples collected by the scoop or by the arm's percussive drill.

 

Following the work at Rocknest, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards (about 100 meters) eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for use of its drill.

 

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project and built Curiosity.

 

For more about Curiosity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/msl or http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.

 

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity.

 

October 04, 2012

Mars Curiosity Readies to Analyze 'Rocknest' Soil for Microbial Life

 

           Msl_traverse2


NASA's Curiosity rover is in a position on Mars where scientists and engineers can begin preparing the rover to take its first scoop of soil for analysis to check for ingredients necessary for life. Curiosity is the centerpiece of the two-year Mars Science Laboratory mission. The rover's ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments is central to assessing whether its present location on Mars, called Gale Crater, ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mineral analysis can reveal past environmental conditions.

"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratoryin Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

The rover's preparatory operations will involve testing its robotic scooping capabilities to collect and process soil samples. Later, it also will use a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks. To begin preparations for a first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels Wednesday to scuff the soil to expose fresh material.

Next, the rover twice will scoop up some soil, shake it thoroughly inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces, then discard the sample. Curiosity will scoop and shake a third measure of soil and place it in an observation tray for inspection by cameras mounted on the rover's mast. A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From a fourth scoopful, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and to the sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which identifies chemical ingredients.

"We're going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it's what we want," said Daniel Limonadi of JPL, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars."

The rinse-and-discard cycles serve a quality-assurance purpose similar to a common practice in geochemical laboratory analysis on Earth. *"It is standard to run a split of your sample through first and dump it out, to clean out any residue from a previous sample," said JPL's Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team. "We want to be sure the first sample we analyze is unambiguously Martian, so we take these steps to remove any residual material from Earth that might be on the walls of our sample handling system."

Rocknest is the name of the area of soil Curiosity will test and analyze. The rover pulled up to the windblown, sandy and dusty location Oct. 2. The Rocknest patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet (2.5 meters by 5 meters). The area provides plenty of area for scooping several times. Diverse rocks nearby provide targets for investigation with the instruments on Curiosity's mast during the weeks the rover is stationed at Rocknest for this first scooping campaign.

Curiosity's motorized, clamshell-shaped scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide, 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long, and can sample to a depth of about 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters). It is part of the collection and handling Martian rock analysis (CHIMRA) device on a turret of tools at the end of the rover's arm. CHIMRA also includes a series of chambers and labyrinths for sorting, sieving and portioning samples collected by the scoop or by the arm's percussive drill.

Following the work at Rocknest, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards (about 100 meters) eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for use of its drill. 

The image at top of page shows the high-resolution HiRISE imagery of Gale Crater on standard Google Mars, which tends to overlay the slope map (below).


          Cropped-mslfanfeat2

The Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL

 

JPL/NASA find mission goal – habitable environment -- a protected rock shelf over former stream bed, then Curiosity drives away.

 

We asked JPL's Guy Webster why. Will let you know if he answers.

 
In the mean time, on Sol 52 (Sept. 28), Curiosity drove about 122 feet (37.3 meters) eastward away from the habitable environement offered by the stream toward the Glenelg area, using visual odometry to assess and adjust for any wheel slippage.

This movement away from the stream bed "habitable environment" apparently implies the Curiosity team has decided not to search for signs of carbon fossils at every likely opportunity.

 

Yesterday the NASA press statement said,” The science team may use Curiosity to learn the elemental composition of the material, which holds the conglomerate together (at the stream bed) revealing more characteristics of the wet environment that formed these deposits. The stones in the conglomerate provide a sampling from above the crater rim, so the team may also examine several of them to learn about broader regional geology.”

 

 

The science reporters on the scene just accepted that and did not point out what NASA claimed when it defined the mission:

 

"The overall scientific goal of the mission is to explore and quantitatively assess a local region on Mars' surface as a potential habitat for life, past or present. The MSL rover is designed to carry ten scientific instruments and a sample acquisition, processing, and distribution system. The various payload elements will work together to detect and study potential sampling targets with remote and in situ measurements; to acquire samples of rock, soil, and atmosphere and analyze them in onboard analytical instruments; and to observe the environment around the rover."

 

Instead, the Curiosity team reminded the media “The slope of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater remains the rover's main destination. Clay and sulfate minerals detected there from orbit can be good preservers of carbon-based organic chemicals that are potential ingredients for life.”

 

"A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment," said Grotzinger. "It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We're still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment."

 

And then they left with no science accomplished other than photographs. We asked if this was because of the Curiosity prime directive to immediately leave an area where life could have evolved or be preserved. And we asked if the omission was because the Curiosity exploration drills are both corrupted with carbon coating, and earthly microbes.

 

So far no answer.

 

The mission's total distance driven has now reached 0.28 mile (0.45 kilometer). The drive brought the rover to a few meters away from an outcrop being considered for an approach drive and subsequent examination with instruments at the end of Curiosity's arm: the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer and the Mars Hand Lens Imager.

 

Another priority in coming sols is to reach a location for first use of the rover's capability to scoop up soil material and deliver a sample of it into laboratory instruments.

 

Activities on Sol 52 included the usual monitoring of the environment around Curiosity with the Radiation Assessment Detector, the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument, and the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station. A raw image from Curiosity's left Navigation Camera, showing the ground near the rover after the Sol 52 drive, is at http://1.usa.gov/SifbNW.

 

Curiosity continues to work in good health. Sol 52, in Mars local mean solar time at Gale Crater, ends at 5:48 p.m. Sept. 28, PDT (8:48 p.m. EDT).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mars Curiosity Rover Discovers Rocks Formed By Rushing Water (PHOTOS)

This image, captured by the Mars Curiosity Rover's Mast camera on September 14, 2012, shows a rock feature thought to have been formed by rushing water. NASA calls this rock Hottah. This image, captured by the Mars Curiosity Rover's Mast camera on September 14, 2012, shows a rock feature thought to have been formed by rushing water. NASA calls this rock Hottah.
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NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover has hit paydirt, discovering rock formations on the Red Planet that were most likely formed by the vigorous flow of a stream of water in Mars’ ancient history, NASA announced Thursday.

“There’s consensus that this is a rock formed in the presence of water,” said Mars Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a press conference livestreamed from JPL headquarters in Pasadena, California on Thursday.

Curiosity stumbled across the rock formations, which NASA dubbed “Link” and
“Hottah,” respectively, on September 2 and 14, while driving from its landing site in the 96-mile-wide depression known as Gale Crater to another site within the crater called “Glenelg,” where NASA hopes to begin collecting and studying the first samples of wind-blown sand.

But NASA had to study imagery of the “Link” and “Hottah” rocks captured by the rover’s 100-millimeter Mast Camera, or Mastcam, and double-check to make sure it was actually formed by running water before making the formal announcement on Thursday. The water was thought to be rushing at a speed 3 feet per second and at depth that would go up to a human ankle to hip.

Here’s the Curiosity Mastcam photo of the “Link” rock formation, which shows an abundance of water-deposited gravel:

And here’s another image from the Curiosity 100-millimeter Mastcam of the “Hottah,” formation, named for the Hottah Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories:

Here’s a close-up of the “Hottah” formation showing a piece of rock rounded by the flow of water:

Both rocks contain tiny bits of rounded gravel a few inches in size in and around them, a formation in geology called a “sedimentary conglomerate,” or when rushing water brings smaller rocks smashing into each other and larger formations, cementing them together.

In the case of these particular rock formations, NASA believes that the water that helped form them actually came from quite far away, outside the rim of Gale Crater itself, then poured down in many different river channels into the area where the rover captured the images and even spread out toward its landing site. The water channels are thought to have carried the gravely materially that made up the rock formations, a phenomena that’s seen in many canyon-dotted and mountainous regions o n Earth, where its known as an “alluvial fan.”

Here’s a view of the alluvial fan that is said to be responsible for these rock formations, seen from space:

“This fan did not form in a single instant,” said NASA Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “There was some duration of a process.”

Indeed, NASA believes that the sheer number of channels — scores of their tracks are visible in pictures taken from space by NASA’s Mars imaging satellites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Odyssey orbiter — indicates that the flow of water in this area was a sustained and long-lasting phenomena, though the agency declined to put a set date or time period on when or for how long.

Here’s a NASA computer-generated illustration of where the channels flowed, marked in blue, with the location of the Mars Curiosity Rover’s landing site marked by a black “x.”

Here’s another illustration from the view of the Rover, again denoted with a black “X,” looking toward the source of the channels, which would’ve flowed toward it:

Scientists think one specific river channel was the one that formed the types of rocks found in this area by Curiosity, a channel they’ve named “Peace Vallis.”

NASA’s Grotzinger was careful to note that although the finding was hugely significant in terms of fulfilling Curiosity’s mission objective to ascertain the habitability of Mars — whether or not it was ever capable of supporting life — there wasn’t yet any evidence to indicate whether or not anything ever lived in or off of the water that formed these rocks.

Grotzinger said that there were three major indicators NASA was hoping to see with Curisoity and other, later missions to determine the habitability of Mars: Evidence of water, sources of energy for microorganisms and sources of carbon. The new imagery provides definitive evidence of water, but the jury is still out on the other two indicators.

Curiosity’s team may decide to sample some of these rocks for evidence of carbon, using some of Curiosity’s 10 scientific instruments, which are capable of chemical and mineral analysis, but the NASA scientists are also keeping their eyes on the major prize: Mount Sharp, a 3.4-mile high mountain rising up from the floor of Gale Crater which NASA intends to drive the rover toward and scale partially.

And even if NASA finds evidence of organic carbon, that’s not necessarily evidence that life existed on the Red Planet.

“That in its own right does not require living microorganisms,” Grotzinger said, when asked by TPM, “Those types of arguments are based on preponderance of evidence and require multiple lines of evidence…That’s going to take other missions,” outside of Curiosity to determine, Grotzinger explained.

Still, the news of the water-formed rocks is big not just for the Curiosity team, but the study of Mars and planetary science in general.

“Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them,” Dietrich said in a NASA press release. “This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it.”

 View Photo Gallery — Curiosity rover mission finds evidence of water on Mars: The Mars Curiosity rover has sent back photographs that show evidence of a “vigorous” streambed.

 Curiosity rover’s Mars landing site was once covered with fast-moving water, NASA says

 

 

Have they already breached the prime directive? Avoid habitable areas for fear of drill bit or other contamination!

 

Washington Post PASADENA, Calif. — The landing site of the Mars rover Curiosity was once covered with fast-moving and possibly waist-high water that could have possibly supported life, NASA scientists announced Thursday.

 

Although planetary scientists have often speculated that the now-desiccated surface of Mars was once wet, Curiosity’s cameras provided the first proof that flowing water was present on a least one part of Mars for “thousands or millions of years.”

 

 The Post’s Marc Kaufman, author of “Mars Landing 2012: Inside NASA’s Curiosity Mission,” explains the importance of the Curiosity mission, which is being hailed “the mission of the decade” by NASA’s chief scientist.

 

The early finding led John Grotzinger, the top mission scientist at the Mars Science Laboratory, to conclude that Curiosity had found a potentially “habitable” site — a central goal of the mission — well before heading to its primary destination.

 

The area may not have other attributes needed for life, he said, but the team now has a “hall pass” on the question of flowing water, and the Gale Crater landing site seemed even more appealing.

 

“A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment,” he said. “We’re still going to Mount Sharp [a three-mile-high mound at the center of the crater], but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment.”

 

Curiosity team scientists determined that flowing water was once present near the Gale Crater landing site based on the telltale size, shape and scattering of pebbles and gravel nearby, especially those found in conglomerate rocks at three sites.

 

The roundedness of the pebbles is especially significant, they said, and strongly suggests that the rocks were carried down a roughly 20- to 25-mile stream or river and were smoothed along the way.

 

William Dietrich, professor of geomorphology and member of the Curiosity imaging science team, presented some rounded earthly pebbles, which he said are similar to those found in the images.

 

“Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them,” Dietrich said. “This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it.”

 

Curiosity made its dramatic landing in early August and has spent much of its time since testing systems and instruments and preparing for its two-year drive.

 

But the rover’s cameras began sending back images of the conglomerate rock with small pebbles soon after landing, and they provided sufficiently detailed pictures to convince scientists that the pebbles and gravel had a watery past.

 

Gale Crater was selected as a landing site in part because satellite imaging had earlier found what appeared to be a sizable cut in the crater wall that looked like a dried river or streambed. The bed continued into the crater and then spread out in the shape of a delta. Similar features have been found in many other Martian locations.

 

The Curiosity team thought the rover had not landed exactly on that dried delta — or “alluvial fan,” as geologists describe it — but the finding of the water-borne rocks is forcing them to rethink the size of the fan.

 

The confirmation of water flows came in the early days of a mission that had very consciously discarded the long-standing NASA directive to “follow the water” in Mars exploration. Although finding and studying the signatures of past water flows are important for Curiosity’s goal of identifying habitats that could have supported life, the mission motto is now “follow the carbon.” That element is present in all organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life on Earth and are expected to have been similarly essential to any possible Martian life.

 

Curiosity has two miniature chemistry labs that will test for those organic compounds and other telltale elements.

 

The rover’s ultimate destination is the three-mile-high mound in the center of the crater, but it will first detour to a nearby and unusual geological meeting of three rock types. Scientists think one of the rock types may have been formed from fine clays, the lightest material carried by the water and so the last to drop out.

 

Announcement of the long-ago presence of Martian surface water is an early coup for the mission but is consistent with the rover’s unusually good fortunes.

 

Since the rover made its near-perfect landing, its major systems and instruments have checked out successfully. There have been a few glitches — a set of wind sensors for the weather station was damaged at landing, and unwanted Florida air was discovered in some instruments — but NASA officials say they foresee no lasting obstacles.

 

“Our biggest anomaly has been that we have no real anomalies,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Definitely surprising, given the complexity of what we’re doing.”

 

 

Curiosity observations show extreme pressure swings on Mars

Published on Wed, Sep 26, 2012 by

A massive whirling dust storm on the surface of Mars, as seen captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The extreme pressure swings experienced during a day-night cycle on the planet might drive the formation of such dust twisters. (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

Though a barren, life-intimidating landscape,  Mars still has the most resembling weather to Earth compared to the other planets in our solar system. Recent measurements beamed by the Curiosity rover, which touched down on the martian surface a few weeks ago, have confirmed the scientists’ theories of extreme pressure swings. According to observations, pressure variations can be 100 times greater than those on Earth, and could potentially be the primary factor driving the massive dust storms on Mars.

Over the last 35 years, a total of four NASA probes have reached the Martian surface and returned weather data, however Curiosity is the only one to land in an “action center” – in the equator. Previous measurements have shown that the Martian atmosphere is subjected to significant temperature and pressure swings. The atmospheric temperature near the surface of Mars generally varies by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit between day and night because of the overall thinner Martian atmosphere and lack of oceans and their moderating influence. However, this is the first time that such a huge pressure swing is encountered, although it was expected.

“The exciting new result from Curiosity is a regular and truly enormous swing in atmospheric pressure through each day. Measurements on Earth show a daily swing in pressure of only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the mean pressure, whereas Curiosity is measuring swings of almost 10 percent of the daily average pressure. We observe such a relative pressure change on Earth only with the passage of an extremely strong hurricane. At the Curiosity site on Mars, this enormous pressure swing occurs regularly every day,” said   Kevin Hamilton, a pioneer in the area of computer modeling of the Martian atmosphere, and Director of UH Manoa’s International Pacific Research Center.

Hamilton theorized back in the 1980s, and later backed up his findings with a computer model, that particularly in two action centers on Mars, coupled with a resonance with the martian day-night cycle, that the pressure swings there should exceed 8 percent of the mean pressure. Pretty close to the actual measured data fed back by Curiosity.

According to Hamilton, these severe pressure variations could provide an answer to a mystery that has been puzzling scientists for quite some time now – how do the massive dust storms on the surface of the red planet form?  Because of these pressure ‘mood’ swings,  winds become sufficiently strong to lift enough dust from the surface to create the remarkable global dust storms seen every few years on that planet.

 

NASA wants to send astronauts beyond the moon, soon - Sentinel Exclusive:

11:32 p.m. EST, September 22, 2012

 

|By Mark K. Matthews, Washington Bureau

 

WASHINGTON — Top NASA officials have picked a leading candidate for the agency's next major mission: construction of a new outpost that would send astronauts farther from Earth than at any time in history.

 

The so-called "gateway spacecraft" would hover in orbit on the far side of the moon, support a small astronaut crew and function as a staging area for future missions to the moon and Mars.

 

At 277,000 miles from Earth, the outpost would be far more remote than the current space station, which orbits a little more than 200 miles above Earth. The distance raises complex questions of how to protect astronauts from the radiation of deep space — and rescue them if something goes wrong.

 

NASA Chief Charlie Bolden briefed the White House earlier this month on details of the proposal, but it's unclear whether it has the administration's support. Of critical importance is the price tag, which would certainly run into the billions of dollars.

 

Documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show that NASA wants to build a small outpost — likely with parts left over from the $100 billion International Space Station — at what's known as the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2, a spot about 38,000 miles from the moon and 277,000 miles from Earth. (see below)

 

At that location, the combined gravities of the Earth and moon reach equilibrium, making it possible to "stick" an outpost there with minimal power required to keep it in place.

 

To get there, NASA would use the massive rocket and space capsule that it is developing as a successor to the retired space shuttle. A first flight of that rocket is planned for 2017, and construction of the outpost would begin two years later, according to NASA planning documents.

 

Potential missions include the study of nearby asteroids or dispatching robotic trips to the moon that would gather moon rocks and bring them back to astronauts at the outpost. The outpost also would lay the groundwork for more-ambitious trips to Mars' moons and even Mars itself, about 140 million miles away on average.

 

Placing a "spacecraft at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point beyond the moon as a test area for human access to deep space is the best near-term option to develop required flight experience and mitigate risk," concluded the NASA report.

 

From NASA's perspective, the outpost solves several problems.

 

It gives purpose to the Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket, which are being developed at a cost of about $3 billion annually. It involves NASA's international partners, as blueprints for the outpost suggest using a Russian-built module and components from Italy. And the outpost would represent a baby step toward NASA's ultimate goal: human footprints on Mars.

 

But how the idea — and cost — play with President Barack Obama, Congress and the public remains a major question. The price tag is never mentioned in the NASA report.

 

Spending is being slashed across the federal government in the name of deficit reduction; it's unlikely that NASA in coming years can get more than its current budget of $17.7 billion — if that.

 

The planning documents indicate the outpost is possible only with "modest increases" to the current budget — and that presumes none of the cost overruns that have characterized recent NASA projects. Indeed, the first construction flight in 2019 is labeled "unfunded" in briefing charts, as is a robotic "sample return" moon mission in 2022.

 

One NASA supporter in Congress — U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge — said he liked the idea. But he said it would require strong White House backing to convince Congress to finance it.

 

NASA funding "always has been very precarious," Posey said. "And money is going to get tighter."

 

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and a NASA statement was noncommittal about the outpost.

 

"There are many options — and many routes — being discussed on our way to the Red Planet," said spokesman David Weaver. "In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk — and make it easier — to get to Mars.

 

A second major concern is astronaut safety. It will take days to get to the outpost — the farthest NASA has flown humans since the moon missions of 40 years ago — making rescue and supply missions difficult. The planning documents are unclear on whether astronauts would be permanently stationed at the outpost or there part time.

 

Another concern is how NASA intends to address the dangers of deep space, especially radiation.

 

The outpost would be more vulnerable to space radiation because it would be largely beyond the protective shield of Earth's magnetic field, said scientists with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

 

"It is significantly more difficult to shield and protect their [astronauts'] health" at that location, said Jeff Chancellor, an NSBRI scientist.

 

Nasa's Mars rover Curiosity has stopped en-route to its first official destination to examine an unusual pyramid-shaped rock.

 

The rover is around half way on its journey to an area known as Glenelg, where researchers expect to find a combination of three different types of geological terrain.  Mars science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger said it has covered a total distance of 950 feet since landing on the red planet six weeks ago, and 100 ft of this distance was covered just last night.

 

Although the latest discovery of the rock, which measures around 25cm in height and 40cm at the base, is not expected to provide any significant scientific value, it will give the robot an opportunity to test three of its instruments simultaneously for the first time.

 

Tomorrow the rover will begin its research on the rock, using its ChemCham laser to shoot it, before examining closely with its Mahli hand lens and X-ray spectrometer, giving it a good idea of the atoms present inside.

 

Fully expected to be a lump of Martian basalt - a type of volcanic rock - the latest discovery has been named 'Jake Matijevic' after a Curiosity engineer who tragically died just after the vehicle touched down on 6 August.

 

Although the Matijevic rock's surprisingly regular pyramidal shape will no doubt fire the imaginations of conspiracy theorists back here on Earth, Professor Grotzinger said that such geometry is not uncommon and is probably a product of wind erosion.

 

"Our general consensus view is that these are pieces of impact ejecta from an impact somewhere else, maybe outside of Gale Crater [where the rover landed], that throws a rock on to the plains, and it just goes on to sit here for a long period of time," he said. "It weathers more slowly than the stuff that's around it. So, that means it's probably a harder rock."

 

The exercise on this rock will be a run-through in order to outline a procedure to be used on future targets that may present themselves as of far more scientific relevance, and which can then be drilled and taken up into the sophisticated analysis labs inside the rover's body.

 

Such experiments will be key to Curiosity's mission, which aims to understand whether the planet could ever have supported microbial life. The team hope to address the question more fully when the rover reaches the base of Mount Sharp, a big mountain that dominates the centre of Gale Crater, although this is not expected to be for many months.

 

Yesterday, the rover also managed to send back pictures of a rare occurrence for Earthlings, as Mars' two moons caused a partial eclipse of the sun.

 

Although not particularly rare on Mars, the transit of Phobos and Deimos does assist scientists trying to understand the planet's internal make-up.

 

The Lagrange Points

Lagrange points are named in honor of Italian-French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange. There are five special points where a small mass can orbit in a constant pattern with two larger masses. The Lagrange Points are positions where the gravitational pull of two large masses precisely equals the centripetal force required for a small object to move with them. This mathematical problem, known as the "General Three-Body Problem" was considered by Lagrange in his prize winning paper (Essai sur le Problème des Trois Corps, 1772).

Of the five Lagrange points, three are unstable and two are stable. The unstable Lagrange points - labeled L1, L2 and L3 - lie along the line connecting the two large masses. The stable Lagrange points - labeled L4 and L5 - form the apex of two equilateral triangles that have the large masses at their vertices. L4 leads the orbit of earth and L5 follows.

Lagrange Points
Lagrange Points of the Earth-Sun system (not drawn to scale!).

The L1 point of the Earth-Sun system affords an uninterrupted view of the sun and is currently home to the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory Satellite SOHO. The L2 point of the Earth-Sun system was the home to the WMAP spacecraft, current home of Planck, and future home of the James Webb Space Telescope. L2 is ideal for astronomy because a spacecraft is close enough to readily communicate with Earth, can keep Sun, Earth and Moon behind the spacecraft for solar power and (with appropriate shielding) provides a clear view of deep space for our telescopes. The L1 and L2 points are unstable on a time scale of approximately 23 days, which requires satellites orbiting these positions to undergo regular course and attitude corrections.

NASA is unlikely to find any use for the L3 point since it remains hidden behind the Sun at all times. The idea of a hidden "Planet-X" at the L3 point has been a popular topic in science fiction writing. The instability of Planet X's orbit (on a time scale of 150 years) didn't stop Hollywood from turning out classics like The Man from Planet X.

The L4 and L5 points are home to stable orbits so long as the mass ratio between the two large masses exceeds 24.96. This condition is satisfied for both the Earth-Sun and Earth-Moon systems, and for many other pairs of bodies in the solar system. Objects found orbiting at the L4 and L5 points are often called Trojans after the three large asteroids Agamemnon, Achilles and Hector that orbit in the L4 and L5 points of the Jupiter-Sun system. (According to Homer, Hector was the Trojan champion slain by Achilles during King Agamemnon's siege of Troy). There are hundreds of Trojan Asteroids in the solar system. Most orbit with Jupiter, but others orbit with Mars. In addition, several of Saturn's moons have Trojan companions. In 1956 the Polish astronomer Kordylewski discovered large concentrations of dust at the Trojan points of the Earth-Moon system. The DIRBE instrument on the COBE satellite confirmed earlier IRAS observations of a dust ring following the Earth's orbit around the Sun. The existence of this ring is closely related to the Trojan points, but the story is complicated by the effects of radiation pressure on the dust grains. In 2010 NASA's WISE telescope finally confirmed the first Trojan asteroid (2010 TK7) around Earth's leading Lagrange point.

Finding the Lagrange Points

The easiest way to understand Lagrange points is to adopt a frame of reference that rotates with the system. The forces exerted on a body at rest in this frame can be derived from an effective potential in much the same way that wind speeds can be inferred from a weather map. The forces are strongest when the contours of the effective potential are closest together and weakest when the contours are far apart.

Effective Potential
A contour plot of the effective potential (not drawn to scale!).

In the above contour plot we see that L4 and L5 correspond to hilltops and L1, L2 and L3 correspond to saddles (i.e. points where the potential is curving up in one direction and down in the other). This suggests that satellites placed at the Lagrange points will have a tendency to wander off (try sitting a marble on top of a watermelon or on top of a real saddle and you get the idea). But when a satellite parked at L4 or L5 starts to roll off the hill it picks up speed. At this point the Coriolis force comes into play - the same force that causes hurricanes to spin up on the earth - and sends the satellite into a stable orbit around the Lagrange point.

This page (last updated July 2012) was originally written (with mathematical equations) by Neil J. Cornish as part of WMAP's education and outreach program.

NASA Begins Use of  MPCS Makes Most Of Curiosity Rover Data

Wonder what happened to MSLICE?

 

By Dan Taylor  InformationWeek

September 13, 2012 02:15 PM

 

 

NASA has begun using a new system to process the raw data generated by its Curiosity rover on Mars. The Mission Data Processing and Control System (MPCS) presents data visually so that it's useful to a wider range of project team members, including mission managers, software developers, and scientists.

 

For the past week, Curiosity has been parked in the same spot on Mars as NASA tests the rover's robotic arm in preparation for using its instruments to "touch" rocks for the first time. The space agency plans to resume driving the rover within the next few days, generating new kinds of data, such as the composition of rocks, to be transmitted back to mission headquarters at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

MPCS interfaces with NASA's deep-space network, which uses the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a network node for relaying data to and from Curiosity. Developed in the Java programming language, MPCS puts data into "terms" that other computer systems used on the project can adapt and apply, according to Navid Dehghani, ground systems manager at Jet Propulsion Lab.

  

The system also produces tailored, graphical views of data for use by Curiosity's various flight operations teams. For example, data relating to the rover's mobility can be presented in a format that is geared to engineers.

 

"The flight software has parameters that are generated by the rover that tells the team on the ground what is the state of the rover," said Dehghani. "This system provides the capability to view those in graphical terms that are understandable and actionable."

 

MPCS takes the data received through antennas from the deep-space network and processes the raw data in real time by putting it into a type of "round-robin" buffer. "It receives multiple types of data from the spacecraft. This could be health and engineering data from the rover; it could be voltage or power or thermal numbers," Dehghani said. "They are analyzed, then sent to monitoring stations that are set up to be able to display the data in a meaningful way to the end user."

 

First used for Curiosity, MPCS will likely have a role in future missions. "We're trying to adapt it to an earth-orbiting mission," Dehghani said, adding that NASA partner Lockheed Martin is also evaluating MPCS for potential use space missions it's supporting.

 

Two Senators attended and yet USA Today reports this bull:

Then quotes a member of the House

(see article below)

 

 

Manned Mars mission still on track

by Ledyard King, Gannett Washington Bureau

 

Updated 1d ago Comments

 

NASA announced Wednesday it is on track to send astronauts to the Red Planet.

 

 

 

WASHINGTON -- A top NASA official told lawmakers Wednesday the agency is on track with its next crewed mission into deep space: a trip to an asteroid and then to Mars.

 

NASA and its team of private contractors are "making excellent progress" toward launching an unmanned test flight in 2017 in preparation for the real mission, Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, told members of a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee.

 

Tests measuring water impact, acoustics, vibrations and parachute landings of the Orion crew vehicle are either under way or nearly complete, and the manufacturing of a "state-of-the-art" heat shield has begun, he said. Design work is underway on the $30 billion "heavy lift" rocket known as the Space Launch System that will carry Orion, Dumbacher said.

 

His comments Wednesday came nearly a year after NASA unveiled the design of the rocket, which will be longer than a football field and is billed as the most powerful U.S. rocket since the Saturn V that took Apollo astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

 

If the time line holds, a manned test flight of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule will take place in 2021. If that's successful, an asteroid landing would be feasible by 2025, followed by a landing on Mars sometime in the 2030s.

 

A 20-year wait to reach Earth's neighbor sounds agonizingly distant given the successful Mars landing earlier this year by Curiosity, a car-sized science lab currently roving the Martian surface for clues to life.

 

But space exploration remains delicate and expensive, and NASA has had to navigate the priorities of changing administrations. President Barack Obama called for the Mars mission after scrapping a moon mission sought by President George W. Bush.

 

Even if the engineering goes well, there's a question of money. At a time when Congress is contemplating deep cuts in discretionary programs such as space exploration, NASA might not have the budget it needs over time to sustain the program as currently designed.

 

The project's requested fiscal 2013 budget alone is nearly $2.8 billion: $969 million for Orion, $1.3 billion for the Space Launch System, and $405 million for Kennedy Space Center to prepare for the eventual launch.

 

"That's a lot of money," Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., a House science committee member, said Wednesday .

 

Rohrbacher suggested NASA explore the use of cheaper rockets -- or risk making the mission too pricey for future congressional support.

 

"We wish you luck," he told Dumbacher. "We want you to succeed. (But) we've been through a number of these in the past where we have budget problems on this end and we end up losing billions of dollars."

 

NASA's real challenge may be that it needs to do more, not less.

 

At a hearing before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee Wednesday, Cornell Astronomy Professor Steven Squyres said the relatively light schedule of test flights before the 2025 asteroid mission is a concern.

 

"(AT)No human-rated launch system in NASA's history has flown so infrequently," he told the panel, chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "With such a low launch rate, it would not just be difficult to maintain program momentum, it would be difficult to keep flight teams sharp and mission-ready."

 

More troubling is that the budget for the program includes no money for two important pieces of equipment: a deep-space habitation module to sustain crew members for many months in space and a lunar lander to enable astronauts to step onto an asteroid and later, onto Mars.

 

The Planetary Society asks:

How difficult will it be to send a team to Mars?

Two out of twenty-five Senators –Bill Nelson and Kay Bailey Hutchinson bothered to show up to Wednesday's hearing on the future of Mars exploration

Posted By Casey Dreier

2012/09/12 04:47 CDT

U.S. Senate

Empty Senate Hearing Chairs

Empty chairs dominate the senate chamber at the "From LEO to Mars" hearing.

There was a Senate hearing on the future of Mars exploration today, "From Low-Earth Orbit to Mars". It was held by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which oversees NASA.

Due to the massive budget cuts facing the planetary science program and the removal of NASA participation from the 2016 and 2018 joint-ESA Mars missions, this should've been a very important hearing. Steve Squyres, Chairman of the NASA Advisory Council and Principal Investigator of the Mars Exploration Rovers, was there, as well as John Grotzinger, the Project Scientist for MSL Curiosity.

Only two senators bothered to show up to this hearing, though: Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX).

Where was everyone else? Why isn't there more interest from the Senate? If you live in the one of the following states, I've made a webform for you that allows you to email your Senator on the committee and ask why they missed the hearing. They need to know that we're paying attention to this stuff.

This form is good if you live in: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine, Missouri, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. These all have representatives on this Senate committee.

More about this hearing later.

 

Be a Planetary Defender!

Support research into Laser Bee spacecraft to deflect asteroids from striking Earth again.

 

Why we have been harping on the importance

 of solar radiation and solar storms

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If the Mars rover finds water, it could be H2 ... uh oh!

If Curiosity locates H2O, a simmering NASA controversy will boil over. The rover's drill bits may be tainted with Earth microbes that could survive upon touching water.

·By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

·September 9, 2012, 5:30 p.m.

·For all the hopes NASA has pinned on the rover it deposited on Mars last month, one wish has gone unspoken: Please don't find water.

Scientists don't believe they will. They chose the cold, dry equatorial landing site in Mars' Gale Crater for its geology, not its prospects for harboring water or ice, which exist elsewhere on the planet.

But if by chance the rover Curiosity does find H2O, a controversy that has simmered at NASA for nearly a year will burst into the open. Curiosity's drill bits may be contaminated with Earth microbes. If they are, and if those bits touch water, the organisms could survive.

PHOTOS: Inside the Mars landing

The possible contamination of the drill bits occurred six months before the rover's launch last Nov. 26. The bits had been sterilized inside a box to be opened only after Curiosity landed on Mars.

But that changed after engineers grew concerned that a rough landing could damage the rover and the drill mechanism. They decided to open the box and mount one bit in the drill as a hedge to ensure success of one of the most promising scientific tools aboard Curiosity. The drill is to bore into rocks looking for clues that life could have existed on the planet. Even if a damaged mechanism couldn't load a drill bit, at least the rover would have one ready to go.

Under the agency's procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn't consulted.

"They shouldn't have done it without telling me," she said. "It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules."

Those rules required sterilization of any part of Curiosity that will touch the surface of the planet, including the drill bits and all six of the rover's wheels. The precaution was taken to preserve the ability to explore water or ice — even if the chances of finding it were remote.

Conley, a microbiologist, said she learned about the unsealing of the box shortly before the launch. By then, it was too late to fix.

Other NASA officials said the decision to open the box of drill bits was a calculated risk.

"Water or ice near the surface in Gale Crater was not a significant probability," said David Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration at NASA headquarters. "We weighed that against the risks of not having a bit mounted in the drill prior to launch, and the specter of not being able to drill any holes at all on Mars."

"Of course, there is always a possibility that Mars will surprise us," Lavery said.

The box containing the bits was unsealed in a near-sterile environment, he said. Even so, the breach was enough to alter aspects of the mission and open a rift at NASA between engineers and planetary protection officials.

Curiosity was first proposed in 2004 under a mission category that would have allowed it to explore a region with ice and water. That category called for sterilizing portions of the spacecraft that would contact the surface of Mars to avoid contamination of moist areas where microbes — from Earth or from Mars — have the best chances of survival.

On Nov. 1, after learning that the drill bit box had been opened, Conley said she had the mission reclassified to one in which Curiosity could touch the surface of Mars "as long as there is no ice or water."

Conley's predecessor at NASA, John D. Rummel, a professor of biology at East Carolina University, said, partly in jest: "It will be a sad day for NASA if they do detect ice or water. That's because the Curiosity project will most likely be told, 'Gee, that's nice. Now turn around.' "

If water is found, Curiosity could still conduct tests from a distance with instruments including a laser and spectrometers.

About 250,000 bacterial spores throughout Curiosity are assumed to have survived the landing, officials said. Nearly all of them are believed to have perished within minutes of exposure to the harsh Martian conditions in Gale Crater — freezing temperatures, intense ultraviolet radiation and an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide.

But scientists have learned in recent years that some Earth life forms can live in space and in at least some of the conditions found on Mars. The European Space Agency discovered that lichens launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2005 survived several days of full exposure to the vacuum of space and ultraviolet and cosmic radiation.

Just this year, Andrew Schuerger, a plant pathologist and expert on the survival of terrestrial microorganisms under Martian conditions, found a bacterium species capable of growing in conditions present on the surface of Mars, including air pressure of just seven millibars. Air pressure on Earth is 1,017 millibars at sea level.

NASA officials announced this week that one month into its two-year mission, Curiosity had made a scheduled pit stop while en route to Glenelg Intrigue, a tantalizing confluence of three types of terrain targeted for the first drilling experiment. The pause allows scientists to run tests on the mechanical joints of the rover's robotic arm and surface sampler, or scoop, and other instruments designed to help crack Mars' mysteries.

PHOTOS: Inside the Mars landing

Sometime next month, NASA scientists are expected to select a rock at Glenelg Intrigue and bore into it with the drill, which will then transfer aspirin-size samples of powder from the rock into science instruments housed in the belly of the rover. Conley has no concerns that the experiment will contaminate the site because she believes any surviving organisms will die swiftly.

Fear of microbial contamination of the Martian environment long ago moved NASA and a United Nations space advisory committee to divide the planet's surface into areas based on the probability of encountering ice and water. The group also recommended sterilizing spacecraft destined for areas with ice and water.

Contaminating another planet is an ethical concern for scientists, as well as a practical one.

"We keep learning more and more about Mars and the amazing durability of life," said Bruce Betts, a spokesman for the Planetary Society in Pasadena. "So wouldn't it be tragic if some future expedition were to discover life on Mars only to discover later that it had actually discovered life from Earth?"

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

Mars image may indicate presence of water ice

Posted on September 7, 2012 - 05:21 by Kate Taylor

Earlier this year, the spacecraft observed the 120-kilometer-wide Hadley Crater, providing images of multiple subsequent impacts from asteroids or comets within the main crater wall, later filled with lava and sediments.

Some of these later impacts reach depths of up to 2600 meters below the surrounding surface. Some have also been partly buried.

The crater also appears to have been eroded by a process known as mass wasting, whereby surface material moves down a slope under the force of gravity.

Mass wasting can be kicked off by a range of processes, including earthquakes, erosion at the base of the slope, ice splitting the rocks or water being introduced into the slope material.

There's no clear indication yet as to which of these processes caused the mass wasting in Hadley Crater, or when. But an examination of the ejecta of the smaller craters within Hadley show sevidence for volatiles - possibly water ice beneath the surface.

The impact that forms the craters would cause this ice to mix with surrounding materials to form a kind of mud, which would then spread over the surface as ejecta.

Scientists believe these volatiles, excavated by the impacts, could indicate the presence of ice to a depth of around hundreds of meters - the difference in depth between the surface and the bottoms of the two craters.

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity Begins Arm-Work Phase
Camera on Curiosity's Arm as Seen by Camera on Mast
Camera on Curiosity's Arm as Seen by Camera on Mast
The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover's arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).

 
 
PASADENA, Calif. -- After driving more than a football field's length since landing, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is spending several days preparing for full use of the tools on its arm.

Curiosity extended its robotic arm Wednesday in the first of six to 10 consecutive days of planned activities to test the 7-foot (2.1-meter) arm and the tools it manipulates.

"We will be putting the arm through a range of motions and placing it at important 'teach points' that were established during Earth testing, such as the positions for putting sample material into the inlet ports for analytical instruments," said Daniel Limonadi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "These activities are important to get a better understanding for how the arm functions after the long cruise to Mars and in the different temperature and gravity of Mars, compared to earlier testing on Earth."

Since the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft placed Curiosity inside Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT), the rover has driven a total of 358 feet (109 meters). The drives have brought it about one-fourth of the way from the landing site, named Bradbury Landing, to a location selected as the mission's first major science destination, Glenelg.

"We knew at some point we were going to need to stop and take a week or so for these characterization activities," said JPL's Michael Watkins, Curiosity mission manager. "For these checkouts, we need to turn to a particular angle in relation to the sun and on flat ground. We could see before the latest drive that this looked like a perfect spot to start these activities."

The work at the current location will prepare Curiosity and the team for using the arm to place two of the science instruments onto rock and soil targets. In addition, the activities represent the first steps in preparing to scoop soil, drill into rocks, process collected samples and deliver samples into analytical instruments.

Checkouts in the next several days will include using the turret's Mars Hand Lens Imager to observe its calibration target and the Canadian-built Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer to read what chemical elements are present in the instrument's calibration target.

"We're still learning how to use the rover. It's such a complex machine -- the learning curve is steep," said JPL's Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates Curiosity.

After the arm characterization activities at the current site, Curiosity will proceed for a few weeks eastward toward Glenelg. The science team selected that area as likely to offer a good target for Curiosity's first analysis of powder collected by drilling into a rock.

"We're getting through a big set of characterization activities that will allow us to give more decision-making authority to the science team," said Richard Cook, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at JPL.

Curiosity is one month into a two-year prime mission on Mars. It will use 10 science instruments to assess whether the selected study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

More information about Curiosity is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl . You can follow the mission on Facebook and on Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity .

Curiosity Rolls Ahead On Mars Following Software Upgrade Curiosity' software runs on Wind River's VxWorks

 

NASA engineers upgrade software on Curiosity to let six-wheeled vehicle cruise longer distances on surface of Mars and make use of robotic arm.

 

By Dan Taylor  InformationWeek

September 01, 2012 08:36 AM

 

 

NASA's Curiosity rover made its fourth trek on Aug. 30, a short 70-foot drive on its way to a destination on Mars where it will conduct science experiments using its drill and other instruments.

Curiosity landed on Mars on Aug. 5 (Pacific time), and the six-wheeled vehicle was made ready to roll after NASA engineers upgraded its on-board flight software with a new version, release 10, that's optimized for traveling long distances and making use of Curiosity's robotic arm. Curiosity's R9 software, the ninth full upgrade since the program's inception, was oriented to flight and landing control.

 

"While on cruise to Mars, we updated the software in June, and we updated the surface software right when it landed," said Benjamin Clichy, chief software engineer for the Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

 

Written on Linux-based workstations, Curiosity' software runs on Wind River's VxWorks real-time operating system. The primary development environment is the Wind River Workbench. Software upgrades are beamed up to the rover through a series of signals sent from giant antennas in California, Spain, and Australia to orbiters circling Mars and then to the vehicle itself.  

 

R9 optimized the vehicle for landing, including the so-called "seven minutes of terror" when it plummeted through Mars' atmosphere. During that phase, the software executed some 300 autonomous actions, including firing 76 pyrotechnic devices that caused the vehicle to transition through 6 different configurations (cruise, entry, parachute, powered descent, sky crane, and rover). In addition to the pyrotechnic devices, the software managed eight descent thrusters and eight landing engines.

 

Curiosity's software allows NASA engineers to adapt the vehicle to the situation at hand, a requirement when exploring Mars' unknown terrain. "We're constantly looking at how the rover is performing," Clichy said. "When we landed on Mars, we didn't know what the surface was going to be like."

 

The R10 software "really unlocks the remaining potential" of the vehicle, Clichy said. The upgrade's capabilities help control the Rover's robotic arm, drill, and the rest of the system the enables the rover to collect and analyze rock samples in its on-board laboratories. While R9 included the basic capability to move the rover, R10 allows it to drive long distances.

 

The MSL team is working on R11, which should be complete in the next three months. That version will bring improvements to how the rover maneuvers and uses its tools. "With R11, it will really be able to upgrade to some advanced driving," Clichy said.

 

Navid Dehghani, ground systems manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said data management is an ongoing challenge. The MSL team has been transmitting a lot of data via a message bus (similar to the message bus in an enterprise IT environment) and "we have to really worry about how much data we were sending through the bus and tailor our messages so we don't overwhelm the whole system," he said.

 

The project utilizes a new MySQL-based system to process the large amount of raw and complex data that comes in from Curiosity. Called the Mission Data Processing and Control System (MPCS), it interfaces to NASA's Deep Space Network and processes data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other in-orbit systems. MPCS produces a tailored view of the data that is used by other flight operations teams, such as information on the power system.

 

The mission is slated to last one Mars year, the equivalent to two Earth years. "We're always going to keep learning," Clichy said. "It's an amazing piece of software."

 

Contributing writer Dan Taylor is managing editor of Inside the Navy.

 

Two Mars Rovers Search for Clues to Life

The hunt for past water on the Red Planet paved the way for a more challenging quest to find organics.

Irene Klotz
By Irene Klotz
Fri Aug 31, 2012 02:04 PM ET
The shadows of two generations of Mars rover: Opportunity (left) and Curiosity.

The shadows of two generations of Mars rover: Opportunity (left) and Curiosity. Click to enlarge this image.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity isn't the only vehicle driving on the Red Planet this week. A long-lived sibling rover is closing in on what may be its most scientifically interesting target since arriving on Mars more than eight years ago.

The golf-cart sized Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is expected to soon reach a patch of bedrock on the rim of Endeavour Crater, located on the opposite side of the planet from Curiosity's landing site. The rock is believe to contain clay minerals, which form in the presence of water.

Clays also are believed to exist in the lower layers of Mount Sharp, the three-mile high mound of sediment that rises from the floor of Gale Crater, where Curiosity touched down on Aug. 6.

PHOTOS: Curiosity's First Week On Mars

The timing is ironic, and possibly fortuitous. Opportunity, along with its twin rover Spirit, were only designed for 90-day missions to determine if their landing sites showed signs of past water.

The answers from both were a resounding "yes," paving the way for the much better equipped and more robust Curiosity geochemistry robot, which just began a two-year quest to assess the planet's potential for microbial life.

"One way I like to think about it is that Opportunity is the field geologist doing the exploration type of stuff, and Curiosity is the geologist who then takes samples back to his lab to do more detailed analysis on them," planetary scientist Diana Blaney, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News.

The different missions grew out of different, but complementary science goals.

BIG PIC: Mars Rover Snaps Stunning Self-Portrait

"When Spirit and Opportunity were built, we had places (on Mars) that we knew had had water, but we really didn't have any evidence for any place where water had been around doing chemistry on the surface for a long time.

"In that era the big questions were 'What is the history of water at these particular locations on Mars?'" Blaney said.

With its 10 science instruments and a two-year design life, Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, is intended to address two difficult follow-on questions: whether Mars had ingredients besides water, such as organics, necessary for life and whether it had the means to preserve it.

"The missions inform each other to a limited extent," said Cornell University's Steve Squyres, the lead scientist on the Opportunity mission and a participating investigator on Curiosity's.

BIG PIC: Mars Orbiter Snaps Rover's Crater Progress

"Obviously, both (Opportunity and Curiosity) are on Mars and we're interested in similar scientific questions with both. But they're very different landing sites and Mars is so variable in its character from one place to another that you have to be very cautious about taking results from one site and applying them to another," Squyres told Discovery News.

Opportunity and Spirit, which succumbed to the harsh Martian environment two years ago, also weren't designed to travel nearly as far as Curiosity. Though Opportunity has racked up 22 miles on its odometer, scientists had to plan for a mission to be conducted within about 550 yards of its landing site.

"We didn't know what we were going to see on the ground," said Blaney, a deputy project scientist on the Opportunity and Spirit missions.

With Curiosity, she added, scientists wanted to go to the place they believe had the best chance for preserving a record of habitability in the rocks.

"When you start dealing with habitability and the potential for life, you raise the bar for what kind of measurements you have to make," Blaney said. "You need more capable instruments. You have to be a lot more careful with contamination. It's just a harder measurement to make."

New Mars Curiosity Landscape Images Surprise Scientists

By Guy Norris guy_norris@aviationweek.com

 

 

 

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has returned images to earth of Martian geological features that are completely “unexpected” say mission scientists at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

 

A mosaic of high-definition images of Mount Sharp, the central peak dominating the landing site at Gale Crater, reveals tilted strata never before seen on Mars. The strata dip downwards at an angle close to that of the slope of the foothills of the 18,000-ft. tall mountain within which they are formed.

 

“The cool thing is the cameras have discovered something we were unaware of,” says mission chief scientist John Grotzinger. “This thing jumped out at us as being very different to what we expected,” he adds. Lying in the low-lying foothills beyond the dune field between the rover and the base of Mount Sharp, the inclined layers are a “spectacular feature” that could not be seen from orbit.

 

NASA is not yet willing to speculate in detail on the mechanics of the processes which created the landform. On earth such features are typically formed by tectonic, volcanic, sub-aqueous or wind-driven processes. The JPL team plans to use Curiosity’s stereoscopic mast cameras (Mastcam) to measure the precise angle of the dipping strata after a short 10-meter drive scheduled for Aug. 28, says Grotzinger. The new images were collected by the rover’s 100-millimeter telephoto lens and 34mm wide-angle lens.

 

“Then we’ll start driving and will execute a series of increasingly long drives in excess of 100 meters,” Grotzinger says. This will be “well away from the area we think was affected by the thrusters, and then we’ll head east as quickly as possible.” The rover has successfully demonstrated its ability to maneuver during a series of short moves around its present site, which was dubbed ‘Bradbury Landing’ by NASA as a tribute to the science fiction author Ray Bradbury who died earlier this year.

 

Mission planners also conducted the first science drive on Aug. 27 to study the bedrock exposed by the impingement made by one of the sky-crane’s thrusters as it lowered the rover to the surface. Although the science team initially expressed concerns about potential contamination from rocket chemical and heating effects, the scoured-out depression will be sampled with Curiosity’s Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument. This will fire neutrons into the ground to a measurable depth of around 20 in. below the rover in search of hydrogen atoms, and therefore signs of water. The results will be compared with readings already taken by the DAN over soil-covered areas in the Bradbury Landing area.

 

Preparations also continue for taking the first sample of the Martian atmosphere. “We are the nose of Curiosity” says SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) principal investigator Paul Mahaffy. During initial check out tests of SAM, scientists discovered the amount of air from earth’s atmosphere remaining in the instrument after launch was more than expected. As a result, a difference in pressure on either side of tiny pumps led SAM operators to stop pumping out the remaining air as a precaution. The pumps subsequently worked, and a chemical analysis was completed on a sample of earth air.

 

“As a test of the instrument, the results are beautiful confirmation of the sensitivities for identifying the gases present,” says Mahaffy, who adds the initial indication of methane caused a brief flurry of excitement until the terrestrial origins of the gas were recognized. Mahaffy, who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says “a few Sols down the road we’re looking forward to getting our first sniff of Mars atmosphere.”

 

The SAM is a key tool in Curiosity’s search for signs of life, past or present, and is more sensitive and sophisticated than the sensors on the Viking lander which came up negative for organics. The system is designed, for example, to examine a wider range of organic compounds and can therefore check a recent hypothesis that perchlorate - a reactive chemical discovered by the Phoenix Mars Mission – may have masked organics in soil samples taken by Viking.

 

Mars rover: Wind sensors damaged on Nasa's Curiosity

Wind probes Curiosity has two finger-like probes that hold sensors to measure wind speed and direction

Related Stories

Nasa has reported its first setback in the Curiosity rover mission to Mars.

Sensor circuits on the robot's weather station that take wind readings have sustained damage.

The mission team stresses this is not a major problem and will merely degrade some measurements - not prevent them.

It is not certain how the damage occurred but engineers suspect surface stones thrown up during Curiosity's rocket-powered landing may have struck the circuits and broken their wiring.

Nasa is describing the news as an isolated "disappointment" in what has otherwise been a spectacular start to the mission.

Javier Gomez-Elvira, the principal investigator on the broken instrumentation - the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (Rems) - said he was hopeful of finding a good way to get past the issue.

"We are working to recover as much functionality as possible," he told reporters.

Curiosity - Mars Science Laboratory

MSL (Nasa)
  • Mission goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life
  • Project costed at $2.5bn; will see initial surface operations lasting two Earth years
  • Onboard plutonium generators will deliver heat and electricity for at least 14 years
  • 75kg science payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier US Mars rovers
  • Equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, to scoop up, sort and sieve samples
  • Variety of analytical techniques to discern chemistry in rocks, soil and atmosphere
  • Will try to make first definitive identification of organic (carbon-rich) compounds
  • Even carries a laser to zap rocks; beam will identify atomic elements in rocks

Curiosity - also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL - touched down in the equatorial Gale Crater two weeks ago.

It will operate on Mars for at least two Earth years, looking for evidence that the planet may once have had the conditions suitable to host microbial life.

Engineers are close to completing their programme of post-landing check-outs on Curiosity.

This has involved powering up all of the machine's instruments, and it was during this testing that the problem was found on Rems.

The weather station is a Spanish contribution to the rover project.

It records air and ground temperature, air pressure and humidity, wind speed and direction, as well the amount of ultraviolet radiation falling on the surface.

These parameters are measured from sensors distributed around the rover, but a number are held on two finger-like mini-booms positioned halfway up the vehicle's camera mast. This is where the wind sensors are located.

The Rems team first noticed there was something wrong when readings from the side-facing boom were being returned saturated at high and low values.

Further investigation suggested small wires exposed on the sensor circuits were open, probably severed. It is permanent damage.

Tool turret The robot arm has been flexed

No-one can say for sure how this happened, but engineers are working on the theory that grit thrown on to the rover by the descent crane's exhaust plume cut the small wires.

"It degrades our ability to detect wind speed and direction when the wind is blowing from a particular direction, but we think we can work around that," said Curiosity's deputy project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada.

All the other Rems measurements look good.

Air temperatures in Gale Crater have been up to about 2.7C in the Martian afternoon, and down to minus 90C in the middle of the Martian night.

In general, the rover is in rude health. On Monday, it wiggled its front and back wheels to check its steering capability.

360 panorama

Mars rover

Commands will now be sent up to initiate the first drive.

"We're going to drive forward a few metres, turn in place about 90 degrees and then back up," said mission manager Mike Watkins. "We should make tracks."

Another major engineering milestone passed this week has been the unpacking of Curiosity's robotic arm.

It was flexed to exercise its joints. The arm holds a 30kg tool turret on its end that includes a drill to take powered samples from rocks.

 

Assuming Curiosity can find nothing noteworthy

NASA picks the next Mars flight to explore its core
Clearly the geologists are in charge!

         

SETH BORENSTEIN | August 20, 2012 06:34 PM EST | Associated Press

 

 

Because it was not sufficiently decontaminated, Curiosity is faced with a prime directive. It cannot approach any zone that seems like it might contain extant life. So what now?

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

WASHINGTON — After driving all around Mars with four rovers, NASA wants to look deep into the guts of the red planet.

 

The space agency decided Monday to launch a relatively low-cost robotic lander in 2016 to check out what makes the Martian core so different from Earth's.

 

NASA's Discovery program picked a project called Insight over missions to a Saturn moon and a comet, drawing complaints from scientists who study other places in our solar system that NASA is too focused on Mars.

 

All three proposed missions were good, but the Mars one showed the best chance of making it within budget and on schedule, said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld. The missions cost no more than $425 million.

 

The Insight mission includes two instruments, one French and one German, that would examine the geology of Mars in depth. It would explore the core's size, composition, temperature and wobble.

 

The interior of Mars is a mystery. It has no magnetic field, and scientists aren't sure if the core is solid or liquid or even has frequent quakes like Earth.

 

"What kind of Mars quakes are there? How big is the core of Mars? Does it have remnants of a molten core like the Earth does?" asked Discovery program chief Lindley Johnson.

 

 

 

Geologists have been asking for this type of crucial information for decades, said H. Jay Melosh of Purdue University, who said it was about time a project like this was approved.

 

The mission will be run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The California lab is basking in the success of the $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity rover, which is starting to explore the planet's surface after a daring landing this month. Earlier this year, NASA pulled out of two Mars missions with the European Space Agency because it didn't have the $1.4 billion for the proposed 2016 and 2018 mission.

 

NASA is still working on another possible Mars mission to replace the canceled ones with a decision later this month.

 

That's just "too much emphasis on Mars in our current plans for planetary exploration," said Carolyn Porco, a prominent scientist who studies Saturn and its moons. "Most of the solar system resides beyond the orbits of the asteroids. There is more to learn there about general planetary processes than on Mars ... Why more Mars?"

 

Mars beat out missions to explore Saturn's moon Titan and its odd methane oceans and a mission to land on a comet as it nears the sun. Opponents of more Mars msissions say that NASA hasn't approved missions to the other outer planets or a comet since a Pluto mission was picked in 2001.

 

 

 

 

. ..

 

JPL seems to be hurried keeping Curiosity in the Headlines

We asked JPL for a pre-launch schedule of Curiosity activity with the expectation that JPL planned to linger far longer during the shake down, than is happening how. If JPL has succombed to pressure to make Curiosity headlines by, say, zapping a nearby rock, it won't be the first time. But it could be a risky strategy. In either case, here is how it will work if they are no just winging it.

 

MSLICE

 

 

 

The Mars Science InterfaCE (MSLICE) – pronounced "EM-slice" – is a collaborative effort between NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, (JPL) Pasadena, Calif.

The Human Computer Interaction Group at Ames led the planning component of the MSLICE system, enabling mission scientists and engineers to prepare the hundreds of daily activities for the rover to perform. The planning software ensures that mission scientists can work closely withboth rover and instrument engineers to create a plan that will maximize scientific data and be safe for the rover to perform.
By allowing scientists to understand how long Curiosity’s activities will take to perform, whatinstruments to use, and what resources the activities will consume, the scientists can focus on science, while supporting the generation of complexactivity plans.

“Each day, [Mars Science Laboratory] scientists and engineers will be under time pressure to make sense of the data that is sent back from the rover and to plan what the rover should do the next day on Mars,” said Joy Crisp, Curiosity deputy project scientist at JPL. “MSLICE is the collaborative software tool that will enable our team of hundreds of scientists and engineers to view data products from Mars, select targets, prepare rover activities and command sequences that meet all of the constraints we have. We will be relying heavily on this tool.”

"The MSLICE developers have created a clean and intuitive interface between we humans and our wonderfully complex machine on Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity at JPL. “With MSLICE, our 400 scientists around the world can quickly view the latest data, share results with each other, plan the rover's activities within the available resources, and generate detailed commands to send to the rover. It's an amazing tool that enables us to be scientists onMars, and not programmers."

Engineers in the Human Systems Integration Division and the Intelligent Systems Division contributed to the design and development of the planning system. To build MSLICE,
Ames and JPL engineers used Open Source Software, including Eclipse, Java from Oracle, and Rhino from Mozilla, among others.

Footage of the MSLICE software

 


Download the Video here:

http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=149710111



More Resources:

Ames' contributions page
Ames MSL press kit

Antares

The Mars Science Laboratory Mission (MSL) Curiosity rover has a suite of scientific instruments and sensors onboard that include four science cameras: two "Mastcam" mast-mounted remote sensing cameras, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) microscope mounted at the end of the rover's Robotic Arm (RA), and the MArs Descent Imager (MARDI), a chassis-mounted descent imager. A team of engineers and computer scientists at Ames, in collaboration with Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), San Diego, Calif., and JPL have provided the Mastcam, MAHLI, and MARDI (MMM) science teams with interactive 3D visualization and simulation software, dubbed "Antares," for the development of MMM instrument command sequences, situational awareness, and to better understand the rover’s surroundings.

To operate Curiosity from Earth requires mission scientists and engineers to synthesize an understanding of the rover's state and environment from remote sensor and science instrument data. An approximately 15 minute communications delay, due to the distance between Earth and Mars and the limited high-bandwidth communication windows to orbiting satellites, compounds the difficulty of rover operations. Because of this, careful “offline” planning of activities is necessary to mitigate risk and enhance productivity.

Ames' Antares software provides a number of capabilities that enhance the MMM science teams ability to comprehend the operational environment and productively plan image acquisition command sequences, including:

·                                 Interactive 3D visualization of reconstructed Mars Digital Terrain Models (DTMs) and Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) covering a large range of scales (sub-millimeter to kilometer)

·                                 Interactive command sequence editing to allow users to edit camera command parameters all the while previewing a simulation of what the new images will look like

·                                 Terrain following – or the simulation’s ability to virtually display the rover’s progress as its wheels move across the Martian terrain

·                                 Robotic Arm inverse kinematics that allow users to use a computer mouse to position and point the MAHLI camera at the end of the robotic arm

·                                 Camera view visualizations to predict what the rover will see at a new location before it arrives there Interactive simulation of shadows based on the time-of-day on Mars

·                                 Measurement tools, including a ruler distance, location, and heading, as well as coordinate grids

·                                 Terrain overlays such as maps that display false color slopes and elevations


The Ames Antares team also provides the
MMM team the capability to derive data products using images to augment other imaging data products produced by JPL. Examples of image data products include terrain models (DTMs and DEMs), which are generated using a stereo correlation technique to calculate the 3D positions of objects and a sense of distance. It's similar to the way humans’ vision works. Other examples, include:

·                                 Aligned and merged DTMs and DEMs from multiple locations

·                                 Panoramas created using a mosaic of images

The Ames team also developed a data services architecture to support operations with a distributed science team. Due to the mission’s two year duration, science team members and instrument staff will be distributed at various institutions for the majority of the mission – the science team will only be collocated at JPL for the first three months.


 

 

Find this article at:

 

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/msl_operations.html

Curiosity Zaps First Martian Rock


August 19, 2012:  NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has fired its laser for the first time on Mars. On Aug. 19th the mission's ChemCam instrument hit a fist-sized rock named "Coronation" with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10-second period. Each pulse delivers more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second.

The energy from the laser creates a puff of ionized, glowing plasma. ChemCam catches the light with a telescope and analyzes it with three spectrometers for information about what elements are in the rock. The spectrometers record 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light.

"We got a great spectrum of Coronation -- lots of signal," said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!"

Curiosity Zaps a Rock (splash)
This composite image, with magnified insets, depicts the first laser test by the ChemCam, instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP [Full image and caption] [Latest images]

ChemCam recorded spectra from each of the 30 pulses. The goal of this initial use of the laser on Mars was to serve as target practice for characterizing the instrument, but the activity may provide additional value. Researchers will check whether the composition changed as the pulses progressed. If it did change, that could indicate dust or other surface material being penetrated to reveal different composition beneath the surface.

"It's surprising that the data are even better than we ever had during tests on Earth, in signal-to-noise ratio," said ChemCam Deputy Project Scientist Sylvestre Maurice of the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (IRAP) in Toulouse, France. "It's so rich, we can expect great science from investigating what might be thousands of targets with ChemCam in the next two years."

The technique used by ChemCam, called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, has been used to determine composition of targets in other extreme environments, such as inside nuclear reactors and on the sea floor, and has had experimental applications in environmental monitoring and cancer detection. Today's investigation of Coronation is the first use of the technique in interplanetary exploration.

More information about ChemCam is available at www.msl-chemcam.com .

RoboGeek Curiosity (I am) is off to Glenelg to meet the Thane of Knoydart

 

 

 

 (Aug. 17, 2012) — The scientists and engineers of NASA's Curiosity rover mission have selected the first driving destination for their one-ton, six-wheeled mobile Mars laboratory. The target area, named Glenelg after an obscure rugged area in Scotland, is a natural intersection of three kinds of terrain.

 

The choice was described by Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology during a media teleconference on Aug. 17.

"With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive," Grotzinger said. "We had a bunch of strong contenders.

 

It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars. That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration."

 

The trek to Glenelg will send the rover 1,300 feet (400 meters) east-southeast of its landing site. One of the three types of terrain intersecting at Glenelg is layered bedrock, which is attractive as the first drilling target.

 

"We're about ready to load our new destination into our GPS and head out onto the open road," Grotzinger said. "Our challenge is there is no GPS on Mars, so we have a roomful of rover-driver engineers providing our turn-by-turn navigation for us."

 

Prior to the rover's trip to Glenelg, the team in charge of Curiosity's Chemistry and Camera instrument, or ChemCam, is planning to give their mast-mounted, rock-zapping laser and telescope combination a thorough checkout. On Saturday night, Aug. 18, ChemCam is expected to "zap" its first rock in the name of planetary science. It will be the first time such a powerful laser has been used on the surface of another world.

 

"Rock N165 looks like your typical Mars rock, about three inches wide. It's about 10 feet away," said Roger Wiens, principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. "We are going to hit it with 14 millijoules of energy 30 times in 10 seconds. It is not only going to be an excellent test of our system, it should be pretty cool too."

 

Mission engineers are devoting more time to planning the first roll of Curiosity. In the coming days, the rover will exercise each of its four steerable (front and back) wheels, turning each of them side-to-side before ending up with each wheel pointing straight ahead. On a later day, the rover will drive forward about one rover-length (10 feet, or 3 meters), turn 90 degrees, and then kick into reverse for about 7 feet (2 meters).

 

"There will be a lot of important firsts that will be taking place for Curiosity over the next few weeks, but the first motion of its wheels, the first time our roving laboratory on Mars does some actual roving, that will be something special," said Michael Watkins, mission manager for Curiosity from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

 

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft delivered Curiosity to its target area on Mars at 10:31:45 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31:45 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6), which included the 13.8 minutes needed for confirmation of the touchdown to be radioed to Earth at the speed of light.

 

The audio and visuals of the teleconference are archived and available for viewing at: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl

 

.

 


With 10% the computing capacity of a 2012 cell phone, 
Jet Propulsion Laboratory is cleaning out old programs
and programming Curiosity Rover to actually conduct
its assigned movement and science functions
Traces of Landing
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Image
 

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will spend its first weekend on Mars transitioning to software better suited for tasks ahead, such as driving and using its strong robotic arm.The rover's "brain transplant," which will occur during a series of steps Aug. 10 through Aug. 13, will install a new version of software on both of the rover's redundant main computers.
 
Some of this software for Mars surface operations was uploaded to the rover's memory during the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's flight from Earth.
 
"We designed the mission from the start to be able to upgrade the software as needed for different phases of the mission," said Ben Cichy of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., chief software engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
 
 "The flight software version Curiosity currently is using was really focused on landing the vehicle. It includes many capabilities we just don't need any more. It gives us basic capabilities for operating the rover on the surface, but we have planned all along to switch over after landing to a version of flight software that is really optimized for surface operations."
 
A key capability in the new version is image processing to check for obstacles. This allows for longer drives by giving the rover more autonomy to identify and avoid potential hazards and drive along a safe path the rover identifies for itself.
 
Other new capabilities facilitate use of the tools at the end of the rover's robotic arm.
 
While Curiosity is completing the software transition, the mission's science team is continuing to analyze images the rover has taken of its surroundings inside Gale Crater. Researchers are discussing which features in the scene to investigate after a few weeks of initial checkouts and observations to assess equipment on the rover and characteristics of the landing site.
 
 NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were among the four NASA craft operating on Mars that could find no traces of organic carbon, an essential for life and a common element throughout the solar system including earth and recently visited comets.
 
Curiosity brings better tools than those on board the earlier rovers and the Viking landers. Some of the tools, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks' elemental composition from a distance, are the first of their kind on Mars.
 
Curiosity will use a drill and scoop, which are located at the end of its robotic arm, to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into the rover's analytical laboratory instruments.
 
To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity.
 
The Gale Crater landing site at 4.59 degrees south, 137.44 degrees east, places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater's interior mountain.
 
Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.
 
Mars Science Laboratory is a project of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The mission is managed by JPL. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.For more about NASA's Curiosity mission, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/mars and http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl .Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity
and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity .
All Related Images
Zeroing in on Rover's Landing Site
Zeroing in on Rover's Landing Site
Inspecting Curiosity's Descent Stage Crash Site
Inspecting Curiosity's Descent Stage Crash Site
Landing Accuracy on Mars: A Historical Perspective
Landing Accuracy on Mars: A Historical Perspective
 
 
The Entry, Descent and Landing War Room
The Entry, Descent and Landing War Room
Witnessing the Descent Stage Crash?
Witnessing the Descent Stage Crash?

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SAM: NASA’s Attempt to Repeat Viking’s Search for Martian Organics

 

by David Warmflash on May 3, 2012

 

 

After 36 years of debate, confusion, and failed attempts by other space agencies to answer a basic question, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is on its way to repeat the search for organic matter that eluded the two Viking probes.

 

MSL will touch down at the Gale Crater the largest vehicle delivered to our neighboring planet thus far. Weighing in at 900 kg, Curiosity is nearly five times as large as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed eight years ago, and more than 1.5 times as large as each Viking lander that arrived on planet in 1976.

 

Like the Vikings and Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity was conceived and launched, largely to gather information that may tell us whether the Red Planet harbors microbial life. Instrumentation launched for in situ analysis has been advancing steadily since the Viking era, yet each chapter in the story of the search for Martian life builds upon the previous ones.

 

Though usually mentioned only briefly in the days when Spirit and Opportunity were making headlines, the twin Viking landers were amazing craft, not only for their time, but even for today. The instrument suite of each Viking lander included a suite of three biology experiments, instruments designed for the direct detection of microbes, should the regolith at either of the two Viking landing sites contain any. While subsequent landing craft have carried instruments designed to assess Mars’ potential for life, none since the Project Viking has been built to look for Martian life forms directly.

 

According to Viking investigator Gilbert Levin, the Viking landers already discovered Martian life. Back in 1976-1977, Levin’s instrument, known as the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, yielded positive results at Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, the two Viking landing sites. When treated with a solution containing small, organic chemicals labeled with radioactive carbon, regolith samples taken at the landing sites released a gas, indicated by an increase in radioactivity in the space above the sample.

 

While Levin believes the gas is carbon dioxide resulting from the oxidation of the organic chemicals, it’s also conceivable that the chemicals were reduced to another gas, methane. Either way, since heating the samples to a temperature high enough to kill most of the microbes that we know on Earth prevented the gas release, the Viking science team concluded initially that the LR had detected life.

 

Most of the science team, but not Levin, decided that the gas release in the LR must have resulted from a non-biological chemical reaction. This rethinking was due to variety of factors, but the most important of which was that the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) of each lander failed to detect organic matter in the samples. As the late Carl Sagan explained it on his television series, Cosmos, “If there is life on Mars, where are the dead bodies?”

 

While most astrobiologists and planetary scientists do not agree with Levin that the results of his 36 year-old experiment constitute conclusive evidence for Martian life, there is a growing number of Mars scientists who are equivocal on the issue. According to Levin, Sagan moved into the equivocal category in 1996, after astrobiologist David McKay and colleagues published a paper in the journal Science describing fossilized life in meteorite ALH84001, one of a handful of meteorites known to be from Mars.

 

 

The SAM experiment.

Traveling within Curiosity’s enormous instrument package is a suite of machines called SAM, which stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars”. After all of these years, SAM represents NASA’s first attempt to repeat Viking’s search for Martian organics, but with more advanced technology.

 

This is not to say that other attempts were not made during the intervening years. In 1996, the Russian Federal Space Agency launched a Mars-bound probe carrying not only organic chemistry equipment but an upgraded version of Levin’s experiment. Rather than treating regolith samples with a mixture of “right-handed” and “left-handed” forms of organic substrates (known in chemistry as racemic mixtures), the new LR would have treated some samples with a left-handed substrate (L-cysteine) and others with the substrate’s mirror image (D-cysteine).

 

Had results been the same for L- and D-cysteine, a non-biological mechanism would have seemed all the more likely. However, if the active agent in the Martian regolith favored one compound at the expense of the other, this would indicate life. Even more intriguing: if the active agent favored D-cysteine, it would have suggested an origin of life on Mars separate from the origin of life on Earth, since terrestrial life forms use mostly left-handed amino acids. Such a result would suggest that life originates fairly easily, implying a cosmos teaming with living forms.

 

But Russia’s Mars ’96 probe crashed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after liftoff. A few years later, the European Space Agency sent Beagle 2 to Mars, carrying an advanced organic detection package, but this probe too was lost.

 

While Curiosity’s SAM does not include an LR experiment of any sort, it does have organic matter detection capability that can operate in mass spectrometry (MS), or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS-MS) mode. In addition to being able to detect certain classes of organic compounds that the Viking GCMS would have missed in surface material, SAM also is designed to look for methane in the Martian atmosphere. Though atmospheric methane already has been detected already from orbit, detailed measurements of its concentration and fluctuations will help astrobiologists to determine whether the source is methane-producing microorganisms.

 

David Warmflash, M.D., is an astrobiologist and science lead for the U.S. team of the Planetary Society's Phobos Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment. Follow him on Twitter @CosmicEvolution

 

 

How Curiosity could prove we actually found life on Mars in the Seventies

By Damien Gayle

PUBLISHED:| UPDATED:

 

The Curiosity Rover is not officially on Mars to search for signs of life, but one scientist hopes its findings will prove his claim to have found organic material there in nearly 30 years ago.

Gilbert Levin - who led the 'labelled release' experiment on Nasa's 1976 Viking mission to the Red Planet - is hoping that Curiosity will find evidence proving his claim to have found carbon-based molecules there.

If it does, he is ready to demand that his refuted discovery of life on Mars is reinstated.

Is there life on Mars? One scientist hopes the Curiosity rover can add weight to his claim to have discovered organic material on the planet nearly 30 years ago

Dr Levin, a former sanitary engineer, in 1976 led an experiment which mixed Martian soil with a nutrient containing radioactive carbon.

His hypothesis was that if bacteria were present in the soil, they would metabolise the nutrient and release some of the digested molecules as carbon dioxide.

 

More...

To the delight of Dr Levin and his team, the experiment did find that carbon dioxide was released - and that it contained radioactive carbon atoms. Their celebrations were cut short however after a sister experiment contradicted their findings.

The Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer on the Viking module was also looking for carbon-based molecules, but found none. Nasa chiefs ruled that life could not exist without these modules, and declared Dr Levin's findings refuted.

Robert Hazen, a geophysical scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC told New Scientist: 'Nasa powers that be concluded that the lack of organics trumped the positive labelled release experiment.'

However, since then, some of the team who carried out the GCMS experiment have admitted their apparatus was not sensitive enough to detect organic molecules - even in Earth soils known to contain microbes.

Now, if Curiosity does find organic molecules, Dr Levin wants a reanalysis of his original data.

'I'm very confident that MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) will find the organics and possibly that the cameras will even see something,' he told New Scientist.

Dr Hazen says that the claim holds some water, since it had been widely accepted that Dr Levin's findings could only have been seen if microbial metabolisms were present in the Martian soil.

'If you can't explain that through an obvious inorganic process, then it follows that microbial life is a real possibility,' he added.



Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2185913/How-Curiosity-prove-actually-life-Mars-Seventies.html#ixzz234VcVXiW

 

They are that good! MSL descends to Mars
Use the search function to find clean, streightforward explanations for the activities and processes, devices and geological terms you will encounter covering MSL

This picture was taken through a wide-angle lens on rover's rear Hazard-Avoidance camera. It's only one-quarter of full resolution.As planned, the rover's early engineering images are lower resolution. Larger color images are expected later in the week when the rover's mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed.

Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. PDT Aug. 5, (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) inside Gale Crater near the foot of a layered mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the mountain's lower layers, indicating a wet history. For the next two years (at least) the rover will search the layers for ancient habitats that might have supported Martian microbial life.

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments. Some are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the chemical make-up of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity.

Curiosity's First Triumph: Surviving Solar Storms

 

 

 

August 2, 2012:  When Curiosity enters the Martian atmosphere on August 6th, setting

 in motion "the seven minutes of terror" that people around the world have anticipated

since launch a year ago, the intrepid rover will actually be performing the mission's

second daredevil stunt.

The first was completed in July when NASA shut down
MSL
’s radiation detector,

 satisfied that the space craft had endured and survived an unprecedented bombardment

of solar radiation.

For the past nine months, Curiosity has been acting as a stunt double for astronauts,

exposing itself to the same cosmic radiation humans would experience following the

same route to Mars1.

"Curiosity has been hit by five major flares and solar particle events in the Earth-Mars

expanse," says Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

 "The rover is safe, and it has been beaming back invaluable data."

Curiosity traveled to Mars in the belly of a space capsule akin to human-crewed capsules.

Unlike previous Mars rovers, Curiosity is equipped with an instrument that measures

space radiation. The Radiation Assessment Detector, nicknamed "RAD," counts cosmic

 rays, neutrons, protons and other particles over a wide range of biologically-interesting

 energies. RADs prime mission is to investigate the radiation environment on the surface

 of Mars, but NASA turned it on during the cruise phase so that it could sense radiation

en route to Mars as well.

Curiosity’s location inside the spacecraft is key to the experiment.

"Curiosity is riding to Mars in the belly of the spacecraft, similar to where an astronaut

would be," explains Hassler, RAD's principal investigator.  "This means the rover

absorbs deep-space radiation storms the same way a real astronaut would."

Even supercomputers have trouble calculating exactly what happens when high-energy

cosmic rays and solar energetic particles hit the walls of a spacecraft.  One particle hits

 another; fragments fly; the fragments themselves crash into other molecules.

"It’s very complicated.  Curiosity has given us a chance to measure what happens in a

real-life situation"

RAD charged particle flux observations during ~7 months of cruise included

contributions from 5 solar energetic particle events.

 

 

 

 

 

NASA is carefully and wisely setting a by-the numbers stage for the potential loss of the Mars Science Laboratory. It may be lost already. It has disappeared from the screen!

 

The number one risk is an X class solar flare, a coronal mass ejection that nothing mechanical can withstand. It is a possibility. It almost happened July 2.  But the risk for the MSL is reduced by the 40 days left on the MSL mission.

 
However, without explanation, the MSL has been removed from the display of CME threats provided by NASA. We can still see Mars, earth and the other satellites. But the MSL has disappeared. Look at the June image above and click on the current link.

 

 Look at the illustration above.

 

You will notice that the red cube that identifies the location of the MSL, which is very close to the red Mars orb, is no longer displayed. Why?

It may be that the solar storm is approaching X level so that either the spacecraft is at risk or has been destroyed or the Mars surface is at risk, with the atmosphere damaged so substantially that the landing plans will not work, or the solar storm will damage the earth satellite system, constraining communication.

 

Here is what Goddard says about the possible damage to spacecraft and space travelers and the earth from severe solar storms:

 

Solar Radiation Storms

Flux level of >= 10 MeV particles (ions)*

Number of events when flux level was met (number of storm days**)

S 5

Extreme

Biological: unavoidable high radiation hazard to astronauts on EVA (extra-vehicular activity); passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk.***

Satellite operations: satellites may be rendered useless, memory impacts can cause loss of control, may cause serious noise in image data, star-trackers may be unable to locate sources; permanent damage to solar panels possible.

Other systems: complete blackout of HF (high frequency) communications possible through the polar regions, and position errors make navigation operations extremely difficult.

105

Fewer than 1 per cycle

S 4

Severe

Biological: unavoidable radiation hazard to astronauts on EVA; passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk.***

Satellite operations: may experience memory device problems and noise on imaging systems; star-tracker problems may cause orientation problems, and solar panel efficiency can be degraded.

Other systems: blackout of HF radio communications through the polar regions and increased navigation errors over several days are likely.

104

3 per cycle

S 3

Strong

Biological: radiation hazard avoidance recommended for astronauts on EVA; passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk.***

Satellite operations: single-event upsets, noise in imaging systems, and slight reduction of efficiency in solar panel are likely.

Other systems: degraded HF radio propagation through the polar regions and navigation position errors likely.

 

 

 

 

Whatever the reason MSL has disappeared from the solar threat watch scenario previously presented by NASA. Here is an option that NASA has offered recenlty, through a back channel.

 

Stellar Flare Blasts Exoplanet

June 28, 2012: An international team of astronomers using data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has made an unparalleled observation, detecting significant changes in the atmosphere of a planet located beyond our solar system.

The scientists conclude the atmospheric variations occurred in response to a powerful eruption on the planet's host star, an event observed by NASA's Swift satellite.  The stellar flare, which hit the planet like 3 million X-flares from our own sun, blasted material from the planet's atmosphere at a rate of at least 1,000 tons per second.

 

This artist's rendering illustrates the evaporation of HD 189733b's atmosphere in response to a powerful eruption from its host star. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope detected the escaping gases and NASA's Swift satellite caught the stellar flare. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

"The multiwavelength coverage by Hubble and Swift has given us an unprecedented view of the interaction between a flare on an active star and the atmosphere of a giant planet," said lead researcher Alain Lecavelier des Etangs at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics (IAP), part of the French National Scientific Research Center located at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

 

The exoplanet is HD 189733b, a gas giant similar to Jupiter, but about 14 percent larger and more massive. The planet circles its star at a distance of only 3 million miles or about 30 times closer than Earth's distance from the sun, and completes an orbit every 2.2 days. Its star, named HD 189733A, is about 80 percent the size and mass of our sun.

Astronomers classify the planet as a "hot Jupiter." Previous Hubble observations show that the planet's deep atmosphere reaches a temperature of about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,030 C).

 

A movie from the Goddard Space Flight Center explores the planet-blasting stellar flare. Play it

HD 189733b periodically passes across, or transits, its parent star, and these events give astronomers an opportunity to probe its atmosphere and environment. In a previous study, a group led by Lecavelier des Etangs used Hubble to show that hydrogen gas was escaping from the planet's upper atmosphere. The finding made HD 189733b only the second-known "evaporating" exoplanet at the time.

The system is just 63 light-years away, so close that its star can be seen with binoculars near the famous Dumbbell Nebula. This makes HD 189733b an ideal target for studying the processes that drive atmospheric escape.

 

"Astronomers have been debating the details of atmospheric evaporation for years, and studying HD 189733b is our best opportunity for understanding the process," said Vincent Bourrier, a doctoral student at IAP and a team member on the new study.

In April 2010, the researchers observed a single transit using Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), but they detected no trace of the planet's atmosphere. Follow-up observations in September 2011 showed a surprising reversal, with striking evidence that a plume of gas was streaming away from the exoplanet at 300,000 mph. At least 1,000 tons of gases were leaving the planet's atmosphere every second.

 

This turn of events was explained by data from Swift's X-ray Telescope. On Sept. 7, 2011, just eight hours before Hubble was scheduled to observe the transit, Swift was monitoring the star when it unleashed a powerful flare.

 

"The planet's close proximity to the star means it was struck by a blast of X-rays tens of thousands of times stronger than the Earth suffers even during an X-class solar flare, the strongest category," said co-author Peter Wheatley, a physicist at the University of Warwick in England. After accounting for the planet's enormous size, the team notes that HD 189733b encountered about 3 million times as many X-rays as Earth receives from a solar flare at the threshold of the X class.

These findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

 

 

Here is another set of options NASA has offered through another back channel:

 

Six reasons the Mars Science Laboratory 'Curiosity' could fail before its mission begins from Catholic Online!

6/27/2012

           By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)

           6/27/2012

           Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

 

 

 

 

#1. Human error - Whether it's failing to convert imperial units to metric or sending the wrong command to the craft, humans probably represent the greatest threat to the mission. Humans are an essential component in any space mission. No matter how automated and autonomous a spacecraft is, human interaction is always necessary at some point, and to err is quintessentially human.

 

In fact, most of the above failures are the result of human mistakes, or a lack of understanding. Sadly, errors in human judgment aren't limited to unmanned missions tens of millions of miles away. The losses of shuttles Challenger and Endeavour were at least

Exploration of the Red Planet is fraught with hazard.

The Mars Science Laboratory, a.k.a. Curiosity, is about to touch down on Mars. On earth, NASA scientists and researchers are waiting the event, set firmly for August 6, with bated breath. And they have good reason to be a bit nervous; slightly more than half of all attempted Mars missions have ended in failure for reasons as simple as a mix-up between metric and imperial units.

 

Here are six reasons why the Curiosity mission could fail before the science even starts.

 

 

#6. Bad weather - Scientists on Earth have a hard enough time predicting Earth weather, and it's all the more difficult to predict weather on a planet millions of miles away. Mars is notorious for long, cold winters and dust storms that can blanket the entire planet. While the mission is scheduled to land during a good weather period, anything can happen. Previous landers have suffered reduction in capability due to dust coating their solar panels. The already feeble sunlight cannot penetrate a very thick layer of dust, which is the eventual doom of all solar-powered Mars rovers.

 

However, Curiosity has its own internal power supply so it will not need to worry about dust storms cutting off its electricity. Still, static charges, extra-cold weather, and fine dust particles can still wreak havoc on the craft, especially over the long term. Unfortunately, bad weather is the least of Curiosity's worries.

 

  

#5. Getting stuck - The surface of Mars is sandy and rocky which makes it difficult for rovers to move on the surface. The most famous example is the Mars Spirit rover, which despite its amazing success, eventually got stuck on the planet and engineers were unable to free the craft. Scientists have a good idea how to drive on Mars and choose their routes meticulously. In addition, Curiosity has much larger wheels than its predecessors, making successful maneuvers more likely. However, the possibility remains that the lander could get stuck. And getting stuck could put an early end to a very expensive mission.

 

#4. Instrument failure - Should Curiosity safely land, the mission won't be out of danger. The possibility of hardware or software failure remains a concern. Several missions to Mars have suffered instrument failures. While the most common instrument failure seems to be failures of communication equipment, scientific instruments can fail too. A failed boom or probe or a broken instrument can kill at least one key component of a scientific mission. The more instruments there are, the more complications, and the more possibility of breakage, and Curiosity is packed with instruments.

 

Other famous examples include the failure of Skylab's solar panels to deploy properly and the mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope. Luckily in those cases, astronauts were able to intervene directly and conduct repairs. That won't be possible for Curiosity.

 

#3. Communications failure - The distance between Earth and Mars varies greatly (between 36 and 250 million miles!) Earth regularly catches up to, then overtakes and leaves behind the red planet as both orbit the Sun at different periods. The Martian year is almost 687 Earth-days long. As the separation between the two planets changes, so does the amount of time needed to communicate with the orbiters and landers there. Messages can arrive in as little as three minutes or take as long as 22.

 

In addition to distance, the both planets are rotating with craft frequently passing behind Mars (from our perspective) and being unable to communicate. In fact, any number of dynamic factors can interrupt communications.

 

Communications failures claim space missions from time to time. At least seven of the 49 attempted Mars missions have been lost due to communication difficulties that couldn't be overcome. A number of other satellites sent into space have also been lost because of communication problems.

 

A number of things cause these failures, but the extreme nature of space is certainly a factor. Although satellites are built to withstand the harsh space environment, a number of things can go wrong. The extreme forces of launch, the deep freeze of space, or blasts of solar radiation can break, freeze, or fry electronics. The impact of landing can be worse than expected and something can come lose. Or get stuck. The most famous example of this was the Galileo mission to Jupiter. The orbiter's high-gain antenna became stuck and never fully deployed. Luckily, engineers were able to come up with a solution by repurposing the satellite's low-gain antenna to transmit scientific data. While speculation abounds, nobody will likely know the real reason why the antenna became stuck.

 

Until Curiosity is on the ground transmitting data, communications failure is a real possibility.

 

#2. Surface crash - Not counting the probes that failed to even attempt landings because of various problems, five of the 49 previous missions have ended in a man-made impact crater on the surface of Mars. The precise nature of each crash remains unknown but all can partially ascribed to human error in judgment. And if manned spacecraft can be lost just miles above the surface of the Earth, imagine a lander that's so far away it takes several minutes to communicate with it.

The Curiosity rover is certainly a well designed, quality built, and carefully managed mission. The best and brightest minds have labored over how to land a fully functional scientific laboratory on Mars and how to conduct scientific experiments to help unlock the secrets of the Red Planet. If any mission enjoys strong odds of success, it is this one. However, lest we be emboldened too much by hubris, it is important to remember that other, carefully crafted and less ambitious missions have failed.

 

Until we have the hard data and images in our hands and the science is complete, it will be premature to declare success. In the meantime all we can do is hope and trust that this multimillion dollar project provides a return on investment paid in knowledge and understanding beyond our greatest imaginings.

 

Life on Mars? These scientists say 99 percent yes!

 

Learn more about the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity from the official JPL/NASA website!

 

 

June 27, 2012

Mission Status Report Odyssey back on duty

 

 

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter has resumed its science observations and its role as a Mars rover's relay, thanks to a spare part that had been waiting 11 years to be put to use.

Odyssey's flight team returned the orbiter to full service this week after a careful two-week sequence of activities to recover from a fault that put Odyssey into reduced-activity "safe" mode. Odyssey switched to safe mode when one of the three primary reaction wheels used for attitude control stuck for a few minutes on June 8, Universal Time (June 7, Pacific Time).

Engineers assessed the sticking wheel as unreliable and switched the spacecraft from that one to a spare that had been unused since before the mission's April 7, 2001, launch.

"Odyssey is now back in full, nominal operation mode using the replacement wheel," said Steve Sanders, lead engineer for the Odyssey team at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. Lockheed Martin collaborates with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in operation of Odyssey, which has worked at Mars longer than any other Mars mission in history.

Observations of Mars resumed June 25 with Odyssey's Thermal Emission Imaging System and its Gamma Ray Spectrometer. As a relay, Odyssey received data from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity today, June 27, and transmitted the data to Earth. Other priority activities include preparing Odyssey to serve as a communications relay for NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Odyssey uses a set of three reaction wheels to control its attitude, or which way it is facing relative to the sun, Earth or Mars. Increasing the rotation rate of a reaction wheel causes the spacecraft itself to rotate in the opposite direction. The configuration in use from launch until this m