NASA’s Curiosity Rover Just Licked A Mountain

Curiosity's view of Mount Sharp, taken with the MastCam on Sept. 9th, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since it first landed on the surface of Mars on August 6th, 2012, the science team behind the Curiosity rover has conducted some crucial experiments. In the course of collecting rock samples, testing the air, and searching for organic molecules, the rover has revealed some very impressive things about Mars’ past.

After months of exploring the slopes around Mount Sharp, which sits in the ancient lake basin known as the Gale Crater, the rover team has been drilling into the formation see what’s hidden beneath. And with drill samples now obtained from Mount Sharp’s lower levels, the Curiosity team hopes to learn a great deal more about the planet’s ancient history.

For years, scientists have understood that Mount Sharp is essentially a giant mound of sedimentary deposits that were deposited by water billions of years ago. These sediment layers are believed to have been laid down over the course of 2 billion years, and most likely came into contact with the water that filled the crater 3.3. to 3.8 billion years ago.

As Ashwin Vasavada, the Deputy Project Scientist of the Curiosity mission at JPL, explained to Universe Today via email:

Aeolis Mons, known informally as Mount Sharp, is the central mountain within Gale crater where Curiosity landed.  It was chosen as Curiosity’s landing site because the mountain and the nearby plains have evidence for ancient liquid water in the form of channels and debris fans, as well as minerals that form when liquid water interacts with rock.  Furthermore, the layers within lower Mount Sharp change in mineralogy in a way that indicates that they may record the drying out of Mars: lower and older layers indicate more water, while higher and younger layers indicate less.

The drilling began late on Wednesday, Sept. 24th, when Curiosity’s hammering drill bore about 6.7 cm (2.6 inches) into Mount Sharp and collected a powdered-rock sample. Data and images of the drill sample were then received on the following morning (Thursday, Sept. 25th) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

With drill samples now obtained from the lower level of Mount Sharp, Curiosity will soon deposit them into a scoop in the rover’s arm. While there, the rock powder will be examined to see if it is safe and of proper quality to be analyzed by Curiosity’s internal laboratory instruments, which will determine its chemical and mineralogical properties.

And once that analysis is complete, the Curiosity team hopes to make some more major discoveries of the region, the ultimate purpose of which is to determine if life could have existed in the Gale Crater during its warmer, wetter past. As Vasavada explained:

“Now that water-rich ancient environments have been discovered and studied on the plains and in the lowest layers of Mount Sharp, the team in drilling additional samples from progressively higher and younger layers to see how the ancient environment changed over time. 

“The team also is searching for additional evidence of organic molecules that would help them understand whether the raw ingredients of life were present and how they degrade over time.  The degradation is important to understand for the M2020 Mars rover mission that will search for signatures of ancient microbial life.”

Since September 11th, 2014, Curiosity has been exploring the slopes of Mount Sharp. As of Sept. 19th, 2016, the rover arrived at a area called “Pahrump Hills,” a basalt rock outcropping located in the lower region of Mount Sharp (known as the Murray Formation).

On Sept. 22nd, the rover completed mini-drill test to make sure the rock was suitable for drilling. This took place in an area known as “Confidence Hills”, which proved to be soft enough to obtain rock samples. This was the second mini-drill test since last month, the previous one having found that the rock was not stable enough for drilling.

Looking forward, the team plans to drill regularly as the rover climbs higher and higher along Mount Sharp, in the process  accessing progressively younger layers of rock. In so doing, they will be able to create a comprehensive picture of how Mars evolved over time to become the dry and cold landscape it is today.

The team will also continue to use the rovers instruments to monitor the modern environment, including the weather and composition of the atmosphere to get a better picture of the planet’s meteorology today. Needless to say, this is not the last “taste” Curiosity will get of good ol’ Aeolis Mons!

Be sure to check this video too – “A Taste of Mount Sharp” – courtesy of NASA JPL:

https://youtu.be/QWaUCFccvPk

Further Reading: NASA

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Drilling at Unfathomable Alien Landscapes – All in a Sols (Day’s) Work for Curiosity

Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte  with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras.  This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Our beyond magnificent Curiosity rover has just finished her latest drilling campaign – at the target called “Quela” – into the simply unfathomable alien landscapes she is currently exploring at the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp. And it’s all in a Sols (or Martian Days’s) work for our intrepid Curiosity!

The “Murray Buttes” region is just chock full of the most stunning panoramic vistas that NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover has come upon to date.

They fill the latest incredible chapter in her thus far four year long quest to trek many miles (km) from the Bradbury landing site along the floor of Gale Crater to reach the base region of humongous Mount Sharp.

And these adventures are just a prelude to the even more glorious vistas she’ll investigate from now on – as she climbs higher and higher on an expedition to thoroughly examine the mountains sedimentary layers and unravel billions and billions of years of Mars geologic and climatic history.

Drilling holes into Mars during the Red Planet trek and carefully analyzing the pulverized samples with the rovers pair of miniaturized chemistry laboratories (SAM and CheMin) is the route to the answer of how and why Mars changes for a warmer and wetter planet in the ancient past to the cold, dry and desolate world we see today.

The rock target named “Quella” is located at the base of one of the buttes dubbed “Murray Butte number 12,” according to that latest mission update from Prof. John Bridges, a Curiosity rover science team member from the University of Leicester, England.

It took two tries to get the drilling done due to a technical issue, but all went well in the end and it was well worth the effort at a place never before explored by an emissary from Earth.

“The drill (successful at second attempt) is at Quela.”

The full depth drilling was completed on Sol 1464, Sept. 18, 2016 as confirmed by imaging. And that immediately provided valuable insight into climate change on Mars.

“You can see how red and oxidised the tailings are, suggesting changing environmental conditions as we progress through the Mt. Sharp foothills,” Bridges explained in the mission update.

To give you the context of the of the Murray Buttes region and the drilling at Quela, the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic landscape views and up close views of the drilling using raw images from a variety of the cameras at Curiosity’s disposal.

The next step after boring into Quela were to “sieve the new sample, dump the unsieved fraction, and drop some of the sieved sample into CheMin,” says Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“But first, ChemCam will acquire passive spectra of the Quela drill tailings and use its laser to measure the chemistry of the wall of the new drill hole and of bedrock targets “Camaxilo” and “Okakarara.” Right Mastcam images of these targets are also planned.”

“After sunset, MAHLI will use its LEDs to take images of the drill hole from various angles and of the CheMin inlet to confirm that the sample was successfully delivered. Finally, the APXS will be placed over the drill tailings for an overnight integration.”

The rover had approached the butte from the south side several sols earlier to get in place, plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

Sol after Sol the daily imagery transmitted back to eager researchers on Earth reveala spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes.

“These are the landforms that dominate the landscape at this point in the traverse – The Murray Buttes,” says Bridges.

What are the Murray Buttes?

“These are formed by a cap of hard aeolian rock that has been partially eroded back, overlying the Murray mudstone.”

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1470, September 24, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 355,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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‘Walk on Mars’ with Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin at Limited Engagement ‘Destination Mars’ Holographic Exhibit at KSC Center Visitor Complex

A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Buzz Aldrin and  NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with the Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL- Think a Holodeck adventure on Star Trek guided by real life Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and you’ll get a really good idea of what’s in store for you as you explore the surface of Mars like never before in the immersive new ‘Destination Mars’ interactive holographic exhibit opening to the public today, Monday, Sept.19.

The new exhibit was formally opened for business during a very special ribbon cutting ceremony featuring Buzz Aldrin as the star attraction – deftly maneuvering the huge ceremonial scissors during an in depth media preview and briefing on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, including Universe Today.

The fabulous new ‘Destination Mars’ limited engagement exhibit magically transports you to the surface of the Red Planet via Microsoft HoloLens technology.

It literally allows you to ‘Walk on Mars’ using real imagery taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover and explore the alien terrain, just like real life scientists on a geology research expedition.

“Technology like HoloLens leads us once again toward exploration,” Aldrin said during the Sept. 18 media preview. “It’s my hope that experiences like “Destination: Mars” will continue to inspire us to explore.”

Destination Mars was jointly developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – which manages the Curiosity rover mission for NASA, and Microsoft HoloLens.

Buzz was ably assisted at the grand ribbon cutting ceremony by Bob Cabana, former shuttle commander and current Kennedy Space Center Director, Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex, Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft, and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The experience is housed in a pop-up theater that only runs for the next three and a half months, until New Years Day, January 1, 2017.

Before entering the theater, you will be fitted with specially adjusted HoloLens headsets individually tailored to your eyes.

The entire ‘Destination Mars’ experience only lasts barely 8 minutes.
So, if you a lucky enough to get a ticket inside you’ll need to take advantage of every precious second to scan around from left and right and back, and top to bottom. Be sure to check out Mount Sharp and the rim of Gale Crater.

You’ll even be able to find a real drill hole that Curiosity bored into the Red Planet at Yellowknife Bay about six months after the nailbiting landing in August 2012.

During your experience you will be guided by Buzz and Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines of JPL. They will lead you to areas of Mars where the science team has made many breakthrough discoveries such as that liquid water once flowed on the floor of Curiosity’s Gale Crater landing site.

The scenes come to life based on imagery combining the Mastcam color cameras and the black and white navcam cameras, Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told Universe Today in an interview.

Among the surface features visited is Yellowknife Bay where Curiosity conducted the first interplanetary drilling and sampling on another planet in our Solar System. The sample were subsequently fed to and analyzed by the pair of miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin – inside the rovers belly.

They also guide viewers to “a tantalizing glimpse of a future Martian colony.”

“The technology that accomplishes this is called “mixed reality,” where virtual elements are merged with the user’s actual environment, creating a world in which real and virtual objects can interact, “ according to a NASA description.

“The public experience developed out of a JPL-designed tool called OnSight. Using the HoloLens headset, scientists across the world can explore geographic features on Mars and even plan future routes for the Curiosity rover.”

Curiosity is currently exploring the spectacular looking buttes in the Murray Buttes region in lower Mount Sharp. Read my recent update here.

Be sure to pay attention or your discovery walk on Mars will be over before you know it. Personally, as a Mars lover and Mars mosaic maker I was thrilled by the 3 D reality and I was ready for more.

This limited availability, timed experience is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations must be made the day of at the Destination: Mars reservation counter, says the KSC Visitor Complex.

You can get more information or book a visit to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, by clicking on the website link:

https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/things-to-do/destination-mars.aspx

Be sure to visit this spectacular holographic exhibit before it closes on New Year’s Day 2017 because it is only showing at KSCVC.

There are no plans to book it at other venues, Norris told me.

As of today, Sol 1465, September 19, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 354,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post ‘Walk on Mars’ with Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin at Limited Engagement ‘Destination Mars’ Holographic Exhibit at KSC Center Visitor Complex appeared first on Universe Today.

Spectacular Panoramas from Curiosity Reveal Layered Martian Rock Formations Like America’s Desert Southwest

Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The most stunning panoramic vistas likely ever snapped by NASA’s Curiosity rover reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes. They were just captured a week ago and look like a scene straight out of the hugely popular science fiction movie ‘The Martian’ – only they are real !!

Indeed several magnificent panoramas were taken by Curiosity in just the past week and you can see our newly stitched mosaic versions of some – above and below.

The rock formations lie in the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp where Curiosity has been exploring for roughly the past month. She just finished a campaign of detailed science observations and is set to bore a new sampling hole into the Red Planet, as you read this.

While scouting around the “Murray Buttes,” the SUV sized rover captured thousands of color and black and white raw images to document the geology of this thus far most unrivaled spot on the Red Planet ever visited by an emissary from Earth.

So the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic views starting with images gathered by the high resolution mast mounted Mastcam right color camera, or M-100, on Sept, 8, 2016, or Sol 1454 of the robots operations on Mars.

The mosaics give context and show us exactly what the incredible alien surroundings look like where the six wheeled rover is exploring today.

The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding. The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.

But there is no time to rest as she was commanded to head further south to the last of these Murray Buttes. And right now the team is implementing a plan for Curiosity to drill a new hole in Mars today – at a target named “Quela” at the base of the last of the buttes. The rover approached the butte from the south side a few days ago to get in place and plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

“It’s always an exciting day on Mars when you prepare to drill another sample – an engineering feat that we’ve become so accustomed to that I sometimes forget how impressive this really is!” wrote Lauren Edgar, in a mission update today. Edgar is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Curiosity will then continue further south to begin exploring higher and higher sedimentary layers up Mount Sharp. The “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Meanwhile Curiosity is still conducting science observations of the last drill sample gathered from the “Marimba” target in August focusing on MAHLI and APXS examination of the dump pile leftovers from the sieved sample. She just completed chemical analysis of the sieved sample using the miniaturized SAM and CheMin internal chemistry laboratories.

It’s interesting to note that although the buttes are striking, their height also presents communications issues by blocking radio signals with NASA’s orbiting relay satellites. NASA’s Opportunity rover faced the same issues earlier this year while exploring inside the high walled Marathon Valley along Ecdeavour Crater.

“While the buttes are beautiful, they pose a challenge to communications, because they are partially occluding communications between the rover and the satellites we use to relay data (MRO and ODY), so sometimes the data volume that we can relay is pretty low” wrote Edgar.

“But it’s a small price to pay for the great stratigraphic exposures and gorgeous view!”

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1461, September 15, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 353,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Spectacular Panoramas from Curiosity Reveal Layered Martian Rock Formations Like America’s Desert Southwest appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Rover’s Proximity To Possible Water Raises Planetary Protection Concerns

View from the Curiosity rover at the foot of Aeolis Mons, before the rover starts to climb the mountain. Credit: NASA

After four years on Mars, the Curiosity rover has made some pretty impressive discoveries. These have ranged from characterizing what Mars’ atmosphere was like billions of years ago to discovering organic molecules and methane there today. But arguably the biggest discovery Curiosity has made has been uncovering evidence of warm, flowing water on Mars’ surface.

Unfortunately, now faced with what could be signs of water directly in its path, NASA is forced to enact strict protocols. These signs take the form of dark streaks that have been observed along the sloping terrain of Aeolis Mons (aka. Mount Sharp), which the rover has been preparing to climb. In order to prevent contamination, the rover must avoid any contact with them, which could mean a serious diversion.

These sorts of dark streaks are known as recurring slope lineae (RSLs) because of their tendency to appear, fade away and re­appear seasonally on steep slopes. The first RSLs were reported in 2011 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in a variety of locations, and are now seen as proof that water still periodically flows on Mars (albiet in the form of salt-water).

Since that time, a total of 452 possible RSLs have been observed, mostly in Mars’s southern mid-latitudes or near the equator (particularly in Mars’ Valles Marineris). They are generally a few meters wide, and appear to lengthen at the warmest times of the year, then fade during the colder times.

These seasonal flows of salt water are believed to have come from ice trapped about a meter below the surface. Ordinarily, such features would present a opportunity to conduct research. But doing so would cause the water source to be contaminated by Earth microbes aboard Curiosity. And right now, Curiosity has bigger fish to fry (so to speak).

During its planned climb, Curiosity was supposed to pass within a few kilometers of an RSL. However, if NASA determines that the risk is too high, the rover will have to alter its course. Unfortunately, that presents a major challenge, since there is currently only one clear route between Curiosity’s current location and its next destination.

But then again, Curiosity may not have to alter its course at all. Or it could find a route that lets it still accomplish its scientific goals, depending on the circumstances. As Ashwin R. Vasavada, the Project Scientist at the Mars Science Laboratory, told Universe Today via email:

“It may depend on the distance between the rover and a potentially sensitive region, for example.  Based on that understanding, we’ll determine the right course of action. For example, it may be possible to achieve Curiosity’s science goals while maintaining a safe distance. Another possible outcome is that we determine that there are no Recurring Slope Lineae on Mount Sharp.”

For years, NASA scientists have been seeking to obtain samples from different locations around Mount Sharp. By studying the sedimentary deposits in the mountainside, the rover’s science team hopes to see how Mars’ environment changed over the past 3 billion years. As Vasavada explained:

“Curiosity’s science mission has focused on understanding whether the area around 5-km high Mount Sharp ever had conditions suitable for life. We’ve already found evidence for an ancient, 3-billion-year-old habitable environment out on the plains around the mountain, and in the lowest levels of the mountain.”

“The geology indicates that a series of lakes once was present in the basin of the crater, before the mountain took shape. Curiosity will continue climbing lower Mount Sharp to see how long these habitable conditions lasted. Every step higher we go, we encounter rocks that are a bit younger, but still around 3 billion years old.”

In the end, the job of determining the risk falls to NASA’s Planetary Protection Office. In addition to reviewing the current predicament, the issue of pre-mission safety standards is also like to come up. Prior to its deployment to Mars, the Curiosity rover was only partially sterilized, and it is currently unknown how long Earth microbes could survive in the Martian atmosphere, or how far they could be carried in Mars’ atmosphere.

Answering these questions and coming up with new protocols that will address them in advance will come in handy for future missions – particularly the Mars 2020 Rover mission. In the course of its mission, which will include obtaining samples and leaving them behind for possible retrieval by a future crewed mission, the rover is likely to encounter several RSLs.

One of the Mars 2020 rover’s primary tasks will be finding evidence of microbial life, so ensuring that Earth microbes don’t get in the way will be of extreme importance. And with crewed missions on the horizon, knowing how we can prevent contaminating Mars with our own germs (of which there are many) is paramount!

On its currently project path, the Curiosity rover would not get closer than 2 km from the potential RSL (which it is currently 5 km from). And as Vasavada indicated, it is not known at the present time what alternate routes Curiosity could take, or if a diversion in the rover’s path will effect it’s overall mission.

“It’s unclear at this time,” he said. “But I’m optimistic that we can find a solution that protects Mars, allows us to accomplish our mission goals, and even gives us new insight into modern water on Mars, if it is there.”

Further Reading: Nature

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NASA’s InSight Lander Approved for 2018 Mars Launch

This artist's concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander's robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. NASA approved a new launch date in May 2018.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Top NASA managers have formally approved the launch of the agency’s InSight Lander to the Red Planet in the spring of 2018 following a postponement from this spring due to the discovery of a vacuum leak in a prime science instrument supplied by France.

The missions goal is to accomplish an unprecedented study of the deep interior of the most Earth-like planet in our solar system.

NASA is now targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, for the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). mission aimed at studying the deep interior of Mars. The Mars landing is now scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight had originally been slated for blastoff on March 4, 2016 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

But the finding of a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument, the French-built Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), in December 2015 forced an unavoidable two year launch postponement. Because of the immutable laws of orbital mechanics, launch opportunities to the Red Planet only occur approximately every 26 months.

InSight’s purpose is to help us understand how rocky planets – including Earth – formed and evolved. The science goal is totally unique – to “listen to the heart of Mars to find the beat of rocky planet formation.”

The revised launch date was approved by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

“Our robotic scientific explorers such as InSight are paving the way toward an ambitious journey to send humans to the Red Planet,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in Washington, in a statement.

“It’s gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth.”

Since InSight would not have been able to carry out and fulfill its intended research objectives because of the vacuum leak in its defective SEIS seismometer instrument, NASA managers had no choice but to scrub this year’s launch. For a time its outlook for a future revival seemed potentially uncertain in light of today’s constrained budget environment.

The leak, if left uncorrected, would have rendered the flawed probe useless to carry out the unprecedented scientific research foreseen to measure the planets seismic activity and sense for “Marsquakes” to determine the nature of the Red Planet’s deep interior.

“The SEIS instrument — designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom — requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors in order to withstand harsh conditions on the Red Planet,” according to NASA.

The SEIS seismometer instrument was provided by the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) – the French national space agency equivalent to NASA. SEIS is one of the two primary science instruments aboard InSight. The other instrument measuring heat flow from the Martian interior is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and is named Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). The HP3 instrument checked out perfectly.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was assigned lead responsibility for the “replanned” mission and insuring that the SEIS instrument operates properly with no leaks.

JPL is “redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.”

“We’ve concluded that a replanned InSight mission for launch in 2018 is the best approach to fulfill these long-sought, high-priority science objectives,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The cost of the two-year delay and instrument redesign amounts to $153.8 million, on top of the original budget for InSight of $675 million.

NASA says this cost will not force a delay or cancellation to any current missions. However, “there may be fewer opportunities for new missions in future years, from fiscal years 2017-2020.”

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for InSight and placed the spacecraft in storage while SEIS is fixed.

InSight is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program of low cost, focused science missions along with the science instrument funding contributions from France and Germany.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

The post NASA’s InSight Lander Approved for 2018 Mars Launch appeared first on Universe Today.

Curiosity Rover Captures Full-Circle Panorama of Enticing ‘Murray Buttes’ on Mars

This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called "Murray Buttes" on lower Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Four years after a nail biting touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA’s SUV-sized Curiosity rover is at last nearing the long strived for “Murray Buttes” formation on the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

This is a key milestone for the Curiosity mission because the “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Ascending Mount Sharp is the primary goal of the mission.

The area features eroded mesas and buttes that are reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest.

So the team directed the rover to capture a 360-degree color panorama using the robots mast mounted Mastcam camera earlier this month on Aug. 5.

The full panorama shown above combines more than 130 images taken by Curiosity on Aug. 5, 2016, during the afternoon of Sol 1421 by the Mastcam’s left-eye camera.

In particular note the dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm. It stands about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

Coincidentally, Aug. 5 also marks the fourth anniversary of the six wheel rovers landing on the Red Planet via the unprecedented Sky Crane maneuver.

You can explore this spectacular Mars panorama in great detail via this specially produced 360-degree panorama from JPL. Simply move the magnificent view back and forth and up and down and all around with your mouse or mobile device.

https://youtu.be/UUweNrpFTwA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZqsp7on1ErHOTweF5eHzOTt

Video Caption: This 360-degree panorama was acquired on Aug. 5, 2016, by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm is about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

“The buttes and mesas are capped with rock that is relatively resistant to wind erosion. This helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on,” say rover scientists.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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We’re Finally Sending Ears to Mars

Be patient. We'll soon be hearing from Mars. Left: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0; right: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We all love that feeling of “being there” when it comes to missions to other planets.  Juno’s arrival at Jupiter, New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and the daily upload of raw images from the Mars Curiosity rover makes each of us an armchair explorer of alien landscapes. But there’s always been something missing. Something essential in shaping our environment — sound.

NASA recently gave the go-ahead for the Mars 2020 rover that will bristle with a new suite of science instruments including a microphone. Hallelujah! Finally, we’ll get to listen to the sound of the Martian wind, the occasional whirl of dust devils, the crunch of rocks beneath the rover’s wheels and even sharp pops from laser-zapped rocks!

The staff and membership of The Planetary Society have been trying for 20 years to get a working microphone to the Red Planet. One flew aboard NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission in 1998 but that probe crashed landed when its engine shut down prematurely during the descent phase. In 2008 the Society partnered with Malin Space Science Systems to include its next microphone in the descent imager package on the Mars Phoenix lander in 2008. While that mission was successful,  the imager (along with its microphone) was turned off for fear it might cause an electrical problem with a critical landing system. Mission planners hoped it might be turned on later but whether it was a money issue or fear of shorting out other critical lander instruments, it never happened. Heartbreaking.

One sound souvenir we did get from Phoenix comes to us from the European Space Agency’s Mars which recorded the radio transmissions from the lander as it descended. The signals were then processed into audio within the range of human hearing. Give a listen, there’s a music to it.

The Mars 2020 mission, which is expected to launch in the summer of 2020 and land the following February, will search directly for signs of ancient Martian life as well as identify and cache samples and specimens at several locations on the surface for pick-up by later missions. The microphone would be housed with the rover’s SuperCam, a souped-up version of Curiosity’s ChemCam, which fires a laser at rocks and soils from a distance to analyze the resulting vapors for their elemental composition.

SuperCam will also shoot a laser to vaporize rocks and spectroscopy to tease out their molecular and mineral composition. The microphone would be mounted on a tube sticking out of the electronics box housing SuperCam and used for scientific purposes but I suspect for public outreach as well. One of its more intriguing uses will be to record the ‘snap’ or ‘pop’ when a rock is struck with the laser. Based on the volume of the sound, scientists can estimate the specimen’s mass.

NASA plans to land the 1-ton rover using the same sky crane method that settled Curiosity to the surface in dramatic fashion. While the rover will be busy photographing the entry, descent and landing sequence, the microphone will record the ambient sound. Synched together, this should make for one of the most compelling videos ever!

The microphone will also be used to augment studies of Martian weather (the aforementioned winds and dust devils) and listen to the rover’s creaks, groans and whir of its motors as the car-sized machine rolls across the alternately sandy and rocky surface of Mars. The Planetary Society is collaborating with the SuperCam team to make the most of the microphone. Who knows what else we might hear? Exploding fireball overhead? Static electricity? Rhythmic winds? Blowing sand? Slime-slap of alien pseudopods? OK, probably not the last one, but new instruments often reveal completely unexpected phenomena.

It’s been hard as hell getting a microphone on a space mission. They’ve had to compete with other instruments considered more essential not to mention the precious space the device would take up and the burden of additional mass. Mission planners consider every fraction of a gram when building a space probe because getting it into Earth orbit and blasting it to a planet takes energy. Rockets only hold so much fuel!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLgVu6kVx9w
Your Voice on Mars

You might wonder if Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough to carry sound. The good news is that it is, but unlike Earth’s much denser nitrogen-oxygen mix, Martian air is 100 times thinner and composed of 95% carbon dioxide. If you could snap off your helmet and talk out loud on the Red Planet, your voice would sound deeper and not travel as far. Scientists liken it to having a conversation at 100,000 feet (30,500 meters) above Earth’s surface. Check out the crazy video for a simulation.

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this story, sit back and pump up the volume. We’ll have ears on Mars soon!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9gOQgfPW4Y
Pump Up the Volume by M|A|R|R|S

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Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New chemical science findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate that ancient Mars likely had a higher abundance of oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the present day and was thus more hospitable to life forms, if they ever existed.

Thus the Red Planet was much more Earth-like and potentially habitable billions of years ago compared to the cold, barren place we see today.

Curiosity discovered high levels of manganese oxide minerals in rocks investigated at a location called “Windjana” during the spring of 2014.

Manganese-oxide minerals require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form.

“Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was,” NASA reported.

The newly announced results stem from results obtained from the rovers mast mounted ChemCam or Chemistry and Camera laser firing instrument. ChemCam operates by firing laser pulses and then observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a statement.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

The discovery is being published in a new paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. Lanza is the lead author.

The manganese oxides were found by ChemCam in mineral veins investigated at “Windjana” and are part of geologic timeline being assembled from Curiosity’s research expedition across of the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Scientists have been able to link the new finding of a higher oxygen level to a time when groundwater was present inside Gale Crater.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” says Lanza.

“Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

The high-manganese materials were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater.

High concentrations of manganese oxide minerals in Earth’s ancient past correspond to a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition from low to high oxygen atmospheric concentrations. Thus its reasonable to suggest the same thing happened on ancient Mars.

Curiosity also conducted a drill campaign at Windjana.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life appeared first on Universe Today.