Opportunity Blazes Through 4500 Sunsets on Mars and Gullies are Yet to Come!

The longest living Martian rover ever – Opportunity – has just surpassed another unfathomable milestone – 4500 Sols (or days) exploring the Red Planet !! That’s 50 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols.

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15 Days To Mars: Schiaparelli & The Problematic History Of Martian Landings

NASA's MSL Curiosity. NASA is the only agency to successfully place a lander on Mars. This self portrait shows Curiosity doing its thing on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We may be living in the Golden Age of Mars Exploration. With multiple orbiters around Mars and two functioning rovers on the surface of the red planet, our knowledge of Mars is growing at an unprecedented rate. But it hasn’t always been this way. Getting a lander to Mars and safely onto the surface is a difficult challenge, and many landers sent to Mars have failed.

The joint ESA/Roscosmos Mars Express mission, and its Chiaparelli lander, is due at Mars in only 15 days. Now’s a good time to look at the challenges in getting a lander to Mars, and also to look back at the many failed attempts.

For now, NASA has the bragging rights as the only organization to successfully land probes on Mars. And they’ve done it several times. But they weren’t the first ones to try. The Soviet Union tried first.

The USSR sent several probes to Mars starting back in the 1960s. They made their first attempt in 1962, but that mission failed to launch. That failure illustrates the first challenge in getting a craft to land on Mars: rocketry. We’re a lot better at rocketry than we were back in the 1960’s, but mishaps still happen. The recent explosion of one of SpaceX’s rockets shows that to be true.

Then in 1971, the Soviets sent a pair of probes to Mars called Mars 2 and Mars 3. They were both orbiters with detachable landers destined for the Martian surface. The fate of Mars 2 and Mars 3 provides other illustrative examples of the challenges in getting to Mars.

Mars 2 separated from its orbiter successfully, but crashed into the surface and was destroyed. The crash was likely caused by its angle of descent, which was too steep. This interrupted the descent sequence, which meant the parachute failed to deploy. So Mars 2 has the dubious distinction of being the first man-made object to reach Mars.

Mars 3 was exactly the same as Mars 2. The Soviets liked to do missions in pairs back then, for redundancy. Mars 3 separated from its orbiter and headed for the Martian surface, and through a combination of aerodynamic breaking, rockets, and parachutes, it became the first craft to make a soft landing on Mars. So it was a success, sort of.

But after only 14.5 seconds of data transmission, it went quiet and was never heard from again. The cause was likely an intense dust storm. In an odd turn of events, NASA’s Mariner 9 orbiter reached Mars only days before Mars 2 and 3, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. It captured images of the planet-concealing dust storms, above which only the volcanic Olympus Mons could be seen. These images provided an explanation for the failure of Mars 3.

In 1973, the Soviets tried again. They sent four craft to Mars, two of which were landers, named Mars 6 and Mars 7. Mars 6 failed on impact, but Mars 7’s fate was perhaps a little more tragic. It missed Mars completely, by about 1300 km, and is in a helicentric orbit to this day. In our day and age, we just assume that our spacecraft will go where we want them to, but Mars 7 shows us that it can all go wrong. After all, Mars is a moving target.

In the 1970s, NASA was fresh off the success of their Apollo Program, and were setting their sites on Mars. They developed the Viking program which saw 2 landers, Viking 1 and Viking 2, sent to Mars. Both of them were probe/lander configurations, and both landers landed successfully on the surface of Mars. The Vikings sent back beautiful pictures of Mars that caused excitement around the world.

In 1997, NASA’s Martian Pathfinder made it to Mars and landed successfully. Pathfinder itself was stationary, but it brought a little rover called Sojourner with it. Sojourner explored the immediate landing area around Pathfinder. Sojourner became the first rover to operate on another planet.

Pathfinder was able to send back over 16,000 images of Mars, along with its scientific data. It was also a proof of concept mission for technologies such as automated obstacle avoidance and airbag mediated touchdown. Pathfinder helped lay the groundwork for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. That means Spirit and Opportunity.

But after Pathfinder, and before Spirit and Opportunity, came a time of failure for Martian landing attempts. Everybody took part in the failure, it seems, with Russia, Japan, the USA, and the European Space Agency all experiencing bitter failure. Rocket failures, engineering errors, and other terminal errors all contributed to the failure.

Japan’s Nozomi orbiter ran out of fuel before ever reaching Mars. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander failed its landing attempt. NASA’s Deep Space 2, part of the Polar Lander mission, failed its parachute-less landing and was never heard from. The ESA’s Beagle 2 lander made it to the surface, but two of its solar panels failed to deploy, ending its mission. Russian joined in the failure again, with its Phobos-Grunt mission, which was actually headed for the Martian moon Phobos, to retrieve a sample and send it back to Earth.

In one infamous failure, engineers mixed up the use of English units with Metric units, causing NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter to burn up on entry. These failures show us that failure is not rare. It’s difficult and challenging to get to the surface of Mars.

After this period of failure, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers were both unprecedented successes. They landed on the Martian surface in January 2004. Both exceeded their planned mission length of three months, and Opportunity is still going strong now.

So where does that leave us now? NASA is the only one to have successfully landed a rover on Mars and have the rover complete its mission. But the ESA and Russia are determined to get there.

The Schiaparelli lander, as part of the ExoMars mission, is primarily a proof of technology mission. In fact, its full name is the Schiaparelli EDM lander, meaning Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module.

It will have some small science capacity, but is really designed to demonstrate the ability to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend safely, and finally, to land on the surface. In fact, it has no solar panels or other power source, and will only carry enough battery power to survive for 2-8 days.

Schiaparelli faces the same challenges as other craft destined for Mars. Once launched successfully, which it was, it had to navigate its way to Mars. That took about 6 months, and since ExoMars is only 15 days away from arrival at Mars, it looks like it has successfully made its way their. But perhaps the trickiest part comes next: atmospheric entry.

Schiaparelli is like most Martian craft. It will make a ballistic entry into the Martian atmosphere, and this has to be done right. There is no room for error. The angle of entry is the key here. If the angle is too steep, Schiaparelli may overheat and burn up on entry. On the other hand, if the angle is too shallow, it could hit the atmosphere and bounce right back into space. There’ll be no second chance.

The entry and descent sequence is all pre-programmed. It will either work or it won’t. It would take way too long to send any commands to Schiaparelli when it is entering and descending to Mars.

If the entry is successful, the landing comes next. The exact landing location is imprecise, because of wind speed, turbulence, and other factors. Like other craft sent to Mars, Schiaparelli’s landing site is defined as an ellipse.

The lander will be travelling at over 21,000 km/h when it reaches Mars, and will have only 6 or 7 minutes to descend. At that speed, Schiaparelli will have to withstand extreme heating for 2 or 3 minutes. It’s heat shield will protect it, and will reach temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius.

It will decelerate rapidly, and at about 10km altitude, it will have slowed to approximately 1700 km/h. At that point, a parachute will deploy, which will further slow the craft. After the parachute slows its descent, the heat shield will be jettisoned.

On Earth, a parachute would be enough to slow a descending craft. But with Mars’ less dense atmosphere, rockets are needed for the final descent. An onboard radar will monitor Schiaparelli’s altitude as it approaches the surface, and rockets will fire to slow it to a few meters per second in preparation for landing.

In the final moments, the rockets will stop firing, and a short free-fall will signal Schiaparelli’s arrival on Mars. If all goes according to plan, of course.

We won’t have much longer to wait. Soon we’ll know if the ESA and Russia will join NASA as the only agencies to successfully land a craft on Mars. Or, if they’ll add to the long list of failed attempts.

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Apollo 11 Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin Talks to Universe Today about ‘Destination Mars’

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ and developing strategies and hardware to accomplish the daunting task of getting ‘Humans to Mars’ is NASA’s agency wide goal and the goal of many space enthusiasts – including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

NASA is going full speed ahead developing the SLS Heavy lift rocket and Orion crew module with a maiden uncrewed launch from the Kennedy Space Center set for late 2018 to the Moon. Crewed Mars missions would follow by the 2030s.

In the marketplace of ideas, there are other competing and corollary proposals as well from government, companies and private citizens on pathways to the Red Planet. For example SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to establish a colony on Mars using an Interplanetary Transport System of SpaceX developed rockets and spaceships.

Last week I had the opportunity to ask Apollo 11 Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin for his thoughts about ‘Humans to Mars’ and the role of commercial space – following the Grand Opening ceremony for the new “Destination Mars’ holographic exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida.

Moonwalker Aldrin strongly advocated for more commercial activity in space and that “exposure to microgravity” for “many commercial products” is good, he told Universe Today.

More commercial activities in space would aid space commerce and getting humans to Mars.

“We need to do that,” Aldrin told me.

Buzz Aldrin is the second man to set foot on the Moon. He stepped onto the lunar soil a few minutes after Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, on July 20, 1969 in the Sea of Tranquility.

Aldrin also strongly supports some type of American space station capability “beyond the ISS” to foster the Mars capability.

And we need to be thinking about that follow on “US capability” right now!

“I think we need to have a US capability beyond the ISS to prepare for future activities right from the beginning,” Aldrin elaborated.

Currently the ISS partnership of the US, Russia, ESA, Japan and Canada has approved extending the operations of the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024. What comes after that is truly not known.

NASA is not planning for a follow-on space station in low Earth orbit at this time. The agency seems to prefer development of a commercial space station, perhaps with core modules from Bigelow Aerospace and/or other companies.

So that commercial space station will have to be designed, developed and launched by private companies. NASA and others would then lease space for research and other commercial activities and assorted endeavors on the commercial space station.

For example, Bigelow wants to dock their privately developed B330 habitable module at the ISS by 2020, following launch on a ULA Atlas V. And then spin it off as an independent space station when the ISS program ends – see my story.

Only China has firm plans for a national space station in the 2020’s. And the Chinese government has invited other nations to submit proposals. Russia’s ever changing space exploration plans may include a space station – but that remains to be actually funded and seen.

Regarding Mars, Aldrin has lectured widely and written books about his concept for “cycling pathways to occupy Mars,” he explained.

Watch this video of Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin speaking to Universe Today:

https://youtu.be/b-uczjRC-zs

Video Caption: Buzz Aldrin at ‘Destination Mars’ Grand Opening at KSCVC. Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin talks to Universe Today/Ken Kremer during Q&A at ‘Destination Mars’ Holographic Exhibit Grand Opening ceremony at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida on 9/18/16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Here is a transcript:

Universe Today/Ken Kremer: Can you talk about the role of commercial space [in getting humans to Mars]. Elon Musk wants to try and send people to Mars, maybe even before NASA. What do you think?

Buzz Aldrin: “Well, being a transportation guy in space for humans – well commercial, what that brings to mind is tourism plus space travel.

And there are many many more things commercial that are done with products that can be fine tuned by exposure to microgravity. And we need to do that.”

“I think we need to have a US capability beyond the ISS to prepare for future activities right from the beginning.”

“And that’s why what has sort of fallen into place is the name for my plan for the future – which is ‘cycling pathways to occupy Mars.’”

“A cycler in low Earth orbit, one in lunar orbit, and one to take people to Mars.”

“And they are utilized in evolutionary fashion.”

Meanwhile, be sure to visit the absolutely spectacular “Destination Mars” holographic exhibit before it closes on New Year’s Day 2017 – because it is only showing at KSCVC.

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

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

Ken Kremer

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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

The post Drilling at Unfathomable Alien Landscapes – All in a Sols (Day’s) Work for Curiosity appeared first on Universe Today.

‘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

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