5 years after a heart throbbing Martian touchdown, Curiosity is climbing Vera Rubin Ridge in search of “aqueous minerals” and “clays” for clues to possible past life while capturing “truly breathtaking” vistas of humongous Mount Sharp – her primary destination – and the stark eroded rim of the Gale Crater landing zone from ever higher elevations, NASA scientists tell Universe Today in a new mission update.
From the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” NASA’s teenaged Red Planet robot Opportunity has begun the historic first ever descent of an ancient Martian gully – that’s simultaneously visually and scientifically “tantalizing” – on an expedition to discern ‘How was it carved?’; by water or other means, Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Sciences Chief tells Universe Today.
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Now well into her 13th year roving the Red Planet, NASA’s astoundingly resilient Opportunity rover has arrived at the precipice of “Perseverance Valley” – overlooking the upper end of an ancient fluid-carved valley on Mars “possibly water-cut” that flows down into the unimaginably vast eeriness of alien Endeavour crater.
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The Trump Administration has proposed a $19.1 Billion NASA budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, which amounts to a $0.5 Billion reduction compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 NASA Budget. Although it maintains many programs, the budget also specifies significant cuts and terminations to NASA’s Earth Science and manned Asteroid redirect mission as well as the complete elimination of the Education Office.
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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.
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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:
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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NASA’s JUNO spacecraft successfully swooped over the Jovian cloud tops today, Saturday, Aug. 27, gathering its first up close images and science observations of the King of our Solar System since braking into orbit on America’s Independence Day.
Saturdays’ close encounter with Jupiter soaring over its north pole was the first of 36 planned orbital flyby’s by Juno during the scheduled 20 month long prime mission.
“Soarin’ over #Jupiter. My 1st up-close look of the gas-giant world was a success!” the probe tweeted.
NASA released Juno’s first up-close image taken by the JunoCam visible light camera just hours later – as seen above.
Juno was speeding at some 130,000 mph (208,000 kilometers per hour) during the time of Saturday’s closest approach at 9:44 a.m. EDT, 6:44 a.m. PDT 13:44 UTC) over the north polar region.
It passed merely 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) above the turbulent clouds of the biggest planet in our solar system during its initial 53.5 day polar elliptical capture orbit.
And apparently everything proceeded as the science and engineering team leading the mission to the gas giant had planned.
“Early post-flyby telemetry indicates that everything worked as planned and Juno is firing on all cylinders,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
Indeed Saturday’s encounter will count as the closest of the entire prime mission. It also marks the first time that the entire suite of none state of the art science instruments had been turned on to gather the totally unique observations of Jupiter’s interior and exterior environment.
“We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.
“This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works.”
Additional up close hi resolution imagery of the Jovian atmosphere, swirling cloud tops and north and south poles snapped by JunoCam will be released in the coming weeks, perhaps as soon as next week.
“We are in an orbit nobody has ever been in before, and these images give us a whole new perspective on this gas-giant world,” said Bolton.
“It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us.”
The prime mission is scheduled to end in February of 2018 with a suicide plunge into Jovian atmosphere to prevent any possible contamination with Jupiter’s potentially habitable moons such as Europa and Ganymede.
“No other spacecraft has ever orbited Jupiter this closely, or over the poles in this fashion,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is our first opportunity and there are bound to be surprises. We need to take our time to make sure our conclusions are correct.”
The team did release an approach image taken by JunoCam on Aug. 23 when the spacecraft was 2.8 million miles (4.4 million kilometers) from the gas giant planet on the inbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit.
One additional long period orbit is planned. The main engine will fire again in October to reduce the orbit to the 14 day science orbit.
It will collect unparalleled new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution as it peers “beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.”
The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version recently launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.
The Juno spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver.
The last NASA spacecraft to orbit Jupiter was Galileo in 1995. It explored the Jovian system until 2003.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
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