Opportunity Starts Historic Descent of Tantalizing Martian Gully to Find Out How Was It Carved

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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Opportunity Reaches ‘Perseverance Valley’ Precipice – Ancient Fluid Carved Gully on Mars

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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Opportunity Celebrates Christmas/New Year on Mars Marching to Ancient Water Carved Gully

On the brink of 4600 Sols of a profoundly impactful life, NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover celebrates the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season on Mars marching relentlessly towards an ancient water carved gully along the eroded rim of the vast Endeavour crater – the next science target on her incredible journey traversing across never before seen Red Planet terrains.

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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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Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites.

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 207,600 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

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

Ken Kremer

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Spirit Rover Touchdown 12 Years Ago Started Spectacular Martian Science Adventure

Twelve Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars. This mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004, by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, shows a 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on the surface of Mars.   Spirit operated for more than six years after landing in January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Exactly 12 Years ago this week, NASA’s now famous Spirit rover touched down on the Red Planet, starting a spectacular years long campaign of then unimaginable science adventures that ended up revolutionizing our understanding of Mars due to her totally unexpected longevity.

For although she was only “warrentied” to function a mere 90 Martian days, or sols, the six wheeled emissary from Earth survived more than six years – and was thus transformed into the world renowned robot still endearing to humanity today.

Spirit even became the first Martian mountaineer! – ascending up and descending down ‘Husband Hill’.

And to top that off, Spirit was only one half of a marvelous sister act of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that continues to this day.

Her younger twin sister Opportunity endures today, trundling forth on the opposite side of the Red Planet continuing to expand on their jointly established heritage of endless groundbreaking discoveries.

Together they each conducted the first overland expeditions on another planet. In essence they are truly the first long roving “Martians.”

Jan. 3 marks the 12th anniversary since Spirit’s safe landing on the plains of Mars inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater on Jan. 3, 2004, after smashing into the thin Martian atmosphere and surviving the harrowing descent and scorching temperatures dubbed the “Six Minutes of Terror!”

Twin sister Opportunity likewise plummeted through the Martian atmosphere and landed on the plains of Meridiani on the opposite hemisphere three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004.

After carefully choreographed retro rocket, parachute and airbag assisted landings both sisters bounced some two dozen times while carefully cushioned inside their cocoon like carriers, before rolling to a stop, unfolding and driving down from the three petaled lander pedestal days later onto the alien terrain to begin their research expeditions.

The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.

Together, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth.

During her more than six year lifetime spanning until March 2010, Spirit discovered compelling evidence that ancient Mars exhibited hydrothermal activity, hot springs and volcanic explosions flowing with water.

“Spirit’s big scientific accomplishments are the silica deposits at Home Plate, the carbonates at Comanche, and all the evidence for hydrothermal systems and explosive volcanism, Rover Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, told Universe Today in a prior interview.

“What we’ve learned is that early Mars at Spirit’s site was a hot, violent place, with hot springs, steam vents, and volcanic explosions. It was extraordinarily different from the Mars of today.”

Altogether the golf cart sized Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers) – about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission and ground into 15 rock targets.

See herein a collection of some of Spirit’s greatest hits on the Red Planet for all to enjoy and remember her fabulous exploits.

Before they were launched atop Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the solar powered robo dynamic duo were expected to last a mere three months – with a ‘warrenty’ of 90 Martian days (Sols).

Either dust accumulation on the life giving solar panels, an engineering or computer malfunction, or the extremely harsh Martian environment with daily temperatures plunging to Antarctic-like lows was expected to terminate them mercilessly.

In reality, both robots enormously exceeded expectations and accumulated a vast bonus time of exploration and discovery in numerous extended mission phases.

No one foresaw that Martian winds would occasionally clean the solar panels to give them a new lease on life or that the components would miraculously continue functioning.

Spirit endured the utterly extreme Red Planet climate for more than six years until communications ceased in 2010.

See Spirits last panorama below – created from raw images taken in Feb. 2010 by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Opportunity is still roving Mars today, and doing so in rather good condition!

After landing in the dusty plains, she headed for the nearby Columbia Hills some 2 miles away and ultimately became the first Martian mountaineer, when she scaled Husband Hill and found evidence for the flow of liquid water at the Hillary outcrop.

The rovers were not designed to climb hills. But eventually she scaled 30 degree inclines.

The rover was equipped with a rock grinder named the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) built by Honeybee Robotics.

Spirit ground the surfaces off 15 rock targets and scoured 92 targets with a brush to prepare the targets for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager

Eventually she drove back down the hill and made even greater scientific discoveries in the area known as ‘Home Plate’.

Spirit survived three harsh Martian winters and only succumbed to the Antarctic-like temperatures when she unexpectedly became mired in an unseen sand trap driving beside an ancient volcanic feature named ‘Home Plate’ that prevented the solar arrays from generating life giving power to safeguard critical electronic and computer components.

In 2007, Spirit made one of the key discoveries of the mission at ‘Home Plate’ when her stuck right front wheel churned up a trench of bright Martian soil that exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, which was formed in a watery hot spring or volcanic environment.

Spirit was heading towards another pair of volcanic objects named ‘von Braun’ and ‘Goddard’ and came within just a few hundred feet when she died during winter, stuck in the sand trap.

Thus Spirit was dramatically born and lived through milestone events that will be forever remembered in the annuls of history because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued, due to the unexpected and unbelievable longevity of the NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers.

No one on the team expected them to last much past none months or so.

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

Ken Kremer

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NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year.

This budget represents an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Space enthusiasts worldwide should rejoice at this tremendously positive budget news for NASA – which enables the agency to move forward with its core agenda of human spaceflight, robotic exploration, and science and technology research and development programs.

The Federal spending bill first passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 316 to 113. It then moved to the Senate where it passed easily by a vote of 65 to 33, in one of the final acts of Congress this year before they adjourn for the Christmas holiday season. President Obama announced he will sign the bill.

After a contentious year of high states political brinkmanship that could easily have ended in another government shutdown this week, the US Congress and the Obama White House did the nearly unimaginable and decided to strike a compromise and pass the omnibus spending bill for the 2016 Fiscal Year that funds the government and NASA for the remainder of this year’s budget season through September 2015.

Committees in both chambers passed bills earlier this year with much less funding for NASA and far different space exploration priorities compared to President Obama. The outlook for the entire Federal budget changed mightily in the past two months under the new House speaker, Republican Paul Ryan who replaced outgoing Speaker John Boehner.

Under the newly passed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA Budget, virtually all of the agency’s programs benefit with either full or added funding.

The SLS, Orion, Commercial Crew and Planetary Sciences among others are all big beneficiaries of the omnibus budget compromise.

Sending humans to Mars by the 2030s is NASA’s agency-wide goal as announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative, NASA is developing the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule.

The SLS is one of the bigggest winners. SLS will receive $2 Billion in the FY 2016 budget, compared to an Obama Administration request of only $1.36 billion that was actually a cut from the prior year. This new total represents a nearly 50% increase and is also above earlier House and Senate bills.

The SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen starting with its first liftoff. It will propel our astronauts on journey’s further into space than ever before.

Blastoff of the first SLS heavy lift booster (SLS-1) carrying an unmanned test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule is targeted for no later than November 2018.

The maiden SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The bill also directs NASA to use $85 million of the SLS funding to develop a new, enhanced cryogenic upper stage to replace the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (from the Delta IV rocket) that currently will be utilized on SLS-1.

NASA needs the enhanced upper stage to carry out future manned missions with Orion to deep space destinations like the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

NASA had been marching towards an August 2021 liftoff for the maiden crewed Orion on a test flight dubbed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). But in August, the agency announced that EM-2 could slip two years from 2021 to 2023 due to a variety of budget and technical issues.

So the 2016 budget plus up could aid NASA significantly in trying to maintain the still officially targeted 2021 launch date.

NASA’s other human spaceflight pillar, namely the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to develop a pair of human rated ‘space taxis’ to transport our astronauts to the low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) is also a big beneficiary.

The goal of CCP is to end the US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and to restore the US Human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts on American rockets from American soil.

For the first time in its five year history, CCP will receive the full funding requested by the Obama Administration – in the amount of $1.244 Billion. Whereas earlier markups by both the House and Senate had cut CCP funding to $1 Billion or below.

Under CCP awards announced by Bolden in September 2014, NASA had contracted Boeing to develop the CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX to develop the Crew Dragon.

Bolden had made it completely clear to Congress that any reduced funding would have forced NASA into slowing the program with another substantial delay in first launch now targeted for 2017, by renegotiating the CCP contracts with both Boeing and SpaceX and delaying completion of the required milestones.

“It would upend the investments we need to execute contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to return the launches of American astronauts to American soil and to do it by 2017,” wrote Bolden in his NASA blog.

NASA’a Planetary Sciences Division also gets a much earned and much needed big budget boost. The omnibus bill affords $1.631 billion for Planetary exploration. This amounts to an increase of some $270 million above the Obama administration’s request – which has repeatedly cut of one of NASA’s crown jewels.

Congress has had the good sense to save the long lived and very scientifically productive Opportunity MER rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions from certain termination – due only to a ridiculous lack of money that was “zeroed out” by the White House.

The omnibus bill also appropriates $175 million for NASA planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in the early 202os. It includes funding for both an orbiter and lander. Europa is a prime target in the search for life.

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

Ken Kremer

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Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 23, 2015: Dr. Matthew Golombek

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Dr. Matthew Golombek, JPL Project Scientist for MER, and working on the NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Discovery Program mission. Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg ) Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier ) Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com) Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer) Paul Sutter […]

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 23, 2015: Dr. Matthew Golombek

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Dr. Matthew Golombek, JPL Project Scientist for MER, and working on the NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Discovery Program mission. Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg ) Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier ) Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com) Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer) Paul Sutter […]

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 23, 2015: Dr. Matthew Golombek

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Dr. Matthew Golombek, JPL Project Scientist for MER, and working on the NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Discovery Program mission. Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg ) Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier ) Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com) Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer) Paul Sutter […]