Curiosity Sniffs a Spike in Methane. Could it be a Sign of Life?

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, one of the main scientific objectives of the Curiosity rover has been finding evidence of past (or even present) life on the Red Planet. In 2014, the rover may have accomplished this very thing when it detected a tenfold increase in atmospheric methane in its vicinity and found traces of complex organic molecules in drill samples while poking around in the Gale Crater.

About a year ago, Curiosity struck pay dirt again when it found organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks located near the surface of lower Mount Sharp. But last week, the Curiosity rover made an even more profound discovery when it detected the largest amount of methane ever measured on the surface of Mars – about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv).

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Curiosity has Finally Sampled a Clay-Rich Region on Mars

A mast-cam mosaic image of the so-called "clay-bearing unit". After almost seven years on Mars, MSL Curiosity has finally been able to drill into the clay-rich region. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It’s hard to believe that MSL Curiosity has been on Mars for almost seven years. But it has, and during that time, the rover has explored Gale Crater and Mt. Sharp, the central peak inside the crater. And while it has used its drill multiple times to take rock samples, this is the first sample it’s gathered from the so-called ‘clay unit.’

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Two Solar Eclipses Seen From the Surface of Mars by Curiosity

Ever since the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, it has provided NASA scientists with invaluable data about the planet’s past, as well as some breathtaking images of the planet’s surface. Much like its predecessors, the Spirit and Opportunity rover, many of these images have shown what it is like to look up at the sky from the surface of Mars and witness celestial events.

Of these events, one of the most intriguing has to be the many Martian solar eclipses that have taken place since the rover’s landed. Last month, the Curiosity rover witnessed two eclipses as the moons of Phobos and Deimos both passed in front of the Sun. These latest eclipses will allow scientists to fine-tune their predictions about Mars’ satellites and how they orbit the Red Planet.

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Curiosity Crashed, but it’s Working Fine Again. NASA Won’t Have to Send Astronauts to Turn it off and Back on Again.

In 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed in the Gale Crater on Mars and began exploring for clues about the planet’s past and subsequent evolution. Since 2014, it has been investigating Mount Sharp (aka. Aeolis Mons) – the central peak within Mars’ Gale Crater – in the hopes of learning more about Mars’ warm, watery past (and maybe find signs of past life!)

On February 15th of this year (Sol 2320), Curiosity gave mission controllers a bit of a scare when it suffered a technical glitch and automatically entered safe mode. Luckily, as of Thursday, Feb. 28th, Curiosity’s science team reported that after getting the rover back online and running a series of checks, the rover is in good shape and ready to resume normal science operations.

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NASA used Curiosity’s Sensors to Measure the Gravity of a Mountain on Mars

Panoramic image of the Curiosity rover, from September 2016. The pale outline of Aeolis Mons can be seen in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Some very clever people have figured out how to use MSL Curiosity’s navigation sensors to measure the gravity of a Martian mountain. What they’ve found contradicts previous thinking about Aeolis Mons, aka Mt. Sharp. Aeolis Mons is a mountain in the center of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s landing site in 2012.

Gale Crater is a huge impact crater that’s 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and about 3.5 billion years old. In the center is Aeolis Mons, a mountain about 5.5 km (18,000 ft) high. Over an approximately 2 billion year period, sediments were deposited either by water, wind, or both, creating the mountain. Subsequent erosion reduced the mountain to its current form.

Now a new paper published in Science, based on gravity measurements from Curiosity, shows that Aeolis Mons’ bedrock layers are not as dense as once thought.

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Mars InSight Lands on November 26th. Here’s where it’s going to touch down

In the course of exploring Mars, the many landers, rovers and orbiters that have been sent there have captured some truly stunning images of the landscape. Between Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and others, we have treated to some high-definition images over the years of sandy dunes, craters and mountains – many of which call to mind places here on Earth.

However, if one were to describe the region where NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander will be landing (on Nov. 26th, 2018), the word “plain” would probably come to mind (and it would be appropriate). This region is known as Elysium Planitia, and it is where InSight will spend the next few years studying Mars’ interior structure and tectonic activity for the sake of learning more about its history.

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There Might be Enough Oxygen Below the Surface of Mars to Support Life

The possibility that life could exist on Mars has captured the imagination of researchers, scientists and writers for over a century. Ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli (and later, Percival Lowell) spotted what they believed were “Martian Canals” in the 19th century, humans have dreamed of one day sending emissaries to the Red Planet in the hopes of finding a civilization and meeting the native Martians.

While the Mariner and Viking programs of the 1960s and 70s shattered the notion of a Martian civilization, multiple lines of evidence have since emerged that indicate how life could have once existed on Mars. Thanks to a new study, which indicates that Mars may have enough oxygen gas locked away beneath its surface to support aerobic organisms, the theory that life could still exist there has been given another boost.

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The Bizarre Picture is a 360-Degree View Around Curiosity on Mars

Ever since it landed on the Red Planet in 2012, the Curiosity rover has showed no signs of slowing down! For the past six years, it has ventured across the Gale Crater, scaled Mount Sharp, and taken numerous drill samples. And in the process, it has found evidence that liquid water (and possibly even life) once existed on the Martian surface.

It has also taken many breathtaking pictures that have catalogued its progress. Last month (on Aug. 9th), the rover took another 360-degree panoramic photo of its location. In addition to showing how the skies were still darkened by the fading dust storm and the rover’s dust-covered body, the picture also captured and the site where the latest drill sample was obtained.

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The Martian Dust Storm Has Covered the Entire Planet

Martian dust storms, which occur during the summer season in the planet’s southern hemisphere, can get pretty intense. Over the course of the past few weeks, a global dust storm has engulfed Mars and forced the Opportunity rover to suspend operations. Given that this storm is much like the one that took place back in 2007, which also raged for weeks, there have been concerns over how this development could affect rover operations.

Meanwhile the Curiosity rover managed to snap pictures of the thickening haze caused by the storm. Though Curiosity is on the other side of the planet from where Opportunity is currently located, atmospheric dust has been gradually increasing over it. But unlike Opportunity, which runs on solar power, Curiosity will remain unaffected by the global storm thanks to its nuclear-powered battery, and is therefore in a good position to study it.

As already noted, Martian storms occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. Since the southern polar region is pointed towards the Sun in the summer, carbon dioxide frozen in the polar cap evaporates.

Global map of Mars produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which shows a growing dust storm as of June 6th, 2018. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure, which enhances the process by helping suspend dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds can reach up to 60 km (40 mi) or more in elevation. Though they are common and can begin suddenly, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area and last only about a weeks.

By contrast, the current storm has lasted for several weeks and is currently covering an area that would span North America and Russia combined. While smaller than the storm that took place back in 2007, this storm has intensified to the point where it created a perpetual state of night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley and led to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm.

When dust storms occur, scientists measure them based on their opacity level (tau) to determine how much sunlight they will prevent from reaching the surface. Whereas the 2007 storm had a tau level of about 5.5, this most recent storm reached an estimated tau of 10.8 earlier this month over the Perseverance Valley – where Opportunity is located.

The intensity of the storm also led Bruce Canton, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), to declare that the storm has officially become a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event. Above the Gale Crater, where Curiosity is located, the tau reading is now above 8.0 – the highest ever recorded by the mission.

In June 2018 NASA’s Curiosity Rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness the surface of Mars, caused by a massive dust storm. The photos span about a couple of weeks, starting with a shot of the area before the storm appeared. Credits: NASA

While the storm has some worried about the fate of Opportunity, which is Mars’ oldest active rover (having remained in operation for over 14 years), it is also an chance to address one of the greatest questions scientists have about Mars. For example, why do some storms span the entire planet and last for months while others are confined to small areas and and last only a week?

While scientists don’t currently know what the answer is, Curiosity and a fleet of six scientific spacecraft in orbit of Mars are hoping this most recent storm will help them find out. These spacecraft include NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) missions, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and the ESA’s Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

The animation (shown above) consists of a series of daily photos captures by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam), which show the sky getting hazier over time. While taking these pictures, Curiosity was facing the crater rim, about 30 km (18.6) away from where it stands inside the crater. This sun-obstructing wall of haze is about six to eight times thicker than normal for this time of season.

Nevertheless, Curiosity’s engineers – which are based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – have studied how the growing dust storm could affect the rover’s instruments and concluded that it poses little risk. Ironically enough, the largest impact will be on the rover’s cameras, which require extra exposure time due to the low lighting conditions.

Two images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity rover depicting the change in the color of light illuminating the Martian surface since a dust storm engulfed Gale Crater. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As Jim Watzin, the director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, explained in a NASA press release earlier this month:

“This is the ideal storm for Mars science. We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave – knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions.”

However, all dust events, regardless of size, help to shape the Martian surface. As such, studying their physics is critical to understanding the Martian climate, both past and present. As Rich Zurek, the chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, indicated:

“Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events – and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them. That would be like forecasting El Niño events on Earth, or the severity of upcoming hurricane seasons.”

The ability to understand the causes and dynamics of Martian dust storms would not only lead to a better understand of how weather works on other planets, it would also be of immense importance if and and when humans begin traveling to the Red Planet on a regular basis. For instance, if SpaceX really does intend to bring tourists to Mars in the future, said tourists will want to avoid booking during “storm season”.

And if humans should choose to someday make Mars their home, they will need to know when planet-spanning dust storms are coming, especially since their habitats will likely be relying on wind and solar power. In the meantime, NASA and other space agencies will continue to monitor this storm and the Opportunity rover is expected to come through (fingers crossed!) unscathed!

Further Reading: NASA