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

And NASA’s Big Announcement is: Ancient Organic Molecules Found on Mars!

Ever since Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, the rover has made numerous groundbreaking discoveries about the Red Planet. These include confirming how Mars once had flowing water and lakes on its surface, evidence of how it lost its ancient atmosphere, and the discovery of methane and organic molecules. All of these discoveries have bolstered the theory that Mars may have once supported life.

The latest discovery came on Thursday, May 7th, when NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had once again discovered organic molecules. This time, however, the molecules were found in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks located near the surface of lower Mount Sharp. This evidence, along with new atmospheric evidence, are another indication that ancient life may have once existed on the Red Planet.

The new findings appear in two new studies – titled “Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars” and “Background levels of methane in Mars’ atmosphere show strong seasonal variations” – that were published in the June 8th issue of Science. As these studies indicate, these molecules – while not evidence of life in and of itself – have bolstered the search for evidence of past life.

MRO image of Gale Crater illustrating the landing location and trek of the Rover Curiosity since it landed in 2012. Credits: NASA/JPL, illustration, T.Reyes

As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, explained in a recent NASA press release:

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

In the first paper, the authors indicate how Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite detected traces of methane in drill samples it took from Martian rocks. Once these rocks were heated, they released an array of organics and volatiles similar to how organic-rich sedimentary rocks do on Earth. On Earth, such deposits are indications of fossilized organic life, which may or may not be the case with the samples examined by Curiosity.

However, this evidence is bolstered by the fact that Curiosity has also found evidence that the Gale Crater was once an ancient lakebed. In addition to water, this lakebed contained all the chemical building blocks and energy sources that are necessary for life. As Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the lead author of the first study, explained:

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules. Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes… The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter. Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

In the second paper, the team described how Curiosity’s SAM suite also detected seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere. These results were obtained over the course of nearly three years on Mars, which works out to almost six Earth years. While the team admits that water-rock chemistry could have generated the methane, they cannot rule out the possibility that it was biological in origin.

In the past, methane and organic molecules have been detected in Mars’ atmosphere and in drill samples, the former of which appeared to spike unpredictably. However, these new results indicate that within the Gale Crater, low levels of methane peak during the warm summer months and drop in the winter months every year. As Chris Webster, a researcher from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the lead author of the second paper, explained:

“This is the first time we’ve seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it. This is all possible because of Curiosity’s longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal ‘breathing.'”

To find this organic material, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks (known as mudstone) in four areas in the Gale Crater. These rocks formed over the course of billions of years as sediments were deposited at the bottom of the ancient lake by flowing water. The drill samples were then analyzed by SAM, which used its oven to heat the samples to over 500 °C (900 °F) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock.

Simulated view of Gale Crater Lake on Mars. This illustration depicts a lake of water partially filling Mars’ Gale Crater, receiving runoff from snow melting on the crater’s northern rim. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

These results indicate that some of the drill samples contained sulfur (which could have preserved the organic molecules) as well as thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains – such as propane or butene. They also indicated organic carbon concentrations of about 10 parts per million or more, which is consistent with carbon concentrations observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times what has been previously detected on Mars’ surface.

While this does not constitute evidence of past life on Mars, these latest findings have increased confidence that future missions will find more organics, both on the surface and slightly beneath the surface. But above all, they have bolstered confidence that Mars may have once had life of its own. As Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, summarized:

“Are there signs of life on Mars? We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”

In the coming years, additional missions will also be searching for signs of past life, including NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover.The Mars 2020 rover will also leave samples behind in a cache that could be retrieved by a future crewed mission for sample-return analysis. So if there was life on Mars (or, fingers crossed, still is) we are sure to find it soon enough!

And be sure to check out this video of this latest discovery by Curiosity, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Further Reading: NASA

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Enjoys its 2000th Day on Mars

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has made some rather startling scientific discoveries. These include the discovery of methane and organic molecules, evidence of how it lost its ancient atmosphere, and confirming that Mars once had flowing water and lakes on its surface. In addition, the rover has passed a number of impressive milestones along the way.

In fact, back in January of 2018, the rover had spent a total of 2,000 Earth days on Mars. And as of March 22nd, 2018, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover had reached its two-thousandth Martian day (Sol) on the Red Planet! To mark the occasion, NASA released a mosaic photo that previews what the rover will be investigating next (hint: it could shed further light on whether or not Mars was habitable in the past).

The image (shown at top and below) was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity‘s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Sol 1931 (back in January). To the right, looming in the background, is Mount Sharp, the central peak in the Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed back in 2012). Since September of 2014, the rover has been climbing this feature and collecting drill samples to get a better understanding of Mars’ geological history.

Image of the mosaic taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover in January of 2018 (Sol 1931). Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In the center of the image is the rover’s next destination and scientific target. This area, which scientists have been studying from orbit, is rich in clay minerals, which indicates that water once existed there. In the past, the Curiosity rover found evidence of clay minerals on the floor of the Gale Crater. This confirmed that the crater was a lake bed between 3.3 and 3.8 billion years ago.

Mount Sharp, meanwhile, is believed to have formed from sedimentary material that was deposited over a period of about 2 billion years. By examining patches of clay minerals that extend up the mountain’s side, scientists hope to gain insight into the history of Mars since then. These include how long water may have persisted on its surface and how the planet made the transition to the cold and desiccated place it is today.

The Curiosity science team is eager to analyze rock samples pulled from the clay-bearing rocks seen in the center of the image, and not just because of the results they could provide. Recently, the science team developed a new drilling technique to compensate for the failure of a faulty motor (which allows the drill to extend and retract). When the rover begins to drill again, it will be the first time since December 2016.

All told, the rover has spent a total of about 2055 Earth days (5 years and 230 days), which means Curiosity now ranks third behind the Opportunity (5170 days; 5031 sols) and the Spirit rovers (2269 days; 2208 sols) in terms of total time spent on Mars. Since it arrived on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has also traveled a total distance of 18.7 km (11.6 mi) and studied more than 180 meters (600 feet) vertical feet of rock.

But above all, Curiosity‘s greatest achievement has been the discovery that Mars once had all the necessary conditions and chemical ingredients to support microbial life. Based on their findings, Curiosity‘s international science team has concluded that habitable conditions must have lasted for at least millions of years before Mars’ atmosphere was stripped away.

Finding the evidence of this, and how the transition occurred, will not only advance our understanding of the history of Mars, but of the Solar System itself. It also might provide clues as to how Mars could be made into a warmer, wetter environment again someday!

Further Reading: NASA