Still no Word from Opportunity

Opportunity rover looks south from the top of Perseverance Valley along the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars in this partial self portrait including the rover deck and solar panels. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4736 (20 May 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Could this be the end of the Opportunity rover? There’s been no signal from the rover since last summer, when a massive global dust storm descended on it. But even though the craft has been silent and unreachable for six-and-a-half months, NASA hasn’t given up.

When Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum on Mars in January 2004, it’s planned mission length was only 90 days. Since that day, which seems so long ago now, 15 years have passed, and over one billion people have been born on Earth. Six months ago, the rover stopped working, maybe for good. So by every measure, Opportunity has been a stunning success.

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This Crater on Mars Traps the Cold, and Remains Filled With Ice, All Year Round

On June 2nd, 2003, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission left Earth to begin its journey to Mars. Six months later (on December 25th) the spacecraft fired its main engine and entered orbit around Mars. This Christmas will therefore mark the fifteenth anniversary of the orbiter’s arrival and all the observations it has made of the Red Planet since then.

Appropriately, the Mars Express mission was able to commemorate this occasion by capturing some beautiful photos of a Martian crater that remains filled with ice all year round. This feature is known as the Korolev crater, which measures 82 km (51 mi) in diameter and is located in the northern lowlands, just south of the northern polar ice cap.

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InSight Just Placed its Seismometer onto the Surface of Mars to Listen for Marsquakes

NASA's Mars InSight lander has deployed its seismometer on the surface of Mars, marking an important milestone for the mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight lander has deployed its first instrument on the surface of Mars. On December 19th, the stationary lander used its robotic arm to deploy the SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure), marking the first time a seismometer has been placed on the surface of another planet. This is a milestone for the mission, and one that comes well ahead of schedule.

InSight landed on Mars at Elysium Planitia on November 26th. Since then, it’s been checking out its immediate surroundings with its cameras to find the perfect spot to deploy the seismometer, and its other deployable instrument, the HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package.) Mission planners allocated several weeks for instrument site selection, so this is well ahead of schedule.
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Remember the Discovery of Methane in the Martian Atmosphere? Now Scientists Can’t Find any Evidence of it, at all

In 2003, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Center made the first-ever detection of trace amounts of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, a find which was confirmed a year later by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. In December of 2014, the Curiosity rover detected a tenfold spike of methane at the base of Mount Sharp, and later uncovered evidence that Mars has a seasonal methane cycle, where levels peak in the late northern summer.

Since it’s discovery, the existence of methane on Mars has been considered one of the strongest lines of evidence for the existence of past or present life. So it was quite the downer last week (on Dec. 12th) when the science team behind one of the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spectrometers announced that they had found no traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere.

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Of Course You’ll Want to See InSight’s First Selfie.

InSight's first full selfie on Mars. The selfie was taken on Dec. 6th, and is a mosaic of 11 images taken with its Instrument Deployment Camera on the elbow of its robotic arm. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight has been on the Martian surface for almost three weeks, prepping itself for all the science it’s going to do. But in the meantime, it’s doing what any self-respecting, modern robotic lander does: Taking pictures of itself. And now NASA has released InSight’s first selfie for all the lander’s adoring fans and Instagram followers.

InSight is on Mars to study the interior of the rocky planet, and provide clues into how rocky planets form, both here in our Solar System, and in distant systems. It’s got a suite of instruments to do that with, including a device that will drill 5m (16 ft.) deep into the planet to measure how heat flows through the core of Mars. But it’s taking a cautious approach to that, using its time wisely to select the perfect spot to deploy its instruments.

In the meantime, holiday snaps!

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InSight Uses its Seismometer to “Hear” the Sound of Wind on Mars

Just two weeks ago, NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander touched down on the surface of Mars. In the hours that followed, mission controllers at NASA-JPL received confirmation that the lander had deployed its solar arrays and was commencing scientific operations.

And in what was sure to be a treat for space exploration enthusiasts, the lander recently provided the first ever experience of what it “sounds” like to be on Mars. The sounds were caught by an air pressure sensor inside the lander and the seismometer instrument that is awaiting deployment to the surface. Together, they recorded the low rumble caused by Martian winds that blew around the lander’s location on Dec. 1st.

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InSight’s Robot Arm is Ready to go to Work

This image was taken by the InSight Lander's Instrument Deployment Camera mounted on the lander's robotic arm. The stowed grapple on the end of the arm is folded in, but it will unfold and be used to deploy the lander's science instrument. The copper-colored hexagonal object is the protective cover for the seismometer, and the grey dome behind it is a wind and thermal shield, which will be placed over the seismometer after its deployed. The black cyliner on the left is the heat probe, which will drill up to 5 meters into the Martian surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some new images sent home by the InSight Lander show the robotic arm and the craft’s instruments waiting on deck, on the surface of Mars. The lander is still having its systems tested, and isn’t quite ready to get to work. It’ll use its arm to deploy its science instruments, including a drill that will penetrate up to 5 meters (16 ft.) deep into the Martian surface.

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Lakes on Mars Filled up so Quickly They Would Overflow Catastrophically Carving Canyons Within Weeks

Roughly 4.2 billion years ago, Mars was a much different place than it is today. It’s atmosphere was thicker and warmer and its surface much wetter. Unfortunately, the planet’s atmosphere was stripped away by solar wind over the next 500 million years, causing the surface to become so cold and dry that it makes Antarctica look balmy by comparison!

As a result, most of Mars’ water is currently locked away in its polar ice caps. But billions of years ago, water still flowed freely across the surface, forming ancient rivers and lakes. In fact, new research led by The University of Texas at Austin indicates that sometimes these lakes would fill so fast that they would overflow, causing massive floods that had a drastic impact on the surface.

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It’s Decided, the Mars 2020 Rover Will Land in Jezero Crater

After 5 years and 60 candidates, NASA has chosen Jezero crater as the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University

Jezero crater is the landing spot for NASA’s upcoming 2020 rover. The crater is a rich geological site, and the 45 km wide (28 mile) impact crater contains at least five different types of rock that the rover will sample. Some of the landform features in the crater are 3.6 billion years old, making the site an ideal place to look for signs of ancient habitability.

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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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