How to Prevent our Spacecraft From Contaminating Mars

Mars has become something of an international playground over the past twenty years. There are currently eleven missions from five space agencies exploring the Red Planet, a combination of orbiters, landers, and rovers. Several additional robotic missions will be leaving for Mars in the next few years, and crewed missions are planned for the 2030s. Because of this increase in traffic, NASA and other space agencies are naturally worried about “planetary protection.”

With this in mind, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently released a new report that identified several criteria for future robotic missions to Mars. These would reduce these missions’ “bioburden” requirements, which are designed to prevent the unintentional contamination of the Red Planet with Earth-based organisms. Specifically, the report considers how Earth organisms would interfere with searches for indigenous life on the planet.

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‘Glowing’ Sand Dune Erosion on the Side of a Martian Crater

While Mars is known as the Red Planet, a variety of colors can be found on the planet’s surface. Just like on Earth, the array of colors we can see in images from Mars comes from the diverse minerals on or just under the surface.

In the case of this picture, subsurface minerals show up in gullies that have eroded down the side of a a giant sand dune.   

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Here’s Perseverance, Seen From Space

The Mars Perseverance rover is on the move! The HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the rover from above, the first view since shortly after the rover landed in February 2021. Perseverance appears as the white speck in the center of the image above, in the the “South Séítah” area of Mars’ Jezero Crater.

The HiRISE team said the rover is about 700 meters (2,300 feet) from its original landing site.

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Communication With Mars is About to Become Impossible (for two Weeks)

Every two years, Mars enters what is known as a “Solar Conjunction,” where its orbit takes it behind the Sun relative to Earth. During these periods, the hot plasma regularly expelled by the Sun’s corona can cause interference with radio signals transmitted between Earth and Mars. To avoid signal corruption and the unexpected behaviors that could result, NASA and other space agencies declare a moratorium on communications for two weeks.

What this means is that between Oct. 2nd and Oct. 16th, all of NASA’s Mars missions will experiencing what is known as a “commanding moratorium.” This will consist of NASA sending a series of simple commands to its missions in orbit, which will then be dispatched to landers and rovers on the surface. These simple tasks will keep all of the robotic Martian explorers busy until regular communications can be established.

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Mars has Seasons, and They Might Have Revealed Where it’s Hiding its Water

The search for water on Mars has consumed a lot of data collection and research time.  Underground lakes have been found and then discounted again.  Melted ice has been proposed and then dismissed again.  All this attention focuses on one of the most important resources available to any future Martian explorers.  Water is critical to human life and can also be split into two crucial components for rocket fuel.  So finding an easily accessible cache of it is a prerequisite to any serious human mission to the red planet that expects to return its crew back home.

A team from the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) thinks they might have found easily accessible reservoirs of water ice at much more temperate latitudes than had been traditionally thought.  Finding any significant water source near the equator would be cause for celebration, as most large known water deposits are located near the poles, which is even more inhospitable to human exploration than the rest of the planet.  

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How Much Carbon Dioxide Snow Falls Every Winter on Mars?

Like Earth, Mars experiences climatic variations during the course of a year because of the obliquity of its rotational axis. This leads to the annual deposition/sublimation of the CO2 ice/snow, which results in the formation of the seasonal polar caps. Similarly, these variations in temperature result in interaction between the atmosphere and the polar ice caps, which has a seasonal effect on surface features.

On Mars, however, things work a little differently. In addition to water ice, a significant percentage of the Martian polar ice caps are made up of frozen carbon dioxide (“dry ice”). Recently, an international team of scientists used data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) mission to measure how the planet’s polar ice caps grow and recede annually. Their results could provide new insights into how the Martian climate varies due to seasonal change.

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This is the Reactor That Could Make it Possible to Return From Mars

Remember when engineers proposed one-way trips to Mars, because round trips are just too expensive to bring people back to Earth again?

Getting people home from Mars can only happen in two ways. One is to lug all the return fuel with you when you launch from Earth, which is prohibitively difficult and expensive. The second way is to make the return fuel in-situ from Martian resources. But how?

A group of researchers from the University of Cincinnati propose using a type of reactor that was used from 2010-2017 aboard the International Space Station, which scrubbed the carbon dioxide from air the astronauts breathe and generated water to drink, with methane as a biproduct. On Mars, this reactor, called a Sabatier reactor, could take carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere and create methane for fuel.

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NASA’s InSight Experiences its Most Powerful Marsquake so far: Magnitude 4.2, Lasting 90 Minutes

NASA’s InSight lander has detected one of the most powerful and longest-lasting quakes on the Red Planet since the start of its mission. The big marsquake happened on Sept. 18 on Earth, which happened to coincide with InSight’s 1,000th Martian day, or sol since it landed on Mars.

The temblor is estimated to be about a magnitude 4.2 and shook for an unthinkable hour-and-a-half! For comparison, on Earth, most quakes last for just a few seconds, although two (one in 1960 and another in 2004) lasted for about 10 minutes. Scientists are still studying the data collected on this marsquake to determine why (and how) it endured for such a long time.

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Mars Was Too Small to Ever be Habitable

Mars and water. Those words can trigger an avalanche of speculation, evidence, hypotheses, and theories. Mars has some water now, but it’s frozen, and most of it’s buried. There’s only a tiny bit of water vapour in the atmosphere. Evidence shows that it was much wetter in the past. In its ancient past, the planet may have had a global ocean. But was it habitable at one time?

A new study says it wasn’t. Mars lost most of its water, and it’s all to do with the planet’s size.

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