When NASA sent the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to the red planet in 2006, the spacecraft took an instrument with it called CRISM—Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars. CRISM’s job is to produce maps of Mars’ surface mineralogy. It’s been an enormous success, but unfortunately, the loss of its last cryocooler in 2017 means the spectrometer can only undertake limited observations.
But CRISM is going out with a bang, creating one final image of the surface of Mars that NASA will release in batches over the next six months.
NASA’s Perseverance Rover is busy exploring Jezero Crater on Mars. Part of its mission is to collect samples for retrieval by a future mission. NASA and the ESA haven’t determined where the sample return mission will land yet.
That depends on the Perseverance mission and how it spends the rest of its time on Mars. But we know of one possible—albeit ambitious—landing spot: just west of Jezero Crater.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been in orbit around Mars for almost 14 years. It carries a variety of instruments with it, including the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument. That instrument has collected thousands of images of Mars.
NASA’s truly outstanding Opportunity rover continues “making new discoveries about ancient Mars” as she commemorates 13 Years since bouncing to a touchdown on Mars, in a feat that is “truly amazing” – the deputy chief scientist Ray Arvidson told Universe Today exclusively.
“Reaching the 13th year anniversary with a functioning rover making new discoveries about ancient Mars on a continuing basis is truly amazing,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, told Universe Today.
Put another way Opportunity is 13 YEARS into her 3 MONTH mission! And still going strong!
During the past year the world famous rover discovered “more extensive aqueous alteration within fractures and more mild alteration within the bedrock outcrops” at Endeavour crater, Arvidson elaborated.
And now she is headed to her next target – an ancient water carved gully!
The gully is situated about 0. 6 mile (1.6 km) south of the robots current location.
But to get there she first has to heroically ascend steep rocky slopes inclined over 20 degrees along the eroded craters western rim – and it’s no easy task! Slipping and sliding along the way and all alone on difficult alien terrain.
Furthermore she is 51 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols promised at the time of landing so long ago – roving the surface of the 4th rock from the Sun during her latest extended mission; EM #10.
How was this incredible accomplishment achieved?
“Simply a well-made and thoroughly tested American vehicle,” Arvidson responded.
The six wheeled rover landed on Mars on January 24, 2004 PST on the alien Martian plains at Meridiani Planum -as the second half of a stupendous sister act.
Her twin sister Spirit, had successfully touched down 3 weeks earlier on January 3, 2004 inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater and survived more than six years.
Opportunity concluded 2016 and starts 2017 marching relentlessly towards an ancient water carved gully along the eroded rim of vast Endeavour crater – the next science target on her heroic journey traversing across never before seen Red Planet terrains.
Huge Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
Throughout 2016 Opportunity was investigating the ancient, weathered slopes around the Marathon Valley location in Endeavour crater. The area became a top priority science destination after the slopes were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on data from the CRISM spectrometer circling overhead aboard a NASA Mars orbiter.
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.
Opportunity was descending down Marathon Valley the past year to investigate the clay minerals formed in water. They are key to helping determine the habitability of the Red Planet when it was warmer and wetter billions of years ago.
What did Opportunity accomplish scientifically at Marathon Valley during 2016?
“Key here is the more extensive aqueous alteration within fractures and more mild alteration within the bedrock outcrops,” Arvidson explained to me.
“Fractures have red pebbles enhanced in Al and Si (likely by leaching out more soluble elements), hematite, and in the case of our scuffed fracture, enhanced sulfate content with likely Mg sulfates and other phases. Also the bedrock is enriched in Mg and S relative to other Shoemaker rocks and these rocks are the smectite carrier as observed from CRISM ATO data.”
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 drove downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim.
Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.
“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” explains Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.
Opportunity has been climbing up very steep and challenging slopes to reach the top of the crater rim. Then she will drive south to Cape Byron and the gully system.
“We have had some mobility issues climbing steep, rocky slopes. Lots of slipping and skidding, but evaluating the performance of the rover on steep, rocky and soil-covered slopes was one of the approved extended mission objectives,” Arvidson explained.
“We are heading out of Cape Tribulation, driving uphill to the southwest to reach the Meridiani plains and then to drive to the western side of Cape Byron to the head of a gully system.”
What’s ahead for 2017? What’s the importance of exploring the gully?
“Finish up work on Cape Tribulation, traverse to the head of the gully system and head downhill into one or more of the gullies to characterize the morphology and search for evidence of deposits,” Arvidson elaborated.
“Hopefully test among dry mass movements, debris flow, and fluvial processes for gully formation. The importance is that this will be the first time we will acquire ground truth on a gully system that just might be formed by fluvial processes. Will search for cross bedding, gravel beds, fining or coarsening upward sequences, etc., to test among hypotheses.”
How long will it take to reach the gully?
“Months to the gully,” replied Arvidson. After arriving at the top of the crater rim, the rover will actually drive part of the way on the Martian plains again during the southward trek to the gully.
“And we will be driving on the plains to drive relatively long distances with an intent of getting to the gully well before the winter season.”
As of today, Jan 31, 2017, long lived Opportunity has survived 4630 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet.
Opportunity has taken over 216,700 images and traversed over 27.26 miles (43.87 kilometers) – more than a marathon.
See our updated route map below. It shows the context of the rovers over 13 year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.
The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone on November 6, 2016 (Sol 4546).
The power output from solar array energy production is currently 416 watt-hours, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter in 2017. It will count as Opportunities 8th winter on Mars.
Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
NASA’s world famous Mars Exploration RoverOpportunity continues blazing a daily trail of unprecedented science first’s, still swinging her robotic arm robustly into action at a Martian “Mining Zone” on the 12th anniversary of her hair-raising Red Planet touchdown this week, a top rover scientist told Universe Today.
As NASA’s Opportunity rover approaches the 12th anniversary of landing on Mars, her greatest science discoveries yet are likely within grasp in the coming months since she has successfully entered Marathon Valley from atop a Martian mountain and is now prospecting downhill for outcrops of water altered clay minerals.
The valley is the gateway to alien terrain holding significant caches of the water altered minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed. But as anyone who’s ever climbed down a steep hill knows, you have to be extra careful not to slip and slide and break something, no matter how beautiful the view is – Because no one can hear you scream on Mars! See the downward looking valley view above.
After a years long Martian mountain climbing and mountain top exploratory trek, Opportunity entered a notch named Marathon Valley from atop a breathtakingly scenic ridge overlook atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long and cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east. Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.
See our photo mosaics illustrating Opportunity’s view around and about Marathon Valley and Endeavour Crater, created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
Our mosaic above affords a downward looking view from Marathon Valley on Sol 4144, Sept. 20. It uniquely combines raw images from the hazcam and navcam cameras to gain a wider perspective panoramic view of the steep walled valley, and also shows the rover at work stretching out the robotic arm to potential clay mineral rock targets at left. Opportunity’s shadow and wheel tracks are visible at right.
In late July, Opportunity began the decent into the valley from the western edge and started investigating scientifically interesting rock targets by conducting a month’s long “walkabout” survey ahead of the upcoming frigid Martian winter – the seventh since touchdown at Meridiani Planum in January 2004.
The walkabout was done to identify targets of interest for follow up scrutiny in and near the valley floor. Opportunity’s big sister Curiosity conducted a similarly themed “walkabout” at the base of Mount Sharp near her landing site located on the opposite side of the Red Planet.
“The valley is somewhat like a chute directed into the crater floor, which is a long ways below. So it is somewhat scary, but also pretty interesting scenery,” writes Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in a mission update.
“Its named Marathon Valley because the rover traveled one marathon’s distance to reach it,” Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University told Universe Today.
The NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968. Opportunity has now driven over 26.46 miles (42.59 kilometers) over nearly a dozen Earth years.
Now for the first time in history, a human emissary has arrived to conduct an up close inspection of and elucidate clues into this regions potential regarding Martian habitability.
The ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley hold a motherlode of ‘phyllosilicate’ clay minerals, based on data obtained from the extensive Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.
Initially the science team was focused on investigating the northern region of the valley while the sun was still higher in the sky and generating more power for research activities from the life giving solar arrays.
“We have detective work to do in Marathon Valley for many months ahead,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis.
But now that the rover is descending into a narrow valley with high walls, the rovers engineering handlers back on Earth have to exercise added caution regarding exactly where they send the Opportunity on her science forays during each sols drive, in order to maintain daily communications.
The high walls to the north and west of the valley ridgeline has already caused several communications blackouts for the “low-elevation Ultra-High-Frequency (UHF) relay passes to the west,” according to the JPL team controlling the rover.
Indeed on two occasions in mid September – coinciding with the days just before and after our Sol 4144 (Sept. 20) photo mosaic view above, “no data were received as the orbiter’s flight path was below the elevation on the valley ridgeline.
On Sept 17 and Sept. 21 “the high ridgeline of the valley obscured the low-elevation pass” and little to no data were received. However the rover did gather imagery and spectroscopic measurements for later transmission.
Now that winter is approaching the rover is moving to the southern side of Marathon Valley to soak up more of the sun’s rays from the sun-facing slope and continue research activities.
“During the Martian late fall and winter seasons Opportunity will conduct its measurements and traverses on the southern side of the valley,” says Arvidson.
“When spring arrives the rover will return to the valley floor for detailed measurements of outcrops that may host the clay minerals.”
The shortest-daylight period of this seventh Martian winter for Opportunity will come in January 2016.
As of today, Sol 4168, Oct, 15, 2015 Opportunity has taken over 206,300 images and traversed over 26.46 miles (42.59 kilometers).
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene.
The image is produced by draping an orthorectified Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false color image on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM). This model was produced by researchers at the University of Arizona, much like the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). The vertical exaggeration is 1.5.
NASA and Mars planetary scientists announced today (Sept. 28) that salty “liquid water flows intermittently” across multiple spots on the surface of today’s Mars – trumpeting a major scientific discovery with far reaching implications regarding the search for life beyond Earth and bolstering the chances for the possible existence of present day Martian microbes.
Utilizing spectroscopic measurements and imaging gathered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers found the first strong evidence confirming that briny water flows on the Red Planet today along dark streaks moving downhill on crater slopes and mountain sides, during warmer seasons.
“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Today we announce that under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, NASA Planetary Science Director at NASA Headquarters, at a media briefing held today, Sept 28.
“When you look at Earth, water is an essential ingredient. Everywhere we go where there’s liquid water, whether its deep in the Earth or in the arid regions, we find life. This is tremendously exciting.”
“We haven’t been able to answer the question – does life exist beyond Earth? But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have great opportunities to be in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that,” Green elaborated.
“Water! Strong evidence that liquid water flows on present-day Mars,” NASA officials tweeted about the discovery.
The evidence comes in the form of the detection of mysterious dark streaks, as long as 100 meters, showing signatures of hydrated salt minerals periodically flowing in liquid water down steep slopes on the Red Planet that “appear to ebb and flow over time.”
The source of the water is likely from the shallow subsurface or possibly absorbed from the atmosphere.
Water is a key prerequisite for the formation and evolution of life as we know it. So the new finding significantly bolsters the chances that present day extant life could exist on the Red Planet.
“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”
“This increases the chance that life could exist on Mars today,” noted Grunsfeld.
The data were gathered by and the conclusions are based on using two scientific instruments – the high resolution imaging spectrometer on MRO known as High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), as well as MRO’s mineral mapping Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).
The mysterious dark streaks of downhill flows are known as recurring slope lineae (RSL).
They were first detected in 2010 at dozens of sites on the sun facing slopes of deep craters by Lujendra Ojha, then a University of Arizona undergraduate student.
The new finding is highly significant because until today’s announcement, there was no strong evidence that liquid water could actually exist on the Martian surface because the atmospheric pressure was thought to be far too low – its less than one percent of Earth’s.
The flow of water is occasional and not permanent, seasonally variable and dependent on having just the right mix of atmospheric, temperature and surface conditions with salt deposits on Mars.
Portions of Mars were covered with an ocean of water billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and more hospitable to life. But it underwent a dramatic climate change some 3 billion years ago and lost most of that water.
The RSL with flowing water appear in at least three different locations on Mars – including Hale crater, Horowitz crater and Palikir crater – when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius). They appear during warm seasons, fade in cooler seasons and disappear during colder times.
Pure surface water ice would simply sublimate and evaporate away as the temperature rises. Mixing in surface salts lowers the melting point of ice, thereby allowing the water to potentially liquefy on Mars surface for a certain period of time rather than sublimating rapidly away.
“These are dark streaks that form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear in the fall,” said Michael Meyer lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, at the media briefing.
Years of painstaking effort and laboratory work was required to verify and corroborate the finding of flowing liquid water.
“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Meyer. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”
Along with the media announcement, the researchers published their findings today in a refereed scientific paper in the Sept. 28 issue of Nature Geoscience.
“We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks,” said Lujendra Ojha, now at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, and lead author of the Sept. 28 publication in Nature Geoscience.
The scientists “interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates.”
Ojha said the chemical signatures from CRISM were most consistent with the detection of mixtures of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate, based on lab experiments.
“Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius).”
Perchlorates have previously been detected in Martian soil by two of NASA’s surface missions – the Phoenix lander and the Curiosity rover. There is also some evidence that NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts.
On Earth concentration of perchlorates are found in deserts.
This also marks the first time perchlorates have been identified from Mars orbit.
So NASA astronaut Mark Kelly exclaimed that he was also super excited about the findings, from his perch serving as Commander aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where he is a member of the first ever “1 Year ISS Mission Crew” aimed at learning how the human body will adapt to the long term missions required to send astronauts to Mars and back.
“One reason why NASA’s discovery of liquid water on #Mars is so exciting: we know anywhere there’s water on Earth, there’s some form of life,” Kelly tweeted today from on board the ISS, upon hearing today’s news.
The discovery of liquid water on Mars could also be a boon to future astronauts who could use it as a natural resource to ‘live off the land’ for sustenance and to make rocket fuel.
“If going to Mars on my Year In Space, I’d arrive soon to find water! H20 > rocket fuel, which means I could find my way back home too!,” Kelly wrote on his Facebook page.
“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” Ojha explained.
“Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
“Thousands of meteors per hour would have been visible — truly astounding to the human eye.” That’s Nick Schneider’s description of what you and I would have seen standing on Mars during Comet Siding Spring’s close flyby last month. “It would have been really mind-blowing,” he added. Schneider is instrument lead for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS).
He and a group of scientists who work as lead investigators for instruments on the MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft shared the latest results from the comet flyby during a media teleconference earlier today. There were many surprises. Would we expect anything less from a comet?
Here’s a summary of the results:
A very dusty ice ball – The comet’s dust tail and the amount of dust in its coma were much larger than expected, prompting Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, to remark: “It makes me very happy we hid them (the spacecraft) on the backside of Mars. That really saved them.” Siding Spring dumped several tons of fine dust into the Martian atmosphere prompting a spectacular meteor shower and possibly causing a yellow, twilight afterglow above the Curiosity landing site from vaporizing sodium atoms contained in the minerals. That, and dust in the mid-levels of the atmosphere at the time contributed to the rover’s difficulty in getting good photos of the comet itself. Scientists are still examining the images.
Chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere changed – Dust vaporized in the intense meteor shower produced a striking increase in the amount of magnesium, iron and others metals in Mars’ upper atmosphere. “We were pressed back in our chairs,” said Mike Schneider. The bombardment created a temporary new layer of comet-tainted air and may have acted as condensation nuclei for the formation of high-altitude clouds. MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) recorded huge spikes in the levels of eight different metals during the comet’s passage and then trailed off a day or so later. “They came to MAVEN as a free sample from no less than an Oort Cloud comet,” said Mehdi Benna, instrument scientist for MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer.
Flaming comet dust creates new ionospheric layer – Comet dust slamming into the atmosphere at 125,000 mph (56 km/sec) knocked electrons loose from atoms in the thin Martian air 50-60 miles (80-100 km) high, ionizing them and creating a very dense ionization layer in the planet’s lower ionosphere seven hours after the comet’s closest approach. Normally, Mars ionosphere is only seen on the dayside of the planet, but even when the MARSIS instrumenton Mars Express beamed radio waves through the atmosphere on the nightside of the planet, it picked up a very strong signal.
Nucleus spins once during your work day – Comet Siding Spring’s icy core spins once every 8 hours and its irregular shape causes strong variations in the comet’s brightness. The comet’s size appears less certain – at least for the moment – with estimates anywhere between a few hundred meters to 2 km (1.2 miles). More analysis on images taken by MRO’s HiRISE camera should narrow that number soon.
The scientists involved in the encounter couldn’t be happier with how the instruments functioned and the amount of hard data returned. Said Jim Green: “We are so lucky to observe this once-in-a-lifetime event.” How true when you consider that it takes about 8 million years for a comet from the Oort Cloud, that vast reservoir of frozen comets extending nearly a light year from the Sun, to get here in the first place. Nick Schneider put it another way:
“Not only is this a free sample of the Oort Cloud in Mars’ atmosphere, but it gives us a chance to learn more about Mars itself.”
If you’d like to listen in to the hour-long teleconference at any time, it’ll be up for the next week or so HERE.