Mars Has Bizarre Dunes Thanks to its Low Atmospheric Pressure and Strange Winds

Image of sand ripples in the Bagnold dune field on lower Mount Sharp taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover in March 2017. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, an international team of researchers led by Stanford University used artificial intelligence (AI) to examine the formation of sand ripples and sand dunes of two distinct sizes on Mars. These formations might help scientists better understand Mars’ atmospheric history through examining the fossilized forms of these aeolian (windblown) structures using statistical analyses.

Continue reading “Mars Has Bizarre Dunes Thanks to its Low Atmospheric Pressure and Strange Winds”

Curiosity Arrives in a Salty Region of Mars. Was it Left Over From a Dying Sea?

A Mastcam image from the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover on Sol 3609 of its mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.

The Curiosity rover has now reached its primary target on Mount Sharp on Mars, the mountain in the middle of Gale Crater the rover has been climbing since 2014. This target is not the summit, but a region over 600 meters (2,000 feet) up the mountain that planetary geologists have long anticipated reaching.

Known as the “sulfate-bearing unit,” the region is a boundary between the rocks that saw a lot of water in their history and those that didn’t; a possible shoreline, if you will. That boundary is already providing insights into Mars’ transition from a wet planet to dry, filling in a key gap in the understanding of the planet’s history.  

Continue reading “Curiosity Arrives in a Salty Region of Mars. Was it Left Over From a Dying Sea?”

The “Doorway on Mars” is More Like a Dog Door

Mars Curiosity rover took a panorama of this rock cliff during its trip across Mount Sharp on Mars. Circled is the location of a so-called "doorway on Mars." Courtesy NASA/JPL/Mars Curiosity team.
Mars Curiosity rover took a panorama of this rock cliff during its trip across Mount Sharp on Mars. Circled is the location of a so-called “doorway on Mars.” Courtesy NASA/JPL/Mars Curiosity team.

Remember all the fuss about the “doorway on Mars” from just last week? Well, this week, NASA issued some more information about the rock mound where the Curiosity rover snapped a pic showing a fracture hole in the rock. It looks like a door, but it’s not.

Continue reading “The “Doorway on Mars” is More Like a Dog Door”

Eight Missions are Getting Extensions, Most Exciting: OSIRIS-REx is Going to Asteroid Apophis

An artist's illustration of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaching asteroid Bennu with its sampling instrument extended. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA has granted mission extensions to eight different planetary missions, citing the continued excellent operations of the spacecraft, but more importantly, the sustained scientific productivity of these missions, “and the potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.” Each mission will be extended for three more years.

One of the most exciting extensions gives a new mission to the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, sending it to one of the most infamous asteroids of them all, the potentially hazardous asteroid Apophis.

Continue reading “Eight Missions are Getting Extensions, Most Exciting: OSIRIS-REx is Going to Asteroid Apophis”

Curiosity is Going to Find a new Route Around This Tricky Patch Called “Gator-Back Terrain”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Right now, the Curiosity rover continues to climb Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), the central peak within the Gale Crater on Mars. This massive pile of rock and sediment was created over the course of 2 billion years by liquid water that flowed into the crater, creating a layered structure that stands around 5.5 km (18,000 ft) tall. Many of these layers were deposited when the crater is thought to have been a lakebed, which makes it a prime location to search for evidence of past life (and maybe present) on Mars.

Climbing this feature is hard work and can cause severe wear on Curiosity’s metal wheels. The rover began climbing the southern edge of “Greenheugh Pediment,” a gentle slope topped by sandstone rubble that scientists want to learn more about. A few weeks ago, the rover suddenly encountered a huge patch of wind-sharpened rocks known as ventifacts (aka. “gator back” terrain). This forced the mission team to plot an alternate route so that Curiosity can continue to get more life out of its wheels.

Continue reading “Curiosity is Going to Find a new Route Around This Tricky Patch Called “Gator-Back Terrain””

Strange Terraces on Mars are a Clear Signal of Sedimentary Rock

Sedimentary rock in Danielson Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona

If we’ve learned anything about Mars the past 2-3 decades from the various rovers, landers and orbiters we’ve sent to the Red Planet, it’s that the planet’s geologic history is much more complicated and diverse than what we thought.

This picture from the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows fractured sedimentary rock inside a crater called Danielson. Sedimentary rock is a sure sign that this planet was active in the past. The fracturing, layering and terrace-like structures suggests a long-term watery history in this region.

Continue reading “Strange Terraces on Mars are a Clear Signal of Sedimentary Rock”

Curiosity Finds a Bizarre Rock on Mars that Looks Like a Flower

Curiosity rover obtained this 'Hand Lens' extreme close-up of one of the very small and rather unusual concretion features. This one has been called 'Blackthorn Salt'. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

The Curiosity rover took a picture of something pretty enticing this week on the surface of Mars. While the object in question looks like a tiny little flower or maybe even some type of organic feature, the rover team confirmed this object is a mineral formation, with delicate structures that formed by mineral precipitating from water. The size of this tiny object is just 1 centimeter.

Continue reading “Curiosity Finds a Bizarre Rock on Mars that Looks Like a Flower”

NASA and HeroX are Crowdsourcing the Search for Life on Mars

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin." The MAHLI camera on Curiosity's robotic arm took multiple images on Aug. 5, 2015, that were stitched together into this selfie. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For almost sixty years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next fifteen years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.

Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this Challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.

Continue reading “NASA and HeroX are Crowdsourcing the Search for Life on Mars”

Mont Mercou on Mars

Mont Mercou - MSL MastCam - Sols 3057 - 3061. Credit: NASA/JPL/ image processing by Kevin M. Gill.

Here are a few stunning views of the Curiosity Rover’s current location, Mont Mercou in Gale Crater on Mars. This towering outcrop provides a great look at layered sedimentary rock structures. On Earth, it’s common to find layered rock like the ones within this cliff face, especially where there were once lakes. The pancake-like layers of sediment are compressed and cemented to form a rock record of the planet’s history.

This color image is from one of our favorite image editors, Kevin Gill. He assembled 202 raw images taken by MSL’s MastCam between sols 3057 and 3061. You can see Kevin’s full mosaic on Flickr.

Continue reading “Mont Mercou on Mars”

Iceland is a Similar Environment to Ancient Mars

Credit: NASA/Michael Thorpe

Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s Twin” because of the similarities the two planets have. In fact, Mars is ranked as the second most-habitable planet in the Solar System behind Earth. And yet, ongoing studies have revealed that at one time, our two planets had even more in common. In fact, a recent study showed that at one time, the Gale Crater experienced conditions similar to what Iceland experiences today.

Since 2012, the Curiosity rover has been exploring the Gale Crater in search of clues as to what conditions were like there roughly 3 billion years ago (when Mars was warmer and wetter). After comparing evidence gathered by Curiosity to locations on Earth, a team from Rice University concluded that Iceland’s basaltic terrain and cool temperatures are the closest analog terrain to ancient Mars there is.

Continue reading “Iceland is a Similar Environment to Ancient Mars”