Don’t Forget, Curiosity’s Sister Rover is Flying to Mars in 2020

Next summer, NASA will be sending it’s Mars 2020 rover to the Red Planet. In addition to being the second rover to go as part of the Mars Exploration Program, it will be one of eight functioning missions exploring the atmosphere and surface of the planet. These include the recently-arrived InSight lander, the Curiosity rover – Mars 2020s sister-mission – and
the Opportunity rover (which NASA recently lost contact with and retired).

As the launch date gets closer and closer, NASA is busily making all the final preparations for this latest member of the Mars exploration team. In addition to selecting a name (which will be selected from an essay contest), this includes finalizing the spacecraft that will take the rover on its seven-month journey to Mars. Recently, NASA posted images of the spacecraft being inspected at NASA JPL’s Space Simulator Facility (SFF) in Pasadena, California.

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NASA Senior Engineer Kobie Boykins talks About Exploring Mars. And I was There to See it!

As part of National Geographic Live, Chief Engineer Kobie Boykins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been touring the world of late. As part of the program’s goal of having featured speakers share their behind-the-scenes stories, Boykins has been showcasing the accomplishments of NASA’s Mars robotic exploration programs – of which he played a major role.

This week, his tour brought him to my hometown, where he delivered a presentation to a packed house at the Royal Theatre here in of Victoria, BC. Titled “Exploring Mars”, Boykins shared personal stories of what it was like to be an integral part of the team that created the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. I had the honor of attending the event, and being able to do a little Q&A with him after the show.

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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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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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As the Martian Dust Storm Subsides, There’s Still No Word From Opportunity

Martian dust storms are a pretty common occurrence, and generally happen whenever the southern hemisphere is experiencing summer. Though they can begin quite suddenly, these storms typically stay contained to a local area and last only about a few weeks. However, on occasion, Martian dust storms can grow to become global phenomena, covering the entire planet.

One such storm began back in May, starting in the Arabia Terra region and then spreading to become a planet-wide dust storm within a matter of weeks. This storm caused the skies over the Perseverance Valley, where the Opportunity rover is stationed, to become darkened, forcing the rover into hibernation mode. And while no word has been heard from the rover, NASA recently indicated that the dust storm will dissipate in a matter of weeks.

The update was posted by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which oversees operations for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, as well as NASA’s three Mars orbiters (Mars Odyssey, MRO, and MAVEN) and the Insight lander (which will land on Mars in 109 days). According to NASA, the storm is beginning to end, though it may be weeks or months before the skies are clear enough for Opportunity to exit its hibernation mode.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As noted, dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted 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. 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.

Planet-wide dust storms are a relatively rare occurrence on Mars, taking place every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years). Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001). In 2007, a similar storm took place that darkened the skies over where Opportunity was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications.

While smaller and less intense the storm that took place back in 2007, the current storm intensified to the point where it led to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm. In effect, the amount of dust in the atmosphere created a state of perpetual night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley, which forced the rover’s science team to suspend operations.

Simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s view in the global dust storm as of June 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

This is due to the fact that Opportunity – unlike the Curiosity rover, which runs on nuclear-powered battery – relies on solar panels to keep its batteries charged. But beyond suspending operations, the prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running – which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars’ atmosphere.

Luckily, NASA scientists who have been observing the global event indicated that, as of last Monday (July 23rd), more dust was falling out of the planet’s thin air than was being raised into it. This means that the global weather event has reached its decay phase, where dust-raising events either become confined to smaller areas or stop altogether.

Using its Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) also noted surface features were beginning to reappear and that temperatures in the middle atmosphere were no longer rising – which indicates less solar heating by dust. The Curiosity rover also noted a decline in dust above its position in the Gale Crater on the other side of the planet.

This is certainly good new for the Opportunity rover, though scientists expect that it will still be a few weeks or months before its solar panels can draw power again and communications can be reestablished. The last time communications took place with the rover was on June 10th, but if there’s one thing the Opportunity rover is known for, it’s endurance!

When the rover first landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only expected to last ninety Martian days (sols), which is the equivalent of about 92.5 Earth days. However, as of the writing of this article, the rover has endured for 14 years and 195 days, effectively exceeding its operational lifespan 55 times over. So if any rover can survive this enduring dust storm, its Opportunity!

In the meantime, multiple NASA missions are actively monitoring the storm in support of Opportunity and to learn more about the mechanics of Martian storms. By learning more about what causes these storms, and how smaller ones can merge to form global events, future robotic missions, crewed missions and (quite possibly) Martian colonists will be better prepared to deal with them.

Further Reading: NASA

This Stunning Photo Shows the Martian Dust Storm as it was Just Getting Going

The weather patterns on Mars are rather fascinating, owing to their particular similarities and differences with those of Earth. For one, the Red Planet experiences dust storms that are not dissimilar to storms that happen regularly here on Earth. Due to the lower atmospheric pressure, these storms are much less powerful than hurricanes on Earth, but can grow so large that they cover half the planet.

Recently, the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter captured images of the towering cloud front of a dust storm located close to Mars’ northern polar region. This storm, which began in April 2018, took place in the region known as Utopia Planitia, close to the ice cap at the Martian North Pole. It is one of several that have been observed on Mars in recent months, one which is the most severe to take place in years.

The images (shown above and below) were created using data acquired by the Mars ExpressHigh Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The camera system is operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and managed to capture images of this storm front – which would prove to be the harbinger of the Martian storm season – on April 3rd, 2018, during its 18,039th orbit of Mars.

Anaglyph 3D image of the dust storm front forming above the subpolar plains in northern Mars. Credit: Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

This storm was one of several small-scale dust storms that have been observered in recent months on Mars. A much larger storm emerged further southwest in the Arabia Terra region, which began in May of 2018 and developed into a planet-wide dust storm within several weeks.

Dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted 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. This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increases surface pressure, which enhances the storms by helping to suspend dust particles in the air. Though they are common and can begin suddenly, Martian dust storms typically stay localized and last only a few weeks.

While local and regional dust storms are frequent, only a few of them develop into global phenomena. These storms only occur every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years) and can persist for several months. Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001).

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In 2007, a large storm covered the planet and darkened the skies over where the Opportunity rover was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications. The most recent storm, which began back in May, has been less intense, but managed to create a state of perpetual night over Opportunity’s location in Perseverance Valley.

As a result, the Opportunity team placed the rover into hibernation mode and shut down communications in June 2018. Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity rover continues to explore the surface of Mars, thanks to its radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which does not rely on solar panels. By autumn, scientists expect the dust storm will weaken significantly, and are confident Opportunity will survive.

According to NASA, the dust storm will also not affect the landing of the InSight Lander, which is scheduled to take place on November 26th, 2018. In the meantime, this storm is being monitored by all five active ESA and NASA spacecraft around Mars, which includes the 2001 Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Mars Express, and the Exomars Trace Gas Orbiter.

Understanding how global storms form and evolve on Mars will be critical for future solar-powered missions. It will also come in handy when crewed missions are conducted to the planet, not to mention space tourism and colonization!

Further Reading: DLR