What do coal, crude oil, and truffles have in common? Go ahead. We’ll wait.
The answer is thiophenes, a molecule that behaves a lot like benzene. Crude oil, coal, and truffles all contain thiophenes. So do a few other substances. MSL Curiosity found thiophenes on Mars, and though that doesn’t conclusively prove that Mars once hosted life, its discovery is an important milestone for the rover. Especially since truffles are alive, and oil and coal used to be, sort of.
NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is heading to Mars soon to look for fossils. The ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars rover is heading to Mars in the same time-frame to carry out its own investigations into Martian habitability. To meet their mission objectives, the scientists working the missions will need to look at a lot of rocks and uncover and understand the clues those rocks hold.
To help those scientists prepare for the daunting task of analyzing and understanding Martian rocks from 160 million km (100 million miles) away, they’ve gone on a field trip to Australia to study stromatolites.
India is gearing up for its first ever space undertaking to the Red Planet – dubbed the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM – which is the brainchild of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO.
Among other objectives, MOM will conduct a highly valuable search for potential signatures of Martian methane – which could stem from either living or non living sources. The historic Mars bound probe also serves as a forerunner to bolder robotic exploration goals.
If all goes well India would become only the 4th nation or entity from Earth to survey Mars up close with spacecraft, following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).
The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) orbiter, also known as ‘Mangalyaan’, is slated to blast off as early as Oct. 28 atop India’s highly reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from a seaside launch pad in Srihanikota, India.
MOM is outfitted with an array of five science instruments including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both biological and geological sources.
ISRO officials are also paying close attention to the local weather to ascertain if remnants from Tropical Cyclone Phaillin or another developing weather system in the South Pacific could impact liftoff plans.
The launch target date will be set following a readiness review on Friday, said ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan according to Indian press reports.
‘Mangalyaan’ is undergoing final prelaunch test and integration at ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh state following shipment from ISRO’s Bangalore assembly facility on Oct. 3.
ISRO has already assembled the more powerful XL extended version of the four stage PSLV launcher at Srihairkota.
MAVEN’s on time blastoff from Florida on Nov. 18, had been threatened by the chaos caused by the partial US government shutdown that finally ended this morning (Oct. 17), until the mission was granted an ‘emergency exemption’ due to the critical role it will play in relaying data from NASA’s ongoing pair of surface rovers – Curiosity and Opportunity.
NASA is providing key communications and navigation support to ISRO and MOM through the agency’s trio of huge tracking antennas in the Deep Space Network (DSN).
As India’s initial mission to Mars, ISRO says that the mission’s objectives are both technological and scientific to demonstrate the nation’s capability to design an interplanetary mission and carry out fundamental Red Planet research with a suite of indigenously built instruments.
MOM’s science complement comprises includes the tri color Mars Color Camera to image the planet and its two moon, Phobos and Diemos; the Lyman Alpha Photometer to measure the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium and understand the planets water loss process; a Thermal Imaging Spectrometer to map surface composition and mineralogy, the MENCA mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition, and the Methane Sensor for Mars to measure traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.
It will be of extremely great interest to compare any methane detection measurements from MOM to those ongoing from NASA’s Curiosity rover – which found ground level methane to be essentially nonexistent – and Europe’s planned 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.
MOM’s design builds on spacecraft heritage from India’s Chandrayaan 1 lunar mission that investigated the Moon from 2008 to 2009.
The 44 meter (144 ft) PSLV will launch MOM into an initially elliptical Earth parking orbit of 248 km x 23,000 km. A series of six orbit raising burns will eventually dispatch MOM on a trajectory to Mars by late November, assuming an Oct. 28 liftoff.
Following a 300 day interplanetary cruise phase, the do or die orbital insertion engine will fire on September 14, 2014 and place MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit.
NASA’s MAVEN is also due to arrive in Mars orbit during September 2014.
The $69 Million ‘Mangalyaan’ mission is expected to continue gathering measurements at the Red Planet for at least six months and perhaps ten months or longer.
NASA’s next Mars rover set for liftoff in 2020 should focus on three primary objectives; seeking signs of past life, collecting a cache of carefully chosen samples for eventual return to Earth and developing technologies that will help enable future human missions to the Red Planet some two decades from now.
The 2020 goals were laid out publicly today (July 9) by a panel of scientists on the ‘Science Definition Team’ and charged by NASA with defining the key science objectives for the new mission.
The science objectives and how to accomplish them are outlined in considerable detail in a newly issued 154 page report handed over to the space agency and discussed at today’s NASA briefing for the media.
Looking for signs of ancient life and preserved biosignatures on Mars at a place that was once habitable is the top priority of the 2020 mission. The SDT report states that the landing site should be chosen specifically to “explore the geology of a once habitable site.”
“We need a highly mobile rover that can make ‘in situ’ science measurements,” said Jack Mustard, chairman of the Science Definition Team and a professor at the Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I., at the briefing.
“The rover would use its own instruments on Mars for visual, mineralogical and chemical analysis down to a microscopic scale to identify candidate features that may have been formed by past life,” states the SDT report.
“We can’t do this now with Curiosity,” explained Mustard. “We need higher resolution.”
Looking for ‘extant’ life, that is life surviving on Mars today, would be a by-product of the search for organic molecules and preserved biosignatures of life – past or present.
The Mars 2020 ‘Science Definition Team’ (SDT) is comprised of 19 scientists and engineers from academia and industry. They were appointed by NASA in January 2013 to thoroughly and quickly evaluate a wide range of options to accomplish the highest priority planetary science objectives and achieve President Obama’s challenge to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
Retrieving soil and rock samples from Mars for analysis back on Earth by research teams worldwide using all the most advanced analytical instruments available to humankind with unprecedented capability has been the ‘Holy Grail’ of Mars exploration for several decades.
But the enormous cost and technical complexity of a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission has caused it to be repeatedly postponed.
The 2020 rover will be designed to make real progress on sample return for the first time. It will be capable of coring into rocks and storing 31 highly compelling Martian samples for return by a follow on mission to the Red Planet.
“But the timing on actually returning those samples to Earth is yet to be determined,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington.
Everything NASA does is budget driven and the fiscal climate is rather gloomy right now.
“Crafting the science and exploration goals is a crucial milestone in preparing for our next major Mars mission,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, in a statement.
Work on the new rover must begin soon in order to achieve the mandatory 2020 launch deadline. Launch opportunities to Mars only open every 26 months and delays could balloon the costs by several hundred million dollars.
“The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload on this exciting step in Mars exploration,” adds Grunsfeld.
“The 2020 rover will take a major step in ‘seeking signs of life” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, at the briefing. “NASA will issue a call for science instruments this fall.”
The new mission would build upon the demonstrated science accomplishments of earlier missions like Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix while vastly advancing the capabilities of the robots research instruments.
“Here’s the bottom line. Questions drive science,” explained Lindy Elkins-Tanton, SDT member and director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Washington.
“We should be seeking to answer the very biggest questions. And one of the very biggest questions for all of humankind is – ‘Are we alone?’ And that is the question we’re hoping to make really big advances with on with this Mars 2020 mission.”
Grunsfeld explained that NASA has budgeted “for a mission cost of $1.5 Billion plus the cost of the launcher.”
The 2020 rover chassis, with some modifications, will be based on the blueprints of the highly successful Curiosity rover to keep down the cost and minimize risks. But the science instruments will be completely new and updated.
NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover touched down nearly a year ago and has already discovered that the Red Planet has the chemical ingredients and environmental conditions for a habitable zone that could have supported living Martian microbes.
The next logical step is to look for the ancient signs of life that would be preserved in the rock record on Mars.
Has life ever existed on Mars? Or anywhere beyond Earth?
Answering that question is one of the most profound scientific inquiries of our time.
Europe and Russia have teamed up for a bold venture named ExoMars that’s set to blast off in search of Martian life in about two and a half years.
Determining if life ever originated on the Red Planet is the primary goal of the audacious two pronged ExoMars missions set to launch in 2016 & 2018 in a partnership between the European and Russian space agencies, ESA and Roscosmos.
In a major milestone announced today (June 17) at the Paris Air Show, ESA signed the implementing contract with Thales Alenia Space, the industrial prime contractor, to start the final construction phase for the 2016 Mars mission.
“The award of this contract provides continuity to the work of the industrial team members of Thales Alenia Space on this complex mission, and will ensure that it remains on track for launch in January 2016,” noted Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.
The ambitious 2016 ExoMars mission comprises of both an orbiter and a lander- namely the methane sniffing Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the piggybacked Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).
ExoMars 2016 will be Europe’s first spacecraft dispatched to the Red Planet since the 2003 blast off of the phenomenally successful Mars Express mission – which just celebrated its 10th anniversary since launch.
Methane (CH4) gas is the simplest organic molecule and very low levels have reportedly been detected in the thin Martian atmosphere. But the data are not certain and its origin is not clear cut.
Methane could be a marker either for active living organisms today or it could originate from non life geologic processes. On Earth more than 90% of the methane originates from biological sources.
The ExoMars 2016 orbiter will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane.
The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European landing technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission slated for 2018.
The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.
As of today, NASA’s car sized Curiosity rover has reached the halfway point in her 352 million mile (567 million km) journey to Mars – No fooling on April 1, 2012.
It’s T Minus 126 days until Curiosity smashes into the Martian atmosphere to brave the hellish “6 Minutes of Terror” – and, if all goes well, touch down inside Gale Crater at the foothills of a Martian mountain taller than the tallest in the continental United States – namely Mount Rainier.
Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.
The Curiosity Mars Science laboratory (MSL) rover was launched from sunny Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket for an 8.5 month interplanetary cruise from the Earth to Mars and is on course to land on the Red Planet early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012 EDT and Universal Time (or Aug. 5 PDT).
On March 26, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., successfully ignited the spacecrafts thrusters for the second of six planned trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the robot’s flight path during the long journey to achieve a pinpoint landing beside the Martian mountain.
“It is satisfying to get the second maneuver under our belts and know we are headed in the right direction,” said JPL’s Erisa Hines, systems lead for the maneuver. “The cruise system continues to perform very well.”
This maneuver was one-seventh as much as the flight’s first course adjustment, on Jan. 11. The cruise stage is equipped with eight thrusters grouped into two sets of four that fire as the entire spacecraft spins at two rotations per minute. The thruster firings change the velocity of the spacecraft in two ways – along the direction of the axis of rotation and also perpendicular to the axis. Altogether there were more than 60 pulsing maneuvers spaced about 10 seconds apart.
“The purpose is to put us on a trajectory to the point in the Mars atmosphere where we need to be for a safe and accurate landing,” said Mau Wong, maneuver analyst at JPL.
Marking another crucial milestone, the flight team has also powered up and checked the status of all 10 MSL science instruments – and all are nominal.
“The types of testing varied by instrument, and the series as whole takes us past the important milestone of confirming that all the instruments survived launch,” said Betina Pavri of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., science payload test engineer for the mission. “These checkouts provide a valuable calibration and characterization opportunity for the instruments, including camera dark images and a measurement of zero pressure in the vacuum of space for the rover weather station’s pressure sensor.”
Ever since it was the first of MSL’s science instruments to be switched on three months ago, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been collecting valuable measurements about the potentially lethal radiation environment in space and acting as a stunt double for determining the potential health effects on future human travelers to Mars.
RAD has been collecting data on the recent wave of extremely powerful solar flares erupting from the sun.
Curiosity has another 244 million kilometers to go over the next 4 months.
All hopes ride on Curiosity as America’s third and last generation of Mars rovers.
Devastating and nonsensical funding cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget have forced NASA to cancel participation in the 2018 ExoMars lander mission that had been joint planned with ESA, the European Space Agency. ESA now plans to forge ahead with Russian participation.
NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is carrying a vintage Lincoln penny along for the long interplanetary journey to Mars – and it’s not to open the first Martian savings account.
Scientists will use the century old Lincoln penny – minted back in 1909 – as a modern age calibration target for one of Curiosity’s five powerful science cameras attached to the end of the hefty, 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm.
The car sized rover is on course to touchdown at the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater in just 161 days on Aug. 6, 2012.
So far Curiosity has traveled 244 million kilometers since blasting off on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida and has another 322 million kilometers to go to the Red Planet.
The copper penny is bundled to a shoulder joint on the rovers arm along with the other elements of the calibration target, including color chips, a metric standardized bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.
The whole target is about the size of a smart phone and looks a lot like an eye vision chart in an ophthalmologist’s office. And it serves a similar purpose, which will be to check the performance of Curiosity eyes – specifically the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera located at the terminus of the robotic arm.
MAHLI will conduct close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil. It can show tiny details, finer than a human hair.
The term “hand lens” in MAHLI’s name refers to the standard practice by field geologists’ of carrying a hand lens during expeditions for close up, magnified inspection of rocks they find along the way. So it’s also critical to pack various means of calibration so that researchers can interpret their results and put them into proper perspective.
MAHLI can also focus on targets over a wide range of distances near and far, from about a finger’s-width away out to the Red Planets horizon, which in this case means the mountains and rim of the breathtaking Gale Crater landing site.
“When a geologist takes pictures of rock outcrops she is studying, she wants an object of known scale in the photographs,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which supplied the camera to NASA.
The target features a collection of marked black bars in a wide range of labeled sizes to correlate calibration images to each image taken by Curiosity.
“If it is a whole cliff face, she’ll ask a person to stand in the shot. If it is a view from a meter or so away, she might use a rock hammer. If it is a close-up, as the MAHLI can take, she might pull something small out of her pocket. Like a penny.”
Edgett donated the special Lincoln penny with funds from his own pocket. The 1909 “VDB” cent stems from the very first year that Lincoln pennies were minted and also marks the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The VDB initials of the coin’s designer – Victor David Brenner — are on the reverse side. In mint condition the 1909 Lincoln VDB copper penny has a value of about $20.
“The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs. A more formal practice is to use an object with scale marked in millimeters, centimeters or meters,” Edgett said. “Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”
“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said.
“The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?”
MAHLI’s calibration target also features a display of six patches of pigmented silicone to assist in interpreting color and brightness in the images. Five of them are leftovers from Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth has a fluorescent pigment that glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light, allows checking of an ultraviolet light source on MAHLI. The fluorescent material was donated to the MAHLI team by Spectra Systems, Inc., Providence, R.I.
Three-dimensional calibration of the MSL images will be done using the penny and a stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target.
“The importance of calibration is to allow data acquired on Mars to be compared reliably to data acquired on Earth,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
Curiosity is a 1 ton (900 kg) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots. The science payload is 15 times heavier than the twin robots.
Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
NASA could only afford to build one rover this time.