First of all, I completely stole this headline from NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowski (AKA The Mohawk Guy) on Twitter. Second, this is just a great image of the Curiosity rover sitting on Mars, including views of its tracks and where it did a wheelie or two. Plus, where the rover now sits is a very intriguing region called “The Kimberly.” Curiosity will soon whip out its drill to see if it can find hints of organic material, which could be a biomarker — the holy grail of Mars exploration.
Find out why this is such an intriguing region in this video:
Thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the HiRISE camera, we have an orbital view of Dingo Gap, an opening between two low scarps which is spanned by a single dune. This gap and dune are visible both from the ground and from orbit. The Curiosity Mars rover has now crossed the gap and is continuing its travels toward enticing science destinations, including interesting veins and mineral fractures.
In the orbital image from HiRISE, the rover itself is not in this image as it was acquired before MSL landed. However, the imagery was likely used to help the rover team decide on the way to travel.
Below are more images of Dingo gap before and after the rover plowed its way through the sand.
Curiosity’s view to valley beyond after crossing over ‘Dingo Gap’ sand dune. This photomosaic was taken after Curiosity drove over the 1 meter tall Dingo Gap sand dune and shows dramatic scenery in the valley beyond, back dropped by eroded rim of Gale Crater. Assembled from navigation camera (navcam) raw images from Sol 535 (Feb. 6, 2104) Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
The great thing about the longevity of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is that we can see changes taking place on the Red Planet, such as this relatively new and rather large impact crater. This image shows a stunning 30-meter-wide crater with a rayed blast zone and far-flung secondary material surrounding. Scientists say the impact and resulting explosion threw debris as far as 15 kilometers in distance.
Before and after pictures of this region show the new impact crater formed between July 2010 and May 2012.
The image has been enhanced in false color and so the fresh crater appears blue because of the lack of reddish dust that covers most of Mars’ surface.
With MRO’s help, scientists have been able to estimate that Mars gets pummeled with about 200 impacts per year, but most are much smaller than this new one.
The usual procedure for finding new craters is that MRO’s Context Camera, or CTX, or cameras on other orbiters identify anomalies or dark spots that appear in new images and then MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera is targeted to follow up by imaging those dark spots in greater detail.
Amazing, the things a birds-eye view allows you to see. Here’s a color image from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing the tracks of the Curiosity rover. In this most recent HiRISE image of the MSL rover, the tracks are visible from Yellowknife Bay to its location on 11 December 2013, several kilometers to the southwest. Even though some of these tracks are more than a year old, they are still visible.
HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen explained the image: “Curiosity is progressing from the bright dust-covered area to a region with a darker surface, where saltating sand keeps the surface relatively free of dust. The scenery seen by the rover will be getting more interesting as it progresses toward Mount Sharp.”
See a black and white image below, where you can actually see Curiosity, too:
See more details on these images, as well as get access to higher resolution versions at the HiRISE website. You can see a collection of images of Curiosity taken by HiRISE here.
The name of this large impact basin on Mars, Utopia Planitia, sounds idyllic. But it also strikes a warm place in the heart of any Trekkie, as in the future (at least in the Star Trek Universe) it will be the location of the facility where the original Starship Enterprise and its many incarnations will be built. While the majority of the Utopia Planitia Shipyards are in geosynchronous orbit of Mars, there are also facilities on the planet as well, according to the Utopia Planitia Yards Starship Guide website. Uptopia Planitia was “found to be the ideal location [for the Shipyard], and a number of planetary sites are developed along with an expansive orbital facility located in geosynchronous orbit directly above,” explains the site.
But back to the present and this beautiful image from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
What is striking about the image are the polygon-shaped patterns of troughs and large scallop-shaped depressions. Mike Mellon, writing on the HiRISE website explains that collectively, such landforms are referred to as “thermokarst,” which both point to a slightly warmer and wetter Mars in the past.
Under the proper climate conditions ice may form and seasonally accumulate in a honeycomb network of vertical fractures that appear when ice-rich soil contracts each winter. On Earth this form of subsurface ice is called an “ice wedge.” Special conditions are needed for this ice to accumulate and develop into a large wedge, namely warm temperature and abundant surface water. A thick layer of thawed wet soil forms allowing water to percolate into the open contraction cracks within the permafrost beneath. Later, loss of this wedge ice, by for example sublimation, results in deep depressions marking the honeycomb network.
Likewise, the larger scallop depressions might point to a past climate of frozen ponds or local patches of windblown snow collected in hollows. These surface ice deposits could later be covered by the ever-shifting soils and dust. In either case, the currently bitter cold and dry climate of Mars is not conducive to forming either of these buried-ice forms. Therefore, these landforms point to a warmer, but still cold, climate in the geologic past.
This image just highlights why I’m such a big fan of the HiRISE camera: a gorgeous image of our neighboring planet that was taken just last month from a spaceship orbiting Mars RIGHT NOW that tells us more about the past, while giving hope for our potentially space-faring future.
I spy the Curiosity Rover! With the Sun over its shoulders, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the Curiosity rover on June 27, 2013, when Curiosity was at an outcrop called “Shaler” in the “Glenelg” area of Gale Crater. The rover appears as a bluish dot near the lower right corner of this enhanced-color image, and also visible are the rover’s tracks.
“The rover tracks stand out clearly in this view,” wrote HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen on the HiRISE website, “extending west to the landing site where two bright, relatively blue spots indicate where MSL’s landing jets cleared off the redder surface dust.”
McEwen explained how MRO was maneuvered to provide unique lighting, where the Sun was almost directly behind the camera, so that the Sun, MRO, and MSL on the surface were all aligned in nearly a straight line.
When HiRISE captured this view, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward. The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. Specifically, the angle from sun to orbiter to rover was just 5.47 degrees.
McEwen said this geometry hides shadows and better reveals subtle color variations. “With enhanced colors, we can view the region around the landing site and Yellowknife Bay,” he said.
For scale, the two parallel lines of the wheel tracks are about 10 feet (3 meters) apart.
Curiosity has now moved on, and is now heading towards the large mound in Gale Crater (with long drives!) officially named Aeolis Mons (also called Mount Sharp.)
Ten years to the day after the Opportunity rover launched to Mars, the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the rover, still toiling away on the surface of Mars. The white dot in the image is Oppy, as the rover was crossing the level ground called “Botany Bay” on its way to a rise called “Solander Point.” We’re looking into whether there’s a way to determine if the rover was actually moving at the time the image was taken.
This, of course, is not the first time HiRISE has found the various rovers on Mars’ surface. Images from orbit help rover drivers find safe routes, as well as helping to identify enticing science targets for future investigation.
“The Opportunity team particularly appreciates the color image of Solander Point because it provides substantially more information on the terrains and traverse that Opportunity will be conducting over the next phase of our exploration of the rim of Endeavour crater,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist Matt Golombek, from JPL.
Opportunity currently holds the US space program’s all-time record for distance traversed on another planetary body at greater than 36 kilometers or 22 miles. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team recently confirmed that the Lunokhod 2 rover traveled 42 km (26 miles) on the Moon.
Opportunity was launched from on July 7, 2003, PDT and EDT (July 8, Universal Time). Opportunity has been on the western rim of 20-kilometer-diameter Endeavour Crater in Meridiani Planum for about two years investigating the 3 to 4 billion-year-old sedimentary layers of Cape York. Now the rover is traversing south to new science targets and a winter haven at Solander Point.
Extreme sports taking on place on Mars? How about snowboarding – or actually sandboarding –down Martian dunes on a cushion of carbon dioxide? Sounds fun, and this might be happening already – sans the humanoid snowboarders, however.
Scientists have been wondering what caused unusual hillside grooves on Mars, called linear gullies. New research and test runs down sand dunes here on Earth has shown that these gullies may be formed by chunks of frozen carbon dioxide sliding down some Martian sand dunes on cushions of gas. They are plowing furrows as they slide, and creating open pits at the bottom of the run.
And these are not the Martian Sand Skimmers of Martian Chronicles fame. Just chunks of dry ice going for a joy ride.
“I have always dreamed of going to Mars,” said Serina Diniega, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of a report published online by the journal Icarus. “Now I dream of snowboarding down a Martian sand dune on a block of dry ice.”
In images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera the linear gullies seem to all have relatively constant width — up to a few yards, or meters, across — with raised banks or levees along the sides. Unlike gullies caused by water flows on Earth and possibly on Mars, they do not have aprons of debris at the downhill end of the gully. Instead, many have pits at the downhill end.
“In debris flows, you have water carrying sediment downhill, and the material eroded from the top is carried to the bottom and deposited as a fan-shaped apron,” said Diniega. “In the linear gullies, you’re not transporting material. You’re carving out a groove, pushing material to the sides.”
HiRISE images show the sand dunes with linear gullies covered by carbon-dioxide frost during the Martian winter. The location of the linear gullies is on dunes that spend the Martian winter covered by carbon-dioxide frost. By comparing before-and-after images from different seasons, researchers determined that the grooves are formed during early spring. Some images have even caught bright objects in the gullies.
Diniega and her team theorize the bright objects are pieces of dry ice that have broken away from points higher on the slope. According to the new hypothesis, the pits could result from the blocks of dry ice completely sublimating away into carbon-dioxide gas after they have stopped traveling.
“Linear gullies don’t look like gullies on Earth or other gullies on Mars, and this process wouldn’t happen on Earth,” said Diniega. “You don’t get blocks of dry ice on Earth unless you go buy them.”
Co-author on the paper Candice Hansen, of the Planetary Science Institute suspected that dry ice might be involved in forming these linear gullies, so like any good planetary scientist she bought some slabs of dry ice at a supermarket and slid them down sand dunes.
And voilà, similar looking linear gullies with the gaseous carbon dioxide from the thawing ice maintaining a lubricating layer under the slab. As the chunk slide down the dune, it also pushed sand aside into small levees. Handsen said the slabs glided down even low-angle slopes, not much pushing required.
Of course, the team said, the outdoor tests did not simulate Martian temperature and pressure, but calculations indicate the dry ice would act similarly in early Martian spring where the linear gullies form. Although water ice, too, can sublimate directly to gas under some Martian conditions, it would stay frozen at the temperatures at which these gullies form, the researchers calculate.
“MRO is showing that Mars is a very active planet,” Hansen said. “Some of the processes we see on Mars are like processes on Earth, but this one is in the category of uniquely Martian.”
Hansen also noted the process could be unique to the linear gullies etched on Martian sand dunes.
“There are a variety of different types of features on Mars that sometimes get lumped together as ‘gullies,’ but they are formed by different processes,” she said. “Just because this dry-ice hypothesis looks like a good explanation for one type doesn’t mean it applies to others.”
Harrumph. Dry ice having fun on Mars fun without us.
One of the benefits of having a spacecraft in orbit around another planet for several years is the ability to make long-term observations and interpretations. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been orbiting Mars for over seven years now, and by studying before-and-after images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, scientists have been able to estimate that the Red Planet gets womped by more than 200 small asteroids or bits of comets per year, forming craters at least 3.9 meters (12.8 feet) across.
“It’s exciting to find these new craters right after they form,” said Ingrid Daubar of the University of Arizona, Tucson, lead author of the paper published online this month by the journal Icarus. “It reminds you Mars is an active planet, and we can study processes that are happening today.”
Over the last decade, researchers have identified 248 new impact sites on parts of the Martian surface in the past decade from spacecraft images, determining when the craters appeared. The 200-per-year planetwide estimate is a calculation based on the number found in a systematic survey of a portion of the planet.
The orbiters took pictures of the fresh craters at sites where before-and-after images by other cameras helped figure out when the impacts occurred. This combination provided a new way to make direct measurements of the impact rate on Mars. This will lead to better age estimates of recent features on Mars.
Daubar and co-authors calculated a rate for how frequently new craters at least 3.9 meters in diameter are excavated. The rate is equivalent to an average of one each year on each area of the Martian surface roughly the size of the U.S. state of Texas. Earlier estimates pegged the cratering rate at three to 10 times more craters per year. They were based on studies of craters on the moon and the ages of lunar rocks collected during NASA’s Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Mars now has the best-known current rate of cratering in the solar system,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, a co-author on the paper.
These asteroids, or comet fragments, typically are no more than 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters) in diameter. Space rocks too small to reach the ground on Earth cause craters on Mars because the Red Planet has a much thinner atmosphere.
For comparison, the meteor over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February was about 10 times bigger than the objects that dug the fresh Martian craters.
HiRISE targeted places where dark spots had appeared during the time between images taken by the spacecraft’s Context Camera (CTX) or cameras on other orbiters. The new estimate of cratering rate is based on a portion of the 248 new craters detected. It comes from a systematic check of a dusty fraction of the planet with CTX since late 2006. The impacts disturb the dust, creating noticeable blast zones. In this part of the research, 44 fresh impact sites were identified.
Estimates of the rate at which new craters appear serve as scientists’ best yardstick for estimating the ages of exposed landscape surfaces on Mars and other worlds.
What are the types of things that happen on Mars when we’re not looking? Some things we’ll never know, but scientists with the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have seen evidence of bouncing boulders. They haven’t actually captured boulders in the act of rolling and bouncing down the steep slope of an impact crater (but they have captured avalanches while they were happening!)
Instead, they see distinctive bright lines and spots on the side of a crater, and these patterns weren’t there the last time HiRISE imaged this crater 5 years ago (2.6 Mars years ago), in March 2008.
“The discontinuous bright spots indicate bouncing, so we interpret these features as due to boulders bouncing and rolling down the slope,” said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen, writing on the HiRISE website.
Where did the boulders come from?
“Maybe they fell off of the steep upper cliffs of the crater, although we don’t see any new bright features there that point to the source,” McEwen said. “Maybe the rocks were ejecta from a new impact event somewhere nearby.”
The trails are quite bright, and McEwen said that perhaps the shallow subsurface soil here is generally brighter than the surface soil, just like part of Gusev Crater, as the Spirit rover found. McEwen added that the brightness can’t be from ice because this is a warm equator-facing slope seen in the summer.