On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in their rocket family, and in service today. Not only was this a major milestone for SpaceX, it was also the biggest public relations coup ever orchestrated by Musk. For this launch, Musk decided that the payload would be his cherry Tesla Roadster with a SpaceX spacesuit (affectionately named “Starman”) at the wheel.
Those who watched the live footage of the event (or caught the compilation video released shortly after) are not likely to forget Starman and the Roadster orbiting Earth as David Bowie played in the background. At the time, it was also anticipated that Starman and the Roadster would eventually make a close pass of Mars. Two years after launch, Starman finally accomplished a flyby of the Red Planet!
Evidence of Mars’ watery past is written all over the surface of the planet. Between dried-up river valleys, outflow channels, and sedimentary deposits, it is clear that Mars was once a much different place. But until recently, the mystery of where this water went has remained unsolved. This changed in 2018 when data obtained by the ESA’s Mars Expressprobe indicated the existence of water beneath the south pole of the planet.
According to the Mars Express probe’s Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS), this body of water is in a 20 km (~12.5 mi) wide area about 1.5 km (~1 mi) beneath the surface. And now, further analysis of the data by a team led by the Roma Tre University has revealed the existence of three new ponds, the largest of which measures about 20 x 30 km (~12.5 x 18.5 mi) and is surrounded by many smaller ponds.
I remember the Summer of 1997 when a shoebox-sized Mars rover literally broke the Internet.
Sojourner – the first rover we sent to another planet – had just landed on Mars in a giant space airbag bouncing along the surface to a safe stop. The Internet was new. And I was a young space enthusiast with a dial-up modem. For the first time, images from a space exploration mission were beamed to an audience that was connected online. Now we use the term “broke the Internet” as a hyperbolic phrase for various Internet phenomena, but interest in the Mars mission in 97 drove so many hits to NASA mirror servers around the world that global web traffic was disrupted. Patiently I watched as, line by line, orange sky to red stone, the first image posted by NASA loaded on my screen…it took about an hour. Each line resolved was like my own exploration of the planet. And finally, the landing site, in “real time”, was revealed to me and the entire world all at once. What would we discover together?
In a minor hiccup, the Mars 2020 spacecraft entered safe mode a few hours after launch, apparently due to a temperature anomaly. This was the conclusion reached by mission controllers after receiving telemetry data on the spacecraft via the NASA Deep Space Network. Luckily, the spacecraft is working nominally and is on its way toward Mars to join in the search for evidence of past (and present) life!
Remember back in 2008 when the Phoenix lander on Mars scraped away a few inches of rust-colored regolith to reveal water ice? Or in 2009, when Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observations revealed vast areas of subsurface ice, event at low latitudes?
These findings – and many more like them – indicate there’s a lot of interesting things going on underneath Mars’ lifeless surface. Since we know from experience on Earth that anywhere there is water, there is life, the question of life on – or under – Mars’s surface is always provocative.
This summer – between July 30th and August 15th – NASA’s Perseverancerover will begin its long journey for Mars. Once it arrives (by February of 2021), it will join its sister mission, the Curiosity rover, and a slew of other robotic landers and orbiters that are busy characterizing the atmosphere and surface of the Red Planet. Ultimately, the goal of Perseverance is to determine if Mars once supported life (and maybe still does!)
Just last week (July 7th), the Perseverance rover and all the other elements of the Mars 2020 spacecraft were loaded aboard the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas Vrocket that will send it on its way. This included the aeroshell, cruise stage, and descent stage, which will be responsible for transporting the Perseverance rover during its six-month journey to Mars and depositing it on the surface.
In the near future, sample-return missions from Mars will finally be a reality. For decades, scientists have analyzed the composition of Martian rocks and soil by either sending rovers to the surface or by examining meteorites that came from Mars. But with missions like Perseverance, which are equipped with a sample cache instrument, it won’t be long before Martian rocks are brought back to Earth for study.
Similar to how the Apollo astronauts brought back Moon rocks, which revealed the existence of water on the Moon and its similarity to Earth, Martian rocks could reveal a great deal about the formation and evolution of the Red Planet. The question is, what rocks should be returned? This is the question that the international Mars Sample Return campaign is considering on the eve of Perseverance’s launch.
Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity…For decades, NASA’s robotic rovers have explored the surface of Mars looking for clues about its past and subsequent evolution. With every success and discovery, their names became part of the public discourse, infiltrating our vocabulary the same way iconic figures like Armstrong, Einstein, and Hubble did. But what of the next rover that will be sent to explore Mars this summer?
NASA has serious plans for the Mars 2020 rover, the next installment in the Mars Exploration Program after its sister-rover Curiosity. But before this mission can launch and add its impressive capabilities to the hunt for life on Mars (past and present), it needed a proper name. Thanks to Alexander Mather (a grade 7 student from Burke, Virginia), it now has one. From this day forward, the Mars 2020 rover will be known as the Perseverance rover!
Next year, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sending the ExoMars 2020 mission to the Red Planet. This mission consists of an ESA-built rover (Rosalind Franklin) and a Russian-led surface science platform (Kazachok) that will study the Martian environment in order to characterize its surface, atmosphere, and determine whether or not life could have once existed on the planet.
In preparation for this mission, engineers are putting the rover and lander through their paces. This includes the ongoing development of the mission’s parachute system, which is currently in troubleshooting after a failed deployment test earlier this month. These efforts are taking place at the Swedish Space Corporation testing site in Esrange, and involve the largest parachute ever used by a mission to Mars.
For centuries, scientists have speculated about the existence of life on Mars. But it was only within the past 15 years that the search for life (past and present) really began to heat up. It was at this time that methane, an organic molecule that is associated with many forms of life here on Earth (i.e. a “biosignature”) was detected in Mars’ atmosphere.
Since that time, attempts to study Mars’ atmospheric methane have produced varying results. In some cases, methane has been found that was several times its normal concentrations; in others, it was absent. Seeking to answer this mystery, an interdisciplinary team from Aarhus Universityrecently conducted a study where they investigated a possible mechanism for the removal of methane from Mars’ atmosphere.