The Same Technology Could Search for Microbes in Mars Rocks or Under the ice on Europa

Ever since it landed in the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover has been prepping its scientific instruments to begin searching for signs of past life on the Red Planet. These include spectrometers that will scan Martian rocks for organics and minerals that form in the presence of water and a caching system that will store samples of Martian soil and rock for retrieval by a future mission.

These telltale indicators could be signs of past life, which would most likely take the form of fossilized microbes. In the near future, a similar instrument could be used to search for present-day extraterrestrial life. It’s known as the Wireline Analysis Tool for the Subsurface Observation of Northern ice sheets (WATSON), and could be used to find evidence of life inside “ocean worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.

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Perseverance has Started Driving on Mars

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. Over the next two years of its primary mission, this robotic mission will carry on in the search for past life on Mars, obtaining soil and rock drill samples that will be returned to Earth someday for analysis. And as of March 4th, the rover conducted its first drive, covering 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across the Martian landscape.

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New Perspective of Jezero Crater Shows the Path Perseverance Could use to Navigate

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover set down on the surface of Mars. During the next two years of its primary mission, the rover will search the Jezero crater (where it landed) for evidence of past life on Mars. This will consist of collecting soil and rock samples from the preserved delta feature that formed billions of years ago from sediments deposited by flowing water.

The question is, where should it look for this possible evidence? A possible route the rover will take during its primary mission is shown in a series of recent images provided by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS). As illustrated in the image below, this path would take it from the cliffs that form the edge of the delta, up and across its surface towards possible “shoreline” deposits, and up to the rim of the crater.

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What Happens if Perseverance Finds Life on Mars?

It all happened so fast! On Thursday, February 18th, NASA’s Perseverance rover set landed in the Jezero crater on Mars and almost immediately transmitted its first image of the Martian. This was followed by photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and footage taken by the rover’s Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL). Then there was the panoramic video, a sound recording, and deployed its Ingenuity helicopter, all in the space of a week!

But that’s nothing compared to what happened next. Shortly after the rover started drilling into the floor of the Jezero crater, Perseverance found evidence of fossilized bacteria! The search for life on Mars finally struck paydirt! Okay, that didn’t happen… Not yet, anyway. But what if it does? After all, one of Perseverance‘s main objectives is to search for evidence of past life on Mars. What will be the impact if and when it finds it?

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Plans for a Mars Sample Return Mission Have Moved to the Next Stage

This past summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On February 18th, 2021, it will arrive on Mars and join in the search for evidence for past (and maybe even present) life. A particularly exciting aspect of this mission is the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a multi-mission effort that will send samples of Mars back to Earth for analysis.

This aspect of the Perseverance mission will be assisted by a lander and orbiter developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). According to NASA, the MSR recently advanced to the next stage of development (Phase A). If all goes well, Perseverance will have a companion in the coming years that will take its samples and launch them to orbit, where they will be picked up and sent back to Earth.

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Brines Could be Present on the Surface of Mars for up to 12 Hours, Never for a Full day

We are extremely interested in the possibility of water on Mars, because where there’s water, there’s the potential for life. But a new study throws a bit of a wet blanket (pun intended) on that tantalizing possibility. Unfortunately, it looks like even the saltiest of brines can only exist on the Martian surface for up to a few hours at a time.

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At One Time, This Region of Mars was Inundated by a “Megaflood”

Thanks to multiple robotic missions that have explored Mars’ atmosphere, surface, and geology, scientists have concluded that Mars was once a much warmer, wetter place. In addition to having a thicker atmosphere, the planet was actually warm enough that flowing water could exist on the surface in the form of rivers, lakes, and even an ocean that covered much of the northern hemisphere.

According to new research based on data collected by NASA’s Curiosity mission, it appears that the Gale Crater (where the rover has been exploring for the past eight years) experienced massive flooding roughly 4 billion years ago. These findings indicate that the mid-latitudes of Mars were also covered in water at one time and offers additional hints that the region once supported life.

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Titan’s Atmosphere Has All the Ingredients For Life. But Not Life as We Know It

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a team of scientists has identified a mysterious molecule in Titan’s atmosphere. It’s called cyclopropenylidene (C3H2), a simple carbon-based compound that has never been seen in an atmosphere before. According to the team’s study published in The Astronomical Journal, this molecule could be a precursor to more complex compounds that could indicate possible life on Titan.

Similarly, Dr. Catherine Neish of the University of Western Ontario’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) and her colleagues in the European Space Agency (ESA) found that Titan has other chemicals that could be the ingredients for exotic life forms. In their study, which appeared in Astronomy & Astrophysics, they present Cassini mission data that revealed the composition of impact craters on Titan’s surface.

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Starman Just Made his Closest Approach to Mars

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!

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Mars Express Finds Even More Ponds of Water Under the Ground on Mars

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 Express probe 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.

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