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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Mars Helicopter Completes More Test Flights. It’s Almost Ready to go to Mars

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the flight model (the actual vehicle going to the Red Planet), inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 1, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ve known for some time that NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars. The vehicle, called the Mars Helicopter, is undergoing flight testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The little helicopter will make its eventual way to Mars as part of the Mars 2020 Rover mission.

The Mars Helicopter is pretty small, less than 1.8 kg (4 lb). It’s made of lightweight carbon fiber, and other materials like aluminum, silicon, and foil. The version being tested is the actual vehicle that will make the trip to Mars.

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Lakes on Mars Filled up so Quickly They Would Overflow Catastrophically Carving Canyons Within Weeks

Roughly 4.2 billion years ago, Mars was a much different place than it is today. It’s atmosphere was thicker and warmer and its surface much wetter. Unfortunately, the planet’s atmosphere was stripped away by solar wind over the next 500 million years, causing the surface to become so cold and dry that it makes Antarctica look balmy by comparison!

As a result, most of Mars’ water is currently locked away in its polar ice caps. But billions of years ago, water still flowed freely across the surface, forming ancient rivers and lakes. In fact, new research led by The University of Texas at Austin indicates that sometimes these lakes would fill so fast that they would overflow, causing massive floods that had a drastic impact on the surface.

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It’s Decided, the Mars 2020 Rover Will Land in Jezero Crater

After 5 years and 60 candidates, NASA has chosen Jezero crater as the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University

Jezero crater is the landing spot for NASA’s upcoming 2020 rover. The crater is a rich geological site, and the 45 km wide (28 mile) impact crater contains at least five different types of rock that the rover will sample. Some of the landform features in the crater are 3.6 billion years old, making the site an ideal place to look for signs of ancient habitability.

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Planetary Scientists Have Chosen a Few Landing Sites for the Mars 2020 Rover

In the summer of 2020, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will launch from Cape Canaveral and commence its journey towards the Red Planet. Once it arrives on the Martian surface, the rover will begin building on the foundation established by the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. This will include collecting samples of Martian soil to learn more about the planet’s past and determine if life ever existed there (and still does).

Up until now, though, NASA has been uncertain as to where the rover will be landing. For the past few years, the choice has been narrowed down to three approved sites, with a fourth added earlier this year for good measure. And after three days of intense debate at the recent fourth Landing Site Workshop, scientists from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program held a non-binding vote that has brought them closer to selecting a landing site.

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Was This Huge River Delta on Mars the Place Where its Oceans Finally Disappeared?

For some time, scientists have known that Mars was once a much warmer and wetter environment than it is today. However, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, its atmosphere was slowly stripped away, which turned the surface into the cold and desiccated place we know today. Even after multiple missions have confirmed the presence of ancient lake beds and rivers, there are still unanswered questions about how much water Mars once had.

One of the most important unanswered questions is whether or not large seas or an ocean ever existed in the northern lowlands. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the Hypanis Valles ancient river system is actually the remains of a river delta. The presence of this geological feature is an indication that this river system once emptied into an ancient Martian sea in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

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Mars 2020 Rover is Going to be Taking a Chunk of Mars Back to… Mars?

In July of 2020, the Mars 2020 rover – the latest from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program – will begin its long journey to the Red Planet. Hot on the heels of the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, the Mars 2020 rover will attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions we have about Mars. Foremost among these is whether or not the planet had habitable conditions in the past, and whether or not microbial life existed there.

To this end, the Mars 2020 rover will obtain drill samples of Martian rock and set them aside in a cache. Future crewed missions may retrieve these samples and bring them back to Earth for analysis. However, in a recent announcement, NASA indicated that a piece of a Martian meteor will accompany the Mars 2020 rover back to Mars, which will be used to calibrate the rover’s high-precious laser scanner.

This laser scanner is known as the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument. The laser’s resolution is capable of illuminating even the finest features in rock samples, which could include fossilized microorganisms. But in order to achieve this, the laser requires a calibration target so that the science team can fine-tune its settings.

Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, SHERLOC uses spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life. Credit: NASA

Ordinarily, these calibration targets involve pieces of rock, metal or glass, samples that are the result of a complex geological history. However, when addressing the SHERLOC’s calibration needs, JPL scientists came up with a rather innovative idea. For billions of years, Mars has experienced impacts that have sent pieces of its surface into orbit. In some cases, those pieces came to Earth in the form of meteorites, some of which have been identified.

While these meteorites are rare and not identical to the geologically diverse samples the Mars 2020 rover will collect, they are well-suited for target practice. As Luther Beegle of JPL, the principle investigator for SHERLOC, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim. By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

In this respect, the Mars 2020 rover is in good company. For example, Curiosity’s used its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCham) instrument – which relies on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) – to determine the elemental compositions of rock and soil samples it has obtained. Similarly, the Opportunity rover’s Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) allowed this rover to detect the composition of rocks from a distance.

Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, SHERLOC is unique in that it will be the first instrument deployed to Mars that uses Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy consists of subjecting materials to light in the visible, near infrared, or near ultraviolet range and measuring how the photons respond. Based on how their energy levels shift up or down, scientists are able to determine the presence of certain elements.

Fluorescence spectroscopy relies on ultraviolet lasers to excite the electrons in carbon-based compounds, which causes chemicals that are known to form in the presence of life (i.e. biosignatures) to glow. SHERLOC will also photograph the rocks it studies, which will allow the science team to map the chemical signatures it finds across the surface of Mars.

For their purposes, the SHERLOC team needed a sample that would be solid enough to withstand the intense vibrations caused by launch and landing. They also needed one that contained the right chemicals to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity to biosignatures. With the help of the Johnson Space Center and the Natural History Museum in London, they ultimately decided on a sample from the Sayh al Uhaymir 008 meteorite (aka. SaU008).

This meteorite, which was found in Oman in 1999, was more rugged that other samples and could be sliced without the rest of the meteorite flaking. As a result, SaU008 will be the first Martian meteorite sample that helps scientists look for past signs of life on Mars. It will also be the first Martian meteorite to have a piece of itself returned to the surface of Mars – though technically not the first to be sent back.

A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That honor goes to Zagami, a meteorite retrieved in Nigeria in 1962, which had a piece of itself sent back to Mars aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) in 1999. That mission ended in 2007, so this chunk has been floating around in orbit of Mars ever since. In addition, the team behind Mars 2020‘s SuperCam instrument will also be adding a Martian meteorite for their own calibration tests.

Along with bits of SaU008, the Mars 2020 payload will include samples of advanced materials. Aside from also being used to calibrate SHERLOC, these materials will be tested to see how they hold up to Martian weather and radiation. If they prove to be tough enough to survive on the Martian surface, these materials could be used in the manufacture of space suits, gloves and helmets for future astronauts.

As Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, put it:

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface. It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

With every robotic mission sent to Mars, NASA and other space agencies are working towards the day when astronauts’ boots will finally touch down on the Red Planet. When the first crewed mission to Mars are conducted (currenty scheduled for the 2030s), they will be following in the tracks of some truly intrepid robotic explorers!

Further Reading: NASA

Rare Element Could Point the Way to Past Life on Mars

Over the past few decades, our ongoing studies of Mars have revealed some very fascinating things about the planet. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Mariner probes revealed that Mars was a dry, frigid planet that was most likely devoid of life. But as our understanding of the planet has deepened, it has come to be known that Mars once had a warmer, wetter environment that could have supported life.

This in turn has inspired multiple missions whose purpose it has been to find evidence of this past life. The key questions in this search, however, are where to look and what to look for? In a new study led by researchers from the University of Kansas, a team of international scientists recommended that future missions should look for vanadium. This rare element, they claim, could point the way towards fossilized evidence of life.

Their study, titled “Imaging of Vanadium in Microfossils: A New Potential Biosignature“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astrobiology. Led by Craig P. Marshall, an associate professor of geology at the University of Kansas, the international team included members from the Argonne National Laboratory, the Geological Technical Services Division of Saudi Aramco, the University of Liege, and the University of Sydney.

The microphone for the upcoming Mars mission will be attached to the SuperCam, seen here in this illustration zapping a rock with its laser. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To be clear, finding signs of life on a planet like Mars is no easy task. As Craig Marshall indicated in a University of Kansas press release:

“You’ve got your work cut out if you’re looking at ancient sedimentary rock for microfossils here on Earth – and even more so on Mars. On Earth, the rocks have been here for 3.5 billion years, and tectonic collisions and realignments have put a lot of stress and pressure on rocks. Also, these rocks can get buried, and temperature increases with depth.”

In their paper, Marshall and his colleagues recommend that missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 rover, and other proposed surface missions could combine Raman spectroscopy with the search for vanadium to find evidence of fossilized life. On Earth, this element has been found in crude oils, asphalts, and black shales that have been formed by the slow decay of biological organic material.

In addition, paleontologists and astrobiologists have used Raman spectroscopy – a technique that reveals the cellular compositions of samples –  on Mars for some time to search for signs of life. In this respect, the addition of vanadium would provide material that would act as a biosignature to confirm the existence of organic life in samples under study. As Marshall explained:

“People say, ‘If it looks like life and has a Raman signal of carbon, then we have life. But, of course, we know there can be carbonaceous materials made in other processes — like in hydrothermal vents — consistent with looking like microfossils that also have some carbon signal. People also make wonderful carbon structures artificially that look like microfossils — exactly the same. So, we’re at a juncture now where it’s really hard to tell if there’s life only based on morphology and Raman spectroscopy.”

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 with its sky crane landing system deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL

This is not the first time that Marshall and his co-authors have advocated using vanadium to search for signs of life. Such was the subject of a presentation they made at the Astrobiology Science Conference in 2015. What’s more, Marshall and his team emphasize that it would be possible to perform this technique using instruments that are already part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.

Their proposed method also involves new technique known as X-ray fluorescence microscopy, which looks at elemental composition. To test this technique, the team examined thermally altered organic-walled microfossils which were once organic materials )called acritarchs). From their data, they confirmed that traces of vanadium are present within microfossils that were indisputably organic in origin.

“We tested acritarchs to do a proof-of-concept on a microfossil where there’s no shadow of a doubt that we’re looking at preserved ancient biology,” Marshall said. “The age of this microfossil we think is Devonian. These guys are aquatic microorganisms — they’re thought to be microalgae, a eukaryotic cell, more advanced than bacterial. We found the vanadium content you’d expect in cyanobacterial material.”

These microfossilized bit of life, they argue, are probably not very distinct from the kinds of life that could have existed on Mars billions of years ago. Other scientific research has also indicated that vanadium is the result of organic compounds (like chlorophyll) from living organisms undergoing a transformation process caused by heat and pressure (i.e. diagenetic alteration).

Artist’s impression of ESA’s ExoMars rover (foreground) and Russia’s stationary surface science platform (background) on the surface of Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

In other words, after living creatures die and become buried in sediment, vanadium forms in their remains as a result of being buried under more and more layers of rock – i.e. fossilization. Or, as Marshall explained it:

“Vanadium gets complexed in the chlorophyll molecule. Chlorophylls typically have magnesium at the center — under burial, vanadium replaces the magnesium. The chlorophyll molecule gets entangled within the carbonaceous material, thus preserving the vanadium. It’s like if you have a rope stored in your garage and before you put it away you wrap it so you can unravel it the next time you need it. But over time on the garage floor it becomes tangled, things get caught in it. Even when you shake that rope hard, things don’t come out. It’s a tangled mess. Similarly, if you look at carbonaceous material there’s a tangled mess of sheets of carbon and you’ve got the vanadium mixed in.”

The work was supported by an ARC International Research Grant (IREX) – which sponsors research that seeks to find biosignatures for extracellular life – with additional support from the Australian Synchrotron and the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory. Looking forward, Marshall and his colleagues hope to conduct further research that will involve using Raman spectroscopy to study carbonaceous materials.

At present, their research appears to have attracted the interesting of the European Space Agency. Howell Edwards, who also conducts research using Raman spectroscopy (and who’s work has been supported by an ARC grant), is part of the ESA’s Mars Explorer team, where he is responsible for instrumentation on the ExoMars 2020 rover. But, as Marshall indicated, the team also hopes that NASA will consider their study:

“Hopefully someone at NASA reads the paper. Interestingly enough, the scientist who is lead primary investigator for the X-ray spectrometer for the space probe, they call it the PIXL, was his first graduate student from Macquarie University, before his KU times. I think I’ll email her the paper and say, ‘This might be of interest.’” 

The next decade is expected to be a very auspicious time for exploration missions to Mars. Multiple rovers will be exploring the surface, hoping to find the elusive evidence of life. These missions will also help pave the way for NASA’s crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s, which will see astronauts landing on the surface of the Red Planet for the first time in history.

If, in fact, these missions find evidence of life, it will have a profound effect on all future mission to Mars. It will also have an immeasurable impact on humanity’s perception of itself, knowing at long last that billions of years ago, life did not emerge on Earth alone!

Further Reading: University of Kansas, Astrobiology

Need a Job? NASA is Looking for a New Planetary Protection Officer

NASA has always had its fingers in many different pies. This should come as no surprise, since the advancement of science and the exploration of the Universe requires a multi-faceted approach. So in addition to studying Earth and distant planets, the also study infectious diseases and medical treatments, and ensuring that food, water and vehicles are safe. But protecting Earth and other planets from contamination, that’s a rather special job!

For decades, this responsibility has fallen to the NASA Office of Planetary Protection, the head of which is known as the Planetary Protection Officer (PPO). Last month, NASA announced that it was looking for a new PPO, the person whose job it will be to ensure that future missions to other planets don’t contaminate them with microbes that have come along for the ride, and that return missions don’t bring extra-terrestrial microbes back to Earth.

Since the beginning of the Space Age, federal agencies have understood that any and all missions carried with them the risk of contamination. Aside from the possibility that robotic or crewed missions might transport Earth microbes to foreign planets (and thus disrupt any natural life cycles there), it was also understood that missions returning from other bodies could bring potentially harmful organisms back to Earth.

The US won the space race against its adversary, the USSR. The image of the American flag planted on the Moon, being saluted by an American astronaut, must have caused great consternation in the Kremlin. Will SpaceX's mission to Mars cause the same consternation? Will Russia and other nations use the mission to remind the US of their Outer Space Treaty obligations? Image: NASA
Back when NASA was still in the midst of the Apollo Program, it was decided that steps needed to be taken to ensure that missions to other bodies did not cause contaminated. Credit: NASA

As such, the Office of Planetary Protection was established in 1967 to ensure that these risks were mitigated using proper safety and sterilization protocols. This was shortly after the United Nation’s Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) drafted the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (as of 2017, 107 countries have become party to the treaty).

The goals of the Office of Planetary Protection are consistent with Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty; specifically, the part which states:

“States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”

The office and its practices are also consistent with NASA’s internal policies. These include NASA Policy Directive (NPR) 8020.12D: “Planetary Protection Provisions for Robotic Extraterrestrial Missions”, and 8020.7: “Biological Contamination Control for Outbound and Inbound Planetary Spacecraft”, which require that all missions comply with protection procedures.

For decades, these directives have been followed to ensure that missions to the Moon, Mars and the Outer Solar System did not threaten these extra-terrestrial environments. For example, after eight years studying Jupiter and its largest moons, the Galileo probe was deliberately crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to ensure that none of its moons (which could harbor life beneath their icy surfaces) were contaminated by Earth-based microbes.

Artist’s concept of the Galileo space probe passing through the Jupiter system. Credit: NASA

The same procedure will be followed by the Juno mission, which is currently in orbit around Jupiter. Barring a possible mission extension, the probe is scheduled to be deorbited after conducting a total of 12 orbits of the gas giant. This will take place in July of 2018, at which point, the craft will burn up to avoid contaminating the Jovian moons of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

The same holds true for the Cassini spacecraft, which is currently passing between Saturn and its system of rings, as part of the mission’s Grand Finale. When this phase of its mission is complete – on September 15th, 2017 – the probe will be deorbited into Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent any microbes from reaching Enceladus, Titan, Dione, moons that may also support life in their interiors (or in Titan’s case, even on its surface!)

To be fair, the position of a Planetary Protection Officer is not unique to NASA. The European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other space agencies have similar positions. However, it is only within NASA and the ESA that it is considered to be a full-time job. The position is held for three years (with a possible extension to five) and is compensated to the tune of $124,406 to $187,000 per year.

The job, which can be applied for on (and not through the Office of Planetary Protection), will remain open until August 18th, 2017. According to the posting, the PPO will be responsible for:

  • Leading planning and coordinating activities related to NASA mission planetary protection needs.
  • Leading independent evaluation of, and providing advice regarding, compliance by robotic and human spaceflight missions with NASA planetary protection policies, statutory requirements and international obligations.
  • Advising the Chief, SMA and other officials regarding the merit and implications of programmatic decisions involving risks to planetary protection objectives.
  • In coordination with relevant offices, leading interactions with COSPAR, National Academies, and advisory committees on planetary protection matters.
  • Recommending and leading the preparation of new or revised NASA standards and directives in accordance with established processes and guidelines.

What’s more, the fact that NASA is advertising the position is partly due to some recent changes to the role. As Catharine Conley*, NASA’s only planetary protection officer since 2014, indicated in a recent interview with Business Insider: “This new job ad is a result of relocating the position I currently hold to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which is an independent technical authority within NASA.”

While the position has been undeniably important in the past, it is expected to become of even greater importance given NASA’s planned activities for the future. This includes NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, a crewed mission which will see humans setting foot on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. And in just a few years time, the Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to begin searching the Martian surface for signs of life.

As part of this mission, the Mars 2020 rover will collect soil samples and place them in a cache to be retrieved by astronauts during the later crewed mission. Beyond Mars, NASA also hopes to conduct mission to Europa, Enceladus and Titan to look for signs of life. Each of these worlds have the necessary ingredients, which includes the prebiotic chemistry and geothermal energy necessary to support basic lifeforms.

Given that we intend to expand our horizons and explore increasingly exotic environments in the future – which could finally lead to the discovery of life beyond Earth – it only makes sense that the role of the Planetary Protection Officer become more prominent. If you think you’ve got the chops for it, and don’t mind a six-figure salary, be sure to apply soon!

*According to BI, Conley has not indicated if she will apply for the position again.

Further Reading: Business Insider, USAJOBS