Wheels and Helicopter Attached to Perseverance Rover

This summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. When it arrives on Mars (on February 18th, 2021), it will join the Curiosity rover and a host of other missions that are looking for evidence of past and present life on the Red Planet. At present, engineers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are conducting the final assembly of the rover in preparation for launch.

With less than 14 weeks to go before the mission’s launch period opens up, several important development milestones have been completed. This includes integrating the rover’s remaining components, like the rover’s six wheels and the small helicopter drone that will help explore the surface. These elements, and a slew of other final preparations, were integrated with the rover over the past few weeks.

Continue reading “Wheels and Helicopter Attached to Perseverance Rover”

Mars 2020 Stands Up on its Wheels For The First Time

This coming July, the Mars 2020 rover will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and begin its journey to the Red Planet. After it touches down in the Jezero Crater, the rover will commence science operations similar to what Curiosity has been doing since 2012. This will consist of driving over rough terrain, sampling the atmosphere, collecting drill samples, and subjecting them to chemical analysis.

In order to get it ready for this mission, the engineering team over at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are putting the rover through its paces. On Oct. 8th, this included placing the full weight of the rover on its legs and wheels for the first time ever. This event, which was tantamount to an infant standing for the very first time, was captured with a time-lapse video that you can see below.

Continue reading “Mars 2020 Stands Up on its Wheels For The First Time”

NASA is Sending a Helicopter to Mars as Part of the 2020 Rover

At present, there are over a dozen robotic missions exploring the atmosphere and surface of Mars. These include, among others, the Curiosity rover, the Opportunity rover, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, and the soon-to-arrive InSight Lander. In the coming decade, many more missions are planned.

For instance, NASA plans to expand on what Curiosity has accomplished by sending the Mars 2020 rover to conduct a sample-return mission. According to a recent announcement issued by NASA, this mission will also include the Mars Helicopter – a small, autonomous rotorcraft that will demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

As NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared in a recent NASA press release,  this rotocraft is in keeping with NASA’s long-standing traditions of innovation. “NASA has a proud history of firsts,” she said. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover exploring Mars. Credit: NASA

U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas echoed Bridenstine statement. “It’s fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world,” he said. “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.”

The Mars Helicopter began as technology development project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where it spent the past four years being designed, developed, tested and retested. The result of this is a football-sized rotorcraft that weights just under 1.8 kg (four pounds) and relies on two counter-rotating blades to spin at a rate of almost 3,000 rpm (10 times the rate of a helicopter here on Earth).

As Mimi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL, indicated:

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up. To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

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

This concept is ideal for navigating through Mars’ thin atmosphere, where the mean surface pressure is about 0.6% that of Earth’s at sea level (0.60 kPa compared to 101.3 kPa). This low-flying helicopter would not only be able to increase the range of a rover, it will be able to explore areas that the rover would find inaccessible. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explained:

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future. After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

Other capabilities that make it optimized for Mars exploration include lithium-ion batteries, solar cells to keep them charged, and heating mechanisms that will keep it warm during Martian nights – where average temperatures can get as low as 210 K (-63 °C; -82 °F) around the mid-latitudes. In addition, the helicopter is programmed to fly autonomously, since it cannot be flown in real-time (given the distances involved).

Commands will be issued from controllers on Earth, using the rover as a relay, who will instruct the helicopter to commence flight once it is ready to deploy. This will begin shortly after the rover arrives on the planet (which is expected to happen by February 2021) with the helicopter attached to its belly pan. The rover will then select a location to deploy the helicopter onto the ground.

Artist’s concept of the dragonfly being deployed to Titan and commencing its exploration mission. Credit: APL/Michael Carroll

After it is finished charging its batteries and a series of pre-flight tests are performed, controllers on Earth will relay commands to the Mars Helicopter to commence its first 30-day flight test campaign. This will include up to five flights that will take it to increasingly greater distances from the rover (up to a few hundred meters) for longer periods of time (up to 90 seconds).

On its first flight, the helicopter will make a short vertical climb to 3 meters (10 feet) where it will hover for about 30 seconds. Once these tests are complete, the Mars Helicopter will assist the rover as it conducts geological assessments and determines the habitability of its landing sight. The purpose of this will be to search for signs of ancient life on Mars and assesses the natural resources and hazards for future missions involving human explorers.

The rover will also conduct the first-ever sample-return mission from Mars, obtaining samples of rock and soil, encasing them in sealed tubes, and leaving them on the planet for future retrieval by astronauts. If all goes well, the helicopter will demonstrate that low-flying scouts and aerial vehicles can be a valuable part of any future missions. These will likely include robotic missions to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, where researchers are hoping to explore the surface and atmosphere using helicopter (such as the Dragonfly concept).

The Mars 2020 mission is expected to reveal some very impressive things about the Red Planet. If the helicopter proves to be a viable part of the mission, we can expect that additional information and images will be provided from locations that a conventional rover cannot go. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this animation of the Mars Helicopter in action, courtesy of NASA-JPL:

Further Reading: NASA

Mars Missions Need To Be Neat Freaks At Key Sites

One of the most common features of space exploration has been the use of disposable components to get missions to where they are going. Whether we are talking about multistage rockets (which fall away as soon as they are spent) or the hardware used to achieve Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) onto a planet, the idea has been the same. Once the delivery mechanism is used up, it is cast away.

However, in so doing, we could be creating a hazardous situation for future missions. Such is the conclusion reached by a new study from the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki, Finland. With regard to the use of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) systems, the study’s author – Dr. Mark Paton – concludes that jettisoned hardware from missions to Mars could create a terrible mess near future landing sites.

Dr. Mark Paton is a planetary research scientist who specializes in the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and its surface. As such, he is well-versed in the subject of EDL systems that are designed to land missions on Solar System bodies that have atmospheres. This is certainly a going concern for Mars, where landers and rovers have relied on various means to get to the surface safely.

Consider the Curiosity rover, which used a separate EDL system – known as the Sky Crane – to land on Mars in 2012. As the first EDL system of its kind, the Sky Crane was a essentially a rocket-powered backpack mounted on top of the rover. This system kicked in after Curiosity separated from its Descent module (which was slowed by a parachute) and used rockets to slow the rover’s decent even further.

Once it was sufficiently close to the surface, the Sky Crane lowed the rover to the ground with tethers measuring 6.4 meters (21 ft) long. It then detached and landed a safe distance away, not far from the Descent module’s heat shield, backshell, and parachute landed. These jettisoned bits were all photographed from orbit by the MSL’s HiRISE instrument a day after the landing.

This system is also being planned for use by the Mars 2020 rover. And beyond rockets and parachutes, there are also advanced concepts like the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs). As part of NASA’s Fundamental Aerodynamics Hypersonics Project, the HIAD is an attempt to develop what are known as Inflatable Reentry Vehicle (IRV) systems which do away with heat shields.

Unfortunately, this kind of technology does not address another major concern – which is the accumulation of spent hardware components on the surface of a planet. In time, these could pose risks for future missions, mainly because they have the potential of being blown around and cluttering up other (and future) landing sites that are located not far away.

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

As Dr. Paton indicated in an interview with Seeker columnist (and Universe Today alumnist) Elizabeth Howell:

“Currently available landing systems, using heat shield and parachutes, might be problematic because jettisoned hardware from these landers normally land within a few hundred meters of the lander. I would imagine a sample return mission would not jettison its parachute in close vicinity of the target sample or the cached sample. The parachute might cover the sample, making its retrieval a problem. Landers using large parachutes or other large devices probably pose the greatest risk as these could be easily blown onto equipment on the surface, damaging or covering it.”

For the sake of his study, Dr. Paton relied on 3D computer modelling (using the space flight simulator Orbiter) to examine different types of ELD systems. He then conducted meteorological measurements to determine wind speeds and direction within the Martian Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL), in order to determine their influence on the distribution of jettisoned components across the surface of Mars.

What he found was that winds speeds within the Martian PBL were sufficient enough to blow around certain types of EDL systems. This included parachutes – a mainstay of space missions – as well as next-generations concepts like the HIAC. Basically, these components could be blown onto prelanded assets, even when the lander itself has touched down several kilometers away.

This could play havoc with robotic missions that have sensitive equipment or are attempting to collect samples for return to Earth. And as for crewed missions – such as NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”, which is expected to take place in the 2030s – the results could be even worse. Crew habitats, which will be part of all future crewed missions, will rely on solar panels and other devices that need to be free of clutter in order to function.

Artist’s concept of the Deceleration module of Mars Science Laboratory in entering the Martian Atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As such, Dr. Paton advises that future missions be designed so that the amount of hardware they leave behind is minimized. In addition, he advises that any future missions will need to take into account meteorological measurement to make sure that jettisoned components are not likely to blow back and interfere with missions in progress.

“For new landing systems, a detailed trade-off analysis would be required to determine the best way to mitigate this problem,” he said. “To be sure that the wind is blowing away from any landed assets, the winds in the lower few kilometers of the atmosphere would ideally need to be measured close to the time of the lander’s expected arrival.”

As if planning missions to Mars wasn’t already challenging enough! In addition to all the things we need to worry about in getting there, now we need to worry about keeping our landing sites in pristine order. But of course, such considerations are understandable since our presence on Mars is expanding, and many key missions are planned for the coming years.

These include more robotic rovers in the next decade – i.e NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the ESA’s Exomars rover, and the ISRO’s Mangalyaan 2 rover – an even NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s. If we’re going to make Mars a regular destination, we need to learn to pick up after ourselves!

Further Reading: Acta Astronautica,

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Howell – Seeker

Newly Found Ancient Fossils Show Possibilities For Finding Martian Life

Fossilized remains are a fascinating thing. For paleontologists, these natural relics offer a glimpse into the past and a chance to understand what kind of lifeforms lurked there. But for astronomers, fossils are a way of ascertaining precisely when it was that life first began here on our planet – and perhaps even the Solar System.

And thanks to a team of Australian scientists, the oldest fossils to date have been uncovered. These fossilized remains have been dated to 3.7 billion years of age, and were of a community of microbes that lived on the ancient seafloor. In addition to making scientists reevaluate their theories of when life emerged on Earth, they could also tell us if there was ancient life on Mars.

The fossil find was made in what is known as the Isua Supracrustal Belt (ISB), an area in southwest Greenland that recently became accessible due to the ice melting in the area. According to the team, these fossils – basically tiny humps in rock measuring between one and four centimeters (0.4 and 1.6 inches) tall – are stromatolites, which are layers of sediment packed together by ancient, water-based bacterial colonies.

The Australian team searching for fossilized remains in the Isua supracrustal belt (ISB) in southwest Greenland. Credit: uow.edu.au
The Australian team searching for fossilized remains in the Isua supracrustal belt (ISB) in southwest Greenland. Credit: uow.edu.au

According to the team’s research paper, which appeared recently in Nature Communications, the fossilized microbes grew in a shallow marine environment, which is indicated by the seawater-like rare-earth elements and samples of sedimentary rock that were found with them.

They are also similar to colonies of microbes that can be found today, in shallow salt-water environments ranging from Bermuda to Australia. But of course, what makes this find especially interesting is just how old it is. Basically, the stone in the ISB is dated back to the early Archean Era, which took place between 4 and 3.6 billion years ago.

Based on their isotopic signatures, the team dated the fossils to 3.7 billion years of age, which makes them 220 million years older than remains that had been previously uncovered in the Pilbara Craton in north-western Australia. At the time of their discovery, those remains were widely believed to be the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth.

As such, scientists are now reconsidering their estimates on when microbial life first emerged on planet Earth. Prior to this discovery, it was believed that Earth was a hellish environment 3.7 billion years ago. This was roughly 300 million years after the planet had finished cooling, and scientists believed it would take at least half a billion years for life to form after this point.

4.5 billion years ago, during the Hadean Eon, Earth was bombarded regularly by meteorites. Credit: NASA
4.5 billion years ago, during the Hadean Eon, Earth had a much different environment than it does today. Credit: NASA

But with this new evidence, it now appears that life could have emerged faster than that. As Allen P. Nutman – a professor from the University of Wallongong, Australia, and the study’s lead author – said in a university press release:

“The significance of stromatolites is that not only do they provide obvious evidence of ancient life that is visible with the naked eye, but that they are complex ecosystems. This indicates that as long as 3.7 billion years ago microbial life was already diverse. This diversity shows that life emerged within the first few hundred millions years of Earth’s existence, which is in keeping with biologists’ calculations showing the great antiquity of life’s genetic code.”

When life emerged is a major factor when it comes to Earth’s chemical cycles. Essentially, Earth’s atmosphere during the Hadean was believed to be composed of heavy concentrations of CO² atmosphere, hydrogen and water vapor, which would be toxic to most life forms today. During the following Archean era, this primordial atmosphere slowly began to be converted into a breathable mix of oxygen and nitrogen, and the protective ozone layer was formed.

The emergence of microbial life played a tremendous role in this transformation, allowing for the sequestration of CO² and the creation of oxygen gas through photosynthesis. Therefore, when it comes to Earth’s evolution, the question of when life arose and began to affect the chemical cycles of the planet has always been paramount.

The Curiosity rover took this photo of the Martian landscape on July 12, 2016. Imagine if we could listen to it at the same time. NASA now plans to include a microphone on the upcoming Mars 2020 Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Could fossilized remains of microbes be found underneath Mars’ cold, dry landscape? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This discovery turns the study of planetary habitability on its head,” said associate Professor Bennett, one of the study’s co-authors. “Rather than speculating about potential early environments, for the first time we have rocks that we know record the conditions and environments that sustained early life. Our research will provide new insights into chemical cycles and rock-water-microbe interactions on a young planet.”

The find has also inspired some to speculation that similar life structures could be found on Mars. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Martian rovers, landers and orbiters, scientists now know with a fair degree of certainty that roughly 3.7 billion years ago, Mars had a warmer, wetter environment.

As a result, it is possible that life on Mars had enough time to form before its atmosphere was stripped away and the waters in which the microbe would have emerged dried up. As Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, the Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“The structures and geochemistry from newly exposed outcrops in Greenland display all of the features used in younger rocks to argue for a biological origin. This discovery represents a new benchmark for the oldest preserved evidence of life on Earth. It points to a rapid emergence of life on Earth and supports the search for life in similarly ancient rocks on Mars.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that compared to Earth, Mars experiences far less movement in its crust. As such, any microbial life that existed on Mars roughly 3.7 billion years ago would likely be easier to find.

This is certainly good news for NASA, since one of the main objectives of their Mars 2020 rover is to find evidence of past microbial life. I for one am looking forward to seeing what it leaves for us to pickup in its cache of sample tubes!

Further Reading: Nature Communications

NASA Goes With Atlas V To Launch Mars 2020 Rover

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has accomplished some truly spectacular things in the past few decades. Officially launched in 1992, this program has been focused on three major goals: characterizing the climate and geology of Mars, looking for signs of past life, and preparing the way for human crews to explore the planet.

And in the coming years, the Mars 2020 rover will be deployed to the Red Planet and become the latest in a long line of robotic rovers sent to the surface. In a recent press release, NASA announced that it has awarded the launch services contract for the mission to United Launch Alliance (ULA) – the makers of the Atlas V rocket.

The mission is scheduled to launch in July of 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida, at a point when Earth and Mars are at opposition. At this time, the planets will be on the same side of the Sun and making their closest approach to each other in four years, being just 62.1 million km (38.6 million miles) part.

The design of NASA's Mars 2020 rover leverages many successful features of the agency's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, but it adds new science instruments and a sampling system to carry out the new goals for the 2020 mission. Credits: NASA
The design of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover combines proven features with some new science instruments and a sampling system. Credits: NASA

Following in the footsteps of the Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit rovers, the goal of Mars 2020 mission is to  determine the habitability of the Martian environment and search for signs of ancient Martian life. This will include taking samples of soil and rock to learn more about Mars’ “watery past”.

But whereas these and other members of the Mars Exploration Program were searching for evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface and a denser atmosphere (i.e. signs that life could have existed), the Mars 2020 mission will attempt to find actual evidence of ancient microbial life.

The design of the rover also incorporates several successful features of Curiosity. For instance, the entire landing system (which incorporates a sky crane and heat shield) and the rover’s chassis have been recreated using leftover parts that were originally intended for Curiosity.

There’s also the rover’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator – i.e. the nuclear motor – which was also originally intended as a backup part for Curiosity. But it will also have several upgraded instrument on board that allow for a new guidance and control technique. Known as “Terrain Relative Navigation”, this new landing method allows for greater maneuverability during descent.

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

Another new feature is the rover’s drill system, which will collect core samples and store them in sealed tubes. These tubes will then be left in a “cache” on the surface, where they will be retrieved by future missions and brought back to Earth – which will constitute the first sample-return mission from the Red Planet.

In this respect, Mars 2020 will help pave the way for a crewed mission to the Red Planet, which NASA hopes to mount sometime in the 2030s. The probe will also conduct numerous studies designed to improve landing techniques and assess the planet’s natural resources and hazards, as well as coming up with methods to allow astronauts to live off the environment.

In terms of hazards, the probe will be looking at Martian weather patterns, dust storms, and other potential environmental conditions that will affect human astronauts living and working on the surface. It will also test out a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying sources of subsurface water (as a source of drinking water, oxygen, and hydrogen fuel).

As NASA stated in their press release, the Mars 2020 mission will “offer opportunities to deploy new capabilities developed through investments by NASA’s Space Technology Program and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, as well as contributions from international partners.”

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
Illustration of the Mars 2020 mission zapping a rock with its laser. Credit: NASA/JPL-

They also emphasized the opportunities to learn ho future human explorers could rely on in-situ resource utilization as a way of reducing the amount of materials needed to be shipped – which will not only cut down on launch costs but ensure that future missions to the planet are more self-reliant.

The total cost for NASA to launch Mars 2020 is approximately $243 million. This assessment includes the cost of launch services, processing costs for the spacecraft and its power source, launch vehicle integration and tracking, data and telemetry support.

The use of spare parts has also meant reduced expenditure on the overall mission. In total, the Mars 2020 rover and its launch will cost and estimated $2.1 billion USD, which represents a significant savings over previous missions like the Mars Science Laboratory – which cost a total of $2.5 billion USD.

Between now and 2020, NASA also intends to launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander mission, which is currently targeted for 2018. This and the Mars 2020 rover will be the latest in a long line of orbiters, rovers and landers that are seeking to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet and prepare it for human visitors!

Further Reading: NASA, Mars 2020 Rover

Viking: Remembering Humanity’s First Successful Mission On Mars Surface

Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976. The primary objectives of the Viking mission, which was composed of two spacecraft, were to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA
Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. The primary objectives of the Viking mission was to obtain high-resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface and search for evidence of life on Mars. Credit: NASA

July 20. Sound like a familiar date? If you guessed that’s when we first set foot on the Moon 47 years ago, way to go! But it’s also the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 lander, the first American probe to successfully land on Mars.

The Russians got there first on December 2, 1971 when their Mars 3 probe touched down in the Mare Sirenum region. But transmissions stopped just 14.5 seconds later, only enough time for the crippled lander to send a partial and garbled photo that unfortunately showed no identifiable features.

The late, great Carl Sagan stands next to a model of the Viking lander. Credit: NASA
The late, great Carl Sagan stands next to a model of the Viking lander. Credit: NASA

Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976 in Chryse Planitia, a smooth, circular plain in Mars’ northern equatorial region and operated for six years, far beyond the original 90 day mission. Its twin, Viking 2, landed about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away in the vast northern plain called Utopia Planitia several weeks later on September 3. Both were packaged inside orbiters that took pictures of the landing sites before dispatching the probes.

The first color photo taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 lander on July 21, 1976. The rock strewn landscape is a familiar one seen in photos taken by many landers since. Credit: NASA
The first color photo taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 lander on July 21, 1976. The rock strewn landscape is a familiar one seen in photos taken by many landers since. Credit: NASA

Viking 1 was originally slated to land on July 4th to commemorate the 200th year of the founding of the United States. Some of you may remember the bicentennial celebrations underway at the time. Earlier photos taken by Mariner 9 helped mission controllers pick what they thought was a safe landing site, but when the Viking 1 orbiter arrived and took a closer look, NASA deemed it too bouldery for a safe landing, so they delayed the the probe’s arrival until a safer site could be chosen. Hence the July 20th touchdown date.

My recollection at the time was that that particular date was picked to coincide with the first lunar landing.

I’ll never forget the first photo transmitted from the surface. I had started working at the News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. earlier that year in the photo department. On July 20 I joined the wire editor, a kindly. older gent named Raleigh, at the AP Photofax machine and watched the black and white image creep line-by-line from the machine. Still damp with ink, I lifted the sodden sheet into my hands, totally absorbed. Two things stood out: how incredibly sharp the picture was and ALL THOSE ROCKS!  Mars looked so different from the Moon.

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. The digging tool on the sampling arm (at lower center) could scoop up samples of material and deposit them into the appropriate experiment. Some holes were dug deeper to study soil which was not affected by solar radiation and weathering. The trenches in this ESE looking image are in the "Sandy Flats" area of the landing site at Chryse Planitia. Credit: NASA
The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. The digging tool on the sampling arm (at lower center) could scoop up samples of material and deposit them into the appropriate experiment. Some holes were dug deeper to study soil which was not affected by solar radiation and weathering. Credit: NASA

One day later, Viking 1 returned the first color photo from the surface and continued to operate, taking photos and doing science for 2,307 days until November 11, 1982, a record not broken until May 2010 by NASA’s Opportunity rover. It would have continued humming along for who knows how much longer were it not for a faulty command sent by mission control that resulted in a permanent loss of contact.

The first Mars panorama taken in Chryse Plantia by Viking 1. Credit: NASA
The first Mars panorama taken in Chryse Plantia by Viking 1. Click to supersize. Credit: NASA

Viking 2 soldiered on until its batteries failed on April 11, 1980. Both landers characterized the Martian weather and radiation environment, scooped up soil samples and measured their elemental composition and send back lots of photos including the first Martian panoramas.

Each lander carried three instruments designed to look for chemical or biological signs of living or once-living organisms. Soil samples scooped up by the landers’ sample arms were delivered to three experiments in hopes of detecting organic compounds and gases either consumed or released by potential microbes when they were treated with nutrient solutions. The results from both landers were similar: neither suite of experiments found any organic (carbon-containing) compounds nor any definitive signs of Mars bugs.

The first color picture taken by Viking 2 on the Martian surface shows a rocky reddish surface much like that seen by Viking 1 more than 4000 miles away. Credit: NASA
The first color picture taken by Viking 2 on the Martian surface shows a rocky reddish surface much like that seen by Viking 1 more than 4,000 miles away. Credit: NASA

Not that there wasn’t some excitement. The Labeled Release experiment (LC) actually did give positive results. A nutrient solution was added to a sample of Martian soil. If it contained microbes, they would take in the nutrients and release gases. Great gobs of gas were quickly released! As if the putative Martian microbes only needed a jigger of  NASA’s chicken soup to find their strength. But the complete absence of organics in the soil made scientists doubtful that life was the cause.  Instead it was thought that some inorganic chemical reaction must be behind the release. Negative results from the other two experiments reinforced their pessimism.

Frost on Utopia Planitia photographed by Viking 2. Credit NASA
Frost on Utopia Planitia photographed by Viking 2. Click to visit NASA’s Viking image archive (not to miss!) Credit NASA

Fast forward to 2008 when the Phoenix lander detected strongly oxidizing perchlorates originating from the interaction of strong ultraviolet light from the Sun with soils on the planet’s surface. Since Mars lacks an ozone layer, perchlorates may not only be common but also responsible for destroying much of Mars’ erstwhile organic bounty. Other scientists have reexamined the Viking LC data in recent years and concluded just the opposite, that the gas release points to life.


A fun, “period” movie about the Viking Mission to Mars

Seems to me it’s high time we should send a new suite of experiments designed to find life. Then again, maybe we won’t have to. The Mars 202o Mission will cache Martian rocks for later pickup, so we can bring pieces of Mars back to Earth and perform experiments to our heart’s content.

We’re Finally Sending Ears to Mars

The Curiosity rover took this photo of the Martian landscape on July 12, 2016. Imagine if we could listen to it at the same time. NASA now plans to include a microphone on the upcoming Mars 2020 Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Curiosity rover took this photo of the Martian landscape on July 12, 2016. Imagine if we could hear the wind passing by. We will soon. NASA plans to include a microphone on the upcoming Mars 2020 Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We all love that feeling of “being there” when it comes to missions to other planets.  Juno’s arrival at Jupiter, New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and the daily upload of raw images from the Mars Curiosity rover makes each of us an armchair explorer of alien landscapes. But there’s always been something missing. Something essential in shaping our environment — sound.

The microphone selected for the Mars 2020 Mission would be mounted It would be mounted on a tiny tube that protrudes from the warm electronics box, on the bracket that holds the window for the SuperCam instrument. Credit: S. Mauric et. all, 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference
The microphone selected for the Mars 2020 Mission would be mounted It would be mounted on a tiny tube that protrudes from the warm electronics box, on the bracket that holds the window for the SuperCam instrument. Credit: S. Mauric et. all, 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

NASA recently gave the go-ahead for the Mars 2020 rover that will bristle with a new suite of science instruments including a microphone. Hallelujah! Finally, we’ll get to listen to the sound of the Martian wind, the occasional whirl of dust devils, the crunch of rocks beneath the rover’s wheels and even sharp pops from laser-zapped rocks!

These photos show the microphones used in two earlier missions. Neither was ever used. On left, the Mars Descent Imager and microphone for the Phoenix lander; right, the device for the failed Mars Polar Lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Microphones were included on two earlier missions but never used. On left, the Mars Descent Imager and microphone for the Phoenix lander; right, the device for the failed Mars Polar Lander mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The staff and membership of The Planetary Society have been trying for 20 years to get a working microphone to the Red Planet. One flew aboard NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission in 1998 but that probe crashed landed when its engine shut down prematurely during the descent phase. In 2008 the Society partnered with Malin Space Science Systems to include its next microphone in the descent imager package on the Mars Phoenix lander in 2008. While that mission was successful,  the imager (along with its microphone) was turned off for fear it might cause an electrical problem with a critical landing system. Mission planners hoped it might be turned on later but whether it was a money issue or fear of shorting out other critical lander instruments, it never happened. Heartbreaking.

One sound souvenir we did get from Phoenix comes to us from the European Space Agency’s Mars which recorded the radio transmissions from the lander as it descended. The signals were then processed into audio within the range of human hearing. Give a listen, there’s a music to it.

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

The Mars 2020 mission, which is expected to launch in the summer of 2020 and land the following February, will search directly for signs of ancient Martian life as well as identify and cache samples and specimens at several locations on the surface for pick-up by later missions. The microphone would be housed with the rover’s SuperCam, a souped-up version of Curiosity’s ChemCam, which fires a laser at rocks and soils from a distance to analyze the resulting vapors for their elemental composition.

SuperCam will also shoot a laser to vaporize rocks and spectroscopy to tease out their molecular and mineral composition. The microphone would be mounted on a tube sticking out of the electronics box housing SuperCam and used for scientific purposes but I suspect for public outreach as well. One of its more intriguing uses will be to record the ‘snap’ or ‘pop’ when a rock is struck with the laser. Based on the volume of the sound, scientists can estimate the specimen’s mass.

NASA plans to land the 1-ton rover using the same sky crane method that settled Curiosity to the surface in dramatic fashion. While the rover will be busy photographing the entry, descent and landing sequence, the microphone will record the ambient sound. Synched together, this should make for one of the most compelling videos ever!

A beautiful dust devil recorded by NASA's Opportunity rover. Wouldn't it be wonderful to hear it at the same time as viewing the photo? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/James Sorenson
A tall, beautiful dust devil recorded by NASA’s Opportunity rover. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear it at the same time as viewing the photo? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/James Sorenson

The microphone will also be used to augment studies of Martian weather (the aforementioned winds and dust devils) and listen to the rover’s creaks, groans and whir of its motors as the car-sized machine rolls across the alternately sandy and rocky surface of Mars. The Planetary Society is collaborating with the SuperCam team to make the most of the microphone. Who knows what else we might hear? Exploding fireball overhead? Static electricity? Rhythmic winds? Blowing sand? Slime-slap of alien pseudopods? OK, probably not the last one, but new instruments often reveal completely unexpected phenomena.

It’s been hard as hell getting a microphone on a space mission. They’ve had to compete with other instruments considered more essential not to mention the precious space the device would take up and the burden of additional mass. Mission planners consider every fraction of a gram when building a space probe because getting it into Earth orbit and blasting it to a planet takes energy. Rockets only hold so much fuel!


Your Voice on Mars

You might wonder if Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough to carry sound. The good news is that it is, but unlike Earth’s much denser nitrogen-oxygen mix, Martian air is 100 times thinner and composed of 95% carbon dioxide. If you could snap off your helmet and talk out loud on the Red Planet, your voice would sound deeper and not travel as far. Scientists liken it to having a conversation at 100,000 feet (30,500 meters) above Earth’s surface. Check out the crazy video for a simulation.

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this story, sit back and pump up the volume. We’ll have ears on Mars soon!


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