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!


Pump Up the Volume by M|A|R|R|S

ExoMars 2018 Rover Postponed to 2020 Launch

ESA Exomars rover launch has been rescheduled to launch two years later in 2020.  Credit:ESA
ESA Exomars rover launch has been rescheduled to launch two years later in 2020. Credit:ESA

Liftoff of the ExoMars 2018 rover mission currently under development jointly by Europe and Russia has just been postponed for two years to 2020, according to an announcement today, May 2, from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The delay was forced by a variety of technical and funding issues that ate up the schedule margin to enable a successful outcome for what will be Europe’s first Mars rover. The goal is to search for signs of life.

“Taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution,” ESA explained in a statement today.

The ambitious ExoMars rover is the second of two joint Euro-Russian missions to explore the Red Planet. It is equipped with an ESA deep driller and a NASA instrument to search for preserved organic molecules.

The first mission known as ExoMars 2016 was successfully launched last month from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket on March 14.

The renamed ExoMars 2020 mission involves a European-led rover and a Russian-led surface platform and is also slated to blastoff on an Russian Proton rocket.

Roscosmos and ESA jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020. The costs associated with the delay are not known.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The delay means that the Euro-Russian rover mission will launch the same year as NASA’s 2020 rover.

The rover is being built by prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space in Stevenage, England.

The descent module and surface science package are provided by Roscosmos with some contributions by ESA.

Recognizing the potential for a delay, ESA and Roscosmos set up a tiger team in late 2015 to assess the best options.

“Russian and European experts made their best efforts to meet the 2018 launch schedule for the mission, and in late 2015, a dedicated ESA-Roscosmos Tiger Team, also including Russian and European industries, initiated an analysis of all possible solutions to recover schedule delays and accommodate schedule contingencies,” said ESA in the statement.

The tiger team reported their results to ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner and Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov.

Woerner and Komarov then “jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020, and tasked their project teams to develop, in cooperation with the industrial contactors, a new baseline schedule aiming towards a 2020 launch. Additional measures will also be taken to maintain close control over the activities on both sides up to launch.”

The ExoMars 2016 interplanetary mission is comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander. The spacecraft are due to arrive at Mars in October 2016.

The ExoMars craft releases the Schiaparelli lander in October in this artist's view. Credit: ESA
The ExoMars craft releases the Schiaparelli lander in October in this artist’s view. Credit: ESA

The goal of TGO is to search for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The now planned 2020 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters (seven feet) where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2020 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Celebrates Two Years on Mars Approaching Bedrock of Mountain Climbing Destination

2 Years on Mars!
Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp, her primary science destination, in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story and mosaics updated[/caption]

NASA’s most scientifically powerful rover ever dispatched to the Red Planet, Curiosity, is celebrating her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, EDT (Aug. 5, 2012, PDT) while simultaneously approaching a bedrock unit that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain she will soon scale and is the primary science destination of the mission.

Mount Sharp is a layered mountain that dominates most of Gale Crater and towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky and is taller than Mount Rainier.

Aug. 6, 2014 marks ‘2 Years on Mars’ and Sol 711 for Curiosity in an area called “Hidden Valley.”

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary.

The 1 ton rover is equipped with 10 state-of-the-art science instruments and searching for signs of life.

The mysterious mountain is so huge that outcrops of bedrock extend several miles out from its base and Curiosity is now within striking distance of reaching the area the rover team calls “Pahrump Hills.”

2 Earth Years on Mars!  NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.  Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
2 Earth Years on Mars!
NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Scientists anticipate that the outcrops at “Pahrump Hills” offer a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing rather than still belonging to the floor of Gale Crater.

“We’re coming to our first taste of a geological unit that’s part of the base of the mountain rather than the floor of the crater,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a statement.

“We will cross a major terrain boundary.”

Since “Pahrump Hills” is less than one-third of a mile (500 meters) from Curiosity she should arrive soon.

In late July 2014, the rover arrived in an area of sandy terrain called “Hidden Valley” which is on the planned route ahead leading to “Pahrump Hills” and easily traversable with few of the sharp edged rocks that have caused significant damage to the rovers six aluminum wheels.

This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called "Hidden Valley," which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity's Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This full-circle panorama of the landscape surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on July 31, 2014, Sol 705, offers a view into sandy lower terrain called “Hidden Valley,” which is on the planned route ahead. It combines several images from Curiosity’s Navigation Camera. South is at the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The sedimentary layers in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp have been Curiosity’s long-term science destination.

They are the principal reason why the science team specifically chose Gale Crater as the primary landing site based on high resolution spectral observations collected by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicating the presence of deposits of clay-bearing sedimentary rocks.

Curiosity’s goal all along has been to determine whether Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Finding clay bearing minerals. or phyllosilicates, in Martian rocks is the key to fulfilling its major objective.

The team expected to find the clay bearing minerals only in the sedimentary layers at the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Soon after landing, the team spotted some rather interesting looking outcrops barely a half mile away from the touchdown zone at a spot dubbed ‘Yellowknife Bay” and decided to take a detour towards it to investigate.

Well the scientists won the bet and struck scientific gold barely six months after landing when they drilled into a rock outcrop named “John Klein” at “Yellowknife Bay” and unexpectedly discovered the clay bearing minerals on the crater floor.

Yellowknife Bay was found to be an ancient lakebed where liquid water flowed on Mars surface billions of years ago.

The discovery of phyllosilicates in the 1st drill sample during the spring of 2013 meant that Curiosity had rather remarkably already fulfilled its primary goal of finding a habitable zone during its first year of operations!

The rock analysis “yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical source of energy for microbes, if any existed there,” according to NASA.

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Before landing, we expected that we would need to drive much farther before answering that habitability question,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “We were able to take advantage of landing very close to an ancient streambed and lake. Now we want to learn more about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, and we know where to go to do that.”

During the rovers second Earth year on the Red Planet, Curiosity has been driving as fast as possible towards a safe entry point to the slopes of Mount Sharp. The desired destination for the car sized rover is now about 2 miles (3 kilometers) southwest of its current location.

‘Driving, Driving, Driving’
is indeed the rover teams mantra.

The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover's second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity's position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission's entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label "Aug. 5, 2013" indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing.    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The main map here shows the assortment of landforms near the location of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover’s second anniversary of landing on Mars nears. The gold traverse line entering from upper right ends at Curiosity’s position as of Sol 705 on Mars (July 31, 2014). The inset map shows the mission’s entire traverse from the landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT) to Sol 705, and the remaining distance to long-term science destinations near Murray Buttes, at the base of Mount Sharp. The label “Aug. 5, 2013” indicates where Curiosity was one year after landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 174,000 images.

Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the treacherous sand dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

And NASA is moving forward with future Red Planet missions when it recently announced the selection of 7 instruments chosen to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover, the agency’s next rover going to Mars that will search for signs of ancient life as well as carry a technology demonstration that will help pave the way for ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s. Read my story – here.

Coincidentally, ESA’s Rosetta comet hunting spacecraft arrived in orbit at its destination Comet 67P after a 10 year voyage on the same day as Curiosity’s 2 Earth year anniversary.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA Announces Science Instruments for Mars 2020 Rover Expedition to the Red Planet

NASA announced the winners of the high stakes science instrument competition to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover at a briefing held today, Thursday, July 31, at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The 2020 rover’s instruments goals are to search for signs of organic molecules and past life and help pave the way for future human explorers.

Seven carefully-selected payloads were chosen from a total of 58 proposals received in January 2014 from science teams worldwide, which is twice the usual number for instrument competitions and demonstrates the extraordinary interest in Mars by the science community.

The 2020 rover architecture is based on NASA’s hugely successful Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover which safely touched down a one ton mass on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012 using the nail-biting and never before used skycrane rocket assisted descent system.

The seven instruments will conduct unprecedented science and technology investigations on the Red Planet that’s aimed for the first time at simultaneously advancing both NASA’s unmanned robotic exploration searching for extraterrestrial life and plans for human missions to Mars in the 2030’s.

Planning for NASA's 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives. Image Credit:   NASA/JPL-Caltech
Planning for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The instruments will have the capability to detect low levels of organic molecules that are essential precursors to life.

A technology demonstration experiment will use Mars natural resources to generate oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide that can be used as rocket fuel or for human explorers. This will save enormous costs by enabling astronauts to ‘live off the land’ rather than having to bring everything needed for survival from Earth.

NASA said that the development cost for the chosen instruments is approximately $130 million out of a total cost of $1.9 Billion.

This overall cost is less than Curiosity’s approximate $2.4 Billion cost since the team is rebuilding the rover and landing architecture – sort of an MSL 2 so to speak – developed for Curiosity and also using several left over MSL flight spares.

Curiosity’s panoramic view departing Mount Remarkable and ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 630, May 15, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Mars 2020 builds on the architecture developed for Curiosity.
Curiosity’s panoramic view departing Mount Remarkable and ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 630, May 15, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The Mars 2020 rover will also have a sample cacher with the ability to store core samples collected by the rover’s drill for later retrieval and return to Earth at an as yet unspecified time.

“The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.”

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will explore the Red Planet like never before.  Credit: NASA
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will explore the Red Planet like never before. Credit: NASA
Here’s a list of the 7 selected science payload proposals. They are in some ways more advanced versions form Curiosity and in other ways completely new:

Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom. The instrument also will determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations. The principal investigator is James Bell, Arizona State University in Phoenix.

SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance. The principal investigator is Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico. This instrument also has a significant contribution from the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales,Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (CNES/IRAP) France.

Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before. The principal investigator is Abigail Allwood, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds. SHERLOC will be the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars and will provide complementary measurements with other instruments in the payload. The principal investigator is Luther Beegle, JPL.

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. The principal investigator is Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape. The principal investigator is Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi, Centro de Astrobiologia, Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Spain.

The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface. The principal investigator is Svein-Erik Hamran, Forsvarets Forskning Institute, Norway.

So the instruments are more sophisticated, upgraded hardware versions as well as new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover’s landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life, according to NASA.

Creating a Returnable Cache of Martian Samples is a major objective for NASA's Mars 2020 rover.  This prototype show  hardware to cache samples of cores drilled from Martian rocks for possible future return to Earth.  The 2020 rover would be to collect and package a carefully selected set of up to 31 samples in a cache that could be returned to Earth by a later mission.  The capabilities of laboratories on Earth for detailed examination of cores drilled from Martian rocks would far exceed the capabilities of any set of instruments that could feasibly be flown to Mars.  The exact hardware design for the 2020 mission is yet to be determined.  For scale, the diameter of the core sample shown in the image is 0.4 inch (1 centimeter).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Creating a Returnable Cache of Martian Samples is a major objective for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. This prototype show hardware to cache samples of cores drilled from Martian rocks for possible future return to Earth. The 2020 rover would be to collect and package a carefully selected set of up to 31 samples in a cache that could be returned to Earth by a later mission. The capabilities of laboratories on Earth for detailed examination of cores drilled from Martian rocks would far exceed the capabilities of any set of instruments that could feasibly be flown to Mars. For scale, the diameter of the core sample shown in the image is 0.4 inch (1 centimeter). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Today we take another important step on our journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“While getting to and landing on Mars is hard, Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond. Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans’ journey to the Red Planet.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

To Help Mars Rovers Phone Home, NASA Asks For Ideas To Close Looming Communications Gap

Remember during the government shutdown when it looked as though a NASA Mars mission would be delayed? Launch preparations continued because delaying the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft — which could have pushed its window back by years — would cause “imminent risk to life or property”, administrator Charles Bolden told Universe Today in November.

Both NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey currently provide a vital data link to send huge streams of information from the rovers on the surface, Opportunity and Curiosity. (And the Mars 2020 rover is coming up in a few years, too.) While both orbiters are working well, they are both well over their design lifetimes. MAVEN is now on its way to Mars and should get there in September.

MAVEN’s mission, however, is only designed to last for a year. While it could last longer, NASA is already thinking ahead for satellite backups — especially for the 2020s. And that could include commercial participation, according to a new request for information the agency put out this week.

“NASA has no scheduled Mars science orbiters after MAVEN arrives on the Red Planet in the fall,” the agency warned in a press release. “This creates the need to identify cost-effective options to ensure continuity of reliable, high-performance telecommunications relay services for the future.”

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The solicitation (which you can see here) proposes to have NASA purchase telecommunications services from some “commercial service provider” that would be responsible for operating and owning the satellites. This isn’t necessarily open only to industry, either. NASA says that organizations could include commercial providers, its own centers, universities, non-profits, federally funded research and development centers and even U.S. government and international organizations.

“We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships,” stated John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate. “Depending on the outcome, the new model could be a vital component in future science missions and the path for humans to Mars.”

And it’s possible these orbiters could explore new technologies for Mars — specifically, laser/optical communications, which were used to great success on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. And other laser missions are coming up. This could make it easier to send back movies from Mars as well as still pictures.

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Did A Lake Once Cover Spirit Rover’s Landing Site On Mars?

Science is an iterative process, with each discovery building on those made before. This means that as new evidence comes into play, you need to examine the evidence in context of what you know now, and what you knew before. Sometimes the evidence points to new theories. And sometimes, like in this case concerning Mars, it points to older ones.

The Spirit rover spent six years (2004-2010) exploring Gusev Crater, which is just a little south of the Martian equator. Scientists have been back and forth about whether it once was a vast lake of water, but some new research could swing the pendulum towards the water hypothesis.

The water track hinges on magnesium-iron carbonate minerals found in Columbia Hills, a 300-foot (91-meter) feature about two miles (3.2 kilometers) away from Spirit’s landing site. When the minerals were first found in the hills’ Comanche outcrop in 2010, scientists (which included the lead author of the study) attributed this to ancient hot springs activity.

It was a bit of a disappointment for those who had picked Gusev as a landing site from the belief that it was indeed an ancient lake. “From orbit, Gusev looked, with its southern rim breached by a meandering river channel, as if it once held a lake – and water-deposited rocks were the rover mission’s focus,” Arizona State University stated.

Spirit, however, initially found that the crater was lined with volcanic rocks and not the sediments scientists needed to support the lake theory. When it did find evidence of water in the hills, it was linked to hydrothermal activity.

A 2004 image of an outcrop at Columbia Hills on Mars, taken by the rover Spirit. Credit: NASA/JPL
A 2004 image of an outcrop at Columbia Hills on Mars, taken by the rover Spirit. Credit: NASA/JPL

The new analysis suggests that Comanche (and other outcrops in the vicinity) got their liquid from water on the surface that was of a much lower temperature than what you would find in a hot spring  –which originates underground.

This is because Comanche and the surrounding area are believed to have started as a buildup of volcanic ash (called a tephra) from eruptions somewhere around Gusev. As the theory goes, waters penetrated Gusev at the south, lingered, and created a “briny solution”. Over time, the brine evaporated and what remained was carbonate minerals residue that coated the rocks.

“The lake didn’t have to be big,” stated Steve Ruff, an associate research professor at Arizona State University who led the research. “The Columbia Hills stand 300 feet high, but they’re in the lowest part of Gusev. So a deep, crater-spanning lake wasn’t needed.”

Locator image for Comanche outcrops in the Columbia Hill of Gusev Crater, Mars. Yellow line marks Spirit’s traverse. Pancam panoramic images were taken near the true summit of Husband Hill (Everest Pan) and at the location of the Seminole outcrop. Spirit is currently located on the left side of Home Plate. Image width is ~1000 m. Image courtesy of NASA/UA/HiRISE using PSP_001513_1655_red image. After Arvidson et al. [2008]
Locator image for Comanche outcrops in the Columbia Hill of Gusev Crater, Mars. Yellow line marks Spirit’s traverse. Pancam panoramic images were taken near the true summit of Husband Hill (Everest Pan) and at the location of the Seminole outcrop. Spirit was then located on the left side of Home Plate. Image width is ~1000 m. Image courtesy of NASA/UA/HiRISE using PSP_001513_1655_red image. After Arvidson et al. [2008]
Getting more information, however, would be one way to add credence to the theory. That’s why the team is also pushing for the forthcoming NASA Mars 2020 rover to land in Gusev Crater, which would be unprecedented among Mars missions as each lander and/or rover has gone to a different spot. Site selection has not been finalized yet.

“Going back to Gusev would give us an opportunity for a second field season there, which any terrestrial geologist would understand,” stated Ruff. “After the first field season with Spirit, we now have a bunch more questions and new hypotheses that can be addressed by going back.”

You can read more about the research in the journal Geology.

Source: Arizona State University

Could The U.S. Government Shutdown Hammer Earth and Mars Missions?

As Day 2 of the United States government shutdown continues, some short-term effects are already in evidence when it comes to Earth and space.

Most of the NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) websites are offline. Social media updates are silent. At NASA, 97% of agency employees are off work and media reports indicate that 55% of NOAA’s employees are furloughed.

If the shutdown lasts for very long, however, long-term programs could feel the pain. This includes a couple of Mars missions NASA is developing, as well as Earth-based climate research and satellite observation from NOAA.

Mars 2020

A twin rover to Mars Curiosity, called Mars 2020 for now, is expected to leave for the Red Planet in 2020 and do investigations into past life and habitability. Planning is still in the early stages, but an announcement of opportunity for science investigators was supposed to happen on Oct. 8. Notices of intent were due Oct. 15.

“The preproposal conference, scheduled for 10/8, may be rescheduled and the due date for NOIs (currently 10/15) could be delayed, if the government is still shut down closer to those dates,” NASA officials wrote in an update before the shutdown on Monday.

MAVEN team members, including chief scientist Bruce Jakosky (2nd from left)  pose with spacecraft inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN team members, including chief scientist Bruce Jakosky (2nd from left) pose with spacecraft inside the cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

MAVEN

As widely reported yesterday, the next Mars orbiter from NASA is expected to lift off from Earth on Nov. 18. Now, however, preparatory work has ceased and there is some concern from team members that it will miss the launch window, which extends into December. At worst, this means MAVEN’s launch could be delayed until 2016, when the next opportunity opens.

“The hardware is being safed, meaning that it will be put into a known, stable, and safe state,” Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator, told Universe Today‘s Ken Kremer yesterday. “We’ll turn back on when told that we can. We have some margin days built into our schedule.”

NOAA

As with NASA, NOAA is keeping up with mission-critical activities — which in their case, includes weather forecasting. Long-term climate research, however, is reportedly being shelved.

“For example, Harold Brooks, a top tornado researcher who works at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., reported his furlough notice on Facebook on Tuesday,” Climate Central wrote on Oct. 1. “Much of the staff at NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, except for positions related to maintaining computing resources, have also been furloughed. Those two labs are heavily involved in NOAA’s climate research programs.”

A view of Hurricane Irene taken by the GOES satellite at 2:55 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on August 24, 2011. Credit: NASA
A view of Hurricane Irene taken by the GOES satellite at 2:55 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on August 24, 2011. Credit: NASA

Observers are also worried that a lengthy shutdown could push back the time when new weather satellites become available. There have been multiple reports about a “weather satellite gap” coming in the United States as many of NOAA’s geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites are nearing the end of their expected lives. The Subcommittees on Oversight and Environment held hearings into this issue in September.

What’s still online?

These are some of the programs that are still happening at NASA and NOAA:

NASA’s Curiosity rover reaches out in ‘handshake’ like gesture with dramatic scenery of Mount Sharp in the background. This mosaic of images was snapped by Curiosity on Sol 262 (May 2, 2013) and shows her flexing the robotic arm. Two drill holes are visible on the surface bedrock below the robotic arm’s turret. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-(kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Curiosity rover reaches out in ‘handshake’ like gesture with dramatic scenery of Mount Sharp in the background. This mosaic of images was snapped by Curiosity on Sol 262 (May 2, 2013) and shows her flexing the robotic arm. Two drill holes are visible on the surface bedrock below the robotic arm’s turret. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-(kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA:

  • Bare-bones management on programs such as the International Space Station and several robotic missions that are already in operation (such as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE).
  • Certain missions are in critical phases that could be hurt if work stops, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which is undergoing cryogenic testing on some of its instruments.
  • Several missions run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Applied Physics Laboratory are still running as usual, according to the Planetary Society, as these receive contract money from NASA; this means Mars Curiosity is still working, for example.
  • The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera is still snapping pictures, its Twitter account reported, which is positive given that it was intended to snap shots of Comet ISON during its closest approach to Mars yesterday.
  • The decades-long Landsat Earth observation program is still operating, according to The Atlantic, with data being sent back to Earth as usual. The difference is this information won’t be packaged as usual until government operations restart.

NOAA (all information according to this Department of Commerce document):

  • The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will keep 73 employees on board “to ensure continuity of crucial long-term historical climate records, and real-time regular research to support ongoing weather and air quality prediction services,” NOAA said.
  • 184 employees will stay with the Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service for command and control of several satellites for NOAA and the Department of Defense.
  • 474 employees will remain with the National Marine Fisheries Service. 174 are funded in another form besides appropriations. The others are a mix of law enforcement, fisheries management and property protection officials.
  • 490 employees are with the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations for observational data collection related to weather forecasting.
  • 173 employees are with the National Ocean Service. 17 are funded outside of appropriations, while the 156 remaining “are required to protect against imminent and significant threats to life and property by supporting safe maritime commerce in U.S. waters, including real-time water level data for ships entering U.S. ports, critical nautical chart updates, and accurate position information,” NOAA stated. Some are also monitoring marine health aspects such as algal blooms.
  • There are 19 IT-related employees and 20 employees providing support services.
  • The large bulk of employees still at work, 3,935 people, are with the National Weather Service to keep up weather forecasting.

There’s no word yet on when government employees could go back to work. Congress representatives are jousting over the implementation of a spending bill to keep the money flowing to government departments. One big issue: whether to include the Affordable Care Act, sometimes dubbed Obamacare, in the bill.

Another deadline is looming, too. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has warned repeatedly that on Oct. 17, if the debt ceiling is not raised, the United States government may default on some financial obligations.