When a huge dust storm on Mars—like the one in 2018—reaches its full power, it can turn into a globe-bestriding colossus. This happens regularly on Mars, and these storms usually start out as a series of smaller, runaway storms. NASA scientists say that these storms can spawn massive towers of Martian dust that reach 80 km high.
And that phenomenon might help explain how Mars lost its water.
Welcome to the moons of Mars, as you’ve never seen them.
NASA’s aging 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter recently snapped some unique views of the twin moons Phobos and Deimos, in an effort to better understand their texture and surface composition. The images are courtesy of the spacecraft’s THEMIS (the Thermal Emission Imaging System) heat sensitive instrument, and show the thermal gradient across the surface of the moons in color. Odyssey has been studying the moons of Mars since September 2017. The recent images of Phobos taken on April 24, 2019 are especially intriguing, as they occurred during full illumination phase.
For almost a century now, the concept of terraforming has been explored at length by both science fiction writers and scientists alike. Much like setting foot on another planet or traveling to the nearest star, the idea of altering an uninhabitable planet to make it suitable for humans is a dream many hope to see accomplished someday. At present, much of that hope and speculation is aimed at our neighboring planet, Mars.
But is it actually possible to terraform Mars using our current technology? According to a new NASA-sponsored study by a pair of scientists who have worked on many NASA missions, the answer is no. Put simply, they argue that there is not enough carbon dioxide gas (CO2) that could practically be put back into Mars’ atmosphere in order to warm Mars, a crucial step in any proposed terraforming process.
As we explored in a previous article, “How Do We Terraform Mars?“, many methods have been suggested for turning the Red Planet green. Many of these methods call for warming the surface in order to melt the polar ice caps, which would release an abundant amount of CO2 to thicken the atmosphere and trigger a greenhouse effect. This would in turn cause additional CO2 to be released from the soil and minerals, reinforcing the cycle further.
However, after conducting their analysis, Professors Jakosky and Edwards concluded that triggering a greenhouse effect on Mars would not be as simple as all that. For the sake of their study, Jakosky and Edwards relied on about 20 years of data accumulated by multiple spacecraft observations of Mars. As Edwards indicated in a recent NASA press release:
“These data have provided substantial new information on the history of easily vaporized (volatile) materials like CO2 and H2O on the planet, the abundance of volatiles locked up on and below the surface, and the loss of gas from the atmosphere to space.”
To determine if Mars had enough gases for a greenhouse effect, Jakosky and Edwards analyzed data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft to determine the abundance of carbon-bearing minerals in Martian soil and CO2 in polar ice caps. They they used data from NASA’s MAVEN mission to determine the loss of the Martian atmosphere to space. As Prof. Jakosky explained:
“Carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O) are the only greenhouse gases that are likely to be present on Mars in sufficient abundance to provide any significant greenhouse warming… Our results suggest that there is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.”
Although Mars has significant quantities of water ice, previous analyses have shown that water vapor would not be able to sustain a greenhouse effect by itself. In essence, the planet is too cold and the atmosphere too thin for the water to remain in a vaporous or liquid state for very long. According to the team, this means that significant warming would need to take place involving CO2 first.
However, Mars atmospheric pressure averages at about 0.636 kPA, which is the equivalent of about 0.6% of Earth’s air pressure at sea level. Since Mars is also roughly 52% further away from the Sun than Earth (1.523 AUs compared to 1 AU), researchers estimate that a CO2 pressure similar to Earth’s total atmospheric pressure would be needed to raise temperatures enough to allow for water to exist in a liquid state.
According to the team’s analysis, melting the polar ice caps (which is the most accessible source of carbon dioxide) would only contribute enough CO2 to double the Martian atmospheric pressure to 1.2% that of Earth’s. Another source is the dust particles in Martian soil, which the researchers estimate would provide up to 4% of the needed pressure. Other possible sources of carbon dioxide are those that are locked in mineral deposits and water-ice molecule structures known as “clathrates”.
However, using the recent NASA spacecraft observations of mineral deposits, Jakosky and Edwards estimate that these would likely yield less than 5% of the require pressure each. What’s more, accessing even the closest minerals to the surface would require significant strip mining, and accessing all the CO2 attached to dust particles would require strip mining the entire planet to a depth of around 90 meters (100 yards).
Accessing carbon-bearing minerals deep in the Martian crust could be a possible solution, but the depth of these deposits is currently unknown. In addition, recovering them with current technology would be incredibly expensive and energy-intensive, making extraction highly impractical. Other methods have been suggested, however, which include importing flourine-based compounds and volatiles like ammonia.
The former was proposed in 1984 by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby in their book, The Greening of Mars. In it, Lovelock and Allaby described how Mars could be warmed by importing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to trigger global warming. While very effective at triggering a greenhouse effect, these compounds are short-lived and would need to be introduced in significant amounts (hence why the team did not consider them).
The idea of importing volatiles like ammonia is an even more time-honored concept, and was proposed by Dandridge M. Cole and Donald Cox in their 1964 book, “Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, the Pioneering Work“. Here, Cole and Cox indicated how ammonia ices could be transported from the outer Solar System (in the form of iceteroids and comets) and then impacted on the surface.
However, Jakosky and Edwards’ calculations reveal that many thousands of these icy objects would be required, and the sheer distance involved in transporting them make this an impractical solution using today’s technology. Last, but not least, the team considered how atmospheric loss could be prevented (which could be done using a magnetic shield). This would allow for the atmosphere to build up naturally due to outgassing and geologic activity.
Unfortunately, the team estimates that at the current rate at which outgassing occurs, it would take about 10 million years just to double Mars’ current atmosphere. In the end, it appears that any effort to terraform Mars will have to wait for the development of future technologies and more practical methods.
These technologies would most likely involve more cost-effective means for conducting deep-space missions, like nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion. The establishment of permanent outposts on Mars would also be an important first step, which could be dedicated to thickening the atmosphere by producing greenhouse gases – something humans have already proven to be very good at here on Earth!
There’s also the possibility of importing methane gas from the outer Solar System, another super-greenhouse gas, which is also indigenous to Mars. While it constitutes only a tiny percentage of the atmosphere, significant plumes have been detected in the past during the summer months. This includes the “tenfold spike” detected by the Curiosity rover in 2014, which pointed to a subterranean source. If these sources could be mined, methane gas might not even need to be imported.
For some time, scientists have known that Mars was not always the cold, dry, and inhospitable place that it is today. As evidenced by the presence of dry riverbeds and mineral deposits that only form in the presence of liquid water, scientists have concluded that billions of years ago, Mars was a warmer, wetter place. However, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, Mars’ atmosphere was slowly stripped away by solar wind.
This discovery has led to renewed interest in the colonizing and terraforming of Mars. And while transforming the Red Planet to make it suitable for human needs may not be doable in the near-future, it may be possible to get the process started in just a few decades’ time. It may not happen in our lifetime, but that does not mean that the dream of one-day making “Earth’s Twin” truly live up to its name won’t come true.
Finding a source of Martian water – one that is not confined to Mars’ frozen polar regions – has been an ongoing challenge for space agencies and astronomers alike. Between NASA, SpaceX, and every other public and private space venture hoping to conduct crewed mission to Mars in the future, an accessible source of ice would mean the ability to manufacture rocket fuel on sight and provide drinking water for an outpost.
So far, attempt to locate an equatorial source of water ice have failed. But after consulting old data from the longest-running mission to Mars in history – NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft – a team of researchers from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) announced that they may have found evidence of a source of water ice in the Medusae Fossae region of Mars.
This region of Mars, which is located in the equatorial region, is situated between the highland-lowland boundary near the Tharsis and Elysium volcanic areas. This area is known for its formation of the same name, which is a soft deposit of easily-erodible material that extends for about 5000 km (3,109 mi) along the equator of Mars. Until now, it was believed to be impossible for water ice to exist there.
However, a team led by Jack Wilson – a post-doctoral researcher at the JHUAPL – recently reprocessed data from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft that showed unexpected signals. This data was collected between 2002 and 2009 by the mission’s neutron spectrometer instrument. After reprocessing the lower-resolution compositional data to bring it into sharper focus, the team found that it contained unexpectedly high signals of hydrogen.
To bring the information into higher-resolution, Wilson and his team applied image-reconstruction techniques that are typically used to reduce blurring and remove noise from medical and spacecraft imaging data. In so doing, the team was able to improve the data’s spatial resolution from about 520 km (320 mi) to 290 km (180 mi). Ordinarily, this kind of improvement could only be achieved by getting the spacecraft much closer to the surface.
“It was as if we’d cut the spacecraft’s orbital altitude in half,” said Wilson, “and it gave us a much better view of what’s happening on the surface.” And while the neutron spectrometer did not detect water directly, the high abundance of neutrons detected by the spectrometer allowed the research team to calculate the abundance of hydrogen. At high latitudes on Mars, this is considered to be a telltale sign of water ice.
The first time the Mars Odyssey spacecraft detected abundant hydrogen was in 2002, which appeared to be coming from subsurface deposits at high latitudes around Mars. These findings were confirmed in 2008, when NASA’s Phoenix Lander confirmed that the hydrogen took the form of water ice. However, scientists have been operating under the assumption that at lower latitudes, temperatures are too high for water ice to exist.
These scans have suggested that there was either low-density volcanic deposits or water ice below the surface, though the results seemed more consistent with their being no water ice to speak of. As Wilson indicated, their results lend themselves to more than one possible explanation, but seem to indicate that water ice could part of the subsurface’s makeup:
“[I]f the detected hydrogen were buried ice within the top meter of the surface. there would be more than would fit into pore space in soil… Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain. So for now, the signature remains a mystery worthy of further study, and Mars continues to surprise us.”
Given Mars’ thin atmosphere and the temperature ranges that are common around the equator – which get as high as 308 K (35 °C; 95 °F) by midday during the summer – it is a mystery how water ice could be preserved there. The leading theory though is that a mixture of ice and dust was deposited from the polar regions in the past. This could have happened back when Mars’ axial tilt was greater than it is today.
However, those conditions have not been present on Mars for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. As such, any subsurface ice that was deposited there should be long gone by now. There is also the possibility that subsurface ice could be shielded by layers of hardened dust, but this too is insufficient to explain how water ice could have survived on the timescales involved.
In the end, the presence of abundant hydrogen in the Medusae Fossae region is just another mystery that will require further investigation. The same is true for deposits of water ice in general around the equatorial region of Mars. Such deposits mean that future missions would have a source of water for manufacturing rocket fuel.
This would shave billions of dollars of the costs of individual mission since spacecraft would not need to carry enough fuel for a return trip with them. As such, interplanetary spacecraft could be manufactured that would be smaller, lighter and faster. The presence of equatorial water ice could also be used to provide a steady supply of water for a future base on Mars.
Crews could be rotated in and out of this base once every two years – in a way that is similar to what we currently do with the International Space Station. Or – dare I say it? – a local source of water could be used to supply drinking, sanitation and irrigation water to eventual colonists! No matter how you slice it, finding an accessible source of Martian water is critical to the future of space exploration as we know it!
NASA’s planetary senior review panel harshly criticized the scientific return of the Curiosity rover in a report released yesterday (Sept. 3), saying the mission lacks focus and the team is taking actions that show they think the $2.5-billion mission is “too big to fail.”
While the review did recommend the mission receive more funding — along with the other six NASA extended planetary missions being scrutinized — members recommended making several changes to the mission. One of them would be reducing the distance that Curiosity drives in favor of doing more detailed investigations when it stops.
The role of the senior review, which is held every two years, is to help NASA decide what money should be allocated to its extended missions. This is important, because the agency (as with many other departments) has limited funds and tries to seek a balance between spending money on new missions and keeping older ones going strong.
Engineering acumen means that many missions are now operating well past their expiry dates, such as the Cassini orbiter at Saturn and the Opportunity rover on Mars. In examining the seven missions being reviewed, the panel did recommend keeping funding for all, but said that 4/7 are facing significant problems.
In the case of Curiosity, the panel called out principal investigator John Grotzinger for not showing up in person on two occasions, preferring instead to interact by phone. The review also said there is a “lack of science” in its extended mission proposal with regard to “scientific questions to be answered, testable hypotheses, and proposed measurements and assessment of uncertainties and limitations.”
Other concerns were the small number of samples over the prime and extended missions (13, a “poor science return”), and a lack of clarity on how the ChemCam and Mastcam instruments will play into the extended mission. Additionally, the panel expressed concern that NASA would cut short its observations of clays (which could help answer questions of habitability) in favor of heading to Mount Sharp, the mission’s ultimate science destination.
“In summary, the Curiosity … proposal lacked scientific focus and detail,” the panel concluded, adding in its general recommendations for the reviews that principal investigators must be present to avoid confusion while answering questions. The other missions facing concern from the panel included the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express and Mars Odyssey.
LRO: Its extended mission (the second) is supposed to look at how the moon’s surface, subsurface and exosphere changes through processes such as meteorites and interaction with space. The panel was concerned with a “lack of detail” in the proposal and in answers to follow-up questions. The panel also recommended turning off certain instruments “at the end of their useful science mission”.
Mars Express: The extended mission is focusing on the ionosphere and atmosphere as well as the planet’s surface and subsurface. Concerns were raised about matters such as why funding is needed to calibrate its high-resolution stereo camera after 11 years — especially given the instrument has been rarely cited in published journal reports lately — and how people involved in the extended mission would meet the goals. The panel also saw a “lack of communication” in the team.
Mars Odyssey: If approved, the spacecraft will move to the day/night line of Mars to look at the planet’s radiation, gamma rays, distribution of water/carbon dioxide/dust in the atmosphere, and the planet’s surface. The panel, however, said there are no “convincing arguments” as to how the new science relates to the Decadal Survey objectives for planetary science. Odyssey, which is in its 11th year, may also be nearing the end of its productive lifespan given fewer publications using its data in recent years, the panel said.
The panel also weighed in on the success of the Cassini and Opportunity missions:
Cassini received the highest rating — “Excellent” — due to its scientific merit, the only mission this time around to do so. The panel was particularly excited about seasonal changes that will be seen on Titan in the coming years, as well as measurements of Saturn’s rings and magnetosphere and its icier moons (such as Enceladus). The spacecraft is noted to be in good condition and the new mission will be a success because of “the unique aspect of the new observations.”
Opportunity, which is more than 10 years into its Mars exploration, is still “in sufficiently good condition” to do science, although the panel raised concerns about software and communication problems. The panel, however, said more time with the rover would allow it to look for evidence of past water on Mars that would not be visible from orbit — even though it’s unclear if phyllosilicates around its current location (Endeavour crater) are from the Noachian period, the earliest period in Mars’ history.
The panel is just one step along the road to figuring out how NASA chooses to spend its money in the coming years. Funding availability depends on how much money Congress allocates to the agency.
As Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring inches closer to the Red Planet, NASA’s taking steps to protect its fleet of orbiting Mars spacecraft. On October 19, the comet’s icy nucleus will miss the planet by just 82,000 miles (132,000 km). That’s 17 times closer than the closest recorded Earth-approaching comet, Lexell’s Comet in 1770.
No one’s worried about the tiny nucleus doing any damage. It’ll zip right by. Rather it’s dust particles embedded in vaporizing ice that concern NASA planners. Dust spreads into a broad tail that could potentially brush Mars’ upper atmosphere and strike an orbiter. A single particle of debris half a millimeter across may not seem like your mortal enemy, but when it’s traveling at 35 miles (56 km) per second relative to the spacecraft, one hit could spell trouble.
“Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars,” explained Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.”
The agency’s taking a prudent approach. NASA currently operates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft with a third orbiter, MAVEN, currently on its way to the planet and expected to settle into orbit a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by.
Already, mission planners tweaked MRO’s orbit on July 2 to move it toward a safe position with a second maneuver to follow on August 27. A similar adjustment is planned for Mars Odyssey on August 5 and October 9 for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. The time of greatest risk to the spacecraft is brief – about 20 minutes – when the widest part of the comet’s tail passes closest to the planet.
One question I’m always asked is whether the Mars rovers are in any danger of dust-producing meteors in the comet’s wake. While the planet might get peppered with a meteor shower, its atmosphere is thick enough to incinerate cometary dust particles before they reach the surface, not unlike what happens during a typical meteor shower here on Earth. Rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during the comet’s closest approach.
Despite concerns about dust, NASA knows a good opportunity when it sees one. In the days before and after the flyby, all three orbiters will conduct studies on the comet.
According to a recent NASA press release, instruments on MRO and Odyssey will examine the nucleus, coma and tail and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere:
“Odyssey will study thermal and spectral properties of the comet’s coma and tail. MRO will monitor Mars’ atmosphere for possible temperature increases and cloud formation, as well as changes in electron density at high altitudes and MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as it’s warmed by the sun. The team anticipates this event will yield detailed views of the comet’s nucleus and potentially reveal its rotation rate and surface features.”
This is Comet Siding Spring’s first trip to the inner solar system. Expect exciting news as we peer up close at pristine ices and dust that have been locked in deep freeze since the time the planets formed.
For more information on the event, check out this NASA website devoted to the comet.
For years, NASA’s Mars Odyssey has been working on some night moves. It’s been taking pictures of the Red Planet during nighttime — more than 20,000 in all — to see how the planet’s heat signature looks while the sun is down.
The result is the highest-resolution map ever of the thermal properties of Mars, which you can see here. Why is this important? Researchers say it helps tell the story about things such as if an area is shrouded with dust, where bare bedrock is, and whether sediments in a crater are packed tight or floating freely.
“Darker areas in the map are cooler at night, have a lower thermal inertia and likely contain fine particles, such as dust, silt or fine sand,” stated Robin Fergason at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona, who led the map’s creation. Brighter areas are warmer, likely yielding regions of bedrock, crust or coarse sand.
The map from Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) is also used for a more practical purpose: deciding where to set down NASA’s next Mars mission.
After assisting in landing site selection for the Curiosity mission, the THEMIS data will be used to figure out where the Mars 2020 rover will be placed, Arizona State University stated.
Just a few days ago, we posted about possibly salty water flows on Mars. Of note, the NASA press release noted, moisture is likely more prevalent in the morning and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter does most observations in the afternoon, local time. That’s too bad, we thought. But wait! It turns out that NASA Mars Odyssey spacecraft is going to change its orbit to get a better look.
It’s going to take nearly two years for NASA to maneuver the long-running Odyssey to the right spot, but at that point mission managers expect the spacecraft still has another decade of observations ahead of it based on current fuel consumption. That’s great considering that the spacecraft has been beaming back images since 2001!
Odyssey will be the first spacecraft to do dedicated morning observations of the planet since any NASA orbiter of the 1970s, which dates observations back to the Viking era (except for a few glimpses by European Space Agency spacecraft and previous NASA orbiters). Advances in imaging mean we will get a far clearer view of the ground than ever before.
“The change will enable observation of changing ground temperatures after sunrise and after sunset in thousands of places on Mars,” NASA stated. “Those observations could yield insight about the composition of the ground and about temperature-driven processes, such as warm-season flows observed on some slopes, and geysers fed by spring thawing of carbon-dioxide ice near Mars’ poles.”
The first maneuver took place Tuesday (Feb. 11) when a brief firing of Odyssey’s engines got the spacecraft pushing faster for an orbital shift. It will drift in that direction until November 2015, when controllers will do another maneuver to keep it in a stable location.
Right now, Odyssey is in a near-polar orbit that keeps local daylight at the same time below it. There have been a few changes to the timing over its dozen years of operation:
First six years (approx. 2001-2007): The orbit was mostly at 5 p.m. local solar time (as it flew north to south) and 5 a.m. local solar time on the south-to-north orbit. “That orbit provided an advantage for the orbiter’s Gamma Ray Spectrometer to have its cooling equipment pointed away from the sun,” NASA stated. At that time, the spectrometer found evidence of water ice, through the spectrum of hydrogen.
Next five years (approx. 2007-2012): The orbit shifted to 4 p.m. local solar time on north-to-south, and 4 a.m. south to north. While this allowed the Thermal Emission Imaging System to examine warm ground that made the mineral signatures in infrared pop out more easily, on the flip side of the planet Odyssey’s power system was under more strain because the solar panels couldn’t work as well in predawn light. Odyssey remained in that orbit until about the 2012 landing of the Curiosity rover, then was sent on a maneuver to move its orbit to later in the day to keep the battery functioning.
What’s next: Once Odyssey is in the right spot, the spacecraft will flip its daylight observations to scan the ground at 6:45 a.m. on the south-to-north part of the orbit. The spacecraft was in fact going in that direction already, but the new maneuver gets it there a bit sooner.
“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to find when we get to an orbit where we see the morning just after sunrise,” stated Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, who is THEMIS principal investigator and the person who suggested the move. “We can look for seasonal differences. Are fogs more common in winter or spring? We will look systematically. We will observe clouds in visible light and check the temperature of the ground in infrared.”
“We know that in places, carbon dioxide frost forms overnight,” he added. “And then it sublimates immediately after sunrise. What would this process look like in action? How would it behave? We’ve never observed this kind of phenomenon directly.”
Imagine being able to watch three months’ worth of high-definition space video sequentially — maybe real-time coverage on the International Space Station, or getting to watch the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter zoom across the Red Planet over and over again. Well, that’s how much science data MRO itself has sent back in 10 years of operations, NASA said.
“The sheer volume is impressive, but of course what’s most important is what we are learning about our neighboring planet,” stated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Rich Zurek, the project scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
MRO has sent back 200 terabits, all told. It’s a wealth of science data on its own merits as it examined evidence of water, ancient volcanoes and other parts of the Red Planet’s history from above. The spacecraft, however, also serves as a relay for the NASA Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the surface.
“Data gathered by the orbiter’s instruments and relayed from rovers are recorded onto the orbiter’s central memory. Each orbit around Mars takes the spacecraft about two hours. For part of each orbit, Mars itself usually blocks the communication path to Earth,” NASA stated.
“When Earth is in view, a Deep Space Network antenna on whichever part of Earth is turned toward Mars at that hour can be listening. Complex preparations coordinate scheduling the use of the network’s antennas by all deep-space missions — 32 of them this month. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter typically gets several sessions every day.”
Once the Deep Space Network antennas in Spain, California and Australia pick up the data, JPL organizes them into their separate “products”, ranging from radar measurements from above to data picked up by a rover below. The information is then sent to various organizations around the world that have interests in the work.
MRO arrived at Mars in 2006 and its mission has been extended three times, with the latest one taking place in 2012. NASA also relays information from the planet using Mars Odyssey, which has been there since 2002.
Curiosity accomplished historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182), shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169) – back dropped with Mount Sharp – where the robot is currently working. Curiosity will bore a 2nd drill hole soon following the resumption of contact with the end of the solar conjunction period. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
See drill hole and conjunction videos below[/caption]
After taking a well deserved and unavoidable break during April’s solar conjunction with Mars that blocked two way communication with Earth, NASA’s powerful Martian fleet of orbiters and rovers have reestablished contact and are alive and well and ready to Rock ‘n Roll ‘n Drill.
“Both orbiters and both rovers are in good health after conjunction,” said NASA JPL spokesman Guy Webster exclusively to Universe Today.
Curiosity’s Chief Scientist John Grotzinger confirmed to me today (May 1) that further drilling around the site of the initial John Klein outcrop bore hole is a top near term priority.
The goal is to search for the chemical ingredients of life.
“We’ll drill a second sample,” Grotzinger told Universe Today exclusively. Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., leads NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory mission.
“We’ll move a small bit, either with the arm or the wheels, and then drill another hole to confirm what we found in the John Klein hole.”
Earth, Mars and the Sun have been lined up in nearly a straight line for the past several weeks, which effectively blocked virtually all contact with NASA’s four pronged investigative Armada at the Red Planet.
NASA’s Red Planet fleet consists of the Curiosity (MSL) and Opportunity (MER) surface rovers as well as the long lived Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) robotic orbiters circling overhead. ESA’s Mars Express orbiter is also exploring the Red Planet.
“All have been in communications,” Webster told me today, May 1.
The NASA spacecraft are functioning normally and beginning to transmit the science data collected and stored in on board memory during the conjunction period when a commanding moratorium was in effect.
“Lots of data that had been stored on MRO during conjunction has been downlinked,” Webster confirmed to Universe Today.
And NASA is already transmitting and issuing new marching orders to the Martian Armada to resume their investigations into unveiling the mysteries of the Red Planet and determine whether life ever existed eons ago or today.
“New commanding, post-conjunction has been sent to both orbiters and Opportunity.”
“And the sequence is being developed today for sending to Curiosity tonight (May 1), as scheduled more than a month ago,” Webster explained.
“We’ll spend the next few sols transitioning over to new flight software that gives the rover additional capabilities,” said Grotzinger.
“After that we’ll spend some time testing out the science instruments on the B-side rover compute element – that we booted to before conjunction.”
Curiosity is at work inside the Yellowknife Bay basin just south of the Martian equator. Opportunity is exploring the rim of Endeavour crater at the Cape York rim segment.
Mars Solar Conjunction is a normal celestial event that occurs naturally about every 26 months. The science and engineering teams take painstaking preparatory efforts to insure no harm comes to the spacecraft during the conjunction period when they have no chance to assess or intervene in case problems arise.
So it’s great news and a huge relief to the large science and operations teams handling NASA’s Martian assets to learn that all is well.
Since the sun can disrupt and garble communications, mission controllers suspended transmissions and commands so as not to inadvertently create serious problems that could damage the fleet in a worst case scenario.
So what’s on tap for Curiosity and Opportunity in the near term ?
“For the first few days for Curiosity we will be installing a software upgrade.”
“For both rovers, the science teams will be making decisions about how much more to do at current locations before moving on,” Webster told me.
The Opportunity science team has said that the long lived robot has pretty much finished investigating the Cape York area at Endeavour crater where she made the fantastic discovery of phyllosilicates clay minerals that form in neutral water.
Signals from Opportunity received a few days ago on April 27 indicated that the robot had briefly entered a standby auto mode while collecting imagery of the sun.
NASA reported today that all operations with Opportunity was “back under ground control, executing a sequence of commands sent by the rover team”, had returned to normal and the robot exited the precautionary status.
“The Curiosity team has said they want to do at least one more drilling in Yellowknife Bay area,” according to Webster.
Curiosity has already accomplished her primary task and discovered a habitable zone that possesses the key ingredients needed for potential alien microbes to once have thrived in the distant past on the Red Planet when it was warmer and wetter.
The robot found widespread evidence for repeated episodes of flowing liquid water, hydrated mineral veins and phyllosilicates clay minerals on the floor of her Gale Crater landing site after analyzing the first powder ever drilled from a Martian rock.
Video Caption: Historic 1st bore hole drilled by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Sol 182 of the mission (8 Feb 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (http://www.kenkremer.com/)
During conjunction Curiosity collected weather, radiation and water measurements but no imagery.