Uh oh, Mars Doesn’t Have Enough Carbon Dioxide to be Terraformed

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.

The study, titled “Inventory of CO2 available for terraforming Mars“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was conducted by Bruce Jakosky – a professor of geological sciences and the associate director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder – and Christopher S. Edwards, an assistant professor of planetary science at Northern Arizona University and the leader of the Edwards Research Group.

The study was supported in part by NASA through the Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) and Mars Odyssey THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System) projects. Whereas Professor Jakosky was the Principal Investigator on the MAVEN mission, Professor Edwards is a participating scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover (MSL), and worked on the Mars Odyssey THEMIS mission (among other Mars missions).

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.

According to many proposals, this would be followed by the introduction of photosynthetic organisms such as cyanobacteria, which would slowly convert the atmospheric CO2 into oxygen gas and elemental carbon. This very method was suggested in a 1976 NASA study, titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“. Since that time, multiple studies and even student teams have proposed using cyanobacteria to terraform Mars.

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.”

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

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 COgas 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.

Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC

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).

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is depicted in orbit around an artistic rendition of planet Mars, which is shown in transition from its ancient, water-covered past, to the cold, dry, dusty world that it has become today. Credit: NASA

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!

Project Nomad, a concept for terraforming Mars using mobile, factory-skyscrapers from the 2013 Skyscraper Competition. Credit: evolo.com/Antonio Ares Sainz, Joaquin Rodriguez Nuñez, Konstantino Tousidonis Rial

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.

Further Reading: NASA

Old Mars Odyssey Data Indicates Presence of Ice Around Martian Equator

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.

Artist’s conception of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

This artist’s concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter highlights the spacecraft’s radar capability. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the past, the detection of hydrogen in the equatorial region was thought to be due to the presence of hydrated minerals (i.e. past water). In addition, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter have both conducted radar-sounding scans of the area, using their Shallow Subsurface Radar (SHARAD) and Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) instruments, respectively.

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.

The MARSIS instrument on the Mars Express is a ground penetrating radar sounder used to look for subsurface water and ice. Credit: ESA

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!

Further Reading: NASA

NASA Curiosity Rover Missing ‘Scientific Focus And Detail’ In Mars Mission: Review

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.

Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image Credit: NASA

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:

Artist's conception of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s conception of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

NASA Preps for Nail-biting Comet Flyby of Mars

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. 

Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) on July 11, 2014. The comet, discovered by comet hunter Rob McNaught from Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia on January 3, 2013, shows a bright coma and well-developed tail. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe
Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) on July 11, 2014. The comet, discovered by comet hunter Robert McNaught from Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia on January 3, 2013, shows a bright coma and well-developed tail. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

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.

This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. On Oct. 19, the comet will have a very close pass at Mars. Its nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers). The comet's trail of dust particles shed by the nucleus might be wide enough to reach Mars or might also miss it. Credit: NASA/JPL
The orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. NASA’s already begun moving the Mars orbiters toward safe positions in preparation for the upcoming flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

“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.

Will dust shed by the comet streak as meteors in the Martian sky on October 19?  The rovers will be watching. Credit: NASA/JPL
Will dust shed by the comet streak as meteors in the Martian sky on October 19? The rovers will be watching. Credit: NASA/JPL

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:

Comet Siding Spring observed by the Spitzer Space Telescope in two wavelengths of infrared light in March 2014. The hint of blue-white corresponds to dust, red-orange to gas. Credit: NASA
Comet Siding Spring observed by the Spitzer Space Telescope in two wavelengths of infrared light in March 2014. The hint of blue-white corresponds to dust, red-orange to gas. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Kelley (Univ. Maryland)

“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.

 

 

 

Feel The Heat! New Mars Map Shows Differences Between Bedrock And Sand

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.

You can check out more recent THEMIS images (updated daily) on this website.

Source: Arizona State University

Martian Spacecraft Busts A Move To Glimpse Possible Water Flows

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.”

Morning water-ice clouds on Mars spotted by Viking 1 in 1976. Mars Odyssey's new orbit will reveal more of these types of morning observations. Credit: NASA/JPL
Morning water-ice clouds on Mars spotted by Viking 1 in 1976. Mars Odyssey’s new orbit will reveal more of these types of morning observations. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.”

Sources: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Arizona State University

How Much Science Data Has The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Sent To Earth?

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.

A crater imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A crater imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

“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.

Source: NASA

Mars Armada Resumes Contact with NASA – Ready to Rock ‘n Roll n’ Drill

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.

Curiosity and Mount Sharp: Curiosity's elevated robotic arm and drill are staring back at you - back dropped by Mount Sharp, her ultimate destination.  The rover team anticipates new science discoveries following the resumption of contact with NASA after the end of solar conjunction.  This panoramic vista of Yellowknife Bay basin was snapped on March 23, Sol 223 prior to conjunction and assembled from several dozen raw images snapped by the rover's navigation camera system.  These images were snapped after the robot recovered from a computer glitch in late Feb and indicated she was back alive and functioning working normally. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity and Mount Sharp: Curiosity’s elevated robotic arm and drill stare back at you at the John Klein drill site – back dropped by mysterious Mount Sharp. The rover has resumed contact with NASA following the end of solar conjunction. This panoramic vista was snapped on March 23, 2013, Sol 223. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com)

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.

Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years and 3200 Sols on Mars snapping this panoramic view from her current location on ‘Matijevic Hill’ at Endeavour Crater. The rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013). “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years and 3200 Sols on Mars snapping this panoramic view from her current location on ‘Matijevic Hill’ at Endeavour Crater. The rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013). “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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.

Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years on Mars snapping this panoramic view of the vast expanse of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater from atop ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Sol 3182 (Jan. 5, 2013). The rover then drove 43 feet to arrive at ‘Whitewater Lake’ and investigate clay minerals. Photo mosaic was stitched from Navcam images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years on Mars snapping this panoramic view of the vast expanse of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater from atop ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Sol 3182 (Jan. 5, 2013). The rover then drove 43 feet to arrive at ‘Whitewater Lake’ and investigate clay minerals. Photo mosaic was stitched from Navcam images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

“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.

Check out this wonderful new story at Space.com featuring Curiosity mosaics by me and my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo and an interview with me.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera - accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera – accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).

Watch this brief NASA JPL video for an explanation of Mars Solar Conjunction.

Terran Fleet at Mars Takes a Break for Conjunction – Enjoy the Video and Parting View

Curiosity and Mount Sharp – Parting Shot ahead of Mars Solar Conjunction
Enjoy this parting view of Curiosity’s elevated robotic arm and drill staring at you; back dropped with her ultimate destination – Mount Sharp – in this panoramic vista of Yellowknife Bay basin snapped on March 23, Sol 223, by the rover’s navigation camera system. The raw images were stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com)
See video below explaining Mars Solar Conjunction[/caption]

Earth’s science invasion fleet at Mars is taking a break from speaking with their handlers back on Earth.

Why ? Because as happens every 26 months, the sun has gotten directly in the way of Mars and Earth.

Earth, Mars and the Sun are lined up in nearly a straight line. The geometry is normal and it’s called ‘Mars Solar Conjunction’.

Conjunction officially started on April 4 and lasts until around May 1.

From our perspective here on Earth, Mars will be passing behind the Sun.

Watch this brief NASA JPL video for an explanation of Mars Solar Conjunction.

Therefore the Terran fleet will be on its own for the next month since the sun will be blocking nearly all communications.

In fact since the sun can disrupt and garble communications, mission controllers will be pretty much suspending transmissions and commands so as not to inadvertently create serious problems that could damage the fleet in a worst case scenario.

Right now there are a trio of orbiters and a duo of rovers from NASA and ESA exploring Mars.

The spacecraft include the Curiosity (MSL) and Opportunity (MER) rovers from NASA. Also the Mars Express orbiter from ESA and the Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) from NASA.

Geometry of Mars Solar Conjunction
Geometry of Mars Solar Conjunction

Because several of these robotic assets have been at Mars for nearly 10 years and longer, the engineering teams have a lot of experience with handling them during the month long conjunction period.

“This is our sixth conjunction for Odyssey,” said Chris Potts of JPL, mission manager for NASA’s Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001. “We have plenty of useful experience dealing with them, though each conjunction is a little different.”

But there is something new this go round.

“The biggest difference for this 2013 conjunction is having Curiosity on Mars,” Potts said. Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter relay almost all data coming from Curiosity and the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, as well as conducting the orbiters’ own science observations.

The rovers and orbiters can continue working and collecting science images and spectral data.

But that data will all be stored in the on board memory for a post-conjunction playback starting sometime in May.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Curiosity’s groundbreaking discoveries and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Take a Trip to Explore Gale Crater

Mount Sharp Compared to Three Big Mountains on Earth

Images from the Curiosity rover on Mars are truly spectacular but a large mosaic from the THEMIS camera aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter gives a grand perspective of our new foothold on Mars. Take some time to rove and explore Gale Crater.

The viewer, created using a web-imaging technology from Zoomify, is set to move between points of interest, such as Mars Science Laboratory’s landing site in Aeolis Palus, Glenelg, and Aeolis Mons/Mount Sharp itself. The layered sediments flanking Mount Sharp make it the primary target for Curiosity’s two-year mission. Take control at anytime by clicking on the image. This will stop the automatic roving and leave you in control to explore the terrain of Gale Crater. Use your mouse or the toolbar controls to pan and zoom around the image. You can also use the dropdown in the upper right to take you directly to certain points of interest in the image. Over time, we will add to this interactive feature as more geological points of interest are identified.

THEMIS stands for Thermal Emission Imaging System which is a multiband visible and infrared camera aboard Odyssey. The comprehensive mosaic is pieced together from 205 individual scenes, most taken recently but some dating to 2002 shortly after Odyssey entered Mars orbit in 2001. These images were taken before MSL landed on Mars. Even so, as large as the SUV-sized rover is, it would be too small to see in these images. The smallest details in this image are 18 meters or 60 feet across.

This illustration shows the size of Aoelis Mons (Mount Sharp) in comparison to three large mountains on Earth. The elevation of Mount Sharp is given in kilometers above the floor of Gale Crater. The heights of the Earth mountains are given in kilometers above sea level. Image credit: Tanya Harrison, NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Gale Crater is 154 kilometers (96 miles) wide. Near the center rises Aeolis Mons, a 5 km (3 mile) high mound of layered sediments, informally dubbed Mount Sharp, after planetary geologist Robert Sharp who died in 2004. Scientists for a time referred to the conical mountain as “The Mound.” The mountain, which would stand among the highest on Earth, cannot be seen from Earth and was unknown before planetary probes visited the Red Planet.

“The reason we decided to assemble such a large, comprehensive mosaic of Gale Crater was to give ourselves a better sense of the context around the landing site, said Jonathon Hill, a Mars research at Arizona State University who assembled the mosaic, a press release. “This will help us to better understand what Curiosity sees and measures as it roves the surface.”

Gale Crater zoom tour created by John Williams (TerraZoom) using Zoomify.

About the author: John Williams is owner of TerraZoom, a Colorado-based web development shop specializing in web mapping and online image zooms. He also writes the award-winning blog, StarryCritters, an interactive site devoted to looking at images from NASA’s Great Observatories and other sources in a different way. A former contributing editor for Final Frontier, his work has appeared in the Planetary Society Blog, Air & Space Smithsonian, Astronomy, Earth, MX Developer’s Journal, The Kansas City Star and many other newspapers and magazines.