Every two years, Mars enters what is known as a “Solar Conjunction,” where its orbit takes it behind the Sun relative to Earth. During these periods, the hot plasma regularly expelled by the Sun’s corona can cause interference with radio signals transmitted between Earth and Mars. To avoid signal corruption and the unexpected behaviors that could result, NASA and other space agencies declare a moratorium on communications for two weeks.
What this means is that between Oct. 2nd and Oct. 16th, all of NASA’s Mars missions will experiencing what is known as a “commanding moratorium.” This will consist of NASA sending a series of simple commands to its missions in orbit, which will then be dispatched to landers and rovers on the surface. These simple tasks will keep all of the robotic Martian explorers busy until regular communications can be established.
Given all of the news surrounding the landing and first few months of operation of the Perseverance rover on Mars, it might be surprising that its actual science mission hasn’t even started yet. That changed on June 1st when the rover officially kicked off its first science mission by leaving its landing site.
Perseverance has already made its mark on scientific history by taking the first audio recording ever on Mars. But the instrument with the microphone, known as the SuperCam, wasn’t done there. It has plenty of other science to do, and recently it started running through some more preliminary tests. One of those tests happened to involve blasting a rock with a laser – while taking an audio recording of it.
In absence of (yet) being able to step foot on Mars, we have robotic vicarious experiences through our rovers including Perseverance which landed this past February 18th. In addition to photos we’ve collected from the surface over the decades, our ever-improving data connection to Mars made it possible to see video from Perseverance’s landing. That dramatic unfurl of the parachute and dust spray of the landing thrusters – astonishing! I’m not ashamed to admit I cried. Through Perseverance we’re also experiencing Mars exploration with another sense – SOUND! Sound from another planet!! Using Perseverance’s Entry, Descent, and Landing Microphone (EDL Mic) we recently recorded audio of Perseverance’s wheels rolling across the Martian regolith (broken rocks and dust or “soil”). The audio segment below is an edited portion of sound highlights from a longer 16 minute raw audio file.
Lightning is one of the most powerful forces in nature. Up to 1 billion volts of electricity can flow into a strike in less than a second. Such a large energy buildup can be created by even a relatively simple cause – two particles rubbing together. A team at the University of Oregon has now studied whether those simple interactions might cause lightning on a place it hasn’t been seen before – on Mars.
Many consider the various rovers we’ve sent to Mars as the next best thing to sending a geologist to the Red Planet. Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have carried all the necessary equipment similar to what human geologists use on Earth, and are able to navigate the terrain, “see” the landscape with the various cameras, pick up rock and dust samples with scoops, and then analyze them with various onboard tools and equipment.
In addition to all those things, the new Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will add a “sense of hearing” to its robotic toolkit. The rover includes a pair of microphones to let us hear – for the first time – what Mars really sounds like.
To date, all attempts to find evidence of life on the surface have yielded nothing, owing to the fact that the Martian environment is extremely cold, desiccated, and irradiated. According to a new study by an international team of researchers led by Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, the Atacama desert in the mountains of Chile could hold the answer.
In July there’s another launch window to Mars. It looks like China is ready to take advantage of it, by launching their first rover to the planet. It’s called Tianwen-1, meaning “Heavenly Questions”, or “Questions to Heaven.” The complete mission consists of a lander, an orbiter, and a rover.
We all know how exploration by rover works. The rover is directed to a location and told to take a sample. Then it subjects that sample to analysis and sends home the results. It’s been remarkably effective.
But it’s expensive and time-consuming to send all this data home. Will this way of doing things still work? Or can it be automated?