It’s Decided, the Mars 2020 Rover Will Land in Jezero Crater

After 5 years and 60 candidates, NASA has chosen Jezero crater as the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University

Jezero crater is the landing spot for NASA’s upcoming 2020 rover. The crater is a rich geological site, and the 45 km wide (28 mile) impact crater contains at least five different types of rock that the rover will sample. Some of the landform features in the crater are 3.6 billion years old, making the site an ideal place to look for signs of ancient habitability.

Continue reading “It’s Decided, the Mars 2020 Rover Will Land in Jezero Crater”

Astronomy Cast Ep. 493: Mars Update 2018

If there’s one place we’ve learned more about in the last 10 years, it’s Mars. Thanks to all those rovers, orbiters, landers which are flying overhead, crawling around the surface, and digging into the rich Martian regolith. What have we learned about Elon Musk’s future home?

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Exciting New Views Of Opportunity’s Remarkable Landing Site

This image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRise camera shows the bright landing platform left behind by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity when it landed in 2004. Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars and then bounced and tumbled into the Eagle Crater. The image was taken on April 8, 2017. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

NASA’s eagle-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has captured orbital images of Opportunity’s Hole-In-One landing site, smack dab in the middle of Eagle Crater on the surface of Mars.

Opportunity arrived at Mars on January 25th, 2005. It’s landing was slowed by parachute, and cushioned by airbags. Once it hit the surface, it bounced its way into “Eagle Crater“, a feature a mere 22 meters across. Not a bad shot!

This is the first color image that the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) has captured of Opportunity’s landing site. It shows the remarkable landing site inside the crater, where the landing pad was left behind after Opportunity rolled off of it and got going. It also shows the rover’s parachute and backshell.

It’s amazing that, given the relatively smooth surface in Opportunity’s landing area, the rover came to rest inside a small crater. When Opportunity “woke up” at its landing site, its first images were of the inside of Eagle Crater. This was the first look we ever got at the sedimentary rocks on Mars, taken by the rover’s navigation camera.

Opportunity's navigation camera took this picture, one of the rover's first, of the inside of Eagle Crater. Exposed Martian rocks are visible. NASA/JPL
Opportunity’s navigation camera took this picture, one of the rover’s first, of the inside of Eagle Crater. Exposed Martian rocks are visible. NASA/JPL

After leaving Eagle Crater, Opportunity took a look back and captured a panoramic image. Plainly visible is the rover’s landing pad, the exposed sedimentary rock, and the rover’s tracks in the Martian soil.

This panorama image, called "Lion King" was assembled from 558 images totalling over 75 megabytes. The rock outcrop, the landing pad, and the rover's tracks are all clearly visible. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell
This panorama image, called “Lion King” was assembled from 558 images totalling over 75 megabytes. The rock outcrop, the landing pad, and the rover’s tracks are all clearly visible. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell

MRO arrived at Mars a couple years later, and by that time Opportunity had already left its landing site and made its way south to the much larger Victoria Crater.

When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at Mars, 2 years after Opportunity touched down there, Opportunity had left Eagle Crater and travelled the 6 km to Victoria Crater. By NASA/JPL/University of Arizona - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA08813, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4211043
When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at Mars, 2 years after Opportunity touched down there, Opportunity had left Eagle Crater and travelled the 6 km to Victoria Crater. By NASA/JPL/University of Arizona – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA08813, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4211043

Opportunity is still chugging along, doing valuable work. And so is the MRO and its HiRise instrument. At this point, Opportunity has to be considered one of the most successful scientific undertakings ever.

Mars Has Features That Look Very Similar To Life Bearing Hot Springs On Earth

A type of rock formation found on Mars may be some of the best evidence yet for life on that planet, according to a new study at Nature.com. The formations in question are in the Gusev Crater. When Spirit examined the spectra of the formations, scientists found that they closely match those of formations at El Tatio in Northern Chile.

The significance of that match? The El Tatio formations were produced by a combination of living and non-living processes.

The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs
The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs

The Gusev Crater is a large crater that formed 3 to 4 billion years ago. It’s an old crater lake bed, with sediments up to 3,000 feet thick. Gusev also has exposed rock formations which show evidence of layering. A system of water channels called Ma’adim Vallis flows into Gusev, which could account for the deep sediments.

When it comes to evidence for the existence of life on Mars, and on early Earth, researchers often focus on hydrothermal spring deposits. These deposits can capture and preserve the biosignatures of early life. You can’t find evidence of ancient life just anywhere because geologic processes erase it. This is why El Tatio has received so much attention.

It’s also why formations at Gusev have received attention. They appear to have a hydrothermal origin as well. Their relation to the rocks around them support their hydrothermal origin.

El Tatio in Chile is a hard-to-find combination of extremely high UV, low rainfall, high annual evaporation rate, and high elevation. This makes it an excellent analog for Mars.

The Mars-like conditions at El Tatio make it rather unique on Earth, and that uniqueness is reflected in the rock deposits and structures that it produces. The most unique ones may be the biomediated silica structures that resemble the structures in Gusev. This resemblance suggest that they have the same causes: hydrothermal vents and biofilms.

Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer
Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer

Biomediated Structures?

The rock structures at El Tatio are typically covered with very shallow water that supports bio-films and mats comprised of different diatoms and cyanobacteria. The size and shape of the structures varies, probably according to the variable depth, flow velocity, and flow direction of the water. The same variations are present at Gusev on Mars. This begs the question, “Could the structures at Gusev also have a biological cause?”

Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.
Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.

Luckily, we have a rover on Mars that can probe the Gusev formations more deeply. Spirit used its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) to obtain spectra of the Gusev formations. These spectra confirmed the similarity to the terrestrial formations at El Tatio.

Spirit was helpful in other ways. The rover has one inoperable wheel, which drags across the Martian surface, disrupting and overturning rock structures. Spirit was intentionally driven across the Gusev formations, in order to overturn and expose fragments. Then, Spirit’s Microscopic Imager was trained on those fragments.

(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit's busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit’s busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.

Unfortunately, Spirit lacks the instrumentation to look deeply into the internal microscale features of the Martian rocks. If Spirit could do that, we would be much more certain that the Martian rocks were partly biogenic in origin. All of the surrounding factors suggest that they do, but that’s not enough to come to that conclusion.

This study presents more compelling evidence that there was indeed life on Mars at some point. But it’s not conclusive.

What is the Mars Curse?

What is the Mars Curse?


Last week, ESA’s Schiaparelli lander smashed onto the surface of Mars. Apparently its descent thrusters shut off early, and instead of gently landing on the surface, it hit hard, going 300 km/h, creating a 15-meter crater on the surface of Mars.

Fortunately, the orbiter part of ExoMars mission made it safely to Mars, and will now start gathering data about the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. If everything goes well, this might give us compelling evidence there’s active life on Mars, right now.

It’s a shame that the lander portion of the mission crashed on the surface of Mars, but it’s certainly not surprising. In fact, so many spacecraft have gone to the galactic graveyard trying to reach Mars that normally rational scientists turn downright superstitious about the place. They call it the Mars Curse, or the Great Galactic Ghoul.

Mars eats spacecraft for breakfast. It’s not picky. It’ll eat orbiters, landers, even gentle and harmless flybys. Sometimes it kills them before they’ve even left Earth orbit.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA

At the time I’m writing this article in late October, 2016, Earthlings have sent a total of 55 robotic missions to Mars. Did you realize we’ve tried to hurl that much computing metal towards the Red Planet? 11 flybys, 23 orbiters, 15 landers and 6 rovers.

How’s our average? Terrible. Of all these spacecraft, only 53% have arrived safe and sound at Mars, to carry out their scientific mission. Half of all missions have failed.

Let me give you a bunch of examples.

In the early 1960s, the Soviets tried to capture the space exploration high ground to send missions to Mars. They started with the Mars 1M probes. They tried launching two of them in 1960, but neither even made it to space. Another in 1962 was destroyed too.

They got close with Mars 1 in 1962, but it failed before it reached the planet, and Mars 2MV didn’t even leave the Earth’s orbit.

Five failures, one after the other, that must have been heartbreaking. Then the Americans took a crack at it with Mariner 3, but it didn’t get into the right trajectory to reach Mars.

Mariner IV encounter with Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Mariner IV encounter with Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Finally, in 1964 the first attempt to reach Mars was successful with Mariner 4. We got a handful of blurry images from a brief flyby.

For the next decade, both the Soviets and Americans threw all kinds of hapless robots on a collision course with Mars, both orbiters and landers. There were a few successes, like Mariner 6 and 7, and Mariner 9 which went into orbit for the first time in 1971. But mostly, it was failure. The Soviets suffered 10 missions that either partially or fully failed. There were a couple of orbiters that made it safely to the Red Planet, but their lander payloads were destroyed. That sounds familiar.

Now, don’t feel too bad about the Soviets. While they were struggling to get to Mars, they were having wild success with their Venera program, orbiting and eventually landing on the surface of Venus. They even sent a few pictures back.

Finally, the Americans saw their greatest success in Mars exploration: the Viking Missions. Viking 1 and Viking 2 both consisted of an orbiter/lander combination, and both spacecraft were a complete success.

View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Was the Mars Curse over? Not even a little bit. During the 1990s, the Russians lost a mission, the Japanese lost a mission, and the Americans lost 3, including the Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander.

There were some great successes, though, like the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Pathfinder. You know, the one with the Sojourner Rover that’s going to save Mark Watney?

The 2000s have been good. Every single American mission has been successful, including Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and others.

But the Mars Curse just won’t leave the Europeans alone. It consumed the Russian Fobos-Grunt mission, the Beagle 2 Lander, and now, poor Schiaparelli. Of the 20 missions to Mars sent by European countries, only 4 have had partial successes, with their orbiters surviving, while their landers or rovers were smashed.

Is there something to this curse? Is there a Galactic Ghoul at Mars waiting to consume any spacecraft that dare to venture in its direction?

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

Flying to Mars is tricky business, and it starts with just getting off Earth. The escape velocity you need to get into low-Earth orbit is about 7.8 km/s. But if you want to go straight to Mars, you need to be going 11.3 km/s. Which means you might want a bigger rocket, more fuel, going faster, with more stages. It’s a more complicated and dangerous affair.

Your spacecraft needs to spend many months in interplanetary space, exposed to the solar winds and cosmic radiation.

Arriving at Mars is harder too. The atmosphere is very thin for aerobraking. If you’re looking to go into orbit, you need to get the trajectory exactly right or crash onto the planet or skip off and out into deep space.

And if you’re actually trying to land on Mars, it’s incredibly difficult. The atmosphere isn’t thin enough to use heatshields and parachutes like you can on Earth. And it’s too thick to let you just land with retro-rockets like they did on the Moon.

Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab
Schiaparelli lander’s planned descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

Landers need a combination of retro-rockets, parachutes, aerobraking and even airbags to make the landing. If any one of these systems fails, the spacecraft is destroyed, just like Schiaparelli.

If I was in charge of planning a human mission to Mars, I would never forget that half of all spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet failed. The Galactic Ghoul has never tasted human flesh before. Let’s put off that first meal for as long as we can.

JPL Predicts Mars’ Global Dust Storm To Arrive Within Weeks

Our ability to forecast the weather here on Earth has saved countless lives from the onslaught of hurricanes and typhoons. We’ve gotten better at predicting space weather, too, and that has allowed us to protect sensitive satellites and terrestrial facilities from bursts of radiation and solar wind. Now, it looks as though we’re getting closer to predicting bad weather on Mars.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is forecasting the arrival of a global dust storm on Mars within weeks. The storm is expected to envelop the red planet, and reduce the amount of solar energy available to NASA’s rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity. The storm will also make it harder for orbiters to do their work.

Dust storms are really the only type of weather that Mars experiences. They’re very common. Usually, they’re only local phenomena, but sometimes they can grow to effect an entire region. In rarer cases, they can envelop the entire globe.

It’s these global storms that concern James Shirley, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Shirley published a study showing that there is a pattern to these global storms. If his forecasted storm appears on time, it means that he has correctly determined that pattern.

“Mars will reach the midpoint of its current dust storm season on October 29th of this year. Based on the historical pattern we found, we believe it is very likely that a global dust storm will begin within a few weeks or months of this date,” Shirley said.

Predicting these huge dust storms will be of prime importance when humans gain a foothold on Mars. The dust could wreak havoc on sensitive systems, and can limit the effectiveness of solar power for weeks at a time.

But it’s not just future endeavours that are impacted by Martian dust storms. Spirit and Opportunity had to batten down the hatches when a global dust storm interrupted their exploration of Mars in 2007.

“We had to take special measures to enable their survival for several weeks with little sunlight to keep them powered.

John Callas is JPL’s project manager for Spirit and Opportunity. He describes the precautions that his team took during the 2007 dust storm: “We had to take special measures to enable their survival for several weeks with little sunlight to keep them powered. Each rover powered up only a few minutes each day, enough to warm them up, then shut down to the next day without even communicating with Earth. For many days during the worst of the storm, the rovers were completely on their own.”

This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. That storm blocked out 99% of the Sun's energy, limiting the effectiveness of the rover's solar panels, and putting the mission in jeopardy. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2475872
This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. That storm blocked out 99% of the Sun's energy, limiting the effectiveness of the rover's solar panels, and putting the mission in jeopardy. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2475872

We have observed 9 global dust storms on Mars since the first time in 1924, with the most recent one being the 2007 storm that threatened Spirit and Opportunity. Other storms were observed in 1977, 1982, 1994, and 2001. There’ve been many more of them, but we weren’t able to see them without orbiters and current telescope technology. And Earth hasn’t always been in a good position to view them.

These two images show dust build-up on NASA's Opportunity rover in 2014. In January, a dust storm left a layer of dust on Opportunity's solar panels (left.) By late March, the wind had blown most of it away. (right) Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
These two images show dust build-up on NASA’s Opportunity rover in 2014. In January, a dust storm left a layer of dust on Opportunity’s solar panels (left.) By late March, the wind had blown most of it away. (right) Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Global dust storms have left their imprint on the early exploration of Mars. In 1971, NASA’s Mariner 9 orbiter reached Mars, and was greeted by a global dust storm that made it impossible to image the planet. Only two weeks later, the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions arrived at Mars, and sent their landers to the surface.

Mars 2 crashed into the planet and was destroyed, but Mars 3 made it to the surface and landed softly. That made Mars 3 the first craft to land on Mars. However, it failed after only 14.5 seconds, likely because of the global dust storm. So not only was Mars 3 the first craft to land on Mars, it was also the first craft to be destroyed by a global dust storm.

If we had been able to forecast the global dust storm of 1971, Mars 3 may have been a successful mission. Who knows how that may have changed the history of Martian exploration?

James Shirley’s paper shows a pattern in global dust storms on Mars based on the orbit of Mars, and on the changing momentum of Mars as the gravity of other planets acts on it.

Mars takes about 1.8 years to orbit the Sun, but its momentum change caused by other planets’ gravity is in a 2.2 year cycle. The relationship between these two cycles is always changing.

This graphic indicates a similarity between 2016 (dark blue line) and five past years in which Mars has experienced a global dust storm (orange lines and band), compared to years with no global dust storm (blue-green lines and band). The arrow nearly midway across in the dark blue line indicates the Mars time of year in late September 2016. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic indicates a similarity between 2016 (dark blue line) and five past years in which Mars has experienced a global dust storm (orange lines and band), compared to years with no global dust storm (blue-green lines and band). The arrow nearly midway across in the dark blue line indicates the Mars time of year in late September 2016. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What Shirley found is that global dust storms occur while Mars’ momentum is increasing during the first part of the dust storm season. When looking back at our historical record of Martian global dust storms, he found that none of them occurred in years when the momentum was decreasing during the first part of the dust storm season.

Shirley’s paper found that current conditions on Mars are also very similar to other times when global dust storms occurred. Since we are much more capable of watching Mars than at any time in the past, we should be able to quickly confirm if Shirley’s understanding of Martian weather is correct.

Schiaparelli & The Problematic History Of Martian Landings

NASA's MSL Curiosity. NASA is the only agency to successfully place a lander on Mars. This self portrait shows Curiosity doing its thing on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We may be living in the Golden Age of Mars Exploration. With multiple orbiters around Mars and two functioning rovers on the surface of the red planet, our knowledge of Mars is growing at an unprecedented rate. But it hasn’t always been this way. Getting a lander to Mars and safely onto the surface is a difficult challenge, and many landers sent to Mars have failed.

The joint ESA/Roscosmos Mars Express mission, and its Chiaparelli lander, is due at Mars in only 15 days. Now’s a good time to look at the challenges in getting a lander to Mars, and also to look back at the many failed attempts.

A model of the Schiaparelli lander. The lander is part of the ExoMars mission. By Pline - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26837226
A model of the Schiaparelli lander. The lander is part of the ExoMars mission. By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26837226

For now, NASA has the bragging rights as the only organization to successfully land probes on Mars. And they’ve done it several times. But they weren’t the first ones to try. The Soviet Union tried first.

The USSR sent several probes to Mars starting back in the 1960s. They made their first attempt in 1962, but that mission failed to launch. That failure illustrates the first challenge in getting a craft to land on Mars: rocketry. We’re a lot better at rocketry than we were back in the 1960’s, but mishaps still happen.

Then in 1971, the Soviets sent a pair of probes to Mars called Mars 2 and Mars 3. They were both orbiters with detachable landers destined for the Martian surface. The fate of Mars 2 and Mars 3 provides other illustrative examples of the challenges in getting to Mars.

Mars 2 separated from its orbiter successfully, but crashed into the surface and was destroyed. The crash was likely caused by its angle of descent, which was too steep. This interrupted the descent sequence, which meant the parachute failed to deploy. So Mars 2 has the dubious distinction of being the first man-made object to reach Mars.

Mars 3 was exactly the same as Mars 2. The Soviets liked to do missions in pairs back then, for redundancy. Mars 3 separated from its orbiter and headed for the Martian surface, and through a combination of aerodynamic breaking, rockets, and parachutes, it became the first craft to make a soft landing on Mars. So it was a success, sort of.

A model of the Mars 3 lander with its petals open after landing. By NASA - http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/image/spacecraft/mars3_lander_vsm.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14634254
A model of the Mars 3 lander with its petals open after landing. By NASA – http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/image/spacecraft/mars3_lander_vsm.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14634254

But after only 14.5 seconds of data transmission, it went quiet and was never heard from again. The cause was likely an intense dust storm. In an odd turn of events, NASA’s Mariner 9 orbiter reached Mars only days before Mars 2 and 3, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. It captured images of the planet-concealing dust storms, above which only the volcanic Olympus Mons could be seen. These images provided an explanation for the failure of Mars 3.

This image from the Mariner 9 orbiter shows Olympus Mons above the dust storms that concealed much of the planet when it arrived at Mars in 1971. Image: NASA
This image from the Mariner 9 orbiter shows Olympus Mons above the dust storms that concealed much of the planet when it arrived at Mars in 1971. Image: NASA

In 1973, the Soviets tried again. They sent four craft to Mars, two of which were landers, named Mars 6 and Mars 7. Mars 6 failed on impact, but Mars 7’s fate was perhaps a little more tragic. It missed Mars completely, by about 1300 km, and is in a helicentric orbit to this day. In our day and age, we just assume that our spacecraft will go where we want them to, but Mars 7 shows us that it can all go wrong. After all, Mars is a moving target.

In the 1970s, NASA was fresh off the success of their Apollo Program, and were setting their sites on Mars. They developed the Viking program which saw 2 landers, Viking 1 and Viking 2, sent to Mars. Both of them were probe/lander configurations, and both landers landed successfully on the surface of Mars. The Vikings sent back beautiful pictures of Mars that caused excitement around the world.

The Viking 2 lander captured this image of itself on the Martian surface. By NASA - NASA website; description,[1] high resolution image.[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17624
The Viking 2 lander captured this image of itself on the Martian surface. By NASA – NASA website; description,[1] high resolution image.[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17624

In 1997, NASA’s Martian Pathfinder made it to Mars and landed successfully. Pathfinder itself was stationary, but it brought a little rover called Sojourner with it. Sojourner explored the immediate landing area around Pathfinder. Sojourner became the first rover to operate on another planet.

Pathfinder was able to send back over 16,000 images of Mars, along with its scientific data. It was also a proof of concept mission for technologies such as automated obstacle avoidance and airbag mediated touchdown. Pathfinder helped lay the groundwork for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. That means Spirit and Opportunity.

An artist's conception of Spirit/Opportunity working on Mars. By NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA04413 (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=565283
An artist’s conception of Spirit/Opportunity working on Mars. By NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA04413 (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=565283

But after Pathfinder, and before Spirit and Opportunity, came a time of failure for Martian landing attempts. Everybody took part in the failure, it seems, with Russia, Japan, the USA, and the European Space Agency all experiencing bitter failure. Rocket failures, engineering errors, and other terminal errors all contributed to the failure.

Japan’s Nozomi orbiter ran out of fuel before ever reaching Mars. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander failed its landing attempt. NASA’s Deep Space 2, part of the Polar Lander mission, failed its parachute-less landing and was never heard from. The ESA’s Beagle 2 lander made it to the surface, but two of its solar panels failed to deploy, ending its mission. Russian joined in the failure again, with its Phobos-Grunt mission, which was actually headed for the Martian moon Phobos, to retrieve a sample and send it back to Earth.

In one infamous failure, engineers mixed up the use of English units with Metric units, causing NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter to burn up on entry. These failures show us that failure is not rare. It’s difficult and challenging to get to the surface of Mars.

After this period of failure, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers were both unprecedented successes. They landed on the Martian surface in January 2004. Both exceeded their planned mission length of three months, and Opportunity is still going strong now.

So where does that leave us now? NASA is the only one to have successfully landed a rover on Mars and have the rover complete its mission. But the ESA and Russia are determined to get there.

The Schiaparelli lander, as part of the ExoMars mission, is primarily a proof of technology mission. In fact, its full name is the Schiaparelli EDM lander, meaning Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module.

It will have some small science capacity, but is really designed to demonstrate the ability to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend safely, and finally, to land on the surface. In fact, it has no solar panels or other power source, and will only carry enough battery power to survive for 2-8 days.

Schiaparelli faces the same challenges as other craft destined for Mars. Once launched successfully, which it was, it had to navigate its way to Mars. That took about 6 months, and since ExoMars is only 15 days away from arrival at Mars, it looks like it has successfully made its way their. But perhaps the trickiest part comes next: atmospheric entry.

Schiaparelli is like most Martian craft. It will make a ballistic entry into the Martian atmosphere, and this has to be done right. There is no room for error. The angle of entry is the key here. If the angle is too steep, Schiaparelli may overheat and burn up on entry. On the other hand, if the angle is too shallow, it could hit the atmosphere and bounce right back into space. There’ll be no second chance.

The entry and descent sequence is all pre-programmed. It will either work or it won’t. It would take way too long to send any commands to Schiaparelli when it is entering and descending to Mars.

If the entry is successful, the landing comes next. The exact landing location is imprecise, because of wind speed, turbulence, and other factors. Like other craft sent to Mars, Schiaparelli’s landing site is defined as an ellipse.

Schiaparelli will land somewhere in this defined ellipse on the surface of Mars. Image: IRSPS/TAS-I
Schiaparelli will land somewhere in this defined ellipse on the surface of Mars. Image: IRSPS/TAS-I

The lander will be travelling at over 21,000 km/h when it reaches Mars, and will have only 6 or 7 minutes to descend. At that speed, Schiaparelli will have to withstand extreme heating for 2 or 3 minutes. It’s heat shield will protect it, and will reach temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius.

It will decelerate rapidly, and at about 10km altitude, it will have slowed to approximately 1700 km/h. At that point, a parachute will deploy, which will further slow the craft. After the parachute slows its descent, the heat shield will be jettisoned.

Schiaparelli's Descent and Landing Sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab
Schiaparelli’s Descent and Landing Sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab. Click here for larger image.

On Earth, a parachute would be enough to slow a descending craft. But with Mars’ less dense atmosphere, rockets are needed for the final descent. An onboard radar will monitor Schiaparelli’s altitude as it approaches the surface, and rockets will fire to slow it to a few meters per second in preparation for landing.

In the final moments, the rockets will stop firing, and a short free-fall will signal Schiaparelli’s arrival on Mars. If all goes according to plan, of course.

We won’t have much longer to wait. Soon we’ll know if the ESA and Russia will join NASA as the only agencies to successfully land a craft on Mars. Or, if they’ll add to the long list of failed attempts.

HiRISE Captures Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau

MSL Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau on the Martian surface. This image was captured by HiRise on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Viewing orbital images of the rovers as they go about their business on the surface of Mars is pretty cool. Besides being of great interest to anyone keen on space in general, they have scientific value as well. New images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Equipment (HiRise) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) help scientists in a number of ways.

Recent images from HiRise show the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on a feature called the Naukluft Plateau. The Plateau is named after a mountain range in Namibia, and is the site of Curiosity’s 10th and 11th drill targets.

Orbital imagery of the rovers is used to track the activity of sand dunes in the areas the rovers are working in. In this case, the dune field is called the Bagnold Dunes. HiRise imagery allows a detailed look at how dunes change over time, and how any tracks left by the rover are filled in with sand over time. Knowledge of this type of activity is a piece of the puzzle in understanding the Martian surface.

Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau as captured by HiRise. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau as captured by HiRise. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

But the ability to take such detailed images of the Martian surface has other benefits, as well. Especially as we get nearer to a human presence on Mars.

Orbital imaging is turning exploration on its ear. Throughout human history, exploration required explorers travelling by land and sea to reconnoiter an area, and to draw maps and charts later. We literally had no idea what was around the corner, over the mountain, or across the sea until someone went there. There was no way to choose a location for a settlement until we had walked the ground.

From the serious (SpaceX, NASA) to the fanciful (MarsOne), a human mission to Mars, and an eventual established presence on Mars, is a coming fact. The how and the where are all connected in this venture, and orbital images will be a huge part of choosing where.

Tracking the changes in dunes over time will help inform the choice for human landing sites on Mars. The types and density of sand particles may be determined by monitoring rover tracks as they fill with sand. This may be invaluable information when it comes to designing the types of facilities used on Mars. Critical infrastructure in the form of greenhouses or solar arrays will need to be placed very carefully.

Sci-Fi writers have exaggerated the strength of sand storms on Mars to great effect, but they are real. We know from orbital monitoring, and from rovers, that Martian sandstorms can be very powerful phenomena. Of course, a 100 km/h wind on Earth is much more dangerous than on Mars because of the density of the atmosphere. Martian air is 1% the density of Earth’s, so on Mars the 100 km/h wind wouldn’t do much.

But it can pick up dust, and that dust can foul important equipment. With all this in mind, we can see how these orbital images give us an important understanding of how sand behaves on Mars.

This Martian sandstorm was captured by the MRO's Mars Color Imager instrument. Scientists were monitoring such storms prior to Curiosity's arrival on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This Martian sandstorm was captured by the MRO’s Mars Color Imager instrument. Scientists were monitoring such storms prior to Curiosity’s arrival on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

There’s an unpredictability factor to all this too. We can’t always know in advance how important or valuable orbital imagery will be in the future. That’s part of doing science.

But back to the cool factor.

For the rest of us, who aren’t scientists, it’s just plain cool to be able to watch the rovers from above.

And, look at all the Martian eye candy!

These sand dunes in the southern hemisphere of Mars are just starting their seasonal defrost of carbon dioxide. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
These sand dunes in the southern hemisphere of Mars are just starting their seasonal defrost of carbon dioxide. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars Stink To Be Duplicated For Earthbound Humans

Thanks to the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, everyone knows what Mars looks like. But what does it smell like? Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Intellectual curiosity is a great gift. It’s fulfilling to ponder the great questions of existence: Will the Universe die of heat death after it’s expanded for billions and billions (and billions) more years? Is there something outside of our Universe? What’s on the other side of a black hole?…and…What does Mars smell like?

Seriously.

What may seem to be a frivolous question at first is actually quite interesting once your intellectual curiosity is engaged. The Martian atmosphere itself is much different than Earth’s. Our various robotic visitors to Mars have revealed an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide (96%). Not much to smell there. But the surface of Mars is also much different than Earth, and contains sulfur, acids, magnesium, iron and chlorine compounds. What might that smell like?

We know that odours have a powerful effect on memory. How might colonists respond to an odour so different from what they’re used to? How might they respond to the odour of Mars once they’ve returned to Earth after a Mars mission? Recreating the smell of Mars for returning colonists might yield interesting results.

The olfactory nerve has a powerful connection to areas of the brain involved in arousal and attention. Can this connection be exploited to help Martian colonists? Image: Patrick J. Lynch CC BY 2.5
The olfactory nerve has a powerful connection to areas of the brain involved in arousal and attention. Can this connection be exploited to help Martian colonists? Image: Patrick J. Lynch CC BY 2.5

Obviously, colonists wouldn’t be breathing the Martian atmosphere. But some essence of Mars would be present in their living quarters, most likely.

After walking on the Moon, Apollo astronauts noticed that they had tracked some Moon dust back into the lander with them. When they removed their helmets, they were able to smell the Moon: a spent gunpowder smell, or a wet ash smell like a campfire that had been put out. The same thing may happen on Mars, no matter how careful people are.

The International Space Station (ISS) has its own particular smell. According to NASA astronaut Don Pettit, the ISS smells like a combined machine shop/engine room/laboratory. But the ISS isn’t a colony, and it isn’t exposed to other worlds. Everything astronauts can smell inside the ISS they can smell back on Earth.

Mars is different. Not just the smell, but because it’s so far away. In the ISS, astronauts can look down and see Earth whenever they want. They can see their country of origin, and see familiar geography. On Mars, none of that is possible. Martians will be dealing with extreme isolation.

How this isolation might affect people spending long periods of time on Mars is an intriguing and important question. And how odors play a part in this is likewise intriguing.

The effects of social isolation are well-understood. It can lead to depression, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, boredom and emotional instability. These are garden variety problems that everyone faces at some point, but added all together they’re a potent mix that could produce serious mental illness.

Add to that the fact that Martian colonists won’t even be able to see Earth, let alone the fact of the shrunken, pale Sun, and suddenly the psychological burden of colonizing Mars comes into sharper focus. It’ll take a multi-pronged approach to help colonists cope with all of this.

Part of this approach may involve recreating the smell of Mars and exposing colonists to it during their pre-colonization training. And thanks to a technology called “Headspace“, it may be possible to recreate the smell of Mars here on Earth. Spectroscopic measurements of the Martian atmosphere could be relayed back to Earth and the Martian aroma could be recreated in a lab.

Perhaps the smell of Mars can be used prior to departure to help inoculate colonists to some of the hazards of Martian isolation.

Who knows for sure? There may be an interesting revelation hidden in the smell of Mars. How that smell could be used to prepare colonists for their time on Mars, and how returning astronauts respond to the smell of Mars, recreated for them back on Earth, could tell us something important about how our brains work.

Intellectual curiosity says its worth pondering.