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.

Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley and overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Spotting dust devils has been relatively rare for Opportunity since landing on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004.

“There are 7 candidates, 6 of which are likely or certain,” Mark Lemmon, rover science team member from Texas A & M University, told Universe Today. “Most were seen in, on the rim of, or adjacent to Endeavour.”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite (phyllosilicate) clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites,” Arvidson explained.

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is especially exciting to researchers because the phyllosilicate clay mineral rocks formed under water wet, non-acidic conditions that are more conducive to the formation of Martian life forms – billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and wetter.

“We have been in the smectite [phyllosilicate clay mineral] zone for months, ever since we entered Marathon Valley.”

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

“Marathon Valley is unlike anything we have ever seen. Looks like a mining zone!”

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

So they backed Opportunity downhill about 27 feet (8.2 meters), then drove about 200 feet (about 60 meters) generally southwestward and uphill, toward the next target area.

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past.  Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 209,200 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA's Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle's rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle’s rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Journey to Mars Ramps Up with InSight, Key Tests Pave Path to 2016 Lander Launch

NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ is ramping up significantly with ‘InSight’ – as the agency’s next Red Planet lander has now been assembled into its flight configuration and begun a comprehensive series of rigorous and critical environmental stress tests that will pave the path to launch in 2016 on a mission to unlock the riddles of the Martian core.

The countdown clock is ticking relentlessly and in less than nine months time, NASA’s InSight Mars lander is slated to blastoff in March 2016.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a stationary lander. It will join NASA’s surface science exploration fleet currently comprising of the Curiosity and Opportunity missions which by contrast are mobile rovers.

But before it will even be allowed to get to the launch pad, the Red Planet explorer must first prove its mettle and show that it can operate in and survive the harsh and unforgiving rigors of the space environment via a battery of prelaunch tests. That’s an absolute requirement in order for it to successfully carry out its unprecedented mission to investigate Mars deep interior structure.

InSight’s purpose is to elucidate the nature of the Martian core, measure heat flow and sense for “Marsquakes.” These completely new research findings will radically advance our understanding of the early history of all rocky planets, including Earth and could reveal how they formed and evolved.

“Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system.”

The science deck of NASA's InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.  The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight's seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground.   Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
The science deck of NASA’s InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight’s seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The launch window for InSight opens on March 4 and runs through March 30, 2016.

InSight will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

InSight counts as NASA’s first ever interplanetary mission to launch from California.

The car sized probe will touch down near the Martian equator about six months later in the fall of 2016.

The prime contractor for InSight is Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Co and the engineering and technical team recently finished assembling the lander into its final configuration.

So now the time has begun to start the shakedown that literally involve “shaking and baking and zapping” the spacecraft to prove its ready and able to meet the March 2016 launch deadline.

During the next seven months of environmental testing at Lockheed’s Denver facility, “the lander will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space, and a battery of other tests.”

“The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs,” said Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, in a statement.

“The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it’s here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments.”

The first test involves “a thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft’s “cruise” configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars. In the cruise configuration, the lander is stowed inside an aeroshell capsule and the spacecraft’s cruise stage – for power, communications, course corrections and other functions on the way to Mars — is fastened to the capsule.”

After the vacuum test, InSight will be subjected to a series of tests simulating the vibrations of launch, separation and deployment shock, as well as checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft and compatibility testing.

Finally, a second thermal vacuum test will expose the probe “to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience as it operates on the Martian surface.”

The $425 million InSight mission is expected to operate for about two years on the Martian surface.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s successful Phoenix Mars landing spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice.  NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft design is based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander. This mosaic shows Phoenix touchdown atop Martian ice.  Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice.  InSight carries instruments to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo/NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute
3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice. NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft design is based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander. This mosaic shows Phoenix touchdown atop Martian ice. Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. InSight carries instruments to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo/NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

It is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program as well as several European national space agency’s and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments; HP3 and SEIS through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. or German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

SEIS and HP3 are stationed on the lander deck. They will each be picked up and deployed by a robotic arm similar to that flown on Phoenix with some modifications.

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

Ken Kremer

Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: This week we welcome Dr. Bradley M. Peterson, whose research is directed towards determination of the physical nature of active galactic nuclei.
Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson”

How Long Will Our Spacecraft Survive?

There are many hazards out there, eager to disrupt and dismantle the mighty machines we send out into space. How long can they survive to perform their important missions?

Every few months, an eager new spacecraft arrives on the launch pad, ready for its date with destiny. If we don’t blow it all to bits with a launch vehicle failure, it’ll be gently placed into orbit with surgical precision. Then it’ll carry out a noble mission of exploring the Solar System, analyzing the Earth, or ensuring we have an infinite number of radio stations in our cars, allowing us to never be satisfied with any of them.

Space is hostile. Not just to fragile hu-mans, but also to our anthropomorphized Number Five is alive robotic spacecraft which we uncaringly send to do our bidding. There are many hazards out there, eager to disrupt and dismantle our stalwart electronic companions. Oblivion feeds voraciously on our ever trusting space scouts and their tiny delicate robotic hearts, so many well before their time.

How long have they got? How long will our spacecraft survive as we cast them on their suicide missions to “go look at stuff on behalf of the mighty human empire”? When spacecraft are hurled into the void, all mission planners know they’re living on borrowed time.

The intrepid Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were only expected to operate for 3 months. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope carried a tank of expendable helium coolant to let it see the dimmest objects in the infrared spectrum.

Sometimes the spacecraft wear down for unexpected reasons, like electronic glitches, or parts wearing out. Hubble was equipped with rotating gyroscopes that eventually wore out over time, making it more difficult to steer at its targets, and only an intervention by rescue and repair allowed the mission to keep going.

In general, a spacecraft is expected to last a few months to a few years. Spirit and Opportunity only had a planned mission of 3 months. It took Spirit more than 6 dauntless years to finally succumb to the hostile Martian environment. Opportunity is still kicking more than a decade later, thanks to some very careful driving and gusts of Martian wind clearing off its solar panels which didn’t surprise anybody.

Artist impression of Rosetta and Asteroid 2867 Steins. Credit:  ESA
Artist impression of Rosetta and Asteroid 2867 Steins. Credit: ESA

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft needed to survive for 10 years in a dormant state before its encounter with Comet 67/P. It’s expected to last until the end of 2015. Then its orbit will carry it too far from the Sun to operate its solar panels, then it’ll go to sleep one last time.

As a testament to luck and remarkable feats of engineering, some survive much longer than anyone ever expected. NASA’s Voyager Spacecraft, launched in 1977, are still going and communicating with Earth. It’s believed they’ll survive until 2025, when their radioisotope thermoelectric generators stop producing power.

At which point they’ll return to the Earth at the heart of a massive alien spacecraft and scare the bejeebus out of us.

… And I know what you’re thinking. Once our spacecraft stop functioning, they’ll still exist. Perhaps getting close enough to another source of solar energy to start transmitting again.

So, how long will our spacecraft hold together in something roughly robot-probe shaped? Any spacecraft orbiting a planet or Moon won’t last long geologically before they’re given a rocky kiss of death with help from a big group hug from gravity.

This might take a decade, a hundred years or a million. Eventually, that spacecraft is racing towards a well distributed grave on its new home.

Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA
Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

A spacecraft that’s orbiting the Sun should last much longer. However, a gravitational threesome with a planet or large asteroid could drag it into a solar death spiral or hurl it into a planet. There are asteroids whipping around from the formation of the Solar System, and they haven’t crashed into anything… yet.

A lucky spacecraft might last hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. Our little robot friends that leave the gravitational pull of the Solar System have a chance of making it for the long haul.

Once they’re out in interstellar space, there will be very few micrometeorites to punch little holes in them. Unless they happen to run into another star – and that’s very unlikely – they’ll travel through space until they’re worn away over billions of years, and who knows what that means for future alien archaeology students. The golden records on the Voyager spacecraft were designed to still be playable for a billion years in space.

Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s tough to keep a spacecraft operating in space. It’s a really hostile place, ready to fry their little silicon brains, scuttle them with a micrometeorite, or just erode them away over an incomprehensible length of time.

Are horrible space agency fiends tossing our trusting big eyed robot pals to their doom on one-way missions into the abyss? Don’t worry viewers, I have it on good authority this is what the robots want.

Beloved astronaut Chris Hadfield said if Voyager had stayed at home where it’s safe, it would’ve been sad forever, because it never would have discovered things. I think he’s right, Voyager is as happy as it could be exploring the parts of our Universe the rest of us aren’t able to go and see for ourselves.

What’s your favorite spacecraft survivor story? Tell us in the comments below.

Opportunity Rover Team Honors Pioneering Lindbergh Flight at Mars Mountaintop Crater

Martian Reminder of a Pioneering Flight. Names related to the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic have been informally assigned to a crater NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover is studying. This false-color view of the “Spirit of St. Louis Crater” and the “Lindbergh Mound” inside it comes from Opportunity’s panoramic camera. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
See additional Opportunity photo mosaics below [/caption]

The science team leading NASA’s long-lived Opportunity rover mission is honoring the pioneering solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight of aviator Charles Lindbergh by assigning key features of the Mars mountain top crater area the rover is now exploring with names related to the historic flight.

Opportunity is now studying an elongated crater called “Spirit of St. Louis” and an unparalleled rock spire within the crater called “Lindbergh Mound” which are named in honor of Lindbergh himself and his plane – the Spirit of Saint Louis.

“Spirit of Saint Louis” crater is quite special in many ways related not just to history but also to science and exploration – that very reasons behind Lindbergh’s flight and Opportunity’s astounding mission to the Red Planet.

The team is ecstatic that the 11 year old rover Opportunity has reached “Spirit of St. Louis Crater” because its serves as the gateway to the alien terrain of “Marathon Valley” holding caches of water altered minerals that formed under environmental conditions conducive to support Martian microbial life forms, if they ever existed.

The crater, rock spire and several features in and near it are shown in several recent panoramic mosaics, above and below, created by the rover team and separately by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars on March 24, 2015, Sol 3968 with features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Rover stands at Spirit of Saint Louis Crater near mountaintop at Marathon Valley overlook and Martian cliffs at Endeavour crater holding deposits of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Marathon Valley and Spirit of St. Louis Crater are located just a few hundred meters south of a Mars mountain summit at a majestic spot called Cape Tribulation. It lies along a marvelous ridgeline along the western rim of Endeavour crater, which spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

“What’s the connection between St. Louis and the Spirit of St. Louis? Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, but he named his aircraft for the St. Louis citizens who purchased it for him,” says Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis.

The raw images for the mosaics were taken in March and April 2015 using the robots mast mounted pancam and navcam cameras. The mosaics are shown in false color and colorized versions, annotated and unannotated.

Charles Lindbergh embarked in May 1927 on his history making flight from New York to Paris in the airplane he named Spirit of St. Louis, the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic.

Opportunity at Spirit of Saint Louis crater scanning into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars in April 2015 in this photo mosaic.  The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3987 (April 12, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Opportunity at Spirit of Saint Louis crater scanning into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars in April 2015 in this photo mosaic. The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3987 (April 12, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The shallow Spirit of St. Louis Crater is about 110 feet (34 meters) long and about 80 feet (24 meters) wide, with a floor slightly darker than surrounding terrain, says NASA.

Lindbergh Mound dominates the crater measuring about 7 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) tall, rising higher than the crater’s rim.

The annotations also include features named to recognize the financial backing for the flight from St. Louis residents including Harold M. Bixby and Harry M. Knight. The plane’s designer was Donald A. Hall.

Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic.  The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound,  is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals.  This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Opportunity arrives at Spirit of Saint Louis crater and peers into Marathon Valley and Endeavour crater from current location on Mars as of April 3, 2015 in this photo mosaic. The crater, featuring an odd mound of rocks now named Lingbergh Mound, is the gateway to Marathon Valley and exposures of water altered clay minerals. This pancam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3973 (March 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Among other features named are Roosevelt Field, the spot on New York’s Long Island from which Lindbergh took off, and Marathon Monument, where the rover completed a her first marathon distance runners drive on Mars. The team picked a distinctive outcrop, Marathon Monument, to mark the finish line, said NASA officials.

“The science team for the rover picks crater names from a list of “vessels of exploration,” including ships of sail and spacecraft as well as aircraft. As long as the rover remains in the crater, names for interesting features will drawn from a list of names related to this famous flight,” according to a NASA statement.

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

Ken Kremer

11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during 11 years and three months and a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4000 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 -to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater at Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during 11 years and three months and a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4000 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 -to current location just past the Cape Tribulation summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater at Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is searching for more on the road ahead at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Helicopter Drones on Mars

Mars helicopter drone

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently announced that it is developing a small drone helicopter to scout the way for future Mars rovers. Why would Mars rovers need such a robotic guide? The answer is that driving on Mars is really hard.

Here on Earth, robots exploring volcanic rims, or assisting rescuers, can be driven by remote control, with a joystick. This is because radio signals reach the robot from its control center almost instantly. Driving on the moon isn’t much harder. Radio signals traveling at the speed of light take about two and half seconds to make the round trip to the moon and back. This delay isn’t long enough to seriously interfere with remote control driving. In the 1970’s Soviet controllers drove the Lunokhod moon rovers this way, successfully exploring more than 40 km of lunar terrain.

Driving on Mars is much harder, because it is so much further away. Depending on its position with respect to Earth, signals can take between 8 and 42 minutes for the round trip. Pre-programmed instructions must be sent to the rover, which it then executes on its own. Each Martian drive takes hours of careful planning. Stereo images taken by the rover’s navigation cameras are carefully scrutinized by engineers. Images from spacecraft orbiting Mars sometimes provide additional information.

A rover can be programmed either to simply execute a list of driving commands sent from Earth, or it can use images taken by its navigation cameras and processed by its on-board computers to measure speed and detect obstacles or hazards by itself. It can even plot its own safe path to a specified goal. Drives based on instructions from the ground are the fastest.

The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity could drive up to 124 meters in an hour this way. This corresponds to about the length of an American football field. But this mode was also the least safe.

When the rover actively guides itself with its cameras, progress is safer, but much slower because of all the image processing needed. It may progress by as little as 10 meters an hour, which is about the distance from the goal line to the 10 yard line on an American football field. This method must be used whenever the rover doesn’t have a clear view of the route ahead, which is often the case due to rough and hilly terrain.

As of early 2015, the farthest Curiosity has driven in a single day is 144 meters. Opportunity’s longest daily drive was 224 meters, a distance the length of two American football fields.

If ground controllers could get a better view of the path ahead, they could devise instructions allowing a future rover to safely drive much further in a day.

That’s where the idea of a drone helicopter comes in. The helicopter could fly out ahead of the rover every day. Images made from its aerial vantage point would be invaluable to ground controllers for identifying points of scientific interest, and planning driving routes to get there.

Flying a helicopter on Mars poses special challenges. One advantage is that Martian gravity is only 38% as strong as that of Earth, so that the helicopter wouldn’t need to generate as much lift as one of the same mass on Earth. A helicopter’s propeller blades generate lift by pushing air downward. This is harder to do on Mars than on Earth, because the Martian atmosphere is on hundred times thinner. To displace enough air, the propeller blades would need to spin very quickly, or to be very large.

The copter must be capable of flying on its own, using prior instructions, maintaining stable flight along a pre-specified route. It must land and take off repeatedly in rocky Martian terrain. Finally it must be capable of surviving the harsh conditions of Mars, where the temperature plummets to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or lower every night.

The JPL engineers designed a copter with a mass of 1 kilogram; a tiny fraction of the 900 kg mass of the Curiosity rover. Its propeller blades span 1.1 meters from blade tip to blade tip, and are capable of spinning at 3400 rotations per minute. The body is about the size of a tissue box.

The copter is solar powered, with a disk of solar cells gathering enough power every day to power a flight of two to three minutes and to heat the vehicle at night. It can fly about half a kilometer in that time, gathering images for transmission to ground control as it goes. Engineers expect that the reconnaissance that the drone copter gathers will be invaluable in planning a rover’s drives, tripling the distance that can be traveled in a day.

References and further reading:
Thanks to Mark Maimone of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for information about the daily driving distances of Curiosity and Opportunity.

J.J. Biesiadecki, P. C. Leger, and M.W. Maimone (2007), ‘tradeoffs between directed and autonomous driving on the Mars exploration rovers’, The International Journal of Robotics Research, 26(1), 91-104

E. Howell, Opportunity Mars rover treks past 41 kilometers towards ‘Marathon Valley’, Universe Today, Dec. 2014.

T. Reyes, An incredible journey, Mars Curiosity rover reaches base of Mount Sharp. Universe Today, Sept. 2014.

Helicopter could be ‘scout’ for Mars rovers. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Press release. January 22, 2015.

Crazy Engineering: The Mars helicopter. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory video.

Curiosity- Mars Science Laboratory, NASA.

Mars- Future rover plans. NASA

Curiosity Skips Drilling, Resumes Mount Sharp Trek after Pounding Slippery Rock at Martian Valley of Slippery Sands

NASA’s Curiosity rover will skip drilling into a possible 4th rock target and instead resume the trek to Mount Sharp after finding it was unfortunately a slippery rock at the edge of a Martian valley of slippery sands and was therefore too risky to proceed with deep drilling and interior sampling for chemical analysis.

After pounding into the “Bonanza King” rock outcrop on Wednesday, Aug. 20, to evaluate its potential as Curiosity’s 4th drill target on Mars and seeing that it moved on impact, the team decided it was not even safe enough to continue with the preliminary ‘mini-drill’ operation that day.

So they cancelled the entire drill campaign at “Bonanza King” and decided to set the rover loose to drive onwards to her mountain climbing destination.

This image from the front Hazcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the rover's drill in place during a test of whether the rock beneath it, "Bonanza King," would be an acceptable target for drilling to collect a sample. Subsequent analysis showed the rock budged during the Aug. 19, 2014, test. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image from the front Hazcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the rover’s drill in place during a test of whether the rock beneath it, “Bonanza King,” would be an acceptable target for drilling to collect a sample. Subsequent analysis showed the rock budged during the Aug. 19, 2014, test. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, in a statement.

“Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

Bonanza King was an enticing target because the outcrop possessed thin, white, cross-cutting mineral veins which could indicate that liquid water flowed here in the distant past. Water is a prerequisite for life as we know it.

Loose, unstable rocks pose a prospective hazard to the 1 ton robots hardware and health if they become dislodged during impact by the percussive drill located at the end of the robotic arm.

It’s worth recalling that whirling rocks during the nailbiting Red Planet touchdown two years ago on Aug. 6, 2012, inside Gale Crater are suspected to have slightly damaged Curiosity’s REMS meteorological instrument station.

Each drill target must pass a series of tests. And the prior three at more extensive outcrops all met those criteria. By comparison, imagery showed Bonanza King was clearly part of a much smaller outcrop. See our Bonanza King photo mosaics herein.

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with potential 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.  Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust.  Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with potential 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Inset shows results of brushing on Aug. 17, Sol 722, that revealed gray patch beneath red dust. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“One step in the procedure, called “start hole,” uses the hammering action of the percussive drill to create a small indentation in the rock. During this part of the test, the rock moved slightly, the rover sensed that instability in the target, and protective software properly halted the procedure,” according to a NASA statement.

This pale, flat Martian rock thus failed to pass the team’s safety criteria for drilling when it budged.

Bonanza King sits in an bright outcrop on the low ramp at the northeastern end of a spot leading in and out of an area called “Hidden Valley” which lies between Curiosity’s August 2012 landing site in Gale Crater and her ultimate destinations on Mount Sharp which dominates the center of the crater.

Just days ago, the rover team commanded a quick exit from “Hidden Valley” to backtrack out of the dune filled valley because of fears the six wheeled robot could get stuck in slippery sands extending the length of a football field.

“Hidden Valley” looked like it could turn into “Death Valley.”

As Curiosity tested the outcrop, the rover team was simultaneously searching for an alternate safe path forward to the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp because she arrived at Hidden Valley after recently driving over a field of sharp edged rocks in the “Zabriskie Plateau” that caused further rips and tears in the already damaged 20 inch diameter aluminum wheels.

It will take a route skirting the north side of the sandy-floored valley taking care to steer away from the pointiest rocks.

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels.   Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 179,000 images.

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

Hidden Valley gives a foretaste of the rippely slippery sand dune challenges lurking ahead!

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

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview marking the 2nd anniversary since touchdown on Aug. 6.

“Drilling on the crater floor will provide needed geologic context before Curiosity climbs the mountain.”

The team may go back to its original plan to drill at the potential science destination known as “Pahrump Hills” which was changed due to the route change forced by the slippery sands in Hidden Valley.

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

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490).  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of hole in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity Reverses Back from Martian Valley of Slippery Sand and Finds Fourth Rock Drilling Candidate at ‘Bonanza King’

NASA’s Curiosity rover looks back to ramp with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop in ‘Hidden Valley’ at site marking her 2nd anniversary on Mars, as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the rover’s partial selfie, valley walls, deep wheel tracks in the sand dunes and distant rim of Gale crater beyond the ramp. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo[/caption]

Not wanting to get stuck in a rut, Curiosity’s handlers have commanded NASA’s SUV-sized rover to reverse course and drive out of a potentially hazardous Martian valley of slippery sand with poor wheel traction and instead backtrack towards an enticing nearby spot that the team feels could be the fourth candidate for rock drilling – and thereby widen the scope of the story of habitable environments on the Red Planet.

The new drilling target under up close evaluation right now is named ‘Bonanza King’ – shown in our photo mosaic above.

Bonanza King was chosen after the six wheeled rover unexpectedly experienced significant wheel slippage in the past week while driving over an extended dune field of sandy ripples that basically stopped forward movement inside the Martian valley.

The team was thus in a quandary over whether to push forward on a route through the loose sands of “Hidden Valley” and possibly risk getting mired in a hidden sand trap or drive backwards over a field of sharp rocks on the “Zabriskie plateau” and beyond that are certain to tear further holes in the wheels.

Drilling Candidate Site 'Bonanza King' on Mars.    This image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a portion of the pale rock outcrop that includes the "Bonanza King" target chosen for evaluation as the mission's fourth rock-drilling site. Raised ridges on the flat rocks -- possible mineral veins -- are visible at upper and middle right. Tread marks from one of Curiosity's wheels are visible in the lower half of the image from Sol 707, Aug. 12, 2014.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Drilling Candidate Site ‘Bonanza King’ on Mars. This image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a portion of the pale rock outcrop that includes the “Bonanza King” target chosen for evaluation as the mission’s fourth rock-drilling site. Raised ridges on the flat rocks — possible mineral veins — are visible at upper and middle right. Tread marks from one of Curiosity’s wheels are visible in the lower half of the image from Sol 707, Aug. 12, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As reported here last week on the occasion of her 2nd anniversary on Mars since the dramatic touchdown inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, Curiosity had been driving merrily through the supposed safe valley of sandy ripples of “Hidden Valley.” She was approaching a bedrock unit named “Pahrump Hills” that for the first time is actually part of the humongous mountain named Mount Sharp she will soon scale and which is the primary science destination of the mission.

But rather soon after driving over a low hump from Zabriskie plateau (see our mosaic below) into Hidden Valley, the robot experienced wheel slippage in the ripples of sand filling the crater floor which was much higher than anticipated. And even worse than comparable test drives in a practice sand lot at JPL.

Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels.   Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/
Curiosity rover looks back to the rocky plains of the Zabriskie plateau from sandy ramp into ‘Hidden Valley’ with 4th drill site target at ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Sharp edged rocks at Zabriskie tore new holes into rover wheels. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

The sandy ripples extend out to the sloping valley walls with no end in sight.

“We need to gain a better understanding of the interaction between the wheels and Martian sand ripples, and Hidden Valley is not a good location for experimenting,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

And since Hidden Valley is as long as a football field and has only two navigable exits at the northeastern and southwestern ends (see map below), the team was forced to drive back to the entrance way at the northern end to consider an alternative route forward to the base of Mount Sharp.

In the meantime while they evaluate the way forward, the team decided that Bonanza King offers similar science to what scientists anticipate at the outcrops at “Pahrump Hills”- a preview of a geological unit that is part of the base of Mount Sharp for the first time since landing rather than still belonging to the floor of Gale Crater.

“Geologically speaking, we can tie the Bonanza King rocks to those at Pahrump Hills. Studying them here will give us a head start in understanding how they fit into the bigger picture of Gale Crater and Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL, in a statement.

Bonanza King sits in an bright outcrop on the low ramp leading in and out of Hidden Valley.

Curiosity rover up close view of ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop and 4th drill target looking down from ramp and back into ‘Hidden Valley’ and hazardous dune field of sandy ripples on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719.  Wheel tracks show where Curiosity drove into the valley, and back out again, earlier in August 2014. The largest of the individual flat rocks in the foreground are a few inches (several centimeters) across. Hazcam camera raw image flattened and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover up close view of ‘Bonanza King’ rock outcrop and 4th drill target looking down from ramp and back into ‘Hidden Valley’ and hazardous dune field of sandy ripples on Aug. 14, 2014, Sol 719. Wheel tracks show where Curiosity drove into the valley, and back out again, earlier in August 2014. The largest of the individual flat rocks in the foreground are a few inches (several centimeters) across. Hazcam camera raw image flattened and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It looks like a pale paving stone. Since its location within the geological layers visible on the ramp is similar to what was expected at the Pahrump Hills outcrop, it’s very appealing to the science team.

Furthermore when one of the rovers wheel’s drove over the outcrop, it cracked open one of the rocks and exposed bright interior material, possibly from mineral veins – which is super exciting from a science perspective as a potential marker for flowing liquid water.

Right now the team is collecting spectral data with the science instruments to assess its science utility and is planning a super fast drilling campaign, far shorter than the prior three.

The plan would be to core a sample from the interior of the dinner plate sized rock slab for delivery to Curiosity’s pair of the onboard chemistry labs, SAM and CheMin to analyze for the chemical ingredients to support miartin microbes, if they ever existed.

“This outcrop on the ramp is too appealing to pass up,” Vasavada said.

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

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 178,000 images.

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

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

“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told me in an interview making the 2nd anniversary on Aug. 6.

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

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

Ken Kremer

1 Martian Year on Mars!  Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014.    Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
1 Martian Year on Mars!
Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
2 Earth Years on Mars!  NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711.   Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
2 Earth Years on Mars! NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated the 2nd anniversary on Mars at ‘Hidden Valley’ as shown in this photo mosaic view captured on Aug. 6, 2014, Sol 711. Note the valley walls, rover tracks and distant crater rim. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Opportunity Peers Out from ‘Pillinger Point’ – Honoring British Beagle 2 Mars Scientist Where Ancient Water Flowed

NASA’s decade old Opportunity rover has reached a long sought after region of aluminum-rich clay mineral outcrops at a new Endeavour crater ridge now “named ‘Pillinger Point’ after Colin Pillinger the Principal Investigator for the [British] Beagle 2 Mars lander”, Prof. Ray Arvidson, Deputy Principal Investigator for the rover, told Universe Today exclusively. See above the spectacular panoramic view from ‘Pillinger Point’ – where ancient water once flowed billions of year ago.

The Beagle 2 lander was built to search for signs of life on Mars.

The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team named the noteworthy ridge in honor of Prof. Colin Pillinger – a British planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, who passed away at the age of 70 on May 7, 2014.

‘Pillinger Point’ is a scientifically bountiful place possessing both clay mineral outcrops and mineral veins where “waters came up through the cracks”, Arvidson explained to me.

Since water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, this is a truly fitting tribute to name Opportunity’s current exploration site ‘Pillinger Point’ after Prof. Pillinger.

See our new photo mosaic above captured by Opportunity peering out from ‘Pillinger Point’ ridge on June 5, 2014 (Sol 3684) and showing a panoramic view around the eroded mountain ridge and into vast Endeavour crater.

The gigantic crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.

See below our Opportunity 10 Year traverse map showing the location of Pillinger Point along the segmented rim of Endeavour crater.

British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger with the Beagle 2 lander.
British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger with the Beagle 2 lander.

Pillinger Point is situated south of Solander Point and Murray Ridge along the western rim of Endeavour in a region with caches of clay minerals indicative of an ancient Martian habitable zone.

For the past several months, the six wheeled robot has been trekking southwards from Solander towards the exposures of aluminum-rich clays – now named Pillinger Point- detected from orbit by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Martian ‘Spysat’ – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – while gathering context data at rock outcrops along the winding way.

“We are about 3/5 of the way along the outcrops that show an Al-OH [aluminum-hydroxl] montmorillonite [clay mineral] signature at 2.2 micrometers from CRISM along track oversampled data,” Arvidson told me.

“We have another ~160 meters to go before reaching a break in the outcrops and a broad valley.”

The rover mission scientists ultimate goal is travel even further south to ‘Cape Tribulation’ which holds a motherlode of the ‘phyllosilicate’ clay minerals based on extensive CRISM measurements accomplished earlier at Arvidson’s direction.

“The idea is to characterize the outcrops as we go and then once we reach the valley travel quickly to Cape Tribulation and the smectite valley, which is still ~2 km to the south of the present rover location,” Arvidson explained.

Mars Express and Beagle 2 were launched in 2003, the same year as NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, on their interplanetary voyages to help unlock the mysteries of Mars potential for supporting microbial life forms.

Pillinger was the driving force behind the British built Beagle 2 lander which flew to the Red Planet piggybacked on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Unfortunately Beagle 2 vanished without a trace after being deployed from the orbiter on Dec. 19, 2003 with an expected air bag assisted landing on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2003.

In an obituary by the BBC, Dr David Parker, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said that Prof. Pillinger had played a critical role in raising the profile of the British space programme and had inspired “young people to dream big dreams”.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and also clearly shows the distant rim. See the complete panorama below. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and also clearly shows the distant rim. See the complete panorama below. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

During his distinguished career Pillinger also analyzed lunar rock samples from NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions and worked on ESA’s Rosetta mission.

“It’s important to note that Colin’s contribution to planetary science goes back to working on Moon samples from Apollo, as well as his work on meteorites,” Dr Parker told the BBC.

Today, June 16, marks Opportunity’s 3696th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – compared to a warranty of just 90 Sols.

So far she has snapped over 193,400 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Her total odometry stands at over 24.51 miles (39.44 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater's western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge.  This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp after drilling into her 3rd Red Planet rock at Kimberley.

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

Ken Kremer

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014 - A Decade on Mars. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3692 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Pillinger Point ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance - indicative of a habitable zone.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014 – A Decade on Mars
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3692 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Pillinger Point ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer