NASA’s InSight Lander Approved for 2018 Mars Launch

This artist's concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander's robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. NASA approved a new launch date in May 2018.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander’s robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. NASA approved a new launch date in May 2018. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Top NASA managers have formally approved the launch of the agency’s InSight Lander to the Red Planet in the spring of 2018 following a postponement from this spring due to the discovery of a vacuum leak in a prime science instrument supplied by France.

The InSight missions goal is to accomplish an unprecedented study of the deep interior of the most Earth-like planet in our solar system.

NASA is now targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, for the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). mission aimed at studying the deep interior of Mars. The Mars landing is now scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight had originally been slated for blastoff on March 4, 2016 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

But the finding of a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument, the French-built Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), in December 2015 forced an unavoidable two year launch postponement. Because of the immutable laws of orbital mechanics, launch opportunities to the Red Planet only occur approximately every 26 months.

InSight’s purpose is to help us understand how rocky planets – including Earth – formed and evolved. The science goal is totally unique – to “listen to the heart of Mars to find the beat of rocky planet formation.”

The revised launch date was approved by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

“Our robotic scientific explorers such as InSight are paving the way toward an ambitious journey to send humans to the Red Planet,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in Washington, in a statement.

“It’s gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth.”

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.

Since InSight would not have been able to carry out and fulfill its intended research objectives because of the vacuum leak in its defective SEIS seismometer instrument, NASA managers had no choice but to scrub this year’s launch. For a time its outlook for a future revival seemed potentially uncertain in light of today’s constrained budget environment.

The leak, if left uncorrected, would have rendered the flawed probe useless to carry out the unprecedented scientific research foreseen to measure the planets seismic activity and sense for “Marsquakes” to determine the nature of the Red Planet’s deep interior.

“The SEIS instrument — designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom — requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors in order to withstand harsh conditions on the Red Planet,” according to NASA.

The SEIS seismometer instrument was provided by the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) – the French national space agency equivalent to NASA. SEIS is one of the two primary science instruments aboard InSight. The other instrument measuring heat flow from the Martian interior is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and is named Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). The HP3 instrument checked out perfectly.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was assigned lead responsibility for the “replanned” mission and insuring that the SEIS instrument operates properly with no leaks.

JPL is “redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.”

“We’ve concluded that a replanned InSight mission for launch in 2018 is the best approach to fulfill these long-sought, high-priority science objectives,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The cost of the two-year delay and instrument redesign amounts to $153.8 million, on top of the original budget for InSight of $675 million.

NASA says this cost will not force a delay or cancellation to any current missions. However, “there may be fewer opportunities for new missions in future years, from fiscal years 2017-2020.”

Back shell of NASA's InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission's lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration.  The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars.  Launch now rescheduled to May 2018 to fix French-built seismometer.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Back shell of NASA’s InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission’s lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration. The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars. Launch now rescheduled to May 2018 to fix French-built seismometer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for InSight and placed the spacecraft in storage while SEIS is fixed.

InSight is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program of low cost, focused science missions along with the science instrument funding contributions from France and Germany.

Mars has the same basic internal structure as the Earth and other terrestrial (rocky) planets. It is large enough to have pressures equivalent to those throughout the Earth's upper mantle, and it has a core with a similar fraction of it's mass. In contrast, the pressure even near the center of the Moon barely reach that just below the Earth's crust and it has a tiny, almost negligible core. The size of Mars indicates that it must have undergone many of the same separation and crystallization processes that formed the Earth's crust and core during early planetary formation.  Credit: JPL/NASA
Mars has the same basic internal structure as the Earth and other terrestrial (rocky) planets. It is large enough to have pressures equivalent to those throughout the Earth’s upper mantle, and it has a core with a similar fraction of it’s mass. In contrast, the pressure even near the center of the Moon barely reach that just below the Earth’s crust and it has a tiny, almost negligible core. The size of Mars indicates that it must have undergone many of the same separation and crystallization processes that formed the Earth’s crust and core during early planetary formation. Credit: JPL/NASA

Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to launch its big planetary mission of 2018 on Thursday of this week ! – the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return probe blasts off on an Atlas V on Sept 8.

Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission and launch reporting from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Sep 6-8: “OSIRIS-REx lainch, SpaceX missions/launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Curiosity Rover Captures Full-Circle Panorama of Enticing ‘Murray Buttes’ on Mars

This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called "Murray Buttes" on lower Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Four years after a nail biting touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA’s SUV-sized Curiosity rover is at last nearing the long strived for “Murray Buttes” formation on the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

This is a key milestone for the Curiosity mission because the “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

The area features eroded mesas and buttes that are reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest.

So the team directed the rover to capture a 360-degree color panorama using the robots mast mounted Mastcam camera earlier this month on Aug. 5.

The full panorama shown above combines more than 130 images taken by Curiosity on Aug. 5, 2016, during the afternoon of Sol 1421 by the Mastcam’s left-eye camera.

In particular note the dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm. It stands about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

Coincidentally, Aug. 5 also marks the fourth anniversary of the six wheeled rovers landing on the Red Planet via the unprecedented Sky Crane maneuver.

You can explore this spectacular Mars panorama in great detail via this specially produced 360-degree panorama from JPL. Simply move the magnificent view back and forth and up and down and all around with your mouse or mobile device.

Video Caption: This 360-degree panorama was acquired on Aug. 5, 2016, by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm is about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

“The buttes and mesas are capped with rock that is relatively resistant to wind erosion. This helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on,” say rover scientists.

“The relatively flat foreground is part of a geological layer called the Murray formation, which formed from lakebed mud deposits. The buttes and mesas rising above this surface are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed. Curiosity closely examined that layer — the Stimson formation — during the first half of 2016 while crossing a feature called “Naukluft Plateau” between two exposures of the Murray formation.”

Three years ago, the team informally named the site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1447, August 31, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, and taken over 348,500 amazing images.

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 – backdropped by Mount Sharp. Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune. This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Approves New Horizons Extended KBO Mission, Keeps Dawn at Ceres

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.
New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

In an ‘Independence Day’ gift to a slew of US planetary research scientists, NASA has granted approval to nine ongoing missions to continue for another two years this holiday weekend.

The biggest news is that NASA green lighted a mission extension for the New Horizons probe to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt and decided to keep the Dawn probe at Ceres forever, rather than dispatching it to a record breaking third main belt asteroid.

And the exciting extension news comes just as the agency’s Juno probe is about to ignite a do or die July 4 fireworks display to achieve orbit at Jupiter – detailed here.

“Mission approved!” the researchers gleefully reported on the probes Facebook and Twitter social media pages.

“Our extended mission into the #KuiperBelt has been approved. Thanks to everyone for following along & hopefully the best is yet to come.

Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials.  The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials. The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The New Horizons spacecraft will now continue on course in the Kuiper Belt towards an small object known as 2014 MU69, to carry out the most distant close encounter with a celestial object in human history.

“Here’s to continued success!”

The spacecraft will rendezvous with the ancient rock on New Year’s Day 2019.

Researchers say that 2014 MU69 is considered as one of the early building blocks of the solar system and as such will be invaluable to scientists studying the origin of our solar system how it evolved.

It was almost exactly one year ago on July 14, 2015 that New Horizons conducted Earth’s first ever up close flyby and science reconnaissance of Pluto – the most distant planet in our solar system and the last of the nine planets to be explored.

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The immense volume of data gathered continues to stream back to Earth every day.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C.

“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

While waiting for news on whether NASA would approve an extended mission, the New Horizons engineering and science team already ignited the main engine four times to carry out four course changes in October and November 2015, in order to preserve the option of the flyby past 2014 MU69 on Jan 1, 2019.

Green noted that mission extensions into fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are not final until Congress actually passes sufficient appropriation to fund NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.”

Tough choices were made even tougher because the Obama Administration has cut funding for the Planetary Sciences Division – some of which was restored by a bipartisan majority in Congress for what many consider NASA’s ‘crown jewels.’

NASA’s Dawn asteroid orbiter just completed its primary mission at dwarf planet Ceres on June 30, just in time for the global celebration known as Asteroid Day.

“The mission exceeded all expectations originally set for its exploration of protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres,” said NASA officials.

The Dawn science team had recently submitted a proposal to break out of orbit around the middle of this month in order to this conduct a flyby of the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Green declined to approve the Dawn proposal, citing additional valuable science to be gathered at Ceres.

The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

The funding required for a multi-year mission to Adeona would be difficult in these cost constrained times.

However the spacecraft is in excellent shape and the trio of science instruments are in excellent health.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and has been conducting unprecedented investigation ever since.

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.

The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

Due to expert engineering and handling by the Dawn mission team, the probe unexpectedly has hydrazine maneuvering fuel leftover.

Dawn will remain at its current altitude at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO) for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.

Green based his decision on the mission extensions on the biannual peer review scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel.

Dawn was launched in September 2007.

The other mission extensions – contingent on available resources – are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This scene shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New chemical science findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate that ancient Mars likely had a higher abundance of molecular oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the present day and was thus more hospitable to life forms, if they ever existed.

Thus the Red Planet was much more Earth-like and potentially habitable billions of years ago compared to the cold, barren place we see today.

Curiosity discovered high levels of manganese oxide minerals in rocks investigated at a location called “Windjana” during the spring of 2014.

Manganese-oxide minerals require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form.

“Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was,” NASA reported.

The newly announced results stem from results obtained from the rovers mast mounted ChemCam or Chemistry and Camera laser firing instrument. ChemCam operates by firing laser pulses and then observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a statement.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

The discovery is being published in a new paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. Lanza is the lead author.

The manganese oxides were found by ChemCam in mineral veins investigated at “Windjana” and are part of geologic timeline being assembled from Curiosity’s research expedition across of the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Scientists have been able to link the new finding of a higher oxygen level to a time when groundwater was present inside Gale Crater.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” says Lanza.

“Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

The high-manganese materials were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater.

Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo.  Featured on APOD - Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014
Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo. Featured on APOD – Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014

High concentrations of manganese oxide minerals in Earth’s ancient past correspond to a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition from low to high oxygen atmospheric concentrations. Thus its reasonable to suggest the same thing happened on ancient Mars.

As part of the investigation, Curiosity also conducted a drill campaign at Windjana, her 3rd of the mission.

Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs.  The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs. The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

How much manganese oxide was detected and what is the meaning?

“The Curiosity rover observed high-Mn abundances (>25 wt% MnO) in fracture-filling materials that crosscut sandstones in the Kimberley region of Gale crater, Mars,” according to the AGU paper.

“On Earth, environments that concentrate Mn and deposit Mn minerals require water and highly oxidizing conditions, hence these findings suggest that similar processes occurred on Mars.”

“Based on the strong association between Mn-oxide deposition and evolving atmospheric dioxygen levels on Earth, the presence of these Mn-phases on Mars suggests that there was more abundant molecular oxygen within the atmosphere and some groundwaters of ancient Mars than in the present day.”

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Cores Hole in Mars at ‘Lubango’ Fracture Zone

Curiosity rover reached out with robotic arm and drilled into ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam  camera raw images and colorized.  Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.  MAHLI camera inset image shows drill hole up close on Sol 1321.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity rover reached out with robotic arm and drilled into ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam camera raw images and colorized. Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. MAHLI camera inset image shows drill hole up close on Sol 1321. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover successfully bored a brand new hole in Mars at a tantalizing sandstone outcrop in the ‘Lubango’ fracture zone this past weekend on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, and is now carefully analyzing the shaken and sieved drill tailings for clues to Mars watery past atop the Naukluft Plateau.

“We have a new drill hole on Mars!” reported Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“All of the activities planned for last weekend have completed successfully.”

“Lubango” counts as the 10th drilling campaign since the one ton rover safely touched down on the Red Planet some 44 months ago inside the targeted Gale Crater landing site, following the nailbiting and never before used ‘sky crane’ maneuver.

After transferring the cored sample to the CHIMRA instrument for sieving it, a portion of the less than 0.15 mm filtered material was successfully delivered this week to the CheMin miniaturized chemistry lab situated in the rovers belly.

CheMin is now analyzing the sample and will return mineralogical data back to scientists on earth for interpretation.

The science team selected Lubango as the robots 10th drill target after determining that it was altered sandstone bedrock and had an unusually high silica content based on analyses carried out using the mast mounted ChemCam laser instrument.

Indeed the rover had already driven away for further scouting and the team then decided to return to Lubango after examining the ChemCam results. They determined the ChemCam and other data observation were encouraging enough – regarding how best to sample both altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock – to change course and drive backwards.

Lubango sits along a fracture in an area that the team dubs the Stimson formation, which is located on the lower slopes of humongous Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.

This mid-afternoon, 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on April 4, 2016, as part of long-term campaign to document the context and details of the geology and landforms along Curiosity's traverse since landing in August 2012.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This mid-afternoon, 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on April 4, 2016, as part of long-term campaign to document the context and details of the geology and landforms along Curiosity’s traverse since landing in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since early March, the rover has been traversing along a rugged region dubbed the Naukluft Plateau.

“The team decided to drill near this fracture to better understand both the altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock,” noted Herkenhoff.

See our photo mosaic above showing the geologically exciting terrain surrounding Curiosity with its outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm after completing the Lubango drill campaign on Sol 1320. The mosaic was created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Its again abundantly clear from the images that beneath the rusty veneer of the Red Planet lies a greyish interior preserving the secrets of Mars ancient climate history.

Curiosity rover views ‘Lubango’ drill target up close in this MAHLI camera image taken on Sol 1321, Apr. 24, 2016, processed to enhance details. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity rover views ‘Lubango’ drill target up close in this MAHLI camera image taken on Sol 1321, Apr. 24, 2016, processed to enhance details. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The team then commanded Curiosity to dump the unsieved portion of the sample onto the ground and examine the leftover drill tailing residues with the Mastcam, Navcam, MAHLI multispectral characterization cameras and the APXS spectrometer. ChemCam is also being used to fire laser shots in the wall of the drill hole to make additional chemical measurements.

To complement the data from Lubango, scientists are now looking around the area for a suitable target of unaltered Stimson bedrock as the 11th drill target.

“The color information provided by Mastcam is really helpful in distinguishing altered versus unaltered bedrock,” explained MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

The ChemCam laser has already shot at the spot dubbed “Oshikati,” a potential target for the next drilling campaign.

“On Sunday we will drive to our next drilling location, which is on a nearby patch of normal-looking Stimson sandstone,” wrote Ryan Anderson, planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL in today’s (Apr. 28) mission update.

As time permits, the Navcam imager is also being used to search for dust devils.

As I reported here, Opportunity recently detected a beautiful looking dust devil on the floor of Endeavour crater on April 1. Dust devil detections by the NASA rovers are relatively rare.

Curiosity has been driving to the edge of the Naukluft Plateau to reach the interesting fracture zone seen in orbital data gathered from NASA’s Mars orbiter spacecraft.

Curiosity images Naukluft Plateau in this photo mosaic stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol1296.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Curiosity images Naukluft Plateau in this photo mosaic stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol1296. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The rover is almost finished crossing the Naukluft Plateau which is “the most rugged and difficult-to-navigate terrain encountered during the mission’s 44 months on Mars,” says NASA.

Prior to climbing onto the Naukluft Plateau the rover spent several weeks investigating sand dunes including the two story tall Namib dune.

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 – backdropped by Mount Sharp. Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune. This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 1325, April 28, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, and taken over 320,100 amazing images.

Spectacular Mastcam camera view of Gale Crater rim from Curiosity on Sol 1302 enhanced to bring out detail.   Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Spectacular Mastcam camera view of Gale Crater rim from Curiosity on Sol 1302 enhanced to bring out detail. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Sticks Her Toes in a Martian Sand Dune, Takes a Selfie

While some of us might only be dreaming of sticking our toes in the sand right about now, the Curiosity rover is actually doing so. But it’s no vacation for the rover, as she makes her way through some very unusual and striking sand dunes on Mars. The Bagnold Dune Field lies along the northwestern flank of Mt. Sharp — Curiosity’s main target for its mission — and this is the first time ever we’ve had the opportunity to do close-up studies of active sand dunes anywhere besides Earth.

Thanks to Andrew Bodrov for sharing his compilation of this 57-image mosaic ‘selfie,’ and you can play around with an interactive version below to see some great views of the dunes. The images were taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Sol 1228 (January 19, 2016).

Continue reading “Curiosity Sticks Her Toes in a Martian Sand Dune, Takes a Selfie”

Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait

Just in time for the holidays, NASA’s Curiosity rover is celebrating Christmas 2015 at a Red Planet Paradise – spectacular “Namib Dune.” And she marked the occasion by snapping her first ever color self-portrait with the mast mounted high resolution Mastcam 34 mm camera.

Heretofore Curiosity has taken color self portraits with the MAHLI camera mounted at the end of the 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm, and black and white self portraits with the mast mounted navcam camera. Continue reading “Curiosity Celebrates Christmas at Red Planet Paradise at Namib Dune with 1st Mastcam Self-portrait”

How Long is a Day on Mars?

Mars represents something of a conundrum for scientists. In many respects, it is significantly different from Earth. It’s cold, it’s dry, there is little  atmosphere or precipitation to speak of, and nothing grows there. By our standards, that makes it an incredibly inhospitable place. And yet, in many other respects, it is quite similar to our world.

For instance, Mars’ internal structure is differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. It also has plenty of water, though the majority of it is concentrated in the polar regions as water ice (and as a permanent layer of permafrost under much of the surface). But perhaps most striking of all, a day on Mars is almost the same as a day here on Earth.

In fact, a day on Mars is roughly 40 minutes longer than a day is here on Earth. Compared to other bodies in our Solar System where a day is either incredibly short (Jupiter’s rotates once on its axis every 9 hours, 55 minutes and 29.69 seconds) or incredibly long (a day on Venus lasts for 116 days and 18 hours), this similarity is quite astounding.

However, there are some things that need to be addressed before we go about declaring just how long a day is on another planet. In fact, there are two ways to determine the length of a day on a celestial body, the sidereal day and the solar day; both of which are used by astronomers for determining the passage on time.

Sidereal vs. Solar:

By definition, a sidereal day on Mars is the length of time that it takes the planet to rotate once on its axis so that stars appear in the same place in the night sky. On Earth, this takes exactly 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds. In comparison, on Mars, a sidereal day lasts 24 hours, 37 minutes, and 22 seconds.

The solar day, by contrast, is the time it takes for the Earth to rotate on its axis so that the Sun appears in the same position in the sky. This position changes slightly each day, but on Earth, a mean solar day works out to being 24 hours long. On Mars, a solar day lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. Rounding that out, we say that a day here on Earth works out to an even 24 hours while on Mars, a day lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes.

Want to know about some other interesting similarities Mars has with Earth? Read on!

Seasonal Changes:

Mars also has a seasonal cycle that is similar to that of Earth’s. This is due in part to the fact that Mars also has a tilted axis, which is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of approx. 23.44°). It’s also due to Mars orbital eccentricity, which mean that it ranges in distance from 206.7  million to 249.2 million kilometers from the Sun.

This change in distance causes significant variations in temperature. While the planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), this ranges from a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator. This high in temperatures is what allows for liquid water to still flow, albeit intermittently, on the surface of Mars.

It also snows on Mars. In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Lander found water ice in the polar regions of the planet. This was an expected finding, but scientists were not prepared to observe snow falling from clouds. The snow, combined with soil chemistry experiments, led scientists to believe that the landing site had a wetter and warmer climate in the past.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit is what causes some significant variations in temperature. Credit: NASA

And then in 2012, data obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that carbon-dioxide snowfalls occur in the southern polar region of Mars. For decades, scientists have known that carbon-dioxide ice is a permanent part of Mars’ seasonal cycle and exists in the southern polar caps. But this was the first time that such a phenomena was detected, and it remains the only known example of carbon-dioxide snow falling anywhere in our solar system.

In addition, recent surveys conducted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Science Laboratory, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and the Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers have revealed some startling things about Mars’ deep past.

For starters, soil samples and orbital observation have demonstrated conclusively that roughly 3.7 billion years ago, the planet had more water on its surface than is currently in the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly, atmospheric studies conducted on the surface and from space have proven that Mars also had a viable atmosphere at that time, one which was slowly stripped away by solar wind.

Weather Patterns:

Like Earth, Mars can have some pretty extreme weather. In the Red Planet’s case, this takes the form of dust storms that can dominated the surface from time to time. These storms have been known to grow to be thousands of kilometers across, occasionally encircling the entire planet and covering everything in a thick haze of dust. When these storms become that large, they prevent direct observation of the Martian surface.

Case in point: when the Mariner 9 orbiter became the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971, it sent pictures back to Earth of a world consumed in haze. The entire planet was covered by a dust storm so massive that only Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano that measures 24 km high, could be seen above the clouds. This storm lasted for a full month, and delayed Mariner 9‘s attempts to photograph the planet in detail.

And then on June 9th, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm in the Hellas Basin on Mars. By July, the storm had died down, but then grew again to become the largest storm in 25 years. So big was the storm that amateur astronomers using small telescopes were able to see it from Earth. And the cloud raised the temperature of the frigid Martian atmosphere by a stunning 30° Celsius.

Therein lies another thing Mars has in common with Earth – global warming! Much like warming trends here on Earth, warming on Mars is caused by the presence of particulate matter in the air that absorbs energy from the Sun and radiates it outward into the atmosphere. causing average temperatures to rise.

These storms tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and are the result of temperatures rising and triggering changes in the air and soil. As the soil dries, it becomes more easily picked up by air currents, which are caused by pressure changes due to increased heat. The dust storms cause temperatures to rise even further, so you could say Mars has a “greenhouse effect” of its own!

As you have probably concluded from all the facts listed above, Mars can be a harsh and volatile planet. Just knowing the answer to ”how long is a day on Mars?” only provides a small glimpse of what is going on there. At the end of the day (no pun intended!) there is plenty happening on Mars that makes it similar enough to Earth that many people are actually contemplating living there someday. And knowing exactly what sets Mars apart, and what we can work with, will be intrinsic to making that happen!

We have written many interesting articles about Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s one about Mars Compared to Earth, the time it takes to get to Mars, how strong the gravity is on Mars, and how many moons Mars has.

Want more information? Learn about living on Mars time, which can you do by consulting NASA’s clock for calculating Martian time.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, Astronomy Cast has some episodes about the Red Planet, like Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

Curiosity Mars Rover Nears First Study Site of Active Sand Dunes Beyond Earth

NASA’s Curiosity rover is on the Martian road to soon start the first ever study of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth. The dunes are located nearby, at the foothills of Mount Sharp, and Curiosity is due to arrive for an up close look in just a few days to start her unique research investigations.

The eerily dark dunes, named the “Bagnold Dunes,” skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp is the primary goal of the mission.

“The ‘Bagnold Dunes’ are tantalizingly close,” says Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update on Wednesday, Nov. 18.

The “Bagnold Dunes” have been quite noticeable in numerous striking images taken from Mars orbit, during the vehicles nail biting ‘7 Minutes of Terror’ descent from orbit, as well as in thousands upon thousands of images taken by Curiosity herself as the robot edged ever closer during her over three year long traverse across the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Curiosity must safely cross the expansive dune field before climbing Mount Sharp.

Although multiple NASA rovers, including Curiosity, have studied much smaller Martian sand ripples or drifts, none has ever visited and investigated up close these types of large dunes that range in size as tall as a two story building or more and as wide as a football field or more.

Moreover the Martian dunes are shifting even today.

“Shifting sands lie before me,” Curiosity tweeted. “Off to image, scoop and scuff active dunes on Mars. I’ll be the first craft to visit such dunes beyond Earth!”

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
Mount Sharp and dark Bagnold Dunes
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

“The Bagnold Dunes are active: Images from orbit indicate some of them are migrating as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year. No active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth,” notes NASA.

Curiosity is currently only some 200 yards or meters away from the first dune she will investigate, simply named “Dune 1.”

Curiosity approaches the dark Bagnold Dunes for first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth.  This photo mosaic is stitched from navcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1168, Nov. 18, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity approaches the dark Bagnold Dunes for first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth. This photo mosaic is stitched from navcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1168, Nov. 18, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As the rover approaches closer and closer, the dune research campaign is already in progress as she snaps daily high resolution images and gathers measurements of the area’s wind direction and speed.

“We’ve planned investigations that will not only tell us about modern dune activity on Mars but will also help us interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago,” said Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

After arriving at the dune, the team will command Curiosity to scoop up samples for analysis by the rover’s pair of miniaturized chemistry instruments inside its belly. It will also scuff the dune with a wheel to examine and compare the surface and interior physical characteristics.

This Sept. 25, 2015, view from the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a dark sand dune in the middle distance.  The rover's examination of dunes on the way toward higher layers of Mount Sharp will be the first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This Sept. 25, 2015, view from the Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a dark sand dune in the middle distance. The rover’s examination of dunes on the way toward higher layers of Mount Sharp will be the first in-place study of an active sand dune anywhere other than Earth. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The dark dunes are informally named after British military engineer Ralph Bagnold (1896-1990), who conducted pioneering studies of the effect of wind on motion of individual particles in dunes on Earth. Curiosity will carry out “the first in-place study of dune activity on a planet with lower gravity and less atmosphere.”

Although the huge Bagnold dunes are of great scientific interest, the team will also certainly exercise caution in maneuvering the car sized six wheel robot.

Recall that NASA’s smaller golf cart Spirit Mars rover perished a few years back – albeit over 6 years into her 3 month mission – when the robot became unexpectedly mired in a nearly invisible sand ripple from which she was unable to escape.

Likewise, sister Opportunity got stuck in a sand ripple earlier in her mission that took the engineering team weeks of painstaking effort to extricate from a spot subsequently named ‘Purgatory’ that resulted in many lessons learned for future operations.

Opportunity is still hard at work – currently exploring Marathon Valley – nearly a dozen years into her planned 3 month mission.

Based on orbital observations by the CRISM and HiRISE instruments aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the science team has concluded that the Bagnold Dunes are mobile and also have an uneven distribution of minerals, such as olivine.

“We will use Curiosity to learn whether the wind is actually sorting the minerals in the dunes by how the wind transports particles of different grain size,” Ehlmann said.

“If the Bagnold campaign finds that other mineral grains are sorted away from heavier olivine-rich grains by the wind’s effects on dune sands, that could help researchers evaluate to what extent low and high amounts of olivine in some ancient sandstones could be caused by wind-sorting rather than differences in alteration by water,” say researchers.

“These dunes have a different texture from dunes on Earth,” said team member Nathan Bridges, of the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland.

“The ripples on them are much larger than ripples on top of dunes on Earth, and we don’t know why. We have models based on the lower air pressure. It takes a higher wind speed to get a particle moving. But now we’ll have the first opportunity to make detailed observations.”

Last month Curiosity conducted her eighth drill campaign for sample chemical analysis at the ‘Big Sky’ site, before moving on to ‘Greenhorn’. Big Sky was an area of cross-bedded sandstone rock in the Stimson geological unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp.

NASA Curiosity rover reaches out with robotic arm to drill into cross-bedded sandstone rock at ‘Big Sky’ target on Sol 1119, Sept. 29, 2015, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam  camera raw images and colorized.  Big Sky is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA Curiosity rover reaches out with robotic arm to drill into cross-bedded sandstone rock at ‘Big Sky’ target on Sol 1119, Sept. 29, 2015, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam camera raw images and colorized. Big Sky is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on the Red Planet – at the Yellowknife Bay area – that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life in the ancient past when Mars was far wetter and warmer billions of years ago.

As of today, Sol 1168, November 19, 2015, she has driven over 6.9 miles (11.1 kilometers) kilometers and taken over 282,100 amazing images.

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

Ken Kremer

This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in mid-November 2015 through Sol 1165, approaching examples of dunes in the "Bagnold Dunes" dune field.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in mid-November 2015 through Sol 1165, approaching examples of dunes in the “Bagnold Dunes” dune field. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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

Dec 1 to 3: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Dec 8: “America’s Human Path Back to Space and Mars with Orion, Starliner and Dragon.” Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, AAAP, Princeton University, Ivy Lane, Astrophysics Dept, Princeton, NJ; 7:30 PM.

NASA vs. Cigarettes: A Numbers Game

A photo of the full moon, taken from Apollo 11 on its way home to Earth, from about 18,520 km (10,000 nm) away. Credit: NASA

People often criticize the amount of money spent on space exploration. Sometimes it’s well-meaning friends and family who say that that money is wasted, and would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth. In fact, that’s a whole cultural meme. You see it played out over and over in the comments section whenever mainstream media covers a space story.

While solving problems here on Earth is noble, and the right thing to do, it’s worth pointing out that the premier space exploration body on Earth, NASA, actually has a tiny budget. When you compare NASA’s budget to what people spend on cigarettes, NASA looks pretty good.

Ignoring for the moment the fact that we don’t know how to solve all the problems here on Earth, let’s look at NASA’s budget over the years, and compare it to something that is truly a waste of money: cigarettes and tobacco.

NASA is over 50 years old. In its first year, its budget was $89 million. (That’s about $732 million in today’s dollars.) In that same year, Americans spent about $6 billion on cigarettes and tobacco.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

From 1969 to 1972, NASA’s Apollo Program landed 12 men on the Moon. They won the Space Race and established a moment that will echo through the ages, no matter what else humanity does: the first human footsteps anywhere other than Earth. In those four years, NASA’s combined budget was $14.8 billion. In that same time period, Americans spent over twice as much—$32 billion—on smoking.

STS-1 Columbia on the launch pad. Image Credit: NASA
STS-1 Columbia on the launch pad. Image Credit: NASA

In 1981, NASA launched its first space shuttle, the Columbia (STS-1). NASA’s budget that year was $5.5 billion. That same year, the American population spent about $17.4 billion on tobacco. That’s three times NASA’s budget. How many more shuttle flights could there have been? How much more science?

The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It's about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It’s about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA

In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into Low Earth Orbit (LEO.) The Hubble has been called the most successful science project in history, and Universe Today readers probably don’t need to be told why. The Hubble is responsible for a laundry list of discoveries and observations, and has engaged millions of people around the world in space science and discovery. In that year, NASA had a budget of $12.4 billion. And smoking? In 1990, Americans smoked their way through $26.5 billion of tobacco.

MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech.

In 2012, NASA had a budget of $16.8 billion. In that year, NASA successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on Mars, at a cost of $2.5 billion. Also that year, American lungs processed $44 billion worth of tobacco. That’s the equivalent of 17 Curiosity rovers!

There was an enormous scientific debate around where Curiosity should land, in order to maximize the science. Scientific teams competed to have their site chosen, and eventually the Gale Crater was selected as the most promising site. Gale is a meteor crater, and was chosen because it shows signs of running water, as well as evidence of layered geology including clays and minerals.

Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)
Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)

But other equally tantalizing sites were in contention, including Holden Crater, where a massive and catastrophic flood took place, and where ancient sediments lie exposed on the floor of the crater, ready for study. Or Mawrth Vallis, another site that suffered a massive flood, which exposed layers of clay minerals formed in the presence of water. With the money spent on tobacco in 2012 ($44 billion!) we could have had a top ten list of landing sites on Mars, and put a rover at each one.

Think of all that science.

One of the JWST's gold-coated mirrors. Not even launched yet, and the golden mirrors are already iconic. Image Credit: NASA/Drew Noel
One of the JWST’s gold-coated mirrors. Not even launched yet, and the golden mirrors are already iconic. Image Credit: NASA/Drew Noel

NASA’s budget is always a source of controversy, and that’s certainly true of another of NASA’s big projects: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST.) Space enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the launch of the JWST, planned for October 2018. The JWST will take up residence at the second Lagrange Point (L2,) where it will spend 5-10 years studying the formation of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems from the Big Bang until now. It will also investigate the potential for life in other solar systems.

The L2 (Lagrange 2) point in space. Image Credit: NASA
The L2 (Lagrange 2) point in space. Image Credit: NASA

Initially the JWST’s cost was set at $1.6 billion and it was supposed to launch in 2011. But now it’s set for October 2018, and its cost has grown to $8.8 billion. It sounds outrageous, almost $9 billion for a space telescope, and Congress considered scrapping the entire project. But what’s even more outrageous is that Americans are projected to spend over $50 billion on tobacco in 2018.

When people in the future look back at NASA and what it was able to accomplish in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, they’ll think two things: First, they’ll think how amazing it was that NASA did what it did. The Moon landings, the Shuttle program, the Hubble, Curiosity, and the James Webb.

Then, they’ll be saddened by how much more could’ve been done collectively, if so much money hadn’t been wasted on something as deadly as smoking.

(Note: All amounts are US Dollars.)