Nothing Says Springtime on Mars Like Explosions of Sand

Springtime on Earth can be a riotous affair, as plants come back to life and creatures large and small get ready to mate. Nothing like that happens on Mars, of course. But even on a cold world like Mars, springtime brings changes, though you have to look a little more closely to see them.

Lucky for us, there are spacecraft orbiting Mars with high-resolution cameras, and we can track the onset of Martian springtime through images.

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It Hasn’t Rained on Mars for a Long Time, but These Sand Dunes Look Like Raindrops, and They’re Filled with Chemicals Made in Water

Mars is well-known for being a dry and arid place, where dusty red sand dunes are prevalent and water exists almost entirely in the form of ice and permafrost. An upside to this, however, is the fact that these conditions are the reason why Mars’ many surface features are so well preserved. And as missions like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have shown, this allows for some pretty interesting finds.

Consider the picture recently taken by Curiosity’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instrument while orbiting above the Copernicus Crater on Mars. This image showed raindrop-like features that are actually signs of sand dunes that are rich in olivine. These same types of dunes exist on Earth but are very rare since this mineral weathers quickly and turns to clay in wet environments.

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Mars 2020 Rover Gets its Helicopter Sidekick

Work on the Mars 2020 Rover is heating up as the July/August 2020 launch date approaches. Mission engineers just attached the Mars Helicopter to the belly of the rover, where it will make the journey to Mars. Both the solar-powered helicopter and the Mars Helicopter Delivery System are now attached to the rover.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The small rotor-craft only weighs 1.8 kg (4 lbs.) and is made of lightweight materials like carbon fiber and aluminum. It’s largely a technology demonstration mission, and is important to NASA. The overall mission for the Mars 2020 rover won’t depend on the helicopter, but NASA hopes to learn a lot about how to proceed with aircraft on future missions by putting the Mars helicopter through its paces on Mars.

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ExoMars Parachute Test Fails, for the Second Time

Next year, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sending the ExoMars 2020 mission to the Red Planet. This mission consists of an ESA-built rover (Rosalind Franklin) and a Russian-led surface science platform (Kazachok) that will study the Martian environment in order to characterize its surface, atmosphere, and determine whether or not life could have once existed on the planet.

In preparation for this mission, engineers are putting the rover and lander through their paces. This includes the ongoing development of the mission’s parachute system, which is currently in troubleshooting after a failed deployment test earlier this month. These efforts are taking place at the Swedish Space Corporation testing site in Esrange, and involve the largest parachute ever used by a mission to Mars.

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Where Does Mars’ Methane Go? New Study Provides Possible Answer, with Implications in the Search for Life.

For centuries, scientists have speculated about the existence of life on Mars. But it was only within the past 15 years that the search for life (past and present) really began to heat up. It was at this time that methane, an organic molecule that is associated with many forms of life here on Earth (i.e. a “biosignature”) was detected in Mars’ atmosphere.

Since that time, attempts to study Mars’ atmospheric methane have produced varying results. In some cases, methane has been found that was several times its normal concentrations; in others, it was absent. Seeking to answer this mystery, an interdisciplinary team from Aarhus University recently conducted a study where they investigated a possible mechanism for the removal of methane from Mars’ atmosphere.

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Curiosity Sniffs a Spike in Methane. Could it be a Sign of Life?

Since it landed on Mars in 2012, one of the main scientific objectives of the Curiosity rover has been finding evidence of past (or even present) life on the Red Planet. In 2014, the rover may have accomplished this very thing when it detected a tenfold increase in atmospheric methane in its vicinity and found traces of complex organic molecules in drill samples while poking around in the Gale Crater.

About a year ago, Curiosity struck pay dirt again when it found organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks located near the surface of lower Mount Sharp. But last week, the Curiosity rover made an even more profound discovery when it detected the largest amount of methane ever measured on the surface of Mars – about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv).

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New Ideas to Reduce Muscle Loss During Spaceflight

One of the obstacles to long space missions is the muscle loss that astronauts suffer from. It’s called atrophy, and NASA says that astronauts can lose up to 20% muscle mass during missions of only 5 to 11 days. This muscle loss affects what are called “anti-gravity muscles,” including calf muscles, the quadriceps and the muscles of the back and neck.

This muscle loss makes it hard for astronauts to complete their tasks, especially when missions to Mars happen. It can also be very dangerous to astronauts, because they’re weakened when they return to Earth. If there are problems during re-entry, and they need to perform any strenuous emergency procedures, that missing muscle could be the difference between life and death.

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Martian Clouds Might Start with Meteor Trails Through the Atmosphere

On Earth, clouds form when enough droplets of water condense out of the air. And those droplets require a tiny speck of dust or sea salt, called a condensation nuclei, to form. In Earth’s atmosphere, those tiny specks of dust are lofted high into the atmosphere where they trigger cloud formation. But on Mars?

Mars has something else going on.

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