Are We Martians? Chemist’s New Claim Sparks Debate

Are Earthlings really Martians ?
Did life arise on Mars first and then journey on rocks to our planet and populate Earth billions of years ago? Earth and Mars are compared in size as they look today. NASA’s upcoming MAVEN Mars orbiter is aimed at answering key questions related to the habitability of Mars, its ancient atmosphere and where did all the water go.
Story updated[/caption]

Are Earthlings really Martians?

That’s the controversial theory proposed today (Aug. 29) by respected American chemist Professor Steven Benner during a presentation at the annual Goldschmidt Conference of geochemists being held in Florence, Italy. It’s based on new evidence uncovered by his research team and is sure to spark heated debate on the origin of life question.

Benner said the new scientific evidence “supports the long-debated theory that life on Earth may have started on Mars,” in a statement. Universe Today contacted Benner for further details and enlightenment.

“We have chemistry that (at least at the level of hypothesis) makes RNA prebiotically,” Benner told Universe Today. “AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars.” Benner said he has experimental data as well.

First- How did ancient Mars life, if it ever even existed, reach Earth?

On rocks violently flung up from the Red Planet’s surface during mammoth collisions with asteroids or comets that then traveled millions of miles (kilometers) across interplanetary space to Earth – melting, heating and exploding violently before the remnants crashed into the solid or liquid surface.

An asteroid impacts ancient Mars and send rocks hurtling to space - some reach Earth
An asteroid impacts ancient Mars and send rocks hurtling to space – some reach Earth. Did they transport Mars life to Earth? Or minerals that could catalyze the origin of life on Earth?

“The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock,” says Benner, of The Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida. That theory is generally known as panspermia.

To date, about 120 Martian meteorites have been discovered on Earth.

And Benner explained that one needs to distinguish between habitability and the origin of life.

“The distinction is being made between habitability (where can life live) and origins (where might life have originated).”

NASA’s new Curiosity Mars rover was expressly dispatched to search for environmental conditions favorable to life and has already discovered a habitable zone on the Red Planet’s surface rocks barely half a year after touchdown inside Gale Crater.

Furthermore, NASA’s next Mars orbiter- named MAVEN – launches later this year and seeks to determine when Mars lost its atmosphere and water- key questions in the Origin of Life debate.

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Of course the proposed chemistry leading to life is exceedingly complex and life has never been created from non-life in the lab.

The key new points here are that Benner believes the origin of life involves “deserts” and oxidized forms of the elements Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo), namely “borate and molybdate,” Benner told me.

“Life originated some 4 billion years ago ± 0.5 billon,” Benner stated.

He says that there are two paradoxes which make it difficult for scientists to understand how life could have started on Earth – involving organic tars and water.

Life as we know it is based on organic molecules, the chemistry of carbon and its compounds.

But just discovering the presence of organic compounds is not the equivalent of finding life. Nor is it sufficient for the creation of life.

And simply mixing organic compounds aimlessly in the lab and heating them leads to globs of useless tars, as every organic chemist and lab student knows.

Benner dubs that the ‘tar paradox’.

Although Curiosity has not yet discovered organic molecules on Mars, she is now speeding towards a towering 3 mile (5 km) high Martian mountain known as Mount Sharp.

Curiosity Spies Mount Sharp - her primary destination. Curiosity will ascend mysterious Mount Sharp and investigate the sedimentary layers searching for clues to the history and habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years.  This mosaic was assembled from over 3 dozen Mastcam camera images taken on Sol 352 (Aug 2, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Curiosity Spies Mount Sharp – her primary destination
Curiosity will ascend mysterious Mount Sharp and investigate the sedimentary layers searching for clues to the history and habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years. This mosaic was assembled from over 3 dozen Mastcam camera images taken on Sol 352 (Aug 2, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Upon arrival sometime next spring or summer, scientists will target the state of the art robot to investigate the lower sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp in search of clues to habitability and preserved organics that could shed light on the origin of life question and the presence of borates and molybdates.

It’s clear that many different catalysts were required for the origin of life. How much and their identity is a big part of Benner’s research focus.

“Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting,” says Benner in a statement. “Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidized form of molybdenum was there too.”

The second paradox relates to water. He says that there was too much water covering the early Earth’s surface, thereby causing a struggle for life to survive. Not exactly the conventional wisdom.

“Not only would this have prevented sufficient concentrations of boron forming – it’s currently only found in very dry places like Death Valley – but water is corrosive to RNA, which scientists believe was the first genetic molecule to appear. Although there was water on Mars, it covered much smaller areas than on early Earth.”

Parts of ancient Mars were covered by oceans, lakes and streams of liquid water in this artists concept, unlike the arid and bone dry Martian surface of today. Subsurface water ice is what remains of Martian water.
Parts of ancient Mars were covered by oceans, lakes and streams of liquid water in this artists concept, unlike the arid and bone dry Martian surface of today. Subsurface water ice is what remains of Martian water.

I asked Benner to add some context on the beneficial effects of deserts and oxidized boron and molybdenum.

“We have chemistry that (at least at the level of hypothesis) makes RNA prebiotically,” Benner explained to Universe Today.

“We require mineral species like borate (to capture organic species before they devolve to tar), molybdate (to arrange that material to give ribose), and deserts (to dry things out, to avoid the water problem).”

“Various geologists will not let us have these [borates and molybdates] on early Earth, but they will let us have them on Mars.”

“So IF you believe what the geologists are telling you about the structure of early Earth, AND you think that you need our chemistry to get RNA, AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars,” Benner elaborated.

“The assembly of RNA building blocks is thermodynamically disfavored in water. We want a desert to get rid of the water intermittently.”

I asked Benner whether his lab has run experiments in support of his hypothesis and how much borate and molybdate are required.

“Yes, we have run many lab experiments. The borate is stoichiometric [meaning roughly equivalent to organics on a molar basis]; The molybdate is catalytic,” Benner responded.

“And borate has now been found in meteorites from Mars, that was reported about three months ago.

At his talk, Benner outlined some of the chemical reactions involved.

Although some scientists have invoked water, minerals and organics brought to ancient Earth by comets as a potential pathway to the origin of life, Benner thinks differently about the role of comets.

“Not comets, because comets do not have deserts, borate and molybdate,” Benner told Universe Today.

The solar panels on the MAVEN spacecraft are deployed as part of environmental testing procedures at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, before shipment to Florida 0on Aug. 2 and blastoff for Mars on Nov. 18, 213. Credit: Lockheed Martin
MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and seeks to determine when Mars lost its atmosphere and water- key questions in the Origin of Life debate. MAVEN is slated to blastoff for Mars on Nov. 18, 2013. It is shown here with solar panels deployed as part of environmental testing procedures at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Waterton, Colorado, before shipment to Florida in early August. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Benner has developed a logic tree outlining his proposal that life on Earth may have started on Mars.

“It explains how you get to the conclusion that life originated on Mars. As you can see from the tree, you can escape that conclusion by diverging from the logic path.”

Finally, Benner is not one who blindly accepts controversial proposals himself.

He was an early skeptic of the claims concerning arsenic based life announced a few years back at a NASA sponsored press conference, and also of the claims of Mars life discovered in the famous Mars meteorite known as ALH 84001.

“I am afraid that what we thought were fossils in ALH 84001 are not.”

The debate on whether Earthlings are really Martians will continue as science research progresses and until definitive proof is discovered and accepted by a consensus of the science community of Earthlings – whatever our origin.

On Nov. 18, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter. Its aimed at studying the upper Martian atmosphere for the first time.

“MAVENS’s goal is determining the composition of the ancient Martian atmosphere and when it was lost, where did all the water go and how and when was it lost,” said Bruce Jakosky to Universe Today at a MAVEN conference at the University of Colorado- Boulder. Jakosky, of CU-Boulder, is the MAVEN Principal Investigator.

MAVEN will shed light on the habitability of Mars billions of years ago and provide insight on the origin of life questions and chemistry raised by Benner and others.

Ken Kremer

…………….
Learn more about Mars, the Origin of Life, LADEE, Cygnus, Antares, MAVEN, Orion, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Sep 5/6/16/17: “LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 9: “LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Curiosity Conducts Science on the Go and Zooms to Stunning Mount Sharp

Curiosity Spies Mount Sharp – her primary destination. Curiosity will ascend mysterious Mount Sharp and investigate the sedimentary layers searching for clues to the history and habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years. But first she must safely trespass through the treacherous dark dunes fields. This mosaic was assembled from over 2 dozen Mastcam camera images taken on Sol 352 (Aug 2, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
See the full mosaic below [/caption]

It’s never a dull moment for NASA’s Curiosity rover at T Plus 1 Year since touchdown on the Red Planet and T Minus 1 year to arriving at her primary target, the huge mountain overwhelming the center of the landing site inside Gale Crater.

Curiosity is literally and figuratively zooming in on stunningly beautiful and mysterious Mount Sharp (see our new mosaics above/below), her ultimate destination, while conducting ‘Science on the Go’ with her duo of chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin – and 8 other science instruments as she passes the 2 kilometer driving milestone today; Aug 20 !

“We are holding samples for drops to ChemMin and SAM when the science team is ready for it,” Jim Erickson, Curiosity Project Manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.

“Curiosity has landed in an ancient river or lake bed on Mars,” Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told Universe Today.

So, those samples were altered by liquid Martian water – a prerequisite for life.

Curiosity Spies Mount Sharp - her primary destination. Curiosity will ascend mysterious Mount Sharp and investigate the sedimentary layers searching for clues to the history and habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years.  This mosaic was assembled from over 3 dozen Mastcam camera images taken on Sol 352 (Aug 2, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Curiosity Spies Mount Sharp – her primary destination. Curiosity will ascend mysterious Mount Sharp and investigate the sedimentary layers searching for clues to the history and habitability of the Red Planet over billions of years. But first she must safely trespass through the treacherous dark dunes fields. This mosaic was assembled from over 3 dozen Mastcam camera images taken on Sol 352 (Aug 2, 2013.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

In fact the car sized rover has saved samples from both the ‘John Klein’ and ‘Cumberland’ drill sites collected previously in the ‘Yellowknife Bay’ area for analysis by the miniaturized labs in the rovers belly -when the time is right.

“Curiosity has stored a Cumberland sample and still has a John Klein sample on board for future use,” Erickson explained.

And that time has now arrived!

“We have put a sample from the Cumberland drill hole into SAM for more isotopic measurements,” reported science team member John Bridges in a blog update on Sol 363, Aug. 14, 2013.

“The sample had been cached within the robotic arm’s turret.”

Curiosity is multitasking – conducting increasingly frequent traverses across the relatively smooth floor of Gale Crater while running research experiments for her science handlers back here on Earth.

NASA’s Curiosity rover make tracks to Mount Sharp (at left) across the floor of Gale Crater. The rover paused to image the windblown ripple at right, below the hazy crater rim. The wheel tracks are about eight  feet apart. This panoramic mosaic was assembled from a dozen navcam camera images taken on Sol 354 (Aug 4, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Curiosity rover make tracks to Mount Sharp (at left) across the floor of Gale Crater. The rover paused to image the windblown ripple at right, below the hazy crater rim. The wheel tracks are about eight feet apart. This panoramic mosaic was assembled from a dozen navcam camera images taken on Sol 354 (Aug 4, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

She’s captured stunning new views of Mount Sharp – rising 5 km (3 miles) high into the sky – and movies of Mars tiny pair of transiting moons while ingesting new portions of the drilled rock samples acquired earlier this year.

Here’s our video compilation of Phobos and Deimos transiting on Aug 1, 2013

Video caption: Transit of Phobos in front of Deimos, taken by MSL right MastCam imager on Sol 351 around 3:12 AM local time (Aug 1, 2013, 8:42 UTC); 16 original frames + 14 interpolated (5x speed-up). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The sample analysis is still in progress.

“The SAM data have not all been received yet,” wrote science team member Ken Herkenhoff in a blog update.

Earlier analysis of sample portions from both ‘John Klein’ and ‘Cumberland’ revealed that the Yellowknife Bay area on Mars possesses the key mineral ingredients proving that Red Planet was once habitable and could have sustained simple microbial life forms.

The scientists are seeking further evidence and have yet to detect organic molecules – which are the building blocks of life as we know it.

This time lapse mosaic shows Curiosity maneuvering her robotic arm to drill into her 2nd   martian rock target named “Cumberland” to collect powdery Martian material on May 19, 2013 (Sol 279) for analysis by her onboard chemistry labs; SAM & Chemin. The photomosaic was stitched from raw images captured by the navcam cameras on May 14 & May 19 (Sols 274 & 279).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
This time lapse mosaic shows Curiosity maneuvering her robotic arm to drill into her 2nd martian rock target named “Cumberland” to collect powdery Martian material on May 19, 2013 (Sol 279) for analysis by her onboard chemistry labs; SAM & Chemin- see 3 inlet ports lower left. The photomosaic was stitched from raw images captured by the navcam cameras on May 14 & May 19 (Sols 274 & 279). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Yellowknife Bay resembles a dried out river bed where liquid water once flowed eons ago when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter than today.

As the 1 ton robot ascends Mount Sharp, she will examine sedimentary layers layed down on ancient Mars over hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of years of past history and habitability.

And just as the rover was celebrating 1 year on Mars on Aug 5/6, she found an intriguing sand dune on Sol 354. See our mosaic

“The rover paused to take images of its tracks after crossing a windblown ripple,” Herkenhoff reported.

As the six wheeled rover approaches Mount Sharp over the next year, she will eventually encounter increasing treacherous dunes that she must cross before beginning her mountain climbing foray.

As of today, Sol 369 (Aug. 20) Curiosity has broken through the 2 kilometer driving mark with a new 70 meter drive, snapped over 75,000 images and fired over 75,000 laser shots.

Mount Sharp is about 8 kilometers (5 miles) distant as the Martian crow flies.

How long will the journey to Mount Sharp require?

“Perhaps about a year,” Erickson told me. “We are trying to make that significantly faster by bringing autonav [autonomous navigation software] online.”

“That will help. But how much it helps really depends on the terrain.”

So far so good.

Meanwhile NASA’s next Mars orbiter called MAVEN (for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), recently arrived at the Kennedy Space Center after a cross country flight.

Kennedy technicians are completing assembly and check out preparations for MAVEN’s blastoff to the Red Planet on Nov. 18 from Florida atop an Atlas V rocket similar to the one that launched Curiosity nearly 2 years ago.

And I’ll be at Kennedy to report up close on MAVEN’s launch.

Stay tuned.

Ken Kremer

Weekly Space Hangout – August 9, 2013

Gather round the internets for another episode of the Weekly Space Hangout. Where our experienced team of journalists, astronomers and astronomer-journalists bring you up to speed on the big happenings in the universe of space and astronomy.

Our team this week:

Reporters: Casey Dreier, David Dickinson, Amy Shira Teitel, Sondy Springmann, Nicole Gugliuci

Host: Fraser Cain

And here are the stories we covered:
Curiosity Celebrates One Year on Mars
2013 Perseids Meteor Shower
Lori Garver Leaving NASA
Kilonova Discovered
Sun’s Magnetic Field is About to Flip
Japanese HTV-4 Docked
MAVEN Update

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at Noon Pacific, 3 pm Eastern. Join us live here on Universe Today, over on our YouTube account, or on Google+. Or you can watch the archive after the fact.

Curiosity rover Celebrates 1 Year on Mars with Dramatic Discoveries

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182), shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Story updated with further details[/caption]

NASA’s mega Mars rover Curiosity is celebrating 1 Year on the Red Planet since the dramatic landing on Aug. 6, 2012 by reveling in a string of groundbreaking science discoveries demonstrating that Mars could once have supported past life – thereby accomplishing her primary science goal – and with a promise that the best is yet to come!

“We now know Mars offered favorable conditions for microbial life billions of years ago,” said the mission’s project scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“Curiosity has landed in an ancient river or lake bed on Mars,” Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told Universe Today.

Curiosity is now speeding onwards towards Mount Sharp, the huge 3.4 mile (5. 5 km) mountain dominating the center of her Gale Crater landing site – and which is the primary destination of the mission.

During Year 1, Curiosity has transmitted over 190 gigabits of data, captured more than 71,000 images, fired over 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of rocks and soil and drilled into two rocks for sample analysis by the pair of state-of-the-art miniaturized chemistry labs housed in her belly – SAM & CheMin.

“From the sophisticated instruments on Curiosity the data tells us that this region could have been habitable in Mars’ distant past,” Green told me.

“This is a major step forward in understanding the history and evolution of Mars.”

And just in the nick of time for her 1 year anniversary, the car sized robot just passed the 1 mile (1.6 kilometer) driving mark on Aug. 1, or Sol 351.

Mount Sharp still lies roughly 5 miles (8 kilometers) distant – as the Martian crow flies.

“We will be on a general heading of southwest to Mount Sharp,” Jim Erickson, Curiosity Project Manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Universe Today in an exclusive interview. See the NASA JPL route maps below.

“We have been going through various options of different planned routes.”

How long will the journey to Mount Sharp take?

“Perhaps about a year,” Erickson told me.

“We have put some new software – called autonav, or autonomous navigation – on the vehicle right after the conjunction period back in March 2013. This will increase our ability to drive.”

The total distance driven by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity passed the one-mile mark a few days before the first anniversary of the rover's landing on Mars.  This map traces where Curiosity drove between landing at "Bradbury Landing" on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT, (Aug. 6, 2012 (Universal Time and EDT) and the position reached during the mission's 351st Martian day, or sol, (Aug. 1, 2013). The Sol 351 leg added 279 feet (85.1 meters) and brought the odometry since landing to about 1.05 miles (1,686 meters).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The total distance driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity passed the one-mile mark a few days before the first anniversary of the rover’s landing on Mars. This map traces where Curiosity drove between landing at “Bradbury Landing” on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT, (Aug. 6, 2012 (Universal Time and EDT) and the position reached during the mission’s 351st Martian day, or sol, (Aug. 1, 2013). The Sol 351 leg added 279 feet (85.1 meters) and brought the odometry since landing to about 1.05 miles (1,686 meters). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

“We are trying to make that significantly faster by bringing the new autonav online. That will help. But how much it helps really depends on the terrain.”

So far the terrain has not been problematical.

“Things are going very well and we have a couple of drives under our belt,” said Erickson, since starting the long trek to Mount Sharp about a month ago.

The lower reaches of Mount Sharp are comprised of exposed geological layers of sedimentary materials that formed eons ago when Mars was warmer and wetter, and much more hospitable to microscopic life.

“It has been gratifying to succeed, but that has also whetted our appetites to learn more,” says Grotzinger. “We hope those enticing layers at Mount Sharp will preserve a broad diversity of other environmental conditions that could have affected habitability.”

Indeed, Curiosity’s breakthrough discovery that the surface of Mars possesses the key chemical ingredients required to sustain microbial life in a habitable zone, has emboldened NASA to start mapping out the future of Mars exploration.

NASA announced plans to start work on a follow on robotic explorer launching in 2020 and develop strategies for returning Martian samples to Earth and dispatching eventual human missions to Mars in the 2030’s using the new Orion capsule and SLS Heavy lift rocket.

“NASA’s Mars program is back on track with the 2016 InSight lander and the 2020 rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told Universe Today in an interview.

“Successes of our Curiosity — that dramatic touchdown a year ago and the science findings since then — advance us toward further exploration, including sending humans to an asteroid and Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

“Wheel tracks now, will lead to boot prints later.”

Following the hair-raising touchdown using with the never before used sky-crane descent thrusters, the science team directed the 1 ton robot to drive to a nearby area of interesting outcrops on the Gale crater floor – at a place called Glenelg and Yellowknife Bay.

Along the way, barely 5 weeks after landing, Curiosity found a spot laden with rounded pebbles at the Hottah outcrop of concretions that formed in an ancient stream bed where hip deep liquid water once flowed rather vigorously.

In February 2013, Curiosity conducted the historic first ever interplanetary drilling into Red Planet rocks at the ‘John Klein’ outcrop inside Yellowknife Bay that was shot through with hydrated mineral veins of gypsum.

The Yellowknife Bay basin looks like a dried up river bed.

This scene combines seven images from the telephoto-lens camera on the right side of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity   on Sol 343 of the rover's work on Mars (July 24, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
This scene combines seven images from the telephoto-lens camera on the right side of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 343 of the rover’s work on Mars (July 24, 2013). The center of the scene is toward the southwest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Analysis of pulverized portions of the gray colored rocky powder cored from the interior of ‘John Klein’ revealed evidence for phyllosilicates clay minerals that typically form in pH neutral water. These starting findings on the crater floor were unexpected and revealed habitable environmental conditions on Mars – thus fulfilling the primary science goal of the mission.

See herein our context panoramic mosaic from Sol 169 showing the robotic arm touching and investigating the Martian soil and rocks at ‘John Klein’.

And if you take a visit to Washington, DC, you can see our panorama (assembled by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo) on permanent display at a newly installed Solar System exhibit at the US National Mall in front of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum- details here.

A mosaic by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, assembled by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo is now part of the permanent Solar System Exhibit outside the National Air and Space Museum on the US National Mall in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy Ken Kremer.
A mosaic by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, assembled by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo is now part of the permanent Solar System Exhibit outside the National Air and Space Museum on the US National Mall in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy NCESSE.

“We have found a habitable environment [at John Klein] which is so benign and supportive of life that probably if this water was around, and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it,” says Grotzinger, summing up the mission.

Curiosity captured unique view of Martian moon Phobos & Diemos together on Sol 351 (Aug 1, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS, contrast enhanced by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer
Curiosity captured unique and rare view of tiny Martian moons Phobos & Deimos together on Sol 351 (Aug 1, 2013). Look close and see craters on pockmarked Phobos. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS, contrast enhanced by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer
On the long road to Mount Sharp, Curiosity will make occasional stops for science.

This past week she captured rare sky watching images of the diminutive Martian moons – Phobos and Deimos – together!

Meanwhile, Curiosity’s 10 year old sister rover Opportunity Is trundling merrily along and will arrive shortly at her own mountain climbing goal on the opposite of Mars.

And NASA’s next Mars orbiter called MAVEN (for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), has just arrived intact at the Kennedy Space Center after a cross country trip aboard a USAF C-17.

Technicians at Kennedy will complete final preparations for MAVEN’s blastoff to the Red Planet on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast atop an Atlas V rocket.

On Tuesday, Aug 6, NASA will broadcast a half day of new programming on NASA TV commemorating the landing and discussing the science accomplished so far and what’s coming next.

And stay tuned for more astonishing discoveries during ‘Year 2’ on the Red Planet from our intrepid rover Curiosity – Starting Right Now !

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Route Map From 'Glenelg' to Mount Sharp. This map shows where NASA's Mars rover Curiosity landed in August 2012 at "Bradbury Landing"; the area where the rover worked from November 2012 through May 2013 at and near the "John Klein" target rock in the "Glenelg" area; and the mission's next major destination, the entry point to the base of Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Curiosity Route Map From ‘Glenelg’ to Mount Sharp
This map shows where NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity landed in August 2012 at “Bradbury Landing”; the area where the rover worked from November 2012 through May 2013 at and near the “John Klein” target rock in the “Glenelg” area; and the mission’s next major destination, the entry point to the base of Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

MAVEN Takes Final Test Spins, Flexes Solar Panels Before Imminent Trek to Florida Launch Site

The solar panels on NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter are deployed as part of environmental testing procedures at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, before shipment to Florida on Aug. 2 and blastoff for Mars on Nov. 18, 2013. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Watch cool testing videos below![/caption]

MAVEN is NASA’s next mission to Mars and in less than three days time the spacecraft ships out on a cross country trek for the first step on the long sojourn to the Red Planet.

But before all that, technicians took MAVEN for a final spin test, flexed her solar arrays and bombarded her with sound and a whole lot more.

On Aug. 2, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission) journeys half a continent from its assembly facility at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado to the Kennedy Space Center and the Florida Space Coast aboard a USAF C-17.

Unlike Curiosity, which is roving across a crater floor on the Red Planet at this very moment, MAVEN is an orbiter with a first of its kind mission.

MAVEN is the first spacecraft from Earth devoted to investigating and understanding the upper atmosphere of Mars.

The goal is determining how and why Mars lost virtually all of its atmosphere billions of years ago, what effect that had on the climate and where did the atmosphere and water go?

To ensure that MAVEN is ready for launch, technicians have been busy this year with final tests of the integrated spacecraft.

Check out this video of MAVEN’s Dry Spin Balance Test

The spin balance test was conducted on the unfueled spacecraft on July 9, 2013 at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado.

NASA says the purpose of the test “is to ensure that the fully integrated spacecraft is correctly balanced and to determine the current center of gravity. It allows the engineering team to fine-tune any necessary weight adjustments to precisely fix the center of gravity where they want it, so that it will perform as expected during the cruise to Mars.”

It was the last test to be completed on the integrated spacecraft before its shipment to Florida later this week.

This next video shows deployment tests of the two “gull-wing” solar panels at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Wingtip to wingtip, MAVEN measures 11.43 m (37.5 feet) in length.

In mid May, MAVEN was moved into a Thermal Vacuum Chamber at Lockheed Martin for 19 days of testing.


The TVAC test exposed MAVEN to the utterly harsh temperatures and rigors of space similar to those it will experience during its launch, cruise, and mission at Mars.

MAVEN is slated to blast off atop an Atlas V-401 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 18, 2013. The 2000 pound (900 kg) spacecraft will be housed inside a 4 meter payload fairing.

After a 10 month interplanetary voyage it will join NASA’s armada of four robotic spacecraft when it arrives in Mars orbit in September 2014.

Scientists hope that measurements from MAVEN will help answer critical questions like whether, when and how long the Martian atmosphere was once substantial enough to sustain liquid water on its surface and support life.

“What we’re doing is measuring the composition of the atmosphere as a measure of latitude, longitude, time of day and solar activities,” said Paul Mahaffy, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, and the principal investigator for MAVEN’s mass spectrometer instrument.

“We’re trying to understand over billions of years how the atmosphere has been lost.”

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MAVEN, Cygnus, Antares, LADEE, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

Aug 12: “RockSat-X Suborbital Launch, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM

Oct 3: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

NASA’s MAVEN orbiter is due to blast off for Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 atop an Atlas V rocket similar to this which launched Curiosity from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 26, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN orbiter is due to blast off for Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 atop an Atlas V rocket similar to this which launched Curiosity from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 26, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Send Your Name and a Haiku Poem to Mars on a Solar Winged MAVEN

Do you want to go to Mars?

Well here’s your chance to get connected for a double barreled dose of Red Planet adventure courtesy of MAVEN – NASA’s next ‘Mission to Mars’ which is due to liftoff this November from the Florida Space Coast.

For a limited time only, NASA is offering the general public two cool ways to get involved and ‘Go to Mars’ aboard a DVD flying on the solar winged MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiter.

You can send your name and a short poetic message to Mars via the ‘Going to Mars’ campaign being managed by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (CU/LASP).

“Anybody on planet Earth is welcome to participate!” says NASA.

“The Going to Mars campaign offers people worldwide a way to make a personal connection to space, space exploration, and science in general, and share in our excitement about the MAVEN mission,” said Stephanie Renfrow, lead for the MAVEN Education and Public Outreach program at CU/LASP.

Signing up to send your name is easy. Simply click on the MAVEN mission website – here.

The MAVEN missions ‘Going to Mars’ campaign invites submissions from the public; artwork, messages, and names will be included on a special DVD. The DVD will be adhered to the MAVEN spacecraft and launched into orbit around Mars. (Courtesy Lockheed Martin)
The MAVEN missions ‘Going to Mars’ campaign invites submissions from the public; artwork, messages, and names will be included on a special DVD. The DVD will be adhered to the MAVEN spacecraft and launched into orbit around Mars. (Courtesy Lockheed Martin)

Everyone who submits their name will be included on a DVD that will be attached to the winged orbiter. And you can print out a beautiful certificate of participation emblazoned with your name!

Over 1 million folks signed up to send their names to Mars with NASA’s Curiosity rover. So they are all riding along as Curiosity continues making ground breaking science discoveries and already found habitats that could support potential Martian microbes.

Writing the haiku poem will require thought, inspiration and creativity and involves a public contest – because only 3 poems will be selected and sent to Mars. The public will vote for the three winning entries.

Haiku’s are three line poems. The rules state that “the first and last lines must have exactly five syllables each and the middle line must have exactly seven syllables. All messages must be original and not plagiarized in any way.”

The complete contest rules are found at the mission website – here:

This is a simple way for kids and adults alike to participate in humanity’s exploration of the Red Planet. And it’s also a great STEM activity for educators and school kids of all ages before this year’s school season comes to a close.

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“This new campaign is a great opportunity to reach the next generation of explorers and excite them about science, technology, engineering and math,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from CU/LASP. “I look forward to sharing our science with the worldwide community as MAVEN begins to piece together what happened to the Red Planet’s atmosphere.”

MAVEN is slated to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Florida on Nov. 18, 2013. It will join NASA’s armada of four robotic spacecraft when it arrives at Mars during 2014.

MAVEN is the first spacecraft devoted to exploring and understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. The spacecraft will investigate how the loss of Mars’ atmosphere to space determined the history of water on the surface.

But don’t dawdle- the deadline for submissions is July 1.

So, sign up to ‘Go to Mars’ – and do it NOW!

Juice up your inner poet and post your ‘Haiku’ here – if you dare

Ken Kremer

More Evidence That Mars Lost Its Atmosphere

Although today Mars’ atmosphere is sparse and thin — barely 1% the density of Earth’s at sea level — scientists don’t believe that was always the case. The Red Planet likely had a much denser atmosphere similar to ours, long, long ago. So… what happened to it?

NASA’s Curiosity rover has now found strong evidence that Mars lost much of its atmosphere to space — just as many scientists have suspected. The findings were announced today at the EGU 2013 General Assembly in Vienna.

Curiosity's SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Curiosity’s SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity’s microwave oven-sized Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere.

Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.

“We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars,” said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan.

SAM found that the Martian atmosphere has about four times as much of a lighter stable isotope (argon-36) compared to a heavier one (argon-38). This ratio is much lower than the Solar System’s original ratio, as estimated from measurements of the Sun and Jupiter.

The argon isotope fractionation provides clear evidence of the loss of atmosphere from Mars. (NASA/JPL)
The argon isotope fractionation provides clear evidence of the loss of atmosphere from Mars. (NASA/JPL)

This also removes previous uncertainty about the ratio in the Martian atmosphere in measurements from NASA’s Viking project in 1976, as well as from small volumes of argon extracted from Martian meteorites retrieved here on Earth.

These findings point to a process that favored loss of the lighter isotope over the heavier one, likely through gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere. This appears to be in line with a previously-suggested process called sputtering, by which atoms are knocked out of the upper atmosphere by energetic particles in the solar wind.

The solar wind may have helped strip Mars of its atmosphere over the course of many hundreds of millions of years (NASA)
The solar wind may have helped strip Mars of its atmosphere over the course of many hundreds of millions of years (NASA)

Lacking a strong magnetic field, Mars’ atmosphere would have been extremely susceptible to atmospheric erosion by sputtering billions of years ago, when the solar wind was an estimated 300 times the density it is today.

These findings by Curiosity and SAM will undoubtedly support those made by NASA’s upcoming MAVEN mission, which will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space. Scheduled to launch in November, MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Find out more about MAVEN and how Mars may have lost its atmosphere in the video below, and follow the most recent discoveries of the MSL mission here.

Source: NASA/JPL

MAVEN’s Magnetometer Will Look Back in Time

The next mission to the Red Planet, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) will be the first spacecraft ever to make direct measurements of the Martian atmosphere. MAVEN will carry eight science instruments, including a magnetometer that will investigate what remains of Mars’ magnetic “shield,” and will, in essence, help to look back in time at what may have happened to a planet once thought to have an abundance of liquid water but is now a frozen desert. The magnetometer will play a key role in studying the planet’s atmosphere and interactions with solar wind, helping answer the question of why Mars lost much of its atmosphere.

“The magnetometer helps us see where the atmosphere is protected by mini-magnetospheres and where it’s open to solar wind,” said Jack Connerney, a co-investigator for the mission. “We can study the solar wind impact and how efficient it is at stripping the atmosphere.”


By measuring sections of the planet’s magnetic field, the magnetometer could help scientists create a bigger picture of the planet’s overall atmosphere.

MAVEN is the first mission to Mars specifically designed to help scientists understand the past – and also the ongoing — escape of CO2 and other gases into space. MAVEN will orbit Mars for at least one Earth-year, about a half of a Martian year. MAVEN will provide information on how and how fast atmospheric gases are being lost to space today, and infer from those detailed studies what happened in the past.

Studying how the Martian atmosphere was lost to space can reveal clues about the impact that change had on the Martian climate, geologic, and geochemical conditions over time, all of which are important in understanding whether Mars had an environment able to support life.

MAVEN is scheduled to launch in 2013, with a launch window from Nov. 18 to Dec 7, 2013. Mars Orbit Insertion will be in mid-September2014.

Find out more about MAVEN at the mission website.

So, You Want to Build a Satellite?

A light-hearted look from the upcoming MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission to Mars of what it takes to create a satellite mission for NASA — even before you ever start building it. And the MAVEN folks should know — NASA has just given the mission a green light to continue the development of the mission, which will investigate the mystery of how Mars lost much of its atmosphere. The approval to proceed followed a review at NASA Headquarters of the detailed plans, instrument suite, budget, and risk factor analysis for the spacecraft. You can see how that all works, (presumably problem free) in this witty little video.
Continue reading “So, You Want to Build a Satellite?”