India’s 1st Mars Mission Celebrates 100 Days and 100 Million Kilometers from Mars Orbit Insertion Firing – Cruising Right behind NASA’s MAVEN

India’s inaugural voyager to the Red Planet, the Mars Orbiter Mission or MOM, has just celebrated 100 days and 100 million kilometers out from Mars on June 16, until the crucial Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) engine firing that will culminate in a historic rendezvous on September 24, 2014.

MOM is cruising right behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which celebrated 100 days out from Mars on Friday the 13th of June. MAVEN arrives about 48 hours ahead of MOM on September 21, 2014.

After streaking through space for some ten and a half months, the 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) MOM probe will fire its 440 Newton liquid fueled main engine to brake into orbit around the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 – where she will study the atmosphere and sniff for signals of methane.

Working together, MOM and MAVEN will revolutionize our understanding of Mars atmosphere, dramatic climatic history and potential for habitability.

The do or die MOI burn on September 24, 2014 places MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.

Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO
Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO

MOM was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) at a cost of $69 Million and marks India’s maiden foray into interplanetary flight.

But before reaching Mars, mission navigators must keep the craft meticulously on course on its heliocentric trajectory from Earth to Mars through a series of in flight Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TMSs).

The second TCM was just successfully performed on June 11 by firing the spacecraft’s 22 Newton thrusters for a duration of 16 seconds. TCM-1 was conducted on December 11, 2013 by firing the 22 Newton Thrusters for 40.5 seconds. Two additional TCM firings are planned in August and September 2014.

To date the probe has flown about 70% of the way to Mars, traveling about 466 million kilometers out of a total of 680 million kilometers (400 million miles) overall, with about 95 days to go. One way radio signals to Earth take approximately 340 seconds.

MOM reached the halfway mark to Mars on April 9, 2014.

MOM's first Trajectory Correction Manoeuver in Baiju Raj's imagination.
MOM conducts Trajectory Correction Manoeuver (TCM) in Baiju Raj’s imagination.

ISRO reports the spacecraft and its five science instruments are healthy. It is being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN).

MOM’s journey began with a picture perfect blast off on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

A series of six subsequent orbit raising maneuvers ultimately culminated with a liquid fueled main engine firing on Dec. 1, 2013 for the Trans Mars Injection(TMI) maneuver that successfully placed MOM on a heliocentric elliptical trajectory to the Red Planet.

If all goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.

Together, MOM and MAVEN will fortify Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars. They join 3 current orbiters from NASA and ESA as well as NASA’s pair of sister surface rovers Curiosity and Opportunity.

Although they were developed independently and have different suites of scientific instruments, the MAVEN and MOM science teams will “work together” to unlock the secrets of Mars atmosphere and climate history, MAVEN’s top scientist told Universe Today.

“We have had some discussions with their science team, and there are some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky said.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MOM, MAVEN, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

MAVEN - NASA’s next Red Planet orbiter - marks 100 days from Mars orbit insertion (MOI) engine firing on Friday the 13th of June 2014. MAVEN arrives at Mars on September 21, 2014.  Credit: NASA
MAVEN – NASA’s next Red Planet orbiter – marks 100 days from Mars orbit insertion (MOI) engine firing on Friday the 13th of June 2014. MAVEN arrives at Mars on September 21, 2014. Credit: NASA

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Learn more about NASA’s Mars missions, upcoming sounding rocket and Orbital Sciences Antares ISS launch from NASA Wallops, VA in July and more about SpaceX, Boeing and commercial space and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations.

June 25: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Launch (July 10) and Suborbital Rocket Launch (June 26) from Virginia” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Opportunity rover Spied atop Martian Mountain Ridge from Orbit – Views from Above and Below

Opportunity Rover on ‘Murray Ridge’ Seen From Orbit on Valentine’s Day 2014
The telescopic High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this view of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Feb. 14, 2014 by the summit of Solander Point. The red arrow points to Opportunity at the center of the image. Blue arrows point to tracks left by the rover since it entered the area seen here, in October 2013. The scene covers a patch of ground about one-quarter mile (about 400 meters) wide. North is toward the top. The location is the “Murray Ridge” section of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
See below corresponding surface view snapped by Opportunity from this location[/caption]

NASA’s renowned Mars rover Opportunity has been spied anew in a fabulous new photo captured just days ago by NASA’s ‘Spy in the Sky’ orbiter circling overhead the Red Planet. See Opportunity from above and below – from today’s location. See orbital view above – just released today.

The highly detailed image was freshly taken on Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day 2014) by the telescopic High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as the decade old Opportunity was investigating the tasty alien terrain on ‘Murray Ridge’ – nearby the celebrated ‘jelly doughnut’ rock by the summit of Solander Point. See surface views below.

The fabulous orbital image shows not only rover Opportunity at her location today, but also the breathtaking landscape around the robots current location as well as some of the wheel tracks created by the Martian mountaineer as she climbed from the plains below up to near the peak of Solander Point.

The scene is narrowly focused on a spot barely one-quarter mile (400 meters) wide.

Murray Ridge and Solander Point lie at the western rim of a vast crater named Endeavour that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

Here is the corresponding Martian surface view snapped by Opportunity on Feb. 16, 2014 (looking back and down to Endeavour crater), while she’s being imaged from Mars orbit on Feb. 14, 2014:

NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014.  This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point.  Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water.  Assembled from Sol 3579 colorized navcam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014. This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point. Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water. Assembled from Sol 3579 colorized navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Endeavour is an impact scar created billions of years ago. See our 10 Year Opportunity traverse map below.

And believe it or not, that infamous ‘jelly doughnut’ rock was actually the impetus for this new imaging campaign by NASA’s MRO Martian ‘Spysat.’

To help solve the mystery of the origin of the shiny 1.5 inches wide (4 centimeters) ‘jelly doughnut’ rock, dubbed ‘Pinnacle Island’, the science team decided to enlist the unparalleled capabilities of the HiRISE camera and imaging team in pursuit of answers.

Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!  NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

‘Pinnacle Island’ had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in a set of before/after pictures taken by Opportunity’s cameras on Jan, 8, 2014 (Sol 3540), whereas that exact same spot had been vacant of debris in photos taken barely 4 days earlier. And the rover hadn’t budged a single millimeter.

So the HiRISE research team was called in to plan a new high resolution observation of the ‘Murray Ridge’ area and gather clues about the rocky riddle.

The purpose was to “check the remote possibility that a fresh impact by an object from space might have excavated a crater near Opportunity and thrown this rock to its new location”- now known as Pinnacle Island, said NASA in a statement.

Well, no fresh crater impacting site was found in the new image.

“We see no obvious signs of a very recent crater in our image, but a careful comparison to prior images might reveal subtle changes,” wrote HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen in a description today.

Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line.  Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL/
Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line. Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL/

In the meantime, as I reported here a few days ago the mystery was solved at last by the rover team after Opportunity drove a short distance away from the ‘jelly doughnut’ rock and snapped some ‘look back’ photographs to document the ‘mysterious scene’ for further scrutiny.

It turns out that the six wheeled Opportunity unknowingly ‘created’ the mystery herself when she drove over a larger rock, crushing and breaking it apart with the force from the wheels and her hefty 400 pound (185 kg) mass.

“Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance,” said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, in a NASA statement.

“Murray Ridge” and the Solander Point mountaintop are of great scientific interest because the region is riven with outcrops of minerals, including clay minerals, that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – potentially a scientific goldmine.

Today, Feb 19, marks Opportunity’s 3582nd Sol or Martian Day roving Mars. She is healthy with plenty of power.

So far she has snapped over 188,800 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Her total odometry stands at over 24.07 miles (38.73 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!  NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Read more about sister Spirit – here and here.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp and just crested over the Dingo Gap sand dune. She celebrated 500 Sols on Mars on New Years Day 2014.

And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify Earth’s invasion fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

Finally, China’s Yutu rover has awoken for her 3rd workday on the Moon.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover, MOM and continuing planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s rover Opportunity shows the location of a rock called "Pinnacle Island" before it appeared in front of the rover in early January 2014.  Arrow at lower left. This image was taken during Sol 3567 of Opportunity's work on Mars (Feb. 4, 2014).  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
This image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s rover Opportunity shows the location of a rock called “Pinnacle Island” before it appeared in front of the rover in early January 2014. Arrow at lower left. This image was taken during Sol 3567 of Opportunity’s work on Mars (Feb. 4, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3560 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spend 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3560 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spend 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014.  This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point.  Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water.  Assembled from Sol 3579 navcam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover was imaged here from Mars orbit by MRO HiRISE camera on Feb. 14, 2014. This mosaic shows Opportunity’s view today while looking back to vast Endeavour crater from atop Murray Ridge by summit of Solander Point. Opportunity captured this photomosaic view on Feb. 16, 2014 (Sol 3579) from the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she is investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water. Assembled from Sol 3579 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

100 Days of MOM – India’s 1st Mars Mission Streaking to Red Planet Rendezvous

India’s maiden Mars explorer, the Mars Orbiter Mission or MOM, celebrated 100 days speeding through space this past week, racing outwards on its historic journey to the Red Planet.

After streaking through space for some ten and a half months, the 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) MOM probe will rendezvous with the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 – where she will study the atmosphere and sniff for signals of methane.

Feb. 12, 2014 marked ‘100 Days of MOM’ since the picture perfect blast off on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

A series of six subsequent orbit raising maneuvers ultimately culminated with the liquid fueled main engine firing on Dec. 1, 2013 for the Trans Mars Injection(TMI) maneuver that successfully placed MOM on a heliocentric elliptical trajectory to the Red Planet.

The TMI, affectionately dubbed ‘The mother of all slingshots’ finally provided the craft with sufficient thrust to achieve escape velocity and blast free of the Earth’s sphere of influence forever and begin her nearly yearlong momentous voyage to Mars.

The first of four in flight Trajectory Correction Maneuvers, TCM-1, was conducted by firing the 22 Newton Thrusters for a duration of 40.5 seconds on December 11, 2013. A trio of additional TCM firings are planned around April 2014, August 2014 and September 2014.

Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO
Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO

MOM was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) at a cost of $69 Million and marks India’s inaugural foray into interplanetary flight.

During the first 100 days, the probe has traveled about 190 million kilometers and has a little less than 500 million kilometers and 205 days to go during her journey of some 680 million kilometers (400 million miles) overall.

A health check on February 6, 2014 confirmed that the 15 kg (33 lb) science payload comprising five Indian built instruments was turned “ON” and is operating well.

MOM is currently some 16 million km distant from Earth and one way radio signals take approximately 55 seconds.

“The round trip time is almost 2 minutes for a communication signal to go to MOM and come back, about the same time mom takes to make noodles!” ISRO noted humorously in a Facebook mission posting.

“Keep going MOM!”

MOM's first Trajectory Correction Manoeuver in Baiju Raj's imagination.
MOM’s first Trajectory Correction Manoeuver in Baiju Raj’s imagination.

Following the ten month cruise through space the orbital insertion engine will fire for the do or die burn on September 24, 2014 placing MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.

MOM is not alone in the frigid vacuum of space. She is joined by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter in pursuit of Mars.

MOM will reach Mars vicinity just two days after the arrival MAVEN on Sept. 22, 2014.

To date MAVEN has flown over 137 million miles (221 million km) of its total 442 million miles (712 million km) path to Mars.

If all continues to goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.

Together, MOM and MAVEN will fortify Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars. They join 3 current orbiters from NASA and ESA as well as NASA’s pair of sister surface roversCuriosity and Opportunity.

Although they were developed independently and have different suites of scientific instruments, the MAVEN and MOM science teams will “work together” to unlock the secrets of Mars atmosphere and climate history, MAVEN’s top scientist told Universe Today.

“We have had some discussions with their science team, and there are some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky said.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MOM, Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Science Instruments Perfect as NASA’s MAVEN Orbiter Speeds to Red Planet

NASA’s newest Mars orbiter, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe passed a significant interplanetary milestone with the announcement that all of the craft’s science instruments were activated and passed their initial checkout.

“I’m delighted that we’re operating in space so well,” Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s Principal Investigator told Universe Today.

“We’re on our way!”

Earth is now clearly in the rear view mirror and fading with each passing day.

The $671 Million MAVEN spacecraft’s goal is to study Mars upper atmosphere to explore how the Red Planet may have lost its atmosphere and water over billions of years.

The MAVEN probe carries nine sensors in three instrument suites to study why and exactly when did Mars undergo the radical climatic transformation.

“I’m really looking forward to getting to Mars and starting our science!” Jakosky told me.

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MAVEN aims to discover the history of water and habitability stretching back over billions of years on Mars.

It will measure current rates of atmospheric loss to determine how and when Mars lost its atmosphere and water.

MAVEN thundered to space nearly three months ago on Nov. 18, 2013 following a flawless blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket and thus began a 10 month interplanetary voyage from Earth to the Red Planet.

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“I can’t tell you how exciting this is to be now only seven and a half months from getting to Mars,” Jakosky gushed.

Further instrument checkouts are planned as the orbiter streaks closer to Mars including tesating to the Electra communications package that will serve as a critical relay for NASA’s surface rovers including Curiosity, Opportunity and the planned 2020 rover.

“The second Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM-2) is scheduled for Feb. 26,” said Jakosky.

MAVEN’s trajectory from Earth to Mars. MAVEN arrives at Mars on Sept. 22, 2014 some ten months after launch on Nov. 18, 2013.  Credit: NASA
MAVEN’s trajectory from Earth to Mars. MAVEN arrives at Mars on Sept. 22, 2014 some ten months after launch on Nov. 18, 2013. Credit: NASA

TCM thruster firings insure that the spacecraft is exactly on course for the do or die orbital insertion maneuver when MAVEN arrives on September 22, 2014.

To date MAVEN has flown over 137 million miles (221 million km) of its total 442 million miles (712 million km) path to Mars. It is speeding around the sun at 69,480 mph or 31.06 kps.

“The performance of the spacecraft and instruments to date bears out all the hard work the team put into testing the system while it was on the ground,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, in a statement.

“The way that the operations team has performed while flying the system has been nothing short of outstanding. We have big events ahead of us before we can claim success but I am very pleased with how things have gone thus far.”

MAVEN is not alone in the frigid vacuum of space. She is joined by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) orbiter in pursuit of Mars to fortify Earth’s invasion fleet.

MOM will reach Mars vicinity on Sept. 24, just two days after the arrival MAVEN on Sept. 22, 2014.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MAVEN, Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Opportunity Rover Starts 2nd Decade by Spectacular Mountain Summit and Mineral Goldmine

Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
See full mosaic with Dust Devil and 10 Year Route Map – below
Story updated[/caption]

NASA’s long-lived Opportunity Mars rover has accomplished what absolutely no one expected.

Opportunity is about to embark on her 2nd decade exploring the Red Planet since her nail biting touchdown in 2004.

And to top that off she is marking that miraculous milestone at a spectacular outlook by the summit of the first mountain she has ever scaled!

See our Solander Point summit mosaic showing the robots current panoramic view – in essence this is what her eyes see today; above and below.

And that mountaintop is riven with outcrops of minerals that likely formed in flowing liquid neutral water conducive to life – potentially a scientific goldmine.

“We expect we will reach some of the oldest rocks we have seen with this rover — a glimpse back into the ancient past of Mars,” says the rover principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

“It’s like starting a whole new mission.”

Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line.  Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL/
Back on sol 3365 we took this image of Solander Point as we approached it. Here I have plotted the subsequent route that Opportunity has taken in climbing up the ridge. The outcrop shown I the images below are near the end of the yellow traverse line. Caption and mosaic by Larry Crumpler/NASA/JPL

Opportunity is nearly at the peak of Solander Point, an eroded segment on the western flank of vast Endeavour Crater, that spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

The six wheeled rover reached the top section of Solander on Sol 3512, just before Christmas in December 2013. It’s situated nearly 40 meters (130 feet) above the crater plains.

There she began inspecting and analyzing an area of exposed outcrops called ‘Cape Darby’ that scientists believe holds caches of clay minerals which form in drinkable water and would constitute a habitable zone.

Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!  NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Opportunity by Solander Point peak – 2nd Mars Decade Starts here!
NASA’s Opportunity rover captured this panoramic mosaic on Dec. 10, 2013 (Sol 3512) near the summit of “Solander Point” on the western rim of vast Endeavour Crater where she starts Decade 2 on the Red Planet. She is currently investigating summit outcrops of potential clay minerals formed in liquid water on her 1st mountain climbing adventure. See wheel tracks at center and dust devil at right. Assembled from Sol 3512 navcam raw images.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

The science team directed Opportunity to ‘Cape Darby’ based on predictions from spectral observations collected from the CRISM spectrometer aboard one of NASA’s spacecraft circling overhead the Red Planet – the powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Opportunity is using all its cameras and instruments as well as those on the robotic arm to inspect the outcrop area, including the rock abrasion tool, spectrometers and microscopic imager.

As reported earlier this week, the rover is also investigating a mysterious rock that suddenly appeared in images nearby the robot. ‘Pinnacle Island’ rock may have been flung up by the wheels. No one knows for sure – yet.

Mosaic of Opportunity and mysterious Pinnacle Island rock by Solander Point peak.  Mysterious Pinnacle Island rock suddenly appeared out of nowhere in images snapped on Sol 3540.  It was absent in earlier images on Sol 3528.  This mosaic shows the rock nearby the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover.  Assembled from Sol 3528 and 3540 pancam raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Mosaic of Opportunity and mysterious Pinnacle Island rock by Solander Point peak. Mysterious Pinnacle Island rock suddenly appeared out of nowhere in images snapped on Sol 3540. It was absent in earlier images on Sol 3528. This mosaic shows the rock nearby the solar panels of NASA’s Opportunity rover. Assembled from Sol 3528 and 3540 pancam raw images. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Solander Point is the first mountain she has ever climbed along her epic 10 year journey across the plains of Meridiani. Heretofore she toured a string of Martian craters. See 10 Years Route map below.

In mid-2013, the scientists used similar orbital observations to find a rock called “Esperance’ – which was loaded with clay minerals and located along another Endeavour crater rim segment called Cape York.

Squyres ranked “Esperance” as one of the “Top 5 discoveries of the mission.”

The team hopes for similar mineralogical discoveries at Solander.

The northward-facing slopes at Solander also afford another major benefit to Opportunity. They will tilt the rover’s solar panels toward the sun in the southern-hemisphere winter sky thereby providing an important energy boost.

The power boost will enable continued mobile operations through the upcoming frigidly harsh winter- her 6th since landing 10 years ago.

Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point at Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has ascended the mountain looking for clues indicative of a Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

So Opportunity will be moving from outcrop to outcrop around the summit during the Martian winter. Daily sunshine reaches a minimum in February 2014.

As of Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, or Sol 3547, the solar array energy production on the rover is 353 watt-hours, compared to 900 watt-hours after landing. But that is sufficient to keep moving and actively conduct research throughout the winter at the mountaintop.

Opportunity’s long and winding road on the Red Planet began when she safely settled upon the alien world on 24 January 2004, following a harrowing plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere and an airbag assisted, bouncing ball landing.

She arrived barely 3 weeks after her twin sister, Spirit on 3 January 2004.

Today marks Opportunity’s 3551st Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – for what was expected to be only a 90 Sol mission.

So far she has snapped over 188,100 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Her total odometry stands at over 24.07 miles (38.73 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

Read more about sister Spirit – here and here.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp. She celebrated 500 Sols on Mars on New Years Day 2014.

And a pair of new orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet to fortify the Terran fleet- NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

Finally, China’s Yutu rover is trundling across pitted moonscapes.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Opportunity, Curiosity, Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point  See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this look-back mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater.  Moasic assembled from navcam raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Opportunity starts scaling Solander Point
See the tilted terrain and rover tracks in this look-back mosaic view from Solander Point peering across the vast expanse of huge Endeavour Crater. Moasic assembled from navcam raw images taken on Sol 3431 (Sept.18, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014.  This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3540 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by f Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Rover will spnd 6th winter here atop Solander.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance - indicative of a habitable zone.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014 – A Decade on Mars
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3552 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by f Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Rover will spnd 6th winter here atop Solander. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Happy New Year’s Day 2014 from Mars – Curiosity Celebrates 500 Sols Spying Towering Mount Sharp Destination

Curiosity Celebrates 500 Sols on Mars on Jan. 1, 2014
NASA’s Curiosity rover snaps fabulous new mosaic spying towering Mount Sharp destination looming dead ahead with her high resolution color cameras, in this cropped view. See full mosaic below. Imagery assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494).
Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

Today, New Year’s Day 2014, NASA’s Curiosity mega rover celebrates a huge mission milestone – her 500th Martian Day on the Red Planet since the death defying touchdown of August 2012.

“500 Sols of Mars: While Earth celebrates #NewYear2014, midnight on Mars mark my 500th day of operations,” she tweeted today.

And Curiosity marked the grand occasion by snapping a fabulous new panorama spying towering Mount Sharp – looming dead ahead in her high resolution color cameras.

You can take in the magnificent Martian view Curiosity sees today – via our newly assembled mosaic of humongous Mount Sharp rising 5.5 kilometers (3.4 mi) into the Red Planets sky; see above and below.

Ascending mysterious Mount Sharp – which dominates the Gale Crater landing site – is the ultimate reason for Curiosity’s being.

Curiosity marks 500 Sols on Mars on New Year’s Day Jan. 1, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL
Curiosity marks 500 Sols on Mars on New Year’s Day Jan. 1, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s science and engineering teams dispatched the state-of-the-art robot there because they believe the lower sedimentary layers hold the clues to the time period when Mars was habitable eons ago and they possess the required chemical ingredients necessary to sustain microbial life.

But first she needs to reach the mountains foothills.

So, just like some Earthlings, Curiosity also set a New Year’s resolution she’d like to share with you all – just tweeted all the way from the Red Planet.

“Goals for 2014: Finish driving to Mars’ Mount Sharp & do all the science I can.”

Curiosity Celebrates 500 Sols on Mars on Jan. 1, 2014.  NASA’s Curiosity rover snaps fabulous new mosaic spying towering Mount Sharp destination looming dead ahead with her high resolution color cameras. Imagery assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494).   Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Curiosity Celebrates 500 Sols on Mars on Jan. 1, 2014. NASA’s Curiosity rover snaps fabulous new mosaic spying towering Mount Sharp destination looming dead ahead with her high resolution color cameras. Imagery assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494). Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Part of those goals involve shifting the missions focus to include the search for organic molecules – the building blocks of life as we know it – which may be preserved in the sedimentary rock layers.

“Really what we’re doing is turning the corner from a mission that is dedicated to the search for habitable environments to a mission that is now dedicated to the search for that subset of habitable environments which also preserves organic carbon,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said recently at the Dec. 2013 annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The 1 ton behemoth is in the midst of an epic trek to destination Mount Sharp, roving across 10 kilometers (6 mi.) of the rather rocky crater floor of her landing site inside Gale Crater.

This illustration depicts a concept for the possible extent of an ancient lake inside Gale Crater. The existence of a lake there billions of years ago was confirmed by Curiosity from examination of mudstone in the crater's Yellowknife Bay area.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This illustration depicts a concept for the possible extent of an ancient lake inside Gale Crater. The existence of a lake there billions of years ago was confirmed by Curiosity from examination of mudstone in the crater’s Yellowknife Bay area. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

But the alien crater floor strewn with a plethora of sharp edged rocks is ripping significant sized holes and causing numerous dents in several of the rovers six big aluminum wheels – as outlined in my prior report; here.

Photomosaic shows new holes and tears in several of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over sharp edged Martian rocks on the months long trek to Mount Sharp. Raw images taken by the MAHLI camera on Curiosity’s arm on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490) were assembled to show some recent damage to several of its six wheels – most noticeably the two here in middle and front. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com See below complete 6 wheel mosaic and further wheel mosaics for comparison
Photomosaic shows new holes and tears in several of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over sharp edged Martian rocks on the months long trek to Mount Sharp. Raw images taken by the MAHLI camera on Curiosity’s arm on Dec. 22, 2013 (Sol 490) were assembled to show some recent damage to several of its six wheels – most noticeably the two here in middle and front. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“Routes to future destinations for the mission may be charted to lessen the amount of travel over such rough terrain, compared to smoother ground nearby,” says NASA.

So far Curiosity’s odometer stands at 4.6 kilometers, following a post Christmas drive on Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494) after 16 months roving the Red Planet.

Curiosity’s handlers will be diligently watching the wear and tear on the 20 inch diameter wheels. She needs to rove along a smoother path forward to minimize wheel damage by sharp rocks.

Here’s our latest wheel mosaic from Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494) showing a several centimeter wide puncture in the left front wheel, which seems to have suffered the most damage.

The Mount Sharp and wheel mosaics were assembled by the imaging team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Up close view of puncture in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494) Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer -kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Up close view of puncture in one of rover Curiosity’s six wheels caused by recent driving over rough Martian rocks. Mosaic assembled from Mastcam raw images taken on Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494) Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer -kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

“Taking stock this holiday season. I’m planning smoother paths for the new year,” Curiosity tweeted.

The team hopes the intrepid robot arrives at the base of Mount Sharp around the middle of this new year 2014, if all goes well.

Shortly thereafter the robot begins a new phase with the dramatic ascent up the chosen entryway which the team dubs the ‘Murray Buttes’ – fittingly named in honor of Bruce Murray, a Caltech planetary geologist, who worked on science teams of NASA’s earliest missions to Mars in the 1960s and ’70s.

The rocky road ahead towards the base of Mount Sharp and the Murray Buttes entry point is shown in this mosaic from Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494).  Curiosity needs to rove along a smoother path forward to minimize wheel damage by sharp rocks.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
The rocky road ahead towards the base of Mount Sharp and the Murray Buttes entry point is shown in this mosaic from Dec. 26, 2013 (Sol 494). Curiosity needs to rove along a smoother path forward to minimize wheel damage by sharp rocks. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Murray also was the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1976 to 1982 and co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. He passed away on Aug. 29, 2013.

“Bruce Murray contributed both scientific insight and leadership that laid the groundwork for interplanetary missions such as robotic missions to Mars, including the Mars rovers, part of America’s inspirational accomplishments. It is fitting that the rover teams have chosen his name for significant landmarks on their expeditions,” said NASA Mars Exploration Program Manager Fuk Li, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) , Pasadena, Calif.

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary goal of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that could support Martian microbes if they ever existed.

NASA’s rover Curiosity uncovered evidence that an ancient Martian lake had the right chemical ingredients, including clay minerals that could have sustained microbial life forms for long periods of time – and that these habitable conditions persisted on the Red Planet until a more recent epoch than previously thought.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Opportunity rover is ascending Solander Point on the opposite side of Mars.

And a pair of newly launched orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet; NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.

And China’s new Yutu lunar rover and Chang’e-3 lander are napping through the lunar night.

For a great compilation of the top space events in 2013- read this article.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Curiosity, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 7 launch, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Jan 6-8: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 7” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Curiosity Discovers Ancient Mars Lake Could Support Life

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered evidence that an ancient Martian lake had the right chemical ingredients that could have sustained microbial life forms for long periods of time – and that these habitable conditions persisted on the Red Planet until a more recent epoch than previously thought.

Furthermore researchers have developed a novel technique allowing Curiosity to accurately date Martian rocks for the first time ever – rather than having to rely on educated guesses based on counting craters.

All that and more stems from science results just announced by members of the rover science team.

Researchers outlined their remarkable findings in a series of six new scientific papers published today (Dec. 9) in the highly respected journal Science and at talks held today at the Fall 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

The Curiosity team also revealed that an investigation of natural Martian erosion processes could be used to direct the rover to spots with a higher likelihood of holding preserved evidence for the building blocks of past life – if it ever existed.

View of Yellowknife Bay Formation, with Drilling Sites. This mosaic of images from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into the lowest-lying member, called Sheepbed, at targets "John Klein" and "Cumberland." The scene has the Sheepbed mudstone in the foreground and rises up through Gillespie Lake member to the Point Lake outcrop. These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
View of Yellowknife Bay Formation, with Drilling Sites
This mosaic of images from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into the lowest-lying member, called Sheepbed, at targets “John Klein” and “Cumberland.” The scene has the Sheepbed mudstone in the foreground and rises up through Gillespie Lake member to the Point Lake outcrop. These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The ancient fresh water lake at the Yellowknife Bay area inside the Gale Crater landing site explored earlier this year by Curiosity existed for periods spanning perhaps millions to tens of millions of years in length – before eventually evaporating completely after Mars lost its thick atmosphere.

Furthermore the lake may have existed until as recently as 3.7 Billion years ago, much later than researchers expected which means that life had a longer and better chance of gaining a foothold on the Red Planet before it was transformed into its current cold, arid state.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3. The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left.  Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3. The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Researchers also announced that they are shifting the missions focus from searching for habitable environments to searching for organic molecules – the building blocks of all life as we know it.

Why the shift? Because the team believes they have found a way to increase the chance of finding organics preserved in the sedimentary rock layers.

“Really what we’re doing is turning the corner from a mission that is dedicated to the search for habitable environments to a mission that is now dedicated to the search for that subset of habitable environments which also preserves organic carbon,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said at an AGU press conference today.

“That’s the step we need to take as we explore for evidence of life on Mars.”

Earlier this year, Curiosity drilled into a pair of sedimentary Martian mudstone rock outcrops at Yellowknife Bay known as “John Klein” and “Cumberland” – for the first time in history.

Grotzinger said the ancient lake at Yellowknife Bay was likely about 30 miles long and 3 miles wide.

Powdered samples deposited into the rovers miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin – revealed the presence of significant levels of phyllosilicate clay minerals.

These clay minerals form in neutral pH water that is ‘drinkable” and conducive to the formation of life.

“Curiosity discovered that the fine-grained sedimentary rocks preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy,” according to one of the science papers co-authored by Grotzinger.

“This aqueous environment was characterized by neutral pH, low salinity, and variable redox states of both iron and sulfur species.”

The rover has detected key elements required for life including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur nitrogen and phosphorous.

The team is still looking for signatures of organic molecules.

Right now the researchers are driving Curiosity along a 6 mile path to the base of Mount Sharp -the primary mission destination – which they hope to reach sometime in Spring 2014.

But along the way they hope to stop at a spot where wind has eroded the sedimentary rocks just recently enough to expose an area that may still preserve evidence for organic molecules – since it hasn’t been bombarded by destructive cosmic radiation for billions of years.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Chang’e 3, SpaceX, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Dec 10: “Antares ISS Launch from Virginia, Mars and SpaceX Mission Update”, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

India’s First Mars Probe ‘MOM’ Blasts Free of Earth Joining MAVEN in Race to Red Planet

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – India’s first ever Mars probe ‘MOM’ successfully fired its main engine today (Dec. 1), blasting the craft free of the Earth’s sphere of influence forever to begin her nearly yearlong momentous voyage to the Red Planet.

Indian space engineers initiated the 440 Newton liquid fueled engine firing precisely as planned at 00:49 hrs (IST) on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013 during a critical nail-biting burn lasting some 22 minutes.

The Trans Mars Insertion (TMI) firing propelled India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) away from Earth forever and placed the spacecraft on course for a rendezvous with the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 – where it will study the atmosphere and sniff for signals of methane.

Sunday’s Mars insertion burn imparted the vehicle with an incremental velocity of 647.96 meters per second (m/sec) consuming 198 kg of fuel.

Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO
Trans Mars Injection (TMI), carried out on Dec 01, 2013 at 00:49 hrs (IST) has moved the spacecraft in the Mars Transfer Trajectory (MTT). With TMI the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended and the spacecraft is now on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun. Credit: ISRO

The maneuver dubbed ‘The mother of all slingshots’, enabled MOM to finally achieve escape velocity and catapulted the 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) spacecraft on an historic flight streaking towards Mars.

And in a rare but rather delightful coincidence, MOM is not alone on her remarkable Martian sojourn. Following the triumphant engine burn, she now joins NASA’s MAVEN orbiter in a gallant marathon race to the Red Planet.

MOM was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) at a cost of $69 Million and marks India’s inaugural foray into interplanetary flight.

“The Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended,” with this maneuver said ISRO.

MOM is healthy and all systems are functioning normally.

While MOM was cycling Earth, ISRO scientists and engineers activated and tested the probes systems and science payloads.

They also turned the crafts color camera homewards to capture the “First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera,” according to ISRO.

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft currently orbiting Earth prior to upcoming Trans Mars Insertion. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft currently orbiting Earth prior to upcoming Trans Mars Insertion. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

MOM is nicknamed ‘Mangalyaan’ – which in Hindi means ‘Mars craft.’

MOM’s journey bagen with a picture perfect Nov. 5 liftoff atop India’s highly reliable four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C25 from ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota.

The PSLV booster precisely injected MOM into an initial elliptical Earth parking orbit of 247 x 23556 kilometers with an inclination of 19.2 degrees.

PSLV does not have sufficient thrust to send MOM streaking directly to the Red Planet.

Therefore since the flawless launch, the engine has been fired 6 times on November 7, 8, 9, 11, and 16 plus one supplementary maneuver to gradually raise the spacecrafts apogee from 23556 km to 192,874 km.

The most recent orbit raising maneuver occurred on Nov 16, 2013 with a burn time of 243.5 seconds and increased the apogee from 118,642 km to 192,874 km.

Liquid fueled engine fires and successfully propels MOM into Mars Transfer Trajectory on Dec. 1, 2013 and India into interplanetary space !  Credit: ISRO
Liquid fueled engine fires and successfully propels MOM into Mars Transfer Trajectory on Dec. 1, 2013 and India into interplanetary space ! Credit: ISRO

Today’s burn was the final one around Earth and absolutely crucial for setting her on course for Mars.

MOM was the first of two missions dispatched to Mars by Earthlings this November.

Half a world away, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter blasted off on Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida atop an Atlas V booster on a direct path to the Red Planet.

The MOM spacecraft is now on traveling on a heliocentric elliptical trajectory to begin a 300 day long interplanetary voyage of more than 700 Million kilometers (400 Million miles) to the Red Planet.

Along the path to Mars, ISRO plans to conduct a series of Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs) using MOM’s Attitude and Orbit Control System (AOCS) thrusters to precisely navigate the probe to the point required to achieve orbit around the Red Planet

Following the ten month cruise through space the orbital insertion engine will fire for a do or die burn on September 24, 2014 placing MOM into an 377 km x 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.

MOM will reach Mars vicinity just two days after MAVEN’s arrival on Sept. 22, 2014.

If all continues to goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.

Although MOM’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, the probe is equipped with five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including a multi color imager and a methane gas sniffer to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

MOM’s 15 kg (33 lb) science suite comprises:

MCM: the tri color Mars Color Camera images the planet and its two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos

LAP: the Lyman Alpha Photometer measures the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium to understand the planets water loss process

TIS: the Thermal Imaging Spectrometer will map surface composition and mineralogy

MENCA: the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser is a quadrapole mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition

MSM: the Methane Sensor for Mars measures traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.

Scientists will be paying close attention to whether MOM detects any atmospheric methane to compare with measurements from NASA’s Curiosity rover – which found ground level methane to be essentially nonexistent – and Europe’s upcoming 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

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India’s MOM – ‘Mangalyaan’ mission is expected to continue gathering measurements at the Red Planet for at least six months and hopefully much longer.

MAVEN could operate for a decade or longer and is also crucial for relaying images and data collected by NASA’s current and upcoming surface rovers and landers.

Although they were developed independently and have different suites of scientific instruments, the MAVEN and MOM science teams will “work together” to unlock the secrets of Mars atmosphere and climate history, MAVEN’s top scientist told Universe Today.

“We have had some discussions with their science team, and there are some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky said.

Stay tuned here for continuing MOM and MAVEN news and Ken’s MAVEN and SpaceX Falcon 9 launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer

Mother of All Slingshots Set to Hurl India’s MOM Probe to Mars

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – MOM – India’s first ever interplanetary spacecraft – is spending her last day around Mother Earth.

The clock is ticking down relentlessly towards “The mother of all slingshots” – the critical engine firing intended to hurl India’ Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) probe on her ten month long interplanetary cruise to the Red Planet.

Engineers at the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Mission Operations Complex at Bangalore are now just hours away from sending the commands that will ignite MOMs’ liquid fueled main engine for TMI – the Trans Mars Insertion maneuver that will propel MOM away from Earth forever and place the craft on an elliptical trajectory to the Red Planet.

“Performance assessment of all subsystems of the spacecraft has been completed,” reports ISRO.

The do or die 1351 second burn is slated to begin at 00:49 hrs IST tonight – on Dec. 1 Indian local time.

Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mission Operations Complex of ISTRAC, at Bangalore, India. Credit: ISRO
Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mission Operations Complex of ISTRAC, at Bangalore, India. Credit: ISRO

The 440 Newton liquid fueled main engine must fire precisely as planned to inject MOM on target to Mars.

MOM’s picture perfect Nov. 5 liftoff atop India’s highly reliable four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C25 from the ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota, precisely injected the spacecraft into an initial elliptical Earth parking orbit of 247 x 23556 kilometers with an inclination of 19.2 degrees.

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft currently orbiting Earth prior to upcoming Trans Mars Insertion. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft currently orbiting Earth prior to upcoming Trans Mars Insertion. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

Since then the engine has fired 6 times to gradually raise the spacecrafts apogee.

The most recent orbit raising maneuver occurred at 01:27 hrs (IST) on Nov 16, 2013 with a burn time of 243.5 seconds increased the apogee from 118,642 km to 192,874 km.

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Tonight burn is MOM’s final one around Earth and absolutely crucial for setting her on course for Mars.

If all goes well the $69 million MOM spacecraft reaches the vicinity of Mars on 24 September 2014.

MOM was the first of two Earth missions to Mars launched this November.

NASA’s $671 Million MAVEN orbiter launched as scheduled on Nov. 18, from Cape Canaveral, Florida and arrives at Mars on Sept. 22, 2014, about two days before MOM.

Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.

Stay tuned here for continuing MOM and MAVEN news and Ken’s MAVEN and SpaceX Falcon 9 launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Mars Rover Back in Action after Power Glitch

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – NASA’s car sized Curiosity Mars rover has resumed full science operations and driving following a six day long halt to research activities due to concerns about an electrical power system glitch, which have now been resolved.

On Nov. 17, engineers noticed a fluctuation in voltage on Curiosity that caused the robots handlers to stop science activities and driving towards mysterious Mount Sharp while they searched for the root cause of the electrical issue.

NASA says that the voltage change did not impact the rovers safety or health and the team was acting out of an abundance of caution while investigating the situation from millions of miles away back on Earth.

“The vehicle’s electrical system has a “floating bus” design feature to tolerate a range of voltage differences between the vehicle’s chassis — its mechanical frame — and the 32-volt power lines that deliver electricity throughout the rover. This protects the rover from electrical shorts,” NASA said in a statement.

Curiosity’s voltage level had been about 11 volts since landing day and had declined to about 4 volts on Nov. 17. The electrical issue did not trigger the rover to enter a safe-mode status.

Curiosity scans the Martian landscape to the distant rim of Gale Crater landing site on Sol 463, November 2013.  Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Curiosity scans the Martian landscape to the distant rim of Gale Crater landing site on Sol 463, November 2013. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Engineers amassed a list of possible causes for the voltage change while suspending science operations and roving across the Martian crater floor where Curiosity landed nearly a year and a half ago in August 2012.

“We made a list of potential causes, and then determined which we could cross off the list, one by one,” said rover electrical engineer Rob Zimmerman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

NASA says that the likely cause is an internal short stemming from the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) – the rovers nuclear power source.

RTG’s have been commonly used on many NASA missions that also experienced occasional shorts and that had no long term impact or loss of capability on their flights.

“This type of intermittent short has been seen in similar RTGs, including the one on the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn for years. The rover electronics are designed to operate at variable power supply voltages, so this is not a major problem,” says Curiosity team member Ken Herkenhoff of the USGS in a mission update.

The voltage level had returned its normal level of 11 volts on its own by Nov. 23, when the team had decided to resume science operations.

So it is possible that the same type of intermittent voltage change could recur in the future.

Meanwhile the rover has resumed her epic trek to Mount Sharp and is expected to arrive at the base of the mountain sometime in mid-2014.

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 o the Red Planet of billions of years. This mosaic was assembled from 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 o the Red Planet of billions of years. This mosaic was assembled from Mastcam camera images taken on Sol 352 (Aug 2, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

This past weekend, the robot delivered additional portions of powdered rock to the CheMin and SAM labs inside the rover. The sample was collected 6 months ago after drilling into a rock nicknamed “Cumberland” and will supplement prior measurements.

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary science goal of discovering a habitable zone at her landing site.

Scientists expect to broaden the region of Martian habitability once the 1 ton robot begins the ascent of Mount Sharp to investigate the sedimentary layers in the lower reaches of the towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain, that record Mars geologic and climatic history over a time span of billions of years.

Curiosity looks to the base of Mount Sharp and the Murray buttes - her ultimate climbing destination - in this mosaic assembled from of navcam camera images from Sol 465, November 2013.  Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Curiosity looks to the base of Mount Sharp and the Murray buttes – her ultimate climbing destination – in this mosaic assembled from navcam camera images from Sol 465, November 2013. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

And as both of NASA’s rovers Curiosity and Opportunity ascend Martian mountains, they’ll be joined next September 2014 by a pair of new Martian orbiters from the US and India – MAVEN and MOM – that will significantly expand Earth’s invasion force at the Red Planet.

Stay tuned here for continuing Mars rover, MOM and MAVEN news and Ken’s MAVEN and SpaceX Falcon 9 launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer