Curiosity Discovers Mars Rock Like None Before, Sets Drill Campaign

On the eve of the 3rd anniversary since her nail biting touchdown inside Gale Crater, NASA’s car sized Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover has discovered a new type of Martian rock that’s surprisingly rich in silica – and unlike any other targets found before.

Excited by this new science finding on Mars, Curiosity’s handlers are now gearing the robot up for her next full drill campaign today, July 31 (Sol 1060) into a rock target called “Buckskin” – which lies at the base of Mount Sharp, the huge layered mountain that is the primary science target of this Mars rover mission.

“The team selected the “Buckskin” target to drill,” says Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“It’s another exciting day on Mars!”

See the rover at work reaching out with her robotic arm and drilling into Buckskin, as illustrated in our new mosaics of navcam camera images created by the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo (above and below). Also featured at Alive Universe Images – here.

NASA Curiosity rover inspects ‘Buckskin’ rock outcrop on Mars with APXS mineral spectrometer in this hazcam camera raw image taken on July 29, 2015 (Sol 1058), colorized and linearized.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Curiosity rover inspects ‘Buckskin’ rock outcrop on Mars with APXS mineral spectrometer in this hazcam camera raw image taken on July 29, 2015 (Sol 1058), colorized and linearized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

For about the past two months, the six wheeled robot has been driving around and exploring a geological contact zone named “Marias Pass” – an area on lower Mount Sharp, by examining the rocks and outcrops with her suite of state-of-the-art science instruments.

The goal is to provide geologic context for her long term expedition up the mountains sedimentary layers to study the habitability of the Red Planet over eons of time.

Data from Curiosity’s “laser-firing Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), show elevated amounts of silicon and hydrogen, respectively,” in certain local area rocks, according to the team.

Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz.

“High levels of silica could indicate ideal conditions for preserving ancient organic material, if present, so the science team wants to take a closer look.”

Curiosity conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars.   Gale crater rim seen in the distant background, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo  Inset: MAHLI camera up close image of  test drill at “Buckskin” rock target.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars. Gale crater rim seen in the distant background, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Inset: MAHLI camera up close image of test drill at “Buckskin” rock target. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Therefore the team scouted targets suitable for in depth analysis and sample drilling and chose “Buckskin”.

“Buckskin” is located among some high-silica and hydrogen enriched targets at a bright outcrop named “Lion.”

An initial test bore operation was conducted first to confirm whether that it was indeed safe to drill into “Buckskin” and cause no harm to the rover before committing to the entire operation.

The bore hole is about 1.6 cm (0.63 inch) in diameter.

“This test will drill a small hole in the rock to help determine whether it is safe to go ahead with the full hole,” elaborated Ryan Anderson, planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member.

So it was only after the team received back new high resolution imagery last night from the arm-mounted MAHLI camera which confirmed the success of the mini-drill operation, that the “GO” was given for a full depth drill campaign. MAHLI is short for Mars Hand Lens Imager.

“We successfully completed a mini drilling test yesterday (shown in the MAHLI image). That means that today we’re going for the FULL drill hole” Edgar confirmed.

“GO for Drilling.”

So it’s a busy day ahead on the Red Planet, including lots of imaging along the way to document and confirm that the drilling operation proceeds safely and as planned.

“First we’ll acquire MAHLI images of the intended drill site, then we’ll drill, and then we’ll acquire more MAHLI images after drilling,” Edgar explains.

“The plan also includes Navcam imaging of the workspace, and Mastcam imaging of the target and drill bit. In addition to drilling, we’re getting CheMin ready to receive sample in an upcoming plan. Fingers crossed!” Surface observations with the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument are also planned.

If all goes well, the robot will process and pulverize the samples for eventual delivery to the onboard pair of miniaturized chemistry labs located inside her belly – SAM and CheMin. Tiny samples will be fed to the inlet ports on the rover deck through the sieved filters.

A rock outcrop dubbed "Missoula," near Marias Pass on Mars, is seen in this image mosaic taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA's Curiosity rover. Pale mudstone (bottom of outcrop) meets coarser sandstone (top) in this geological contact zone, which has piqued the interest of Mars scientists.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A rock outcrop dubbed “Missoula,” near Marias Pass on Mars, is seen in this image mosaic taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Pale mudstone (bottom of outcrop) meets coarser sandstone (top) in this geological contact zone, which has piqued the interest of Mars scientists. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Meanwhile the team is studying a nearby rock outcrop called “Ch-paa-qn” which means “shining peak” in the native Salish language of northern Montana.”

Anderson says the target is a bright patch on a nearby outcrop. Via active and passive observations with the mast-mounted ChemCam laser and Mastcam multispectral imager, the purpose is to determine if “Ch-paa-qn” is comprised of calcium sulfate like other white veins visible nearby, or perhaps it’s something else entirely.

A rock fragment dubbed "Lamoose" is shown in this picture taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Curiosity rover. Like other nearby rocks in a portion of the "Marias Pass" area of Mt. Sharp, Mars, it has unusually high concentrations of silica. The high silica was first detected in the area by the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) laser spectrometer. This rock was targeted for follow-up study by the MAHLI and the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A rock fragment dubbed “Lamoose” is shown in this picture taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Like other nearby rocks in a portion of the “Marias Pass” area of Mt. Sharp, Mars, it has unusually high concentrations of silica. The high silica was first detected in the area by the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) laser spectrometer. This rock was targeted for follow-up study by the MAHLI and the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Before arriving by the “Lion” outcrop last week, Curiosity was investigating another outcrop area nearby, the high-silica target dubbed “Elk” with the ChemCam instrument, while scouting around the “Marias Pass” area in search of tasty science targets for in-depth analysis.

Sometimes the data subsequently returned and analyzed is so extraordinary, that the team decides on a return trip to a spot previously departed. Such was the case with “Elk” and the rover was commanded to do a U-turn to acquire more precious data.

“One never knows what to expect on Mars, but the Elk target was interesting enough to go back and investigate,” said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Soon, ChemCam will have fired on its 1,000th target. Overall the laser blaster has been fired more than 260,000 times since Curiosity landed inside the nearly 100 mile wide Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, alongside Mount Sharp.

“ChemCam acts like eyes and ears of the rover for nearby objects,” said Wiens.

“Marias Pass” is a geological context zone where two rock types overlap – pale mudstone meets darker sandstone.

The rover spotted a very curious outcrop named “Missoula.”

“We found an outcrop named Missoula where the two rock types came together, but it was quite small and close to the ground. We used the robotic arm to capture a dog’s-eye view with the MAHLI camera, getting our nose right in there,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

White mineral veins, possibly comprised of calcium sulfate, filled the fractures by depositing the mineral from running groundwater.

“Such clues help scientists understand the possible timing of geological events,” says the team.

Read more about Curiosity in an Italian language version of this story at Alive Universe Images – here.

NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet.  Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes.  Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background.  Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Martian Curiosity rover looks backs to 1000 Sols of science and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet. Robot wheel tracks lead back through valley dunes. Gale Crater rim seen in the distant hazy background. Sol 997 (May 28, 2015) navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Featured on APOD on June 13, 2015

As of today, Sol 1060, July 31, 2015, she has taken over 255,000 amazing images.

Curiosity recently celebrated 1000 Sols of exploration on Mars on May 31, 2015 – detailed here with our Sol 1000 mosaic also featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 13, 2015.

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

Ken Kremer

Red Mars, Gray Mars: "Mini-start hole" drill maneuver was successful.  Image of mini start drill hole taken by Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on July 30, 2015, Sol 1059. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Red Mars, Gray Mars: “Mini-start hole” drill maneuver was successful. Image of mini start drill hole taken by Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on July 30, 2015, Sol 1059. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right.   Gale crater rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts test drill at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop on the lower region of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right. Gale crater rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA Selects Mission Science Instruments Searching for Habitability of Jupiter’s Ocean Moon Europa

In a major move forward on a long dreamed of mission to investigate the habitability of the subsurface ocean of Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa, top NASA officials announced today, Tuesday, May 26, the selection of nine science instruments that will fly on the agency’s long awaited planetary science mission to an intriguing world that many scientists suspect could support life.

“We are on our way to Europa,” proclaimed John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, at a media briefing today outlining NASA’s plans for a mission dedicated to launching in the early to mid-2020s. “It’s a mission to inspire.”

“We are trying to answer big questions. Are we alone?”

“The young surface seems to be in contact with an undersea ocean.”

The Europa mission goal is to investigate whether the tantalizing icy Jovian moon, similar in size to Earth’s moon, could harbor conditions suitable for the evolution and sustainability of life in the suspected ocean.

It will be equipped with high resolution cameras, radar and spectrometers, several generations beyond anything before to map the surface in unprecedented detail and determine the moon’s composition and subsurface character. And it will search for subsurface lakes and seek to sample erupting vapor plumes like those occurring today on Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus.

“Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” says Grunsfeld.

“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”

Planetary scientists have long desired a speedy return on Europa, ever since the groundbreaking discoveries of NASA’s Galileo Jupiter orbiter in the 1990s showed that the alien world possessed a substantial and deep subsurface ocean beneath an icy shell that appears to interact with and alter the surface in recent times.

This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter's moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter’s moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA’s Europa mission would blastoff perhaps as soon as 2022, depending on the budget allocation and rocket selection, whose candidates include the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS).

The solar powered probe will go into orbit around Jupiter for a three year mission.

“The mission concept is that it will conduct multiple flyby’s of Europa,” said Jim Green. director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, during the briefing.

“The purpose is to determine if Europa is a habitable place. It shows few craters, a brown gum on the surface and cracks where the subsurface meet the surface. There may be organics and nutrients among the discoloration at the surface.”

Europa is at or near the top of the list for most likely places in our solar system that could support life. Mars is also near the top of the list and currently being explored by a fleet of NASA robotic probes including surface rovers Curiosity and Opportunity.

“Europa is one of those critical areas where we believe that the environment is just perfect for potential development of life,” said Green. “This mission will be that step that helps us understand that environment and hopefully give us an indication of how habitable the environment could be.”

The exact thickness of Europa’s ice shell and extent of its subsurface ocean is not known.

The ice shell thickness has been inferred by some scientists to be perhaps only 5 to 10 kilometers thick based on data from Galileo, the Hubble Space Telescope, a Cassini flyby and other ground and space based observations.

The global ocean might be twice the volume of all of Earth’s water. Research indicates that it is salty, may possess organics, and has a rocky sea floor. Tidal heating from Jupiter could provide the energy for mixing and chemical reactions, supplemented by undersea volcanoes spewing heat and minerals to support living creatures, if they exist.

This artist's rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet,” says NASA officials.

The instruments chosen today by NASA will help answer the question of habitability, but they are not life detection instruments in and of themselves. That would require a follow on mission.

“They could find indications of life, but they’re not life detectors,” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We currently don’t even have consensus in the scientific community as to what we would measure that would tell everybody with confidence this thing you’re looking at is alive. Building a life detector is incredibly difficult.”

‘During the three year mission, the orbiter will conduct 45 close flyby’s of Europa,” Niebur told Universe Today. “These will occur about every two to three weeks.”

The close flyby’s will vary in altitude from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers).

“The mass spectrometer has a range of 1 to 2000 daltons, Niebur told me. “That’s a much wider range than Cassini. However there will be no means aboard to determine chirality.” The presence of Chiral compounds could be an indicator of life.

Right now the Europa mission is in the formulation stage with a budget of about $10 million this year and $30 Million in 2016. Over the next three years the mission concept will be defined.

The mission is expected to cost in the range of at least $2 Billion or more.

Jupiter Moon Europa, Ice Rafting View
Jupiter Moon Europa, Ice Rafting View

Here’s a NASA description of the 9 instruments selected:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG)
— principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.


Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE)
— principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, NASA scientists attending the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco announced the detection of organic compounds on Mars. The announcement represents the discovery of the missing “ingredient” that is necessary for the existence – past or present – of life on Mars.

Indeed, the extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence – the famous assertion of Dr. Carl Sagan. The scientists, members of the Mars Science Lab – Curiosity Rover – mission, worked over a period of 20 months to sample and analyze Martian atmospheric and surface samples to arrive at their conclusions. The announcement stems from two separate detections of organics: 1) ten-fold spikes in atmospheric Methane levels, and 2) drill samples from a rock called Cumberland which included complex organic compounds.

The Tunable Laser Spectrometer, one of the tools within the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. By measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths, it measures concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in Mars' atmosphere. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Tunable Laser Spectrometer, one of the tools within the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. By measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths, it measures concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in Mars’ atmosphere. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Methane, of the simplest organic compounds, was detected using the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM). This is one of two compact laboratory instruments embedded inside the compact car-sized rover, Curiosity. Very soon after landing on Mars, the scientists began to use SAM to periodically measure the chemical content of the Martian atmosphere. Over many samples, the level of Methane was very low, ~0.9 parts per billion. However, that suddenly changed and, as scientists stated in the press conference, it was a “wow” moment that took them aback. Brief daily spikes in Methane levels averaging 7 parts per billion were detected.

The detection of methane at Mars has been claimed for decades, but more recently, in 2003 and 2004, independent research teams using sensitive spectrometers on Earth detected methane in the atmosphere of Mars. One group led by Vladimir Krasnopolsky of Catholic University, and another led by Dr. Michael Mumma from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, detected broad regional and temporal levels of Methane as high as 30 parts per billion. Those announcements met with considerable skepticism from the scientific community. And the first atmospheric measurements by Curiosity were negative. However, neither group backed down from their claims.

Regions where methane appears notably localized in Northern Summer (A, B1, B2), andtheir relationship to mineralogical and geo-morphological domains. (A.) Observations of methane near the Syrtis Major volcanic district. (B.) Geologic map of Greeley and Guest (41) superimposed on the topographic shaded-relief from MOLA (42). The most ancient terrain (Npld, Nple) is Noachian in age (~3.6 - 4.5 billion years old, when Mars was wet), and is overlain by volcanic deposits from Syrtis Major of Hesperian (Hs) age (~3.1 - 3.6 billion yrs old). (Credit: Mumma, et al., 2009, Figure 3)
Regions where methane appears notably localized in Northern Summer (A, B1, B2), and their relationship to mineralogical and geo-morphological domains. (A.) Observations of methane near the Syrtis Major volcanic district. (B.) Geologic map of Greeley and Guest (41) superimposed on the topographic shaded-relief from MOLA (42). The most ancient terrain (Npld, Nple) is Noachian in age (~3.6 – 4.5 billion years old, when Mars was wet), and is overlain by volcanic deposits from Syrtis Major of Hesperian (Hs) age (~3.1 – 3.6 billion yrs old). (Credit: Mumma, et al., 2009, Figure 3)

The sudden detection of ten-fold spikes in methane levels in Gale crater is not inconsistent with the earlier remote measurements from Earth. The high seasonal concentrations were in regions that do not include Gale Crater, and it remains possible that the Curiosity measurements are of a similar nature but due to some less active process than exists at the regions identified by Dr. Mumma’s team.

This graphic shows tenfold spiking in the abundance of methane in the Martian atmosphere surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, as detected by a series of measurements made with the Tunable Laser Spectrometer instrument in the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars laboratory suite. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
This graphic shows tenfold spiking in the abundance of methane in the Martian atmosphere surrounding NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, as detected by a series of measurements made with the Tunable Laser Spectrometer instrument in the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars laboratory suite. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The NASA scientists at AGU led by MSL project scientist Dr. John Grotzinger emphasized that they do not yet know how the methane is being generated. The process could be biological or not. There are abiotic chemical processes that could produce methane. However, the MSL SAM detections were daily spikes and represent an active real on-going process on the red planet. This alone is a very exciting aspect of the detection.

The team presented slides to describe how methane could be generated. With the known low background levels of methane at ~ 1 part per billion, an external cosmic source, for example micro-meteoroids entering the atmosphere and releasing organics which is then reduced by sunlight to methane, could be ruled out. The methane source must be of local origin.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)
This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars’ atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

The scientists illustrated two means of production. In both instances, there is some daily – or at least periodic – activity that is releasing methane from the subsurface of Mars. The source could be biological which is accumulated in subsurface rocks then suddenly released. Or an abiotic chemistry, such as a reaction between the mineral olivine and water, could be the generator.

The subsurface storage mechanism of methane proposed and illustrated is called clathrate storage. Clathrate storage involves lattice compounds that can trap molecules such as methane which can subsequently be released by physical changes in the clathrate, such as solar heating or mechanical stresses. Through press Q&A, the NASA scientists stated that such clathrates could be preserved for millions and billions of years underground.

The second discovery of organics involved more complex compounds in surface materials. Also since arriving at Mars, Curiosity has utilized a drilling tool to probe the interiors of rocks. Grotzinger emphasized how material immediately at the surface of Mars has experienced the effects of radiation and the ubiquitous soil compound perchlorate reducing and destroying organics both now and over millions of years. The detection of no organics in loose and exposed surface material had not diminished NASA scientists’ hopes of detecting organics in the rocks of Mars.

Comparisons between the amount of an organic chemical named chlorobenzene detected in the "Cumberland" rock sample and amounts of it in samples from three other Martian surface targets analyzed by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Comparisons between the amount of an organic chemical named chlorobenzene detected in the “Cumberland” rock sample and amounts of it in samples from three other Martian surface targets analyzed by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Drilling was performed on several selected rocks and it was finally a mud rock called Cumberland that revealed the presence of organic compounds more complex than simple methane. The scientists did emphasize that what exactly these organic compounds are remains a mystery because of the confounding presence of the active chemical perchlorate which can quickly breakdown organics to simpler forms.

Examples from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory's detection of Martian organics in a sample of powder that the drill on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover collected from a rock target called "Cumberland." (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Examples from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory’s detection of Martian organics in a sample of powder that the drill on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover collected from a rock target called “Cumberland.”
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The detection of organics in the mud rock Cumberland required the drilling tool and also the scoop on the multifaceted robotic arm to deliver the sample into the SAM laboratory for analysis. To detect methane, SAM has an intake valve to receive atmospheric samples.

Dr. Grotzinger described how Cumberland was chosen as a sample source. The rock is called a mud stone which has undergone a process called digenesis – the metamorphosis of sediment to rock. Grotzinger emphasized that fluids will move through such rock during digenesis and perchlorate can destroy organics in the process. Such might be the case for many metamorphic rocks on the Martian surface. The panel of scientists showed a comparison between rock samples measured by SAM. Two in particular – from the rock “John Klein” and the Cumberland rock — were compared. The former showed no organics as well as other rocks that were sampled; but Cumberland’s drill sample from its interior did reveal organics.

Illustration of some of the reasons why finding organic chemicals on Mars is challenging. Whatever organic chemicals may be produced on Mars or delivered to Mars face several possible modes of being transformed or destroyed. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Illustration of some of the reasons why finding organic chemicals on Mars is challenging. Whatever organic chemicals may be produced on Mars or delivered to Mars face several possible modes of being transformed or destroyed. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The analysis of the work was painstaking – harking back to the Sagan statement. The importance of discovering organics on Mars could not be understated by the panel of scientists and Grotzinger called these two discoveries as the lasting legacy of the Mars Curiosity Rover. Furthermore, he stated that the discovery and analysis methods will go far to guide the choice of instruments and their use during the Mars 2020 rover mission.

The discovery of organics completes the necessary set of “ingredients” for past or present life on Mars: 1) an energy source, 2) water, and 3) organics. These are the basic requirements for the existence of life as we know it. The search for life on Mars is still just beginning and the new discoveries of organics is still not a clear sign that life existed or is present today. Nevertheless, Dr. Jim Green, introducing the panel of scientists, and Dr. Grotzinger both emphasized the magnitude of these discoveries and how they are tied into the objectives of the NASA Mars program — particularly now with the emphasis on sending humans to Mars. For the Mars Curiosity rover, the journey up the slopes of Mount Sharp continues and now with greater earnestness and a continued search for rocks similar to Cumberland.

References:

Curiosity detects methane spike on Mars

NASA Rover Finds Active, Ancient Organic Chemistry on Mars

Research Papers, AGU Press Conerence via Ustream

Strong Release of Methane on Mars in Northern Summer 2003

Non-Detection of Methane in the Mars Atmosphere by the Curiosity Rover

Detection of methane in the martian atmosphere: evidence for life?

Unusual Distributions of Organics Found in Titan’s Atmosphere

A new mystery of Titan has been uncovered by astronomers using their latest asset in the high altitude desert of Chile. Using the now fully deployed Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, astronomers moved from observing comets to Titan. A single 3 minute observation revealed organic molecules that are askew in the atmosphere of Titan. The molecules in question should be smoothly distributed across the atmosphere, but they are not.

The Cassini/Huygens spacecraft at the Saturn system has been revealing the oddities of Titan to us, with its lakes and rain clouds of methane, and an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s. But the new observations by ALMA of Titan underscore how much more can be learned about Titan and also how incredible the ALMA array is.

ALMA first obserations of the atmospher of Saturn's moon Titan. The image shows the distribution of the organic molecule HNC. Red to White representing low to high concenrations. The offset locations of the molecules relative to the poles suprised the researchers lead by NASA/GSFC astrochemist M. Cordiner.(Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner (NASA) et at.)
ALMA’s first observations of the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. The image shows the distribution of the organic molecule HNC. Red to White representing low to high concentrations. The offset locations of the molecules relative to the poles surprised the researchers led by NASA/GSFC astrochemist M. Cordiner. (Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner (NASA) et at.)

The ALMA astronomers called it a “brief 3 minute snapshot of Titan.” They found zones of organic molecules offset from the Titan polar regions. The molecules observed were hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N). It is a complete surprise to the astrochemist Martin Cordiner from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Cordiner is the lead author of the work published in the latest release of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The NASA Goddard press release states, “At the highest altitudes, the gas pockets appeared to be shifted away from the poles. These off-pole locations are unexpected because the fast-moving winds in Titan’s middle atmosphere move in an east–west direction, forming zones similar to Jupiter’s bands, though much less pronounced. Within each zone, the atmospheric gases should, for the most part, be thoroughly mixed.”

When one hears there is a strange, skewed combination of organic compounds somewhere, the first thing to come to mind is life. However, the astrochemists in this study are not concluding that they found a signature of life. There are, in fact, other explanations that involve simpler forces of nature. The Sun and Saturn’s magnetic field deliver light and energized particles to Titan’s atmosphere. This energy causes the formation of complex organics in the Titan atmosphere. But how these two molecules – HNC and HC3N – came to have a skewed distribution is, as the astrochemists said, “very intriguing.” Cordiner stated, “This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery… a fascinating new problem.”

The press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory states, “studying this complex chemistry may provide insights into the properties of Earth’s very early atmosphere.” Additionally, the new observations add to understanding Titan – a second data point (after Earth) for understanding organics of exo-planets, which may number in the hundreds of billions beyond our solar system within our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers need more data points in order to sift through the many exo-planets that will be observed and harbor organic compounds. With Titan and Earth, astronomers will have points of comparison to determine what is happening on distant exo-planets, whether it’s life or not.

High in the atmosphere of Titan, large patches of two trace gases glow near the north pole, on the dusk side of the moon, and near the south pole, on the dawn side. Brighter colors indicate stronger signals from the two gases, HNC (left) and HC3N (right); red hues indicate less pronounced signals. Image (Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF)
High in the atmosphere of Titan, large patches of two trace gases glow near the north pole, on the dusk side of the moon, and near the south pole, on the dawn side. Brighter colors indicate stronger signals from the two gases, HNC (left) and HC3N (right); red hues indicate less pronounced signals.
(Image Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The report of this new and brief observation also underscores the new astronomical asset in the altitudes of Chile. ALMA represents the state of the art of millimeter and sub-millimeter astronomy. This field of astronomy holds a lot of promise. Back around 1980, at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, alongside the great visible light telescopes, there was an oddity, a millimeter wavelength dish. That dish was the beginning of radio astronomy in the 1 – 10 millimeter wavelength range. Millimeter astronomy is only about 35 years old. These wavelengths stand at the edge of the far infrared and include many light emissions and absorptions from cold objects which often include molecules and particularly organics. The ALMA array has 10 times more resolving power than the Hubble space telescope.

The Earth’s atmosphere stands in the way of observing the Universe in these wavelengths. By no coincidence our eyes evolved to see in the visible light spectrum. It is a very narrow band, and it means that there is a great, wide world of light waves to explore with different detectors than just our eyes.

The diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum, the absorption of light by the Earth's atmosphere and illustrates the astronomical assets that focus on specific wavelengths of light. ALMA at the Chilean site and with modern solid state electronics is able to overcome the limitations placed by the Earth's atmosphere. (Credit: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)
The diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum, the absorption of light by the Earth’s atmosphere, and illustrates the astronomical assets that focus on specific wavelengths of light. ALMA at the Chilean site, with modern solid state electronics, is able to overcome the limitations placed by the Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)

In the millimeter range of wavelengths, water, oxygen, and nitrogen are big absorbers. Some wavelengths in the millimeter range are completely absorbed. So there are windows in this range. ALMA is designed to look at those wavelengths that are accessible from the ground. The Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama desert at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) provides the driest, clearest location in the world for millimeter astronomy outside of the high altitude regions of the Antarctic.

At high altitude and over this particular desert, there is very little atmospheric water. ALMA consists of 66 12 meter (39 ft) and 7 meter (23 ft) dishes. However, it wasn’t just finding a good location that made ALMA. The 35 year history of millimeter-wavelength astronomy has been a catch up game. Detecting these wavelengths required very sensitive detectors – low noise in the electronics. The steady improvement in solid-state electronics from the late 70s to today and the development of cryostats to maintain low temperatures have made the new observations of Titan possible. These are observations that Cassini at 1000 kilometers from Titan could not do but ALMA at 1.25 billion kilometers (775 million miles) away could.

The 130 ton German Antenna Dish Transporter, nicknamed Otto. The ALMA transporter vehicle carefully carries the state-of-the-art antenna, with a diameter of 12 metres and a weight of about 100 tons, on the 28 km journey to the Array Operations Site, which is at an altitude of 5000 m. The antenna is designed to withstand the harsh conditions at the high site, where the extremely dry and rarefied air is ideal for ALMA’s observations of the universe at millimetre- and sub-millimetre-wavelengths. (Credit: ESO)
The 130 ton German Antenna Dish Transporter, nicknamed Otto. The ALMA transporter vehicle carefully carries the state-of-the-art antenna, with a diameter of 12 metres and a weight of about 100 tons, on the 28 km journey to the Array Operations Site, which is at an altitude of 5000 m. The antenna is designed to withstand the harsh conditions at the high site, where the extremely dry and rarefied air is ideal for ALMA’s observations of the universe at millimetre- and sub-millimetre-wavelengths. (Credit: ESO)

The ALMA telescope array was developed by a consortium of countries led by the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) and countries of the European Union though ESO (European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere). The first concepts were proposed in 1999. Japan joined the consortium in 2001.

The prototype ALMA telescope was tested at the site of the VLA in New Mexico in 2003. That prototype now stands on Kitt Peak having replaced the original millimeter wavelength dish that started this branch of astronomy in the 1980s. The first dishes arrived in 2007 followed the next year by the huge transporters for moving each dish into place at such high altitude. The German-made transporter required a cabin with an oxygen supply so that the drivers could work in the rarefied air at 5000 meters. The transporter was featured on an episode of the program Monster Moves. By 2011, test observations were taking place, and by 2013 the first science program was undertaken. This year, the full array was in place and the second science program spawned the Titan observations. Many will follow. ALMA, which can operate 24 hours per day, will remain the most powerful instrument in its class for about 10 years when another array in Africa will come on line.

References:

NASA Goddard Press Release

NRAO Press Release

ALMA Observatory Website

Alma Measurements Of The Hnc And Hc3N Distributions In Titan’s Atmosphere“, M. A. Cordiner, et al., Astrophysical Journal Letters

Ancient Martian Life May Be Preserved in Glass

When large asteroids or comets strike the Earth — as they have countless times throughout our planet’s history — the energy released in the event creates an enormous amount of heat, enough to briefly melt rock and soil at the impact site. That molten material quickly cools, trapping organic material and bits of plants and preserving them inside fragments of glass for tens of thousands, even millions of years.

Researchers studying impact debris on Earth think that the same thing could very well have happened on Mars, and that any evidence for ancient life on the Red Planet might be found by looking inside the glass.

A research team led by Pete Schultz, a geologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has identified the remains of plant materials trapped inside impact glass found at several different sites scattered across Argentina, according to a university news release issued Friday, April 18.

Melt breccias from two impact events in particular, dating back 3 and 9 million years, were discovered to contain very well-preserved fragments of vegetation — providing not only samples of ancient organisms but also snapshots of the local environment from the time of the events.

An asteroid impacts ancient Mars and send rocks hurtling to space - some reach Earth
Mars experienced many large impact events in its early history, just like Earth

“These glasses preserve plant morphology from macro features all the way down to the micron scale,” said Schultz. “It’s really remarkable.”

Schultz believes that the same process that trapped once-living material in Argentina’s Pampas region — which is covered with windblown, Mars-like sediment, especially in the west — may have occurred on Mars, preserving any early organics located at and around impact sites.

“Impact glass may be where the 4 billion-year-old signs of life are hiding,” Schultz said. “On Mars they’re probably not going to come out screaming in the form of a plant, but we may find traces of organic compounds, which would be really exciting.”

The research has been published in the latest issue of Geology Magazine.

Read more in the full report here.

Source: Brown University

The Search For Life On Europa Could Center On Celestial Party-Crashers

The cool thing about space missions is long after they conclude, the data can yield the most interesting information. Here’s an example: Jupiter’s moon Europa may have a ripe spot for organic materials to take root.

Scouring the data from NASA’s past Galileo mission — which ended a decade ago — scientists unveiled an area with “clay-like minerals” on it that came to be after an asteroid or comet smashed into the surface. The connection? These celestial party-crashers often carry organics with them.

“Organic materials, which are important building blocks for life, are often found in comets and primitive asteroids,” stated Jim Shirley, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Finding the rocky residues of this comet crash on Europa’s surface may open up a new chapter in the story of the search for life on Europa.”

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

Europa is considered one of the best spots in our solar system to look for life, due to the ocean lurking beneath its icy surface, surface salts that can provide energy, and a source of heat as the mighty Jupiter squeezes and releases the moon like a tennis ball.

The minerals (called phyllosilicates) emerged after Shirley’s team ran a new analysis on infrared pictures snapped by Galileo in 1998, basically working to refine the signal out of the images (which are much lower quality than what we are capable of today).

After the analysis, the phyllosilicates appeared in a “broken ring”, NASA stated, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) away from a crater site. The crater itself is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter. Scientists are betting that the ring of phyllosilicates is debris (“splash back of material”, NASA says), after a celestial body struck at or around a 45 degree angle from vertical. It’s unlikely the phyllosilicates came from Europa’s ocean given the crust, which can be as thick as 60 miles (100 kilometers).

Europa Report was a 2013 film that focused on a human mission to the Jovian moon. Poster by Start Motion Pictures.
Europa Report was a 2013 film that focused on a human mission to the Jovian moon. Poster by Start Motion Pictures.

“If the body was an asteroid, it was likely about 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) in diameter. If the body was a comet, it was likely about 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) in diameter. It would have been nearly the same size as the comet ISON before it passed around the sun a few weeks ago,” NASA stated.

To be clear, nobody has found organic materials on Europa directly, and even if they were detected it would then be another feat of science to determine if they related to life or not. This does, however, lend credence to theories that life came to Earth through comets and asteroids.

Ample fodder to consider as the community waits for the European Space Agency’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) to get going to Europa and Jupiter upon its expected launch in 2022. The probe should arrive there in 2030.

Shirley will give a talk on this topic at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting on Friday.

Source: NASA

Ancient Impacts Stained Vesta with Carbon-Rich Material

Composite-color 3D image of Cornelia crater on Vesta (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Ever since arriving at Vesta in July 2011, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been capturing high-resolution images of the protoplanet’s surface, revealing a surprisingly varied and complex terrain covered in ridges, hills, grooves and, of course, craters of many different sizes and ages. Many of Vesta’s largest craters exhibit strange dark stains and splotches within and around them, some literally darker than coal. These stains were a puzzle to scientists when they were first seen, but the latest research now confirms that they may actually be the remains of the ancient impacts that caused them: dark deposits left by the myriad of carbon-rich objects that struck Vesta over the past four-and-a-half billion years.

Even though Vesta had a completely molten surface 4.5 billion years ago it’s believed that its crust likely solidified within a few million years, making the 530-km (329-mile) -wide world a literal time capsule for events taking place in the inner Solar System since then… one reason why Vesta was chosen as a target for the Dawn mission.

714973main_pia16632-43_946-710Using data acquired by Dawn during its year in orbit around Vesta, a team led by researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the University of North Dakota investigated the dark material seen lining the edges of large impact basins located on the protoplanet’s southern hemisphere. What they determined was that much of the material was delivered during an initial large, low-velocity impact event 2–3 billion years ago that created the largest basin — Veneneia — and was then partially covered by a later impact that created the smaller basin that’s nearly centered on Vesta’s southern pole — Rheasilva.

“The evidence suggests that the dark material on Vesta is rich in carbonaceous material and was brought there by collisions with smaller asteroids.”

– Vishnu Reddy, lead author, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the University of North Dakota

714963main_pia16630-43_946-710

Dawn framing camera images of dark material on Vesta. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Subsequent smaller asteroid impacts over the millennia likely brought more carbonaceous material to Vesta’s surface, both delivering it as well as revealing any that may have existed beneath brighter surfaces.

Read more: Asteroid’s Unusual Light and Dark Crater

 

The dark, carbon-rich material observed on Vesta by Dawn also seems to match up with similarly dark clasts found in meteorites that have landed on Earth which are thought to have originated from Vesta.

“Our analysis of the dark material on Vesta and comparisons with laboratory studies of HED meteorites for the first time proves directly that these meteorites are fragments from Vesta,” said Lucille Le Corre from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, another lead author of the study.

If evidence of such collisions between worlds can be found on Vesta, it’s likely that similar events were occurring all across the inner solar system during its early days, providing a clue as to how carbon-rich organic material was delivered to Earth — and possibly Mars as well. Such material — the dark stains we see today lining Vesta’s craters — would have helped form the very building blocks of life on our planet.

The team’s findings were published in the November/December issue of the journal Icarus.

Read more on the Max Planck Institute’s news page here, and on the NASA release here. Learn more about the Dawn mission in the video below, narrated by Leonard Nimoy.