NASA Technology Used To Find Stone Age Structures

Oklahoma’s Beaver River is an incredibly historic place. Anthropologists estimate that as early as 10,500 years ago, human beings hunted bison in the region. Being without horses, the hunter-gatherers would funnel herds into narrow, dead-end gullies cut into the hillside by the river. Once there, they would kill them en masse, taking the meat and organs and leaving the skeletons behind.

Sadly, no visible trace of this history remains in the region today, thanks to weathering and erosion. But according to a recent story released by NASA, the same technology that powers the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission has made the ancient history of this region visible for all to see.

Having launched back in September of 2016, the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to rendezvous with the Near-Earth Asteroid Bennu in 2023. The purpose of the mission is to obtain samples of the carbonaceous object and return them to Earth, thus helping scientists to get a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the Solar System, as well as the source of organic compounds that led to the formation of life on Earth.


Once it reaches Bennu, it will rely on light-detection and ranging (aka. lidar) to map the asteroid and help the mission team select a landing site. This technology uses one or more lasers to send out short pulses that bounce off of nearby objects. The instrument then measures how long it takes for the signal to return to get an accurate assessment of distance and generate topographical information.

The OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) instrument was designed by Teledyne Optech, a company that has worked with NASA many times in the past. Their work includes the laser instrument that was used by the Phoenix Lander to detect snow in the Martian atmosphere back in 2008. And more recently, it was used by an archeological research team in the Beaver River area to create a detailed picture of its past.

Using an airborne version of the Teledyne Optech lidar device, the team was able to create a 3-D model of the surface. They were also able to generate as a ‘bare-earth” version of the area that showed what the land looked like without all of the concealing features – i.e. rocks, trees and grass – that hide its past.

In so doing, they were able to figure out where they should dig to find evidence that the region was once a major hunting ground. As Paul LaRoque, vice president of special projects at Teledyne Optech, explained, this process allowed the archaeologists to “see structures or features that were so overgrown that they wouldn’t be obvious at all to someone on the ground.”

Aerial photograph of a forest in Connecticut (left), and bare-earth lidar image beneath the overgrown vegetation (right) showing the remnants of stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads and what was once cleared farm land. Credits: NASA/Katharine Johnson
Aerial photograph of a forest in Connecticut (left), and bare-earth lidar image beneath the vegetation (right) showing archaeological remains. Credits: UofConn/Katharine Johnson

This sort of process has also been used by other archaeological teams to make major finds, like uncovering the lost “Ciudad Blanca” (aka. the “City of the Monkey God”) of Honduras. This ancient Mesoamerican settlement, which is believed to have been built between the 1st and 2nd millennium CE, had remained the stuff of legend for centuries. Despite multiple claims by explorers, no confirmed discovery was ever made.

But thanks to a joint effort by archaeologists from the University of Florida and  the Houston-based National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, an archaeological team was able to create images that stripped away the lush rainforest to revealed multiple structures – including pyramids, a plaza, a possible ball court, and many houses.

Lidar was also used by a research team from the University of Connecticut for the sake of studying the dynamics between human settlement and the historic landscape of New England. Using publicly available data, they were able to peer beneath all the current vegetation to detect the remnants of stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads and what was once cleared farm land.

The revealing look at Beaver River is one of 50 stories that will be released on Dec. 5th, as part of a NASA Spinoff publication. Each year, Spinoff profiles about 50 NASA technologies that have transformed into commercial products and services, demonstrating the wider benefits of America’s investment in its space program. Spinoff is a publication of the Technology Transfer Program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Further Reading: NASA

What Do Other Planets Sound Like?

We know that in space, no one can hear you scream. But what would things sound like on another planet?

When humans finally set foot on Mars, they’re going to be curious about everything around them.

What’s under that rock? What does it feel like to jump in the lower Martian gravity. What does Martian regolith taste like? What’s the bitcoin to red rock exchange rate?

As long as they perform their activities in the safety of a pressurized habitation module or exosuit, everything should be fine. But what does Mars sound like?

I urge all future Martian travelers, no matter how badly you want to know the answer to this question: don’t take your helmet off. With only 1% the atmospheric pressure of Earth, you’d empty your lungs with a final scream in a brief and foolish moment, then suffocate horribly with a mouthful of dust on the surface of the Red Planet.

But… actually, even the screaming would sound a little different. How different? Let me show you. First you just need to take your helmet off for a just a little sec, just an itsy bitsy second. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Oh, come on, just take your helmet off. All the cool kids are doing it.

What about Venus? Or Titan? What would everything sound like on an alien world?

We evolved to exist on Earth, and so it’s perfectly safe for us to listen to sounds in the air. No space suit needed. Unless you didn’t evolve on Earth, in which case I offer to serve as emissary to our all new alien overlords.

You know sounds travel when waves of energy propagate through a medium, like air or water. The molecules bump into each other and pass along the energy until they strike something that won’t move, like your ear drum. Then your brain turns bouncing into sounds.

The speed of the waves depends on what the medium is made of and how dense it is. For example, sound travels at about 340 meters/second in dry air, at sea level at room temperature. Sound moves much more quickly through liquid. In water it’s nearly 1,500 m/s. It’s even faster through a solid – iron is up past 5,100 m/s. Our brain perceives a different sound depending on the intensity of the waves and how quickly they bounce off our ears.

Artist's impression of the surface of Venus. Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus. Credit: ESA/AOES

Other worlds have media that sound waves can travel through, and with your eardrum exposed to the atmosphere you should theoretically hear sounds on other worlds. Catastrophic biological failures from using your eardrums outside of documented pressure tolerances notwithstanding.

Professor Tim Leighton and a team of researchers from the University of Southampton have simulated what we would hear standing on the surface of other worlds, like Mars, Venus or even Saturn’s Moon Titan.

On Venus, the pitch of your voice would become deeper, because vocal cords would vibrate much more slowly in the thicker Venusian atmosphere. But sounds would travel more quickly through the soupy atmosphere. According to Dr. Leighton, humans would sound like bass Smurfs. Mars would sound a little bit higher, and Titan would sound totally alien.

Dr. Leighton actually simulated the same sound on different worlds. Here’s the sound of thunder on Earth.
Here’s what it would sound like on Venus.
And here’s what it would sound like on Mars.
Here’s what a probe splashing into water on Earth would sound like.
And here’s what it would sound like splashing into a hydrocarbon lake on Titan.

You might be amazed to learn that we still haven’t actually recorded sounds on another world, right up until someone points out that putting a microphone on another planet hasn’t been that big a priority for any space mission.

A fish-eye view of Titan's surface from the European Space Agency's Huygens lander in January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A fish-eye view of Titan’s surface from the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander in January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Especially when we could analyze soil samples, but hey fart sounds played and then recorded in the Venusian atmosphere could prove incredibly valuable to the future of internet soundboards.

The Planetary Society has been working to get a microphone included on a mission. They actually included a microphone on the Mars Polar Lander mission that failed in 1999. Another French mission was going to have a microphone, but it was cancelled. There are no microphones on either Spirit or Opportunity, and the Curiosity Rover doesn’t have one either despite its totally bumping stereo.

Here’s is the only thing we’ve got. When NASA’s Phoenix Lander reached the Red Planet in 2008, it had a microphone on board to capture sounds. It recorded audio as it entered the atmosphere, but operators turned the instrument off before it reached the surface because they were worried it would interfere with the landing.

Mars Phoenix Lander. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Here’s the recording.

Meh. I’m going to need you to do better NASA. I want an actual microphone recording winds on the surface of Mars. I hope it’s something Dethklok puts on their next album, they could afford that kind of expense.

It turns out, that if you travel to an alien world, not only would the sights be different, but the sounds would be alien too. Of course, you’d never know because you’re be too chicken to take your helmet off and take in the sounds through the superheated carbon dioxide or methane atmosphere.

What sounds would you like to hear on an alien world? Tell us in the comments below.

NASA’s Journey to Mars Ramps Up with InSight, Key Tests Pave Path to 2016 Lander Launch

NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ is ramping up significantly with ‘InSight’ – as the agency’s next Red Planet lander has now been assembled into its flight configuration and begun a comprehensive series of rigorous and critical environmental stress tests that will pave the path to launch in 2016 on a mission to unlock the riddles of the Martian core.

The countdown clock is ticking relentlessly and in less than nine months time, NASA’s InSight Mars lander is slated to blastoff in March 2016.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a stationary lander. It will join NASA’s surface science exploration fleet currently comprising of the Curiosity and Opportunity missions which by contrast are mobile rovers.

But before it will even be allowed to get to the launch pad, the Red Planet explorer must first prove its mettle and show that it can operate in and survive the harsh and unforgiving rigors of the space environment via a battery of prelaunch tests. That’s an absolute requirement in order for it to successfully carry out its unprecedented mission to investigate Mars deep interior structure.

InSight’s purpose is to elucidate the nature of the Martian core, measure heat flow and sense for “Marsquakes.” These completely new research findings will radically advance our understanding of the early history of all rocky planets, including Earth and could reveal how they formed and evolved.

“Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system.”

The science deck of NASA's InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.  The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight's seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground.   Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
The science deck of NASA’s InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight’s seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The launch window for InSight opens on March 4 and runs through March 30, 2016.

InSight will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

InSight counts as NASA’s first ever interplanetary mission to launch from California.

The car sized probe will touch down near the Martian equator about six months later in the fall of 2016.

The prime contractor for InSight is Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Co and the engineering and technical team recently finished assembling the lander into its final configuration.

So now the time has begun to start the shakedown that literally involve “shaking and baking and zapping” the spacecraft to prove its ready and able to meet the March 2016 launch deadline.

During the next seven months of environmental testing at Lockheed’s Denver facility, “the lander will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space, and a battery of other tests.”

“The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs,” said Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, in a statement.

“The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it’s here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments.”

The first test involves “a thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft’s “cruise” configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars. In the cruise configuration, the lander is stowed inside an aeroshell capsule and the spacecraft’s cruise stage – for power, communications, course corrections and other functions on the way to Mars — is fastened to the capsule.”

After the vacuum test, InSight will be subjected to a series of tests simulating the vibrations of launch, separation and deployment shock, as well as checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft and compatibility testing.

Finally, a second thermal vacuum test will expose the probe “to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience as it operates on the Martian surface.”

The $425 million InSight mission is expected to operate for about two years on the Martian surface.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s successful Phoenix Mars landing spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice.  NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft design is based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander. This mosaic shows Phoenix touchdown atop Martian ice.  Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice.  InSight carries instruments to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo/NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute
3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice. NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft design is based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander. This mosaic shows Phoenix touchdown atop Martian ice. Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. InSight carries instruments to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo/NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

It is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program as well as several European national space agency’s and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments; HP3 and SEIS through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. or German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

SEIS and HP3 are stationed on the lander deck. They will each be picked up and deployed by a robotic arm similar to that flown on Phoenix with some modifications.

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

Ken Kremer

Why is Mars Red?

Another name for Mars is the Red Planet, and if you’ve ever seen it in the sky when the planet is bright and close to Earth, it appears like a bright red star. In Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war, so… think blood.

Even photos from spacecraft show that it’s a rusty red color. The hue comes from the fact that the surface is *actually* rusty, as in, it’s rich in iron oxide.

Iron left out in the rain and will get covered with rust as the oxygen in the air and water reacts with the iron in the metal to create a film of iron oxide.

Mars’ iron oxide would have formed a long time ago, when the planet had more liquid water. This rusty material was transported around the planet in dust clouds, covering everything in a layer of rust. In fact, there are dust storms on Mars today that can rise up and consume the entire planet, obscuring the entire surface from our view. That dust really gets around.

But if you look closely at the surface of Mars, you’ll see that it can actually be many different colours. Some regions appear bright orange, while others look more brown or even black. But if you average everything out, you get Mars’ familiar red colour.

If you dig down, like NASA’s Phoenix Lander did in 2008, you get below this oxidized layer to the rock and dirt beneath. You can see how the tracks from the Curiosity Rover get at this fresh material, just a few centimeters below the surface. It’s brown, not red.

And if you could stand on the surface of Mars and look around, what colour would the sky be? Fortunately, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is equipped with a full colour camera, and so we can see roughly what the human eye would see.

The sky on Mars is red too.

The sky here is blue because of Raleigh scattering, where blue photons of light are scattered around by the atmosphere, so they appear to come from all directions. But on Mars, the opposite thing happens. The dust in the atmosphere scatters the red photons, makes the sky appear red. We have something similar when there’s pollution or smoke in the air.

But here’s the strange part. On Mars, the sunsets appear blue. The dust absorbs and deflects the red light, so you see more of the blue photons streaming from the Sun. A sunset on Mars would be an amazing event to see with your own eyes. Let’s hope someone gets the chance to see it in the future.
We have written many articles about Mars on Universe Today. Here’s an article about a one-way, one-person trip to Mars, and here’s another about how scientists know the true color of planets like Mars.

Here are some nice color images captured of the surface of Mars from NASA’s Pathfinder mission, and here’s another explainer about why Mars is red from Slate Magazine.

We have recorded several podcasts just about Mars. Including Episode 52: Mars and Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.

Sources:
http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/qna/questions/FAQ_GeneraL_Mars.htm
http://mpfwww.jpl.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/past/pathfinder/
http://www.slate.com/id/2093779/

NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover To Seek Signs of Past Life and Collect Samples for Earth Return

NASA’s next Mars rover set for liftoff in 2020 should focus on three primary objectives; seeking signs of past life, collecting a cache of carefully chosen samples for eventual return to Earth and developing technologies that will help enable future human missions to the Red Planet some two decades from now.

The 2020 goals were laid out publicly today (July 9) by a panel of scientists on the ‘Science Definition Team’ and charged by NASA with defining the key science objectives for the new mission.

The science objectives and how to accomplish them are outlined in considerable detail in a newly issued 154 page report handed over to the space agency and discussed at today’s NASA briefing for the media.

Looking for signs of ancient life and preserved biosignatures on Mars at a place that was once habitable is the top priority of the 2020 mission. The SDT report states that the landing site should be chosen specifically to “explore the geology of a once habitable site.”

“We need a highly mobile rover that can make ‘in situ’ science measurements,” said Jack Mustard, chairman of the Science Definition Team and a professor at the Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I., at the briefing.

“The rover would use its own instruments on Mars for visual, mineralogical and chemical analysis down to a microscopic scale to identify candidate features that may have been formed by past life,” states the SDT report.

“We can’t do this now with Curiosity,” explained Mustard. “We need higher resolution.”

Looking for ‘extant’ life, that is life surviving on Mars today, would be a by-product of the search for organic molecules and preserved biosignatures of life – past or present.

The Mars 2020 ‘Science Definition Team’ (SDT) is comprised of 19 scientists and engineers from academia and industry. They were appointed by NASA in January 2013 to thoroughly and quickly evaluate a wide range of options to accomplish the highest priority planetary science objectives and achieve President Obama’s challenge to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Retrieving soil and rock samples from Mars for analysis back on Earth by research teams worldwide using all the most advanced analytical instruments available to humankind with unprecedented capability has been the ‘Holy Grail’ of Mars exploration for several decades.

But the enormous cost and technical complexity of a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission has caused it to be repeatedly postponed.

Creating a Returnable Cache of Martian Samples is a major objective for NASA's Mars 2020 rover.  This prototype show  hardware to cache samples of cores drilled from Martian rocks for possible future return to Earth.  The 2020 rover would be to collect and package a carefully selected set of up to 31 samples in a cache that could be returned to Earth by a later mission.  The capabilities of laboratories on Earth for detailed examination of cores drilled from Martian rocks would far exceed the capabilities of any set of instruments that could feasibly be flown to Mars.  The exact hardware design for the 2020 mission is yet to be determined.  For scale, the diameter of the core sample shown in the image is 0.4 inch (1 centimeter).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Creating a Returnable Cache of Martian Samples is a major objective for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. This prototype show hardware to cache samples of cores drilled from Martian rocks for possible future return to Earth. The 2020 rover would be to collect and package a carefully selected set of up to 31 samples in a cache that could be returned to Earth by a later mission. The capabilities of laboratories on Earth for detailed examination of cores drilled from Martian rocks would far exceed the capabilities of any set of instruments that could feasibly be flown to Mars. The exact hardware design for the 2020 mission is yet to be determined. For scale, the diameter of the core sample shown in the image is 0.4 inch (1 centimeter). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The 2020 rover will be designed to make real progress on sample return for the first time. It will be capable of coring into rocks and storing 31 highly compelling Martian samples for return by a follow on mission to the Red Planet.

“But the timing on actually returning those samples to Earth is yet to be determined,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington.

Everything NASA does is budget driven and the fiscal climate is rather gloomy right now.

“Crafting the science and exploration goals is a crucial milestone in preparing for our next major Mars mission,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, in a statement.

Work on the new rover must begin soon in order to achieve the mandatory 2020 launch deadline. Launch opportunities to Mars only open every 26 months and delays could balloon the costs by several hundred million dollars.

“The objectives determined by NASA with the input from this team will become the basis later this year for soliciting proposals to provide instruments to be part of the science payload on this exciting step in Mars exploration,” adds Grunsfeld.

“The 2020 rover will take a major step in ‘seeking signs of life” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, at the briefing. “NASA will issue a call for science instruments this fall.”

The new mission would build upon the demonstrated science accomplishments of earlier missions like Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix while vastly advancing the capabilities of the robots research instruments.

“Here’s the bottom line. Questions drive science,” explained Lindy Elkins-Tanton, SDT member and director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Washington.

“We should be seeking to answer the very biggest questions. And one of the very biggest questions for all of humankind is – ‘Are we alone?’ And that is the question we’re hoping to make really big advances with on with this Mars 2020 mission.”

Grunsfeld explained that NASA has budgeted “for a mission cost of $1.5 Billion plus the cost of the launcher.”

The 2020 rover chassis, with some modifications, will be based on the blueprints of the highly successful Curiosity rover to keep down the cost and minimize risks. But the science instruments will be completely new and updated.

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover touched down nearly a year ago and has already discovered that the Red Planet has the chemical ingredients and environmental conditions for a habitable zone that could have supported living Martian microbes.

The next logical step is to look for the ancient signs of life that would be preserved in the rock record on Mars.

Ken Kremer

This photomosic shows NASA’s Curiosity departing at last for Mount Sharp- her main science destination. Note the wheel tracks on the Red Planet’s surface. The navcam camera images were taken on July 4, 2013 (Sol 324). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s 2020 Mars rover would be based on the Curiosity rover which touched down inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012 and discovered a habitable zone here. This photomosic shows NASA’s Curiosity departing Glenelg work site area at last for Mount Sharp- her main science destination, seen at top left. Note the wheel tracks on the Red Planet’s surface. The mosaic of navcam camera images was stitched from photos taken on July 4, 2013 (Sol 324). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASAs Proposed ‘InSight’ Lander would Peer to the Center of Mars in 2016

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A Phoenix-like lander that would mine the deepest hole yet into Mars– to a depth of 5 meters – and unveil the nature of the mysterious deep interior and central core of the Red Planet is under consideration by NASA for a 2016 launch and sports a nifty new name – InSight.

The stationary “InSight” lander would be an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s proven Phoenix spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt told Universe Today. Banerdt is the Principal Investigator of the proposed InSight mission.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

“The robotic arm is similar (but not identical) to the Phoenix arm.”

Mars Interior
Insight’s goal is to investigate and deduce the nature of the interior of the Red Planet. Credit: JPL/NASA

However, the landing site and science goals for InSight are quite different from Phoenix.

InSight will have an entirely new suite of three science instruments, including two from Europe, designed to peer to the center of Mars and detect the fingerprints of the processes by which the terrestrial planets formed. It will determine if there is any seismic activity, the amount of heat flow from the interior, the size of Mars core and whether the core is liquid or solid.

NASA’s twin GRAIL lunar gravity probes are set to begin their own investigation into the interior and core of Earth’s Moon in early March 2012, and several science team members are common to GRAIL and InSight.

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

Phoenix successfully landed in the frigid northern polar regions of Mars in 2008 in search of potential habitats for life and quickly discovered water ice and salty soils that could be favorable for the genesis and support of extraterrestrial life.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice
Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. Proposed Mars InSight mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander from scratch to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

InSight will intentionally land in a far warmer and sunnier location nearer the moderate climate of the equator to enable a projected lifetime of 2 years (or 1 Mars year) vs. the 5 months survival of Phoenix extremely harsh arctic touchdown zone.

“Our planned landing site is in Elysium Planitia,” Banerdt told me. “It was chosen for optimizing engineering safety margins for landing and power.”

The more equatorial landing site affords far more sun for the life giving solar arrays to power the instruments and electronics.

“We have global objectives and can do our science anywhere on the planet.”

Elysium Planitia is not too far from the landing sites of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers. The Elysium Mons volcano is also in the general area, but it’s a long way from precise site selection.

InSight is a geophysical lander targeted to delve deep beneath the surface into the Martian interior, check its “vital signs”; like “pulse” though seismology, “temperature”, though a heat flow probe, and “reflexes”, through precision tracking.

The purpose is to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How were the planets created?

InSight will accomplish much of its science investigations through experiments sitting directly in contact with the Martian surface. The robotic arm will pluck two of the instruments from the lander deck and place them onto Mars.

“The arm will pick the SEIS seismometer and HP3 heat flow probe off the deck and place each on the ground next to the lander. The arm doesn’t have a drill, but the heat flow probe itself will burrow down as deep as 5 meters,” Banerdt elaborated.

The third experiment named RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment) is to be provided by JPL and will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of Mars planetary rotation and elucidate clues to its interior structure and composition.

Right now on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover is conducting a Doppler radio tracking experiment similar to what is planned for RISE, but InSight will have a big advantage according to Banerdt.

“The RISE experiment will be very similar to what we are doing right now on Opportunity, but will be able to do much better, said Banerdt. “The differences are that we will get more tracking every week (Opportunity is power-limited during the winter months; that’s why she is currently stationary!) and will make measurements for an entire Mars year – we will likely only get a handful of months from Opportunity.”

Insight will also be equipped with 2 cameras and make some weather measurements.

“We have a camera on the arm and one fixed to the deck, both primarily to support placing the instruments on the surface, although they will be able to scan the landscape around the spacecraft. Both are Black & White,” Banerdt told me.

“We will measure pressure, temperature and wind, mostly to support noise analysis on the seismic data, but will also supply information on the weather.”

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

InSight is one of three missions vying to be selected for flight in NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of low cost NASA missions to understand the solar system by exploring planets, moons, and small bodies such as comets and asteroids. All three mission teams are required to submit concept study reports to NASA on March 19.

Banerdt’s team is working hard to finalize the concept study report.

“It describes the mission design as we have refined it over the past 9 months since the NASA Step-1 selection.”

So there is no guarantee that InSight will fly. Because of severe budget cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA had to cancel its scheduled participation in two other Mars missions dubbed ExoMars and jointed planned with ESA, the European Space Agency, for launch in 2016 and 2018.

Salty Soil on Mars Could Be Slurping Water from the Atmosphere

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It happens every summer in humid air: the salt in your salt shaker clumps together as the salt draws in the water from the air. Researchers have found this happens even in the frigid but dry McMurdo Dry Valley in Antarctica, a cold, polar desert. The sandy, salty soils there are frequently dotted with moist patches in the spring despite a lack of snowmelt and no possibility of rain. What was discovered is that the salty soils in the region actually suck moisture out of the atmosphere. Salty soils were found on Mars’ polar region by the Phoenix lander, so could the same thing be happening on the Red Planet, creating a salt brine within Mars’ soil? And if so what are the implications for life forming there?

Joseph Levy, a post-doctoral researcher from Oregon State University said it takes a combination of the right kinds of salts and sufficient humidity to make the process work. But those ingredients are present on Mars.

“If you have sodium chloride, or table salt, you may need a day with 75 percent humidity to make it work,” he added. “But if you have calcium chloride, even on a frigid day, you only need a humidity level above 35 percent to trigger the response.”

The soils in Antarctica have salt from sea spray and from ancient fjords that flooded the region. With enough humidity, those salty soils suck the water right out of the air, forming a brine, Levy said, that will keep collecting water vapor until it equalizes with the atmosphere.

Levy and his colleagues, from Portland State University and Ohio State University, found that the wet soils created by this phenomenon were 3-5 times more water-rich than surrounding soils – and they were also full of organic matter, including microbes, which they said could enhance the potential for life on Mars. The elevated salt content also depresses the freezing temperature of the groundwater, which continues to draw moisture out of the air when other wet areas in the valleys begin to freeze in the winter.

Though Mars, in general, has lower humidity than most places on Earth, studies have shown that it is sufficient to reach the thresholds that Levy and his colleagues have documented in Antarctica.

The parallels of what was found by the Mars Phoenix team is striking. The salty perchlorates found on Mars by the Phoenix lander also strongly attracts water and makes up a few tenths of a percent of the composition in all three soil samples analyzed by Phoenix’s wet chemistry laboratory. Principal investigator of the Phoenix mission, Peter Smith from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said the perchlorates could pull humidity from the Martian air.

A paper about Phoenix water studies, led by Smith, cites clues supporting an interpretation that the soil has had films of liquid water in the recent past. The evidence for water and potential nutrients “implies that this region could have previously met the criteria for habitability” during portions of continuing climate cycles.

At higher concentrations, it might combine with water as a brine that stays liquid at Martian surface temperatures. Some microbes on Earth use perchlorate as food, and future human explorers on Mars might find it useful as rocket fuel or for generating oxygen.

Levy and his team discovered the mysterious patches of wet soil in Antarctica, and then explored the causes. Through soil excavations and other studies, they eliminated the possibility of groundwater, snow melt, and glacial runoff. Then they began investigating the salty properties of the soil, and discovered that the McMurdo Dry Valleys weather stations had reported several days of high humidity earlier in the spring, leading them to their discovery of the vapor transfer.

“It seems kind of odd, but it really works,” Levy said. “Before one of our trips, I put a bowl of the dried, salty soil and a jar of water into a sealed Tupperware container and left it on my shelf. When I came back, the water had transferred from the jar to the salt and created brine.

“I knew it would work,” he added with a laugh, “but somehow it still surprised me that it did.”

The salty soils also are present on the Red Planet, which makes the upcoming landing of the Mars Science Laboratory this summer even more tantalizing.
Evidence of the salty nature of the McMurdo Dry Valleys is everywhere, Levy said. Salts are found in the soils, along seasonal streams, and even under glaciers. Don Juan Pond, the saltiest body of water on Earth, is found in Wright Valley, the valley adjacent to the wet patch study area.

“The conditions for creating this new water source into the permafrost are perfect,” Levy said, “but this isn’t the only place where this could or does happen. It takes an arid region to create the salty soils, and enough humidity to make the transference work, but the rest of it is just physics and chemistry.”

The study by Levy and his team was published online this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Sources: University of Oregon, previous article about the Phoenix Lander

Phoenix Lander Still Visible in New HiRISE Images from Mars

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I spy Phoenix! said the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter! This new image acquired on January 26, 2012 shows that the Phoenix lander and its backshell are still visible from Mars’ orbit. The parachute, seen in earlier images, is probably about 130 meters south of where this picture ends. This is one of a series of images to monitor frost patterns at the Phoenix landing site, said HiRISE Principal Investigator, Alfred McEwen, adding that this new images shows almost the same appearance of the hardware as 1 Mars years ago, in 2010. See larger versions of this image at the HiRISE website.

See below for comparison images from orbit from 2008, shortly after Phoenix landed and 2010, after the mission had ended.

Two images of the Phoenix Mars lander taken from Martian orbit in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 lander image shows two relatively blue spots on either side corresponding to the spacecraft's clean circular solar panels. In the 2010 image scientists see a dark shadow that could be the lander body and eastern solar panel, but no shadow from the western solar panel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

In these images, also from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels show up in the 2010 image, with one panel appearing to be completely gone. The Phoenix team says this is consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the solar panels.

Source: HiRISE

600 Million Year Drought Makes Life on Surface of Mars Unlikely

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Mars is often referred to as a desert world, and for good reason – its surface is barren, dry and cold. While water was abundant in the distant past, it has long since disappeared from the surface, although ice, snow, frost and fog are still common. Other than liquid brines possibly trickling at times, all of Mars’ remaining water is now frozen in permafrost and in the polar ice caps. It has long been thought that the harsh conditions would make current life unlikely at best, and now a new study reaffirms that view.

The results come from continued analysis of the data from the Phoenix lander mission, which landed in the arctic region near the north pole of Mars in 2008. They suggest that Mars has experienced a prolonged drought for at least the past 600 million years.

According to Dr. Tom Pike from Imperial College London, “We found that even though there is an abundance of ice, Mars has been experiencing a super-drought that may well have lasted hundreds of millions of years. We think the Mars we know today contrasts sharply with its earlier history, which had warmer and wetter periods and which may have been more suited to life. Future NASA and ESA missions that are planned for Mars will have to dig deeper to search for evidence of life, which may still be taking refuge underground.”

The team reached their conclusions by studying tiny microscopic particles in the soil samples dug up by Phoenix, which had been photographed by the lander’s atomic-force microscope. 3-D images were produced of particles as small as 100 microns across. They were searching specifically for clay mineral particles, which form in liquid water. The amount found in the soil would be a clue as to how long the soil had been in contact with water. It was determined that less than 0.1 percent of the soil samples contained clay particles, pointing to a long, arid history in this area of Mars.

Since the soil type on Mars appears to be fairly uniform across the planet, the study suggests that these conditions have been widespread on the planet, and not just where Phoenix landed. It’s worth keeping in mind though that soil particles and dust on Mars can be distributed widely by sandstorms and dust devils (and some sandstorms on Mars can be planet-wide in size). The study also implies that Mars’ soil may have only been exposed to liquid water for about 5,000 years, although some other studies would tend to disagree with that assessment.

It should also be noted that more significant clay deposits have been found elsewhere on Mars, including the exact spot where the Opportunity rover is right now; these richer deposits would seem to suggest a different history in different regions. Because of this, and for the other reasons cited above, it may be premature then to extrapolate the Phoenix results to the entire planet, similar soil types notwithstanding. While this study is important, more definitive results might be obtained when physical soil samples can actually be brought back to Earth for analysis, from multiple locations. More sophisticated rovers and landers like the Curiosity rover currently en route to Mars, will also be able to conduct more in-depth analysis in situ.

The Phoenix soil samples were also compared to soil samples from the Moon – the distribution of particle sizes was similar between the two, indicating that they formed in a similar manner. Rocks on Mars are weathered down by wind and meteorites, while on the airless Moon, only meteorite impacts are responsible. On Earth of course, such weathering is caused primarily by water and wind.

As for the life question, any kind of surface dwelling organisms would have to be extremely resilient, much like extremophiles on Earth. It should be kept in mind, however, that these results apply to surface conditions; it is still thought possible that any early life on the planet could have continued to thrive underground, protected from the intense ultraviolet light from the Sun, and where some liquid water could still exist today.

Given Mars’ much wetter early history, the search for evidence of past or present life will continue, but we may have to dig deep to find it.

New Image Shows Phoenix Lander’s Solar Panel is Missing

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The Phoenix lander will not be phoning home. A new image of Phoenix taken this month by the HiRISE camera (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels, with one panel appearing to be completely gone. The Phoenix team says this is consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the solar panels.

“Before and after images are dramatically different,” said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE. “The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground.”

Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter. Several attempts to contact Phoenix during the past few months came up empty.

Phoenix parachute and backshell from 2008 (left) and 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL/U of Arizona

“We can see that the lander, heat shield, and backshell-plus-parachute are now covered by dust,” said Mellon and Alfred McEwen on the HiRISE website, “so they lack the distinctive colors of the hardware or the surfaces where the pre-landing dust was disturbed. But if the lander is structurally intact, it should cast the same shadows. While that is indeed the case for the shadow cast by the backshell (which came to rest on its side), that does not appear to be the case for the lander.”

See the larger image of all the various pieces of Phoenix on the HiRISE website.

So now, the Phoenix mission is officially over.

But during its mission on Mars, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.

“We found that the soil above the ice can act like a sponge, with perchlorate scavenging water from the atmosphere and holding on to it,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “You can have a thin film layer of water capable of being a habitable environment. A micro-world at the scale of grains of soil — that’s where the action is.”

The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes. Discovery of the ice in the uppermost soil by Odyssey pointed the way for Phoenix. More recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected numerous ice deposits in middle latitudes at greater depth using radar and exposed on the surface by fresh impact craters.

“Ice-rich environments are an even bigger part of the planet than we thought,” Smith said. “Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others.”

For more info and a look back at Phoenix, check out the Phoenix mission website.

Source: NASA