NASA Discovers Salty Liquid Water Flows Intermittently on Mars Today, Bolstering Chance for Life

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false color image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Story/images updated[/caption]

NASA and Mars planetary scientists announced today (Sept. 28) that salty “liquid water flows intermittently” across multiple spots on the surface of today’s Mars – trumpeting a major scientific discovery with far reaching implications regarding the search for life beyond Earth and bolstering the chances for the possible existence of present day Martian microbes.

Utilizing spectroscopic measurements and imaging gathered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), researchers found the first strong evidence confirming that briny water flows on the Red Planet today along dark streaks moving downhill on crater slopes and mountain sides, during warmer seasons.

“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Today we announce that under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, NASA Planetary Science Director at NASA Headquarters, at a media briefing held today, Sept 28.

“When you look at Earth, water is an essential ingredient. Everywhere we go where there’s liquid water, whether its deep in the Earth or in the arid regions, we find life. This is tremendously exciting.”

“We haven’t been able to answer the question – does life exist beyond Earth? But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have great opportunities to be in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that,” Green elaborated.

“Water! Strong evidence that liquid water flows on present-day Mars,” NASA officials tweeted about the discovery.

The evidence comes in the form of the detection of mysterious dark streaks, as long as 100 meters, showing signatures of hydrated salt minerals periodically flowing in liquid water down steep slopes on the Red Planet that “appear to ebb and flow over time.”

The source of the water is likely from the shallow subsurface or possibly absorbed from the atmosphere.

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (RED) image (ESP_031059_1685) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.    Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (RED) image (ESP_031059_1685) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Water is a key prerequisite for the formation and evolution of life as we know it. So the new finding significantly bolsters the chances that present day extant life could exist on the Red Planet.

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

“This increases the chance that life could exist on Mars today,” noted Grunsfeld.

The data were gathered by and the conclusions are based on using two scientific instruments – the high resolution imaging spectrometer on MRO known as High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), as well as MRO’s mineral mapping Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

The mysterious dark streaks of downhill flows are known as recurring slope lineae (RSL).

They were first detected in 2010 at dozens of sites on the sun facing slopes of deep craters by Lujendra Ojha, then a University of Arizona undergraduate student.

The new finding is highly significant because until today’s announcement, there was no strong evidence that liquid water could actually exist on the Martian surface because the atmospheric pressure was thought to be far too low – its less than one percent of Earth’s.

The flow of water is occasional and not permanent, seasonally variable and dependent on having just the right mix of atmospheric, temperature and surface conditions with salt deposits on Mars.

Portions of Mars were covered with an ocean of water billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and more hospitable to life. But it underwent a dramatic climate change some 3 billion years ago and lost most of that water.

The RSL with flowing water appear in at least three different locations on Mars – including Hale crater, Horowitz crater and Palikir crater – when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius). They appear during warm seasons, fade in cooler seasons and disappear during colder times.

Pure surface water ice would simply sublimate and evaporate away as the temperature rises. Mixing in surface salts lowers the melting point of ice, thereby allowing the water to potentially liquefy on Mars surface for a certain period of time rather than sublimating rapidly away.

“These are dark streaks that form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear in the fall,” said Michael Meyer lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, at the media briefing.

Years of painstaking effort and laboratory work was required to verify and corroborate the finding of flowing liquid water.

“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Meyer. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”

The dark, narrow streaks flowing downhill on Mars at sites such as this portion of Horowitz Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on modern-day Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field. These dark features on the slopes are called "recurring slope lineae" or RSL. The imaging and topographical information in this processed view come from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
The dark, narrow streaks flowing downhill on Mars at sites such as this portion of Horowitz Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on modern-day Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field. These dark features on the slopes are called “recurring slope lineae” or RSL. The imaging and topographical information in this processed view come from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Along with the media announcement, the researchers published their findings today in a refereed scientific paper in the Sept. 28 issue of Nature Geoscience.

“We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks,” said Lujendra Ojha, now at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, and lead author of the Sept. 28 publication in Nature Geoscience.

The scientists “interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates.”

Ojha said the chemical signatures from CRISM were most consistent with the detection of mixtures of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate, based on lab experiments.

“Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius).”

Perchlorates have previously been detected in Martian soil by two of NASA’s surface missions – the Phoenix lander and the Curiosity rover. There is also some evidence that NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts.

On Earth concentration of perchlorates are found in deserts.

This also marks the first time perchlorates have been identified from Mars orbit.

Locations of RSL features on Mars
Locations of RSL features on Mars

NASA’s overriding agency wide goal is to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

So NASA astronaut Mark Kelly exclaimed that he was also super excited about the findings, from his perch serving as Commander aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where he is a member of the first ever “1 Year ISS Mission Crew” aimed at learning how the human body will adapt to the long term missions required to send astronauts to Mars and back.

“One reason why NASA’s discovery of liquid water on #Mars is so exciting: we know anywhere there’s water on Earth, there’s some form of life,” Kelly tweeted today from on board the ISS, upon hearing today’s news.

The discovery of liquid water on Mars could also be a boon to future astronauts who could use it as a natural resource to ‘live off the land’ for sustenance and to make rocket fuel.

“If going to Mars on my Year In Space, I’d arrive soon to find water! H20 > rocket fuel, which means I could find my way back home too!,” Kelly wrote on his Facebook page.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” Ojha explained.

“Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.”

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

Ken Kremer

First Interplanetary CubeSats to Launch on NASA’s 2016 InSight Mars Lander

NASA’s two small MarCO CubeSats will be flying past Mars in 2016 just as NASA’s next Mars lander, InSight, is descending to land on the surface. MarCO, for Mars Cube One, will provide an experimental communications relay to inform Earth quickly about the landing. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
See fly by and cubesat spacecraft graphics and photos below[/caption]

CubeSats are taking the next great leap for science – departing Earth and heading soon for the fourth rock from the Sun.

For the first time, two tiny CubeSat probes will launch into deep space in early 2016 on their first interplanetary expedition – aiming for the Red Planet as part of an experimental technology relay demonstration project aiding NASA’s next Mission to Mars; the InSight lander.

NASA announced the pair of briefcase-sized CubeSats, called Mars Cube One or MarCO, as a late and new addition to the InSight mission, that could substantially enhance communications options on future Mars missions. They were designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California.

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.

InSight is the first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. Its purpose is to elucidate the nature of the Martian core, measure heat flow and sense for “Marsquakes.”

The full-scale mock-up of NASA's MarCO CubeSat held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration, is dwarfed by the one-half-scale model of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter behind her.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The full-scale mock-up of NASA’s MarCO CubeSat held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration, is dwarfed by the one-half-scale model of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter behind her. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because of their small size – roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square) – and simplicity using off-the-shelf components, they are a favored platform for university students and others seeking low cost access to space – such as the Planetary Society’s recently successful Light Sail solar sailing cubesat demonstration launched in May. Six units are combined together to create MarCO.

Over the past few years many hundreds of cubesats have already been deployed in Earth orbit – including many dozens from the International Space Station (ISS) – but these will be the first going far beyond our Home Planet.

Data relayed by MarCO at 8 kbps in real time could reveal InSight’s fate on the Martian surface within minutes to mission controllers back on Earth, rather than waiting for a potentially prolonged period of agonizing nail-biting lasting an hour or more.

The two probes, known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, will operate during InSight’s highly complex entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations as it descends through the thin Martian atmosphere. Their function is merely to quickly relay landing data. But the cubesats will have no impact on the ultimate success of the mission. They will intentionally sail by but not land on Mars.

“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

The MarCO Cubesats will serve as a test bed for a revolutionary communications mode that seeks to quickly relay data back to Earth about the status of InSight – in real time – as it plummets down to the Red Planet for the “Seven Minutes of Terror” that hopefully climaxes with a soft landing.

The MarCO duo will fly by past Mars at a planned distance and altitude of about 3,500 kilometers as InSight descends towards the surface during EDL operations. They will rapidly retransmit signals coming from the lander in real time, directly back to NASA’s huge Deep Space Network (DSN) receiving dish antennas back on Earth.

 MarCO cubesats fly by trajectory for rapid communications relay as NASA’s InSight spacecraft lands on Mars in September 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MarCO cubesats fly by trajectory for rapid communications relay as NASA’s InSight spacecraft lands on Mars in September 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For this flight, six cubesats will be joined together to provide the additional capability required for the journey to Mars and to accomplish their communications task.

The six-unit MarCO CubeSat has a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters) and weighs 14 kilograms.

The solar powered probes will be outfitted with UHF and X-band communications gear as well as propulsion, guidance and more.

The overall cost to design, build, launch and operate MarCO-A and MarCO-B is approximately $13 million, a NASA spokesperson told Universe Today.

InSight and MarCO are slated to blastoff together on March 4, 2016 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

After launch, both MarCO CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet.

“MarCO will fly independently to Mars,” says Green.

They will be navigated independently from InSight. They will all reach Mars at approximately the same time for InSight’s landing slated for Sept. 28, 2016.

MarCO’s two solar panels and two radio antennas will unfurl after being released from the Atlas booster. The high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves the way a parabolic dish antenna does,” according to a NASA description.

The softball-size radio “provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.”

MarCO cubesat graphic annotated to show dimensions, instruments, physical characteristics and capabilities.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
MarCO cubesat graphic annotated to show dimensions, instruments, physical characteristics and capabilities. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During EDL, InSight will transmit landing data via UHF radio to the MarCO cubesats sailing past Mars as well as to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) soaring overhead.

MarCO will assist InSight by receiving the lander information transmitted in the UHF radio band and then immediately forward EDL information to Earth using the X-band radio. By contrast, MRO cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another, thus delaying confirmation of a successful landing possibly by an hour or more.

Engineers for NASA's MarCO technology demonstration display a full-scale mechanical mock-up of the small craft in development as part of NASA's next mission to Mars. Mechanical engineer Joel Steinkraus and systems engineer Farah Alibay are on the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, preparing twin MarCO (Mars Cube One) CubeSats for a March 2016 launch.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Engineers for NASA’s MarCO technology demonstration display a full-scale mechanical mock-up of the small craft in development as part of NASA’s next mission to Mars. Mechanical engineer Joel Steinkraus and systems engineer Farah Alibay are on the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, preparing twin MarCO (Mars Cube One) CubeSats for a March 2016 launch. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, it could allow for a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown,” say NASA officials.

It’s also very beneficial and critical to the success of future missions to have a stream of data following the progress of past missions so that lessons can be learned and applied, whatever the outcome.

“By verifying CubeSats are a viable technology for interplanetary missions, and feasible on a short development timeline, this technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system,” says NASA.

InSight will smash into the Martian atmosphere at high speeds of approximately 13,000 mph in September 2016 and then decelerate within a few minutes for landing via a heat shield, retro rocket and parachute assisted touchdown on the plains at flat-lying terrain at “Elysium Planitia,” some four degrees north of Mars’ equator, and a bit north of the Curiosity rover.

As I reported in recently here, InSight has now been assembled into its flight configuration and begun a comprehensive series of rigorous 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 towards liftoff in less than nine months time in March 2016.

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

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

Ken Kremer

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

Defining Life I: What are Astrobiologists Looking For?

How can astrobiologists find extraterrestrial life? In everyday life, we usually don’t have any problem telling that a dog or a rosebush is a living thing and a rock isn’t. In the climatic scene of the movie ‘Europa Report’ we can tell at a glance that the multi-tentacled creature discovered swimming in the ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa is alive, complicated, and quite possibly intelligent.

But unless something swims, walks, crawls, or slithers past the cameras of a watching spacecraft, astrobiologists face a much tougher job. They need to devise tests that will allow them to infer the presence of alien microbial life from spacecraft data. They need to be able to recognize fossil traces of past alien life. They need to be able to determine whether the atmospheres of distant planets circling other stars contain the tell-tale traces of unfamiliar forms of life. They need ways to infer the presence of life from knowledge of its properties. A definition of life would tell them what those properties are, and how to look for them. This is the first of a two part series exploring how our concept of life influences the search for extraterrestrial life.

What is it that sets living things apart? For centuries, philosophers and scientists have sought an answer. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) devoted a great deal of effort to dissecting animals and studying living things. He supposed that they had distinctive special capacities that set them apart from things that aren’t alive. Inspired by the mechanical inventions of his times, the Renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that living things were like clockwork machines, their special capacities deriving from the way their parts were organized.

In 1944, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) wrote What is Life? In it, he proposed that the fundamental phenomena of life, including even how parents pass on their traits to their offspring, could be understood by studying the physics and chemistry of living things. Schrödinger’s book was an inspiration to the science of molecular biology.

Living organisms are made of large complicated molecules with backbones of linked carbon atoms. Molecular biologists were able to explain many of the functions of life in terms of these organic molecules and the chemical reactions they undergo when dissolved in liquid water. In 1955 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and showed how it could be the storehouse of hereditary information passed from parent to offspring.

While all this research and theorizing has vastly increased our understanding of life, it hasn’t produced a satisfactory definition of life; a definition that would allow us to reliably distinguish things that are alive from things that aren’t. In 2012 the philosopher Edouard Mahery argued that coming up with a single definition of life was both impossible and pointless. Astrobiologists get by as best they can with definitions that are partial, and that have exceptions. Their search is conditioned by our knowledge of the specific features of life on Earth; the only life we currently know.

Here on Earth, living things are distinctive in their chemical composition. Besides carbon, the elements hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are particularly important to the large organic molecules that make up terrestrial life. Water is a necessary solvent. Since we don’t know for sure what else might be possible, the search for extraterrestrial life typically assumes its chemical composition will be similar to that of life on Earth.

Making use of that assumption, astrobiologists assign a high priority to the search for water on other celestial bodies. Spacecraft evidence has proven that Mars once had bodies of liquid water on its surface. Determining the history and extent of this water is a central goal of Mars exploration. Astrobiologists are excited by evidence of subsurface oceans of water on Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and perhaps on other moons or dwarf planets. But while the presence of liquid water implies conditions appropriate for Earth-like life, it doesn’t prove that such life exists or has ever existed.

Europa
Jupiter’s icy moon Europa appears to host liquid water, an essential condition for life as we know it on Earth. Its surface is covered with a crust of water ice. The Voyager and Galileo spacecraft have provided evidence that under this icy crust, there is an ocean of saltwater, containing more liquid water than all the oceans of Earth. Europa’s interior is heated by gravitational tidal forces exerted by giant Jupiter. This heat energy may drive volcanism, hydrothermal vents, and the production of chemical energy sources that living things could make use of. Interaction between materials from Europa’s surface and the ocean environment beneath could make available carbon and other chemical elements essential for Earth-like life.
Credits: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SETI Institute

Organic chemicals are necessary for Earth-like life, but, as for water, their presence doesn’t prove that life exists, because organic materials can also be formed by non-biological processes. In 1976, NASA’s two Viking landers were the first spacecraft to make fully successful landings on Mars. They carried an instrument; called the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, that tested the soil for organic molecules.

Even without life, scientists expected to find some organic materials in the Martian soil. Organic materials formed by non-biological processes are found in carbonaceous meteorites, and some of these meteorites should have fallen on Mars. They were surprised to find nothing at all. At the time, the failure to find organic molecules was considered a major blow to the possibility of life on Mars.

In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered an explanation of why Viking didn’t detect organic molecules. If found that the Martian soil contains perchlorates. Containing oxygen and chlorine, perchlorates are oxidizing agents that can break down organic material. While perchlorates and organic molecules could coexist in Martian soil, scientists determined that heating the soil for the Viking analysis would have caused the perchlorates to destroy any organic material it contained. Martian soil might contain organic materials, after all.

At a news briefing in December 2014, NASA announced that an instrument carried on board the Curiosity Mars rover had succeeded in detected simple organic molecules on Mars for the first time. Researchers believe it is possible that the molecules detected may be breakdown products of more complex organic molecules that were broken down by perchlorates during the process of analysis.

electron micrograph of Mars meteorite
In 1996 a team of scientists lead by Dr. David McKay of NASA’s Johnson Space Center announced possible evidence of life on Mars. The evidence came from their studies of a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica, called Alan Hills 84001. The researchers found chemical and physical traces of possible life including carbonate globules that resemble terrestrial nanobacteria (electron micrograph shown) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In terrestrial rock, the chemical traces would be considered breakdown products of bacterial life. The findings became the subject of controversy as non-biological explanations for the findings were found. Today, they are no longer regarded as definitive evidence of Martian life.
Credits: NASA Johnson Space Center

The chemical make-up of terrestrial life has also guided the search for traces of life in Martian meteorites. In 1996 a team of investigators lead by David McKay of the Johnson Space Center in Houston reported evidence that a Martian meteorite found at Alan Hills in Antarctica in 1984 contained chemical and physical evidence of past Martian life.

There have since been similar claims about other Martian meteorites. But, non-biological explanations for many of the findings have been proposed, and the whole subject has remained embroiled in controversy. Meteorites have not so far yielded the kind of evidence needed to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life beyond reasonable doubt.

Following Aristotle, most scientists prefer to define life in terms of its capacities rather than its composition. In the second installment, we will explore how our understanding of life’s capacities has influenced the search for extraterrestrial life.

References and further reading:

N. Atkinson (2009) Perchlorates and Water Make for Potential Habitable Environment on Mars, Universe Today.

S. A. Benner (2010), Defining life, Astrobiology, 10(10):1021-1030.

E. Machery (2012), Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life…and why you should as well, Synthese, 185:145-164.

L. J. Mix (2015), Defending definitions of life, Astrobiology, 15(1) posted on-line in advance of publication.

T. Reyes (2014) NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars, Universe Today.

S. Tirard, M. Morange, and A. Lazcano, (2010), The definition of life: A brief history of an elusive scientific endeavor, Astrobiology, 10(10):1003-1009.

Did Viking Mars landers find life’s building blocks? Missing piece inspires new look at puzzle. Science Daily Featured Research Sept. 5, 2010

NASA rover finds active and ancient organic chemistry on Mars, Jet Propulsion laboratory, California Institute of Technology, News, Dec. 16, 2014.

Europa: Ingredients for Life?, National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Mars One Soliciting Your Research Ideas for 2018 Robotic Red Planet Lander

Would you like to send your great idea for a research experiment to Mars and are searching for a method of transport?

The Mars One non-profit foundation that’s seeking settlers for a one-way trip to establish a permanent human colony on the Red Planet starting in the mid-2020’s, is now soliciting science and marketing proposals in a worldwide competition for their unmanned forerunner mission – the 2018 Mars One technology demonstration lander.

The Dutch-based Mars One team announced this week that they are seeking requests for proposals for seven payloads that would launch in August 2018 on humanities first ever privately financed robotic Red Planet lander.

Mars One hopes that the 2018 lander experiments will set the stage for liftoff of the first human colonists in 2024. Crews of four will depart every two years.

Artist's conception of Mars One human settlement. Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg
Artist’s conception of Mars One human settlement. Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg

The 2018 lander structure would be based on NASA’s highly successful 2007 Phoenix Mars lander – built by Lockheed Martin – which discovered and dug into water ice buried just inches beneath the topsoil in the northern polar regions of the Red Planet.

Mars One has contracted with Lockheed Martin to build the new 2018 lander.

Lockheed is also currently assembling another Phoenix-like lander for NASA named InSight which is scheduled to blast off for Mars in 2016.

The payloads being offered fall under three categories; four science demonstration payloads, a single university science experiment, and two payload spaces up for sale to the highest bidder for science or marketing or “anything in between.”

The science payload competition is open to anyone including universities, research bodies, and companies from around the world.

“Previously, the only payloads that have landed on Mars are those which NASA has selected,” said Bas Lansdorp, Co-founder & CEO of Mars One, in a statement. “We want to open up the opportunity to the entire world to participate in our mission to Mars by sending a certain payload to the surface of Mars.”

The four science demonstration payloads will test some of the technologies critical for establishing the future human settlement. They include soil acquisition experiments to extract water from the Martian soil into a useable form to test technologies for future human colonists; a thin film solar panel to demonstrate power production; and a camera system working in combination with a Mars-synchronous communications satellite to take a ‘real time’ look on Mars.

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: Ken Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute
3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice
Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. Proposed Mars One 2018 mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander from scratch to test technologies for extracting water into a useable form for future human colonists. NASA’s InSight 2016 mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Ken Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

The single University competition payload is open to universities worldwide and “can include scientific experiments, technology demonstrations or any other exciting idea.” Click here for – submission information.

Furthermore two of the payloads are for sale “to the highest bidder” says Mars One in a statement and request for proposals document.

The payloads for sale “can take the form of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, marketing and publicity campaigns, or any other suggested payload,” says Mars One.

“We are opening our doors to the scientific community in order to source the best ideas from around the world,” said Arno Wielders, co-founder and chief technical officer of Mars One.

Image shows color MOLA relief with US lander landing sites (Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University). Yellow box indicates Mars One Precursor landing regions under consideration.
Image shows color MOLA relief with US lander landing sites (Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University). Yellow box indicates Mars One Precursor landing regions under consideration.

“The ideas that are adopted will not only be used on the lander in 2018, but will quite possibly provide the foundation for the first human colony on Mars. For anyone motivated by human exploration, there can be no greater honor than contributing to a manned mission to Mars.”

Click here for the Mars One 2018 Lander ‘Request for Proposals.’

Over 200,000 Earthlings applied to Mars One to become future human colonists. That list has recently been narrowed to 705.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about NASA’s Mars missions and Orbital Sciences Antares ISS launch on July 11 from NASA Wallops, VA in July and more about SpaceX, Boeing and commercial space and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations.

July 10/11: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Launch from Virginia” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Mars One Proposes First Privately Funded Robotic Mars Missions – 2018 Lander & Orbiter

The Mars One non-profit foundation that aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet in the mid-2020’s – with colonists volunteering for a one-way trip – took a major step forward today, Dec. 10, when they announced plans to launch the first ever privately funded space missions to Mars in 2018; as forerunners to gather critical measurements.

Bas Lansdorp, Mars One Co-founder and CEO announced plans to launch two missions to the Red Planet in 2018 – consisting of a robotic lander and an orbiting communications satellite; essential for transmitting the data collected on the Red Planet’s surface.

And he has partnered with a pair of prestigious space companies to get started.

Lansdorp made the announcement at a news media briefing held today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“This will be the first private mission to Mars and the lander’s successful arrival and operation will be a historic accomplishment,” said Lansdorp.

Lansdorp stated that Mars One has signed contracts with Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) to develop mission concept studies – both are leading aerospace companies with vast experience in building spacecraft.

The 2018 Mars One lander would be a technology demonstrator and include a scoop, cameras and an exotic solar array to boost power and longevity.

The spacecraft structure would be based on NASA’s highly successful 2007 Phoenix Mars lander – built by Lockheed Martin – which discovered and dug into water ice buried just inches beneath the topsoil in the northern polar regions of the Red Planet.

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: Ken Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute
3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice
Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. Proposed Mars One 2018 mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander from scratch to test technologies for extracting water into a useable form for future human colonists. NASA’s InSight 2016 mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Ken Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

“We are excited to have been selected by Mars One for this ambitious project and we’re already working on the mission concept study, starting with the proven design of Phoenix,” said Ed Sedivy, Civil Space chief engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “Having managed the Phoenix spacecraft development, I can tell you, landing on Mars is challenging and a thrill and this is going to be a very exciting mission.”

Lockheed Martin engineers will work for the next 3 to 4 months to study mission concepts as well as how to stack the orbiter and lander on the launcher,” Sedivy said at the briefing.

“The lander will provide proof of concept for some of the technologies that are important for a permanent human settlement on Mars,” said Lansdorp.

Two examples involve experiments to extract water into a usable form and construction of a thin film solar array to provide additional power to the spacecraft and eventual human colonists.

It would include a Phoenix like scoop to collect soils for the water extraction experiment and cameras for continuous video recording transmitted by the accompanying orbiter.

Lockheed Martin is already under contract to build another Phoenix type lander for NASA that is slated to blastoff in 2016 on the InSight mission.

“They have a distinct legacy of participating in nearly every NASA mission to Mars,” said Lansdorp.

So if sufficient funding is found it seems apparent that lander construction should be accomplished in time.

However, building the science instruments from scratch to meet the tight timeline could be quite challenging.

Given that the lander is planned to launch in barely over four years, I asked Sedivy if that was sufficient time to select, design and develop the new science instruments planned for the 2018 mission.

“A typical life cycle for the Mars program provides three and a half years from commitment to design to launch. So we have about 1 year to commit to preliminary design for the 2018 launch, so that’s favorable,” Sedivy told Universe Today.

“Now as for having enough time for selecting the suite of science experiments that’s a little trickier. It depends on what’s actually selected and the maturity of those elements selected.”

“So we will provide Mars One with input as to where we see the development risks. And we’ll help guide the instrument selections to have a high probability that they will be ready in time for the 2018 launch window,” Sedivy told me.

Video caption: Mars One Crowdfunding Campaign 2018 Mars Mission

For the 2018 lander, Mars One also plans to include an experiment from a worldwide university challenge and items from several Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) challenge winners.

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) was selected to studying orbiter concepts that will provide a high bandwidth communications system in a Mars synchronous orbit and will be used to relay data and a live video feed from the lander on the surface of Mars back to Earth, according to Sir Martin Sweeting, Executive Chairman of SSTL.

There are still many unknowns at this stage including the sources for all the significant funding required by Mars One to transform their concepts into actual flight hardware.

“Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing activities are important means to do that,” said Lansdorp.

At the briefing, Lansdorp stated that Mars One has started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. The goal is to raise $400,000 by Jan. 25, 2014.

Link to – Indiegogo Mars One campaign

Mars One is looking for sponsors and partners. They also plan a TV show to help select the winners of the first human crew to Mars from over 200,000 applicants from countries spread all across Earth.

The preliminary 2018 mission study contracts with Lockheed and Surrey are valued at $260,000 and $80,000 respectively.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news and his upcoming Antares launch reports from on site at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA.

Ken Kremer

…………….

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

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

Dec 15-20: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening

Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats

[/caption]

Only time now stands in the way of Curiosity’s long awaited date with the Red Planet. NASA’s next, and perhaps last Mars rover was transported to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and then hoisted on top of the mighty Atlas V rocket that will propel her on a 10 month interplanetary journey to Mars to seek out the potential habitats of Extraterrestrial life.

In less than three weeks on November 25 – the day after Thanksgiving – the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover will soar to space aboard the Atlas V booster. Touchdown astride a layered mountain at the Gale Crater landing site is set for August 2012.

Collage showing transport of Curiosity inside nose cone to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: NASA

The $2.5 Billion rover must liftoff by Dec. 18 at the latest, when the launch window to Mars closes for another 26 months. Any delay would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Curiosity represents a quantum leap in science capabilities and is by far the most advanced robotic emissary sent to the surface of another celestial body. MSL will operate for a minimum of one Martian year, equivalent to 687 days on earth.

After years of meticulous design work and robotic construction by dedicated scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and months of vigilant final assembly and preflight processing at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Curiosity was finally moved the last few miles (km) she’ll ever travel on Earth – in the dead of night – to Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape.

Curiosity inside the Nose Cone to Mars. In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Atlas V rocket's payload fairing containing the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft stands securely atop the transporter that will carry it to Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The robo behemoth was tucked inside her protective aeroshell Mars entry capsule and clamshell-like nose cone, gingerly loaded onto the payload transporter inside the PHSF and arrived – after a careful drive – at Pad 41 at about 4:35 a.m. EDT on Nov. 3. The move was delayed one day by high winds at the Cape.

Employees at Space Launch Complex 41 keep watch as the payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft is lifted up the side of the Vertical Integration Facility. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Teams from rocket builder United Launch Alliance then hoisted MSL by crane on top of the Atlas V rocket already assembled inside the launch gantry known as the Vertical Integration Facility, or VIF, and bolted it to the venerable Centaur upper stage. Technicians also attached umbilicals for mechanical, electrical and gaseous connections.

Curiosity’s purpose is to search for evidence of habitats that could ever have supported microbial life on Mars and determine whether the ingredients of life exist on Mars today in the form of organic molecules – the building blocks of life.

We are all made of organic molecules – which is one of the essential requirements for the genesis of life along with water and an energy source. Mars harbors lots of water and is replete with energy sources, but confirmation of organics is what’s lacking.

Curiosity, inside the payload fairing at Pad 41, has been attached to a lifting device in order to be raised and attached to the Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility. The fairing will protect the payload from heat and aerodynamic pressure generated during ascent. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The Atlas V will launch in the configuration known as Atlas 541. The 4 indicates a total of four solid rocket motors (SRM) are attached to the base of the first stage. The 5 indicates a five meter diameter payload fairing. The 1 indicates use of a single engine Centaur upper stage.

One of the last but critical jobs remaining at the pad is installation of Curiosity’s MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) power source about a week before launch around Nov. 17. Technicians will install the MMRTG through small portholes on the side of the payload fairing and aeroshell.

The nuclear power source will significantly enhance the driving range, scientific capability and working lifetime of the six wheeled rover compared to other solar powered landed surface explorers like Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Phobos-Grunt.

The minivan sized rover measures three meters in length, roughly twice the size of the MER rovers; Spirit and Opportunity. MSL is equipped with 10 science instruments for a minimum two year expedition across Gale crater. The science payload weighs ten times more than any prior Mars rover mission.

The Atlas V rocket and Curiosity will roll out to the launch pad on Wednedsay, November 23, the day before Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and Phobos is on target to blast off on November 9, Moscow time [Nov 8, US time].

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov 9 launch here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

MESSENGER and other Significant Mission Events in 2008

atmercury_sm.thumbnail.jpg

Today, the MESSENGER spacecraft will perform a significant task in its mission by making its first flyby of Mercury (see more info below). Additionally, other spacecraft that are out doing their jobs in various locations of our solar system will have significant mission events occur in 2008. Let’s take a look at the big events coming up this year.

January 14: MESSENGER Flyby of Mercury

Messenger, the MEercury Surface Space ENvironment GEochemistry and Ranging spacecraft, will be the first spacecraft to visit Mercury in almost 33 years. It will explore and take close-up images of parts of the planet that we’ve never seen before. This is the first of three flybys of Mercury the spacecraft will take before settling into orbit in 2011. MESSENGER’s cameras and other instruments will collect more than 1,200 images and make other observations during this approach, encounter and departure. The closest approach of the flyby will occur at 19:04:42 UTC (2:04:42 EST), but mission managers said pictures from the event may not be released for up to a week.

March 12: Cassini flies through the plume of Enceladus’ geyser

The Cassini spacecraft will fly extremely close to Saturn’s moon Enceladus at an altitude of only 23 km (14 mi), and actually fly through the plume of an active geyser on the moon’s south pole. How such a cold moon could host an area warm enough to have erupting water vapor is a mystery. Scientists are pondering if Enceladus has active ice volcanism, and if so, is it due to ice sublimating, like a comet, or due to a different mechanism, like boiling water as in Old Faithful at Yellowstone. This flyby will help answer those questions.

Cassini will also have several relatively close flybys this year of the moon Titan. The flybys will occur on Feb. 22, March 25, and May 12.

May 25: Phoenix lands on Mars

Phoenix will land in the north polar region of Mars and will help characterize the climate and geology of the Red Planet, as well as possibly determine if live ever arose on Mars. Pursuing NASA’s “Follow the Water” strategy, the lander will dig through soil to reach water ice with its robotic arm and perform numerous scientific experiments. Phoenix launched on Aug. 4, 2007. University of Arizona’s Phoenix page

September 5: Rosetta flyby of Asteroid Steins

The Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to orbit comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, but in the meantime it will pass by Asteroid 2867 Steins. During the flyby, Rosetta will study Steins to determine and characterize the asteroid’s surface composition and morphology. Asteroid Steins is roughly 10 km in diameter.