The success of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter has encouraged engineers to consider and reconsider all options for remote aerial observations of the Red Planet. Additional methods for birds-eye views of Mars would not only provide higher resolution data on the landscapes where rovers can’t go — such as canyons and volcanoes — but also could include studying atmospheric and climate processes that current orbiters and rovers aren’t outfitted to observe.Continue reading “We've Seen a Helicopter on Mars. Next, Sailplanes?”
Asteroid 16 Psyche, often sensationally dubbed the 10,000 quadrillion dollar asteroid due to its composition of valuable metals, may not be entirely what it seems. A new paper out of the University of Arizona suggests that the asteroid is possibly more porous, and less metallic, than previous studies indicated. It still certainly has a mostly metallic structure, but its composition is more complex – and that’s good news. Given the impracticality of space mining (in the near future anyway) 16 Psyche’s real value is scientific: planetary scientists think it is probably the exposed core of a protoplanet from the early days of the Solar System. Studying such an object up close would be enormously useful for understanding planet formation, and this paper is the latest attempt to understand its structure.Continue reading “Asteroid 16 Psyche Might Not be a Solid Chunk of Metal After All, but Another Rubble Pile”
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A lot has been said, penned, and documented about the famous experiment known as “Biosphere 2” (B2). For anyone whose formative years coincided with the early 90s, this name probably sounds familiar. Since the project launched in 1991, it has been heavily publicized, criticized, and was even the subject of a documentary – titled “Spaceship Earth” – that premiered in May of 2020.
To listen to some of what’s been said about B2 (even after 30 years), one might get the impression that it was a failure that proved human beings cannot live together in a sealed environment for extended periods of time. But in truth, it was a tremendous learning experience, the results of which continue to inform human spaceflight and ecosystem research today. In an era of renewed interplanetary exploration, those lessons are more vital than ever.
This is the purpose behind the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM²), a new analog experiment led by Kai Staats and John Adams. Along with an international team of specialists, experts from the University of Arizona, and support provided by NASA, the National Geographic Society, and commercial partners, SAM² will validate the systems and technology that will one-day allow for colonies on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.Continue reading “Space and Sustainability: How the Lessons of Biosphere 2 Inspired SAM²”
What is up with the fossils on Mars? Found – a dinosaur skull on Mars? Discovered – a rat, squirrel or gerbil on Mars? In background of images from Curiosity, vertebrae from some extinct Martian species? And the human skull, half buried in photos from Opportunity Rover. All the images are made of stone from the ancient past and this is also what is called Pareidolia. They are figments of our imaginations, and driven by our interest to be there – on Mars – and to know that we are not alone. Altogether, they make a multitude of web pages and threads across the internet.
Rock-hounds and Martian paleontologists, if only amateur or retired, have found a bounty of fascinating rocks nestled among the rocks on Mars. There are impressive web sites dedicated to each’s eureka moment, dissemination among enthusiasts and presentation for discussion.
NASA scientists have sent the most advanced robotic vehicles to the surface of Mars, to the most fascinating and diverse areas that are presently reachable with our technology and landing skills. The results have been astounding scientifially but also in terms of mysteries and fascination with the strange, alien formations. Some clearly not unlike our own and others that must be fossil remnants from a bygone era – so it seems.
Be sure to explore, through the hyperlinks, many NASA, NASA affiliates’ and third party websites – embedded throughout this article. Also, links to specific websites are listed at the end of the article.
The centerpiece of recent interest is the dinosaur skull protruding from the Martian regolith, teeth still embedded, sparkling efferdent white. There are no sockets for these teeth. Dinosaur dentures gave this senior citizen a few extra good years. The jaw line of the skull has no joint or connection point with the skull. So our minds make up the deficits, fill in the blanks and we agree with others and convince ourselves that this is a fossilized skull. Who knows how this animal could have evolved differently.
But evolve it did – within our minds. Referencing online dictionaries [ref], “Pareidolia is the imagined perception of a pattern (or meaning) where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features.” I must admit that I do not seek out these “discoveries” on Mars but I enjoy looking at them and there are many scientists at JPL that have the same bent. Mars never fails to deliver and caters to everyone, but when skulls and fossils are seen, it is actually us catering to the everyday images and wishes we hold in our minds.
The “Rat on Mars” (main figure, top center) is actually quite anatomically complete and hunkered down, having taken its final gasps of air, eons ago, as some cataclysmic event tore the final vestiges of Earth-like atmosphere off the surface. It died where it once roamed and foraged for … nuts and berries? Surprisingly, no nuts have been found. Blueberries – yes – they are plentiful on Mars and could have been an excellent nutritional source for rats; high in iron and possibly like their Earthly counterpart, high in anti-oxidants.
The blueberries were popularized by Dr. Steve Squyres, the project scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. Discovered in Eagle crater and across Meridiani Planum, “Blueberries” are spherules of concretions of iron rich minerals from water. It is a prime chapter in the follow-the-water story of Mars. And not far from the definition of Pareidolia, Eagle Crater refers to the incredible set of landing bounces that sent “Oppy” inside its capsule, surrounded by airbags on a hole-in-one landing into that little crater.
Next, is the face of Mars of the Cydonia region (Images of Cydonia, Mars, NSSDC). As seen in the morphed images, above, the lower resolution Viking orbiter images presented Mars-o-philes clear evidence of a lost civilization. Then, Washington handed NASA several years of scant funding for planetary science, and not until Mars Global Surveyor, was the Face of Cydonia photographed again. The Mars Orbiter Camera from the University of Arizona delivered high resolution images that dismissed the notion of a mountain-sized carving. Nonetheless, this region of Mars is truly fascinating geologically and does not disappoint those in search of past civilizations.
And long before the face on Mars in Cydonia, there were the canals of Mars. Spotted by the Mars observer Schiaparelli, the astronomer described them as “channels” in his native language of Italian. The translation of the word turned to “Canals” in English which led the World to imagine that an advanced civilization existed on Mars. Imagine if you can for a moment, this world without Internet or TV or radio and even seldom a newspaper to read. When news arrived, people took it verbatim. Canals, civilizations – imagine how imaginations could run with this and all that actually came from it. It turns out that the canals or channels of Mars as seen with the naked eye were optical illusions and a form of Pareidolia.
So, as our imagery from Mars continues to return in ever greater detail and depth, scenes of pareidolia will fall to reason and we are left with understanding. It might seem sterile and clinical but its not. We can continue to enjoy these fascinating rocks – dinosaurs, rats, skulls, human figures – just as we enjoy a good episode of Saturday Night Live. And neither the science or the pareidolia should rob us of our ability to see the shear beauty of Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun.
In the article’s main image, what should not be included is the conglomerate rock on Mars. NASA/JPL scientists and geologists quickly recognized this as another remnant of Martian hydrologics – the flow of water and specifically, the bottom of a stream bed (NASA Rover Finds Old Streambed on Martian Surface). Truly a remarkable discovery and so similar to conglomerate rocks on Earth.
The BeautifulMars Project: Making Mars Speak Human, University of Arizona
MRO HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, University of Arizona
Nine Planets, Mars, general information and links to many other sites
Mars Phoenix Lander, University of Arizona web site
Mind-Blowing Beauty of Mars’ Dunes: HiRISE Photo, Discovery Channel
NASA is puzzled by this “enigmatic landform” caught on camera by one of its Mars orbiters, but looking around the region provides some possible clues. This 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) feature is surrounded by relatively young lava flows, so they suspect that it could be some kind of volcanism in the Athabasca area that created this rippled surface.
“Perhaps lava has intruded underneath this mound and pushed it up from beneath. It looks as if material is missing from the mound, so it is also possible that there was a significant amount of ice in the mound that was driven out by the heat of the lava,” NASA wrote in an update on Thursday (Dec. 4).
“There are an array of features like this in the region that continue to puzzle scientists. We hope that close inspection of this … image, and others around it, will provide some clues regarding its formation.”
The picture was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a University of Arizona payload which has released a whole slew of intriguing pictures lately. We’ve collected a sample of them below.
Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have completed the largest and most sensitive visible-light imaging survey of the debris disks surrounding nearby stars. These dusty disks, likely created by collisions between leftover objects from planet formation, were imaged around stars as young as 10 million years old and as mature as more than 1 billion years old.
The research was conducted by astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Center with the help of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. The survey was led by Glenn Schneider, the results of which appeared in the Oct. 1, 2014, issue of The Astronomical Journal.
“We find that the systems are not simply flat with uniform surfaces,” Schneider said. “These are actually pretty complicated three-dimensional debris systems, often with embedded smaller structures. Some of the substructures could be signposts of unseen planets.”
In addition to learning much about the debris fields that surround neighboring stars, the study presented an opportunity to learn more about the formation of our own Solar System.
“It’s like looking back in time to see the kinds of destructive events that once routinely happened in our solar system after the planets formed,” said Schneider.
Once thought to be flat disks, the study revealed an unexpected diversity and complexity of dusty debris structures surrounding the observed stars. This strongly suggest they are being gravitationally affected by unseen planets orbiting the star.
Alternatively, these effects could result from the stars’ passing through interstellar space. In addition, the researchers discovered that no two “disks” of material surrounding stars were alike.
The astronomers used Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to study 10 previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus, a mature protoplanetary disk that is comparable in age to the youngest of the debris disks.
Irregularities observed in one ring-like system in particular (around HD 181327) resemble the ejection of a huge spray of debris into the outer part of the system from the recent collision of two bodies.
“This spray of material is fairly distant from its host star — roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the Sun,” said co-investigator Christopher Stark of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “Catastrophically destroying an object that massive at such a large distance is difficult to explain, and it should be very rare. If we are in fact seeing the recent aftermath of a massive collision, the unseen planetary system may be quite chaotic.”
Another interpretation for the irregularities is that the disk has been mysteriously warped by the star’s passage through interstellar space, directly interacting with unseen interstellar material. “Either way, the answer is exciting,” Schneider said. “Our team is currently analyzing follow-up observations that will help reveal the true cause of the irregularity.”
Over the past few years astronomers have found an incredible diversity in the architecture of exoplanetary systems. For instance, they have found that planets are arranged in orbits that are markedly different than found in our solar system.
“We are now seeing a similar diversity in the architecture of accompanying debris systems,” Schneider said. “How are the planets affecting the disks, and how are the disks affecting the planets? There is some sort of interdependence between a planet and the accompanying debris that might affect the evolution of these exoplanetary debris systems.”
From this small sample, the most important message to take away is one of diversity, Schneider said. He added that astronomers really need to understand the internal and external influences on these systems – such as stellar winds and interactions with clouds of interstellar material – and how they are influenced by the mass and age of the parent star, and the abundance of heavier elements needed to build planets.
Though astronomers have found nearly 4,000 exoplanet candidates since 1995, mostly by indirect detection methods, only about two dozen light-scattering, circumstellar debris systems have been imaged over that same time period.
That’s because the disks are typically 100,000 times fainter than (and often very close to) their bright parent stars. The majority have been seen because of Hubble’s ability to perform high-contrast imaging, in which the overwhelming light from the star is blocked to reveal the faint disk that surrounds the star.
The new imaging survey also yields insight into how our solar system formed and evolved 4.6 billion years ago. In particular, the suspected planet collision seen in the disk around HD 181327 may be similar to how the Earth-Moon system formed, as well as the Pluto-Charon system over 4 billion years ago. In those cases, collisions between planet-sized bodies cast debris that then coalesced into a companion moon.
Further Reading: The Hubble Site
I love anything that attempts to provide a sense of scale about the Solar System (see here and here for even more examples) and this one brings us down past the Sun, planets, and moons all the way to asteroid size — specifically asteroid 101955 Bennu, the target of the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission.
Created by the OSIRIS-REx “321Science!” team, consisting of communicators, film and graphic arts students, teens, scientists, and engineers, the video shows some relative scales of our planet compared to the Sun, and also the actual size of asteroid Bennu in relation to some familiar human-made structures that we’re familiar with. (My personal take-away from this: Bennu — one of those “half grains of sand” — is a rather small target!)
A NASA New Frontiers mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will launch in Sept. 2016 on a two-year journey to the asteroid 101955 Bennu. Upon arrival OSIRIS-REx will map Bennu’s surface and also measure the Yarkovsky effect, by which asteroids’ trajectories can change over time due to the small force exerted by radiant heat.
As NASA’s missions at the Red Planet age, it’s so important not to take any of the pictures beamed back to Earth for granted.
The latest release of raw images from the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005) is as close as most of us will get to seeing the Red Planet, and each picture captures a planet in action.
Snow, dust and wind are combining to make the incredible images you will see below. These shots, by the way, are close-ups colorized at the source; to see the full raw image, click on each picture you see below.
What the heck is that giant exoplanet doing so far away from its star? Astronomers are still trying to figure out the curious case of HD 106906 b, a newly found gas giant that orbits at an astounding 650 astronomical units or Earth-sun distances from its host star. For comparison, that’s more than 20 times farther from its star than Neptune is from the sun.
“This system is especially fascinating because no model of either planet or star formation fully explains what we see,” stated Vanessa Bailey, a graduate astronomy student at the University of Arizona who led the research.
HD 106906 b is 11 times the size of Jupiter, throwing conventional planetary formation theory for a loop. Astronomers believe that planets gradually form from clumps of gas and dust that circle around young stars, but that process would take too long for this exoplanet to form — the system is just 13 million years old. (Our own planetary system is about 4.5 billion years old, by comparison.)
Another theory is that if the disc collapses quickly, perhaps it could spawn a huge planet — but it’s improbable that there is enough mass in the system for that to happen. Perhaps, the team says, this system is like a “mini binary star system”, with HD 106906 b being more or less a failed star of some sort. Yet there is at least one problem with that theory as well; the mass ratio of the planet and star is something like 1 to 100, and usually these scenarios occur in ratios of 1 to 10 or less.
“A binary star system can be formed when two adjacent clumps of gas collapse more or less independently to form stars, and these stars are close enough to each other to exert a mutual gravitation attraction and bind them together in an orbit,” Bailey stated.
“It is possible that in the case of the HD 106906 system the star and planet collapsed independently from clumps of gas, but for some reason the planet’s progenitor clump was starved for material and never grew large enough to ignite and become a star.”
Besides puzzling out how HD 106906 b came to be, astronomers are also interested in the system because they can clearly see leftovers or a debris disk from the system’s formation. By studying this system further, astronomers hope to figure out more about how young planets evolve.
At 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius), the planet is most easily visible in infrared. The heat is from when the planet was first coalescing, astronomers said.
The astronomers spotted the planet using the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Desert in Chile. It was visible in both the Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system and Clio2 thermal infrared camera on the telescope. The planet was confirmed using Hubble Space Telescope images from eight years ago, as well as the FIRE spectrograph on Magellan that revealed more about the planet’s “nature and composition”, a press release stated.
The research paper is now available on the prepublishing site Arxiv and will be published in a future issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Source: University of Arizona
Stop what you’re doing, grab the nearest 3-D glasses (red/blue type) you have available and then pretend you’re hovering above Mars for a while. These are some of the latest images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been cruising above the planet since 2006.
Make sure to click through these pictures to see the full, raw files from the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) web page. HiRISE was the imager that took these pictures. Enjoy!