Mars Rover Confirms Clay Samples

Mars Curiosity Rover Selfie May 12, 2019
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Curiosity Mars Rover, run by NASA, has been having great success with its primary mission objectives of late. The little rover has been exploring Gale Crater, around the base of a minor Mars mountain, named Mount Sharp, a site which appears to have been an ancient Martian lake. The discovery of high concentrations of clay minerals in two new drill samples taken in the region appear to confirm those suspicions, and lend further strength to the image of Mars once having been a watery planet, capable of harboring forms of life we might recognize.

The rover took a pretty excellent ‘selfie’ on May 12, 2019, in which the two recent drill sites are included so as to give a notion of place to all of this abstracted science that is taking place up there. While this pretty much confirms that Gale Crater once contained a ‘significant’ amount of water, and that the rocks in the nearby area likely formed through a familiar process of sedimentation in those ancient lakes, it still doesn’t get us closer to actual proof of any life forms. The search continues!

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Insight Lander Detects Potential Marsquake

Marsquake
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP/Imperial College London)

The NASA Insights Lander, a new resident of Mars, has as one of it’s primary missions the monitoring of potential seismic events which can provide additional detail about the Martian interior. Insight’s seismometer was placed on the planet’s surface on December 19th, 2018, since which time it has registered three other signals, on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133). The exciting event took place on Sol 128, and was the largest of all signals so far detected, making it likely to be connected to a real Marsquake.

While the idea of earthquakes is all too familiar to residents of Earth, those are caused by faults created through the movement of tectonic plates. On Mars, which does not have tectonic plates, the quakes are thought to be caused by an ongoing cooling and contraction process which results in stress and similar quake phenomenon. Learning more about that process will help us to better understand our neighbor planet. And, I like to speculate, the more we learn about the interior of Mars, the better chance we may have of restarting the core some day, and re-inducing a magnetic field to contribute to terraforming efforts. But that’s a little way down the road!

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Chinese Mars Simulator in Gobi Desert

Mars Base 1
(Image Reference: C-Space / phys.org)
As China continues to grow as a leading superpower in the new century, they have set their sights at space along with just about everything else. And – they are already making some impressive inroads. A few days back, on April 17, 2019 the brand new “Mars Base 1” opened in the Gobi desert, with the goal of simulating a habitat on the red planet. The initial visitors to this facility are teenage students, with the goal of exposing them to and instilling in them the excitement and wonder of a multi-planetary society; at least I would hope that is the goal because it’s a good one!

The base will also be open for tourism soon as well, going to show that China appears to be embracing a more open approach to their space-faring ambitions, and are sharing the steps along the way with educational and economic forces. These two aspects are sure to be force-multipliers to their efforts, and are really the only way to make these sorts of bold projects work, as we enter the second Space Race. Let’s hope the US is taking a hard look at other competitor nations and making sure we not only keep up but stay in the lead. As the Gazette is fond to report, local hero Elon Musk and his SpaceX technology of reusable rockets was the catalyst for this new era, but now, like the T-800 arm and chip, once people know something can be done it is usually a small matter to replicate it. Most other serious space programs in the world are now focusing on re-usability (except for NASA’s SLS, which will hopefully be defunded and scrapped soon). Pushing ahead quickly with a lunar base and then extending the mission to Mars, with the full visibility of the public and the backing of corporate sponsors, is I believe the best, fastest and most likely to succeed path through this new complex landscape!

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Partial Solar Eclipses on Mars

Partial Solar Eclipse from Mars
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

What do you get when you have two little moons, and the sun is in just the right spot? Why, a pair of partial solar eclipses of course! The Curiosity rover on Mars has done a fantastic job of capturing the path of each of the moons of Mars, Phobos (March 26) and Deimos (March 17), passing in front of the sun. The mighty little rover used it’s “Mastcam” and a solar filter to be able to stare directly at the sun and record the fantastic footage.

This observation is important for several reasons. From a scientific point of view, the precise orbit of the moons of Mars had been a little tricky for astronomers to work out prior to having so much hardware over at the red planet. Observations such as this continue to shore up our understanding of the behavior of these bodies.

But what is of more immediate importance is the societal impact that observations such as this can have on the growing understanding and awareness of Mars among the general population. The ability to tie regular events that we experience here on Earth to those same events that are being experienced on another planet helps to make that distant place feel more familiar, and hopefully one day, like home.

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Copters on Mars

Mars Copter
(Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

NASA is hard at work on their new Mars 2020 rover, which is intended to make planet-fall in early 2021. Bundled with this rover is an extra added bonus, of a small exploration-ready helicopter! The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) will mark the first time a human craft has flown on another planet. The potential for exploration is hard to overstate – while the rover programs have been tremendously successful, they are hampered by careful and deliberate navigation of difficult terrain, one inch at a time. An airborne solution suddenly releases scientists from that 2-dimensional constraint, and will open new avenues of research and discovery.

Of course – it also presents technical and AI-related challenges, because the copter must be able to maneuver autonomously in large part, due to the communication delay with the red planet.

What, you may ask, of the atmosphere? Well, that’s a great point! Mars has an atmosphere which is only 1% as dense as that of Earth, but it turns out that is still sufficient for the proposed little copter to take flight. It simply requires blades which are larger, more rigid, and which rotate quite a bit faster than an Earthly counterpart. For more excellent detail, see NASA’s 10 things article all about the copter!

As a summary of the engineering required for the craft, the body of which will be about the size of a softball:
* The Mars Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to tip.
* At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster than an Earth helicopter.
* The blades are much stiffer than any terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be.
* The helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).

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Curiosity Makes Mountain out of Dusthill

Curiosity Rover on Vera Rubin Ridge
(Image Credit: MSSS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity is still out there, day in and day out, doing Science for us all! The latest discovery to come from this hard working and vastly in-extra-innings ‘bot centers around the 3 mile tall Mount Sharp, located in Gale crater on the Martian surface. Using an improvised gravimeter, rigged from the existing accelerometers on board the vehicle, they have found strong evidence that the towering mountain was created through a long process of stacking wind blown material as it was driven into the crater. This is the far less likely result, geologically speaking, but thanks to the new ability to measure the surprisingly low density of the material comprising Mount Sharp, the stacking model looks more likely than one of erosion over time.

The best takeaway here, is of course that it’ll still make a great ski slope in a few years, but may need a little firming up in places. Also, that Curiosity is still working hard, along with the Earth-side engineers who continue to wring valuable Science from our future spare home planet, every hour of the day!

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The Mars Anthropocene


(Image Credit: NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)

In a paper just published on January 4th, Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid discusses the impact that human exploration of Mars is likely to have on that planet. The Anthropocene is a term used to describe the massive changes that have taken place to the Earth resulting from human interaction and activities, and for a similar effect to take place on Mars in a few decades would make it the first multiplanetary geological period.

The changes to be expected on Mars range from unavoidable microbial contamination of the environment to wholesale geographical changes necessitated by habitats and eventual pizza joints (per Musk) that will spring up over time.

One hopes that lessons we can take from the treatment of our own planet, which in many ways hastens the need to find a spare one, could help inform how we should treat our potential new home. How that plays out, and with what wisdom, we will know in the fullness of time, or at least our Grandchildren will.

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Mars – In the Wind

InSight Lander
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A lot of Mars news has been coming out over the past few weeks, fellow red planet enthusiasts, and we are certainly behind in discussing it! Suffice to say, the successful touchdown of NASA’s InSight Lander on November 26th has opened up a new era of science on our brother world. Along with a ton of cool pictures, what really is exciting is the first even audio recording of the martin wind. Behold!

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NASA Mars InSight Lander Almost There

Insight Landing
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It’s sometimes difficult to wrap the mind around what it would really be like to leave the Earth and voyage to Mars. Well, back on May 5th the Gazette reported on the launch of the NASA Mars InSight Lander, and now that lander is several weeks away from landing on the red planet! The landing is projected to be on November 26th, with touchdown taking place at 11:47am Pacific Time, so set your watches.

The lander will utilize a supersonic parachute once it enters the martian atmosphere, and according NASA Chief Engineer Rob Manning, will decelerate from 12,300mph to 5mph at which point retro rockets will bring it to a soft landing on Elysium Planitia.

Remember that the intended mission of this lander is to study the interior of Mars, including gaining insight into Marsquakes. Through this research, additional knowledge about planetary formation and interiors will be gained, allowing us to better understand our very own homeworld.

For all of the additional information you can possibly want on the landing, be sure to check out the official Press Kit.

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Farming Mars

Farming Mars
(Image Credit: NASA)
The culmination of excitement and tech know-how has finally appeared to produce the perfect storm to get us on our way to Mars in the next decade or so. This is great news, and brings with it so many exciting challenges. You thought getting Tang from the original NASA space program was a boon? Just imagine the technologies and techniques we will have to invent and refine in order for the first hearty souls to live off-world.

As such, research is being done on how we can produce food to keep those early settlers alive and fed. Hydroponics is of course a strong area of study, as well as how to coax food from the martian surface. Turns out that poisonous regolith is not the most advantageous or friendly material in which to try to grow potatoes. However, as humans often do, we are finding ways to make it work, or at least some possibilities. At the Florida Institute of Technology as well as Villanova (both excellent links – follow those), students are running experiments with core crops including lettuce, peas, peppers and hops (Mars Bars!) in a variety of soil types simulating martian conditions.

While it is widely accepted that some sort of treatment will need to be done to the martian soil before it is able to produce crops, or frankly not kill us outright, the methods to speed up that remediation and align the hostile environment with human-supporting conditions as quickly as possible seem to get a little better every day.

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