MarsNews.com
June 18th, 2019

Meteors help Martian clouds form

This image, taken from a computer simulation, shows middle altitude clouds on Mars. (Courtesy Victoria Hartwick)

How did the Red Planet get all of its clouds? CU Boulder researchers may have discovered the secret: just add meteors.

Astronomers have long observed clouds in Mars’ middle atmosphere, which begins about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface, but have struggled to explain how they formed.

Now, a new study, which will be published on June 17 in the journal Nature Geoscience, examines those wispy accumulations and suggests that they owe their existence to a phenomenon called “meteoric smoke”—essentially, the icy dust created by space debris slamming into the planet’s atmosphere.

The findings are a good reminder that planets and their weather patterns aren’t isolated from the solar systems around them.

“We’re used to thinking of Earth, Mars and other bodies as these really self-contained planets that determine their own climates,” said Victoria Hartwick, a graduate student in the Department of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences (ATOC) and lead author of the new study. “But climate isn’t independent of the surrounding solar system.”

The research, which included co-authors Brian Toon at CU Boulder and Nicholas Heavens at Hampton University in Virginia, hangs on a basic fact about clouds: They don’t come out of nowhere.

“Clouds don’t just form on their own,” said Hartwick, also of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder. “They need something that they can condense on to.”

On Earth, for example, low-lying clouds begin life as tiny grains of sea salt or dust blown high into the air. Water molecules clump around these particles, becoming bigger and bigger until they form the large puffs that you can see from the ground.

But, as far as scientists can tell, those sorts of cloud seeds don’t exist in Mars’ middle atmosphere, Hartwick said. And that’s what led her and her colleagues to meteors.

June 17th, 2019

NASA’s MRO Snaps ‘Black-And-Blue’ Impact Crater on Mars

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) snapped an image of a “black-and-blue” impact crater on the Red Planet. (Photo Credit: Nahúm Méndez Chazarra, NASA / JPL / University of Arizona)

Mars recently received a hard “punch” when a small space rock hurtled into the Red Planet’s surface and created a new impact crater that looks like a black-and-blue bruise.

The impact crater, which is estimated to be 49 feet to 53 feet in width, was captured in a new image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Space.com reported. The MRO, which has been analyzing Mars for more than 13 years with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera and its lower-resolution Context Camera (CTX), snapped a HiRISE color image in April and it was shared by NASA on June 6. Researchers say the “black-and-blue” Mars crater could have formed between September 2016 and February 2019.

June 14th, 2019

To Make a Field Guide to Life on Mars, First Head to the Deep Sea

An artist’s rendering of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-CALTECH

In 2021, a NASA rover will touch down on Mars in search of signs of life, past or present. It will investigate the surface of the red planet and collect samples from areas that seem particularly promising. But traces of life on Mars—if they exist—aren’t going to be apparent to the naked eye: Obviously there’s no remains of mammoths or goldfish or snails. Any record of life on Mars would likely take the form of organic compounds, which have already been identified up there but aren’t definitive, or actual fossils of microorganisms. Such fossils exist here on Earth, but they’re very tricky to spot—even in places we know they’ll be. The best strategy for finding these miniscule traces, according to a group of Scandinavian scientists, is to study the denizens of the deep sea. This team now plans to create an atlas of fossilized microbes from Earth’s oceans—an extraterrestrial field guide of sorts—to help the rover and its human partners identify definitive proof of life on Mars, according to their recent article in Frontiers in Earth Science.

June 13th, 2019

NASA’s Mars 2020 Will Blaze a Trail – for Humans

This artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier to explore for humans. Credit: NASA

When a female astronaut first sets foot on the Moon in 2024, the historic moment will represent a step toward another NASA first: eventually putting humans on Mars. NASA’s latest robotic mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020, aims to help future astronauts brave that inhospitable landscape.

While the science goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to look for signs of ancient life – it will be the first spacecraft to collect samples of the Martian surface, caching them in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future mission – the vehicle also includes technology that paves the way for human exploration of Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide and extremely thin (about 100 times less dense than Earth’s), with no breathable oxygen. There’s no water on the surface to drink, either. The landscape is freezing, with no protection from the Sun’s radiation or from passing dust storms. The keys to survival will be technology, research and testing.

Mars 2020 will help on all those fronts. When it launches in July of 2020, the spacecraft will carry the latest scientific and engineering tools, which are coming together as the rover is built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Here’s a closer look:

Touchdown, Oxygen, Water, Spacesuits, Shelter

June 11th, 2019

Device seeks to brew oxygen on Mars from dangerous salt

Professor John Coates, PhD, describing the process of how the device works with the two chambers separating the oxygen from the water using electricity and a Chlorate solution at the Coates Lab at UC Berkeley on October 20.2015.
Photo: Franchon Smith, The Chronicle

Having discovered flowing, liquid water on the once-imagined arid surface of Mars, NASA scientists are looking to the next missing element needed for human habitability on the Red Planet: oxygen.

Finding a way to produce oxygen on the planet is vital if the space agency is to fulfill its goal of sending humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s, they say.

They have considered sending microbes on the journey to fill large bio domes to be built by the astronauts on the planet’s surface. Another idea they’ve pondered is sending along a large machine to split up the oxygen-containing carbon dioxide that makes up most of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Then there is the Bay Area scientist who has NASA’s ear with his idea that a dangerous salt compound believed to exist on Mars’ surface can be converted into breathable oxygen.

The compound, a perchlorate, is known to be a threat to human health on Earth, interfering with the production of human growth hormones.

John Coates, a microbiologist at UC Berkeley, has patented a mechanism he says can turn the perchlorate into oxygen fit for humans. Throughout the development process, he consulted NASA scientists who see Coates’ invention as a partial answer to the oxygen issue, but not the entire solution.

“What happens if astronauts are 10 miles from home (base) and they have a big problem and need oxygen? That is the niche that the perchlorate would fill,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “When you are (on Mars) out in middle of nowhere, scooping up a bag of dirt to produce oxygen would be easy to do.”

June 10th, 2019

Can We Prevent Phobos’ Inevitable Demise?

Mars has two natural satellites: Deimos and Phobos; the latter orbits Mars closer than any other moon orbiting the other planets in the solar system, and it’s currently undergoing a process known as orbital decay.

In short, this means that Phobos is slowly drifting closer to Mars over time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has an impact on the gravitational pull between Mars and Phobos. As this tug strengthens, the tidal forces exerted on Phobos are increased, and this quite literally tears the moon apart.

Phobos’ surface is covered in strange lines, and according to planetary scientists, these are ‘stretch marks’ that result from the tidal forces that are being exerted on the moon as it orbits Mars. If the moon’s orbital decay continues at its current rate, then the moon could be destroyed in the next several million years, resulting in a planetary ring around Mars.

This raises the question: could we save Phobos from a seemingly inevitable demise? Theoretically, we could, but it wouldn’t be easy or practical.

June 6th, 2019

Beyond Mars: Our Place in Space

Acadiana Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Live-action sci-fi show “Our Place In Space” debuts this week at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. It is an experience that will pique your curiosity with a few laughs along the way in an interactive setting – who knows what, or who you will meet along the way in your journey into space.

50 years into the future, after a successful mission to Mars, these scientists are in a race to solve the missing link that will restore Earth for humanity to thrive for years to come.

“Our Place In Space” is an original play written by Missouri native Alicia Chassion, 34, a Talented Theater teacher for Lafayette Parish who earned her BFA at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, Playwrights Horizons Theatre studio with a concentration in Creating Original Work.

The play has been a collaborative effort between Alicia and actresses/actor Missi B. Shepard, 25, who plays Dr. Kennedy Beckham, Jessica Romero, 25, who plays Dr. Josey Ackerman, and Joey Mills, 21, who plays Dr. Michael Travis.

“I hope that what people think about space exploration will be brought to this performance and transformed,” said Alicia.

“Our Place In Space” is recommended for audiences 10 and up.

June 5th, 2019

An Atomic Clock for Deep Space

A glimpse of the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the middle bay of the General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed spacecraft.
Credits: NASA

NASA’s Orbital Test Bed satellite is scheduled for launch via a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 22, with live streaming here. Although two dozen satellites from various institutions will be aboard the launch vehicle, the NASA OTB satellite itself houses multiple payloads on a single platform, including a modular solar array and a programmable satellite receiver. The component that’s caught my eye, though, is the Deep Space Atomic Clock, a technology demonstrator that points to better navigation in deep space without reliance on Earth-based atomic clocks.

Consider current methods of navigation. An accurate reading on a spacecraft’s position depends on a measurement of the time it takes for a transmission to flow between a ground station and the vehicle. Collect enough time measurements, converting them to distance, and the spacecraft’s trajectory is established. We know how to do atomic clocks well — consider the US Naval Observatory’s use of clocks reliant on the oscillation of atoms in its cesium and hydrogen maser clocks. Atomic clocks at Deep Space Network ground stations make possible navigational readings on spacecraft at the expense of bulk and communications lag.

While GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) use onboard atomic clocks, the technologies currently in play are too heavy for operations on spacecraft designed for exploration far from Earth. That puts the burden on communications, as distant spacecraft process a signal from an atomic clock on the ground. What the spacecraft lacks is autonomy.

June 4th, 2019

NASA research crew embarks on mock mission to Mars moon

The HERA XIX crew completed training and is ready for a 45-day mock mission to Phobos. Crewmembers are Barret Schlegelmilch, Christian Clark, Ana Mosquera and Julie Mason.
Credits: NASA

Space is hard on humans – it’s just not what we’re used to, because it’s very unlike this Earth most of us generally occupy for most of our lives. That’s why researchers do plenty of experimentation to figure out what it’s like for people to live and work in space, like a new experiment underway as of May 24 in which a crew of four will be isolated in a spacecraft for 45 days living and working together – but without ever leaving the confines of our planet.

In fact, the crew, which consists of Barret Schlegelmilch, Christian Clark, Ana Mosquera, and Julie Mason, won’t even leave the confines of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. But that’s the point – confined living and working space, for a simulated mission to Phoibos, one of Mars’ two moons. The experiment is what NASA calls a “Human Exploration Research Analog,” which is a contrived acronym that nets you HERA, the greek goddess of family, and basically means a simulated crewed spacecraft mission.

To be clear, the ‘crew’ participating in this experiment aren’t actually astronauts, they’re volunteers who “micic or emulate the type of people that [NASA] select for astronauts,” according to Human Research Program’s Flight Analogs Project Manager Lisa Spence in a statement. And these astronaut analogues will be monitored during the simulated spacecraft mission, with observers specifically looking to check out the impact, both physiological and psychological, or extended confined missions.

June 3rd, 2019

SpaceX beginning to tackle some of the big challenges for a Mars journey

A rendering of what a Super Heavy Starship launch would look like.

Earlier this month, the principal Mars “development engineer” for SpaceX, Paul Wooster, provided an update on the company’s vision for getting to the Red Planet. During his presentation at the 2019 Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC, Wooster said SpaceX remains on track to send humans to Mars in the “mid-2020s.” He was likely referring to launch opportunities for Mars in 2024 and 2026, but he also acknowledged that much work remains to reach that point.

SpaceX plans to bring humans to Mars with a two-stage rocket: the Starship upper stage and a Super Heavy booster (the latter formerly known as the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR). Iterative design versions of the Starship are being built at facilities in both Boca Chica, Texas, and near Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is expected to provide an update on their development in late June.

Wooster said that SpaceX is working to “minimize the number of things that we need to do in order to get that first mission to Mars.” Part of that minimization involves a massive payload capacity. Starship, once refueled in low-Earth orbit, is planned to have a capacity of more than 100 tons to Mars.

This will allow SpaceX to take a “brute force” approach, which will greatly simplify the overall logistics of the first missions. For instance, this will allow for taking more consumables instead of recycling them, more equipment and spare parts, and other infrastructure, Wooster said.