November 30th, 2015

Inside (literally) wind turbines meant to work at the South Pole—and Mars

It started with Mars. In 1993, NASA gave a Small Business Innovation Research grant to Vermont-based Northern Power Systems (NPS) to build a very southern wind turbine—as in, a turbine that could reliably work at the South Pole.

NASA was interested in a wind turbine that could potentially provide power for human exploration of Mars, and the National Science Foundation was interested in some electricity at its South Pole station that didn’t require flying in fuel. NPS set about tackling both challenges in one fell swoop, designing a low-maintenance turbine using components that could survive the deathly Antarctic (or Martian) cold. A few years later, a 3 kilowatt turbine was spinning away at the South Pole.

November 27th, 2015

The Amazingly Creepy Way Mars Will Kill One of Its Moons

It was a rough month for Phobos, as astronomers decreed—yet again—that Mars is ripping its lumpy moon apart. But apparently, Phobos’ loss is the Red Planet’s gain. After the satellite is torn to pieces, its fragments will fan out into a disk and 20 million years from now, Mars will become a ringed planet.

That’s the conclusion of a UC Berkeley-led study published this week in Nature Geoscience, which takes Phobos’ violent demise to an unexpectedly beautiful conclusion. But this little moon’s fate is more than just a cosmic curiosity. Rather, the researchers argue that Phobos could be a window into the origin of ring systems throughout the Solar System and beyond.

November 16th, 2015

The Next Generation of Suit Technologies NASA

NASA is developing the next generation of suit technologies that will enable deep space exploration by incorporating advancements such as regenerable carbon dioxide removal systems and water evaporation systems that more efficiently provide crew members with core necessities such as breathing air and temperature regulation. Mobility and fit of a pressurized suit are extremely important in keeping astronauts productive, so NASA is focusing on space suit designs to help crews work more efficiently and safely during spacewalks. NASA is evaluating pressurizable space suits for missions to a variety of exploration destinations. The EMU (operational spacesuit on ISS) is pictured above on the left, the PXS (advanced prototype) is in the middle and the Z2 (advanced prototype) is on the right.

November 10th, 2015

Mars’ moon Phobos is slowly falling apart NASA

New modeling indicates that the grooves on Mars’ moon Phobos could be produced by tidal forces – the mutual gravitational pull of the planet and the moon. Initially, scientists had thought the grooves were created by the massive impact that made Stickney crater (lower right).
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The long shallow grooves lining the surface of Phobos are likely early signs of the structural failure that will ultimately destroy this moon of Mars.

Orbiting a mere 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) above the surface of Mars, Phobos is closer to its planet than any other moon in the solar system. Mars’ gravity is drawing in Phobos, the larger of its two moons, by about 6.6 feet (2 meters) every 1 hundred years. Scientists expect the moon to be pulled apart in 30 to 50 million years.

“We think that Phobos has already started to fail, and the first sign of this failure is the production of these grooves,” said Terry Hurford of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

November 5th, 2015

NASA Mission Reveals Speed of Solar Wind Stripping Martian Atmosphere NASA

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet Mars is today.

MAVEN data have enabled researchers to determine the rate at which the Martian atmosphere currently is losing gas to space via stripping by the solar wind. The findings reveal that the erosion of Mars’ atmosphere increases significantly during solar storms. The scientific results from the mission appear in the Nov. 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

“Mars appears to have had a thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere. Learning what can cause changes to a planet’s environment from one that could host microbes at the surface to one that doesn’t is important to know, and is a key question that is being addressed in NASA’s journey to Mars.”

November 3rd, 2015

Red Mars? Discovery of surface water spurs Chinese interest in lander NASA

The gold coloured model, which is a third of the size of the actual probe, consists of an orbiter and a lander. (Photo: Long Wei, Asia News Photo)

Nearly two years ago, China became only the third country to make a soft landing on the moon when its Chang’e 3 spacecraft successfully deployed the Yutu rover. Now China appears increasingly set on doing the same thing on Mars.

This week at the 17th China International Industry Fair in Shanghai, the country’s Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation unveiled a model of a planned probe to Mars. Several Chinese news outlets have reported that the country’s space program continues to progress toward the launch of a robotic mission to Mars in 2020, including both an orbiting spacecraft as well as a lander.

China made an initial but unsuccessful attempt to reach Mars in November 2011 with its Yinghuo-1 spacecraft. However, that orbiter, a secondary payload on a Russian mission to the Mars moon of Phobos, was lost after the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft failed to make the required number of burns to exit Earth orbit. Both the Russian and Chinese spacecraft eventually disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean as they fell through the atmosphere.

That failure dampened some of China’s enthusiasm for Mars, but NASA’s recent discovery of periodic, briny water flows on the red planet appears to have renewed the Chinese space agency’s interest.

October 27th, 2015

SwRI scientists predict that rocky planets formed from ‘pebbles’ NASA

Using a new process in planetary formation modeling, where planets grow from tiny bodies called “pebbles,” Southwest Research Institute scientists can explain why Mars is so much smaller than Earth. This same process also explains the rapid formation of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, as reported earlier this year.

“This numerical simulation actually reproduces the structure of the inner solar system, with Earth, Venus, and a smaller Mars,” said Hal Levison, an Institute scientist at the SwRI Planetary Science Directorate. He is the first author of a new paper published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) Early Edition.

The fact that Mars has only 10 percent of the mass of the Earth has been a long-standing puzzle for solar system theorists. In the standard model of planet formation, similarly sized objects accumulate and assimilate through a process called accretion; rocks incorporated other rocks, creating mountains; then mountains merged to form city-size objects, and so on. While typical accretion models generate good analogs to Earth and Venus, they predict that Mars should be of similar-size, or even larger than Earth. Additionally, these models also overestimate the overall mass of the asteroid belt.

October 16th, 2015

Comet’s Close Encounter with Mars Dumped Tons of Dust on Red Planet NASA

Sebastian Voltmer in Germany used the iTelescope at Siding Spring Observatory, Coonabarabran, New South Wales, Australia to capture Comet C/2013 A1 passing very close to Mars on 19 October 2014. He used their Takahashi FSQ ED refractor and SBIG STL11000M camera for four 120-seconds exposures; RGB 120-seconds (Bin 2). Image credit: © Sebastian Voltmer.


Comet Siding Spring’s close shave by Mars last year provided a rare glimpse into how Oort Cloud comets behave, according to new research.

The comet flew by Mars at a range of just 83,900 miles (135,000 kilometers) — close enough for the outer ridges of its tenuous atmosphere to pummel the planet with gas and dust.

In just a short flyby, the comet dumped about 2,200 to 4,410 lbs. (1,000 to 2,000 kg) of dust made of magnesium, silicon, calcium and potassium — all of which are rock-forming elements — into the upper atmosphere, the new study found.

October 15th, 2015

Did Mars once have rivers? Pebbles say yes. NASA

Researchers have used the shape of rounded Martian pebbles to extrapolate how far they must have traveled down an ancient riverbed on the Red Planet. The analysis suggests they moved approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers), indicating that Mars once had an extensive river system.

The shape of some Martian pebbles suggests these rocks once rolled dozens of miles down a river, hinting that ancient Martian waterways were stable and not merely ephemeral streams, researchers say.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discovered the small, round stones near its landing site in Gale Crater on the Red Planet in 2013. Researchers previously determined that these stones resemble those found in rivers on Earth, which become round as they slide, roll and hop down riverbeds and scrape other rocks.

Now, a new study suggests the Martian rocks rolled in the river for quite a while — a finding that should help scientists reconstruct what ancient Mars was like and shed light on the Red Planet’s past potential to support life, study team members said.

October 8th, 2015

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Team Confirms Ancient Lakes on Mars NASA

Strata at Base of Mount Sharp

A new study from the team behind NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity has confirmed that Mars was once, billions of years ago, capable of storing water in lakes over an extended period of time.

Using data from the Curiosity rover, the team has determined that, long ago, water helped deposit sediment into Gale Crater, where the rover landed more than three years ago. The sediment deposited as layers that formed the foundation for Mount Sharp, the mountain found in the middle of the crater today.

“Observations from the rover suggest that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between about 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago, delivering sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mount Sharp,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and co-author of the new Science article to be published Friday, Oct. 9.