MarsNews.com
February 22nd, 2019

With the best air pressure sensor ever on Mars, scientists find a mystery

Martian hourly weather data for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Note the kinks in the air pressure curve at 07:00 and 19:00 daily.

There’s a new meteorologist on Mars. Although NASA’s InSight spacecraft landed on the red planet late in 2018 to measure the planet’s geology—primarily by listening for Mars quakes—it also brought some sophisticated meteorology equipment with it.

The space agency has set up a website to share that information, which includes not only daily high and low temperatures but also unprecedented hourly data on wind speed, direction, and air pressure for InSight’s location near the equator in Elysium Planitia. “We thought it was something that people might have some fun with,” Cornell University’s Don Banfield, who leads InSight’s weather science, told Ars.

Other spacecraft have brought comparable temperature and wind sensors to Mars before, but none have carried such a precise air pressure sensor. The new sensor is 10 times more sensitive than any previous instrument because InSight needs to detect slight movements in the Martian ground, and from such movements infer details about the red planet’s interior. For this, weather matters.

The Martian atmosphere may be very thin—typically it varies between 700 and 740 pascals at the surface, less than one percent of Earth’s surface pressure—but it nonetheless can induce slight tilts in the Martian surface. The air pressure sensor will therefore help scientists calibrate the lander’s seismometer so that any tilting due to higher or lower air pressure can be filtered out of the data. It’s actually pretty amazing that even so thin an atmosphere can have a slight effect on the Martian surface and that InSight’s seismometer is sensitive enough to detect it.

February 18th, 2019

Artificial intelligence — and a few jokes — will help keep future Mars crews sane

The crew of the fictional Daedalus spaceship touches down on the Red Planet in “Mars,” a National Geographic miniseries that delves into the dynamics of future Mars crews. (Credit: National Geographic Channels)

When the first human explorers head for Mars, they’re likely to have a non-human judging their performance and tweaking their interpersonal relationships when necessary.

NASA and outside researchers are already working on artificial intelligence agents to monitor how future long-duration space crews interact, sort of like the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager.” But there’ll also be a need for the human touch — in the form of crew members who could serve the roles of social directors or easygoing jokesters.

That’s the upshot of research initiatives discussed over the weekend here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Using AI to assess astronauts’ mental state is the focus of a NASA program known as Human Capabilities Assessments for Autonomous Missions, or H-CAAM, said Tom Williams, a researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center who concentrates on human factors and performance for the space agency’s Human Research Program.

The aim is to develop an autonomous system that could assist the crew if it noticed that their performance wasn’t up to par.

“If they’re hit with radiation … a system onboard that’s monitoring their performance offers an assist, just like a driver assist on a car, alerting you that, ‘Hey, your performance on this task is not within the parameter of what we would expect. Do you need assistance?’ ” Williams said. “Or do we need to take over if it drops below a certain threshold that the crew member has worked on and selected?”

NASA psychiatrists currently check in with crew members on the International Space Station during private consultations that take place every couple of weeks, but that kind of real-time, face-to-face check-in will be harder to manage during Mars mission, when delays in two-way communications could add up to as much as 48 minutes. Having an AI system aboard the spaceship could provide more of a real-time backstop.

The system draws upon research being conducted at Johnson Space Center’s Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA.

February 15th, 2019

Archaeology On Mars – From The Fantastical To The Real

Rover and Pyramids on Mars GETTY

NASA’s Martian rover Opportunity breathed its last digital gasp this week. What was a busy scurrying robot picking over and investigating the Martian landscape is now a slowly decaying pile of metal and circuitry. That is to say, Opportunity has entered my world, the world of abandoned things that is archaeology.

Humans have been dreaming about Martian archaeology for well over a century now. When the Italian Astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described seeing canali on the surface of the red planet in 1877, many in the English-speaking world began to speculate that Schiaparelli was referring to artificially constructed canals. Percival Lowell became the largest champion of this interpretation. In his 1895 book “Mars,” Lowell claimed that the canals of Mars had been built by a desperate alien race seeking to salvage what water they could from the planet’s melting ice caps.

Yet all along this journey, the Martian landscape has become populated by actual human-made objects. Fourteen separate missions from four different space agencies have littered the surface of the Mars with not only landers and rovers, but heat shields, parachutes, and an untold number of broken bits. As an archaeologist, I love broken bits.

The things that people make and leave behind tell a different story then written history. A physical examination of landing sites on Mars would reveal critical details about why some landers arrived safely while others crashed to never be heard from again. Even the crashed landers tell a story of human triumph and ingenuity. One day, an astronaut will walk up to the original Viking 1 lander and marvel at the accomplishments of their ancestors. The material heritage we are currently scattering across the Martian surface will stand for centuries to come as a symbol of what we as human beings can do.

February 14th, 2019

The new $1.37 billion border-security deal might save SpaceX’s launch site in Texas, where Elon Musk hopes to launch Mars rockets

A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket stands vertically at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Copyright Jaime Almaguer

Elon Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, is working around-the-clock to build a rocket-launch site at the southern tip of Texas.

Most immediately, SpaceX plans to fly a stainless-steel “test hopper” vehicle: a squat prototype for a much larger launch system that Musk calls Starship. When finished, that system — a Starship spaceship and Super Heavy rocket booster stacked together — may stand about 39 stories high.

SpaceX’s launch site is between one and three miles from the Mexican border. Firing off rockets to the moon or Mars from that site might be impossible, though, if a border wall cuts through the launch facility. Yet lawmakers said that is precisely what proposed maps from the US Department of Homeland Security showed, according to Bloomberg.

However, a $1.37 billion, 1,159-page border-security agreement drafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers would spare SpaceX’s nascent launch site from DHS bulldozers.

“None of the funds made available by this Act or prior Acts are available for the construction of pedestrian fencing … within or east of the Vista del Mar Ranch tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge,” the text states.

That wildlife refuge region encompasses SpaceX’s 50-acre site launch site.

February 13th, 2019

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Mission on Mars Comes to End

The dramatic image of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s shadow was taken on sol 180 (July 26, 2004), by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera as the rover moved farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.”

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars — Perseverance Valley.

February 8th, 2019

NASA’s first interplanetary CubeSats fall silent beyond Mars

After a successful mission that pushed the limits of small satellite technology, ground controllers have lost contact with two briefcase-sized CubeSats beyond Mars, NASA said Tuesday.

The pioneering Mars Cube One, or MarCO, mission set records for the farthest distance CubeSats have ever operated, accompanying NASA’s InSight lander to Mars after a May 5 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The twin MarCO spacecraft relayed telemetry from InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere Nov. 26 and successfully landed on the Red Planet, giving engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California updates on the lander’s progress. albeit with an eight-minute delay due to the time it took radio signals to travel the 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Mars to Earth.

InSight could have succeeded without MarCO, but engineers would have had to wait hours to receive confirmation of the landing.

But MarCO was conceived primarily as an experimental mission to prove that CubeSats, with some modifications, could withstand the perils of deep space travel. CubeSats are much less expensive than larger satellites, and can cost less than $1 million to design and build for missions in Earth orbit.

The Mars Cube One mission cost $18.5 million, once engineers at JPL outfitted the satellites with a new type of radio, innovative antennas, a cold gas propulsion system, and other custom features needed for interplanetary spaceflight.

That’s still a fraction of the InSight mission’s $993 million cost.

February 7th, 2019

Rosalind Franklin: Mars rover named after DNA pioneer

The Rosalind Franklin rover is due to launch to Mars next year

The UK-assembled rover that will be sent to Mars in 2020 will bear the name of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin.

The honour follows a public call for suggestions that drew nearly 36,000 responses from right across Europe.

Astronaut Tim Peake unveiled the name at the Airbus factory in Stevenage where the robot is being put together.

The six-wheeled vehicle will be equipped with instruments and a drill to search for evidence of past or present life on the Red Planet.

Giving the rover a name associated with a molecule fundamental to biology seems therefore to be wholly appropriate.

Rosalind Franklin played an integral role in the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid.

It was her X-ray images that allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to decipher its double-helix shape.

Franklin’s early death from ovarian cancer in 1958, aged just 37, meant she never received the recognition given to her male peers.

The attachment to the European Space Agency (Esa) rover will now see her name travel beyond Earth.

“In the last year of Rosalind’s life, I remember visiting her in hospital on the day when she was excited by the news of the [Soviet Sputnik satellite] – the very beginning of space exploration,” Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, said on Thursday.

“She could never have imagined that over 60 years later there would be a rover sent to Mars bearing her name, but somehow that makes this project even more special.”

February 6th, 2019

Motors on Mars: The technology being sent to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of the Mars helicopter

The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.

The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.

The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.

“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.

February 5th, 2019

Watch InSight’s Busy First Months on Mars

NASA’s InSight lander tucked its seismic instrument under a shield to protect it from wind and extreme temperatures. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Since InSight’s landing on Mars late last year, it’s been hard at work studying what lays beneath the surface of the Red Planet. The lander’s mission is to understand Mars’ deep interior, what it’s made of and how the planet moves. To that end, InSight has been studying the area around it, practicing its movements, and scouting the best locations to place instruments. And now, the science is kicking into gear.

To accomplish its mission, InSight needs to place a few instruments on the surface and then monitor them. The lander has two main instruments it has to re-home: the Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) and the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The first will measure temperatures underneath Mars’ surface, while the latter will listen for subtle Mars-quakes. InSight also carries a Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), but this will remain riding piggy-back on the lander for the duration of the two-year mission.

January 31st, 2019

‘Mars Buggy’ Curiosity Measures a Mountain’s Gravity

Side-by-side images depict NASA’s Curiosity rover (illustration at left) and a moon buggy driven during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Apollo 17 astronauts drove a moon buggy across the lunar surface in 1972, measuring gravity with a special instrument. There are no astronauts on Mars, but a group of clever researchers realized they havejust the tools for similar experiments with the Martian buggy they’re operating.

In a new paper in Science, the researchers detail how they repurposed sensors used to drive the Curiosity rover and turned them into gravimeters, which measure changes in gravitational pull. That enabled them to measure the subtle tug from rock layers on lower Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the base of Gale Crater and which Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. The results? It turns out the density of those rock layers is much lower than expected.

Just like a smartphone, Curiosity carries accelerometers and gyroscopes. Moving your smartphone allows these sensors to determine its location and which way it’s facing. Curiosity’s sensors do the same thing but with far more precision, playing a crucial role in navigating the Martian surface on each drive. Knowing the rover’s orientation also lets engineers accurately point its instruments and multidirectional, high-gain antenna.

By happy coincidence, the rover’s accelerometers can be used like Apollo 17’s gravimeter. The accelerometers detect the gravity of the planet whenever the rover stands still. Using engineering data from the first five years of the mission, the paper’s authors measured the gravitational tug of Mars on the rover. As Curiosity ascends Mount Sharp, the mountain adds additional gravity – but not as much as scientists expected.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” said lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University. “We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”