MarsNews.com
July 13th, 2020

Mars missions: NASA, China and the UAE launch new spacecraft this month

We’re not sending astronauts to Mars yet, but July marks a significant month for launches to the red planet, aimed at seeking signs of life.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

With travel greatly restricted across the planet, you might feel a little jealous of the three robotic explorers scheduled to depart to Mars in the next month. From this week until mid-August, a bevy of spacecraft will depart Earth with a one-way ticket to the red planet, tasked with uncovering secrets about past life and the planet’s unusual atmosphere.

NASA will send the Perseverance rover, a next-gen wanderer that will explore an ancient lake bed, looking for evidence of alien life. The Chinese space agency is launching a triple threat: An orbiter, lander and rover are on a mission to make China just the third country to land on Mars. And then there’s Hope, the United Arab Emirates’ orbiter, set to study the Martian atmosphere like never before.

It might seem unusual so many Mars missions are launching in such a small amount of time, but I can assure you it’s not because the robots have achieved sentience and decided to flee the garbage fire that 2020 has become. It’s just physics.

March 4th, 2020

NASA Reveals Bizarre Picture Of Mysterious Hole On Slopes Of Massive Martian Volcano

An image of the hole on the slopes of Pavonis Mons captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA, JPL, U. ARIZONA

NASA has posted an image of an unusual hole on the slopes of a giant Martian volcano known as Pavonis Mons.

In the photo,which was snapped in 2011 by the space agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a circular crater can be seen with very steep walls. At the center of this crater is an opening measuring around 115 feet across, which is the entrance to an underground cavern.

Much of the material that once filled the crater has sunk through the hole forming a pile of debris inside the cavern, according to the University of Arizona’s Lunar & Planetary Laboratory (LPL.)

Using a digital model of the terrain around the hole, researchers have estimated that this debris pile is at least 203 feet tall. Furthermore, the top of the pile lies about 92 feet below the rim of the central opening, indicating that the underground cavity was once 295 feet deep, before the material from the crater fell inside.

February 26th, 2020

What can the coronavirus outbreak teach us about bringing Mars samples back to Earth?

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

A new virus called SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that has caused an outbreak of a disease called COVID-19.

Public health groups, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are still learning about the virus, monitoring the disease it causes, and researching potential ways to stop it. You can read all about the coronavirus and COVID-19 at our sibling site, LiveScience.

But me being me, my mind went straight to Mars. I have long been aware of science fiction’s vision of Earth receiving space souvenirs that carry organisms that might be dangerous to Earth’s fragile biosphere — that’s me, and you, too! Such arrivals could be accidental, or they could be purposeful.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s budget request for NASA supports the development of the Mars sample return mission, a robotic program that would haul back the goods from the Red Planet.

What if such samples turned out to be dangerous, and contagiously so? Are there some Mars-oriented lessons to be learned from COVID-19 and other major infectious diseases?

December 5th, 2019

Life on Mars? Europe commits to groundbreaking mission to bring back rocks to Earth

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA

It will be one of the most daunting, complicated and, potentially, scientifically rewarding missions ever undertaken to the red planet. Ministers at a recent meeting of the European Space Agency (ESA) have fully committed to plans to collect samples from the surface of Mars and return them to Earth, in a joint effort with NASA. Official approval for the NASA budget to cover this mission is anticipated early next year.

The as yet unnamed mission will be accomplished with a series of launches, beginning in July 2020, with the Mars 2020 rover, which was already going ahead. This is a nuclear powered robotic rover which will make a precise touchdown in the Jezero crater in February, 2021.

In the three years between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions managed to bring back 380 kilograms of lunar samples. Retrieving any samples from the Martian surface, however, is significantly more difficult due to the vast distances involved.

For this reason, the project comprises three separate spacecraft. The first part of the mission is the deployment of the Mars 2020 rover. Even this will be daunting – it is notoriously difficult to land anything on Mars. Aside from conducting a number of scientific investigations of its own, the rover will gather up to 38 individual samples of Martian soil which it will store in sealed containers. The samples will need to be kept safe until at least 2026.

November 12th, 2019

With Mars Methane Mystery Unsolved, Curiosity Serves Scientists a New One: Oxygen

Credits: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard

For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. As a result, they noticed something baffling: oxygen, the gas many Earth creatures use to breathe, behaves in a way that so far scientists cannot explain through any known chemical processes.

Over the course of three Mars years (or nearly six Earth years) an instrument in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) portable chemistry lab inside the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover inhaled the air of Gale Crater and analyzed its composition. The results SAM spit out confirmed the makeup of the Martian atmosphere at the surface: 95% by volume of carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). They also revealed how the molecules in the Martian air mix and circulate with the changes in air pressure throughout the year. These changes are caused when CO2 gas freezes over the poles in the winter, thereby lowering the air pressure across the planet following redistribution of air to maintain pressure equilibrium. When CO2 evaporates in the spring and summer and mixes across Mars, it raises the air pressure.

Within this environment, scientists found that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable seasonal pattern, waxing and waning in concentration in Gale Crater throughout the year relative to how much CO2 is in the air. They expected oxygen to do the same. But it didn’t. Instead, the amount of the gas in the air rose throughout spring and summer by as much as 30%, and then dropped back to levels predicted by known chemistry in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, though the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied, implying that something was producing it and then taking it away.

November 7th, 2019

China Unveils Plan To Send Astronauts To Mars

Chinese first woman astronaut Liu Yang (L) together with her two male colleagues, Jing Haipeng (C) and Liu Wang (R) wave as they areintroduced during a press conference at the Jiuquan space base, north China’s Gansu province on June 15, 2012.

In a story published by state news network China Daily, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation announced plans to send astronauts to the surface of Mars.

“Sending astronauts there will give man better opportunities to look for traces of life on Mars,” Pang Zhihao, a space technology researcher in Beijing told China Daily. “There are theories that Mars was very similar to Earth in terms of environment billions of years ago.”

According to the statement, it marks “the first time that China’s space industry has publicly unveiled a plan for manned missions to the red planet.”

October 15th, 2019

Op/Ed : I’m Convinced We Found Evidence of Life on Mars in the 1970s

Viking 2 lander image looking back across the craft. Dark boulders are prominent against the reddish soil. The landing site, Utopia Plantia, is a region of fractured plains. The lander is about 200 km south of Mie crater, and may be on top of one of the crater’s ejecta blankets. The largest rocks are about half a meter in size. The view is approximately to the southwest. (Viking 2 Lander, 22A158)

We humans can now peer back into the virtual origin of our universe. We have learned much about the laws of nature that control its seemingly infinite celestial bodies, their evolution, motions and possible fate. Yet, equally remarkable, we have no generally accepted information as to whether other life exists beyond us, or whether we are, as was Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea!” We have made only one exploration to solve that primal mystery. I was fortunate to have participated in that historic adventure as experimenter of the Labeled Release (LR) life detection experiment on NASA’s spectacular Viking mission to Mars in 1976.

On July 30, 1976, the LR returned its initial results from Mars. Amazingly, they were positive. As the experiment progressed, a total of four positive results, supported by five varied controls, streamed down from the twin Viking spacecraft landed some 4,000 miles apart. The data curves signaled the detection of microbial respiration on the Red Planet. The curves from Mars were similar to those produced by LR tests of soils on Earth. It seemed we had answered that ultimate question.

When the Viking Molecular Analysis Experiment failed to detect organic matter, the essence of life, however, NASA concluded that the LR had found a substance mimicking life, but not life. Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results. Instead the agency launched a series of missions to Mars to determine whether there was ever a habitat suitable for life and, if so, eventually to bring samples to Earth for biological examination.

October 8th, 2019

Curiosity rover finds an ancient oasis on Mars

Filled with briny lakes, the Quisquiro salt flat in South America’s Altiplano represents the kind of landscape that scientists think may have existed in Gale Crater, which NASA’s Curiosity rover is exploring. Credit: Maksym Bocharov

If you could travel back in time 3.5 billion years, what would Mars look like? The picture is evolving among scientists working with NASA’s Curiosity rover.

Imagine ponds dotting the floor of Gale Crater, the 100-mile-wide (150-kilometer-wide) ancient basin that Curiosity is exploring. Streams might have laced the crater’s walls, running toward its base. Watch history in fast forward, and you’d see these waterways overflow then dry up, a cycle that probably repeated itself numerous times over millions of years.

That is the landscape described by Curiosity scientists in a Nature Geoscience paper published today. The authors interpret rocks enriched in mineral salts discovered by the rover as evidence of shallow briny ponds that went through episodes of overflow and drying. The deposits serve as a watermark created by climate fluctuations as the Martian environment transitioned from a wetter one to the freezing desert it is today.

Scientists would like to understand how long this transition took and when exactly it occurred. This latest clue may be a sign of findings to come as Curiosity heads toward a region called the “sulfate-bearing unit,” which is expected to have formed in an even drier environment. It represents a stark difference from lower down the mountain, where Curiosity discovered evidence of persistent freshwater lakes.

July 29th, 2019

Ancient Mars tsunami hints at surprisingly wet world

Elevation changes also indicate where Mars may have once had a vast northern ocean.
Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter Science Team/NASA

Three and a half billion years ago, an asteroid slammed into Mars. The cataclysm wasn’t terribly unusual for this period in the solar system’s history, but the fallout would leave its mark. The asteroid carved out an enormous crater. It also sent a wall of water a thousand feet high hurtling around the young Red Planet, which was much more blue at the time.

That wave then slammed into land, creating strange landforms on Mars. Since 2017, Francois Costard, a scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, has been advocating this theory to explain a region called the Thumbprint Terrain, and now he thinks he may have found the crater that was ground zero for the tsunami. He published his findings June 26 in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.

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.