MarsNews.com
February 2nd, 2016

Mars Curiosity rover gets into VR with a Facebook 360 video

This is Curiosity’s latest selfie in Bagnold Dunes, composed of 57 different photos captured on January 19. To test the sands, the rover recently dug one of its 20-inch wheels into a nearby dune. You can see the tire marks in the center.

NASA has posted a Facebook 360 video taken by the Mars Curiosity rover from the surface of Mars that Mark Zuckerberg himself re-posted and called “neat.” (A one ton, nuclear buggy takes takes a panoramic video from Mars that you can view in a VR headset, and all you got is “neat?” Get a thesaurus, Mark!) Zuckerberg added that the video was stitched together by Facebook’s 360 degree video team, and is made up of 57 separate stills — in fact, it’s more like a panorama than a video. The images were snapped by the rover’s robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp, and show the steep Namib sand dunes.

January 7th, 2016

U.S. lab generates first space-grade plutonium sample since 1980s

File photo of a plutonium-238 pellet. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the U.S. Department of Energy has produced a sample of plutonium-238, the radioactive isotope used to power deep space missions, good news for future NASA space probes heading to destinations starved of sunlight.

The 50-gram (0.1-pound) sample is a fraction of the plutonium needed to fuel one spacecraft power generator, but the Energy Department said the material represents the first end-to-end demonstration of plutonium-238 production in the United States since 1988.

The DOE made the new batch of plutonium-238 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

October 16th, 2015

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

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.

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

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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.

August 3rd, 2015

Why Your Brain Thinks This Picture Shows a Giant, Martian Crab Monster TIME

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It’s definitely not a giant crab lurking in a cave. In fact, it’s just one more example of the sometimes whimsical, always spooky phenomenon known as pareidolia, or the tendency of the brain to see familiar shapes—especially faces—emerging from random patterns.

In fairness to the folks freaked out by the current image, a crab is not a face and the brain has to work a little harder to force that image out of the background shapes, but it does the job all the same—just as it will interpret a branch in the underbrush as a snake or a shadow in the closet as a monster. Your pattern recognition regions are not the smartest part of your brain, but they’re not designed to be. They only have to be right once, and on the off chance you ever do run across a bear in the woods or a crab monster on Mars, you’ll have your fusiform gyri to thank for keeping you alive.

July 29th, 2015

Curiosity U-turns, checks out weird rock on Mars RedOrbit

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity only has so much time to complete its mission, so when scientists running the project decide to make a U-turn – it must be for something important.

The NASA team turned around their rover to investigate a large rock formation, dubbed Elk, found to have surprisingly high levels of silica. High levels of silica would allow for conditions favorable to the protection of ancient carbon-containing organic molecules, NASA said in a press release.

“One never knows what to expect on Mars, but the Elk target was interesting enough to go back and investigate,” said Roger Wiens, a principal investigator from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

July 24th, 2015

A New Way to Prepare Samples of Mars for Return to the Earth Planetary Society

Mars 2020, NASA’s next and yet-to-be-named Mars rover, will be the first mission to collect and prepare samples of the martian surface for return to Earth. This process is known as caching, and it is the crucial first step of a fully-born sample return campaign that could define the next two decades of robotic Mars exploration. Recently, the Mars 2020 engineering team proposed a new caching strategy that differs from previous concepts in some interesting ways.

JPL calls this adaptive caching, but I like to think of it more as the cache depot strategy. This means that after coring samples and placing them into hermetically-sealed tubes (the same process for any sort of caching), the rover will then deposit groups of samples on the ground throughout its drive. A future rover would retrieve some or all of these samples, place them in a rocket, and launch them into Mars orbit.

July 16th, 2015

Curiosity rover finds evidence of Mars’ primitive continental crust Los Alamos National Laboratory

The ChemCam laser instrument on NASA’s Curiosity rover has turned its beam onto some unusually light-colored rocks on Mars, and the results are surprisingly similar to Earth’s granitic continental crust rocks. This is the first discovery of a potential “continental crust” on Mars.

“Along the rover’s path we have seen some beautiful rocks with large, bright crystals, quite unexpected on Mars” said Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, lead scientist on the ChemCam instrument. “As a general rule, light-colored crystals are lower density, and these are abundant in igneous rocks that make up the Earth’s continents.”

Mars has been viewed as an almost entirely basaltic planet, with igneous rocks that are dark and relatively dense, similar to those forming the Earth’s oceanic crust, Wiens noted. However, Gale crater, where the Curiosity rover landed, contains fragments of very ancient igneous rocks (around 4 billion years old) that are distinctly light in color, which were analyzed by the ChemCam instrument.

July 13th, 2015

The Curiosity Rover Is Helping NASA Study the Far Side of the Sun Gizmodo

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As Curiosity works its way up Mount Sharp on Mars, studying rock and soil samples, it’s also helping scientists observe sunspots on the far side of the Sun.

From its vantage point on Mars, Curiosity currently has a good view of the side of the Sun that’s pointed away from Earth, and its mast camera (Mastcam) is sending home images of sunspots that can help scientists better understand solar emissions.

That’s not just a matter of academic interest. Sunspots that form on the far side of the Sun will rotate to face Earth within a few days, since it only takes about a month for the Sun to rotate completely. “One sunspot or cluster that rotated out of Curiosity’s view over the July 4 weekend showed up by July 7 as a source area of a solar eruption observed by NASA’s Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory,” said NASA in a press release.