MarsNews.com
October 24th, 2018

NASA’s InSight Will Study Mars While Standing Still

InSight Deploys its Instruments: This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s InSight lander after it has deployed its instruments on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

You don’t need wheels to explore Mars.

After touching down in November, NASA’s InSight spacecraft will spread its solar panels, unfold a robotic arm … and stay put. Unlike the space agency’s rovers, InSight is a lander designed to study an entire planet from just one spot.

This sedentary science allows InSight to detect geophysical signals deep below the Martian surface, including marsquakes and heat. Scientists will also be able to track radio signals from the stationary spacecraft, which vary based on the wobble in Mars’ rotation. Understanding this wobble could help solve the mystery of whether the planet’s core is solid.

Here are five things to know about how InSight conducts its science:

October 23rd, 2018

Mars could have enough molecular oxygen to support life, and scientists figured out where to find it

Mars as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope on July 18, near its closest approach to Earth since 2003. (NASA / ESA / STScI)

Modern-day Mars may be more hospitable to oxygen-breathing life than previously thought.

A new study suggests that salty water at or near the surface of the red planet could contain enough dissolved O2 to support oxygen-breathing microbes, and even more complex organisms such as sponges.

“Nobody thought of Mars as a place where aerobic respiration would work because there is so little oxygen in the atmosphere,” said Vlada Stamenković, an Earth and planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the work. “What we’re saying is it is possible that this planet that is so different from Earth could have given aerobic life a chance.”

As part of the report, Stamenković and his coauthors also identified which regions of Mars are most likely to contain brines with the greatest amounts of dissolved oxygen. This could help NASA and other space agencies plan where to send landers on future missions, they said.

The work was published Monday in Nature Geoscience.

October 3rd, 2018

Learn To Farm On Mars With This Fake Martian Soil

Fig. 1. Comparison of martian simulants. (a) MAHLI image of the scooped Rocknest soil; image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. (b) Photograph of MGS-1 prototype simulant produced for this work. (c) Photograph of JSC Mars-1. (d) Photograph of MMS-1 sold by the Martian Garden company.

If you watched or read “The Martian,” and wanted to try your hand at living on Mars or becoming a Martian farmer like Mark Watney, then today is your lucky day. Astrophysicists at the University of Central Florida have developed a scientific, standardized method to create soil like future space colonies might encounter on Mars. They’re selling it for about $10 per pound (or $20 per kilogram) plus shipping.

This soil, also called simulant, is designed and created to mimic the red soil on Mars. From how fine the grains are to what minerals are present, this simulant is about as close as you can get to real Martian soil. These researchers have also created an asteroid simulant and are working on developing a wider variety of simulants, like ones to mimic soils from different parts of Mars.

The only parts of the simulants that don’t match the real thing are the toxic, carcinogenic, or otherwise dangerous components that exist in actual asteroids or in real Martian soil. “We leave out the dangerous stuff,” said Dan Britt, a physics professor and member of the UCF Planetary Sciences Group working on creating these simulants.

July 25th, 2018

Mars Express Detects Liquid Water Hidden Under Planet’s South Pole

The European Space Agency (ESA)

Radar data collected by ESA’s Mars Express point to a pond of liquid water buried under layers of ice and dust in the south polar region of Mars.

Evidence for the Red Planet’s watery past is prevalent across its surface in the form of vast dried-out river valley networks and gigantic outflow channels clearly imaged by orbiting spacecraft. Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.

But the climate has changed significantly over the course of the planet’s 4.6 billion year history and liquid water cannot exist on the surface today, so scientists are looking underground. Early results from the 15-year old Mars Express spacecraft already found that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is also buried in layers interspersed with dust.

The presence of liquid water at the base of the polar ice caps has long been suspected; after all, from studies on Earth, it is well known that the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of an overlying glacier. Moreover, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of water and keep the water liquid even at below-freezing temperatures.

But until now evidence from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument, MARSIS, the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive.

It has taken the persistence of scientists working with this subsurface-probing instrument to develop new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible to confirm their exciting conclusion.

July 23rd, 2018

NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Finds That “Stolen” Electrons Enable Unusual Aurora on Mars

MAVEN observations of a proton aurora. In the top panel, natural variability of the solar wind results in occasional dense flows of solar wind protons bombarding Mars. At bottom, observations by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph show increased ultraviolet emission from the atmosphere when the solar wind is enhanced.
Credits: NASA/MAVEN/University of Colorado/LASP/Anil Rao

Auroras appear on Earth as ghostly displays of colorful light in the night sky, usually near the poles. Our rocky neighbor Mars has auroras too, and NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft just found a new type of Martian aurora that occurs over much of the day side of the Red Planet, where auroras are very hard to see.

Auroras flare up when energetic particles plunge into a planet’s atmosphere, bombarding gases and making them glow. While electrons generally cause this natural phenomenon, sometime protons can elicit the same response, although it’s more rare. Now, the MAVEN team has learned that protons were doing at Mars the same thing as electrons usually do at Earth—create aurora. This is especially true when the Sun ejects a particularly strong pulse of protons, which are hydrogen atoms stripped of their lone electrons by intense heat. The Sun ejects protons at speeds up to two million miles per hour (more than 3 million kilometers per hour) in an erratic flow called the solar wind.

The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission) team was studying Mars’ atmosphere with the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS), and observed that on occasion, the ultraviolet light coming from hydrogen gas in Mars’ upper atmosphere would mysteriously brighten for a few hours. They then noticed that the brightening events occurred when another MAVEN instrument, the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA), measured enhanced solar wind protons.

July 6th, 2018

Mars’ global dust storm size visualized in new animation

A new animation helps us visualize just how massive the Mars dust storm is. This storm, which obscured the Sun and resulted in NASA’s Opportunity rover going into a deep sleep, at one point was “only” as big as North America. In the weeks following that detail, NASA continued to update the public on this storm’s size, using countries as a reference. A new image, though, shows us exactly how much of the Red Planet is covered by this storm.

June 13th, 2018

Enormous Dust Storm On Mars Threatens The Opportunity Rover

A series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018).
NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

A massive dust storm on Mars is threatening NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been conducting research on the Red Planet for well over a decade.

Where the rover sits, the dust storm has completely blotted out the sun, depriving Opportunity of solar power and cutting off communications with Earth.

NASA scientists believe the rover has fallen asleep to wait out the storm, and that when the dust storm dies down and sunlight returns, the rover will resume activity.

“We’re concerned, but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us,” says John Callas, the Opportunity project manager.

The rover has survived dust storms before, but it’s never lost power this thoroughly.

The dust storm on Mars grew from a small, local storm into a massive event over the course of the last two weeks. Opportunity is located near the middle of the storm, while the newer rover Curiosity — which is nuclear-powered, so not threatened by the loss of sunlight — is currently near the storm’s edge.

June 7th, 2018

Curiosity Rover Finds 3.5-Billion-Year-Old Organic Compounds and Strange Methane on Mars

A potential explanation for the seasonal Martian methane.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No, NASA hasn’t discovered life on Mars yet—but a new result makes it seem like maybe, at some point in the planet’s history, the conditions were ripe for some extraterrestrial beings. Maybe.

The scientists behind experiments conducted by the Curiosity rover are today reporting two results that make the Red Planet’s story even more interesting. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. Another noticed the methane levels around Curiosity varied by the season. Combined, these results present tantalizing hints of a potentially habitable Martian past.

From everything we can tell of the chemistry and the minerals deposited in the Gale crater where Curiosity is stationed, “we think it was a habitable environment,” Jennifer Eigenbrode from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center told Gizmodo. “It had the ability to support life—but doesn’t mean life were there.”

As for the methane, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer measured the methane levels in its surrounding atmosphere over five years. The levels averaged at 0.41 parts per billion by volume, but ranged from 0.24 to 0.65 depending on the season. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it’s a mystery what could be causing it on Mars. Perhaps it’s some geologic process. “It probably indicates more active water in the subsurface than we understood,” scientist Kirsten Siebach, Martian geologist at Rice University not involved with the studies, told Gizmodo.

April 26th, 2018

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter sends its first color picture of Mars – and it’s spectacular

An image from the CaSSIS camera on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter shows the rim of Korolev Crater on Mars. Click on the image for a larger version. (ESA / Roscosmos / CaSSIS Image)

The first color image to come from a camera aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in its Mars-mapping orbit shows the ice-coated rim of Korolev Crater in sharply shadowed detail.

“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was, given the lighting conditions,” Antoine Pommerol, a member of the science team for the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System, said today in a news release. “It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a mission jointly supported by the European and Russian space agencies, is built to measure the composition of Mars’ thin atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy. Its top task is to look for methane and other trace gases that could hint at biological or geological activity.

The car-sized probe was launched in 2016, and after a series of aerobraking maneuvers, it reached its final 250-mile-high orbit around Mars this month. Its spectrometers began “sniffing” atmospheric molecules just last weekend.

August 18th, 2017

Mars has eclipses. We have video.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Texas A&M University)

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Texas A&M University)

If you think solar eclipses on Earth are cool, wait till you get a load of an eclipse on Mars.

Earth typically experiences anywhere from four to seven eclipses in a year, counting partial solar eclipses (when the moon doesn’t fully obscure the sun) and lunar eclipses (when the earth’s shadow partially obscures the moon).

On Mars, however, solar eclipses are practically a daily event. Mars has two moons — tiny, potato-shaped satellites named Phobos and Deimos, after the Greek deities of fear and dread, respectively.