October 21st, 2016

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter views Schiaparelli landing site

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed to be related to ESA’s ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing technology demonstrator module.

Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 14:42 GMT on 19 October for its 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown. Data recorded by its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, are currently being analysed to understand what happened during the descent sequence.

In the meantime, the low-resolution CTX camera on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took pictures of the expected touchdown site in Meridiani Planum on 20 October as part of a planned imaging campaign.

Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis.

September 16th, 2016

Mars had liquid water a billion years longer than we even thought possible

Valleys much younger than well-known ancient valley networks on Mars are evident near the informally named “Heart Lake” on Mars. This map presents color-coded topographical information overlaid onto a photo mosaic. Lower elevations are indicated with white and purple; higher elevations, yellow.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Lakes and snowmelt-fed streams on Mars formed much later than previously thought possible, according to new findings using data primarily from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The recently discovered lakes and streams appeared roughly a billion years after a well-documented, earlier era of wet conditions on ancient Mars. These results provide insight into the climate history of the Red Planet and suggest the surface conditions at this later time may also have been suitable for microbial life.

“We discovered valleys that carried water into lake basins,” said Sharon Wilson of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Several lake basins filled and overflowed, indicating there was a considerable amount of water on the landscape during this time.”

Wilson and colleagues found evidence of these features in Mars’ northern Arabia Terra region by analyzing images from the Context Camera and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and additional data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

August 17th, 2016

Gullies on Mars: Wet or Dry (Ice)?

Martian gullies were in the spotlight recently thanks to a NASA press release stating they were “likely not formed by liquid water.” The release concerns the publication of a new paper by Nuñez et al. in Geophysical Research Letters, which looked at spectral data of gullies from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

In their study, Nuñez and his colleagues looked at over 100 gullied locations on Mars. They found no evidence of minerals that would be expected to form in the presence of water. Rather than water, they point to sublimation of seasonal carbon dioxide frost as the main culprit behind gully formation on Mars. Other people have proposed a similar model to explain present-day activity in gullies, which appears to happen during periods of active defrosting. But this process has been a topic of debate among the Mars gullies community, and was a big discussion point at the “Martian Gullies and Their Earth Analogues” workshop in London back in June. Can this dry process explain both the initial formation of gullies and gullies’ modern-day activity?

March 24th, 2016

NASA gravity map offers closest ever look at Mars

By tracking the gravitational pull on spacecraft over Mars, NASA has created one of the most detailed maps yet of the Red Planet’s surface, and what lies beneath.

“Gravity maps allow us to see inside a planet, just as a doctor uses an X-ray to see inside a patient,” Antonio Genova of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said in a statement.
“The new gravity map will be helpful for future Mars exploration, because better knowledge of the planet’s gravity anomalies helps mission controllers insert spacecraft more precisely into orbit about Mars.”
As well as providing insight for future missions, the gravity map also offers explanations for developments in the planet’s past.

March 16th, 2016

Ten Years of Discovery by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

True to its purpose, the big NASA spacecraft that began orbiting Mars a decade ago this week has delivered huge advances in knowledge about the Red Planet.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has revealed in unprecedented detail a planet that held diverse wet environments billions of years ago and remains dynamic today.

One example of MRO’s major discoveries was published last year, about the possibility of liquid water being present seasonally on present-day Mars. It drew on three key capabilities researchers gained from this mission: telescopic camera resolution to find features narrower than a driveway; spacecraft longevity to track seasonal changes over several Martian years; and imaging spectroscopy to map surface composition.

Other discoveries have resulted from additional capabilities of the orbiter. These include identifying underground geologic structures, scanning atmospheric layers and observing the entire planet’s weather daily. All six of the orbiter’s science instruments remain productive in an extended mission more than seven years after completion of the mission’s originally planned primary science phase.

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 8th, 2015

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Team Confirms Ancient Lakes on Mars

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.

September 28th, 2015

NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars NASA

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New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars. Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.
“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

September 14th, 2015

Terraced Craters: Windows Into Mars’ Icy Past NASA

It was a “crazy-looking crater” on the face of Mars that caught Ali Bramson’s eye. But it was a simple calculation that explained the crater’s strange shape.

Combining data gleaned from two powerful instruments aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, Bramson and her colleagues determined why the crater is terraced — not bowl shaped, like most craters of this size.

“Craters should be bowl shaped, but this one had terraces in the wall,” says Bramson, a graduate student in the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, or LPL.

Terraces can form when there are layers of different materials in the planet’s subsurface, such as dirt, ice or rock.

“When the crater is forming, the shock wave from an object hitting a planet’s surface propagates differently depending on what substrates are beneath the area of impact,” Bramson says. “If you have a weaker material in one layer, the shock wave can push out that material more easily, and the result is terracing at the interface between the weaker and stronger materials.”

August 20th, 2015

NASA to rely on Mars programme’s silent workhorse for years to come NASA


NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, aging and arthritic a decade after its launch, remains productive and is expected to be the primary pipeline for high-resolution maps of Mars for scientists and mission planners over the next decade.

Scientists who want to study Mars’ enigmatic history, tenuous water cycle and climate will continue to rely on the nearly $900 million MRO mission, and engineers charged with selecting landing sites for future Mars rovers, and eventual human expeditions, will use maps created from the orbiter’s imagery, officials said.

And the success of future landers, beginning with NASA’s InSight seismic probe next year, depend in part on MRO’s availability to relay data from the Martian surface to Earth.