January 30th, 2020

Mystery at Mars’s Pole Explained

31 May 2005
This picture is a composite of Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) daily global images acquired at Ls 211° during a previous Mars year. This month, Mars looks similar, as Ls 211° occurred in mid-May 2005. The picture shows the south polar region of Mars. Over the course of the month, additional faces of Mars as it appears at this time of year are being posted for MOC Picture of the Day. Ls, solar longitude, is a measure of the time of year on Mars. Mars travels 360° around the Sun in 1 Mars year. The year begins at Ls 0°, the start of northern spring and southern autumn.

Season: Northern Autumn/Southern Spring

A new study from Caltech suggests that the theory, developed by physicist Robert B. Leighton (BS ’41, MS ’44, PhD ’47) and planetary scientist Bruce C. Murray, may indeed be correct.

Carbon dioxide makes up more than 95 percent of Mars’s atmosphere, which has a surface pressure of only 0.6 percent that of Earth. One prediction of Leighton’s and Murray’s theory—with enormous implications for climate change on Mars—is that its atmospheric pressure would swing in value as the planet wobbles on its axis during its orbit around the sun, exposing the poles to more or less sunlight. Direct sunlight on the CO2 ice deposited at the poles leads to its sublimation (the direct transition of a material from a solid to a gaseous state). Leighton and Murray predicted that, as exposure to sunlight shifts, atmospheric pressure could swing from just one-quarter that of today’s Martian atmosphere to twice that of today over cycles of tens of thousands of years.

Now, a new model by Peter Buhler (PhD ’18) of JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, and colleagues from Caltech, JPL, and the University of Colorado, provides key evidence to support this. The model was described in a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy on December 23.

The team explored the existence of a mysterious feature at the south pole of Mars: a massive deposit of CO2 ice and water ice in alternating strata, like the layers of a cake, that extend to a depth of 1 kilometer, with a thin frosting of CO2 ice at the top. The layer-cake deposit contains as much CO2 as in the entire Martian atmosphere today.

September 24th, 2019

Mars or bust: A comic

Jacob Turcotte and Eoin O’Carroll

It has been more than five decades since humans first set foot on another world, and as memories of the Apollo 11 mission recede, the stars beckon mankind to make its next giant leap.

This time, humanity has set its sights on the fourth planet from the sun, Mars. A settlement on the red planet has long been a staple of science fiction. But today, scientists and engineers are working to make these dreams a reality.

Drawn by Jacob Turcotte and written by Eoin O’Carroll, this comic looks at some of the challenges and potential solutions for a crewed Mars mission, from getting the timing of the launch right, to slowing it down when it arrives, to creating the buildings, farms, and other infrastructure that humans need to thrive on the red planet.

June 11th, 2019

Device seeks to brew oxygen on Mars from dangerous salt

Professor John Coates, PhD, describing the process of how the device works with the two chambers separating the oxygen from the water using electricity and a Chlorate solution at the Coates Lab at UC Berkeley on October 20.2015.
Photo: Franchon Smith, The Chronicle

Having discovered flowing, liquid water on the once-imagined arid surface of Mars, NASA scientists are looking to the next missing element needed for human habitability on the Red Planet: oxygen.

Finding a way to produce oxygen on the planet is vital if the space agency is to fulfill its goal of sending humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s, they say.

They have considered sending microbes on the journey to fill large bio domes to be built by the astronauts on the planet’s surface. Another idea they’ve pondered is sending along a large machine to split up the oxygen-containing carbon dioxide that makes up most of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Then there is the Bay Area scientist who has NASA’s ear with his idea that a dangerous salt compound believed to exist on Mars’ surface can be converted into breathable oxygen.

The compound, a perchlorate, is known to be a threat to human health on Earth, interfering with the production of human growth hormones.

John Coates, a microbiologist at UC Berkeley, has patented a mechanism he says can turn the perchlorate into oxygen fit for humans. Throughout the development process, he consulted NASA scientists who see Coates’ invention as a partial answer to the oxygen issue, but not the entire solution.

“What happens if astronauts are 10 miles from home (base) and they have a big problem and need oxygen? That is the niche that the perchlorate would fill,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “When you are (on Mars) out in middle of nowhere, scooping up a bag of dirt to produce oxygen would be easy to do.”

June 10th, 2019

Can We Prevent Phobos’ Inevitable Demise?

Mars has two natural satellites: Deimos and Phobos; the latter orbits Mars closer than any other moon orbiting the other planets in the solar system, and it’s currently undergoing a process known as orbital decay.

In short, this means that Phobos is slowly drifting closer to Mars over time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has an impact on the gravitational pull between Mars and Phobos. As this tug strengthens, the tidal forces exerted on Phobos are increased, and this quite literally tears the moon apart.

Phobos’ surface is covered in strange lines, and according to planetary scientists, these are ‘stretch marks’ that result from the tidal forces that are being exerted on the moon as it orbits Mars. If the moon’s orbital decay continues at its current rate, then the moon could be destroyed in the next several million years, resulting in a planetary ring around Mars.

This raises the question: could we save Phobos from a seemingly inevitable demise? Theoretically, we could, but it wouldn’t be easy or practical.

May 24th, 2019

Comet Inspires Chemistry for Making Breathable Oxygen on Mars

In Giapis’s reactor, carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen.
Credit: Caltech

Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.

So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.

One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.

February 25th, 2019

Elon Musk: This Is How We’ll Build a Base on Mars


In January, [Popular Mechanics] ran an exclusive interview with Elon Musk in which he explained, for the first time, his full thinking—and the complex engineering questions—behind his decision to construct SpaceX’s Starship rocket and booster with stainless steel. The previous design for the rocket (which was then known as the BFR) had called for carbon fiber, but Musk recalculated and went with steel due to its durability, cost-effectiveness, and ductility.

Here, in a continuation of that interview, Musk goes deep on what it takes to actually travel beyond orbit and into space. Also, it sounds like Mars will have a nice park.

January 30th, 2019

Terra Mars – Artificial Neural Network’s (ANN) topography of Mars in the visual style of Earth

Rendering of the western hemisphere of Terra Mars generation 65
2019. Centered at the enormous canyon system Valles Marineris, also featuring some or Mars’ tallest mountains, including Olympus Mons—the tallest mountain in the solar system—on the west coast.

Created by SHI Weili, For this project, Terra Mars is a speculative visualisation by an ANN (artificial neural network) to generate images that resemble satellite imagery of Earth modelled on topographical data of Mars. Terra Mars suggests a new approach to creative applications of artificial intelligence—using its capability of remapping to broaden the domain of artistic imagination.

SHI welcomes different interpretations of Terra Mars. It can be enjoyed simply as a playful remix of the two planets, or one can relate this imaginary version to the astronomical facts. Maybe one can even consider this as a preview of a possible outcome of human’s terraforming efforts, or you just appreciate the sheer beauty of a planet that resembles our own.

January 17th, 2019

Op/Ed: The Anthropocene Is Coming to Mars

Universities participating in NASA’s Mars Ice Challenge try to devise innovative ways to drill for water on the Red Planet. (NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)

Astrobiologist Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, asks a provocative question in a paper published recently in EOS: How will our exploration of Mars change the Red Planet?

The term Anthropocene has been widely used for the current period in Earth’s geological history, in which human actions have had enough impact on the planet that we see a clear distinction from the previous period, the Holocene. The geological signatures of that transition include a variety of features such as the extinction of many animal and plant species, an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (resulting in global warming), deposition of plastic in sediments, movements of soil from mining, and the construction of highways, dams, and residential areas.

The Anthropocene as a geological epoch is not formally recognized, but has been widely used to indicate a period where humans majorly affect planet Earth, beginning sometime in the mid-20th century. Fairén suggests that the same nomenclature should be used for Mars, starting with the first human mission slated for the mid-21st century. The thinking is that with the arrival of the first humans, we will inevitably leave topographic changes such as buildings and excavations, especially when utilizing natural resources on Mars as currently envisioned by NASA. To some extent we already have made changes, considering all our abandoned or crashed spacecraft on the planet and the tracks from our rovers. But once we see the first astronaut bootprints in the Martian sands, the impact will be so significant that, according to Fairén, we ought to speak no longer of the Late Amazonian period on Mars, but of the Mars Anthropocene. Earth and Mars will then have a shared geological epoch.

November 2nd, 2018

Elon Musk thinks he’ll die on Mars

SpaceX Mars launch: Elon Musk hopes to send people to Mars by 2024.

Elon Musk has been talking about his plans to colonize Mars for years, most notably at a September 2016 conference in Mexico, at which he said that he would need just 40 to 100 years to create a self-sustaining civilization of 1 million people there.

At the time, he also said that an individual trip would cost around the median price for a house in the United States: $200,000. The Big Falcon Rocket is still unbuilt but is crucial to that goal, as it can carry between 100 and 200 passengers — far more than established rockets using what he calls “traditional methods.” At the time of the Mexico conference, The Verge’s Loren Grush pointed out that Musk had yet to answer some of the biggest questions about what a Mars trip would entail.

The first and biggest is that, so far, there is no plan in place to protect Mars voyagers from dying of radiation before they even get there; nor do we really even know very much about what it would entail to keep all the muscles inside a typical human body from atrophying over the course of an 80-day trip in zero gravity.

There is no plan for what the housing on Mars would look like, or what, say, would happen to an embryo if it gestated entirely in one-third gravity. We have no idea what kind of cross-contamination would result from swapping microbes between Mars and Earth, and we also don’t know if Musk is still planning to artificially raise the temperature on Mars and give it a thicker atmosphere to allow the flow of water. (At the 2016 press conference, he said he would leave many of these questions “up to the decision of the people on Mars.”)

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.