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.

January 27th, 2020

NASA is hiring someone to help figure out how to get Mars rocks back to Earth — and the position pays at least $182,000

An artist’s concept of the proposed NASA Mars Sample Return mission shows the launch of the Martian samples back to Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is looking to fill an intriguing new role: The space agency needs someone to direct a mission to get the first rocks from Mars back to Earth.

Formally, the job is director of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program, which aims to bring scientists pristine samples of rocks and soil from the red planet to study up close. The first step in that effort is the launch of the soon-to-be-named Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled for July 17. Once on the red planet, the robot is tasked with collecting and storing samples in sealed caches.

But getting them back to Earth is another matter — no mission is planned for that yet.

That’s where the new NASA role comes in.

According to the agency’s description, “the incumbent is responsible for implementation of all MSR program activities, beginning with mission formulation and continuing through design, development, launch, and mission operations.”

The application period closes February 5, 2020.

January 23rd, 2020

NASA’s Curiosity rover suffers glitch on Mars, freezes up

This Hazcam image shows Curiosity’s arm extended out to perform an APXS analysis of the bedrock. Curiosity has to know the exact angle of every joint to move safely. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Can a Mars rover have an existential crisis? NASA’s Curiosity rover was wondering just exactly what its place is on Mars after experiencing a technical glitch.

“Partway through its last set of activities, Curiosity lost its orientation,” wrote Curiosity team member Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist at University of California, Davis, in a mission update this week.

The rover stores in memory its body attitude and joint orientation. This includes details of the local landscape, the location of its robotic arm and the directions its instruments are pointing. It’s all the data that helps the rover know exactly where it is on Mars and how to move about safely.

January 21st, 2020

NASA Wants You to Pick One of These 9 Names for Its New Mars Rover

This illustration depicts NASA’s next Mars rover, which launches in 2020. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA has narrowed down the list of possible names for its new Mars rover to just nine entries. And the public has just one week to vote for the winner.

NASA originally received over 28,000 names and essay submissions from K-12 students across the U.S., narrowing the contest to 155 names last week. Now we’re in the home stretch and the student who wins the contest will receive an invitation to see the new rover launched into space from Cape Canaveral in July of 2020.

The new Mars rover has four science objectives, including looking for habitability, seeking signs of past microbial life, collecting rock and “soil” samples, and preparing for human exploration on Mars. Whatever name NASA chooses will help set the tone for the broader Mars project moving forward, however subtly.

January 17th, 2020

Elon Musk drops details for SpaceX Mars mega-colony

This futuristic render shows a collection of Starships hanging out on the surface of Mars. Elon Musk and SpaceX envision astronauts initially living out of the spaceships while constructing a more permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.

The first SpaceX Starship orbital prototypes aren’t even built yet, but Elon Musk already has big plans for his company’s spacecraft, which includes turning humans into an interplanetary species with a presence on Mars. He crunched some of the numbers he has in mind on Twitter on Thursday.

Musk doesn’t just want to launch a few intrepid souls to Mars, he wants to send a whole new nation. He tossed out a goal of building 100 Starships per year to send about 100,000 people from Earth to Mars every time the planets’ orbits line up favorably.

A Twitter user ran the figures and checked if Musk planned to land a million humans on Mars by 2050. “Yes,” Musk replied. The SpaceX CEO has suggested this sort of Mars population number before. This new round of tweets give us some more insight into how it could be done, though “ambitious” doesn’t do that timeline justice. Miraculous might be a more fitting description.

The distance between Earth and Mars gets reasonably close roughly every 26 months. Musk’s vision involves loading 1,000 Starships into orbit and then sending them off over the course of a month around prime time for a minimal commute. Travelers would still be looking at spending months on board before reaching the Red Planet.

January 10th, 2020

Mars moon got its grooves from rolling stones, study suggests

Groovy Phobos: Much of Phobos’ surface is covered with strange linear grooves. New research bolsters that idea the boulders blasted free from Stickney crater (the large depression on the right) carved those iconic grooves. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

A new study bolsters the idea that strange grooves crisscrossing the surface of the Martian moon Phobos were made by rolling boulders blasted free from an ancient asteroid impact.

The research, published in Planetary and Space Science, uses computer models to simulate the movement of debris from Stickney crater, a huge gash on one end of Phobos’ oblong body. The models show that boulders rolling across the surface in the aftermath of the Stickney impact could have created the puzzling patterns of grooves seen on Phobos today.

“These grooves are a distinctive feature of Phobos, and how they formed has been debated by planetary scientists for 40 years,” said Ken Ramsley, a planetary science researcher at Brown University who led the work. “We think this study is another step toward zeroing in on an explanation.”

Phobos’ grooves, which are visible across most of the moon’s surface, were first glimpsed in the 1970s by NASA’s Mariner and Viking missions. Over the years, there has been no shortage of explanations put forward for how they formed. Some scientists have posited that large impacts on Mars have showered the nearby moon with groove-carving debris. Others think that Mars’ gravity is slowly tearing Phobos apart, and the grooves are signs of structural failure.

Still other researchers have made the case that there’s a connection between the grooves and the Stickney impact. In the late 1970s, planetary scientists Lionel Wilson and Jim Head proposed the idea that ejecta — bouncing, sliding and rolling boulders — from Stickney may have carved the grooves. Head, a professor in Brown’s department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, was also a coauthor of this new paper.

December 11th, 2019

NASA’s Treasure Map for Water Ice on Mars

The annotated area of Mars in this illustration holds near-surface water ice that would be easily accessible for astronauts to dig up. The water ice was identified as part of a map using data from NASA orbiters.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has big plans for returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024, a stepping stone on the path to sending humans to Mars. But where should the first people on the Red Planet land?

A new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters will help by providing a map of water ice believed to be as little as an inch (2.5 centimeters) below the surface.

Water ice will be a key consideration for any potential landing site. With little room to spare aboard a spacecraft, any human missions to Mars will have to harvest what’s already available for drinking water and making rocket fuel.

NASA calls this concept “in situ resource utilization,” and it’s an important factor in selecting human landing sites on Mars. Satellites orbiting Mars are essential in helping scientists determine the best places for building the first Martian research station. The authors of the new paper make use of data from two of those spacecraft, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter, to locate water ice that could potentially be within reach of astronauts on the Red Planet.

“You wouldn’t need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel,” said the paper’s lead author, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re continuing to collect data on buried ice on Mars, zeroing in on the best places for astronauts to land.”

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.

December 3rd, 2019

IKEA prioritises space for overhaul of living pod in Mars Desert Research Station

IKEA has redesigned the tiny living pod on the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, filling its interior with space-saving furnishings.

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is a simulation site that’s designed to emulate the physical and psychological conditions of Mars, where groups of up to six scientists can visit to carry out investigations into the red planet.

Situated in southern Utah, the station comprises seven elements: a greenhouse, solar observatory, engineering pod, science building, robotics observatory, and a domed, two-floor living habitat nicknamed The Hab.

It measures just eight metres in diameter and is where scientists stay during their periods of research, which can last anything from one week to three months.

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.