Mars Weathercam Helps Find Big, New Crater


Scientists using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found a fresh meteor-impact crater, and by golly it’s big. It’s the largest ever located anywhere by using before-and-after pictures. Using the initial pictures, scientists could nail down the time of impact to just 24 hours between March 27-28, 2012. Using the higher resolution cameras on MRO, scientists spotted not only the crater but possible landslides that occurred as a result of the impact. Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari explains.

Nasa’s Curiosity Mars rover drills for rock sample

The upper hole is the new sample site; the lower hole was the test that was drilled last week

The upper hole is the new sample site; the lower hole was the test that was drilled last week

Nasa’s Curiosity rover has drilled a hole in a Martian rock with the intention of taking a powdered sample for its onboard laboratories to study.

It is nearly 12 months since the power tool was last deployed for the purpose.

Pictures downlinked from the planet on Tuesday revealed a neat hole had been hammered in a rock dubbed “Windjana”.

It is hoped this sandstone can yield insights on the geochemical processes that have helped shape the landscape at the bottom of Mars’ Gale Crater.

The sample acquisition manoeuvre comes a week after the rover drilled a small test hole in the same rock slab.

The new hole, just a few centimetres to the side, is noticeably deeper.

By going further into the rock, tailings will have been forced up and into the tool’s collection chamber.

Scientists and engineers must now decide whether this material has the right properties to pass to the CheMin and SAM instruments that live inside the vehicle’s belly.

If the “go” is given, just a pinch of the powder will be dropped into the labs’ analytical bays.

Project scientist John Grotzinger said his team was seeking further information on the role played by water in fixing the sediments that make up many of the rocks on the crater floor. Continue reading Nasa’s Curiosity Mars rover drills for rock sample

A Year of Curiosity on Mars

Curiosity Rover team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., re-live the dramatic Aug. 6, 2012 landing and the mission’s achievements to date in an event aired on NASA Television and the agency’s website. In the year since inspiring millions of people worldwide with its one-of-a-kind landing in a crater on the Red Planet, Curiosity has achieved its primary scientific objective; finding evidence that ancient Mars could have sustained microbial life and has returned invaluable scientific data and images.

ΜΑVEN: Searching for Mars’ Missing Atmosphere

Artist concept of MAVEN spacecraft

Artist concept of MAVEN spacecraft

When NASA’s MAVEN mission begins its journey to the Red Planet later this year, it will be equipped with a special instrument to take the planet back in time.
That instrument is the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, a network of electrically charged rods that will measure the charged gas particles—or ions—making up Mars’ upper atmosphere.


MAVEN will use its Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer to study the interaction of neutral gases and ions in the Martian atmosphere with the solar wind, helping scientists to understand how Mars has lost its atmosphere over time.

Designed and developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the state-of-the-art instrument will launch aboard MAVEN, short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, in November. Once at Mars, the spectrometer will collect data on the ions above the Red Planet.
“The data could be used to build models showing how Mars has lost the majority of its atmosphere, a phenomenon that continues to be one of the planet’s greatest mysteries,” said Paul Mahaffy, the spectrometer’s principal investigator from Goddard.

Once the MAVEN spacecraft launches, the team would apply radio frequency and electrical voltages to the instrument’s four metal cylinders, or quadrupole rods.
Each specific voltage isolates ions based on their specific mass. This allows the instrument to build a profile, known as a mass spectrum, of all the different gas particles present in the Martian atmosphere.
“We’re basically sorting ions by mass,” Mahaffy said.
Besides measuring the ions already present in the atmosphere, the instrument could also create ions from neutral gas molecules. An electron gun will fire a beam of electrons, breaking the gas molecules into smaller, charged particles. By doing this, the instrument can collect information on all of the gas particles, both neutral and charged, in the upper atmosphere.
“Our part of the overall mission is to measure the neutral and ion composition of the atmosphere,” Mahaffy said. “We’re measuring ions that are already there and those that are created.”
The instrument will measure the composition of the current atmosphere and how variables like time of day change the gas particles over time. This critical information can then be used to build simulations of both the current Martian atmosphere and the atmosphere billions of years ago.
“What we’re doing is measuring the composition of the atmosphere as a measure of latitude, longitude, time of day and solar activities,” Mahaffy said. “We’re trying to understand over billions of years how the atmosphere has been lost.”
While it’s unknown why Mars has lost most of its atmosphere, scientists point to solar wind for stripping it. The planet itself lacks a global magnetic field, which typically protects planets like Earth from solar wind, maintaining the atmosphere.
If the models can accurately portray the Martian atmosphere billions of years ago, scientists might be able to answer critical questions like whether the atmosphere was once substantial enough to sustain liquid water on its surface and support life. Currently, the planet is barren and below freezing, with much of its water seen near the surface as ice.
“The big question is can the models help us understand the atmosphere back in time,” Mahaffy said. “This is another part of the puzzle in understanding what [the] atmosphere is like that’s intended to be solved by the MAVEN mission.”
The spectrometer instrument, known by the acronym “NGIMS,” will be located on a platform below the spacecraft, keeping it away from its own gases and allowing it to face different directions. It will collect data when MAVEN is between about 93 and 311 miles (150 and 500 kilometers) above the planet, storing it in the spacecraft’s memory bank for several days before it’s transmitted to NASA’s Deep Space Network satellites around the globe.
In addition to providing important information on its own, NGIMS would complement other instruments aboard, specifically the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer, which would also measure gas composition.
“Both instruments get composition of the atmosphere and how it changes based on variables,” Mahaffy said. “Not only do the different instruments get different species, but we measure at different locations, and that’s really helpful for understanding what the atmosphere is doing.”
NGIMS electrical lead Florence Tan said the information the instrument is trying to find supports mankind’s desire to determine if Earth is the only planet supporting life.
“The question of why only Earth to me is the big science question,” Tan said. “Mars is a close neighbor, so we look at it from the point of view of finding organisms on Earth living in extreme conditions.”
The instrument promises to collect a lot of exciting data.
“It is one step in getting to a really big question, which is, ‘Are we alone in the universe?” Mahaffy said. “MAVEN is one step in that program for understanding life on early Mars, and we’ll try to do everything we can to understand it.”

Read more: http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/maven-spectrometer-opens-window-to-red-planet-s-past/#.UegN3GSH4VZ

Curiosity Mars rover hits the road

By Jonathan Amos

Nasa’s Curiosity Mars rover has finally begun the long drive to its primary mission destination – Mount Sharp.

For the past seven months, it has been investigating a site just east of its August 2012 touchdown point, drilling rocks and analysing their composition.

But scientists have now decided it is time for Curiosity to get rolling.

On Friday, engineers commanded the vehicle to make an 18m drive. On Monday it travelled 40m. It will however take many months to reach Mount Sharp.

The rover has to steer clear of a long bank of sand dunes that represent a potential trap. The intention also is to get to a specific site where satellites have indicated there are layers of sediment that were potentially laid down in water.

All up, this could see Curiosity having to roll roughly 8km to get to the places of key scientific interest. And if the cameras onboard spot unusual rocks, the rover will be commanded to park and examine them….
…. Read more at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23230867#?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Martian Clay Contains Chemical Implicated in the Origin of Life

Electron microscope image showing the 700-million-year-old Martian clay veins containing boron (100 µm = one tenth of a millimeter). (Credit: Image courtesy of Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa)

Electron microscope image showing the 700-million-year-old Martian clay veins containing boron (100 µm = one tenth of a millimeter). (Credit: Image courtesy of Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa)

Researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI) have discovered high concentrations of boron in a Martian meteorite. When present in its oxidized form (borate), boron may have played a key role in the formation of RNA, one of the building blocks for life.

The work was published on June 6 in PLOS ONE.
The Antarctic Search for Meteorites team found the Martian meteorite used in this study in Antarctica during its 2009-2010 field season. The minerals it contains, as well as its chemical composition, clearly show that it is of Martian origin.
Using the ion microprobe in the W. M. Keck Cosmochemistry Laboratory at UH, the team was able to analyze veins of Martian clay in the meteorite. After ruling out contamination from Earth, they determined boron abundances in these clays are over ten times higher than in any previously measured meteorite.
“Borates may have been important for the origin of life on Earth because they can stabilize ribose, a crucial component of RNA. In early life RNA is thought to have been the informational precursor to DNA,” said James Stephenson, a UHNAI postdoctoral fellow.
RNA may have been the first molecule to store information and pass it on to the next generation, a mechanism crucial for evolution. Although life has now evolved a sophisticated mechanism to synthesize RNA, the first RNA molecules must have been made without such help. One of the most difficult steps in making RNA nonbiologically is the formation of the RNA sugar component, ribose. Previous laboratory tests have shown that without borate the chemicals available on the early Earth fail to build ribose. However, in the presence of borate, ribose is spontaneously produced and stabilized.
This work was born from the uniquely interdisciplinary environment of UHNAI. The lead authors on the paper, Stephenson, an evolutionary biologist, and Lydia Hallis, a cosmochemist who is also a UHNAI postdoctoral fellow, first came up with the idea over an after-work beer. “Given that boron has been implicated in the emergence of life, I had assumed that it was well characterized in meteorites,” said Stephenson. “Discussing this with Dr. Hallis, I found out that it was barely studied. I was shocked and excited. She then informed me that both the samples and the specialized machinery needed to analyze them were available at UH.”
On our planet, borate-enriched salt, sediment and clay deposits are relatively common, but such deposits had never previously been found on an extraterrestrial body. This new research suggests that when life was getting started on Earth, borate could also have been concentrated in deposits on Mars.
The significance goes beyond an interest in the red planet, as Hallis explains: “Earth and Mars used to have much more in common than they do today. Over time, Mars has lost a lot of its atmosphere and surface water, but ancient meteorites preserve delicate clays from wetter periods in Mars’ history. The Martian clay we studied is thought to be up to 700 million years old. The recycling of the Earth’s crust via plate tectonics has left no evidence of clays this old on our planet; hence Martian clays could provide essential information regarding environmental conditions on the early Earth.”

Thin section of the Martian meteorite MIL 090030 analyzed by the UHNAI researchers.

Thin section of the Martian meteorite MIL 090030 analyzed by the UHNAI researchers.

The presence of ancient borate-enriched clays on Mars implies that these clays may also have been present on the early Earth. Borate-enriched clays such as the ones studied here may have represented chemical havens in which one of life’s key molecular building blocks could form.
UHNAI is a research center that links the biological, chemical, geological, and astronomical sciences to better understand the origin, history, distribution, and role of water as it relates to life in the universe.
Read more at http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/press-releases/MartianClay/

Nasa’s Curiosity Mars rover reaching turning point

Immediate target: Point Lake has an appearance reminiscent of Swiss cheese

Immediate target: Point Lake has an appearance reminiscent of Swiss cheese

Nasa is finally thinking about getting its Curiosity rover on the road and heading towards the big mountain at its exploration site in Mars’ Gale Crater.

The robot has spent the past six months in a small depression, drilling its rocks and analysing their composition.

But mission managers say they will soon command Curiosity to start moving on the roughly 8km drive to Mount Sharp.

The tall peak is the rover’s primary objective, where it expects to learn much about Mars’ environmental history.

Engineers plan to begin the drive in the “next few weeks”, but they will not rush.

“We are on a mission of exploration. If we come across scientifically interesting areas, we are going to stop and examine them before continuing the journey,” explained Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson.

“It’s difficult to say exactly how long it will take. I’d hazard a guess that somewhere between 10 months and a year might be a fast pace.”

he rover has a few tasks to complete before starting the traverse.

Its onboard laboratories are still examining a powered sample drilled from the so-called Cumberland rock in the Yellowknife Bay depression.

This analysis should reinforce the findings from an initial sample drilled from a nearby mudstone dubbed John Klein.

This determined the rock had been laid down billions of years ago in a benign water setting, possibly a lake.

The Cumberland drill hole tried to sample a slightly greater concentration of erosion-resistant granules that give the mudstone a slightly bumpy appearance.

But even as the labs do their analysis, Curiosity has started moving towards a rock feature it saw briefly on the way into Yellowknife Bay.

Known as Point Lake, this outcrop has an unusual holey appearance – like Swiss cheese. Scientists are unsure as to whether it is volcanic or sedimentary in character.

“One idea is that it could be a lava flow and those are gas vesicles, and you often see in volcanic rocks on Earth that those kinds of holes are sometimes filled in by secondary minerals. That’s one possibility,” said Dr Joy Crisp, the deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

“And then it could just possibly be some other kind of massive rock, like a sedimentary rock, that happens not to be layered and either the holes are etched by wind or they’re with some mineral that has weathered out; or there were just gases in that rock as it was forming and it’s left holes in that rock.”….
… Read more at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22784635

Mars mineral globe

marsThis unique atlas comprises a series of maps showing the distribution and abundance of minerals formed in water, by volcanic activity, and by weathering to create the dust that makes Mars red.
Together the maps provide a global context for the dominant geological processes that have defined the planet’s history.

The maps were built from ten years of data collected by the OMEGA visible and infrared mineralogical mapping spectrometer on Mars Express.

The animation cycles through maps showing: individual sites where a range of minerals that can only be formed in the presence of water were detected; maps of olivine and pyroxene, minerals that tell the story of volcanism and the evolution of the planet’s interior; and ferric oxide and dust. Ferric oxide is a mineral phase of iron, and is present everywhere on the planet: within the bulk crust, lava outflows and the dust oxidised by chemical reactions with the martian atmosphere, causing the surface to ‘rust’ slowly over billions of years, giving Mars its distinctive red hue.

The map showing hydrated minerals includes detections made by both ESA’s Mars Express and by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


http://spaceinvideos.esa.int/Videos/2013/05/Mars_mineral_globe