Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of ArizonaThe Phoenix Mars Lander set down successfully last night (6:53 CDT) near the planet’s arctic area in a region called Vastitas Borealis. On Earth, it would be similar to landing in the upper Northwest Territories of Canada.
Unlike the two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, the Phoenix is not mobile, and will spend the next four or five months stuck in one spot analyzing soil and ice samples scooped deep from within the Martian permafrost using a robotic arm developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On board instruments will analyze the samples in search of answers to questions about the affects of polar dynamics on Martian climate, the history of water at the landing site, and whether the Martian arctic region is suitable to support life.
In the coming months, as the sun disappears beneath the horizon and the Martian winter sets in, the Phoenix will shut down operations and end its mission. The loss of solar heat in the atmosphere will also create a frost cover that will expand out from the polar region and eventually bury the Phoenix lander in ice.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell UniversityThe science gathered so far by the two Martian rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, suggests the Red Planet may have been a bit too inhospitable to support even the toughest forms of life.
Although strong evidence of water (at least in the planet’s past) has been found on Mars, recent assessment of the data shows it contains a much higher salt content than expected and that practically puts the kibosh on hopes of any microbes flourishing there.
Opportunity spent time recently examining strata exposed on the inner wall of Victoria Crater. NASA scientists hoped it would show a record of the ground surface as it existed prior to impact that created the crater. But analysis suggests it to be the top of an underground water table, and after reassessing earlier data, and performing some computer modeling, researchers think the environment may have been too harsh to support life.
"At first, we focused on acidity, because the environment would have been very acidic," said Dr. Andrew Knoll, a Harvard biologist who is a member of the rover science team. "Now, we also appreciate the high salinity of the water when it left behind the minerals Opportunity found. This tightens the noose on the possibility of life."
Knoll spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.
"Life at the Martian surface would have been very challenging for the last 4 billion years. The best hopes for a story of life on Mars are at environments we haven't studied yet -- older ones, subsurface ones," he said.
Lower, more ancient, geological layers may hold a more hospitable picture of a less briny Martian environment, but the current rover missions aren’t set up to examine that.
"Our next missions, Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory, mark a transition from water to habitability -- assessing whether sites where there's been water have had conditions suited to life," said Charles Elachi, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Where conditions were habitable, later missions may look for evidence of life."
The Phoenix lander is expected to reach Mars on May 25, 2008 in an area farther north on the planet where it will study the icy subsurface for viable signs of life. The Mars Science Laboratory will launch in the fall of 2009.
Opportunity and Spirit, the two rovers operating presently on opposite sides of the Mars, were sent there with one mission in mind: finding evidence of water. The missions were expected to last a mere three months, but have far surpassed that due to the robots’ high endurance, and problem-solving ingenuity of NASA engineers back on Earth. The robots are now entering their fifth year exploring the Martian surface.
Courtesy billypaloozaAhoy, Buzzketeers! Put on your astronomy hats and your alien diapers, because Spirit, the Mars rover, has got something crazy to show you: a picture of a person (a Martian person) sitting on a rock on the surface of Mars! (Check out the link for the actual photos.)
“A person on Mars?” you say. “What would a person be doing on Mars?” I knew you would say that, because you’re such a doubter, and the answer is obvious from the picture: they’re waiting for a bus, clearly. At least that’s how the article describes it, and it makes sense, because there’s nothing else to do on the surface of Mars. Unless you’re into rocks.
“You know,” you add, “We’ve seen faces and stuff on Mars before. And they’re made of rock. And they don’t even look very facey when you really check them out.” I knew you would say that, too. Sure, they’re probably just made of rock, but if you’re waiting for a bus (and I didn’t see any buses on the way, so it looks like a long wait) on the frosty surface of mars, it probably helps to be made of rock. I mean, really, take off your astronomy hat for just a second, and put on your thinking cap, because you’ve got to try stepping outside the box on this one.
Pretty rad, huh? Although, I always thought Martians would be, I don’t know, greener.
Courtesy NASAThe planet Mars may be in for a collision from an asteroid headed its way. Scientists from NASA have been tracking the 160-foot-wide asteroid for some time now, and say the odds of it hitting the Red Planet are about 1 in 75. Back in 1908, Earth was hit by a similar asteroid, near Tunguska, Siberia. That impact flattened millions of trees and is thought to have left a crater that is now a lake.
I remember the excitement I felt peering through my brother's telescope and seeing the effects of the Shoemaker-Levy comet when it collided with Jupiter back in July of 1994. You could just make out some of the dark holes punched into Jupiter's surface from the comet fragments. Very exciting considering we were witnessing it from over half a billion miles away.
The view of this possible impact could even be better. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently mapping the Martian surface, could capture a the best view of such an event - unless by chance this thing impacts in range of the cameras of one of the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, currently exploring the planet's environs.
If a collision does take place, it's expected to happen on January 30, 2008, which by the way is my birthday. What a great present that would be!
Associated Press story
Courtesy NASAThere’s nothing quite as deflating, figuratively, as a getting a flat tire. And what about if you’re a space rover on Mars, where there’s no shop to go to get your tire fixed?
That’s what NASA’s Spirit Mars rover has been dealing with since its right front tire went bad nearly two years ago. It didn’t go flat, but it’s quit turning forcing NASA to move the rover around in reverse ever since, trailing the stuck wheel behind.
But nearly a year later, that astronomic misfortune has led to an interesting discovery. Ruts carved by the bad wheel last May churned up a bright spot in the rover’s wake.
Rover guiders turned the craft back to the colorful streak for a closer look and discovered that the rock contains high levels of silica. Upon further investigation, however, another nearby rock cracked open that was jam-packed with silica.
You’re wondering what’s the big deal?
Well, on Earth high levels of silica occur only in two places: hot springs or fumaroles, which are environments near volcanoes where acidic steam rises through cracks in the ground. In each of those environments on Earth, water is present and the area is teeming with life forms.
NASA Mars researchers are terming the discovery, made through these very accidental means, as one of the biggest breakthroughs to discovering life forms could have existed on the Red Planet.
By the way, if the bad wheel isn’t enough of a problem for Spirit, it’s also been through a bad dust storm which has coated much of its solar panels with grit. Because of that, it’s only operating at about 30 percent power and rover operators will soon be driving it up a higher altitude for a rest and to have the panels wind-cleaned.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech About this time last year it was springtime on Mars. The two rovers had survived winter but a large, planet wide dust storm threatened to deplete their source of energy. To survive, both rovers were put into survival mode for several months. The both came through OK but because their solar panels are coated with dust, they do not have the energy they used to. Another winter is now approaching so both Rovers need to find a spot to maximize their solar gain.
Spirit spent last winter on the sunny side of a hill called "Winter Haven" (click to see panorama) This winter Spirit is heading north toward an extra steep slope on "Home Plate". Right now it is stuck in what appears to be loose soil.
Spirit is having trouble getting around because one of its wheels doesn't work. It needs to go backwards, dragging its bad front wheel. Opportunity has a wheel that cannot steer. Its instrument arm is arthritic due to a bad motor in its shoulder. Opportunity is also blind in its infrared "eye" because of too much dirt on its lens. Both rovers are having problems with their grinding tools (RAT).
The twin rovers landed on the surface of Mars in January, 2004. Mission planners expected that it would only take a few months before dust coated the rovers' solar panels so thickly that they wouldn't be able to generate power any more. But the Martian weather had a trick; dust devils and wind gusts came by often enough to keep the solar panels relatively clear of dust. Without the loss of power looming, the rovers have been able to keep going, and going, and going. UniverseToday
Canadian scientists have analyzed a salty, white substance kicked up by the Mars rover Spirit, and have determined that it contains 16% water. Previously satellite images showed Martian features that appear to be dry river beds. But this is the first time a soil sample from Mars has reveled the presence of water.
Water, of course, is essential for life on Earth, so its presence on Mars raises the possibility that life may have flourished there in the past…or may still exist beneath the surface. Water is also essential for human life – if astronauts are ever to visit Mars, they will need to be able to extract water to drink.
The researchers say it is too early to tell how common water is on Mars. But the fact that they found it in four different places gives them hope that it is widespread.
That’s what those involved in space exploration learned at a recent conference. For economic and efficiency reasons, robots would lead a team of manufacturers based on the moon building the spacecraft that would go to Mars.
Those attending the Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville, Ala., learned that a Mars spaceship might be too large to build and launch from Earth. The ideal situation would be to have a team of robots based on the moon doing most of the work in building the craft.
Robots would be needed because the construction work would be too cumbersome for humans to do while wearing spacesuits. Researchers are also investigating ways to process moon soils into metals, such as aluminum, iron and titanium, which would then be used to build the spacecraft.
And due to the moon’s weaker gravitational pull, it will 20 times cheaper to launch Mars missions from the moon than from Earth.
While this all sounds pretty futuristic, aeronautic and space manufacturers are already designing and building the next generation of U.S. spacecrafts, the Ares I and Ares V, which will replace the current fleet of space shuttles. The Ares I will shuttle astronauts in and out of space. The larger Ares V will be used to transport heavier cargos.
What do you think about using the moon as a factory? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.
NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has discovered entrances to seven possible caves on the slopes of a Martian volcano.
Using infrared imaging, the holes showed up as bright "hot spots" in photos taken during the cold of night (see right hand photo). In daytime shots they were colder than their surroundings (middle photo). The left photo uses the visable spectrum. This possible cave skylight informally called "Annie," has a diameter about double the length of a football field.
A report of the discovery of the possible cave skylights by Cushing and his co-authors was published online recently by the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The new report proposes that the deep holes on Arsia Mons probably formed as underground stresses around the volcano caused spreading and faults that opened spaces beneath the surface. Some of the holes are in line with strings of bowl-shaped pits where surface material has apparently collapsed to fill the gap created by a linear fault. NASA.gov.