Courtesy xkcdThe current Mars rovers are, not surprisingly, still on Mars. The surprising bit is that one, Opportunity, is still operating, nearly seven years after landing. The other, Spirit, is stuck, possibly in a hibernation mode, and could "wake up" during the Martian summer solstice , this coming March. It’s pretty incredible that these rovers operated so long after they landed – in Opportunity's case 20 times longer and counting.
And, orbiting above the rovers is the Odyssey spacecraft, which last week broke the record for longest-working spacecraft at Mars. The previous record was set by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which orbited Mars from 1997 to 2006.
And amidst all this history, a little under a year from now, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity will be launched and is scheduled to land in August 2012. Curiosity is also a rover, but is larger than either Opportunity or Spirit. Its mission is to assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.
There’s growing photo evidence that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars.
Photos from a NASA Mars orbiter taken over the span of several years show that erosion patterns have changed on portions of the Red Planet. Scientists have known that ice exists on Mars for quite a while, but these latest photographs help point to signs that liquid water occasionally can be found on the planet as well.
That’s especially important in the search for any forms of life on the planet. While past research has concluded that life was possible on the planet’s long past when it was warmer, these new photos help boost the odds that liquid water may exist somewhere on the planet today to help feed life forms.
Satellite photos have long shown gullies on the surface of Mars where water was believed to have flowed millions of years ago. Comparing photos of portions of Mars first photographed in 1999 and 2000 and then reshot in 2004 and 2005, researchers have found gullies in two spots that are part of the second series of photos, but not the first.
“Water seems to have flowed on the surface of today’s Mars,” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “The big question is how does this happen, and does it point to a habitat for life.”
There are no visible channels or pools of water on Mars. That leads researchers to think that there may be liquid water in underground aquifiers, which occasionally release water to Mars’ surface. Underground temperatures of Mars might be warm enough to keep water in its liquid state.
The new gullies display evidence of water flow similar to what we see on Earth. They are about one-quarter of a mile long and have delta-shaped patterns at their ends, much like what we find at the end of our rivers and streams. Also, flow patterns in the areas around obstacles in the paths of the gullies show similar patterns like those we see here on earth of mud and sediment washing around the obstacle.
By the way, if you want to see more about the surface of Mars, the Science Museum of Minnesota’s 3-D cinema currently is showing the film “Mars,” which has footage taken from the Mars rovers currently scurrying around the planet. Maybe you’ll be able to see some signs of water in the background.
Have you seen the trailer for the new Transformers movie? It has the story line of the Beagle 2 Mars rover being lost after landing on Mars and the implication is that an evil Decepticon destroys it as, “the only warning we will ever get.”
While I doubt that transforming Lamborghini’s are the cause, a space probe orbiting Mars has recently gone missing. The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), launched on November 7, 1996, is one of several probes currently studying Mars. (The others include the orbiters Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.) The original mission of the MGS was scheduled to last only about two years, but NASA has repeatedly extended the mission making the MGS the longest operating spacecraft ever sent to Mars. The MGS was launched in part to replace the Mars Observer, which disappeared in 1993 before reaching Mars (again, probably not Decepticons). Most of the Mars Observer’s instruments were rebuilt and installed on the MGS.
It has gathered more information on the Red Planet than all previous missions combined, all in all the spacecraft has been a tremendously successful workhorse.
The mission was most recently extended on October 1, however, early this month problems began to arise. On November 2 the spacecraft was sent commands for a routine moving of its solar panels. The spacecraft reported that the motor responsible for moving one of the panels had problems and had as a result switched to backup systems. While this is how the spacecraft is programmed to respond, no transmissions from the spacecraft were received for two days. On November 5 several transmissions were received that indicated the spacecraft had entered a “safe” mode, a pre-programmed state of minimal activity. After receiving no transmissions from the spacecraft on November 6 NASA engineers figured the spacecraft had followed further safety protocols when it determines a solar panel is stuck which result in turning the spacecraft so the panels face the sun, which result in making successful transmissions to Earth difficult. This past Monday NASA had hoped to get an image of the MGS from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but was unsuccessful. Yesterday NASA engineers sent a signal to the MGS that requested that it turn on a beacon on one of the two Mars rovers on the surface. Unfortunately, the Opportunity Rover did not get a signal from the MRS yesterday, but NASA will try again today. If that fails, NASA will continue to attempt to contract the MGS through the end of the year, but it may be that the mission of the Mars Global Surveyor may finally have come to an end.
One of the things the MGS did that I thought was interesting was take pictures of other orbiters and past landers on the Mars surface. The goal of these types of photos was to place the landers into a geological context, which helps scientists to understand the results these landers have returned. The Mars Global Surveyor had taken images of Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, Mars Pathfinder, and both Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.
It is even possible that the Mars Global Surveyor has found the location of the Mars Polar Lander, which was a failed mission that lost contact with Earth in December of 1999.
Images from the Mars Global Surveyor are available for viewing on Science on a Sphere at the Science Musuem of Minnesota.
For the first time ever, a spacecraft has taken a picture of another spacecraft orbiting around another planet. The Mars Global Surveyor, which has been floating around Mars since 1997, was able to take this grainy picture of its sister probe, Odyssey. Odyssey arrived at Mars in 2001. It's exciting to be able to see evidence of our successful missions to another planet beamed back from millions of miles away.
In the future these probes may be able to take pictures of fellow spacecraft to help us fix problems and guide discovery. Imagine if a lander got lost on the Martian surface: orbiting probes might be able to tell us back here on Earth what happened, and where things went wrong. This sort of interaction between probes will be essential for our further exploration of the universe, especially to places where humans might not be able to travel.