For the American contribution to the human journey to the beginning of space and time
Space news (Space economics: American contributions; NASA’s 2018 budget) NASA’s released documents covering American economic contributions, future strategic plans, and current performance during this phase of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Below you’ll find links to each.
The United States isa leader during the human journey to the beginning of space and time and 2018’s shaping up to be an exciting year. Curiosity will continue to travel across the Red Planet searchingfor signs of water and life, while NASA continues with plans for humans to stand upon Mars sometime in 2030s.
Check out NASA’s 2018 budget and strategic plans to spend the money invested in our desire to reach the stars and the vast beyond. America’s spending a lot of your moneyto expandthespace frontier each year. You might want to check out their progress and work. It couldbe important for the future of your kids and generations of human beings to come.
Follow the human journey to the beginning of space and time at NASA.
Next stop the ocean worlds of Enceladus and Europa
Space news (planetary science: water worlds of the solar system; Enceladus and Europa) –planets and moons around the solar system and exoplanets across the universe covered with water–
The solar system’s awash in water! NASA missions have provided verifiable facts showing ocean worlds and moons exist in our solar system and beyond,other than Earth. Planetary bodieswhere water is locked in a frozen embrace and even flowing beneath miles of ice. Liquid water exobiologists are keen to explore for life forms they would love to meet and get to know a little better during the next phase of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Watch this YouTube video on NASA’s search for life on the ocean worlds of the solar system.
Papers published bythe journal Science and written by Cassini mission scientists and researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope indicate hydrogen gas believed pouring from the subsurface ocean of Enceladus could potentially provide chemical energy life could use to survive and evolve. Watch this YouTube videocalled “NASA: Ingredients for Life at Saturn’s moon Enceladus“, itshowsthe proof scientists used to come to these conclusions. Their work provides new insights concerning possible oceans of water on moons of Jupiter and Saturn and other ocean moons in the solar system and beyond.
“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. ”These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”
Researchers believe they have found evidence indicating hydrogen gas could be pouring out of hydrothermal vents on the floor of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and into these oceans of water. Any microbes existing in these distant waters could use this gas as a form of chemical energy to operate biological processes. By combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in this ocean of water in a chemical reaction called methanogenesis, geochemists think methane could be produced which could act as the basis of a tree of life similar to the one observed on Earth.
On Earth, this process is thought to be at the root of the tree of life, and could even be essential, critical to the origin of life on our little blue dot. Life existing on our planet requires three main ingredients, liquid water, a source of energy for metabolic processes, and specific chemical ingredients to develop and continue to thrive. This study shows Enceladus could have the right ingredients for life to exist, but planetary scientists and exobiologists are looking for evidence of the presence of sulfur and phosphorus.
Previous data shows the rocky core of this moon is similar to meteorites containing these two elements, so they’re thought to be chemically similar in nature, and scientists are looking for the same chemical ingredients of life found on Earth, primarilycarbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and of course hydrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur.
“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Cassini detected hydrogen in plumes of gas and frozen matter spewing from Enceladus during the spacecraft’s deepest pass over its surface on October 28, 2015. This combined with previous data obtained by Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) during earlier flybys around 2005,helped scientists determine that nearly 98 percent of the material spraying from the surface of the moon is water. The remaining two percent is thought to be around 1 percent hydrogen with some carbon dioxide, methane,ammonia and assorted unknown molecules in the mix.
Cassini has shown us two independent detections of possible water spewing from the surface of Enceladus. NASA and its partners are currently looking over proposals to send spacecraft to determineif there is an ocean of water beneath its surface by taking a sample. The Europa Life Finder (ELF)is the proposal NASA’s seriously looking at undertaking at this point, but reports indicate a few other proposals are also being discussed.We’ll provide additional information on other proposals as they’re released to media outlets.
“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.
Two different observations of possible plumes of water spraying from the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus provides proof hydrothermal activity is occurring beneath. Geophysicists believe hot water is combining chemically with rock and other matter at the bottom of an ocean of water underneath its icy surface to produce hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas exobiologists think could be used as energy, food of a sort, to sustain life forms exobiologists want to meet and learn more about. A meeting that would change our place in the cosmos, the way we think about the universe, and reality.
Astronomers and researchers working with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2016 reported on an observation of a possible plume erupting from the icy surface of Europa in the same general location Hubble observed a possible plume in 2014. This location also corresponds to the unusually warm region with cracks in the icy surface observed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft back in the 1990s.This provides evidence this phenomenon could be periodic, intermittent in this region of the moon. Mission planners are looking at this region as a possible location to obtain a sample ofwater erupting from a possible ocean of water beneath its icy surface. Watch this video on Europa.
Estimates of the sizeof this most recently observed plume indicate it rose about 62 miles (~100 kilometers) from the surface of Europa, while the plume in 2014 only reached a height of around 30 miles (50 kilometers).
“The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions, so after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map. We discovered that Europa’s plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly,” said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Sparks led the Hubble plume studies in both 2014 and 2016.
One interesting thought’s the plumes and the hot spot is somehow linked. If this is the case, it could mean the vented water’s falling onto the surface of the moon, which would change the structure and chemistry of the surface grains and allow them to retain heat longer than the surrounding region. This location would be a great place to search for the ingredients of life and a possible entry point into an ocean of water beneath.
These observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and future looks enable future space missions to Europa and other ocean worlds in the solar system. Specifically, laying the groundwork for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is setfor a launch sometime in the 2020s.
“If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them,” said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.
NASA has indicated they’re looking to identify a possible site with persistent, intermittent plume activity as a target location for a mission to Europa to explore using its powerful suite of science instruments. Another team’s currently at work on a powerful ultraviolet camera to add to the Europa Clipper that would offer data similar to that provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, while some members of the Cassini team areworking on a very sensitive, next generation INMS instrument to put on the spacecraft.
Water’s the story of life on Earth! Science has shown it played and plays the main part in the birth,evolution, and sustenance of life on Earth.
NASA’s planning on taking the human journey to the beginning of space and time to the ocean worlds of the solar system during the decades ahead. To search for the ingredients of life and even possibly simple one-celled life forms, of an unknown type. We plan on going along for the ride to have a look for ourselves and we hope to see your name on the ship manifest. We’ll save a seat for you.
Join the human journey to the beginning of space and time by taking part in NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9. Participants take part in the search for hidden worlds between Neptune and Proxima Centauri.
Space news (The search for life beyond Earth) – An artist’s rendition of the Europa spacecraft orbiting Jupiter–
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this artist‘s rendering of the Europa spacecraft, which is set to head to Jupiter sometime in the 2020s. The Europa Mission spacecraftconfiguration in early 2016 is shown in this image. The final spacecraft configuration at launch could easily be different, so stay tuned here for more news. The position of Jupiter in the sky relative to Europa and the spacecraftare also off in this drawing.
Two large solar arrays are shown extending from the sides of the Europa spacecraft to which the ice-penetrating radar antennas are attached in this artist’s rendition. On the side of the craft, a saucer-shaped high gain antenna is depicted next to a magnetometer boom. On the forward section is a remote-sensing palette with the remaining science instruments.
The Europa Mission profile has a very capable, radiation-resistant spacecraft traveling to Jupiter, where it enters into a long, looping orbit of the giant planet in order to perform at least 45 repeated flybys of Europa at altitudes ranging from 1700 miles to 16 miles (2700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above its surface. Planetary scientists want to take a closer look at the evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. An ocean of liquid water that could be the habitat of alien lifeforms we want to get to know better.
One of the oldest regions of the Red Planet discovered, an ancient Martian lake, or the site of an ancient hot spring first explored by NASA’s Spirit rover
Space news (The Journey to Mars: Mars 2020; possible landing sites) – Northeast Syrtis: Jerero crater; or Columbia Hills, on the Red Planet –
Planetary scientists and other scientists attending the third landing site workshop hosted by NASA in order to determine the best place for its Mars 2020 rover to land recommend three places. NASA’s been using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to search for suitable sites since about 2006 and to help in the identification, study, and verification of possible future landing sites for coming manned missions during most recent history. Data and observations provided by the MRO also helped participants narrow down the choices to three during the workshop.
“From the point of view of evaluating potential landing sites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the perfect spacecraft for getting all the information needed,” said the workshop’s co-chair, Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “You just can’t overstate the importance of MRO for landing-site selection.”
“Missions on the surface of Mars give you the close-up view, but what you see depends on where you land. MRO searches the globe for the best sites,” said MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL.
“Whether it is looking at the surface, the subsurface or the atmosphere of the planet, MRO has viewed Mars from orbit with unprecedented spatial resolution, and that produces huge volumes of data,” said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of JPL.“These data are a treasure trove for the whole Mars scientific community to study as we seek to answer a broad range of questions about the evolving habitability, geology, and climate of Mars.”
The Journey to the Red Planet
The human journey to the beginning of space and time will be making a stop on Mars sometime in the 2030s if everything goes as planned with NASA’s Journey to Mars. Mars 2020 is expected to launch aboard the Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida around July 2020. After a journey of millions of miles across the solar system to the Red Planet, the Mars 2020 rover will land at one of three possible sites.
Images of the first possible landing site in the Northeast part of Syrtis Major showEarly Noachian bedrock planetary scientists would like to have a closer look at for signs of possible life. An excellent place for study and exploration of the past of the Red Planet, scientists are currently studying whether it’s safe for Mars 2020 to land. There could be too many boulders or even steep slopes unidentified in the initial analysis of images of this region making landing problematic at best. There’s also always the possibility of something we haven’t thought of. If the site is safe, it will be considered for the final choice, and possibly even for the rovers planned by Europe and NASA sometime around 2018.
This part of the Red Planet was once warmed by volcanoes, so planetary scientists want to look for ancient hot springs and even surface ice melt where liquid water could have flowed. Liquid water’s one of the catalysts-of-life planetary scientists look for in the search for extraterrestrial life. The layered terrain of Northeast Syrtis could hold a record of ancient simple life forms that existed on Mars during its early history. At the very least it should tell us more about interactions between water and minerals over successive parts of the Red Planet when it was young. This site we should definitely take a look at.
Rewind time 3.5 billion years in Jezero crater, to when river channels spilled over the crater wall and formed a lake. Planetary scientists see evidence water from this lake carried clay minerals from the lake bed after this body of water dried up. Scientists want to explore the crater for signs microbial life once lived here during events such as this when Jezero crater was a little wetter. For the remains of ancient life in the lakebed sediments.
Columbia Hills, Mars
After additional study planetary scientists and geochemists agree mineral springs once bubbled up from the rocks of Columbia Hills in Gusev crater on the Red Planet. Originally, the Spirit rover found no clear signs water flowed over or existed in the rocks of this region of Mars, but the discovery hot springs once existed here has scientists thinking a shallow lake may have once formed for a time. Warm, inviting waters microbial life could have evolved in, exobiologists are keen to examinesoils and lakebed sediments of Gusev crater for their remains.
The Final Landing Site of the Mars 2020 rover
Possible landing sites of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover may change as the mission goes forward, the science mission and even engineering considerations of achieving their goals could change as they learn more. Ultimately, NASA will decide on a landing site with geology indicating a wetter past that also meets all criteria. Stay tuned to the human journey to the beginning of space and time during the months and years ahead to learn more.
To study ways to protect future astronauts as they prepare and one day travel to the other planets and throughout the solar system
Space news (NASA initiatives: The Transitional Research Institute (NTRI); researching and developing innovative approaches to decrease risks for humans associated with traveling and living in space) – Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute in Houston, Texas –
During the next few decades human beings will travel to parts of the solar system never visited before and the journey is expected to be dangerous, yet awe-inspiring. In order to reduce the risks associated with traveling and living in space, NASA has announced the formation of a partnership with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Plans are to operate a new institute charged with researching and developing innovative approaches designed to help keep astronauts alive and healthy during long-term voyages to Mars and beyond.
Men and women react differently to the environment called space and research can differ between the two. This diagram shows key differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight. Credits: NASA
Called the NASA Transitional Research Institute (NTRI), the new institute will implement a bench-to-spaceflight strategy. Their main goals to produce new treatments, countermeasures, and technologies with practical applications towards known spaceflight health risks. Medical problems like visual impairment intracranial pressure (VIIP) Syndrome, which was identified in 2005, and is currently NASA’s number one spaceflight-related health risk for astronauts. Plans are for the work to be done at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute in Houston, Texas.
“It’s fitting on the 47th anniversary of humanity’s first moon landing that we’re announcing a new human spaceflight research institute that will help reduce risks for our astronauts on the next giant leap – our Journey to Mars,” said Marshall Porterfield, NASA’s director of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications.
Time to get to work
Astronauts will be happy to hear this news and it has the potential to enable mankind’s journey to Mars and beyond to the beginning of space and time. The NASA Transitional Research Institute willhelp form relationships between scientists and medical laboratories and institutes looking to reduce health risks and performance barriers for humans traveling and living in space. It will also keep astronauts healthier during their space missions during the decades ahead.
By spotting moving objects in brief movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)
Space news (Astrophysics: The search for nearby planets; Backyard Worlds: Planet 9) – the outer reaches of our solar system beyond Neptune andneighboring interstellar space –
NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 invites you to join the human journey to the beginning of space and time by helping astronomers search for undiscovered worlds on the outer fringes of our solar system and wandering in nearby interstellar space. Just by viewing brief movies created by using images taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and then picking out moving objects in the frames. You can help find interesting things for scientists to study further and you might even get your name on any scientific papers written on the subject. Watch this NASA video on the new website
“There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.”
WISE is just one of many repurposed, retasked spacecraft working beyond the years’ designers and engineers first proposed for their space mission. After being told to stand down in 2011, our intrepid space explorer was reassigned a new mission by NASA in 2013, to identify hazardous near-Earth asteroids and comets. They also gave the old space horse a new name, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).
People deciding to join the human journey to the beginning of space and time through this invitation search for unknown objects beyond Neptune using data provided by NEOWISE. You’ll be looking for asteroids and comets possibly on a collision course with Earth. You could also discover the fabled Planet X or a brown dwarf star too faint to be seen in nearby interstellar space, like the brown dwarf star called WISE 0855-0714.
“Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter,” said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds.”
You might be wondering what your tired eyes can do to help NASA scientists? Objects closer to the solar system move across the sky at different rates, unlike ones further away. The most efficient way to search for them is by systematically looking for moving objects in NEOWISE data. Computers are normally used for this job, but human eyes are often better at picking out important movingobjects among all the other things on the screen.
Watch short animations
On Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, millions of people from around the world watch millions of short animations showing how a small patch of the sky has changed over many years. Any important moving objects noticedcan be flagged by astronomers for further study. The discoverer could even be given credit in scientific papers written on the subject. This is your chance to join the human journey to the beginning of space and time and get noticed.
“Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images.
NASA and FEMA scientists tracking asteroid using ground and space-based telescopes to refine estimates
Space news Sept. 20, 2020 ( NASA Planetary Defense Office: joint NASA and FEMA operation; emergency response to future asteroid impact) – Jet Propulsion Laboratory in El Segundo, California; conducting emergencyresponse exercise forpossible future asteroid impact –
NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson spoke today at a simulated emergency response exercise to a possible future asteroid impact estimated for some time around Sept. 20, 2020. The exercise provided a forum for the planetary science community to prepare emergency managers by collecting, analyzing, and sharing data about such an event should it occur. It also provided the chance for emergency response personnel, the asteroid science community, and emergency managers across the country and the world to begin forming the strong working relationshipsrequired to protect humanity from an asteroid strike.
This particular exercise wasthe third in a series hosted jointly by NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was conducted to prepare emergency services in the event of an asteroid impact becomes more likely during the years ahead and strengthen bonds between their partnership.At this point, NASA and FEMA officials say an asteroid impact is very unlikely, but we need to be ready in case of an emergency.
“It’s not a matter of if — but when — we will deal with such a situation,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning, and mitigation.”
During the emergency response exercise, planetary science community representatives showed how data concerning a possible future asteroid impact would be collected, analyzed, and shared. Emergency response managers talked about the way the information would be used to consider the challenges and options during an asteroid impact. They also talked about the way to prepare, respond, and tell the public about the crisis.
“It is critical to exercise these kinds of low-probability but high-consequence disaster scenarios,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said. “By working through our emergency response plans now, we will be better prepared if and when we need to respond to such an event.”
This possible asteroid impact in four years time was first discovered in the fall and was at that time estimated at 2 percent. NASA assets will continue to track the asteroid for the next three months, before updating the chances of a possible impact. But at this point, NASA and its partners are preparingto launch a possible mission to deflect or otherwise intercept the asteroid. Exercise attendees were left with the challenge of preparing for a mass evacuation of a major US metropolitan city and region in the worst case scenario. They went over possible impact scenarios, looked at possible population displacement estimates, discussed infrastructure that would be affected, and all data that could realistically be known concerning a possible asteroid impact in four years time.
“The high degree of initial uncertainty coupled with the relatively long impact warning time made this scenario unique and especially challenging for emergency managers,” said FEMA National Response Coordination Branch Chief Leviticus A. Lewis. “It’s quite different from preparing for an event with a much shorter timeline, such as a hurricane.”
They also looked at ways to pass on accurate, timely, and useful information to the general public, while still addressing the possible issue of false rumors and information emerging during the years leading up to an impact.
“These exercises are invaluable for those of us in the asteroid science community responsible for engaging with FEMA on this natural hazard,” said NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson. “We receive valuable feedback from emergency managers at these exercises about what information is critical for their decision making, and we take that into account when we exercise how we would provide information to FEMA about a predicted impact.”
Study and planning for a possible asteroid impact continues
NASA’s continuing to provide expert input to FEMA about the asteroid through the Planetary Coordination Office. The partners will continue to assess the asteroid and conduct asteroid impact exercises in preparation for a worst case scenario. They also intend to start reaching out to other representatives from local and state emergency management agencies and the private sector in future emergency exercises.
NASA’s looking for a few good firms and private individuals to form meaningful, useful business partnerships with, check it out here.
Space news (astrophysics: stellar nurseries; HII region N159) – 180,000 light-years from Earth deep within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) –
The stunning Hubble Space Telescope image seen above shows the heart of a cosmic maelstrom, glowing gas, and dark dust deep within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of many satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. This stormy region of space contains stellar nursery N159, an HII region over 150 light-years across with many hot young suns emitting intense ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet light causing nearby hydrogen gas to glow and torrential stellar winds carving ridges, arcs, and filaments out of surrounding gas and dust.
Early stages of star birth
Near the heart of this cosmic maelstrom lies the butterfly-shaped Papillon Nebula, a small, dense stellar object astronomers refer to as a High-Excitation Blob, they have linked to the early stages of the formation of a massive star. This region of space was first detected using Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2).
Nebula N159’s just south of the Tarantula Nebula (heic 1402), a star-forming region also imaged by Hubble’s WFPC2. Hidden within this region of space astronomers found several massive stars they’re currently studying looking for clues to the growth and evolution of the most massive stars in the galaxy. The image seen here was taken using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.
In order to better understand intricate operations and detailed planning needed to capture multi-ton boulder from asteroid surface
Space news (Asteroid Redirect Mission: testing of prototype of robotic capture module system) – The Robotic Operations Center of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center –
Inside the Robotic Operations Center (ROC) of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center engineers are at work preparing the robotic section of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The most recent work involved testing a prototype of the asteroid capture system with a mock boulderbuilt by NASA and students from West Virginia University. This work will help engineers learn more about the intricate operations needed to capture a multi-ton boulder from the surface of an asteroid. The robotic section of ARM is targeted for a 2021 launch window.
The capability built into the ROC allows engineers to create a simulation of the capture of a boulder from the surface of an asteroid. Here they can also simulate servicing of the satellite, fine tuning of systems and controllers, and even optimize all performance factors for future repairs and refueling. An important capabilitywhen building spacecraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars and even more. One that saves money and time.
The report reflects the findings of a two-month study conducted by members of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG). It explains many of ARM’s potential contributions to the future of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.
“This report is an important step in identifying ways that ARM will be more scientifically relevant as we continue mission formulation for the robotic and the crew segments,” said Gates. “We’re currently in the process of selecting hosted instruments and payloads for the robotic segment, and hope to receive an updated analysis from the SBAG after we announce those selections in spring 2017.”
During the same relative time period, other clues indicate more oxygen was present in the atmosphere thanfound currently
Space news (planetary science: Martian rocks containing manganese oxide minerals; indicating a wetter surface with more atmospheric oxygen than presently found on Mars) – Mars (the Red Planet), 154 million miles (249 kilometers) from Sol, or 141 million miles (228 million kilometers) from Earth, on average –
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found rocks at a place called Windjana containing manganese oxide minerals according to reports from planetary scientists studying samples from the region. On Earth rocks of this type formed during the distant past in the presence of abundant water and atmospheric oxygen. This news added to previous reports of ancient lakes and other groundwater sources during Mar’s pastpoints to a wetter environment in the study region Gale Crater during this time.
Planetary scientists used the laser-firing instrument on the Curiosity Mars rover to detect high levels of manganese-oxide in mineral veins found at Windjana. “The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”
Planetary scientists are looking at other processes that could create the manganese-oxide they found in rocks in Mar’s Gale Crater region. Possible culprits at this point include microbes, but even optimistic planetary scientists are finding little fan fair accompanyingtheir ideas. Lanza said, “These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”
Geologists have found high concentrations of manganese oxide minerals is an important marker of a major shift in Earth’s atmospheric composition, from relatively low oxygen levels during the distant past, to the oxygen-rich environment we live in today. Planetary scientists studying the rocks they found in Gale Crater suggest the presence of these materials indicates oxygen levels on Mars rose also, before declining to the present low levels detected. The question is how was Mar’s oxygen-rich atmosphere formed?
“One potential way that oxygen could have gotten into the Martian atmosphere is from the breakdown of water when Mars was losing its magnetic field,” said Lanza. “It’s thought that at this time in Mars’ history, water was much more abundant. Yet without a protective magnetic field to shield the surface, ionizing radiation started splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of Mars’ relatively low gravity, the planet wasn’t able to hold onto the very light hydrogen atoms, but the heavier oxygen atoms remained behind. Much of this oxygen went into rocks, leading to the rusty red dust that covers the surface today. While Mars’ famous red iron oxides require only a mildly oxidizing environment to form, manganese oxides require a strongly oxidizing environment, more so than previously known for Mars.“
Lanza added, “It’s hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred. But it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated. Abundant atmospheric oxygen has been treated as a so-called biosignature or a sign of extant life, but this process does not require life.“
The Curiosity rover has been investigating Gale Crater for around four years and recent evidence supports the possibilityconditions needed to form these deposits were present in other locations. The concentrations of manganese oxide discovered were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in a region of the crater called “Kimberley”. NASA’s Opportunity rover has been exploring the surface of the planet since 2004 and recently reported similar high manganese deposits in a region thousands of miles away. Supporting the idea environments required to form similar deposits could be found well beyond Gale Crater.
What’s next for Curiosity?
NASA’s Curiosity rover’s currently collecting drilled rock powder from the 14th drill site called the Murray formation on the lower part of Mount Sharp. Plans call for NASA’s mobile laboratory to head uphill towards new destinations as part of a two-year mission extension starting near the beginning of October.
The rover will go forward about a-mile-and-a-half (two-and-a-half-kilometers) to a ridge capped with material rich in the iron-oxide mineral hematite first identified by observations made with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Just beyond this area, there’s also a region with clay-rich bedrock planetary scientists want to have a closer look.
NASA has been exploring these key exploration sites on lower Mount Sharp as part of an effort to investigate evidence the Red planet was once a much wetter environment, which contrasts with the pictures of Mars we have received from our orbiters and rovers. A wetter environment where life could have taken root and grown.
“We continue to reach higher and younger layers on Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Even after four years of exploring near and on the mountain, it still has the potential to completely surprise us.”
Planetary scientists found the Murray formation consists primarily of mudstone, which on Earth would form from mud accumulated on the bottom on an ancient lake. This seems to indicate any lake environment that existed on the Red Planet lasted awhile, but we’ll need to investigate this possibility more. Plans are for Curiosity to investigate the upper regions of the Murray formation, ahead, for at least one year of the mission.
“We will see whether that record of lakes continues further,”Vasavada said. “The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we’ve found so far transition to something else?”
Vasavada said, “The Hematite and the Clay units likely indicate different environments from the conditions recorded in the older rock beneath them and different from each other. It will be interesting to see whether either or both were habitable environments.”