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.”
To investigate Martian rocks for evidence of past life in advance of sending humans to work and live on the Red Planet
Space news (missions to Mars: successor to Curiosity rover; Mars 2020 rover) – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California –
NASA managers are looking forward to shifting gears on the Mars rover program in the 2020s. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover’s expected to arrive at the Red Planet around February 2021, carrying a science instrument package designed to build upon the success of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. It will investigate regions of the planet astrobiologists think were once favorable to microbial life, by collecting soil and rock samples, and then leaving them on the surface for a future Mars mission to collect for the possible return to Earth.
“The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA’s Journey to Mars, to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.”
NASA engineers, scientists and mission planners are ready to begin final design and construction of the next Mars rover. In the end, Mars 2020 will looklike its six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor, Curiosity, but with a science instrument package designed to begin a new phase of exploration of the surface of Mars. It will begin exploring specifically selected regions of the planet for signs of life and the resources needed for future colonists to survive. Using two science instruments mounted on the rover’s robotic arm and two instruments on the mast, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover’s expected to show us new things about the Red Planet.
Current plans call for the Mars 2020 rover to use an upgraded version of the same sky crane landing system used by Curiosity. Engineers and designers have added a few improvements to the system opening up more potential landing sites on Mars with this edition. Giving mission planners more options to explore the Red Planet to a greater degree and hopefully provide a few more answers to the questions we have all been asking ourselves about Mars.
“By adding what’s known as range trigger, we can specify where we want the parachute to open, not just at what velocity we want it to open,” said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “That shrinks our landing area by nearly half.”
Engineers and designers have also added a suite of cameras and a microphone providing data onboard computers will analysis during descent and landing of the rover. This will help the spacecraft land in a safe zone and capture the sounds and imagery of the entry, descent, and landing as never before. We expect this data to eventually make for a thrilling video and improve the chances of future Mars missions.
“As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby,” said Chen. “With this capability, we can now consider landing areas with unsafe zones that previously would have disqualified the whole area. Also, we can land closer to a specific science destination, for less driving after landing.”
“Nobody has ever seen what a parachute looks like as it is opening in the Martian atmosphere,” said JPL’s David Gruel, assistant flight system manager for the Mars 2020 mission. “So this will provide valuable engineering information.”
“This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information,” said Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace of JPL.
Mars 2020 rover goes forward
As the optimist said, “So far, so good.” NASA has completed stage three of a four-stage approval process needed for the Mars 2020 rover to go for launch. Now engineers and designers get to work assembling the final systems of NASA’s next Mars rover. Fortunately, they have already done a lot of the work during the building of Curiosity, and even have some spare parts and hardware that should work just fine laying around somewhere in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission’s heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B,” said George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With the KDP to enter Phase C completed, the project is proceeding with final design and construction of the new systems, as well as the rest of the heritage elements for the mission.”
Planners under pressure to provide details of long-term plans before Presidential election
Space news (Deep space missions: go for Mars; Orion spacecraft) – Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama –
NASA plans to travel to the Red Planet for a three-year mission to set up operations for future missions and possible colonization recently took one step forward. NASA mission managers and other experts gavethe Safety Oversight Board an update on thecurrent status of plans to travel to Mars duringthe latest Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting. The committee members took a very close look at their plans and pointed out America and NASA can’t afford to fumble the ball at this point in history. That with the Presidential election taking place, they‘ll need to see more on NASA’s future plans to travel to Mars, before more funding for futuremissions will be forthcoming.
NASA at this point’s trying to get work completed on the planned debut for the Space Launch System (SLS) with the launch of Exploration Mission Orion (EM-1) in 2017-2018. The second test of the Space Launch System (SLS) is scheduled for around 2021, with a crew this time, but NASA’s presently trying to reduce the five-year gap between the first two SLS missions. This launch system or something similar is needed for plans to travel to Mars and colonize the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
At this point in time, these are the only scheduled SLS missions, but NASA’s documents do show preliminary plans for 41 SLS missions between 2018 to 2046 towards future surface missions on Phobos and then the Red Planet. NASA also provided a generalized plan calling for astronauts to journey to the fourth planet from the Sun for a permanent stay sometime in the 2030s. At this point, however, concrete long-term plans surrounding future manned trips to Mars are hazy due to NASA’s funding outlook, which isonly estimated for long-term space mission requirements. Experts agree, though, a hefty increase in funding’s going to be needed for a realistic, viable plan and tripto the Red Planet. Getting it ready for more colonizers is a different question, though, requiring additionalthought, planning, and funding.
NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaierstated the SLS will launch at least once a year when questioned about the tight schedule of EM-1. NASA’s monster rocket system isn’t scheduled to take astronauts into space until sometime in the next decade, so expectations are for NASA to plan and execute a range of different unmanned space missionsto test the system. This could include a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, to take a dip in the ocean of water planetary scientists think exists below its icy crust.
Bill Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), updated board members on the status of current plans for astronauts to travel to Mars by the 2030s. At this point in the planning, program managers are still reviewing options, rather than adding a foundation to present plans.
NASA planners have significant hurdles to overcome if they’re to successfully send astronauts to the Red Planet and allow them to get back into orbit. The first obstacle’s going to be designing, engineering and testing a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system capable of generating enough energy to get a spacecraft up to a significant percentage of the speed of light. The Helios space probes hold the record for the fastest recorded human spacecraft at around 150,000 miles per hour as they whip around the Sun measuring the solar wind and environment. The second significant hurdle’s collecting enough oxygen from the frozen regions of Mars to provide the fuel required to travel from the surface back into orbit. Plans for a three-year mission are also of concern to scientists, engineers and planners worried about the dangers and problems astronauts will face living, working and staying healthy during a long-duration space mission.
Of concern previously and still a problem the committee mentioned was the need for engineers and scientists to producea heat shield for the Orion spacecraft capable of surviving reentry. The spacecraft will have to survive a 13.5 kilometers per second entry velocity and planners indicated this capability’s on the agency’s must-do list. At present, Orion isn’t going to survive the fall to Earth after it returns from Mars, according to engineers and scientists. Committee members also noted they have been asking NASA managers for a formal outline of their plans to send astronauts to Mars for awhile. They specifically wanted to know what new technologies will be needed to successfully allow astronauts to travel to the Red Planet to begin colonization.
NASA officials responded to committee member requests by stating the agency was in the process of “adding meat to the bones” of the transitional phase of their plans to send astronauts to Mars. During this phase 0, NASA’s turns its attention toward successful test flights for the SLS and Orion, while using the International Space Station (ISS) to test the effects of living and working in space for long periods of time.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission’s (ARM) phase 1 of NASA’s three-part plan to send astronauts to the Red Planet. Initially, this mission had a nominal date of around 2021, but planners have recently updated the mission launch date to around 2026. They’ll need to complete this mission successfully in order to learn some of the things they’ll need to know to send astronauts to Mars to begin colonization. During this phase, engineers and scientists will test the flight capability of the system using the Exploration Missions.
Phase 2 of NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars will test all flight elements needed to travel to the Red Planet, during planned Beyond Earth Orbit test missions. The committee thanked Mars Mission managers but asked to see more detail and definite plans on NASA’s current outline.
Mankind goes for Mars
Mr. Hill commented that NASA’s already learned many needed lessons towards phase 0 of their Mars Mission plans. He added that the nation had already invested significantly in the technology neededto send astronauts to Mar during the decades ahead. That more work needed to be done in order to not loose this work and get the job done within a specific time period. Specific milestones have been met and Exploration Mission 1’s (EM-1) on target for a launch window between September to November 2018.