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.
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.
5 US companies to conduct concept studies for support missions to colonize Mars
Space news (Journey to Mars: Mars Orbiter Mission; support mission concept studies) – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California –
NASA’s plans to send astronauts to explore and one day live on Mars turned a page today with the announcement of the selection of five US aerospace firms to study possible mission concepts. The Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Orbital ATK, and Space Systems will each conduct four months of research on ways a new Mars orbiter mission would benefit communications, imaging ability, and operational capabilities of future manned missions to the Red Planet.
“We’re excited to continue planning for the next decade of Mars exploration,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Partners in making history
NASA is actively seeking partnerships in their desire to send manned missions to Mars as early as the 2030s. The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group published a report a few months ago on the science objectives proposed for the manned Journey to Mars missions by the scientific community and their feasibility. People and firms interested in contributing to the Journey to Mars should contact NASA to see how they can take part.
NASA’s Journey to Mars is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California under the direction of the agency’s Mars Exploration Program. This is a very ambitious space program expected to lead the way for mankind to one day travel to Mars and take steps to stay forever. Presently, it has two robotic rovers and three orbiting spacecraft exploring the Red Planet and future plans include the launch of the InSight lander in 2018 and the Mars 2020 rover, which is currently in development.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover could be traversing terrain similar to large grained sandstone deposits found on Earth scientists studying images taken of the region surrounding the spacecraft believe.
The 160 degree landscape panorama below photographed by Curiosity’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) on February 19, 2014 during a stop on the missions 574th day shows an eroded sandstone outcrop called Junda and Mount Sharp on the horizon. The panoramic image below is centered on “the Kimberley”, a region 282 feet south from the rovers location, NASA scientists are heading Curiosity toward.
The 360-degree panorama below is also centered on the Kimberley region to the south. The outcrop of eroded sandstone in the foreground is the same one seen in the 160 degree panorama above.
The Kimberley region and Mount Sharp were chosen as prime targets of interest for NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover due to study of images taken from orbit of the region last year. Planetary scientists want to take a look at the Kimberley region because four types of sandstone with different textures intersect there.
“The orbital images didn’t tell us what those rocks are, but now that Curiosity is getting closer, we’re seeing a preview,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “
The contrasting textures and durabilities of sandstones in this area are fascinating. While superficially similar, the rocks likely formed and evolved quite differently from each other.”
The resistance to erosion of different rock types in a location 400 meters north-northwest of the Kimberley results in the different elevations and surfaces shades seen here. Higher elevations indicates more erosion resistant rock, while the flat, tanned surface is a sandstone with low resistance to erosion. This means the medium height rocks to the right center are less resistant to erosion than the taller rocks at the top of the image.
In earth geology sand is defined as fragmentary sediment smaller than 2 mm and 0.062 mm in diameter. Sandstone is the second most abundant sedimentary rock (20-25%) on Earth. The environment of deposition of surface rocks is generally related to mineral composition. A study of erosion of surface rocks and their mineral composition could provide planetary scientists with clues concerning the environment sandstone was formed in millions of years ago.
In geology the material between grains of sand in sandstone is called cement, whatever it’s composition. On earth the particular characteristics of cement varies quite a bit, depending on the environmental and geophysical history of the sandstone formation studied. Sandstones with a high percentage of clay-minerals are generally soft and will readily crumble when hit with a hammer. Sandstone with quartz cement is usually hard and rings when struck with a hammer.
Planetary scientists are hoping to have time in the planned schedule of Curiosity to study the sandstone in the Kimberly region. The results would be very interesting and could tell us a lot about the geological history of the Red Planet.
For the most part, the surface terrain NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover has travelled over thus far was finer grained mud stone, rather than the coarser-grained sandstone outcroppings they expect to discover once they reach the Kimberley region of Mars. Sandstone has been seen in a number of different forms on planet Earth and some earth scientists were probably expecting forms to exist on other planets. Time permitting, planetary scientists are hoping to grab a sample of the terrain in the Kimberley region, they can study in depth using laboratory instruments inside Curiosity.
As with earth geology, an understanding of the process that created the different sandstone formations and outcrops in the Kimberly region, could help explain terrain found in Mars Gale Crater and the reason it has a large layered mountain, Mount Sharp, near its center.
“A major issue for us now is to understand why some rocks resist erosion more than other rocks, especially when they are so close to each other and are both likely to be sandstones,” said Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.
Astronomy News – The human journey to the beginning of space and time reached another milestone today as NASA’s Curiosity spacecraft fired its infrared laser for the 100,000th time. Curiosity has been conducting an experiment to determine the basic chemical elements contained within martian rocks and soils using the Chemistry and Camera Instrument (ChemCam). ChemCam has fired more than 102,000 times as of December 01, 2013, at 420 martian rocks and soils, and taken over 1,600 HD pictures using its onboard camera.
At the moment, an international team of astronomers and scientists are going over the data provided by Curiosity and ChemCam in order to list the chemical elements contained within the 420 samples they fired the laser at. This will give them a good idea of the chemical elements on the surface of Mars’ Gale Crater and the geophysical processes that formed them. ChemCam fires an infrared laser at rocks and soil targets to create plasma gas, which it analysis using a scientific technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.
Curiosity is the first NASA mission to use this scientific technique to analysis rocks and soils on a different planet, but certainly not the last. You can learn more about ChemCam at http://www.msl-chemcam.com.