NASA Unveils 2018 Budget Estimates of Cost of Space Exploration

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. 

Comments by current NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot on NASA’s 2018 budget.

Read acting administrator Robert Lightfoot’s NASA budget press release.

The President’s budget request to cover NASA’s estimated expenses for 2018.

A smaller fact sheet covering specific estimates for NASA’s estimated expenses for 2018.

Documents covering NASA’s estimated expenses for science operations for 2018.

A presentation of the highlights of NASA’s 2018 budget estimates for media.

Videos of NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot talking about NASA’s 2018 budget and other video tours of NASA.

The White House website Federal Budget Proposal for NASA operations in 2018 and beyond.

Documents relating to NASA’s 2017 budget, along with previous years.

NASA’s 2018 performance report.

NASA’s 2014 strategic plan, which is due to be updated in 2018.

The United States is a 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 searching for 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 money to expand the space frontier each year. You might want to check out their progress and work. It could be important for the future of your kids and generations of human beings to come.

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Europa Spacecraft

Set to blast off sometime in the 2020s

This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. This view shows the spacecraft configuration, which could change before launch, as of early 2016.
The mission would place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of the giant planet’s moon Europa — a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life. The highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft would enter into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.
The concept image shows two large solar arrays extending from the sides of the spacecraft, to which the mission’s ice-penetrating radar antennas are attached. A saucer-shaped high-gain antenna is also side mounted, with a magnetometer boom placed next to it. On the forward end of the spacecraft (at left in this view) is a remote-sensing palette, which houses the rest of the science instrument payload.
The nominal mission would perform at least 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 1,700 miles to 16 miles (2,700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above the surface.
This view takes artistic liberty with Jupiter’s position in the sky relative to Europa and the spacecraft. Credits: NASA/JPL/ESA

Space news (The search for life beyond Earth) – An artist’s rendition of the Europa spacecraft orbiting Jupiter

This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter’s moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons which ended in 2003. NASA will announce today, Tuesday, May 26, the selection of science instruments for a mission to Europa, to investigate whether it could harbor conditions suitable for life. The Europa mission would conduct repeated close flybys of the small moon during a three-year period.
Numerous linear features in the center of this mosaic and toward the poles may have formed in response to tides strong enough to fracture Europa’s icy surface. Some of these features extend for over 1,500 kilometers (900 miles). Darker regions near the equator on the eastern (right) and western (left) limb may be vast areas of chaotic terrain. Bright white spots near the western limb are the ejecta blankets of young impact craters.
North is to the top of the picture and the sun illuminates the surface from the left. The image, centered at 0 latitude and 10 longitude, covers an area approximately 2,500 by 3,000 kilometers. The finest details that can discerned in this picture are about 2 kilometers across (about 1,550 by 1,860 miles). The images were taken by Galileo’s camera when the spacecraft was 94,000 kilometers (58,000 miles) from Europa.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this artists rendering of the Europa spacecraft, which is set to head to Jupiter sometime in the 2020s. The Europa Mission spacecraft configuration 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 spacecraft are also off in this drawing

This is an artist’s concept of a plume of water vapor thought to be ejected off the frigid, icy surface of the Jovian moon Europa, located about 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) from the sun. Spectroscopic measurements from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope led scientists to calculate that the plume rises to an altitude of 125 miles (201 kilometers) and then it probably rains frost back onto the moon’s surface. Previous findings already pointed to a subsurface ocean under Europa’s icy crust.
Image credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

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.

Jupiter’s moon Europa has a crust made up of blocks, which are thought to have broken apart and ‘rafted’ into new positions, as shown in the image on the left. These features are the best geologic evidence to date that Europa may have had a subsurface ocean at some time in its past.
Combined with the geologic data, the presence of a magnetic field leads scientists to believe an ocean is most likely present at Europa today. In this false color image, reddish-brown areas represent non-ice material resulting from geologic activity. White areas are rays of material ejected during the formation of the Pwyll impact crater. Icy plains are shown in blue tones to distinguish possibly coarse-grained ice (dark blue) from fine-grained ice (light blue). Long, dark lines are ridges and fractures in the crust, some of which are more than 1,850 miles long. These images were obtained by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft during Sept. 7, 1996, Dec. 1996 and Feb. 1997 at a distance of 417,489 miles.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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. 

Join the human journey to the beginning of space and time by joining the people helping NASA scientists look for possible planetary bodies between Neptune and Alpha Centauri.

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NASA Engineers Test Prototype Robotic Asteroid Capture System 

In order to better understand intricate operations and detailed planning needed to capture multi-ton boulder from asteroid surface

A prototype of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic capture module system is tested with a mock asteroid boulder in its clutches at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The robotic portion of ARM is targeted for launch in 2021. Located in the center’s Robotic Operations Center, the mockup helps engineers understand the intricate operations required to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid’s surface. The hardware involved here includes three space frame legs with foot pads, two seven degrees of freedom arms that have with microspine gripper “hands” to grasp onto the boulder. NASA and students from West Virginia University built the asteroid mockup from rock, styrofoam, plywood and an aluminum endoskeleton. The mock boulder arrived in four pieces and was assembled inside the ROC to help visualize the engagement between the prototype system and a potential capture target. Inside the ROC, engineers can use industrial robots, a motion-based platform, and customized algorithms to create simulations of space operations for robotic spacecraft. The ROC also allows engineers to simulate robotic satellite servicing operations, fine tuning systems and controllers and optimizing performance factors for future missions when a robotic spacecraft might be deployed to repair or refuel a satellite in orbit. Image Credit: NASA
A prototype of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic capture module system is tested with a mock asteroid boulder in its clutches at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The robotic portion of ARM is targeted for launch in 2021.
Located in the center’s Robotic Operations Center, the mockup helps engineers understand the intricate operations required to collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid’s surface. The hardware involved here includes three space frame legs with footpads, two seven degrees of freedom arms that have with microspine gripper “hands” to grasp onto the boulder.
NASA and students from West Virginia University built the asteroid mockup from rock, styrofoam, plywood and an aluminum endoskeleton. The mock boulder arrived in four pieces and was assembled inside the ROC to help visualize the engagement between the prototype system and a potential capture target.
Inside the ROC, engineers can use industrial robots, a motion-based platform, and customized algorithms to create simulations of space operations for robotic spacecraft. The ROC also allows engineers to simulate robotic satellite-servicing operations, fine-tuning systems and controllers and optimizing performance factors for future missions when a robotic spacecraft might be deployed to repair or refuel a satellite in orbit.
Image Credit: NASA

Space news (Asteroid Redirect Mission: testing of prototype of robotic capture module system) – The Robotic Operations Center of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA's Asteroid Redirect Missions. Credits: NASA/Goddard
A new report provides expert findings from a special action team on how elements of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) can address decadal science objectives and help close Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for future human missions in deep space. Credits: NASA/Goddard

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 boulder built 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 capability when building spacecraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars and even more. One that saves money and time.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission is expected to offer benefits that should teach us more about operating in space and enable future space missions. You can read a report here on some of the expected benefits.

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.”

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Discover and learn more about the ferocious winds near the biggest magnets discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, magnetars.

Read about NASA’s latest additions to its plans to send manned missions to Mars.

Discover and learn about the feedback mechanisms of supermassive black holes.

Learn more about NASA’s contributions to the human journey to the beginning of space and time here.

Read about NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.

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NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Detects Clues Hinting at a Wetter Past 

During the same relative time period, other clues indicate more oxygen was present in the atmosphere than found currently

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. In front of the rover are two holes from the rover's sample-collection drill and several dark-toned features that have been cleared of dust (see inset images). These flat features are erosion-resistant fracture fills containing manganese oxides. The discovery of these materials suggests the Martian atmosphere might once have contained higher abundances of free oxygen than it does now. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This image shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. In front of the rover are two holes from the rover’s sample-collection drill and several dark-toned features that have been cleared of dust (see inset images). These flat features are erosion-resistant fracture fills containing manganese oxides. The discovery of these materials suggests the Martian atmosphere might once have contained higher abundances of free oxygen than it does now.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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 –

This view from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover shows the rock target "Windjana" and its immediate surroundings after inspection of the site by the rover. The drilling of a test hole and a sample collection hole produced the mounds of drill cuttings that are markedly less red than the other visible surfaces. This is material that the drill pulled up from the interior of the rock. This view is from the 627th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 12, 2014). The open hole from sample collection is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. It was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). A preparatory "mini drill" hole, to lower right from the open hole, was drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014) and subsequently filled in with cuttings from the sample collection drilling. Two small patches of less-red color to the right of the drill holes are targets "Stephen" (higher) and "Neil," where multiple laser hits by Curiosity's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument blasted some of the reddish surface dust off the surface of the rock. The vigorous activity of penetrating the rock with the rover's hammering drill also resulted in slides of loose material near the rock. For comparison to the site before the drilling, see the Sol 609 image of Windjana at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18087. MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This view from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover shows the rock target “Windjana” and its immediate surroundings after inspection of the site by the rover. The drilling of a test hole and a sample collection hole produced the mounds of drill cuttings that are markedly less red than the other visible surfaces. This is material that the drill pulled up from the interior of the rock.
This view is from the 627th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (May 12, 2014).
The open hole from sample collection is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. It was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). A preparatory “mini drill” hole, to lower right from the open hole, was drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014) and subsequently filled in with cuttings from the sample-collection drilling.
Two small patches of less red color to the right of the drill holes are targets “Stephen” (higher) and “Neil,” where multiple laser hits by Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument blasted some of the reddish surface dust off the surface of the rock.
The vigorous activity of penetrating the rock with the rover’s hammering drill also resulted in slides of loose material near the rock. 
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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 past points to a wetter environment in the study region Gale Crater during this time. 

This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a sandstone slab on which the rover team has selected a target, "Windjana," for close-up examination and possible drilling. The target is on the approximately 2-foot-wide (60-centimeter-wide) rock seen in the right half of this view. The Navcam's left-eye camera took this image during the 609th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 23, 2014). The rover's name is written on the covering for a portion of the robotic arm, here seen stowed at the front of the vehicle. The sandstone target's informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission's third drilled rock and the first that is not mudstone. The rock is within a waypoint location called "the Kimberley," where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area's "middle unit," because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover and the rover's Navcam. > Read more: NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Inspects Site Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a sandstone slab on which the rover team has selected a target, “Windjana,” for close-up examination and possible drilling. The target is on the approximately 2-foot-wide (60-centimeter-wide) rock seen in the right half of this view.
The Navcam’s left-eye camera took this image during the 609th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 23, 2014). The rover’s name is written on the covering for a portion of the robotic arm, here seen stowed at the front of the vehicle.
The sandstone target’s informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission’s third drilled rock and the first that is not mudstone.
The rock is within a waypoint location called “the Kimberley,” where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area’s “middle unit,” because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover and the rover’s Navcam.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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?”

On this view of the Curiosity rover mission's waypoint called "the Kimberley," the red dot indicates the location of a sandstone target, "Windjana," that researchers selected for close-up inspection and possibly for drilling. The view is an excerpt from an April 11, 2014, observation by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A larger scene from the same observation is at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18081. In the image's enhanced color, Curiosity itself appears as the bright blue object at the two-o'clock position relative to the butte in the lower center of the scene. That butte is called "Mount Remarkable" and stands about 16 feet (5 meters) high. The rover subsequently drove to within its robotic arm's reach of Windjana. For scale, the distance between the parallel wheel tracks visible in the image is about 9 feet (2.7 meters). In the area of the Kimberley waypoint, sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area's "middle unit," because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. If Windjana meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission's third drilled rock and the first that is not mudstone. This view is an enhanced-color product from HiRISE observation ESP_036128_1755, available at the HiRISE website at http://uahirise.org/releases/msl-kimberley.php. The exaggerated color, to make differences in Mars surface materials more apparent, makes Curiosity appear bluer than the rover really looks. HiRISE is one of six instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Science Laboratory projects for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the Mars Science Laboratory Project's Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
On this view of the Curiosity rover mission’s waypoint called “the Kimberley,” the red dot indicates the location of a sandstone target, “Windjana,” that researchers selected for close-up inspection and possibly for drilling.
The view is an excerpt from an April 11, 2014, observation by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In the image’s enhanced color, Curiosity itself appears as the bright blue object at the two-o’clock position relative to the butte in the lower center of the scene. That butte is called “Mount Remarkable” and stands about 16 feet (5 meters) high. The rover subsequently drove to within its robotic arm’s reach of Windjana. For scale, the distance between the parallel wheel tracks visible in the image is about 9 feet (2.7 meters).
In the area of the Kimberley waypoint, sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area’s “middle unit,” because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.
The exaggerated color, to make differences in Mars surface materials more apparent, makes Curiosity appear bluer than the rover really looks.
HiRISE is one of six instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Science Laboratory projects for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the Mars Science Laboratory Project’s Curiosity rover.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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 accompanying their 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.”

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on its robotic arm to illuminate and record this nighttime view of the sandstone rock target "Windjana." The rover had previously drilled a hole to collect sample material from the interior of the rock and then zapped a series of target points inside the hole with the laser of the rover's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The precision pointing of the laser that is mounted atop the rover's remote-sensing mast is evident in the column of scars within the hole. That instrument provides information about the target's composition by analysis of the sparks of plasma generated by the energy of the laser beam striking the target. Additional ChemCam laser scars are visible at upper right, on the surface of the rock. This view combines eight separate MAHLI exposures, taken at different focus settings to show the entire scene in focus. The exposures were taken after dark on the 628th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 13, 2014). The rover drilled this hole on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). MAHLI includes light-emitting diodes as well as a color camera. Using the instrument's own lighting yields an image of the hole's interior with less shadowing than would be seen in a sunlit image. The camera's inspection of the interior of the hole provides documentation about what the drill bit passed through as it penetrated the rock -- for example, to see if it cut through any mineral veins or visible layering. MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on its robotic arm to illuminate and record this nighttime view of the sandstone rock target “Windjana.” The rover had previously drilled a hole to collect sample material from the interior of the rock and then zapped a series of target points inside the hole with the laser of the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter.
The precision pointing of the laser that is mounted atop the rover’s remote-sensing mast is evident in the column of scars within the hole. That instrument provides information about the target’s composition by analysis of the sparks of plasma generated by the energy of the laser beam striking the target. Additional ChemCam laser scars are visible at upper right, on the surface of the rock.
This view combines eight separate MAHLI exposures, taken at different focus settings to show the entire scene in focus. The exposures were taken after dark on the 628th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (May 13, 2014). The rover drilled this hole on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014).
MAHLI includes light-emitting diodes as well as a color camera. Using the instrument’s own lighting yields an image of the hole’s interior with less shadowing than would be seen in a sunlit image. The camera’s inspection of the interior of the hole provides documentation about what the drill bit passed through as it penetrated the rock — for example, to see if it cut through any mineral veins or visible layering.
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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?

November 3, 2015 Lanza at the summit of Hvannadalsnukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, practicing glacier travel techniques similar to those needed for Antarctic fieldwork. Lanza at the summit of Hvannadalsnukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, practicing glacier travel techniques similar to those needed for Antarctic fieldwork. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory
November 3, 2015
Planetary scientist Lanza at the summit of Hvannadalsnukur, the highest mountain in Iceland, practicing glacier travel techniques similar to those needed for exploring the farthest reaches of the planet and possibly the solar system.
Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

“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.

This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows two holes at top center drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." The farther hole, with larger pile of tailings around it, is a full-depth sampling hole. It was created by the rover's hammering drill while the drill collected rock-powder sample material from the interior of the rock. The nearer hole was created by a shallower test drilling into the rock in preparation for the sample collection. Each hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The full-depth hole is about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep, drilled during the 621st Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 5, 2014). The test hole is about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep, drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014). This image was taken on Sol 621 (May 5). The sandstone target's informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. The rock is within a waypoint location called "The Kimberley," where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area's "middle unit," because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover and the rover's Navcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This image from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows two holes at top center drilled into a sandstone target called “Windjana.” The farther hole, with larger pile of tailings around it, is a full-depth sampling hole. It was created by the rover’s hammering drill while the drill collected rock-powder sample material from the interior of the rock. The nearer hole was created by a shallower test drilling into the rock in preparation for the sample collection. Each hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The full-depth hole is about 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) deep, drilled during the 621st Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (May 5, 2014). The test hole is about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep, drilled on Sol 615 (April 29, 2014). This image was taken on Sol 621 (May 5).
The sandstone target’s informal name comes from Windjana Gorge in Western Australia. The rock is within a waypoint location called “The Kimberley,” where sandstone outcrops with differing resistance to wind erosion result in a stair-step pattern of layers. Windjana is within what the team calls the area’s “middle unit,” because it is intermediate between rocks that form buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover and the rover’s Navcam.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover has been investigating Gale Crater for around four years and recent evidence supports the possibility conditions 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.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called "Windjana." The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission: "Rock Nest" (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16468) and "John Klein" (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16937). Winjana is within a science waypoint site called "The Kimberley," where sandstone layers with different degrees of resistance to wind erosion are exposed close together. The view does not include the rover's arm. It does include the hole in Windjana produced by the hammering drill on Curiosity's arm collecting a sample of rock powder from the interior of the rock. The hole is surrounded by grayish cuttings on top of the rock ledge to the left of the rover. The Mast Camera (Mastcam) atop the rover's remote sensing mast is pointed at the drill hole. A Mastcam image of the drill hole from that perspective is at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/?rawid=0626MR0026780000401608E01_DXXX&s=626. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The rover's wheels are 20 inches (0.5 meter) in diameter. Most of the component frames of this mosaic view were taken during the 613th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 27, 2014). Frames showing Windjana after completion of the drilling were taken on Sol 627 (May 12, 2014). The hole was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014). MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. > NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Marks First Martian Year with Mission Successes Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called “Windjana.” The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission: “Rock Nest” 
Winjana is within a science waypoint site called “The Kimberley,” where sandstone layers with different degrees of resistance to wind erosion are exposed close together.
The view does not include the rover’s arm. It does include the hole in Windjana produced by the hammering drill on Curiosity’s arm collecting a sample of rock powder from the interior of the rock. The hole is surrounded by grayish cuttings on top of the rock ledge to the left of the rover. The Mast Camera (Mastcam) atop the rover’s remote sensing mast is pointed at the drill hole. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter. The rover’s wheels are 20 inches (0.5 meter) in diameter.
Most of the component frames of this mosaic view were taken during the 613th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 27, 2014). Frames showing Windjana after completion of the drilling were taken on Sol 627 (May 12, 2014). The hole was drilled on Sol 621 (May 5, 2014).
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
> NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Marks First Martian Year with Mission Successes
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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. 

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover completed a shallow "mini drill" activity on April 29, 2014, as part of evaluating a rock target called "Windjana" for possible full-depth drilling to collect powdered sample material from the rock's interior. This image from Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument shows the hole and tailings resulting from the mini drill test. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) deep. When collecting sample material, the rover's hammering drill bores as deep as 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). This preparatory activity enables the rover team to evaluate interaction between the drill and this particular rock and to view the potential sample-collection target's interior and tailings. Both the mini drill activity and acquisition of this image occurred during the 615th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (April 29, 2014). MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover completed a shallow “mini drill” activity on April 29, 2014, as part of evaluating a rock target called “Windjana” for possible full-depth drilling to collect powdered sample material from the rock’s interior. This image from Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument shows the hole and tailings resulting from the mini drill test. The hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and about 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) deep.
When collecting sample material, the rover’s hammering drill bores as deep as 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). This preparatory activity enables the rover team to evaluate the interaction between the drill and this particular rock and to view the potential sample-collection target’s interior and tailings. Both the mini-drill activity and acquisition of this image occurred during the 615th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (April 29, 2014).
MAHLI was built by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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.

The foreground of this scene from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows purple-hued rocks near the rover's late-2016 location on lower Mount Sharp. The scene's middle distance includes higher layers that are future destinations for the mission. Variations in color of the rocks hint at the diversity of their composition on lower Mount Sharp. The purple tone of the foreground rocks has been seen in other rocks where Curiosity's Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument has detected hematite. Winds and windblown sand in this part of Curiosity's traverse and in this season tend to keep rocks relatively free of dust, which otherwise can cloak rocks' color. The three frames combined into this mosaic were acquired by the Mastcam's right-eye camera on Nov. 10, 2016, during the 1,516th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. Sunlight on Mars is tinged by the dusty atmosphere and this adjustment helps geologists recognize color patterns they are familiar with on Earth. The view spans about 15 compass degrees, with the left edge toward southeast. The rover's planned direction of travel from its location when this scene was recorded is generally southeastward. The orange-looking rocks just above the purplish foreground ones are in the upper portion of the Murray formation, which is the basal section of Mount Sharp, extending up to a ridge-forming layer called the Hematite Unit. Beyond that is the Clay Unit, which is relatively flat and hard to see from this viewpoint. The next rounded hills are the Sulfate Unit, Curiosity's highest planned destination. The most distant slopes in the scene are higher levels of Mount Sharp, beyond where Curiosity will drive. Figure 1 is a version of the same scene with annotations added as reference points for distance, size and relative elevation. The annotations are triangles with text telling the distance (in kilometers) to the point in the image marked by the triangle, the point's elevation (in meters) relative to the rover's location, and the size (in meters) of an object as big as the triangle at that distance. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built the project's Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The foreground of this scene from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows purple-hued rocks near the rover’s late-2016 location on lower Mount Sharp. The scene’s middle distance includes higher layers that are future destinations for the mission.
Variations in color of the rocks hint at the diversity of their composition on lower Mount Sharp. The purple tone of the foreground rocks has been seen in other rocks where Curiosity’s Chemical and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument has detected hematite. Winds and windblown sand in this part of Curiosity’s traverse and in this season tend to keep rocks relatively free of dust, which otherwise can cloak rocks’ color.
The three frames combined into this mosaic were acquired by the Mastcam’s right-eye camera on Nov. 10, 2016, during the 1,516th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. Sunlight on Mars is tinged by the dusty atmosphere and this adjustment helps geologists recognize color patterns they are familiar with on Earth.
The view spans about 15 compass degrees, with the left edge toward the southeast. The rover’s planned direction of travel from its location when this scene was recorded is generally southeastward.
The orange-looking rocks just above the purplish foreground ones are in the upper portion of the Murray formation, which is the basal section of Mount Sharp, extending up to a ridge-forming layer called the Hematite Unit. Beyond that is the Clay Unit, which is relatively flat and hard to see from this viewpoint. The next rounded hills are the Sulfate Unit, Curiosity’s highest planned destination. The most distant slopes in the scene are higher levels of Mount Sharp, beyond where Curiosity will drive.
Figure 1 is a version of the same scene with annotations added as reference points for distance, size and relative elevation. The annotations are triangles with text telling the distance (in kilometers) to the point in the image marked by the triangle, the point’s elevation (in meters) relative to the rover’s location, and the size (in meters) of an object as big as the triangle at that distance.
Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates Mastcam. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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.”

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X-ray Light Source CX330 Detected in Bulge of Milky Way

Most isolated young star discovered launching jets of material into surrounding gas and dust

An unusual celestial object called CX330 was first detected as a source of X-ray light in 2009. It has been launching “jets” of material into the gas and dust around it. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An unusual celestial object called CX330 was first detected as a source of X-ray light in 2009. It has been launching “jets” of material into the gas and dust around it.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space news (astrophysics: massive, young stars in star-forming regions; unusual, isolated young star baffles astronomers) – approximately 27,000 light-years from Earth in an isolated region of the bulge of the Milky Way – 

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory first detected unusual stellar object CX330. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Astronomers surveying the universe looking for unusual celestial objects to study to add to human knowledge and understanding have found something they haven’t seen before. Unusual celestial object CX 330 was first noticed in data obtained during a survey of the bulge of the Milky Way in 2009 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory as a source of X-ray light. Additional observations of the source showed it also emitted light in optical wavelengths, but with so few clues to go on, astronomers had no idea what they were looking at. 

During more recent observations of CX 330 during August of 2015, astronomers discovered it had recently been active, launching jets of material into gas and dust surrounding it. During a period from 2007 to 2010, it had increased in brightness by hundreds of times, which made scientists curious to examine previous data obtained from the same region of the bulge. 

Using the unique orbit of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and a depth-perceiving trick called parallax, astronomers have determined the distance to an invisible Milky Way object called OGLE-2005-SMC-001. This artist's concept illustrates how this trick works: different views from both Spitzer and telescopes on Earth are combined to give depth perception. Credits: NASA/Spitzer
Using the unique orbit of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and a depth-perceiving trick called parallax, astronomers have determined the distance to an invisible Milky Way object called OGLE-2005-SMC-001. This artist’s concept illustrates how this trick works: different views from both Spitzer and telescopes on Earth are combined to give depth perception. Credits: NASA/Spitzer

Looking at data obtained by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) in 2010, they realized the surrounding gas and dust was heated to the point of ionization.  Comparing this data to observations taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2007, astronomers determined they were looking at a young star in an outburst phase, forming in an isolated region of the cosmos.

cbritt
Chris Britta Credits: Texas Tech University

“We tried various interpretations for it, and the only one that makes sense is that this rapidly growing young star is forming in the middle of nowhere,” said Chris Britta postdoctoral researcher at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and lead author of a study on CX330 recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

By combining this data with observations taken by a variety of both ground and space-based telescopes they were able to get an even clearer picture of CX330. An object very similar to FU Orionis, but likely more massive, compact, and hotter, and lying in a less populated region of space. Launched faster jets of outflow that heated a surrounding disk of gas and dust to the point of ionization, and increased the flow of material falling onto the star.

tom_maccarone
Tom Maccarone Credits: Texas Tech University

“The disk has probably heated to the point where the gas in the disk has become ionized, leading to a rapid increase in how fast the material falls onto the star,” said Thomas Maccarone, study co-author and associate professor at Texas Tech.

The fact CX 330 lies in an isolated region of space, unlike the previous nine examples of this type of star observed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, tweaks the interest of astronomers. The other nine examples all lie in star-forming regions of the Milky Way galaxy with ample material for new stars to form from, but the closest star-forming region to this young star is over 1,000 light-years away.

Joel Green Credits: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute
Joel Green Credits: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute

“CX330 is both more intense and more isolated than any of these young outbursting objects that we’ve ever seen,” said Joel Green, study co-author and researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “This could be the tip of the iceberg — these objects may be everywhere.”

We really know nothing about CX 330. More observations are required to determine more. It’s possible all young stars go through a similar outburst period as observed in the case of CX 330. The periods are just too brief in cosmological time for astronomers to observe with current technology. The real clue’s the isolation of this example as compared to previous models. 

How did CX 330 become so isolated? One idea often floated is the possibility it formed in a star-forming region, before being ejected to a more isolated region of space. This seems unlikely considering astronomers believe this young star’s only about a million years old. Even if this age’s wrong, this star’s still consuming its surrounding disk of dust and gas and must have formed near its current location. It just couldn’t have traveled the required distance from a star-forming region to its current location, without completely stripping away its surrounding disk of gas and dust. 

Astronomers are learning more about the formation of stars studying CX 330, that’s for sure. Using two competing ideas, called “hierarchical” and “competitive” models, scientists search for answers to unanswered questions concerning CX 330. At this point, they favor the chaotic and turbulent environment of the “hierarchical” model, as a better fit for the theoretical formation of a lone star.

What’s next?

It’s still possible material exists nearby CX 330, such as intermediate to low-mass stars, that astronomers haven’t observed, yet.  When last viewed in August 2015, this young star was still in an outburst phase. During future observations planned with new telescopes in different wavelengths, we could get a better picture of events surrounding this unusual celestial object. Stay tuned to this channel for more information.

For people wondering if planets could form around this young star? Some astronomers are hoping planets will form from the disk of CX 330, they’ll be able to examine closer for the chemical signature of the scars left by the outbursts observed. Unfortunately, at the rate this star’s consuming its surrounding disk of gas and dust, having enough left over for the formation of planets seems unlikely. 

“You said you like it hot, right!” If CX 330’s a really massive star, which seems likely. It’s short, violent lifespan would be a truly hot time for any planet and inhabitants. 

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NASA’s Successor to Curiosity Rover Working Toward Summer Launch in 2020

To investigate Martian rocks for evidence of past life in advance of sending humans to work and live on the Red Planet

An artist concept image of where seven carefully-selected instruments will be located on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The instruments will conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet as never before. IMAGE CREDIT: NASA
An artist concept image of where seven carefully-selected instruments will be located on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The instruments will conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet as never before.
IMAGE CREDIT: NASA

Space news (missions to Mars: successor to Curiosity rover; Mars 2020 rover) – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California –

Planning for NASA's 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives. Mars 2020 is a mission concept that NASA announced in late 2012 to re-use the basic engineering of Mars Science Laboratory to send a different rover to Mars, with new objectives and instruments, launching in 2020. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Planning for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives. Mars 2020 is a mission concept that NASA announced in late 2012 to re-use the basic engineering of Mars Science Laboratory to send a different rover to Mars, with new objectives and instruments, launching in 2020. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages NASA’s Mars Exploration Program for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Terrain-Relative Navigation helps us land safely on Mars - especially when the land below is full of hazards like steep slopes and large rocks!
Terrain-Relative Navigation helps us land safely on Mars – especially when the land below is full of hazards like steep slopes and large rocks! The Mars 2020 spacecraft follows an entry, descent, landing process similar to that used in landing the Mars rover, Curiosity. It also has major new technologies that improve entry, descent, and landing: Range Trigger, Terrain-Relative Navigation, MEDLI and its EDL caneras and microphone. Credits: NASA/JPL

“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.”

The surface operations phase is the time when the rover conducts its scientific studies on Mars. After landing safely, Mars 2020 has a primary mission span of at least one Martian year (687 Earth days). The Mars 2020 rover uses a depot caching strategy for its exploration of Mars.
The surface operations phase is the time when the rover conducts its scientific studies on Mars. After landing safely, Mars 2020 has a primary mission span of at least one Martian year (687 Earth days).
The Mars 2020 rover uses a depot caching strategy for its exploration of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL

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 look like 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. 

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Entry Descent & Landing (EDL) activities in SFOF MSA Fishbowl. Pre-Landing. Date: 05 August/2012 Photographer: T. Wynne
Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent, and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory conducting Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Entry Descent & Landing (EDL) activities in SFOF MSA Fishbowl. Pre-Landing. 
Date: 05 August/2012
Photographer: T. Wynne

“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.”

NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010. Credits: NASA/JPL

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.”

Read and learn about the latest method astrophysicists have developed to help determine distances to objects on the other side of the Milky Way.

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How do Astronomers Precisely Determine Distances to Objects on the Other Side of the Milky Way Galaxy?

By studying light echoes, rings of x-rays observed around binary star system Circinus X-1

A light echo in X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has provided a rare opportunity to precisely measure the distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy. The rings exceed the field-of-view of Chandra’s detectors, resulting in a partial image of X-ray data. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz
The image above shows a light echo in x-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory which astronomers used to precisely measure the distance to a stellar object across the spiral disk of the Milky Way galaxy. The sizes of the light echoes detected in this image exceed the ability of the detectors, which has resulted in a partial construction of X-ray data. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Wisconsin/S. Heinz

Space news (astrophysics: measuring distances of objects; light echoes) – 30,700 light-years from Earth in the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy, observing X-rays emitted by a neutron star in double star system Circinus X-1 reflecting off massive, surrounding clouds of gas and dust –

The youngest member of an important class of objects has been found using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Australia Compact Telescope Array. A composite image shows the X-rays in blue and radio emission in purple, which have been overlaid on an optical field of view from the Digitized Sky Survey. This discovery, described in the press release, allows scientists to study a critical phase after a supernova and the birth of a neutron star.
The youngest member of an important class of objects has been found using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Australia Compact Telescope Array. A composite image shows the X-rays in blue and radio emission in purple, which have been overlaid on an optical field of view from the Digitized Sky Survey. This discovery allows scientists to study a critical phase after a supernova and the birth of a neutron star. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Determining the apparent distance of objects tens of thousands of light-years from Earth across the breadth of the Milky Way was a difficult problem to solve during the early days of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. During the years since these early days, astronomers have developed a few techniques and methods to help calculate distances to stellar objects on the other side of the galaxy. 

The most recently measured distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way used the newest method developed. By detecting the rings from X-ray light echoes around the star Circinus X-1, a double star system containing a neutron star. Astronomers were able to determine the apparent distance to this system is around 30,700 light-years from Earth.

“It’s really hard to get accurate distance measurements in astronomy and we only have a handful of methods,” said Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who led the study. “But just as bats use sonar to triangulate their location, we can use the X-rays from Circinus X-1 to figure out exactly where it is.”

 Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison
Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison Credits: University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The rings are faint echoes from an outburst of x-rays emitted by Circinus X-1 near the end of 2013. The x-rays reflected off of separate clouds of gas and dust surrounding the star system, with some being sent toward Earth. The reflected x-rays arrived from different angles over a three month period, which created the observed X-ray rings. Using radio data scientists were able to determine the distance to each cloud of gas and dust, while detected X-ray echoes and simple geometry allowed for an accurate measurement of the distance to Circinus X-1 from Earth.

“We like to call this system the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but this one has nothing to do with Sauron,” said co-author Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “The beautiful match between the Chandra X-ray rings and the Mopra radio images of the different clouds is really a first in astronomy.”

Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales Credits: University of New South Wales
Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales Credits: University of New South Wales

In addition to this new distance measurement to Circinus X-1, astrophysicists determined this binary system’s naturally brighter in X-rays and other light than previously thought. This points to a star system that has repeatedly passed the threshold of brightness where the outward pressure of emitted radiation is balanced by the inward force of gravity. Astronomers have witnessed this equilibrium more often in binary systems containing a black hole, not a neutron star as in this case. The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a

The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a relativistic jet produced by a system containing a black hole. Scientists are currently studying this to see if they can determine why this system has such an unusual blend of characteristics.  

“Circinus X-1 acts in some ways like a neutron star and in some like a black hole,” said co-author Catherine Braiding, also of the University of New South Wales. “It’s extremely unusual to find an object that has such a blend of these properties.”

Astronomers think Circinus X-1 started emitting X-rays observers on Earth could have detected starting about 2,500 years ago. If this is true, this X-ray binary system’s the youngest detected, so far, during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

This new X-ray data is being used to create a detailed three-dimensional map of the dust clouds between Circinus X-1 and Earth. 

What’s next?

Astrophysicists are preparing to measure distances to other stellar objects on the other side of the Milky Way using the latest distance measurement method. This new astronomy tool’s going to come in handy during the next leg of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

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Discover the Milky Way.

You can view the published results of this study in The Astrophysical Journal and online here.

Learn about astronomy at the University of Wisconsin.

Discover astronomy at the University of New South Wales.

Learn more about Circinus X-1.

Learn what NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown us about the cosmos here.