Tag Archives: Mars

The flowing formations of Lethe Vallis

Cool image time! The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team yesterday released several new images. Below is just one, cropped and reduced in resolution to post here. It shows a large flow channel called Lethe Vallis, formed first by lava, then hit by an impact which created a walled crater in its middle. Flood waters then followed, creating the tear-shaped dune surrounding the crater. In addition, erosion exposed the dark lava basalt below the surface on the edge of that tear-shaped dune. Within the crater itself can be seen ripple dunes formed by wind. As the scientists note,

This single image thus contains features formed by periglacial, volcanic, fluvial, impact, aeolian and mass wasting processes, all in one place.

Be sure to check out the full image.

Lethe Vallis

Mars rover update

It is time for an update on the journeys of Curiosity and Opportunity on Mars!

First, Curiosity. Though the science team has not yet updated the rover’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter traverse map showing its travels, it appears from Curiosity’s most recent navigation camera images that the rover has moved passed the first butte that had been ahead and directly to the south in the traverse map shown in the last image of my post here. The image below the fold, cropped and reduced to show here, looks ahead to the second butte and the gap to the south. Beyond Mt Sharp can be seen rising up on the right, with the upcoming ground open and relatively smooth. The only issue will be the steepness of that terrain. Based on my previous overall look at the rover’s journey, I suspect they will contour to the left.
» Read more

Opportunity’s steep downhill path

An update on Opportunity: The panorama I have created below from two images taken by its navigation camera and transmitted from Opportunity today, shows the steepness of the slope in Lewis and Clark Gap down which engineers are thinking of sending Opportunity. It appears also that Opportunity has moved closer to the gap since my post on Friday outlining the rover’s future travels.

I have not followed Opportunity’s entire journey on Mars close enough to say whether this will be the steepest downhill slope the rover has ever attempted. If not I suspect it is close to the steepest. I also suspect that they are still unsure whether they are going to attempt it, and are creeping slowly towards it to assess the situation.

Lewis and Clark Gap within Endeavour Crater's rim

Opportunity’s future travels on Mars

Opportunity's future path

Approaching the gap

Having spent a lot of time recently analyzing the travels of Curiosity in Gale Crater and in the foothills to Mount Sharp, I decided this week that I also needed to do the same with Opportunity at Endeavour Crater.

The image above is a panorama that I have assembled from images taken by Opportunity’s navigation camera on Sol 4477 (sometime last week). To the right is a panorama assembled from images taken by the navigation camera several days later, on Sol 4481, after Opportunity had moved closer to the gap shown in the first picture above. The inset in the image above shows the location of the image on the right. The X shows Opportunity’s approximate position.

Below the fold is the most recent orbital mosiac showing Opportunity’s recent travels near Endearvour Crater and in Marathon Valley, cropped and annotated by me to indicate the areas seen by the two panoramas above. The red dot shows Opportunity’s present position.
» Read more

NASA sets InSight’s new launch date to Mars

NASA has now set 2018 as the new launch date for its Mars InSight mission.

The mission was originally supposed to launch in 2016, but missed that launch window when significant problems cropped up during construction of the spacecraft’s French-built prime instrument. NASA has now taken much of the responsibility for building that instrument away from the French and given it to JPL.

The SEIS instrument — designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom — requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors in order to withstand harsh conditions on the Red Planet. Under what’s known as the mission “replan,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be responsible for redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.

The cost for the changes and reschedule is estimated to be more than $150 million, adding to the budget strain in NASA’s science programs already caused by the overruns from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The alien buttes of Mars

Weird Mars

The image above is cropped from a panorama created by reader Phil Veerkamp from images taken by Curiosity’s mast camera on August 25, 2016 of the terrain that partly surrounds the rover since it passed the Balanced Rock and traveled beyond Murray Buttes

The full image is too large to post here. However, if you click on the first link above you can either download it and peruse it at your leisure, or view it with your browser. You will definitely want to do so, as it is high resolution and shows a lot of strange and alien geology, including multiple slabs seemingly hanging in space because of the low gravity. (Hint: Be sure to pan all the way to the right!) On the image’s left Mount Sharp can be seen raising in the background. Below the fold I have annotated the most recent Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Curiosity’s location to indicate what I think is the area included in this panorama. This MRO image also shows that once Curiosity gets through the narrow gap to the south, the path heading south up the mountain’s slopes will, for awhile at least, be relatively open with few large obstacles. The view will also change, as the rover will be out of the region of buttes.
» Read more

ULA wins contract to launch 2020 NASA Mars rover

NASA today awarded ULA the contract to launch in 2020 its next Martian rover.

The contract is for $243 million, which isn’t cheap, but I think NASA decided to pay the extra money because they used an Atlas 5 to launch Curiosity, and they have been attempting to simplify the 2020 mission by duplicating Curiosity as much as possible.

Another balanced rock!

A new balanced rock

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to show here, was taken by Curiosity’s mast camera this week as it surveys the upcoming terrain so that scientists can choose its route. It shows another balanced rock that is far more unbalanced than the one the rover passed last week.

In reviewing the survey images, I am not exactly sure whether this rock is located along Curiosity’s future route, as I have not been able to locate it in any of the panorama images the rover has taken. If it is in the gap they are aiming for, then we shall soon see some additional close-ups. If not, then we will have to content ourselves with some other views that, when you think about it, are really just as good.

Fossilized rivers on Mars

The uncertainty of science: Using high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter scientists have identified more than 10,000 miles of fossilized rivers on Mars.

The new study examined images covering an area roughly the size of Brazil at a much higher resolution than was previously possible – six metres per pixel compared to 100 metres per pixel. While a few valleys were identified, the team revealed the existence of many systems of fossilised riverbeds which are visible as inverted channels spread across the Arabia Terra plain.

The inverted channels are similar to those found elsewhere on Mars and Earth. They are made of sand and gravel deposited by a river and when the river becomes dry, the channels are left upstanding as the surrounding material erodes. On Earth, inverted channels often occur in dry, desert environments like Oman, Egypt, or Utah, where erosion rates are low – in most other environments, the channels are worn away before they can become inverted. “The networks of inverted channels in Arabia Terra are about 30m high and up to 1–2km wide, so we think they are probably the remains of giant rivers that flowed billions of years ago. Arabia Terra was essentially one massive flood plain bordering the highlands and lowlands of Mars. We think the rivers were active 3.9–3.7 billion years ago, but gradually dried up before being rapidly buried and protected for billions of years, potentially preserving any ancient biological material that might have been present,” added Joel Davis.

These geological forms are different than most of the more well-known Martian channels in that they are not channels but meandering riverlike ridges, higher than the surrounding terrain. Arabia Terra, where they are located, is a transition region in the northern mid-latitudes between Mars’s southern highlands and its northern flat plains, where some believe an ocean once existed.

China unveils its 2020 Mars lander/rover

The competition heats up: China today released design concepts of its planned 2020 Mars lander and rover.

According to Ye Peijian, one of China’s leading aerospace experts and a consultant to the program, the 2020 mission will be launched on a Long March-5 carrier rocket from the Wenchang space launch center in south China’s Hainan province. The lander will separate from the orbiter at the end of a journey of around seven months and touch down in a low latitude area in the northern hemisphere of Mars where the rover will explore the surface.

If they succeed they will have definitely moved ahead of Russia in the ranks of space-faring nations.

Mars’ wet streaks might not be wet

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of five years of data from Mars Odyssey suggests that the dark streaks flowing down Martian slopes might contain very little and possibly no water at all.

This year, planetary scientists Christopher Edwards and Sylvain Piqueux took a closer look at the feature using a thermal imaging instrument on board Mars Odyssey, another orbiter. They found no temperature differences between the dark RSL streaks and surrounding terrain — which suggests that the streaks aren’t really patches of wet sand streaming down a slope. At best, they say, the RSLs could contain no more than 3 percent liquid water — making them more like mildly damp, slightly salty dirt. And that’s an optimistic interpretation, Edwards said; it’s possible the RSLs contain no water at all. “Why this process is happening in this area, or what is causing this darkening, I don’t think is exactly obvious at this point,” he continued. “But to say it’s flowing liquid water, I don’t think it’s the whole story. It’s not necessarily even the right story.”

This data once again illustrates why we must be very careful with our conclusions when looking at features on an alien world that seem to resemble things we are familiar with here on Earth. Just because they might look alike is not evidence that they are the same. Mars has a very different gravitational field (one-third of Earth’s) and a significantly different make-up. We might be witnessing processes we’ve never seen before that produce features that mimic Earthlike forms.

Beyond Murray Buttes

Panorama ahead for Curiosity, Sol 1438

Time for a Curiosity update. Above is a panorama I’ve created from raw images released today from the rover’s left navigation camera of the mesa filled terrain within which Curiosity now sits. Since my last update they have traveled about 200 feet south, moving away from the mesa with the balanced rock

Below the fold is a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image with Curiosity’s path indicated. I have marked the balanced rock with an X, and have indicated with the yellow lines the area covered by the panorama above.

They appear to be aiming due south for the narrow gap between the long ridge-like mesas. This will bring Curiosity out into the open and sloping terrain that can be seen in the distance in the last image of my last update. I suspect they want to get a closer look at those parallel grooves, even if it means the journey will be a little rougher.
» Read more

Murray Buttes panorama by Curiosity released

The Curiosity science team has released a full panorama taken by Curiosity of Murray Buttes prior to its journey through them.

The reason I am not posting this new panorama here on Behind the Black is because I had already posted an almost identical panorama more than a week ago, and my assembled panorama used higher resolution images from Curiosity and was not partly obscured by Curiosity itself. Moreover, I provided better context for that panorama, placing it within Curiosity’s overall travels, something NASA in today’s press release fails to do.

So, if you want to see the best cool images from space and see them sooner than everyone else, why bother reading NASA press releases? Read Behind the Black instead! :)

An isolated dune on Mars

Isolated dune on Mars

Close-up of Dune

Cool image time! The image above, cropped and rotated to post it here, shows a single isolated large dune inside an unnamed crater on Mars. The image was taken by Mars Odyssey on June 5. To the right is a close-up of the dune itself. Its isolated nature as well as the darkness of its sand in comparison with the surrounding territory has probably got some planetary scientists scratching their heads. Furthermore, the darker streaks that appear to flow down the dune are quite intriguing. Were they formed by briny seep water, as has been found with other seasonal dark slope streaks? Or are they evidence of sand avalanches?

I imagine that there will be an effort to monitor this dune over time, to see if it changes.

Balanced Rock at last

Balanced rock close-up

My pessimistic prediction that Curiosity’s science team would take the least risky route and thus not pass close to the butte with the balanced rock has fortunately turned out to be very wrong! They have moved Curiosity into the closest gap to get the best views of both the balanced rock as well as the butte behind it. The image on the right, cropped, was taken by the rover’s mast camera as Curiosity entered the gap between the buttes. It shows clearly that balanced rock broke off from the layers above and landed on its side.

The image below the fold shows the same butte after Curiosity had passed the balanced rock (inside red box).
» Read more

Curiosity prepares to move on

Route through Murray Buttes

After several days of drilling, the Curiosity science team is preparing to move forward. As one member of the team notes,

After a short drive we’ll acquire images for context and targeting. Overnight, Curiosity will complete a SAM electrical baseline test to monitor instrument health. Based on some of the recent Mastcam images that we’ve acquired…, the view ahead should be quite scenic as we drive through the Murray Buttes!

The image above is a close-up of those Buttes, showing Balanced Rock on the left, taken from one of three raw left navigation images. The image below is a panorama I have created from those navigation images, with an inset box to show the location of the above picture.
» Read more

Wind erosion on Mars

Wind erosion on Mars

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped to show here, was taken by Mars Odyssey. While the features shown appear at first glance to have been formed by water, they have instead in etched by wind.

The narrow ridge/valley system seen in this image are a feature called yardangs. Yardangs form when unidirectional winds blow across poorly cemented materials. Multiple yardang directions can indicate changes in regional wind regimes.

The release does not say what direction the wind was blowing, but if I had to guess, I’d say from south to north.

New evidence suggest lake once existed in Gale Crater

Scientists have concluded that mineral veins seen by Curiosity in Gale Crater were created when a lake existed there.

The study suggests that the veins formed as the sediments from the ancient lake were buried, heated to about 50 degrees Celsius and corroded. Professor John Bridges from the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy said: “The taste of this Martian groundwater would be rather unpleasant, with about 20 times the content of sulphate and sodium than bottled mineral water for instance!”

Martian gullies not formed by water flow

The uncertainty of science: Spectroscopy of many of the gullies on Mars strongly suggests that water had nothing to do with their formation, even though these gullies resemble closely similar gullies on Earth that were carved by flowing water..

Color coding in light blue corresponds to surface composition of unaltered mafic material, of volcanic origin. Mafic material from the crater rim is carved and transported downslope along the gully channels. No hydrated minerals are observed within the gullies, in the data from CRISM, indicating limited interaction or no interaction of the mafic material with liquid water. These findings and related observations at about 100 other gully sites on Mars suggest that a mechanism not requiring liquid water may be responsible for carving these gullies on Mars. (Gullies on Mars are a different type of feature than seasonal dark streaks called recurring slope lineae or RSL; water in the form of hydrated salt has been identified at RSL sites.) [emphasis mine]

In other words, these gullies were formed by flowing lava, not water. Considering Mars’s lower gravity, one third that of Earth’s, we should not be surprised if lava is capable of doing things there that it is not generally capable of doing on Earth. In fact, we should remind ourselves constantly that Mars is an alien planet, and that conditions there are different enough to make any predictions based on our knowledge of Earth very unreliable.

More details here.

Heading directly for Balanced Rock

Curiosity's course to Balanced Rock

As I predicted Sunday, the Curiosity science team is aiming the rover directly towards the gap in the mesas, dubbed the Murray Buttes, that also has the balanced rock seen in earlier images.

The image on the right shows the rover’s most recent two traverses, superimposed on a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image. I have cropped it to focus in on the area of most interest.

Based on the rover’s general rate of travel, I would expect them to enter the gap after about two or three more traverses. This means they will be there in about a week, since after each traverse they usually stop and do science and reconnaissance before resuming travel.

ExoMars successfully completes long mid-course burn

ExoMars 2016, the European/Russia orbiter/lander mission on its way to Mars, successfully completed a 52 minute mid-course engine burn today in preparation for its October 19th arrival at Mars.

Officially known as the deep-space maneuver, DSM, it was the longest engine burn for the ExoMars-2016 mission before the Mars orbit insertion on October 19, 2016. As a result of the July 28 orbit correction, the spacecraft will need less propellant during its maneuvers in the vicinity of the planet and the Schiaparelli lander will experience slightly less thermal loads during its planned entry into the Martian atmosphere.

NASA guesses SpaceX’s Dragon-Mars mission will cost $300 million

At a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council yesterday a NASA official estimated that SpaceX will probably spend about $300 million on its Dragon mission to Mars.

Asked by the committee how much SpaceX was spending, Reuter indicated that the company’s investment was 10 times that of NASA. “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” he said. “I think that’s in the ballpark.” Given NASA’s investment, that implies SpaceX is spending around $300 million on Red Dragon.

SpaceX has not disclosed its estimated cost of the mission, or how it will pay for it. “I have no knowledge” of how the company is financing the mission, Reuter said when asked by the committee.

I suspect that the guess is significantly wrong. NASA is providing $32 million. SpaceX plans to charge customers $90 million for a single Falcon Heavy launch, which means its cost for that launch is likely half that, say $45 million. That adds up to $77 million. The cost for a Dragon capsule is not even close to $223 million, which is what remains if NASA’s guess is right, which based on this rough estimate I seriously doubt. I would bet that a single Dragon probably costs far less than $20 million. Remember, they are nothing more than basic manned capsules, and SpaceX is building enough of them to almost have an assembly line going.

So, let’s round up and say that the cost for the mission is really about $100 million (including NASA’s contribution). Other costs, such as the staff to run the mission for at least a year, will increase this cost, but not enough to bring the total to NASA’s guess of $300 million. I suspect that SpaceX will not spend anything close to $100 million of its own money for this Dragon mission to Mars.

All in all, this amount of investment seems reasonable, based on the scale of costs in the launch industry. And SpaceX’s willingness to invest some of its own money for this mission is probably wise. In publicity alone it is priceless.

Curiosity’s way forward

Panorama with balanced rock

As Curiosity moves up into the foothills of Mount Sharp the terrain is getting increasingly interesting. The image above is a panorama I have created from three Left Navigation Camera images posted here on Sunday evening. It shows what I think will be the general direction mission scientists wish to send Curiosity. (Note that the top of the leftmost mesa is not as flat as shown, as its top was cut off in the original image.)

Below is a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image showing Curiosity’s present position from above. I have annotated it to show the general view as shown in the above image. I have also marked on both the location of the balanced rock first photographed on July 7.
» Read more

A glacier on Mars

A glacier on Mars

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced in resolution, is a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter picture taken on March 28, 2016 of a glacial flow coming down off of mountains in Mars’ northern mid-latitudes. The mountains are to the south and beyond the bottom right. The flow is to the northwest. The full image can be found here. As noted on the image site,

These flow-like structures were previously called “lobate debris aprons,” but the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument on [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter] has shown that they are actually debris-covered flows of ice, or glaciers. There is no evidence for present-day flow of these glaciers, so they appear to be remnants of past climates.

Need I say it? This is water, on Mars, and in abundance. Think that this might be good real estate when those first settlers arrive?

Route to Balanced Rock

Route to Balanced Rock on Mars

The image above is a panorama I have created from the raw images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera today, using this image for the left half and this image for the right half. They show the terrain in front of the rover, including the balanced rock on the horizon, indicated by the arrow.

I have no idea what route the science team plans, but looking at all of the images, as well as their desire to get a closer look at the rock, I suspect they will head up to the left on the smoother ground, aiming almost directly at the balanced rock. I also suspect that they will eventually veer right before getting to the rock, since the rover can’t go over the rough terrain in that area. Stay tuned to find out.

More bright spots on Ceres

More bright spots on Ceres

Cool image time! The most recently released Dawn image of Ceres, cropped on the right, included these bright streaks running down the side of an unnamed crater. They are especially intriguing because they so much resemble the seepage lines scientists have found on slopes on Mars. On Mars the lines appear to come and go on a seasonal basis, while on Ceres they appear to have been caused by a one-time event, after which not much has changed. In both cases, however, they appear to be caused by some liquid seepage that came from below the surface.

Balanced rock on Mars

Balanced rock on Mars

Cool image time! Prior to going into safe mode Curiosity’s mast camera took a series of images of its surroundings, as is routine as the rover travels. Among those images was the image above, though I have cropped it and reduced its resolution to show here. It reveals a balanced rock on the horizon. It also shows, as do the other survey images, how increasingly rough the terrain is becoming that Curiosity is traveling through.

The Curiosity science team has no intention of getting too close to this rough terrain, but they do hope to get better views of this rock as they continue the rover’s journey uphill.

Curiosity in safe mode

For the first time in three years, Curiosity has entered safe mode.

On July 2, Mars rover Curiosity ceased science operations on the slopes of Mount Sharp after a fail safe was tripped, forcing the nuclear-powered robot into a low-power “safe mode.” According to a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory report, preliminary information communicated by Curiosity suggests an “unexpected mismatch between camera software and data-processing software in the main computer” may have been the culprit and the rover’s automated systems took over, preventing any permanent damage from being caused.

They are in communications with the rover, and expect a full recovery.

1 2 3 18