Tag Archives: Mars

At the crest

Looking north at the crest

Cool images time! The image above, cropped and reduced to show here, is a panorama that I have created from the most recent images sent down from Opportunity yesterday. The rover sits on the crest of the rim of Endeavour Crater, and this panorama looks north at that crest, back in the direction where the rover has come. The rovers tracks can be seen fading away into the distance slightly to the left of the crestline..If you click on the picture you can see the full resolution image.

The crater floor is to the right, the plains that surround the crater are to the left.

Below is another panorama, created by me from the same images sent down today, this time looking south at the crest in the direction Opportunity is heading. Once again, if you click on the picture you can see the full resolution version.

The full set of today’s images from Opportunity suggest that the science team took them to assemble a full 360 degree panorama before they begin the journey south to the gully that is just now becoming visible at the southernmost edge of the most recent overhead traverse image. To get to that gully they will now have to descend off the crest and down outside the rim of Endeavour Crater, moving to the right in the panorama below. This is therefore their last opportunity for awhile to get a good view from a high overlook.

Looking south at the crest

Dream Chaser flight tests upcoming

The competition heats up: According to Sierra Nevada officials, drop tests and glide tests of the engineering test ship of its Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft will begin this spring.

The partially-assembled test craft arrived at the California test site, located on Edwards Air Force Base, on Jan. 25. Technicians are adding the ship’s V-shaped tail fins and other equipment before kicking off ground and flight tests in the coming months, according to Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s space systems division. “We’ll do a series of ground tests,” Sirangelo said in a recent interview. “That will include towing the vehicle down the runway, and that allows us to see how it stops and how it moves, but it also allows us to test all the sensors on the vehicle because we can get it up to a high enough speed where that will happen.”

…After the ground tests, Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser test article will perform “captive carry” tests suspended under a helicopter, using the exercises to verify the movements of the craft’s aerosurfaces and navigation instrumentation. “When that’s done, we’ll move into a series of flight tests, where it will be dropped for approach and landing like the shuttle Enterprise,” Sirangelo said, referring to the vehicle NASA used for landing demonstrations in the 1970s before the first full-up space shuttle mission.

This all sounds great, but Sierra Nevada has been promising these test flights now for more than a year. It is time they got started already.

Bigelow advocates his space stations for lunar missions

The competition heats up: Robert Bigelow today advocated using his privately built inflatable space station modules as a tool for launching future American lunar missions.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research. “We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

The key statement above is the comparison between lunar missions and Mars missions, at this time. The Moon has the chance to be profitable in the near future. Mars does not. If you had money to invest (even if it is taxpayer dollars) which would you invest it in?

The winds of Mars

New data from Curiosity has confirmed that the winds of Mars have been the primary force shaping the red planet’s landscape for billions of years.

The new data suggests that Mount Sharp once filled Gale Crater, and it was the winds that eroded it away to create the impression that it is the crater’s central peak. Instead it appears that it is the crater’s original floor!

Below the fold is the video from the link showing a number of dust devils imaged by Curiosity.

This link provides a gif animation showing the surprisingly significant changes to the ripples in the sand dunes directly below Curiosity that take place in only one day. The changes are astonishing, and show that even though Mars’ atmosphere is far thinner than Earth’s, it is capable of moving things quickly across the Martian surface.
» Read more

SpaceX delays first Dragon Mars mission to 2020

SpaceX has decided to delay its first Dragon flight to Mars from 2018 to 2020 so as to focus on more immediate priorities.

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. “We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that,” Shotwell said.

They need to fly the Falcon Heavy several times first, and the delays caused by last year’s September 1 launchpad explosion, has pushed the first Falcon Heavy launch back from late in 2016 to the summer of 2017.

UAE proposes building Martian city within a century

The competition heats up? The United Arab Emirates announced on Tuesday its plan to construct a city on Mars and have it completed by 2117, a hundred years from now.

On Tuesday, at the sidelines of the World Government Summit in Dubai, the UAE announced that it was planning to build the first city on Mars by 2117. According to CNBC, UAE engineers presented a concept city at the event about the size of Chicago for guests to explore.

In a statement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE, sounded confident about the project. “Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realize the most important human dream,” Maktoum said.

And despite the grandiose nature of the idea, the 100-year-plan does emphasize some practical steps. “The Mars 2117 Project is a long-term project,” Maktoum explained in the statement, adding that the first order of business would be making space travel appeal to young Emiratis, with special programs in space sciences being set up at universities in the UAE.

Maktoum is the guy that pushed to create the UAE’s space agency, and is leading its effort to fly an unmanned mission to Mars by 2020. It is very clear that his goal is to inspire his country and its youth so that they will aim high in future years. I wish him well, as this is a far better goal for an Islamic nation than sending out suicide bombers to kill innocent people.

I must add that I remain very skeptical about this particular plan. I fully expect us to finally get to Mars in the next century, but whether we will have the ability to build cities there in that time frame remains questionable.

Mars rover update: February 14, 2017

Curiosity

Ireson Hill, Sol 1604

Dune fields

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Taking a close look at rock

Since my last update in January, Curiosity done more or less what I predicted. It headed southwest through the dune area and then made a side trip to the small mesa there, dubbed Ireson Hill by the Curiosity science team and shown on the right. They then made an additional side trip past the hill to get a close look a the large sandy dune field beyond, also shown on the right. After getting some nice closeups as well as scooping up some sand for observation, they have now gone back to Ireson Hill to get another close look at the dark rocks that have rolled off the top of the hill and are now in reach at its base. The image on the left shows the arm positioned above one of those rocks.

The drill remains out of commission, with no word when they will try using it again. In addition, there had been a problem with the ChemCam laser that does spectroscopic analysis, but as of this week it is back in action, and is being used to analysis the small rock above.

Below is an overview of their route so far as well as my annotations on where I think they will be heading in the future.
» Read more

NASA narrows to three the Mars rover landing sites in 2020

Jezero Crater

Scientists have now narrowed to three the candidate landing sites for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover mission.

The three sites include Jezero crater, which was once home to an ancient Martian lake and which could preserve the remains of microbial life, if it ever existed on Mars. “You’ve got a large river bringing water and sediment into a very large lake, comparable to Lake Tahoe,” says Timothy Goudge, a planetary scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Jezero scored highest on a community vote of scientists attending the workshop.

Other possible targets include Northeast Syrtis, where hot waters once circulated through the crust and could have supported life, and Columbia Hills, the area explored for years by NASA’s Spirit rover.

From the Nature article above as well as this Science article, it sounds like the Columbia Hills choice is unlikely. The Science article pushes Jezero crater, which had the most votes at the workshop and is shown in the image on the right.

An orbital change extends the life of India’s Mars orbiter

An orbital maneuver has allowed India’s Mars Orbiter Mission avoid an eight hour period with no sunlight — thus draining its batteries — so that the mission can be extended until 2020.

The on-board battery which was to take over had a life of just about 1.4 hours, while the eclipse was to last for 8 hours. The spacecraft’s future was bleak.

The scientists thought of a solution. On the night of January 17, a team of eight engineers at Indian Space Research Organisation’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network, Bengaluru, sent a time-delayed command to the Mars probe. The command set in motion firing of eight on-board thruster rockets. Each of them were fired for 431 seconds, pushing the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) space probe to a new orbit that completely avoids an eclipse up to September 2017. The shadowing in September is of a smaller duration, which the satellite’s batteries can handle. “Because of the crucial orbital change, the MOM now gets three additional years’ life. We are expecting it to transmit data till 2020,” Isro chairman A S Kiran Kumar told DH.

The mission’s science data is not as important as the experience it is giving Indian engineers in operating a planetary probe remotely from Earth. This success speaks well for the future of India’s space effort.

New Curiosity data leaves scientists baffled about past evidence of water

The uncertainty of science: Despite substantial evidence by Curiosity that Gale Crater once had running water and even lakes, the rover has also found no evidence that the atmosphere ever had enough carbon dioxide in its atmosphere to warm the climate enough to allow that water to flow as a liquid.

Mars scientists are wrestling with a problem. Ample evidence says ancient Mars was sometimes wet, with water flowing and pooling on the planet’s surface. Yet, the ancient sun was about one-third less warm and climate modelers struggle to produce scenarios that get the surface of Mars warm enough for keeping water unfrozen.

A leading theory is to have a thicker carbon-dioxide atmosphere forming a greenhouse-gas blanket, helping to warm the surface of ancient Mars. However, according to a new analysis of data from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, Mars had far too little carbon dioxide about 3.5 billion years ago to provide enough greenhouse-effect warming to thaw water ice.

The same Martian bedrock in which Curiosity found sediments from an ancient lake where microbes could have thrived is the source of the evidence adding to the quandary about how such a lake could have existed. Curiosity detected no carbonate minerals in the samples of the bedrock it analyzed. The new analysis concludes that the dearth of carbonates in that bedrock means Mars’ atmosphere when the lake existed — about 3.5 billion years ago — could not have held much carbon dioxide.

Does anyone but me see the faulty scientific reasoning here? Basically, these scientists appear to be assuming that the only global warming atmospheric molecule that exists is carbon dioxide. And because Mars has little carbonates in its surface, meaning it had little past CO2 in its atmosphere, there thus no way Mars’ atmosphere could have been warmed enough to allow water to flow as a liquid.

Balderdash! On Earth, the most important global warming component in the atmosphere is water, not carbon dioxide. Moreover, there are other atmospheric components, such as methane, that are also more important than CO2 in warming the climate. In fact, carbon dioxide as a trace gas in the atmosphere plays only a tiny global warming role. On Mars it is just as likely that other atmospheric components, such as water and methane, provided the necessary warming. To assume it has to be carbon dioxide suggests to me that these scientists have become so caught up with the human-caused global warming scare here on Earth that they have lost the ability to consider other possibilities on Mars.

Nonetheless, this remains the fundamental scientific mystery of Mars. We have found enormous evidence on Mars that water once flowed on its surface. We have also found no explanation so far that would explain how that was possible.

Strange beat-up Martian terrain

Strange terrain

Cool image time! The image above, taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and cropped to show here, reveals some very strange terrain, pounded by numerous impacts. The full color-enhanced image, which only covers a small area of the much larger strip image, shows a rough surface that on Earth would definitely be labeled “badlands.”

The very tiny cropped section above especially intrigued me because of the pronounced cliff that appears to be the north wall of a crater in which the east, west, and south walls have eroded away. The riverlet-like flows down the cliff-face are also intriguing, as are the cross-crossing features in the crater floor.

Make sure you look at the full images. Quite strange and fascinating. Even though the complete image strip isn’t color enhanced. it is filled with many interesting geological forms. I haven’t yet been able to find the spot shown by the color-enhanced section, but it is there nonetheless. I wonder if any of my readers can locate it.

UAE considers initiating its own manned space program

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week in Abu Dhabi, a UAE official said that his country might begin work on a manned space program.

He also said that they plan a follow-up to their Hope Mars mission, which now has a July 2020 launch date.

The UAE’s prime goal right now with their space effort is to promote the development of a new aerospace industry. Thus, I do not expect them to accomplish much in the near future. Even their Mars mission is I think mostly being built and launched by others (India is helping with the spacecraft and Japan is launching it). In the long term, however, this effort is wise, and will eventually produce for them a real industry.

Curiosity’s drill remains out of commission

Ireson Hill

In a science update on Curiosity’s research in Gale Crater, this Science journal article today gives a good overall update on Curiosity’s technical condition.

Since early December 2016, Curiosity hasn’t been able to drill. The problem, likely a stuck brake on the mechanism for extending the drill bit, is serious. “There is apprehension,” says Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But the drill still responds intermittently. “We’re not in a situation where it’s completely dead.”

Still, the clock is ticking for the aging rover, and some outside scientists regret not having used a wet chemistry cup. Rocks have punctured its wheels, and the output of its decaying radioactive power source has dropped by 15%. Jack Mustard, a planetary scientist at Brown University, says he understands the team’s hesitancy. But he wished the “mission had moved more quickly with the wet chemistry experiments,” he says. “I am eager to see what we can learn.”

The wet chemistry cup, designed to look for organic life, is an experiment that requires use of the drill but the science team has held off doing. Now it might be too late.

At the moment Curiosity is approaching [see Sol 1598-1599] the small hill that had been to its southwest in my January 18, 2017 update and shown in the image above. I had thought they might make a side trip there on their way up Mount Sharp, and they have, with their actual route taking them around the backside of the hill.

U.S. 2020 Mars rover faces delays

A new inspector general report has pinpointed a number of issues that could cause a delay in the 2020 launch of the next American Mars rover mission.

The biggest risk to the mission, according to NASA OIG, is the sampling system that will be used to collect and store samples of Martian rock and soil that a future mission will gather for return to Earth. That system, an essential part of the mission, has several key technologies that are less mature than planned at this phase of the mission’s development. “The immaturity of the critical technologies related to the Sampling System is concerning because, according to Mars 2020 Project managers, the Sampling System is the rover’s most complex new development component with delays likely to eat into the Project’s schedule reserve and, in the worst case scenario, could delay launch,” OIG stated.

I find it puzzling that the sampling system is an issue. This rover is essentially based on Curiosity, which has very sophisticated equipment for grabbing and even storing samples for periods of time. I don’t understand why such systems could not be quickly revised for future retrieval.

Nonetheless, there are other problems however.

Two instruments on the Mars 2020 mission have also suffered problems. One, called MOXIE, is designed to test the ability to generate oxygen on Mars, saw its estimated increase by more than 50 percent during its development. NASA has taken steps to reduce some of that cost growth by eliminating development of an engineering model and skipping further design improvements in one element of MOXIE.

Another instrument designed to study atmospheric conditions on Mars, MEDA, has suffered delays because of a “financial reorganization” by its developer, Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology. OIG concluded in its report that MEDA is unlikely to be ready for delivery to NASA in April 2018, as currently scheduled. That could require adding MEDA to the rover later in the overall assembly process, or flying the mission without the instrument.

One of the reasons the Obama administration decided to make this 2020 rover mission a reboot of Curiosity was to save cost and development time. Thus, it does not speak well for NASA’s planetary program that they are having these problems.

Mars rover update: January 18, 2017

Curiosity

Curiosity's location, Sol 1582

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

In the past month, since my last rover update on December 22, 2016, Curiosity has begun moving again, carefully picking its way through the dune-filled flats in the foothills at the base of Mount Sharp. The route taken, shown on the image on the right, corresponds to the easternmost of the possible routes I noted in my November 14, 2016 update. This route is also the most direct route, which I think is smart considering that the rover’s life on Mars certainly uncertain and the higher they can climb the more geological information they will get.

I have also annotated the likely route into the near future, including a possible side trip to the base of the mesa up ahead. It appears to me that they are now a little more than halfway through the flats, with Mt. Sharp directly ahead, as shown by the panorama below, taken near the end of December. The goal is a canyon just out of view to the right of this panorama.

Looking at Mount Sharp

The flats the rover is presently traversing, and visible in the foreground of the panorama above, is strewn with dark sand that often piled into large sand dunes. Where the ground is exposed, it is made up of a scattering of pavement-like rocks. As noted in a press release yesterday, many of these flat rocks have polygonal cracks and boxwork similar to that seen in dried mud here on Earth, suggesting that this area was once wet and then dried. This geology helps confirm the theory of planetary scientists that Gale Crater was once filled with water that slowly evaporated away. As the rover climbs, it leaves the lakebed and begins to move through the lake’s various shores, each one older than the last.

Opportunity

For the overall context of Opportunity’s travels at Endeavour Crater, see Opportunity’s future travels on Mars.
» Read more

Curiosity spots cracks formed from drying mud

mud cracks on Mars?

As Curiosity moves across the dust-shrewn dune-filled flats at the base of Mt. Sharp it has recently taken images of surface rocks that have cracks resembling those found from drying mud.

Scientists used NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in recent weeks to examine slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Curiosity science team member Nathan Stein. He is a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, who led the investigation of a site called “Old Soaker,” on lower Mount Sharp, Mars.

If this interpretation holds up, these would be the first mud cracks — technically called desiccation cracks — confirmed by the Curiosity mission. They would be evidence that the ancient era when these sediments were deposited included some drying after wetter conditions. Curiosity has found evidence of ancient lakes in older, lower-lying rock layers and also in younger mudstone that is above Old Soaker.

The rover is no longer on the floor the crater, but in the foothills at the base of Mt. Sharp. Thus, what we are likely looking at is evidence of the slow disappearance of the giant lake that scientists think once filled Gale Crater. These mud cracks suggest that the rover is now moving up out of the lake and through its margins.

I plan to do a rover update for both Curiosity and Opportunity tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Curiosity looks at Mount Sharp

Looking at Mount Sharp

Cool image time! During the ten day holiday period, during which the Curiosity science and engineering teams generally got a break, they programmed the rover to take a variety of observations over the entire period. Some of those observations included repeated snapshots of the view ahead, using the rover’s navigation camera. The image above, reduced slightly from the full resolution image to show here, is one example of that view.

You can see the dark sandy dune region in the foreground, and the increasing steepness of the slope in the background. What I find most interesting are what look like canyon washes flowing downhill on the right, in what appear to be diagonally parallel cuts. That they do not flow directly downhill suggest to me that they were not created by water flow but by wind erosion, though it is possible that the geology of different bedding plains could have forced the flows in a diagonal direction down the slope. If wind erosion is the cause, however, it suggests a process that took a very long time to occur, as the atmosphere of Mars is so thin.

The route the rover will take is through a much larger canyon slightly off camera to the right. While the slope up the mountain on the left of the image appears to be an easier route, the geology there is not as interesting. Note also that we are not looking at the peak of Mount Sharp, which is much farther south and far higher.

An igloo on Mars?

This igloo-like design is one of the concepts being considered at NASA for the first habitats on Mars.

Normally I don’t waste time promoting these NASA concept studies, since the odds of them getting built is less than zero. However, this idea is intriguing, and probably contains within it many concepts that will be used by the first Martian habitats.

Debris inside Curiosity drill might be cause of problem

Engineers now suspect that a piece of debris inside Curiosity’s drill might be the cause of the recent intermittent problems with the drill’s feed motor, the equipment that extends the drill for drilling.

Experts believe they found a pattern in the way the drill feed motor behaves over time, Eriskson said, and the pattern observed so far matches what engineers would expect to see if a piece of foreign object debris, or FOD, was embedded somewhere inside the drill.

Erickson said the ground team is not sure of the source of the potential debris. It could be a piece of Martian soil or a pebble that somehow got into the mechanism and is gumming up the drill feed motor, or it might be something carried from Earth. “It some sense, it probably doesn’t matter,” Erickson said, detailing how engineers are focused, for now, on recovering use of the drill, one of the rover’s primary tools.

A rover review of 2016

Link here. While my rover updates are focused entirely on where the rovers are, where they will be heading in the immediate future, and the present condition of the rovers themselves, this update provides a very good summary of the entire year’s events for both rovers, focused especially on the science learned by Curiosity. Definitely worth a read.

ESA signs contract for construction of its part of ExoMars 2020

On Friday the European Space Agency signed a contract with Thales Alenia Space for the construction of the European portion of the ExoMars 2020 lander/rover mission.

The contract signed in Rome, Italy, secures the completion of the European elements and the rigorous tests to prove they are ready for launch. These include the rover itself, which will be accommodated within the Russian descent module, along with the carrier module for cruise and delivery to Mars. ESA is also contributing important elements of the descent module, such as the parachute, radar, inertial measurement unit, UHF radio elements, and the onboard computer and software. The science instruments for the rover and surface platform are funded by national agencies of ESA member states, Roscosmos and NASA following calls to the scientific community.

I had missed this last week. The Thales Alenia press release has more information.

I wish them luck, especially the Russians, whose luck with missions to Mars has been truly terrible. I suspect that the Russians will use some variation of their bouncing balloon technology for the lander, which worked on their 1960s lunar rover missions and was successfully copied by NASA for its 1997 Pathfinder/Sojourner rover mission.

Mars rover update: December 22, 2016

Curiosity

Curiosity's location, Sol 1555

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

After weeks of drill diagnostics and enforced lack of travel while those diagnostics were on-going, Curiosity finally moved last weekend (Sol 1553). The traverse map to the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to show here, indicates where they went, which wasn’t far and doesn’t really tell us yet which route they plan to take to pick their way through the surrounding dune fields. Thus, the options I indicated in my November 14, 2016 rover update all remain possible. If you go to that update you can see a much better Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overhead image showing the upcoming terrain.

In the meantime, the Curiosity science team is preparing to take a well deserved Christmas-New Year’s break (see update for sols 1566-1568). So that Curiosity doesn’t sit idle during that time, they have uploaded to it an 8-sol plan to cover December 22 to December 30 followed by a 3-sol plan from December 31 to January 2. The rover will not move during this period, but will take lots of different observations in situ.

As they note rightly at the link above, “It’s been quite the year for our rover: we have drilled six holes, performed two scoops, driven 3 km, and climbed 85 vertical meters!” What is more significant is that the best is yet to come!

Opportunity

For the overall context of Opportunity’s travels at Endeavour Crater, see Opportunity’s future travels on Mars.
» Read more

Lace on Mars

Lace on Mars

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to show here, was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter June 21, 2016. It shows a region in the high northern latitudes, 80 degrees.

Some seasonal ice on Mars is transparent so that the sunlight penetrates to the bottom of the ice. Heat from this sunlight can turn the ice directly into a gas in a process called sublimation and this gas can scour channels in the loose dirt under the ice. Channels formed by sublimation of a layer of seasonal dry ice are so dense in this area that they look like lace. Gas flow erodes channels as it escapes to the surface of the overlying seasonal ice layer seeking the path of least resistance.

The resolution of the full image is 9.7 feet per pixel. This means that if Curiosity was driving across this surface we would see it. I guarantee however that Curiosity would not find driving here very easy. The ice surface is likely very delicate, and would likely cause any vehicle to bog down. The surface is also likely very alien-looking, which makes me very much want to see what it looks like, up close. This look will unfortunately have to wait, as we as yet do not have the right technology to do it. We would need I think a drone, capable of flying in Mars’s thin atmosphere.

NASA begs out of first SpaceX’s Mars mission

NASA has decided to hold off contributing any science instruments for SpaceX’s first Dragon mission to Mars.

NASA wants to wait until SpaceX proves it can pull off a soft landing on the Red Planet before committing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment to the spaceflight company’s “Red Dragon” effort, said Jim Green, head of the agency’s Planetary Science Division. “Landing on Mars is hard,” Green said during a talk Tuesday (Dec. 13) here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “I want to wait this one out.”

Curiosity cleared to move but not drill

Engineers have cleared Curiosity to move once again, but have not yet cleared the rover to use its balky drill.

This morning we received downlink that indicated operation of the drill feed using standard commands. This is great news, and the anomaly response team has cleared the rover for use of the arm and driving (but not yet drilling).

It is not known when they will drill again, but the news suggests that they will do so eventually, once they get a full understanding of what prevented normal operations this last time. For moment, at least, they no longer have a need to keep the rover motionless so they could assess the situation.

Mars rover update: December 8, 2016

Curiosity

Mars' dusty sky

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my last rover update on November 14th, Curiosity moved relatively little. They drove a short distance to the southeast to a point where they wanted to drill, but have not moved from this location for the past two weeks because of drill issues.

While the engineers study the drill problem, which requires them to not move either the rover or the drill arm, the scientists have still used Curiosity to take images of the dust in the sky, to take hourly images of the dust on the ground (to see how it is changed by the wind), and to take images of nearby interesting nearby features (below the fold).
» Read more

Design flaw in India’s Mars Orbiter

According to American researchers, a fundamental design flaw in the primary scientific instrument on India’s Mangalyaan Mars orbiter prevents it from carrying out its mission of measuring the methane in the Martian atmosphere.

“They did not design this properly for the detection of methane on Mars,” Michael Mumma, senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Seeker. In 2003, Mumma led a team that made the first definitive measurements of methane on Mars using an infrared telescope in Hawaii. The methane, which appeared in plumes over specific regions of Mars, reached a maximum density of about 60 parts per billion. “The (MOM) instrument is beautifully engineered, but not for the methane task. It has other value, but unfortunately they will not be able to provide measurements of methane at the levels needed to sample even the plumes we saw,” Mumma said.

They are re-purposing the instrument to measure the reflected sunlight coming off the Martian surface, useful data to be sure but hardly worth an entire space mission.

The weird south pole of Mars

Mars' south pole region

Cool image time (literally)! The photo above, cropped slightly to show here, was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbit (MRO) in August 2016 and was released today as part of the monthly release of captioned images. And though it looks like a fractal computer-generated animation still, it is instead real, showing the strange and quite alien terrain that routinely forms at the carbon dioxide ice cap there.

The polar cap is made from carbon dioxide (dry ice), which does not occur naturally on the Earth. The circular pits are holes in this dry ice layer that expand by a few meters each Martian year. New dry ice is constantly being added to this landscape by freezing directly out of the carbon dioxide atmosphere or falling as snow. Freezing out the atmosphere like this limits how cold the surface can get to the frost point at -130 degrees Celsius (-200 F). Nowhere on Mars can ever get any colder this, making this this coolest landscape on Earth and Mars combined!

This region is about 4 degrees north of the south pole itself.

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