Tag Archives: Mars

Streaky Mars: Slope streaks and recurring slope lineae

New recurring lineae on Mars
Click for source paper [pdf].

Numerous presentations at this week’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas have focused on two different changing features on the Martian surface, dubbed slope streaks and recurring slope lineae (or RSLs, an example of an unnecessary and unwieldy acronym that I avoid like the plague).

These apparently are considered two different phenomenon (with some overlap), something I had not recognized previously. For example, one presentation [pdf] this week described slope streaks as:

…gravity-driven dark or light-toned features that form throughout the martian year in high-albedo and low-thermal-inertia equatorial regions of Mars. The distinctive features originate from point sources on slopes steeper than ~20°, follow the topographic gradient, extend or divert around small obstacles, and propagate up to maximum lengths of a few kilometers. The streaks brighten with time, sometimes become brighter than their surroundings, and fade away over timescales of decades. [emphasis mine]

An example can be seen here. This is in contrast to the recurring slope lineae, shown in the image above, which another paper [pdf] described as:

…dark linear features that occur on the surface of steep slopes in the mid-latitudes of Mars. These areas are warm, occasionally exceeding temperatures of 273-320 K. [Lineae] recur over multiple years, growing during warm seasons and fading away during colder seasons. Their apparent temperature dependency raises the possibility that liquid water is involved in their formation. [emphasis mine]

I have highlighted the key differences. While slope streaks are long lived and change slowly, lineae change with the Martian seasons. And the slope streaks appear to exist at lower latitudes. These difference means that the formation process of each must be also different.

The problem is that scientists still don’t know what causes either, though they have many theories, involving both wet and dry processes.

Most of the presentations at the conference this week focused on the recurring lineae, which I suspect is because of their seasonal aspect. This feature strongly suggests a water-related source for the lineae, and everyone who studies Mars is always focused on finding sources on Mars where liquid water might be found. Also, slope streaks appear more often in dunes, which also strongly suggests a dry process. One paper, however, did a comparison study of lineae with one specific kind of dune slope streak to see if the freatures might be related.

The most interesting result [pdf] for all these papers documented the apparent increase in recurring lineae following the global dust storm last year. The image at the top of that post is from this paper, and shows a fresh lineae where none had been prior to the storm. From the paper’s abstract:
» Read more

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Land of mesas

Ariadnes Colles
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The Mars Odyssey science team today released the image on the right, cropped and rotated to show here, of a region on Mars named “Ariadnes Colles.”

The term colles means hills or knobs. The hills appear brighter than the surrounding lowlands, likely due to relatively less dust cover.

This is certainly a place with lots of hills, or to be more precise, mesas, as many of them seem to be flat topped.

The lack of dust cover on the tops is probably because, like on Earth, the winds blow much better once you get a bit above the surface. (This is why sailing ship builders kept adding higher and higher sails to their ships, until the top sails of clipper ships rose a hundred-plus feet above the deck.) These better winds clean off the mesa tops, just as they did to the solar panels on the rovers Opportunity and Spirit several times during their long missions.

Ariadnes Colles is another example of Martian chaotic terrain. Since this region is located deep in the cratered and rough southern highlands of Mars, the erosion that created these mesas was likely not water-flows. Was it wind? Ice?

Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

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Snow on Mars?

Snow on Mars?
Click to see full image.

At today’s presentations at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, scientists showed images and data [pdf] suggesting that many of the Martian gullies found on cliff faces are formed when the dust layer protecting underlying snow gets blown away and the exposed snow/ice then melts.

The image on the left was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2009, and has been cropped to post here. The white streaks are what they suggest is exposed ice/snow.

From their paper [pdf]
» Read more

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Test drone maps ice cave in Iceland

Engineers have tested a prototype lidar-equipped drone by flying it through a lava tube in Iceland and using it to automatically map the tube.

While a cave-exploring drone on Earth may use propellers, free-flying spacecraft exploring caves on the Moon, where there is practically no atmosphere, or in the thin air of high altitude lava tubes on Mars’ giant volcanoes, would have to use small thrusters. The mission of the terrestrial drone deployed at the Lofthellir Ice Cave focused on validating the idea of using a drone-equipped LiDAR to safely navigate and accurately map rock and ice inside a dark lava tube in the absence of GPS or any prior map.

Under a research contract with NASA, Astrobotic has developed a custom navigation software product, known as AstroNav, to give drones and small free-flying spacecraft the ability to autonomously explore and map subterranean environments. AstroNav employs both stereo vision and LiDAR, works without GPS or previously stored maps, and can operate in real-time while a novel environment is explored at a high rate of speed.

…”The Astrobotic drone and LiDAR performed exactly as we had hoped, and was able to help us map the Lofthellir Lava Tube in 3D within minutes” says Lee. “We now have a highly accurate model of the shape and dimensions of the cave, and of the configuration of its many rocky and icy features, such as rock falls, ice columns, and micro-glaciers.”

The concept is an excellent one, especially for exploring the caves and pits of Mars. This test however only checked out the lidar. A drone that could do this on either Mars or the Moon does not yet exist.

I have posted their video of the flight below the fold.

Note: Thanks to reader Eddie Willers for noting that I mistakenly located this research in Greenland, not Iceland. Post now corrected.
» Read more

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Cost for Mars 2020 rover up 15%

Because of cost overruns in building three instruments for the Mars 2020 rover, its total budget will rise by 15%, forcing NASA to trim budgets elsewhere in its planetary program.

There are small efficiencies to be gained internally in Mars 2020, Glaze says, which, like its predecessor Curiosity, is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Some work can be postponed, some timelines tightened; the end of the Opportunity rover, which expired late last year on Mars, will help. But it is expected the costs will largely be borne by trims to the operations of existing Mars missions and funds the agency sets aside for future missions, including the return of the rock samples that Mars 2020 will collect. “We tried to spread it so no one is feeling all of the pain,” Glaze says.

For a government program costing almost $2.5 billion, this overage is remarkably small. What is more significant is that the rover appears on schedule for launch in July 2020.

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Mars likely has many large and extensive cave systems

Mamers Valles

More caves on Mars! This week the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Johnson Space Center are jointly holding the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. I have been going over the program, and will be posting reviews of some of the more interesting results all this week.

We begin with caves, which should not be surprising to my regular readers. As a caver who also knows their value for future space colonists, I am always attracted to new discoveries of cave passages on other worlds. Today’s however is a doozy.

The image to the right is of Mamers Valles on Mars, what scientists have dubbed a fretted valley, a common feature in the transition zone between the low altitude northern plains and the southern highlands. It comes from a paper [pdf] with the typically unexciting scientific title, “Fretted channels and closed depressions in northern Arabia Terra, Mars: Origins and implications for subsurface hydrologic activity.”

What the scientists really means here is that their research strongly suggests that Mars has a very large and very extensive number of underground drainage systems, which have caused collapses on the surface that often resemble meandering river canyons, such as seen above. As they explain:
» Read more

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Curiosity has another computer crash

Since March 6 all activity from Curiosity seemed to stop, with no images and no science team updates. The reason? The rover had experienced another computer crash and reboot:

Curiosity experienced a computer reset on its Side-A computer on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 (Sol 2,339), that triggered the rover’s safe mode. This was the second computer reset in three weeks; both resets were related to the computer’s memory.

The mission team decided to switch from the Side-A computer back to the rover’s Side-B computer, which it operated on for most of the mission until November of 2018. Side-B recently experienced its own memory issue; the team has since further diagnosed the matter, reformatting the Side-B computer to isolate areas of “bad” memory. As of today, Curiosity is out of safe mode, and the team is configuring the rover for new science operations in the clay unit. Curiosity is expected to return to science operations as early as Wednesday.

This news is worrisome. The track record for spacecraft with increasing computer problems is that they never get better. Instead, the problem steadily worsens until operations become limited or even impossible. In the meantime engineers work wonders to extend the mission, but in the end this is a battle they appear to always lose.

We are beginning to see this pattern with Curiosity. Both of its computers have now experienced problems. It appears they have a better handle on the problems with the back-up computer (Side-B), so that is why they have switched back to it. Should its own memory issues continue to deteriorate however the rover will be in serious trouble, as the Side-A computer has proven to be very unreliable.

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New analysis supports catastrophic floods and intermittent ocean on Mars

The intermittent ocean at the outlet to Marineris Valles

A new analysis of Martian data once again suggests that an intermittent ocean once existed in the planet’s northern hemisphere, and that it was fed by catastrophic floods coming down from the volcanoes through Marineris Valles.

“Our simulation shows that the presence of the sea would have attenuated cataclysmic floods, leading to shallow spillovers that reached the Pathfinder landing site and produced the bedforms detected by the spacecraft,” said [lead scientist Alexis Rodriguez].

The team’s results indicate that marine spillover deposits contributed to the landscape that the spacecraft detected nearly 22 years ago, and reconcile the mission’s in situ geologic observations and decades of remote-sensing outflow channel investigations.

The sea bears an uncanny resemblance to the Aral Sea on Earth in that in both instances they lack distinct shoreline terraces. Its rapid regression over shallow submerged slopes resulted in rates of shoreline front retreat too fast for the terraces to form. The same process could partly account for the long-recognized lack of northern plains shorelines.

“Our numerical simulations indicate that the sea rapidly became ice-covered and disappeared within a few thousand years due to its rapid evaporation and sublimation. During this time, however, it remained liquid below its ice cover,” said PSI Senior Scientist Bryan Travis, a co-author in the paper.

The map above shows the outlet region to the west and north of Marineris Valles. (The paper from which it is adapted is available on line here.) It shows that inland sea, created by the catastrophic floods. Because it sits at a lower elevation than the plains to the north, the floods that entered it ponded there, where they dried up. Only when the floods were at their highest did the water spill out into the northern plains.

In reading the paper, it confirms many of the suppositions I myself have made in my frequent posts analyzing numerous Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) images, such as the lack of a clear shoreline because the ocean was short-lived. As it dried up its edge left patches of shoreline, at different elevations and in pondlike patterns, almost like the beach debris left behind by the tide.

The paper also shows that some of my guesses were not quite correct. For example, this new analysis says that the catastrophic floods only partly carved out the chaos terrain of Hydraotes Chaos, rather than do it all as I supposed here. Instead, the floods contributed, but much of the erosion occurred when the short-lived inland sea existed here, eroding away at the mesas from all sides.

Read it all. Though this remains a simulation based on what is presently very incomplete data and thus has many uncertainties, it will give you a much deeper understanding of what we presently theorize about the past geological history of Mars.

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A gathering of dust devils

Dust devil tracks
Click for full resolution image.

A bunch of cool images! The European Space Agency (ESA) today released more than a dozen Martian images taken by the camera on its Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft.

In addition to a snapshot of InSight and its landing area, “The images selected include detailed views of layered deposits in the polar regions, the dynamic nature of Mars dunes, and the surface effects of converging dust devils.” The release also included images showing details of two of Mars’ giant volcanoes, Olympus Mons and Ascraeus Mons.

The image I have highlighted to the right, reduced to post here, shows a spot on Mars where for some unknown reason dust devils love to congregate.

This mysterious pattern sits on the crest of a ridge, and is thought to be the result of dust devil activity – essentially the convergence of hundreds or maybe even thousands of smaller martian tornadoes.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of this image (on the right) with a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image taken in 2009 (on the left).
» Read more

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Opportunity’s parting shot

Opportunity's last panorama
Click for full image.

The Opportunity science team today released the last full 360 degree panorama taken by the rover last spring, prior to the global dust storm that ended its fifteen year mission on Mars.

Over 29 days last spring, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity documented this 360-degree panorama from multiple images taken at what would become its final resting spot in Perseverance Valley. Located on the inner slope of the western rim of Endurance Crater, Perseverance Valley is a system of shallow troughs descending eastward about the length of two football fields from the crest of Endeavor’s rim to its floor.

“This final panorama embodies what made our Opportunity rover such a remarkable mission of exploration and discovery,” said Opportunity project manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “To the right of center you can see the rim of Endeavor Crater rising in the distance. Just to the left of that, rover tracks begin their descent from over the horizon and weave their way down to geologic features that our scientists wanted to examine up close. And to the far right and left are the bottom of Perseverance Valley and the floor of Endeavour crater, pristine and unexplored, waiting for visits from future explorers.”

If you click on the image above you can go to the full image and zoom and scan across it.

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Martian massive landslides

Though scientists have found some evidence of slow erosion and change on the Martian surface, it is today generally inactive. While the weak wind of Mars’ thin atmosphere continues to work its will, and the likely presence of underground frozen water acts to shift the surface shape as the seasons come and go, none of this happens quickly.

Essentially, Mars is a quiet place.

Once however catastrophic events took place, gigantic floods flowing down to the east from the planet’s huge volcanoes to carve out Marineris Valles, the solar system’s largest known canyon. As that water rushed eastward it ripped the terrain apart quickly, creating deep side canyons, drainage valleys, and chopped up regions now dubbed as chaos terrain, multiple mesas separated by numerous fissure-like canyons.

Overview of Marineris Valles and landslide

The overview map on the right shows Valles Marineris and its drainage to the east and north into the vast northern plains of Mars. It also shows the location of one of the largest regions on Mars of chaos terrain, dubbed Hydraotes Chaos, located close to the mouth of this gigantic drainage system more than 2,500 miles long.

Massive Martian landslide
Click for full image.

Recently scientists have used the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to begin taking images of the massive landslides on the face of the mesa north of Hydraotes Chaos that was hit directly by these floods. The location of the most immediately interesting of these landslide images is also indicated on this overview image.

To the right is that image, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here. The white boxes indicate two full resolution sections that I highlight below at full resolution.

This image shows that full cliff. The total drop from the plateau at the top to the floor where Hydraotes Chaos is located to the south is approximately 8,200 feet, almost exactly comparable to the depth of the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

The image shows numerous evidence of avalanches and erosion, both at its base and at its rim. None of these avalanches likely occurred during those catastrophic floods, but long afterward.
» Read more

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InSight hits a rock

Engineers have called a pause in InSight’s drilling operation to insert a heat sensor as much as 16 feet into the Martian soil because it appears the drill has hit a large obstruction.

It penetrated to a depth between 18cm and 50cm into the Martian soil with 4,000 hammer blows over a period of four hours, explained Tilman Spohn, HP3’s principal investigator from the German space agency (DLR). “On its way into the depths, the mole seems to have hit a stone, tilted about 15 degrees and pushed it aside or passed it,” he added. “The mole then worked its way up against another stone at an advanced depth until the planned four-hour operating time of the first sequence expired.”

Prof Spohn said there would now be a break in operations of two weeks while the situation was assessed.

When these facts were first reported on March 1st, the press release did not make it clear at that time that the hammer drill was actually blocked. If it cannot drill down further, this will put a crimp in the heat sensor’s ability to measure Mars’s internal temperature. Right now it is only about a foot down, which on Earth would still have it influenced by surface temperatures.

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Brain Terrain on Mars

Brain terrain on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! This week the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team featured four new captioned images taken by the spacecraft and released as part of the March image dump. The first, dubbed “The Slow Charm of Brain Terrain,” deserves an immediate post on Behind the Black. To the right is only a small section cropped from the full image. From the caption:

You are staring at one of the unsolved mysteries on Mars. This surface texture of interconnected ridges and troughs, referred to as “brain terrain” is found throughout the mid-latitude regions of Mars. (This image is in Protonilus Mensae.)

This bizarrely textured terrain may be directly related to the water-ice that lies beneath the surface. One hypothesis is that when the buried water-ice sublimates (changes from a solid to a gas), it forms the troughs in the ice. The formation of these features might be an active process that is slowly occurring since HiRISE [MRO’s high resolution camera] has yet to detect significant changes in these terrains.

Below is a cropped section of the full image, rotated and reduced to post here.
» Read more

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New project to map shallow water sources on Mars

Scientists at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) in Arizona have begun a new project to map the near-surface ice deposits in the low elevation regions of the Martian northern hemisphere.

Two teams led by Putzig and Morgan were contracted by NASA to pursue separate mapping efforts of subsurface ice deposits in Arcadia Planitia. After their mid-term reports showed significant synergy, the teams were combined in a joint project called “Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) on Mars,” which extends the coverage of the mapping project from an experimental swath over Arcadia Planitia to all other low elevation regions across the Martian Northern Hemisphere. “Water ice will be a critical resource for human explorers on Mars, not only for life support but also for generating fuel to power equipment on the ground and rockets for the return journey to Earth,” said Putzig, a Senior Scientist at PSI. “Maps that identify the nature and availability of potential water resources will help determine where humanity will establish its first outposts on Mars.”

The SWIM team is producing new maps of the likelihood of subsurface ice deposits over these regions by combining radar, thermal, neutron, altimetry, and image data from several Mars-orbiting spacecraft. The team is also employing newly developed techniques that include using radar returns to infer the presence of ice within the top 5 meters of the crust and applying advanced radar processing to improve resolution at depth and to estimate the purity of ice in the subsurface.

Unlike most planetary research, this project is not aimed specifically at understanding the geology of Mars. Instead, it appears focused on the needs of future human exploration and settlement, finding easily accessible water sources in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The spots they identify will likely be the first Martian real estate of significant value.

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InSight’s heat sensor begins drilling down

The German-made heat sensor hammer that the U.S. lander InSight placed on the Martian surface has begun hammering its heat sensor into the ground.

On 28 February 2019, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) ‘Mole’ fully automatically hammered its way into the Martian subsurface for the first time. In a first step, it penetrated to a depth between 18 and 50 centimetres [7 to 19 inches] into the Martian soil with 4000 hammer blows over a period of four hours. “On its way into the depths, the mole seems to have hit a stone, tilted about 15 degrees and pushed it aside or passed it,” reports Tilman Spohn, Principal Investigator of the HP3 experiment. “The Mole then worked its way up against another stone at an advanced depth until the planned four-hour operating time of the first sequence expired. Tests on Earth showed that the rod-shaped penetrometer is able to push smaller stones to the side, which is very time-consuming.

They will let the hammer cool down for a few days, and then resume hammering. If all goes well, they hope to get as much as 16 feet down.

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Curiosity sends its first images in two weeks

The computer problems that caused Curiosity to cease science operations two weeks ago appears to have ended with the arrival of the first new images today.

The second link above goes to the images arriving today from Curiosity’s ChemCam camera, designed to take macro images of small features on the surface. The rover also sent down a small set of thumbnail images taken by one of its navigation cameras.

It appears they have figured out why the computer did an unexpected reboot in mid-February, and are now willing to let the rover resume science operations. There is no word on what they have learned, or whether it poses a future threat to the mission, but the fact that they are downloading new data is a good sign.

I must note again that this is news you will not see anywhere else. Most news sources today will wait for the NASA press release to report on Curiosity’s recovery, while I like to do some real journalism, reporting events as they happen. Consider this another reason to donate to Behind the Black during this month’s fund-raising drive.

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Planet-wide groundwater system on Mars

Old news: The European Space Agency today released a press release announcing the results of a science paper that appears to have found evidence of a planet-wide groundwater system on Mars.

I call this old news because I reported on this paper a month ago here on Behind the Black: Well water likely available across Mars.

We are now near the end of my February birthday-month fund-raising drive. If anything should justify a donation or subscription, this story should provide it. You can either wait for the mainstream press to rewrite press releases, or you can support my effort to get real news to you now, reported with both enthusiasm and honest skepticism.

I really do hate to brag, but I also don’t believe in false modesty.

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ExoMars prototype test driven from 6,000 miles away

The engineering team that will drive ExoMars 2020 on the surface of Mars in 2021 has completed a test drive using an engineering prototype, controlling it from more than 6,000 miles away.

Experts at the European Space Agency’s centre in Oxfordshire completed a series of tests across nearly 6,900 miles (11,000 km) in order to see how the Mars rover reacts to commands across large distances.

When on the surface of Mars, the rover will need to be controlled when it is up to 250 million miles from Earth.

The trials team used a new model called ‘Charlie’ to test hardware, software and to practice science operations for the future European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars rover, which will look for life on Mars in 2021. The Atacama desert was chosen because it is the closest we can get to a Martian-like environment.

I must admit that every press release from Europe about ExoMars 2020 gives me worried chills. Each release is often filled too much with empty boasts and little substantive detail. Worse, each seems to repeatedly remind me of some guy working in his garage on a weekend project.

The issue could merely be a case of poor press release writing, but something about each release makes these alarm bells go off in the back of my mind. With the launch only about sixteen months away, I hope I am wrong.

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Waterlike Martian lava flows

Flowing like water
Click for full image.

Each month the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team highlights with captions about four out of the 300-500 new images released that month.

Of the four captioned images in February, the first was entitled “Almost Like Water,” and focused on the waterlike nature of the lava flow. The image on the right is a cropped and annotated section of that featured photograph, with the yellow arrows indicating the flow directions.

The lava appears to have flowed smoothly around obstructions, almost like water, forming streamlined islands. In the southern part of this image, a branch of the flow diverts around a small crater, and eventually rejoins the main part of the flow. [Visible in the full photograph] Irregular-shaped ring structures appear on the northern end and are related to the volcanic activity that formed the flows.

You can see an example of one of those islands near the top of the above image.

This is hardly the only MRO image showing such flows. In fact, the February image release included a bunch, some of the more intriguing of which I highlight below. These lava flows are seen in many different places on Mars, in a wide variety of geological settings, facts that suggest that volcanic activity was once very widespread and ubiquitous on Mars.
» Read more

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Curiosity recovering from safe mode

Last week Curiosity suddenly went into safe mode, halting science operations for four days while engineers analyzed the issue.

Curiosity encountered a hurdle last Friday, when a hiccup during boot-up interrupted its planned activities and triggered a protective safe mode. The rover was brought out of this mode on Tuesday, Feb. 19, and is otherwise operating normally, having successfully booted up over 30 times without further issues.

Throughout the weekend, Curiosity was sending and receiving technical data, communicating with the team in order to help them pinpoint the cause of the issue. “We’re still not sure of its exact cause and are gathering the relevant data for analysis,” said Steven Lee, Curiosity’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the Curiosity mission. “The rover experienced a one-time computer reset but has operated normally ever since, which is a good sign,” he added. “We’re currently working to take a snapshot of its memory to better understand what might have happened.”

…”In the short term, we are limiting commands to the vehicle to minimize changes to its memory,” Lee said. “We don’t want to destroy any evidence of what might have caused the computer reset. As a result, we expect science operations will be suspended for a short period of time.”

As far as I could tell, images were being uploaded to their public image page through February 20, when I did my last rover update. Since then however no new images have appeared. I fear this might be related to the computer issues Curiosity experienced in September that shut down operations for about six weeks and was never quite resolved. Of Curiosity’s two main computers both have now experienced serious problems.

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Another batch of caves/pits found on Mars

Four new pits on Mars

Overview of February 2019 pits

In the past year the monthly image releases from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) archive have frequently included newly discovered pit entrances. Each time I have written posts highlighting these new pits, in June, July, November 2018 and January 2019. In fact, this is happening so frequently I could almost label it a monthly update!

The November release imaged three pits found on the southern flanks of Arsia Mons. The January 2019 release found several north of the volcano, two of which are very close to the two middle new pits highlighted above. The February release, which is the focus of this post, included four more pits, shown above, all located north and west of Arsia Mons, as shown in the overview map to the right.

Pits 2 and 3 above appear to belong to a cluster of pits all located in the general area between Arsia and Pavonis Mons. (You can see their uncaptioned releases here and here.) Most sit alone on a flat somewhat featureless plain. Sometimes there are flow features nearby, but each pit usually seems to sit unique and unrelated to these other faint features.

Pit 1 is very intriguing in that it sits amid a very long chain of pits and canyons, all aligned, as shown in the image below and to the right.
» Read more

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Rover update: February 20, 2019

Summary: Curiosity in the clay unit valley. Opportunity’s long journey is over. Yutu-2 creeps to the northwest on the Moon’s far side.

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

For the updates in the past year go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity

Curiosity's view to the east on Sol 2316
Click image for full resolution version

Overview of Curiosity's future travels
Click image for original image

Since my January 22, 2019 update, Curiosity finally drove down off of Vera Rubin Ridge into a valley between the ridge and the lower slopes of Mt Sharp. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overview on the right has been annotated by me to show the rover’s travels (shown by the yellow dotted line), with its proposed route indicated by the red dotted line. The yellow lines indicate approximately the terrain seen in the panorama above. The panorama was created from images taken on Sol 2016.

The valley that Curiosity is presently traversing is dubbed “the clay unit” or “the clay-bearing unit” by the geologists, based on its make-up determined from orbital data. So far they have found this terrain to be “some of the best driving terrain we’ve encountered in Gale Crater, with just some occasional sandy patches in the lee of small ridges.” Initially they had problems finding any rocks or pebbles large enough for the instruments to use for gathering geological data. For the past week or so, however, they have stopped at “bright exposure of rock” where some bedrock was visible, giving them much better material to work with.
» Read more

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The InSight Martian weather station

InSight’s weather station is now providing daily weather updates to the public.

Starting today, the public can get a daily weather report from NASA’s InSight lander.

This public tool includes stats on temperature, wind and air pressure recorded by InSight. Sunday’s weather was typical for the lander’s location during late northern winter: a high of 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius) and low of -138 degrees Fahrenheit (-95 degrees Celsius), with a top wind speed of 37.8 mph (16.9 m/s) in a southwest direction.

This daily weather data can be found here. For the weather from Curiosity, go here. Weekly global weather reports from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are found here.

Comparing the weather at the two landers, you will notice that it is generally warmer at InSight. This is not surprising, as Curiosity is climbing a mountain, and is now at a much higher elevation.

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A river valley floor on Mars

Overview of Reull Valles region

Today’s cool image focuses in on a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) uncaptioned photograph taken of the valley floor of Reull Vallis, a meandering canyon that drains into Hellas Basin, the bottom of Mars.

The image on the right is not that photograph. Instead, it is an overview of the area surrounding it. The image location is indicated by the black cross, dead center within the floor of Reull Vallis itself. This valley, as well as Dao and Niger to the northwest but lower in elevation are all thought to have been formed from flowing water, all of which apparently drained from the east and to the west into Hellas Basin.

This last detail is very important and bears repeating before looking at today’s subject image. The river that formed Reull Vallis flowed from the east to the west. Now for that picture.
» Read more

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Monitoring a fresh-looking Martian landslide

2012 image of Martian landslide
Click for full image

2018 image of Martian landslide
Click for full image

Time for two cool images! To the right are two images taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the top one taken in April 2012, and the bottom taken in December 2018. Both have been cropped and reduced slightly in resolution to post here.

The second image is trying to answer, in only a small way, one of the most fundamental questions of the Martian environment: How fast does it change? The images from orbit have periodically seen evidence of new impacts. MRO images have tracked dust devil tracks. And we know that somehow water, ice, wind and volcanic activity have eroded and reshaped the surface over eons.

What we don’t know truly and with detail is the pace of these changes, with any accuracy. The pace of some things over time seems obvious. For example, Mars’s inactive but gigantic volcanoes suggest that once volcanism was very active, but over time has ceased so that today it is unclear if any is occurring. Similarly, the geological evidence suggests that in the far past water flowed on the surface, producing catastrophic floods. Now that liquid water is all but gone, and this erosion process as ceased.
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NASA officially declares Opportunity dead

NASA today officially announced that the rover Opportunity — built to last 90 days — is dead, only three weeks after celebrating its fifteenth anniversary operating on the Martian surface.

This is what project scientist Steve Squyres had to say about the rover’s finish:

“When I saw that the storm had gone global, I thought this could be it,” said Squyres, explaining that Opportunity was a solar-powered vehicle and needed the sun for energy. “To have Opportunity – designed for 90 days – taken out after fourteen and a half years by one of the most ferocious dust storms to hit the planet in decades, you have got to feel pretty good about it.”

He said: “It was an honorable end, and it came a whole lot later than any of us expected.”

The article gives some nice background into the personal stories of many of the scientists who worked on Opportunity for all those years. For some overall scientific context, see this article. Or you can read the many rover updates I have written in the past two and a half years, which will give you a detailed sense of Opportunity’s travels along the rim of Endeavour Crater.

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InSight deploys heat sensor onto Mars surface

InSight has successfully deployed its temperature instrument onto the Martian surface, where it will next begin drilling its heat sensor about sixteen feet down into the ground.

Equipped with a self-hammering spike, mole, the instrument will burrow up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface, deeper than any previous mission to the Red Planet. For comparison, NASA’s Viking 1 lander scooped 8.6 inches (22 centimeters) down. The agency’s Phoenix lander, a cousin of InSight, scooped 7 inches (18 centimeters) down.

“We’re looking forward to breaking some records on Mars,” said HP3 Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which provided the heat probe for the InSight mission. “Within a few days, we’ll finally break ground using a part of our instrument we call the mole.”

Whether the spike will be able to get to 16 feet will depend on many factors, such as whether a rock below the surface happens to be in the way.

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NASA about to pull plug on Opportunity

Rumors today say that during a press conference tomorrow NASA will announce that it is closing the books on the incredibly successful rover Opportunity.

From the first link:

NASA said Tuesday it will issue a final series of recovery commands, on top of more than 1,000 already sent. If there’s no response by Wednesday — which NASA suspects will be the case — Opportunity will be declared dead, 15 years after arriving at the red planet.

Opportunity was supposed to last 90 days. Instead, it lasted just under fifteen years, drove 28 miles, and saw far more of the Martian surface than anyone ever expected.

It now sits inside the rim of fourteen-mile Endeavour Crater, waiting for those first explorers to come and get it. I wonder when that will be.

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Strange crescent-shaped pit near Martian south pole

crescent-shaped pit near Martian south pole

Cool image time! The south polar cap of Mars is a strange place. It is largely ice, with a seasonal cap of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. Because the dry ice sublimates away during the summer months, the cap undergoes regular changes that reshape it, producing alien features that are not seen on Earth.

The image on the right is another example of these alien features. I found it in the February image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I have merely cropped the full image to focus at full resolution on its primary feature, a region of stippled-like surface surrounding an area of black striping that in turn surrounds a crescent-shaped pit outlined by whiter material.

Why is there a pit here? Why is it crescent-shaped? Why is it surrounded by that whiter material? I could guess and say that the pit is a vent from which water vapor from the lower cap of water sprays out onto the upper cap of frozen carbon dioxide, staining it with white ice, but I am most likely wrong.

Moreover, what causes the black striping, as well as the stippled material surrounding it? The black stripes are probably related to a similar process that forms the spider formations found in the polar regions, except that these are not spiders. Why the parallel straight lines?

A lot of questions with no answers. While many features on Mars are strange, the features near the poles are probably stranger still, as they form in a place with chemistry, temperatures, gravity, and materials in a combination and scale that we on Earth have no experience with.

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MAVAN shifts priorities to communications

The Mars orbiter MAVAN, designed primarily to study Mars’s atmosphere, is now lowering its orbit as it shifts its primary function from science to communications between the Earth and the rovers on the surface.

A strong telecommunications antenna signal is not the only benefit of a tighter orbit. Coming in nearly 1,000 miles (about 1,500 kilometers) closer also will allow the MAVEN orbiter to circle Mars more frequently – 6.8 orbits per Earth day versus 5.3 previously – and thus communicate with the Mars rovers more frequently. While not conducting relay communications, MAVEN will continue to study the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere of Mars. “We’re planning a vigorous science mission far into the future,” Jakosky said.

In a sense, NASA here is finding a way to replace the Mars communications satellite that it wanted but was not able to get funded.

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