Tag Archives: Mars

Skiing dry ice boulders on Mars

Dune slope, with grooves, in Russell Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image and video time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows something that when I spotted it in reviewing the newest image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found it very baffling. The photo was taken on March 3, 2020, and shows an incredible number of linear groves on the slope of a large dune inside Russell Crater, located in the Martian southern highlands at about 54 degrees south latitude.

If these were created by boulders we should see them at the bottom of each groove. Instead, the grooves generally seem to peter out as if the boulder rolling down the slope had vanished. Making this even more unlikely is that the top of the slope simply does not have sufficient boulders to make all these groves.

The image was requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who when I emailed her in bafflement she responded like so:
» Read more


ESA resumes science operations on orbiting spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reactivated four science spacecraft, two in Mars orbit and two headed for the Sun, after putting them in safe mode because the agency had shut down many operations due to one person becoming infected with COVID-19.

Fortunately, the initial case remained the only one as the people in quarantine did not develop any symptoms. “When we shut down science, we established very clear criteria to decide when it would restart, and as of this weekend we have begun to gradually bring the missions back into their normal state,” adds Paolo.

…Because of preventative measures taken early to limit the chance of infection spreading, the situation at ESOC is now stable. The few individuals that periodically go on site are predominantly working in isolation, and generally do not even meet each other. If they have to be in the same room, they follow very strict social distancing rules and protections.

It remains unclear whether this reactivation means there will be sufficient staffing for the fly-by of Earth by ESA’s BepiColumbo Mercury mission on April 10th. The information at the link is very encouraging, but it is also an official statement from ESA. Getting the real truth from such statements is not guaranteed.


Enigmas on Mars

Enigmas on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a perfect example of the difficulty of explaining the alien landscapes on Mars, based on orbital imagery. It was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 23, 2020.

In this one image alone we have the following strange features, all within an area about 8 by 11 miles in size:

  • Several small very obvious pedestal craters (near the top right), some located inside depressions. Pedestal craters are created because the surrounding terrain eroded away around them. Since these are pedestals, however, why are they also inside depressions?
  • Two large circular mesas that appear to vaguely have terraced erosion. These might also be pedestal craters, but maybe not. They also sit much higher than the pedestal craters above. Either way, the mesas remained while the terrain around them eroded away.
  • Several normal craters with a series of circular features within each. At this latitude, 34 degrees south, it is possible these craters are filled with buried ice, what scientists call concentric crater filled glaciers.
  • A light-colored string of ridges aligned to almost look like a kite with tail. The light color says this ridge is not made up of the same material as the circular mesas and pedestal craters, but it too was not eroded away.
  • A number of small bean-shaped depressions (just south of the biggest circular mesa and near the top left). Don’t ask me what caused them. I have no idea.

Overview map

The spot is located in the Martian southern cratered highlands, as shown by the blue cross in the overview map to the right. Complicating its geological history is that it sits inside a very gigantic very old and degraded crater, with numerous newer smaller impacts overlaid on top. Any explanation needs to include these impacts, and the ejecta from them.

If you click on the image and study the full resolution photograph, you can find even more enigmatic features. For most there is a reasonable geological theory. Putting them all in one place and somehow getting all those different explanations to fit together however is far more difficult.


It ain’t simple keeping a camera functioning properly in orbit around Mars

ADC settings test on MRO
Click for full image.

In doing my normal exploration through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the last to occur near the end of February, I came across a slew of 49 images, each labeled as an “ADC Settings Test,” each covering a completely different location with no obvious single object of study, almost as if they were taken in a wildly random manner.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a typical example. It shows the mega dunes located near the end of the canyon Chasma Boreale that cuts a giant slash into the Martian north polar ice cap, almost cutting off one third of the icecap.

The black areas are shadows, long because being at the high latitude of 84 degrees the Sun never gets very high in the sky, even though this image was taken just before mid-summer, when the Sun was at its highest.

I was puzzled why these images were being taken, and contacted Ari Espinoza, the media rep for the high resolution camera, to ask if he could put me in touch with a scientist who could provide an explanation. He in turn suggested I contact Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who coincidentally I had already spoken with several times before in connection with the annual summer avalanche season at the Martian north pole.

Dr. Byrne first suggested I read this abstract [pdf], written for the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science conference by the camera’s science team. In it they outline two issues with the camera, one blurred images and the second an increasing number of bad pixels occurring in images over time.

The first problem has since been solved. To preserve battery life — another long term problem that they have to deal with — they had adjusted the orbiter’s orbit slightly to get more sunlight and stopped warming the camera during the night periods. “That had the unfortunate effect of changing the camera’s focus,” explained Byrne. “Since we understand that now, we do warm-ups before taking the images and that fixed the blurring problem.”

The other problem however remains, and these ADC test images are an effort to fix it.
» Read more


In the midst of Mars’ volcano country

lava channel
Click for full image.

Cool image time! While the rest of the world is entirely focused on panic and disease, I am going to go on with my life. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 26, 2019. I suspected this channel was lava, and when I asked Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona, he confirmed my suspicion.

Yes, that surface appears to be lava–it is part of the Elysium plains, which have many geologically-young lava flows. It’s likely that the channel is a lava channel, and the surrounding plains may be from an earlier stage of the same eruption.

The entire surface of the channel and the surrounding plains appear very fresh, mostly because of their smoothness and lack of many craters. You can also see what looks like a recent impact (the small dark splotch near the left edge about two-thirds from the top).

The fresh and smooth look of Elysium Planitia generally has led scientists to conclude that much of this region is formed from lava flows, some relatively recently. Thus, this particular lava channel is smack dab in the middle of Mars’ volcano country, quite vast and extensive. The context map below illustrates this.
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Quick fading of a Martian impact crater

Fresh impact crater on Mars, in 2010
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The same impact, four Martian years later.
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Though it seems that no one is really interested in anything but the Wuhan virus and the attempt by our corrupt politicians to use it to gain power, I think that life requires more from us than politics and panic. Thus, I am going to keep posting pure science and cool images.

The two photos to the right were taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) almost ten years apart. They were both posted as captioned images, the first in 2010, the second on March 19, 2020 to illustrate the remarkable fading of a fresh impact’s dark ejecta, in only about four Martian years.

The March 19, 2020 captioned image included an animation to illustrate the change. I prefer putting the two images side-by-side. Either way, the change is striking. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen noted in his caption, “the dark material has faded into the background, while the new 6.3-meter diameter crater persists.”

Wind and dust storms probably acted to wipe out the dark material, but the process did not take that long, and last year’s global dust storm was not a major factor, since much of the dark material was already gone in this July 2012 image.

The crater itself is located in Arcadia Planitia, just west of the Erebus Mountains, the very region in the northern lowlands that SpaceX has made its primary candidate landing site for its Starship rocket, partly because the terrain is flat which makes landing easy, and partly because there is amply evidence that these lowlands have lots of ice just below the surface. And the full image for the 2019 photo reinforces this conclusion. Much of the rougher ground south of the impact appears to be the partially sublimated surface of an ice block.

So, while this region will provide an easy smooth landing site and plenty of water for the first human arrivals, those humans will also have to contend with a planet without a thick atmosphere to protect them from most meteorites. Rare as these events are, they happen more often because of Mars’ location closer to the asteroid belt, and they hit the surface far more frequently.


Mars: Volcanic, Glacial, or Fluvial?

Sinuous ridge on Mars
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Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on September 30, 2019. It shows what the image title dubs a “sinuous ridge” in a region called Tempe Terra.

What caused it? At first glance the meandering nature of the ridge suggests it was originally a riverbed, formed by flowing water. Eventually the water dried up, and because that riverbed was made of harder material than the surrounding terrain, long term erosion caused that surrounding terrain to wear away, leaving a raised ridge where the river used to be. Scientists have found many such inverted channels on Mars.

Not so fast!
» Read more


Martian plateaus and buttes

Martian plateaus and buttes
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Cool image time! Rather than sit in cowering fear, as it appears too many worldwide are doing, I am going to stay calm and carry on. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced in resolution to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 20, 2020. It shows a small section of a region dubbed Iani Chaos, a terrain dubbed such by scientists because of its cracked and chaotic nature, flat-topped mesas cut by canyons and fissures.

Chaos terrain is generally found in the transition zones on Mars between its southern highlands and northern lowlands. It was formed over time by erosion processes, either liquid water or ice, that slowly washed out the material along fault-lines, leaving mesas behind. This particular spot in Iani Chaos appears to be late in this process, with the gaps between the buttes wide and many of the mesas worn down into pointy knobs.

The location of Iani Chaos, as shown in the map below, tells us much about its history.
» Read more


Layers upon layers upon layers on Mars

Layered mesa on Mars
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Cool image time! Or rather, a bunch of cool images! On February 17, 2020 the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) released a very cool captioned photograph of a terraced mesa in a crater just north of Hellas Basin, shown in the image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here.

The color strip down the center of this image illustrates how the colors of the different layers indicate the different make-up of each. These distinctions are not obvious in black & white. That array of colors also leads to some very beautiful scenery, as noted by planetary scientist Alfred McEwen in his caption:

Sedimentary layers record a history of Mars’ erosion and deposition by water and wind, and they make great landscapes for future interplanetary parks.

That this terraced mesa is located on the northern edge of Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars, is possibly not surprising. Other similarly terraced mesas like this have been found on the basin’s eastern edge, highlighted in my September 2019 post. The geology here appears to encourage this kind of erosion, where the different sedimentary bedrock layers erode away at different rates, leaving behind terraced mesas.

Terraced layers on Mars however come in other varieties, some of which build up over time instead of getting eroded away.
» Read more


Inactive hot springs on Mars?

Inactive hot springs on Mars?
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Overview of Vernal Crater

Cool image time! In prepping my report of the interesting abstracts from Friday of the cancelled 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference (to be posted later today), I found myself reading an abstract [pdf] from the astrobiology session about the possibility of now inactive hot springs on Mars! This was such a cool image and possibility I decided to post it separately, first.

The top image to the right, cropped and expanded to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009. It shows some dark elliptical splotches inside the floor of a crater dubbed Vernal. The second image to the right, taken from the abstract, shows the context, with the top image a wide shot showing the southern half of Vernal Crater where these features are located, and the bottom image zooming into the area of interest. The white box focuses on the elliptical features seen in the first image above. From the abstract:

The elliptical features consist of concentric halos of high but varying albedo, where the highest albedo in each occurs in a small central zone that mimics the shape of the larger anomaly. Each feature is also traversed by circumferential fractures. Several similar tonal features extend for 5-6 km, on stratigraphic trend with the elliptical features. Hypotheses considered for the origin of the elliptical features included springs, mud/lava volcanoes, pingos, and effects of aeolian erosion, ice sublimation, or dust, but the springs alternative was most compatible with all the data.

The abstract theorizes that the small ligher central zone is where hot water might have erupted as “focused fluid injection” (like a geyser), spraying the surround area to form the dark ellipses.

I must emphasize that this hypothesis seems to me very tenuous. We do not really have enough data to really conclude these features come from a formerly active hot spring or geyser, though that certainly could be an explanation. In any case, the geology is quite intriguing, and mysterious enough to justify further research and even a future low cost mission, such as small helicopter drone, when many such missions can be launched frequently and cheaply.


NASA considering shutting down Curiosity in 2021

Even as the space agency is about to launch a new rover to Mars, it is considering cutting operations for the rover Curiosity as well as considering shutting down its operation as soon as 2021.

Other ongoing missions are threatened by the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. “The FY21 budget that the president just recently submitted overall is extremely favorable for the Mars program, but available funding for extended mission longevity is limited,” [said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program].

That request would effectively end operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, and reduce the budget for Curiosity from $51.1 million in 2019 to $40 million in 2021, with no funding projected for that rover mission beyond 2021.

The penny-wise-pound-foolish nature of such a decision is breath-taking. Rather than continue, for relatively little cost, running a rover already in place on Mars, the agency will shut it down. And why? So they can initiate other Mars missions costing millions several times more money.

Some of the proposed cuts, such as ending the U.S. funding for Europe’s Mars Express orbiter, make sense. That orbiter has accomplished relatively little, and Europe should be paying for it anyway.

These decisions were announced during a live-stream NASA townhall that was originally to have occurred live at the cancelled Lunar & Planetary Science conference. I suspect its real goal is to garner support for more funding so that the agency will not only get funds for the new missions, it will be able to fund the functioning old ones as well.

Sadly, there would be plenty of money for NASA’s well-run planetary program if our Congress and NASA would stop wasting money on failed projects like Artemis.


Thursday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Jezero Crater, under theorized ocean

It is now time for today’s virtual report from the non-existent 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference, cancelled because of the terrified fear of COVID-19.

Unlike the previous three days, the bulk of the abstracts for presentations planned for today are more what I like to call “in-the-weeds” reports. The science is all good, but it is more obscure, the kind of work the scientists will be interested in but will generally hold little interest to the general public. For example, while very important for designing future missions, most of the public (along with myself) is not very interested in modeling studies that improve the interpretation of instrument data.

This does not mean there were no abstracts of interest. On the contrary. For today the most interesting sessions in the conference program centered on Mars as well as research attempting to better track, identify, and study Near Earth asteroids (NEAs).

The map above for example shows the location of Jezero Crater, where the rover Perseverance will land in 2021, under what one abstract [pdf] proposed might have been an intermittent ocean. The dark blue indicates where the topography suggests that ocean might have existed, while also indicating its shoreline. If it existed in the past, Perseverance might thus find evidence of features that were “marine in origin.” This ocean would also help explain the gigantic river-like delta that appears to pour into Jezero Crater from its western highland rim.

There were a lot of other abstracts looking closely at Jezero Crater, all in preparation for the upcoming launch of Perseverance in July, some mapping the site’s geology, others studying comparable sites here on Earth.

Other Mars-related abstracts of interest:
» Read more


Secondary impacts in water ice on Mars

Secondary impact in water ice on Mars
Click for full resolution image.

Cool image time! Today the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) released a beautiful captioned image of a secondary impact of an object into the icy plains of Utopia Planitia, the northern lowlands northeast of where the rover Perseverance will land in 2021. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows one of several secondary craters in the full image. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen explains in the caption,

One interpretation [for the crater’s unusual appearance] is that the impact crater exposed nearly pure water ice, which then sublimated away where exposed by the slopes of the crater, expanding the crater’s diameter and producing a scalloped appearance. The small polygons are another indicator of shallow ice.

Note the dunes at the bottom of the crater. This has become a trap of wind-blown sand and dust. Note also how this secondary impact gives us a rough idea of the thickness of this ice, based on the area sublimated away.

There is a lot of relatively accessible ice in those northern lowlands, which is why SpaceX likes them for its possible landing site for Starship. That candidate site is in Arcadia Planitia, on the other side of Mars, but it is still in these same northern lowlands, where scientists have found lots of evidence of buried ice.


Tuesday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Boulder on Bennu with changes in layered texture changes

Today was supposed to have been the second day of the week-long 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Conference, sadly cancelled due to fear of the Wuhan virus. As I had planned to attend, I am now spending each day this week reviewing the abstracts of the planned presentations, and giving my readers a review of what scientists had hoped to present. Because I am not in the room with these scientists, however, I cannot quickly get answers to any questions I might have, so for these daily reports my reporting must be more superficial than I would like.

On this day the most significant reports came from scientists working on the probes to the asteroids Bennu and Ryugu as well as the probes to the Moon. The image to right for example is from one abstract [pdf] that studied the texture differences found fourteen boulders on Bennu. The arrows point to the contacts between the different textures, suggesting the existence of layers. Such layers could not have been created on Bennu. Instead, these rocks must have formed on a parent body large enough and existing long enough for such geological processes to take place. At some point that parent body was hit, flinging debris into space that eventually reassembled into the rubble pile of boulders that is Bennu.

Other abstracts from scientists from both the Hayabusa-2 mission to Ryugu and the OSIRIS-REx mission to Bennu covered a whole range of topics:
» Read more


Monday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

Today I had planned on attending the first day of the 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science Conference in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. Sadly, for the generally foolish and panicky reasons that is gripping America these days, the people in charge, all scientists, decided to cancel out of fear of a virus that so far appears generally only slightly more dangerous than the flu, though affecting far far far fewer people.

Anyway, below are some of the interesting tidbits that I have gleaned from the abstracts posted for each of Monday’s planned presentations. Unfortunately, because I am not in the room with these scientists, I cannot get my questions answered quickly, or at all. My readers must therefore be satisfied with a somewhat superficial description.
» Read more


China on track for Mars launch in July?

Two stories today, one from Nature and the second from space.com, pushed the idea that China’s Mars orbiter/lander/rover mission is still on schedule to meet the July launch window.

A close read of both stories however revealed very little information to support that idea.

The Nature article provided some details about how the project is working around travel restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 virus epidemic. For example, it told a story about how employees drove six scientific instruments by car to the assembly point rather than fly or take a train, thereby avoiding crowds.

What struck me however was that this supposedly occurred “several days ago,” and involved six science payloads that had not yet been installed on the spacecraft. To be installing such instrumentation at this date, only four months from launch, does not inspire confidence. It leaves them almost no time for thermal and vibration testing of the spacecraft.

The article also provided little information about the status of the entire project.

The space.com article was similar. Lots of information about how China’s space program is dealing with the epidemic, but little concrete information about the mission itself, noting “the lack of official comment on the mission.” Even more puzzling was the statement in this article that the rover “underwent its space environment testing in late January.”

I wonder how that is possible if those six instruments above had not yet been installed. Maybe the instruments were for the lander or orbiter, but if so that means the entire package is not yet assembled and has not been thoroughly tested as a unit. Very worrisome.

Posting today has been light because I was up most of the night dealing with a family health issue, meaning that I ended up sleeping for several hours during the day. All is well, nothing serious (it is NOT coronavirus), but it has left my brain and schedule very confused. Will likely take a good night’s sleep to get back to normal.


Black dunes and weird hills on Mars

Black dunes and weird hills on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Or I should say a bunch of cool images! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated by me, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 3, 2020. An uncaptioned image, it was entitled “Arabia Terra with Stair-Stepped Hills and Dark Dunes.” Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone on Mars between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands. It is also where Opportunity landed, and where Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover will land, in 2022.

This image has so many weird and strange features, I decided to show them all, Below are the three areas indicated by the white boxes, at full resolution. One shows the black dunes, almost certainly made up of sand ground from volcanic ash spewed from a long ago volcanic eruption on Mars.
» Read more


ExoMars2020 rover delayed until 2022

The European Space Agency (ESA) today announced that they are delaying the launch of their ExoMars2020 rover mission until the next launch window in 2022

The press release says this will give them the time “necessary to make all components of the spacecraft fit for the Mars adventure.” Considering that the spacecraft’s parachutes have yet to have a successful high altitude test, that the entire spacecraft is not yet assembled, and that when they did the first thermal test of the rover the glue for the solar panel hinges failed, this seems that they need to do a lot of testing.

Overall the decision is smart. Better to give them the time to get this right then launch on time and have a failure.

At the same time, there appears to be something fundamentally wrong within the management of this project at ESA. This project was first proposed in 2001, and has gone through repeated restructurings and redesigns. Moreover, they began planning the rover for this 2020 launch in 2011, and after ten years were not ready for launch.


Martian dust devil tracks come and go

The changing surface of dunes on Mars
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Earlier image of the same dunes
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Cool image time! To understand what created the vastly strange and alien Martian surface, it will be necessary for scientists to monitor that surface closely for decades, if not centuries. To the right is one small example. Taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, it shows a dune field inside a crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars. Craters have been found to be great traps for dust and sand on Mars. Once the material is blown inside, the winds are not strong enough to lift the material out above the surrounding rims. Thus you often get giant dunes inside craters, as we see here.

What makes this location of interest to planetary scientists is the changing surface of these dunes. They have been monitoring the location since 2009. In 2013, the MRO science team released a captioned photograph, the second image to the right, also rotated, cropped, and reduced by me to match the same area in the top image. In that caption planetary scientist Corwin Atwood-Stone of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona wrote,

This area was previously imaged in August 2009, about two Mars years ago, and in that image dust devil tracks were also visible. However the tracks visible now are completely different from the earlier ones. This tells us that there has been at least one dust storm since then to erase the old tracks, and lots of dust devil activity to create the new ones.

Since then the MRO science team has taken repeated images of this location to monitor how the dust devil tracks change, as well as monitor possible changes to the dunes themselves, including avalanches. The newest image above shows the result of the global dust storm last year. It wiped out the dust devil tracks entirely.

The newer image was entitled, “Monitor Dune Avalanche Slopes,” but I couldn’t find any examples. Based on published research, I am sure there is something there, even if I couldn’t find them. Maybe my readers have a better eye than I.


China completes remote communications test of Mars rover

The new colonial movement: Though the report today in China’s state-run press is remarkably vague and lacking in details, it appears that they have successfully completed a remote communications test between their planned Mars rover and their ground control center.

The report also said that this will be the “only” such test before the summer launch of their orbiter/lander/rover to Mars.

China has been exceedingly closed-mouthed about this Mars project. Except for one landing test (which I found far from impressive), they have provided very little information about their progress.
While this does not mean they are having problems, it also does not engender confidence, especially because the launch window is only about four months away.


Martian badlands

The Tyrrhena Terra badlands
Click for full image.

The photo to the right is a small section cropped from an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 2, 2020. It shows the rough, cratered southern highlands dubbed Tyrrhena Terra that lie between the low Isidis Basin to the north and Mars’ deepest basin, Hellas, to the south.

The image was taken not because any specific scientific request, but because MRO was doing spectroscopy over this area and it made sense to also take a photograph. Comparing the photograph with the spectroscopic data allows scientists to better understand that spectroscopy.

The white cross in the map below shows the location of this image. The map itself covers latitudes from 40 degrees north to 55 degrees south.
» Read more


Curiosity reaches highest point yet on Mars

Curiosity looking north across Gale Crater
Click for full resolution version.

Time for some more cool images! The panorama above, cropped and reduced to post here, was assembled from images taken by Curiosity on March 6, 2020 by its left navigation camera, just after it topped the slope and settled on the very rocky plateau of what the scientists have dubbed the Greenheugh Piedmont, the highest point on Mars that Curiosity has so far traveled. It looks north, across Gale Crater to its far rim, about thirty miles away. That rim rises about a mile higher than where Curiosity sits today.

To quote Michelle Minitti, the planetary geologist who wrote the update describing this achievement:

Kudos to our rover drivers for making it up the steep, sandy slope below the “Greenheugh pediment” (visible in the [right] side of the above image) and delivering us to a stretch of geology we had our eyes on even before we landed in Gale crater!

The panorama below is also assembled from photos taken by the left navigation camera, but this time it looks south, across the piedmont toward Mt. Sharp. Its view of the the piedmont’s very very rough terrain I think proves that once the scientists have gathered their data from this point, the rover will descend back down and resume its original route, circling the piedmont to skirt its southern edge where orbital data suggests the going will be smoother.
» Read more


Rolling boulders on Mars

Boulder tracks on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the left, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 21, 2020, and shows several boulders at the bottom of a slope, along with the tracks those boulders made as they rolled downhill sometime in the far past.

Uphill is to the south. We know the dark spots at the end of these tracks are large boulders partly because of the wind streaks emanating away from them to the north. As the wind goes around each rock it produces eddies that produce the tracks. Based on the scale and the image resolution (about 10 inches per pixel), these boulders range in size from about one to five feet in diameter.

This image has two points of interest. First, the tracks left by the boulders seem to have a repeating pattern. My guess is that the pattern most likely formed because the boulders are not spherical in shape, and as they rolled each roll repeated a certain pattern reflecting that shape. This theory is reinforced by a close look at each boulder. Though the resolution is insufficient to resolve the boulders themselves, the pixel distribution for each strongly suggests an asymmetric shape.

Second, this image, when compared with an earlier MRO image of the same spot, taken fourteen years ago in December 2006, shows no obvious change. These tracks, and their boulders, have therefore probably sat here, as we see them, for a long time. Since there appear to be two sets of tracks, with one overlying the other, this suggests that two separate events (an earthquake or nearby impact) each time caused a bunch of boulders to break free and roll downward together, with the second set of boulder tracks crossing over the earlier set.

Establishing when those two events occurred, however, will require some on-site data, something that will likely not occur until humans roam the surface of Mars in large numbers.


NASA dubs next Mars rover “Perseverance”

NASA today announced that they have named their next Mars rover, due to launch in July, “Perseverance.”

The name was announced Thursday by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, during a celebration at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. Zurbuchen was at the school to congratulate seventh grader Alexander Mather, who submitted the winning entry to the agency’s “Name the Rover” essay contest, which received 28,000 entries fromK-12 students from every U.S. state and territory.

“Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration,” said Zurbuchen. “Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries. It’s already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today – processing for launch. Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they’re going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can’t wait to see that nameplate on Mars.”

I truly hope that the rover is well-named, and lives a very long life on Mars, long enough that it is still in use the day an human arrives to touch it again.


Upgrades to Deep Space Network to block commands to Voyager 2

A scheduled eleven month upgrade to one of the three Deep Space Network antennas used to communicate with planetary missions will prevent scientists from sending commands to Voyager 2 during that time period.

Data will still be downloaded, but if anything should go wrong, such as happened in January, it will be impossible to do anything about it. In January engineers were able to troubleshoot the problem and upload corrections. During these upgrades a fix will have to wait. To reduce the chance of serious issue, engineers will put Voyager 2 into a more dormant state during this time period.

The repairs are essential however, even if it means we lose Voyager 2. This network must work for all the other Moon and Mars missions planned for the next few decades, and an upgrade has been desperately needed for years.


Mars rover Update: March 4, 2020

Panorama looking south and uphill
Click for full resolution.


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

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

Map of Curiosity's travels

Since my last rover update on January 13, 2020, Curiosity has finally moved on from the base of Western butte, where it spent more than a month drilling a hole and gathering a great deal of geological data. Rather than head downhill and around the plateau and back to its planned route (as indicated by the red line in the map to the right), the Curiosity science team decided to push upward and onto the Greenheugh Piedmont (as indicated by the yellow line).

They had always planned to reach the top of this plateau, but not for several years. First they were going to head east to study a recurring slope lineae (see my October 2019 update), an example of a dark streak that darkens and fades seasonally and could provide evidence of water seepage from below ground.

Instead, they decided the close proximity of the top of the piedmont and its geology was too tempting. The piedmont is apparently made up of a layer that is very structurally weak, and breaks up easily, as you can see by the panorama above. It also appears to sit on softer, more easily eroded material, which thus accentuates this break up. If you look at the left part of the panorama you can see what I mean. The piedmont layer there is the thin unbroken layer sitting on what looks like sand. As that sand erodes away the layer quickly breaks into small pieces, as shown in the rest of panorama.

Traveling on the piedmont will likely be difficult and threaten Curiosity’s wheels. I suspect this reality prompted them to choose to get to the top and obtain data now, rather than wait several more years of rough travel that might have made access to the piedmont difficult if not impossible.

They presently sit just below the top, and are studying their options before making that last push.
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Summer at the Martian North Pole

Buzzell pedestal crater in context with polar icecap scarp
Cool image time! The image above, cropped, reduced, and brighten-enhanced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 26, 2019 of the dunes just below the 1,500 to 3,000 foot high scarp that marks the edge of the Martian north polar icecap. I have brought up the brightness of the dune area to bring out the details.

This one image shows a range a very active features at the Martian north pole. At this scarp scientists have routinely photographed avalanches every Martian spring, as they have been occurring, caused by the warmth of sunlight hitting this cliff wall and causing large sections to break off. As Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona explained in my September 2019 article,

On Mars half of the images we take in the right season contain an avalanche. There’s one image that has four avalanches going off simultaneously at different parts of the scarp. There must be hundreds to thousands of these events each day.

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
Click for full image.

On the left side of the image is an area of dunes that Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona has dubbed “Buzzell.” As spring arrives here, she has MRO regularly take images of this site (as well as about a dozen others) to monitor the changes that occur with the arrival of sunlight on the vast dune seas that surround that polar icecap.

The image to the right zooms in on one particular distinct feature, a pedestal crater, surrounded by dunes, that I have labeled on the image above. This image was taken just as spring began, with the Sun only five degrees above the horizon. At that time the dunes and pedestal crater were mantled by a frozen layer of translucent carbon dioxide that had fallen as dry ice snow during the sunless winter and then sublimates away each Martian summer.

Since March I have periodically posted updates to monitor the disappearance of that CO2 layer. (See for example the posts on August 2019 and November 2019.) Below are two more images, showing the ongoing changes to this area from early to late summer.
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ExoMars2020 parachute tests delayed until late March

The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to delay until late March the next high altitude tests of the revamped ExoMars2020 parachutes, despite the success of recent ground tests.

The tests of the 15-meter-diameter supersonic and 35-meter-wide subsonic parachutes—an essential part of the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission—had been scheduled for December and February. The delay comes despite six ground tests demonstrating successful parachute extraction – the point at which damage was caused in earlier, failed high altitude tests.

Both tests need to be successful for the go-ahead for launch of 300-kilogram Rosalind Franklin rover during the July 25 to Aug. 13 Mars launch window. Any failure would mean a wait of 26 months for the next launch window, opening late 2022.

There will be a meeting next week of the project’s top management, from both Russia and Europe, and I strongly suspect that they are going to decide to delay launch to the 2022 launch window. Not only have the parachutes not been tested successfully at high altitude, they recently discovered an issue with the glue holding the solar panel hinges on the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover.


Glacial breakup on Mars

glacial breakup on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on December 22, 2019 and was titled “Contact Between Debris Apron and Upper Plains in Deuteronilus Mensae”.

The section of the full image that I have focused on shows what appears to be the downhill break-up of the surface debris covering an underlying water ice glacier. The grade is downhill to the south.

I am confident that this is buried glacial material based on recent research:

Both of these reports found lots of evidence of shallow ice in Deuteronilus Mensae, a region of chaos terrain in the transition zone between the Martian northern lowlands and the southern highlands.

With this image we see what appears to be the slippage of that ice downslope, causing breakage and cracks on the surface, with much of that surface made up of the dust and debris that covers the ice and protects it. Towards the bottom of the image it even appears that the disappearing ice is unveiling the existence of a bunch of buried bedrock mesas, typical of chaos terrain, previously hidden by the ice because it filled the surrounding canyons.

Below is a close-up of the photograph’s most interesting area of break-up.
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Peering into a Martian pit

Peering into a pit
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last week released the above image of a pit to the west of the giant volcanoes Arsia and Pavonis Mons. The left image is without any adjustments in exposure. The right image has brightened the pit’s interior to bring out details in order to see what’s there. As planetary scientist Ross Beyer of Ames Research Center noted in his caption:

The floor of the pit appears to be smooth sand and slopes down to the southeast. The hope was to determine if this was an isolated pit, or if it was a skylight into a tunnel, much like skylights in the lava tubes of Hawai’i. We can’t obviously see any tunnels in the visible walls, but they could be in the other walls that aren’t visible.

Wider view of pit
Click for full image.

Because the image has been rotated 180 degrees, north is down. The northern wall of the pit appears to be either very vertical, or overhung. A tunnel might head north from here, but because of the angle of the photograph, this cannot be confirmed.

To the right is a wider look from the full photograph, showing the surrounding terrain, with north now to the top. In line with this pit is a depression that crosses the east-west canyon to the north. This alignment strongly suggests that a fault or fissure exists here, and that an underground void along this fissure line could exist. It also suggests that a deeper and larger void could exist below that larger canyon.

This pit, and the accompanying fissures, were likely caused by crack-widening along these faults, produced as this volcanic region bulged upward.

Map of knowns pits surrounding Arsia Mons

This pit is also one of the many many pits found near these volcanoes. The map to the right shows by the black boxes all the pits documented by the high resolution camera on MRO in the past few years, with this new pit indicated by the white box.

Beginning in November 2018 until November 2019 I was almost doing a monthly post reporting the new pits photographed by MRO. Since November however the number of new pit images dropped. This is not because every pit has been imaged, but because it appears they have completed their initial survey.

Below is a list of all those previous pit posts:
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