Scientists: Water frost detected in calderas of four Martian volcanos

Frost found on four Martian volcanoes

Scientists using data from two European Mars orbiters think they have detected patches of transient water frost in the calderas of four Martian volcanos, all located in the dry equatorial regions of Mars where previously no near-surface ice has been seen.

According to the study, the frost is present for only a few hours after sunrise before it evaporates in sunlight. The frost is also incredibly thin — likely only one-hundredth of a millimeter thick or about the width of a human hair. Still, it’s quite vast. The researchers calculate the frost constitutes at least 150,000 tons of water that swaps between the surface and atmosphere each day during the cold seasons. That’s the equivalent of roughly 60 Olympic-size swimming pools.

You can read the research paper here. The volcanoes with frost were Olympus Mons, Arsia Mons, Ascraeus Mons, and Ceraunius Tholus, as shown by the blue dots on the overview map to the right. All are in the dry tropics of Mars.

The researchers believe the frost comes from the atmosphere, like dew forming in the morning on Earth. For it to take place at these high elevations on Mars however is astonishing. At these high elevations the atmosphere is extremely thin. Furthermore, the dry tropics have so far been found to contain no near-surface water or ice to fuel these processes.

Scientists: Ice layers in Burroughs Crater confirm Martian orbital climate cycles

Layering in the west side of Burroughs Crater
Click for full image.

According to a new paper published today, scientists have used the ice layers inside Burroughs Crater on Mars to confirm the theory that the Red Planet has undergone numerous climate cycles during the past four million years, caused by the swings in the planet’s rotational tilt and eccentric orbit. From the press release:

Previously, Martian climate scientists have focused on polar ice caps, which span hundreds of kilometers. But these deposits are old and may have lost ice over time, losing fine details that are necessary to confidently establish connections between the planet’s orientation and motion and its climate.

Sori and his colleagues turned to ice mounds in craters, just tens of kilometers wide but much fresher and potentially less complicated. After scouring much of the southern hemisphere, they pinpointed Burroughs crater, 74 kilometers wide, that has “exceptionally well-preserved” layers visible from NASA HiRISE [Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s high resolution camera] imagery, Sori said.

The researchers analyzed the layers’ thicknesses and shapes and found they had strikingly similar patterns to two important Martian orbital dynamics, the tilt of Mars’ axis and orbital precession, over the last 4 to 5 million years.

The photo above of those layers was taken by Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter on March 13, 2019, cropped and reduced to post here.

This research greatly strengthens the theory that the ice on Mars gets distributed to different latitudes in cycles, depending on the cyclical fluctuations in the planet’s orbit and tilt. However, it does not yet confirm these cycles apply to the glaciers found in craters in lower latitudes. Burroughs Crater is at 72 degrees south latitude, near the southern polar ice cap, well south of the band of glaciers scientists have discovered in the mid-latitudes down to 30 degrees latitude. Nonetheless, this research strongly suggest the same cycles apply in those lower latitudes.

Scientists discover underground reservoir of hydrogen, likely ice, near Martian equator

Detection of underground hydrogen in Valles Marineris
Click for full image.

In what could be a very significant discovery, scientists using Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) have discovered a surprisingly large underground reservoir of hydrogen, likely ice, near Martian equator and inside the solar system’s largest known canyon, Valles Marineris.

The map to the right, reduced to post here, provides all the important data. From its caption:

The coloured scale at the bottom of the frame shows the amount of ‘water-equivalent hydrogen’ (WEH) by weight (wt%). As reflected on these scales, the purple contours in the centre of this figure show the most water-rich region. In the area marked with a ‘C’, up to 40% of the near-surface material appears to be composed of water (by weight). The area marked ‘C’ is about the size of the Netherlands and overlaps with the deep valleys of Candor Chaos, part of the canyon system considered promising in our hunt for water on Mars.

What the caption does not note is the latitude of this hydrogen, about 3 to 10 degrees south latitude. Assuming the hydrogen represents underground ice, this would be the first detection on Mars below 30 degrees latitude, and the very first in the equatorial regions. Data from orbit has suggested that Mars has a lot of water ice, found near the surface more and more as you move into higher latitudes above 30 degrees and making Mars much like Antarctica. Almost no ice however had until now been detected below 30 degrees latitude. As the European Space Agency’s press release noted,
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Scientists solve methane data conflict on Mars

Using the methane detector on the rover Curiosity scientists now think they have solved the mystery why Curiosity has detected methane in the atmosphere near the surface while Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter fails to detect any methane at all.

[Planetary scientist John E. Moores from York University in Toronto], as well as other Curiosity team members studying wind patterns in Gale Crater, hypothesized that the discrepancy between methane measurements comes down to the time of day they’re taken. Because it needs a lot of power, TLS [Curiosity’s methane detector] operates mostly at night when no other Curiosity instruments are working. The Martian atmosphere is calm at night, Moores noted, so the methane seeping from the ground builds up near the surface where Curiosity can detect it.

The Trace Gas Orbiter, on the other hand, requires sunlight to pinpoint methane about 3 miles, or 5 kilometers, above the surface. “Any atmosphere near a planet’s surface goes through a cycle during the day,” Moores said. Heat from the Sun churns the atmosphere as warm air rises and cool air sinks. Thus, the methane that is confined near the surface at night is mixed into the broader atmosphere during the day, which dilutes it to undetectable levels. “So I realized no instrument, especially an orbiting one, would see anything,” Moores said.

Immediately, the Curiosity team decided to test Moores’ prediction by collecting the first high-precision daytime measurements. TLS measured methane consecutively over the course of one Martian day, bracketing one nighttime measurement with two daytime ones. With each experiment, SAM sucked in Martian air for two hours, continuously removing the carbon dioxide, which makes up 95% of the planet’s atmosphere. This left a concentrated sample of methane that TLS could easily measure by passing an infrared laser beam through it many times, one that’s tuned to use a precise wavelength of light that is absorbed by methane.

“John predicted that methane should effectively go down to zero during the day, and our two daytime measurements confirmed that,” said Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator of SAM, who’s based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. TLS’ nighttime measurement fit neatly within the average the team had already established. “So that’s one way of putting to bed this big discrepancy,” Mahaffy said.

While this explains the data conflict, it does not yet explain where the methane is coming from. It is suspected it is coming from underground, but why and from what is still unclear. Nor do scientists yet understand why it doesn’t accumulate enough in the atmosphere for Trace Gas Orbiter to detect it. Something is causing the methane to break up sooner than expected.

Scientists: Mars is losing water seasonally through its atmosphere

The uncertainty of science: Two new studies using data Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter and Mars Express orbiters have found that Mars is losing water seasonally through its atmosphere.

The studies also found that global dust storms accelerate the process.

Anna and colleagues found that water vapour remained confined to below 60 km when Mars was far from the Sun but extended up to 90 km in altitude when Mars was closest to the Sun. Across a full orbit, the distance between the Sun and the Red Planet ranges from 207 million to 249 million km.

Near the Sun, the warmer temperatures and more intensive circulation in the atmosphere prevented water from freezing out at a certain altitude. “Then, the upper atmosphere becomes moistened and saturated with water, explaining why water escape rates speed up during this season – water is carried higher, aiding its escape to space,” adds Anna.

In years when Mars experienced a global dust storm the upper atmosphere became even wetter, accumulating water in excess at altitudes of over 80 km.

But wait, didn’t planetary scientists just announce that Mars hasn’t lost its water through the atmosphere, but instead lost it when it became chemical trapped in the planet’s soil? Yup, they did, but that was a model based on new ground data. This new result is based on atmospheric data.

Or to put it another way, the model was incomplete. While it could be true that a large bulk of Mars’ water is trapped chemically in the ground, that is not proven, only hypothesized. What has been proven, and is now confirmed by these two studies, is that, depending on weather and season, the water of Mars does leak into its upper atmosphere where it can escape into space, never to return.

What remains unknown is how much water escaped into space, and when. Moreover, the ground-based model could still be right, even if it is true that Mars is losing water through its atmosphere. At the moment the data is too incomplete to answer these questions with any certainty.

Meanwhile, this press release once again gives the false impression that the only water left on Mars is at its poles (and in this case, only the south pole). This is not accurate, based on numerous studies finding evidence of buried ice and glaciers everywhere on the planet down to the 30th latitude, in both the north and south hemispheres. Mars might have far less water now than it did billions of years ago, but it still has plenty, and that water is not found only at the poles.

Trace Gas Orbiter detects oxygen layer in Martian atmosphere

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, has detected for the first time the green atmospheric layer in Martian atmosphere caused by the interaction of oxygen and sunlight.

From what I can tell from the press release at the link, they did not “see” this green glow, they detected it spectroscopically. So, any images you see portraying it are simply artist renditions, not the real thing.

The detection is important, nonetheless. First, it confirms that there is oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere. Second, it is the first time this has been detected in the atmosphere other than Earth. Third, the detection matched closely to their computer models, suggesting that the models are a reasonable simulation of this aspect of Mars’ atmosphere.

European planetary missions go dark because of Wuhan virus

The European Space Agency has suspended operations and shut down several planetary missions, including two Mars orbiters and two solar missions, because of lockdowns imposed because of COVID-19.

The problem is that they don’t have enough people in their mission controls to operate everything. They are shutting these down so that they can continue operations on their Mecury mission BepiColumbo, for example.

The article also tries to lay the blame for the recently announced launch delay of Europe’s Mars 2020 rover to 2022 on the virus, but that’s false. The mission was delayed because it simply wasn’t ready.

Both methane and oxygen fluctuate in unison seasonally in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: According to a new science paper, data from Curiosity on Mars has now found that both methane and oxygen fluctuate in unison seasonally in Gale Crater.

From the paper’s abstract:

[T]he annual average composition in Gale Crater was measured as 95.1% carbon dioxide, 2.59% nitrogen, 1.94% argon, 0.161% oxygen, and 0.058% carbon monoxide. However, the abundances of some of these gases were observed to vary up to 40% throughout the year due to the seasonal cycle. Nitrogen and argon follow the pressure changes, but with a delay, indicating that transport of the atmosphere from pole to pole occurs on faster timescales than mixing of the components. Oxygen has been observed to show significant seasonal and year‐to‐year variability, suggesting an unknown atmospheric or surface process at work. These data can be used to better understand how the surface and atmosphere interact as we search for signs of habitability.

The data shows that the unexpected and so far unexplained seasonal oxygen fluctuation appears to track the same seasonal methane fluctuations. While biology could cause this signature, so could geological processes, though neither can produce these fluctuations easily.

Meanwhile, adding to the uncertainty were results from the two European orbiters, Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter. Both have failed to detect a June 19, 2019 dramatic spike in methane that had been measured by Curiosity.

Results from Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars

The European Space Agency today released the results of more than a year of observations from its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), among which were two significant findings.

First, the orbiter detected no methane in Mars’s atmosphere, contradicting recent results from both Curiosity and Mars Express.

The new results from TGO provide the most detailed global analysis yet, finding an upper limit of 0.05 ppbv, that is, 10–100 times less methane than all previous reported detections. The most precise detection limit of 0.012 ppbv was achieved at 3 km altitude. As an upper limit, 0.05 ppbv still corresponds to up to 500 tons of methane emitted over a 300 year predicted lifetime of the molecule when considering atmospheric destruction processes alone, but dispersed over the entire atmosphere, this is extremely low.

…“The TGO’s high-precision measurements seem to be at odds with previous detections; to reconcile the various datasets and match the fast transition from previously reported plumes to the apparently very low background levels, we need to find a method that efficiently destroys methane close to the surface of the planet.”

It appears they think the Curiosity and Mars Express detections were very localized and occurred close to the surface, where TGO could not detect it.

The second significant finding is indicated by the map below, showing a global map of subsurface water distribution on Mars. I have also posted below this map a global elevation map from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), as the similarities and differences are important.
» Read more

The layering at the Martian poles

Layering in the east side of Burroughs Crater
Click for full image.

Layering in the west side of Burroughs Crater
Click for full image.

In the past month the science teams of both Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) have released images showing the strange layering found in Burroughs Crater, located near the Martian south pole.

The top image above is the MRO image, rotated and cropped to post here. To the right is a cropped and reduced section of the TGO image.

Though both images look at the inside rim of the crater, they cover sections at opposite ends of the crater. The MRO image of the crater’s east interior rim, with the lowest areas to the right, while the TGO image shows the crater’s northwest interior rim, with the lowest areas on the bottom. As noted at the TGO image site:
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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

Trace Gas Orbiter finds no methane on Mars

The uncertainty of science: Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has failed to detect any methane in Mars’ atmosphere, even though data from Mars Express in 2004 had said it should see some.

The Mars Express orbiter first detected hints of methane in the martian atmosphere in 2004. But some scientists said the orbiter’s instruments that found it—at a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb)—weren’t sensitive enough to produce reliable results. Ten years later, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected a methane spike of 7 ppb from its base in Gale crater, which lasted several months. Several years later, Curiosity’s scientists then discovered a minute seasonal cycle, with methane levels peaking at 0.7 ppb in the late northern summer.

To settle this mystery, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016, this year began to scan the atmosphere for methane. Two of the TGO’s spectrometers—a Belgian instrument called NOMAD and a Russian one called ACS—were designed to detect methane in such low concentrations that researchers were sure they would. Both instruments, which analyze horizontal slices of the martian atmosphere backlit by the sun, are working well, scientists on the team said today at a semiannual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. There’s still some noise to clean up, said Ann Carine Vandaele, NOMAD’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels, in her talk. “But we already know we can’t see any methane.”

The team’s initial results show no detection of methane down to a minute level of 50 parts per trillion, with their observations going down nearly all the way to the martian surface.

The data says that any methane seen on the surface (such as by Curiosity) must be coming from below, not from off world, which in itself is a surprise since the scientists expected some methane to be coming from interplanetary dust. TGO has found none..

There are a lot of uncertainties still, so stay tuned.

New data says going to Mars involves significant radiation exposure

New data from Trace Gas Orbiter, part of Europe’s ExoMars project, says a journey to Mars will expose humans to significant radiation.

The results imply that on a six-month journey to the Red Planet, and assuming six-months back again, an astronaut could be exposed to at least 60% of the total radiation dose limit recommended for their entire career.

The ExoMars data, which is in good agreement with data from Mars Science Laboratory’s cruise to Mars in 2011–2012 and with other particle detectors currently in space – taking into account the different solar conditions – will be used to verify radiation environment models and assessments of the radiation risk to the crewmembers of future exploration missions.

This data was gathered during the spacecraft’s journey to Mars during a time of falling solar activity. Thus, the radiation exposure came more from cosmic rays than from solar activity.

Trace Gas Orbiter releases new images

Uzboi Vallis entering Holden Crater

Cool image time! Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, now in its science orbit around Mars, has released some new pictures (the top five images at the link). The image above shows the very long and meandering canyon Uzboi Vallis as it cuts through the rim of Holden Crater, on the right. If you click on the image you can see a higher resolution version.

With this release the European Space Agency does a very poor job of providing relevant information. It does not provide the latitude/longitude of this image, its scale, or a context image. Thus, I can only guess at its precise location.

Regardless, this area, where Uzboi Vallis enters Holden Crater, is one of the candidate landing sites for the American 2020 Mars rover. Uzboi Vallis is thought to have been formed by flowing water as it cut through a number of craters in the southern high plains.

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter achieves operational orbit around Mars

After a year of aerobraking to lower its orbit, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter has reached its planned orbit around Mars, and is about to begin studying the red planet’s atmosphere.

The primary goal is to take a detailed inventory of trace gases – those that make up less than 1% of the total volume of the planet’s atmosphere. In particular, the orbiter will seek evidence of methane and other gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological activity.

On Earth, living organisms release much of the planet’s methane. It is also the main component of naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas reservoirs, and a contribution is also provided by volcanic and hydrothermal activity. Methane on Mars is expected to have a rather short lifetime – around 400 years – because it is broken down by ultraviolet light from the Sun. It also reacts with other species in the atmosphere, and is subject to mixing and dispersal by winds. That means, if it is detected today, it was likely created or released from an ancient reservoir relatively recently. Previous possible detections of methane by ESA’s Mars Express and more recently by NASA’s Curiosity rover have been hinted at, but are still the subject of much debate.

The Trace Gas Orbiter can detect and analyse methane and other trace gases even in extremely low concentrations, with an improved accuracy of three orders of magnitude over previous measurements. It will also be able to help distinguish between the different possible origins. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentence is important. Pinpointing a region where methane is concentrated will allow scientists to better understand where it is coming from, and what is causing its release. It could be microbiological life, but it also could be from active volcanic processes. Finding either or both would be significant, to put it mildly.

ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter images Phobos

As part of its checkout, Europe’s ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter has taken test images of the Martian moon Phobos.

The camera imaged the moon on 26 November from a distance of 7700 km, during the closest part of the spacecraft’s orbit around Mars. TGO’s elliptical orbit currently takes it to within 230–310 km of the surface at its closest point and around 98 000 km at its furthest every 4.2 days. A colour composite has been created from several individual images taken through several filters. The camera’s filters are optimised to reveal differences in mineralogical composition, seen as ‘bluer’ or ‘redder’ colours in the processed image. An anaglyph created from a stereo pair of images captured is also presented, and can be viewed using red–blue 3D glasses.

The images were done to test the spacecraft’s operation, and have apparently shown that it is functioning well.

ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter takes first pictures

The European Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), part of the ExoMars 2016 mission, has successfully transmitted its first images back to Earth.

I have posted a video they have assembled of the first images below the fold. It is quite spectacular. As for TGO’s future misssion:

In the next months, the team will be starting preparations for the prime mission. “The test was very successful but we have identified a couple of things that need to be improved in the onboard software and in the ground post-processing», says Thomas. “It’s an incredibly exciting time.” Eventually, TGO will use “aerobraking” (skimming into the atmosphere) to slow the spacecraft down and enter a roughly circular orbit 400 km above this surface. This process will start in March 2017 and take around 9-12 months. The primary science phase will start around the end of 2017. CaSSIS will then enter nominal operations acquiring 12-20 high resolution stereo and colour images of selected targets per day.

» Read more

Fate of Schiaparelli remains unknown

While Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has successfully gone into orbit around Mars, it remains unknown whether the lander Schiaparelli was able today to land successfully on the surface.

The carrier signal from Schiaparelli recorded by Mars Express abruptly ended shortly before landing, just as the beacon tone received by a ground-based radio telescope in India stopped in real-time earlier today.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, just gave an update on the situation. “We saw the signal through the atmospheric phase — the descent phase. At a certain point, it stopped,” Ferri said. “This was unexpected, but we couldn’t conclude anything from that because this very weak signal picked up on the ground was coming from an experimental tool.

“We (waited) for the Mars Express measurement, which was taken in parallel, and it was of the same kind. It was only recording the radio signal. The Mars Express measurement came at 1830 (CEST) and confirmed exactly the same: the signal went through the majority of the descent phase, and it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing.

“There could be many many reasons for that,” Ferri said. “It’s clear these are not good signs, but we will need more information.”

ExoMars 2016 in detail

This Nature article provides a nice summary of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission that on Wednesday will try to place a lander on Mars as well as put an orbiter in orbit.

Neither probe is going to provide many exciting photos. The orbiter, dubbed boringly the Trace Gas Orbiter, is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere, while the lander, Schiaparelli, is essentially a technology test mission for planning and designing what Europe and Russia hope will be a more ambitious lander/orbiter mission in 2020.

Anyone expecting spectacular pictures from Schiaparelli itself might be disappointed — photos will be limited to 15 black-and-white shots of the Martian surface from the air, intended to help piece together the craft’s trajectory. No photos will be taken on the surface, because the lander lacks a surface camera.

Schiaparelli’s instruments will study the Martian atmosphere, including the possible global dust storm that might happen this month but so far has not yet appeared. The instruments will also be able to detect lightning, should it exist on Mars.

ExoMars 2016 bearing down on Mars

This article provides a detailed look at Sunday’s arrival of ExoMars 2016 at Mars.

If all goes right the Schiaparelli lander will soft land on the surface while the Trace Gas Orbiter will enter an initial 185 by 60,000 mile orbit, which will slowly be adjusted so that by January it can begin its atmospheric research.

Though the Russian contribution to this mission was only the rocket that sent it to Mars, if the mission succeeds it will be the first time any Mars mission with major Russian participation has succeeded. The failure rate for any Russian effort to go to Mars has been 100%. And it hasn’t been because the missions have been particularly difficult. The majority of their failures occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, even as they were very successfully completing much harder lander missions to Venus.

It has almost as if there is a curse against any Russian attempt to visit the Red Planet. Hopefully, that curse will finally be broken on Sunday.