Eyes in the Martian Sky (Issue #28)

by:  Kathryn Sharp

aaWhile the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity cruise the surface of Mars, three operating satellites orbit above, keeping a keen eye on the planet. In addition to documenting the surface of Mars with an unprecedented level of detail, these satellites continue to provide critical support for ground missions. They relay vital communications between the rovers and Earth, monitor surface weather, look for safe driving paths around large boulders, and identify points of interest for further study. Although they often work in tandem to support the rovers, each orbiter has made its own fundamental contributions to our understanding of the red planet.

Mars Odyssey over Mars South PoleThe oldest of the three currently operational satellites orbiting Mars is the 2001 Mars Odyssey. Named as a tribute to science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s beloved work “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Mars Odyssey has been plugging away for well over a decade in low Mars orbit and has set the record as the longest serving spacecraft orbiting a planet other than Earth. Early in its mission, Mars Odyssey surprised scientists by detecting levels of water ice in the Martian soil that far exceeded expectations. This discovery intensified interest in the history of water on Mars and what that history could mean for the possibility of life there. Though perhaps its most important science work is done, Mars Odyssey has been granted numerous mission extensions, primarily to serve as a telecommunications relay between rovers Opportunity and Curiosity and Earth.

In 2003, the European Space Agency launched its Mars Express orbiter in with the goal of further investigating the presence of water and looking for chemical indicators of life. Mars Express is equipped with a host of instruments to accomplish these goals, including: two spectrometers, sub-surface radar intended to look for and map out frozen water beneath Mars’ soil, and among others, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) which can take high-resolution photos of large regions on the surface.

040824_mars_express_02In the past decade, Mars Express has made remarkable discoveries. In January of 2004, ESA announced that water ice had been discovered in the Southern polar ice cap using its infrared spectrometer OMEGA. This discovery confirmed the 2002 findings of Mars Odyssey, which noted large quantities of water ice locked in the soil. Later that year, a large plume of methane was detected in the atmosphere. Since methane deteriorates in the Martian atmosphere in only 400 years or so, scientists postulated that the source of the gas must be ongoing: either organic life or volcanic activity. In either case, this exciting finding indicates Mars is, or was, more active than previously thought. However, recent measurements by Curiosity detect no significant quantities of methane in the atmosphere, calling into question earlier hypotheses. The topic presents a puzzle that will be the focus of several future missions, including the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, set for launch in 2016.

The newest satellite to reach Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), carries a suite of state-of-the-art instruments intended to address many of the burning questions left unanswered from previous missions. The most compelling of these is whether or not water persisted on the surface of Mars long enough for organic life to arise. Answering this question continues to be one of the primary science goals of NASA’s entire Mars Exploration Program, and would likely be the focus of any manned mission in the future.

MRO_image-brThankfully, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been incredibly prolific, returning an unprecedented amount of data from Mars since its insertion into orbit in 2006. In 2013, NASA reported that the MRO has returned in total over 200 terabits of data: more than all other missions operating on the Deep Space Network and significantly more than all other previous Mars communications combined.

The majority of this data has come in the form of high-resolution images from the HiRISE camera, which works in conjunction with other instruments aboard the MRO to help scientists understand in detail the dynamics of Martian geology. To do so, the CTX (Context Camera) takes large regional surveys around features of interest, after which HiRISE narrows in to take a close-up photo of that feature. Simultaneously, the onboard spectrometer CRISM analyzes the mineral composition of that same region. By compiling data from these three instruments, scientists can distinguish between sediment deposited by moving water, wind, or other geologic processes and begin to piece together a picture of Mars’ fascinating history.

Warm-season Flows HiRISENot only are these images important for their scientific relevance, but they have also played a powerful role in engaging the public interest in Mars. Never before have we been able to see the surface of another planet in such striking detail. In these images, we are afforded more than a glimpse at a planet that is alive in many ways. Changing seasons, fresh impact craters, landslides, recurring flow-like features, and dunes shifting in the Martian winds, all witnessed from here on Earth. The HiRISE team has reached out to professionals, amateurs, and students with its HiWish Public Suggestion Page. HiWish is a tool that allows any interested citizen to log in and select a target where they think HiRISE should take an image. This is a fantastic opportunity for young scientists to engage with Mars and play a part in exploring its rich topography.

Each day, NASA and the ESA receive an enormous amount of data from the instruments aboard these three spacecraft, providing an invaluable link between the Earth and Mars. When humans finally arrive on the surface of Mars, it will be due in large part to the continued success of these three missions. We have sent them ahead of us to be our mapmakers: to chart safe passage, to help us find resources vital for our survival, and to unlock the secrets of a planet that does not readily tip its hand.

[Images: NASA, JPL, ESA, JPL, JPL]

Consumable Water on Mars Confirmed by Opportunity and Curiosity (Issue #18) UPDATE

by: Nicole Willett

*****UPDATED 9/28/2013*****

mars-rover-landing-sequence-landed_57831_600x450Several papers have been published regarding the findings of Curiosity’s first few month’s on the surface of Mars.  The findings are of great importance with regard to water.  The rover has confirmed an incredible two percent of the surface soil is composed of water.  Scientists said if humans were to land on Mars, they could scoop up soil and heat it up and extract water from it.  Estimates suggest that approximately two pints of water is available per cubic foot of soil.  This is an astonishing discovery.  The benefits for humans that wish to travel to and settle on the Martian surface are immense.  NASA stated water is likely spread across the entire planet bound to the soil.  The implications of this finding make it much more likely that humans will be able to inhabit the Red Planet in the near future.  It also opens up more of the planet for human landing places and settlement opportunities.

Original blog published June 9, 2013:

As we anxiously await the results of the latest drill sample from the Curiosity Rover, we have received exciting news from the long lived Opportunity Rover team. Steve Squyres, who will be the recipient of the Mars Pioneer Award 2013 at the 16th Annual Mars Society Convention Aug 15-18th, participated in a NASA teleconference regarding the exciting findings about water on Mars. The fact that once again we have reconfirmed water on Mars is not the exciting part.

Esperance imaged from above
Esperance imaged from above

Opportunity has spent quite a lot of time working at Endeavor Crater and had to maneuver very strategically to get in position to study a small rock named Esperance. This was a very difficult task for the aging rover, since she has a bad shoulder joint. However the team stated that Opportunity is in extremely good health and has no major concerns as of right now. The rover used several samples from the rock which is the oldest rock that Opportunity has studied. The team showed a graphic, displaying the chemistry of the rocks, with seven measurements taken from different layers. The elements found in Esperance were Aluminum, Iron, Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, and Sodium. The results from the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer indicate that the

APXS graphic Esperance Rock results
APXS graphic Esperance Rock results

rock was higher in Aluminum and Silica and lower in Calcium and Iron than rocks previously studied by Opportunity. Below the dashed lines are igneous rocks; above the line are rocks including clays (Montmorillomite) that have been altered by water. The lower black square indicates the readings from the average Martian crust. The yellow circles closest to that block indicate the samples taken from the surface of the rock. As the samples ascend vertically above the dashed line it indicates samples that are further inside the rock. The Opportunity team used the Rock Abrasion Tool to reach the subsurface of the rock. Starting at the surface she discovered that the water that had most recently covered Esperance was acidic and the soil more closely resembled the average Martian crust. As the rover progressively scraped and studied Esperance, it was discovered that Mars went through several cycles of water activity in the region where Opportunity is now working. The cycle of water described by the team was that water was present in the area before the Endeavor Crater formed, next the crater formed and the rocks piled up on the crater rim, and then setting water produced gypsum. This is indicative of lengthy multistep and continual water activity. At Esperance the water flowed through the rocks and had a higher clay concentration than the rocks studied at Matijevic Hill. A high clay concentration is evidence of water that had a neutral pH. “There appears to have been extensive, but weak, alteration of Whitewater Lake, but intense alteration of Esperance along fractures that provided conduits for fluid flow,” Squyres said. “Water that moved through fractures during this rock’s history would have provided more favorable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks Opportunity has seen.”

Esperance Rock
Esperance Rock

The big news was that the Opportunity team stated was that water with a neutral pH is very conducive to prebiotic chemistry. We know there are organisms on Earth that survive in an acidic environment, but the science points to prebiotic chemistry favoring a neutral pH. Squyres stated that this is the best that we have found with Opportunity, the most compelling evidence for habitability. The most fundamental conditions for habitability were present at this location. The NASA team also stated that this was water that could have been consumed. This is a familiar statement to that of the Curiosity team a few months ago. The Curiosity team found an ancient riverbed in Gale

Ancient Riverbed imaged by the Curiosity Rover in Gale Crater
Ancient Riverbed imaged by the Curiosity Rover in Gale Crater

Crater and also found that the water that flowed there was freshwater that was neutral in pH and could have also been consumed. At a press conference in March 2013 Dr. John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity mission, went so far as to state, “We have found a habitable environment. The water that was here was so benign and supportive of life that if a human had been on the planet back then, they could drink it.”

This pattern may seem redundant to some; however we must follow the scientific method of testing and retesting, confirming and reconfirming. We must verify these results many times because there will be humans on Mars and we must know as much about our future home as possible. There are many reasons for this, some are obvious and some we haven’t even thought of yet. These results are exciting and very important to the future exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. ~On To Mars

[Images: NASA/JPL]

Opportunity Rover Set to Celebrate 10 Full Years on Mars (UPDATED 1-16-14 Issue #9)

by: Nicole Willett

OPPY imageJune 21, 2013 was a big day for Opportunity as she passed five Martian years roving Mars. On January 25, 2014 the Opportunity rover will have completed 10 full Earth years on Mars.  This is an amazing achievement, considering the Opportunity Rover was only a 90 day mission.   Since the 9th anniversary, Opportunity has left Cape York and discovered an area where neutral pH water once was.  This is further evidence of habitability on the Red Planet.  Opportunity then drove to Solander Point in order to drive on a terrain that has a slope pointing toward the sun for the best winter time sunlight collection.  For now Opportunity is on the edge of Endeavor Crater spying interesting minerals as we anxiously await her next amazing discovery.

In honor of Opportunity and her twin, Spirit, a new museum exhibit has opened at the Smithsonian Institution.  Huge wall size panoramas of Mars give visitors a sense that they are on the surface of the planet.  The exhibit also has a full scale model of the rover as its centerpiece.  The name of the exhibit is “Spirit and Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars”   The museum officials stated that the purpose of the exhibit is to combine art and science in a multimedia experience that visitors will be immersed in. (http://www.space.com/24231-mars-rovers-spirit-opportunity-museum-exhibit.html#sthash.hko79mb5.dpuf)

(Original blog published January 2013)

With all of the hype surrounding the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity, it is easy for the public to forget the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity.  The twin rovers were each launched by a Delta II Heavy Lifter rocket in the summer of 2003.  The Opportunity Rover landed using the airbag method in Meridiani Planum on January 25, 2004 three weeks after the Spirit Rover landed.  This month (January 2013) Opportunity is set to celebrate 9 full Earth years on Mars.  This very industrious rover was planned for only a 90 day surface mission and has now gone 36 times past its planned mission. The two rovers have made many wonderful discoveries and they paved the way for Curiosity.  Each rover had a distinct personality and each have encountered their own challenges.  Sadly for the MER team, although Spirit also far exceeded its mission, the last contact with Spirit was in 2010.   


Once Opportunity bounced to a stop, she ended up in Eagle Crater.  The landing site was named Challenger Memorial Stadium in honor of the astronauts who perished in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.   Eagle Crater is a small crater with a layered outcropping of geological features.  This was a serendipitous place for a landing, some stating it as an astronomical “hole-in-one”.   

In keeping with NASA’s “follow the water” goal on Mars, the JPL website states the following:

“Understanding the history of water on Mars is important to meeting the four science goals of NASA’s long-term Mars Exploration Program:”oppy arm heat shield rock

  • Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars
  • Characterize the Climate of Mars
  • Characterize the Geology of Mars
  • Prepare for Human Exploration”

To accomplish these goals, Opportunity carries a plethora of scientific instruments and cameras.   The rover carries a panoramic camera, a hazard camera, and a microscopic imager.  It also hosts a suite of spectrometers (an instrument that utilizes the electromagnetic spectrum to analyze data), and a rock abrasion tool (RAT).  Many of these instruments are at the end of a robotic arm that extends to sample and analyze the rocks, soils, and minerals.

Blueberries-thumb-450x452-36184As the rover traverses the many craters on Mars and stops and analyzes each area, she has made many discoveries.  A major discovery at the landing site, as stated by NASA scientists, is that the area was at one time soaked with water.  This was determined by the vast number of spherules found at the site that were later determined to be hematite.  The spherules were nicknamed “blueberries” due to their shape and distribution. Also, in the false color images they appeared to be a bluish hue. Hematite is found on Earth and is known to be formed in the presence of water over a long period of time.  It is a mineral form of iron oxide.   This was a major discovery for the MER team. 
heatshield_rock_500 astronomy comAn unexpected discovery was Heat Shield Rock.  This is a Martian meteorite discovered near the heat shield that had fallen to the ground after the rover landed.  This will always be known as the first discovery of a meteorite on another planet.  The meteorite was pretty easy to spot against the background of Martian soil and rocks.  The “weathering” on a meteorite is quite distinct compared to any indigenous matter.
Erebus crater with solar panelsIronically the mission has been extended so long, in part due to the weather on Mars.  The rover’s power source is in the form of solar panels.  The surface of Mars is covered in fine dust and is very windy.  Several times over the course of the mission, the solar panels have been covered in dust.  The weather on Mars often includes dust devils.  These dust devils have been responsible for clearing the dust covered solar panels, thereby, rejuvenating the power to the rover.  This was an unexpected and happy event for the team.

Opportunity has also made astronomical observations.  These include the transits of both natural satellites, Phobos and Deimos, across the face of the Sun.  The rover’s cameras have also photographed the Earth, which appears as an indistinct bright object in the Martian sky.  This reminds us of how small we really are.

homestake vein nasa jplSome of the major craters that Opportunity has visited include, Endurance Crater, Erebus Crater, Victoria Crater, and Endeavour Crater.  More recently at Endeavour Crater, Opportunity discovered a bright vein of gypsum.  This has been nicknamed “Homestake Vein”.  The identification of this substance is more strong evidence of water on Mars in the past.  Another recent discovery, in September 2012, at Endeavour Crater is a very dense accumulation of spherules that are different than the hematite spherules previously discovered.  It is stated that the spherules in question have a soft middle and crunchy outer layer.  They are still being investigated as to what their composition is. As of December
endeavour spherules nasa jpl

 2012, Opportunity Rover has been studying an area at the rim of Endeavour Crater called Matijevic Hill.  The mission scientists dubbed this portion of the mission a “walkabout”, referring to the human geologists that explore the perimeter of an area before the interior. 

Opportunity has endured a harsh climate and survived, perhaps thrived.  The credit for this must be given to the hundreds or thousands of passionate scientists who designed, developed, and implemented this mission. The Opportunity Rover is managed by a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ca.  Recently, the mission deputy project scientist, Diana Blaney stated, “Almost nine years into a mission planned to last for three months, Opportunity is fit and ready for driving, robotic-arm operations and communication with Earth.”  There is more to behold from Opportunity in the future, stay tuned……
[Images NASA/JPL]