Warm Water on Mars? (Issue #6)

by: Nicole Willett

The issue of water on Mars has been debated for over a century.   The observations of Giovanni Schiaparelli in approximately 1877 started the frenzy over water on Mars.  When Schiaparelli observed what he thought were channels on Mars he called them canali which means channelsWhen his findings were published, the term was misinterpreted as canals.  There is a distinct difference between channels and canals.  A channel is a naturally occurring groove in the ground where water or some other fluid has eroded the soil away to make a riverbed.  A canal is thought to be something made by people or other beings, for water to flow through.   So the speculation of water on the Red Planet began.

Percival Lowell built a telescope specifically to observe Mars.  He was intrigued with the findings of Schiaparelli.   He studied the planet for 15 years with his new telescope in Flagstaff, Az.  His sketches show many features that at the time were considered to be evidence of intelligent beings on Mars.  Many people disagreed with Lowell’s observations and he was ostracized by some.  As technology advanced, we discovered that some of the geological features were present, but not in the exact state recorded by Lowell.  The Mariner 4 and 9 spacecraft proved that the drawings Lowell made were not accurate.  However, the spacecraft proved that there were many channels that once held liquid that flowed over the surface of Mars.

alluvial fanEach spacecraft that visited the Red Planet gave more and more clues to its watery past.

There are two types of channels that have been identified.  One type is called a runoff channel.  These are often found in the southern highlands and can be hundreds of miles long. They look analogous to interconnecting riverbeds on Earth.  The other type of channel is called an outflow channel.  These are found in the equatorial region and appear to be relics of catastrophic flooding.  They are not interconnected and are thought to be paths of huge volumes of water.As more and more data has come in, the estimates for the period when water existed in liquid form on the surface of Mars has changed dramatically.  These estimates have gone from billions of years ago to millions, thousands, hundreds, and more recently it has been said there may have been water on the surface mere decades ago.  NASA actually coined the term, “follow the water” in an effort to prove that there was liquid water on Mars in the past and to look for possible organic material that may have existed or may now exist there.   

Today NASA released an article titled, Meltwater on Mars Could Sustain Life on their Astrobio.net website.  Click the link for the full article:  http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/5150/meltwater-on-mars-could-sustain-life.  Researchers from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden have compared satellite images of areas on Mars and Earth.  The areas studied show correlations between the two planets where scientists believe there have been repeated freeze and thaw cycles.   While comparing satellite images and doing field research on Earth, the researchers believe that some of the gullies on Mars were formed by melting snow and flowing water. 

We know the surface temperature at the Gale Crater was 40o F when the Curiosity Rover took its first measurements.  That is above the freezing point of water.  The pressure on Mars would cause pure water to evaporate very quickly.    We also know that the soil on Mars is full of many salts and minerals that when present in water will allow it to remain in a liquid state at the surface.  


On Earth there are organisms that survive under extreme circumstances, with no water for decades or even centuries. These organisms lie dormant or in a state of extreme metabolic stasis for very long periods of time until the proper environmental conditions become available for normal metabolism and reproduction.  It is known that the requirements for life are available on Mars.  These conditions may seem foreign to some, but to astrobiologists, the conditions are no different than many places on Earth.  So to paraphrase Dr. Chris McKay, if we do not find life on Mars, where the conditions are present, then I will be surprised if we find it anywhere else.  

The discoveries of Curiosity, Opportunity, and the fleet of Martian orbiters will continue to add to the mounting evidence we have.  They will reveal whether or not the conditions for the presence of life are available and details about the history of water on the Red Planet.  Curiosity is also searching for organic material.  If there is organic material detected, the data will be tested and retested until it is proven unequivocally that what we think is evidence of life, definitely is life.                
Stay tuned…..
Images [wikipedia.org, NASA JPL, The Taxonomicon]

Geology Tells The Story of Mars (Issue #5)

by: Nicole Willett

As Curiosity roves the dry riverbed on Mars, she wonders about the geological history of the Red Planet.  Of course Mars is a rocky planet that has silicates,basalt, and iron among many other mineral and rock compounds on its surface. The Curiosity Rover landed in Gale Crater because of its interesting geological features. One attractive feature is the alluvial fan (a deposit formed from a fast flowing stream as found on Earth) that appears to have at one time drained into the crater. The large mountain peak at the center of the crater, Aeolis Mons aka Mount Sharp, was also an appealing characteristic of Gale Crater. This enormous central peak rises above the surrounding rim. The layering of the strata is of particular interest to researchers. The rovers Sprit and Opportunity also discovered layered features on Mars, as well as many other interesting geological characteristics. Our fleet of spacecraft at Mars have discovered many things that were unexpected. However, some were inferred by scientists based on previous research. These features include craters, volcanoes, canyon systems, riverbeds, and caves.


Craters were expected to be found on the rocky surface of Mars, which they were.  Large craters tend to be obvious and long lasting.  Victoria_crater_from_HiRiseSmaller craters can be eroded by wind over long time periods and covered by Martian sand and dust.  Victoria Crater is one of the most beautiful features on Mars.  The Opportunity Rover spent approximately 2 Earth years (one Martian year) at the crater.  The crater is large, 730 meters wide.  Victoria Crater has scalloped edges with many alcoves and prominence’s. Endurance Crater was also visited by the Opportunity Rover for 180 sols (Martian days). This crater has very interesting layered sedimentary geology that was examined by Opportunity. The rover discovered there were differences in texture and sedimentary layering.This indicated that the lower layers were indeed older than the upper layers of rocks and soil.

The volcanoes were photographed early in our exploration of Mars due to their sheer enormity.   The most famous of all is Olympus Mons.  This is the largest volcano in the solar system rising nearly 22km (14mi) above the Martian surface.  Mount Everest is Earth’s tallest mountain, rising to a mere 29,029 ft 


(8.85km or 5.5mi) above the surface.  When comparing  Olympus Mons to Mount Everest it is easy to see how Olympus Mons dwarfs Mount Everest.  It has been said that Olympus Mons is so large that if you were standing on it, although it rises 14 miles in elevation, it would appear that you were standing on flat ground. 

The Tharsis Bulge is a region that hosts the large shield volcanoes on Mars, including Olympus Mons. There is a feature called the Hellas Basin which is diametrically opposed to the Tharsis Bulge.  The Hellas Basin is believed to be an ancient impact crater that was created by such a violent collision that it pushed out the Tharsis Bulge on the opposite side of the planet.  In close proximity to the Tharsis Bulge lies Valles Marineris.   It is theorized that the great Mariner Valley (named for the Mariner spacecraft that discovered it) is the result of tectonic fractures possibly form the same collision that formed the Hellas Basin and Tharsis Bulge.  Valles Marineris was also discovered early because it is so prominent on the equatorial region.  There are what appear to be dry riverbeds near the immense canyon system.

 Rivers, outflow channels, and runoff channels have been speculated and discussed widely through the years. There are thousands of images that show what seem to be riverbeds all over Mars. We are now confirming unequivocally that these channels were once a place where water flowed freely across the surface of the planet for extended periods of time.  The Curiosity Rover roved right into a riverbed within a few weeks of her mission.   This is an incredible confirmation by NASA as well as another step forward in the search for life on the Red Planet.

caves on marsA more recent geological discovery is the caves on Mars.  There is little known about the caves so far.  NASA would like to send a rover or a spelunking robot to explore the caves.  It is known that caves can go on for miles into the surface of a planet.    The caves on Earth are home to thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands of organisms as well as ample amounts of water.  We may find water in the caves on Mars.  This is a fascinating discovery because they could potentially be used for habitats when humans arrive on the surface of Mars. 
All of the discoveries we have made help scientists to piece together the geological history of the Red Planet.   There are many more exciting discoveries ahead.  ~OnToMars
To see images comparing the geological features of Mars compared to Earth please visit this link:  

 Images [NASA, JPL, Wikipedia]

Curiosity’s Search Begins (Issue #4)

by: Nicole Willett

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover was launched on November 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Florida.  The MSL had generated quite a fan base over the years and months leading up to her launch and landing.  On August 5, 2012 the entire world was watching with heightened anticipation.  As the updates were streaming through live from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at The Mars Society Convention hall in Pasadena, the excitement and anxiety was building.  Each update from the team at JPL received a round of applause.  When word was given of a successful landing there were high fives, laughter, tears and even a few hugs.   The successful landing of Curiosity was the culmination of many years of hard work, scientific and engineering prowess, and American ingenuity. 

blog 4 landing ellipse

Curiosity landed on target in Gale Crater.  Her successful landing proved that NASA can land a heavy rover (1,980 lbs, 899 kg) on the surface of Mars, using a technique that had not been used before.  The engineers designed a parachute combined with a sky-crane landing system.  This complex system seemed “just crazy enough to work” according to MSL’s lead engineer Adam Steltzner.   The successful landing also proved that we could land in a more precise landing circle, which is, the target area given by the scientists for the predicted landing site.   The landing site was named Bradbury Landing in honor of the late science fiction author Ray Bradbury. Almost immediately after landing Curiosity started sending images of the surface of Mars to NASA. 

Curiosity has many tasks on Mars.  Some of which are to:  assess the habitability of Mars, find the inventory and/or source of organic carbon, look for evidence of biological processes, investigate geological processes, planetary processes, cycling of water, and surface radiation.    She will start by examining the rocks and soils.  The history of a planet can be determined from studying the geology.  The suite of instruments carried on the rover will try to determine if the chemical building blocks of life are present or if they were present in the past.  Some of the scientific instruments she carries are:  several types of cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors, environmental monitoring systems, and atmospheric instruments.  These instruments will make assessments that not only will help us to better understand the Red Planet, but it will also help prepare for human exploration.

blog 4 laser

The instrumentation on the one ton rover is the most complex suite of scientific instruments to be sent to Mars. Several types of cameras are on board, each of which have a different purpose. For example the MastCam gives true color images and uses multiple spectra.  The ChemCam is a suite of instruments that uses a laser to identify types of rocks and determine the composition of soils.  There is an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) to determine what elements are in each sample tested.   The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) will analyze solid and gas samples looking for organic molecules.  SAM is a suite of instruments that takes up over half of the scientific payload which has been described as having an entire Chemistry lab reduced to fit on the rover.  This mini-lab is a group of three instruments searching for compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen and their potential association with life.

mars blog 4

This mission is currently underway.  Last week Curiosity discovered some unusual material on the surface of Mars and right beneath the soil nearby. The first anomalous object was determined to be debris from the rover.  When the rover scooped up soil there were other bright objects found.  On October 17, 2012 a scoop of Martian regolith was put into the CheMin, the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument.  This will determine what the soil is composed of, and hopefully what the mysterious bright objects are.

There will be many new discoveries made by the Curiosity Rover over the next two years or more. We are all waiting patiently for anything she has to show us.  It is a very exciting and inspiring time for Earthlings.  We are witnessing events that are due to our willingness to work hard as a team to accomplish a common goal.  This is a measure of our character as human beings.  We mustcontinue our exploration… OnToMars~

In addition to this week’s blog:    A Special Presentation by Bob Bruner

Life on Mars in a Box

The environmental requirements for life are:

1. Source of molecules from which to build its own cellular structures and for reproduction

2. Source of energy to maintain biological order and to fuel the many chemical reactions that occur in life

3. Liquid medium, most likely liquid water, for transporting the molecules of life

The key to this puzzle is whether all these ingredients for life came together in the right proportions at the right time.

The image of the “Life on Mars in a Box” contains illustrations of research results that show these requirements are met on the planet Mars:

1. Image (center) of the volcanoes on Mars demonstrates that an energy source is available; other sources would be cosmic rays, UV rays, etc. coming from space

2. Dark mineral, Goethite (upper left), and light mineral, Gypsum (lower left), show hydrothermal groundwater circulation during the early history of Mars (Ehlmann et al, Nature, 2011)

3. Piece of the Murchison meteorite (lower right) contains non-biological carbon in the form of amino acids, and shows the availability of life-building molecules throughout the solar system (Kvenvolden et al, Nature, 1970)

4. Piece of the Shergottite meteorite (upper right) from Mars, which contains non-biological carbon created by volcanic action during the early history of Mars, shows a second source of life-building molecules (Steele et al, Science, 2012)


Beyond UFOs, by Jeffrey Bennet, 2008, Princeton University Press

Conversation with Pamela Conrad, NASA Astrobiologist and Assistant Principal Investigator of the SAM instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory which landed on Mars in August, 2012

Exhibit prepared by Robert Bruner

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer


Images [NASA, JPL]

The Search for Life on Mars from Viking to Curiosity (Issue #3)

by: Nicole Willett

For centuries there has been speculation about life on Mars, from microbes to little green men.  Scientists have spent an enormous amount of time and resources searching for clues to previous or current life on the Red Planet.  The latest mission to search for the clues to life on Mars is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity.


With much fanfare, on August 5, 2012, the MSL Curiosity landed successfully in Gale Crater on Mars.  The landing site was named Bradbury Landing site in honor of the late science fiction author Ray Bradbury.  There have been many predecessors to the Curiosity Rover on Mars, including orbiters, rovers, and landers.  Over the past few years NASA has been using the “follow the water” strategy in an effort to find evidence of past or current life on Mars.  We know that everywhere we have water on Earth we have life.

The Viking 1 & 2 landed on Mars in 1976.  The main purpose of the scientific experiments was to search for life.  The first soil test for Viking yielded positive results for life, however the tests that followed all yielded negative results.   These results are controversial and are still being studied and debated to this day.  Another important finding from the Viking missions was that water vapor was released from the soil samples that were heated in the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer.

The Pathfinder Sojourner Rover landed on July 4, 1997.  The Sojourner Rover was the first rover deployed on another planet.  The X-ray spectrometer examined the soil and determined that Mars clearly had a warmer and wetter past.  The Sojourner Rover confirmed previous volcanic activity by discovering basaltic rock.  Scientists state that volcanic ash increases soil fertility.  The rover also found many elements including magnetite.  The discovery of magnetite is important because it is found on Earth in bacteria, brains of bees, termites, fish, mollusk teeth, some birds, and humans.  Scientists must use Earth as an analog for any discoveries made on Mars.

The European Space Agency launched the spacecraft, Mars Express, which arrived at the Red Planet in December 2003.  This orbiter is tasked with high resolution imaging of the entire surface as well as mapping the mineral and atmospheric composition.  The information gained from Mars Express helps space agencies determine landing sites for future rovers and landers.

The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars three weeks apart in early 2004.  These two wonderful rovers were scheduled to work only 90 days, which they far exceeded.  Spirit landed January 4, 2004 and sent its last communication to Earth March 22, 2010.  The Opportunity Rover landed on January 25, 2004 and continues to roam the Martian surface.  The twin rovers were sent to assess habitability and evidence of past water. Both have discovered evidence of past water on Mars.  One discovery was hematite, a mineral that forms in the presence of standing water over a long period of time.  The principal investigator for the MER’s, Steven Squyres, has stated that not only did Mars have water, but it had at one time large quantities of water on its surface. 


The Phoenix Lander arrived on the surface of the Red Planet in the north polar region on May 25, 2008.  Phoenix was searching for environments suitable for microbial life.   Phoenix discovered water ice and when scientists watched as it sublimated in front of the lander’s cameras.  Phoenix’s wet chemistry lab tested the ingredients of the soil and found perchlorate (ClO4).  This chemical could be used by future colonists for everything from rocket fuel and a source of oxygen. 

The Mars Society Convention hall, in Pasadena, was filled as we watched Curiosity land flawlessly in Gale Crater on August 5, 2012.  The rover landed to a worldwide audience anxiously watching.  This landing site was picked for many reasons, such as, the alluvial fan (ancient river delta), the depth of the crater, and the height of the peak (Mount Sharp).  Curiosity is equipped with 17 cameras, an entire science laboratory, and is tasked with assessing the habitability of Mars.   

Previous missions have found elements in the atmosphere and in the soil as well as previous liquid water which are all clues to previous life on Mars.  One piece of evidence still missing from the puzzle is organic carbon.  Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) is a suite of instruments that will analyze the contents of the Martian soil.  SAM will look for carbon containing compounds and other elements associated with life, such as, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen.  Scientists are hoping to find organic carbon with a biological origin.  If found this will have to be studied and tested many times to prove what the origin actually is.  There will likely be debates about whatever Curiosity finds until there is unequivocal inarguable evidence. 


On October 8, 2012 the Curiosity Rover, scratched the surface of Mars, scooping up its first soil in order to clean the inside of the rovers sample handling mechanism.  The sample will be shaken vigorously and then emptied onto the ground.  This procedure will be repeated several times.  The cleaning is to ensure that any contaminants left over from Earth will be discarded before any true testing takes place.  Once the instruments are cleaned and the soil tests take place, they will determine whether or not the area was once a favorable environment for microbial life.  Curiosity is equipped with more scientific instruments than any spacecraft deployed on Mars.  Her planned two year mission is sure to make many wonderful discoveries. 

Stay tuned for further updates.  ~OnToMars~
Images  [NASA.gov, Planetary.org, Time.com]

Evolution and The Journey to Mars (Issue #2)

by: Nicole Willett

dinodeadcrashApproximately sixty-five million years ago a meteor hit the Yucatan Peninsula.  This event wiped out the dinosaurs (mostly) which had reigned supreme for nearly 240 million years.   While nothing is certain, it is safe to say that dinosaurs never invented an airplane or built a spaceship, although they had plenty of time to do so.  There has not been any archaeological evidence of such progress by dinosaurs.  Homo sapiens have walked the Earth for a mere ~200,000 years.  This is just the blink of the eye astronomically speaking.  However, in this short time we have lived here, we have accomplished many great technological feats.

Our ancestors “discovered” how to make fire, invented the wheel, figured out how to lift blocks of stone weighing thousands of pounds to build enormous monuments, learned how to cultivate crops, and began establishing towns and cities.  This was the beginning of human civilization as we know it today.  Groups of people began living and working together to accomplish a common goal.  Our goals have changed many times since the dawn of civilization.        
The planet Mars has been stared at, portrayed in artistic endeavors and studied for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The road to the Red Planet has been long and interesting.  It has taken many people collaborating over the past 100 or so years, to collect enough data to design and accomplish Mars missions. 

The first real steps toward Mars began in 1903.  On December 17th, Orville and Wilbur Wright took a bi-plane, made of muslin and spruce, out to a field in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  As we are well aware, they accomplished the first human airplane flight.  These two brothers changed life on Earth as we knew it.  Since that time technology has moved at an exponential pace.  For instance by the time World War I broke out in 1914, there was already aerial warfare, and by World War II, Germany had built and implemented the Me-262 jets in battle (first combat 1944). Quickly thereafter Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was successfully launched in 1957.  This was soon followed by Luna 1 in 1959, which was the first spacecraft to fly by the Moon. Next on the spaceflight agenda was Mars.

earth mars
In 1964, the spacecraft Mariner 4 was the first to fly-by and take a picture of the surface of Mars.  The pictures were black and white and they were not impressive to the untrained eye.  However, they were a major accomplishment for the United States.  Mariner 4 was followed by Mariner 6 and 7, both flybys in 1969.  This coincided with and was clearly overshadowed by the Apollo 11 Moon landing that same year.  Mariner 9 was the first orbiter to successfully arrive at Mars in 1971.  Since the 1970’s, there have been many successes and many failures with spacecraft seeking to explore Mars.

Some of the most notable missions were: Viking 1 and 2 landers (1975-6), the Mars Pathfinder-Sojourner Rover (1997), the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit (2004-2010) and Opportunity (2004-still operational), the Phoenix Lander (2008), and most recently and most impressively the Curiosity Rover (Aug 5, 2012). 

Together the landers and rovers have made many wonderful and exciting discoveries, adding to our understanding of the solar system.  They have sampled the soil, the atmosphere, and the mineral content of Martian rocks.  Some of what they have found include carbon dioxide (CO2) snow, mysterious globules that shrink and grow near the legs of the Phoenix Lander, interesting geological outcroppings, seasonal fluctuations of methane (due to biological or geological activity), unequivocal evidence of past (and possibly current) water on the Martian surface, as well as many other discoveries.  The Curiosity Rover is armed with more scientific instruments than any rover or lander that has visited Mars to date. Mars riverbed

Breaking News:  This week NASA released the news of an amazing discovery by the Curiosity Rover.  Curiosity has discovered a dry riverbed on Mars in Gale Crater.  The team of scientists at NASA chose Gale Crater because of the very strong evidence that water once flowed there.