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NASA’s Opportunity At 10: New Findings From Old Rover

January 23, 2014 Leave a comment

New findings from rock samples collected and examined by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity have confirmed an ancient wet environment that was milder and older than the acidic and oxidizing conditions told by rocks the rover examined previously.

In the Jan. 24 edition of the journal Science, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, writes in detail about the discoveries made by the rover and how these discoveries have shaped our knowledge of the planet. According to Arvidson and others on the team, the latest evidence from Opportunity is landmark.

“These rocks are older than any we examined earlier in the mission, and they reveal more favorable conditions for microbial life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity,” said Arvidson.

While the Opportunity team celebrates the rover’s 10th anniversary on Mars, they also look forward to what discoveries lie ahead and how a better understanding of Mars will help advance plans for human missions to the planet in the 2030s.

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NASA Mars Spacecraft Reveals A More Dynamic Red Planet

December 11, 2013 2 comments

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed to scientists slender dark markings — possibly due to salty water – that advance seasonally down slopes surprisingly close to the Martian equator.

“The equatorial surface region of Mars has been regarded as dry, free of liquid or frozen water, but we may need to rethink that,” said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson, principal investigator for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

Tracking how these features recur each year is one example of how the longevity of NASA orbiters observing Mars is providing insight about changes on many time scales. Researchers at the American Geophysical Union meeting Tuesday in San Francisco discussed a range of current Martian activity, from fresh craters offering glimpses of subsurface ice to multi-year patterns in the occurrence of large, regional dust storms.

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SwRI Scientists Publish First Radiation Measurements From The Surface Of Mars

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

In the first 300 days of the Mars Science Laboratory surface mission, the Curiosity rover cruised around the planet’s Gale Crater, collecting soil samples and investigating rock structures while the onboard Radiation Assessment Detector made detailed measurements of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars.

“Our measurements provide crucial information for human missions to Mars,” said Dr. Don Hassler, a Southwest Research Institute program director and RAD principal investigator. Hassler is the lead author of “Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover,” scheduled for publication in the journal Science online on December 9, 2013. “We’re continuing to monitor the radiation environment, and seeing the effects of major solar storms on the surface and at different times in the solar cycle will give additional important data. Our measurements also tie into Curiosity’s investigations about habitability. The radiation sources that are of concern for human health also affect microbial survival as well as the preservation of organic chemicals.”

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NASA Curiosity: First Mars Age Measurement And Human Exploration Help

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity rover is providing vital insight about Mars’ past and current environments that will aid plans for future robotic and human missions.

n a little more than a year on the Red Planet, the mobile Mars Science Laboratory has determined the age of a Martian rock, found evidence the planet could have sustained microbial life, taken the first readings of radiation on the surface, and shown how natural erosion could reveal the building blocks of life. Curiosity team members presented these results and more from Curiosity in six papers published online today by Science Express and in talks at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The second rock Curiosity drilled for a sample on Mars, which scientists nicknamed “Cumberland,” is the first ever to be dated from an analysis of its mineral ingredients while it sits on another planet. A report by Kenneth Farley of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and co-authors, estimates the age of Cumberland at 3.86 billion to 4.56 billion years old. This is in the range of earlier estimates for rocks in Gale Crater, where Curiosity is working.

“The age is not surprising, but what is surprising is that this method worked using measurements performed on Mars,” said Farley. “When you’re confirming a new methodology, you don’t want the first result to be something unexpected. Our understanding of the antiquity of the Martian surface seems to be right.”

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New Views Of Mars From Sediment Mineralogy

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

The first detailed examination of clay mineralogy in its original setting on Mars is offering new insights on the planet’s past habitability, research led by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist David T. Vaniman has found.

The sedimentary rock samples tested were collected by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity at Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater on Mars. The rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction and Fluorescence (CheMin XRD/XRF) instrument analyzed the samples.

“The in situ X-ray diffraction results reveal the presence of smectite, a type of clay mineral typical of soils and sediments that have not been deeply buried, heated, or otherwise altered,” Vaniman said. “The X-Ray diffraction data are also important for what they do not detect – clay minerals such as chlorite or illite that would have formed in strongly alkaline or hydrothermal fluids.”

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Martian Laser Surpasses 100,000 Zaps

December 6, 2013 1 comment

The ChemCam laser instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover fired its 100,000th shot recently, chronicling its adventures on Mars with a coffee-table-book’s worth of spectral data that might rival snapshots gathered during a long and satisfying family vacation here on Earth. ChemCam zaps rocks with a high-powered laser to determine their composition and carries a camera that can survey the Martian landscape.

“ChemCam has greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary scientist and Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team. “The information we’ve gleaned from the instrument will continue to enhance our understanding of the Red Planet, and will nicely complement information from the other nine instruments aboard Curiosity as we continue our odyssey to Mount Sharp.”

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NASA Cassini Spacecraft Provides New View Of Saturn And Earth

November 13, 2013 Leave a comment

NASA has released a natural-color image of Saturn from space, the first in which Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus and Mars, all are visible.

The new panoramic mosaic of the majestic Saturn system taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which shows the view as it would be seen by human eyes, was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington on Tuesday.

Cassini’s imaging team processed 141 wide-angle images to create the panorama. The image sweeps 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across Saturn and its inner ring system, including all of Saturn’s rings out to the E ring, which is Saturn’s second outermost ring. For perspective, the distance between Earth and our moon would fit comfortably inside the span of the E ring.

“In this one magnificent view, Cassini has delivered to us a universe of marvels,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini’s imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “And it did so on a day people all over the world, in unison, smiled in celebration at the sheer joy of being alive on a pale blue dot.”

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Curiosity Confirms Origins Of Martian Meteorites

October 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Earth’s most eminent emissary to Mars has just proven that those rare Martian visitors that sometimes drop in on Earth — a.k.a. Martian meteorites — really are from the Red Planet. A key new measurement of Mars’ atmosphere by NASA’s Curiosity rover provides the most definitive evidence yet of the origins of Mars meteorites while at the same time providing a way to rule out Martian origins of other meteorites.

The new measurement is a high-precision count of two forms of argon gas—Argon-36 and Argon-38–accomplished by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on Curiosity. These lighter and heavier forms, or isotopes, of argon exist naturally throughout the solar system. But on Mars the ratio of light to heavy argon is skewed because a lot of that planet’s original atmosphere was lost to space, with the lighter form of argon being taken away more readily because it rises to the top of the atmosphere more easily and requires less energy to escape. That’s left the Martian atmosphere relatively enriched in the heavier Argon-38.

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Mars Hand Lens Imager Sends Ultra High-Res Photo From Mars

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Planetary Science Institute

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Planetary Science Institute

An instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover has sent back to scientists on Earth an ultra high-resolution image of a penny the rover carried to Mars.

The coin was photographed by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard Curiosity in northern Gale crater on Mars. The penny, a 1909 VDB penny minted in Philadelphia during the first year that Lincoln cents became available, is part of the MAHLI calibration target and came from Earth. The images were acquired on Oct. 2, on sol 411 – the 411th Martian day – of the mission.

“I’m so proud of how beautifully this camera has performed on Mars,” said R. Aileen Yingst, Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist and deputy Principal Investigator for MAHLI. “I can’t wait to apply this newly available capability to real geologic targets on our way to Mt. Sharp.”

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Science Benefits From Diverse Landing Area Of NASA Mars Rover

October 2, 2013 1 comment

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

NASA’s Curiosity rover is revealing a great deal about Mars, from long-ago processes in its interior to the current interaction between the Martian surface and atmosphere.

Examination of loose rocks, sand and dust has provided new understanding of the local and global processes on Mars. Analysis of observations and measurements by the rover’s science instruments during the first four months after the August 2012 landing are detailed in five reports in the Sept. 27 edition of the journal Science.

A key finding is that water molecules are bound to fine-grained soil particles, accounting for about 2 percent of the particles’ weight at Gale Crater where Curiosity landed. This result has global implications, because these materials are likely distributed around the Red Planet.

Curiosity also has completed the first comprehensive mineralogical analysis on another planet using a standard laboratory method for identifying minerals on Earth. The findings about both crystalline and non-crystalline components in soil provide clues to the planet’s volcanic history.

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