MARCI weather report, February 4-10, 2019.

MARCI-February8-2019Dust storm activity was at a minimum across the tropics and southern highlands of Mars last week. Local storms were observed along the seasonal north polar cap edge, while the polar vortex showed a wave-2 type structure, typical this time of season. Water ice clouds remained above the southernmost volcano of the Tharsis Montes most afternoons. Skies were storm-free for the rover and lander sites of Curiosity (Gale Crater), InSight (Elysium Planitia), and Opportunity (Endeavour Crater) each sol. [More at link, including video]

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Opportunity’s mission comes to an end


[Ed. note: videos of NASA’s briefing and a commemoration of Opportunity’s mission are here and here.] 

One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.” [More at link]

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HiRISE: Shallow craters

ESP_054613_2175Shallow craters. These shallow craters are located in the relatively flat Amazonis Planitia, situated between the Tharsis and Elysium volcanic provinces, to the west of Olympus Mons.

HiRISE Picture of the Day archive [More at links]

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NASA briefing on Opportunity rover

PIA04413NASA will discuss the status of its Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity in a media briefing at 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST) Wednesday, Feb. 13, from the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The briefing will air live on NASA Television, the agency’s website and YouTube.

The briefing will follow NASA’s last planned attempts to communicate with Opportunity late Tuesday evening. The solar-powered rover last communicated with Earth June 10, 2018, as a planet-wide dust storm was blanketing the Red Planet.

Briefing participants will include:

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine
• Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate
• Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division
• Michael Watkins, JPL director
• Steve Squyres, MER principal investigator at Cornell University
• John Callas, MER project manager
• Matt Golombek, MER project scientist
• Abigail Fraeman, MER deputy project scientist
• Jennifer Trosper, Mars 2020 project systems engineer

The public can ask questions on social media using the hashtag #askNASA or by leaving a comment in the chat section on YouTube…. [More at link]

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THEMIS: Sand sheet in Matara Crater

Matara Crater sand sheet (THEMIS_IOTD_20190313)THEMIS Image of the Day, February 13, 2019. Today’s VIS image shows the sand deposit on the floor of Matara Crater.

The deposit is thick enough to hide the underlying crater floor creating a sheet of sand. Upon this sheet of sand the wind has created dune forms. Matara Crater is located in Noachis Terra.

See more THEMIS Images of the Day by geological subject.

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Volcanism under the south pole ice cap of Mars?

mars_still.0400A study published last year in the journal Science suggested liquid water is present beneath the south polar ice cap of Mars. Now, a new study in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters argues there needs to be an underground source of heat for liquid water to exist underneath the polar ice cap.

The new research does not take sides as to whether the liquid water exists. Instead, the authors suggest recent magmatic activity – the formation of a magma chamber within the past few hundred thousand years – must have occurred underneath the surface of Mars for there to be enough heat to produce liquid water underneath the kilometer-and-a-half thick ice cap. On the flip side, the study’s authors argue that if there was not recent magmatic activity underneath the surface of Mars, then there is not likely liquid water underneath the ice cap.

“Different people may go different ways with this, and we’re really interested to see how the community reacts to it,” said Michael Sori, an associate staff scientist in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and a co-lead author of the new paper.

The potential presence of recent underground magmatic activity on Mars lends weight to the idea that Mars is an active planet, geologically speaking. That fact could give scientists a better understanding of how planets evolve over time.

The new study is intended to further the debate around the possibility of liquid water on Mars. The presence of liquid water on the Red Planet has implications for potentially finding life outside of Earth and could also serve as a resource for future human exploration of our neighboring planet. [More at links]

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HiRISE: An Olympus Mons landslide

ESP_054599_2015An Olympus Mons landslide. Olympus Mons is too large for HiRISE to capture in one image, but we can get very detailed closeups of parts of it. Here, we see a slope streak, possibly caused by a boulder rolling downhill and exposing the darker material.

HiRISE Picture of the Day archive [More at links]

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Curiosity update: Touring Glen Torridon

NLA_603100302EDR_F0740210NCAM00275M_Sols 2318-19, February 11, 2019, update by MSL scientist Lucy Thompson: Similar to its namesake in Scotland, the Glen Torridon area on Mars affords us stunning vistas, but in our case, of the relatively low-lying clay bearing (from orbit) unit flanked to the north by the higher ground of the Vera Rubin Ridge and to the south, by Mount Sharp. We have been capturing the views with our cameras, Mastcam, Navcam and Front Hazcam and stopping for a taste of what this area has to offer by analyzing the local terrain with our suite of contact science instruments, as well as with ChemCam and Mastcam. The plan tosol is no exception.

The drive we took over the weekend, went off without a hitch and placed us on one of the few examples of more coherent, in-place bedrock exposures in the area. As such, we decided to put the brakes on and take some time to investigate in more detail. We will deploy the arm to first brush a typical area of this bedrock “Curlew,” in an attempt to remove as much of the Mars surface dust as possible, before taking… [More at link]

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Developing a flight strategy to land heavier vehicles on Mars

web_reentry_propulsion_NASA_artistPIA14834_hiresThe heaviest vehicle to successfully land on Mars is the Curiosity Rover at 1 metric ton, about 2,200 pounds. Sending more ambitious robotic missions to the surface of Mars, and eventually humans, will require landed payload masses in the 5- to 20-ton range. To do that, we need to figure out how to land more mass. That was the goal of a recent study [published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets].

Normally, when a vehicle enters the Mars atmosphere at hypersonic speeds of about Mach 30, it slows down quickly, deploys a parachute to slow down more then uses rocket engines or air bags to finish the landing.

“Unfortunately, parachute systems do not scale well with increasing vehicle mass. The new idea is to eliminate the parachute and use larger rocket engines for descent,” said Zach Putnam, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

According to Putnam, when the lander has slowed to about Mach 3, the retropropulsion engines are ignited, fired in the opposite direction to slow the vehicle down for a safe landing. The trouble is, that burns a lot of propellant. Propellant adds to vehicle mass, which can quickly drive up vehicle cost and exceed the current launch capability here on Earth. And every kilogram of propellant is a kilogram that can’t be payload: humans, science instruments, cargo, etc.

“When a vehicle is flying hypersonically, before the rocket engines are fired, some lift is generated and we can use that lift for steering,” Putnam said. “If we move the center of gravity so that it’s not uniformly packaged, but heavier on one side, it will fly at a different angle.” [More at links]

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THEMIS: Gullies in craters

Gullies in craters (THEMIS_IOTD_20190212)THEMIS Image of the Day, February 12, 2019. Today’s VIS image shows part of an unnamed crater in Noachis Terra. Several craters in the southern hemisphere contain floor fill that has subsequently been eroded to form depressions in the fill material.

Many depressions of this type are parallel to the crater wall. Other depressions are located in the center of the crater and are relatively linear. This crater depression is of the second type. Several gullies are visible on the side of the depression at the bottom of the image.

See more THEMIS Images of the Day by geological subject.

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