Curiosity update: Piling on

1969MH0007310010704698C00_DXXX-br2Sol 1971, February 21, 2018, update by MSL scientist Michelle Minitti: Over the weekend, Curiosity successfully off-loaded the sample she acquired previously, the “Ogunquit Beach” sand sample, in preparation for what the science team hopes is acquisition of a new *drilled* rock sample very soon. Curiosity has a sophisticated sample handling and preparation system, known as the Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling (SA/SPaH, “saw-spa”) system. SA/SPaH has the ability to divide a drilled or scooped sample up into different ranges of particle sizes. In the case of the Ogunquit Beach sample, the finest particle size range corresponded to the material that was delivered to both SAM and CheMin. It is known as the post-sieve sample. The larger particle size range material, which was just along for the ride within SA/SPaH, is known as the pre-sieve sample. The first round of MAHLI imaging of both the pre-sieve and post-sieve samples, dumped into… [More at link]

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MARCI weather report, February 12-18, 2018

MARCI-February-13-2018At the beginning of the week, the aphelion cloud belt dominated the skies over the tropics of Mars. Condensate water-ice clouds were also spotted further north above Tempe, Alba, Acidalia, and Deuteronilus. Looking to the southern highlands, small short-lived dust storms were observed near Claritas rise, northwest of Argyre, and northeast of Arsia Mons — the southern most volcano of the Tharsis Montes. Both rovers… [More at link, including video]

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Mars Phoenix: Dust covers landing scars after almost 5 Mars years

PIA22223aA recent view from Mars orbit of the site where NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission landed on far-northern Mars nearly a decade ago shows that dust has covered some marks of the landing.

The Phoenix lander itself, plus its back shell and parachute, are still visible in the image taken Dec. 21, 2017, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But an animated-blink comparison with an image from about two months after the May 25, 2008, landing shows that patches of ground that had been darkened by removal of dust during landing events have become coated with dust again.

In August 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for two additional months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter. [More at link, and also see here]

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James Webb Space Telescope will investigate how Mars went from wet to dry

modal_low_STScI-J-p1810a-m2000x776The planet Mars has fascinated scientists for over a century. Today, it is a frigid desert world with a carbon dioxide atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth’s. But evidence suggests that in the early history of our solar system, Mars had an ocean’s worth of water. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will study Mars to learn more about the planet’s transition from wet to dry, and what that means about its past and present habitability.

Mars will be targeted as part of a Guaranteed Time Observation (GTO) project led by Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer and executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in Washington, D.C. The GTO program provides dedicated time to the scientists who have worked with NASA to craft the science capabilities of Webb throughout its development. Hammel was selected by NASA as a JWST Interdisciplinary Scientist in 2003. Mars will be visible to Webb from May to September 2020 during its first year of operations, known as Cycle 1.

“Webb will return extremely interesting measurements of chemistry in the Martian atmosphere,” noted Hammel. “And most importantly, these Mars data will be immediately available to the planetary community to enable them to plan even more detailed Mars observations with Webb in future cycles.”

“We are all looking forward to Webb’s observations of Mars. I just know they will be fantastic, with the potential for immediate scientific discoveries,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. (…)

One key asset is Webb’s ability to take a snapshot of the entire disk of Mars at once. Orbiters, in contrast, take time to make a full map and therefore can be affected by day-to-day variability, while rovers can only measure one location. Webb also benefits from excellent spectral resolution (the ability to measure small differences in wavelengths of light) and a lack of interfering atmosphere that plagues ground-based measurements from Earth.

That said, observing Mars with Webb will not be easy. “Webb is designed to be able to detect extremely faint and distant targets, but Mars is bright and close,” explained Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Mars lead on the GTO project. As a result, the observations will be carefully designed to avoid swamping Webb’s delicate instruments with light.

“Very importantly, observations of Mars will also test Webb’s capabilities in tracking moving objects across the sky, which is of key importance when investigating our solar system,” said Stefanie Milam at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. who is coordinating the solar system program with Webb. [More at link]

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ExoMars: Surfing complete

Slowed by skimming through the very top of the upper atmosphere, ESA’s ExoMars has lowered itself into a planet-hugging orbit and is about ready to begin sniffing the Red Planet for methane.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars in October 2016 to investigate the potentially biological or geological origin of trace gases in the atmosphere.

It will also serve as a relay, connecting rovers on the surface with their controllers on Earth.

But before any of this could get underway, the spacecraft had to transform its initial, highly elliptical four-day orbit of about 98 000 x 200 km into the final, much lower and circular path at about 400 km.

“Since March 2017, we’ve been conducting a terrifically delicate ‘aerobraking’ campaign, during which we commanded it to dip into the wispy, upper-most tendrils of the atmosphere once per revolution, slowing the craft and lowering its orbit,” says ESA flight director Michel Denis.

“This took advantage of the faint drag on the solar wings, steadily transforming the orbit. It’s been a major challenge for the mission teams supported by European industry, but they’ve done an excellent job and we’ve reached our initial goal.

“During some orbits, we were just 103 km above Mars, which is incredibly close.”

The end of this effort came at 17:20 GMT on 20 February, when the craft fired its thrusters for about 16 minutes to raise the closest approach to the surface to about 200 km, well out of the atmosphere. This effectively ended the aerobraking campaign, leaving it in an orbit of about 1050 x 200 km. [More at link]

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Opportunity: Microscopic Imager shoots a rover selfie to commemorate Sol 5000

Opportunity-selfie-sol-5000Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist R. Aileen Yingst was in the driver’s seat Feb. 15 directing the science activities for NASA’s Opportunity Rover as it spent its 5,000th day exploring the Martian surface. Yingst served as Science Operations Working Group chairperson running the group that decided what the rover did that sol, or Martian day.

The rover’s mission has far exceeded the 90 sols for which it was initially scheduled when it landed on Mars Jan. 25, 2004. A Martian “sol” lasts about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, and a Martian year lasts nearly two Earth years.

“Five thousand sols after the start of our 90-sol mission, this amazing rover is still showing us surprises on Mars,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Yingst said she never imagined the rover would continue to function this long. “Absolutely not, but not because I lacked faith in the engineering. Simply put, rocket science is difficult and risky; Principal Investigator Steve Squyres compared working on a rover to doing geology with a sniper over your shoulder,” she said.

“There’s no landed mission that compare to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program’s longevity and resilience, and that’s due to the people who work so hard and give up their weekends and off-hours to solve the insolvable and work around the unworkable,” said Yingst, who has worked on MER since 2006. [More at link]

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THEMIS: Canyon wall failure in Ius Chasma

Canyon wall failure in Ius Chasma (THEMIS_IOTD_20180221)THEMIS Image of the Day, February 21, 2018. Continuing eastward along Ius Chasma, this image shows the eastern section of the large landslide deposit seen in yesterday’s post.

A landslide is a failure of slope due to gravity. They initiate due to several reasons. A lower layer of poorly cemented/resistant material may have been eroded, undermining the wall above which then collapses; earthquake seismic waves can cause the slope to collapse; and even an impact event near the canyon wall can cause collapse.

As millions of tons of material fall and slide down slope a scalloped cavity forms at the upper part where the slope failure occurred. At the material speeds downhill it will pick up more of the underlying slope, increasing the volume of material entrained into the landslide. Whereas some landslides spread across the canyon floor forming lobate deposits, very large volume slope failures will completely fill the canyon floor in a large complex region of chaotic blocks.

Ius Chasma is at the western end of Valles Marineris, south of Tithonium Chasma. Valles Marineris is over 4000 kilometers long, wider than the United States. Ius Chasma is almost 850 kilometers long (528 miles), 120 kilometers wide and over 8 kilometers deep. In comparison, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is about 175 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide, and only 2 kilometers deep.

The canyons of Valles Marineris were formed by extensive fracturing and pulling apart of the crust during the uplift of the vast Tharsis plateau. Landslides have enlarged the canyon walls and created deposits on the canyon floor. Weathering of the surface and influx of dust and sand have modified the canyon floor, both creating and modifying layered materials. There are many features that indicate flowing and standing water played a part in the chasma formation.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has spent over 15 years in orbit around Mars, circling the planet more than 71,000 times. It holds the record for longest working spacecraft at Mars. THEMIS, the IR/VIS camera system, has collected data for the entire mission and provides images covering all seasons and lighting conditions.

Over the years many features of interest have received repeated imaging, building up a suite of images covering the entire feature. From the deepest chasma to the tallest volcano, individual dunes inside craters and dune fields that encircle the north pole, channels carved by water and lava, and a variety of other feature, THEMIS has imaged them all.

For the next several months the Image of the Day will focus on the Tharsis volcanoes, the various chasmata of Valles Marineris, and the major dune fields. We hope you enjoy these images!

More THEMIS Images of the Day by geological topic.

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Opportunity: Wheel tracks in false color

5003-pancamFC1P572328191EFFD1B3P2591L5M1_L2L5L5L7L7Sol 5003, February 19, 2018. After driving Opportunity upslope and away from Nueva Vizcaya, rover controllers turned the Pancam back on the rover’s tracks (above). The tracks’ tint in this false-color view (by Holger Isenberg) shows that disturbing the surface soil alters its optical properties.

At right, a view closer to Opportunity shows similar effects, but shadows are not as pronounced. Click either image to enlarge it.

Opportunity raw images, its latest mission status, location map, and atmospheric opacity, known as tau.

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THEMIS: Blocky rubble chokes Ius Chasma’s floor

Ius Chasma's blocky rubble (THEMIS_IOTD_20180220)THEMIS Image of the Day, February 20, 2018. Continuing eastward along Ius Chasma, this section of the canyon floor has been completely filled by blocky deposits from large volume landslides.

A landslide is a failure of slope due to gravity. They initiate due to several reasons. A lower layer of poorly cemented/resistant material may have been eroded, undermining the wall above which then collapses; earthquake seismic waves can cause the slope to collapse; and even an impact event near the canyon wall can cause collapse.

As millions of tons of material fall and slide down slope a scalloped cavity forms at the upper part where the slope failure occurred. At the material speeds downhill it will pick up more of the underlying slope, increasing the volume of material entrained into the landslide. Whereas some landslides spread across the canyon floor forming lobate deposits, very large volume slope failures will completely fill the canyon floor in a large complex region of chaotic blocks.

Ius Chasma is at the western end of Valles Marineris, south of Tithonium Chasma. Valles Marineris is over 4000 kilometers long, wider than the United States. Ius Chasma is almost 850 kilometers long (528 miles), 120 kilometers wide and over 8 kilometers deep. In comparison, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is about 175 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide, and only 2 kilometers deep.

The canyons of Valles Marineris were formed by extensive fracturing and pulling apart of the crust during the uplift of the vast Tharsis plateau. Landslides have enlarged the canyon walls and created deposits on the canyon floor. Weathering of the surface and influx of dust and sand have modified the canyon floor, both creating and modifying layered materials. There are many features that indicate flowing and standing water played a part in the chasma formation.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has spent over 15 years in orbit around Mars, circling the planet more than 71,000 times. It holds the record for longest working spacecraft at Mars. THEMIS, the IR/VIS camera system, has collected data for the entire mission and provides images covering all seasons and lighting conditions.

Over the years many features of interest have received repeated imaging, building up a suite of images covering the entire feature. From the deepest chasma to the tallest volcano, individual dunes inside craters and dune fields that encircle the north pole, channels carved by water and lava, and a variety of other feature, THEMIS has imaged them all.

For the next several months the Image of the Day will focus on the Tharsis volcanoes, the various chasmata of Valles Marineris, and the major dune fields. We hope you enjoy these images!

More THEMIS Images of the Day by geological topic.

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HiRISE: Icy layers in craters

ESP_053642_2225Scientists now realize that ice is very common on the Martian surface. It often fills up craters and valleys in the mid-latitudes in older climates, although when it’s covered in dust it can be hard to recognize. Today the climate on Mars makes this ice unstable and some of it has evaporated away.

In this image we can see the edge of a mound of ice in one of these mid-latitude craters. Some of it has already been removed, so we can see layering that used to be in the crater’s interior. Scientists use ice deposits like these to figure out how the climate has changed on Mars. Another upside of recognizing this ice is that future astronauts will have plenty of drinking water. [More at link]

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