Mars

Organic molecules found on Mars ‘consistent with… life,’ study says

In 2018, NASA announced that its Curiosity rover had discovered organic molecules on Mars. A new study suggests that those molecules are “consistent with early life” on the Red Planet. The research, published in Astrobiology, notes that organisms known as thiophenes, which are found in white truffles, coal and crude oil on Earth, have also been discovered on the Red Planet. “We identified several biological pathways for thiophenes that seem more likely than chemical ones, but we still need proof,” the study’s co-author, Dirk Schulze‑Makuch, said in a statement. “If you find thiophenes on Earth, then you would think they are biological, but on Mars, of course, the bar to prove that has to be quite a bit higher.” The research suggests that a biological process “most likely involving bacteria rather than a truffle though, may have played a role in the organic compound’s existence.” However, it’s also possible that it could come from non-biological sources, such as meteor impacts. If indeed the thiophenes were formed from a biological process, it may have stemmed from bacteria that “could have facilitated a sulfate reduction process,” as Mars was warm and wet 3 billion years ago. More will be learned about the organic molecules from the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover, slated to launch in July 2020. The researchers said that even if the next rover gets isotopic evidence of carbon and sulfur isotopes, which Schulze‑Makuch calls “a telltale signal for life,” it may not be a guarantee there was or is life on Mars. “As Carl Sagan said ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’” Schulze‑Makuch explained. “I think the proof will really require that we actually send people there, and an astronaut looks through a microscope and sees a moving microbe.” NASA is slated to launch a new rover to Mars, known as Perseverance, on July 17, 2020. This rover will attempt to detect if there is any fossilized evidence of extraterrestrial beings, in addition to other tasks. Upon its expected arrival on the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021, it will join the still functioning Curiosity rover and the now-deceased Opportunity rover on the Red Planet. Unlike Curiosity or Opportunity, this rover will carry the “first helicopter that will fly on another planet,” NASA added. NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

Fascinating!!  For more, click on the text above.     🙂

Elon Musk’s Plan to Settle Mars

Last Week my wife Hope and I traveled to Boca Chica, Texas, to meet with Elon Musk. While we talked inside the SpaceX onsite headquarters, a mariachi band played outside, providing entertainment for long lines of people queued up to apply for multiple categories of jobs building craft to take humans to Mars. Hundreds were already hired and at work in the complex. Soon there will be thousands. Musk calls his design the “Starship.” It’s a methane/oxygen-driven, stainless-steel, two-stage-to-orbit rocket with a payload capacity equal to the Saturn V booster that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon. The Saturn V, however, was expendable, with each unit destroyed in the course of a single use. Starship will be fully reusable, like an airliner, and therefore promises a radical reduction in payload-delivery costs. Starship has yet to be demonstrated. Yet here was Musk, building not the first experimental ship to prove the concept but, as we witnessed touring the place the next day, a shipyard and a fleet. Is he mad? According to conventional aerospace-industry thinking he certainly is. But there is a method to his madness. I have known Musk for some two decades now. In 2001, I was among those who helped convince him to make Mars his calling. His plan is based to a significant degree on my own work, which is generally known as the Mars Direct plan. Published in 1990 and elaborated in detail in 1996 in my book The Case for Mars, Mars Direct was a radical break with previous NASA thinking on how human Mars missions might be accomplished. But Musk’s Starship plan is far more radical still. With the exception of a period in the 1990s when NASA, under the guidance of Mike Griffin, the associate administrator for exploration, did embrace an expanded version of Mars Direct, the space agency has stuck with a paradigm set forth by Wernher von Braun in a number of variations between 1948 and 1969. According to those ideas, orbital stations should first be built, providing platforms for on-orbit construction of giant interplanetary spaceships using advanced propulsion systems, which would travel from Earth orbit (or currently, rather more absurdly, lunar orbit) to Mars orbit. Departing from these orbital motherships, small landing craft could take crews down to the Martian surface to plant the flag, make a few footprints, and then return to orbit after a short stay. In contrast, both Mars Direct and the Starship plan use direct flights from Earth orbit to the surface of Mars, with direct return from the surface to Earth using methane/oxygen propellant made on the Red Planet from local materials. Both plans shun any need for orbital infrastructure, orbital construction, interplanetary motherships, specialized small landing craft, or advanced propulsion. Both involve long duration stays on Mars from the very first mission. For both, the central purpose of the mission is not to fly to Mars but to accomplish something serious there. But there is a difference. In Mars Direct, the modest earth-return vehicle and the crew’s habitation module both stage off the booster that delivers them to orbit, landing on the Red Planet with a combined useful-habitation-plus-payload-mass of about 40 tons. In Musk’s plan, a Starship is flown to orbit and then refueled there by six tanker Starships, after which the whole ship is flown the Mars, delivering a useful habitation-plus-payload mass of as much as 200 tons. So, while the Mars Direct plan might send crews of four to six astronauts at a time to the Red Planet, a Starship could accommodate 50 or more. Musk’s plan offers more mission capability than Mars Direct does, but that capability comes with a price. Specifically, if the crew is to come back, you need to refuel a Starship, which needs about 1,000 tons of propellant. In the Mars Direct plan, the much more modest earth-return vehicle sent to the Red Planet in advance of the crew requires only 100 tons. The Mars surface-power and other base requirements needed to support Starship operations are a factor of ten higher than those needed to implement Mars Direct. So a large base needs to be built in advance, with several Starships sent one-way to Mars and loaded with lots of base equipment, ten football fields’ worth of solar panels, and robots to set it all up. Not until all that is in place can the first crew carrying Starship arrive. That makes the system suboptimal for exploration. But exploration is not what Musk has in mind. If Mars Direct may be likened to an evolvable version of the Apollo program, Musk’s plan is like D-Day. He needs a fleet. So he’s creating a shipyard to build a fleet. But why build a fleet before testing even one ship? There are several reasons. The first is that Musk wants to be prepared to take losses. By the time the first Starship is ready for its maiden test flight, he’ll have three or four more already built and on deck, ready to be modified to fix whatever caused the first to fail. Launch, crash, fix, and repeat, until it works, and then keep launching, improving payload and cutting turnaround time, advancing performance, flight by flight, ferociously. But there is another reason to build a fleet. It’s to make Starships cheap. NASA built five space shuttles over a twelve-year period, each one costing several billion dollars. Musk is creating a shipyard designed to ultimately mass-produce Starships at a rate of 50 or more per year. That may sound crazy, but it is not impossible. In 1944, the United States produced escort aircraft carriers at a rate of one per week. Scores of separate teams worked simultaneously, each on its own part of the ship for a few days before passing the job on to the next team. If Musk set up a similar line with a workforce of 3,000, that would mean labor costs on the order of $6 million per ship, or between $15 to $20 million each, with materials and avionics included. If he can get costs that low, then once the base on Mars is operational, with a growing industrial and greenhouse agricultural capacity, Starships carrying 100 passengers each could fly to Mars and stay there if necessary to provide housing, at a hardware cost per passenger of less than $200,000. So make the ticket price $300,000 — the net worth of a typical homeowner, or about seven years’ pay for an average American. In colonial times, working stiffs booked passage to America in exchange for seven years’ work. It’s a price many people can pay — and have paid — when they really want to make a move.

Very cool!!  For more on this article by Robert Zubrin, click on the text above.  Robert is an aerospace engineer, the founder of the Mars Society and the president of Pioneer Astronautics. His latest book is The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility. @robert_zubrin      🙂

Mars Opportunity rover is dead, NASA confirms

NASA has finally plugged the plug on its Mars Opportunity rover, which has been silent on the Red Planet’s surface for eight months. “I declare the Opportunity mission is complete,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate during a press conference on Wednesday. “I have to tell you, this is an emotional time,” he added. The rover reached Mars in 2004, but NASA lost contact with the vehicle last year following an epic dust storm that enveloped the red planet and prevented sunlight from reaching its surface. The last signal received from the $400 million solar-powered rover was on June 10, 2018. NASA made its last planned attempts to communicate with Opportunity late on Tuesday, but did not receive any response back. “I heard this morning that we had not heard back,” said Zurbuchen, explaining that the “beloved” rover remains silent. The missing vehicle was spotted three months later. On Sept. 20, the HiRISE high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of the rover in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. However, scientists were still unable to talk to the vehicle. Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 PST, just three weeks after its identical twin, Spirit, reached the Red Planet’s surface. Both outlived and outperformed expectations, on opposite sides of Mars. The golf-cart-sized rovers were designed to operate as geologists for just three months, after bouncing onto our planetary neighbor inside cushioning airbags. They rocketed from Cape Canaveral a month apart in 2003. Spirit was pronounced dead in 2011 a year after it got stuck in sand and communication ceased. “This is a celebration of so many achievements,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, during Wednesday’s press conference at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Opportunity set records on the Red Planet. Rolling along until communication ceased last June, Opportunity roamed a record 28 miles around Mars and worked longer than any other lander. Its greatest achievement was discovering, along with Spirit, evidence that ancient Mars had water flowing on its surface and might have been capable of sustaining microbial life. Contact with Opportunity was lost during the fiercest Martian dust storm in decades. The storm was so intense that it darkened the sky for months, preventing sunlight from reaching the rover’s solar panels. The storm may have scrambled the rover’s internal clock, NASA explained on Wednesday, meaning that the rover would not know when to sleep, wake up, or receive commands. NASA has two other probes operating on Mars. The Curiosity rover, which reached the Red Planet in August 2012, has more than 12 miles on its odometer. NASA’s Insight Mars Lander reached the surface of the Red Planet in November 2018, ending a journey that lasted six months and more than 300 million miles. In November 2018, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to land on Mars Feb. 18, 2021.

Liquid water lake discovered on Mars

A massive underground lake has been detected for the first time on Mars, raising hopes that more water — and maybe even life — exists there, international astronomers said Wednesday. Located under a layer of Martian ice, the lake is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) wide, said the report led by Italian researchers in the US journal Science. It is the largest body of liquid water ever found on the Red Planet. “Water is there. We have no more doubt,” co-author Enrico Flamini, the Italian space agency’s Mars Express mission manager, told a press conference. Mars is now cold, barren and dry but it used to be warm and wet. It was home to plenty of liquid water and lakes at least 3.6 billion years ago. Scientists are eager to find signs of contemporary water, because such discoveries are key to unlocking the mystery of whether life ever formed on Mars in its ancient past, and whether it might persist today. “This is a stunning result that suggests water on Mars is not a temporary trickle like previous discoveries but a persistent body of water that provides the conditions for life for extended periods of time,” said Alan Duffy, an associate professor at Swinburne University in Australia, who was not involved in the study. Being able to access water sources could also help humans survive on a future crewed mission to Earth’s neighboring planet, with NASA aiming to send explorers in the 2030s.

The debate is finally over!  For more, click on the text above.   🙂

NASA Curiosity rover unearths building blocks in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars

The “building blocks” for life have been discovered in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars, NASA scientists announced Thursday. Researchers cannot yet say whether their discovery stems from life or a more mundane geological process. However, “we’re in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life,” said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a NASA biogeochemist and lead author of a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. The findings were also remarkable in that they showed that organic material can be preserved for billions of years on the harsh Martian surface. The material was discovered by the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been collecting data on the Red Planet since August 2012. The organic molecules were found in Gale Crater — believed to once contain a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. For the past six years, “the Curiosity has sifted samples of soil and ground-up rock for signs of organic molecules — the complex carbon chains that on Earth form the building blocks of life,” according to Science. “Past detections have been so faint that they could be just contamination,” the journal said. Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lake bed have yielded complex organic molecules that look strikingly similar to the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth. The rover also discovered traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere, which was reported in a second paper in Science. This is significant because most methane on Earth, for instance, comes from biological sources. “The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars,” said Inge Loes ten Kate, a Utrecht University scientist in an accompanying article in Science. “Curiosity has shown that Gale Crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time. “The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time,” Kate said. NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said that “with these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.” The nuclear-battery-powered Curiosity rover, a $2.5 billion mobile chemistry lab, launched in 2011. NASA calls Curiosity the “largest and most capable” rover ever to make contact with Mars. It’s about the size of a car, has a 7-foot-long arm and carries 10 science instruments, 17 cameras and a laser to “vaporize” rocks.

Fascinating!!  To see photos of Mars and more, click on the text above.     🙂

Opportunity Mars rover wheels past 14 years of exploration

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover has now been exploring the Red Planet for more than 14 years. The robot landed in Meridiani Planum on the night of Jan. 24, 2004 (PST). (It was Jan. 25 in the GMT time zone, but Opportunity’s handlers work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, so the rover’s milestones are generally celebrated on California time.) Originally intended to work for just 90 days on the Martian surface, the machine is still trekking, continuing its winter exploration of Perseverance Valley on the west rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity landed a few weeks after its twin, Spirit, which also far exceeded its warranty. Spirit last communicated with Earth in 2010 and was declared dead a year later. On Sol (Martian day) 4977 — Jan. 23, 2018 — Opportunity received its latest version of flight software. This was copied over the older fallback version in preparation for an update scheduled for later in the year. On Sol 4970 (Jan. 16, 2018), wind cleaned the dust off Opportunity’s solar arrays, a welcome event that happens often at this time of year. Researchers continue to use the rover’s robotic arm, Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Microscopic Imager (MI), NASA officials said. Opportunity has moved along the north fork of one flow channel in Perseverance Valley. The rover spent several sols taking some photos — stereo shots, color panoramas and targeted 13-filter imaging — and traveling to selected surface targets for closer investigation. Earlier in the month, ground controllers prepared and executed a test of the Zero Degree Heater (ZDH) on the rover’s batteries. “Opportunity’s batteries have performed very well over the mission’s lifetime but are showing some signs of aging. [The] Martian environment is quite cold, and it was suspected that warming the battery during the recharge process may make the battery … more effective and [make it] degrade slower,” said a recent update posted by the mission team. Opportunity had never used the ZDH before, so caution was warranted, the rover’s handlers said. “Since it has never been turned on in flight, we wanted to be very cautious before using it operationally, and so a testing campaign was formulated. The first, original test in this campaign was to turn it on briefly, manually (as opposed to thermostatically), and in a controlled and recoverable (in the case of a fault) setting,” the update noted. “This test was executed in the morning of Sol 4964 (Jan. 10, 2018) and appears to have been successful.” Since touchdown on Mars, Opportunity’s total journey now stands at over 28 miles (45 kilometers). No human vehicle has traveled farther on the surface of another world.

Thanks to veteran space reporter Leonard David for this update on Opportunity.

Mars once had a lake 10 times larger than the Great Lakes

Scientists have known for some time that Mars once had lots and lots of water — in fact, some of it is still there — but exactly where it existed on the planet has been pretty difficult to figure out thanks to billions of years of surface erosion. Now, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered one place on the red planet that held a whole bunch of the life-giving liquid: an incredibly massive lake that, during its peak, held ten times the amount of water of all the Great Lakes, combined. It’s an incredible discovery, and one that could help inform future exploration of Mars in the hopes of finding evidence that life once existed there. The idea that Mars was one a life-giving planet much like our own is one that has tantalized scientists for a long, long time, and if they ever hope to prove it, they now have a promising lead on where to start looking. But even if Mars never hosted living organisms, its colossal lake could still help inform researchers painting the picture of life’s origins here on Earth. “Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center explains. “Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.” The lake was discovered thanks to the detection of huge mineral deposits hiding underneath the surface. It is believed that those minerals were the byproduct of volcanic underwater vents, much like those that exist deep in Earth’s oceans. On our planet, those hydrothermal vents actually host life, but it’s unclear whether the same was true for ancient Mars. At the moment, the idea of a massive Martian lake with hydrothermal features is incredibly exciting, but we’re still a long way from actually finding anything suggesting the existence of life there. There are no current plans to actually investigate the site, dig, or study the area beyond what is already being done, but that could change.

Let’s hope so!