Mars

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!

Water ice mystery found at Martian equator

A new examination of old data suggests that there might be ice hiding in the Martian equator, even though scientists previously thought that the substance couldn’t exist there. Scientists uncovered an unexpected amount of hydrogen when looking at older data from NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft dating back to between 2002 and 2009. At higher latitudes, hydrogen generally indicates buried water ice, but this was not believed possible at the equator, according to a statement from NASA. If there is indeed water there, this would help with a future human mission to Mars, because it could mean the astronauts wouldn’t need to bring the substance with them for drinking, cooling equipment or watering plants, researchers said in the statement. Instead, the astronauts could live off the land to an extent, reducing the number of resources that need to be trucked (at higher cost) from Earth. Mars Odyssey’s first major discovery, in 2002, was also linked to water; the spacecraft found buried hydrogen at high latitudes, and the 2008 landing of the Phoenix Mars lander confirmed that there was water ice. However, at lower latitudes, measurements of hydrogen were explained as hydrated minerals (which other spacecraft have also observed). Researchers didn’t think water ice was thermodynamically stable in those areas. For this new study, the researchers analyzed data collected using Mars Odyssey’s neutron spectrometer. The instrument is not designed to directly detect water, but by measuring neutrons, it can detect signatures of hydrogen, which can mark the presence of water or other hydrogen-bearing substances. The science team reduced the blurring or “noise” in Odyssey’s data using image-reconstruction techniques based on those used for other spacecraft and for medicine, according to the statement. This improved the spatial resolution of the data to 180 miles (290 kilometers), twice the previous resolution of 320 miles (520 km). “It was as if we’d cut the spacecraft’s orbital altitude in half, and it gave us a much better view of what’s happening on the surface,” Jack Wilson, the study’s principal investigator and a postdoctoral researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said in the statement. Using those closer views, the researchers saw even higher levels of hydrogen, suggestive of water. Their work focused on equatorial areas, particularly in zones around the Medusae Fossae formation, an area that includes material that is easy to erode. Previous observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter suggested there might be volcanic deposits or water ice just below the surface. Scientists, however, were skeptical that it was water ice, because “if the detected hydrogen were buried ice within the top meter [3.3 feet] of the surface, there would be more than would fit into pore space in soil,” Wilson said. The study’s scientists emphasized that more evidence is needed to conclude that the signature indeed comes from water ice. They’re not too sure how the water was preserved, they said; perhaps ice and dust flowing from the poles moved through the atmosphere when Mars had a steeper axis tilt than today. However, it’s been at least hundreds of thousands of years since those conditions existed, and the water ice deposited back then shouldn’t be around anymore, the researchers said. (This would be true even if, somehow, dust or a crust at the surface trapped the humidity underground, the scientists added.) “Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain,” Wilson said. “So, for now, the signature remains a mystery worthy of further study, and Mars continues to surprise us.” The new work was detailed Sept. 28 in the journal Icarus.

Very cool!!

NASA bombshell: Government agency admits it can’t pay for humans to go to Mars

NASA has long said it would be able to send a manned mission to Mars, sometime during the 2030s. Now, in a bombshell announcement, the space agency has admitted it can’t afford the price tag. On July 12, during a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, NASA’s William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s chief of human spaceflight, said the funds just are not there for a mission. “I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is … at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” Gerstenmaier said, according to an Ars Technica report. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.” NASA could not be reached for additional comment for this story. For the 2017 fiscal year, NASA has a budget of $19.5 billion, a figure that many scientists have cried is inadequate. The proposed total Federal budget for 2018 is $4.1 trillion. For several years, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has derided NASA’s budget. The cost of a manned mission to Mars has varied greatly in recent years. In 2012, the head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Brent Sherwood, said it could cost approximately $100 billion over 30 or 40 years. Director of the Mars Institute Pascal Lee recently said it could cost up to $1 trillion over 25 years. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has also come up with a cost for a manned mission to Mars. He estimates it would initially cost $10 billion per person to get a colony up and running, but believes the cost could drop to $200,000, according to a paper published by Musk in June 2017. Part of the cost drop could be reusable rockets, something SpaceX and Musk have been working on perfecting. Using private industry may be the way to go for humanity to get to Mars, at least according to some in the Trump administration. Vice President Mike Pence recently said, “American business is on the cutting edge of space technology.” Pence has also spoken at NASA, calling for a return to the Moon, saying, “America will lead in space once again.”

Let’s hope so.  But, it certainly won’t happen at the current, pathetic, funding levels.  As many of you know, here at The Daily Buzz we’ve been calling for the doubling, if not tripling of our space budgets, both civilian (i.e. NASA) and military (i.e. U.S. Air Force’s Space Command and the U.S. Army’s Space & Missile Defense Command or “SMDC”), since day one.  Of course we’re also for consolidating efforts, and using those funds more efficiently, as there is far too much waste in our federal budget.  BUT, in order to keep pace with adversarial nations like Russia, and China (which is making tremendous leaps in space), we need to invest in those programs…while also partnering with private U.S.-based companies like United Launch Alliance (ULA), Blue Origin, and SpaceX.

Alien spaceship on Mars or NASA debris? Curiosity rover spots a mystery object on the red planet sending conspiracy theorists into a spin

NASA’s Curiosity rover has snapped a photo of a mysterious object on the surface of Mars, which conspiracy theorists believe could be evidence of aliens. The high-definition image appears to show the object glinting against Mars’ rocky landscape. While many people believe that the object is made by aliens, others have suggested that it is merely the rover’s own entry debris. The image was taken in March, but was posted on Reddit this week, sparking a huge online debate about what it shows. Prosaic Origin, the Reddit user who posted the image, wrote: ‘Uh NASA? UFO caught on Mars Rover mission? Is this real?’ His post has received 79 replies, many of which back up his thoughts that it could be aliens. EdisonVonneZula said: ‘Looks like light glimmering off of a genuine spaceship on an alien planet in outer space.’ And Crazylegs99 wrote: ‘They forgot to Photoshop that one out. Love how skeptical the mods are. ‘You could have aliens waving hi through the windshield and it would be flagged as a likely prosaic.’ But not everyone is convinced. OnceReturned suggested the image could merely show debris from the rover’s landing craft.

Perhaps..  Click on the text above to see the photos in question, and you be the judge!

Strange ‘stone circle’ spotted on Mars

A mysterious ‘stone circle’ has been spotted on the surface of Mars, according to alien hunters. The image, captured by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, was featured on the secureteam10 YouTube channel after it was spotted by a UFO hunter. In the YouTube video, secureteam10 describes the image as “a very strange formation of rocks that are put together in what appears to be a very artificial way, arranged in a perfect circle.” The formation is “much different from the craters that we normally see on Mars and the moon and the other planets in the solar system,” secureteam10 added. “This almost looks like these rocks were arranged in this circular formation – either that, or these could potentially be some sort of ruin that is a part of a much larger structure, potentially buried.” The rocks sparked plenty of comment on YouTube, with not everyone convinced that the rocks had been arranged in the circular pattern. “It really just looks like a crater to me,” noted one commenter. “Looks like a boulder that is weathered,” wrote another commenter. “The circle on Mars is clearly part of a bagel,” quipped another. Features on the Red Planet’s surface continue to be a source of fascination. Earlier this year, for example, UFO hunters claimed that an image taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover shows an ancient tree stump on the surface of the Red Planet. In 2015, UFO hunters also claimed to identify a mysterious woman-like shape in a picture taken by the Curiosity Rover. The largest rover ever sent to Mars, Curiosity launched on Nov. 26 2011 and landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012.

Things that make ya go, “hmmm….”   To see a photo of the pic in question, click on the text above…and you be the judge.    🙂

Mars voyage will include one-year layover in moon orbit

The plan to send humans to Mars includes a one-year layover in orbit around the moon in the late 2020s, Space.com reports. Greg Williams, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for policy and plans at the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, revealed that NASA wants to build a “deep-space gateway” around the moon that would serve as the testing ground for the first Mars missions. According to BGR, NASA actually wants to make sure that the round trip to Mars, a 1,000-day endeavor, is planned carefully during the time. The moon orbit base also would serve as the staging point for the mission, and the spacecraft that will carry humans to Mars for the first time will be launched from the moon. “If we could conduct a yearlong crewed mission on this Deep Space Transport in cislunar space, we believe we will know enough that we could then send this thing, crewed, on a 1,000-day mission to the Mars system and back,” Williams said. Considering the length of the Mars trip, spending a year around the moon to make sure everything works correctly makes plenty of sense. NASA will kick off its Mars mission with Phase 1, between 2018 and 2026. During this time, the agency will send four missions to the moon that would deliver various components needed for the mission. Phase 2 will begin in 2027, with an uncrewed mission that would deliver the Deep Space Transport vehicle to the space between the earth and the moon. The actual trip to Mars is being forecast to take place in the 2030s.

Exciting!!   🙂