December 10, 2013
Curiosity Finds A Former Lake On Mars
Once upon a time, in the lowest part of Gale Crater on Mars, there was a lake about the length and width of one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. It was fed by rivers that ran into it. If you stood on its shores, you might have seen snow or ice capping the mountains in the distance.
After its first 100 Mars-days, or sols, on the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover trundled down into this now-dry lakebed. The rover took images of rocks along the way and drilled two holes to take samples. It’s from these samples scientists determined this lake existed and that its waters weren’t too alien, after all, compared to water on Earth. The water was of relatively neutral pH and low salinity. “I would be pretty confident it would be fresher than seawater,” says Scott McLennan, a geoscientist with Stony Brook University in New York who worked on this and other studies based on Curiosity data.
This is water that microbes could have lived in, although Curiosity found no direct evidence of life on Mars, nor is it designed to do so, McLennan tells Popular Science.
December 9, 2013
The Mists of Mars
The Planetary Society
Late last month, visitors to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona witnessed a rare and spectacular sight. A temperature inversion (where a layer of cold air is trapped beneath warm air) led to a canyon filled to the brim with clouds. On the very same day, a robotic spacecraft at the planet Mars captured a similar scene. This one was a much more common event, but one that still makes for incredible imagery. Valles Marineris is a network of canyons that in many ways looks similar to the Grand Canyon--except that at more than 4,000 kilometers in length, if it were on Earth it would stretch across most of the United States.
This canyon, too, sometimes fills with clouds, made of tiny particles of water ice, though it's not caused by an inversion. Despite the Red Planet's well-earned reputation as a dry desert, there are hints of water on its surface and in its atmosphere. The Mars Color Imager (MARCI) on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes daily observations of the entire planet. On November 29 and 30, MARCI returned pictures of wispy clouds clinging to the summits of Olympus Mons and the other towering volcanoes. It also showed Valles Marineris, a long horizontal scar probably formed in part by the tectonic effects of all those volcanoes. As happens seasonally, the canyon was clearly filled with clouds.
November 14, 2013
LeVar Burton Video Is the Best Explanation of a Mars Mission Yet
November 7, 2013
MAVEN's mysteries: An inside look at NASA's next Mars mission
NASA's MAVEN orbiter is designed to follow up on a huge question surrounding past findings about Mars: If the Red Planet was once far more hospitable to life, what happened?
"What I'm most looking for is clarity," the University of Colorado's Dave Brain, a co-investigator for the $670 million mission, told NBC News. "We're very certain that Mars has undergone some big change over the last several billion years."
Part of that big change had to do with Mars' atmosphere: Past studies have suggested that the carbon dioxide atmosphere was once thicker and more Earthlike, which would have kept the planet warmer and wetter. Now the atmospheric density is just 1 percent of Earth's, offering little protection from the sun's deadly ultraviolet blast. Where did the air go?
"There are only two answers to that question: You can go down, or you can go up," Brain said.
October 24, 2013
UA Student Finds 'Hawaiian Beach' Sand on Mars
University of Arizona
Most geology students are used to traveling far and wide to collect samples for their research, but University of Arizona Shaunna Morrison has everybody beat by a long shot: 140 million miles, on average, stand between her sampling sites and her lab.
As part of NASA's designated science team in charge of CheMin, one of 10 scientific instruments mounted on the Mars rover Curiosity, Morrison never gets her hands on the samples she collects, but that's a small price to pay for the opportunity to analyze soil scooped up by a robot on another planet.
Earlier this month, Morrison co-authored two scientific publications in the journal Science, reporting the first scientific results of Curiosity's digging into the soil near Mount Sharp in Gale Crater. Morrison provided the first detailed analyses of individual mineral compositions in the Martian surface.
"We knew from previous Mars missions what elements are present in the Martian soil, but we didn't know how they are arranged, in other words, what minerals they form," said Morrison, a first-year PhD student in the UA Department of Geosciences.
October 22, 2013
Meteorite may explain 'how Mars turned to stone'
A meteorite reveals clues to how Mars lost its thick, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere and became a cold, rocky desert, researchers say.
They say the Lafayette meteorite shows signs of carbonation - where minerals absorb CO2 in a reaction with water.
Mars lost its protective blanket about 4 billion years ago, perhaps because of the loss of its magnetic field, space impacts, or chemical processes.
Carbonation may be the key factor, they write in Nature Communications.
October 17, 2013
Curiosity proves that bits of Mars fall to Earth as meteorites
Case closed. After several decades of speculation and the gathering of imperfect evidence, Mars rover Curiosity has positively identified hundreds of meteorites found all over the Earth as Martians. The discovery is not unexpected, but it allows the science to go forward with renewed confidence in conjectures about the Red Planet. In particular, Curiosity’s findings could help scientists figure out exactly how Mars lost the vast majority of its atmosphere, why, and how long ago it happened.
October 3, 2013
Ancient supervolcanoes revealed on Mars
A series of Martian craters assumed to have been formed by meteorites may actually be extinct volcanoes so massive that, when they were active billions of years ago, they could have buried Mars in ash.
The craters pepper the surface of Arabia Terra, a geologically ancient region of northern Mars. They appear as several huge circular pits that resemble Earth's calderas, in which magma beneath a volcano drains after a volcanic eruption, causing the ground above the magma chamber to collapse. The best example on Mars is a feature called Eden patera, a depression about 85 kilometres long, 55 kilometres wide and 1.8 kilometres deep, says Joseph Michalski, a researcher jointly at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and at the Natural History Museum in London.
September 26, 2013
NASA's Curiosity Rover Just Found Water in Martian Soil
Just when you thought ol' Curiosity was digging in for the winter, the little discovery machine came up with a doozy: It discovered water in Martian soil. NASA scientists just published five papers in Science detailing the experiments that led to the discovery. That's right. There's water on Mars.
Impressive as it is, though, the discovery comes with some caveats. It's not like Curiosity stumbled on a lost lake under a mountain or a stream trickling across the landscape. Rather, it found water molecules bound to other minerals in Martian soil. There's kind of a lot of it, too. Researchers say that every cubic foot of Martian soil contains about two pints of liquid water. All things told, about two percent of the Martian soil is made of up water.
August 12, 2013
Poetry Heading To Mars Aboard NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft
NASA will launch more than 1,100 haiku to Mars aboard the MAVEN spacecraft later this year. The haiku are part of a contest that was sponsored by the University of Colorado and aimed at getting the public more interest in space.
Contestants were asked to “submit haiku poetry relating to NASA’s upcoming MAVEN mission to Mars,” per the university’s website. The MAVEN mission, which launches in November, is setting out to find out why the Red Planet lost its protective atmosphere, reports Discovery News. Scientists generally believe that Mars was once much like Earth. However, something happened to turn it from a lush, water world into a dry, cold desert.
August 5, 2013
Curiosity’s Hard-Working Year on Mars Pays Off With Amazing Scientific Discoveries
NASA's Curiosity rover is a gigantic mobile laboratory. During the last year, it has roved over the Martian surface exploring a small section of Gale crater while making huge scientific discoveries.
The rover was built as a data-generating machine. You put rocks, air, and samples in and you get science out. Specifically, Curiosity is searching for signs of ancient habitability and seeking to answer an important question: Could Mars have ever had living organisms crawling over its surface?
Curiosity's science team includes geologists, chemists, physicists, astrobiologists, and countless other researchers. Using the probe's state-of-the-art equipment, they have drilled into Martian rocks, fired lasers and X-rays, baked powdered soil for analysis, and sniffed the atmosphere. Many of these activities had never been done on the Red Planet, or any planet beyond Earth, before. The data received from Curiosity has bolstered the idea that the planet once had water flowing over its surface and was a place where life could have conceivably thrived. It will take many more months and years of exploring to completely tease out all the details but the rover has already exceeded the expectations of its original designers.
August 1, 2013
Happy New Mars Year!
The Planetary Society
They're too far apart to have a party, but today Curiosity and Opportunity could have rung in the New Mars Year. Today Mars reached a solar longitude of zero degrees and the Sun crossed Mars' equator, heralding the arrival of spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern hemisphere. This is the date that Martian climatologists have identified as the zero-point for Mars' calendar. Mars Year 31 was a good one, with Opportunity active at the rim of Endeavour crater and Curiosity arriving at Gale. Mars Year 32 should be even better, as Opportunity rolls up Solander point and maybe even Cape Tribulation, and Curiosity should explore the rocks in the mountain that drew her to Gale in the first place. And there'll be two orbiters arriving (we hope). MAVEN and the Mars Orbiter Mission's capabilities should warm the hearts of the climatologists who care about how one Mars year differs from the next enough to need to make up a calendar to mark their passage!
July 26, 2013
Think our weather's zany? Try Mars and its daily 123° swings
If the warm days of summer have you pining for some cooler weather, perhaps a trip to Mars is in order.
Sure, you'd need to build a spaceship, ask your boss for about 2 years off from work, and solve that whole "Mars has no oxygen, water, or Starbucks (yet)" issue but if you could get there, it would definitely be colder than a Seattle summer.
Tony Rice, a fellow weather blogger and volunteer with the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program, maintains the @MarsWxReport Twitter feed, which gives the current weather once a Martian day (40 minutes longer than an Earth day) from the Mars rover Curiosity.
What we find is that Mars is a cold place that has some radical changes in temperature between day and night, when it gets really, really cold.
June 27, 2013
Mars had oxygen-rich atmosphere 4000m years ago
University of Oxford
Differences between Martian meteorites and rocks examined by a NASA rover can be explained if Mars had an oxygen-rich atmosphere 4000 million years ago – well before the rise of atmospheric oxygen on Earth 2500m years ago.
Scientists from Oxford University investigated the compositions of Martian meteorites found on Earth and data from NASA's 'Spirit' rover that examined surface rocks in the Gusev crater on Mars. The fact that the surface rocks are five times richer in nickel than the meteorites was puzzling and had cast doubt on whether the meteorites are typical volcanic products of the red planet.
June 14, 2013
In Hawaii, as on Mars, Lava Tubes Hide Secrets Beneath the Surface
Thanks to satellite imagery, we now know that both Mars and the moon also have lava tubes and skylights. These caves and holes likely formed the same way they do on Earth.
As a channel of molten lava flows, its top layer, exposed to air, cools and forms a crust. Below, the hotter lava continues to course until it empties out, leaving behind a tube-like cave. Skylights form when parts of the lava tube ceiling collapse. Sometimes these ceilings crumble and completely block access to the cave. Other times, they fall away clean, leaving pits with dangerous, potentially unstable overhangs. But once in a while, the rocks fall in such a way to give unfettered access to a lava-carved tunnel.
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