Tag Archives: curiosity rover

Curiosity finds organic molecules in cup of wet Martian dirt

Some of the most amazing scientific discoveries are actually happy accidents. Back in 2017, the otherwise sturdy Curiosity rover went through one of its first crises when its drill bit suddenly malfunctioned. Without this drill, much of Curiosity’s mission of finding signs of habitability, past or present, would have been seriously jeopardized. Luckily, NASA engineers repaired the system malfunction remotely, but a new study has reported what the rover found in that particular sample that Curiosity took exactly when the drill broke down.

Curiosity analyzes powdered samples drilled from rocks in order to measure the chemical fingerprints present in these various minerals and soils. This data helps scientists to determine the composition of Martian soil and rock, but also their history, especially as it relates to their past interaction with water. Gale Crater, where the rover was deployed, is believed to have once hosted a large body of water billions of years ago.

Typically, the sampling technique involves placing the dirt sample into an empty, dry cup. But when the drill bit broke down, the very last sample before the malfunction was placed into a cup containing a chemical cocktail made of reagents. The rover arrived on Mars equipped with nine of these pre-filled cups.

This type of sampling, known as a wet sampling experiment, caused a chemical reaction that allowed NASA researchers to identify organic molecules previously never observed on Mars.

“This experiment was definitely successful,” Maëva Millan, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and lead author of the new study, tells Inverse“While we haven’t found what we were looking for, biosignatures, we showed that this technique is really promising.”

In their new study published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy, NASA scientists have reported for the first time the presence of ammonia and benzoic acid on Mars. That was surprising since such molecules were thought to be nonviable due to the radiation presence on the Martian surface. Previously, other organic molecules identified by NASA included thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and some small molecules made of carbon chains.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life. However, ammonia and benzoic acid aren’t exactly biosignatures — but the precursor molecules could be. That’s why scientists at NASA are now focused on finding these molecules that may indicate past habitability on the red planet. The 2022 ExoMars mission led by the European Space Agency (ESA) may provide this opportunity, as well as the Perseverance rover whose samples will be returned to Earth between 2028 and 2030. 

“Once we have found that, we can say where they originated from,” Millan says. “As of now, with all the molecules that we have found on Mars, we have made the hypothesis that they could come from geological processes.”

Watch NASA’s Perseverence rover land on Mars

Today, February 18, NASA will land a new rover on the red planet at 4 PM ET. The Mars rover, Perseverance, is tasked with exploring the Jezero crater in search of alien life. But first, the rover will have to go through a pretty complex maneuver that will see it plunge through Mars’ thin atmosphere and deploy parachutes for a safe landing. To make things extra challenging, NASA also included the launch of a helicopter!

You can see all of this live in the stream embedded in this post. Alternatively, you can watch Perseverance’s landing on Mars on NASA’s website.

A new rover, a new beginning for science on Mars

“Perseverance is going to land in Jezero Crater and there is evidence of minerals such as clays formed through hydrothermal activity. It’s a good place to start to explore the role of meteorite impacts in the origin of life, as long as they look out for the habitats, nutrients, and building blocks for life that we outlined in our study,” said Dr. Gordon Osinski, who is the Director of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.

Like its predecessor Curiosity, which is still operational and making great science, Perseverance is a semi-autonomous mobile science platform, aka a rover. It’s about the size of a small car and it’s been designed to be sturdy enough to last for years in Mars’ extreme environment.

Curiosity (left) and Perseverance (right). Credit: NASA/JPL.

Both Curiosity and Perseverance are powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. However, Perseverance is substantially chunkier, being over 100 kg heavier. This extra weight is owed to an extra turret on the end of its robotic arm, which NASA plans on using to drill for samples. The wheels have also been made beefier for extra wear protection.

There are a bunch of other new instruments, too. These include five more cameras than Curiosity for a total of 23, multiple microscopes and spectrometers, a ground-penetrating radar that can detect water ten meters below the surface, and a wide range of sensors that measure everything from temperature and humidity to wind speed and direction.

How will Perseverance land on Mars?

Like Curiosity’s 2012 landing, Perseverance will deploy a huge parachute followed by a powered descent, and a final touchdown using the Skycrane system. What’s very different this time is that the powered descent stage will employ visual localization such that the boosters will fire to actively navigate to the safest landing spot possible. Here’s how this spectacular landing should look like.

What’s the deal with that helicopter?

After Perseverance makes its touch down on Mars, the rover will move towards a flat area from which it will deploy the Mars Helicopter, also known as Ingenuity. Over a period of 30 days, the helicopter is supposed to make five flights with the sole purpose to prove that controlled autonomous flight is actually possible in the Martian atmosphere, which is about a thousand times thinner than on Earth.

NASA just released this insane 1.8-billion-pixel panorama of the Martian landscape

For eight long years, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been beaming back incredible images — not to mention scientific findings such as evidence of ancient streambeds and key ingredients for life. Today, we’re in for a special treat.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

It’s the mother of all data dumps: Curiosity uploaded 1,200 images captured from its vantage point atop the rim of Gale Crater. Taken over the span of four days, the images were stitched together to form one single massive high-resolution panorama.

The image featured in this article is just a sample. In order to enjoy all 1.8 billion pixels in the composite image, you can head over to NASA’s website where you can download a 2.25 GB file. For a rundown of all the most important landmarks present in the image, check out this well put together video embedded below.

The images used in the panorama were taken for six and a half hours over the course of four days between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, when the mission team was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. However, before they left for the holidays, engineers programmed the complex task list, which included pointing the rover’s mast and making sure the images were in focus.

“While many on our team were at home enjoying turkey, Curiosity produced this feast for the eyes,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the Curiosity rover mission. “This is the first time during the mission we’ve dedicated our operations to a stereo 360-degree panorama.”

Along with an almost 1.8-billion-pixel panorama that doesn’t feature the rover, NASA’s Curiosity captured a 650-million-pixel panorama that does feature the rover itself
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

If you thought these images were cool, wait until you see what NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover will come up with. It’s scheduled for launch this July and scheduled to land on the red planet in February 2021. Today, NASA announced that Alexander Mather, a seventh-grade student in Virginia, is the winner of a nationwide contest to name the rover. As of today, NASA 2020 is known as Perseverance.

“Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s associate administrator. “Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries. It’s already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today — processing for launch.”Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they’re going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can’t wait to see that nameplate on Mars.”

Curiosity rover stumbles upon mystery of oxygen on Mars

NASA scientists have noticed baffling seasonal changes in oxygen on Mars. The concentration of the gas, which many creatures on Earth require in order to breathe, rises and falls with the seasons in a way that scientists cannot yet explain, pointing towards mysterious chemical sources.

A self-portrait taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location in Gale Crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

For the past six years that it has been on Mars, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) mobile chemistry lab inside the Curiosity rover, has been sniffing the air above Gale Crater. The analysis confirmed the readings made by other science experiments since the 1970s, finding that the Martian atmosphere is made of 95% CO2, 2.6% nitrogen, 1.9% argon, 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide.

These molecules mix together and circulate around the planet due to changes in air pressure throughout the year. According to NASA, these seasonal changes are due to the freezing of CO2 over the poles during winter, which lowers the air pressure across the planet, and the evaporation of CO2 during spring and summer, which raises air pressure as the gas mixes across the Martian atmosphere.

The waxing and waning of CO2 concentrations at Gale Crater are followed by similar changes in nitrogen and argon — so, naturally, scientists thought that oxygen would follow the same curve. For some reason, though, this isn’t happening. Instead, the amount of oxygen in the air rises throughout spring and summer by as much as 30% and then drops back to predictable levels in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, however, the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied — in other words, something must be producing it and something must be removing it.

“The first time we saw that, it was just mind-boggling,” said Sushil Atreya, professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

What could explain this peculiar pattern? What could be adding oxygen to the atmosphere and what could be subtracting it?

Credit: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard.

The SAM instrument itself is well calibrated and the readings are fine, NASA says. Perhaps, CO2 or water might have released the oxygen when the molecules were broken apart in the atmosphere. Later, solar radiation might break the molecular oxygen, leaving two single oxygen atoms free to escape into space. However, this explanation doesn’t stand because there would have to be five times more water than you can find on Mars to produce the extra oxygen and CO2 doesn’t break apart that fast. Moreover, it would take at least a decade for oxygen to break apart and disappear due to solar radiation.

There’s something out there that might explain this, but the truth is that, for now at least, scientists are left in the dark.

“We’re struggling to explain this,” said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led this research. “The fact that the oxygen behavior isn’t perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it’s not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can’t yet account for.”

The explanation might be tied to another mysterious gas on Mars: methane. Since Curiosity arrived on Mars, the rover’s chemical sensors were able to detect methane, albeit in extremely minute quantities of 0.00000004% on average. The methane concentration also rises and falls seasonally, increasing by about 60% during the summer months. What’s more, the methane concentration in the atmosphere also spikes randomly and significantly at times. Again, scientists do not know why this is happening. But, what may be causing the spikes of methane could also be responsible for the skewed oxygen patterns. Sometimes, the two gases appear to fluctuate in tandem, for instance.

“We’re beginning to see this tantalizing correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the Mars year,” Atreya said. “I think there’s something to it. I just don’t have the answers yet. Nobody does.”

On Earth, oxygen and methane can both be produced by organisms but NASA says that on Mars their source isn’t likely to be biological. Instead, the gases are likely produced by chemical processes related to water and rock. One possible source for the extra springtime oxygen is the Martian soil, which contains hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates. Heat and humidity might release oxygen from the soil.

“We have not been able to come up with one process yet that produces the amount of oxygen we need, but we think it has to be something in the surface soil that changes seasonally because there aren’t enough available oxygen atoms in the atmosphere to create the behavior we see,” said Timothy McConnochie, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and another co-author of the paper.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Curiosity snaps lonely picture of desolate Martian landscape

Since the Opportunity rover died after a 15-year-long mission, Curiosity is the only remaining operational rover still exploring the Martian surface. Hopefully, Curiosity will outlive Opportunity in order to enrich our lives with new insights from Mars, such as this breathtaking photo that the rover captured on November 3.

Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH.

The image was taken by Curiosity from atop the rim of the 100-mile-wide Gale Crater, the 3.5-billion-year-old giant crater that the rover has been exploring since 2012. The steep rocky outcrop from where Curiosity snapped the picture is called Central Butte. From this vantage point, you can see a haunting emptiness that just gives me the chills.

Curiosity is exploring the butte in order to analyze sedimentary rock layers, which geologists plan to analyze back on Earth in order to better understand the planet’s past.

The primary mission of the rover is to search for signs of life — and Gale Crater was purposefully chosen to meet this objective. NASA believes that more than 3 billion years ago, the crater was home to huge lakes and rivers filled with liquid water. It’s one of the best places on Mars to go searching for signs of life, in the past or present.

Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH.

In the future, Curiosity is set to visit the other side of Central Butte, from where another collection of amazing views will be beamed back to Earth.

Hopefully, Curiosity won’t be alone for too long. NASA plans on landing the Mars 2020 rover on the red planet sometime in 2021. That same year, both China and a Russian/European initiative are also expected to land rovers.

Salt lake Mars: Red planet had salty lakes billions of years ago

Precipitate minerals that served as evidence for this study. Image credits: Rapin et al / Nature / NASA.

Long before humans started erecting buildings, nature had its very own cement: precipitated minerals. Essentially, water rich in mineral components will gradually precipitate, forming precipitated rocks and minerals. These minerals are good indicators of the atmospheric conditions and water chemistry in which they were formed — somewhat as if they are keeping a geological diary of their forming conditions.

From the Martian orbit, researchers have observed a diversity of sulfate, carbonate and chloride salts — precipitated minerals which are excellent fingerprints for past environments. This would suggest that not only Mars had impressive surface lakes at some point in its surface, but that these were salty lakes. Now, researchers present new evidence to back this up — using data right from the Martian surface.

NASA’s Curiosity rover detected and analyzed salt-bearing sediments, confirming the existence of ancient salty lakes on Mars. Curiosity found traces of salts indicative of ancient brines — extremely saline waters which became more and more abundant as Mars entered its arid phase.

Gale Crater. Highlighted, the area where the Curiosity Rover is operating. Understanding the evolution and disappearance of water from the Martian surface is one of Curiosity’s main goals. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Curiosity is currently in Gale Crater, an ancient crater thought to be a former lake.

Interestingly, the salt minerals were not found in abundance in any other place that Curiosity analyzed, indicating that the layer in which the minerals were found represents a period of high salinity in the lake’s evolution — probably, as water evaporated and the salts concentrated.

William Rapin and colleagues report the detection of sulfate salts disseminated in sedimentary rocks, dating to around 3.3–3.7 billion years ago (the Hesperian time period). These salts were not found in such form and abundance in older rocks previously analysed by Curiosity. Thus, the researchers infer that the measurements are evidence of an interval of high salinity of the crater’s lake that may have occurred as the water evaporated. These findings support hypothesized fluctuations of the Martian climate during the Hesperian period.

It’s not the first time researchers have found clear clues of existing lakes and rivers on Mars. It is believed that during a period called the Hesperian (3.3 – 3.7 billion years ago), widespread volcanic activity and catastrophic flooding carved immense outflow channels across the surface of the Red Planet. Much of this water flowed to the northern hemisphere, where it probably began to pool, forming large transient lakes or potentially, an ice-covered ocean.

At some point, however, Mars became much drier. These recent findings are consistent with that hypothesis.

“Our findings support stepwise changes in Martian climate during the Hesperian, leading to more arid and sulfate-dominated environments as previously inferred from orbital observations,” the researchers conclude.

The study “An interval of high salinity in ancient Gale crater lake on Mars” has been published in Nature Geoscience.

How scientists are looking for signs of ancient life on Mars

Gale Crater could have supported life 3.5 billion years ago — and the Curiosity Rover is excellently placed to study it.

A view from the “Kimberley” formation on Mars taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. The layers indicate the flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Looking at the photos taken by Curiosity, it’s hard to see Mars as anything else than a barren landscape. Yet study after study, we’ve learned that the Red Planet wasn’t always like this. Billions of years ago, it was a temperate, water-rich planet, and Gale Crater is a prime example of that past.

Gale Crater is a dried-up lake bed. The crater’s geology is notable for characteristics. For starters, it contains both clays and sulfate minerals, which form in water conditions, and may also preserve signs of past life. Gale also contains a number of fans and deltas which would have been excellent hotspots for ancient life on Mars.

These pebbles got their rounded shapes after rolling in a river in Gale Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech).

Penn State researcher Christopher House says that Gale Crater would have had plenty of time to develop life.

“The water would have persisted for a million years or more,” he says. But the entire groundwater system lasted for way longer than that.

“The whole system, including the groundwater that ran through it, lasted much longer, perhaps even a billion or more years,” he said. “There are fractures filled with sulfate, which indicates that water ran through these rocks much later, after the planet was no longer forming lakes.”

But just because the planet may have had the right conditions to host life (which is in itself a debate) doesn’t necessarily mean that it did host life. This is why House and other scientists are looking for sulfate and sulfide minerals. If they wound find a mineral such as pyrite, for instance, this would indicate that the environment could have supported life.

Curiosity samples the rocks at Gale Crater. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

House is also working in the sedimentology and stratigraphy team — which, as the name implies, studies how the rock layers on Mars formed. The goal is to understand the environment in which they formed, to better understand the geological evolution of our planetary neighbor.

“Missions like this have shown habitable environments on Mars in the past,” House said. “Missions have also shown Mars to continue to be an active world with potentially methane releases and geology, including volcanic eruptions, in the not too distant past. There’s definitely great interest in Mars as a dynamic terrestrial world that is not so different than our Earth as some other worlds in our solar system,” House adds.

However, working remotely via Curiosity is no easy feat. The brave rover has been going strong since August 2012 and despite some minor issues, it shows no signs of stopping, although it has long surpassed its original planned mission.

This rover is on another planet, going strong for more than 2,500 days. Here it is taking a selfie. Image credits: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/Malin Space Science Systems.

In its almost 7 years of activity, Curiosity has covered 20.73 km (12.88 mi). It might not seem like much to us, but every step of the way is carefully planned and analyzed. The day-to-day operations and scientific tests are planned with painstaking care and detail. Researchers need to carefully address all the information that’s presented to them and additionally, Curiosity has a limited amount of power.

“Each time we drive, we wake up to an entirely new field of view with new rocks and new questions to ask,” he said.

“It’s sort of a whole new world each time you move, and so often you’re still thinking about the questions that were happening months ago, but you have to deal with the fact that there’s a whole new landscape, and you have to do the science of that day as well.”

However, so far, the results have been extremely rewarding. Mars is not the boring, desolate environment we once thought it to be. Mars is a fascinating world, one that we’ve learned much about, we still have even more to learn. Is there — or was there — life on Mars? We don’t know yet. But in this case, the journey is just as exciting as the destination.

“Each time we drive, we wake up to an entirely new field of view with new rocks and new questions to ask,” he said. “It’s sort of a whole new world each time you move, and so often you’re still thinking about the questions that were happening months ago, but you have to deal with the fact that there’s a whole new landscape, and you have to do the science of that day as well,” House concludes.

Curiosity Rover finds clay cache on Mars — potential sign of water

Curiosity’s drilling instrument has gathered two samples from a Martian soil unit geologists called the “clay-bearing” unit. Worthy of its name, the unit turned out to contain a substantial amount of clay — a mineral typically formed in the presence of water.

The rover snapped this selfie after gathering the samples. To the lower-left of the rover are its two recent drill holes, at targets called “Aberlady” and “Kilmarie.” Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Although the Curiosity Rover was expected to run for two years, it’s still providing valuable information now, seven years after its landing in 2012. The rover is currently located on the side of lower Mount Sharp, in an area that drew the attention of NASA scientists even before Curiosity landed on Mars because it seemed to contain quite a lot of clay. Prosaically, they called it the “clay-bearing unit“.

However, prosaic or not, the name was very accurate. Curiosity harvested two small drills in the area, using its CheMin instrument (Chemistry and Mineralogy) to confirm that the unit has the highest amounts of clay minerals ever found on Mars.

This animation shows the initial proposed route for NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mount Sharp on Mars. The annotated version of the map labels different regions that scientists working with the rover would like to explore in the coming years. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/University of Arizona/JHUAPL/MSSS/USGS Astrogeology Science Center.

This strongly suggests that this area on Mount Sharp contained significant amounts of water. Clays typically form over long periods of time, through a process of weathering and accumulation of diluted solvents. Judging by the appearance and chemistry of this clay (which also includes very small amounts of hematite, an iron oxide that was abundant in the vicinity of the clay-bearing unit), it seems that these rocks formed as layers of mud in ancient lakes.

It’s not the first time Curiosity has found traces of ancient water on Mars. Time and time again, the rover has confirmed that water once flowed on Mars, sparking a heated debate about the possibility of microbial life on the Red Planet. Unfortunately, Curiosity is not well-equipped to look for signs of life so for now, that will remain a matter of speculation.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover imaged these drifting clouds on May 17, 2019, Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

After the analysis, the rover took a well-deserved rest, taking advantage of the moment using its black-and-white Navigation Cameras (Navcams) to snap images of drifting Martian clouds. NASA believes these are likely water-ice clouds — so Curiosity is not only finding water beneath the ground — it’s also finding it in the sky.

Curiosity photographs river-like rounded rocks

These rocks are a good indicator that water once flowed on Mars.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity acquired this image using its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, on March 24, 2019, Sol (day) 2356 of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The images that Curiosity and the other Mars Rovers sent back to Earth have been nothing short of amazing. They’ve offered us a breathtaking window into a planet which shares both striking similarities and dramatic differences to our Earth. But generally, these pictures have one thing in common: they’re clearly from Mars. The image above, in contrast, looks like it could have been snapped from most rivers on Earth.

A few things are intriguing in this image. For starters, the rocks seem a bit paler than the usual rust-red we’re used to seeing on Mars. Secondly, the rocks are rounded off as if they are river rocks — and to top it all off, there’s a couple of strangely-looking spherical white-ish rocks which you just wouldn’t imagine on Mars.

While NASA says these are almost certainly not river rocks, they still hint at Mars having a wet past.

These rounded rocks are formed through a phenomenon called concretion. Concretionary rocks are quite common on Earth: they form in water-rich environments, hardening over time. A concretion is formed by the precipitation of mineral cement within the spaces between particles and is found in sedimentary rock or soil. Concretions are often ovoid or spherical in shape, although irregular shapes also occur.

This type of rocks are very susceptible to erosion (not necessarily water erosion), and the outer layers erode faster than the inner ones, leaving behind the rounded shapes we see here.

It’s a fantastic reminder that the geological processes we are so familiar with here on Earth are also often present on other bodies — and at least in some ways, Mars is very much like the Earth.

A self-portrait of the Curiosity Mars rover on Vera Rubin Ridge, which it’s been investigating for the past several months. Directly behind the rover is a clay-rich slope scientists are eager to begin exploring. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Color-coded image of Jezero Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Jezero means 'lake' in Serbian. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / JHU-APL.

NASA picks Jezero Crater for Mars 2020 rover landing site

NASA recently announced it will land its Mars 2020 rover in Jezero Crater. The 45-km-wide site was once filled with water and features rich geology that could tell scientists a lot of things about the planet’s troubled history. There’s also a chance that the rover mission might find evidence for past life on the Red Planet.

Color-coded image of Jezero Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Jezero means 'lake' in Serbian. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / JHU-APL.

Color-coded image of Jezero Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Jezero means ‘lake’ in Serbian. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / JHU-APL.

Jezero Crater sits on an ancient river delta, just north of the Martian equator on the western edge of Isidis Planitia. The crater was formed billions of years ago by a meteorite impact and, at one point, became filled with water to a depth of about 250 meters. Although the water is long gone, sediments at the site could still contain a record of microbial life — if any existed in the first place.

“The delta is a good place for evidence of life to be deposited and then preserved for the billions of years that have elapsed since this lake was present,” Mars 2020 project scientist Ken Farley said during a press conference.

Carbonate rocks present at Jezero may also tell us how surface water and the Martian atmosphere interacted billions of years ago. In fact, it is Jezero’s diverse geology that distinguished it from other potential landing sites for the 2020 rover. NASA had also considered Northeast Syrtis, which contains some of the oldest rocks on Mars, and Columbia Hills, which the Spirit rover explored between 2004 and 2011.

Jezero is also more accessible than the other sites, although that doesn’t mean that touchdown will be a piece of cake. NASA is doing everything it can to minimize the risk of landing the rover in a boulder field, a sand trap, or on the edge of a cliff.

“Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release.

The $2.4-billion rover will launch in July 2020, landing on Mars seven months later, in February 2021. The six-wheeled, nuclear-powered Mars 2020 rover has almost the same design as NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been operational on the surface of Mars for the past six years. Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 will be deployed on the Martian surface from a rocket-powered “Sky Crane” platform. NASA has also refined its landing technique, which means Mars 2020 should be better equipped to doge risky areas.

Artist concept of the Mars 2020 rover. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Artist concept of the Mars 2020 rover. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike the Curiosity mission, Mars 2020 will also bring samples back to Earth. Although it’s not certain how this will happen, NASA says it hopes to send a new mission to Mars in the late 2020s to retrieve the rocks collected by the rover and return them to Earth by the early 2030s.

In the meantime, NASA has more immediate things to worry about. On 26 November, a robot called InSight will land on the surface of Mars, tasked with studying the Red Planet‘s interior.

[Live Stream] NASA mysterious announcement about new Curiosity Rover discovery


Today, June 7, at  2 p.m. EDT, the media and public are invited to tune in to a live discussion hosted by NASA. You can watch a live stream of the event in the embedded video above.

The space agency has been very hush-hush regarding the topic of the press conference, but from the little information that we were able to gather, we expect to hear about results from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. According to inside sources, the announcement might have something to do with life on Mars.

Whatever these results may be about, expect something important since NASA rarely hosts such press conferences.

 

That tiny hole is a lot more important than it looks. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Curiosity Rover is back to drilling Martian rocks — and this is really important

It was an exciting week for NASA engineers, as they anxiously re-started Curiosity Rover’s drilling program after a one year pause. Thanks to a lot of creative thinking, NASA was able to overcome the most recent malfunction, allowing the rover to get back to drilling Martian rocks — a vital part of its science mission.

That tiny hole is a lot more important than it looks. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

That tiny hole is a lot more important than it looks. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Ever since Curiosity touched down on Mars, it faced problems with its drilling machine. Firstly, a bond in the drilling mechanism threatened to shortcircuit and fry the whole rover. Even after Curiosity finally started drilling in 2013, something always seemed to come up. In late 2016, for instance, the drill’s feed broke, preventing the boring tool from moving up or down, and essentially rendering it useless. Drilling rocks on Mars is part of the rover’s fundamental science mission — analyzing geochemistry in search for signs of past or present life.

Fortunately, the rover is now back to drilling.

NASA engineers had to think outside the box to make everything work again. Earlier this year, NASA showed that Curiosity could lower its drill onto a rock and spin the drill bit. However, the drill lacked the percussive motion (the jackhammer punch) necessary to bore into rocks. But with impressive ingenuity, the team developed a new drilling technique which uses the rover’s extended arm to drill in a freestyle manner.

The technique is called Feed Extended Drilling (FED) and involves keeping the drill’s bit extended out past two stabilizer posts that were originally used to steady the drill against Martian rocks. Now, Curiosity can drill using the force of its robotic arm, much like a human would while drilling into a wall at home.

On May 20, Curiosity applied FED to drill a 5-cm-deep and 1.6-cm-across hole in a target called “Duluth.”

 “Those are two vital inches of innovation from 60 million miles away. We’re thrilled that the result was so successful,” said Steve Lee, Curiosity Deputy Project Manager of JPL, in a statement.

Curiosity isn’t out of trouble just yet though. While the percussive technique works beautifully, NASA still has to figure out how to deliver dusty rock samples to the rover’s two internal mini-labs that analyze the chemical makeup of samples.

“We’ve been developing this new drilling technique for over a year, but our job isn’t done once a sample has been collected on Mars,” said mission scientist Tom Green. “With each new test, we closely examine the data to look for improvements we can make and then head back to our testbed to iterate on the process.”

 

Detailed look of Gale Crater horizon as seen by Curiosity from its "Vera Rubin Ridge" viewpoint. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Breathtaking panoramic view of Mars shows how far Curiosity has gone

Since its epic touchdown on the Red Planet in 2012, Curiosity has driven an 11-mile (18-kilometer) route from its landing site inside Gale Crater to the huge crater’s northern rim. Perched from this vantage point, the rover captured this astonishing panoramic view that not only features the whole enterprising route but also shows much of the crater’s horizon view.

Detailed look of Gale Crater horizon as seen by Curiosity from its "Vera Rubin Ridge" viewpoint. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

A detailed look of Gale Crater horizon as seen by Curiosity from its “Vera Rubin Ridge” viewpoint. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The component images of the panorama were shot three months ago by the rover’s Mastcam from the northern edge of the Vera Rubin Ridge. Meanwhile, the rover has approached the southern edge of the ridge, examining outcrops along the way.

Clear skies typical of Martian winters allowed the rover to shoot distant details, such as a hill on the northern horizon which was strikingly 50 miles (85 kilometers) away from the rover. The tall mountains you can see surrounding the rover are actually the crater’s walls, some as tall as 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). One can only imagine the size and the force of the impactor that formed the 96-mile basin around 3.8 billion years ago.

Thought your holiday panoramas were cool?

“Even though Curiosity has been steadily climbing for five years, this is the first time we could look back and see the whole mission laid out below us,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“From our perch on Vera Rubin Ridge, the vast plains of the crater floor stretch out to the spectacular mountain range that forms the northern rim of Gale Crater.” The rover photographed the scene shortly before northern Mars’ winter solstice, a season of clear skies, gaining a sharp view of distant details.

Curiosity's Mastcam took the component images on Oct. 25, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity’s Mastcam took the component images on Oct. 25, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In case you notice something weird about these pictures, according to NASA, the panorama “has been white-balanced so the colors of the rock materials resemble how they would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.”

In the annotated version featured below you can see Curiosity’s plotted route from its landing site to Yellowknife Bay (where the rover found evidence of an ancient freshwater-lake environment), all the way through Darwin, Cooperstown, and then Kimberly, Namid Dune, Murray Buttes, Ireson Hill, before crossing the tricky Bagnold Dunes to reach Vera Rubin Ridge.

Click for full version. Credit: NASA.

Click for full version. Credit: NASA.

The Curiosity team received the new images from a relay-link with NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which beamed back over a gigabit of data in one single relay session — that’s the first time in history that much data has been sent in one go from Mars. And to think, all that data was sent from millions of miles away. Take that, Comcast!

“MAVEN definitely has the potential to move lots of data for us, and we expect to make even more use of it in the future,” said JPL’s Roy Gladden, manager of NASA’s Mars Relay Network Office.

Next, the Curiosity mission is scheduled to drill samples from Vera Rubin Ridge before proceeding to Clay Unit. Curiosity’s drill has been suspended due to a hardware malfunction since 2016 so it will be very exciting how the mission pans out.

NASA wants Curiosity Rover to resume drilling on Mars

NASA is working on ways to bring Curiosity’s rock-boring machine back to life.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover conducted a test on Oct. 17, 2017, as part of the rover team’s development of a new way to use the rover’s drill. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

When Curiosity landed on Mars, it enabled us to study Mars in a whole new way. It showed that the Red Planet might have been habitable for hundreds of millions of years, found traces of water, and studied how the planetary environment changes during time. Many of those discoveries were owed to its drilling mechanism, which allowed Curiosity to sample Mars beneath its surface. However, the rugged Martian environment started taking a toll on the brave rover. First, its wheels started giving in. Then, a shortcircuit rendered its arm useless. Lastly, its drill started failing. In 2016, the drill stopped functioning. Not only did it stop functioning, but it seemed to jeopardize the entire mission.

“Unless you do something about it, all hell breaks loose electronically, because it takes our power bus and rattles it around,” Curiosity chief engineer Rob Manning, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told SPACE.com in a video interview. “It’s almost like the drill grabs the rover and shakes the whole thing electronically.”

However, after a few months, NASA now has reasons to believe that they can use the drill bit, although in a different way than they did before. It took a bit of creative tinkering, but significant progress has been reported.

“We’re steadily proceeding with due caution to develop and test ways of using the rover differently from ever before, and Curiosity is continuing productive investigations that don’t require drilling,” said Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The team operating NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is developing innovative techniques that the rover might be able to use to resume drilling into rocks on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The drilling stabilizers are still not functioning, but NASA engineers have now placed the drill on the ground, applying smaller sideways forces while taking measurements with a force sensor. The sensor lets the team know how much the drill is pressing down and sideways — avoiding too much sideway force is crucial to ensure that the drill doesn’t get stuck in rock or breaks off.

“The development work and testing here at JPL has been promising,” Lee said. “The next step is to assess the force/torque sensor on Mars. We’ve made tremendous progress in developing feed-extended drilling, using the rover’s versatile capabilities beyond the original design concepts. While there are still uncertainties that may complicate attempts to drill on Mars again, we are optimistic.”

So far, results have been promising and engineers are optimistic, but even if everything goes according to plan, it will still be a few months before Curiosity starts drilling again.

Artist impression of what Mars may have looked like during its first billion years. Credit: NASA.

Methane bubbles may have kept Mars warm enough for liquid water billions of years ago

Mars may have stayed warm enough for liquid water during its drying time thanks to bursting methane bubbles. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, their simulation suggests such a scenario could have possibly released enough of the potent greenhouse gas to keep Mars warmer for a tad longer before it succumbed to its inevitable barren state we all know today.

Artist impression of what Mars may have looked like during its first billion years. Credit: NASA.

Artist impression of what Mars may have looked like during its first billion years. Credit: NASA.

For about the first billion years of its 4.6-billion-year history, Mars must have looked radically different. During this period, Mars still had a magnetic field and thick atmosphere that sheltered the surface from the sun’s rays and radiation. We also know for sure it used to harbor flowing water in streams and rivers which formed deltas and discharged into large lakes, quite possibly in oceans too. But then came the Hesperian period during which Mars underwent irreversible climate change after the planet’s core cooled. Without a dynamo, there was no more magnetic field and the atmosphere became so thin it’s almost as non-existent as around Mars’ orbit.

There is some reason to believe, however, that Mars didn’t turn off the heat immediately after it entered this bleak, dry period which permanently turned it into an inhospitable, icy world. When the Curiosity rover first touched down on Mars in 2012, NASA scientists discovered that core samples drilled from Gale Crater indicated there were some lakes there around 3.5 billion years.

Essentially, these rocks suggest Gale Crater still had liquid water during the Hesperian period when Mars went from wet to chillingly dry. Ever since the discovery was reported, scientists have been puzzled. One viable explanation that accounts for this inconsistency is that methane pockets exposed by thawing could have released enough greenhouse gases to keep the planet warmer than otherwise.

The team led by Edwin Kite, a planetary scientist at the University of Chicago, ran the physics through a climate model and found such a thing is possible if Mars’ axial tilt suddenly changed. Indeed, Mars’ tilt on its axis can shift dramatically unlike Earth’s due to its relationship with Jupiter’s orbit. Scientists estimate Mars’ shift in tilt could have been up to 20 degrees — enough to radically change the environment around the planet. Once ice-covered portions on the Martian surface could have now become fully exposed to the sun. The retreating ice would have then freed pockets of methane, allowing the gas to escape into the atmosphere, the authors reported in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Methane is 25 times more potent, molecule per molecule, at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. When the researchers ran the numbers, they found that if enough of the gas escaped, significant warming would have occurred. Eventually, the sun’s rays would have broken down the methane from the atmosphere but, according to Kite and colleagues, the event would have still bought hundreds of thousands of years. That’s just enough to explain the Gale Crater anomaly. We might learn more once the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter which arrived at Mars last fall begins measuring the red planet‘s atmosphere in early 2018. If it can detect at least some faint hints of methane, the idea of a burping Mars will suddenly become a lot more interesting.

Concerning the prospect of life on Mars, these findings don’t change too much. It if was ever present on Mars, life would have most certainly seen its best days far before the period modeled by University of Chicago scientists. Regardless of that, it’s always interesting to learn about what may have happened billions of years ago, on an alien planet to boot, but also might happen to our own planet. Man-made climate change on Earth risks releasing huge methane reserves of 1,700 gigatons or 1.7 trillion tons of carbon from the frozen permafrost in which they’re currently trapped, with potentially damning consequences.

curiosity-rover-on-mars

Curiosity caught on camera climbing Martian mountain by orbiting spacecraft

Take a good look at this photo. Notice the pale blue dot sitting at the center of the photo. Care to guess what it is?

curiosity-rover-on-mars

Curiosity surrounded by rocks and dark sand on Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Amid Mars’ rocky mountainside terrain, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught a glimpse of a terrestrial colleague. That’s none other than the famous Curiosity rover which for the past five years has been exploring Mount Sharp, an area which is particularly promising for finding Martian microbial life.  Mount Sharp towering three miles above the ancient lakeshore of Gale Crater.

“Gale crater once held a lake with water that we would even have been able to drink, but we still don’t know how long this habitable environment endured,” said Jens Frydenvang, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Copenhagen. “What this finding tells us is that, even when the lake eventually evaporated, substantial amounts of groundwater were present for much longer than we previously thought—thus further expanding the window for when life might have existed on Mars.”

Orbiting spacecraft took this picture hundreds of miles away from Mars' surface. Credit: NASA.

Orbiting spacecraft took this picture hundreds of miles away from Mars’ surface. Credit: NASA.

The car-sized rover was climbing up lower Mount Sharp on June 5, 2017, when it was surprised by the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

Curiosity isn’t actually that blue though. The photo was doctored so the high contrast could show different materials on the planet’s surface better.

Curiosity rover finds that its landing crater on Mars could have been habitable for 700 million years

The Curiosity Rover is earning its keep, sending back more and more valuable information about the Red Planet.

A rendering of Gale Crater, with Mount Sharp at its center. The Curiosity rover is currently exploring this area, trying to find whether Mars could have supported life. Image credits: NASA.

When researchers and engineers decided to land Curiosity inside Gale Crater, they didn’t choose randomly. The crater, which contained a massive lake, was chosen because due to its structure, there’s a good chance of learning many of Mars’ geological secrets. While it was already established that Mars held water, the conditions of the water and the overall environment is still unclear. Now, this research shows that not only was the planet hosting a lot of water — it had lakes much like those on Earth.

Geochemist Joel Hurowitz from Stony Brook University led a large team that analyzed over 100 meters of rock layers in Gale Crater. To reconstruct the past environment, they measured the aluminum inside each layer, plotting it against minerals like sodium and calcium, which easily leach out of the rock. Basically, warm water is more chemically active than cold water. During warm conditions, water is better at dissolving and absorbing stuff (just like how sugar melts easier in hot water). In this case, if a rock has a lot of aluminum but not so much sodium or calcium, it indicates that it formed in a warmer environment.

Oxygen was another key component they looked at. There are sharp differences between deeper and more shallow water, in terms of oxygen content. By adding the oxygen content into the mix, researchers were able to show that the lake was a diverse feature, much like those on Earth. These conditions also apparently lasted for a very long time: some 700 million years!

“These were very different, co-existing environments in the same lake,” said Joel Hurowitz of Stony Brook University, lead author of the report. “This type of oxidant stratification is a common feature of lakes on Earth, and now we’ve found it on Mars. The diversity of environments in this Martian lake would have provided multiple opportunities for different types of microbes to survive.”

“This is a new level of detail in terms of our understanding of the chemical environment in this lake on Mars,” Hurowitz added. “It gives us a much more complete picture of the habitability of this lake.”

A simulation depicts a lake partially filling Mars Gale Crater. Illustration: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

We still don’t know if Mars did have any life (and if it did, we shouldn’t get our hopes up for anything bigger than microbial), but having a complex lake system, with warm water ranging from shallow to deep is definitely exciting. It means it could have supported several different types of microbes. Some microbes thrive in low-oxygen environments, while other prefer the opposite. Keep in mind that scientists are looking into a time when photosynthesis hadn’t even evolved on Earth, so we’re not sure what kind of microbial life Mars might have hosted.

“We’re learning that in parts of the lake and at certain times, the water carried more oxygen,” said Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-author of the study, published today in the journal Science. “This matters because it affects what minerals are deposited in the sediments, and also because oxygen is important for life. But we have to remember that at the time of Gale Lake, life on our planet had not yet adapted to using oxygen–photosynthesis had not yet been invented. Instead, the oxidation state of certain elements like manganese or iron may have been more important for life, if it ever existed on Mars. These oxidation states would be controlled by the dissolved oxygen content of the water.”

A drilled hole made by Curiosity. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Researchers were surprised by the accuracy of the Curiosity analysis, and how much we can deduct from that. But put together, this makes a lot of sense.

“What was causing iron minerals to be one flavor in one part of the lake and another flavor in another part of the lake?” Hurowitz asked. “We had an ‘Aha!’ moment when we realized that the mineral information and the bedding-thickness information mapped perfectly onto each other in a way you would expect from a stratified lake with a chemical boundary between shallow water and deeper water.”

A hypothesized model of a redox-stratified lake in Gale crater — just like a lake on Earth. Source: NASA / JPL.

In total, Curiosity has been on Mars for over 1,700 sols (martian days, which are 24 hours, 39 minutes long), traveling 16 km from the bottom of Gale Crater towards the peak of Mount Sharp. Its main objective is determining whether Mars could have supported life, by analyzing nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds, investigating the chemical components which could serve as the building blocks of life, identifying biosignatures of life, investigating the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface, interpreting geological processes taking place and assessing the broad spectrum of surface radiation, which is necessary for a future manned mission to Mars.

As for whether Mars does host life now, unfortunately, that’s not an answer Curiosity is equipped to answer. We’ll have to wait a few more years for NASA’s next Mars mission to figure that one out.

Journal Reference: J. A. Hurowitz et al — Redox stratification of an ancient lake in Gale crater, Mars. DOI: 10.1126/science.aah6849

Boron found on Mars – a signature of long-term habitable groundwater

The Curiosity Rover has found boron on the surface of Mars – a strong indication that the Red Planet once hosted long-term habitable groundwater, making it even more likely that life once existed on Mars.

ChemCam target Catabola is a raised resistant calcium sulfate vein with the highest abundance of boron observed so far. The red outline shows the location of the ChemCam target remote micro images (inset). The remote micro images show the location of each individual ChemCam laser point (red crosshairs) and the B chemistry associated with each point (colored bars). The scale bar is 9.2 mm or about 0.36 inches.
Credit: JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/CNES-IRAP/William Rapin

The exciting discovery was announced at the American Geophysical Union conference. Because boron is associated with arid sites where much water has evaporated away, the perspectives are obviously intriguing.

“No prior mission to Mars has found boron,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Here on Earth, similar traces can be found in California or other arid areas which were once rich in water. If this is also the case on Mars, then everything would align to make Mars suitable for extraterrestrial life.

“If the boron that we found in calcium sulfate mineral veins on Mars is similar to what we see on Earth, it would indicate that the groundwater of ancient Mars that formed these veins would have been 0-60 degrees Celsius [32-140 degrees Fahrenheit] and neutral-to-alkaline pH.” The temperature, pH, and dissolved mineral content of the groundwater could make it habitable.

The environmental implications of the boron and how exactly it came to be is still a matter of debate. It could be that the drying out of a lake resulted in a boron-containing deposit in an overlying layer, not yet reached by Curiosity. Some of the material from this layer could have later been carried by groundwater down into fractures in the rocks. Yet it could also be that the chemistry of clay-bearing deposits and groundwater affected how boron was picked up and dropped off within the local sediments. Either way, while there is still some debate going on, the evidence seems to indicate to a water-rich past, and one that could support life.

This type of active groundwater acts like a chemical reactor in a way. It dissolves old minerals, creates new ones, and generates a redistribution of electrons – all reactions which support the emergence of life. These dynamic processes are visible in the mineral veins that filled cracks in older layered rock. But this also affected the composition of that rock matrix surrounding the veins, and the fluid was in turn affected by the rock.

“There is so much variability in the composition at different elevations, we’ve hit a jackpot,” said John Grotzinger, of Caltech, Pasadena, Calif. As the rover gets further uphill, researchers are impressed by the complexity of the lake environments when clay-bearing sediments were being deposited and also by the complexity of the groundwater interactions after the sediments were buried.

The discovery of boron is just one of several exciting findings on Mars, but at the moment, we still don’t know for sure whether life did exist on Mars. The circumstantial evidence is strong, but at the end of the day, it’s still circumstantial evidence. But the stars are starting to align, and the future might hold some interesting things.

Martian sand ripples as recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from the planet's orbit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What Mars’ unique sand dunes can tell us about its past

NASA’s Curiosity Rover found some of Mars’ sand ripples are of a type not seen on Earth. These wind-sculpted sand formations are distinctly made by Mars’ atmosphere and hold secrets about the Red Planet’s past.

Martian sand ripples as recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from the planet's orbit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Martian sand ripples as recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from the planet’s orbit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Earth and Mars both have big sand dunes and small sand ripples, but on Mars, there’s something in between that we don’t have on Earth,” said Mathieu Lapotre, a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, and science team collaborator for the Curiosity mission. He is the lead author of a report about these mid-size ripples published in the July 1st issue of the journal Science.

Both on Mars and on Earth, we can find the same football field-sized dunes, shaped by sand avalanches with steep upwind faces. There are also the smaller sand ripples — rows of sand less than a foot (30 centimeters) apart which on Earth are formed by wind-propelled sand grains colliding with other sand grains on the ground. These are typically referred to as “impact ripples” by scientists.

NASA researchers were thrilled to find these same formations on Mars after the first high-resolution images beamed back from orbit by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Judging from these images, the ripples were about 10 feet (3 meters) apart on the dunes’ surfaces, but not much detail could be made from that high above.

Two sizes of ripples are evident in this December 13th, 2015, view of a top of a Martian sand dune, from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Sand dunes and the smaller type of ripples also exist on Earth. Credit: NASA

Two sizes of ripples are evident in this December 13th, 2015, view of a top of a Martian sand dune, from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Sand dunes and the smaller type of ripples also exist on Earth. Credit: NASA

Eventually, Curiosity Rover’s wheels touched the Bagnold Dunes on the northwestern flank of Mars’ Mount Sharp. Immediately, NASA researchers back on Earth who studied the new footage found the crest lines of the meter-sized ripples are sinuous. This means Mars’ sand ripples are not at all like the impact ripples seen on Earth, but more like those that form under moving water. Even more amazingly, superimposed on these larger ripples were smaller ripples about the same size and shape as Earth’s impact ripples.

NASA concludes that these meter-sized ripples were built by Martian wind dragging the sand particles akin to how flowing water drags sand particles on Earth. In other words, that’s a totally different mechanism that anything we’ve seen on Earth.

“The size of these ripples is related to the density of the fluid moving the grains, and that fluid is the Martian atmosphere,” he said. “We think Mars had a thicker atmosphere in the past that might have formed smaller wind-drag ripples or even have prevented their formation altogether. Thus, the size of preserved wind-drag ripples, where found in Martian sandstones, may have recorded the thinning of the atmosphere.”

These latest findings investigate modern dunes, but sand ripples preserved in sandstone dating from more than 3 billion years ago were previously investigated by NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. Wind-drag ripples about the same size as the ones found at Bagnold Dunes were found, which fits the current narrative that suggests Mars lost its original atmosphere in the planet’s early history. But despite Mars looks nothing like it used to, it still bears many similar features to those found on Earth.

“During our visit to the active Bagnold Dunes, you might almost forget you’re on Mars, given how similar the sand behaves in spite of the different gravity and atmosphere. But these mid-sized ripples are a reminder that those differences can surprise us,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

 

 

No, there’s no “dark lady” on Mars – just stop it

Social media is abuzz *again* with stories about a dark lady figure being spotted on Mars by the Curiosity Rover. Conspiracists are all over it, and many dubious media publications are “analyzing” it. Long story short, it’s all hogwash.

Image via NASA/JPL

Instead of appreciating and admiring the fact that we have  a rover on another planet taking pictures and sending them back to Earth, people are trying to see stuff where stuff simply isn’t. In the image above, people think they see a lady figure. Don’t see it? Let’s try again.

Image via NASA/JPL

Yeah, it kinda, maybe, does look like a lady figure, but you know what else might look like a lady figure? Random rocks in a black and white picture. It’s just like that time people thought hey saw a crab walking on Mars – we tend to see patterns in everything, and some people are quick to jump the gun and made ludicrous statements.

Just as a minor sidenote, judging by the scale of that picture, the “lady” would only be about 10 cm high, about as big as a vodka shot.