Tag Archives: curiosity

Cross bedding explained, on an outcrop from Mars

NASA recently uploaded a strikingly beautiful photograph on their website showing a petrified sand dune on Mars. The image was actually pieced together from several shots taken using Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on August 27th. From end to end, the panorama spans a full 135 degrees of other-worldly awesomeness, with east to the left and southwest to the right.

The panorama of Mars, build using pictures taken by the Curiosity rover.
Image via NASA

The component images in the center and upper portion of the mosaic are from Mastcam’s right-eye camera, which is equipped with a 100-millimeter-focal-length telephoto lens. Images used in the foreground and at far left and right were taken with Mastcam’s left-eye camera, using a wider-angle, 34-millimeter lens.

The structures are part of the Stimson unit on Mount Sharp (or Aeolis Mons, clocking in at 5.5 km height from the valley floor of Gale crater). They don’t look quite like this on Mars – the pictures were white balanced and color corrected to correspond to daytime lighting conditions here on Earth.

Grab your hardhat and pencil, it’s fieldwork time

My educational background is geophysics. I investigate geological structures and physical anomalies tied to geological settings using physical methods – such as ground-penetrating radar, measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field, resistivity and conductivity readings, and a lot of other cool, geeky stuff that girls hanging out in bars really like hearing about.

But as everyone who studies earth sciences, I was also thought about geology and geological processes, and i have a pretty good grasp of the important phenomena that make our planet look, feel, and behave the way it does. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the outcrop.

The sandstone slabs can be easily discerned, and they show a characteristic named cross bedding, very similar to what a geologist would find on Earth. For non-geologists out there, cross bedding means, simply put, that the rocks look “flow-y,” like this:

Image showing cross-bedding, or more accurately cross-lamination (the structures that make up the beds are called laminae when they are less than 1 cm in thickness, and strata when they are over 1 cm thick).
Image via indiana.edu

To understand bedding, you must first get a general idea of how sedimentary geological structures form – sedimentation.

Let’s take a particle, such as a speck of dust, a grain of sand, or even piece of a larger, already formed rock. It can, over time, get dislodged or eroded from their resting place, and become incredibly mobile. This is the first step in how these rocks form – formation of sediment.

Several forces, such as gravity, running water and even wind can then carry and deposit them far away from an initial spot to a sedimentary area, such as the face of the dune that is not swept by wind – this is the second step, transport.

Over time, if enough particles are carried, they solidify under immense pressure and sometimes temperature to form sedimentary rocks – in geology we call this third step lithification.

Now, let’s take our initial spot on the top of a mountain, and our sedimentary area in a wide delta with a river flowing down connecting the two. In the steep mountainous terrain, the river flows fast and erodes pieces of the mountain, taking material – from decently sized rocks and small pebbles all the way to particles as fine as a human hair – on the journey to the delta.

Downriver, as the terrain gets flatter, the waterway widens and becomes lazy, flowing slowly and peacefully to the delta. As the water looses speed, it also looses the energy it needs to carry larger pieces of material, so they drop to the bottom – here sedimentary rocks will be coarser. The lighter particles can still be carried and sediment further away, and here the rocks will be much finer.

In this sample of conglomerate, you can easily see smaller pebbles and stones bound in a natural cement made of fine particles.
Image via geology

In this case, where the sedimentary zone is nice and horizontal and the water flows slowly, there is nothing to disturb the sediment so all packets of rocks will be relatively flat, and of similar thickness.

But if we spice things up a bit, and have our initial spot on the left (and wind-swept) side of a dune, particles will be carried over the top and put to rest on the other sloped side – we will see cross-bedding. This is the phenomena that likely created this dune and the cross bedded sandstone we see in the NASA picture.

Image via itssedimentary.tumblr

If the rocks form in an watery environment, either very close to the surface waves or where water flows in such a way as to disturb the sediment, then too we will see cross bedding. In a way, what you would see in a cross laminated or cross strata packet of rocks in this case is fossilized movement of the medium that transports the material.

Where does it go from here?

On Earth, the cycle of erosion and sedimentation is never truly over. What is now a delta could, with a little tectonic help, become a mountain and feed another sedimentary area on its own.

The packets of rocks could get melted and their minerals would form fresh volcanic rocks, or squished and pulled and turned and heated into metamorphics. These can then become eroded, and the cycle continues. Slowly, too slow for a human to perceive, the rocks move, get transformed, destroyed and formed anew.

Scientific consensus is that Mars is no longer tectonically active. It’s waters are frozen or lost in space, and its atmosphere is barely even there – it’s almost 100 times thinner than on Earth. Sediments will have a hard time being transported by anything other than gravity, so what Mars should experience is just a leveling out, as the terrain seeks to flatten out under the strain of its own weight. But that would happen very, very, very slowly.

Chances are, if you ever reach Mars, those dunes will still be there.



The next followup rover to Curiosity will feature a helicopter drone add-on. Image: NASA

NASA considers adding helicopter drone to next gen Mars rover

The next Mars exploration rover will likely feature a helicopter drone, which is expected to act as scouting drone to improve navigation. According to officials at NASA JPL, the drone could help the rover cover three times the distance Curiosity drives on a daily basis.

The next followup rover to Curiosity will feature a helicopter drone add-on. Image: NASA

The next followup rover to Curiosity will feature a helicopter drone add-on. Image: NASA

We have Curiosity to thank for loads of new insights concerning’s Mars’ past, present and future. But the cute bot can only cover so much ground safely. The terrain is layered with rocky traps and plotting the best course or finding prospects for exploration in the first place is extremely difficult using satellite data from the spacecraft orbiting Mars alone. Also, because it’s millions of miles away, the radio signal takes around 12 minutes to reach Earth. So, engineers using the rover’s onboard camera navigate around obstacles at a slow, creeping pace so that there aren’t any surprises. If the rover travels too fast, by the time engineers spot a killer obstacle and signal an averting maneuver the rover might already be toppling on Mars.

A proposed helicopter could triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day and help pinpoint interesting targets for study.  Image: NASA

A proposed helicopter could triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day and help pinpoint interesting targets for study. Image: NASA

The key, JPL researchers believe, is to bridge satellite imagery from above and the close range onboard camera with a middleman. Here is where the helicopter drone will fit in. The helicopter would fly ahead of the rover almost every day, checking out various possible points of interest and helping engineers back on Earth plan the best driving route. According to NASA, the vehicle is envisioned to weigh 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) and measure 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) across from the tip of one blade to the other. The prototype body looks like a medium-size cubic tissue box, and is currently in testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Photo: quotevadis.com

Curiosity sparks Brain Mechanisms that Facilitate Learning

Whether we’re assigned a learning task or choose to follow it, those subjects that interest us are always easier to comprehend, assimilate and remember over a long time. In this context, interest is actually another word for curiosity and a new research found that it is an important factor for effective learning. The team at University of California, Davis, found that a dopamine spike sparked by curiosity facilitates learning not only of the subject at hand, but incidental information also. The findings could prove useful to doctors looking to treat people with memory deficiency, like those suffering of Parkinson’s, as well as professional working in education to inspire them to make their classes more curiosity orientated.

Preparing the brain for learning

Photo: quotevadis.com

Photo: quotevadis.com

The UC Davis team invited 19 participants to answer a trivia questionnaire made up of 112 questions. In the test, the volunteers had to rate how confident they were of responding correctly to the question at hand, as well as how interesting they found it. The again, another round of trivia was given, with questions made up only of those the participants didn’t answer right – half intriguing, half downright boring. After each question appeared on the screen, following a 14 second pause, a random face flashed for up to two seconds. The answer to the question was then revealed. The whole process was carried out while the participants had their brain activity scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

[RELATED] Most detailed map of the developing human brain released

The scans showed that during the waiting period brain activity ramped up in two regions in the midbrain, the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens. These regions are responsible for transmitting dopamine – a neurotransmitter that makes you feel pleasure and regulates the reward system. This suggests that the brain was already engaged in the reward system, triggering pleasure before the answer to the question was revealed. The more curious a subject was, the more his or her brain engaged this anticipatory network, brain scans showed.

“When we compare trials where people are highly curious to know an answer with trials where they are not, and look at the differences in brain activity, it beautifully follows the pathways in the brain that are involved in transmitting dopamine signals,” said Chara Ranganath, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. “The activity ramps up and the amount it ramps up is highly correlated with how curious they are.”

An hour later after the initial trivia, participants were engaged in a memory test. The results show that students were more apt remembering both the answer and related face (incidental info) related to questions that sparked their curiosity.  On average, they remembered 35 of 50 answers when they were curious, compared with 27 out of 50 when they were not. Similar results were reported when a memory test was conducted a day after the initial trivia round suggesting the effects curiosity has on memory are long-lasting.

[ALSO READ] Heavily decorated classrooms disrupts attention and learning in children

Besides, an increased dopamine rush, fMRI scans showed that curiosity was increased activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory formation.  In fact, the degree to which the hippocampus and reward pathways interacted could predict an individual’s ability to remember the incidentally introduced faces. Basically, curiosity prepped the brain for learning.

“There are times when people feel they can take in a lot of new information, and other times when they feel their memories are terrible,” said Ranganath. “This work suggests that once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning. Once you get this ramp-up of dopamine, the brain becomes more like a sponge that’s ready to soak up whatever is happening.”

The findings reported in the journal Neuron could prove to be very important for optimizing knowledge acquisition in education. More engaged classes that spur curiosity could have a long lasting effect. Curiosity, however, is a subjective trait; people get excited by different subjects. This would explain why so many kids feel burned out at school, where they’re exposed to a plethora of general subjects – some to their liking, while others come off as totally boring.

curiosity rover imaging camera

Curiosity spots what looks like a Martian camp fire, alas it’s nothing of the sorts

Curiosity rover captures a strange flare on the Martian surface

Curiosity rover captures a strange flare on the Martian surface. PHOTO JPL

The photo right above was captured by the Curiosity Rover’s right-hand navigation camera , currently deployed on Mars and on route to Mount Sharp, which shows a striking flare of light seemingly torching near the horizon. Taken on April 4th, the photo somehow made its way to the general public (bad idea NASA) and stirred international turmoil back on Earth, where ufologists dissected and scrambled the photo on all its sides. Clearly, this is proof that artificial light sources exist on Mars, and who else than Martian could have made them? The truth may actually be much simpler.

[READ] Mars covered in water: what the planet must have looked like billions of year ago



The couple of meters tall flare is evidence that may indicate that there is intelligent life on Mars, which lives underground, that uses light sources similarly to us humans, says  Scott Waring, a ufologist who runs the fantastic UFO Sightings Daily website. So what does NASA have to say about all this? The agency said that these sort of flares, albeit maybe not this large or striking, appear in photos and video streams a  few times every month, and that there various reason why this may happen: sunlight beaming off a sharp rock with Curiosity’s camera facing it just at the right angle, sunlight striking the  CCD imaging sensor directly through a hole in the camera’s housing or, unlikely enough, a a high-powered cosmic ray picking that exact moment to strike the sensor.

NASA’s policy of dealing with conspiracy theories is the same like dealing with terrorists: no negotiation. Ideally, the rover could have gone straight to the flare’s location and investigate, but the Curiosity mission is not some child’s play science project. It’s a multi-billion project whose primary goal is that of finding evidence or signs of present or past life on Mars – this flare doesn’t count, and the team at the  Jet Propulsion Lab need to stick to their plan if they’re chances of success are not to fall. The rover is currently on route to the base of Mount Sharp, where it will continue its investigations, but even on this course, which has been extensively mapped and configured for maximum safety, there are perils – sharp stones that can perforate its wheels, loose stones that can trap the machine and more. With so much at stake, no one feels like risking it all for some old wives’ tale.

In the rover’s defense, Curiosity has already proved its worth and plenty! Its findings prove that Mars was once capable of sustaining life, held important quantities of water and much more.

Also, to further enlighten conspiracy theorists I present exhibit B. While the first shot was taken by Curiosity’s right-hand CCD, the one below was taken exactly one second after with the left-hand navigation camera. The ghostly flare has vanished and went back whence it came.

curiosity rover imaging camera

Photo: Curiosity Rover left-hand camera view. PHOTO JPL



Curiosity finds water on Mars

After finding no methane in the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity has shown that the soil and dust on the surface of the Red Planet contain a few percent water, judging by weight. Yes, yes, I know, Curiosity has found signs that water flowed on Mars sometime during its past (1, 2, 3), but this time, it has found actual, direct evidence of water.

Water on Mars


The rover found that judging by weight, the surface of Mars contains some 2 percent water – this could mean that future, pioneer astronauts could extract 1 liter of water from 0.05 cubic meters. The sample Curiosity analyzed also revealed significant carbon dioxide and sulphur compounds.

“One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Laurie Leshin, lead author of one paper and dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

The results were part of a five-paper special edition on the Curiosity mission and were published today in Science. They don’t mention this, but some of you might find interesting to know that most of this water is probably frozen; in its warmest areas, Mars is about as cold as Alaska, and in its coldest areas, it’s like anything else on Earth.

The technical achievement in itself is huge. Curiosity is the first man-made equipment on Mars which can gather and process samples of soil. In order to do this, the rover employs the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer and a tunable laser spectrometer. These tools are able to identify a wide range of chemical compounds and also determine the ratios of different isotopes.

curiosity 2

“This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments,” said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.”

Bad news for manned missions

SAM also detected some organic materials in the rock sample as well – carbon containing chemicals that are the building blocks of life on Earth; but don’t get your hopes up – these are simple, chlorinated organics that likely have nothing to do with Martian life. As a matter of fact, they are probably the result of forms of life which came from Earth and reacted with a toxic chemical called perchlorate. NASA’s Phoenix lander spotted perchlorate near the North Pole, and now Curiosity spotted it near the equator, so the substance is probably spread evenly across the planet. The presence of this chemical is an obstacle future missions will have to overcome.

“Perchlorate is not good for people. We have to figure out, if humans are going to come into contact with the soil, how to deal with that,” she said. “That’s the reason we send robotic explorers before we send humans — to try to really understand both the opportunities and the good stuff, and the challenges we need to work through,” Leshin added.

A very Earth-like igneous rock

igneous rock

Curiosity is more than a one-trick pony – it’s not only about analyzing the possibility of life on Mars, it’s also about understanding the geologic setting of the planet. Another one of the five papers detailed a rock found in October 2012 – an igneous type of rock, which was never before seen on Mars, but is rather common on Earth, on oceanic islands or where the crust is thinning out.

“Of all the Martian rocks, this one is the most Earth-like. It’s kind of amazing,” said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “What it indicates is that the planet is more evolved than we thought it was, more differentiated.”

Chemical tests conducted on the pyramid rock showed that it is highly enriched in sodium and potassium, making it chemically alkaline. Geologists are now fairly certain this is a type of basalt called mugearite. However, despite the massive implications this rock can carry, researchers don’t want to get carried away, as this is only one sample and may be an exception; still, if it isn’t, than this would put the entire Gale Crater in a new perspective, and would indicate that the inside processes and chemistry of Mars are far more similar to Earth than what was previously believed.

Curiosity finds no methane on Mars, surprises NASA

A lab exemplification of the measurement chamber inside the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument that is part of the Sample Analysis at Mars investigation on NASA's Curiosity rover.

A lab exemplification of the measurement chamber inside the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument that is part of the Sample Analysis at Mars investigation on NASA’s Curiosity rover.

It’s been a while since we posted something about the Curiosity rover – now, Curiosity has reported that the Martian atmosphere lacks methane. This is a surprise to researchers because previous data seemed to indicate the contrary.

The 4 wheel laboratory conducted extensive tests for traces of Martian methane, and the results were conclusive; the existence of methane would be a good indication of life on Mars, though it can be produced without life, and life can also exist without producing it.

“This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars,” said Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration. “It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don’t generate methane.”

Curiosity samples the Martian atmosphere for methane 6 times, and given the sensibility of the device, NASA researchers estimate that the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere today must be no more than 1.3 parts per billion.

“It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what’s really important,” said the report’s lead author, Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane.”

The highest concentration detected by Curiosity suggests that methane enters the Martian atmosphere 50 million times less than the rate of methane entering Earth’s atmosphere. This is also suggestive because if methane existed in the past on Mars, it would also probably be there now.

“There’s no known way for methane to disappear quickly from the atmosphere,” said one of the paper’s co-authors, Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or interplanetary dust particles.”


Curiosity’s secret announcement – what could it be?

A few days ago, the Curiosity rover staff made an announcement that sent echoes throughout the entire scientific community – and not only. They announced that they have made a discovery ‘for the history books’, one that is so spectacular they want to quadruple check before they publish it, just to make sure it’s not some sort of error. Since then however, NASA has been quite silent about the matter.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” said John Grotzinger, in a segment published on Nov. 20.

The mystery will be revealed pretty soon, however – Grotzinger explained that NASA will publish the findings during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco from Dec. 3 to 7.

“If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect,” says planetary scientist Peter Smith from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Smith is formerly the principal investigator on a previous Mars mission, the Phoenix lander, which touched down at the Martian North Pole in 2008. “It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting.”

However, many doubt that Curiosity can even find life. The Guardian writes that whatever the finding is, it just can’t be life on Mars, because Curiosity isn’t suited for finding life; it is suited for finding organic material, but organic material doesn’t necessarily mean life.

Organic material, in chemistry, is a rather misleading name which just means molecules in which Carbon is attached to Hydrogen; they are essential for life, but can also be found in other environments as well.

“Organic compounds are ubiquitous in space: they are found in diffuse clouds, in the envelopes of evolved stars, in dense star-forming regions, in protoplanetary disks, in comets, on the surfaces of minor planets, and in meteorites and interplanetary dust particles.”, explained astrochemist Ewine F van Dishoeck, Leiden University in a published paper.

So the smart money is on organic molecules; where’s the crazy money? Well, we shouldn’t go too far speculating with this, according to researchers.

“When you keep things secret, people start thinking all kinds of crazy things,” he said.

Either way, we’ll keep you posted when the discoveries are made public.

Felix Baumgartner: Mars missions are a waste of tax dollars

Felix Baumgartner, the supersonic man who jumped from about 40.000 meters above ground is definitely a man up for new thrills and new conquests, so you’d expect him to be all for space exploration. But in a recent interview, he takes the totally opposite stand, claiming that any Mars missions are a waste of money which could be spent better.

“People should decide ‘are you willing to spend all this money to go to Mars?’ I think the average person on the ground would never spend that amount of money — they have to spend it on something that makes sense, and this is definitely saving our planet.”

He went even further, explaining that our curiosity is misplaced.

“I think we should perhaps spend all the money [that is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars, I don’t think it does make sense.”

Tricky issue he tackles, and one in which there’s no right or wrong answer, but I’d like to give my two cents on the matter. People often ask what benefit we can take from this or that discovery (like for example how does the LHC help us, or why we build telescopes, etc); it’s not just for the sake of science, though one could argue that’s reason in itself. The answer is we don’t know how it will benefit us, but it’s extremely likely that it will, somehow. Most things we take for granted today, such as X-rays or nuclear energy were absolutely useless when studied in their time. It took decades and decades of more work, but when it paid off, it paid off big. So it’s not a gamble investing in research, it’s a long term investment, one which might benefit us or the generations to come after us.

This being said, I’m just curious, if suddenly a manned mission to Mars were made possible and Felix Baumgartner would be offered a seat, would he decline it? My money says no.

Another very interesting insight on the matter was published here.

The Martian sand collected by the Curiosity rover turns out to be similar to volcanic soil on Hawaii, NASA scientists say. (c) AP

Mars bite tastes like Earth – soil similar to Hawaii

The Martian sand collected by the Curiosity rover turns out to be similar to volcanic soil on Hawaii, NASA scientists say. (c) AP

The Martian sand collected by the Curiosity rover turns out to be similar to volcanic soil on Hawaii, NASA scientists say. (c) AP

After Curiosity had a bite of Martian turf at the site of Rocknest a few days earlier, soil analysis results have finally come in. According to scientists at NASA, the Martian sand in the rover’s vicinity is very much akin to volcanic soils found on Earth such as those of  Hawaii. Though Mars is far from being a resort itself.

The findings follow a slew of premiering successes from Curiosity, as the high-tech lab on wheels recently performed for the first time analysis using the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer at the end of its arm, and shot the ChemCam laser on its mast at spots up to 23 feet away to analyze the rock it vaporizes. The next instrument in lined was  its chemistry and mineralogy module, known as CheMin, which bombards soil samples with X-rays to reveal their mineral composition and abundance.

Like I said, Curiosity successfully trialed other instruments on-board in the past few weeks, some of which also offered detailed elemental analysis. But knowing what atoms and molecules make up a sample is far from being enough, since the manner in which they are arranged counts just as much. Take carbon for instance, the most famous allotrope; it can occur as graphite, a very soft material typically used in pencils, or diamond, one of the hardest materials known to man. So you see while the chemical mark-up is the same, the way the carbon atoms are connected with one another makes all the difference in the world.

The instrument, called CheMin, for chemistry and mineralogy, is a marvel of miniaturization. No larger than a shoe box, it fits inside the rover and does the same analytic work as X-ray diffraction instruments the size of refrigerators. After  Curiosity uses a scoop at the end of its arm to collect soil, it carefully positions the tablet sized sample in the CheMin instrument. Before analysis can begin, however, the instruments shooks the sample 2000 times per second to filter out larger grains; the remaining crystals are then bombarded with X-rays in order to revelad their precise atomic structure. This was the first time X-rays from Earth have been deployed on an alien planet.

Roughly half the Martian soil, NASA scientists say, appears to be noncrystalline particles, meaning they’re like obsidian, a form of volcanic glass that the CheMin instrument’s x-rays cannot probe. This will be tasked to other instruments.

The Curiosity Rover main objective in its 2-year mission is that of reaching the Gale Crater’s Mt. Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of the crater whose lower layers may hold clues to whether Mars is capable of sustaining life or not.

Curiosity rover takes another bite of Mars

Nope, this is not the Mars chocolate I’m talking about – NASA’s Curiosity rover is digging in at Rocknest – a patch of Martian sand the robot has been exploring for the past week.

If you look at the picture above, taken by one of Curiosity’s camera, you can actually see three bite-like marks, left by the rover’s scoop robotic arm, which is used to extract samples from the Red Planet. But before it actually starts analyzing the sample, it must first purify it its sample-collection instruments using Martian sand as a cleansing abrasive – anything else could cause contamination. This type of contamination is an extremely serious issue, especially after the Curiosity spotted something (3D pic here) which can be debris from the land (although it’s also possible the speck is indeginous to Mars).

After the sample is treated, Curiosity will use the CheMin (chemistry-mineralogy) tool to analyze what it picked up.

Source: NASA

Curiosity finds plastic thingy on Mars [with 3D picture]

Curiosity recently stumbled upon a piece of plastic on the ground, something which researchers really weren’t expecting.

Don’t start thinking Martians have invented plastic or something like this – the piece is probably just debris from the shuttle or Curiosity itself. However, scientists are cautious and want to analyze it first before jumping to conclusions. To proceed thoroughly, the team is continuing the investigation for another day before deciding whether to resume processing of the sample in the scoop. Plans include imaging of surroundings with the Mastcam.

Who knows, as unlikely as it is, it might actually be a new mineral phase, one which could help us understand more about how the red planet was formed and evolved through geologic eras.

The moment is finally here – first samples analyzed by Curiosity

It’s dinner time, and you know what there’s on the menu? Rocks! Martian rocks, to be more precise.

After what seemed at times to be an excruciating series of baby steps, the rover has finally managed to extract the first samples and place it in CheMin – one of the two miniature laboratories located inside Curiosity. It’s been a long time coming, but the patience was rewarded, as despite the dramatic land (nicknamed the ‘seven minutes of terror’ by NASA engineers), the Martian tests and every other engineering and scientific challenge, everything went according to plan!

“What’s really exciting about this sample that just got dumped into CheMin” and later will be scrutinized by a second lab package on the rover “is that they are going to be able to analyze once and for all the mineral composition” of this material “that swirls around the planet,” says John Grotzinger, a planetary geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the Mars Science Laboratory’s project scientist.

This is the first test of CheMin’s ability to uncover which elements lie in the Martian soil, and it in fact check to see if Mars had any life in its distant past – don’t get your hopes up though, researchers are hoping only for microbial life.

So far, the rover is still analyzing the samples, but the results will be available in a short time – so stay tuned, we’ll keep you posted with any development.


Curiosity scoops martian soil in yet another milestone [VIDEO]

curiosity-scoops-martian-sandIt may look like an ordinary cup of sand, but for NASA scientists this is a milestone almost as important as the rover’s landing on Mars itself. Yesterday, Curiosity finally scooped a patch of martian soil and shook it for refinement, a moment which was being observed with anxiety from back on Earth.

“There was a lot of clapping yesterday, probably the most since landing, when we saw a nice full pile of soil in the scoop,” Vasavada said. “It looks and acts a lot like baking flour. And just like any baker, we shook the scoop to make sure we had a nice level spoonful. This also mixes up the soil for us, to ensure a good analysis,” said deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

The rover picked a spot in Mars’ Gale Crater called Rocknest to commence martian soil sample retrieval. With a robotic scoop, the robot gathered fine Martian sand and started shacking it, such that the vibrations may spit out pebbles and remove overfill. After it’s finished, the sand is then discarded, only to be retrieved yet again and vibrated – a process which takes 3 runs in total. After the sand is deemed fine enough, it will soon be emptied in Curiosity’s specialized analysis laboratory which lies in the rover’s interior. Curiosity’s main missions is that of looking for signs of life, so making sure no Earth contaminants are presented in the martian sand sample and taking every measure of precaution, no matter how scrutinous, is essential to the safe assessment of the missions.

Still, scientists aren’t expecting to find anything other than what they already know will be in the sample – although surprised are always welcome. Among all the hard work and stress, the scientists supervising Curiosity also have time and spirit for a laugh or two. So excited to dig in! One scoop of regolith ripple, coming right up!” reads  @MarsCuriosity twitter account.

NASA’s Curiosity to scoop first sample

The Curiosity rover is preparing to scoop in the Martian soil for the first time. The vehicle has driven up to a pile of sandy material that mission scientists have dubbed “Rocknest”.

Using its clam-shaped tool, Curiosity will start digging in the ground, the first thing to do being to eliminate any previous earthly contamination. Given that Curiosity’s main objective is to search for Martian life, any such contamination would be pretty bad news. After this task is done, the rover will dig once again, this time for investigating – it will extract an aspirin size sample and analyze it.

NASA engineers explained that this process is long and must be done with care; they also asked for a little patience, in order to best learn how to handle the Rover in Martian conditions. Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will likely stay at Rocknest for a couple of weeks. Much like with previous other tests since the landing, the results are expected to be pretty mundane. Researchers believe the dust is only weathered basalt, a volcanic rock practically ubiquitos on Mars, rather common on Earth as well.

However, the team is more interested in getting the procedures right and making sure any further experiments will be held correctly. The main idea is to clean the internal mechanisms of the robotic arm tool that does the digging, called Chimra (Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis). Although the rover was assembled in ultra-sterile conditions on Earth, the tool still has an oily film of earthly matter which will dramatically contaminate the samples if left in place. However, Curiosity can simply scrub this film from Chimra.

“We effectively use it to rinse our mouth three times and then spit out,” explained Daniel Limonadi, the Curiosity surface sampling phase lead at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We will take a scoop bite, we will vibrate that sand on all the different surfaces inside Chimra to effectively sand blast those surfaces, and then we dump all that material out; and we rinse and repeat three times to finish cleaning everything out.”

After this is done, a sample will be collected and delivered to the onboard labs, Sam and CheMin, to run chemical and mineralogical analyses.

Curiosity rover shows water once flowed on Mars

Although Curiosity landed recently on Mars, the rover is already proving its usefulness, beaming back all sort of interesting information; this time, Curiosity has snapped photos of rocky outcroppings which seem to be stream beds where water once flew on the Red Planet.

The rock is quite eroded and it consists of rounded gravel consolidated in a sandy matrix, the entire thing looking much like broken slabs of cement sidewalk. Some of the smooth pebbles have fallen into a pile, something we often see here on Earth too. After analyzing the pictures, scientists were clear:

“This is a rock that was formed in the presence of water,” says John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission at the California Institute of Technology.

Also, it’s not just any water, but flowing water. But how could they have known? Well, it’s not really that hard. The two main indicators here are the rounded pebbles and the cemented sandstones: they look just like the ones found on earth in streams or down in small canyons.

“These are all telling us that there was water really flowing across the surface there, and probably pretty deep water — ankle-deep, knee-deep water — like you’d have in an occasional desert flood on the Earth, in the Southwest, for example.”

In order to become this round, pebbles were subject to some sort of erosion, and considering how big and heavy they are, it’s practically impossible to be rounded by wind, so that only leaves one culprit: water. This is consistent with previous research, which also claimed there was water on Mars, but the evidence was somewhat indirect, and while convincing, not completely reliable.

“Before, we never really saw a rock on Mars where we could tell whether it was wind or water that was doing the transport,” Peter Doran, University of Illinois at Chicago says. “And now we have a clear sign of flowing water on Mars and we can get estimates of the size of the flow and so on. It’s really fascinating.”

This is also the first evidence of flowing water, as opposed to occasional groundwater that occasionally bubbles up, which is very important, because water is vital for life as we know it; it’s not yet clear how flowing water changes the picture, but exobiologists are thrilled by the prospects.

“Something happened on Mars that simply doesn’t happen today,” Andrew Knoll, a planetary sciences professor at Harvard University, says. “And that is, there was water flowing at high rates over the Martian surface. That’s really what they’ve found.”

Source: NASA

A massive whirling dust storm on the surface of Mars, as seen captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

Curiosity observations show extreme pressure swings on Mars

A massive whirling dust storm on the surface of Mars, as seen captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

A massive whirling dust storm on the surface of Mars, as seen captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The extreme pressure swings experienced during a day-night cycle on the planet might drive the formation of such dust twisters. (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

Though a barren, life-intimidating landscape,  Mars still has the most resembling weather to Earth compared to the other planets in our solar system. Recent measurements beamed by the Curiosity rover, which touched down on the martian surface a few weeks ago, have confirmed the scientists’ theories of extreme pressure swings. According to observations, pressure variations can be 100 times greater than those on Earth, and could potentially be the primary factor driving the massive dust storms on Mars.

Over the last 35 years, a total of four NASA probes have reached the Martian surface and returned weather data, however Curiosity is the only one to land in an “action center” – in the equator. Previous measurements have shown that the Martian atmosphere is subjected to significant temperature and pressure swings. The atmospheric temperature near the surface of Mars generally varies by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit between day and night because of the overall thinner Martian atmosphere and lack of oceans and their moderating influence. However, this is the first time that such a huge pressure swing is encountered, although it was expected.

“The exciting new result from Curiosity is a regular and truly enormous swing in atmospheric pressure through each day. Measurements on Earth show a daily swing in pressure of only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the mean pressure, whereas Curiosity is measuring swings of almost 10 percent of the daily average pressure. We observe such a relative pressure change on Earth only with the passage of an extremely strong hurricane. At the Curiosity site on Mars, this enormous pressure swing occurs regularly every day,” said   Kevin Hamilton, a pioneer in the area of computer modeling of the Martian atmosphere, and Director of UH Manoa’s International Pacific Research Center.

Hamilton theorized back in the 1980s, and later backed up his findings with a computer model, that particularly in two action centers on Mars, coupled with a resonance with the martian day-night cycle, that the pressure swings there should exceed 8 percent of the mean pressure. Pretty close to the actual measured data fed back by Curiosity.

According to Hamilton, these severe pressure variations could provide an answer to a mystery that has been puzzling scientists for quite some time now – how do the massive dust storms on the surface of the red planet form?  Because of these pressure ‘mood’ swings,  winds become sufficiently strong to lift enough dust from the surface to create the remarkable global dust storms seen every few years on that planet.


Curiosity rover prepares for first contact with Martian rock

The moment many of us have been waiting for is almost here: Curiosity prepares to make its first contact with a Martian – a Martian rock, that is.

The rover has been on the Red Planet for six weeks now, still preparing its devices, namely its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) which will be used to analyze rock composition. Powered by 0.7 milligram of radioactive curium, APXS first irradiates samples with alpha particles (which are just nuclei of helium atoms), to make them sensitive to the chemical analysis it will perform.

“We’re now at a point where we want to start to do some surface-contact science,” mission project manager Richard Cook of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a September 19 teleconference.

Now, Curiosity is heading towards the Glenelg geologic site, where multiple terrains meet; mission personnel analyzed the site and decided it was definitely worth a first stop, especially as a certain rock seems to be quite uniform. The idea is to crosscheck the measurements from APXS against those of those from the rover’s ChemCam instrument, which has a smaller field of view.

“The hope is that we can analyze this rock and do some cross-comparisons between the two instruments,” Grotzinger said. “Not to mention it’s just a cool-looking rock.”

The rock has been named Jake Matijevic – a member of the rover team, who died sadly, just two weeks after landing, following “a lifelong battle with asthma and other upper respiratory ailments”.

Mars Orbiter catches pic of Curiosity on its way down

Amazing photo: the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took one of the best space pictures of the decade – Curiosity descending to Mars, using its parachutes.

Click the pic for full size. Source: NASA

As you can see, the rover is safely descending inside its backshell, suspended from its huge parachute; the picture was taken just as the rover was deccelerating from thousands of kilometers per hour to just hundreds. After this moment, Curiosity’s rockets did their job and slower the descent even further.

Again, I just have to admire the skillful calculations, precise engineering, creative planning and perfect timing that went behind the entire Curiosity project. But just take a minute and contemplate the sheer awesomeness of the picture: here we have a photo taken by a camera that’s been orbiting Mars for six years, during which it has been reset and reprogrammed by programmers millions of kilometers away using math and science pioneered centuries ago, just so that it could take a picture of another machine engineers have sent to the Red Planet, traveling hundreds of thousands of kilometers just so that it can parachute and land on Mars seven minutes later – and Curiosity’s mission is just now starting.

Also, about the recent wave of negative comments surrounding the mission, I’d like to share with you this remarkable insight published on Discovery:

The news these days is filled with polarization, with hate, with fear, with ignorance. But while these feelings are a part of us, and always will be, they neither dominate nor define us. Not if we don’t let them. When we reach, when we explore, when we’re curious – that’s when we’re at our best. We can learn about the world around us, the Universe around us. It doesn’t divide us, or separate us, or create artificial and wholly made-up barriers between us. As we saw on Twitter, at New York Times Square where hundreds of people watched the landing live, and all over the world: science and exploration bind us together. Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people.

Curiosity day – Curiosity’s size compared to other rovers

Curiosity has landed. The Mars Science Laboratory is set to go, and today, we’ll be writing tons of posts about it: videos, pics, facts, etc – given that it is, without a doubt the most important accomplishment of the year in space exploration.

A picture that gives you an estimate of how big Curiosity really is, compared to two scientists and other rovers. Click the picture for full size. Source

Unlike Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity doesn’t use solar panels as an energy source, but instead, relies on a much larger thermonuclear electric generator that produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactive decay. Longer-living and more reliable than solar power, the thermonuclear generator can provide Curiosity with power for at least a full year on Mars—687 days on Earth, while also pumping warm fluids through the rover to keep it at the right operating temperature.