Tag Archives: mars rover

Space and Physics Developments to Look Forward to in 2021

Unfortunately, science journalists don’t generally carry crystal balls as part of their arsenal, and if 2020 taught us anything, it’s not always safe to predict what the forthcoming year will bring. With that said, there are some space and physics developments that we can be fairly certain that will come to pass in 2021.

These are ZME Science’s tips for the top space science and physics events scheduled to occur in 2021.

Back to the Beginning with the James Webb Launch

It’s almost impossible to talk about the future of astronomy without mentioning NASA’s forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). To call the launch of Webb ‘much-anticipated’ is a vast understanding.

The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and unitized pallet structures that will fold up around the telescope for launch (NASA)

The reason astronomers are getting so excited about the JWST is its ability to see further into the Universe, and thus further back in its history than any telescope ever yet devised. This will allow astronomers to observe the violent and tumultuous conditions in the infant Universe. Thus, it stands poised to vastly improve our knowledge of the cosmos and its evolution.

Part of the reason for JWST’s impressive observational power lies in its incredible sensitivity to infrared light–with longer wavelengths than light visible with the human eye.

The ability to observe the early Universe could help settle confusion about what point in its history galaxies began to form. Whilst the current consensus is that galaxies began to form in later epochs, a wealth of recent research has suggested that galaxies could have formed much earlier than previously believed.

“Galaxies, we think, begin building up in the first billion years after the big bang, and sort of reach adolescence at 1 to 2 billion years. We’re trying to investigate those early periods,” explains Daniel Eisenstein, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES). “We must do this with an infrared-optimized telescope because the expansion of the universe causes light to increase in wavelength as it traverses the vast distance to reach us.”

An artist’s impression of the JWST in place after its 2021 launch (ESA)

The reason infrared is so important to observe the early Universe is that even though the stars are emitting light primarily in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, travelling these incredible distances means light is shifted into the infrared.

“Only Webb can get to the depth and sensitivity that’s needed to study these early galaxies.”

Daniel Eisenstein, Havard University

After years of setbacks and delays and an estimated cost of $8.8 billion the JWST is set to launch from French Guiana, South America, on 31st October 2021.

JET Will Have Star Power

The race is on to achieve fusion power as a practical energy source here on Earth. Nuclear fusion is already the process that powers the stars, but scientists are looking to make it an energy source much closer to home.

Internal view of the JET tokamak superimposed with an image of a plasma ( EFDA-JET)

When it comes to bringing star power down to Earth the Joint European Torus (JET)–the world’s largest tokamak–leads the way, housing plasmas hotter than are found anywhere else in the solar system, barring the Sun.

A tokamak is a device that uses a powerful magnetic field to trap plasma, confining it in a doughnut-like shape. Containing and controlling these plasmas is the key to generating energy through the fusion process. Within the plasma, particles collide with enough energy to fuse together forming new elements and releasing energy.

The process is cleaner and more efficient than fission power, which rips the atoms of elements apart, liberating energy whilst leaving behind radioactive waste.

JET itself isn’t a power station, rather it was designed to conduct experiments with plasma containment and study fusion in conditions that approach that which will be found in working fusion power plants. So, whilst the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)–set to be the world’s largest tokamak–is still under construction and won’t be operational until at least 2025, this year is set to be an important year for the experiment that inspired it.

Following upgrades conducted during 2020, JET is scheduled to begin experiments with a potent mix of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (D-T). This fuel hasn’t been used since 1997 due to the difficulties presented by the handling of tritium– a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus of one proton and two neutrons.

The JET team will be looking to attain an output similar to the 16 megawatts of power that was achieved in ’97, but for a more sustained period and with less energy input. The initial test at the end of the 20th century consumed more power than it produced.

Back to the Moon in 2021

2021 will mark the 52nd anniversary of NASA’s historic moon landing and will see the launch of several missions back to Earth’s natural satellite as well as continuing efforts to send humans following in the footsteps of Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11.

Illustration of Orion performing a trans-lunar injection burn (NASA)

As part of NASA’s deep space exploration system, Artemis I is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions designed to enable human exploration of the Moon and beyond.

“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known. It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.” 

Mike Sarafin, the Artemis I mission manager.

Artemis I will begin its journey aboard the Orion spacecraft, which at the time of its launch in November will be the most powerful spacecraft ever launched by humanity producing a staggering 8.8 million pounds of thrust during liftoff. After leaving Earth’s orbit with the aid of solar arrays and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) Orion will head out to the moon deploying a number of small satellites, known as CubeSats.

After a three week journey to and from the moon and six weeks in orbit around the satellite, Orion will return home in 2022, thus completing a total journey of approximately 1.3 million miles.

The Chandrayaan 2 launch. The ISRO will be hoping for better luck with Chandrayaan 3 in 2021 (ISRO)

NASA isn’t the only space agency with its sights set on the moon in 2021. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander at some point in 2021. It will mark the third lunar exploration mission by ISRO following the Chandrayaan-2’s failure to make a soft landing on the lunar surface due to a communications snafu.

Chandrayaan-3 will be a repeat of this mission including a lander and rover module, but lacking an orbiter. Instead, it will rely on its predecessor’s orbiter which is still in good working despite its parent module’s unfortunate crash lander. Should Chandrayaan-3 succeed it will make India’s ISRO only the fourth space agency in history to pull off a soft-landing on the lunar surface.

(Robert Lea)

Back with a Blast: The LHC Fires Up Again

The world’s largest, most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ceased operations in 2018 and this year, after high-luminosity upgrades, it will begin to collide particles again.

During its first run of collisions from 2008 to 2013 physicists successfully uncovered the Higgs Boson, thus completing the standard model of particle physics. With the number of collisions increased significantly, in turn, increasing the chance of spotting new phenomenon, researchers will be looking for clues of physics beyond the standard model.

All quiet at the LHC in 2019, but the world’s largest particle accelerator will fire up again in 2021 (Robert Lea)

The function of the LHC is to accelerate particles and guide them with powerful magnets placed throughout a circular chamber that runs for 17 miles beneath the French-Swiss border. When these particles collide they produce showers of ‘daughter’ particles, some that can only exist at high energy levels.

These daughter particles decay extremely quickly–within fractions of a second– and thus spotting them presents a massive challenge for researchers.

Luminosity when used in terms of particle accelerators refers to the number of particles that the machine can accelerate and thus collide. More collisions mean more daughter particles created, and a better chance of spotting exotic and rare never before seen particles and phenomena. Thus, high luminosity means more particles and more collisions.

To put these upgrades in context, during 2017 the LHC produced around 3 million Higgs Boson particles. When the High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) begins operations, researchers at cern estimate it will be producing around 15 million Higgs Bosons per year.

After being shut down for upgrades in 2018, the LHC prepares to fire up again in 2021 (CERN)

Unfortunately, despite firing up for a third run after these high luminosity upgrades, there is still work to be done before the LHC becomes the HL-LHC.

The shutdown that is drawing to completion–referred to by the CERN team as  Long Shutdown 2 (LS2)–was just part of the long operations that are required to boost the LHC’s luminosity. The project began in 2011 and isn’t expected to reach fruition until at least 2027.

That doesn’t mean that the third run of humankind’s most audacious science experiment won’t collect data that reveals stunning facts about the physics that governs that cosmos. And that collection process will begin in 2021.

So what is the Mars Sample Return mission exactly?

The Mars Sample Return Campaign is an effort to bring samples of Martian rocks and soil back to Earth (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If everything goes well, Martian rocks will hypersonically pancake themselves into the Utah desert.

But first, lets start from the beginning.

When Swati Mohan was in the third grade, the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation changed her life. One episode, in particular, displayed an artist’s rendition of everything space had to offer – stars, nebulas, and galaxies. From that moment on, she knew she had to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Now, years later, she is one of the primary actors in a project which could potentially change how we look at Mars, and space in general. From that third-grader, she has risen to become the lead of Guidance, Navigation, and Control Operations for the Perseverance Rover.

The Volvo-sized Perseverance (aka the 2020 Rover) and her sidekick, the helicopter Ingenuity, are the first stages of NASA’s sample return project. If all goes as planned, the duo will be landing at the Jezero Crater in February 2021.

Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Between three to four billion years ago, a river there flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments packed with carbonite minerals and clay. The Perseverance science team believes this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

“So the mission can be thought of in three separate phases,” Mohan told ZME Science. “One is launch cruise that’s getting from the surface of the Earth to Mars. The second phase is Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) from basically the top of Mars all the way down to the surface of the ground safely. The third mission is the surface mission. The actual portion where we drive around and do science is so complicated that in each of those phases there are separate missions, separate vehicles with all different hardware and software that goes along with it. You can think of it as each one of those phases has the complexity of a whole mission in it of itself.”

The returned samples have the potential to “change our understanding of the origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a July 28 news conference.

If successful, the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign will bring samples of Martian rocks and soil back to Earth, where they can be investigated in detail, using all the capabilities of terrestrial laboratories. The return program is part of an even larger Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Martian planet.


Credit: NASA/JPL.

The nuclear-powered Perseverance is the first rover to bring a caching system to Mars that will package samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Rather than pulverizing rock the way Curiosity‘s drill does, Perseverance’s drill will cut intact rock cores that are about the size of a piece of chalk and will place them in sample tubes that it will store until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location.

Built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the rover is loaded with all sorts of scientific instruments, advanced computational capabilities for landing and other new systems. With a chassis about 10 feet (3 meters) long, Perseverance is also the largest, heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has ever built.

The demanding science goal requested of the rover requires a new suite of instruments to tackle the question from many angles. While, at first glance, it may look like Perseverance wears the same uniform as Curiosity, it does contain a few improvements.

“Perseverance actually takes a lot of heritage from the Curiosity rover,” said Mohan. “The cruise stage that we’re flying is very similar. The EDL system is very similar. We’ve made some upgrades to Perseverance in order to improve our entry, descent and landing performance. And the rover shares the same kind of fundamental structure and body but it has all new set of instruments that are geared for searching for biosignatures.”

Among the technologies aboard Perseverance mission is the rover’s Terrain-Relative Navigation system (TRN). Part of the landing system, TRN is the primary reason Perseverance can explore a place like Jezero. It will enable the rover to quickly and autonomously comprehend its location over the surface and modify its trajectory during descent. This will be able to provide invaluable assistance for both robotic and crewed missions landing on the Moon and is a must for future robotic and crewed exploration of Mars.

Engineers have also given Perseverance more self-driving smarts than any other rover, allowing it to traverse more ground in a day’s operations without having to wait for engineers on our home planet to send up instructions. Calculated over the length of the mission, this lack of turn-around time will translate into more science.

The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, which can detect organic matter, and the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which measures the composition of rocks and soil, will allow Perseverance to map organic matter, chemical composition and texture together at a higher level of detail than any Mars rover has done before. These instruments — two of the seven total onboard — will play a particularly important role in Perseverance’s search for potential signs of life.

Perseverance also carries a technology demonstration coined the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — or MOXI, because what is science without a good acronym. This instrument will produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, demonstrating a way that future explorers might produce oxygen for rocket propellant as well as for breathing. The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) was also created with future human exploration in mind. MEDA will provide information about the current martian weather and climate, as well as the nature of the dust on the surface. The Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) package, a next-generation version of what flew on the Mars Science Laboratory mission that delivered the Curiosity rover, was also geared for future human exploration in mind, providing data about the entry and descent of the spacecraft through the atmosphere.

At one time, cameras were considered a waste of space on planetary explorers. Who would want to see images when there was so much science which could take up that space on the vessel. Thank God, those arguments have past for those of us who like to visually see the planetary landscapes (and for those of us who might want Martian backgrounds on their computer desktop…not naming names).

Perseverance is carrying the most cameras in any craft in the history of interplanetary exploration. The rover has 19 cameras that will deliver images of the landscape. The other parts of the spacecraft involved in EDL carry four additional cameras, potentially allowing engineers to put together a high-definition view of the landing process after the rover safely touches down on Mars.


In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

And what is a superhero without its trusty sidekick.

For Vaneeza Rupani, a high-school student in Northport, Alabama, second place didn’t turn out to be that bad. Rupani originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, before it was named Perseverance, but NASA officials recognized the submission as a terrific name for the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get the mission off the ground so to speak. 

“The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration,” Rupani wrote. “Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things.”

“It’s super cool,” said Mohan of Ingenuity. “The Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 had a little rover called Sojourner and it was not even the size of a cereal box, and it was an add-on. That rover is the genesis of how we have the Perseverance rover now and all this complexity and capability so it’s super exciting that we’re taking that next step with ingenuity to do the first powered flight.”

Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration – a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.

Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 revolutions per minute – many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries and other components. However, the little chopper doesn’t carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from Perseverance.

Because the Mars atmosphere is 99 percent less dense than ours, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass here on Earth.

Temps are another experiment with the little ‘copter. Nights at Jezro dip down much cooler than cardigan weather at minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity’s team on Earth tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity’s parts.

In addition, flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Like all our Martian rovers, commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.

NASA officials say that Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles which might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They are hoping what is learned through a helicopter could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL. “We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”

Sample Return Mission

The ultimate dream for those interested in space science is finding life on another planet. That starts with sample return missions. Perseverance is that first step.

Three launches will be necessary to accomplish landing, collecting, storing and finding samples and delivering them to Earth.

Once soil samples are collected by the rover, it will deposit samples in tubes at select locations, called depots, which will be collected at a later date by the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter.

“The lander goes, lands near one of these depots, and collects the samples which have been placed on the surface,” explained Dave Spencer, the Mars Sample Return Campaign Mission Manager at JPL, in an interview. “The lander has a European rover onboard, called the sample fetch rover. This rover will be placed on the surface we’ll go out and grab the samples from this depot, bring it back to the lander and put them in an orbiting sample container, which is basically a soccer ball sized container, then put into the Mars Ascent Vehicle on the lander, that can launch it up into Mars orbit.”

Illustration of Mars Sample Return process (Credit: ESA)

As currently envisioned, the lander that will gather the samples launches in 2026 and arrives at Mars in 2028, touching down close to the Mars 2020 rover near Jezero Crater. It deposits the fetch rover to pick up the stashed samples and transfer them to the rocket. Another option is for the Mars 2020 rover to retain some of its collected samples onboard and deliver those samples directly to the rocket. The rocket would then become the first ever to launch off another planet, transporting the sample return container into orbit around Mars.

“We also designed it so that the Mars 2020 rover, assuming it’s still alive, if it’s still got more samples onboard, it can come up and provide samples to be loaded into the orbiting sample container as well,” said Spencer. “So we can receive samples from either the fetch rover or the 2020 rover.”

That’s where a separate orbiting spacecraft, provided by ESA and also launched from Earth in 2026, would rendezvous with the sample return container and ferry it back to Earth.

A NASA-provided payload on the orbiter would provide the capabilities needed to capture and contain the samples, placing them in an Earth entry vehicle that would land the samples safely on U.S. soil.

Spencer explains:

“So now we’ve got this orbiting sample container, the soccer ball-sized container that’s been delivered by this Mars ascent vehicle into Mars orbit. And it’s going to be up at around 300 kilometers (186 miles) of altitude above the surface of Mars. And the European orbiter, this Earth Return Orbiter is going to go up and autonomously rendezvous and capture this orbiting sample container. And once it captures, there’s a big canister basketball hoop basically, that we steer the vehicle such that the orbiting sample contains canister goes into this basketball hoop, close the door on and capture it and then very carefully put it through a robotic process.”

The canister will contain all of the materials inside the orbiting sample container. However, scientists need to be careful not to return any uncontained material back into the Earth’s biosphere, such as dust on the canister. In order to keep this from occurring, the capsule contains a redundant containment system where the engineers put a containment vessel around the orbiting sample canister, and then turn around and put that unit into another containment vessel.

“Now we’ve got this enclosed set of samples and we put them into an earth Earth entry vehicle that gets delivered back to Earth. It’s then on put on an impact trajectory, so it’s actually going to crash land in Utah. And it comes in directly from the interplanetary trajectory. So it’s going to be coming in at hyper-sonic speeds through the Earth’s atmosphere and impact in the mudflats at a place called the Utah test and training rage.”

And then if all goes well, it will be recovered intact.

And if all goes better, we will make some amazing discoveries. Hopefully, discoveries that will propel us to search for sample returns on further bodies in the future.

As Alex Mather of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, eloquently wrote in his winning essay naming the Perseverance rover, “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as humans, will not give up.”

Aurora-like phenomenon spotted on Mars for the first time

The European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has just spotted a green light in the atmosphere of Mars — the first time such phenomenon is seen on a world beyond the Earth. This is different from the type of aurora we know as the Northern Lights.

A green band of oxygen glow is visible over Earth’s curve. Image ESA

Skywatchers on Earth have long enjoyed classic aurorae such as the Northern and Southern Lights. The glow is due to the collisions between atmospheric molecules and charged particles that are racing away from the Sun. The interaction is influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field, which pulls the particles to the poles.

But the night glow is different. It’s generated by the interaction of sunlight with oxygen atoms and molecules in the air. The emission is very difficult to see, even from Earth. That’s why the best images of the green night glow are usually taken by astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS):

“One of the brightest emissions seen on Earth stems from night glow. More specifically, from oxygen atoms emitting a particular wavelength of light that has never been seen around another planet,” study lead author Jean-Claude Gérard said in a statement. “This emission has been predicted to exist at Mars for around 40 years — and, thanks to TGO, we’ve found it,” Gérard said.

The emission was seen using a special observing mode of the TGO. One of the instruments available there, known as NOMAD, has an ultraviolet and visible spectrometer. This allows it to observe in different configurations – one of which positions its instruments to point directly down at Mars.

Co-author Ann Carine Vandaele, the chief investigator of NOMAD, said that despite many efforts they hadn’t been able to capture any green glow in the past. That’s why they decided to reorient their observations to the “edge of Mars,” which is similar to the photos seen of Earth taken from the ISS.

NOMAD was used between 24 April and 1 December 2019 to scan altitudes ranging from 20 to 400 kilometers above the Martian surface, twice per orbit. The green glow was seen in all the datasets observed by the researchers. The emission was strongest at an altitude of 80 kilometers and also varied based on the distance between Mars and the Sun.

The researchers wanted to understand better the green glow in Mars so they also modeled the phenomenon, finding out that it was produced mainly as a breakdown product of carbon dioxide (CO2). Sunlight frees one of the oxygen atoms in CO2, and it’s the transition of this atom that’s glowing green on the Red Planet.

“The observations at Mars agree with previous theoretical models but not with the actual glowing we’ve spotted around Earth, where the visible emission is far weaker. This suggests we have more to learn about how oxygen atoms behave, which is hugely important for our understanding of atomic and quantum physics,” said Gerard.

Observations of the green glow could help inform the models that guide the entry, descent and landing of Mars probes, the researchers hope. Atmospheric density, for example, directly affects the drag experienced by orbiting satellites and by the parachutes used to deliver probes to the martian surface. The Perseverance rover is expected to be launched this year from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A scientist claims there are insects on Mars. He’s probably wrong

An entomologist says photos taken by the Curiosity rover depict bugs. His critics say he has pareidolia.

Image credits: NASA/JPL; William Romoser/Ohio University.

The claim

William Romoser, an entomologist and a professor at Ohio University, presented a research poster at a conference in St Louis and said he has evidence of current life on Mars. The said there are “insect-like” and “reptile-like” forms on the planet, which he claimed has a “surprising abundance of higher life forms.”

Romoser spent a few years studying photos from Mars he obtained online. He claimed to have found on them several examples of insect-like forms with a structure similar to bees as well as reptile-like forms including fossils and living organisms.

“There has been and still is life on Mars,” Romoser said. “There is apparent diversity among the Martian insect-like fauna which display many features similar to Terran insects that are interpreted as advanced groups – for example, the presence of wings, wing flexion, agile gliding/flight, and variously structured leg elements.”

The researcher said the photos show images of arthropod body segments as well as legs, antennae, and wings. He claimed to have carefully studied the photos and not to have removed or added content to them, having variated photographic parameters such as contrast and saturation.

“Once a clear image of a given form was identified and described, it was useful in facilitating recognition of other less clear, but none-the-less valid, images of the same basic form,” Romoser said. “An exoskeleton and jointed appendages are sufficient to establish identification as an arthropod.”

Image credits: NASA/JPL; William Romoser/Ohio University.

The proof

That’s it — you’re basically seeing it above. Romoser’s claims are based on the images and the images alone.

Great claims require great proof, and this really isn’t great proof — that’s putting it lightly.

The research was widely questioned in social media and the academic world. Amanda Kooser, CNET writer, said Romoser suffers from pareidolia, a human tendency to see recognizable shapes in random patterns – something commonly found among alien enthusiasts.

Romoser dedicated most of his academic life to studying insects, so he could be seeing insects where there are none. He also has a history of bold (and quite fringe) claims regarding Mars. He published two past reporters where he claimed to have found evidence of intelligent life forms on the red planet.

Even this is putting it lightly: Twitter had a field day with Romoser’s claims.

Romoser is an accomplished entomologist — but if he wants people to take these claims more seriously, substantially more evidence is required.

However, it should be said that he presented the claims at the Entomology conference — and conferences are exactly where preliminary results should be presented. It remains to be seen whether these Martian bugs will pass the test of serious scientific screening — but I wouldn’t bet on it.

NASA Explores the Use of Robotic Bees on Mars

Graphic depiction of Marsbee - Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Graphic depiction of Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Robot bees have been invented before, but Mars might be a place for them to serve a unique purpose. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Japanese chemist Eijio Miyako led a team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in developing robotic bees. So they’re not really bees; they’re drones. Miyako’s bee drones are actually capable of a form of pollination similar to real bees.

Bees have been the prime subject of many a sci-fi films including The Savage Bees (1976), The Swarm (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). In the 21st century, bees have been upgraded. Their robotic counterparts shall have an important role to play in future scientific exploration. And this role could very well be played out on the surface of Mars.

Now, NASA has begun to fund a project to create other AI-steered robotic bees for the future exploration of Mars. The main cause of experimenting with such mini robots is for the desirable need for speed. The problem is this: the traditional rovers sent to Mars in the past move very slowly. NASA anticipates an army of fliers to move significantly faster than their snail-like predecessors.

A number of researchers in Alabama are currently collaborating with a group based in Japan to design these mechanical drones. Sizewise the drones are very similar to real bees; however, the wings are unnaturally large. The lengthened wingspan was a well-needed feature to add since the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner compared to Earth’s. These small insect-like robots have been dubbed “Marsbees.”

If used, the Marsbees would travel in swarms and be able to return to some sort of a base, not unlike the way bees return to their hive. The base would likely be a rover providing a place for the Marsbees to be reenergized. But they would not have to come to this rover station to send out the information they’ve accumulated. Similar to satellites, they would be able to transmit their findings wirelessly. Marsbees would also likely be able to collect a variety of data. If their full development is feasible and economical, the future for Marsbees looks promising.

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.

‘Mount Sharp’, the landing site for Curiosity, is just an informal name

I have to admit this one caught me off-guard: Mount Sharp, the destination for the new Mars Rover is at the center of a minor naming confusion: its official name isn’t actually Mount Sharp.

As of today only three days remain until the much expected land, and I was just reading some details about Curiosity and the land itself, when I came across this fact.

“Mount Sharp is only an informal name,” says Guy Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, picked in March to honor the late geologist Robert Sharp (1911-2004) by the rover science team. “Bob Sharp was one of the best field geologists this country has ever had,” said Michael Malin of Malin Space Systems, who heads a rover instrument team, in a statement then.

But in May, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) selected “Aeolis Mons” – as part of the long standing tradition to give Latin names to Martian mountains. However, not only the media prefers the “traditional” name – researchers seem to love it too. Even though the IAU named a nearby crater “Sharp”, Webster says, “but the rover isn’t going to visit that one.” No disrespect is intended to the IAU, he adds, “but we’ll probably keep on calling it Mount Sharp.”

So, just so we’re clear, Aeolis Mons and Mount Sharp are the same thing – whenever we’ll make a reference, we’ll try to use both names, but if for any reason we don’t, remember it’s the same thing, with two different names.

As for the Curiosity mission, there’s nothing special going on at the moment. Everything seems to be going according to plan, but researchers are eagerly awaiting for the delicate landing moment. Of course, we’ll keep you posted with everything that happens in these few days, as well as during the land.

NASA Opportunity Rover finds traces of flowing water on Mars

NASA’s famous rover, Opportunity, seems to have stumbled upon clear evidence that water used to flow on Mars, a long long time ago.

Opportunity was prowling around the Meridiani Planum on Mars, looking at hematite (an iron oxide) when it stumbled upon something which delighted researchers: gypsum. Why is this vein of gypsum so important ? Because this vein could only have been created by flowing water, they claim.

“This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock,” says Steve Squyres of Cornell University, lead Opportunity boffin. “This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”

The gypsum vein has been named ‘homestake’ by NASA; it is about the size of a human thumb and it protrudes slightly higher than the bedrock it is located in. They believe, after analyzing it with Opportunity’s instruments, that it is mainly made out of hydrated calcium sulphate – gypsum.

However, Opportunity can’t hang on there and analyze the gypsum vein for long; it has to move on towards north-facing slope on the Endeavour Crater in order to align its solar panels properly for the upcoming Martian winter. It’s brother, the Spirit rover, failed to do so in time because it was caught in a crater – and the valiant machine was never heard from again. However, Opportunity surpassed even the most optimistic prognosis, and still continues to provide valuable data to researchers on Earth; now, it has every chance of arriving in a safe place, hibernate, and then go at it again.

NASA’s big rover on its long way to Mars

Following an absolutely perfect launch with no apparent problems whatsoever, NASA’s Curiosity rover has started its long way towards the Red Planet.

Curiosity and Mars

The car-sized rover blasted off Saturday at 10:02 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and separated from the rocket right on schedule, 45 minutes later. The pinnacle of technology in spatial rovers, Curiosity is now reducing the 570 million kilometers that separate it from Mars; so far, there’s no reason to worry whatsoever.

“We are in cruise mode,” said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Our spacecraft is in excellent health, and it’s on its way to Mars.”

The main purpose of this mission is to determine whether Mars is, or ever was, host to life; don’t let your imagination fly just yet, because NASA isn’t searching for little green men. Some little green bacteria would do just fine, and please everybody for that matter.

Problems and money

This project faced numerous problems since it was first conceived in 2003. At several moments, it was even in peril of being disbanded, but through hard work, NASA’s astronomers and engineers managed to pull it off, even though at a cost much higher than initially anticipated. But these problems and difficulties made today’s successful launch even sweeter.

“Today’s a great day,” Theisinger said. “Very happy guy.”

However, it will take almost a year only to get to the red planet, and the major difficulties start then, so Theisinger can’t relax just yet.

“We all recognize that this is the prologue to the mission — necessary, but not sufficient,” he said. “We all have our work cut out for us in the next eight and a half months.”

Preparing for Mars

Curiosity is scheduled for Mars in August 2012, but the mission has many difficulties and adjustments to pass. For example, numerous navigational corrections will have to be made to ensure a safe and quick arrival on Mars. The team will also perform tests on the 10 highly sophisticated pieces of equipment Curiosity is equipped with.

Furthermore, engineers will have to use this time to prepared for landing on Mars. They’ll stage 10 separate operational readiness tests during the next eight months, estimating and improving their ability to adapt to different situations, more or less pleasant.

“You’re basically just kicking the tires and trying to shake it all out,” Caltech’s John Grotzinger, MSL’s project scientist, told Space.com.

Due to its size, which was necessary for all the instruments, as well as to provide higher mobility and resistance, Curiosity won’t be able to land in a similar fashion to its cousins, Spirit and Opportunity. Researchers had to employ a landing style which is without precedent: they will use a rocket powered sky crane to lower the rover in a daring maneuver.

“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program. “We’re flying to Mars.”

NASA’s Curiosity Rover prep to head for Mars

In a week filled with bad news for space exploration, astronomers finally have something to be happy about: the Mars Curiosity rover is ready to head towards the Red Planet, as NASA makes the final preparations for a launch scheduled for November 25.

The rover is currently waiting patiently ontop an Atlas V rocket, just waiting for orders that will come from Cape Canaveral.

“Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity,” confirmed Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. 

”If weather or other factors prevent launching then, we have more opportunities through December 18.”

The one ton rover will begin its land mission from inside Gale crater, near the base of a layered mountain; its main mission is to investigate if environmental conditions could have been favorable enough to support the development of life; but don’t let your imagination fly just yet – at most, researchers are hoping to find clues of microbial life, in the preserved evidence of those conditions.

“Gale gives us a superb opportunity to test multiple potentially habitable environments and the context to understand a very long record of early environmental evolution of the planet,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

”The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. Layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.”

Curiosity is supposed to be much heavier and sturdier than its smaller cousins, Spirit and Opportunity – which did an absolutely fantastic job. However, this Martian expedition is expected to be both heavy and tricky; researchers are especially worried about the landing Due to its large mass, an air-bag cushioned touchdown is no longer an option, so engineers have figured out another method with a rocket-powered descent stage.

Via TG Daily

Mars Rover getting last touches

NASA engineers and technicians are making the last adjustments to the Mars Rover, which is about the size of a small SUV; the rover is set to be sent to Florida for launch later this year, so everybody’s in a hurry and trying to make everything as fast as they can, without making any mistake whatsoever.

A small army of people dressed in protective suits has been working inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory assembling Curiosity (the Mars Rover) and testing its science instruments.

Curiosity, which is bigger than your average car, will drive around Mars with the primary objective of seeing if ancient environment of Mars could have supported primitive life. The mission was set for 2009, but due to the soaring costs and numerous technical setbacks caused a delay of 2 years.

NASA will begin shipping components at Cape Canaveral next month. All in all, the Mars Rover mission, which costs about $2.5 billion should start in late November. It will definitely be the highlight of the year, and if everything goes according to plan, not long from now Curiosity will provide some answers to questions which have been puzzling researchers for decades, or even centuries.

Picture source

NASA making last chance to phone Mars Rover

Currently, there are two operational (hopefully) NASA rovers located on Mars; the first one, Opportunity, is exceeding all expectations, and is functioning better than anyone would have predicted. The second one however, Spirit, has been silent for more than a year.

It seems like a really long shot, but NASA is going to make one last ditch attempt to communicate with Spirit, and after that it will scale back the listening campaign focused on Spirit, and focus almost all efforts on its healthy Mars Rover. Spirit got stuck in a sand trap in 2009 during a routine drive, and despite efforts, it hasn’t been able to escape, and was unable to tilt towards the Sun before the coming of the Martian winter. As a result, it didn’t gather enough solar energy, and went into hibernation.

Researchers expected the rover to wake up as time passed and the Sun faced the rover, but that moment never came. Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, believes the odds are well below fifty-fifty, but the attempt should be made and hope should not be given up.

“I would be surprised if we re-establish communication – happy but surprised,” said Arvidson, a mission deputy principal investigator. “It’s been so long.”

If in time Spirit still doesn’t respond, NASA will have to declare the Mars rover lost, but even if this is the case, it achieved pretty much all of its objectives.

NASA dumps plans for 3D camera on Mars explorer

Time is growing shorter and shorter for the people working on the development of the Mars exploration program, and as we are getting closer to the launch date, some plans are continued, while others are scraped. Such was the case with the 3D camera for the next robotic rover that will be sent to Mars, a project which also involved James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic.

NASA has given up on its plans because time simply ran out before there were satisfying results concerning the 3D camera, which would also have had zooming capabilities. The Mars rover (Curiosity) which will be launched later this year was expected to feature this camera, dubbed Mastcam, but results were dissapointing.

“With the Mastcam that was installed last year and the rover’s other instruments, Curiosity can accomplish its ambitious research goals,” Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger said in a written statement.

“The possibility for an upgrade was very much worth pursuing, but time became too short for the levels of testing that would be needed for them to confidently replace the existing cameras,” Grotzinger added.

This doesn’t mean that Curiosity won’t have cameras at all, just that they won’t be 3D. Aside from this, it will also feature environmental sensors, chemistry instruments and radiation monitors, all of which will shed some light on life in the Red Planet, as well as prepare humans to set foot on our ‘neighbour’.

Picture source

The search for DNA on Mars

They came from Mars; they invaded our planet billions of years ago. But they were small, and came with rocks instead of spaceships. At least that’s what Christopher Carr from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) thinks. He claims that sheltered within meteorite rocks, microbial Martians could have survived the cold dark space, and make it through to Earth, where they settled in. Even Carr admits the theory does sound a bit far fetched, but this idea has been gaining more and more support in the last years, especially since it is well known that Earth and Mars exchanged almost a billion tons of rock over time – most of them coming from Mars to our planet.

For this reason, he and his team over at MIT are developing a DNA detecting machine, to use with the 2018 Mars Rover; if they can make it work perfectly in time, it could destroy half of what we know about how life appeared on Earth, or fill the missing pieces we are missing from the puzzle. Finding DNA on Mars would mean that the planet held (and probably still holds life), and that there’s a very very big chance all life an Earth is related to it, or maybe even spawned from it.

“It’s an interesting thing to try,” said Steven Squyres, a Cornell University planetary scientist and lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project.

The problem with projects such as this one is you have limited amount of time, money, and weight, so you have to choose only a handful of instruments to send, which means that there’s a good chance that even if constructed in time, the DNA seeker might not be sent into space, if NASA decides to do this. For me personally, this does sound extremely interesting, but I feel that it is not the upmost priority for the Mars Rover. Still, I have good faith the people over at NASA will make the right decision in due time.

Picture source