Tag Archives: red planet

Mars may have had planetary rings billions of years ago — and might get a new one

Artist impression of Mars with a ring. Credit: Celestia.

Astronomers have recently proposed an intriguing hypothesis: Mars may have had planetary rings formed by the crumbling remnants of one of its ancient moons, now long gone. The same ancient moon may have seeded the Red Planet’s sole surviving pair of moons: Phobos and Deimos.

Put a ring on it

Don’t be jealous of Mars. While it has two moons (unlike Earth, which has only one), these are tiny and not that much to look at. Phobos, whose name comes from the Greek phobia (fear), is just 22.7-km across while Deimos, which in Greek mythology is the twin brother of Phobos and personified terror, measures a measly 12.6-km in a diameter. So much for the fear factor.

Due to their small size, astronomers used to believe for a long time that Phobos and Deimos were actually wandering asteroids that were captured by Mars’ gravity. However, subsequent observations showed that their obits are almost in the same plane as the Red Planet’s equator, meaning the moons must have formed at the same time as Mars.

It is this ‘almost’ that has been bugging scientists for quite some time, leading Matija Ćuk, a research scientist at the SETI Institute, to formulate a wild hypothesis.

For Ćuk, what’s really intriguing about these puny moons is not their size, but rather their orbital motion. Phobos orbits just 9.377 kilometers above the Martian surface, circling the planet three times in a single Earthling day. And, with each orbit, Phobos is drawing nearer to Mars, tugged by the planet’s overwhelming force of gravity.

In 2017, Ćuk, along with David Minton, a professor at Purdue University, and then-graduate student Andrew Hesselbrock, published a paper suggesting that Phobos will eventually get pulled apart by Mars’ gravity, spewing debris that will go on to form a ring around the planet. This wouldn’t be the first time either.

The researchers’ models suggest that over the course of Mars’ geological history, many Martian moons were destroyed in this manner, and each time a new, smaller moon would form. This ring-moon cycle repeats over and over again.

In their most recent study, which was presented at the 236th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, held virtually on June 1-3, 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, Ćuk and colleagues provide new insights to support their ring-moon formation theory.

This time, their thesis centers on Deimos, the smallest and most distant of the two Martian moons. What’s odd about Deimos is that its orbit is tilted by two degrees.

“The fact that Deimos’s orbit is not exactly in plane with Mars’s equator was considered unimportant, and nobody cared to try to explain it,” Ćuk said in a statement.

“But once we had a big new idea and we looked at it with new eyes, Deimos’s orbital tilt revealed its big secret.”

Mars’ outermost moon Deimos. Credit: SETI.

The researchers claim that Deimos’ tilt can only be explained by the existence of a ‘grandparent’ moon, roughly 20 times larger than Phobos. This ancient moon, thought to have existed 3 billion years ago, likely broke up and reformed twice, creating Phobos in the process the second time around. Each time it broke, the grand-moon also produced planetary rings.

The grandchildren of this sizable, long-gone moon would have migrated outwards, pushed by a planetary ring, strongly affecting Deimos’ orbit in the process.

Deimos is thought to be billions of years old, while Phobos is much younger, having formed just 200 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs. Their timeline fits well with the researchers’ ring-moon cycle theory.

All of this implies a striking image: billions of years ago, Mars may have had a prominent ring.

But as intellectually fascinating this might sound, there is little evidence to support the researchers’ assertions. Their theory might be put to the test when JAXA, the Japanese space agency, lands a spacecraft on Phobos, a mission slated for 2024. The spacecraft will touch down with the Martian moon, collect samples, and return them back to Earth for analysis. Inside these samples, scientists hope to find telltale clues about Mars’ past.

 “I do theoretical calculations for a living, and they are good, but getting them tested against the real world now and then is even better,” Ćuk hopefully remarked.

Mars is wetter than initially thought (but still not wet enough for life)

Scientists modeled the climate of Mars to understand if hydrated salts or brines on the surface of the Red Planet could harbor life. The results suggest that hydrated salts and brines on Mars are not supportive of life. For example, if the dark streaks shown here are formed by the flow of briny water, then that briny water would be too cold to support life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

In 2015, NASA made a breathtaking announcement: Mars had liquid water flowing on its surface. But there’s a catch — this is water mixed with brine. This composition allowed the liquid to flow as dark streaks seen by overhead satellites despite the frigid temperatures experienced on the Red Planet.

Now, researchers say that these briny dark streaks may be much more common than initially thought.

Using measurements recorded by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers affiliated with the Southwest Research Institute, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), and the University of Arkansas devised a model that predicts where liquid brine can form on the surface of Mars.

They were stoked to find that up to 40% of the Martian surface could support liquid water on its surface for perhaps six hours at a time.

However, conditions that can enable the dark streaks to form are pretty strict. As such, brine flows in each location are possible during just 2% or so of the year, highlighting their seasonal nature.

Surprisingly, the subsurface is likely much wetter than the surface itself. The model suggests that brines could exist during 10% of the Martian year at a depth of just 3 inches (8 centimeters).

Because saltwater is liquid at lower temperatures than pure water, scientists modeled the climate of Mars to understand if pockets of brine on its surface could harbor life. NASA has found evidence of brine on the Red Planet, including these droplets on the strut of the Phoenix lander, which may have formed in the warmed spacecraft environment. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

These findings seem to be in accordance with news from 2018 of a massive 20-km-wide underground lake beneath Mars’ south pole.

Although Mars seems to be wetter than originally thought, there are many caveats for those of you bristling with excitement at the thought that some Martian microbes might be lurking inside the brines.

Aside from the fact that carbon-based life — the kind we’re accustomed to here on Earth — doesn’t enjoy living in hydrated salt systems, the temperature is also far too cold.

Measurements performed by satellites orbiting Mars suggest that the brines have a maximum temperature of around -44°C (-55°F).

“Our results indicate that (meta)stable brines on the Martian surface and its shallow subsurface (a few centimetres deep) are not habitable because their water activities and temperatures fall outside the known tolerances for terrestrial life. Furthermore, (meta)stable brines do not meet the Special Region requirements, reducing the risk of forward contamination and easing threats related to the exploration of the Martian surface,” the authors wrote in the journal Nature Astronomy.

On the upside, the fact that it seems virtually impossible for these brines to sustain life gives NASA the green light to plan missions meant to investigate them without fear of contamination.

“These new results reduce some of the risk of exploring the Red Planet while also contributing to future work on the potential for habitable conditions on Mars,” co-author Alejandro Soto, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado,

What will the Mars 2020 rover be called? You decide

NASA’s next rover mission to Mars should depart for the Red Planet in 2020, tasked with hunting for signs of ancient life, as well as collecting samples and returning them to Earth. But before this happens, the rover needs a name. NASA has now launched a call to the public to vote what the rover should be called out of 9 candidate names.

Artist impression of NASA’s 2020 Mars rover. Credit: NASA.

The 9 possible names were selected as the finalists of a student naming contest organized by NASA for school children. Here’s a list of possible names for the Mars 2020 rover, tentatively named this way to reference its launch window, and the students who proposed them:

  • Endurance, K-4, Oliver Jacobs of Virgina.
  • Tenacity, K-4, Eamon Reilly of Pennsylvania.
  • Promise, K-4, Amira Shanshiry of Massachusetts.
  • Perseverance, 5-8, Alexander Mather of Virginia.
  • Vision, 5-8, Hadley Green of Mississippi.
  • Clarity, 5-8, Nora Benitez of California.
  • Ingenuity, 9-12, Vaneeza Rupani of Alabama.
  • Fortitude, 9-12, Anthony Yoon of Oklahoma.
  • Courage, 9-12, Tori Gray of Louisiana.

Everyone, from any country, is encouraged to pick their favorite in an online poll. The poll closes at midnight (05:00 GMT) on January 28.

All of NASA’s Mars rovers — Sojourner (1996), Spirit and Opportunity (2003), and Curiosity (2012) — were named by kids during student competitions. The Mars 2020 mission is no exception to this tradition.

Students across the US, ranging from kindergarten to high school, submitted more than 28,000 potential names for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. A panel of 4,700 volunteer judges shortlisted the proposals to 155 semifinalists, which was eventually cut down to 9 proposals. The nine student finalists are invited to discuss the names that they proposed in a panel including Lori Glaze (NASA Planetary Science Division director), Jessica Watkins (NASA astronaut), Nick Wiltsie (NASA-JPL rover driver), and Clara Ma (the winner of the 2009 competition that named the Curiosity rover; she was sixth-grade student at the time).

The Mars 2020 official name will be announced after the contest concludes in early March. The student who submitted the winning proposal will be invited to see the rover’s launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mars 2020 will land on the Red Planet in February 2021, in Jezero Crater — the site of an ancient lake that had liquid water 3.5 billion years ago. The rover’s main mission is to collect samples, which would be returned to Earth by a subsequent mission in the future. NASA hopes to find signs of ancient life in the mineral deposits at the crater. The mission will also lay the groundwork for future manned missions to Mars by testing critical instruments that will study the Martian soil, weather, and atmosphere.

So, what’s your favorite name from the list? Share yours in the comments.

Mars may be losing water faster than expected

Although it is now barren and inhospitable, as early as two billion years ago, Mars’ surface was covered in water in the form of rivers, large lakes, and even a huge ocean. Scientists are coming closer to piecing together the events that eventually caused the Red Planet to lose most of its water. But, for now, a new study suggests that water loss on Mars may be a lot worse than we thought.

The sun’s UV rays disassociate water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The discovery of more water vapor in the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere than expected entails a greater number of these atoms escape into space, amplifying water loss over time. Credit: ESA.

All that remains of the planet’s once plentiful water is now trapped as ice in the Red Planet’s polar ice caps. By one estimate, these regions contain less than a tenth of all the water that flowed on the Martian surface billions of years ago.

The rest escaped into space after ultraviolet radiation from the sun — unhindered by Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere (roughly 100 times less than Earth’s) and its absent magnetic field — broke apart water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The gaseous hydrogen, which is not nearly as bound to gravity as on Earth (Mars has a 60% weaker gravity), freely travels right off into space.

According to new research that analyzed data from the Trace Gas Orbiter, an orbiting spacecraft operated by the European-Russian ExoMars program, this process may occur at a faster rate than previously thought.

When the powerful UV rays hit the frozen Martian poles, water vapor forms and travels towards higher and colder altitudes transported by wind. Normally, dust particles in the atmosphere and the cold temperature should condense the water vapor to form clouds like on Earth. However, on Mars, this condensation is, most of the time, hindered. This causes the upper atmosphere to become supersaturated in water vapor, accelerating the escape of hydrogen molecules into space.

“Because supersaturation is observed concomitantly with dust or ice particles, we conclude that condensation does not efficiently prevent water vapor from becoming supersaturated, even when seeds for condensation exist. We speculate that this may be due to rapid drops in temperature and/or rises in water concentration, which occur faster than condensation can keep up with,” the authors wrote in their study.

Researchers led by Franck Montmessin, a planetary scientist at the University of Paris-Saclay and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, found that water vapor is accumulating in unexpected proportions in the Red Planet‘s upper atmosphere, at an altitude of about 80 kilometers.

Measurements show that some pockets of the upper atmosphere contain 10 to 100 times more water vapor than the temperatures should theoretically allow. This relationship is mitigated by seasonal changes. For instance, the atmosphere became the most saturated with water vapor during the warmest and stormiest part of the Martian year.

As spacecraft currently orbiting Mars gather more data, we may come to learn more about how water vapor and the planet’s atmosphere. Ultimately, we might also learn what eventually led to Mars losing all its liquid water from the surface.

The findings were reported in the journal Science.

NASA maps ice water reserves inches below Martian surface

If humans will ever colonize Mars, they’ll need to find a fairly accessible source of water. A new map of the Martian surface showing where water ice is believed to be located suggests this won’t be that challenging. In some places, the ice is located as little as 2.5 centimeters below the surface, just one shovel away.

The annotated area has near-surface water ice that could be easily accessible by astronauts traveling to Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Space missions are frugal by nature since every pound of cargo can cost tens of thousands of dollars to launch — and that’s for shipments to the International Space Station. A manned trip to Mars would be even tighter with resource utilization. This is why any human-crewed mission to Mars would have to involve some on-site resources, such as harvesting ice for drinking water and making rocket fuel.

Using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter — two spacecraft that are constantly monitoring the Red Planet‘s surface — NASA has compiled a map of relatively accessible ice which could potentially be reached by astronauts on Mars.

Colored map showing underground water ice on Mars. Cool colors represent ice closer to the surface than zones with warm colors; black represents very little to water. Credit: NASA/JPL.

In order to detect ice from afar, the researchers relied on heat-sensing instruments aboard the spacecraft. Underground ice changes the temperature of the Martian surface, so by measuring surface temperature and cross-referencing with data, such as known ice reservoirs detected by radar or seen after meteor impacts, it is possible to map out water ice deposits.

“You wouldn’t need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel,” said the paper’s lead author, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re continuing to collect data on buried ice on Mars, zeroing in on the best places for astronauts to land.”

Due to Mars’ thin atmosphere, liquid water can’t last on the surface of the planet (although sometimes briny water can flow temporarily). But there are important water reserves locked as ice in the underground throughout the planet’s mid-latitudes. For instance, a large portion of Arcadia Planitia, located in the northern hemisphere, shows a large quantity of water ice trapped less than 30 centimeters below the surface. As such, this area could be considered prime real estate for landing astronauts.

In the future, NASA will continue to study subsurface water ice, looking to study how buried ice deposits change across different seasons.

“The more we look for near-surface ice, the more we find,” said MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL. “Observing Mars with multiple spacecraft over the course of years continues to provide us with new ways of discovering this ice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creamy white frozen dunes on Mars signal arrival of spring

Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS.

When Galileo Galilei made the first telescope observations of Mars in 1609, he was not able to detect any surface detail. Later observations by iconic astronomers such as Christiaan Huygens, Giovanni Cassini, William Herschel, and Giovanni Schiaparelli revealed white spots that looked like polar caps, seasonal variations on the Martian surface, and carved featured into the natural landscape which astronomers at the time called “canals.”

These fathers of modern astronomy could have never dreamed of the level of exquisite detail that we’ve come to know the Martian surface in. Just take a glimpse of this amazing satellite image (featured above) of a region of the red planet’s north pole, showing rich, creamy white textures.

The observation was captured by ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a spacecraft jointly operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos.

Although it might look like delicious ice cream or white chocolate mousse, what we’re actually seeing is a collection of icy dunes made of carbon dioxide and sand with dark patches in between.

The spacecraft’s CaSSIS camera took the image in late May, a period when the landscape was going through seasonal changes. During winter, the Martian north pole is covered in CO2 ice. Come spring, the ice turns into vapor from below the surface. And as the ice cracks, the sublimated ice transports sand during its ascent into the atmosphere.

There multiple types of dunes in the image, too. Those on the left are ‘regular’ dunes as most people will recognize. Those on the right, however, are called barchan dunes, also known as crescent dunes — these grow large and link up with each other to form barchanoid ridges. Such formations are highly useful to scientists studying Mars since their curved tips signal which way the prevailing wind blows.

Last year, the same spacecraft captured another springtime image — this time in the southern pole. This image also shows a dune filed, but it’s a bit more interesting because it features a crater.

Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

InSight stretches its solar panels, beams back first clear photo from Mars

Landing on Mars is an incredibly challenging feat, a process that has claimed numerous probes and spacecraft over the last 50 years. On Monday, NASA landed its InSight Probe after it had traveled for six months through 300 million miles of space. According to the latest reports from NASA engineers, InSight has now deployed its array of solar panels so that it may recharge its batteries each day. The probe also beamed back its first clear photo of the Martian surface.

The picture was taken on November 26, 2018, the same day InSight landed on the Red Planet. The probe’s camera is still covered by a transparent dust cover meant to prevent damage to the lens upon landing. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The signal that the solar panels had been deployed successfully was transmitted to Earth at about 5:30 p.m. PST (8:30 p.m. EST) by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. The twin solar arrays are each 7 feet (2.2 meters) wide, when fully open. This now makes the lander about the size of a large 1960s convertible. But because Mars is so much farther away from the Sun than Earth, the amount of sunlight that reaches the Red Planet is also weaker. The panels should provide about 600 to 700 watts of power on a clear day and 200 to 300 watts the panels are covered in dust, which is practically the norm. Luckily, the probe’s sophisticated instruments do not require a lot of energy and InSight’s solar arrays should be more than capable of recharging the batteries.

“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “It’s been a long day for the team. But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight: surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase.”

InSight’s mission is unlike that of any spacecraft we’ve sent to Mars. All of our past probes have studied the planet’s environment above ground, but InSight is focused on what happens beneath the surface by listening to ‘marsquakes’. By studying these slight seismic waves, scientists want to determine what makes up the planet’s mantle and core. Basically, InSight will study seismic waves as they pass through the Red Planet, using that information as a sort of ultrasound to find out what is lurking underneath the crust.

InSight will also help scientist come to a better understanding of how the solar system formed and evolved. Both Mars and Earth are rocky planets that had lots of water on their surface during their rich history. However, the two planets look very differently today — Earth is wet and teeming with life while Mars is barren and dead.

Next, NASA will use a robotic arm to deploy instruments on the surface of Mars, among them the precious seismometer and a heat flow probe. However, it will take at least three months before there will be any seismic data available. That’s because NASA wants to make sure that the instruments are properly set up and calibrated. Meanwhile, InSight will use its weather sensors and magnetometer to make measurements from its landing site at Elysium Planitia.

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.

Rocks prove Mars used to resemble the Earth a lot — but no, that doesn’t mean there was life on it

Curiosity has discovered high concentrations of manganese oxides on Mars, leading scientists to believe that the planet was once very similar to Earth.

*Geological drum-roll intensifies.*
Image credits NASA/JPL.

Mars may have once had an Earth-like, oxygen-rich atmosphere enveloping it according to JPL’ Curiosity team. The rover found high concentrations of manganese oxides in the planet’s rocks while blasting through Gale Crater with its laser-firing ChemCam.

On Earth, these compounds first appear at a time when our atmosphere was going through a dramatic change: a microbe-powered oxygen enrichment.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes. Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?” says Los Alamos planetary scientists and lead study author Nina Lanza.

Finding these levels of manganese oxide deposits are a dead giveaway for an oxygen rich environment, Lanza adds.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose,” she said.

Curiosity found the samples in Gale Crater (the circled point in the top left.)
Image credits NASA/JPL

But without any bugs living on Mars, how did these rocks form? Lanza believes it comes down to Mars losing its magnetic field.

At one point, the planet had large amounts of liquid water and a protective magnetic bubble, just like our Earth does today. But, while our planet’s atmosphere was pumped full of oxygen by microorganisms, Mars gained its oxygen from water — as its magnetic field became weaker, it could no longer stave off the flow of cosmic ionizing radiation, which broke the liquid down into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Much of that oxygen was absorbed by the planet’s now-iconic iron-oxide rocks, gradually giving it the color of rust. Manganese-oxides require much more oxygen to form, however, suggesting that Mars had a lot more of it in its atmosphere than we previously believed.

So just because Mars once had both oxygen and water, that doesn’t mean there was ever life on the planet. Bummer, I know.

“It’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated,” Lanza concludes.

Still, Lanza admits that the theory will be hard to prove. However, it’s the best one we have for now, or until Curiosity stumbles upon a Martian bug. Or a martian.

Scientists propose one way trips to Mars

As any traveler surely knows, it’s always cheaper if you travel one way; especially if you go to Mars. Recently, two renowned scientists made a proposal that startled the whole scientific community: one way trips to Mars. The whole purpose would be to colonize the planet faster and more economically, pretty much in the way the first settlers came to America, not expecting to go back.

“The main point is to get Mars exploration moving,” said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a Washington State University professor who co-authored an article that seriously proposes what sounds like a preposterous idea.

However, numerous astronauts frown upon this idea.

“This is premature,” Ed Mitchell of Apollo 14 wrote in an e-mail. “We aren’t ready for this yet.”

However, NASA seems to really like this idea. President Barack Obama has already outlined a plan for going to Mars in the mid 2030s, but he hasn’t mentioned the fact that the astronauts wouldn’t be coming back. Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University make a pretty strong case, arguing that in the more and more plausible scenario of an Earth cataclism, mankind has to be prepared somehow – and the best way would be one way trips, which would start in two decades.

“You would send a little bit older folks, around 60 or something like that,” Schulze-Makuch said, bringing to mind the aging heroes who saved the day in the movie “Space Cowboys.

It’s also important to understand that this is not a suicide mission.

“The astronauts would go to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers of a permanent human Mars colony,” they wrote. “We are on a vulnerable planet,” Schulze-Makuch said. “Asteroid impact can threaten us, or a supernova explosion. If we want to survive as a species, we have to expand into the solar system and likely beyond.”

And if you think about it, they will actually feel more connected to home than Antarctic explorers. Now ladies and gents, an interesting question arises here: would you sign up for such an affair ?