Tag Archives: rover

Perseverance sent NASA a photo of Mars, and we can see its path from here

An update from NASA showcases a possible route that the Perseverance rover will take during its primary mission on Mars.

Jezero Crater. Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech / USGS.

Back in mid-February, 2021, the Perseverance rover touched down on the red planet, gearing up for a two-year-long mission. Its first objective is to explore the Jezero crater, where it landed, for evidence of life today or in the past. It may sound complicated, but the mission will mostly consist of the rover taking samples of rocks and soil formed from water-carried sediments billions of years ago.

That being said, nobody was sure exactly where the rover should look. So it beamed us back some photos to help NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS) decide.

Go left after the red rock

The path NASA chose will take Perseverance through several areas of interest: the cliffs at the center of Jezero (these used to be the edge of a delta), along its surface, up towards a series of possible ‘shoreline’ deposits, and finally over the rim of the crater.

Jezero was selected as a landing site for this mission because this area, in the past, used to be filled with water. It was picked as the most promising candidate for finding any traces of life out of sixty locations as it has several features that researchers believe are remains of ancient, once-habitable environments. As is the case with Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, these features formed in the presence of water and may thus contain clues to Mars’ past.

The base of the delta cliffs, for example, marks the outer edge of the area where sediments were deposited by a long-lost river flowing into the crater. Ground control hopes that rocks and sediment here hold fossilized bacteria. Meanwhile, the crater’s rim is the former boundary of an ancient lake and likely still holds evidence of how water levels fluctuated in this lake over the ages. Perseverance will examine them to hopefully determine when the crater first became a lake and, hopefully, how it stopped being a lake.

While it looks small on a video, the patch NASA chose is a few dozen kilometers long — long enough that it will probably take all of Perseverance’s main mission to traverse it all and stop at all points of interest. While the rover is likely going to spend several years exploring Mars, a separate mission will retrieve its samples and shuttle them back to Earth, NASA adds.

Rocks from the Moon helped us better understand how it and our wider solar system formed; the samples from Mars would undoubtedly help as well. But this time, we have a realistic chance of spotting signs of alien life. Understandably, then, researchers are anxious to get their hands and microscopes on some Martian dust and rocks.

The Sky Crane, the crazy idea which became the norm

The sky crane was the crazy idea that actually worked. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Prior to the rover Curiosity, rovers were either reaching the surface of Mars via rocket-controlled landers or merrily bouncing their way along the surface nestled in airbags. However, the creation of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), later named Curiosity, presented a dilemma for engineers. How do you get a one-ton rover the size of a Volkswagen down safely?

While previously rovers utilized landers in which they would drive off, the new car-sized Curiosity presented a problem. Landers need ramps and larger rovers need larger ramps. Additionally, ramps can be one of an engineer’s worse nightmares. Since the first successful rover, Sojourner, landed on Mars in 1997, engineers have always been scared that a multi-billion dollar project could get to a planet some 40,000 miles away from Earth, only to have the rover snag a part on the lander ramp, essentially becoming a lander itself on top of another lander, rendering them both basically useless.

(Note: The microwave-sized Sojourner was not technically the first rover on Martian soil. That distinction belongs to the Russians’ Prop-M rover which was tethered to their Mars 2 and 3 landers. Since Mars 2 pancaked itself into the surface and Mars 3 lost communications with Earth because of a sand storm, neither rover was actually deployed).

Second problem: These larger landers and larger ramps would need more room. On a planet where the main inhabitants are rocks (and lots of them), finding clearance would be a big thorn in the side of those in charge of finding a place to land. Not only that, but the good science comes when you get near the rocky stuff, which would be hard if you had to park in lot BFE.

Third problem: Putting rockets on the bottom of a rover like it was done in earlier landers like Viking creates a stability problem. In the book “Curiosity” by Rod Pyle, he likens it to “balancing a bowling ball on a broomstick.”

This is one reason why Spirit and Opportunity utilized the airbag system. The airbag system is pretty much how it sounds. Prior to the rover landing on the ground, airbags would inflate bouncing them to land where they may. This was never a viable option for the much larger Curiosity rover. Airbags can only handle so much weight and 2,000 pounds went far beyond those limits. Also, airbags also create just another thing to get the rover caught on.

So a new landing system was needed. As Curiosity’s Chief Engineer, Rob Manning, told Pyle in his book, “We were thinking out of the box. In fact, we threw away the box. We were literally going through all possible ways to land this machine, trying to imagine every possible configuration, whether it made sense or not.”

When Manning and his team first conceived the idea, it didn’t exactly have a warm reception. After all, Curiosity would be coming on the heals of two high-profile failures by NASA with the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter missions of the “better, faster, cheaper” era of the space program. (In 2004, the Harvard Review actually published a report using this NASA method as the way NOT to do business).

So the idea was tabled…but not for long.

After time devising other strategies, it always ended up coming back to the sky crane. As harrowing as it sounded, it was also one of the best options to deliver the rover to the best destination.

The Sky Crane

Think of the sky crane portion of the descent stage as a kind of jetpack with eight engines which safely lowered the rover to the ground. The sky crane slows the robot down until it hovers over the surface, then slowly winches the rover down with nylon cords.

If you’ve ever seen heavy-lift Sikorsky Skycrane helicopters with cargo dangling beneath via cables, that’s the essence of the sky crane. In fact, the engineers who first devised the idea actually met with pilots and engineers of that bird for guidance. Unfortunately, due to the gravity differences between Mars and Earth, there wasn’t a real way to test the landing system. Yes, it was a do-or-die operation where the only real test HAD to work.

“We talked about it to no end. If this didn’t go right, there would be nowhere to hide because every joe six-pack on the street would be saying that they knew it wouldn’t work,” Adam Steltzner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, chief engineer for the Perseverance rover, told Astronomy. Stelzner’s team originally thought up the sky crane idea for Curiosity.

If all goes right, and the rover makes it safely to the ground, pyrotechnically activated blades cut the cords connecting it to the descent stage. The descent stage then flies off to make its own uncontrolled landing on the surface of the Martian surface a safe distance away from the rover.

Before it hits Martian soil, the rovers have to go through six phases of EDL (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Prior to all of that though, the machine has to make it through the atmosphere. The intense period called the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, traveling at about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second). EDL ends about seven minutes later (known as the Seven Minutes of Terror) with the rover stationary on the surface. From just before jettison of the cruise stage 10 minutes before the craft hits the atmosphere, to the cutting of the sky crane bridle, the spacecraft goes through six different vehicle configurations and fires 76 pyrotechnic devices, such as releases for parts to be separated or deployed.

The parachute, which is 51 feet (almost 16 meters) in diameter, deploys about 254 seconds after entry, at an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers) and a velocity of about 940 miles per hour (about 405 meters per second). About 24 more seconds after parachute deployment, the heat shield separates and drops away when the spacecraft is at an altitude of about 5 miles (about 8 kilometers), traveling at a velocity of about 280 miles per hour (125 meters per second).

As the heat shield separates, the Mars Descent Imager begins recording video, looking in the direction the spacecraft is flying. The imager records continuously from then through the landing. The rover, with its descent-stage “rocket backpack,” is still attached to the back shell on the parachute.

The back shell, with a parachute attached, separates from the descent stage and rover about 85 seconds after heat shield separation. At this point, the spacecraft is about 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) above the ground and rushing toward it at about 190 miles per hour (about 80 meters per second), 6,900 feet (2,100 meters) above the ground.

All eight throttleable liquid-fueled retrorockets on the descent stage, called Mars landing engines, would then begin firing for the powered descent phase. The rover’s wheels and suspension system, which double as the landing gear, pop into place just before touchdown. The bridle is fully spooled out as the spacecraft continues to descend, so touchdown occurs at the brisk walking speed of about 1.7 miles per hour (0.75 meters per second). When the spacecraft sensed the rover has touched down, those pyrotechnically-fired blades release the cords, and the descent stage can then fly away before impacting on the surface of Mars far away from the rover.

A notable difference between Perseverance’s EDL and Curiosity’s is the Lander Vision System (LVS). While Curiosity used radar to determine the distance to the ground, Perseverance utilized a whole new type of technology.

The LVS’s job determined the rover’s position, handling different possible terrain conditions, within an accuracy of about 130 feet (40 meters) in less than 10 seconds. It contains a downward-facing camera that took multiple images of the ground and an onboard computer – the Vision Compute Element (VCE) — which processed these images and spit out acceptable landing locations. After the camera powered on, the LVS used an initial five seconds to take three images and process them to calculate a rough position relative to the Martian surface. Then, using that initial location solution, it took additional images, processing them every second, deriving locations on a finer scale. The VCE sent a stream of these location calculations to the main rover brain, the Rover Compute Element.

Now what started as a hare-brained idea is seeming to becoming the norm for NASA.

“If you’re landing a rover on Mars, there’s no doubt this is the right way,” said Steltzner. “(For Curiosity) we certainly had questions about whether this really was a crazy thing to try to do. Had we missed a big thing? Was it totally wrong? Did all the pieces actually come together and work? We answered those questions.”

NASA delays its Mars 2020 launch by two days

NASA’s Mars rover, the Perseverance, was aptly named. After delaying its launch (July 17) by three days, the agency has now rescheduled it for July 22 due to “a contamination concern”.

Image credits NASA / Christian Mangano.

The agency initially delayed the launch due to issues with ground equipment, namely a faulty crane. As this was being fixed, engineers also ran into trouble as they were mounting the Atlas V rocket’s nosecone to its body (creating the space that transports the rover). Due to this, Perserverence’s launch was rescheduled for July 22, NASA said on Wednesday.

Earth and Mars don’t stay at a constant distance all the time. They move around the Sun at different speeds and on different orbits. The launch window to Mars, the span of time when its closest to Earth, is open until Aug. 11. So despite the delay, NASA isn’t worried about not being ready on time.

“NASA and United Launch Alliance [who built the rocket] are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” the agency writes.

“Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

NASA adds that “the spacecraft and vehicle remain healthy”, and successfully performed a refueling test on Monday.

Launch director Omar Baez said in a news conference that “[they] have plenty of window or runway ahead of us and we’re not worried about it”. He said that further setbacks from “not-so-perfect days” are probable but that the team will still be ready for launch. It may even be possible to extend the launch window to Aug. 15, Baez added.

Image credits NASA.

Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. Its target is the Jezero Crater, a 49 km (30.5 mi) wide crater thought to have contained liquid water at some point in the past. There, it will look for signs of ancient life and take samples that will be retrieved on a later mission. One of its most important tasks is to test MOXIE — a system that creates oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is rich in carbon dioxide.

Perseverance’s design is largely based on the Curiosity rover, the last rover to land on Mars. It’s heavier, carries fewer instruments, but is also equipped with a nuclear power source — which should keep the rover running for a long time.

NASA’s Mars missions landing sites.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Perseverance is the first rover to also bring along a colleague: Ingenuity, the first helicopter sent to space. The tiny flier will initially make three test runs in the Martian atmosphere, though it could make more if everything goes well.

Of course, this all hinges on NASA making the launch window. If they don’t, we will have to wait for another 26 months for the two planets to properly align again.

Curiosity rover stumbles upon mystery of oxygen on Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity snaps lonely picture of desolate Martian landscape

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


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

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

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


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

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

Watch the Mars 2020 rover flex its muscles by doing some biceps curls

In just a year’s time, NASA will launch a new robotic rover mission to Mars. The mission, temporarily called “Mars 2020”, will involve the collection and retrieval of rock and soil samples to Earth. This means there’s gonna be quite a bit of heavy lifting involved. Luckily, a recent demonstration showed that the rover is up for the task.

The rover’s arm and turret are some of its most important parts. They must work together to emulate the arm of a geologist that’s examining and collecting samples. Recently, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility in Pasadena, California, NASA engineers instructed the rover’s 88-pound arm to perform a bicep curl as it moved from a deployed to a stowed configuration.

“This was our first opportunity to watch the arm and turret move in concert with each other, making sure that everything worked as advertised — nothing blocking or otherwise hindering smooth operation of the system,” said Dave Levine, an integration engineer for Mars 2020.

“Standing there, watching the arm and turret go through their motions, you can’t help but marvel that the rover will be in space in less than a year from now and performing these exact movements on Mars in less than two.”

In its final configuration, the rover’s arm will have five electrical motors and five joints. The turret will be equipped with cameras, life and chemical element detection instruments, a percussive drill, and a coring mechanism.

The mission’s launch is planned for July 2020 and scheduled to land at Jezero Crater on Mars in February 2021. Although a future return trip to Mars to retrieve the rover’s collected samples hasn’t yet been put in motion, nor is it clear if it’s feasible at this moment, NASA believes that sample collection from Mars merits much attention. NASA also says that many aspects of the upcoming Mars 2020 mission will shape the technology required for human missions on the Red Planet.

This will be NASA’s seventh mission to touch down on Mars, joining the likes of Curiosity, InSight lander, Spirit, and Opportunity. In order to find a cool name as its predecessors, NASA has put out a call for K-12 students in US schools, offering them the chance to name the 2020 rover. This is somewhat of a tradition now. Before it was dubbed Curiosity, the previously-deployed plucky rover was known as the Mars Science Laboratory.

Chinese lunar rover shows dark side of the Moon like you’ve never seen it before

China quietly released a new set of images provided by its Chang’e 4 lunar exploration mission. The rover, which became the first mission to ever land on the far side of the moon, shows some features of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail.

Image credits: CLEP/CNSA.

China’s mission has already gone as well as you could hope for — if not better. It became the first mission to perform a soft landing on the dark side of the moon, it carried geophysical studies of its landing surface, and it successfully grew potatoes and a few other plants on the moon — marking another impressive first.

The Yutu 2 rover has now traveled a total of 178.9 meters (587.9 feet), which far exceeds the record by its predecessor, Yutu 1, during the Chang’e 3 mission, which managed to travel 114 meters. Durings its latest travels, the rover also snapped a few photographs which it beamed back to Earth, and some of those images have now been released by China’s National Space Administration (CNSA).

The lunar surface, as seen by the Yutu 2 rover. Image: CLEP/CNSA.

The Von Kármán crater, close to where the rover landed, is believed to contain an intriguing mixture of chemical elements, including thorium, iron oxide, and titanium dioxide, which could provide important clues about the origin and evolution of the lunar surface. Researchers hope that the mission will help answer questions about the crater’s surface features and test whether plants could grow in lunar soil.

The mission is also observing low-frequency radio light coming from the Sun or beyond that’s impossible to detect on Earth because there is so much radio noise interfering with it.

Early tracks from Yutu-2 after its descent from the Chang’e-4 lander, visible in the top-left. Image: CLEP/CNSA.

More recent tracks. Image: CLEP/CNSA.

The rover is currently in hibernation mode until April 28. It has already survived for four lunar days and nights, or about 29.5 days on Earth. It’s still going strong, preparing for its fifth lunar night — despite being designed to last for three lunar nights only. Everything that happens now is just a bonus on this already excellent mission. The rover is also turning intermittent naps when it is facing the sun directly, as temperatures soar to 200 degrees Celsius.

Much of the scientific data gathered hasn’t been relayed back to Earth yet. It will take several more weeks before it is all sent back, and a bit more time to analyze it after that. In the meantime, we can all enjoy these crisp images.

Concept art of Toyota moon rover for JAXA. Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Toyota partners with Japanese space agency on new moon rover design

Concept art of Toyota moon rover for JAXA. Credit:  Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Concept art of Toyota moon rover for JAXA. Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

After having conquered the automobile on Earth, Toyota has decided to try their luck off the planet. Together with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), they will study the feasibility of a pressurized lunar rover. The project could launch in 2029.

“Manned rovers with pressurized cabins are an element that will play an important role in full-fledged exploration and use of the lunar surface,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said. “Through our joint studies going forward, we would like to put to use Toyota’s excellent technological abilities related to mobility, and we look forward to the acceleration of our technological studies for the realization of a manned, pressurized rover.”

The vehicle will be powered by fuel cells with a maximum range of 6,213 miles and will typically be crewed by two astronauts, but can carry four in an emergency. It would also have deployable solar panels to provide an additional energy source. The current design wouldn’t exactly be street legal, measuring 20 feet (6 meters) long, 17 feet (5.2 meters) wide and 12.4 feet (3.8 meters) high. It will roam on six wheels and have about 140 square feet of living space.

By comparison, the original moon buggy (which was partially designed by car manufacturer General Motors) could seat two astronauts in space suits, had four wheels and were 10.1 feet long (3.1 meters), 7.5 feet wide (2.3 meters) with a maximum height of 3.7 feet (1.14 meters).

“Fuel cells, which use clean power-generation methods, emit only water, and, because of their high energy density, they can provide a lot of energy, making them especially suited for the project being discussed with JAXA,” said Shigeki Terashi, executive vice president for Toyota.

“As an engineer, there is no greater joy than being able to participate in such a lunar project by way of Toyota’s car-making and, furthermore, by way of our technologies related to electrified vehicles, such as fuel cell batteries, and our technologies related to automated driving. I am filled with great excitement.”

The plan is to primarily power the rover with fuel cells, with a rullup solar panel array supplying additional power. Credit: JAXA.

The plan is to primarily power the rover with fuel cells, with a rullup solar panel array supplying additional power. Credit: JAXA.

With gravity one-sixth of Earth’s pull, the new rover will have a lot of challenges in front of it, including a complex terrain with craters, cliffs, and hills. However, Toyota President Akio Toyoda says that the most important part of the rover would be its ability to keep the occupants safe. “I think that coming back alive is exactly what is needed in this project.”

There is no word yet on when a scaled-down version would be available to the public.

Opportunity dusty.

Rumors of Opportunity’s death “very premature”, despite three-weeks silence

NASA’s last contact with the Opportunity Rover took place over three weeks ago. Despite this, the agency believes it’s too early to assume the worst case scenario — the rover’s demise.

Opportunity dusty.

Opportunity covered in dust on Mars.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

We’ve been talking a lot about the huge dust storm that’s engulfed Mars of late, and of how NASA’s two rovers — Opportunity and Curiosity — are weathering the event. Out of the two, Curiosity has been served the much sweeter side of the dish: powered by a nuclear reactor and sitting out of the storm’s way, it’s been free to leisurely capture pics of the weather (and itself).

The older and solar-powered Opportunity, however, is stuck in the massive storm. Besides getting pelted by dust that may harm its scientific instruments, the rover is also unable to recharge. Dust blocks so much of the incoming sunlight that Opportunity’s solar panels just can’t create a spark. Bereft of battery charge, the rover stands a real chance of freezing to death on — fittingly– Mars’ Perseverance Valley.

Tough as old (ro)boots

Opportunity has been on duty for some 14 years now. It’s a veteran space explorer that relayed treasure troves of data for researchers back here on Earth. I’m rooting for the bot to weather the storm. By this point, however, it’s been three weeks since it last established contact with NASA — enough to make even the most resolute worry about its fate.

Dr. James Rice, co-investigator and geology team leader on NASA projects including Opportunity, says we shouldn’t assume the worst just yet.

Talking with Space Insider, Dr. Rice explains during its last contact with NASA, Opportunity also sent back a power reading. It showed the rover managed to scrape a meager 22 Wh of energy from its solar panels. For context, the rover managed to collect 645 Wh of energy from its panels just ten days before. This chokehold on energy is the NASA’s main concern at the moment.

However, he adds that the same storm which prevents Opportunity from recharging its batteries may ultimately also be its salvation.

One of the reasons NASA was caught offguard by the storm is that they simply don’t generally form around this time of the Martian Year. It’s currently spring on the Red Planet’s Southern Hemisphere, but dust storms usually form during summer. The only other dust event NASA recorded during the Martian Spring formed in 2001, and even that one came significantly later in the season than the current storm.

Mars storm.

The first indications of a dust storm appeared back on May 30. The team was notified, and put together a 3-day plan to get the rover through the weekend. After the weekend the storm was still going, with atmospheric opacity jumping dramatically from day to day.

Still, at least it’s not winter — so average temperatures aren’t that low on Mars right now. The dust further helps keep Opportunity warmer, as it traps heat around the rover.

“We went from generating a healthy 645 watt-hours on June 1 to an unheard of, life-threatening, low just about one week later. Our last power reading on June 10 was only 22 watt hours the lowest we have ever seen” Dr. Rice explained.

“Our thermal experts think that we will stay above those low critical temperatures because we have a Warm Electronics Box (WEB) that is well insulated. So we are not expecting any thermal damage to the batteries or computer systems. Fortunately for us it is also the Martian Spring and the dust, while hindering our solar power in the day, helps keep us warmer at night,” he added.

The storm has reached 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) in size this June. It poses a real risk to Opportunity’s wellbeing, but ground control remains optimistic. Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin believes that the massive storm may have already peaked — but, considering that it took roughly a month for it to build up, it could take a “substantial” amount of time before it dissipates completely.

“As of our latest Opportunity status report Saturday (June 30) this storm shows no sign of abating anytime soon. We had a chance to conduct an uplink last night at the potential low-power fault window. We sent a real-time activate of a beep as we have done over the past two weeks. We had a negative detection of the beep at the expected time,” Dr Rice added.

“A formal listening strategy is in development for the next several months.”

Among all this, or rather also because of all that’s happening to Opportunity, I can’t help but feel genuine admiration for it as well as the people who helped put it together. Opportunity was first launched in 2004 and along its sister craft Spirit, was supposed to perform a 90-day mission. Spirit kept going until 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong today (and hopefully for longer). That’s a level of dedication I can only dream of.

Based in part on the rover’s rugged track record, Dr. Rice believes that “rumors of Opportunity’s death are very premature at this point.”

Curiosity selfie.

Curiosity’s taking selfies as Opportunity braves the storm

While Opportunity is beset by the worst Martian dust storm we’ve ever seen, Curiosity is busy taking selfies.

Curiosity selfie.

Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill, via Kevin M. Gill / Flickr.

Last week, we’ve told you about the massive dust storm that’s battering Mars and the hapless Opportunity rover. The solar-powered bot is in danger of freezing to (electronic) death, as its solar panels can’t generate any charge in the night-like conditions inside the dust. The venerable rover (already 15 years old) shut down most activity on June 10 to conserve battery charge.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity is enjoying a leisurely life complete with the selfies to show for it.

The fortunate son

“The storm is one of the most intense ever observed on the Red Planet,” NASA said in a statement last week. “As of June 10, it covered more than 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) – about the area of North America and Russia combined.”

“It has blocked out so much sunlight, it has effectively turned day into night for Opportunity, which is located near the center of the storm, inside Mars’ Perseverance Valley.”

In a twist of martian irony, the storm isn’t nearly as intense half a planet away from Opportunity. While the dust storm’s effects can still be felt there, the sunlight is enough for solar panels to generate energy. A twist of irony because Curiosity, which is currently roving about Mars in this area, doesn’t really need the light — it’s powered by a nuclear reactor.

The car-sized rover first landed on Mars in 2012, and, unlike its older cousin, relies on plutonium-238 instead of solar cells for energy. It’s currently camping in the Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide valley that researchers once believed housed a giant lake.

Also unlike its older cousin, Curiosity seems to be having a whale of a time. NASA recently released some selfies it beamed back Friday, showcasing the rover’s activity on Mars, while Opportunity braves the storm.

The images were taken with an instrument called the Mars Hand Lens Imager. This instrument — probably the most expensive selfie stick humanity ever produced — is a robotic arm that sports a camera. It can’t capture all of Curiosity in one shot, however, so it sent back several — around 200 images. Over the weekend Kevin M. Gill, a NASA software engineer who likes to process spacecraft photos in his spare time, collaged all the images together into a single panorama.

The final image shows Curiosity and its Martian surroundings, including a rock the rover drilled and a smattering of orange dust.

Curiosity drill.

Curiosity, the rock it drilled (lower left), and the resulting dust (the lower middle bit of the image).
Image modified after NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill, via Kevin M. Gill / Flickr.

Beyond helping us keep tabs on Curiosity’s adventures, the image also showcases its recovery. Back in 2016, its drill instrument was taken offline due to mechanical problems. As the picture shows, however, NASA’s efforts to work around the issue have paid off. The agency first tested the drill in May 2018, when Curiosity bore a two-inch-deep hole in the rock. In a subsequent test, it dropped the drilled dust on the ground, so the agency could get an idea of how much dirt the drill could collect for sampling.

Not everything is rosy for Curiosity, though. The image also shows the damage its aluminum wheels incurred after five years’ time of roving around Mars. It could also probably stand to benefit from a thorough scrubbing.

Curiosity still has some fight left in it, however. Last week, it made headlines around the world by discovering organic molecules, billion-years old, on the Red Planet. In 2013, a rock sample collected by the vehicle revealed that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. In 2014, the rover measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it. At that time, the robotic laboratory also detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by its drill.


Opportunity braves the worst sand storm it’s ever faced, might not make it

Shoutout to the Opportunity rover for signaling home amid the worst Martian sandstorm it’s ever faced.

Mars map.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity.
Image and caption credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

On Sunday morning, NASA received a transmission from the Opportunity rover. Usually, that’s not really out of its character — but the bot is currently braving a massive sandstorm on the Red Planet. The rover hailed home to let ground control know it still has enough juice in its battery to maintain communications, according to NASA. Science operations, however, remain suspended in a bid to conserve energy.

Oppy phone home

The transmission was a welcome break for NASA engineers, as the dust storm has been steadily picking up steam in the past few days. The rover is weathering it out in Perseverance Valley, shrouded in perpetual night. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1. The rover team began preparing contingency plans soon afterward.

It’s not the first such storm Opportunity had to face — it braved another in 2007. This event, however, is much worse than the last one. The storm’s atmospheric opacity (how much light it blocks) has been estimated at 10.8 tau as of Sunday morning — the 2007 storm only reached about 5.5 tau. This is roughly equivalent to the incredible smogs we’ve seen in China. Because of this, the bot cannot use its solar panels to recharge.

The storm has grown to over 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles) since its detection. Such storms aren’t extreme for Mars, but they are infrequent. NASA doesn’t yet fully understand how they form or build in strength, but they seem to be self-reinforcing — a feedback loop that amplifies itself as it grows. Such storms can last up to several months at a time.

This dust blanket could be what makes or breaks Opportunity’s resolve.

Dusty but not yet dead


You could say it’s an Opportunity to show what you’re made of, little rover!
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

I say that because the dust is both a boon and a curse for Opportunity as of now. The rover’s main problems are that it cannot recharge (its solar panels are dusted over, and there’s not enough sunlight) and that communication with ground control is spotty at best (radio signals can’t pierce through the storm).

But the dust also hides a silver lining. Data beamed back by the rover shows its internal temperature is roughly stable at about minus 29 degrees Celsius (minus 20 Fahrenheit). The dust storm — which retains heat — seems to be insulating Opportunity from the extreme temperature swings on Mars’ surface. It’s not an ideal temperature by any means, but it’s still not as bad as it could get.

The team’s worst fears right now is that if the rover experiences cold temperatures for too long, it might damage its batteries. This fate befell Spirit, Opportunity’s twin craft in the Mars Exploration Rover mission, in 2010. Engineers plan to use the network to monitor and administer the rover’s energy levels in the following weeks — they need to somehow save as much battery charge as possible while keeping the rover from getting too cold. It has onboard heaters for this purpose, but they drain a lot of energy. One idea the team is considering is activating other equipment to expel energy, which would heat up the bot.

Science operations have been temporarily put on hold for sunnier days. Mission control has requested additional coverage from NASA’s Deep Space Network, a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency’s deep space probes, in an effort to maintain contact with Opportunity.

But I wouldn’t count Opportunity out just yet. It has proved its mettle aplenty in the past. Not only has it gone through dust storms before, but it made it with surprising gusto — the rover has accrued 15 years in the line of duty despite only being intended to last 90 days.

So hang in there little buddy, and don’t let the cold bite your batteries.

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

NASA wants to send a tiny helicopter along with the next 2020 rover mission

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

It’s an amazing time to be alive. Consider this: humans have sent a man-made spacecraft around each and every planet in the solar system, as well as some of their moons. Although billions of miles might separate Earth from other planets in the solar system, and despite everything being in motion, we’ve managed this extraordinary feat.

No other planet has been more visited by our contraptions than Mars. We’ve sent orbiters, landers, and even 4×4 labs on wheels to the Red Planet. Now, for the first time, NASA wants to send a helicopter to Mars, which is meant to fly in very rarefied Martian atmosphere.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The little helicopter measures just one-meter long in rotor diameter, and its body is about the size of a small cat. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter.

One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to build a helicopter that can fly in an atmosphere that’s about a thousand times thinner than on Earth. Just imagine that hovering just 10 feet (3 m) above the Martian surface is like soaring at 100,000 feet (30,000 m) above Earth. The highest a helicopter has ever flown is 40,000 feet (12,000 m), where the air becomes too thin to keep helicopters aloft.

“To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Martian helicopter also features another innovation: it’s powered by solar cells that charge lithium batteries. Meanwhile, internal heating mechanisms will keep the flying machine warm through the frigid Martian night.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because it takes at least four minutes for light to travel to Mars from Earth (a delay that can grow to half an hour depending on how far the two planets are relative to each other), remote controlling the helicopter is out of the question. Instead, the machine is designed to receive pre-programmed commands from Earth, then execute them on its own, always autonomously navigating the environment in real-time.

The Mars Helicopter is expected to touch down on the Martian surface in February 2021, piggybacking a car-sized rover — a bigger, upgraded version of the Curiosity rover. After the rover lands on the Martian surface, the rotorcraft will detach and take off. Its first flight is intended to be short: just a 10-foot climb for 30 seconds before returning to the ground. If this initial test works well, the craft is supposed to make four more flights over a 30-day test period, with each flight getting progressively longer and more complex than the previous. If this little helicopter works as intended, it will set the stage for future, more complex rotorcrafts designed to act as scouts that can explore and map regions of Mars where scientists can’t even dream to send a rover.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

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.

NASA is taking a Martian meteorite back home — for calibration purposes

A piece of Mars is going home — NASA engineers want to use a chunk of Martian meteorite to calibrate a future science mission.

A piece of Martian rock is returning home. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

An unlikely lift

In 2002, a rather odd-looking rock was found in the Uhaymir region of Oman. Weighing no more than 206 grams (0.45 pounds), it drew the attention of geologists and astronomers. Based on its chemical and isotopic composition, they dated the impact at around 9,700 years ago and traced its origin back to Mars. Now, the meteorite named Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) will be going back home, hitching a ride on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission.

Mars 2020 is an ambitious mission: not only does it plan to collect samples from the Red Planet’s surface and save them for a future retrieval mission, but it also wants to carry out chemical analyses on rock features as fine as a human hair.

However, working with such fine details is no easy task, and it requires a lot of fine-tuning and calibration. This isn’t necessarily a new thing, as previous NASA missions have used calibration before — but if you’re calibrating things, why not use the real thing as a scale?

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle of JPL. Beegle is principal investigator for a laser instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals). “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

Rohit Bhartia, a member of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, holds a slice of a meteorite, which scientists have determined came from Mars. One of two slices will be used for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover while it’s still on Earth; the other slice will go to Mars onboard the rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The plan is to study the meteorite on Earth, measure it thoroughly and write down its physical parameters. Then, when the new rover will settle down on Mars, it will re-scan the meteorite and see if it gets the same results. If something went wrong along the way, then at least researchers will be able to compensate the error. You can perform this sort of calibration with any viable sample, but having one that’s similar to your intended target (in this case, Martian rocks) can add that extra bit of precision — but there’s a catch.

Martian meteorites are quite rare, with only 200 being confirmed by The Meteoritical Society, which has a database of these meteorites. So they’re quite precious and difficult to come about. To make things even more difficult, not any meteorite would do — it needs to be one which features certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These features need to be reasonably easy to detect, in order to easily ensure repeatability. The sample also needs to be sturdy, as flaky pieces can break off and damage or destroy the equipment.

Ultimately, they found the right sample at the Natural History Museum of London, where it was made available by courtesy of Caroline Smith, principal curator of meteorites at the museum.

“Every year, we provide hundreds of meteorite specimens to scientists all over the world for study,” Smith said. “This is a first for us: sending one of our samples back home for the benefit of science.”

Aside from the meteorite, Mars 2020 will also carry materials that could be used to make spacesuit fabric, gloves, and a helmet’s visor. Seeing how they hold up in the rugged Martian environment will be key for the planning of manned missions to the Red Planet.

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” said Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s new 2020 rover will look a lot like Curiosity but with some important tweaks

Just a few years from now, NASA expects to land a new rover mission on the red planet. The Mars 2020 mission will feature a rover which is very similar in terms of specs and appearance to its predecessor, the Curiosity rover. There will be some marked improvements, however, that will make landing the rover safer but also enhance its alien-life-hunting features, which is the mission’s main objective.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist impression of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover studying a Mars rock outrcrop. Credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Landing a 2,000-pound science experiment on wheels more than 55 million miles away is quite the achievement in itself. In a maneuver that had never been tried before on another planet, a rocket-powered sky crane lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables, then flew off and crash-landed intentionally a safe distance away.

Since it first touched down on Martian soil in 2012, Curiosity has provided researchers with a trove of data and new science. Thanks to Curiosity, we now have a far clearer and accurate image of the Martian environment including its radiation levels, geology, soil chemical composition, and much more. It has beamed back high-resolution photos of ancient streambeds and drilled martian rocks on site, around Mars’ 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater. Here, the rover found evidence that a nearby area known as Yellowknife Bay was part of a lake that could have supported microbial life.

Big wheels to fill

The upcoming Mars 2020 mission aims to further Curiosity’s legacy. Much of it will be, in fact, based on Curiosity, with about 85 percent of the new rover’s mass being based on “heritage hardware” — system designs and spare hardware employed by Curiosity.

“The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed—or even already exists—is a major advantage for this mission,” said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “It saves us money, time and most of all, reduces risk.”

Of course, there will also be new cutting-edge tech onboard, like instruments designed to identify biosignatures on a microbial scale. A ground-penetrating radar will now be able to ‘see’ under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water, and ice up to 10 meters (30 feet) deep. The rover will also feature new imaging equipment including color cameras and a zoom lens. To top things off, a laser will vaporize rocks and soil to analyze their chemistry.

“Our next instruments will build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology,” said George Tahu, NASA’s Mars 2020 program executive. “These will gather science data in ways that weren’t possible before.”

For the mission, NASA plans to drill at least 20 rock cores, possibly up to 40, and return them to Earth. These samples might help answer one of the most important questions on scientists’ minds right now: Are we alone in the Universe?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also working on new landing tech, like terrain-relative navigation. As the descent stage carrying the 2020 rover approaches the Marian surface, instruments will compare what they ‘see’ with pre-loaded terrain maps such that the rover is guided to its landing site as safely as possible. Another related tech called the range trigger uses location and velocity to determine the optimal time to fire the spacecraft’s parachute.

“Terrain-relative navigation enables us to go to sites that were ruled too risky for Curiosity to explore,” said Al Chen of JPL, the Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead. “The range trigger lets us land closer to areas of scientific interest, shaving miles—potentially as much as a year—off a rover’s journey.”

We don’t exactly where Mars 2020 will land but we will likely soon find out by the end of next year. In February, the potential drop sites were narrowed down from eight to three: an ancient lakebed called Jezero Crater; Northeast Syrtis, where warm waters may have chemically interacted with subsurface rocks; and possible hot springs at Columbia Hills. All of these sites are varied and very different from Gale Crater, but they all have great potential for finding signs of past or present alien life.

“In the coming years, the 2020 science team will be weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sites,” Farley said. “It is by far the most important decision we have ahead of us.”

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.

Curiosity’s wheel grousers show damage after five years of off-roading on Mars

Five years of trekking on Mars have taken their toll on Curiosity, and on Tuesday NASA announced the first two fractures in the rover’s wheel treads.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Carried forth by its six aluminum wheels measuring 20 inches in diameter and 16 inches across (50 cm/40.5 cm), Curiosity has been nosing about Mars since August of 2012 for us Earth-locked humans. But five years and 10 miles (16 km) on the maybe-red planet are taking their toll on the intrepid explorer, whose half-as-thin-as-a-dime aluminum wheels are starting to show signs of wear and tear, NASA said.

The damage consists of breaks in two of the bot’s zigzagy grousers/treads, 19 of which cover each wheel. These grousers extend from the wheel by roughly one quarter of an inch (0.6 cm), giving the wheels enough purchase in the Martial soil to carry the almost 2000-pound-heavy rover around. According to NASA, the grousers broke sometime between January and March, both on the left middle wheel.

Slow but steady

Ten miles seems like a short distance for a wheel to break, but it took the rover a few years to travel that much — a few years of super slow rolling over sharp, jagged rocks. In fact, Curiosity has already been at work for twice as long as the mission it was designed for, so if anything the rover is admirably sturdy. It’s due to this long operational history that NASA has been monitoring its wheels in the first place, as years of facing martian rocks has left them quite worse for wear.

So, is this how Curiosity meets its end? Forever turning sleek wheels in the red sands, praying/beeping for traction but finding none? Well, possibly. But not today! Wheel longevity testing on Earth “initiated after dents and holes in the wheels were seen to be accumulating faster than anticipated in 2013” by the agency shows that “when three grousers on a wheel have broken, that wheel has reached about 60 percent of its useful life.”  With only two damaged grousers, the wheel is probably around 50 percent into its lifespan, or roughly around that mark.

Overall, it’s not that bad. Curiosity is well beyond 50% of its journey, so one wheel on a 50% life bar is actually pretty good. Right now, the rover is climbing up Mount Sharp to obtain records of Mars’ climate from rock samples but if the ground tests are anything to go by, the wheels should still hold their own against the martian soil.

“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp,” said JPL Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

Curiosity will stop on the way to check out some hematite formations (an important iron ore), a clay formation on top of that, and a structure rich in sulfates which tops the whole thing — formations whose chemistry might hold evidence of liquid water in Mars’ past or today. The journey should take less than five miles in total (an estimated 3.7 miles / 6 km,) so the rover will have some to spare after the climb.

Still, it’s a sad reminder that one day even our favorite rovers will break down. Until then stay strong buddy, we’ll find you some new wheels.

NASA creates computers that can survive on Venus, 30 years after the last landings

NASA’s Glenn Research Center has developed a new class of computers that can withstand the hellscape of Venus. The devices are built from a different semiconductor than regular hardware, which can carry more voltage at much higher temperatures.

SiC transistor gate electroluminesces blue while cooked at more than 400°C.
Image credits NASA / Glenn RC.

Mars has been getting a lot of attention as humanity’s first planned colony. So it’s easy to forget that it’s neither the closest nor the most Earth-like terrestrial planet in the Solar System. Both those distinctions belong to Venus — so why aren’t we looking towards it for our otherworldly adventures?

The goddess of love and beauty

Well, the thing is that Venus is awful. It’s an objectively dreadful place, a scorching hot ball of rock covered in thick clouds of boiling acid. Ironic, right?

These conditions not only make it nigh-impossible for real-estate agents to put a positive spin on the planet, it also makes it frustratingly hard to explore. Any mission to Venus has to work around one simple fact: your run of the mill computer wouldn’t like it there. Normal silicone chips can still function up to 240-250°C (482°F). After that, the chip turns from a semiconductor into a fully fledged conductor, electrons start jumping all over the place, and the system crashes.

The longest any human-made object has made it on Venus is 127 minutes, a record set in 1981 by the Soviet spacecraft Venera 13. It was designed to survive for only 32 minutes and used all kinds of tricks to make that happen — such as cooling of internal systems to -10°C (14°F) before entering the atmosphere, hermetically sealed internal chambers for instruments, and so on. Venera braved sulphuric rain, surface temperatures of 470°C (878°F), and an atmosphere 90 times that of Earth long enough to capture the first color pictures of the planet’s surface.

The face of love.
Image credits Morbx / Reddit.

After the mission, the Soviets flew three more crafts to Venus — Venera 14, Vega 1, and Vega 2 — making the last attempted landing on the planet in 1985.

Since that time, the transistor industry has developed alternative materials it can use for integrated systems. One of the most promising class of materials are silicon carbides (SiC). Their ability to support high voltages at huge temperatures has already drawn interest from the military and heavy industries, and make them ideal for a mission to Venus.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center has developed two prototype SiC chips which can be used in future Venus missions. The researchers have also worked to overcome another vulnerability of traditional integrated circuits: they’ve developed interconnects — the wires that tie transistors to other hardware components — which can withstand the extreme conditions on the planet.

Five hundred hours of fire

SiC chip designed by NASA, before and after GEER tests.
Image credits NASA / Glenn RC.

To see if the technology lives up to expectations, the team put these SiC transistors and interconnects together and housed them in ceramic-packed chips. The chips were then placed in the GEER (Glenn Extreme Environments Rig) which can simulate the temperatures and pressures on Venus for hundreds of hours at a time.

One of the chips, housing a simple 3-stage oscillator, kept stable at 1.26MHz over 521 hours (over 21 days) before the GEER had to be shut down. The second chip fizzled out after 109 hours (4,5 days), but NASA determined that it was caused by faulty setup, not the chip itself.

The results for the two chips. Image credits NASA / Glenn RC.

This performance is a far cry from that seen in the 80’s, especially considering that the chips didn’t benefit from any pressure vessels, cooling systems, or other types of protection. It’s the first system shown able to withstand the condition on Venus for weeks at a time.

“With further technology maturation, such SiC IC electronics could drastically improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts, fundamentally enabling long-duration enhanced missions to the surface of Venus,” the researchers conclude.

But it’s not only transistors we’ll need for a successful Venus rover. Drills, cameras, wheels — everything has to be adapted to work in a high pressure, high temperature, highly acidic environment. Materials science has evolved a long way since the last missions, so creating a mechanically-sound lander should be feasible. A full-fledged rover with multiple moving parts that can survive on Venus would be a lot harder to develop — NASA Glenn is working on such a machine, a land-sailing rover, which they estimate will be ready by 2033.

The full paper “Prolonged silicon carbide integrated circuit operation in Venus surface atmospheric conditions” has been published in the journal AIP Advances.

NASA rover will investigate liquid-carved gully on Mars

We’ve talked so much about the Curiosity rover, but NASA’s Opportunity rover is also doing work on Mars. Now, the rover will drive down a gully potentially carved by water not so long ago.

This scene from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows “Wharton Ridge,” which forms part of the southern wall of “Marathon Valley” on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Image via NASA/JPL.

Why the gully matters

A gully is a landform commonly found on Earth, typically on hillsides. They look a lot like ditches or small valleys but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width. They’re created by running water (or other fluids, in some cases) eroding sharply into the hillside.

While other fluids can also create gullies, it’s almost always water. So when you see a gully in whatever environment, you can generally assume the presence of running water. Gullies are widespread at mid- to high latitudes on the surface of Mars, and are some of the youngest features observed on that planet, probably forming within the last few 100,000 years – therefore, we can assume the presence of water in the past 100,000 years on Mars and this is pretty exciting. Geologists are still debating whether these gullies indicate rivers, melting snow or simply precipitations, but they do agree that they are a strong indicator of water. Now, for the first time, the Opportunity rover will get the chance to observe one from close range.

This gully is more easy to see (from the Saratov Oblast, Russia). Image by Le Loup Gris.

The gully which Opportunity will study measures two football fields in surface and is situated on the bottom of a crater.

“We are confident this is a fluid-carved gully, and that water was involved,” said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. “Fluid-carved gullies on Mars have been seen from orbit since the 1970s, but none had been examined up close on the surface before. One of the three main objectives of our new mission extension is to investigate this gully. We hope to learn whether the fluid was a debris flow, with lots of rubble lubricated by water, or a flow with mostly water and less other material.”

The rover will not only take pictures but also analyze the chemical make-up of the rocks in the area, for comparison with other rocks found in and around the crater.

“We may find that the sulfate-rich rocks we’ve seen outside the crater are not the same inside,” Squyres said. “We believe these sulfate-rich rocks formed from a water-related process, and water flows downhill. The watery environment deep inside the crater may have been different from outside on the plain — maybe different timing, maybe different chemistry.”

A fantastic opportunity

The Opportunity rover landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its twin Spirit (MER-A) touched down on the other side of the planet. It was supposed to run for 90 days – no more than that – and yet here it is, more than a decade later, still providing valuable information about the Red Planet.

“We have now exceeded the prime-mission duration by a factor of 50,” noted Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Milestones like this are reminders of the historic achievements made possible by the dedicated people entrusted to build and operate this national asset for exploring Mars.”

In the two year extended missions that the rover has been carrying out recently, it analyzed the “Marathon Valley” area of Endeavour’s western rim, documenting the geological context of water-related minerals that had been mapped there from orbital observations.

China Unveils 2020 Mars Mission and Rover

China has unveiled plans for the space probe and rover it will send to Mars four years from now.

A view taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. China might be getting views like this in 2021. Image via NASA.

China’s space program has been progressing fast, with the government infusing billions of dollars in an attempt to catch up to the US. Just a few days ago, China announced the launch of its quantum satellite with which it essentially hopes to teleport information, after revealing plans to land on the dark side of the Moon. Now, they want to take it to the next level and send a rover to Mars.

Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of the project, said Tuesday they were targeting July or August, emphasizing the difficulties of the project:

“The challenges we face are unprecedented,” a report quoted him as saying.

Rongqiao said that a Long March-5 carrier rocket will be dispatched from the Wenchang space launch center. After seven months, the probe will reach Mars and the lander will separate from the orbiter, touching down near the Martian equator, where the rover will start exploring the Red Planet.

The rover itself will weigh 200-kilogramme (441 pounds), with six wheels and four solar panels, carrying 13 sets of equipment including a remote sensing camera and a ground-penetrating radar to study the soil. Ground Penetrating Radar sends out high-frequency waves to the ground and records their reflections, gathering information about the subsurface and looking for traces of water and ice.

The US has landed two rovers on Mars and the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have also sent missions to the planet. While China’s program is taking huge strides forward, they are still only replicating innovations pioneered by the US and Russian/Soviet program decades ago. India has also done the same thing, sending a low-cost probe around Mars in 2014.


NASA wants you to drive their Mars rover

NASA wants you to drive the Mars Rover on its quest to study the Red planet. The bad news is that I’ve already tried my hand at it and I’ve broken the rover’s wheels. Several times. Sorry, NASA.

Actual footage with the rovers, just moments before the terrible crash.
Image credits NASA.

The good news is that I’m talking about NASA’s addictive new mobile game, not the real multi-million dollar Curiosity. Teaming up with GAMEE, NASA put together a game with a simple premise but a surprisingly strong “just one more try” effect. Available for Android, iOS and desktop, the objective is to navigate Mars and gather as much data about it as you can while trying your best not to break the rover.

While the vehicle in the game isn’t named, it has similar capabilities (such as using radar to find underground bodies of water) as the Curiosity rover designed for the Mars 2020 mission.

“We’re excited about a new way for people on the go to engage with Curiosity’s current adventures on Mars and future exploration by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover too,” said manager of Mars public engagement initiatives at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Michelle Viotti.

So, wanna explore Mars? Now you can! Head over to NASA’s website and download the game here.