Evidence of Past Mars Life? Not so much

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 3, 2012 – 4:49 pm -

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This is a view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 4-cm-wide scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in October 2012.credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

After nearly two weeks of the blogosphere and media in general wildly speculating as to what the NASA Mars rover announcement will be, the day finally arrived. This morning the lead NASA researchers involved in analyzing the soil samples scooped up by the rover’s robotic arm held a press conference revealing their findings.  Scientists explained that they had the rover’s suite of scientific instruments run through its first soil samples of the mission by heating the soil in a tiny on-board oven, and sniffing out the various trace gases released.

Most of the rumors surrounded the idea that complex organic compounds had been detected, but that is not the case.  What they did tentatively find are traces of perchlorate – an oxygen and chlorine based molecules that has also been found in the soil by the late Pheonix lander in the high north arctic region of the Red Planet a few years back. Further heating, NASA says, formed reactions with carbon, produced methane -based compounds.  This has left scientists stumped.  NASA is not sure where the carbon comes from – Earth contamination maybe? Further analysis will tell the story.

While many are disappointment that no proof of Martian life materialized, the mission team members are stoked because now they  know their science instruments are working like a charm. Only four months into a 2 year mission, the best is yet to come and I think lots of exciting results are in store in the coming months. But as one of the Mars scientists pointed out  – patience is part of the process.

“We’re doing science at the speed of science in a world that goes at the speed of Instagrams.” said Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech in Pasadena.

Read all the details and check out more photos released to today at the press conference on NASA website.


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Preview of Upcoming Mars Rover Landing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 16, 2012 – 3:53 pm -

With only 20 days to go until NASA’s car-sized rover touches down on the surface of Mars, scientists and engineers working on the mission held a news conference today laying out some of the details on why this is the most challenging and exciting mission to the Red Planet yet!   Here is the official NASA story on what all the buzz was about…

“NASA’s most advanced planetary rover is on a precise course for an early August landing beside a Martian mountain to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work. However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While the challenge is great, the team’s skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing.”

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is a precursor for future human missions to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s. To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1-ton rover, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a “sky crane” method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second). Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6).

“Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission,” said Pete Theisinger, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We’ve done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real.”

During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to characterize its performance on Mars, while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity then will begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars’ Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

“Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Program at NASA Headquarters. “Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars.”

Curiosity will use tools on a robotic arm to deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark’s spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target. Other instruments on the car-sized rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

“For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “During the descent through the atmosphere, the mission will rely on bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and a heavier robot on the ground than were possible for any previous Mars mission. Those techniques also advance us toward human-crew Mars missions, which will need even more precise targeting and heavier landers.”

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

The chosen landing site is beside a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. The mission’s prime destination lies on the slope of the mountain. Driving there from the landing site may take many months.

“Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way,” said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we’ll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today.”

Scene from Xbox Mars landing game

In collaboration with Microsoft Corp., a new outreach game was unveiled Monday to give the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing in a precise location on the surface. Called “Mars Rover Landing,” the game is an immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console that allows users to take control of their own spacecraft and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars.

“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before,” said Michelle Viotti, JPL’s Mars public engagement manager. “Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”  -

Adapted from NASA news Statement


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Watch Blast Off of Mars Rover Now

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 26, 2011 – 9:34 am -

NASA’s rover is sitting on top of its rocket booster which is filling its fuel tank now and is scheduled for launch starting at 10:02 am Eastern Time today, Saturday.

So far everything is ‘go’ for blast-off! Amazing to think the rocket will blast off with 2.5 million pounds of thrust! Crossing fingers all goes well.

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Guide to Mars Rover Launch

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 24, 2011 – 4:22 pm -

MSL-launchHow will the launch of NASA’s new mega-rover go down? I have been getting a lot of emails the last few days about the latest mission to Mars so here is a great rundown on what will happen (hopefully) this Saturday, put out by the good folks at JPL-NASA today…

“NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is tucked inside its Atlas V rocket, ready for launch on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Nov. 26 launch window extends from 7:02 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. PST (10:02 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. EST). The launch period for the mission extends through Dec. 18.

The spacecraft, which will arrive at Mars in August 2012, is equipped with the most advanced rover ever to land on another planet. Named Curiosity, the rover will investigate whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life, and favorable for preserving clues about whether life existed.

If the spacecraft lifts off at the start of the launch window on Nov. 26, the following milestones are anticipated. Times would vary for other launch times and dates.

Launch

The rocket’s first-stage common core booster, and the four solid rocket boosters, will ignite before liftoff. Launch, or “T Zero”, actually occurs before the rocket leaves the ground. The four solid rocket boosters jettison at launch plus 1 minute 52 seconds.

Fairing Separation

The nose cone, or fairing, covering Mars Science Laboratory will open like a clamshell and fall away at about 3 minutes 25 seconds after launch. After this, the rocket’s first stage will cut off and then drop into the Atlantic Ocean.

Parking Orbit

The rocket’s second stage, a Centaur engine, is started for the first time at about 4 minutes 38 seconds after launch. After it completes its first burn of about 7 minutes, the rocket will be in a parking orbit around Earth at an altitude that varies from 102 miles (165

kilometers) to 201 miles (324 kilometers). It will remain there from 14 to 30 minutes, depending on the launch date and time. If launch occurs at the beginning of the launch Nov. 26 launch window, this stage will last about 21 minutes.

On the Way to Mars

The second Centaur burn, continuing for nearly 8 minutes (for a launch at the opening of the Nov. 26 launch window), lofts the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and sends it toward Mars.

Spacecraft Separation

Mars Science Laboratory will separate from the rocket that boosted it toward Mars at about 44 minutes after launch, if launch occurs at the opening of the Nov. 26 window. Shortly after that, the separated Centaur performs its last task, an avoidance maneuver taking itself out of the spacecraft’s flight path to avoid hitting either the spacecraft or Mars.

Sending a Message of Good Health

Once the spacecraft is in its cruise stage toward Mars, it can begin communicating with Earth via an antenna station in Canberra, Australia, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Engineers expect to hear first contact from the spacecraft at about 55 minutes after launch and assess the spacecraft’s health during the subsequent 30 minutes.

The spacecraft will arrive at the Red Planet Aug. 6, 2012, Universal Time (evening of Aug. 5, 2012, PDT).”

Launch sequence of Mars Science Laboratory; credit: NASA

Launch sequence of Mars Science Laboratory; credit: NASA

Source:  JPL/NASA News Announcement

(Note: Apologies for forgetting to add source before)


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