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NASA downplays still-unannounced findings from Mars

Just before Thanksgiving, the lead mission scientist for the Curiosity rover told NPR that his team had found something that would "be one for the history books." Naturally, we all began speculating about the presence of life, giant obelisks, and half-buried Statues of Liberty. Yesterday, however, a different NASA spokesman basically asked the world to not get its hopes up too high, revising the level of importance down from "earthshaking" to "interesting". So far, nobody has said what, exactly, was discovered. (Via Colin Schultz)

Big news from Mars coming soon, maybe

The Curiosity rover comes complete with a mini chemistry lab. It's designed to analyze the composition of Martian soils and Martian air. And, right now, that particular piece of equipment is at the center of a giddy storm of activity. Curiosity has turned up something important — big enough for Curiosity's principal investigator to tell NPR, "This data is gonna be one for the history books."

What is it? NASA's not telling just yet. Right now, researchers are in the process of verifying said exciting data, in order to make sure they aren't deceiving themselves into thinking they've spotted something that isn't really there. That's pretty good policy, given the recent flap around over-hyped studies about Earth-like planets and arsenic-based life.

On the other hand, if you're trying to avoid overhyping something, might I suggest that "We have groundbreaking, world-changing data that we can't tell you about yet," is maybe not the best way to do it.

Stay tuned.

Pictured: A 360-degree view of Mars, taken by Curiosity on October 5th, from the location where it first started collecting samples of rocks and dirt. NASA/JPL

We have the technology to look for life on Mars

The Curiosity rover can do a lot of things, but nobody is expecting her to find direct evidence of life on Mars. In fact, the hunt for life on the Red Planet has been a pretty stunted one. The last time we really looked was during the Viking missions, which tried to find chemical "footprints" that would exist if there had once been life on Mars, but that could end up on that planet for other reasons, as well. What we got back was a less-than-enthralling "Outlook Hazy. Try Again Later."

Ever since, we've contented ourselves with searching for indirect evidence — assessing the planet for signs that it might once have had the conditions necessary for life to happen. That's important, and it will make direct evidence of life more believable if we ever do find it, but it's not quite the same thing.

But now, DNA sequencing tools have become portable enough (and drilling technology has become powerful enough) that some scientists and Craig Ventner think we could send a probe to Mars which could find buried traces of actual DNA protected in the dirt and sequence that DNA on site.

It's also possible that life hitched a ride between Earth and Mars in their early days. Asteroid impacts have sent about a billion tonnes of rock careering between the two planets, potentially carrying DNA or its building blocks. That could mean that any genetic material on Mars is similar enough to DNA that we have a chance of finding it using standard tests.

Even if we don't, we can set up future sequencers to look for molecules that use alternative sugars or chemical letters in the genetic code. "We're not there yet, but it's not a fundamental limitation," says Chris Carr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who works on the NASA-backed Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes.

Read the rest of the story at New Scientist

Simulated Mars mission to study space food

NewImageIn March 2013, six people will spend four months on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano simulating a Mars mission. Funded by the NASA Human Research Program, HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) is focused on what future astronauts might eat during long space adventures like a trip to the red planet. More than 700 people with a variety of science/tech/space/health backgrounds applied to participate in the study. Science journalist Kate Greene, a former editor at Technology Review, was one of those selected to be an astronaut "analog." Kate says, "In particular, we are examining the hypothesis that astronauts cannot live by rehydrated foods alone: we will be cooking and baking with shelf-stable ingredients as astronauts on future Mars missions might." Kate will be writing about her experience in various places, including her blog. "Simulated Mars Mission"

Curiosity's big idea: Was Mars ever a habitable planet?

This video interview with Ashwin Vasavada, Deputy Project Scientist of the Mars Science Laboratory, is a nice overview of the what everybody's favorite currently operational Mars rover is looking for.

The weird, black, spidery things of Mars

See those weird, black, spidery things dotting the dunes in this colorized photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010? Yeah. Nobody knows what the hell those things are.

What we do know about them just underlines how incredibly unfamiliar Mars really is to us. First spotted by humans in 1998, these splotches pop up every Martian spring, and disappear in winter. Usually, they appear in the same places as the previous year, and they tend to congregate on the sunny sides of sand dunes — all but shunning flat ground. There's nothing on Earth that looks like this that we can compare them to. It's a for real-real mystery, writes Robert Krulwich at NPR. But there are theories:

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it's transformed my idea of what it's like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I've thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain.

"If you were there," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, "you'd be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice. All around you, roaring jets of carbon dioxide gas are throwing sand and dust a couple hundred feet into the air." The ground below would be rumbling. You'd feel it in your spaceboots.

Read the rest of Robert Krulwich's post — and check out some spectacular photos of the things — at NPR

A four-year-old's interpretation of the Mars Curiosity Rover mission

Josh Stearns writes,

My four year old son painted this at school and told his teacher, “This is Mars. Mars is red. And there is a robot there taking pictures and sending them back to earth.”

Mars Curiosity, eat your heart out.

Curiosity adds to evidence that water once flowed on Mars

When a narrow stream, flowing downhill, meets a wide, significantly-flatter valley, you get an alluvial fan — a place where the flow of water spreads out, slows down, and leaves behind all the rocks and sediment it's no longer moving fast enough to carry. At least, that's how it works on Earth.

Once upon a time, it may have worked that way on Mars, too. Yesterday, NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had documented geology that looks very much like an alluvial fan and rocky deposits that also look very much like what would be left in an alluvial fan on Earth. You can see the comparison of some of those in the image above. In these Martian geological features — as in an Earth-bound stream bed — you find smooth, rounded pebbles and conglomerates, masses of pebbles cemented together over time. The rocks photographed by Curiosity are also too large to have been blown into this sort of arrangement by the wind.

All of this adds to the long string of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface. In fact, reading up for this post, I was surprised to see how much evidence there actually is for this, some direct and some indirect, stretching all the way back to the Mariner 9 orbiter mission in the early 1970s. And, of course, there is water on Mars right now. It's just not flowing water. Previous probes have measured a small amount of water in the Martian atmosphere, and the planet's polar regions contain both frozen carbon dioxide and frozen water. Viking 2 took pictures of frost on the ground in the late 1970s, and in 2008, the Phoenix lander literally dropped out of the sky onto a patch of ice.

Read the rest

Mars Curiosity update, now with animated GIFs from the red planet

I'm sitting in on a NASA Jet propulsion laboratory teleconference for science journalists, with an update for the world on the Mars Curiosity rover's mission. Curiosity completes her "checkout" phase today. Including an "intermission" of 13 sols, and one remaining sol to inspect the rover's robotic arm, 26 sols have been devoted to so-called checkout duties. Today is sol 37. Rover is currently facing a Southeast direction. Temperatures on the rover are between 7 and 33 C. She has covered a little over a football field's distance on the surface of Mars. Ability to move the arm has been confirmed, and the ability of the rover to perform sampling is confirmed.

Curiosity has so far driven 109 meters from its original landing site, and engineers are driving her about 40 meters per sol. The first drilling into the surface of Mars is expected to occur about a month from now, following various surface activities (scraping rock surfaces, and so on).

Three speakers in the teleconference: Jennifer Trosper, JPL; Curiosity mission manager. Ralf Gellert, University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada; principal investigator for the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer instrument (or APXS) on Curiosity. Ken Edgett, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego; principal investigator for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (or MAHLI) on Curiosity.

At the top of this blog post, the first Mars image of the day (larger size here):

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In Letterspace, No One Can Hear You Kern

We spent $2.5 billion to put Helvetica Arial on Mars (and incidentally, an SUV-sized robotic science rover), and yet not a cent was devoted to kerning. The Curiosity rover carries a calibration target for its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), an adjustable focus camera designed to take close-up pictures. It's one of 17 cameras on the rover, but it's the only one that has its own target for testing a photo against known colors, brightness, and scale. (​Update: ​The sundial on top of the rover has color swatches for the mast cameras.)

But as a former typesetter, I had to poke fun at the kerning in the word "Target", where the "a" in any design software would be neatly tucked underneath the "T". NASA is old-school in type, too, as this is Helvetica, not Helvetica Neue.​ (Update! Readers note this is Arial, as the angle terminators on the upper-case C give it away! Go, go, Microsoft fonts!)

The calibration target includes a 1909 penny as a homage to the practice of using a coin for scale in images. One of the scientists bought the penny from the first year Lincoln appeared on its front, and sent it on its merry mission. The target is now lightly dusted with Martian soil, but still useful for its purpose.

A full size image is available from NASA.

Hello, Curiosity

On Sol 32 (Sept. 7, 2012) the Curiosity rover used a camera located on its arm to obtain this self portrait. The image of the top of Curiosity's Remote Sensing Mast, showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras, was acquired by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The angle of the frame reflects the position of the MAHLI camera on the arm when the image was taken. The image was acquired while MAHLI's clear dust cover was closed.

That's from NASA's description of this great Curiosity self-portrait.

What really stuck out to me, though, was the use of "Sol 32". Sol is what you call a "day" on Mars. We use a different word because the length of time is also a bit different. One Martian Sol is equal to 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds. Sol 32 isn't, itself, a date, but simply a record tracking the number of sols that Curiosity has been on Mars—starting with Sol 0, which was August 6th. Every mission to Mars since Viking has kept its own sol count, so you can't really use these sol dates to keep track of history except as it relates to a specific mission.

There have, however, been proposals for a standardized Martian calendar system with a starting point that all dates progress from. NASA includes a Mars Sol Date on its Mars24 Martian clock app. In this case, the count begins on Earth date December 29, 1873 at noon Greenwich Mean Time and MSD represents the number of sols that have happened since then.

Why December 29, 1873? The Mars24 explainer just says that this date was chosen because it precedes all the really good, detailed observations of how time worked on Mars—how fast the planet was spinning, how often it went around the Sun, what the orbits of its moons were like ... that kind of thing. In 1877, the orbit of Mars took it particularly close to Earth, allowing humans—and their increasingly good quality telescopes—to get a really nice view of the planet.

That still doesn't exactly explain the 1873 date, though. But, according to Wikipedia, it's also the birthday of Carl Lampland, an American astronomer. Among other achievements, Lampland would calculate temperatures on the Martian surface, finding a large difference between soltime temperatures, and those at night. That data gave scientists their first clue that Mars had a particularly thin atmosphere, compared to our own.

About the cameras on Curiosity: "Taking pictures on Mars"

At the Economist, Glenn Fleishmann writes about the 17 cameras on board the Curiosity rover on Mars. That's "seven more than any previous exploratory vehicle," he writes. They "store images in a raw, unprocessed format and initially beam back tiny thumbnails (which NASA uploads as they come in). The scientists working on different aspects of the mission meet daily to determine which of the thumbnails to download in higher resolution. The 'health and safety' of the rover takes priority. After the deliberations, which can last over an hour, instructions are dispatched to Mars."

Mars Curiosity rover: HD video of landing, and an image of her first drive

[Video Link] Above, HD video of the Mars Curiosity Rover's landing on Mars. And below, an image of her first drive. (via @tweetsoutloud)

Sending messages from Mars: Interplanetary broadband

Glenn Fleishman writes in the Economist about how Curiosity sends messages home from Mars: "NASA'S Curiosity has the fastest modem on Mars. Since its only competition is an oldish bit of kit aboard Opportunity, one of two rovers dispatched in 2003, that is not saying much, at least in terms of what internet users on Earth have learned to expect. Curiosity's ability to capture images and other data easily outstrips its capacity to beam it all back home. Nonetheless, it delivers vastly more information from the red planet than any previous mission did."

Mars Curiosity/LFMAO parody video: "We're NASA and We Know It"

[Video Link]. This parody music video debuted this week on a new YouTube channel called Satire, and mashes up LMFAO's hit “Sexy and I Know It” with the NASA Curiosity mission and abundant JPL-love.

"It comes complete with shout-outs to Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson," reports the Washington Post, which dug into the story behind its creation. Half a million views so far, huh? Best NASA PSA ever.

Mars Curiosity rover's landing: A video by one of her 3,000+ creators at NASA JPL

What a beautiful video by Mark Rober, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "I was able to work on NASA JPL's Curiosity Mars Rover for 7 years. This video is an attempt to capture what it felt like to have 7 years of your life vindicated in the 7 minute landing. Honestly one of the coolest moments of my life so far.

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NASA executes 350-Million-Mile interplanetary software patch on Mars space robot. What'd you do today?

This week the team at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory finished "what amounted to a complete overhaul of the Curiosity Rover’s software," from 350 million miles away on another planet. Ben Cichy, Curiosity’s chief software engineer, explained to Wired News that the software required to help Curiosity land on the surface of Mars and the software it needs to drive around and avoid obstacles are different. The system "didn’t have enough memory to hold the software for both the landing mission and the surface mission, so the software had to be swapped out remotely after landing." The upgrade took four days, not unlike, say, Windows Server 8.