Go and check out Glenn Fleishman's fantastic set of photos from the Jet Propulsion Lab's sandbox, where the scientists get to hang out and play with one of Curiosity rover's siblings. Read the rest
Just a few minutes ago, researchers with NASA's MESSENGER mission announced the publication of data that strongly suggests the poles of Mercury contain significant quantities of frozen water.
On the one hand, this is not exactly new news. The possibility of water on Mercury has been a topic of research for something like 20 years. And scientific discoveries tend to move in little mincing steps, not giant leaps, so there have been lots of previous announcements about evidence supporting the hypothesis of water of Mercury — including very similar announcements from the MESSENGER team in December 2011 and March 2012. Your life will not change in any significant way because there is frozen water on Mercury. You probably won't even make a note to tell your children where you were the day NASA announced that ice most likely existed there.
But that doesn't mean this news isn't damned exciting. And it doesn't mean that the scientists involved shouldn't be giddy about it. We are, after all, talking about a mission that sent a spacecraft into orbit around another planet and has quite likely found frozen water sitting on a landscape that is hot enough to melt lead. What's more, they think that ice is covered in places by a thin layer of some coal or tar-like organic material. That is huge news. It's going to change textbooks. And because the scientists think both the ice and the organic material got to Mercury via collisions with asteroids and comets, it's going to be an important part of our ongoing efforts to understand how life begins on planets like Earth. Read the rest
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.
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/JPLRead the rest
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.
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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.
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:
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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.
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. Read the rest
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):