Nov 232014
 
Erosion resistance at "Pink Cliffs" at base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Science week at Pink Cliffs and Book Cliffs

Erosion resistance at "Pink Cliffs" at base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Erosion resistance at “Pink Cliffs” at base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Life on Mars includes more than just drilling and analyzing rocks. Scientists and engineers also plan extensive photography schedules to take advantage of varying light on the surface of Mars. Different lighting conditions help the staff at NASA study rock textures. Other instruments focus their imaging on atmospheric conditions and the staff have several camera filters at in their arsenal for data analysis.

Beyond photographic studies, NASA’s Curiosity rover also engages in what the team calls “contact science.” Dust removal tools expose fresh surfaces. Then various instruments such as the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha-Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) can be used to study sedimentary structures and chemistry.

Using every tool at hand: Tire tracks on Mars help show a cross-section of the dust (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Using every tool at hand: Tire tracks on Mars help show a cross-section of the dust (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Having completed one “walkabout” of the first outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp, Curiosity spent the last week studying several key outcrops more detail. The first target, “Pelona,” is close to the September drilling target at the base of Pahrump Hills. Additional photos were taken of the erosion-resistant ledge called “Pink Cliffs.” And researchers even took advantage of the wheels of the rover to expose a cross-section of some of the windblown dust and sand on the surface. Researchers are interested in why some ripples were more difficult to traverse than others.

“We see a diversity of textures in this outcrop — some parts finely layered and fine-grained, others more blocky with erosion-resistant ledges,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist

Navcam image on Sol 815 shows Curiosity investigating "Topanga" (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Navcam image on Sol 815 shows Curiosity investigating “Topanga” (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “The variations we’ve seen so far tell us that the environment was changing over time, both as the sediments were laid down and also after they hardened into bedrock,” Vasavada said. “We have selected targets that we think give us the best chance of answering questions about how the sediments were deposited — in standing water? flowing water? sand blowing in the wind? — and about the composition during deposition and later changes.”

Curiosity continues acquiring Mastcam multispectral images and ChemCam passive observations from three brush spots this week. Navcam and ChemCam will monitor the atmosphere and any evidence for clouds. After wrapping up observations and investigations at Book Cliffs, Curiosity will be driving towards Alexander Hills and Carnivore Canyon.

MAVEN now in science mode

The newest tool in Curiosity’s arsenal is not part of the rover. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter joined forces as the newest node in NASA’s Mars telecommunications network. Earlier this month, MAVEN relayed 550 megabits of real data collected from Curiosity.

Artist Concept of NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN)

Artist Concept of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN)

After the successful data relay, MAVEN wrapped up its commissioning activities and started the formal first year of its scientific mission. The orbiter will continue adjusting orbit, deploying various instruments, and calibration measurements. MAVEN’s missions include observations of the atmosphere, ionosphere, and interaction with the solar-wind. Scientists hope to use this data to understand changes in Martian climate over time.

Wednesday, the MAVEN orbiter went into safehold mode autonomously, having detected a timing conflict between commands. All the instruments were turned off and verified to be safe as MAVEN remained in data contact with Earth. The Operations team reported that it was brought out of safe mode successfully Saturday, November 22 and is operating nominally.

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Nov 092014
 
First holes drilled by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at Mount Sharp (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Curiousity found a mineral match

First holes drilled by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at Mount Sharp (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

First holes drilled by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity at Mount Sharp (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Before NASA’s Curiosity rover ever landed on Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) identified a mineral-rich environment in the region called Gale Crater, the impact basin with Mount Sharp at its center. With evidence of the iron-oxide mineral hematite, the engineering teams could expect clues about the conditions when hematite was first formed in the ancient Mars environment.

This week, those observations from orbit from 2010 were confirmed when drilling samples matched the expected mineral profile. The analyzed powder came from a drilling mission in late September, from “Confidence Hills” within the “Pahrump Hills” outcropping. This sample contained greater quantities of hematite than any other sample over the past two years.

“This connects us with the mineral identifications from orbit, which can now help guide our investigations as we climb the slope and test hypotheses derived from the orbital mapping,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena.

X-ray diffraction patterns from samples collected from rocks on Mars by NASA's Curiosity rover (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

X-ray diffraction patterns from samples collected from rocks on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The conditions in rocks at Mount Sharp differ from those in rocks examined en route to the mountain, those collected earlier at Yellowknife Bay. The earlier samples contained mostly magnetite. The later samples show evidence of greater oxidization after the rock material likely interacted with water and the atmosphere. Hematite can form when magnetite interacts in oxidizing conditions. Gradient levels of oxidation indicate different environments, including possibly chemical energy sources for microbes.

Curiosity engineers and scientists plan to target a band of rock higher up on Mount Sharp which displays a strong signature of hematite in the scans made from orbit. Having made a match on the ground at this location, Curiosity confirmed on ground what scientists suspected from the sky.

 

Effects of the comet

One benefit to Mars being entirely populated by robots includes the fantastic observations these orbital and ground-based machines collected when Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring came within about 87,000 miles of the planet. This fly-by is estimated at one-tenth the distance of any known fly-by on Earth, approximately half the distance between Earth and the moon.

Comet meteor shower put magnesium and iron into Martian atmosphere (Image Credit: NASA/Univ. of Colorado)

Comet meteor shower put magnesium and iron into Martian atmosphere (Image Credit: NASA/Univ. of Colorado)

Five active artificial satellites currently orbit Mars: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter, the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Mars Express spacecraft, and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

MAVEN, MRO, and ESA’s Mars Express have gathered images and scientific measurements from the comet indicating increased electric charge to the ionosphere and debris that likely produced an impressive meteor shower. MAVEN sampled comet dust in Mars’ atmostphere. Analysis has detected eight different metal ions, including iron, magnesium, and sodium. Since Siding Spring originated in the Oort Cloud of our solar system, these measurements provide scientists some of the best evidence for the composition of the Oort Cloud itself.

Videos with Comet Images

Check out these two videos from JPL which include images obtained by MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE)

  1. Mars Orbiter Observes Comet Siding Spring
  2. Mars-Flyby Comet in False Color

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Nov 072014
 
What the Martian atmosphere would have looked like to a viewer with ultraviolet-seeing eyes during and shortly after a meteor shower. Graphic courtesy of NASA
HiRISE images, distances ranging from 86k to 93k miles away from the comet nucleus. Each pixel covers an area from about 450 to 580 feet. The scale bar on each image is 0.62 mile. Image courtesy of NASA

HiRISE images, distances ranging from 86k to 93k miles away from the comet nucleus. Each pixel covers an area from about 450 to 580 feet. The scale bar on each image is 0.62 mile. Image courtesy of NASA

This morning, NASA held a press briefing to reveal some of the findings from their analysis of all the data collected during the close-pass of the Siding Spring Comet by Mars on October 19, 2014. Though the event was meticulously planned in advance, and the likeliest conditions were modeled over and over, scientists still got a few surprises!

Alan Delamere, the co-investigator for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera explained, “Twelve days before the event, the HiRISE camera started photographing comet, comparing images, and the team came to the frantic realization that [there was a problem with the camera’s position relative to the comet]. We only had a few days to come up with a correction to the trajectory, and we ended up with perfect tracking.”

HiRISE took images of the comet itself, which revealed that the nucleus is smaller than expected: about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). The HiRISE images also indicate a rotation period for the nucleus of eight hours, which is consistent with the preliminary observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another surprise the teams encountered could have had nasty consequences if not for cautious “over”planning. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division director said, “We had modeled the comet dust environment extensively, and we didn’t expect the comet dust to interfere with our space craft at all, but I’m really glad that we hid them safely on the other side of the planet. I think that really saved them. With the amount of dust (particles up to a cm in size) that came in, it’s very possible that that could have caused serious damage to the space craft.

What the Martian atmosphere would have looked like to a viewer with ultraviolet-seeing eyes during and shortly after a meteor shower. Graphic courtesy of NASA

What the Martian atmosphere would have looked like to a viewer with ultraviolet-seeing eyes during and shortly after a meteor shower. Graphic courtesy of NASA

“We had three teams monitoring, taking observations, and modeling the dust environment, looking at trajectory analysis: all this suggested that Mars would miss the [comet’s] dust tail. The dust tail, in reality, seemed to be larger than expected, and the comet wasn’t quite in the same position as we thought it would be. The surprise was that we ended up with a lot more dust than we ever anticipated.”

A lot more dust, indeed! Nick Schneider, instrument lead for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph said, “A preliminary estimate is that a few tons of comet dust were deposited. The meteor shower must have had thousands of meteors per hour the night after the comet pass. It made a new, temporary layer in the [Martian] ionosphere. These emissions endured for a few hours, but faded over the next few days.”

Green added, “The comet’s dust slammed into the upper atmosphere of Mars, actually changing its chemistry.” The Martian ionosphere was flooded with ionized magnesium and iron after the comet’s passing.

The MRO’s Shallow Subsurface Radar (SHARAD) also detected the enhanced ionosphere. Images from the instrument were smeared by the passage of the radar signals through the temporary ion layer created by the comet’s dust. SHARAD scientists used this smearing to determine that the electron density of the ionosphere on the planet’s night side, where the observations were made, was five to 10 times higher than usual.

MRO CRISM spectrometer image of comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

MRO CRISM spectrometer image of comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) searched for signs of any particular chemical constituents stood out in its spectrum. Team members said the spectrum appears to show a dusty comet with no strong emission lines at their instrument’s sensitivity. CRISM’s findings did produce one little surprise: just before the comet’s closest approach, CRISM captured an image where the comet is slightly red on one side, slightly blue on the other, which probably means that we’ve got different substances on either side of the comet.

Delemere who also studied Halley’s Comet, added, “Halley had exactly the same solar angle as Siding Spring … With Halley, we were able to see the outline of the nucleus against the coma. We were hoping to see the same here, but it’s not. We’ve got a lot more studying to do of these images to separate the nucleus from the coma.”

On the surface, the Opportunity Rover did have a chance to see the comet, and grab a few images. They’re still looking at the Curiosity data. Green explained, “the Mars atmosphere had a fair amount of dust in the mid-region, it caused a scattering of light. We’re continuing to do data analysis and to publish those results.”

Of course, the one question everyone at the briefing wanted an answer to, was one of the hardest to answer: What would the meteor shower that occurred after the comet’s passing have looked like from the surface of Mars? One the one hand, there were thousands of meteors falling per hour. One the other hand, those meteors would not have looked like falling meteors we see from Earth’s surface. These meteors mostly measured in microns, though the team said there may have been some as large as a centimeter. So, they suggested, it might have seemed like more of a glow than what we would picture as a meteor shower. Also, because the dust contained a great deal of sodium, it’s likely that the whole scene would have had a yellow glow, like the street lights used in fog-prone areas here on Earth.

There’s lots more analysis and comparison to be done with all of the data captured during this event, but it’s exciting to have a taste of what is being learned! We’ll keep you posted on new discoveries!

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Nov 062014
 
A time-lapse photograph of the CIBER rocket launch, taken from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on June 5, 2013. This was the last of four launches of CIBER. Photo courtesy of NASA.
A time-lapse photograph of the CIBER rocket launch, taken from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on June 5, 2013. This was the last of four launches of CIBER. Photo courtesy of NASA.

A time-lapse photograph of the CIBER rocket launch, taken from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on June 5, 2013. This was the last of four launches of CIBER. Photo courtesy of NASA.

NASA held a press conference today to reveal some findings from two of its four CIBER (Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment) sounding rocket missions. These CIBER missions launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in 2010 and 2012. Researchers at California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) have now analyzed the data gathered by the CIBER mission’s 1.1-micron and 1.6-micron infrared cameras, and a new realization about the nature of our universe is beginning to dawn. CIBER detected a “surprising surplus of infrared light in the dark space between galaxies, a diffuse cosmic glow as bright as all known galaxies combined. The glow is thought to be from orphaned stars flung out of galaxies.” The Spitzer Space Telescope had previously detected some of this “background infrared” light, but scientists were split as to its origin. CIBER’s observations are helping to settle the debate.

James Bock, CIBER’s principal investigator, said, “[The amount of] light production cannot be explained by the known [star] population of the galaxy. Spitzer measurements set up this mystery: an infrared background glow. There were two ideas to explain this. One was that the very first galaxies born in the universe lit up and made this glow, and their remnants were responsible for this glow. The other was that faint stars flung from their galaxies “stray stars” are responsible for this light.”

Michael Zemkov, the study’s lead, is an astronomer at Cal Tech. He elaborated, “We think stars are being scattered out into space during galaxy collisions. While we have previously observed cases where stars are flung from galaxies in a tidal stream, our new measurement implies this process is widespread.”

This graphic illustrates how CIBER team measures a diffuse glow of infrared light filling the spaces between galaxies.

This graphic illustrates how CIBER team measures a diffuse glow of infrared light filling the spaces between galaxies.

CIBER captured wide-field pictures of the cosmic infrared background at two infrared wavelengths shorter than those seen by Spitzer. Zemkov explained, “We then masked out stars and galaxies which we know [from the images], and what’s left is the large scale fluctuations … we determine that the light is extragalactic by excluding known sources within the galaxy. The spectrum of this emission is very blue [which means it increases in brightness at shorter wavelengths]. First galaxies have trouble making short-wavelength emissions because of absorption present in the early universe. The model we favor based on these data is that stars are threaded throughout space, in between galaxies.”

“It is wonderfully exciting for such a small NASA rocket to make such a huge discovery,” said Mike Garcia, program scientist from NASA Headquarters. “Sounding rockets are an important element in our balanced toolbox of missions from small to large.”

A recent image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope of a cluster of galaxies shows the same type of star glow as seen by CIBER only at smaller scales.

A recent image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope of a cluster of galaxies shows the same type of star glow as seen by CIBER only at smaller scales.

The Sounding Rocket Program is about 40 years old, and NASA touts it as “one of the most robust, versatile, and cost-effective flight programs at NASA.” The sounding rockets travel a relatively slow parabolic arc, carrying a specific scientific instrument into space for just 5-20 minutes. It’s an ideal arrangement, both because the rockets can access areas of space too low to be studied using satellites, and because of the relatively low cost of these missions. Sounding rockets never go into orbit, so they don’t need boosters, nor telemetry and tracking coverage. In many cases, only the experiment itself is changed from one sounding rocket mission to the next; it’s the closest to a parts-bin rocket NASA has ever used. This offers opportunities and flexibility to all kinds of researchers, because a sounding rocket mission can be designed, built and launched in as little a three months.

Karoline Gilbert, an assistant astronomer at Space Telescope Science Institute summarized, “The blue glow [see graphic, left] is halo stars, stars between galaxies, [and we now know] they provide about 10% of the total light starlight in the universe. Today’s results shed new light on how our universe is structured right now, and how it formed.”

NASA said in a press release after the press conference, “Future experiments can test whether stray stars are indeed the source of the infrared cosmic glow. If the stars were tossed out from their parent galaxies, they should still be located in the same vicinity. The CIBER team is working on better measurements using more infrared colors to learn how stripping of stars happened over cosmic history.”

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Nov 012014
 
NASA's Orion spacecraft, completed Thursday, October 30, 2014, pictured in the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image Credit: Lockheed Martin)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Comet Flyby Gone By

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope composite image includes the comet Siding Spring in relative position as it flew by Mars, 11:28 AM PDT October 19, 2014. (Image Credit: NASA)

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope composite image includes the comet Siding Spring in relative position as it flew by Mars, 11:28 AM PDT October 19, 2014. (Image Credit: NASA)

Comet Siding Spring, officially designated Comet C/2013 A1, provided a rare opportunity by passing extremely close to Mars while being observed by several scientific instruments on the red planet. The three orbiters–Odyssey, MRO, and MAVEN–each confirmed they were still in great health Sunday, October 19, 2014, after taking refuge behind the planet to avoid possible damage from comet’s dust. Mars rover Opportunity (the ten-year veteran Mars rover) captured some photos of the passing comet, which passed much closer to Mars than any previous known comet flyby of Earth or Mars, only about one-third the distance between the Earth and the moon.

“It’s excitingly fortunate that this comet came so close to Mars to give us a chance to study it with the instruments we’re using to study Mars,” said Opportunity science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, who coordinated the camera-pointing. “The views from Mars rovers, in particular, give us a human perspective, because they are about as sensitive to light as our eyes would be.”

 

Curiosity Photo Albums

Curiosity tweets from science walkabout, October 30, 2014 (image credit: NASA/JPL)

Curiosity tweets from science walkabout, October 30, 2014 (image credit: NASA/JPL)

After all the excitement watching the comet flyby, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity continued to explore and send photos from the current mission at the base of Mount Sharp. Raw images from the rovers provide plenty of material for the rover teams to examine, looking for evidence to further our understanding of Mars ancient history and the formation of the landmarks we see today. The rocky areas could present further opportunities to drill or offer indications of various stages of planetary development.

 

Deep Space Orion

NASA's Orion spacecraft, completed Thursday, October 30, 2014, pictured in the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image Credit: Lockheed Martin)

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, completed Thursday, October 30, 2014, pictured in the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image Credit: Lockheed Martin)

In the next step to launch people beyond the moon into deep space, NASA announced this week that the new Orion spacecraft received finishing touches as construction concluded at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Orion is the first spacecraft specifically designed for deep space manned flights, including a planned journey to Mars. NASA will host the pre-flight briefing November 6, 2014, at 8:00 a.m. PST. Viewers can tune in to the live broadcast on NASA TV and the agency’s website.

“This is just the first of what will be a long line of exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit, and in a few years we will be sending our astronauts to destinations humans have never experienced,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development. “It’s thrilling to be a part of the journey now, at the beginning.”

The Orion spacecraft rolls out of Launch Complex 37 on November 10, 2014, and heads over to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the scheduled test flight on December 4. The first test flight plans to send Orion 3,600 miles from Earth. The two-orbit flight will help engineers verify that the critical systems are ready for deep space challenges.

More About Orion

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Oct 312014
 
Wallops Island

Wallops IslandFollowing the explosion of the Orbital Sciences Antares 130 rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS on October 28, 2014, we were left with far more questions than answers.  As the clean-up effort progresses and investigation begins, we’re starting to get information, slowly.

The fires are all out, and debris is being collected. While most of the debris fell on and immediately around Wallops Island, some pieces have been found on Chincoteague Island, nearly four and a half miles away. NASA continues to caution people not to touch any debris they may find, but to contact their response team at 757-824-1295.  So far, they say, they’ve had reports of about 25 pieces of debris, ranging in size from that of a postage stamp, to the size of a piece of paper.

Orbital Sciences, who are leading the investigation, released an update statement. “Based on initial sweeps conducted by an Orbital safety team, it appears a significant amount of debris remains on the site and it is likely substantial hardware evidence will be available to aid in determining root cause of the Antares launch failure … An Orbital-led team has begun cataloging and documenting the location of all pieces of debris over the next several days after which the debris will be relocated to storage bays on the island for further evaluation.

“Some of the Cygnus cargo has also been found and will be retrieved as soon as we have clearance to do so to see if any survived intact.

“After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage. There is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount. Detailed evaluations by MARS and their engineering team will occur in the next couple of days.”

Orbital Sciences vice president of communications, Barron Beneski, also confirmed this morning in an email to CNN that the flight termination system on the Antares rocket was engaged; the rocket was intentionally detonated by an official at the Wallops Range Control Center in order to prevent it crashing into a populated area.

We’ll keep you up to date as more information is available.

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