NASA Finds Most Definitive Evidence Of Water on Mars

This is the strongest evidence of the presence of water yet, on the Red Planet. The Mars Rover, Opportunity, has discovered some sediments of a shiny mineral called gypsum, which most definitely was deposited by liquid water. When that sediment was deposited, is not quite known, but it is definitely millions (or even billions) of years old.

Gypsum is an extremely common mineral on Earth and is frequently processed to make Plaster of Paris.

We had earlier reported about evidence of possible flowing water here.

The Mars Rover Opportunity

The Discovery

This discovery was made at the rim of the crater Endeavour, a 14 mile wide crater on Mars. The mineral veinwas found to be about 50 cm (or about 20 inches) long and about 3 cm wide. Opportunity studied this mineral deposit with both optical range camera as well as its X-Ray spectrometer. They concluded beyond doubt that this was gypsum,   or moist calcium sulphate. The mineral vein is called “Homesteak” and NASA released an official photo of it in its press release.

Homesteak (Courtesy: NASA)

There is really no second option, says Steve Squyres of Cornell University, attached to the Opportunity mission as its principal investigator. Why? He clarifies:

This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock…  There was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum precipitated from the water. End of story. There is no ambiguity about this, and this is what makes it so cool.

He adds:

Here, both the chemistry, mineralogy, and the morphology just scream water. This is more solid than anything else that we’ve seen in the whole mission.

Why the excitement? Squyres obliges yet again:

This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.

What is most interesting is the fact that gypsum forms in nearly neutral water, i.e. the water is neither acidic or alkaline. This is more suitable to the presence of Earth-like lifeforms. Earlier discoveries of minerals like Jarosite pointed to the presence of highly acidic water, which wasn’t all that conducive to life as we know it.

Hardy Robots

Scientists have long been trying to detect the presence of water on Mars. The new Mars Rover Curiosity’ will soon reach Mars (in August, 2012) and begin a more in-depth study. Spirit and Opportunity have been invaluable in this regard. Both are well past their proposed period of operation, and while Spirit has been declared dead earlier this year, Opportunity is still in great shape.

Please note that a direct evidence of water may be hard to find, but this is surely exciting. Even the possibility that Mars once harbored life is a tantalizing prospect!

Flowing water? Earlier discovery by NASA:  http://techie-buzz.com/science/mars-water-discovery.html

The 10 Coolest Things About The Mars Rover “Curiosity”

The new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is the most high-tech way to explore Mars. The most technologically sophisticated spacecraft ever designed to land on an alien world is due to launch on Saturday, 26th November. We take a closer look at the Wall-E-like spacecraft and pick out the 10 coolest things about the rover.

The Curiosity Rover still at the JPL. Photo taken last year. Photo Courtesy: JPL/NASA

1. Magnifying Glass? All the better to see you with, dear

The Curiosity Rover will carry a high-power magnifying lens, only more sophisticated and maneuverable than the ordinary ones. It’s called Mars Hand Lens Imager or MAHLI. It will be loaded at the end of the Robotic Arm of the rover (see below) and be able to see objects as tiny as 12.5 micrometers (a hair’s width) in size! It’s like having a portable microscope to look at rock samples with the facility of being able to point it anywhere.

2. Plutonium Juice!

The rover will run on Plutonium power. The plutonium used will be the non-weapons grade and will be used for heating a rod of Lead Telluride. Lead Telluride is a thermoelectric material and generates electricity if there is a temperature gradient. The plutonium battery’ doesn’t depend on the external condition, like temperature, so even if the outside is a frigid -840C, it doesn’t matter. You need not worry about the battery freezing or draining out too fast. The juice will last for 23 months, which is longer than the period of the mission. The 10 pound battery is located at the rear end of the rover and will produce 110W of power. We’ve managed to put nuclear power on the Red Planet; surely, that’s an achievement.

Graphic showing the different parts of the Mars Rover. (Courtesy: JPL/NASA and Space.com)

3. Robotic Arm

This is one of the coolest things about the Mars Rover. The rover is fitted with a 7-foot robotic arm, which is quite maneuverable. On the end of the robotic arm sits MAHLI. It also includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

4. Analysis on Mars The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM)

For scientists, just looking at a material means nothing they need to know what it is made up of. The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM) is just the tool to do the job. It’s also the Hulk of all the modules there, weighing at a hefty 38 kg, about half the weight of all the instruments onboard Curiosity. SAM will look at the rocks in three different ways, thanks to the three instruments that it carries a mass spectrometer, a laser spectrometer and a gas chromatograph. It will thus give all relevant data, like density and chemical composition. SAM will also drill for rock samples from deep inside the Martian surface and this has got everyone excited!

5. Capturing some scenes with the MastCam

Curiosity is expected to send us some pictures of the Martian surface to drool over and the MastCam is the instrument for the job. The name suggests that a camera is mounted on an adjustable mast and, no surprise, that is exactly what it is. The MastCam is also responsible for being the eyes of the rover, allowing Earth-based controllers drive the machine on the alien surface.

ESA Makes Contact With Doomed Russian Mars Moon Craft Phobos-Grunt

This is breaking news coming in from ESA’s ESTRACK station in Perth, Australia. They are receiving signals from the doomed Russian Mars Moon spacecraft, Phobos-Grunt.

More here:  http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

The First Radio Signals

The fist signals were received at about 20:25 UT on 22nd November, at the ESA tracking station (ESTRACK) in Perth, Australia. They claim to have established radio contact. We still have no idea how solid the contact line is or whether it will be possible to recover the craft.

This is the first time any station in the world has got any signals from the Russian craft, which has been stuck in orbit for a long time. Russian engineers have been working round the clock trying to recover the craft, either to bring it back home or to send it on its way to Mars’ moon Phobos.

The spacecraft was launched on 8th November and, after a wayward launch, has been hanging in orbit somewhere.

The ESA engineers are working closely with Russian ones to try and recover the craft. We’ll relay any important pieces of news or details we get as soon as they emerge.

New Mars Rover Curiosity To Launch TODAY

After Russia’s botched up Mars Moon mission, the Americans are all geared up to launch their new Mars rover, Curiosity, to the Red Planet. Curiosity is a car-sized rover, which will hope to improve upon the observations from Spirit and Opportunity, the previous Mars rovers. The launch is duetoday, i.e. on 26th of November, 2011, postponed from an earlier announced Friday launch. The launch will happen at 10:02 AM EST from Cape Canaveral, aboard the powerful ATLAS V rocket.

We expect the launch to be shown live here on NASA TV HD:  http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html
What’s so cool about the Curiosity rover? Here is a list of ten coolest things about it:  http://techie-buzz.com/science/ten-coolest-things-curiosity.html
The Curiosity Rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo taken in 2010. (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)

Curiosity Touchdown

Curiosity, or more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will touchdown on Mars in August 2012 in the Gale Crater. One of the main aims of the Curiosity mission is to investigate the composition of the Martian surface, as well as search for the signs of existence of life. It is also expected to return stunning photos of the surface, the likeness of which we’ve not seen as yet. NASA even claims that it will be able to figure out a bit about Mars’ history. This is because the Gale crater is a deep crater revealing several hundred layers of sedimentary rock that can be studied.

Mission Aims

Tools

One of the primary aims of MSL is to study the presence of life. MSL will devote quite a bit of effort in that direction, carrying instruments that will analyze the composition of the Martian surface (via the ChemCam) and also detect the presence of underground water, even if it is present in the form of clay.

Instruments on the Curiosity (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)
Power

The rover will be powered by nuclear energy on the frigid Martian surface. The power generation is actually quite a sophisticated process. Plutonium (Pu-238, non-weapon grade) will glow a dull red in the dark and produce enough heat to generate 110 W of electricity, enough to keep one of the modules operational at a time. The heat warms a a bar of Lead Tellurite, which produces electricity via thermoelectric effects, i.e. it produces electricity when there is a temperature gradient. The battery will last 23 months.

Stay tuned for the latest news on the Curiosity launch. We hope to put up some photos of the actual launch.

Good luck, NASA.

Ten coolest things about Curiosity:  http://techie-buzz.com/science/ten-coolest-things-curiosity.html

Futuristic Look for Nuclear Power Plants Set to Power Colonies on Moon and Mars

Nuclear energy is the answer to the energy question of deep space travel. It is also the answer to setting up large working domes on Mars and Moon, similar to what sci-fi writers have led us to believe throughout the years. Unfortunately for them, they got the design of the nuclear power plants wrong. The new power plants are expected to be extremely futuristic, not in the least bit like what we see on Earth.

 
This is what nuclear power plant cores might look like in future, as we set foot on Moon and Mars. (Courtesy: Galaxy Wire)

The Design

A team is working on this design and a leader of the project, Dr. James E. Werner, laid down the plans at the 242nd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). In his own words:

The reactor itself may be about 1 1/2 feet wide by 2 1/2 feet high, about the size of a carry-on suitcase. There are no cooling towers. A fission power system is a compact, reliable, safe system that may be critical to the establishment of outposts or habitats on other  planets.

Nuclear power has a lot of advantages over the conventionally used sources of power like Solar cells and fuel cells. The main advantage is that nuclear power can be produced and used anywhere. The generation of nuclear power doesn’t require special conditions, unlike solar power. The source of power is the Uranium nucleus, which splits into lighter nuclei releasing energy in the process.

A Demo

The demonstration of this innovative technology is expected as soon as early 2012. The project is a collaborative effort between NASA and the US Department of Energy (DOE). The benefit to both organisations is easy to guess. Dr. Werner is associated with the Idaho National Laboratory, under the DOE.

This may indeed power the future, which will definitely see humans colonising either the Moon or Mars.

Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity Send Back Awesome Photos from Mars

Staying true to its name, Spirit, the Mars Exploration Rover, reached its destination on 10th August, 2011. NASA released a number of images that Spirit and its sister rover, Opportunity, snapped during their stay on the Red Planet. Among these images are landscape shots of the Endeavour crater, the climax of the three year journey.

We bring you a few of the photos that NASA released in this article.

The Endeavour Crater as seen from space by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The fine yellow line shows the path Spirit took to reach the Spirit point.
Opportunity snapped up this photo of the rim of the Endeavour crater.
Spirit captured the vast expanse of the Endeavour crater

Endeavour is a 22 kilometer crater, about 25 times wider than the Victoria crater, which was the crater visited by Opportunity earlier. The rocks from Endeavour crater are expected to be much older than the rocks encountered so far on Mars. The examination of these could give vital clues to a much wetter and warmer Martian past.

Rocks and Minerals found on Mars

Photos reveal apparently clay-like soil composition and this has got Mars experts excited. Clay can only form in wet conditions, signifying occurrence of habitable environment in the distant past.

Spirit has been hobbling, or rather dragging, for a couple of years. Its left wheel isn’t working and it drags it along, creating distinctive tracks.

The Mars Rover. Notice the distinctive tracks.

The right wheel leaves the familiar tyre tracks on the dusty ground, while the left wheel digs up the surface, revealing fresh soil from just below the surface.

Of course, Spirit can also photograph its own arm!

The arm of the rover Spirit

Spirit and Opportunity has yielded a great host of scientific data on Mars, especially for determining soil composition. It has also found meteorites.

A Mars meteorite - the Sheltor Rock - as photographed by Spirit.

NASA already has a successor of Spirit and Opportunity ready. Curiosity, the new rover, to be launched in a few months, will be parachuted on the Gale Crater. In its scientific arsenal will be sensitive instruments mainly to measure chemical composition and do spectroscopic studies on samples.

It’s a proper transition. In any scientific endeavour, it is the spirit and opportunities that lead to discoveries. These discoveries fire curiosity enough to ensure that the flagship of science stays at full steam.

Image Credits for all images:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU/

Evidence of Flowing Water Found on Mars : Strengthens Possibility of Martian Life

This is big news for all Mars enthusiasts and everyone else. Strong evidence of flowing water has been seen on Mars by the Orbiter, which has been deputed to scan the Martian surface. This is bigger than the discovery of frozen ice-caps. Flowing water supports life on Earth and could have done so on Mars too.

This is the strongest hint that liquid water may still be present on the Martian surface. This is a good place to remind everyone that liquid water has not been physically found, though. Alfred McEwan, a planetary geologist at Arizona University, says:

We have this circumstantial evidence of water flowing on Mars. We have no direct detection of water.

The Discovery and its implications

The discovery comes via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and was announced by NASA yesterday (i.e. on the 4th of August). The discovery of such signs was made at lower latitudes, where the temperature is much warmer than at the poles and liquid water can exist.

Biochemists are also excited, apart from the obvious bunch of astrobiologists. This opens up a whole new world of chemical processes, some of which could be those of life as we know it. As far as we know about the composition of Mars, it could support primitive life forms identical to the ones we have on earth. Specifically, it could (or still can) support life-forms like Archea.

The signs

The signs of flowing water are what we would expect on Earth. There are fine marks of leeching and long drawn tendrils, separated from each other by a few meters. (See figure below).  These are identical to the marks left on eroding soil, when water gently thaws away the underlying layers of soil and erodes. It is highly improbable that anything other than a liquid flow caused these marks and the only liquid that can possibly exist on such a scale is water.

The Tell-Tale signs. Tendrils are indicated. (Photo Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The possibility of this being salty water is even more enticing. Salt lowers the melting point of water and, thus, water can remain liquid even at much higher latitudes. Further, we know of several kinds of salt-loving (or halophilic) microbes living on saline water on Earth. There is no reason why creatures similar to these cannot arise on Mars.

The Mars rover, Curiosity, to be launched later this year, should tell us more. There is no fear of a War of the Worlds scenario, the author of this article assures you.

NASA’s Next Mars Rover Landing Site Now Confirmed to be Gale Crater

It’s official. The New Mars Rover, Curiosity, will land in the Gale Crater.

We had earlier reported the narrowing down of the possible landing sites of the Mars Rover to just two here. We also reported that unofficial news suggests that the finalised landing spot will be Gale Crater and not Eberswalde Crater. Now, we stand officially vindicated. The announcement was made today i.e. on 22nd July, 2011.

The map of the landing site

The Gale Crater is a 96 mile wide crater, chosen since it is thought to harbor signs of old water flows. If Mars can support microbial life, this would be the place to find it.

Curiosity will be the largest and the most expensive Mars Rover ever sent. It weighs a ton and costs $2.6 billion. The tentative launch date is 25 November, but that is yet to be confirmed officially.

The Curiosity rover is being seen as a precursor of manned missions to Mars, something that NASA has never attempted during the Space Shuttle Program days. Now that the Space Shuttle Program is over, it aims to concentrate more on deep space exploration, rather than the International Space Station.

Curiosity will be gently airdropped into the Gale Crater, rather than the airbag cushioned freefall release method used in the case of Spirit and Opportunity, the previous Mars Rovers.

We hope to soon know more about the planet that has enthralled humanity for so long. Watch this space for more…

NASA’s Mars Rover’s Landing Destination Soon To Be Decided; Final Announcement on Friday

The next Mars Rover finally knows where to go well, almost knows. NASA has narrowed down the shortlisted sites to just two the Eberswalde Crater or the Gale Crater.

The two proposed landing site. Colors show elevation. (Image: NASA)

Curiosity, the name of NASA’s Mars Rover, will be launched at either of these sites. NASA will make the final destination official on Friday, i.e. the 22nd of July. Of the two, NASA administrators have apparently chosen Gale Crater’, but this report is unconfirmed as yet. Curiosity is currently housed at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum. The launch is scheduled, as of now, on 25th November, 2011.

The Curiosity Rover at the Smithsonian Institute National Air and Space Museum (Photo Courtesy: NASA)

Following in illustrious footsteps

Curiosity is following in the footsteps of the triumphant rovers Opportunity and Spirit. It will follow up what these earlier rovers found. It will land in a radical new fashion. Whereas Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars sitting atop airbags after being airdropped, Curiosity will land gently, guided by a Sky Crane with no need for airbags.

An artist's impression of the landing of the Mars Rover

Packing high-end scientific equipments such as a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy system, as part of the ChemCam suite, a Sample Analyser (SAM), X-Ray diffraction instruments and radiation detectors, Curiosity is expected to tell us about composition of the Mars soil and any sign of organic matter. A primary concern in scientific circles is to find the precise surface temperature along with its diurnal variation, the exact composition in terms of percentage of elements like carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen etc. and get better photographs of the surface.

Mars: the mystery

Mars has always been held as an enigmatic place, with the ancients even treating it as a God of War. Given the previous rover missions, we now know better! Unfortunately, there are a lot of false stories about the planet as well. There are no water carrying canals in Mars. The Italian word canallae’ got mistranslated as canals’, instead of the more appropriate channels’. Canals conjure up a human or unnatural construct, thus leading to the wide spread speculation of the existence of life on Mars. There have been so signs of any life, leave alone a form intelligent enough to build an irrigation system. Ridges and other signs of abrasion do suggest the earlier existence of flowing water, but even that has not been confirmed. Many are interested to know whether the Red Planet might have anything equivalent to a water table.

Curiosity has always yielded a lot for the human race. Let’s just hope that the literal namesake will carry on that process forward.