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Home | Tag Archives: mars

Tag Archives: mars

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Declares Opportunity Mission Complete

Wednesday was a bittersweet day for NASA and JPL as they said goodbye to the second of the rover twins exploring the Red Planet.

Launched in 2003, Opportunity landed shortly after its twin counterpart, Spirit, in 2004.

Though the mission is considered a success, it was declared complete this afternoon after NASA/JPL team members failed to receive a response from Opportunity after having sent the final recovery commands.

Initially slated to run for only 90 days, the total mission lasted a surprising 14 ½ years. At the onset, the mission was racked with issues beginning with a massive solar storm that threatened to irreparably damage the rovers. In order to save functionality, JPL ordered Spirit and Opportunity to completely shut down onboard computers in order to save them.

Once safely on the surface of Mars, mission specialists noticed that the heater on Opportunity’s robotic arm was stuck in the ON position.

This meant that precious battery power was being wasted. JPL then sent commands to the rover instructing it to go into deep sleep mode on a nightly basis. With a battery life consisting of 5000 charge/discharge cycles, it would now operate at a continued 80% capacity for the remainder of its mission.

Because this deep sleep mode could not be initiated prior to the historic dust storm that encircled the planet in June 2018, mission specialists believe this is the main reason for its failure to respond to recovery commands: the battery has likely been completely drained.

Another issue Opportunity encountered during the mission was that of the failure of the flash memory. When this stopped working, Opportunity could no longer save data collected in a given day, prior to shut down at night. This meant that the team back on Earth had to work quickly to download all the data collected each day to prevent an irretrievable loss of valuable information.

Despite these issues, Opportunity spent nearly two decades on Mars, producing some important scientific discoveries.

Akin to a forensic scientist, the rover was a robotic field geologist that used it rock sampling ability to determine information about Mars’ past. While today Mars is a cold, dry, and desolate place, it wasn’t always so. The Red Planet used to be quite the opposite: a hot and steamy place with violent meteor impacts and volcanic explosions. This was proven by Opportunity when it found evidence of past hydrothermal activity.

This evidence shows that Mars may once have been an extremely habitable place for hearty microorganisms.

The first mission given to Opportunity lasted for 9 years and hit geologic pay-dirt from the beginning. Starting at Little Eagle Crater, the rover made the journey to Endurance Crater, and then Victoria Crater.

This mission took 4 ½ years to complete. Younger rocks in these areas showed that liquid water had once existed below the surface. Though to say liquid water gives the wrong impression.

It was discovered that the liquid was in the form of sulfuric acid when the rover determined that the rocks in the area were composed of sulfate sandstone, which is largely made up of sulfur and evaporated salt water.

Once this part of the mission was complete, JPL set its sights on Endeavor Crater. Because of topographical issues, the route to Endeavor was not a direct one, making the journey take years. Once Opportunity was on the rim of the newest target, it saw evidence of drinkable water.

This was determined by studying rocks that predated the creation of the crater, itself, that were composed of clay minerals that are typically formed near neutral Ph (drinkable) water.

Chief Administrator Jim Bridenstine, joked that he takes full responsibility for the end of the rover mission since the massive dust storm and ensuing radio silence occurred shortly after he took on this new position with NASA.

But NASA promises we will see much more science to come with the launch of the Mars 2020 rover in July of next year. It is the legacy of Spirit and Opportunity that helped with the development of this newest mobile science station.

Mars 2020 will be equipped with better wheels, have the ability to talk to the orbiters, and the ability to do things faster with the help of auto-navigation that will allow the rover to navigate more complex terrain.

Slated to land in Jezero Crater in Columbia Hills, the rover will be looking for evidence of past life. Jezero Crater is known to have once had standing water within it and the team hopes to find out if life ever existed there. Additionally, JPL is hoping to find out why Mars’ climate changed and where all the life (if ever any existed) went.

Another cool mission we can look forward to is that of a sample return mission. This will allow samples collected on the Red Planet to be brought back to Earth for more detailed study about Mars’ past climate and habitability.

In talking of plans to eventually send humans to Mars, Bridenstine stresses the importance of figuring out how to safeguard our men and women against the deadly solar flares that affected Spirit and Opportunity en route, given that these flares are a regular occurrence. He reinforced the importance of working with international partners in order to get to Mars safely to work alongside the robots and rovers that will already be there.

He further stated that the main goal is to discover life on another world, especially given that the Curiosity rover found complex organic compounds on the Red Planet not too long ago. Though, Bridenstine admits these compounds do not guarantee that life ever existed on Mars.

As for the rovers, themselves, there are no plans to ever retrieve them. Mars is their permanent home and they sit where they worked as a testament to human ingenuity and the drive to learn and explore.

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For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Brings First Mars Landing in Six Years to Viewers Everywhere 

As one of three planets in the habitable zone of our sun, Mars is ripe for study. While Venus is similar in size to Earth, its atmospheric composition is such that anything we try to send down to the surface gets crushed within minutes.

This makes Mars the best place, outside of Earth, itself, to send probes and landers. And over the decades, we’ve sent many spacecrafts to Mars to study the surface history of the planet by examining canyons, rocks, soil, and weather patterns.

But soon, scientists at NASA are going to go “in depth” in their research of Mars. Launched on March 5th, the first NASA spacecraft to venture to the Red Planet since the Curiosity Rover arrived in 2012 will touch down on November 26th.

The new InSight lander will reach the Martian surface where it will begin investigating the ‘inner space’ of the Red Planet.

Short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, the lander is designed to study the crust, mantle, and core of the planet.

By studying the interior structure of Mars, scientists will be able to get information about the early formation of rocky planets, like those in our inner solar system.

Insight will be measuring tectonic activity, as well as meteorite impacts.

You’ll remember that in recent news, there was controversy over an icy cloud formation over the summit of Arsia Mons that some believed was actually a volcanic eruption in progress. InSight will answer whether any volcanic activity has occurred in recent decades.

The lander, which uses cutting edge instruments, will do this by measuring the planet’s seismology, heat flow, and precision tracking.

The InSight lander is being followed to Mars by two smaller spacecraft called CubeSats, according to NASA. Mars Cube One (MarCo) will be the first deep-space mission for the CubeSats.

As MarCo makes its scheduled flyby of Mars, it will attempt to relay data from the InSight lander as it enters the planet’s atmosphere and lands.

If you’d like to watch the landing live, you can check out the broadcast schedule online.  You can also follow the landing on social media at Twitter and Facebook.

To ask mission experts live questions about the mission, you can use #askNASA.

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For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Is Mars Still Volcanically Active?

Since its discovery, Mars has always been a place of wonder for us Earthlings. From long ago beliefs that the deep canyons seen in telescopes were forged by water, to fear of invasion from little green men.

Mars fires the imagination of sci-fi literature and films, as well as the real science of current and future mission planning. And there’s no limit to the conspiracy theories that circulate about this planet named for the Roman God of War. Whatever the reason, Mars is almost always in the news.

The Red Planet falls within the habitable zone of our sun. And, indeed, many scientists believe Mars once housed oceans and rivers, and maybe even life of some type. But one of the really cool features of Mars is that it is also home to the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons.

Similar in size to the state of Arizona, Olympus Mons forms a strange triangular shape with three other volcanos in the region: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons. Known as the Tharsis Volcanos, most of these haven’t been active for 2 million years.

Most recently, however, speculations and theories have run amok that Mars may still be volcanically active. With the recent closure of the solar observatory in New Mexico and even more recent YouTube outage, conspiracists believe that pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter earlier this month show a plume of smoke being emitted by Arsia Mons.

That would bode well for any potential life that might inhabit the planet. If the volcanos were still active, that would mean subsurface water has a decent chance of being warm enough to support life.

Unfortunately, there’s more ice than fire about that plume captured in the photos. According to NASA, “These are ice-rich clouds over the summit of Arsia Mons.”

In reality, Arsia Mons hasn’t erupted in over 10 million years. Dr. Tanya Harrison, a member of NASA’s Opportunity rover team who specializes in Martian geology and weather patterns took to Twitter to dispel the myths.

“It’s not a plume of smoke, but rather water ice clouds condensing out over the summit of the Arsia Mons volcano. We see them quite often over this particular volcano. We see these clouds hang out over the summit of Arsia for weeks at a time during this time of year, every year,” Harrison writes.

In essence, that’s no Mons [eruption], that a stationary [ice cloud].

*

For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

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