kottke.org posts about Mars

Curiosity: stronger support for life on MarsDec 11 2014

Whilst roving about Mars, Curiosity has slowly but surely racked up evidence for a past Mars that was warm, wet, and possibly habitable.

John P. Grotzinger of Caltech, the project scientist for the mission, reported at a news conference on Monday that the rover's yearlong trek to Mount Sharp provided strong new evidence that Gale Crater had large lakes, rivers and deltas, on and off, for millions to tens of millions of years. The geology shows that even when the surface water dried up, plenty of water would have remained underground, he said.

Moreover, the team concluded, numerous deltalike and lakelike formations detected by orbiting satellites are almost certainly the dried remains of substantial ancient lakes and deltas. None of this proves that life existed on the planet, but the case for an early Mars that was ripe and ready for life has grown stronger.

"As a science team, Mars is looking very attractive to us as a habitable planet," Dr. Grotzinger said in an interview. "Not just sections of Gale Crater and not just a handful of locations, but at different times around the globe."

See also the interactive 28 Months on Mars.

Update: And right on cue, Curiosity has recorded a two-month-long methane burst on Mars. One explanation for the methane is that it's a waste product of living organisms.

The presence of methane is significant because the gas cannot exist for long. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane there now must have been created recently.

It could have been created by a geological process known as serpentinization, which requires both heat and liquid water. Or it could be a product of life in the form of microbes known as methanogens, which release methane as a waste product.

Even if the explanation for the methane turns out to be geological, the hydrothermal systems would still be prime locations to search for signs of life.

Update: And now Curiosity has found "biologically useful nitrogen" on Mars.

There is no evidence to suggest that the fixed nitrogen molecules found by the team were created by life. The surface of Mars is inhospitable for known forms of life. Instead, the team thinks the nitrates are ancient, and likely came from non-biological processes like meteorite impacts and lightning in Mars' distant past.

Features resembling dry riverbeds and the discovery of minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water suggest that Mars was more hospitable in the remote past. The Curiosity team has found evidence that other ingredients needed for life, such as liquid water and organic matter, were present on Mars at the Curiosity site in Gale Crater billions of years ago.

"Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable," said Jennifer Stern of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The meteorite collectorDec 03 2014

A weight-loss doctor from Indiana owns a surprising number of the world's known meteorites, including about 2/3s of an unusual Martian meteorite called Black Beauty, which is valued at more than $10,000 per gram.

There is one diva in particular that I'm here to pay homage to: Black Beauty, a shiny, scaly-skinned, 4.4-billion-year-old rock from Mars. It began its journey to Earth more than 5 million years ago, about the time humans and chimpanzees were splitting from a common ancestor. That is when an asteroid struck Mars, catapulting the rock into space. Sometime in the last thousand years or so, orbital mechanics and gravity delivered the wandering rock to Earth. Surviving an incendiary plunge through the atmosphere, it landed in more than a dozen pieces in the western Sahara. There the fragments sat, untouched except by wind and sand. Finally, a nomad plucked a piece from the dunes. After passing through the hands of several Moroccan middlemen, the first piece wound up in Piatek's hands in 2011. He would acquire nine more.

Black Beauty has since set the collecting world on fire, reaching values of more than $10,000 per gram. (Gold trades for $40 per gram.) The price is in no small part due to the parade of scientific discoveries emerging from the rock's jumbled-up guts. It is the oldest rock from Mars and chock-full of the planet's primordial water. Most intriguing of all, it appears to be the first martian meteorite made of sediment, deposited by wind or water. That makes Black Beauty not only a cosmic blessing-sedimentary rocks are fragile and thought unlikely to survive interplanetary launches-but also a boon for astrobiologists. "If you're going to look for life, you want a sedimentary rock," says Munir Humayun, a meteoriticist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who led a study that last year pinpointed the rock's age.

The size of astronomy stuffOct 30 2014

It can be difficult to understand how large (or small) astronomical objects are, so here are some handy comparisons to things on Earth. Here's the size of Mars compared to the United States & Canada:

Mars vs USA

And here's a neutron star nestled next to Liverpool on the northwest coast of England:

Neutron Star vs Liverpool

A neutron star also crams in over 1.5 times the mass of the Sun into a tiny ball maybe not much bigger than your daily commute to work, and the Sun is huge (see the size of the Sun later). So this thing is incredibly dense, so dense in fact that just a tea spoon of it would weigh over a billion tonnes, and if you could stand on its surface you'd feel the gravitational pull of 200 billion times that of our planet...not that you'd ever survive it of course.

(via @theclintmcleod)

Immigrant life on MarsMay 20 2014

If there wasn't life on Mars before, there might be now. Before NASA sent Curiosity to Mars, it was thoroughly cleaned of all traces of contaminants. But swabs of rover's surfaces taken before it was sent to Mars have revealed 377 different strains of bacteria that potentially could have made the trip. Some of them may have even survived.

A study that identified 377 strains found that a surprising number resist extreme temperatures and damage caused by ultraviolet-C radiation, the most potentially harmful type. The results, presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, are a first step towards elucidating how certain bacteria might survive decontamination and space flight.

Trippin' to MarsApr 16 2013

Great article by Burkhard Bilger about NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars.

The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.

Perfect read if you've been curious about what Curiosity is up to on Mars but needed something a bit more narrative than the mission home page or Wikipedia page to guide you. Also features the phrase "a self-eating watermelon of despair", so there's that. Oh, and here's the Seven Minutes of Terror video referred to in the story.

In which Mars Curiosity finds a river bedSep 27 2012

Earlier this month, the Curiosity rover photographed a dry stream bed on the surface of Mars.

Mars Curiosity River Bed

That's the Mars river bed on the left and an Earth river bed on the right. Note the flat smooth rocks in the Mars pic. Pretty cool.

The story of Mars Curiosity's gearsSep 07 2012

From Our City, Our Story, the story of a Rockford, Illinois gear factory that made all of the gears for the Mars Curiosity rover.

What might be more remarkable than creating crucial equipment destined for Mars? For a second time? Well, creating a thriving motivated company culture with a team of career employees -- the kind who lie in bed at night thinking, "what can I do in the morning when I get there?" The kind who take on responsibility, impose their own high standards and like Amy Sovina, have the "mindset something I touched is now on the surface of Mars."

I would love to have seen a live feed of these gear shop employees watching the landing.

Why does Mars Curiosity have such a small camera?Aug 09 2012

The main imaging cameras on the Mars Curiosity rover have only 2-megapixel sensors with 8 GB of flash memory -- compare that to a maxed-out iPhone 4S with an 8-megapixel sensor and 64 GB of flash memory (not to mention 30-fps 1080p video). Planning timeframes and communications bandwidth contributed to the chosen camera size.

'There's a popular belief that projects like this are going to be very advanced but there are things that mitigate against that. These designs were proposed in 2004, and you don't get to propose one specification and then go off and develop something else. 2MP with 8GB of flash [memory] didn't sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn't compare well to what you get in an iPhone today.'

The cameras were also supposed to be outfitted with zoom lenses but that part of the project was scrapped.

The Mars OlympicsAug 02 2012

On Twitter right now, Neil deGrasse Tyson is imagining how various Olympic events would work on Mars.

Women's Beach Volleyball on Mars: No protective ozone layer there. Solar UV would irradiate all exposed legs, buns, & tummies

Gymnastics: On Mars, with only 38% of Earth's gravity, the Vault & other spring-assisted leaps would resemble circus cannons.

(via @jaycer17)

Landing on Mars next week: the Curiosity roverJul 31 2012

The rest of you can have your Olympics, but the early August event I'm most looking forward to is the arrival on Mars of the Curiosity rover. But NASA has had some problems in the past delivering payloads to Mars, so this is going to be somewhat of a nail-biter. If you haven't seen it, Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror is well worth watching to see the logistical challenge of getting the rover down to the surface.

Curiosity will hopefully land on the surface on Aug 6 at about 1:30 am ET.

Martian twisterMar 08 2012

On a recent pass, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this dust devil dancing its way across the surface of Mars.

Mars Tornado

The active dust devil displays a delicate arc produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height. The dust plume is about 30 yards or meters in diameter.

The image was taken during the time of Martian year when that planet is farthest from the sun. Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the sun's rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

Flowing water on Mars?Aug 08 2011

From late last week, news that NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found possible evidence that there's flowing water on Mars.

Dark, finger-like features appear and extend down some Martian slopes during late spring through summer, fade in winter, and return during the next spring. Repeated observations have tracked the seasonal changes in these recurring features on several steep slopes in the middle latitudes of Mars' southern hemisphere.

"The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. McEwen is the principal investigator for the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and lead author of a report about the recurring flows published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.

Top 10 astronomy photos of 2009Dec 17 2009

One of the better lists out there: the top astronomy photos of the year. From the list, this is a more detailed view of the Martian landscape than we're used to seeing:

Martian landscape

My personal favorite, the photos taken by the LRO of Apollo 11's landing site, made the list as well.

Life on Mars?Jan 21 2009

Not so fast. Not sure how I missed this last week, but scientists have discovered large quantities of methane in Mars' atmosphere, and indication that the planet is active "geologically or biologically".

The origin of methane could either be geologic where water reacts with hot rock and produces methane gas which escapes through pores in the planet's surface in a process called serpentinization. Or it could be evidence of biology under the surface, where the methane generated by microbes could accumulate and then escape through the rocks.

Mars rovers still rovingSep 24 2008

Those plucky Mars rovers are still going. Their planned roving time was three months but now more than four years in, NASA is sending Opportunity off on a two-year trek to visit a large crater.

The mission team estimates Opportunity may be able to travel about 100m per day. But even at that pace, the journey could take two years. The rover will stop to study rocks on the way, and in winter months it cannot move because there is not enough sunlight to provide sufficient power for driving.

Martians have waterAug 01 2008

Water on Mars: confirmed.

Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples.

The lander itself added, on Twitter, "FTW!"

Asparagus on Mars!Jun 27 2008

Scientists think that Mars' alkaline soil might be able to grow asparagus.

Although he said further tests would have to be conducted, Mr Kounaves said the soil seemed "very friendly... there is nothing about it that is toxic," he said. "It is the type of soil you would probably have in your back yard -- you know, alkaline. You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well."

Mars Phoenix: ice on MarsJun 19 2008

About 2 hours ago, the Mars Phoenix rover twittered that it had found evidence of ice on Mars.

Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!

The Mars rover said "w00t". Here's the w00t-less press release and the associated images that show the ice sublimating from the surface over the last four days.

Budget cuts at NASA means that oneMar 26 2008

Budget cuts at NASA means that one of the two Mars rovers will be shut down, even though it's still doing useful science.

Besides resting Spirit, scientists also likely will have to reduce exploration by Opportunity, which is probing a large crater near the equator. Instead of sending up commands to Opportunity every day to drive or explore a rock, its activities may be limited to every other day, said John Callas, the Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL.

The rovers were originally deployed for three-month missions but have operated for more than four years.

Update: NASA decided not to go through with Mars rover budget cuts. (thx, jeff)

High silica content of Martian soil isMay 22 2007

High silica content of Martian soil is yet another indicator of past water on Mars. "The fact that we found something this new and different after nearly 1,200 days on Mars makes it even more remarkable."

Using ground penetrating radar, NASA has discoveredMar 16 2007

Using ground penetrating radar, NASA has discovered an ice deposit at Mars' south pole so large that if melted, it would cover the entire planet under 30 feet of water.

Good news, everyone! (spoken in my bestJan 12 2007

Good news, everyone! (spoken in my best Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth from Futurama): one Mars thingie (the Reconnaissance Orbiter) has spotted another Mars thingie, the Pathfinder lander and its Sojourner rover.

Photographs taken by NASA's Mars Global SurveyorDec 06 2006

Photographs taken by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor suggest that liquid water may still run on Mars. Successive photos of crater gullies show activity in the last 4 years.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently snapped a pictureOct 06 2006

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently snapped a picture of the Opportunity rover perched on the rim of Victoria Crater. Opportunity drove more than 5 miles from its landing site to get there. High resolution photo here. Here's where Opportunity is located on Mars.

Middle school students in Indiana and AustraliaOct 21 2005

Middle school students in Indiana and Australia are building edible moon rovers, with the idea that if you're going to ship a car to the moon or Mars, why not have it be edible when you get there?

A whole lake of ice has been discovered on MarsJul 29 2005

A whole lake of ice has been discovered on Mars.

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