Image Gallery: Curiosity at Murray Buttes

Curiosity arrives at Murray Buttes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson
Curiosity arrives at Murray Buttes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

The Curiosity rover has been sending back some beautiful images of the Murray Buttes which it has now reached, near the base of Mount Sharp, on Mars. There are many buttes and mesas in this region, including in the foothills of the mountain itself. The current header graphic for the blog is also part of a new panoramic image of the buttes, processed by James Sorenson.

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Viking remembered: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first search for life on Mars

Iconic painting of a Viking lander on Mars, prior to launch. The sampling arm reaches into the foreground. Image Credit: Charles Bennett/Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta)
Iconic painting of a Viking lander on Mars, prior to launch. The sampling arm reaches into the foreground. Image Credit: Charles Bennett/Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta)

July 20, 1976, will be forever remembered by space enthusiasts. On that day, Viking 1 became the first U.S. spacecraft to land on another planet – in this case, Mars (the USSR Venera 9 spacecraft landed on Venus in 1975). That lander, and Viking 2 which followed it Sept. 3, 1976, paved the way for more complex missions later on, which would begin to finally unlock some of the secrets of the mysterious Red Planet. The two Viking landers, and their counterpart orbiters, were genuine trailblazers, opening up the vast Martian landscape to robotic and human eyes for the first time.

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Mars rovers update: Curiosity turns toward Mount Sharp, Opportunity finishes in Marathon Valley

Self-portrait of the Curiosity rover at the drill site called Okoruso, on Naukluft Plateau. The image was taken on May 11, 2016, (sol 1,338). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Self-portrait of the Curiosity rover at the drill site called Okoruso, on Naukluft Plateau. The image was taken on May 11, 2016, (sol 1,338). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s current rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are continuing to explore their respective regions of Mars, with new findings that are providing yet more clues as to the geological history and potential past habitability of this fascinating world. They have also both just completed significant steps in their journeys and are now entering new and exciting phases of their missions. Both missions have found yet more evidence that the Mars we see today – cold and dry – was once much wetter and potentially habitable, at least for microorganisms.

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Back to the Moon? New House bill defunds NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

Artist’s conception of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The new House bill directs NASA to bypass this mission and return to the Moon instead, before going to Mars. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The new House bill directs NASA to bypass this mission and return to the Moon instead, before going to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Sending human astronauts to Mars is a dream shared by many, but there are still challenges to overcome and the question of just how to accomplish it is a subject of intense debate. Some supporters advocate sending a mission directly to Mars, while others think that returning to the Moon first, for potentially beneficial training, is the way to go. Indeed, former astronaut James Lovell, who flew on two trips to the Moon, has also called for a return to the Moon first. NASA itself has stated its desire to send a crewed mission to a nearby asteroid first, instead of the Moon, going a bit farther into space than the Moon as its idea of preparation for the much longer journey to Mars. A major problem has been that NASA has still not set a firm timetable for such a mission; it wants to go to Mars, but the steps to achieving that goal are still unclear.

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Evidence from Curiosity rover shows Mars once had oxygen-rich atmosphere

Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry, and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Mars’ atmosphere is thin and cold, composed primarily of carbon dioxide along with other trace gases and some water vapour. Evidence has continued to mount, however, that the rarified atmosphere we see today once used to be much thicker and possibly warmer, making it potentially more life-friendly early on. Just how thick and how warm is still a subject of much debate, but there is also another interesting aspect to all of this: New evidence from the Curiosity rover has shown that the Martian atmosphere also used to have a lot more oxygen in it than it does now. Today, only very small traces of oxygen can be found, as opposed to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. So what does this mean? Could there be biological implications?

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Opportunity rover moves to new target on steep slope, sees swirling dust devil

View from the Opportunity rover looking downhill from the steep hillside on sol 4323 (March 22, 2016). Part of the floor of Endeavour crater can be seen beneath the underside of one of the solar panels. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View from the Opportunity rover looking downhill from the steep hillside on sol 4323 (March 22, 2016). Part of the floor of Endeavour crater can be seen beneath the underside of one of the solar panels. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Almost, but not quite… the Opportunity rover is now driving to another area on the hillside where it is currently located, after attempting to reach a difficult rock target. The rover wasn’t quite able to get close enough to the target to conduct further studies, after driving on the steepest slope ever encountered by any rover so far, on Knudsen Ridge.

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Image Gallery: Delicate rock formations on Naukluft Plateau

Long, spindly and delicate rock formations created by blowing sand. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Long, spindly and delicate rock formations created by blowing sand. Click image for larger version. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This image from the Curiosity rover on sol 1294 shows some very delicate rock formations on Naukluft Plateau, shaped by blowing Martian sand. The thin atmosphere and lower gravity also help in the formation of such spindly protrusions. Similar ones have also been seen before by the rover.

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Image Gallery: Conical hill and sand dunes in Ganges Chasma

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Conical hill and sand dunes in Ganges Chasma. Click for larger image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Another odd but beautiful image of Mars, showing a cone-shaped hill with sand dunes wrapping around it. The formation is in the Ganges Chasma region, and the image was taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mars has a lot of diverse geology, and this is another good example of that. Original images are here.

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Ten years at Mars: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter celebrates a decade of discovery

Illustration of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as it entered orbit ten years ago. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Illustration of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as it entered orbit ten years ago. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The Martian rover Opportunity has become famous for its amazing longevity, but it is not the only one; orbiting spacecraft also usually enjoy long lifespans, and today the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is celebrating its 10th year exploring Mars from above. It has helped to revolutionize our understanding of Mars and its complex geological history as well as, of course, sending back thousands of incredible high-res images of the Martian surface.

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Opportunity rover begins ‘mountain climbing’ up steep ridge at Endeavour crater

Panoramic view of Knudsen Ridge, where Opportunity has been climbing a steep 30 degree slope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU/James Sorenson
Panoramic view of Knudsen Ridge, where Opportunity has been climbing a steep 30 degree slope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU/James Sorenson

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars may have been stealing the spotlight in recent years, but the other rover, Opportunity, is still going strong after 12 long years. Opportunity has survived the harsh environment and various challenges for much longer than anyone anticipated, and now is taking on a new task: climbing slopes as steep as 30 degrees while searching for deposits of clay minerals which had already been detected by orbiting spacecraft. The region where Opportunity landed, Meridiani Planum, is mostly flat plains, but now on the rugged edge of the huge Endeavour crater, the rover is becoming something of a mountain climber.

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