Category Archives: Mars

‘Cauliflower’ silica formations on Mars: evidence of ancient life?

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was there ever life on Mars? That is one of the longest-running and most debated questions in planetary science, and while there have been tantalizing clues, solid evidence has been elusive. Now there is a new piece to add to the puzzle, which may be one of the most interesting yet. As first reported on Smithsonian.com, odd formations composed of silica seen by the Spirit rover, nicknamed “cauliflower” for their shapes, may have been produced by microbes, new research suggests. They are very similar to some silica formations on Earth which are found in hydrothermal environments and are known to have formed with the help of microscopic organisms.

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Incredible Opportunity: ’90-day rover’ celebrates 12th anniversary on Mars

Opportunity examining the rock outcrop called “Private John Potts” on the southern side of Marathon Valley. The rover has just passed its 12th anniversary milestone and is still going strong. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity examining the rock outcrop called “Private John Potts” on the southern side of Marathon Valley. The rover has just passed its 12th anniversary milestone and is still going strong. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ve all seen the commercials for the Energizer Bunny, which keeps going and going and going… it just never seems to stop. This makes for an interesting analogy with the Opportunity rover, which is just now passing its 12th anniversary on Mars. Not just 90 days, as hoped for, but 12 years and counting. Incredible. And in that time, Opportunity has helped to fundamentally alter our understanding of this fascinating world.

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NASA’s InSight mission to Mars suspended due to vacuum leak in critical seismometer instrument

Artist’s conception of the InSight lander on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of the InSight lander on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA officially announced at a media teleconference yesterday that the InSight mission to Mars has now been postponed, for at least two years, due to a leak in a seismometer instrument which cannot be repaired in time for the planned launch in March 2016. The lander had just been delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base on Dec. 16 to be prepared for launch when the announcement was made.

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Welcome to Bagnold: Curiosity rover reaches massive dark sand dunes near Mount Sharp

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View overlooking part of High Dune, which is covered in smaller sand ripples. The image is white-balanced, to show how the scene would look under more Earth-like conditions. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since landing in 2012, the Curiosity rover has seen a lot of varied terrain within Gale crater, including ancient riverbed gravel, sandstone and mudstone rock outcrops, sand ripples finely sculpted by the Martian wind, and, of course, Mount Sharp looming above. Now the rover has reached a new type of landform previously only seen from orbit: a field of huge sand dunes.

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Drones on Mars? small ‘helicopter-like’ scout could be added to Mars 2020 rover mission

Artist’s conception of the helicopter-like drone which could accompany the Mars 2020 Rover. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of the helicopter-like drone which could accompany the Mars 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA

Over the past few years, numerous orbiters, landers, and rovers have been sent to Mars, revealing the world as never before. There is, however, something else which hasn’t been done yet: a helicopter, airplane, or balloon. An airborne probe could provide stunning views of the Martian surface between those of a lander/rover and an orbiter at much higher altitude. The concept has been considered and tested to some degree, and now it may be moving closer to becoming a reality. The latest studies involve the possibility of sending a small helicopter-like drone along with the Mars 2020 Mission rover.

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NASA’s Curiosity rover approaching active Martian sand dunes after latest drilling completed

The edge of a dark sand dune field can be seen in this white-balanced Curiosity image from sol 1115 (Sep. 25, 2015). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The edge of a dark sand dune field can be seen in this white-balanced Curiosity image from sol 1115 (Sep. 25, 2015). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars is often referred to as a desert world, being bone-dry for the most part, with dust and sand blanketing most of the surface. Some regions are covered in vast sand dunes, reminiscent of deserts like the Sahara on Earth, only much colder. Gale crater, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, features extensive dune fields around the base of Mount Sharp, and the rover is now approaching some of them for the first time; their dark color makes them stand out starkly against the surrounding terrain. These dunes are also still active, meaning they are still mobile and shaped by the wind, not just old “fossil” (petrified) dunes which are no longer active.

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A moon falling apart: grooves on Phobos are a sign of its eventual catastrophic fate

The unusual grooves on Phobos’ surface, such as those on the left side of this image, are now thought to be caused by tidal stress. The large crater Stickney is in the upper portion of the image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The unusual grooves on Phobos’ surface, such as those on the left side of this image, are now thought to be caused by tidal stress. The large crater Stickney is in the upper portion of the image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Phobos is the largest of Mars’ two tiny moons, but 50 million years from now, that may no longer be the case. According to new research, Phobos is gradually being pulled apart by Mars’ gravity and will eventually be destroyed. The unusual long grooves on Phobos’ surface, which have been a puzzle for planetary scientists, are a key piece of evidence that point to eventual structural failure of this little worldlet.

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Data from Spirit rover provides evidence for acid fog on ancient Mars

False-color mosaic of Cumberland Ridge, with pie charts representing iron-bearing mineralogy. Image Credit: S. Cole, PhD thesis; background image: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Arizona State University; Moessbauer values from Morris et al. 2008 (doi: 10.1029/2008JE003201)

False-colour mosaic of Cumberland Ridge, with pie charts representing iron-bearing mineralogy. Image Credit: S. Cole, PhD thesis; background image: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Arizona State University; Moessbauer values from Morris et al. 2008 (doi: 10.1029/2008JE003201)

The various rover and lander missions on Mars have provided unprecedented glimpses into the planet’s past, including geological history and environmental conditions. In many ways, ancient Mars was similar to Earth, with abundant water and volcanic activity. Now, new research has revealed that there was also another related Earth-like phenomenon: acid fog.

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Curiosity rover confirms ancient lake(s) in Gale crater on Mars

Sedimentary strata at the base of Mount Sharp as seen at the Kimberly location. The strata in the foreground dip toward Mount Sharp, providing evidence of the former lake-filled depression that used to exist before most of the mountain formed. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Sedimentary strata at the base of Mount Sharp as seen at the Kimberly location. The strata in the foreground dip toward Mount Sharp, providing evidence of the former lake-filled depression that used to exist before most of the mountain formed. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Last week there was the exciting news that Mars still has flows of briny water occurring now, and this week there is more water-related news: additional findings from the Curiosity rover that the huge Gale crater was once a lake or series of lakes a long time ago. Curiosity had already found evidence that there used to be shallow lakes and streams in this area, but the new data confirms this and suggests that the lake(s) once filled Gale crater and were long-lasting, explaining the formation of Mount Sharp in the middle of the crater and also providing a potentially habitable environment for life.

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Image Gallery: foothills of Mount Sharp (white-balanced)

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Another beautiful panoramic image of the foothills of Mount Sharp, taken by Curiosity on Sep. 9, 2015. The mesas, buttes and valleys can be seen in greater detail as the rover keeps getting closer. The image has been white-balanced to show the terrain under more Earth-like lighting conditions. The full-size version of the image is available here.

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