Opportunity rover ready to explore Martian gully for first time ever

Panoramic view of Marathon Valley as seen by the Opportunity rover. The interior of Endeavour Crater lies in the distance. Soon, the rover will move southward to examine a gully thought to have been carved by water long ago. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.
Panoramic view of Marathon Valley as seen by the Opportunity rover. The interior of Endeavour Crater lies in the distance. Soon, the rover will move southward to examine a gully thought to have been carved by water long ago. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Water on Mars is one of the most talked about and controversial subjects in planetary science. It is now well-known that Mars used to be a much wetter place than it is now, although just how much water there was, and how long it lasted, is still a matter of considerable debate. Direct evidence from rovers, landers, and orbiters, including observations of ancient riverbeds, gullies, and lakes, has shown how at one time Mars was much more Earth-like than it is today. Rovers like Curiosity, Opportunity, and Spirit have actually driven over long-dried-up lakebeds, salty playa lakes, and regions of ancient geothermal activity such as hot steam vents. Now, the Opportunity rover is going to visit another feature not yet explored by any other rover or lander: a gully thought to have been carved by water millions or billions of years ago.

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Goodbye, Murray Buttes: Curiosity rover continues journey in next phase of extended mission

A “self-portrait” of Curiosity at the Quela drilling location at the base of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A “self-portrait” of Curiosity at the Quela drilling location at the base of one of the buttes in Murray Buttes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Ever since first landing in August 2012, the Curiosity rover has helped to revolutionize our understanding of Mars and has seen some incredible scenery along the way. It has travelled across an ancient lakebed and gazed at towering sand dunes and buttes, and now it is ready to begin the next phase in its mission: gradually ascending the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, the massive mountain sitting in the middle of Gale crater. The layers in the mountain will provide more clues as to how the Martian environment changed from being much wetter than it is now, to the dry but cold desert we see today. This next chapter in the rover’s mission is part of a two-year extension which began Oct. 1, 2016.

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Curiosity rover examines spectacular layered buttes as it closes in on Mount Sharp

Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Panoramic image processing by James Sorenson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson
Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Panoramic image processing by James Sorenson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

Mars has often been compared to deserts on Earth, and for good reason: it is pretty much a barren landscape with a lot of sand and rocks everywhere. Sometimes, the similarities can be quite striking, and the terrain in Gale crater where the Curiosity rover is roaming around is a good example. The rover is currently in a region of stunning scenery – buttes and mesas which are very reminiscent of ones on Earth. This area could easily be mistaken for the American southwest if it weren’t for the dusty, pinkish sky and complete lack of vegetation. Curiosity is now getting a close-up look at these formations, which are not only beautiful but record a long and fascinating geological history.

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NASA’s InSight mission to Mars approved for spring 2018 launch

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

NASA’s InSight mission to Mars will now go ahead as planned, it was announced today. After a delay due to a vacuum leak last December, with a launch originally slated for last March, it was unclear whether the mission would still be given the green light for a later launch. But now NASA has approved a launch for spring 2018.

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Image Gallery: Curiosity at Murray Buttes (part 2)

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/
Sol 1431. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Thomas Appéré

The Curiosity rover is continuing to travel through the ancient and eroded buttes and mesas which are part of the Murray Buttes formation. Very reminiscent of the terrain in the desert regions of the American southwest. Included are a couple new panoramas, processed by Thomas Appéré. All images are available on the mission website.

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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. All images are available on the mission website.

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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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