In today's edition:
- Underground ‘plumbing’ spotted on Mars
- Snow spotted falling from the Martian sky
- New Cost Overrun Bedevils Planned Mission to Mars
- Sensitive laser instrument could aid search for life on Mars
- Europe delays its ExoMars
- Martian weather satellite's first report
Underground ‘plumbing’ spotted on Mars
A NASA probe has spotted hundreds of small surface fractures near Mars' equator that may have acted as underground natural plumbing to channel ground water billions of years ago.
Geologists compare the fractures in the sandstone rock deposits on Mars to features called deformation bands on Earth, which can arise from the influence of ground water in the underground bedrock. The bands and faults have strong influences on groundwater movement on Earth, and seem to have played the same role on Mars. Other research has examined how surface water from rain or snow shaped the planet surface, but many agree that groundwater has an equally important influence.
"Groundwater often flows along fractures such as these, and knowing that these are deformation bands helps us understand how the underground plumbing may have worked within these layered deposits," said Chris Okubo, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., who headed up a new study of the Martian fractures.
The observations, made by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showed how water has already changed the color and texture of the Martian sandstone along the fractures. Okubo's report on the finding is detailed online this month in the Geological Society of America Bulletin.
"This study provides a picture of not just surface water erosion, but true groundwater effects widely distributed over the planet," said Suzanne Smrekar, deputy project scientist for the MRO mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who was not part of the study. "Groundwater movement has important implications for how the temperature and chemistry of the crust have changed over time, which in turn affects the potential for habitats for past life."
Okubo and his study co-authors looked to similar patterns in Utah sandstones on Earth, where fractures are typically a few yards (meters) wide and up to several miles long. Such cracks reveal themselves as the rock layers on top erode away.
MRO found similar fractures in a 43-mile-wide (70-kilometer-wide) crater that sits just slightly north of the Red Planet's equator. Discovery of the deformation bands within the crater prompted scientists to name it after the late Charles Capen, an astronomer who worked at observatories in Southern California and Flagstaff, Ariz.source
My comment: I like how we gather more and more information on Mars and see how similar it is to our own planet!
Snow spotted falling from the Martian sky
Phoenix's camera, equipment have shown clouds and fog formingEven as its mission winds down, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has spotted snow falling from the Martian sky.
Phoenix's camera and meteorological equipment have shown clouds and fog forming during the night as the air gets colder.
"This is now occurring every night," said Jim Whiteway of York University in Toronto and lead scientist for Phoenix's Meteorological Station.
A laser instrument that is pointed directly up into Mars' atmosphere has also detected snow from clouds about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) above the spacecraft's landing site. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground. There are no conventional photographs of the snowfall. Scientists knew from previous studies that it snows on Mars. But they've never seen it happening from the ground.
The craft has also seen new hints of the planet's watery past. Meanwhile, mission scientists are trying to squeeze in all the science they can before the Martian sun sets for the winter, including a surprise attempt to switch on Phoenix's as-yet unused microphone.
Mission scientists announced the plans for Phoenix's remaining weeks of activity at a press conference Monday.
They also revealed information that will help them to "begin rewriting the book of Martian chemistry," said Michael Hecht, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and lead scientist for Phoenix's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA).
Phoenix landed in the northern plains of Mars on May 25 and has been using its onboard instruments to analyze the Martian dirt and subsurface ice layer at its landing site above Mars' arctic circle. The mission, extended once by NASA through the end of September, was extended again earlier this month through the end of December.
But it's unlikely Phoenix will last that long since as winter approaches in the Northern hemisphere of Mars and the Sun will provide its solar panels with less and less energy.
As this happens, the Phoenix team is "trying to get the most out of these science instruments in the last few days," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager, also of JPL.
Scientists working on Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer are planning to attempt to fill the instrument's four (of eight total) remaining ovens with Martian dirt and ice samples. The team particularly wants to get a pure-ice or ice-rich sample, said TEGA lead scientist William Boynton of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Phoenix will also look for signs of organics in the samples delivered to TEGA, by comparing them to a blank brought to rule out any contamination brought from Earth. While they would be a thrilling find, organics would not necessarily indicate life — they could be deposited by comets and preserved in the ice, said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, also of the University of Arizona.
The lander will also look at the different isotopes (or types of an element with different numbers of neutrons) in the subsurface ice and the water vapor in the Martian air to see whether the two water sources interact, Smith said.
As a bonus, mission scientists are going to try to switch on the microphone that was originally installed on Phoenix to be used during the lander's descent. While that use was scrapped, the Phoenix scientists have to decided now to "try and listen to Mars for the first time," Smith said.
Phoenix will also try to sample the dirt underneath a rock, dubbed "Headless," that it successfully moved with its 7.7 foot-long (2.4 meter-long) robotic arm last week. Images have already shown some color differences in the dirt under the rock.
New Martian chemistry
So far, the chemistry of the surface layers near Phoenix's landing site has been a bit different that anticipated.
TEGA has identified several minerals that suggest that the surface there has interacted with water sometime in the Martian past. These include silicates similar in structure to mica, only softer, and calcium carbonate. Examples of carbonates on Earth are chalk and antacid tablets.
The suite of MECA instruments have shown that the pH of the soil near Phoenix is approximate 8.3 — or slightly basic — "almost exactly the pH of ocean water on Earth," Hecht said.
MECA has also found evidence of perchlorates, which could act as an energy source for any potential past Martian microbes and could have a significant impact on Mars' water chemistry.
For one thing, they could help explain why Phoenix's fork-like probe has found that "the soil in our little corner of Mars is very, very dry," Hecht said. Perchlorate could be soaking up any water in the soil above the ice layer, he explained.
NASA's Phoenix spacecraft has discovered two minerals on Mars that suggest water was there in the past.
Scientists reported Monday that the minerals — calcium carbonate and sheet silicate — don't usually form without the presence of liquid water.
Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic plains in May on a three-month mission to study whether the environment could be friendly to microbial life. One of its main goals is to probe whether the ice ever melted.source
My comment:This is all so exciting. I mean seriously-there were water on Mars and even now there probably is some-that's already sure. Isn't it fascinating to find a planet that once was habitable so close to Earth? And the microphone thing? Awesome, I just want them to release whatever they capture on Youtube so that we can all listen to Mars for a while.
New Cost Overrun Bedevils Planned Mission to Mars
NASA’s next big mission is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious.
The goal is to send a robotic rover the size of a small S.U.V. to Mars. The rover, called the Mars Science Laboratory, would be powered by a nuclear battery and be able to roam far and wide, gathering information with a suite of powerful instruments, including a laser to vaporize rocks.
But the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is in charge of building the spacecraft, now believes it needs perhaps an additional $100 million, on top of previous budget increases, to meet the current schedule of launching in September or October next year.
With its overall budget tight, NASA has no easy choices. It could keep the current timeline, making up the budget shortfall by delaying or canceling other planetary missions. Or it could delay the Mars Science Laboratory by one or two years, which would ease the short-term budget strain but, the agency says, ultimately add $300 million or more to the price tag.
Or NASA could decide that enough is enough and cancel the mission. That, however, would waste the $1.5 billion already spent on it and deflate the agency’s Mars exploration program.
A decision could come as soon as Friday, when officials from NASA’s science mission directorate meet with the agency’s administrator, Michael D. Griffin. A news conference on the mission is planned for Friday afternoon.
Even before the latest financial snag, the mission had gone over cost by at least $200 million, raising the total to $1.7 billion, and NASA had been forced to juggle its finances for this year to cover overruns in the program.
Last week NASA officials gave an update on the Mars Science Laboratory to the subcommittee, which provides feedback from scientists to NASA in the planning of planetary missions. The officials, Dr. Solomon said, did not give details of why the mission’s costs had swelled again.
The Mars Science Laboratory aims high, both in its technological requirements and in its science goals. It would weigh about 1,800 pounds, or more than four times as much as either the Opportunity or Spirit rover, both currently on Mars. Pellets of decaying plutonium rather than solar panels would provide sufficient power for larger and more sophisticated instruments in its 140-pound scientific payload.
But the laboratory is too big and heavy to employ the bouncing cocoon of airbags that cushioned the landings of Spirit and Opportunity. Instead, engineers devised a completely new landing scheme. After parachutes slow the spacecraft’s descent through the atmosphere, rocket thrusters are to fire, enabling the craft to slow to a stop and hover in midair. The rover would then be lowered via a winch to the surface. (The hovering part of the spacecraft would fly away and crash.)
In his presentation to the planetary science subcommittee, James L. Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that to make up for the new overrun, the agency could delay or cancel missions like Grail and Ladee, which are to visit the Moon, or Juno, a return to Jupiter and its moons. But such a step could start a domino effect that would disrupt the entire solar system program.
Another option is to delay the Mars Science Laboratory’s launching by a year and then park the spacecraft in orbit around the Sun for a year, until Mars and Earth are again in close alignment. That option, in which the craft would arrive at Mars two years later than planned, would add $300 million.
Yet another option — adding tens of millions of dollars beyond that one, Dr. Green said in his presentation — would be a two-year delay in launching.
Dr. Solomon said there was no support on his subcommittee for the most drastic choice: cancellation. “We didn’t think it was a good use of NASA’s funds invested already,” he said.
Another member of the subcommittee, Kip V. Hodges, a professor of earth and space exploration at Arizona State University, said: “One of the things they wanted our opinion on is, is this a critically important mission? And the answer to that is absolutely yes.”source
My comment: I hope they continue the program, because it offers so much freedom compared to previous missions. The little big guy will be able to roam almost freely and will have an independent energy source. That provides so many opportunities to explore the planet. I think the next gadget they should send is something that can fly and drive at the same time. This way they can check much bigger patch of the surface and we'll have even more data to enjoy!And yeah, I also think this program is crucial-because it will stimulate the technology, it will take down the expenses for next possible missions and it will gather so much valuable information.
Sensitive laser instrument could aid search for life on Mars
INL's instrument blasts off tiny bits of mineral and looks for chemical signatures of molecules commonly found in cells. While other methods require extensive sample handling, this analysis relies on a "point-and-shoot" laser technique that preserves more of the rock and reduces contamination risk. In the current online issue of the peer-reviewed Geomicrobiology Journal, the researchers report they could detect biomolecules at concentrations as low as 3 parts per trillion.
High sensitivity is crucial for NASA's search for life on Mars, says INL scientist Jill Scott, whose team collaborated with researchers at the University of Montana-Missoula on the study.
While other techniques also have achieved parts-per-trillion sensitivity, they often require scientists to first extract the organic cell remnants from the mineral. This type of preparation can use up large amounts of sample and potentially introduce contamination.
INL's method is based on a technique called laser desorption mass spectroscopy. By focusing a laser beam on a spot less than one-hundredth the width of a pencil point, the researchers can knock microscopic fragments off the mineral. Those fragments react with organic molecules to form detectable charged particles called ions. The team can then study the ion patterns for signatures that might be specific to biomolecules.
Typically, this method would require the organic molecules to be embedded in a synthetic matrix that encourages ion formation. But the INL team simply relies on the rock to act as the matrix, eliminating the need for sample preparation.
With funding from NASA's Astrobiology program, the researchers have done previous studies showing that minerals like halite and jarosite yield distinct ion patterns when organic molecules are present. This time, they tried thenardite, a compound thought to be part of the Martian surface. Because thenardite is left behind when lakes dry up, its presence could signify the past existence of water -- and hence life.
The team tested thenardite samples taken from the evaporated Searles Lake bed in California. They also created artificial thenardite samples that contained traces of stearic acid, which is left behind by dead cells, and glycine, the simplest amino acid used by organisms on Earth. In all cases, the researchers found a distinct ion pattern that did not appear for thenardite alone, suggesting they had detected a signature for the biomolecules.
The team also measured the sensitivity of its instrument for the first time. By testing more and more dilute artificial samples, they found they could detect the stearic acid signature at levels as low as 3 parts per trillion. In fact, the signatures became even more distinct as concentration dropped, presumably because more ion-producing matrix surrounded each biomolecule.
While the instrument is too big to send into space, it could potentially be used for analysis if NASA brings Martian samples back to Earth. The INL study also could help determine which samples should be collected, based on how likely they are to show signs of life. Thenardite and jarosite look the most promising, Scott says, while hematite -- an iron-based compound common on the Martian surface -- has yielded poor results so far.
The team's next step is to improve the laser on its machine. Right now, the instrument is ionizing only about 10 percent of the available biomolecules in the sample. If the remaining biomolecules could be ionized with a better laser, Scott says, the detection level could increase tenfold. source
My comment: It's a very smart test. If you get bored with the details, sorry. But it's interesting how much a good idea is worth. And even more, how with present technologies and not so big budget we can do so much. The only problem now is how to get Martian sample back to Earth.
Europe delays its ExoMars mission
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News
Europe is delaying its flagship space mission to Mars by more than two years.
The ExoMars rover, which will search for signs of life on the Red Planet, will not now launch until 2016 because of the high cost of the project.
The 1.2bn-euro price tag is deemed to be too high by governments, and space officials have been asked to find ways to reduce it.
One option may be to try to get greater involvement - financial and technical - from the Americans and the Russians.
"This way we could retain the full splendour of the mission and not reduce its scientific capability," European Space Agency (Esa) spokesman Franco Bonacina told BBC News.
This is the second big delay for ExoMars. Esa had already pushed back the launch from 2011 to late 2013 as engineers grappled with the early stages of the mission's design.
It started as a fairly small venture costing no more than 650m euros. But as the project developed, it was decided the endeavour should be upgraded, to provide a bigger, more capable vehicle; and one that could carry a much broader range of science instruments.
However, the design boost also meant a huge jump in cost. The prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space, estimated the final price tag would be 1.2bn euros.
Italy, the lead nation on ExoMars, made it clear recently that it was not going to put any more cash into the mission; and with no other nations offering to make up the large shortfall in the budget, a delay became inevitable.
Because Red Planet missions are only launched when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned, the November 2013 departure must now slip to a January or February 2016 opportunity.
It is down to Europe's space ministers to take the final decision on ExoMars' future. They will meet in The Hague at the end of November to set out Europe's space policy.
The decision to delay ExoMars will come as a bitter blow to Europe's scientists. It is the biggest, most expensive robotic mission in the current timeline; and is the flagship venture of Esa's Aurora programme, its roadmap to explore the Solar System.
In one sense, scientists and engineers will at least be pleased that the need for a larger mission has been recognised. And for those Esa member states that are very keen on ExoMars but are troubled by the high cost, such the UK, the delay gives them more time to sort their financing.
Europe's only attempt to date to land on Mars, the Beagle 2 robot, was lost on entry to the Martian atmosphere in 2003. Europe's Mars Express satellite, which carried Beagle 2 to the planet, continues to return exceptional pictures and other remote-sensing data. source
My comment:That's bad. Especially with the current financial situation, I'm kind of sure EC will decide to pass for the moment. Too bad they got so good excuse in such a crucial time. And if you think carefully, it will be wrong to postpone the project and not provide financing because it's against the priorities of EU and against the logic since it provides job for so many people. Sucky situation. But at least, if we're going to wait, I'd like to see a BIG vehicle.
Martian weather satellite's first report
The Mars Climate Sounder instrument has enabled an international team, including scientists from Oxford University, to examine the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail. Studying the Martian climate is important as it helps us understand how a planet that was originally similar to Earth turned out so very different.
The team discovered that even in the depths of the Martian winter, when the planet’s South Pole is frozen and in total darkness, at an altitude of 30-80km the atmosphere is being heated to 180 Kelvin - that’s 10-20 Kelvin warmer than expected.
‘Winter at the Martian South Pole is severe even by the standards of our Antarctic,’ said Professor Taylor. ‘The Pole is shrouded in total darkness for many months and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes, creating blizzards and causing a thick layer of carbon dioxide ice to form across the surface. Yet what we’ve found is that 30 kilometres above the surface conditions are very different.’
The team, which also included Oxford physicists Dr Pat Irwin and Dr Simon Calcutt, believe that a vigorous circulation of the atmosphere – from the Martian equator to the Pole – is compressing the gas and causing the heating effect.
Professor Taylor said: ‘What we think we are observing is that the ‘engine’ of the Martian climate – this atmospheric circulation – is running as much as 50 per cent faster than our models predicted, resulting in this warming of the South Pole.’
These are just the first results from what the scientists hope will be many more years of study. In the long-term they hope to shed light on climate change on Mars, what controls it and what lessons can be drawn for climate change on Earth. source
My comment: That's unexpected result. Hmmm. I wonder when someone will make a decent model of the air circulation on Mars. Still, it's too cold, but then who knows...