Tag Archives: red planet

NASA Set To Make Huge Announcement On Thursday Regarding Mars’ Atmosphere

In September, NASA teased us with a major announcement regarding Mars, ultimately revealing evidence for the presence of liquid water on the surface of the Red Planet. Now, they’reat it again.

On Thursday this week, NASA is going to reveal key science findings about the fate of the Martian atmosphere that remains, the majority of which has been lost over time. The data comesfrom the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft, which is currently in orbit around Mars. The agency isn’t releasing any more information at the moment.

The event will take place at 2 p.m. EST (7 p.m. GMT) on Thursday at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. It will be broadcast live on NASA TV, which weve handily embedded below, so dont forget to bookmark this page.

Taking part in the news conference are Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA; Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator, from the University of Colorado; Jasper Halekas, MAVEN Solar Wind Ion Analyzer instrument lead, from the University of Iowa; MAVEN science team member Yaxue Dong; and MAVEN co-investigator Dave Brain.

If you want to get involved during the event, you can tweet questions to be answered via #AskNASA.

The MAVEN spacecraft was launched on November 18, 2013 and entered orbit around Mars on September 22, 2014. Its goal has been to study how the planet has lost the majority of its atmosphere over the last few billion years.This announcement heralds the first major findings from the spacecraft.

So, what has it discovered? Youll have to wait and see.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/nasa-announce-key-findings-fate-martian-atmosphere

Were These Mars Rocks Made By Microbes?

Martian rocks photographed by Curiosity look tantalizingly similar to those created by microbial action on Earth. The observation is far from proof that the rocks have a living origin, but it is nevertheless one of the most promising signs yet found by the Martian missions.

Microbially Induced Sedimentary Structures (MISS) represent some of the oldest evidence for life on Earth, stretching back 3.5 billion years. They are similar to, but flatter and less noticable than, the more famous stromatolites

MISS occur when colonies of bacteria form microbial mats that precipitate calcium ions to form layered structures that compact down to become rocks. Old Dominion University’s Dr. Nora Noffke, who discovered the oldest known MISS on Earth, noticed the outline of a rock bed at Gillespie Lake in images taken by Curiosity. The similarity is so striking it can be seen even by those who have not spent years studying fossilized microbial populations, at least once Noffke pointed it out.

Noffke explains her suspicions in Astrobiology. Intriguingly, the sandstone beds she points to may be 3.7 billion years old, slightly more ancient than those she found in Western Australia.

“Without any evidence for life on Mars, reconstructing microbial ecosystems on the Red Planet (and how they might have changed temporally) is pure speculation,” she writes. “It is worth noting, however, that microbial biofilms and often laminated mats on Earth develop on nearly every solid substrate exposed periodically to water.”

“Three lithofacies of the Gillespie Lake Member sandstone display centimeter- to meter-scale structures similar in macroscopic morphology to terrestrial MISS that include ‘erosional remnants and pockets,’ ‘mat chips,’ ‘roll-ups,’ ‘desiccation cracks,’ and ‘gas domes,’” Noffke writes. Moreover, she notes they are not randomly distributed, but arranged in ways that “indicate they changed over time.” One might almost dare to say evolved.

Image credit: Noffke/Astrobiology. An overlay of a sketch on the photograph above to assist in the identification of the structures on the rock bed surface

Noffke does more than note the similarities, although she does that in great detail in the 23 page open access paper. She also outlines “a strategy for detecting, identifying, confirming and differentiating possible MISS during current and future Mars missions.” 

The wave of evidence for ancient surface water on Mars produced by Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity has bolstered hopes that Mars may once have had abundant life, which may survive in underground pockets today. Noffke is not the first to see evidence of microbial action in Martian rocks, but her extensive experience with similar terrestrial formations gives her work credibility.

The playa Noffke observed shows signs of being formed by an “alternating wet and dry paleoclimate” that gradually became drier like many on Earth. In some locations, Noffke sees signs of the “establishment and subsequent decomposition of microbial mats.” In others, she sees additional stages, with gasses trapped beneath the mats that formed domes that eventually busted through, leaving holes behind. These match with different structures in a range of formations around the world, particularly the oldest ones known.

Credit: NASA/Noffke. Comparison of cracks in the Gillespie Lake outcrop on Mars to the modern microbial mat in Bahar Alouane, Tunisia

Noffke acknowledges that non-biological forces can form similar structures to those observed, but argues the extent of the similarities would require “an extraordinary coincidence.”

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/were-these-mars-rocks-made-microbes

Opportunity Rover Spots Dust Devil On The Surface Of Mars In Amazing Image

Remember that opening scene from “The Martian,” when poor Mark Watney gets thrown across the surface of the Red Planet by a powerful dust storm? Well, you may already know that this scene was somewhat glorified in reality, dust storms on Mars are as gentle as a mild breeze on Earth.

But if you thought they couldnt still be impressive, youd be wrong. The amazing image above (and below in all its full resolution glory) was taken by NASAs Opportunity rover, and in it, youll spot a so-called dust devil.

These are formed by rising columns of hot air that, when they whirl fast enough, can pick up small grains from the ground and make a visible vortex. Many were seen by Opportunitys now-defunct sibling, Spirit, but only a handful have been seen by the former so far.

At the moment, Opportunity is making its way up the slope of the Knudsen Ridge. In fact, its the steepest slope ever traversed by a rover on Mars, with Opportunity tilted up to 32 degrees. The view here looks back towards Endeavour Crater, with Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson describing the observed vortex as a beautiful dust devil to Universe Today.

Beyond the tracks of the rover, the dust devil can be seen whirling in the distance.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The intrepid rover has been climbing up this slope since late January. This image was taken on March 31, which is Sol 4332, the count of Martian days on the surface (equating to about 13 Earth years).

And Opportunitys mission on Mars doesnt seem to be abating any time soon. It was recently granted aproposed extension, so it will continue exploring the surface of the Red Planet along with Curiosity on another part of the planet for the foreseeable future. Later this decade, they will be joined by a third rover on the surface, the European ExoMars.

We may have to wait a couple more decades before we get a real-life Mark Watney on the surface to contend with these Martian twisters, though.

Photo Gallery

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/opportunity-rover-spots-dust-devil-surface-mars-amazing-image

Curiosity Rover Finds Ancient Life-Supporting Lakebed on Mars


The site where NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity landed last year contains at least one lake that would have been perfectly suited for colonies of simple, rock-eating microbes found in caves and hydrothermal vents on Earth.

Analysis of mudstones in an area known as Yellowknife Bay, located inside the rover’s Gale Crater landing site, show that fresh water pooled on the surface for tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of years.

“The results show that the lake was definitely a habitable environment,” Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology, told Discovery News.

The really big surprise, however, was that clays drilled out from inside two mudstones and analyzed by the rover are much younger than scientists expected, a finding that extends the window of time for when Mars may have been suitable for life.

“These numbers now overlap with the oldest rocks on Earth that contain evidence of a former biosphere on Earth,” Grotzinger said.

The rover explored Yellowknife Bay before heading toward a three-mile high mountain of layered sediments rising from the floor of Gale Crater known at Mount Sharp.

Curiosity landed in August 2012 to assess if Gale Crater had the right ingredients and environments to support ancient microbial life. Within six months, scientists had the answer to that question: Yes.

Now, in addition to characterizing specific potential habitats, scientists are coming up with a search strategy to determine which sites hold the most promise for finding organic carbon, a far more difficult and complex challenge and the focus of future studies at Mount Sharp.

“Habitability only requires that the chemicals and minerals in the rock preserve evidence of an ancient environment. To search for organic carbon you’re actually looking for particular material … that is not really compatible with the present environment of Mars. To find something you need a guidebook, you need some rules,” Grotzinger said.

One of those rules involves how much radiation a rock has been exposed to. Mars today has only has a thin atmosphere and no protective magnetic field, so scientists have been thinking they will need to dig deep to find carbon-laced samples, or they will have to probe craters relatively recently excavated by an impact.

Analysis of the Yellowknife Bay rocks points to another path. Dating the ages of the rocks’ surfaces show they are as young as about 70 million years, the result of being sand-blasted by Martian winds.

“In the future, if we find a rock that looks like a place where organics were accumulating and if it looks like the chemistry would have been favorable for preservation … we can now very deliberately manage the risk that the rock would have been cooking away in the presence of radiation for hundreds of millions of years by looking for these scarps, these miniature cliffs, and then drilling the rock and date it to see how long it’s been laying around,” Grotzinger said.

In related research, scientists found that the amount of radiation measured by Curiosity during its first year on the Martian surface is about 40% of what the rover experienced during its nine-month cruise.

Most of the reduction, as expected, is due to the planet’s body serving as a buffer, but scientists also found that solar activity is a key factor, said Cary Zeitlin at Southwest Research Institute.

Six papers on Curiosity’s new findings are published in this week’s journal Science and unveiled at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Image: NASA

This article originally published at Discovery News

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/12/09/mars-lakebed/