Tag Archives: MSL

Space Sunday: conjunctions, volcanoes and space stations

Solar conjunction: when Earth (r) is on the opposite side of the Sun or another solar system body - in this case, Mars (l)

Solar conjunction: when Earth (r) is on the opposite side of the Sun or another solar system body – in this case, Mars (l)

Solar Conjunction

June sees Mars an Earth move into a period of solar conjunction, when they are one opposite sides of the Sun relative to one another. These periods of conjunction occur roughly every 26 months (the last having been April 2013), can see communications between Earth and vehicles operating on and around Mars severely disrupted due to interference from the Sun.

To prevent spacecraft at Mars from receiving garbled commands that could be misinterpreted or even harmful, the operators of Mars orbiters and rovers temporarily stop sending any commands. At the same time, communications from the craft to Earth are also stepped down, and science operations scaled back. Nasa started to do this on Sunday, June 7th, and both ESA and the Indian Space Research Organisation will be doing the same. For the two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, it means parking up and no driving until after full communications are restored. General science observation will, however, continue.

One slight difference in all this will be with NASA’s newest orbiter at Mars: MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution). This arrived over Mars in September 2014,  with the primary mission of determining the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space and gain insight into Martian climate evolution. As such, MAVEN will continue monitoring the solar wind reaching Mars and making other measurements. The reading will be stored within the orbiter’s memory system and transmitted back to Earth once normal communications have been restored.

MOM Studies Mars’ Volcanoes

Mars: The north polar ice cap, the three massive craters of the Tharsis volcanoes forming a diagonal line in the centre, the mighty "boil" of Olympus mons to their left and the 5,000 km long Vallis Marineris to their right

Mars: The north polar ice cap, the three massive craters of the Tharsis volcanoes forming a near-vertical line in the centre, the mighty “boil” of Olympus Mons to their left and the 5,000 km long Vallis Marineris to their right (image courtesy of ISRO)

Another mission that hasn’t gained much attention since also arriving in orbit around Mars is India’s Mangalyaan (“Mars-craft”) vehicle, which reached Mars on September 24th, 2014. Referred to simply as the Mars Oribiter Mission (MOM) by most, the vehicle reached Mars just 2 days after NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, and like that craft, a part of its mission is focused on studying the Martian atmosphere.

MOM also carries a high-resolution surface imaging camera, and this has been busy returning some magnificent picture of Mars, including the brilliant picture of the planet reproduced above, which shows the north polar ice cap, the almost vertical line of the three massive Tharsis Bulge volcanoes of Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons in the centre, the massive rise of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system to their left, and the 5,000 kilometre scar of the massive Vallis Marineris to their right.

MOM’s camera is also capable of producing 3D images, and an example of this capability was released by ISRO on June 5th in the form of a dazzling image of Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the equator spanning Tharsis volcanoes. The image was actually captured on April 1st, 2015, and has a spatial resolution of 556 metres, and the camera some 10,707 kilometres from the surface of Mars when the picture was taken.

The mighty Arsia Mons on Mars, largest of the three Tharsis Bulge volcanoes. The image shows a deliberate vertical exaggeration to the volcano's slope

The mighty Arsia Mons on Mars, largest of the three Tharsis Bulge volcanoes. The image shows a deliberate vertical exaggeration to the volcano’s slope (image courtesy of ISRO)

To give some idea of the scale of this massive shield volcano, it is 435 kilometres (270 mi) in diameter at its base, rises some 20 kilometres (12 miles) in height compared to the mean surface elevation of the planet, and is some 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) higher than the plains on which it sits. The caldera crater at its summit is 110 km (72 miles) across.

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Space Sunday: probing inside other worlds

CuriosityIn December 2014, I wrote about the Curiosity science team reporting they had detected odd “spikes” in methane levels in the Martian atmosphere as a result of analyses undertaken by the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) mini laboratory within the Mars rover.

Methane had first been definitively detected on Mars by the 2008 Phoenix Lander, although its presence had long been suspected and indicated. However, Curiosity’s discovery of two sudden sharp increases in the normal levels of traceable methane to some 7 part per billion – a ten time increase of the expected levels – suggested it had perhaps happened across some localised methane-producing source, possibly of organic nature (notes that “organic” in this case doesn’t actually mean “living things”).

However, the results have recently had some doubt cast upon them, and from within NASA itself. Kevin Zahnle, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California has been studying the data and suggested that the methane spikes could have come from a very localised source – a leaf of Earthly air previously trapped somewhere in the rover’s insides.

Could a small pocket of air carried from Earth have leaked into one of the spectrometers aboard Curiosity's SAM instrument and caused spurious  methane counts?

Could a small pocket of air carried from Earth have leaked into one of the spectrometers aboard Curiosity’s SAM instrument and caused spurious methane counts? Image: NASA / JPL

Depsite rigorous decontamination processes prior to launch, is is possible for air and gas pockets to get trapped inside a robot vehicle. This is actually what happened at the start of Curiosity’s sojourn on Mars: during its initial analysis of the atmosphere around it, the rover also detected abnormally high levels of methane, only for it to be tracked back to tiny amount of air carried aboard the rover leaking into the spectrometer carrying out the methane measurements. Zahnle suggests that a similar leak cannot yet be ruled-out as the cause of the 2013 and 2014 spikes.

Members of the Curiosity science team argue that as a result of the initial leak, they have taken every caution to prevent being misled again, and are confident that only the most exceptional of circumstances could result in SAM’s findings being the result of methane “trapped” somewhere inside the rover only get released well over a year after its arrival on Mars. However, they also admit that the potential for such a situation cannot be entirely ruled-out.

One of the arguments for the spikes being the result of contamination from within the rover is that similar readings haven’t since been recorded. A counter argument to this is that the levels SAM recorded could be the result of a yet-to-be-understood seasonal phenomena. To this end, the rover is going to be sniffing the air around it very carefully during late 2015 / early 2016 to see if it can detect any similar spikes.

Insight (in) to Mars

An artist's impression of InSight on Mars

An artist’s impression of InSight on Mars.  Image: NASA / JPL

NASA’s next mission to Mars is scheduled to launch a March 2016. In keeping with the agency’s (roughly) alternating approach to surface mission to the planet, which switch between landers craft and rovers, the InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission is a lander mission.

As the full version of its name suggests, InSight is intended to probe the deep interior of Mars. In doing so, it is hoped the mission will not only add to our understanding of Mars, but also our understanding of the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

Following its launch, InSight will cruise to Mars in a flight of roughly 6 months, landing on the surface in September of that year. After a check-out and calibration period, the science mission will commence in October 2016, with the overall surface mission expected to last 700 Sols (roughly 720 Earth days).

The solar arrays on NASA's InSight lander are deployed in this test inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. This configuration is how the spacecraft will look on the surface of Mars.Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The solar arrays on NASA’s InSight lander are deployed in this test inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. This configuration is how the spacecraft will look on the surface of Mars.Image: NASA / JPL / Lockheed Martin

The reason Mars is being used in this way, rather than scientists simply studying the Earth to better understand the processes involved in shaping the rocky worlds of the solar system is that Mars are far less geologically active than Earth, it retains a more complete record of its history in its own basic planetary building blocks: its core, mantle and crust than does Earth.

The Lander for the mission is based on the successful design of the 2008 Phoenix mission, and will include technology and instruments that will be deployed onto the surface of Mars, including the HP3 “mole” which will burrow its way deep below the surface (see the artist’s impression under the headline to this piece) in an attempt to more accurately measure the amount of heat flowing outwards from the planet’s core.

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Space Sunday: of detours and sailing the solar wind

CuriositySince my last Space Sunday update, NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars has experienced successes to overcome some setbacks, major and minor.

The major success came in the form of what amounts to “corrective eye treatment” for the rover’s famous laser system, which has been zapping rocks and soil hundreds of thousands of times in order to analyse the resultant plasma, and thus understand the chemical and mineral composition of the target material.

Called ChemCam, the Chemistry and Camera instrument, actually comprises a laser system and a telescope / camera connected to a spectrograph. The laser is in fact two systems in one, a primary laser, used to “shoot” targets and generate the plasma, and a smaller rangefinder laser used to accurately focus the telescope camera on the intended target. However, several months ago, this rangefinder laser suffered an unrecoverable failure.

Since that time, the ChemCam team have had to rely on taking multiple images of a target rock at multiple focal lengths in order to determine the best focal length the telescope should use when the main laser is set to fire.

The ChemCam mast element on Curiosity, showing the main telescope aperture

The ChemCam mast element on Curiosity, showing the main telescope aperture, at the centre of which sits the laser “barrel”

The problem here is that the images had to be taken, transmitted to Earth and then assessed by a team of scientists to determine the best focal length setting for the telescope, which then had to be transmitted back to Curiosity, which then had to make the required focal adjustments. Only then could the main laser be successfully fired and accurate images for analysis obtained by the telescope. Obviously, all of this is a very protracted process compared to the rover being able to automatically focus the telescope directly.

However, as a part of a recent software upload to Curiosity, the international team responsible for ChemCam were able to install an update that has resorted Curiosity’s ability to auto-focus the ChemCam telescope. Now, instead of having to send a series of images to Earth for analysis, the rover can simply run the images taken at different focal lengths and then run them through an on-board algorithm which then selects the optimal focal length for the telescope, allowing the laser firing to proceed.

A series of test firings using the new software were carried out on Thursday, May 21st, and the results weren’t only positive – they indicated the new, software-driven auto-focus technique actually yields better quality results than the original method.

The second success for Curiosity actually has its origins provide to my last Space Sunday report. As indicated at that time, Curiosity was attempting to reach a point dubbed “Logan Pass”, an area sitting at the head of a series of shallow valleys and marked by the confluence of two different types of rock.

At the time of my last report, Curiosity had already been diverted from the original route selected for getting to the target. Images of the route revealed it in part comprised what NASA calls “polygonal sand ripples”, which can cause the rover to suffer extreme traction difficulties and wheel slippage. As a result, a decision was taken to attempt the ascent to the desired science location via slightly rougher terrain; it didn’t work out.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver said of the attempt. “There appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

Too dangerous to drive: this Mastcam image, take by Curiosity on Sol 981 (May 10th, 2015 PDT), shows the two areas of rock the rover was attempting to reach in the middle distance (the light-coloured rock and the more grey rock above). The sand in the centre of the image had been judge too loose for a safe traverse, so the rover team had hoped to reach the target over rougher terrain, as seen to the right of this image (click for full size)

Two attempts to climb over this “unconsolidated material” (that’s loose rocks, pebble, sand, and dirt to you and me) came to an end when the rover experienced wheel slippage beyond acceptable limits, forcing the drive to stop. Coupled with indications of some sideways slippage – something the rover certainly doesn’t want to encounter lest it topple over – the decision was taken to reverse course and try an alternative route offering a way to another point at which the two rock formations meet and are both exposed.

On Thursday, May 21st, the rover successfully completed a climb up a 21-degree incline to reach a point overlooking an area where the two different strata of rock sit one atop the other, presenting an environment rich in scientific potential, and where the rover may spend some time engaged in investigations.

Rover’s reward: a Navcam image taken by Curiosity on Sol 991 (May 21st, 2015 PDT), following the large stage of a rough, steep climb. Central to the image can be seen an area of pale rock overlaid by darker material. The marks the meeting point of two different rock formations, which may give further clues as to the nature and history of “Mount Sharp’s” formation (click for full size)

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Space Sunday: sunsets, ring-hunting, airships and to boldly brew

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity is continuing onwards and upwards in its ascent of “Mount Sharp”, en route to a feature mission staff have dubbed “Logan Pass”. At the start of May, however, the rover made a slight detour in order to study a small valley of interest to the science team.

In planning the route up to “Logan Pass”, which sits at the head of a series of shallow valleys cut into the side of “Mount Sharp”, the rover was ordered to carry out a panoramic study of the terrain in its vicinity to help with route planning. In doing so, it imaged a small valley cut into one of the uprisings on the mound’s lower slopes, dubbed “Mount Shields”. The valley was of interest as it appeared to have been carved into the rock – possibly by liquid water action – at some point in the past and has since gradually been filled-in.

Gotcha! A view from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 8th, 2015 (Sol 949 for the rover), reveals Curiosity passing through the valley dubbed “Artist’s Drive” on the lower slope of “Mount Sharp”. The image was captured using MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, and the rover, complete with right-pointing shadow, can be seen in the inscribed rectangle. The view in this image covers an area 500 metres (550 yards) across (click for full size)

This kind of geological feature is called an “incised valley fill”, and it is of interest because the material filling the valley cut is different to the material comprising the bedrock of the mound itself, being mostly sand. Thus the science team wanted to understand more about the possible mechanisms that might have deposited it there. Was it carried by wind or water or a mixture of both? Is there a variation in age between the rock of the mound and the material deposited in the incision? Answering these questions help in better understanding many of the environmental (geological and climatic) changes which have occurred on Mars.

Planning for the rover’s progress up the side of “Mount Sharp” is a complex process, involving multiple teams and consultations, particularly as a balance had to be achieved between reaching potential science targets and avoiding undue wear on the rover’s components and systems. To explain how the rover’s route is planned,NASA JPL recently issues a Curiosity Update video discussing the process.

Following its diversion to examine the incised valley, Curiosity resumed its upward path towards “Logan Pass”. As noted in the video, this is also of particular interest to the science team as it marks the intersection of two geological layers – the “Murray Formation”, which forms the transitional region between the slope of “Mount Sharp” proper and the floor of the Gale Crater basin, and the “washboard” region above it. It’s likely that the rover will spend some time in the “Logan Pass” are, before resuming its climb towards a further site of scientific interest, dubbed “Hematite Ridge”.

Sunset on another world: on April 15th, 2015 (Sol 956 for the rover), Curiosity captured a series of images of a setting sun as to stopped to survey the route towards “Logan Pass”. The images were captured after a dust storm had left a significant amount of particulate matter suspended in the atmosphere. Thus, the individual pictures making up this animated image allow the science team to understand the vertical distribution of dust in the Martian atmosphere and how it might influence regional climatic conditions. The blue tinting to the sky evident around the sun is due to the suspended dust particles being just the right size to allow blue wavelengths to penetrate the atmosphere with a slightly greater efficiency than other wavelengths (click for full size)

 New Horizons turns  Moon Hunter

New Horizons is the name of NASA’s mission to perform a high-speed flyby of the dwarf planetary system of Pluto and Charon. The craft, which achieved the fastest launch of any space vehicle to date, with an initial velocity 16.26 km/s when it lifted off the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on January 19th, 2006, is currently approaching Pluto and Charon at a relative velocity of 13.8 km/s.

Currently, the mission is closing on the period the mission team have dubbed the “seven weeks of suspense” – a reference to Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror” during the entry, descent an landing phase of that mission – as New Horizons makes its closest flyby of Pluto and Charon, coming to within 10,000 kilometres of the former on July 14th, 2015 and 27,000 kilometres of the latter.

The nuclear-powered (RTG) New Horizons - one of the fastest man-made craft ever made to date, now closing on the Pluto-Charon system

The nuclear-powered (RTG) New Horizons – one of the fastest man-made craft ever made to date, now closing on the Pluto-Charon system

On May 15th, 2015, New Horizons’ ability to image Pluto and Charon exceeded those of the Hubble Space Telescope. While the images are still blurry – but will massively improve – they are enough to start to show surface features on Pluto, including what might be a polar ice cap.

May also saw New Horizons enter a new phase of its mission: the discovery of further moons within the system. While Charon has traditionally been regarded as Pluto’s moon since its discovery in 1978, the relative size of Charon compared to Pluto, and the fact that the barycenter of the Pluto–Charon system lies outside Pluto, technically makes them a binary dwarf planet system, with a number of tiny moons orbiting them both – and there is a chance there may be more such little moons waiting to be discovered.

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