Space Sunday: saving Oppy, ISS leaks, and humans to Mars

NASA’s MER rover, Opportunity (MER-B) arrived on Mars in January 2004. It has been in a “sleep” mode since the start of June 2018, as a result of a globe-spanning dust storm on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA has announced it will undertake a 45-day campaign to try to re-establish contact with its long-lived Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity. in the wake of contact being lost was a globe-spanning dust storm started to grip Mars in June 2018.

After running its course for almost three months, the storm is now abating, and whilst not the biggest storm seen on Mars since “Oppy” arrived there it the start of 2004, it is one of the most intense in terms of the amount of dust thrown up into the Martian atmosphere.

Contact with the rover was lost in early June 2018. With sunlight barely able to penetrate the dust in the air, it is thought the rover went into hibernation to conserve battery power – terminating contact with Earth in the process.

The attempt to re-establish communications will commence once the tau in the region where “Oppy” is located has dropped below 1.5. Tau is the term used to measure the opaqueness of the dust in the Martian atmosphere, and it is usually around 0.5. Opportunity requires a tau of below 2.0 to avoid triggering its sleep mode, and by early June the value had reached 10.8 – making this dust storm the densest the rover has ever encountered during its fourteen years on Mars.

As a solar-powered vehicle, there are a number of risks Opportunity faces during a long duration dust storm. The first is that as the batteries cannot be charged, they could run out of sufficient power required to keep the rover’s sensitive electronics warm – although this is partially mitigated by the fact that during a storm like this, the heat normally radiated away by the planet gets trapped in the dusty atmosphere, raising the ambient temperature and thus offsetting the amount of power the rover needs to use to keep itself warm.

How the dust storm progressed. Taken 15 days apart through the same telescope and viewing the same face of Mars. On the left, taken on June 8th and the storm started to rise, features such as Syrtis Major ( the dark India-shaped marking below centre) are visible. On the right, taken on June 23rd, they are almost totally obscured by dust. Note that south is top the top of both images. Credits: Damian Peach (left) / Christopher Go (right)

To other points of concern with the rover are the potential for a clock failure, or what is called an “uploss” recovery being triggered. Opportunity’s on-board clock allows the rover to track when an orbiting satellite – vital for relaying signals from the rover to Earth – is above the local horizon, allowing Opportunity to make contact with Mission Control. If it has failed or now has an incorrect reading as a result of power fluctuations, “Oppy” might not be easily able to establish contact with Earth by itself. An “uploss” recovery is triggered when the rover has failed to establish contact with Earth for an extended period. There is a concern that if the rover didn’t enter its hibernation state correctly, the lack of any communications might have triggered this mode, forcing the rover to continuously re-try different methods to receive a signal from Earth, using up its power reserves.

The 45-day campaign will be a pro-active attempt to re-establish contact with “Oppy” from Earth by sending commands out to it. However, if there is no response from the rover, a grim warning was given in the announcement:

If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover. At that point, our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end.

– John Callas, Opportunity project manager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This has drawn some sharp criticism from former members of the MER team, particularly those who worked with Opportunity. They point out that when communications were lost with the other MER vehicle, Spirit, in 2010, NASA spent 10 months trying to re-establish contact. In response to the criticism, NASA state that the 45-day period has been dictated by the decreasing amount of sunlight the rover is receiving as winter approaches, requiring the rover to start conserving power once more, but they will continue to listen for any attempts by the rover to re-establish communications after 45 day campaign has come to an end – they just won’t continue to try to make the connection pro-actively.

Even if communications are re-established, it doesn’t necessarily mean “Oppy” is out of danger; there is a chance that the storm has caused the rover to use its batteries for so long without charge, then may not longer have the capacity to charge correctly or to efficiently retaining their charge – either of which could severely impact further operations for the rover, and require careful assessment.

Soyuz Pressure Leak at the ISS

A Soyuz vehicle suffered a minor loss of cabin pressure whilst docked at the International Space Station (ISS), causing a bit of a fuss in some sectors of the media.

At around 19:00 Eastern Standard Time on August 29th, 2018, ground controllers noted a loss of atmospheric pressure in the orbital module of a Soyuz MS-08 docked to the station. While some media outlets reported the ISS crew “scrambled” to locate and patch the source of the pressure loss, the drop was so slight mission controllers decided to allow the 6-man crew to continue their sleep period aboard the station, and did not inform them of the issue until they were woken up at their scheduled time.

A Soyuz vehicle docked with the ISS (a second Soyuz is just visible, top reight of this image). The pressure leak occurred in the spherical orbital module directly attached to the space station. Behind this is the earth return module (and primary compartment for cosmonauts and astronauts when flying Soyuz) with the white section at the rear, with the solar panels, is the vehicle’s propulsion and power module. Credit: NASA / Roscosmos.

The leak was ultimately traced to a 2mm hole through the skin of the Soyuz module. A temporary fix was made using tape while the crew awaited instructions from Earth on how best to affect a more permanent repair. This actually highlighted a difference in approach between American astronauts and engineers and their Russian counterparts in handling situations.

The Americans – including Expedition 56 Commander Drew Feustel – were keen to explore and test options on Earth before determining on a curse of action out of concern that if options were not tested, then a repair could result in additional damage to the Soyuz. Russian engineers, however, proposed just the one approach to making the repair, and ordered the two Russian cosmonauts on the ISS – Oleg Artemyev and Sergei Prokopyev – to make the repair without any Earth-based testing, handling the situation entirely in Russian and using an interpreter to keep NASA personnel appraised of progress.

After completing the work, Artemyev and Prokopyev reported bubbles forming in the patch, but were instructed to leave it in place to harden over 24 hours. At the time of writing, the path appears to be holding, with no further leaks reported. The damaged Soyuz had been scheduled to make a return to Earth in December 2018 (each vehicle generally spending around 6 months berthed at the ISS alongside another Soyuz so they can be used as “lifeboats” by a station crew should they have to abandon the station for any reason), but as a result of the incident, mission controllers are contemplating using the vehicle in October, when three of the current ISS crew are due to return to Earth.

As the leak occurred in the Soyuz orbital module, it does not pose a threat to a crew: the module is only used during the time a Soyuz is en route to the ISS to give the crew a little more space. On a flight back to Earth the module is jettisoned along with the power and propulsion module, leaving the crew to return in the “mid-ships” Earth return capsule.

The cause of the leak is still being investigated, but suggestions are that it may have been a MMOD – a MicroMeteoroid (tiny piece of orbiting rock weighing less than a gramme but travelling at high-speed) or a piece of Orbital Debris (tiny fragment of debris from a space mission). Such strikes have occurred with the ISS in the past, but if this is the cause of the Soyuz leak, it will be the first time such a strike has directly resulted in a loss of atmospheric pressure either aboard the station or a vehicle docked with it, something that will add to concerns as to the amount of natural and human-made debris circling Earth.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: saving Oppy, ISS leaks, and humans to Mars”

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Space update special: the lake on Mars

An artist’s impression of Mars Express probing Mars using its MARSIS instrument superimposed on a radar cross-section of the southern polar layered deposits. The continuous white line at the top of the radar results above marks the beginning of the South Polar Layered Deposit; a layered accumulation of water ice and dust. The blue spots are areas of very high reflectivity and thought to be water. Credit D. Coero Borga/ESA / INAF

Whether or not liquid water exists on Mars has long been a source of study with regards to the Red Planet. There are many signs that the surface of Mars was once affected by free-flowing liquid – most likely water – in the planet’s ancient past. Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, has confirmed the crater it has been exploring was home to several lakes during the early part of Mars’ history. What’s not clear is whether and how much of the remnants of that water still survives in liquid form today under the planet’s surface. Now a group of European scientists believe they have found direct evidence a sub-surface lake of liquid water on Mars.

The news comes via a paper published on Wednesday, July 25th in the Journal Science by a team of researchers involved in analysing the data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter – something of a “forgotten mission” around Mars, given the volume of US missions on and orbiting the planet.

Mars Express arrived at Mars on December 25th, 2003. Since then, it has been quietly working away, observing Mars, gathering data about the planet’s atmosphere, surface and sub-surface, using a range of instruments including the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) package capable of “seeing” what lies under the surface of the planet. It is data from MARSIS which points to the presence of the subsurface lake.

An artist’s impression of Mars Express over Mars. The long booms (40m in length) extending from the vehicle are the deployed radar emitters for MARSIS. Credit: ESA

The story actually begins in 2007, when data from a MARSIS survey of a region near the Martian south pole revealed very strong differences in the radar returns (“echoes”) of two subsurface layers. On Earth, such a strong differentiation in returns typically tends to be the result of one of the layers being subsurface water. Analysis of the data from MARSIS initially suggested the “bright” return from the region on Mars might be caused by a layer of carbon dioxide ice. However, as further data was gathered on the region, researchers noticed something odd: the measurements of the layer kept changing over relatively short periods of time, rather than remaining relatively constant as might be expected from a body of subsurface ice.

Investigations of the apparent fluctuations in different radar returns of the same area revealed something unexpected: such was the volume of data point being collected by MARSIS, the software aboard Mars Express to initially process the returns was effectively averaging things out – giving the impression whatever the radar was encountering beneath the surface of Mars was somehow fluctuating: present in quantity during one pass, all but gone a few passes later, only to suddenly return in volume.

A composite image showing the south pole of Mars (r) and the region where the MARSIS radar reflections have been found (l). Credit: ESA

With their understanding of what was happening with the MARSIS processing, researchers were able to work out a means of compensating for it, and began a campaign of gathering data from the region, which ran for three years between mid-2012 mid mid-2015. It is the Earth-based analysis of this data over the last couple of years that has led to the conclusion that not only had MARSIS discovered something under the surface of Mars, but that it is very likely liquid water sitting under a covering of relatively cleat ice.

It is unclear if the body, some 20 km (12 mi) across and at least 2 metres deep and lying some 1.6 km (1 mile) beneath the surface, is actually an ice-covered body of water, or if it is an aquifer created by water filling interconnected pores in Martian rock beneath the ice.

However, given the extremely low temperatures on Mars, any water under the surface of the planet would require high concentrations of salt held in suspension within it, because salt helps reduce the temperature at which water freezes (a 20% solution lowers the freezing point of water to -16oC (-2oF), for example).  The data gathered by MARSIS is consistent with the liquid containing high concentrations of salts.

The discovery also has possible repercussions for the idea of Martian life.

For Life to get started, it needs three things: liquid water, an energy source such as minerals leeching into the water, and a biological seed. As noted at the top of this article, the evidence for water once having existed on Mars is strong. What’s more, NASA’s Curiosity rover has already found evidence for the second requirement – an energy source in the form of leeching minerals – was present at the time the planet had liquid water on its surface. So, if the third element – the biological seed – was available, then it is possible that microbial life may have started on Mars. Thus, there is the tantalising question of whether those Martian microbes might have followed the water into places like the south polar lake. However, we’re still a very, very long way from answering this particular question.

From what I think we have learned about this sub-glacial lake, the most likely analogue for this environment is the sub-glacial lake that was recently discovered in Canada… in which the lake itself is in contact with a deposit of salt, and so it is very, very salty. There are micro-organisms that are capable of surviving well below zero even without being in contact with water, and there are micro-organisms that can use the salt, presumably the salt in the water on Mars… for their metabolism.

– Roberto Orosei, MARSIS instrument co-investigator, and co-author of the lake study

Continue reading “Space update special: the lake on Mars”

Space Sunday: asteroids, telescopes and dust

Credit: Mopic/Shutterstock

Saturday, June 30th marked International Asteroid Day, a global event involving researchers, astronomy groups, space agencies and more talking about asteroids  – and the risk some of them present to Earth.

Since 2013, and the Chelyabinsk event which saw a meteor  roughly 20 metres across, caught on film as it broke up high over the Russian town, the tabloid media has seemingly been obsessed with reporting meteors about to collide Earth and wreak havoc.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the estimated 10 million objects which have orbits passing close to Earth – referred to as NEOs, for Near Earth Objects, are unlikely to actually strike our atmosphere or are of a small enough size not to pose a significant threat if they did, despite all the screaming of the tabloids.

A map showing the frequency of small asteroids entering Earth’s atmosphere between 1994 and 2013. The dot sizes are proportional to the optical radiated energy of impacts measured in billions of Joules (GJ) of energy. A total of 556 events are recorded on the map, representing objects ranging in size from 1m to 20m. Credit: NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) programme

Which is not to say NEOs don’t pose a potential threat. Not all of the 10 million objects with orbits passing close to, or intersecting, the orbit of Earth have been properly mapped. Take 2018 LA (ZLAF9B2), for example. As I reported at the start of June, this asteroid, some 2 metres across, was only identified a handful of hours before it slammed into Earth’s upper atmosphere over Botswana at approximately 17,000 kilometres per second, to be caught on film as it burnt up. The energetic force of the accompanying explosion has been estimated to have been in the region of 0.3 to 0.5 kilotons (300 to 500 tonnes of TNT).

To offer a couple of quick comparisons with this event:

  • The 2013 Chelyabinsk superbolide (roughly 10 times the size of 2018 LA (ZLAF9B2) disintegrated at an altitude of around at 29.7 km at a velocity between 60,000-69,000 km/h, producing an energy release equivalent to 400-500 kilotons (400,000-500,000 tonnes of TNT). This was enough to blow out windows and send 1,491 people to hospital with injuries, including several dozen temporarily blinded by the flash of the explosion. The first 32 seconds of the video below convey something of the force of that event.

  • In June 1908 a cometary fragment estimated between 60 and 190 metres cross disintegrated some 5 to 10 km above Tunguska, Siberia. This generated an estimated downward explosive force of between 3 to 5 megatons and an overall force of somewhere between 10 to 15 megatons (again for comparison, all the bombs dropped by allied forces in World War 2 amounted to around 3.4 megatons of combined explosive force). This is believed to have generated a shock wave measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale, flattening an estimated 80 million trees covering an area of 2,150 square kilometres. Were it to occur today, such an event would devastate a large city.

There are two sobering points with these two events. The first is that astronomers estimate only about one-third (1600) of objects the size of the Tunguska event meteoroid which might be among that 10 million NEOs have so far been mapped. The second is that many NEOs can remain “hidden” from our view. the Chelyabinsk superbolide, for example passed unseen as the Sun completely obscured its approach to Earth.

There have been several proposals for trying to deal with the potential risk of a PHA – Potentially Hazardous Asteroid – impact over the years. One currently in development is the NASA / Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission intended to demonstrate the kinetic effects of crashing an impactor spacecraft into an asteroid for planetary defence purposes.

The target for this mission is rather interesting. DART will be launched on an intercept with 65803 Didymos, an asteroid around 750 metres across – but this will not be the vehicle’s target. That honour goes to a much smaller asteroid – around 170 metres across (so in the size range of the Tunguska object) – orbiting 65803 Didymos and informally referred to as “Didymoon”.

Originally, DART was to be a part of a joint NASA/APL and European Space Agency effort, with ESA supplying a vehicle called the Asteroid Intercept Mission (AIM). This would have been launched ahead of DART on a trajectory that would place it in orbit around the 65803 Didymos / “Didymoon” pairing, allowing it to track / guide DART to its target and record the entire impact and its aftermath.

AIM never received funding, leaving the NASA/APL mission, which is currently scheduled for launch in 2021 and will intercept “Didymoon” in 2022. However, in the last few weeks, ESA has announced a revised mission to 65803 Didymos called Hera. Like AIM, it is designed to orbit the asteroid and is moon, and a call has been made to combine it with DART under a new joint mission called Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA).

This would require DART to be delayed for a number of years to give ESA time to obtain approval for Hera and design, build and launch the craft – so the intercept would not take place until 2026. While this is a delay, it would mean that scientists would be able to better characterise “Didymoon” ahead of DART’s arrival, and witness the impact and its aftermath in real-time.

The original DART / AIM mission – to study the use of kinetic vehicles to divert an asteroid – now potentially superseded by the DART / Hera mission. Credit: NASA / APL / ESA

It’s not clear whether or not DART will be delayed. If it isn’t, then it has been proposed DART carries a camera equipped cubesat similar to those AIM would have used in support of its mission. This could then be separated from DART ahead of the impact so it could image the event as it flies by “Didymoon”. The Hera mission would then arrive a few years after the impact and assess the outcome, including imaging the impact crater on the asteroid and changes to its orbit and its rotation, which can help scientists determine how efficient the impact was in transferring its energy into “Didymoon”.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: asteroids, telescopes and dust”

Space Sunday: the sands of Mars and Planet Nine

The spread of the 2018 dust storm as seen by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter between May 31st and June 10th. The black gaps in the images indicate parts of the planet’s surface not captured in the individual images making up this time-lapse view. Note the position of the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. Credit: NASA / MSSS

Dust storms on Mars are not unusual event; they occur in both hemispheres with the changing of the seasons, and can even grow to encompass the entire planet.

Just such world-girdling dust storm occurred in 1971, and was caught by the cameras on NASA’s Mariner 9 space vehicle when it arrived in the vicinity of Mars in November of that year. The images Mariner 9 returned from Mar as it entered orbit (becoming in the process the first man-made object to orbit another planet) show the entire surface of Mars totally obscured by a blanket of dust that reached high up into the atmosphere. It took some two months for the storms to abate – although scientists were treated to Mars gradually revealing itself to Mariner 9’s camera as the dust slowly settled, starting with the high peaks of Olympus Mons and the Tharsis Ridge volcanoes, which rise up to 25 kilometres above the mean surface level of Mars.

In 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) reveal just how all-encompassing these more massive storms on Mars can be, when it took two images of Mars just three months apart. In one, surface features are clearly visible; in the second, Mars appears to be devoid of any detail.

These two images, captured 3 months apart by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2001, shoe how all-encompassing the more extreme dust storms on Mars can be. Note that in both images, south is at the top . Credit: NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team

Now, another dust storm is engulfing a huge swathe of Mars. It grew quickly in the opening week and a half of June, While it has not – as yet – engulfed the entire planet, it is raising massive mounts of dust high into the Martian atmosphere, marking it as the “thickest” dust storm witnessed on Mars.

Of to two rovers currently operating on Mars, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is particularly impacted by storms of this nature as it is solar-powered. Such is the volume of dust lifted into the Martian atmosphere when these more extreme storms occur that they can severely limit Oppy’s ability to gather sunlight to charge its batteries.

This is not the first such dust storm Oppy has encountered; in 2007, a large-scale storm resulted in a severe degradation in the amount of sunlight reaching the Martian surface where the rover was operating. At that time, we were treated to some remarkable images of just how all-pervasive the dust can become when lifted into the tenuous Martian atmosphere.

This series of images show the onset of a severe dust storm, as seen by NASA’s Opportunity rover in 2007. On the left, Sol 1205, is “normal” daylight conditions. The remain shots show the reduction in daylight between Sol 1220 and Sol 12035. Credit: NASA / Cornell University

Even so the current storm is perhaps the most severe Oppy has had to face. So much so that even though the decision was quickly made to suspend all science gathering operations as it explores Endeavour Crater, and so reduce its power output, the rover has since switched itself into a further “safe” mode of power conservation.

This  kind of more massive storm is particularly prone to occurring when summer comes to one of the hemispheres (in this case, the southern hemisphere). At this time, the increased sunlight warming the atmosphere causes an increase in wind activity, which results in more dust being lifted into the atmosphere. For so reason, this dust causes the winds to persist  – and even increase, lifting more dust, and a feedback loop is created, turning the process into a self-driving storm that can take weeks or months to die down.

A couple of interesting points with these dust storms is that firstly, and for those familiar with the Matt Damon vehicle The Martian, the winds are nowhere near as violent as portrayed by that film. While wind speeds during these storms can reach speeds of 96-160 km/h (60-100 mph), the Martian atmosphere is so tenuous, the overall effect of such wind speeds is akin to a stiff breeze here on Earth. The second point is that while they do reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of Mars, the dust is an effective insulator, both reducing the amount of heat being radiated away from Mars whilst simultaneously absorbing solar radiation, both of which serve to raise ambient surface temperatures.

This latter point is in part good news for Oppy, as it helps reduce the rover’s power outlay in keeping itself and its instruments warm. However, given that such intense storms can last for periods of several weeks to months at a time, there is genuine concerns as to how well Opportunity might survive if this storm is particularly drawn out, leaving the MER team on Earth reasonably confident the rover will be able to survive the storm without its systems becoming too cold to be restarted.

By June 10th, the storm had grown to a size where it was starting to make itself felt in Gale Crater, where NASA is operating the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, although the effects haven’t been as great as around Endeavour Crater, which Opportunity has been exploring. When it comes to dust storms, Curiosity has a significant advantage over Opportunity in that it is nuclear powered and is thus its power systems aren’t affected by any loss of  sunlight.

The dust storm reaches Gale crater: on the left, a true colour image from Curiosity’s Mastcam taken of the east-north-east rim of Gale Crater taken on June 7th, 2018 (Sol 2074). On the right, the same view seen three days later, on June 10th, 2018 (Sol 2077). Credit: NASA / MSSS

By the time the dust storm reach Gale Crater, it was blanketing to 35 million square kilometres (14 million sq miles) of the Martian surface – or roughly one-quarter of the entire planet, and it was still growing. As well as bing observed by the two surface rovers, it is also being watched from space by the combined network of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Odyssey and MAVEN space vehicles, as well as Europe’s Mars Express mission and India’s Mars Observer Mission.

Observing and probing this kind of storm is seen as vital on a number of counts. In the first place, the precise mechanism that causes the feedback loop of wind and dust mentioned above isn’t really understood, so seeing storms like the develop and abate can help scientists to fill-in the blanks. In addition, and as NASA’s Mars Programme Office chief scientist Rich Zurek explains:

Studying their physics is critical to understanding the ancient and modern Martian climate. Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events, and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them. That would be like forecasting El Niño events on Earth, or the severity of upcoming hurricane seasons.

This latter point is particularly important in terms of planning for future missions – including any human mission to Mars. Being able to predict the rises and potential scope of these storms could go a long way to ensuring human safety on Mars. However, for the duration of this storm, all eyes are on little Opportunity, caught in the midst of it, with the hope that the rover will come through the storm able to resume its record-breaking 14+ years of operations on Mars.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the sands of Mars and Planet Nine”

Space Sunday: of molecules, meteorites and missions

In 1996, amidst a huge fanfare which included a statement by then US President Bill Clinton, a team of researchers announced they had discovered evidence of past Martian microbial life within a meteorite called ALH84001, discovered in the Allen Hills of Antarctica in 1984.

The claim lead to a high degree controversy, with many scientists disputing the findings of the original team. While that discovery has never been conclusively disproved, it has never been verified, either. However, it has – alongside the controversial results from two of the Viking Lander experiments in the 1970s – encouraged teams researching the potential for microbial life on Mars to be cautious in their work.

So it was with a sense of excitement that on Thursday, June 7th, 2018, NASA announced that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover has once again found potential evidence of both organic molecules and methane on Mars. The news came via two papers Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars and Background levels of methane in Mars’ atmosphere show strong seasonal variations.

In the first paper, the authors indicate how Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite detected traces of methane in drill samples it took from Martian rocks in 2016. Once these rocks were heated, they released an array of organics and volatiles similar to how organic-rich sedimentary rocks do on Earth – where similar deposits are indications of fossilised organic life.

What is particularly exciting is the first paper indicates that the material discovered on Mars is similar to terrestrial kerogen, a solid organic matter found in sedimentary rocks. Comprising an estimated 1016 tons of carbon, Kerogen on Earth exceeds the organic content of all living matter on Earth by a factor of 10,000.

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered ancient organic molecules on Mars, embedded within sedimentary rocks that are billions of years old. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre

Essentially, want happens on Earth is that organic material gets laid down within the sedimentary layers, then over the aeons, fluid flowing thought the rock initiates chemical reactions to break down the organic deposits until only the insoluble  kerogen is left. It has already been established that Gale Crater was once the home of several liquid water lakes, and also that perchlorate salt – particularly good at breaking down organics – is present on Mars. Hence why the discovery of the kerogen-like material on Mars is a cause for excitement – it could be a similar process to that seen on Earth is present.

While the team responsible for the styudy point out the material SAM has found is similar to an insoluble material discovered in tiny meteorites known to fall on Mars, that it might have formed naturally on the planet is somewhat strengthened by the fact Curiosity has previously confirmed Gale Crater contains the chemical building blocks and energy sources that are necessary for life. However, the legacy of ALH84001 urge caution when dealing with these findings from the rover, as one of the authors of the first paper explained.

Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules. Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes… The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter. Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimetres of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.

Jennifer Eigenbrode, co-author, Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars

In the second paper, scientists describe the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years. This variation was also detected by Curiosity’s SAM instrument suite over the 3-year period.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre / University of Michigan

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars’ atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

This is the first time we’ve seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it. This is all possible because of Curiosity’s longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal ‘breathing.’

Chris Webster, co-author, Background levels of methane in Mars’ atmosphere show strong seasonal variations

In 2013, SAM detected organic molecules in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. These more recently findings, gathered further up the slopes of “Mount Sharp” add to the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments. Thus, finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

NASA Successfully Transfers Sample

Following my last two Space Sunday updates concerning attempts to resume the collection of rock samples using Curiosity’s drilling mechanism, the US space agency has indicated a successful transfer of material gathered within the rover’s hollow drill bit into the rover’s on-board science suite (which includes the SAM instrument referred to above).

The new drilling capability is referred to as Feed Extended Drilling (FED), designed to bypass a formerly critical, but at risk of failure, piece of the rover’s drill system called the drill feed mechanism. This mechanism also used to form a part of the means by which samples used to be transferred from Curiosity’s arm-mounted turret to the on-board science suite. As it can no longer be used, engineers instead determined the sample could potentially be transferred to the science suite by positioning the drill bit directly over the sample intake ports and then running the drill in reverse, causing the gathered sample to (hopefully) trickle backwards and into one of the hoppers.

Referred to as Feed Extended Sample Transfer, the approach was tested on May 31st, 2018, and successfully saw the transfer of part of a sample obtained on May 19th into the hopper serving the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) unit.

Curiosity’s drill bit (upper right) positioned over one of the sample inlets on the rover’s deck leading to the on-board science suite. This image was captured on May 31st, 2018 (Sol 2068) by the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). Credit: NASA / MSSS

The approach had already been successfully tested on Earth, but there were concerns the thin, dry atmosphere of Mars might not produce the same results. There’s also a matter of balance. Previously, any sample gathered by the drill would pass through the rover’s CHIMRA sieving system, which helps ensure the right amount is transferred to the on-board instruments. Without this, transfers become a matter of judgement, as engineer John Moorokian explained following the transfer:

On Mars we have to try to estimate visually whether this is working, just by looking at images of how much powder falls out. We’re talking about as little as half a baby aspirin worth of sample.

John Moorokian, lead developer of the FEST delivery method

The problem here is, were too little materials transferred, and CheMin and SAM would not be able to provide accurate analyses, but transfer too much of the unsorted material, and it could either clog instruments or remaining unused, potentially contaminating measurement of future samples. So far, it appears the first attempt has succeeded, although it will still be a while before the outcome of any analysis is known.
Continue reading “Space Sunday: of molecules, meteorites and missions”

Space Sunday: drills, neutrinos and a spaceplane

In May I wrote about an attempt to return the drill mechanism on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity to operational status. As I noted in that report, use of the sample-gathering drill was suspended in December 2016, after problems were encountered with the drill feed mechanism – the motor used to extend the drill head leading to fears that continued use of the drill feed mechanism would see it fail completely, ending the use of the drill.

At the time of that report, a live test of the drill on Mars had just been carried out, but the results hadn’t been made public. However, on May 23rd, NASA issued an update confirming the test had been successful, and a sample of rock had been obtained.

The new drilling technique is called Feed Extended Drilling (FED). It keeps the drill head extended and uses the weight of the rover’s robot arm and turret to push the bit into a target rock. This is harder than it sounds, as it requires the weight of the rover’s arm to provide the necessary pressure to help push the drill bit into a rock – something it is not designed to do, and risks either breaking the drill bit or cause it to become stuck.

Engineers had spent more than a year developing the technique using Curiosity’s testbed “twin” on Earth before carrying out a preliminary test on Mars in February (see here), which was not intended to gather any sample. For the May 19th, 2018, test the mission team combined the FED approach to drilling with using the drill’s percussive mechanism with the intention of both testing the combined technique with an attempt to obtain a sample of rock.

The sample in question is of specific importance to the mission team, although it required a literal turnaround for the rover. For the last few months, Curiosity has been traversing “Vera Rubin Ridge” on “Mount Sharp”. In doing so, the rover passed a distinct rock formation mission scientists realised could fill a gap in their understanding about how “Mount Sharp” may have formed. However, at the time, there was no way to obtain a sample. Once it looked likely that drilling operations could be recovered, the decision was made in April to reverse the rover’s course and return to the rock formation, where the test was successfully carried out.

The team used tremendous ingenuity to devise a new drilling technique and implement it on another planet. Those are two vital inches of innovation from 60 million miles away. We’re thrilled that the result was so successful.

– Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee.

The 5 cm (2-in) deep hole in a target called “Duluth”, captured by the rover’s Mastcam on May 20th, 2018 (Sol 2057) after a successful test allowed a rock sample to be gathered by the rover since October 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

The rover has since resumed its traverse towards an uphill area enriched in clay minerals that the science team is  also eager to explore. The next stage for the engineers it so figure out how to transfer the gathered sample ready for analysis by the rover’s on-board laboratory.

Previously, this would have involved passing the sample through another system on the rover’s “turret”, called CHIMRA (Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis). However, transfer into CHIMRA in part requires the use of the drill feed mechanism. As this can no longer be used in case it breaks. the idea – yet to be tested – is to try positioning the drill head over the hoppers feeding the science suite and then running the drill in reverse, allowing the sample  – held within the hollow drill bit – to trickle back out, and hopefully into the hoppers.

If It’s A Particle Jim, Then It’s Not As We Know Them

Neutrinos are elementary particles that interact only via the weak subatomic force and gravity. Their behaviour is explained by the Standard Model of particle physics.

In essence – and very broadly speaking – the Standard Model is a list of particles that go a long way toward explaining how matter and energy interact in the cosmos. Some of these particles – quarks and electrons, for example – are the building blocks of the atoms that make up everything we’ll ever touch with our hands. Others, like the three known neutrinos, are more abstract: high-energy particles which can be created naturally (within the core of stars or during supernova events, for example), or artificially (e.g. in nuclear reactors or nuclear explosions), and which stream through the universe, barely interacting with other matter. Billions upon billions of solar neutrinos pass through each of us every second without ever affecting us.

The LSND. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

These neutrinos can be broken into three known “flavours”:  electron, muon and tau neutrinos. As waves of neutrinos stream through space, they periodically “oscillate,” jumping back and forth between one flavour of the three flavours and another – or that’s the theory.

In the 1990s, the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, reported more neutrino detections than the Standard Model’s description of neutrino oscillation could explain, resulting in a new flavour of “heavy” neutrino being posited: the “sterile neutrino”.

At the time, the discovery met with excitement; physicists had long noticed a discrepancy between the predicted and actual number of anti-neutrinos, or the antimatter partners to neutrinos, produced in nuclear reactors. Sterile neutrinos could offer an explanation for the discrepancy. The only problem with the idea is that other than the LSND results, no-one has been able to find evidence for the existence of “sterile neutrinos”.

Until, possibly, now. A paper just published suggests that another neutrino detector – the MiniBooNE, operated Fermilab in Chicago – has also reported a similar result to LSND, resulting in the suggestion some neutrinos are oscillating into the “heavier” sterile neutrinos and then back into one of the recognised flavours. What’s more, combining the results of the MiniBooNE experiment with those of LSND suggests there is just a one-in-500 million chance of both results being a fluke.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: drills, neutrinos and a spaceplane”