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”

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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”

Space Sunday: drills, telescopes, pictures and doubts

In March I reported that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity had taken an important step in recovering its ability to drill into Martian rocks to collect samples. Now it looks like drilling operations could be resuming.

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 between two “contact posts” designed to steady the rover’s turret during drilling operations. In particular, there was concern that continued use of the drill feed mechanism would see it fail completely, ending the use of the drill.

Since then, engineers have been trying to develop a means of using the drill without and reliance on the drill feed mechanism, and at the end of February 2018, a new technique was tested. Called Feed Extended Drilling, or FED,  it keeps the drill bit and 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 might actually break the drill bit or cause it to become stuck. However, the rover passed the February test with flying colours.

This success meant that engineers could focus on recovering the drill’s percussive action. This assists in both helping the drill cut into a rock and in breaking the contact area under the bit up into a fine powder that can be collected by the collection tube surrounding the bit.

A close-up of the drill mechanism. In the centre is the hollow drill bit, which cuts into rock and gathers sample powder. The drum at the base of the drill is the first part of the sample collection mechanism. Also of this used to be extended up against a rock sample by the drill feed mechanism. Just visible cutting across the bottom right corner of the image is one of the two contact posts. The second post can be seen in part in the top right corner of the image. These are used to hold the rover’s robot arm steady against a target rock surface while the drill is extended for sample-gathering operations. Credit: NASA

On Saturday, May 19th, and following further tests using Curiosity’s Earth-base test bed twin, the command was sent to Mars for Curiosity to carry out a second drilling test using both the FED approach and with the drill percussive action enabled. Unlike the February test, however, this one has an additional goal: to actually recover a special sample of rock.

For the last couple of months, the rover has been making its way along a feature on “Mount Sharp” dubbed “Vera Rubin Ridge”, toward an uphill area enriched in clay minerals that the science team is eager to explore. In doing so, the rover passed a distinct rock formation that could fill a gap in the science team’s knowledge about Mount Sharp and its formation.

Testing the FED / percussion approach to drilling on Earth using Curiosity’s test-bed “twin”. Not how the drill head (centre) is fully extended, so the contact posts cannot be used. Forward pressure on the drill is being provided entirely by the rover’s robot arm. Credit: NASA/JPL

Given the progress made in trying to get the drill working again, the decision was made to reverse Curiosity’s course in mid-April and drive back to the rock formation in the hope that the May 19th test could gather a sample from it. Commenting on the decision, Curiosity principal scientist Ashwin Vasavada  said, “Every layer of Mount Sharp reveals a chapter in Mars’ history. Without the drill, our first pass through this layer was like skimming the chapter. Now we get a chance to read it in detail.”

If the new technique has allowed Curiosity to gather a sample – at the time of writing this article, NASA had yet to provide an update on the operation – the engineering team will immediately begin testing a new process for delivering that sample to the rover’s internal laboratories. This is again a complex process, which in the past has involved the drill feed mechanism to transfer material gathered by the drill to another mechanism called CHIMRA (Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis), also mounted on the rover’s turret. CHIMRA sieves and sorts the material, grading it by size and coarseness before transferring it to the rover’s science suite, located in Curiosity’s main body.

Curiosity’s “fingers”: the five instruments on the rover’s turret, including the drill with the feed mechanism motors behind it and the two angled contact posts clearly visible, and the CHIMRA system used for sieving and sorting sample material gathered by both its own scoop (for surface material) and the drill (for rock samples). Credit: NASA 

Success with both the drilling operation and same transfer will mean – allowing for fine-tuning and other adjustments – the drill could be re-entering regular use in the near future.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: drills, telescopes, pictures and doubts”

Space Sunday: drills, flares and monster ‘planes

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity has taken a further step along the way to retrieving and analysing samples gathered by its drill mechanism, which hasn’t been actively used since December 2016, after problems were encountered with the drill feed mechanism.

Essentially, the drill system is mounted on Curiosity’s robot arm and uses two “contact posts”, one either side of the drill bit, to steady it against the target rock. A motor – the drill feed mechanism – is then used to advance the drill head between the contact posts, bringing the drill bit into contact with the rock to be drilled, and then provide the force required to drive the drill bit into the rock. However, issues were noted with this feed mechanism, during drilling operations in late 2016, leading to fears that it could fail at some point, leaving Curiosity without the means to extend the drill head, and thus unable to gather samples.

To overcome this, MSL engineers have been looking at ways in which the feed mechanism need not be used – such as by keeping the drill head in an extended position. This is actually harder than it sounds, because the drill mechanism – and the rover as a whole – isn’t designed to work that way. Without the contact posts, there was no guarantee the drill bit would remain in steady, straight contact with a target rock, raising fears it could become stuck or even break. Further, without the forward force of the drill feed mechanism, there was no way to provide any measured force to gently push the drill bit into a rock – the rover’s arm simply isn’t designed for such delicate work.

Curiosity’s drill mechanism, showing the two contact posts (arrowed) used the steady the rover’s robot arm against a target rock, and the circular drill head and bit between them – which until December 2016, had been driven forward between the two contact posts by the drill feed mechanism, which also provided the force necessary to drive the drill bit into a rock target. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

So, for the larger part of 2017, engineers worked on Curiosity’s Earth-based twin, re-writing the drill software, carrying out tests and working their way to a point where the drill could be operated by the test rover on a “freehand” basis. At the same time, code was written and tested to allow force sensors within the rover’s robot arm – designed to detect heavy jolts, rather than provide delicate feedback data – to ensure gentle and uniform pressure could be applied during a drilling operation and also monitor vibration and other feedback which might indicate the drill bit might be in difficulty, and thus stop drilling operations before damage occurs.

At the end of February 2018, the new technique was put to the test on Mars. Curiosity is currently exploring a part of “Mount Sharp” dubbed “Vera Rubin Ridge”, and within the area being studied, the science team identified a relatively flat area of rock they dubbed “Lake Orcadie”, and which was deemed a suitable location for an initial “freehand” drilling test. The rover’s arm was extended over the rock and rotated to gently bring the extended drill head in contact with the target, before a hole roughly one centimetre deep was cut into the rock. This was not enough to gather any samples, but it was sufficient to gauge how well robot arm and drill functioned.

“We’re now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home,” said Steven Lee, a Curiosity deputy project manager on seeing the results of the test. “Humans are pretty good at re-centring the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging — especially when it wasn’t designed to do that.”

The test drill site of “Lake Orcadie”, “Vera Rubin Ridge”, imaged by Curiosity’s Mastcam on February 28th, 2018, following the initial “freehand” drilling test. Credit: MASA/JPL / MSSS

The test is only the first step to restoring Curiosity’s ability to gather pristine samples of Martian rocks, however. The next test will be to drive the drill bit much deeper – possibly deep enough (around 5 cm / 2 inches) to gather a sample. If this is successful, then the step after that will be to test a new technique for delivering a gathered sample to its on-board science suite.

Prior to the drill feed mechanism issue, samples were initially graded and sorted within the drill mechanism using a series of sieves called CHIMRA – Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis, prior to the graded material between deposited in the rover’s science suite using its sample scoop. This “sieving” of a sample was done by upending the drill and then rapidly “shaking” it using the feed mechanism, forcing the sample into CHIMRA. However, as engineers can no longer rely on the drill feed mechanism, another method to transfer samples to the rover’s science suite has had to be developed.

This involves placing the drill bit directly over the science suite sample ports, then gently tapping it against the sides of the ports to encourage the gathered sample to slide back down the drill bit and into the ports. This tapping has been successfully tested on Earth – but as the Curiosity team note, Earth’s atmosphere and gravity are very different from that of Mars. So whether rock powder will behave there as it has here on Earth remains a further critical test for Curiosity’s sample-gathering abilities.

More Evidence Proxima b Unlikely To Be Habitable

Since the confirmation of its discovery in August 2016, there has been much speculation on the nature of conditions which may exist on Proxima b, the Earth-sized world orbiting our nearest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri, 4.25 light years away from the Sun.

Although the planet – roughly 1.3 times the mass of Earth – orbits its parent star at a distance of roughly 7.5 million km (4.7 million miles), placing it within the so-called “goldilocks zone” in which conditions might be “just right” for life to gain a foothold on a world, evidence has been mounting that Proxima b is unlikely to support life.

Comparing Proxima b with Earth. Credit: Space.com

The major cause for this conclusion is that Proxima Centauri is a M-type red dwarf star, roughly one-seventh the diameter of our Sun, or just 1.5 times bigger than Jupiter. Such stars are volatile in nature and prone stellar flares. Given the proximity of Proxima-B its parent, it is entirely possible such flares could at least heavily irradiate the planet’s surface, if not rip away its atmosphere completely.

This was the conclusion drawn in 2017 study by a team from NASA’s Goodard Space Centre (see here for more). Now another study adds further weight to the idea that Proxima b is most likely a barren world.

In Detection of a Millimeter Flare from Proxima Centauri, a team of astronomers using the ALMA Observatory report that a review of data gathered by ALMA whilst observing Proxima Centauri between January 21st to April 25th, 2017, reveals the star experienced a massive flare event. At its peak, the event of March 24th, 2017, was 1000 times brighter than the “normal” levels of emissions for the star, for a period of ten seconds. To put that in perspective, that’s a flare ten times larger than our Sun’s brightest flares at similar wavelengths.

An artist’s impression of Proxima b with Proxima Centauri low on the horizon. The double star above and to the right of it is Alpha Centauri A and B. The ALMA study suggests that it is very unlikely that Proxima b retains any kind of atmosphere, as suggested by this image. Credit: ESO

While the ALMA team acknowledge such ferocious outbursts from Proxima Centauri might be rare, they also point out that such outbursts could still occur with a frequency that, when combined with smaller flare events by the star, could be sufficient enough to have stripped the planet’s atmosphere away over the aeons.

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare,” Meredith A. MacGregor, a co-author of the study stated as the report was published. “Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilised the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

Which is a bit of a downer for those hoping some form of extra-solar life, however basic, might be sitting in what is effectively our stellar back yard – but exoplanets are still continuing to surprise us, both with their frequency and the many ways in which they suggest evolutionary paths very different to that taken by the solar system.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: drills, flares and monster ‘planes”

Space Sunday: Mars rover round-up

Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) continues its exploration and examination of “Vera Rubin Ridge” on the slopes of “Mount Sharp”.

Most recently, star- and swallowtail-shaped tiny, dark bumps in fine-layered bright bedrock have been drawing the attention of the rover’s science team due to their similarity to gypsum crystals formed in drying lakes on Earth – although multiple possibilities for the features are being considered alongside their potential for being formed as a result of water action.

The features pose a number of puzzles: where they formed at the same time as the layers of sediment in which they sit, or were formed later as a result of some action? Might they have been formed inside the rock sediments of “Mount Sharp” and exposed over time as a result of wind erosion? Do they contain the mineral that originally crystallised in them, or was it dissolved away to be replaced by another? Answering these questions may point to evidence of a drying lake within Gale Crater, or to groundwater that flowed through the sediment after it became cemented into rock.

“Vera Rubin Ridge” stands out as an erosion-resistant band on the north slope of lower Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. It was a planned destination for Curiosity even before the rover’s 2012 landing on the crater floor near the mountain. The rover began climbing the ridge about five months ago, and has now reached the uphill, southern edge. Some features here might be related to a transition to the next destination area uphill, which is called the “Clay Unit” because of clay minerals detected from orbit.

In addition to the deposits, the rover team also is investigating other clues on the same area to learn more about the Red Planet’s history. These include stick-shaped features the size of rice grains, mineral veins with both bright and dark zones, colour variations in the bedrock, smoothly horizontal laminations that vary more than tenfold in thickness of individual layers, and more than fourfold variation in the iron content of local rock targets examined by the rover.

A mineral vein with bright and dark portions distinguishes this Martian rock target, called “Rona,” near the upper edge of “Vera Rubin Ridge” on Mount Sharp. The MAHLI camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover took the image after the rover brushed dust off the grey area, roughly 5cm by 7.5 inches. Click for full size. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

The deposits are about the size of a sesame seed. Some are single elongated crystals. Commonly, two or more coalesce into V-shaped “swallowtails” or more complex “lark’s foot” or star configurations. They are characteristic of gypsum crystals, a form of calcium sulphate which can form when salts become concentrated in water, such as in an evaporating lake.

“These tiny ‘V’ shapes really caught our attention, but they were not at all the reason we went to that rock,” said Curiosity science team member Abigail Fraeman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We were looking at the colour change from one area to another. We were lucky to see the crystals. They’re so tiny, you don’t see them until you’re right on them.”

“There’s just a treasure trove of interesting targets concentrated in this one area,” Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, adds. “Each is a clue, and the more clues, the better. It’s going to be fun figuring out what it all means.”

In January, Curiosity examined a finely laminated bedrock area dubbed “Jura”, thought to result from lake bed sedimentation, as has been true in several lower, older geological layers Curiosity has examined. This tends to suggest the crystals formed as a lake in the crater evaporated. However, an alternate theory is that they formed much later, as a result of salty fluids moving through the rock during periodic “wet” bouts in the planet’s early history. This would again be consistent with features previous witnessed by Curiosity in its past examination of geological layers, where subsurface fluids deposited features such as mineral veins.

The surface of the Martian rock target in this stereo, close-up image from the Curiosity rover’s MAHLI camera includes small hollows with a “swallowtail” shape characteristic of gypsum crystals. The view appears three-dimensional when seen through blue-red glasses with the red lens on the left. Click for full size. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

That the deposits may have formed as a result of fluids moving down the slopes of “Mount Sharp” is pointed to by some of them being two-toned – the darker portions containing more iron, and the brighter portions more calcium sulphate. These suggest the minerals which originally formed the features have been replaced or removed by water. The presence of calcium sulphate suggests salts were suspended in any water which may have once been present in the crater. If this is the case, it could reveal more about the past history of Mars.

“So far on this mission, most of the evidence we’ve seen about ancient lakes in Gale Crater has been for relatively fresh, non-salty water,” Vasavada said. “If we start seeing lakes becoming saltier with time, that would help us understand how the environment changed in Gale Crater, and it’s consistent with an overall pattern that water on Mars became more scarce over time.”

Even if the deposits formed inside the sediments of “Mount Sharp” and were exposed over time as a result of wind erosion, it would reveal a lot about the region, providing evidence that as water became more and more scarce, so it moved underground, taking any minerals which may have been suspended within it along as well.

“In either scenario – surface or underground formation –  these crystals are a new type of evidence that builds the story of persistent water and a long-lived habitable environment on Mars,” Vasavada notes.

As well as offering further evidence of Gale Crater having once being the home of multiple wet environments, the presence of iron content in the veins and features might provide clues about whether the wet conditions in the area were favourable for microbial life. Iron oxides vary in their solubility in water, with more-oxidized types generally less likely to be dissolved and transported. An environment with a range of oxidation states can provide a battery-like energy gradient exploitable by some types of microbes.

Opportunity’s Mystery

As Curiosity explores “Vera Rubin Ridge”, half a world away, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity has reached 5,000 Sols (Martian days) of operations on Mars in what was originally seen as a 90-day surface mission.

A view from the front Hazard Avoidance Camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a pattern of rock stripes on the ground, a surprise to scientists on the rover team. It was taken in January 2018, as the rover neared Sol 5000 of what was planned as a 90-Sol mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Currently, Opportunity is investigating a mystery of its own: a strange  ground texture resembling stone striping seen on some mountain slopes on Earth that result from repeated cycles of freezing and thawing of wet soil. The texture has been found within a channel dubbed “Perseverance Valley” the rover is exploring in an attempt to reach the floor of Endeavour crater. This 22 km (14 mi) diameter impact crater has been the focus of Opportunity’s studies since it reached the edge of the crater in October 2011.

The striping takes the form of soil and gravel particles appearing to be organised into narrow rows or corrugations, parallel to the slope, alternating between rows with more gravel and rows with less. One possible explanation for their formation is that on a scale of hundreds of thousands of years, Mars goes through cycles when the tilt, or obliquity, of its axis increases so much that some of the water now frozen at the poles vaporises into the atmosphere and then becomes snow or frost accumulating nearer the equator and around the rims of craters like Endeavour.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars rover round-up”