Space Sunday: Curiosity’s 5th, Proxima b and WASP-121b

On August 6th 2016, NASA delivered the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to the surface of Mars in what was called the “seven minutes of terror” – the period when the mission slammed into the tenuous Martian atmosphere to begin deceleration and a descent to the surface of the planet which culminated in the Curiosity rover being winched down gently from a hovering “sky crane” and then lowered until its wheels made firm contact with the ground.

The “seven minutes of terror” actually had a double meaning. Not only did it represent the time MSL would smash into Mars’ atmosphere and attempt its seemingly crazy landing, at the time of the event, the distance between Earth and Mars meant it took seven minutes to be returned to mission control from the red planet. Thus, even as the initial telemetry indicating the craft was entering the upper reaches of Mars’ tenuous atmosphere was being received, mission controls knew that in reality, the landing had either succeeded or failed.

Obviously, the attempt succeeded. Everything worked flawlessly, and Curiosity was delivered to the surface of Mars at 05:17 GMT on August 6th, 2012 (01:17, August 6th EDT, 22:17 PDT, August 5th). In the five years since that time, it is helped revolutionise our understanding of that enigmatic world – as well as adding somewhat to its mystery.

To call the mission a success is not an exaggeration; within weeks of its arrival inside the 154 kilometre (96 mile) wide Gale Crater, Curiosity was examining an ancient riverbed en route to a region of the crater dubbed “Yellowknife Bay”. It was there the rover made its first bombshell discovery: analysis of the area showed that billions of years ago it was home for the ideal conditions to potentially kick-start microbial life. It was, in essence, the achievement of mission’s primary goal: to identify if Mars may have once harboured the kind of conditions which might have given rise to life.

This 360-degree view was acquired on August 6th, 2016, by Curiosity’s Mastcam as the rover neared the “Murray Buttes” on lower “Mount Sharp”. The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm is about 15 metres (50 ft) high and about 61.5 metres (200 ft) long. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

For the first year following its arrival on Mars, Curiosity continued to survey the regions relatively close to its landing zone, finding more evidence of a benign ancient environment. Then it started out on the next phase of its mission: the long traverse towards the massive bulk of “Mount Sharp” – officially called Aeolis Mons. A huge mound of rock deposited against the crater’s central impact peak, “Mount Sharp” rises from the crater floor to an altitude of some 5.5 km (3 mi), and imagining from orbit strongly suggested its formation was due, at least in part, to the presence of water in the crater at some point in Mars’ past.

The 8 km (5 mi) trip took the rover a year to complete, in part due to its relatively slow speed, in part due to the fact is had to travel a good way along the base of “Mount Sharp” to reach a point where it could commence an ascent up the slope; but mostly because there were a number of points of interest along the way where the mission scientists  wanted to have a look around, investigate and sample.

Mount Sharp as seen from Curiosity, on January 24th, 2017. The light grey banding befpre the sandy coloured slopes is the clay unit the rover will reach in about 2 years. In front of it is the “Vera Rubin Ridge”, the next location for study by the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

For the last three years, the rover has been slowly making its way up “Mount Sharp”, climbing around 180 metres (600ft) vertically above the surrounding crater floor and visiting numerous points of interest – such as “Pahrump Hills”, the mixed terrain where “Mount Sharp” merges with the crater floor. Along the way, Curiosity has both confirmed that “Mount Sharp” was most likely the result of sedimentary deposits laid down during several periods of flooding in the crater before the water finally receded and wind action took over, sculpting the mound into its present shape down through the millennia.

The lakes within Gale crater may have actually been relatively short-lived, perhaps lasting just 1,000 years at a time, but Curiosity has shown that even during the dry inter-lake periods, water was very much a feature of Gale Crater, finding evidence of compressed water channels within the layers of rock which sit naturally exposed on “Mount Sharp’s” flanks.

In December 2014, NASA issued a report on how “Mount Sharp” was likely formed. On the left, the repeated depositing of alluvial and wind-blown matter (light brown) around a series of central lakes which formed in Gale Crater, where material was deposited by water and more heavily compressed due the weight of successive lakes (dark brown). On the right, once the water had fully receded / vanished from the crater, wind action took hold, eroding the original alluvial / windblown deposits around the “dry” perimeter of the crater more rapidly than the densely compacted mudstone layers of the successive lake beds, thus forming “Mount Sharp”

Alongside the sedimentary layering of the mudstone comprising “Mount Sharp” and the compressed and long-dry water channels, a further sign that the region was once water rich comes in the form of the mineral hematite, which Curiosity has found on numerous occasions. Right now, the rover is making its way towards a feature dubbed “Vera Rubin Ridge” which orbital analysis shows to be rich in this iron-bearing mineral which requires liquid water to form. Beyond that is a clay-rich unit separating the hematite rich ridge from an area which show strong evidence for sulphates. These are also indicative of water having once been present, albeit less abundantly than along “Vera Rubin Ridge”, and thus hinting at a change in the local environment. Currently, Curiosity is expected to reach this area in about two years’ time, after studying “Vera Rubin Ridge” and the clay unit along the way.

Selfies from Mars: how Curiosity has weathered the dust on Mars over five years – the dates are given as Sols – Martian days, top left and the locations where the pictures were taken. Credit: NASA/JPL

Throughout the last five years, Curiosity has remained relatively healthy. There has been the odd unexpected glitch with the on-board computers, all of which have been successfully overcome. There has been some damage to the rover’s aluminium wheels. This did give rise to concern at the time it was noted, resulting in a traverse across rough terrain being abandoned in favour of a more circuitous and less demanding route up onto “Mount Sharp”. But overall, the wheels remain in reasonably sound condition.

The one major cause for concern at present lies with Curiosity’s drill mechanism. Trouble with this first began when vibrations from the drill percussive mechanism was noted to be having a negative impact on the rover’s robot arm.

More recently – since December 2016, in fact – all use of the drill has ceased, limiting Curiosity’s sample gathering capabilities. This has been due to an issue with the drill feed motor, which extends the drill head away from the robot arm during normal drilling operations, preventing the arm physically coming into contact with targets. Attempt to rectify the problem have so far been unsuccessful, so engineers are loot at ways to manoeuvre the rover’s arm and place the drill bit in contact with sample targets, avoiding the need to use the feed motor.

So with five years on Mars under its belt, and barring no major unforeseen incidents, Curiosity will continue its mission through the next five years, further enhancing our knowledge of Mars.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Curiosity’s 5th, Proxima b and WASP-121b”


Space Sunday: Flying over Mars, JUICE for Jupiter and black holes

An impact crater which formed between July 2010 and May 2012 and imaged by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is one of the locations featured in “A Fictive Flight Above Real Mars” by Jan Fröjdman. Credit: Jan Fröjdman; original anaglyph image NASA/JPL / University of Arizona

Ever wondered what it would be like to actually fly over Mars? I have – although I admit, I’m utterly entranced by that red world and the potentials it presents. Finnish film-maker Jan Fröjdman has as well – only he’s taken the idea a step further and produced a remarkable video,  A Fictive Flight Above Real Mars. Last just over 4.5 minutes, the film takes us on a flight over some of the must remarkable scenery imaginable, using high-resolution images and data returned by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

It’s a stunning piece showing many of the more intriguing features of Mars: the recent impact crater see in the still at the top of this article; the ice walls and melt holes of the Martian poles; gullies and cliffs rutted and marked by RSLs – recurring slope lineae – which might or might not be the result of liquid activity; the ripples of sand dunes, and the winding forms of channels which might have been shaped by the passage of water.

To make the film, Fröjdman used 3-D anaglyph images from HiRISE (the High Resolution Science Imaging Experiment aboard MRO), which contain information about the topography of Mars surface. The work involved manually picking more than 33,000 reference points in the anaglyph images, and then processing the results through six pieces of software to achieve a sense of motion and panning across the surface of Mars.

In putting the film together, Fröjdman  wanted to create a real feeling of flying over Mars and of recapturing the feel of video footage shot by the Apollo astronauts as they orbited the Moon. To help with the latter, he overlaid the video with image cross-hairs of the kind seen in some of the Apollo footage, and added little bursts of thruster firings to simulate a vehicle manoeuvring in the thin atmosphere. The film concludes with a main engine firing, presumably to lift the vehicle back into orbit.

NASA and SpaceX Consider Red Dragon Landing Site

And staying with Mars: NASA and SpaceX have started the process of selecting a landing site for SpaceX’s planned Red Dragon mission to Mars in 2020. The ambitious mission will see the company attempt to land a 10-tonne Red Dragon capsule on Mars purely by propulsive means. While paid for entirely by the company, the mission will feature a science suite provided by NASA.

There are two major criteria governing any landing site location: scientific interest, and the potential for colonisation – the 2020 mission being the first of a number which SpaceX plans to uses as precursors for human missions to Mars. As such, it had initially been decided that any landing sites put forward must be near the equator, for solar power; near large quantities of ice, for water and at low elevation, for better thermal conditions.

NASA initially identified four potential locations on Mars’ northern hemisphere which meet the broad criteria for the mission – but examination of three of them using the HiRISE system on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed they are rocky enough to pose a threat to landing a vehicle the size and mass of Red Dragon. This currently leaves a short-list of one, in the shape of Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain containing fresh lava flows and which has a large region that was shaped by periglacial processes which suggest that ice is present just beneath the surface.

Acadia Planitia is the current sole contender to be the landing site for the SpaceX Mars 2020 mission

However, negating this is the plain’s relatively high northern latitude (40-60 degrees north), which would reduce the amount of sunlight a base of operations there would receive in the winter months. While Amazonis Planitia to the south offers a similar youthful surface, much of which is relatively smooth, it is largely volcanic in origin and unlikely to harbour sub-surface water ice which can be easily accessed.

Given both of these point, it is likely other possible landing sites will be proposed in the coming months.

Curiosity Reveals More Wheel Damage

It’s been a while since my last report on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. This is mostly being the updates coming out of JPL have slowed mightily in recent months.

At present, Curiosity is examining sand dunes on the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp”. Once finished, it will proceed up higher to a feature known as “Vera Rubin Ridge”, inspecting a layer that is rich in the mineral hematite. From there, it will proceeded to even higher elevations to inspect layers that contain clays and sulphates. This will require a drive of some 6 km (3.7 mi) uphill, and so will require time to complete.

A recurring area of concern for the mission – albeit not serious at this point – is the wear and tear on the rover’s wheels. In 2013, Curiosity suffered greater than expected damage to its six wheels while traversing some exceptionally rough terrain.  Although the damage was nowhere near severe enough to impeded the rover’s driving abilities, it did result in engineers keeping a much closer eye on the condition of Curiosity’s wheels using the imaging system mounted on the rover’s robot arm.

The latest of these checks was performed on  Sunday, March 19th, 2017, and it revealed two small breaks in the raised treads (“grousers”) on the rover’s left middle wheel. These seem to have occurred since the last wheel check at the end of January, 2017. These treads perform two major tasks: bearing the brunt of the rover’s weight and providing most of the traction for a wheel.

The broken “grousers” (“treads”) on one of Curiosity’s six wheels, together with older puncture holes through the wheel, as imaged on March 19th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL

Following the 2013 damage, testing on Earth suggested that significant breaks in three “grousers” on a wheel would indicate it has passed 60% of its expected lifespan. However, the mission team emphasise the rover has already driven more than 60% of the total distance needed for it to make it to all of its scientific destinations. As such, while the breaks will be monitored, they are not a cause for immediate or grave concern.

Overall, confidence remains high that Curiosity will achieve all of its expected science goals and will likely make an extended traverse up the side of “Mount Sharp”.

A rover’s progress: the 16 km (10 mi) travelled by Curiosity so far, and potential for future explorations up the side of Aeolis Mons. Credit: NASA/JPL / T. Reyes

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Flying over Mars, JUICE for Jupiter and black holes”

Space Sunday: Moon flights and the winds of Mars

The Dragon 2 crew capsule attached to its service module. Credit: SpaceX
The Dragon 2 crew capsule attached to its service module. Credit: SpaceX

While most private space tourism companies are busily going about various routes to offer sub-orbital flights to those who can afford them, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has stepped into the arena – and, as might be expected, made the bold announcement it will go one better: fly paying passengers around the Moon and back. And they plan to do it in 2018.

The announcement was made by Musk on Monday, February 27th during a press teleconference. If the flight goes ahead, it will allow two fare-paying passengers the opportunity to undertake a week-long journey out to and around the Moon, before returning to Earth. The flight would use a “free return” profile which would see it skim over the surface of the Moon and continue outward beyond it, possibly as far as 480,000 Km (300,000 mi) from the Earth (the average distance of the Moon from Earth is around 384,400km /  240,000 mi), before Lunar gravity takes over and hauls the vehicle back towards the Earth, where it would splash down.

It’s not clear how much the passengers would pay to be on the flight – but the going price for a seat aboard the Dragon 2 vehicle, which would be used for the flight, will be around US $58 million a pop to get to the International Space Station, once it enters service. It’s also far from clear if SpaceX can actually deliver on the goal of launching the flight in late 2018.

SapceX plan to use the Falcon Heavy as the launch vehicle for the lunar flight. When it enters service later in 2017, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful launch vehicle in the world today
SpaceX plan to use the Falcon Heavy as the launch vehicle for the lunar flight. When it enters service later in 2017, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful launch vehicle in the world

In order to take place, the flight first and foremost needs a launch vehicle and a suitable space vehicle. SpaceX plan to use their mighty Falcon Heavy and – as noted – their new Dragon 2 crewed vehicle. There’s just a couple of problems with both.

The Falcon Heavy is not due to fly until some time later in 2017, and even then it will not be rated for crewed launches. For that to happen, it will have to be certified for crew use, and depending on how the initial flights go, that could take time. In terms of the Dragon 2, that is not scheduled to enter service until 2018 – and even then, its primary function is to fly crews to and from  the International Space Station (ISS).

Ferry flights to the ISS are vastly different to going out around the Moon and back. To start with, the outward flight from Earth to the ISS can be measured in just a couple of days – around a quarter of the time needed for the lunar trip.  The velocity (delta vee)  imparted to a spacecraft going to the ISS (28,000 km/h / 17,500 mph) is also a lot less than required to go to the Moon (40,000 km/h / 25,000 mph).

Elon Musk unveils a mock-up of the Dragon V2 capsule in May 2014. SpaceX now has their firs NASA contract to fly a crew to the ISS aboard the vehicle, probably in 2018
Elon Musk unveils a mock-up of the Dragon 2 capsule in May 2014.Credit: SpaceX

This means a returning Dragon 2 will be re-entering the Earth atmosphere a lot faster than the same craft coming back from the ISS, and will have to face much higher re-entry temperatures and a harsher deceleration regime. While the Dragon 2 can in theory do so, it is likely that significant testing on uncrewed vehicles will be required before the Federal Aviation Authority and NASA agree to any such flight taking place. On top of this, it will have to be demonstrated that the Dragon 2 can be outfitted for a deep space mission and keep a crew alive and well for around 7-8 days.

Given all this, there are widespread doubts the company can meet a 2018 deadline for such a mission – and SpaceX has tended to be ambitious with its time frames for achieve goals. They had originally slated 2013 as the year in which the Falcon Heavy would make its first flight – although in fairness, setbacks following the loss of two Falcon 9 vehicles also contributed to its launch being pushed back to 2017.

Red Dragon Delayed

As further evidence of SpaceX presenting time frames which are perhaps a little ambitious, on February 17th, the company announced its mission to land a variant of the Dragon 2 – dubbed Red Dragon – on Mars has been pushed back from 218 to 2020.

The aim of the mission so to fly an uncrewed 10-tonne Dragon 2 vehicle to Mars and land it safely. In doing so, the company hopes to gain valuable data on landing exceptionally heavy vehicles on Mars using purely propulsive means. This is because crewed landing vehicles on a Mars mission are liable to have a mass of at least 40 tonnes – far too much to be safely slowed in a descent through the thin Martian atmosphere by parachutes.

A SpaceX / NASA infographic outlining the Red Dragon mission - now slated for 2020
A SpaceX / NASA infographic outlining the Red Dragon mission – now slated for 2020

The planned mission would be undertaken entirely at the company’s own expense, although it would can science instruments and experiments supplied by NASA. For Musk it, and possibly three further Red Dragon mission which could follow it in the 2020-2024 time frame, is a vital precursor to greater ambitions for Mars.

As he outlined in September 2016 (see: Musk on Mars), Musk plans to start launching crewed missions to Mars, possibly before 2030. The initial missions will doubtless be modest in size in terms of crew and goals. However, his overall stated goal is to kick-start the colonisation of Mars. To do that, he plans to use vehicles massing at least 100 tonnes and which can make a propulsive landing on Mars. Whether he can succeed in even the step to land a crew on Mars  – and bring them back to Earth – remains to be seen. However, his Red Dragon mission is an important first step.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Moon flights and the winds of Mars”

Space Sunday: Martian quandaries, universal epochs and Jovian journeys

"Yellowknife Bay" a region examined by the Curiosity Rover in 2012/13 indicated that a lake was once present in Gale Crater. However, the same rock has revealed that potentially, there was not sufficient carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere to help keep the water unfrozen
“Yellowknife Bay” a region examined by the Curiosity Rover in 2013 indicated that a lake was once present in Gale Crater. However, the same rock has revealed that potentially, there was not sufficient carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere to help keep the water unfrozen. Credit: NASA

Mars scientists are wrestling with a problem. Ample evidence says ancient Mars was sometimes wet, with water flowing and pooling on the planet’s surface. Yet, the ancient sun was about one-third less warm and climate modellers struggle to produce scenarios that get the surface of Mars warm enough for keeping water unfrozen.

A leading theory is that ancient Mars had a thicker carbon-dioxide atmosphere forming a greenhouse-gas blanket, helping to warm the surface. However an analysis of data from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, suggests that even 3.5 billion years ago there was too little carbon dioxide present in the Martian atmosphere to provide enough greenhouse-effect warming to prevent water freezing.

The source of these findings is the very same bedrock in which the rover found sediments from an ancient lake in which microbes might have thrived. When analysing the bedrock, Curiosity detected no carbonate minerals, leading to the conclusion that Mars’ atmosphere was almost devoid of carbon dioxide when the lake existed 3.5 billion years ago. And that’s a quandary for scientists.

Curiosity took this selfie while at "Yellowknife Bay" in 2013 whilst gathering rock samples for analysis. Note that while the shadow of the rover's robot arm can be assn, the arm itself is blanked from the images purely as a result of the angles used in individual shots and the way the images have been stitched together to provide a view of the rover
Curiosity took this selfie while at “Yellowknife Bay” in 2013 whilst gathering rock samples for analysis. Note that while the shadow of the rover’s robot arm can be seen, the arm itself is blanked from the images purely as a result of the angles used in individual shots and the way the images have been stitched together to provide a view of the rover. Credit: NASA

“We’ve been particularly struck with the absence of carbonate minerals in sedimentary rock the rover has examined,” Thomas Bristow, the principal investigator for Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument,  the primary source of the analysis work. “It would be really hard to get liquid water even if there were a hundred times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than what the mineral evidence in the rock tells us.”

In water, carbon dioxide combines with positively charged ions such as magnesium and ferrous iron to form carbonate minerals, and CheMin can identify carbonate if it makes up just a few percent of the rock. Yet Curiosity has made no definitive detection of carbonates in any lakebed rocks sampled since it landed in Gale Crater in 2012. However, other minerals – magnetite and clay minerals – not only indicated in the same rocks indicate the ions needed to form carbonates were readily available, they also provide evidence that subsequent conditions never became so acidic that carbonates would have dissolved away over time.

The dilemma between a warm, wet Mars and the lack of carbonates has actually been growing for years. For two decades researchers have been using spectrometers on Mars orbiters to search for carbonate that could have resulted from an early era of more abundant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, only to find far less than anticipated. Yet clues such as isotope ratios in today’s Martian atmosphere continue to indicate the planet once held a much denser atmosphere than it does now, which has largely been seen as being rich in carbon dioxide. Thus, a paradox has arisen.

Curiosity uses a spectrometer on its robot arm to check a rock dubbed "John Klein" in "Yellowknife Bay" for its suitability as a drilling target, January 25th, 2013. The drill itself can be seen on the robot arm's "hand", pointing up and to the right
Curiosity uses a spectrometer on its robot arm to check a rock dubbed “John Klein” in “Yellowknife Bay” for its suitability as a drilling target, January 25th, 2013. The drill itself can be seen on the robot arm’s rotating “hand”, pointing up and to the right. Credit: NASA

It had been thought that the lack of evidence for carbonates when seen from orbit could simply be the result of  dust covering them, or the carbonates having moved underground. Finding them would thus resolve the paradox and reveal what had happened. However, the Curiosity results tend to overturn this idea. Simply put, the rover has failed to detect carbonate minerals precisely where they should be located, within rocks formed from sediments deposited under water.

“This analysis fits with many theoretical studies that the surface of Mars, even that long ago, was not warm enough for water to be liquid,” said Robert Haberle, a Mars-climate scientist at NASA Ames. “It’s really a puzzle to me.”

One idea put forward is that perhaps the lake was never a body of open water, but was covered in ice. The problem with this idea is none of the expected evidence for an ice-covered lake, such as large and deep cracks called ice wedges, or “dropstones,” which become embedded in soft lakebed sediments when they penetrate thinning ice, have been found. Thus, scientists have a lot of head scratching and theorising to do in order to make sense of the dilemma.

Traversing Mars with Curiosity

A simulated Curiosity rolls over the "Naukluft Plateau" in this still from Seán Doran's video simulation of the rover's traverse
A simulated Curiosity rolls over the “Naukluft Plateau” in this still from Seán Doran’s video simulation of the rover’s traverse. Credit: Seán Doran

Ever wondered what it would be like to witness Curiosity trundling across the surface of Mars? Seán Doran has. What’s more, he’s been putting together animated films using Digital Terrain Model (DTM) data from the HiRISE imaging system on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter together with photomosaics of images from the rover, and combining them with a drivable correctly scaled model of the rover to provide movies of Curiosity as it rolls across Mars.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Martian quandaries, universal epochs and Jovian journeys”