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 2 November 2018

 

The American space agency has released a video describing the perilous journey its InSight probe will make to the surface of Mars later this month.

Fronted by Rob Manning, the chief engineer at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the film describes the various stages of what is termed "entry, descent and landing", or EDL.

It is a sequence of high jeopardy.

The agency produced a similar video for its Curiosity Mars lander in 2012 called The 7 Minutes of Terror.

That became a viral hit. This one isn't quite so showy but is nonetheless very successful in communicating the drama of a landing on Mars.

_101142696_mars_insight_mission_640-nc.p

Launched from Earth back in May, Insight is still (Friday) a couple of million km from the Red Planet.

The arrival time is fixed, says Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL.

"We're going to land on November 26 at about 11:47 Pacific time (19:47 GMT) regardless of anything. That is, we're on a ballistic entry; we can't change it; we can't go back around," he told reporters this week.

InSight is a static probe. In other words, it will sit still in one place; it will not rove around the planet like Curiosity and Nasa's other wheeled robots.

It will be the first mission to focus its investigations predominantly on the interior of Mars.

_101182239_mars_landings_640-nc.png

It is going to put seismometers on the surface to feel for "Marsquakes".

These tremors should reveal how the underground rock is layered - data that can be compared with Earth to shed further light on the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago.

The seismometer experiment is French-led. The European nation has provided the broadband sensors that will detect low-frequency vibrations of the ground, while the UK has contributed a trio of microseismometers, about the size of a pound coin, that will go after the higher frequencies.

The British instrument was developed at Imperial College London and Oxford University. Its principal investigator is Prof Tom Pike.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46074794

 

 

 

Edited by CaaC - John
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Scientists finally know where they're sending the new Mars Rover

Jackson Ryan    2 hrs ago

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© CNET

The ExoMars rover might not know its name, but it almost certainly knows where it will be touching down when it reaches the surface of Mars in 2020. 

Oxia Planum, a flat plain rich in iron-magnesium clays, is first preference as the mission's landing site after the fifth and final meeting of the Landing Site Selection Working Group (LSSWG) in Leicester, UK, reports the BBC.

Oxia Planum has long been in discussion as the landing site of choice because it offers a tantalizing opportunity to search for signs of life due to its geological composition and altitude. The first meeting of the expert panel in 2014 concluded it "exhibits fewer problems than any of the other sites." The clay-rich surface suggests that water once flowed through the location -- and where there is water, there may be biosignatures that suggest life once existed there. The location provides the mission with the best chance of safely landing the rover while still allowing it to meet its scientific goals. 

However, a second site, Mawrth Vallis, is still in contention for the ExoMars landing site, though it appears Oxia Planum will get the nod because it provides a slightly safer option, with few challenging topographical challenges or slopes. Mawrth Vallis was one of the sites considered for NASA's Curiosity mission and their Mars 2020 mission because, like Oxia Planum, it is rich in clay minerals.

The final decision on where to land the rover will be decided approximately a year out from launch.

Once the ExoMars rover touches down and rolls off its lander, its suite of instruments will allow it to visualize and analyze the Martian soil. It will be able to drill up to a maximum of 2 meters into the ground and contains spectrometers and analyzers targeting biomarkers allowing researchers to understand the origins and evolution of life on Mars, should they find it.

The ExoMars program, a collaboration between Russian space agency Roscosmos and the ESA, was established to learn more about the red planet, including searching for signs of life. It features two distinct missions. The first part took place in March 2016, sending the Trace Gas Orbiter into Martian orbit and landing an experimental module, known as Schiaparelli, on Mars soil. The latter was scheduled to land on Mars in October 2016, but a software glitch caused the module to crash land.

Here's hoping the as-yet-unnamed rover makes it through the tricky landing.

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© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. whereonmars-screenshot-5651

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/techandscience/scientists-finally-know-where-theyre-sending-the-new-mars-rover/ar-BBPBHEF?ocid=chromentp

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Hope this will work better than the first part of the programme when their Schiaparelli lander crashed while attempting a landing a few years back... They have some interesting instruments on the rover, it's like a small lab on wheels, very cool! 2020 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for Mars exploration; if all goes as planned, we'll have three rovers on the planet - Curiosity (current NASA rover), ExoMars (ESA/Roscosmos rover), and Mars2020 (NASA's future rover), and there are rumours that China are planning to launch their own in the same year as well.

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15 minutes ago, Tommy said:

 

Yea, same. Poor Matt Damon.

I like to pretend that Mark Watney and Dr. Mann  are the same person xD 

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I hope they get some good data and of course take some great pictures of the surface for analysis as well. This reminds me of another article I read some time back about taking pictures in space and the challenges associated with it.

https://www.diyphotography.net/nasa-astronauts-shoot-raw-challenges-photography-space/

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We will soon see right wing Martians protesting against Human immigration to their planet ! 

 #MakeMarsGreatAgain

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4 hours ago, Mel81x said:

I hope they get some good data and of course take some great pictures of the surface for analysis as well. This reminds me of another article I read some time back about taking pictures in space and the challenges associated with it.

https://www.diyphotography.net/nasa-astronauts-shoot-raw-challenges-photography-space/

Thanks for sharing, this was a very interesting video/article.

As for this ExoMars mission, we have been receiving first data and images from the Trace Gas Orbiter since April, and I'm even more excited about the actual rover as it contains a bunch of new-gen instruments, both for high quality imaging and data collection (including spectrometers and subsurface radars and imagers) and actual sample analysis tools (as it is expected to drill down to a maximum depth of 2 meters!), including The Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer which will primarily target biomarkers in both soil and atmosphere gases.

This is the first image of Mars that the Trace Gas Orbiter has captured:

ESA_ExoMars_Korolev_crater_mtp000_stp004

Date: 26 April 2018
Satellite: Trace Gas Orbiter
Depicts: Korolev crater
Copyright: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

Then later we got this (my favourite!):

Dust_devils_on_Mars_20180902T1123_625.jp

Date: 19 September 2018
Satellite: Trace Gas Orbiter
Copyright: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

 

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Astronomy Picture of the Day

2018 November 8 

Ma2018La_tezelN1024.jpg

Mars in the Loop 
Image Credit & Copyright: Tunc Tezel (TWAN)

Explanation: This composite of images spaced some 5 to 9 days apart, from late April (bottom right) through November 5 (top left), traces the retrograde motion of ruddy-colored Mars through planet Earth's night sky. To connect the dots and dates in this 2018 Mars retrograde loop, just slide your cursor over the picture (and check out this animation). But Mars didn't actually reverse the direction of its orbit. Instead, the apparent backwards motion with respect to the background stars is a reflection of the motion of the Earth itself. Retrograde motion can be seen each time Earth overtakes and laps planets orbiting farther from the Sun, the Earth moving more rapidly through its own relatively close-in orbit. On July 27, Mars was near its favourable 2018 perihelic opposition, when Mars was closest to the Sun in its orbit while also opposite the Sun in Earth's sky. For that date, the frame used in this composite was taken during the total lunar eclipse.

https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap181108.html

 

Edit: @Stanor whoever Admin/Mod is around, I meant to post this in 'The Jeopardy of Landing on Mars' thread in the 'News & Politics' Forum but went and posted this in here by mistake, any chance of moving (merge) it, please? :ay:

Edited by CaaC - John
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1 hour ago, CaaC - John said:

Astronomy Picture of the Day

2018 November 8 

Ma2018La_tezelN1024.jpg

Mars in the Loop 
Image Credit & Copyright: Tunc Tezel (TWAN)

Explanation: This composite of images spaced some 5 to 9 days apart, from late April (bottom right) through November 5 (top left), traces the retrograde motion of ruddy-colored Mars through planet Earth's night sky. To connect the dots and dates in this 2018 Mars retrograde loop, just slide your cursor over the picture (and check out this animation). But Mars didn't actually reverse the direction of its orbit. Instead, the apparent backwards motion with respect to the background stars is a reflection of the motion of the Earth itself. Retrograde motion can be seen each time Earth overtakes and laps planets orbiting farther from the Sun, the Earth moving more rapidly through its own relatively close-in orbit. On July 27, Mars was near its favourable 2018 perihelic opposition, when Mars was closest to the Sun in its orbit while also opposite the Sun in Earth's sky. For that date, the frame used in this composite was taken during the total lunar eclipse.

https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap181108.html

 

Edit: @Stanor whoever Admin/Mod is around, I meant to post this in 'The Jeopardy of Landing on Mars' thread in the 'News & Politics' Forum but went and posted this in here by mistake, any chance of moving (merge) it, please? :ay:

Thank you @Stan the man. 9_9 :ay:

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On 12/11/2018 at 13:17, nudge said:

I like to pretend that Mark Watney and Dr. Mann  are the same person xD 

Whoa. 

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8 minutes ago, Tommy said:

Whoa. 

:D I know it's silly and doesn't make sense, but it's fun. A few years after Mark Watney successfully returned to Earth, numerous natural disasters devastated the Earth resulting in droughts, blight and radically altered atmosphere, leaving humanity on a brink of extinction. Mark Watney assumed an alias of Dr Mann and was fruitlessly (ha!) working on solving the agricultural crisis using his biology skills and his previous experience at Mars, when the wormhole was discovered and he volunteered for the Lazarus missions and landed on the unnamed planet. The rest is history :D 

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8 minutes ago, nudge said:

:D I know it's silly and doesn't make sense, but it's fun. A few years after Mark Watney successfully returned to Earth, numerous natural disasters devastated the Earth resulting in droughts, blight and radically altered atmosphere, leaving humanity on a brink of extinction. Mark Watney assumed an alias of Dr Mann and was fruitlessly (ha!) working on solving the agricultural crisis using his biology skills and his previous experience at Mars, when the wormhole was discovered and he volunteered for the Lazarus missions and landed on the unnamed planet. The rest is history :D 

That actually makes more sense than it should. 

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8 hours ago, CaaC - John said:

xD

 

 

Ever seen this deleted scene? It's beautiful. 

 

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Quote

 

NASA SCIENTISTS THINK THEY CAN EXTRACT ROCKET FUEL FROM MARTIAN SOIL

OCTOBER 31ST 18__JON CHRISTIAN__FILED UNDER: OFF WORLD

Rocket Plan

A major problem with Mars missions: Bringing enough fuel for a return journey.

In a striking new first-person account in IEEE Spectrum, NASA team lead Kurt Leucht writes about how the space agency is hard at work on a potential solution he hopes will let future Mars missions — or even colonists — extract rocket fuel from Martian soil.

Dust-To-Thrust

Leucht’s team calls the system “in situ resource utilization,” or ISRU, but he prefers to call it a “dust-to-thrust factory.”

The idea is that the ISRU will extract water from regolith — that’s a fancy name for Mars’ distinctive red soil, which scientists believe contains trace amounts of water — and use electrolysis to strip it into hydrogen and oxygen. Then it’ll combine the hydrogen with carbon from the Red Planet’s atmosphere to make methane, which can work as a rocket fuel.

Round Trip

NASA plans to send the ISRU system ahead of a human Mars mission, along with robots that’ll gather soil from the planet’s surface. A few years later humans will come along, stay for a while, and eventually use the fuel it produced to fly back home.

“This technology will one day allow humans to live and work on Mars,” he wrote, “and return to Earth to tell the story”.

https://futurism.com/the-byte/nasa-scientists-extract-rocket-fuel-martian-soil

 

 

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1 hour ago, nudge said:

NASA SCIENTISTS THINK THEY CAN EXTRACT ROCKET FUEL FROM MARTIAN SOIL

OCTOBER 31ST 18__JON CHRISTIAN__FILED UNDER: OFF WORLD

Rocket Plan

I wish I could never age or maybe fit enough to last until I am around 250 years old to see all of this happening sigh.

This Mars bit has got me singing the late great David Bowie song...

 

46459263_10156862886077855_7452258520486

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15 hours ago, CaaC - John said:

I wish I could never age or maybe fit enough to last until I am around 250 years old to see all of this happening sigh.

This Mars bit has got me singing the late great David Bowie song...

  Reveal hidden contents

 

 

46459263_10156862886077855_7452258520486

This is my biggest issue too; there are so many things I'm eager to see happening, so many books to read, so many things to experience...I do think that we'll see first humans on Mars sometime around 2030s-2040s though, so that gives me hope! It's just a drop in the ocean of knowledge though. I read somewhere that we might be one of the last generations that dies of old age; talk about bad time to be born, haha! :D 

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Next stop, Mars

Sarah Kaplan       1 day ago

 

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1/4 SLIDES © NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA/JPL-Caltech -( See x 4 slides )

This January 10, 2017 artist rendering depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover, with its robotic arm extended. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

LOS ANGELES —In three years, a new explorer will touch down on the Red Planet. Wheels churning, machinery whirring, the rover will amble across the rusty terrain, looking for rocks to send back to Earth — rocks that could prove there once was life on Mars.

It is the first time in history scientists have had a real shot at addressing one of humanity’s deepest questions: Are we alone?

But first, they must decide where to look.

There are three options: a former hot spring NASA has visited once before, a dried-up river delta that fed into a crater lake, and a network of ancient mesas that may have hidden layers of underground water.

In the coming week, after decades of dreaming, years of research and a heated three-day debate at a workshop in Los Angeles last month, NASA’s top science official will choose which spot to explore. The site he selects will set the stage on which generations of scientists probe the mysteries of our existence.

This rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, is just the first phase of a multibillion-dollar, four-step sample return process. To put pieces of Mars in the hands of scientists will require a lander to retrieve the samples; a probe to bring them home; and then an ultra-secure storage facility that will keep Earth life from contaminating the Mars rocks — and vice versa.

Yet the discovery of fossils in those samples could illuminate the origins of life here on Earth. It could hint at whether someone else is still out there, waiting to be found.

“I want to know,” said Matt Golombek, a NASA scientist charged with guiding the search for a landing site. “Don’t you? I want to know what’s there. I want to know how big an accident we are.”

That hunger for knowledge is what drew hundreds of people to the recent workshop — veteran space explorers and aspiring PhDs, an 18-year-old college freshman and an 80-year-old retired accountant — to assess which plan was best. For days they debated, fueled by curiosity and weak coffee, conscious that the outcome of their meeting could influence NASA and shape history, acutely aware of what they still didn’t know.

So much about Mars remains a mystery. The very notion of alien life is barely more than an educated guess buoyed by wild hope.

They are hopeful.

A search on a failed planet

 

 

On Earth, microscopic life is inescapable. Biology began here almost 4 billion years ago, when the planet was still being bombarded by debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Today, tiny, tenacious organisms are splashing in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, flying in clouds, freezing in Antarctica, lurking up to a mile and a half beneath the ground.

If it could happen here, why not there?

Mars has been visited by more than two dozen satellites and rovers, which showed it was not always the desert world we see today. Dormant volcanoes and frozen floods of lava demonstrate that the planet once had an active interior that drove tectonic activity. Empty channels, gullies and lakes suggest that liquid water once lapped at the surface — which might mean a thicker atmosphere existed to keep the water from boiling away.

But then disaster struck. Less than a billion years into its history, most experts say, the planet’s molten core stopped churning. This led to the decline of carbon-belching volcanoes and the loss of Mars’s protective magnetic field. Cosmic radiation and energetic particles from the sun stripped away the planet’s atmosphere, causing any water on the surface to evaporate. Goodbye, ocean; so long, lakes; farewell to moist soils and bubbling volcanic vents — all the kinds of places that life likes to live.

Now Mars is seen as a “failed planet,” a frightening alternate-reality version of the world we inhabit.

“It’s Earth where the Earth environments went away,” Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at Caltech, said at the workshop. “So the question is, why? And when?” And, most momentous of all, “Did life have a chance to get going before then?”

Those questions can be answered only by bringing Mars rocks back to Earth, most scientists say. A human in a top-tier lab would be able to analyze the samples atom by atom, revealing tiny structures a robot couldn’t see.

The detection of even a few ragged molecules left by a microbe would be historic. Knowing that biology arose on two neighbouring planets would suggest that life is common throughout the universe. The environment where the Martians are found — be it a hot spring, a river delta or an underground refuge — might provide a clue to where life on Earth originated.

And the knowledge that a world could harbour life and then fail would underscore our own unbelievable good fortune. The conditions for Earthlings’ continued existence may not always be so assured.

“We have to get those samples, and they have to be the right ones,” Golombek said.

In the back of the ballroom, one researcher turned to the person next to her and grinned: “Are you ready for the showdown?”

Columbia Hills: Former hot spring

Option one for the mission is a field of Yellowstone-like hot springs explored by the rover Spirit between 2004 and 2010. Here, beside a rocky outcrop called Home Plate, the now-defunct rover uncovered strange, fingerlike structures made of silica, a mineral associated with water and life. But the rover wasn’t equipped with instruments capable of detecting complex organic compounds, so the mystery of these structures went unsolved.

Seven years later, Spirit instrument operator Steve Ruff received an unlikely epiphany via volcanology journal: Scientists had discovered an otherworldly geyser field in the Andes that contained structures just like the ones on Mars. At the site, called El Tatio, heat-loving microorganisms produce silica deposits in filaments, mats and spires.

“This is the place that is the most Mars-like of any setting I’ve ever been,” Ruff said.

But revisiting a site might mean there’s less to learn, many scientists worry. And what if Ruff is wrong about the silica structures?

Ruff’s only reply: “What if we’re right?”

“If one of the drivers of exploring Mars is to answer this question, ‘Are we alone?’ and we find a place that could address that question and we turn away from it because it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to find it, I think that’s just — ” He paused, searching for a term that wouldn’t offend any of his colleagues. “A conservatism,” he said finally. “And that’s just not characteristic of NASA.”

Jezero Crater: Empty lake

If any version of sending a rover 50 million miles through space can be called “conservative,” landing in Jezero Crater might be it. It most closely resembles the kinds of environments where ancient fossils have been uncovered on Earth: deltas, where sediments from vast watersheds accumulate and are preserved.

“Sedimentary rocks tell us the history of what’s been happening at a site,” said Tim Goudge, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s recorded in the layers, and you can read them like a book.”

Jezero also contains minerals that are associated with life on Earth, such as carbonate, as well as clays called smectites that are known to “entomb” organic material.

But the site is strewn with rippling sand dunes — a potentially fatal hazard for a rover.

“They scare the bejeezus out of me,” said Ray Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. On a mission to Mars, there are no reboots.

Northeast Syrtis: Subterranean sanctuary

Ehlmann, the Caltech scientist, has spent years gazing at maps of the mesas at Northeast Syrtis. It’s a distinctly Martian environment, which could be home to a uniquely Martian life.

“This would be a chance to go be a geologist there,” she said. “I want to look at the rocks, to understand them, unravel the story they tell.”

The site appeals to many scientists because of the diversity of ancient rocks it contains. Debris from ancient meteorite impacts, called “megabreccias,” would be some of the oldest rocks sampled from any planet in the solar system. Rocks a billion years younger could reveal how Mars became the world it is today.

The area also boasts minerals, like carbonates, that suggest it once harboured an underground aquifer — a potential refuge for organisms seeking protection from their planet’s harsh and erratic climate.

But if subsurface life was sparse, even the most sophisticated laboratory instruments on Earth might not be able to detect it. Scientists are more accustomed to looking for life in sedimentary rocks like those at Jezero.

Then Emily Lakdawalla, a geologist and senior editor for the Planetary Society, posed a question that loomed over every site being considered.

“What if the samples don’t get returned?” she said. “Are we allowed to think about that?”

There was a pause as people contemplated the possibility. NASA has not yet funded any of the three follow-up missions that are required for sample return.

Golombek took the microphone.

“We’ve decided to ground rule that out for this conversation,” he said. “It all depends if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, right?”

For the moment, he urged his colleagues, be optimists.

'Incredibly grand exploration'

By the final morning of the workshop, there was no consensus on the best spot to land the rover. Some scientists said their minds changed with every presentation, their opinions ping-ponging as they heard compelling evidence from supporters of each site. Others had become more entrenched in their positions.

But what if they didn’t have to choose?

The mission project science team had conceived an ambitious extended mission centered around a new landing location on the edge of Northeast Syrtis called “Midway,” not far from the rim of Jezero Crater.

It would take hundreds of Martian days — the equivalent of several years on Earth — but the rover could conceivably make its way from one site to the other, obtaining the best samples from both. The traverse would carry the rover across steep mountain ridges, crowded rock fields and perilous windswept terrain.

“This is incredibly grand exploration,” said Ken Williford, deputy project scientist for the mission.

Even by Mars standards, Midway was rife with unknowns. Scientists had not been able to conduct detailed analyses of the rocks it contains, and the proposed 15-mile traverse was at the edge of what could be achieved by a lumbering rover.

There were a lot of ways this could end badly, some worried.

“But,” project scientist Ken Farley countered, “there is more than one way to fail.”

“Personally,” he continued, “I don’t want to fail because we have not been ambitious enough to make the sample cache scientifically worthy.”

The vote was held in hushed silence; there was barely a murmur as the results were projected onto the ballrooms screens. Columbia Hills had received relatively low ratings. But Jezero, Northeast Syrtis and Midway were neck and neck and neck.

Making history

In the end, the decision would come down to Thomas Zurbuchen.

As NASA’s associate administrator for science, he oversees more than 100 missions aimed at understanding the solar system and beyond. But of all of those efforts, he said, Mars 2020 is where NASA has the most to lose — and humanity has the most to gain.

“This is the riskiest,” he said of the $2 billion mission. “But suppose everything goes exactly as we hoped. . . . The landing site that I’m the deciding official on will make history.”

Days before he was scheduled to receive his final briefing on the landing site options, Zurbuchen remained undecided. He had attended part of the landing site workshop, but there was still so much to consider: engineers’ safety assessments, the potential for follow-up missions, the need to balance astrobiology research with other scientific questions.

And then there was the vision that filled his mind when he closed his eyes to dream — a consideration that wasn’t financial or scientific, but pure hope. A probe carrying the Mars samples hurtling back toward Earth. Scientists retrieving the cache and getting their first glimpse at the pieces of another planet. The lab where the rocks will be analyzed, the complex instruments that will seek out signs of ancient organisms.

And a science classroom where his future grandchildren sit, reading a textbook that bears the name of the place he chose — a place where humanity learned, for the first time, we have not always been alone.

sarah.kaplan@washpost.com

[This story has been optimized for offline reading on our apps. For a richer experience, you can find the full version of this story here. An Internet connection is required.]

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/other/next-stop-mars/ar-BBPO0yJ#image=BBPO0yJ_1|1

Edited by CaaC - John
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6 minutes ago, CaaC - John said:

 

AAxYc4g.img?h=40&w=138&m=6&q=60&o=f&l=f&

Next stop, Mars

Sarah Kaplan       1 day ago

 

BBPMp65.img?h=416&w=799&m=6&q=60&u=t&o=f

1/4 SLIDES © NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA/JPL-Caltech -( See x 4 slides https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/other/next-stop-mars/ar-BBPO0yJ#image=BBPO0yJ_1|1)

This January 10, 2017 artist rendering depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover, with its robotic arm extended. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

LOS ANGELES —In three years, a new explorer will touch down on the Red Planet. Wheels churning, machinery whirring, the rover will amble across the rusty terrain, looking for rocks to send back to Earth — rocks that could prove there once was life on Mars.

It is the first time in history scientists have had a real shot at addressing one of humanity’s deepest questions: Are we alone?

But first, they must decide where to look.

There are three options: a former hot spring NASA has visited once before, a dried-up river delta that fed into a crater lake, and a network of ancient mesas that may have hidden layers of underground water.

In the coming week, after decades of dreaming, years of research and a heated three-day debate at a workshop in Los Angeles last month, NASA’s top science official will choose which spot to explore. The site he selects will set the stage on which generations of scientists probe the mysteries of our existence.

This rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, is just the first phase of a multibillion-dollar, four-step sample return process. To put pieces of Mars in the hands of scientists will require a lander to retrieve the samples; a probe to bring them home; and then an ultra-secure storage facility that will keep Earth life from contaminating the Mars rocks — and vice versa.

Yet the discovery of fossils in those samples could illuminate the origins of life here on Earth. It could hint at whether someone else is still out there, waiting to be found.

“I want to know,” said Matt Golombek, a NASA scientist charged with guiding the search for a landing site. “Don’t you? I want to know what’s there. I want to know how big an accident we are.”

That hunger for knowledge is what drew hundreds of people to the recent workshop — veteran space explorers and aspiring PhDs, an 18-year-old college freshman and an 80-year-old retired accountant — to assess which plan was best. For days they debated, fueled by curiosity and weak coffee, conscious that the outcome of their meeting could influence NASA and shape history, acutely aware of what they still didn’t know.

So much about Mars remains a mystery. The very notion of alien life is barely more than an educated guess buoyed by wild hope.

They are hopeful.

A search on a failed planet

 

  Hide contents

On Earth, microscopic life is inescapable. Biology began here almost 4 billion years ago, when the planet was still being bombarded by debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Today, tiny, tenacious organisms are splashing in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, flying in clouds, freezing in Antarctica, lurking up to a mile and a half beneath the ground.

If it could happen here, why not there?

Mars has been visited by more than two dozen satellites and rovers, which showed it was not always the desert world we see today. Dormant volcanoes and frozen floods of lava demonstrate that the planet once had an active interior that drove tectonic activity. Empty channels, gullies and lakes suggest that liquid water once lapped at the surface — which might mean a thicker atmosphere existed to keep the water from boiling away.

But then disaster struck. Less than a billion years into its history, most experts say, the planet’s molten core stopped churning. This led to the decline of carbon-belching volcanoes and the loss of Mars’s protective magnetic field. Cosmic radiation and energetic particles from the sun stripped away the planet’s atmosphere, causing any water on the surface to evaporate. Goodbye, ocean; so long, lakes; farewell to moist soils and bubbling volcanic vents — all the kinds of places that life likes to live.

Now Mars is seen as a “failed planet,” a frightening alternate-reality version of the world we inhabit.

“It’s Earth where the Earth environments went away,” Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at Caltech, said at the workshop. “So the question is, why? And when?” And, most momentous of all, “Did life have a chance to get going before then?”

Those questions can be answered only by bringing Mars rocks back to Earth, most scientists say. A human in a top-tier lab would be able to analyze the samples atom by atom, revealing tiny structures a robot couldn’t see.

The detection of even a few ragged molecules left by a microbe would be historic. Knowing that biology arose on two neighbouring planets would suggest that life is common throughout the universe. The environment where the Martians are found — be it a hot spring, a river delta or an underground refuge — might provide a clue to where life on Earth originated.

And the knowledge that a world could harbour life and then fail would underscore our own unbelievable good fortune. The conditions for Earthlings’ continued existence may not always be so assured.

“We have to get those samples, and they have to be the right ones,” Golombek said.

In the back of the ballroom, one researcher turned to the person next to her and grinned: “Are you ready for the showdown?”

Columbia Hills: Former hot spring

Option one for the mission is a field of Yellowstone-like hot springs explored by the rover Spirit between 2004 and 2010. Here, beside a rocky outcrop called Home Plate, the now-defunct rover uncovered strange, fingerlike structures made of silica, a mineral associated with water and life. But the rover wasn’t equipped with instruments capable of detecting complex organic compounds, so the mystery of these structures went unsolved.

Seven years later, Spirit instrument operator Steve Ruff received an unlikely epiphany via volcanology journal: Scientists had discovered an otherworldly geyser field in the Andes that contained structures just like the ones on Mars. At the site, called El Tatio, heat-loving microorganisms produce silica deposits in filaments, mats and spires.

“This is the place that is the most Mars-like of any setting I’ve ever been,” Ruff said.

But revisiting a site might mean there’s less to learn, many scientists worry. And what if Ruff is wrong about the silica structures?

Ruff’s only reply: “What if we’re right?”

“If one of the drivers of exploring Mars is to answer this question, ‘Are we alone?’ and we find a place that could address that question and we turn away from it because it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to find it, I think that’s just — ” He paused, searching for a term that wouldn’t offend any of his colleagues. “A conservatism,” he said finally. “And that’s just not characteristic of NASA.”

Jezero Crater: Empty lake

If any version of sending a rover 50 million miles through space can be called “conservative,” landing in Jezero Crater might be it. It most closely resembles the kinds of environments where ancient fossils have been uncovered on Earth: deltas, where sediments from vast watersheds accumulate and are preserved.

“Sedimentary rocks tell us the history of what’s been happening at a site,” said Tim Goudge, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s recorded in the layers, and you can read them like a book.”

Jezero also contains minerals that are associated with life on Earth, such as carbonate, as well as clays called smectites that are known to “entomb” organic material.

But the site is strewn with rippling sand dunes — a potentially fatal hazard for a rover.

“They scare the bejeezus out of me,” said Ray Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. On a mission to Mars, there are no reboots.

Northeast Syrtis: Subterranean sanctuary

Ehlmann, the Caltech scientist, has spent years gazing at maps of the mesas at Northeast Syrtis. It’s a distinctly Martian environment, which could be home to a uniquely Martian life.

“This would be a chance to go be a geologist there,” she said. “I want to look at the rocks, to understand them, unravel the story they tell.”

The site appeals to many scientists because of the diversity of ancient rocks it contains. Debris from ancient meteorite impacts, called “megabreccias,” would be some of the oldest rocks sampled from any planet in the solar system. Rocks a billion years younger could reveal how Mars became the world it is today.

The area also boasts minerals, like carbonates, that suggest it once harboured an underground aquifer — a potential refuge for organisms seeking protection from their planet’s harsh and erratic climate.

But if subsurface life was sparse, even the most sophisticated laboratory instruments on Earth might not be able to detect it. Scientists are more accustomed to looking for life in sedimentary rocks like those at Jezero.

Then Emily Lakdawalla, a geologist and senior editor for the Planetary Society, posed a question that loomed over every site being considered.

“What if the samples don’t get returned?” she said. “Are we allowed to think about that?”

There was a pause as people contemplated the possibility. NASA has not yet funded any of the three follow-up missions that are required for sample return.

Golombek took the microphone.

“We’ve decided to ground rule that out for this conversation,” he said. “It all depends if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, right?”

For the moment, he urged his colleagues, be optimists.

'Incredibly grand exploration'

By the final morning of the workshop, there was no consensus on the best spot to land the rover. Some scientists said their minds changed with every presentation, their opinions ping-ponging as they heard compelling evidence from supporters of each site. Others had become more entrenched in their positions.

But what if they didn’t have to choose?

The mission project science team had conceived an ambitious extended mission centered around a new landing location on the edge of Northeast Syrtis called “Midway,” not far from the rim of Jezero Crater.

It would take hundreds of Martian days — the equivalent of several years on Earth — but the rover could conceivably make its way from one site to the other, obtaining the best samples from both. The traverse would carry the rover across steep mountain ridges, crowded rock fields and perilous windswept terrain.

“This is incredibly grand exploration,” said Ken Williford, deputy project scientist for the mission.

Even by Mars standards, Midway was rife with unknowns. Scientists had not been able to conduct detailed analyses of the rocks it contains, and the proposed 15-mile traverse was at the edge of what could be achieved by a lumbering rover.

There were a lot of ways this could end badly, some worried.

“But,” project scientist Ken Farley countered, “there is more than one way to fail.”

“Personally,” he continued, “I don’t want to fail because we have not been ambitious enough to make the sample cache scientifically worthy.”

The vote was held in hushed silence; there was barely a murmur as the results were projected onto the ballrooms screens. Columbia Hills had received relatively low ratings. But Jezero, Northeast Syrtis and Midway were neck and neck and neck.

Making history

In the end, the decision would come down to Thomas Zurbuchen.

As NASA’s associate administrator for science, he oversees more than 100 missions aimed at understanding the solar system and beyond. But of all of those efforts, he said, Mars 2020 is where NASA has the most to lose — and humanity has the most to gain.

“This is the riskiest,” he said of the $2 billion mission. “But suppose everything goes exactly as we hoped. . . . The landing site that I’m the deciding official on will make history.”

Days before he was scheduled to receive his final briefing on the landing site options, Zurbuchen remained undecided. He had attended part of the landing site workshop, but there was still so much to consider: engineers’ safety assessments, the potential for follow-up missions, the need to balance astrobiology research with other scientific questions.

And then there was the vision that filled his mind when he closed his eyes to dream — a consideration that wasn’t financial or scientific, but pure hope. A probe carrying the Mars samples hurtling back toward Earth. Scientists retrieving the cache and getting their first glimpse at the pieces of another planet. The lab where the rocks will be analyzed, the complex instruments that will seek out signs of ancient organisms.

And a science classroom where his future grandchildren sit, reading a textbook that bears the name of the place he chose — a place where humanity learned, for the first time, we have not always been alone.

sarah.kaplan@washpost.com

[This story has been optimized for offline reading on our apps. For a richer experience, you can find the full version of this story here. An Internet connection is required.]

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/other/next-stop-mars/ar-BBPO0yJ#image=BBPO0yJ_1|1

There are actually four options to choose from; not three as the article claims... They are missing Midway, the last candidate to be added to the list of potential landing sites and it's situated roughly between Jezero crater and NE Syrtis, making it a very interesting choice as it would allow to explore two landing sites instead of one. It's not an easy travel from one to the other though, so I think NASA will choose Jezero crater instead. Live press conference is scheduled for 17:00 GMT tomorrow when the official announcement will be made.

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5 minutes ago, nudge said:

Jezero also contains minerals that are associated with life on Earth, such as carbonate, as well as clays called smectites that are known to “entomb” organic material.

But the site is strewn with rippling sand dunes — a potentially fatal hazard for a rover.

 

^^Depending on the rover as that would be risky with sand dunes, we don't want it landing safely and have a mishap on the sand dunes and break down, I would go for Northeast Syrtis: Subterranean sanctuary VV

 

 

10 minutes ago, nudge said:

Ehlmann, the Caltech scientist, has spent years gazing at maps of the mesas at Northeast Syrtis. It’s a distinctly Martian environment, which could be home to a uniquely Martian life.

“This would be a chance to go be a geologist there,” she said. “I want to look at the rocks, to understand them, unravel the story they tell.”

The site appeals to many scientists because of the diversity of ancient rocks it contains. Debris from ancient meteorite impacts, called “megabreccias,” would be some of the oldest rocks sampled from any planet in the solar system. Rocks a billion years younger could reveal how Mars became the world it is today.

 

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5 minutes ago, CaaC - John said:

^^Depending on the rover as that would be risky with sand dunes, we don't want it landing safely and have a mishap on the sand dunes and break down, I would go for Northeast Syrtis: Subterranean sanctuary VV

Jezero and NE Syrtis are two primary targets at any rate; they ranked 1st and 2nd in the landing sites assessment workshop when those potential options (and six others) were evaluated. It's a tough choice for sure, as Jezero crater being a former river delta is assumed to have better chance of preserved traces of ancient life, while NE Syrtis has better accessibility. 

I'm not sure why they put Columbia Hills on the final list instead of Eberswalde crater and Mawrth Wallis though, considering that the latter two got much better evaluation in all criteria.

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5 minutes ago, nudge said:

I'm not sure why they put Columbia Hills on the final list instead of Eberswalde crater and Mawrth Wallis though, considering that the latter two got much better evaluation in all criteria.

Nor am I but I wish I could sit next to all the NASA experts and say "but.." then they would talk of all the mathematical conclusions and scientific reasons and I would kind of go der and...

46492615_10156867907557855_3797377596543

Them girls & guy scientists have more brains in their little finger than I have in my head!!    xD

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7 minutes ago, CaaC - John said:

Nor am I but I wish I could sit next to all the NASA experts and say "but.." then they would talk of all the mathematical conclusions and scientific reasons and I would kind of go der and...

46492615_10156867907557855_3797377596543

Them girls & guy scientists have more brains in their little finger than I have in my head!!    xD

Well apparently the interest in Colombia Hills lies particularly in the hot spring deposits there, but I'm surprised by its inclusion simply because other areas have been evaluated by the scientists themselves as having more potential. That said, it's not surprising considering how conservative and risk-averse NASA are (the area is already surveyed by Spirit; one of the previous rover on Mars) and they probably believe it would be useful to make a follow up on Spirit's collected data there previously and examine the site more thoroughly. Definitely makes sense from a geologist's point of view.

Scientists might be extremely capable in their area of expertise, but they are also human... :) And sadly, politics play a big role in science; particularly in academia and research institutes; the bigger the institution, the more political it gets...

At any rate, this is going to be exciting!

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You might like this photo @nudge  and anyone else, taken by Opportune in 2010, that was then, imagine the next ones that will be shown tomorrow and onwards, I joined this NASA sight years ago and always try and catch the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2018 April 4 

intrepid_opportunity_960.jpg

Intrepid Crater on Mars from Opportunity 
Image Credit: NASA, JPL, Cornell, Opportunity Rover Team,

Explanation: The robotic rover Opportunity sometimes passes small craters on Mars. Pictured here in 2010 is Intrepid Crater, a 20-meter across impact basin slightly larger than Nereus Crater that Opportunity had chanced across previously. The featured image is in approximately true color but horizontally compressed to accommodate a wide angle panorama. Intrepid Crater was named after the lunar module Intrepid that carried Apollo 12 astronauts to Earth's Moon 49 years ago. Beyond Intrepid Crater and past long patches of rusty Martian desert lie peaks from the rim of large Endeavour Crater, visible on the horizon. The Opportunity rover continues to explore Mars, recently surpassing 5,000 Martian days on the red planet

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You were right @nudge , they picked Jezero :congrats::ay:

 

 

Science & Environment

Nasa 2020 robot rover to target Jezero 'lake' crater

By Jonathan Amos

BBC Science Correspondent

19 November 2018

46510295_10156871442337855_2002258657554

The American space agency (Nasa) says it will send its 2020 Mars rover to a location known as Jezero Crater.

Nasa believes the rocks in this nearly 50km-wide bowl could conceivably hold a record of ancient life on the planet.

Satellite images of Jezero point to river water having once cut through its rim and flowed via a delta system into a big lake.

It is the kind of environment that might just have supported microbes some 3.5-3.9 billion years ago.

This was a period when Mars was much warmer and wetter than it is today.

Evidence for the past presence of a lake is obviously a draw, but Ken Farley, the Nasa project scientist on the mission, said the delta traces were also a major attraction.

"A delta is extremely good at preserving bio-signatures - any evidence of life that might have existed in the lake water, or at the interface of the sediment and the lake water, or possibly things that lived in the headwaters region that were swept in by the river and deposited in the delta," he told reporters.

Jezero's multiple rock types, including clays and carbonates, have high potential to preserve the organic molecules that would hint at life's bygone existence.

46458143_10156871442487855_5599675208295

Another of the robot's key objectives will be to select and "cache" in small canisters some rock samples that could, at a later date, be collected and returned to Earth labs for analysis.

Nasa is working with the European Space Agency (Esa) on this initiative, but exactly when the sample tubes might come home is uncertain.

Planning with Esa was at an early stage, said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's science chief. "Depending on how the details come out, it could be in the early 2030s," he explained.

Jezero is sited just north of Mars' equator. It is named after a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In some Slavic languages, the word "jezero" also means "lake".

46462437_10156871442567855_7740106511405

The 500m-deep crater was chosen after a four-year consultation process with Mars scientists. In a straw-poll taken at the end of the most recent site-selection workshop, it came out the clear favourite. Nasa's administration has now endorsed the choice.

The 2020 rover is based on the one-tonne Curiosity robot that the agency landed in Gale Crater in 2012.

Instrument-wise, the new vehicle is quite a bit different, however. Yes, it will again feature cameras, a robotic arm, a drill and a laser - but there is a new suite of sensors and analysis tools, and there is even an experiment to demonstrate how future astronauts might make oxygen on the Red Planet.

The new robot will use the same "Skycrane" technology that put Curiosity down with such great precision six years ago - but with an add-on. Engineers have developed an on-the-fly mapping system called Terrain-Relative Navigation which ought to bring even greater accuracy to the landing process.

Missions to Mars can only launch inside a tight time window due to the alignment of the planets.

46479888_10156871442707855_7078995192103

The 2020 venture will leave Earth in the July/August of that year and should land on 18 February 2021.

"Nasa has a long and successful track record at Mars. Since Mariner 4 flew by Mars in 1965, we've orbited, we've landed and we've roved across the surface of the Red Planet," said Lori Glaze, the acting director of Nasa's planetary science division. "And we've got another opportunity to improve our track record a week from today when we land InSight on the surface. We're all looking forward to that."

Unlike 2020 and Curiosity, Insight is a static lander. It will be the first mission dedicated to "looking inside" the planet. It will use seismometers to listen for "Marsquakes", to help build a picture of Mars' internal structure.

Esa is sending a rover to Mars in 2020 also. European scientists recently selected Oxia Planum as its destination. Satellite imagery suggests, as with Jezero and Gale, this ancient terrain came into prolonged contact with water.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46264383

 
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Found a nice infographic on the Orion spacecraft which might be used for a manned Mars mission in the future (click on the image to enlarge to full size!):

aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zcGFjZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kv

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Awesome, I like Orion picture "First crewed flight 2021" and a crew of 2 to 6, only 3 years away, can't wait.  

 

46482271_10156873144367855_6821081065948

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Science & Environment

InSight: Nasa's Mars mission on target for landing

By Jonathan Amos

BBC Science Correspondent

21 November 2018

The American space agency Nasa says its InSight Mars lander is on a near-perfect Thanksgiving trajectory.

The probe is due to touch down on Monday at 19:53 GMT, to begin its quest to map the Red Planet's interior.

Engineers can take the opportunity for one last course correction on Sunday to tighten the line to the bulls-eye - but they may not bother with it.

"Right now we're looking really good, and we might be able to skip it," said Nasa's Tom Hoffman.

"We'll be working on the final parameters we need over the next few days, so while everybody's off having turkey, there'll be a bunch of people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) making sure we land successfully," the InSight project manager told reporters.

JPL in Pasadena, California, is mission control for all Nasa's planetary adventures.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46298259

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