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Entries in Mars (10)

Friday
Jan252013

Mars Opportunity Rover: Nine Years and Still Going

Cornell/JPL/NASA(NEW YORK) -- When the Mars rover Opportunity settled on the Martian surface nine years ago on Friday, mission managers at NASA said they would be pleased if it lasted for 90 days.

Instead, it's been 3,201 days, and still counting.  The rover has driven 22.03 miles, mostly at a snail's pace, from one crater to another, stopping for months at a time in the frigid Martian winters.  The six motorized wheels, rated to turn 2.5 million times, have lasted 70 million, and are all still working.

"Opportunity is still in very good health, especially considering what it's gone through," said John Callas, manager of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover project.  "The surface of Mars is a pretty tough place; there can be temperature fluctuations of a hundred degrees each day.  That's pretty hard on the hardware."

When Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, reached Mars in January 2004, there was a fair bit of sniping that NASA, with all that 90-day talk, was playing down expectations.  It escalated when Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the principal investigator for the missions, said things like, "We're on Sol 300 of a 90-Sol mission."  (A Sol is a day on Mars, and lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes.)

Callas and others have insisted that the prediction was based on engineering, not a nod to public relations.

"There was an expectation that airfall dust would accumulate on the rover, so that its solar panels would be able to gather less electricity," said Callas.  "We saw that on Pathfinder," a small rover that landed on Mars in 1997. "The cold climate was also expected to be hard on the rovers' batteries, and changes in temperature from night to day would probably pop a circuit or two."

Instead, the temperatures weren't quite as tough as engineers had expected, and the rovers proved tougher.  They did become filthy as the red Martian dust settled on them, reducing the sunlight on the solar panels -- but every now and then a healthy gust came along, surprising everyone on Earth by cleaning the ships off.

Spirit, in hilly territory on the other side of the planet, finally got stuck in crusty soil in 2009, and its radio went silent the next year.  But Opportunity, though it's had some close calls, is still going.

In its first weeks, NASA said Opportunity found chemical proof that there had once been standing water on the surface of Mars -- good news if you're looking for signs that the planet could once have been friendly to life.  Since then, it's been sent to other places, with rocks and soil that are probably older, and with clay that may have been left by ancient rivers.

About 20 NASA staff members still work full-time on Opportunity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.  Another 60 split their time between Opportunity and other projects, such as the Curiosity rover that landed last August.  About 100 scientists, doing research on Mars, pop in and out.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Monday
Aug132012

Obama Calls Mars Rover Team, Considers Mohawk

File photo. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- The team behind NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover received a congratulatory call from the president today. Phoning into the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Obama told the technicians and administrators he “could not be more excited” about what they have been up to.

“Somebody asked me the other day whether you had already found Martians,” the president said. “I said we have to give you a little bit of time but we know you’re all hard at work and getting some well deserved rest after a successful landing. I just wanted to call and say congratulations to the entire Mars Science Laboratory team and really all of JPL.”

Obama would later tell those NASA employees, “If in fact you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away.”

Several hundred NASA employees crammed a mission control center to hear the call. The president said their dedication had, “captured the attention, imagination of millions of people. Not just across our country, but people all around the world.”

Curiosity touched down on the red planet during the early hours of Aug. 6, executing what may be regarded as the most complex robotic landing ever successfully attempted in space. In what NASA had previously dubbed as “seven minutes of terror,” a complicated series of parachutes, rocket boosters, and a new “sky crane,” lowered the Mini Cooper-sized rover into the rust-colored soil.

Of 40 spacecraft sent to Mars from the U.S., Russia, Japan, and European Union, 26 have failed.

Obama said their “mind boggling” success in the operation — and its future scientific payoff — “embodies the American spirit.”

“Curiosity is going to be telling us things that we did not know before, and laying the ground work for an even more audacious effort in the future and that is a human mission to the red planet.”

The president thanked the team leaders present for the call, but had a special shout out for flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, whose Mohawk hairdo turned him into an internet celebrity this week when he was spotted by viewers of the landing.

“In the past I thought about getting a Mohawk myself,” the president joked. “My team keeps on discouraging me. Now that he’s received marriage proposals and thousands of new Twitter followers I think I may go back to my team and see if it makes sense.”

The president attempted to remind listeners of his administration’s dedication to math and science education, hoping it would inspire more young people to take up the pursuit of knowledge.

“We’re fortunate to be part of a society that can reach the outer planets; explore frontiers that were only imagined by our ancestors. So it’s inspiring to all of us.”

The president made the call from aboard Air Force One as he flew between Chicago and Omaha, Neb., on a campaign trip.

President Obama wasn’t the only candidate to praise the Mars mission today. Addressing supporters in Florida, Mitt Romney said, “We just landed on Mars and took a good look at what’s going on there.”

“And I know the Chinese are planning on going to the moon and I hope they have a good experience doing that,” he said. “And I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago!”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
Jul132012

WATCH: NASA's Viral Video on Curiosity Rover's Mars Landing

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab(HOUSTON) -- At NASA they've called it "Seven Minutes of Terror" -- the white-knuckle moments as the new Curiosity rover, scheduled to land on Mars on the night of Aug. 5, goes tearing into the Martian atmosphere and, engineers hope, lands safely seven minutes later.

NASA made a computer-animated video of the landing sequence, and found it has a hit on its hands.  With almost a month to go until landing, the video has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube alone, and it's appeared on countless other websites as well.

"We've got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars -- going from 13,000 miles an hour to zero, in perfect sequence, perfect choreography, perfect timing," said Tom Rivellini, a NASA engineer who appears in the video.

NASA has been very good at visualizing its robotic missions, and, in fact, did similar videos (with the same title) for previous Mars landings in 2004 and 2008.  But none went viral the way Curiosity's has.

The Curiosity rover, known originally as Mars Science Laboratory, is about the size of an SUV.  Behind schedule and over budget, it was a decade in the making and has cost $2.5 billion.  The nickname Curiosity came from a schoolchild who won a NASA contest to pick something memorable.

Because of its size, Curiosity cannot just fly to Mars and come to a stop.  It enters the Martian atmosphere encased in a heat shield, then lets out a parachute, then fires retro rockets, then is lowered by cables from a landing stage and finally -- if it hasn't left a $2.5 billion crater in the Martian soil -- sends a signal that it's safely down.

And all this has to happen automatically.  Mars will be 150 million miles from Earth on Aug. 5 -- so distant that radio commands from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, would take 14 minutes to get there.

NASA has tried to play down expectations that Curiosity could find life on Mars.  But if there ever were living microbes, the rover probably has the equipment to see signs that they were there.

An earlier rover, Opportunity, is still functioning after eight years on the Martian surface.  It found geological evidence that scientists say shows Mars was once warm and wet, with pools of briny water that dried up eons ago.

NASA would like to expand on that find, which is why it has sent the larger and more ambitious Curiosity rover.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
Apr132012

NASA Reevaluates Mars Program After Budget Cuts

United Launch Alliance/NASA(WASHINGTON) -- While sci-fi movie junkies are reeling over the recent NASA image in which a structure that resembles the monolith seen in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” protrudes off the surface of Mars, NASA announced Friday its search for alternative, cheaper ways to continue Mars exploration after it was rocked by recent budget cuts.

The agency has created the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) to develop and manage future robotic missions, and is encouraging scientists and engineers from around the world to contribute ideas.

The MPPG will be led by veteran aerospace engineer Orlando Figueroa and starting Friday scientists can submit ideas and abstracts online.

This comes on the heels of the announcement that NASA had pulled out of its partnership with European agencies, in which they were planning missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018.

“We are replanning in part because of the budget environment that we’re in,” said John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist, five-time space shuttle astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“We’re moving quickly to develop options for future Mars exploration missions and pathways,” Grusnfeld said. ”As part of this process, community involvement, including international, is essential for charting the new agency-wide strategy for our future Mars exploration efforts.”

As for the so-called monolith, experts say it’s likely a rock that fell from the face of a nearby cliff.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Feb212012

Astronauts Wanted: Experiment in Hawaii to Test Mars Menus

NASA/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Researchers are looking for six able-bodied volunteers and two backups to be cooped up for 120 days and nights in a make-believe Mars base early in 2013.

The experiment is called HI-SEAS -- short for Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue & Simulation -- and would have the would-be astronauts live in a habitat amid the volcanic rubble on Hawaii's Big Island. The researchers are interested in finding out what real astronauts might eat, and whether they would cook and consume enough to sustain themselves on a long mission.

"Anyone eating a restricted diet will soon get tired of it," said Jean Hunter, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University and an organizer of the experiment. "Astronauts on long missions generally don't eat enough. That's good for a diet on Earth, but bad in space, because all the problems of microgravity, like bone and muscle loss, are exacerbated if you don't get enough calories."

The researchers would make the experiment fairly realistic -- the crew members would have limited communications with mission control, and wear makeshift spacesuits whenever they went outside. Inside, they would be limited to the food supplies that had been packed in their habitat -- long-lasting staples such as flour, sugar, beans, rice, olive oil, dehydrated meat and cheese.

Even though NASA has no specific plans for a Mars expedition, it is funding the preliminary research.

Applications for HI-SEAS will be accepted until Feb. 29. Candidates must be nonsmokers in good health, between the ages of 21 and 65, with bachelor's degrees in engineering, math or appropriate sciences. Special consideration will be given to those who could use the four months for related experiments in geology or long-duration spaceflight.

"This could make a difference for Mars missions, or it could be helpful to future astronauts at lunar outposts, who might spend most of their careers there," said Hunter.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Saturday
Nov262011

Curiosity Starts Nine Month Journey to Mars

NASA/JPL-Caltech(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) -- NASA's Curiosity was successfully launced to Mars on Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Curiosity is a 2,000 pound nuclear-powered mobile chemistry lab loaded with x-ray sensors, 3-D cameras and lasers.  Its mission is to look for evidence of habitats that might have once supported life. The rover is the largest and most complex ever sent to another planet.

Curiosity will travel 354 million miles to Mars over nine months.  It will land in a giant crater and spend nearly two earth years exploring the landscape using ten different sensors. The rover will also measure harmful radiation on Mars that could be a big problem for humans that might one day travel to the red planet.

The complicated landing will use technology never tried before. The spacecraft will hit the Martian atmosphere at more that 13,000 miles per hour. A jetpack called a skycrane will fire rockets and gently lower the rover into a giant crater. Engineers say everything has to work perfectly.

Just getting to Mars has never been easy. NASA engineers are well aware that the history of Mars exploration is littered with disappointment. Out of 40 Mars probes launched from Earth, 26 have failed. Just this month Russia tried launching a Mars mission, which is now stalled in Earth orbit.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Friday
Nov252011

Mars Rover Curiosity Set for Saturday Morning Launch

This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)(BREVARD COUNTY, Fla.) -- Mars beckons space age explorers, much as the New World lured Christopher Columbus. NASA answers the siren call again Saturday -- launching the $2.5 billion nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity.

It is the most ambitious and complex robotic rover built to explore the Red Planet. The goal: find elements that could prove whether life ever existed on Mars.

The Saturday launch window opens at 10:02 a.m. ET, and there are daily opportunities after that until Dec. 18. NASA said Friday the weather is 70 percent go for launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of the launch pads from which space shuttles left for 30 years, and before them, Apollo moon missions.

Curiosity is set for a nearly nine-month trip to the Red Planet. Getting there is only the start; when the spacecraft plows into the thin Martian atmosphere, that's where the spacecraft designers will be tested.

Curiosity weighs one ton and is much too heavy to land on airbags like NASA's previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. So it will be slowed by a heat shield and parachute, then gently lowered to the planet's surface on cables suspended from a rocket-powered sky crane. It is the first time this design is being used, and mission managers have openly confessed they're uneasy.

Of 38 missions to Mars since the beginning of the space age, NASA counts 24 failures. The Russians have never yet had a full success.

This mission, if it succeeds, will answer questions for NASA scientists who are planning to send humans to Mars, some day. How would a manned mission work?

"The key is pre-deploying spacecraft and rovers -- getting infrastructure in place to make the most of the time we have to explore the planet," said Bret Drake of NASA's Human Space Flight Team.

Drake said we just won't know enough to go to Mars for another 30 years. It would take 180 days to get to Mars, 180 days to get back, and the astronauts would spend 500 days exploring the planet. The logistics are daunting. Problems like protecting astronauts from the radiation found in interplanetary space have yet to be solved.

Astronaut Mike Gerhardt is testing concept rovers and systems that could be used by explorers on Mars. A 900 day mission? He would go in a heartbeat.

"Once you get there, think how exhilarating it would be," he said. "You would be discovering a new planet."

If all goes well, Curiosity will land on Mars Aug. 6, 2012.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Thursday
Aug042011

Mars Water? NASA Probe Shows Brown Streaks in Martian Craters

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The planet Mars has offered new evidence that water trickles down the slopes of its craters, say scientists examining pictures from a NASA probe in Martian orbit.

Mars water? Scientists say the pictures don't prove it, but they fit with other evidence from other probes.

The spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, has been circling Mars since 2006, and during that time, Mars -- which has seasons like ours -- has gone around the sun three times. Each year, MRO photographed brown streaks in the Martian spring and summer. In the colder seasons, they disappeared.

"The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, the principal investigator using the ship's high-resolution camera system.

Mars, located at least 35 million miles farther from the sun than us, is far colder than Earth. But if water is thick with salt and other minerals, its freezing point would be lower than it is for clear water here.

McEwen and his team published their findings in Friday's issue of the journal Science. They reported that the streaks appeared only on steep slopes. They could be hundreds of yards long, and often resembled gullies on Earth.

Other readings showed no chemical signal on the Martian surface, leading the scientists to suggest it may dry very quickly, or be just below the upper layer of Martian dust.

"These dark lineations are different from other types of features on Martian slopes," said Richard Zurek, the project scientist for MRO, in a statement. "Repeated observations show they extend ever farther downhill with time during the warm season."

This is not the first suggestion of Martian water. For the last 15 years, NASA has been looking for it, because water would be a very good sign for past -- or even present -- microbial life there.

In 2004, the Mars rover Opportunity found chemical compounds that scientists said most likely would have formed if there had once been standing water on the Martian surface. Steven Squyres, the rovers' chief scientist, said at the time he could imagine Mars, eons ago, with pools of ruby-red brackish water where today there is only dust.

In 2008, another probe, called Phoenix, landed near Mars' north pole, and produced some pictures showing strange blobs on the struts of its landing legs. Briny ice? Scientists argued for months.

But NASA has made no secret of its hope to find water on Mars.

"NASA's Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said today, "and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
May242011

Mars Rover Spirit: Mission Over After 7 Years on Martian Surface

PRNewsFoto/NASA(WASHINGTON) -- The mission of the Mars rover Spirit is finally over after seven remarkable years roaming the cold Martian surface, NASA said Tuesday. Spirit landed on Mars in January 2004, and was expected at the time to last about three months. Instead, it kept going for more than five years.

"We always knew we would get to this point," said John Callas, the project manager for Spirit and its twin rover Opportunity, which is still operating. "We're here today because we wore Spirit out."

You may recall that the rover got stuck in 2009 on the edge of a small crater, and when controllers on Earth couldn't free it after months of trying, they knew the clock was ticking.

Among other things, they couldn't move the rover to a sun-facing slope for the six-month-long Martian winter, so that its solar panels could gather at least enough energy to run heaters and the rover's radio system. The solar panels are considered essentially useless unless the sun shines almost directly down on them.

Without heaters, the temperature of the rover's electronics, NASA says, probably dropped to something like 65 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Its last confirmed signal came on March 22, 2010.

After the Martian winter ended, engineers tried repeatedly to get the rover's computer to respond to signals. They sent hailing signals once a week. No joy. They said they would make one more try overnight and then stop.

Spirit's twin, Opportunity, is still driving slowly on the opposite side of the planet, making a forced march toward a large crater called Endeavour. It landed a month after Spirit arrived.

A reminder: NASA's gotten its money's worth out of the rovers. When Spirit landed, NASA (perhaps playing down expectations), said it planned a mission that would last 90 "sols," or Martian days. Today was sol number 2,537.

"Yes, there's a sadness that we have to say goodbye to Spirit, but we also remember what a massive overwhelming success it was," Callas said in a teleconference with reporters.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Dec152010

NASA's Mars Odyssey Breaks Record for Longest Mars Orbit

Photo Courtesy - NASA(PASADENA, Calif.) -- On Wednesday evening, NASA's Mars Odyssey broke the record for a spacecraft serving the longest at the Red Planet. 

Launched in 2001, the probe Wednesday began day 3,340 of its Martian orbit surpassing the record set by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which orbited Mars from 1997 to 2006.

The Mars Odyssey was part of the first experiment sent to Mars specifically in preparation for human missions. 

Copyright 2010 ABC News Radio







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