Entries in Mars (8)


Mars Curiosity Drills Into Red Planet

NASA/JPL-Caltech(PASADENA, Calif.) -- Mars Curiosity has another scientific first under its belt.

The Mini Cooper-sized rover successfully collected a tiny sample of powder – enough to fill a tablespoon – as it drilled into a Mars rock earlier this month, scientists said Wednesday.

“This is the first time any rover has drilled into a rock to collect a sample anywhere but on Earth,” said Louise Jandura, an engineer on the Curiosity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Curiosity mission is designed to look for signs that life once existed – or might still exist – on Mars.

When the rock sample is analyzed by Curiosity’s onboard laboratory in coming days, the results will be beamed back to eager scientists on Earth.

The team is already excited because of signs in Martian geology suggesting the rocks formed in liquid water, a fundamental requirement for life as we know it.

“The rocks in this area have a really rich geological history, and they have the potential to give us information about multiple interactions between water and rock,” said Joel Hurowitz, a Curiosity sampling scientist at NASA JPL.

Photos of the drill site show the traditional rust-colored Martian soil has been brushed away, revealing a moon-gray-colored rock underneath.

“It’s better to have a gray color than a red color,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity’s chief scientist.

Oxidation that turns the soil rust-red destroys organic compounds, Grotzinger explained. Any signs of past life would be more likely protected in the deeper grayish-rock, but Grotzinger said it’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“It’s still an accident of fate to preserve organics,” Grotzinger said on a conference call with reporters.

Curiosity touched down on the red planet in August.

The 2.5-inch hole was drilled Feb. 8 into a rock dubbed “John Klein,” after a deputy project manager who died in 2011.

The $2.5 billion rover will eventually begin driving toward the base of a three-mile-high mountain known as Mt. Sharp.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Mars Rover Discovers Earth-Like Rock

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS(PASADENA, Calif.) -- The Curiosity rover surprised NASA engineers with the first Martian rock it examined. Scientists expected to find a rock similar to the ones seen on previous missions to Mars. But instead, they found a rock with a composition seen in many rocks on Earth.

“This rock is a close match in chemical composition to an unusual but well-known type of igneous rock found in many volcanic provinces on Earth,” said Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in a NASA statement Friday. “With only one Martian rock of this type, it is difficult to know whether the same processes were involved, but it is a reasonable place to start thinking about its origin.”

According to NASA, rocks on Earth with a similar composition usually come from processes in the planet’s mantle and result from crystallization of water-rich magma at an elevated pressure.

As NASA said in a statement, rock compositions are important because they “tell stories about unseen environments and planetary processes.” Researchers hope that the discovery of varied rock composition on Mars will give insight into the planet's past.

The rock is around the size of a football and is shaped like a pyramid.  It has been nicknamed “Jake Matijevic,” after a mission engineer who recently died.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Mars Rover Sends Stunning New Shots from the Red Planet

NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology(PASADENA, Calif.) -- The Mars rover Curiosity has sent some spectacular new images to Earth, giving a detailed view of the landing site in Mars Gale Crater and the surface of the Red Planet.  NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), mission control for the project, put them together in a giant mosaic.

“The mosaic, which stretches about 29,000 pixels across by 7,000 pixels high, includes 130 images taken on Aug. 8 and an additional 10 images taken on Aug. 19,” said JPL.

The images have been combined to provide a 360-degree panoramic view of the landing site, including the 3.4-mile high Mount Sharp. Exploring Mount Sharp is one of Curiosity’s primary objectives, largely because previous spacecraft in orbit spotted evidence of possible past exposure to liquid water at the mountain’s base.

The Rover also made history by sending the first audio recording of a human voice from Mars to Earth. The voice was that of NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who congratulated the mission team on its success in getting the rover to Mars. In the recording, Bolden said, “Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not-too-distant future.”

Curiosity landed on Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5. It is set to explore the crater over the next two years, looking, among other things, for evidence to determine whether the planet could have ever supported life. The rover, with a $2.5 billion budget, is equipped with an array of instruments to aid in its quest, including a rock-cutting laser and an onboard chemistry lab.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Mars Rover Curiosity to Take First Test Drive

NASA/JPL-Caltech(PASADENA, Calif.) -- The Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on the Martian surface on the night of Aug. 5, is about to take its first baby steps -- or test drive, or whatever your preferred metaphor is -- on the way to exploring the terrain around it.

Overnight, U.S. time, mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said they plan to send Curiosity the computer commands to send it on its first short trip.  If everything works, it will move forward three meters (about 10 feet), turn right 90 degrees, and then back up a little bit.

That’s it.  But the longest journey begins with a single step.  Ultimately, NASA said it hopes the rover will be able to travel more than 100 yards per day over at least a two-year period, probing the Martian landscape for signs that it might once have been a home to microbial life.

“You will definitely see tracks,” said Mike Watkins, the mission manager, in a teleconference.  The first drive will tell controllers the rover’s six wheels are working properly, that it can turn in place as designed, and that it’s ready to move on later this week.

The test drive should last about half an hour.  It should take place in mid-afternoon, Mars time, when it’s warmest and the rover’s parts don’t have to be heated up.  NASA hopes there will be no surprises.

“We want to park it in a place we’ve imaged with our stereo cameras,” said Watkins, “just to make sure there’s nothing there.”

Controllers said they will be more bold over time.  The rover is in good shape so far after its nail-biter of a landing (recall the references to “seven minutes of terror” NASA promised) though a small wind detector is damaged.

Meanwhile, it’s almost summer-like at Gale Crater, where Curiosity put down.  Engineers reported the soil around the rover reached an afternoon high temperature of 37 degrees Fahrenheit on a recent Martian day, then dropped overnight to 131 degrees below zero.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Mars Rover: NASA's Curiosity Spacecraft Sends Color Panorama

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS(NEW YORK) -- The Mars rover Curiosity has been very busy on Twitter.

"Gale Crater Vista, in Glorious Color!" it tweeted today.

The tweets, of course, come from the press office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., mission control for the rover. It has more than 890,000 followers.

Curiosity's mission is to wander a Martian crater, looking for signs of whether it ever had the right chemistry, or building blocks, for microbial life. If anything ever lived there, Curiosity is equipped to find it.

Mission managers showed off the first color panorama today of the area where the rover landed, showing a pebble-strewn plain in the foreground and the rim of Gale Crater, slightly obscured by haze, on the horizon a few miles away. The crater was chosen as a landing target because it may have exposed bedrock -- a good place to look for life that was wiped out eons ago and, for the most part, buried over time.

[ CLICK HERE for Pictures: Mars Rover on Alien Plain ]

Looking at the panorama, Dawn Sumner, a mission scientist from the University of California at Davis, enthused about how the ship made an almost pinpoint landing after a long, elliptical 350-million-mile trip to Mars.

"In the hills in the distance," she said, "you see these beautiful knolls, recording the history of Gale Crater. It's very exciting to think about getting there, but it's quite a ways away."

Curiosity, about the size of a small car, has now raised the mast on its top deck on which its highest-resolution cameras are mounted. Its next job, to be completed in the next couple of days, sounds fairly mundane: Mission Control will send an upgrade of its computer operating system.

"It's a little like upgrading the software on your computer at home," said mission manager Michael Watkins. Curiosity's current software, he said, was written for the landing phase of the mission; it must now be replaced with commands for roving.

It will still be days before engineers, satisfied the rover is ready, will actually move it from its landing spot.

So far, aside from the rusty hue in the pictures, scientists concede that Curiosity has landed in a place that looks eerily like Earth -- never mind that it's 150 million miles away, drier than dust and perpetually frozen.

"You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you, and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "The first impression you get is how Earthlike this seems, looking at that landscape."

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Lands Successfully on Planet

NASA/JPL-Caltech(PASADENA, Calif.) -- NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity Rover has landed on the surface of the red planet following an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey.  NASA says it received a signal from the rover after a plunge through the Martian atmosphere described as "seven minutes of terror."

A chorus of cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory just after 1:30 a.m. EDT Monday when it was confirmed the rover had landed successfully.

"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen.  "We're safe on Mars."

Minutes later, Curiosity beamed back the first pictures from the surface showing its wheel and its shadow -- cast by the afternoon sun -- giving earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

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Mars Curiosity is NASA's latest and boldest attempt yet to go where robots -- but no man -- have gone before.  Before this mission -- formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory -- the U.S., Russia, Japan and Europe had sent 40 spacecraft to explore the fourth planet from the sun since the space age began.  Twenty-six had failed.

Curiosity, an intrepid chemistry set on wheels, packed with cameras and gadgets galore, was designed to look for signs that life once existed on Mars -- signs that Mars could once have had the chemical resources needed to support microbial life.  This could mean potential sources of water, food and energy that could someday support visiting humans from Earth.

The landing had been dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror" by the engineers who figured out the best way to land.  Adam Steltzner, team leader for the entry, descent and landing of Curiosity, said that as the ship was in the planning stages and then heading to Mars, he found himself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about the sequence of events that would have to go perfectly.

"The big trick is you are going 13,000 miles an hour," he said.  "You slam into the Martian atmosphere and you want to gracefully get the spacecraft down sitting quietly on the surface on her wheels, and all of that takes different changes in the configuration of the vehicle, 79 events that must occur."

Curiosity was set to land when Mars was 154 million miles from Earth.  It weighed 5,293 pounds on Earth -- the size of a small car and much bigger than the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which were cushioned by airbags when they landed in 2004.  

Engineers quickly figured out that airbags would burst if they were tried on Curiosity.  So they designed it to be lowered to the Martian surface by a heat shield, then a parachute, then retro-rockets, and finally a sky crane -- something that had never tried before -- and that's what made this so scary for them.  Just one slip would mean $2.5 billion down the drain.

Now that the rover is safely on Mars, NASA hopes it will explore the planet for one Martian year, which is about 22 months on Earth.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Closer to Landing

NASA/JPL-Caltech(NEW YORK) -- NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover came closer and closer to its target on Friday, with all systems go for a landing on Mars Monday at 1:31 a.m. EDT.

Curiosity is the largest, most expensive and most ambitious Mars probe sent by the United States in a generation.  It's been a decade in the making and ran up bills of $2.5 billion.

NASA is playing down expectations, but if the building blocks of life are buried in the Martian soil, Curiosity's miniature onboard chemistry laboratory is designed to pick them out.

"We have to keep looking," said Andrew Kessler, a writer who spent three months covering the team that made the last successful landing, in 2008.  "Every question leads to more understanding."

Curiosity weighed 5,293 pounds on Earth.  It's the size of a small car and much bigger than the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, cradled in airbags.  Curiosity is simply too big for that, so it will be lowered to the surface by a heat shield, then a parachute, then retro-rockets, and finally a rocket-powered sky crane.  That's something engineers have never tried before.

"When people look at it, it looks crazy," says Adam Stelzner, an engineer who laid out the landing plans, in a video NASA produced about the landing.  "Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy.  It is the result of reasoned engineering thought.  But it still looks crazy."

NASA says it thinks there's a 90 percent chance of a safe landing.  If that prediction is right, the agency says it hopes Curiosity will explore for one Martian year -- about 22 months on Earth.

If Curiosity doesn't find evidence of life, scientists say it will mean very little.  The half-dozen probes to land on Mars since 1976 have only explored a few square miles of the planet.

But what if it really does find something?  The results would probably not be conclusive, but they would be incentive for further exploration -- a tender subject at NASA because, hampered by budget cuts, it currently has no future Mars missions approved.

"If we don't ponder these things, then we're not asking ourselves the right questions," said Kessler, "and we're not looking to build bigger and better futures for ourselves."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Phobos Grunt: Failed Russian Mars Probe Falling to Earth

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Somewhere, most likely Sunday or Monday, the failed Russian Phobos-Grunt Mars probe will return ignominiously to Earth, crashing -- at least figuratively -- on the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere, but 20 to 30 chunks of charred debris, weighing about 450 lbs., could make it to the surface, said Roscosmos. Where it might crash will not be clear until just hours before it actually happens.

Phobos-Grunt was launched toward Mars in November, but radio contact was lost and it never got beyond low Earth orbit.

The world's space agencies agreed that any one person's chances of getting hit by debris are tiny -- something like 1 in 20 trillion, based on the spacecraft's orbit and the amount of debris that might survive re-entry. The chances that of the 7 billion people on Earth, one of them, somewhere, could be hit are more like 1 in 3,000.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Spent satellites fall from orbit all the time, though most burn up completely before anything reaches Earth's surface. There have been a few recent -- but harmless -- exceptions: NASA's UARS satellite sent debris crashing into the Pacific in September, and the German ROSAT space telescope scattered debris in the Indian Ocean in October.

So the worst damage was to Russian pride. Roscosmos chief, Vladimir Popovkin, went so far as to suggest that someone had sabotaged the probe.

"It would not be desirable to accuse anybody, but today there are very powerful means of influence for space vehicles which cannot be excluded," he said in an interview with the Russian daily Izvestia, translated by ABC News. He gave no specifics, and sources say the U.S. government, mildly offended, stopped helping the Russians track their errant probe in its final days.

More likely, said space analysts, it was the Russians' own fault.

"Certainly the quality control was lacking," said Charles Vick, who follows Russian space efforts for, "and testing the spacecraft ... was never done due to lack of funds."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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