Tag: Mars

NASA’s MAVEN Reveals Mars Has Metal in its Atmosphere

Mars has electrically charged metal atoms (ions) high in its atmosphere, according to new results from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. The metal ions can reveal previously invisible activity in the mysterious electrically charged upper atmosphere (ionosphere) of Mars.

“MAVEN has made the first direct detection of the permanent presence of metal ions in the ionosphere of a planet other than Earth,” said Joseph Grebowsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Because metallic ions have long lifetimes and are transported far from their region of origin by neutral winds and electric fields, they can be used to infer motion in the ionosphere, similar to the way we use a lofted leaf to reveal which way the wind is blowing.” Grebowsky is lead author of a paper on this research appearing April 10 in Geophysical Research Letters.

MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) is exploring the Martian upper atmosphere to understand how the planet lost most of its air, transforming from a world that could have supported life billions of years ago into a cold desert planet today. Understanding ionospheric activity is shedding light on how the Martian atmosphere is being lost to space, according to the team.

The metal comes from a constant rain of tiny meteoroids onto the Red Planet. When a high-speed meteoroid hits the Martian atmosphere, it vaporizes. Metal atoms in the vapor trail get some of their electrons torn away by other charged atoms and molecules in the ionosphere, transforming the metal atoms into electrically charged ions.

MAVEN has detected iron, magnesium, and sodium ions in the upper atmosphere of Mars over the last two years using its Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer instrument, giving the team confidence that the metal ions are a permanent feature. “We detected metal ions associated with the close passage of Comet Siding Spring in 2014, but that was a unique event and it didn’t tell us about the long-term presence of the ions,” said Grebowsky.

The interplanetary dust that causes the meteor showers is common throughout our solar system, so it’s likely that all solar system planets and moons with substantial atmospheres have metal ions, according to the team.

Sounding rockets, radar, and satellite measurements have detected metal ion layers high in the atmosphere above Earth. There’s also been indirect evidence for metal ions above other planets in our solar system. When spacecraft are exploring these worlds from orbit, sometimes their radio signals pass through the planet’s atmosphere on the way to Earth, and sometimes portions of the signal have been blocked. This has been interpreted as interference from electrons in the ionosphere, some of which are thought to be associated with metal ions. However, long-term direct detection of the metal ions by MAVEN is the first conclusive evidence that these ions exist on another planet and that they are a permanent feature there.

The team found that the metal ions behaved differently on Mars than on Earth. Earth is surrounded by a global magnetic field generated in its interior, and this magnetic field together with ionospheric winds forces the metal ions into layers. However, Mars has only local magnetic fields fossilized in certain regions of its crust, and the team only saw the layers near these areas. “Elsewhere, the metal ion distributions are totally unlike those observed at Earth,” said Grebowsky.

The research has other applications as well. For example, it is unclear if the metal ions can affect the formation or behavior of high-altitude clouds. Also, detailed understanding of the meteoritic ions in the totally different Earth and Mars environments will be useful for better predicting consequences of interplanetary dust impacts in other yet-unexplored solar system atmospheres. “Observing metal ions on another planet gives us something to compare and contrast with Earth to understand the ionosphere and atmospheric chemistry better,” said Grebowsky.

The research was funded by the MAVEN mission. MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. NASA Goddard manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. The University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

Editor: Bill Steigerwald

Photo Credit: NASA

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Fly me to the Moon? Why the world should be wary of Elon Musk’s space race

Want to fly to the moon? Well, now you won’t have to bother with all those years of rigorous astronaut training – all you need is a huge wad of cash. Elon Musk, technopreneur, has built a small spaceship called Dragon and if you slap down enough money – maybe a hundred million dollars or so – he’ll fly you to the Moon. The Conversation

The first flight is set for 2018, a target so ambitious it verges on the incredible.

Musk’s moonshot plan has been greeted enthusiastically by most space fans but some are a little doubtful. Other commentators remain totally uninspired, ridiculing the idea as a gigantic waste of money.

This ambivalence isn’t surprising really, since history shows that soon after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, people switched their televisions to more down-to-earth events while wondering why NASA kept going back to the Moon again and again with Apollo 12, then Apollo 13, then Apollo 14 – all the way up to Apollo 17.

Natural process, or a social one?

Musk would tell you he’s not using taxpayer funds for his moonshot and that his SpaceX venture is a private commercial business. But SpaceX’s only significant customer so far has been NASA – a taxpayer-funded agency that pays it to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

And even before SpaceX had delivered anything, NASA made a massive investment in the firm to get it up and running. Any claim that SpaceX is purely a commercial business, then, is also incredible.

Like many space fans, Musk will tell you that this moonshot is the first step in the “natural process” of human space expansion. The next steps involve the colonization of the Moon and then Mars.

But space travel is not a natural process; it’s a social process involving domestic politics, international competition, the marketing of patriotic heroism, and the divvying up of state funds.

Harkening back to the dark past

The “colonization” theme of space expansion is also problematic since it signifies a potential re-emergence of the social injustices and environmental disasters wrought by past colonial ventures. Being a fan of “space colonization”, then, can be likened to rejoicing in the displacement of native peoples and celebrating the destruction of wilderness.

Unfortunately, too often space expansion has utilized historic conquests to map out the future; witness Star Trek’s Space: the Final Frontier theme, or Musk’s own idea to colonize Mars.

Calling for a new “age of exploration” in space recalls past voyages of discovery ignores how Christopher Columbus decimated native tribes with smallpox and how Spanish conquistadors ransacked Meso-America’s temples to loot gold.

Space fans might argue that there are no people in space to be colonized, that the Moon and Mars are uninhabited lands. But the plan to settle Mars, for example, and then to set about extracting valuable resources without working out if some alien species is living there – even if those life forms are microbial – seems reckless.

It also smacks of anthropocentrism since humans will doubtless carry to Mars the attitude that microbes are lower lifeforms and that it’s OK to stomp all over their planet spreading pollution and mucking up their environment.

Even if they are lifeless, we should consider that the Moon and Mars belong to all of us; they are the common heritage of humankind. And those who first to get to the Moon or to Mars shouldn’t be permitted to plunder these worlds just for the sake of their own adventure or profit.

An alliance of interests

One prominent fan of American space expansion is US President Donald Trump. “Space is terrific,” he said in Florida last year. Trump also called for more space exploration in his recent speech to Congress.

Many scientists are wary of Trump’s attitude to science but, in a surprising willingness to embrace both science and the wider universe beyond America, the president wants NASA to “explore the mysteries of deep space”.

In the process, Trump is also working out how to rid NASA of the those pesky climate scientists who, he claims, are peddling “politicized” science.

Trump met Elon Musk within days of assuming the presidency and, with their shared love of capitalism and penchant for self-promotion, they seem to be entering a working relationship, described by some as cronyism.

Trump seems willing to support Musk if the entrepreneur can help Make America Great Again by shooting Americans off to the Moon before China gets there. Musk may seem confident about his 2018 plans because he believes he has presidential blessing.

A note of caution

But perhaps it’s too soon to worry about Moon grabs or Martian colonialism.

First, both Trump and Musk are notorious “big talkers” and they may be playing with the macho spectacle of space travel. If their space plans gurgle into an economic sinkhole, they’ll probably quietly abandon them.

And the 2018 moonshot is not going to actually land on the Moon; it’s merely going to shoot around it and then head back to Earth. Nobody will get the chance to plant a flag.

Space tourism, moon bases and Martian colonies have all been predicted for decades and nothing has ever come of them. Wernher von Braun, the Apollo rocket hero (and ex-Nazi) showcased such prospective space endeavors on a television show with Walt Disney in the 1950s (using whizzing Disney graphics). But 70 years later, a space colony is nowhere to be found.

An outright Moon grab would also be illegal, since the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty forbids such acts. The US has re-interpreted this treaty to suggest that it permits resource extraction from the Moon and the planets in the Solar System, but not all nations accept this view.

Not what we all want

If Musk does get his rich clients to circle the Moon next year, and then manages to set up bases and colonies on the lunar surface and then Mars, it won’t be because he’s made a business success out of space expansion. And it won’t be due to the scientific merit of moon bases.

Rather, it will be because he has managed to dupe the American taxpayer with expensive technological fantasies and because he’s broken the ideal of the common heritage of mankind enshrined in international law. Humanity and the Earth will be diminished in the process.

It’s possible the cosmos will be diminished and despoiled too with mining firms digging up the moonscape, rocket fuel spilled all over the Martian surface, and neon lights flashing in shiny space casinos.

Of course, some space fans believe the only way they’ll realize their space fantasies is to ride behind the glory of “visionaries” such as Musk – and the unknown mega-rich space passengers set to shoot off around the Moon next year.

But the Earth abounds with those willing to poke fun at such showy space adventures, which is good – Musk needs to know that not everybody is on board.

Alan Marshall, Lecturer in Environmental Social Sciences, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Mahidol University

Photo Credit: Fe Ilya

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NASA Orbiter Steers Clear of Mars Moon Phobos

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft performed a previously unscheduled maneuver this week to avoid a collision in the near future with Mars’ moon Phobos.

spacecraft above reddish planet
This artist’s sketch shows MAVEN above Mars.
Credits: Lockheed Martin

The Mars Atmosphere and VolatileEvolutioN (MAVEN)spacecraft has been orbiting Mars for just over two years, studying the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. On Tuesday the spacecraft carried out a rocket motor burn that boosted its velocity by 0.4 meters per second (less than 1 mile per hour). Although a small correction, it was enough that — projected to one week later when the collision would otherwise have occurred — MAVEN would miss the lumpy, crater-filled moon by about 2.5 minutes.

This is the first collision avoidance maneuver that the MAVEN spacecraft has performed at Mars to steer clear of Phobos. The orbits of both MAVEN and Phobos are known well enough that this timing difference ensures that they will not collide.

MAVEN, with an elliptical orbit around Mars, has an orbit that crosses those of other spacecraft and the moon Phobos many times over the course of a year.  When the orbits cross, the objects have the possibility of colliding if they arrive at that intersection at the same time. These scenarios are known well in advance and are carefully monitored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which sounded the alert regarding the possibility of a collision.

With one week’s advance notice, it looked like MAVEN and Phobos had a good chance of hitting each other on Monday, March 6, arriving at their orbit crossing point within about 7 seconds of each other. Given Phobos’ size (modeled for simplicity as a 30-kilometer sphere, a bit larger than the actual moon in order to be conservative), they had a high probability of colliding if no action were taken.

Said MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado in Boulder, “Kudos to the JPL navigation and tracking teams for watching out for possible collisions every day of the year, and to the MAVEN spacecraft team for carrying out the maneuver flawlessly.”

MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

By Nancy Neal Jones
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington

Editor: Karl Hille

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA Explores Opportunity for Smaller Experiments to ‘Hitch a Ride’ to Mars

NASA’s goals for human deep space exploration are complex and ambitious. To maximize resources as it pushes the boundaries of exploration, the agency is exploring opportunities to take advantage of emerging private sector space capabilities.

NASA released a request for information Monday regarding possible commercial sources to fly limited payloads on planned, non-NASA missions to Mars. The agency will use the responses to gather market data on the complete spectrum of commercial plans, and identify any excess capacity that may exist for NASA payloads.

Furthering NASA’s human deep space exploration goals will require a significant amount of scientific research, and opportunities to collect data on Mars have been rare. Only seven successful missions to the surface of Mars have taken place in the history of spaceflight.

Evolving capabilities in the private sector have opened the possibility for NASA to take advantage of commercial opportunities to land scientific payloads on the surface of the Red Planet. Such capability would provide an additional method of acquiring science and engineering data concerning Mars, and would complement NASA’s current deep space exploration efforts.

Editor: Brian Dunbar

Photo Credit: NASA

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Scientists Shortlist Three Landing Sites for Mars 2020

Three potential landing sites for NASA's next Mars rover

Participants in a landing site workshop for NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission have recommended three locations on the Red Planet for further evaluation. The three potential landing sites for NASA’s next Mars rover include Northeast Syrtis (a very ancient portion of Mars’ surface), Jezero crater, (once home to an ancient Martian lake), and Columbia Hills (potentially home to an ancient hot spring, explored by NASA’s Spirit rover).

More information on the landing sites can be found at:


Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. It will also prepare a collection of samples for possible return to Earth by a future mission.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will build and manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

For more information about NASA’s Mars programs, visit:


DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Editor: Tony Greicius

Photo Credit: NASA

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One Role of Mars Orbiter: Check Possible Landing Sites

At an international workshop this week about where NASA’s next Mars rover should land, most of the information comes from a prolific spacecraft that’s been orbiting Mars since 2006.

Observations by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the basis for evaluating eight candidate landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover mission. The landing site workshop this week in Monrovia, California, will narrow the Mars 2020 candidate list to four or fewer sites. MRO observations have been used to identify, characterize and certify past landing sites and are also in use to assess possible sites for future human-crew missions.

“From the point of view of evaluating potential landing sites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the perfect spacecraft for getting all the information needed,” said the workshop’s co-chair, Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “You just can’t overstate the importance of MRO for landing-site selection.”

Engineers use MRO data to evaluate the safety of a candidate landing site. For example, stereoscopic 3-D information can reveal whether slopes are too steep, and some detailed images can show individual boulders big enough to be a landing hazard. Scientists use MRO data to evaluate how well a site could serve the research goals of a mission, such as the distribution of minerals that may have originated in wet environments.

“Missions on the surface of Mars give you the close-up view, but what you see depends on where you land. MRO searches the globe for the best sites,” said MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL.

Images, terrain models and mineral maps from the orbiter help the teams that operate NASA’s two active Mars rovers plan driving routes. The Mars 2020 team has already used MRO data to evaluate driving options in the eight candidate sites for that rover, which is on track for launch in the summer of 2020 and landing in early 2021. The site evaluations even use MRO’s capability to study the atmosphere above each site and probe underground features with ground-penetrating radar.

In the progress toward selecting a landing site for a future human mission to Mars, NASA is using MRO data to evaluate about 45 suggested sites that could support human exploration zones, which are areas that could support astronauts as they explore up to a 60-mile radius.

Still, the hundreds of MRO observations targeted specifically for the study of potential landing sites make up a small fraction of all the data the mission has provided about Mars. MRO has acquired more than 224,000 images and millions of other observations during its nearly 50,000 orbits around Mars. This month, the mission will reach and pass a milestone of 300 terabits of total science data sent to Earth from the orbiter. That tops the combined total from all other interplanetary missions, past and present. It is more data than would be included in four months of nonstop high-definition video.

“Whether it is looking at the surface, the subsurface or the atmosphere of the planet, MRO has viewed Mars from orbit with unprecedented spatial resolution, and that produces huge volumes of data,” said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of JPL.”These data are a treasure trove for the whole Mars scientific community to study as we seek to answer a broad range of questions about the evolving habitability, geology, and climate of Mars.”

One of the orbiter’s six instruments has provided images of 99 percent of Mars — equivalent to 97 percent of Earth’s land area — in resolution sufficient to show features smaller than a tennis court. One-fifth of this coverage area has been imaged at least twice, providing stereo, 3-D information. Another instrument has returned several multi-spectral data sets for mapping surface composition, including one covering nearly 85 percent of Mars.The highest-resolution camera onboard has returned images revealing details as small as a desk in swaths covering a carefully chosen 2.8 percent of Mars’s surface. That’s more than the areas of Texas, California, and all the states east of the Mississippi River combined.

Other instruments on MRO have provided daily weather maps of the entire planet since 2006, more than 20,000 radar-observing strips to examine subsurface layers of ice and rock, and more than 8.8 million atmospheric profiles of temperatures, clouds, and dust.

New discoveries flow from the copious MRO data. Some are:

•         Minerals mapped by MRO indicate a diversity of ancient water-related environments, many apparently habitable.

•         There is enough carbon-dioxide ice buried in the south polar cap that, if released, it could more than double the planet’s present atmosphere.

•         Mars is a dynamic planet today, with dust storms, moving sand dunes, avalanches, new gullies and fresh impact craters.

•         Reservoirs of buried water ice that are remnants of past climates, including buried glaciers, have been confirmed and discovered.

•         Dark flows that appear in warm seasons on some slopes suggest brine activity, though they are still enigmatic and hold scant water at most.

•         Mars’ north polar cap is geologically young — about five million years old — and contains unequally spaced layers of dust and ice that are apparently related to cyclical changes in the planet’s tilt.

•         Large dust storms during southern spring and summer appear to have a pattern of three types, in sequence.

•         Seasonal surface changes at mid to high latitudes appear related to freezing and thawing of carbon dioxide.

In addition to MRO’s observations, whether for landing-site assessment or direct science investigations, the orbiter also provides communication relay service for robots on the Martian surface, whether mobile or stationary. This month, MRO will reach and pass a milestone of 6,000 relay sessions for Mars-surface missions.

For additional information about MRO, visit:


Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6278 / 818-393-9011

Laurie Cantillo / Dwayne Brown
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1077 / 202-358-1726
laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov / dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov


Editor: Tony Greicius

Photo Credit: NASA

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Contrasting Colors of Crater Dunes and Gullies

Gullies are relatively common features in the steep slopes of crater walls, possibly formed by dry debris flows, movement of carbon dioxide frost, or perhaps the melting of ground ice.

This example shows a section of crater wall from the rocky crater rim at the far left of the image, down to the dark dusty dunes on the crater floor in the bottom right. (North is to the left.) The rock of the crater walls shows up deep orange, and the sandy deposits on the crater floor and the base of the crater walls appear blue. The sand isn’t really blue; the different colors in this image represent different material compositions.

The gullies in this image have two main sections: a scalloped alcove at the top of the gully (left/center), and defined channel sections further down the crater wall (right/center). Material from the alcove will have traveled down the channel to the crater floor. This normally forms a third section to a typical gully, a debris fan. Fans commonly visible at the base of gullies are not obvious in this example however, as the wind blown sediments (blue) have covered the crater floor after gully formation.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Editor: Tony Greicius


Photo Credit: NASA

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