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  • richardmitnick 11:38 am on December 14, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Boron, , Mars Exploration   

    From Many Worlds: “With The Discovery of Boron on Mars, The Package of Chemicals Needed For Life May Well Be Complete” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2016-12-14
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Using its laser technology, the Curiosity ChemCam instrument located the highest abundance of boron observed so far on this raised calcium sulfate vein. The red outline shows the location of the ChemCam target remote micro images (inset). The remote micro images show the location of each individual ChemCam laser point (red crosshairs) and the additional chemistry associated with each point (colored bars). JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/CNES-IRAP/William Rapin

    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover

    For years, noted chemist and synthetic life researcher Steven Benner has talked about the necessary role of the element boron in the origin of life.

    Without boron, he has found, the process needed to form the earliest self-replicating ribonucleic acid (RNA) falls apart when it comes into contact with water, which it also necessary for the process to succeed. Only in the presence of boron, Benner found and has long argued, can the formation of RNA and later DNA proceed.

    Now, to the delight of Benner and many other scientists, the Curiosity team has found boron on Mars. In fact, as Curiosity climbs the mountain at the center of Gale Crater, the presence of boron has become increasingly pronounced.

    3
    A shaded and colorized topographic map of Gale Crater, Mars, based on publicly released High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) data. The MSL landing ellipse is indicated in the northwestern crater floor.
    14 September 2010
    Source Anderson and Bell, 2010
    Author Ryan Anderson

    And to make the discovery all the more meaningful to Benner, the boron is being found in rock veins. So it clearly was carried by water into the fractures, and was deposited there some 3.5 billion years ago.

    Combined with earlier detections of phosphates, magnesium, peridots, carbon and other essential elements in Gale Crater, Benner told me, “we have found on Mars an environment entirely consistent with a what we consider conducive for the origin of life.

    “Is it likely that life arose? I’d say yes…perhaps even, hell yes. But it’s also true that an environment conducive to the formation of life isn’t necessarily one conducive to the long-term survival of life.”

    5
    The foreground of this scene from the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows purplish rocks near the rover’s late-2016 location. The middle distance includes future destinations for the rover. Variations in color of the rocks hint at the diversity of their composition on lower Mount Sharp. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

    Another factor in the Mars-as-habitable story from Benner’s view is that there has never been the kind of water world there that many believe existed on early Earth.

    While satellites orbiting Mars and now Curiosity have made it abundantly clear that early Mars also had substantial water in the form of lakes, rivers, streams and perhaps an localized ocean, it was clearly never covered in water.

    And that’s good for the origin of life, Benner said.

    “We think that a largely arid environment, with water present but not everywhere, is the best one for life to begin. Mars had that but Earth, well, maybe not so much. The problem is how to concentrate the makings of RNA, of life, in a vast ocean. It’s like making a cake in water — all the ingredients will float away.

    “But the mineral ensemble they’ve discovered and given us is everything we could have asked for, and it was on a largely dry Mars,” he said. “So they’ve kicked the ball back to us. Now we have to go back to our labs to enrich the chemistry around this ensemble of minerals.”

    In his labs, Benner has already put together a process — he calls it his discontinuous synthesis model — whereby all the many steps needed to create RNA and therefore life have been demonstrated to be entirely possible.

    What’s missing is a continuous model that would show that process at work, starting with a particular atmosphere and particular minerals and ending up with RNA. That’s something that requires a lot more space and time that any lab experiments would provide.

    “This is potentially what Mars provides,” he said,

    Benner, it should be said, is not a member of the Curiosity team and doesn’t speak for them.

    But his championing of boron as a potentially key element for the origin of life was noted as a guide by one of the Curiosity researchers during a press conference with team members at the American Geophysical Union Dec. 13 in San Francisco. It was at that gathering that the detection of the first boron on Mars was announced.

    Benner said he has been in close touch with the two Curiosity instrument teams involved in the boron research and was most pleased that his own boron work — and that of at least one other researcher — had helped inspire the search for and detection of the element on Mars. That other researcher, evolutionary biologist James Stephenson, had detected boron in a meteorite from Mars.

    Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a member of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument team which identified the boron at Gale Crater. The instrument uses laser technology to identify chemical elements in Martian rocks.

    Gasda said at AGU that if the boron they found in calcium sulfate rock veins on Mars behaves there as it does on Earth, then the environment was conducive to life. The ancient groundwater that formed these veins would have had temperatures in the 0-60 degrees Celsius (32-140 degrees Fahrenheit) range, he said, with a neutral-to-alkaline pH.

    While the presence of boron (most likely the mineral form borate, Benner said) has increased as the rover has climbed Mount Sharp, the element still makes up only one-tenth of one percent of the rock composition. But to stabilize that process of making RNA, that’s enough.

    6
    A drawing of Gale Crater as it is organized now. Water moving beneath the ground, as well as water above the surface in ancient rivers and lakes, provided favorable conditions for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life. A well-done animation including a second drawing showing conditions 3.5 billion years ago at Gale can be seen here. It toggles back and forth to show how things have changed. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    Benner’s view of Gale Crater and Mars as entirely habitable is not new — the Curiosity team has been saying roughly the same for several years now. But with four full years on Mars the rover keeps adding to the habitability story, and that was the central message from Curiosity scientists speaking at the AGU press conference.

    As the rover examines higher, younger layers, the researchers said they were especially impressed by the complexity of the ancient lake environments at Gale when sediments were being deposited, and also the complexity of the groundwater interactions after the sediments were buried.

    “There is so much variability in the composition at different elevations, we’ve hit a jackpot,” said John Grotzinger of Caltech, and formerly the mission scientist for Curiosity.

    “A sedimentary basin such as this is a chemical reactor. Elements get rearranged. New minerals form and old ones dissolve. Electrons get redistributed. On Earth, these reactions support life.”

    This kind of reactivity occurs on a gradient based on the strength of a chemical at donating or receiving electrons. Transfer of electrons due to this gradient can provide energy for life.

    6
    An illustration of the ChemCam instrument, with its laser zapper, which identified the element boron as Curiosity climbs Mount Sharp. (NASA)

    While habitability is key to Curiosity’s mission on Mars, much additional science is being done that has different goals or looks more indirectly at the planet’s ancient (or possibly current) ability to support life. Understanding the ancient environmental history of Gale Crater and Mars is a good example.

    For instance, the Curiosity team is now undertaking a drilling campaign in progressively younger rock layers, digging into four sites each spaced about 80 feet (about 25 meters) further uphill. Changes in which minerals are present and in what percentages they exist give insights into some of that ancient history.

    One clue to changing ancient conditions is the presence of the mineral hematite, a form of the omnipresent iron oxide on Mars. Hematite has replaced magnetite as the dominant iron oxide in rocks Curiosity has drilled recently, compared with the site where Curiosity first found lake bed sediments.

    Thomas Bristow of NASA Ames Research Center, who works with the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) laboratory instrument inside the rover, said Mars is sending a signal. Both forms of iron oxide (hematite and magnetite) were deposited in mudstone in what was once the bottom of a lake, but the increased abundance of hematite higher up Mount Sharp suggests conditions were warmer when it was laid down. There also was probably more interaction between the atmosphere and the sediments.

    On a more technical level, an increase in hematite relative to magnetite also indicates an environmental change towards a stronger tug on the iron oxide electrons, causing a greater degree of oxidation (the loss of electrons) in the iron. That would likely be caused by changing atmospheric conditions.

    It’s all part of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of Mars circa 3.5 billion years ago.

    7
    This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows an outcrop with finely layered rocks within the “Murray Buttes” region on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    Returning to the boron, Benner said that the discovered presence of all the chemicals his group believes are necessary to ever-so-slowly move from prebiotic chemistry to biology provides an enormous opportunity. Because of plate tectonics on Earth and the omnipresence of biology, the conditions and environments present on early Earth when life first arose were long ago destroyed.

    But on Mars, the apparent absence of those most powerful agents of change means it’s possible to detect, observe and study conditions in a changed but intact world that just might have given rise to life on Mars. Taken a step further, Mars today could provide new and important insights into how life arose on Earth.

    And then there’s the logic of what finding signs of ancient, or perhaps deep-down surviving life on Mars would mean to the larger search for life in the cosmos.

    That life exists on one planet among the hundreds of billions we now know are out there suggests that other planets — which we know have many or most of the same basic chemicals as Earth — might have given rise to life as well.

    And if two planets in one of those many, many solar system have produced and supported life, then the odds go up dramatically regarding life on other planets.

    One planet with life could be an anomaly. Two nearby planets with life, even if its similar, are a trend.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 2:41 pm on December 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Could these Earth fossils give clues to life in outer space?, Mars Exploration   

    From Astronomy: “Could these Earth fossils give clues to life in outer space?” 

    Astronomy magazine

    astronomy.com

    December 08, 2016
    Stephanie Margaret Bucklin

    1
    One of the largest concentrations of Riftia pachyptila observed, with anemones and mussels colonizing in close proximity.
    WikiMedia Commons

    It’s no secret that life on other planets may look very different than life on Earth. But could extremophiles—those organisms that live in the most extreme environments on earth, including hydrothermal vents and inside Earth’s crust—provide some clues about the life that we might expect to find in space?

    The answer may be yes: such organisms, some scientists say, may help us understand the rich variety of life that we could expect to find elsewhere in space.

    “Research that expands our knowledge of the environmental limits of life is indispensable as a strategic element of astrobiological exploration,” said Jack Farmer, Professor of Geobiology at Arizona State University and a participating scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

    One such research study published in Geology provides some intriguing clues as to just what this bacteria could look like. A team of scientists from the University of Cincinnati discovered fossils in two separate locations that appear to be somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 billion years old, from the Archean Eon. The fossils, found in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, are the oldest sulfur-oxidizing bacteria (bacteria that are able to derive energy by oxidizing hydrogen sulfide into sulfur) that have thus been found, and likely lived in a deep-water environment containing little to no oxygen.

    The bacteria likely lived at a time when the atmosphere on Earth had oxygen levels of less than 1 percent—and less than one-thousandth of one percent of what they are today, according to a press release on the study. While the bacteria are much larger than most modern bacteria, they are similar to some single-celled organisms that live in sulfur-rich parts of the deep ocean today.

    “These are some of the largest fossil cells ever found in the Archean Eon,” Andrew Czaja, assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Geology and the first author of the paper, told Astronomy. “Only a couple of other examples of deep marine fossil microorganisms have been reported from any time in the geologic record.”

    The study, Czaja added, could help expand the types of environments in which we can find evidence of past life. Czaja said research into extremophiles in general gives scientists confidence that life can exist anywhere where the appropriate building blocks, including a liquid medium (such as water) and a source of energy, exist.

    “Every time we find evidence of life in a new type of environment on Earth, we increase our confidence in finding life on another planet,” Czaja told Astronomy.

    Another use of extremophile research? Helping scientists figure out where, exactly, to search for life on other planets: Czaja noted that studies like his own could help scientists select a landing site for future space missions.

    Farmer agrees: when seeking life on other planets, he told Astronomy, we tend to “follow habitability,” meaning that we seek zones where the basic requirements for life are met, which is informed by our prior knowledge of what the environmental limits of life are.

    “When paleontologists go to South Africa and explore for an Archean fossil record, they are essentially going to another planet—the early Earth,” Farmer said. What we learn there then informs our strategies on how we look for life on other planets, especially fossil records on other planets.

    One such mission? NASA’s next Mars rover, which NASA will send to space in 2020 in order to search for the biosignatures of life, Farmer said. According to a press release on the mission, the rover will investigate a specific region of Mars that may, at one point in the ancient past, have had favorable conditions for microbial life.

    Still, not all scientists are confident that such extremophiles may provide clues about life on other planets. Malcolm Walter, professor of astrobiology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and the director of the Australian Center for Astrobiology, told Astronomy that information about extremophiles on Earth does not change his own views about the life we might expect to find on other planets.

    “It gets very speculative,” Walter said. “We know so little about environments of planets beyond our solar system.” Since, Walter continued, we only have one sample of life—life on Earth—it’s difficult to predict what types of organisms we might encounter in space.

    Interestingly, though, Walter noted that in our own solar system, some rocks can get blasted off from one planet and land on another, potentially even carrying microbial life with them.

    Thus, it’s possible that the life we find in space may be very similar to our own, if it shares a single source. Additional research and exploration may shed more light on these possibilities.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 4:18 am on December 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Mars Exploration,   

    From Many Worlds: Women in STEM – “The Search for Organic Compounds On Mars Is Getting Results” Jennifer Eigenbrode 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2016-12-08
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Sedimentary rocks of the Kimberley Formation in Gale Crater, as photographed in 2015. The crater contains thick deposits of finely-laminated mudstone from fine-grained sediments deposited in a standing body of water that persisted for a long period of time. Scientists have now reported several detections of organic compounds — the building blocks of life in Gale Crater samples. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    One of the primary goals of the Curiosity mission to Mars has been to search for and hopefully identify organic compounds — the carbon-based molecules that on Earth are the building blocks of life.

    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover

    No previous mission had quite the instruments and capacity needed to detect the precious organics, nor did they have the knowledge about Martian chemistry that the Curiosity team had at launch.

    Nonetheless, finding organics with Curiosity was no sure things. Not only is the Martian surface bombarded with ultraviolet radiation that breaks molecules apart and destroys organics, but also a particular compound now known to be common in the soil will interfere with the essential oven-heating process used by NASA to detect organics.

    So when Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biochemist and geologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the Curiosity organics-searching team, asked her colleagues gathered for Curiosity’s 2012 touch-down whether they thought organics would be found, the answer was not pretty.

    “I did a quick survey across the the team and I was convinced that a majority in the room were very doubtful that we would ever detect organics on Mars, and certainly not in the top five centimeters or the surface.”

    Yet at a recent National Academies of Sciences workshop on “Searching for Life Across Space and Time,” Eigenbrode gave this quite striking update:

    “At this point, I can clearly say that I am convinced, and I hope you will be too, that organics are all over Mars, all over the surface, and probably through the rock record. What does that mean? We’ll have to talk about.”

    2
    The hole drilled into this rock target, called “Cumberland,” was made by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on May 19, 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    This is not, it should be said, the first time that a member of the Curiosity “Sample Analysis on Mars” (SAM) team has reported the discovery of organic material. The simple, but very important organic gas methane was detected in Gale Crater, as were chlorinated hydrocarbons and some nonchlorinated organics. Papers by Sushil Atreya, Daniel Glavin and Carol Freissinet, along with other team members from the Goddard SAM team, have been published on all these finds.

    But Eigenbrode’s findings and comments — which acknowledged the essential work of SAM colleagues — move the organics story substantially further.

    That’s because her detections involve larger organic compounds, or rather pieces of what were once larger organics. What’s more, these organics were found only when the Mars samples were cooked at over over 800 degrees centigrade in the SAM oven, while the earlier ones came off as detectable gases at significantly lower temperatures.

    3
    Goddard biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode, an expert at detecting organic compounds in rocks, has found them in Martian samples collected by the Curiosity rover.
    (Chris Gunn)

    These latest carbon-based organics were most likely bound up inside minerals, Eigenbrode said. Their discovery now is a function of having an oven on Mars that, for the first time, can get hot enough to break them apart.

    The larger molecules bring with them additional importance because, as Eigenbrode explained it, 75 to 90 percent of organic compounds are of this more complex variety. What’s more, she said that the levels at which the compounds are present, as well as where they were found, suggests a pretty radical conclusion: that they are a global phenomenon, most likely found around the planet.

    Her logic is that the overall geochemistry of Gale Crater as read by Curiosity instruments is quite similar to the chemistry of samples tested by earlier rovers at two other sites on Mars, Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum.

    Many Mars scientists are comfortable with taking these parallel bulk chemistry readouts — the sum total of all the chemicals found in the samples — and inferring that much of the planet has a similar chemical makeup.

    Taking the logic a step further, Eigenbrode proposed to the assembled scientists that the signatures of carbon-based organics are also a global phenomenon.

    “I think it just might be,” she told the NAS workshop. “We’ll have to find out more, but I think there’s a good possibility.”

    That’s rather a jump — from the situation not long ago when no organics had been knowingly detected on Mars, to one where there’s a possibility they are everywhere.

    4
    The Sample Analysis on Mars instrument has the job of searching for, among other xxx, organics on Mars. And it seems to have succeeded, despite some major obstacles. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

    And actually, they should be found everywhere. Not only do organic molecules rain down from the sky embedded in asteroids and interstellar dust, but they can also be formed abiotically out of chemicals on Mars and, just possibly, can be the products of biological activity.

    The fact that Mars surely has had organics on its surface and elsewhere has made the non-detection of organics a puzzle. In fact, that conclusion of “no organics present” following the Viking landings in the mid 1970s set the Mars program back several decades. If there weren’t even organic compounds to be found, the thinking went, then a search for actual living creatures was pointless.

    As is now apparent, the Viking instrument used to detect organics was not sufficiently powerful. What’s more, the scientists working with it did not know about a particular chemical on the Martian surface that was skewing the results. Plus the scientists may well have misunderstood their own findings.

    First with the question of technological muscle. The oven associated with the search for organics is part of a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), and it heats and breaks apart dirt and rock samples for analysis of their chemical makeup. The oven on the Viking landers went up to 500 degrees C, a temperature where Curiosity was not finding signs of organics. But when the oven temperature was raised to 825 degrees C, the signs of organics were found.

    In addition, NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered in 2008 that the Martian soil contained the salt perchlorate, which when burned in a GCMS oven can mask the presence of organics. And finally, the Viking landers actually did detect organics in the form of simple chlorinated hydrocarbons. They were determined at the time to be contamination from Earth, but the same compounds have been detected by Curiosity, suggesting that Viking might actually have found Martian, rather than Earthly, organics.

    What makes carbon-based organic compounds especially interesting to scientists is that life is made of them and produces them. So one source of the organics in Martian samples could be biology, Eigenbrode said. But she said there were other potential sources that might be more plausible.

    Organics, for instance, can be formed through non-biological geothermal and hydrothermal processes on Earth, and presumably on Mars too. In addition, both meteorites and interstellar dust are known to contain organic compounds, and they rain down on Mars as they do on Earth.

    Eigenbrode said the organics being detected could be coming from any one source, or from all of them.

    Asked at the workshop what concentrations of organics were found, she replied with a smile that light will be shed on the question at next week’s American Geophysical Union meeting.

    The detection of a growing variety of organics on Mars adds to the conclusion already reached by the Curiosity team — that Mars was once much wetter, warmer and by traditional definitions “habitable.” That doesn’t mean that life ever existed there, but rather that what are considered basic basic conditions for life were present for many millions of years.

    Eigenbrode said that the detection of these carbon-based compounds is important in terms of both the distant past and the perhaps mid-term future.

    For the past, it means that organics in a substantial reservoir of water like the one at Gale Crater some 3.6 billion years ago could have been a ready source of energy for microbial life. The microbes would then have been heterotrophs, which get their nutrition from organic material. Autotrophs, simpler organisms, are capable of synthesizing their own food from inorganic substances using light or chemical energy.

    But Eigenbrode also sees the organics as potentially good news for the future — for possibly still living microbes on Mars and also for humans who might be trying to survive there one day.

    “Thinking forward, the organic matter could be really important for farming — an ready energy source provided by the carbon,” she said.

    Just what a human colony on Mars might need.

    See the full article here. .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 10:30 am on December 8, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Mars Exploration, New evidence for a warmer and wetter early Mars,   

    From phys.org: “New evidence for a warmer and wetter early Mars” 

    physdotorg
    phys.org

    December 7, 2016
    No writer credit

    1
    This false-colour map, produced by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), depicts the topography of the Martian surface. Hellas Basin, the large, dark blue region below the centre, has a diameter of 2300 km, and is one of the largest identified impact craters both on Mars and within the Solar System. It is thought to have formed some 4 billion years ago. Credit: MOLA Science Team

    A recent study from ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provides new evidence for a warm young Mars that hosted water across a geologically long timescale, rather than in short episodic bursts – something that has important consequences for habitability and the possibility of past life on the planet.

    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter
    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter

    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    Although water is known to have once flowed on Mars, the nature and timeline of how and when it did so is a major open question within planetary science.

    The findings follow an analysis of a region of relatively smooth terrain, called inter-crater plains, just north of the Hellas Basin. With a diameter of 2300 km, the Hellas Basin is one of the largest identified impact craters both on Mars and within the Solar System, and is thought to have formed some 4 billion years ago.

    “These plains on the northern rim of Hellas are usually interpreted as being volcanic, as we see with similar surfaces on the Moon,” said Francesco Salese of IRSPS, Università “Gabriele D’Annunzio”, Italy, and lead author on the new paper. “However, our work indicates otherwise. Instead, we found thick, widespread swathes of sedimentary rock.”

    Sedimentary and volcanic (igneous) rocks form in different ways – volcanic, as the name suggests, needs active volcanism driven by a planet’s internal activity, while sedimentary rock usually requires water. Igneous rock is created as volcanic deposits of molten rock cool and solidify, while sedimentary builds up as new deposits of sediment form layers that compact and harden over geologically long timescales.

    “To create the kind of sedimentary plains we found at Hellas, we believe that a generally aqueous environment was present in the region some 3.8 billion years ago,” said Salese. “Importantly, it must have lasted for a long period of time – on the order of hundreds of millions of years.”

    A volatile adolescence?

    There are a couple of key models for early Mars – both involve the presence of liquid water, but in vastly different ways.

    2
    This detailed geological map of the intercrater plains north of the Hellas basin was produced by Francesco Salese and colleagues using images from the Mars Express High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), and Context (CTX) camera. The data from Mars Express and MRO allowed the scientists to explore the region’s appearance, topography, morphology, mineralogy, and age. More specifically, Mars Express imaging data allowed them to study the plains’ geology on a regional scale, providing context for the local-scale observations from MRO. Analysis of the map provides new evidence for a warm young Mars that hosted water across a geologically long timescale, rather than in short episodic bursts – something that has important consequences for habitability and the possibility of past life on the planet. Credit: Salese et al., 2016. J. Geophys. Res. Planets, 121, doi:10.1002/2016JE005039, Reused with permission of the American Geophysical Union

    Some studies suggest that Mars’ earliest days (the Noachian period, over 3.7 billion years ago) had a steadily warm climate, which enabled vast pools and streams of water to exist across the planet’s surface. This watery world then lost both its magnetic field and atmosphere and cooled down, transforming into the dry, arid world we see today.

    Alternatively, rather than hosting a warm climate and water-laden surface for eons, Mars may instead have only experienced short, periodic bursts of warmth and wetness that lasted for less than 10 000 years each, facilitated by a sputtering cycle of volcanism that intermittently surged and subsided across the years.

    Both scenarios could form some of the water-dependent chemistries and rock morphologies we see across Mars’ surface, and have significant consequences for Mars in both a geological sense – how the planet formed and evolved, whether its past has anything in common with Earth’s, and the composition and structure of its surface – and in terms of potential habitability.

    “Understanding if Mars had a warmer and wetter climate for a long period of time is a key question in our search for past life on the Red Planet,” said co-author Nicolas Mangold of CNRS-INSU, Nantes University, France.

    “If we can understand how the martian climate evolved, we’ll have a better understanding of whether life could have ever flourished, and where to look for it if it did. We can also learn much about rocky planets in general, which is especially exciting in this era of exoplanet science, and about our own planet – the same processes we think to have been important on a young Mars, such as sedimentary processes, volcanism, and impacts, have also been crucial on Earth.”

    From formation to erosion

    Salese and colleagues used imaging and spectro-imaging data from Mars Express and MRO to create a detailed geological map of the area around northern Hellas, taking advantage of so-called “erosional windows” – geological formations that act as natural “drill holes” down into the plains, revealing deeper material (examples include impact craters, grabens, and outcrops).

    These data showed the plains to be composed of an over 500-metre-thick band of flat, layered, light-coloured rock. The rock showed several characteristics typical of sedimentary deposition: box-work, which is a type of box-like mineral structure formed by erosion; cross-bedding, identified as layers of rock intersecting at different tilts and inclines; and planar stratification, which manifests as distinct, near-horizontal layers of rock that line up atop one another. These were in addition to large amounts of clays known as smectites.

    Clays are exciting chemicals, as they indicate that a wet and thus potentially habitable environment once existed at that location. Clays can also trap organic material and potentially preserve signs of life.

    “These characteristics suggest that the rock didn’t form from lava flow deposits but rather from sedimentary processes, which implies that the region once experienced warm and wet conditions for a relatively long time,” said Salese. “When the layered rock was deposited – during the Noachian period, around 3.8 billion years ago – its surroundings must have been soaked in water, with intense liquid circulation. We think it likely formed in a lake (lacustrine) or stream (alluvial) environment, or a combination of both.”

    The rock then underwent an intense period of volcanic erosion during the Hesperian period (3.7 to 3.3 billion years ago) and was covered by volcanic flows, creating the morphology we see today. The scientists estimate a minimum erosion rate for this time period of one metre per million years – one hundred times higher than the erosion rates estimated on Mars in the past 3 billion years.

    “This is further evidence of a prolonged period of active geological processes on the surface of early Mars,” added Mangold. “We can also extrapolate our finding to the rest of Mars and be confident we understand the evolution of the planet as a whole – we believe that the global climate conditions of Noachian Mars were sufficient to support significant liquid water.”

    Cosmic collaboration

    This study used data from Mars Express and MRO, which allowed the scientists to explore the region’s appearance, topography, morphology, mineralogy, and age. More specifically, Mars Express imaging data allowed Salese and colleagues to study the plains’ geology on a regional scale, providing context for the local-scale observations from MRO.

    The presence of rock morphologies or minerals that imply a wet history point towards possible habitability at that location in the past – something that is important in selecting landing sites and areas of interest for future robotic and potential human missions to Mars.

    “This work again demonstrates the importance of successful cooperation between different missions, and collaboration between ESA and NASA,” said Dmitri Titov, ESA Project Scientist for Mars Express. “No mission would be able to unveil the history of Mars alone. By using multiple spacecraft and different observation techniques, it’s possible to characterise all kinds of different geological processes on Mars in all their complexity, and gain a more complete view of Mars’ early days.”

    This finding is part of a series of efforts to understand Mars’ history and the planet as a whole, performed using Mars Express and other spacecraft – from studying Mars’ early climate by probing the evolution of large lakes that once existed across the planet’s surface, to observing Mars’ present-day weather (including mystery clouds and aurorae), and characterising the pockets of magnetism locked up within its crust.

    More information: Francesco Salese et al. A sedimentary origin for intercrater plains north of the Hellas basin: Implications for climate conditions and erosion rates on early Mars, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets (2016). DOI: 10.1002/2016JE005039

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 10:56 am on December 4, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Mars Exploration   

    From ESA: “First views of Mars show potential for ESA’s new orbiter” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    European Space Agency

    29 November 2016
    Håkan Svedhem
    ESA ExoMars TGO Project Scientist
    Email: hakan.svedhem@esa.int

    Markus Bauer
    ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Communication Officer
    Tel: +31 71 565 6799
    Mob: +31 61 594 3 954
    Email: markus.bauer@esa.int

    ESA’s new ExoMars orbiter has tested its suite of instruments in orbit for the first time, hinting at a great potential for future observations.


    Access mp4 video here .

    ESA/ExoMars
    ESA/ExoMars

    The Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, a joint endeavour between ESA and Roscosmos, arrived at Mars on 19 October. Its elliptical orbit takes it from 230–310 km above the surface to around 98 000 km every 4.2 days.

    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

    It spent the last two orbits during 20–28 November testing its four science instruments for the first time since arrival, and making important calibration measurements.

    2
    First look at the atmosphere. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/NOMAD/BISA/IAA/INAF/OU

    Data from the first orbit has been made available for this release to illustrate the range of observations to be expected once the craft arrives into its near-circular 400 km-altitude orbit late next year.

    TGO’s main goal is to make a detailed inventory of rare gases that make up less than 1% of the atmosphere’s volume, including methane, water vapour, nitrogen dioxide and acetylene.

    Of high interest is methane, which on Earth is produced primarily by biological activity, and to a smaller extent by geological processes such as some hydrothermal reactions.

    The two instruments tasked with this role have now demonstrated they can take highly sensitive spectra of the atmosphere. During the test observations last week, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite focused on carbon dioxide, which makes up a large volume of the planet’s atmosphere, while the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery instrument homed in on water.

    They also coordinated observations with ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as they will in the future.

    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter
    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter

    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    Complementary measurements by the orbiter’s neutron detector, FREND, will measure the flow of neutrons from the planet’s surface. Created by the impact of cosmic rays, the way in which they are emitted and their speed on arriving at TGO points to the composition of the surface layer, in particular to water or ice just below the surface.

    The instrument has been active at various times during the cruise to Mars and on recent occasions while flying close to the surface could identify the relative difference between regions of known higher and lower neutron flux, although it will take several months to produce statistically significant results.

    Similarly, the instrument showed a clear increase in neutron detections when close to Mars compared to when it was further away.

    The different capabilities of the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System were also demonstrated, with 11 images captured during the first close flyby on 22 November.

    At closest approach the spacecraft was 235 km from the surface, and flying over the Hebes Chasma region, just north of the Valles Marineris canyon system. These are some of the closest images that will ever be taken of the planet by TGO, given that the spacecraft’s final orbit will be at around 400 km altitude.

    The camera team also completed a quick first test of producing a 3D reconstruction of a region in Noctis Labyrinthus, from a stereo pair of images.

    4
    First ExoMars stereo reconstruction. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

    Although the images are impressively sharp, data collected during this test period will help to improve the camera’s onboard software as well as the quality of the images after processing.

    “We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what’s to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO Project Scientist.

    “Not only is the spacecraft itself clearly performing well, but I am delighted to see the various teams working together so effectively in order to give us this impressive insight.

    “We have identified areas that can be fine-tuned well in advance of the main science mission, and we look forward to seeing what this amazing science orbiter will do in the future.”

    5
    ExoMars science orbit 1. Credit: ESA

    See the full article here .

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    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 10:15 am on November 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , BILI, Mars Exploration, New Instrument Could Search for Signatures of Life on Mars   

    From Goddard: “New Instrument Could Search for Signatures of Life on Mars” 

    NASA Goddard Banner

    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    Nov. 1, 2016
    Lori Keesey
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

    A sensing technique that the U.S. military currently uses to remotely monitor the air to detect potentially life-threatening chemicals, toxins, and pathogens has inspired a new instrument that could “sniff” for life on Mars and other targets in the solar system — the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, or BILI.

    1
    This artist’s rendition shows how a proposed laser-fluorescence instrument could operate on Mars. Credits: NASA

    Branimir Blagojevic, a NASA technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, formerly worked for a company that developed the sensor. He has applied the technology to create an instrument prototype, proving in testing that the same remote-sensing technology used to identify bio-hazards in public places also could be effective at detecting organic bio-signatures on Mars.

    BILI is a fluorescence-based lidar, a type of remote-sensing instrument similar to radar in principle and operation. Instead of using radio waves, however, lidar instruments use light to detect and ultimately analyze the composition of particles in the atmosphere.

    Although NASA has used fluorescence instruments to detect chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere as part of its climate-studies research, the agency so far hasn’t employed the technique in planetary studies. “NASA has never used it before for planetary ground level exploration. If the agency develops it, it will be the first of a kind,” Blagojevic said.

    A Rover’s ‘Sense of Smell’

    2
    Branimir Blagojevic has developed a prototype instrument that would “sniff” for biosignatures in Martian dust. The screen behind Blagovevic shows the graphics user interface for the Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument, developed by Science and Engineering Services, Inc. while he worked there.
    Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

    As a planetary-exploration tool, Blagojevic and his team, Goddard scientists Melissa Trainer and Alexander Pavlov, envision BILI as primarily “a rover’s sense of smell.”

    Positioned on a rover’s mast, BILI would first scan the terrain looking for dust plumes. Once detected, the instrument, then would command its two ultraviolet lasers to pulse light at the dust. The illumination would cause the particles inside these dust clouds to resonate or fluoresce. By analyzing the fluorescence, scientists could determine if the dust contained organic particles created relatively recently or in the past. The data also would reveal the particles’ size.

    “If the bio-signatures are there, it could be detected in the dust,” Blagojevic said.

    BILI’s Beauty

    The beauty of BILI, Blagojevic added, is its ability to detect in real-time small levels of complex organic materials from a distance of several hundred meters. Therefore, it could autonomously search for bio-signatures in plumes above recurring slopes — areas not easily traversed by a rover carrying a variety of in-situ instruments for detailed chemical and biological analysis. Furthermore, because it could do a ground-level aerosol analysis from afar, BILI reduces the risk of sample contamination that could skew the results.

    “This makes our instrument an excellent complementary organic-detection instrument, which we could use in tandem with more sensitive, point sensor-type mass spectrometers that can only measure a small amount of material at once,” Blagojevic said. “BILI’s measurements do not require consumables other than electrical power and can be conducted quickly over a broad area. This is a survey instrument, with a nose for certain molecules.”

    With such a tool, which also could be installed on an orbiting spacecraft, NASA could dramatically increase the probability of finding bio-signatures in the solar system, he added. “We are ready to integrate and test this novel instrument, which would be capable of detecting a number organic bio-signatures,” Blagojevic said. “Our goal is increasing the likelihood of their discovery.”

    Long Heritage

    Blagojevic hopes to further advance BILI by ruggedizing the design, reducing its size, and confirming that it can detect tiny concentrations of a broad range of organic molecules, particularly in aerosols that would be found at the ground level on Mars.

    “This sensing technique is a product of two decades of research,” Blagojevic said, referring to the technology created by his former employer, Science and Engineering Services, LLC..

    Blagojevic and his team used NASA’s Center Innovation Fund, or CIF, to advance the technology. CIF stimulates and encourages creativity and innovation within NASA, targeting less mature, yet promising new technologies.

    For more Goddard technology news, go to: http://gsfctechnology.gsfc.nasa.gov/newsletter/Current.pdf

    See the full article here .

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    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is home to the nation’s largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

    Named for American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the center was established in 1959 as NASA’s first space flight complex. Goddard and its several facilities are critical in carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery.
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  • richardmitnick 10:02 am on October 23, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Mars Exploration, , NASA’s MAVEN Mission Observes Ups and Downs of Water Escape from Mars   

    From astrobio.net: “NASA’s MAVEN Mission Observes Ups and Downs of Water Escape from Mars” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Oct 22, 2016
    No writer credit found

    1
    NASA

    After investigating the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet for a full Martian year, NASA’s MAVEN mission has determined that the escaping water does not always go gently into space.

    Sophisticated measurements made by a suite of instruments on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft revealed the ups and downs of hydrogen escape – and therefore water loss. The escape rate peaked when Mars was at its closest point to the sun and dropped off when the planet was farthest from the sun. The rate of loss varied dramatically overall, with 10 times more hydrogen escaping at the maximum.

    “MAVEN is giving us unprecedented detail about hydrogen escape from the upper atmosphere of Mars, and this is crucial for helping us figure out the total amount of water lost over billions of years,” said Ali Rahmati, a MAVEN team member at the University of California at Berkeley who analyzed data from two of the spacecraft’s instruments.

    Hydrogen in Mars’ upper atmosphere comes from water vapor in the lower atmosphere. An atmospheric water molecule can be broken apart by sunlight, releasing the two hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atom that they had been bound to. Several processes at work in Mars’ upper atmosphere may then act on the hydrogen, leading to its escape.

    This loss had long been assumed to be more-or-less constant, like a slow leak in a tire. But previous observations made using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and ESA’s Mars Express orbiter found unexpected fluctuations. Only a handful of these measurements have been made so far, and most were essentially snapshots, taken months or years apart. MAVEN has been tracking the hydrogen escape without interruption over the course of a Martian year, which lasts nearly two Earth years.

    2
    This image shows atomic hydrogen scattering sunlight in the upper atmosphere of Mars, as seen by the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph on NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. About 400,000 observations, taken over the course of four days shortly after the spacecraft entered orbit around Mars, were used to create the image. Hydrogen is produced by the breakdown of water, which was once abundant on Mars’ surface. Because hydrogen has low atomic mass and is weakly bound by gravity, it extends far from the planet (the darkened circle) and can readily escape. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Colorado

    “Now that we know such large changes occur, we think of hydrogen escape from Mars less as a slow and steady leak and more as an episodic flow – rising and falling with season and perhaps punctuated by strong bursts,” said Michael Chaffin, a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is on the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) team. Chaffin is presenting some IUVS results on Oct. 19 at the joint meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences and the European Planetary Science Congress in Pasadena, California.

    In the most detailed observations of hydrogen loss to date, four of MAVEN’s instruments detected the factor-of-10 change in the rate of escape. Changes in the density of hydrogen in the upper atmosphere were inferred from the flux of hydrogen ions – electrically charged hydrogen atoms – measured by the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer and by the Suprathermal and Thermal Ion Composition instrument. IUVS observed a drop in the amount of sunlight scattered by hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. MAVEN’s magnetometer found a decrease in the occurrence of electromagnetic waves excited by hydrogen ions, indicating a decrease in the amount of hydrogen present.

    By investigating hydrogen escape in multiple ways, the MAVEN team will be able to work out which factors drive the escape. Scientists already know that Mars’ elliptical orbit causes the intensity of the sunlight reaching Mars to vary by 40 percent during a Martian year. There also is a seasonal effect that controls how much water vapor is present in the lower atmosphere, as well as variations in how much water makes it into the upper atmosphere. The 11-year cycle of the sun’s activity is another likely factor.

    “In addition, when Mars is closest to the sun, the atmosphere becomes turbulent, resulting in global dust storms and other activity. This could allow the water in the lower atmosphere to rise to very high altitudes, providing an intermittent source of hydrogen that can then escape,” said John Clarke, a Boston University scientist on the IUVS team. Clarke will present IUVS measurements of hydrogen and deuterium – a form of hydrogen that contains a neutron and is heavier – on Oct. 19 at the planetary conference.

    By making observations for a second Mars year and during different parts of the solar cycle, the scientists will be better able to distinguish among these effects. MAVEN is continuing these observations in its extended mission, which has been approved until at least September 2018.

    “MAVEN’s findings reveal what is happening in Mars’ atmosphere now, but over time this type of loss contributed to the global change from a wetter environment to the dry planet we see today,” said Rahmati.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:36 am on October 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Mars Exploration   

    From ESA: “Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter views Schiaparelli landing site” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    European Space Agency

    21 October 2016
    Thierry Blancquaert
    ExoMars EDM Manager
    Email: Thierry.Blancquaert@esa.int

    Markus Bauer








    ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Communication Officer









    Tel: +31 71 565 6799









    Mob: +31 61 594 3 954









    Email: markus.bauer@esa.int

    1
    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site

    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed to be related to ESA’s ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing technology demonstrator module.

    Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 14:42 GMT on 19 October for its 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown. Data recorded by its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, are currently being analysed to understand what happened during the descent sequence.

    In the meantime, the low-resolution CTX camera on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took pictures of the expected touchdown site in Meridiani Planum on 20 October as part of a planned imaging campaign.

    The image released today has a resolution of 6 metres per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year.

    2
    Schiaparelli landing site

    One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 12-m diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent, after the initial heat shield entry. The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface.

    The other new feature is a fuzzy dark patch roughly 15 x 40 metres in size and about 1 km north of the parachute. This is interpreted as arising from the impact of the Schiaparelli module itself following a much longer free fall than planned, after the thrusters were switched off prematurely.

    Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis.

    A closer look at these features will be taken next week with HiRISE, the highest-resolution camera onboard MRO. These images may also reveal the location of the front heat shield, dropped at higher altitude.

    2
    MRO image of Schiaparelli – before

    Since the module’s descent trajectory was observed from three different locations, the teams are confident that they will be able to reconstruct the chain of events with great accuracy. The exact mode of anomaly onboard Schiaparelli is still under investigation.

    The two new features are located at 353.79 degrees east longitude, 2.07 degrees south latitude on Mars. The position of the dark mark shows that Schiaparelli impacted approximately 5.4 km west of its intended landing point, well within the nominal 100 x 15 km landing ellipse.

    Meanwhile, the teams continue to decode the data extracted from the recording of Schiaparelli descent signals recorded by the ExoMars TGO in order to establish correlations with the measurements made with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), an experimental telescope array located near Pune, India, and with ESA’s Mars Express from orbit.

    A substantial amount of extremely valuable Schiaparelli engineering data were relayed back to the TGO during the descent and is being analysed by engineers day and night.

    5
    MRO image of Schiaparelli – after

    The ExoMars TGO orbiter is currently on a 101 000 km x 3691 km orbit (with respect to the centre of the planet) with a period of 4.2 days, well within the planned initial orbit.

    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
    “ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

    The spacecraft is working very well and will take science calibration data during two orbits in November 2016.

    It will then be ready for the planned aerobraking manoeuvres starting in March 2017 and continuing for most of the year, bringing it into a 400-km altitude circular orbit around Mars.

    The TGO will then begin its primary science mission to study the atmosphere of Mars in search of possible indications of life below the surface, and to act as a telecommunications relay station for the ExoMars 2020 rover and other landed assets.

    See the full article here .

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    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 7:59 am on October 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Mars Exploration   

    From ESA: “ExoMars TGO reaches Mars orbit while EDM situation under assessment” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    European Space Agency

    19 October 2016

    1
    ExoMars approaching Mars

    The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) of ESA’s ExoMars 2016 has successfully performed the long 139-minute burn required to be captured by Mars and entered an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, while contact has not yet been confirmed with the mission’s test lander from the surface.

    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

    TGO’s Mars orbit Insertion burn lasted from 13:05 to 15:24 GMT on 19 October, reducing the spacecraft’s speed and direction by more than 1.5 km/s. The TGO is now on its planned orbit around Mars. European Space Agency teams at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, continue to monitor the good health of their second orbiter around Mars, which joins the 13-year old Mars Express.

    2
    ExoMars Operations

    The ESOC teams are trying to confirm contact with the Entry, Descent & Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), Schiaparelli, which entered the Martian atmosphere some 107 minutes after TGO started its own orbit insertion manoeuvre.

    ESA/ExoMars Schiaparelli module
    ESA/ExoMars Schiaparelli module

    The 577-kg EDM was released by the TGO at 14:42 GMT on 16 October. Schiaparelli was programmed to autonomously perform an automated landing sequence, with parachute deployment and front heat shield release between 11 and 7 km, followed by a retrorocket braking starting at 1100 m from the ground, and a final fall from a height of 2 m protected by a crushable structure.

    Prior to atmospheric entry at 14:42 GMT, contact via the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), the world’s largest interferometric array, located near Pune, India, was established just after it began transmitting a beacon signal 75 minutes before reaching the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere. However, the signal was lost some time prior to landing.

    GMRT Radio Telescope
    GMRT Radio Telescope, located near Pune, India

    A series of windows have been programmed to listen for signals coming from the lander via ESA’S Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Atmosphere & Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probes. The Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) also has listening slots.

    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter
    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter

    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    NASA/Mars MAVEN
    NASA/Mars MAVEN

    If Schiaparelli reached the surface safely, its batteries should be able to support operations for three to ten days, offering multiple opportunities to re-establish a communication link.

    TGO is equipped with a suite of science instruments in order to study the Martian environment from orbit. Although mostly a technology demonstrator, Schiaparelli is also carrying a small science payload to perform some observations from ground.

    ExoMars 2016 is the first part of a two-fold international endeavour conducted by ESA in cooperation with Roskosmos in Russia that will also encompass the ExoMars 2020 mission. Due in 2020, the second ExoMars mission will include a Russian lander and a European rover, which will drill down to 2 m underground to look for pristine organic material.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 8:13 am on October 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Mars Exploration   

    From ESA: “What to expect from Schiaparelli’s camera” 

    ESA Space For Europe Banner

    European Space Agency

    12 October 2016
    Detlef Koschny
    DECA team leader, ESA
    Email: detlef.koschny@esa.int

    Elliot Sefton-Nash
    ESA planetary scientist
    Email: esefton@cosmos.esa.int

    Markus Bauer








    ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Communication Officer









    Tel: +31 71 565 6799









    Mob: +31 61 594 3 954









    Email: markus.bauer@esa.int

    ESA/ExoMars
    ESA/ExoMars
    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
    ESA/ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
    ESA/ExoMars Schiaparelli module
    ESA/ExoMars Schiaparelli module

    1
    Simulating Schiaparelli’s descent camera view

    As the ExoMars Schiaparelli module descends onto Mars on 19 October it will capture 15 images of the approaching surface. Scientists have simulated the view we can expect to see from the descent camera.

    Schiaparelli will separate from its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, on 16 October, with some six million km still to travel before entering the atmosphere of Mars at 14:42 GMT three days later.

    Its descent will take just under six minutes, using a heatshield, parachute, thrusters and a crushable structure for the landing.

    Schiaparelli is primarily a technology demonstrator to test entry, descent and landing technologies for future missions and is therefore designed to operate for a only few days.

    The small surface science package will take readings of the atmosphere, but there is no scientific camera like those found on other landers or rovers – including the ExoMars rover that is planned for launch in 2020.

    The lander does, however, carry ESA’s small, 0.6 kg technical camera, a refurbished spare flight model of the Visual Monitoring Camera flown on ESA’s Herschel/Planck spacecraft to image the separation of the two craft after their joint launch.

    2
    The Planck-Sylda composite seen receding from Herschel after separation

    3
    Simulated view of Schiaparelli’s descent images

    Its role is to capture 15 black and white images during the descent that will be used to help reconstruct the module’s trajectory and its motion, as well giving context information for the final touchdown site.

    The wide, 60º field-of-view will deliver a broad look at the landscape below, to maximise the chances of seeing features that will help to pinpoint the landing site and reveal Schiaparelli’s attitude and position during descent.

    The camera will start taking images around a minute after Schiaparelli’s front shield is jettisoned, when the module is predicted to be about 3 km above the surface. This will result in images covering about 17 sq km on the surface.

    4
    Schiaparelli’s camera sequence

    The images will be taken at 1.5 s intervals, ending at an altitude of about 1.5 km, covering an area of roughly 4.6 sq km.

    Then, at an altitude of about 1.2 km, the parachute and rear cover will be jettisoned, and the thrusters ignited. The thrusters will cut out just 2 m above the surface, with the module’s crushable structure absorbing the force of impact.

    Schiaparelli will target the centre of a 100 km x 15 km landing ellipse, in a relatively flat area in Meridiani Planum, close to the equator in the southern hemisphere. This region has been imaged extensively from orbit, including by ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

    ESA/Mars Express Orbiter
    ESA/Mars Express

    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    To plan for analysing Schiaparelli’s descent, thousands of simulations were made varying the atmospheric conditions and the flight path to the surface. From one such simulation, which touched down at the centre of the landing ellipse, simulated images were then made using data from NASA’s orbiter covering the Meridiani region, as shown here.

    In reality, the altitudes at which images are actually taken may vary somewhat, depending on the atmospheric conditions, the final path through the atmosphere and the speed at which Schiaparelli descends.

    The real images taken on 19 October will be stored in Schiaparelli’s memory before being beamed up to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and downlinked to Earth on 20 October.

    5
    Schiaparelli descent imaging in context

    ExoMars is a cooperative project between ESA and Roscosmos. It comprises two missions: the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, which were launched on 14 March 2016, and the ExoMars rover and surface platform, scheduled for launch in 2020.

    The first of the real images taken by DECA during Schiaparelli’s descent to the surface on 19 October, are expected to be presented during a press briefing on the morning of 20 October, along with other information confirming the status of the lander, and published on our ESA web channels.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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