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Mars Express views moons set against Saturn’s rings

Paris (ESA)

Mar 02, 2018

New images and video from ESA’s Mars Express show Phobos and Deimos drifting in front of Saturn and background stars, revealing more about the positioning and surfaces of the Red Planet’s mysterious moons.

Mars’ two small moons are intriguing objects. While we know something of their size, appearance and position thanks to spacecraft such as ESA’s Mars Express, much remains unknown. How and where did they form? What are they made of? What exactly is on their surfaces – and could we send a lander to find out?

Mars Express has been studying Mars and its moons for many years. The satellite recently observed both Phobos, Mars’ innermost and largest moon at up to 26 km in diameter, and Deimos, Phobos’ smaller sibling at 6.2 km in diameter, to produce this new video and series of images.

The video combines 30 images as individual frames and shows Phobos passing through the frame with the gas giant planet Saturn, which sits roughly a billion kilometers away, visible as a small ringed dot in the background.

Precise positioning

Mars Express has been working for more than 14 years at the Red Planet. While several other spacecraft are currently at Mars, including ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars Express’ near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages for certain observations.

In particular, its path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, and allows it to periodically observe the moon close up from within 150 km – in the summer of 2017, it came as close as 115 km.

The images of Phobos and Saturn comprising the video were taken on 26 November 2016 by the High Resolution Stereo Camera. Mars Express was travelling at about 3 km/s when it obtained these views, highlighting the importance of knowing Phobos’ exact position: the spacecraft had just seconds to image the rocky body as it passed by.

Scientists repeatedly refine our knowledge of the moons’ positioning in the sky and ensure it is up-to-date by observing each moon against background reference stars and other Solar System bodies. These calculated positions are incredibly precise, and can be accurate to just a couple of kilometers.

Studying the surface

These images are also key to understanding the surface and structure of the moons. Alongside the view of Phobos set against Saturn, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos against a reference star on 8 January 2018 (star circled in red), close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on 12 September 2017, and images of Deimos with Saturn on 15 January 2018.

The frames of Phobos’ surface were taken during close flybys, and show the bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail. Phobos has one of the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System: Stickney crater’s 9 km diameter is around a third of the moon’s diameter. It is visible as the largest crater in these frames.

The same side of the moon always faces the planet, which means multiple flybys are needed to build up a full map of its surface.

Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground of one of the new Mars Express images, with the delicate rings of Saturn just about visible encircling the small dot in the background.

Deimos is significantly further away from Mars than its bigger sibling: while Phobos sits at just 6000 km from the surface, Deimos orbits at nearly 23 500 km. For comparison, our own satellite is around 16 times further from Earth than Deimos is from Mars.

Future missions to Mars

There is much we still wish to know about the Mars system. The moons remain particularly mysterious, with open questions about their origins, formation and composition. As a result, combined with their proximity to the Red Planet, the little moons have generated a lot of interest as a target for future missions.

Phobos in particular has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission. Owing to its nearness to Mars and one side always facing its parent, the moon could also be a possible location for a more permanent observation post. This would enable long-term monitoring and study of the martian surface and atmosphere, and communications relay for other spacecraft.

Understanding more about the positioning, surface, composition and terrain of both Phobos and Deimos from Mars Express observations is important for preparing for future missions.

Source: Mars Daily.



Discovery of boron on Mars adds to evidence for habitability

Los Alamos NM (SPX)

Sep 07, 2017

The discovery of boron on Mars gives scientists more clues about whether life could have ever existed on the planet, according to a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life – finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author on the paper. “Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”

RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a nucleic acid present in all modern life, but scientists have long hypothesized an “RNA World,” where the first proto-life was made of individual RNA strands that both contained genetic information and could copy itself. A key ingredient of RNA is a sugar called ribose. But sugars are notoriously unstable; they decompose quickly in water. The ribose would need another element there to stabilize it.

That’s where boron comes in. When boron is dissolved in water – becoming borate – it will react with the ribose and stabilize it for long enough to make RNA.

“We detected borates in a crater on Mars that’s 3.8 billion years old, younger than the likely formation of life on Earth,” said Gasda. “Essentially, this tells us that the conditions from which life could have potentially grown may have existed on ancient Mars, independent from Earth.”

The boron found on Mars was discovered in calcium sulfate mineral veins, meaning the boron was present in Mars groundwater, and provides another indication that some of the groundwater in Gale Cater was habitable, ranging between 0-60 degrees Celsius (32-140 degrees Fahrenheit) and with neutral-to-alkaline pH.

The boron was identified by the rover’s laser-shooting ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera) instrument, which was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in conjunction with the French space agency. Los Alamos’ work on discovery-driven instruments like ChemCam stems from the Laboratory’s experience building and operating more than 500 spacecraft instruments for national defense.

The discovery of boron is only one of several recent findings related to the composition of Martian rocks. Curiosity is climbing a layered Martian mountain and finding chemical evidence of how ancient lakes and wet underground environments changed, billions of years ago, in ways that affected their potential favorability for microbial life.

As the rover has progressed uphill, compositions trend toward more clay and more boron. These and other chemical variations can tell us about conditions under which sediments were initially deposited and about how later groundwater moving through the accumulated layers altered and transported dissolved elements, including boron.

Whether Martian life has ever existed is still unknown. No compelling evidence for it has been found. When Curiosity landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in 2012 the mission’s main goal was to determine whether the area ever offered a habitable environment, which has since been confirmed.

The Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with an instrument called “SuperCam,” developed by Los Alamos and an instrument called SHERLOC, which was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with significant participation by Los Alamos. Both of these will search for signs of past life on the planet.

Source: Mars Daily.


Life on Mars: Let’s Try Oman Desert First for Space Mission

Moscow (Sputnik)

Sep 05, 2017

Life on Mars may still be light years away – but it clearly hasn’t stopped us from thinking ahead. Next year six space-suited and booted astronauts will head to the Dhofar desert in Oman in an attempt to simulate what life will be like on Mars.

According to scientists, the Dhofar desert is possibly the most realistic place on Earth that is as harsh and uninviting as the landscape of Mars.

The astronauts will take part in a lavish dress rehearsal for the first manned voyage to another planet as they attempt to retrace the footsteps of Marco Polo and the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

It is not the first time such an elaborate adventure has been staged in readiness for the real mission in later years. Teams have simulated identical missions in an open cast mine in southern Spain, the Sahara desert in Africa, as well as a glacier in the Alps.

“Every time we try to get bigger and better and closer to the real thing. We need to understand the capabilities and limitations of our equipment and what people need to do when they get there. This is the biggest mission we have ever done,” Gernot Gromer, president of the Austrian Space Forum, revealed.

When they head to Arabia next February the space crew will go armed with a drone, an inflatable hydroponic greenhouse, several robotic rovers as well as a host of other scientific equipment.

Although they will spend their time in complete isolation, their three week journey will be closely monitored by mission control, on this occasion, based in Austria. In order to make the event all the more realistic, any signal contact between them will be delayed by 10 minutes, just as there would be in real life.

“What we know about Mars has progressed massively in the past 15 years, and I strongly believe that the first human to walk on Mars is already born. We could see permanent human settlement on the Red Planet several generations from now, and they may not be happy eating canned food,” said Mr. Gromer.

A 50-strong army of support personnel – including Squadron Leader Bonnie Posselt, an RAF doctor who became Britain’s first trainee space medic last year – will be on hand throughout the mission. Some 60 researchers will also follow their every footsteps as they probe the 120 square mile test site looking for ‘alien’ DNA or, anything else they can find in the barren desert wastes.

In addition to the obvious inhospitable conditions beyond Earth, he explained, there are a number of less well known challenges to humans.

“The way our body processes food is different enough to matter a great deal. A person’s sense of taste changes in zero gravity. There are medical implications to different gravity effects. In our work we’re verifying whether the ideas and designs to survive on Mars work in practice, and the gaps between theory and practice that we observe range from trivial to serious matters.”

The astronauts are guaranteed to be put to the test during their mission, most notably temperatures will vary from 16 degrees and 27 Celsius, a far cry from anything Mars has to offer.

In many respects, however, the landscape in Oman will be similar to those expected on the red planet, thanks to its salt domes, sedimentary rocks and dried up riverbeds.

Source: Mars Daily.



Space station receives oldest female astronaut, bit of Mars

November 20, 2016

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The International Space Station gained three new residents Saturday, including the oldest and most experienced woman to orbit the world. A bit of Mars also arrived, courtesy of a Frenchman who brought along a small piece of a Mars meteorite.

Launched Thursday from Kazakhstan, the Russian Soyuz capsule docked at the 250-mile-high outpost just an hour or two before NASA launched a weather satellite from Florida. The Soyuz delivered NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy. They joined three men already on board, one American and two Russians.

This is the third space station mission for Whitson, who at 56 is older than each of her crewmates. She already holds the record for most time in space for a woman: nearly 400 days during her various missions. By the time she returns next spring, she should break the record for any American, man or woman.

“We could not be more proud,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Whitson once she entered the space station. He joined the new crew’s family and friends at Russia’s Mission Control outside Moscow to welcome the newcomers on board.

“I’m really happy to be here,” Whitson replied. A biochemist by training, Whitson will celebrate her 57th birthday at the orbiting lab in February. Until Thursday, no woman older than 55 had flown in space.

Pesquet, meanwhile, is making his first spaceflight and Novitskiy his second. Before rocketing away, Pesquet told reporters he was taking up a piece of a Mars meteorite to illustrate the necessary union between human and robotic explorers. He intends to bring the stone back with him to Earth in six months. It then will launch aboard a Mars rover and return to its home planet.

“So it’s going to be the most experienced space traveler there is in the world,” Pesquet said Wednesday at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. “The idea is to show that space exploration is just the whole … we’re not competing against robotic exploration, we’re all working together. What we do on the (space station) is just one step on that road to exploration.”

Sunday marks the 18th anniversary of the launch of the first space station piece. It’s now as big as a football field, with a mass of 1 million pounds and eight miles of electrical wiring. Whitson and company represent its 50th full-time expedition.

“So we can celebrate the station’s birthday today,” said Sergei Krikalev, a cosmonaut-turned-space official who spoke from the Russian control center. “Good luck.”


NASA Scientists Discover Unexpected Mineral on Mars

Pasadena CA (JPL)

Jun 24, 2016

Scientists have discovered an unexpected mineral in a rock sample at Gale Crater on Mars, a finding that may alter our understanding of how the planet evolved.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, has been exploring sedimentary rocks within Gale Crater since landing in August 2012. In July 2015, on Sol 1060 (the number of Martian days since landing), the rover collected powder drilled from rock at a location named “Buckskin.”

Analyzing data from an X-ray diffraction instrument on the rover that identifies minerals, scientists detected significant amounts of a silica mineral called tridymite.

This detection was a surprise to the scientists, because tridymite is generally associated with silicic volcanism, which is known on Earth but was not thought to be important or even present on Mars.

The discovery of tridymite might induce scientists to rethink the volcanic history of Mars, suggesting that the planet once had explosive volcanoes that led to the presence of the mineral.

Scientists in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston led the study. A paper on the team’s findings has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“On Earth, tridymite is formed at high temperatures in an explosive process called silicic volcanism. Mount St. Helens, the active volcano in Washington State, and the Satsuma-Iwojima volcano in Japan are examples of such volcanoes.

“The combination of high silica content and extremely high temperatures in the volcanoes creates tridymite,” said Richard Morris, NASA planetary scientist at Johnson and lead author of the paper.

“The tridymite was incorporated into ‘Lake Gale’ mudstone at Buckskin as sediment from erosion of silicic volcanic rocks.”

The paper also will stimulate scientists to re-examine the way tridymite forms. The authors examined terrestrial evidence that tridymite could form at low temperatures from geologically reasonable processes and not imply silicic volcanism. They found none. Researchers will need to look for ways that it could form at lower temperatures.

“I always tell fellow planetary scientists to expect the unexpected on Mars,” said Doug Ming, ARES chief scientist at Johnson and co-author of the paper.

“The discovery of tridymite was completely unexpected. This discovery now begs the question of whether Mars experienced a much more violent and explosive volcanic history during the early evolution of the planet than previously thought.”

Source: Mars Daily.



SpaceX could send people to Mars by 2024, Elon Musk says

by Shawn Price

Los Angeles (UPI)

Jun 3, 2016

SpaceX Chief Elon Musk is predicting his company will be able to launch humans to Mars by 2024.

Speaking at Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. on Wednesday, Musk said if there are no delays, there could be a human colony on Mars by 2025 and promised to give more details of his company’s “architecture for Mars colonization” at a global space conference in September.

“What really matters is being able to transport large numbers of people and ultimately millions of tons of cargo to Mars,” Musk said. “That’s what’s necessary in order to create a … growing city on Mars.”

SpaceX announced plans in April to send an unmanned Dragon Version 2 craft to the red planet possibly as soon as 2018, with the goal of landing large payloads there without parachutes or airbags or aerodynamic decelerators.

Musk acknowledged a schedule more ambitious than NASA’s, that isn’t intending to put a man on Mars until the at least the 2030s.

“When I cite a schedule, it is actually the schedule I think is true,” said Musk. “It’s not some fake schedule that I don’t think is true. It may be delusional. That is entirely possible from time to time. But it’s never some knowingly fake deadline ever.”

He also implied he could one day move to Mars for good. “I think if you’re going to choose a place to die, then Mars is probably not a bad choice,” Musk said.

Source: Mars Daily.



Potential Habitats for Early Life on Mars

San Francisco CA (SPX)

May 25, 2016

San Francisco CA (SPX) May 25, 2016 Recently discovered evidence of carbonates beneath the surface of Mars points to a warmer and wetter environment in that planet’s past. The presence of liquid water could have fostered the emergence of life.

A new study by James Wray at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Janice Bishop of the SETI Institute, as well as other collaborators, has found evidence for widespread buried deposits of iron- and calcium-rich Martian carbonates, which suggests a wetter past for the Red Planet.

“Identification of these ancient carbonates and clays on Mars represents a window into history when the climate on Mars was very different from the cold and dry desert of today,” notes Bishop.

The fate of water on Mars has been energetically debated by scientists because the planet is currently dry and cold, in contrast to the widespread fluvial features that etch much of its surface. Scientists believe that if water did once flow on the surface of Mars, the planet’s bedrock should be full of carbonates and clays, which would be evidence that Mars once hosted habitable environments with liquid water.

Researchers have struggled to find physical evidence for carbonate-rich bedrock, which may have formed when carbon dioxide in the planet’s early atmosphere was trapped in ancient surface waters. They have focused their search on Mars’ Huygens basin.

This feature is an ideal site to investigate carbonates because multiple impact craters and troughs have exposed ancient, subsurface materials where carbonates can be detected across a broad region. And according to study led James Wray, “outcrops in the 450-km wide Huygens basin contain both clay minerals and iron- or calcium-rich carbonate-bearing rocks.”

The study has highlighted evidence of carbonate-bearing rocks in multiple sites across Mars, including Lucaya crater, where carbonates and clays 3.8 billion years old were buried by as much as 5 km of lava and caprock.

The researchers, supported by the SETI Institute’s NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) team, identified carbonates on the planet using data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), which is on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This instrument collects the spectral fingerprints of carbonates and other minerals through vibrational transitions of the molecules in their crystal structure that produce infrared emission.

The team paired CRISM data with images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and Context Camera (CTX) on the orbiter, as well as the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on the Mars Global Surveyor, to gain insights into the geologic features associated with carbonate-bearing rocks.

The extent of the global distribution of Martian carbonates is not yet fully resolved and the early climate on the Red Planet is still subject of debate. However, this study is a forward step in understanding the potential habitability of ancient Mars.

Source: Mars Daily.



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