Tag Archives: curiosity

Ancient Aquifer


Mars Curiosity Rover is at it again. This time it has unearthed (or should it be “unmarsed”) compelling evidence of an ancient lake on the red planet.

From Wired:

The latest discovery of Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover is evidence of an ancient freshwater lake on Mars that was part of an environment that could potentially have supported simple microbial life.

The lake is located inside the Gale Crater and is thought to have covered an area that is 31 miles long and three miles wide for more than 100,000 years.

According to a paper published yesterday in Science Magazine: “The Curiosity rover discovered fine-grained sedimentary rocks, which are inferred to represent an ancient lake and preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy.”

When analyzing two rock samples from an area known as Yellowknife Bay, researchers discovered smectite clay minerals, the chemical makeup of which showed that they had formed in water. Due to low salinity and the neutral pH, the water the minerals formed in was neither too acidic nor too alkaline for life to have once existed within it.

Chemolithoautotrophs, the form of life the researchers believed may have lived in the lake, can also be found on Earth, usually in caves or in vents on the ocean floor.

“If we put microbes from Earth and put them in this lake on Mars, would they survive? Would they survive and thrive? And the answer is yes,” the Washington Post is reporting John Grotzinger, a Caltech planetary geologist who is the chief scientist of the Curiosity rover mission, as saying at a press conference.

Evidence of water was first discovered in soil samples on Mars in September by Curiosity, which first landed on the Red Planet in August 2012 with the hope of discovering whether it may have once offered a habitable environment. Increasingly, as studies are finding evidence of the planet’s environment interacting at some point with water, researchers are believing that in the past Mars could have been a more Earth-like planet.

Curiosity cannot confirm whether or not these organisms definitely did exist on Mars, only that the environment was once ideal for them to flourish there.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Mars Curiosity Rover. Courtesy of NASA / JPL.

Water in Them Thar Hills

Curiosity, the latest rover to explore Mars, has found lots of water in the martian soil. Now, it doesn’t run freely, but is chemically bound to other substances. Yet the large volume of H2O bodes well for future human exploration (and settlement).

From the Guardian:

Water has been discovered in the fine-grained soil on the surface of Mars, which could be a useful resource for future human missions to the red planet, according to measurements made by Nasa’s Curiosity rover.

Each cubic foot of Martian soil contains around two pints of liquid water, though the molecules are not freely accessible, but rather bound to other minerals in the soil.

The Curiosity rover has been on Mars since August 2012, landing in an area near the equator of the planet known as Gale Crater. Its target is to circle and climb Mount Sharp, which lies at the centre of the crater, a five-kilometre-high mountain of layered rock that will help scientists unravel the history of the planet.

On Thursday Nasa scientists published a series of five papers in the journal Science, which detail the experiments carried out by the various scientific instruments aboard Curiosity in its first four months on the martian surface. Though highlights from the year-long mission have been released at conferences and Nasa press conferences, these are the first set of formal, peer-reviewed results from the Curiosity mission.

“We tend to think of Mars as this dry place – to find water fairly easy to get out of the soil at the surface was exciting to me,” said Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author on the Science paper which confirmed the existence of water in the soil. “If you took about a cubic foot of the dirt and heated it up, you’d get a couple of pints of water out of that – a couple of water bottles’ worth that you would take to the gym.”

About 2% of the soil, by weight, was water. Curiosity made the measurement by scooping up a sample of the Martian dirt under its wheels, sieving it and dropping tiny samples into an oven in its belly, an instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars. “We heat [the soil] up to 835C and drive off all the volatiles and measure them,” said Leshin. “We have a very sensitive way to sniff those and we can detect the water and other things that are released.”

Aside from water, the heated soil released sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen as the various minerals within it were decomposed as they warmed up.

One of Curiosity’s main missions is to look for signs of habitability on Mars, places where life might once have existed. “The rocks and minerals are a record of the processes that have occurred and [Curiosity is] trying to figure out those environments that were around and to see if they were habitable,” said Peter Grindrod, a planetary scientist at University College London who was not involved in the analyses of Curiosity data.

Flowing water is once thought to have been abundant on the surface of Mars, but it has now all but disappeared. The only direct sources of water found so far have been as ice at the poles of the planet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. Courtesy: Nasa/Getty Images

Curiosity’s 10K Hike

Scientists and engineers at JPL have Mount Sharp in their sites. It’s no ordinary mountain — it’s situated on Mars. The 5,000 meter high mountain is home to exposed layers of some promising sedimentary rocks, which hold clues to Mars’ geologic, and perhaps biological, history. Unfortunately, Mount Sharp is 10K away from the current home of the Curiosity rover. So, at a top speed of around 100 meters per day it will take Curiosity until the fall of 2013 to reach its destination.

[div class=attrib]From the New Scientist:[end-div]

NASA’S Curiosity rover is about to have its cake and eat it too. Around September, the rover should get its first taste of layered sediments at Aeolis Mons, a mountain over 5 kilometres tall that may hold preserved signs of life on Mars.

Previous rovers uncovered ample evidence of ancient water, a key ingredient for life as we know it. With its sophisticated on-board chemistry lab, Curiosity is hunting for more robust signs of habitability, including organic compounds – the carbon-based building blocks of life as we know it.

Observations from orbit show that the layers in Aeolis Mons – also called Mount Sharp – contain minerals thought to have formed in the presence of water. That fits with theories that the rover’s landing site, Gale crater, was once a large lake. Even better, the layers were probably laid down quickly enough that the rocks could have held on to traces of microorganisms, if they existed there.

If the search for organics turns up empty, Aeolis Mons may hold other clues to habitability, says project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The layers will reveal which minerals and chemical processes were present in Mars’s past. “We’re going to find all kinds of good stuff down there, I’m sure,” he says.

Curiosity will explore a region called Glenelg until early February, and then hit the gas. The base of the mountain is 10 kilometres away, and the rover can drive at about 100 metres a day at full speed. The journey should take between six and nine months, but will include stops to check out any interesting landmarks. After all, some of the most exciting discoveries from Mars rovers were a result of serendipity.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Base of Mount Sharp, Mars. Courtesy of Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.[end-div]

Curiosity in Flight

NASA pulled off another tremendous and daring feat of engineering when it successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to the surface of Mars on August 5, 2012, 10:32 PM Pacific Time.

The MSL is housed aboard the Curiosity rover, a 2,000-pound, car-size robot. Not only did NASA land Curiosity a mere 1 second behind schedule following a journey of over 576 million kilometers (358 million miles) lasting around 8 months, it went one better. NASA had one of its Mars orbiters — Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — snap an image of MSL from around 300 miles away as it descended through the Martian atmosphere, with its supersonic parachute unfurled.

Another historic day for science, engineering and exploration.

[div class=attrib]From NASA / JPL:[end-div]

NASA’s Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Curiosity while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from the rover. Curiosity and its parachute are in the center of the white box; the inset image is a cutout of the rover stretched to avoid saturation. The rover is descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe “Mt. Sharp.” From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity are flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover.

The parachute appears fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute, such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole, are clearly seen. The cords connecting the parachute to the back shell cannot be seen, although they were seen in the image of NASA’s Phoenix lander descending, perhaps due to the difference in lighting angles. The bright spot on the back shell containing Curiosity might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. Curiosity was released from the back shell sometime after this image was acquired.

This view is one product from an observation made by HiRISE targeted to the expected location of Curiosity about one minute prior to landing. It was captured in HiRISE CCD RED1, near the eastern edge of the swath width (there is a RED0 at the very edge). This means that the rover was a bit further east or downrange than predicted.

[div class=attrib]Follow the mission after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.[end-div]

Curiosity: August 5, 2012, 10:31 PM Pacific Time

This is the time when NASA’s latest foray into space reaches its zenith — the upcoming landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. At this time NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission plans to deliver the nearly 2,000-pound, car-size robot rover to the surface of Mars. Curiosity will then embark on two years of exploration on the Red Planet.

For mission scientists and science buffs alike Curiosity’s descent and landing will be a major event. And, for the first time NASA will have a visual feed beamed back direct from the spacecraft (but only available after the event). The highly complex and fully automated landing has been dubbed “the Seven Minutes of Terror” by NASA engineers. Named for the time lag of signals from Curiosity to reach Earth due to the immense distance, mission scientists (and the rest of us) will not know whether Curiosity successfully descended and landed until a full 7 minutes after the fact.

For more on Curiosity and this special event visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion MSL site, here.

[div class=attrib]Image: This artist’s concept features NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.[end-div]

Wikipedia Blackout and Intellectual Curiosity

Perhaps the recent dimming of Wikipedia, for 24 hours on January 18, (and other notable websites) in protest of the planned online privacy legislation in the U.S. Congress, wasn’t all that bad.

Many would argue that Wikipedia has been a great boon in democratizing content authorship and disseminating information. So, when it temporarily shuttered its online doors, many shuddered from withdrawal. Yet, this “always on”, instantly available, crowdsourced resource is undermining an important human trait: intellectual curiosity.

When Wikipedia went off-air many of us, including Jonathan Jones, were forced to search a little deeper and a little longer for facts and information. In doing so, it reawakened our need to discover, connect, and conceptualize for ourselves, rather than take as rote the musings of the anonymous masses, just one click away. Yes, we exercised our brains a little harder that day.

[div class=attrib]By Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian:[end-div]

I got really excited this morning. Looking up an artist online – Rembrandt, if you want to know – I noticed something different. As usual, the first item offered was his Wikipedia entry. But after a few seconds, the Rembrandt page dissolved into a darkened screen with a big W and an explanation I was too thrilled to read at that moment. Wikipedia offline? Wikipedia offline! A new dawn for humanity …

Only after a couple of glasses of champagne did I look again and realise that Wikipedia is offline only for 24 hours, in protest against what it sees as assaults on digital freedom.

OK, so I’m slightly hamming that up. Wikipedia is always the first site my search engine offers, for any artist, but I try to ignore it. I detest the way this site claims to offer the world’s knowledge when all it often contains is a half-baked distillation of third-hand information. To call this an encyclopedia is like saying an Airfix model is a real Spitfire. Actually, not even a kit model – more like one made out of matchsticks.

I have a modest proposal for Wikipedia: can it please stay offline for ever? It has already achieved something remarkable, replacing genuine intellectual curiosity and discovery with a world of lazy, instant factoids. Can it take a rest and let civilisation recover?

On its protest page today, the website asks us to “imagine a world without free knowledge”. These words betray a colossal arrogance. Do the creators of Wikipedia really believe they are the world’s only source of “free knowledge”?

Institutions that offer free knowledge have existed for thousands of years. They are called libraries. Public libraries flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, and were revived in the Renaissance. In the 19th century, libraries were built in cities and towns everywhere. What is the difference between a book and Wikipedia? It has a named author or authors, and they are made to work hard, by editors and teams of editors, to get their words into print. Those words, when they appear, vary vastly in value and importance, but the knowledge that can be gleaned – not just from one book but by comparing different books with one another, checking them against each other, reaching your own conclusions – is subtle, rich, beautiful. This knowledge cannot be packaged or fixed; if you keep an open mind, it is always changing.

[div class=attrib]Read the whole article here.[end-div]