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Curiosity’s View Into Marias Pass

Panorama mosaic of MSL images acquired on May 22, 2015

Marias Pass – a panorama mosaic of MSL images acquired on May 22, 2015.

The image above shows Curiosity’s view southwest into “Marias Pass,” a low valley in Gale Crater where the rover was on May 22, 2015 – mission Sol 992. At the left (east) edge is the western slope of a rise called Akipuni Mountain, and Mount Shields rises off to the right (west). The image is a mosaic made from four Mastcam images – click to view it full-size on Flickr.

The site is a bit of a backtrack from its previous location at Logan Pass, since the rover has been experiencing some slipping on the loose surface material in the area.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We knew that polygonal sand ripples have caused Curiosity a lot of drive slip in the past, but there appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

Read more on Curiosity’s progress here, and see a map of its traverses to this point here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Edited by Jason Major.

Curious Stains on Mars’ Summer Slopes Continue to be Seen

Recurring slope lineae (RSL) stain mountain slopes in Hale Crater. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Recurring slope lineae (RSL) stain mountain slopes in Hale Crater. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

As the midsummer Sun beats down on the southern mountains of Mars, bringing daytime temperatures soaring up to a balmy 25ºC (77ºF), some of their slopes become darkened with long, rusty stains that may be the result of water seeping out from just below the surface.

The image above, captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 20, shows mountain peaks within the 150-km (93-mile) -wide Hale Crater. Made from data acquired in visible and near infrared wavelengths the long stains are very evident, running down steep slopes below the rocky cliffs… but the process that’s responsible for them has yet to be confirmed.

Read the rest of my article on Universe Today.

NASA’s Next Era Will Rely on Robots

NASA's Robonaut2 faces off with an astronaut in a space suit (NASA/JSC)

NASA’s Robonaut2 faces off with an astronaut in a space suit (NASA/JSC)

NASA’s Shuttle era may be over but its robotic era is in full swing. With robots having long performed the bulk of our exploration across the Solar System, on the surface of Mars, and now assisting astronauts in low-Earth orbit, we’re now also on the verge of having robots doing work for us on the Moon, on asteroids, and even augmenting natural human capabilities to levels otherwise unattainable – especially in the alien environments found outside of Earth.

“This is probably one of the most exciting times to be working at NASA,” said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames Research Center. “Regardless of where NASA goes, robots are going to be there. If humans go back to the Moon, or to an asteroid, or Mars, robots are going with them.”

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Curiosity Has Found Yet More Evidence For a Life-Lovin’ Mars

Mosaic of Curiosity images acquired on Jan. 14, 2015 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major)

Mosaic of Curiosity images acquired on Jan. 14, 2015 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major)

Cold as hell and no place to raise your kids, the surface of Mars today is a quite inhospitable place for any forms of life we know of. But that wasn’t always the case – billions of years ago Mars may have been a lot more like Earth, with a magnetic field, a much denser atmosphere, lakes and even an ocean on its surface where life could have not just developed but thrived. And in Curiosity’s hunt for any remaining evidence of that ancient utopia, the rover has identified a key ingredient: nitrates contained within the surface rocks of Gale Crater.

Although it’s not thought that the nitrates were created by organisms currently living on Mars it’s yet another indication that the environment of Gale Crater was once a place where life could have existed, joining the rover’s previous discoveries of traces of water and sediment deposited by ancient rivers.

“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the research team.

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MarsOne CEO Responds to Claims of Conspiracy and Fraud

The suffix “-gate” is often added to words to create a meaning of conspiracy or public debacle, à la the 1972 Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon’s term as U.S. president, and we might soon be referring to this as “Marsgate” – the allegations of MarsOne of illegitimacy and fraudulent (or at the very least sketchy) practices by Medium.com reporter Elmo Keep and her contact Dr. Joseph Roche. While Keep and Roche – the latter of whom was chosen as a finalist in the latest round of candidate selections for a future one-way trip to Mars – are certainly not alone in their doubtfulness of the Dutch nonprofit company’s ability to actually set up a human colony on Mars over the next decade, their March 17 exposé article has certainly helped to position MarsOne directly under the burning spotlight of public skepticism (a place some say it should have been since the very beginning.)

Not to let such bad publicity remain blatantly unanswered, MarsOne CEO Bas Lansdorp has published a video interview in which he responds to the criticisms brought up by Keep and Roche. One thing Lansdorp does note is that there has been a delay of two years (already) to the mission timeline, which now puts the first crew’s boots on red ground in 2029 instead of 2027. Lansdorp openly asserts that they have a development team and contracts, and progress will be made.

“The recent bad press about MarsOne was caused to a large extent by an article on Medium.com by Elmo Keep, and that article contains a lot of things that simply are not true.”
– Bas Lansdorp, MarsOne CEO

Of course words aren’t rocketships or habitation modules and anything can be said in an interview. But this is the public response to a public challenge – not likely the first to come, either – and so it remains to be seen where it all goes from here.*

Watch the video interview above, and read more about this week’s Marsgate here.

*One thing that mustn’t be allowed to develop is a public perception of Mars as a human destination to be intrinsically unachievable. MarsOne is not NASA or ESA or any other government space agency (or even SpaceX); if MarsOne fails it won’t be because of Mars or indicative of human capability as a whole. Hopefully if it starts to go that way, Lansdorp will have the good sense and decency to shut it all down before anyone gets hurt. 

Also, check out this fun and insightful article by Kristi Harrison on Cracked.com.

NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Spots Mars’ Secret Invisible Aurora

In Dec. 2014 MAVEN observed auroras on Mars glowing in ultraviolet wavelengths (University of Colorado)

In Dec. 2014 MAVEN observed auroras on Mars glowing in ultraviolet wavelengths (University of Colorado)

Only a day after skywatchers in mid- to upper-latitudes around the world were treated to a particularly energetic display of auroras on the night of March 17 as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm, researchers from the University of Colorado announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN mission of auroral action observed on Mars – although in invisible ultraviolet wavelengths rather than visible light.

Read the rest of this article here.

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