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A Red Cent on a Red Planet: Curiosity’s 1909 Lincoln Penny

Curiosity’s calibration target, imaged with MAHLI on March 9, 2017 (mission sol 1632). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

On March 9, 2017, NASA’s Curiosity rover took this picture with its turret-mounted MAHLI camera of the calibration target installed near the “shoulder” of its robotic arm. In addition to color chips and a metric line graph, the target also includes a U.S. coin: a 1909 Lincoln penny, adhered heads-up.

Curiosity’s coin isn’t just for good luck though; it’s also a nod to geologists who typically use familiar objects in field photos to help determine scale. (Curiosity is, after all, one of only two working robot geologists on all of Mars!)

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A Look Back at Sojourner, the First Rover on Mars

The Sojourner rover on Mars after deployment on July 5, 1997. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The 1-foot-high Sojourner rover on Mars after deployment on July 5, 1997. The lander’s deflated air bag can be seen at lower right. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The first mission to successfully* send a rover to Mars, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder, launched on Dec. 4, 1996. It was a “budget” Discovery mission designed to demonstrate a low-cost method for delivering a set of science instruments to Mars and sent the first remote-controlled vehicle to be used on another planet. Solar-powered and only a foot in height, the little six-wheeled Sojourner was the foundation for all future Mars rovers…and, along with the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, gave us our best views of the Martian surface since the Viking 1 and 2 landers.

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Curiosity’s Tracks Are Gone With The Wind

Images taken by Curiosity's MARDI camera show the effect of the thin Martian wind on its wheel tracks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Images taken by Curiosity’s MARDI camera show the effect of the thin Martian wind on its wheel tracks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Mars may have an atmosphere just 1% the density of Earth’s but it can still stir up enough of a breeze to quickly cover a rover’s tracks, as evidenced in the animation above. Captured by Curiosity’s downward-looking Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera on Jan. 23 and 24, 2017, the two pictures show an approximately 3-foot-wide area just beneath the rover (part of one wheel is visible at upper left.) In the first image Curiosity’s wheel tracks are fresh and crisp; in the second, they’ve been blurred by wind shifting the fine Martian sand. As summertime is the windiest season within Gale Crater, one could easily imagine the rover’s tracks being completely obliterated after a week or so!

Source: NASA’s Planetary Photojournal

HiRISE Eyes Fresh Craters on Mars

Fresh impact craters on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Just to remind you that things are still indeed going “boom” in our Solar System, here is a cluster of fresh craters on Mars created by an impact that occurred sometime between 2008 and 2014.

The craters are a result of a meteorite that broke apart during entry, striking the surface as fragments within a localized area. The largest crater’s ejecta field spans about 100 meters across.

It’s kinda like Mars’ way of saying “how’s that space program coming along?”

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What Warmed Mars? The Curious Case of the Missing Carbonate

Curiosity’s investigation of Mars’ surface in Gale Crater indicate that liquid water was once present (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Everything we’ve observed so far about the surface of Mars points to an ancient past that was warmer, wetter, and very possibly habitable for life as we know it. From the scars of enormous floods and vast branching river deltas that are etched into the Martian surface to the rounded pebbles of ancient stream beds to the chemical signatures of materials formed only in the presence of water, the evidence for Mars’ wet history seems overwhelming. But there’s one big question that still stymies scientists: what happened to all of Mars’ carbon dioxide?

Even though Mars’ atmosphere is 96% CO2 today, it is incredibly thin—only 1% as dense as Earth’s. It’s thought that Mars once had a much thicker atmosphere in its early history, but was there enough of the greenhouse gas even then to keep it warm enough (with a cooler young Sun) to maintain liquid water on its surface? According to a new analysis of data from NASA’s Curiosity rover, Mars just didn’t have enough carbon dioxide 3.5 billion years ago to provide enough warming to prevent water from freezing solid.

“We’ve been particularly struck with the absence of carbonate minerals in sedimentary rock the rover has examined,” said Thomas Bristow of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “It would be really hard to get liquid water even if there were a hundred times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than what the mineral evidence in the rock tells us.”

But with all the physical evidence pointing at liquid water—even without the CO2—could something else have been keeping Mars warm?

Read the full story from NASA here: NASA’s Curiosity Rover Sharpens Paradox of Ancient Mars

Opportunity Enters Its “Teenage” Years on Mars

Illustration of the Opportunity rover on Mars. (NASA/JPL)

Illustration of the Opportunity rover on Mars. (NASA/JPL)

Today marks the start of the “teen years” on Mars for NASA’s Opportunity rover — it’s been busy exploring, studying, and traveling across the planet’s surface for 13 years now and still going strong! Launched July 7, 2003, the rover is currently in its 4,624th sol of operations — pretty impressive for a mission that was initially only planned to last 90 days. (I suppose it’s OK if Opportunity wants to get a little bit of an attitude now, seeing as she’s such an overachieving teenager!) The video below was recently released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and features some of the talented engineers and scientists who work with the Opportunity rover on a daily basis.

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