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NASA lets new rover go over in 2020, announces multi-year Mars program

Approaching Mars

NASA / JPL

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars.

Martian landscape

NASA

This image was taken during NASA's 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars. The terrain at this northern equatorial region is uneven and rocky.

Planet Mars Makes A Close Approach To Earth

NASA/Getty Images

This image released August 27, 2003 captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows a close-up of the red planet Mars when it was just 34,648,840 miles (55,760,220 km) away. This color image was assembled from a series of exposures taken between 6:20 p.m. and 7:12 p.m. EDT August 26, 2003 with Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The picture was taken just 11 hours before the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years. Many small, dark, circular impact craters can be seen, attesting to the Hubble telescope's ability to reveal fine detail on the planet's surface.


Mars is ours for the forseeable future, NASA announced Tuesday with plans for a "robust" multi-year program that includes a 2020 launch date for a new robotic science rover.

With over-the-moon elation, the space agency reinforced its commitment to a Mars exploration program that meets "our nation's scientific and human exploration objectives," according to the official news release.

"The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "With this next mission, we're ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s."

The "planned portfolio" includes:

  • Curiosity and Opportunity rovers
  • Two NASA spacecraft
  • Contributions to one European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars
  • 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere
  • Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars
  • Participation in ESA's 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover

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Photos: NASA's Opportunity rover finds 'newberries' on Mars, may contain clay

MARS OPPORTUNITY

NASA/JPL

NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity’s Investigations at Endeavour Crater. Image shown during news conference by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Steve Squyres of Cornell University at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2012.

MARS OPPORTUNITY

NASA/JPL

NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity’s Investigations at Endeavour Crater. Image shown during news conference by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Steve Squyres of Cornell University at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2012.

opportunity rover mars

NASA/JPL

NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity’s Investigations at Endeavour Crater. Image shown during news conference by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Steve Squyres of Cornell University at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2012.

MARS OPPORTUNITY

NASA/JPL

NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity’s Investigations at Endeavour Crater. Image shown during news conference by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Steve Squyres of Cornell University at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2012.


Knock knock — NASA's Opportunity rover has some Martian clay news for you.

Scientists said Tuesday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco that Opportunity — the solar-powered six-wheeler that landed on Mars in 2004 (and has far outlasted its original, three-month mission) — uncovered hints of clay minerals along the western rim of the Endeavour crater.

Steve Squyres, the mission's principal investigator at Cornell University said, "If you are a geologist studying a site like this, one of the first things you do is walk the outcrop, and that's what we've done with Opportunity," reports NASA.

Two outcrops of high interest on Matijevic Hill are "Whitewater Lake" and "Kirkwood." Whitewater Lake is light-toned material that science team members believe may contain clay.Kirkwood contains small spheres with composition, structure and distribution that differ from other iron-rich spherules, nicknamed blueberries, that Opportunity found at its landing site and throughout the Meridiani Planum area it has explored. Squyres calls the Kirkwood spheres "newberries." 

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No methane in 'initial sniffs' of Martian air, says NASA

mars curiosity methane nasa jpl

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Lab demo of the measurement chamber inside the Tunable Laser Spectrometer — an atmosphere analysis instrument on NASA's Curiosity rover.

"The most sensitive measurements ever to search for methane gas on Mars" did not detect methane gas on Mars, reports NASA.

Preliminary results reveal little to no methane. Methane is of interest as a simple precursor chemical for life. On Earth, it can be produced by either biological or non-biological processes. 

Officials released the test results Friday during a teleconference from Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Scientists with the space agency are trying to figure out if Mars was ever hospitable to microbial life, and how the planet may have lost a substantial amount of original atmosphere.

Learning what happened to the Martian atmosphere will help scientists assess whether the planet ever was habitable. The present atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth's.

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Speculation to observation: NASA finds evidence of ancient, flowing stream on Mars (PHOTOS)

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

mars curiosity rock outcrops

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

Rock Outcrops on Mars and Earth: This set of images compares the Link outcrop of rocks on Mars (left) with similar rocks seen on Earth (right). The image of Link, obtained by NASA's Curiosity rover, shows rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters), within the rock outcrop. Erosion of the outcrop results in gravel clasts that fall onto the ground, creating the gravel pile at left. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. A typical Earth example of sedimentary conglomerate formed of gravel fragments in a stream is shown on the right. An annotated version of the image highlights a piece of gravel that is about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) across. It was selected as an example of coarse size and rounded shape. Rounded grains (of any size) occur by abrasion in sediment transport, by wind or water, when the grains bounce against each other. Gravel fragments are too large to be transported by wind. At this size, scientists know the rounding occurred in water transport in a stream. The name Link is derived from a significant rock formation in the Northwest Territories of Canada, where there is also a lake with the same name. Scientists enhanced the color in the Mars image to show the scene as it would appear under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. The Link outcrop was imaged with the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on Sept. 2, 2012, which was the 27th sol, or Martian day of operations.

curiosity ancient stream bed

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Link to a Watery Past: In this image from NASA's Curiosity rover, a rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface that is elsewhere blanketed by reddish-brown dust. The Link outcrop was imaged with the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on Sept. 2, 2012, which was the 27th sol, or Martian day of operations. The name Link is derived from a significant rock formation in the Northwest Territories of Canada, where there is also a lake with the same name. Scientists enhanced the color in this version to show the Martian scene as it would appear under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain.

curiosity finds evidence of ancient flowing stream

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories.


Curiosity has seen evidence of an ancient, flowing stream on Mars. The secret is in the Martian gravel. 

NASA reports, "The shapes tell you they were transported and the sizes tell you they couldn't be transported by wind. They were transported by water flow," said Curiosity science co-investigator Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

The sizes and shapes of the stones cemented into conglomerate rock at the discovery sites offer clues about the speed and distance of the stream. The gravels ranges in size from as small a grain of sand, to as large as a golf ball. 

Earlier evidence suggested the presence of water on Mars, but the discovery of "rocks containing ancient streambed gravels -- is the first of its kind," says NASA.

"From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep," said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley. "Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we're actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it."

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Video: Curiosity rolls, zaps Mars rock, 'No Martians were injured'

NASA's Torsten Zorn, the tactical downlink lead on the Mars Curiosity rover, explained via video how the team had a major success this week when they deployed a laser-firing arm for the first time on Mars.

"The ChemCam unit, or Chemistry and Camera instrument, fired the laser for the first time on Mars using the beam from the science instrument to interrogate a fist-size rock called 'Coronation,'" Zorn explained. "We promise, no Martians were injured in this experiment," he joked.

Soon the team will turn on its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. Next week the rover will also head to Gleneig on Mars where the goal is to drill a rock sample at the alien location. 

"The team named the landing site this week after the famous science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, on his birthday, Aug. 22nd, and he would've been 92," Zorn said.

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