Latest Panoramic View from Mars Rover
This full-circle scene combines 817 images taken by the panoramic camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. For it’s pure clarity this image is a must see!
What’s a Mars rover to do when there’s not enough power to rove? Take pictures. LOTS of pictures! This wonderful new panoramic view of the Opportunity rover’s stopping place this past Mars winter, Greeley Haven, is composed of 817 images taken between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012. It shows fresh rover tracks and the rim of an ancient impact crater, Endeavour, which awaits more explorations from Opportunity. You’ll want to click and see a bigger version of it here.
* But to get the full effect, check out this great interactive sphere of the panoramaput together by John O’Connor of the NASATech website! Use left mouse button to move - Use right mouse button, mouse wheel or Ctrl/Shift keys to zoom.
It shows the terrain that surrounded the rover while it was stationary for four months of work during its most recent Martian winter. Opportunity’s Pancam took the component images between the 2,811th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s Mars surface mission (Dec. 21, 2011) and Sol 2,947 (May 8, 2012).
Opportunity spent those months on a northward sloped outcrop, “Greeley Haven,” which angled the rover’s solar panels toward the sun low in the northern sky during southern hemisphere winter. The outcrop’s informal name is a tribute to Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), who was a member of the mission team and who taught generations of planetary scientists at Arizona State University, Tempe. The site is near the northern tip of the “Cape York” segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
North is at the center of the image. South is at both ends. On the far left at the horizon is “Rich Morris Hill.” That outcrop on Cape York was informally named in memory of John R. “Rich” Morris (1973-2011), an aerospace engineer and musician who was a Mars rover team member and mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena.
Bright wind-blown deposits on the left are banked up against the Greeley Haven outcrop. Opportunity’s tracks can be seen extending from the south, with a turn-in-place and other maneuvers evident from activities to position the rover at Greeley Haven. The tracks in some locations have exposed darker underlying soils by disturbing a thin, bright dust cover.
Other bright, dusty deposits can be seen to the north, northeast, and east of Greeley Haven. The deposit at the center of the image, due north from the rover’s winter location, is a dusty patch called “North Pole.” Opportunity drove to it and investigated it in May 2012 as an example of wind-blown Martian dust.
The interior of Endeavour Crater can been seen just below the horizon in the right half of the scene, to the northeast and east of Cape York. The crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity’s solar panels and other structures show dust that has accumulated over the lifetime of the mission. Opportunity has been working on Mars since January 2004.
During the recent four months that Opportunity worked at Greeley Haven, activities included radio-science observations to better understand Martian spin axis dynamics and thus interior structure, investigations of the composition and textures of an outcrop exposing an impact-jumbled rock formation on the crater rim, monitoring the atmosphere and surface for changes, and acquisition of this full-color mosaic of the surroundings.
The panorama combines exposures taken through Pancam filters centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers (near infrared), 535 nanometers (green) and 432 nanometers (violet). The view is presented in false color to make some differences between materials easier to see.
Life’s Molecules Could Lie Within Reach Of Mars Curiosity Rover
Stick a shovel in the ground and scoop. That’s about how deep scientists need to go in order to find evidence for ancient life on Mars, if there is any to be found, a new study suggests. That’s within reach of Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover expected to land on the Red Planet next month.
The new findings, which suggest optimal depths and locations to probe for organic molecules like those that compose living organisms as we know them, could help the newest Mars rover scout for evidence of life beneath the surface and within rocks. The results suggest that, should Mars harbor simple organic molecules, NASA’s prospects for discovering them during Curiosity’s explorations are better than previously thought, said Alexander Pavlov of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of the study.
While these simple molecules could provide evidence of ancient Martian life, they could also stem from other sources like meteorites and volcanoes. Complex organic molecules could hint more strongly at the possibility of past life on the planet. These molecules, made up of 10 or more carbon atoms, could resemble known building blocks of life such as the amino acids that make up proteins.
Although complex carbon structures are trickier to find because they’re more vulnerable to cosmic radiation that continuously bombards and penetrates the surface of the Red Planet, the new research by Pavlov and his colleagues provides suggestions for where to start looking. The amounts of radiation that rock and soil is exposed to over time, and how deep that radiation penetrates — an indicator of how deep a rover would have to sample to find intact organic molecules — is a subject of ongoing research.
The scientists report that chances of finding these molecules in the first 2 centimeters (0.8 inch) of Martian soil is close to zero. That top layer, they calculate, will absorb a total of 500 million grays of cosmic radiation over the course of one billion years — capable of destroying all organic material. A mere 50 grays, absorbed immediately or over time, would cause almost certain death to a human.
However, within 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) beneath the surface, the amount of radiation reduces tenfold, to 50 million grays. Although that’s still extreme, the team reports that simple organic molecules, such as a single formaldehyde molecule, could exist at this depth — and in some places, specifically young craters, the complex building blocks of life could remain as well.
“Right now the challenge is that past Martian landers haven’t seen any organic material whatsoever,” Pavlov said. “We know that organic molecules have to be there but we can’t find any of them in the soil.”
As Mars revolves around the Sun, it is constantly bombarded by very small meteors and interplanetary dust particles, which have plenty of organic compounds in them, Pavlov said. Therefore, over time they would have accumulated at the Martian surface.
The Mars Science Laboratory is the newest and largest of NASA’s Martian landers and is scheduled to touch down August 2012. Curiosity doesn’t have a shovel but, equipped with drilling technology, it will collect, store, and analyze samples of Martian material down to 5 centimeters below the surface of rock and soil.
Past Martian rovers have only collected loose soil atop the surface that has been directly exposed to cosmic radiation, making the possibility for detecting organic molecules exceedingly slim.
When evaluating how deep organic molecules might persist beneath the surface, previous studies have mainly focused on the maximum depth, approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet), that cosmic radiation reaches because beyond that point organic molecules could survive, unharmed, for billions of years, Pavlov said. However, drilling to 1.5 meters or deeper is currently too expensive to engineer for a Martian rover.
So the team focused on more attainable depths — the first 20 cm (8 in) below the surface. They modeled the complex scenario of cosmic ray accumulation and its effects on organic molecules using a collection of important variables, including Martian rock and soil composition, changes in the planet’s atmospheric density over time, and cosmic rays’ various energy levels.
In addition to the finding that some simple carbon-containing molecules could exist within 10 cm (4 in) depth, the scientists emphasize that certain regions on Mars may have radiation levels far lower than 50 million grays near the surface — and so more complex molecules like amino acids could remain intact. In order to find these molecules within the rover’s drilling range (1 to 5 cm), the scientists found the best bet is to look at “fresh” craters that are no more than 10 million years old, unlike past expeditionary sites that mainly sampled from landscapes undisturbed for billions of years.
Compared to Martian landscapes undisturbed for one billion years or more, relatively young craters exhibit freshly exposed rock and soil that was once deeper beneath the surface. The new research indicates that this material will have been near the surface for a short enough period of time that it’s overall exposure to harmful radiation would not have been enough to wipe out organic molecules.
“When you have a chance to drill, don’t waste it on perfectly preserved (landscapes),” Pavlov said. “You want to go to fresh craters because there’s probably a better chance to detect complex organic molecules. Let Nature work for you.”
Lewis Dartnell, a postdoctoral researcher at the University College London in the U.K., said the paper was a nice study that combined results from other studies with the latest radiation modeling. Dartnell was not part of the study, but has published previous work involving effects of cosmic radiation on the Martian surface.
“The next logical step,” Dartnell said, “is to actually experiment and have a radiation source hit amino acids with radiation of similar energies as cosmic rays and determine how quickly those amino acids are destroyed because models can only do so much.”
Curiosity is set to land in Gale crater on August 6. Whether this 3.5-billion-year-old crater has fresher craters within it is uncertain. However, Pavlov hopes that his team’s findings will at least help guide NASA on where to drill once the rover has landed and influence where future generations of rover landers will touch down. Source: AAS Press Office
Testing a Martian Dune Buggy in Mojave
NASA engineers take the Curiosity test rover to California’s Mojave desert to learn how to drive on Martian sand dunes.