Mars

A Mixed-reality Trip to Mars

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A ceremonial ribbon is cut for the opening of new “Destination: Mars” experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida. From the left are Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex; center director Bob Cabana; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft; and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Photo credit: NASA/Charles Babir

 

It’ll be years before the first astronauts leave the launch pad on Earth to journey to Mars. But starting Sept. 19, visitors to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida will get a taste of what those astronauts will see when they touch down on the Red Planet.

“Destination: Mars,” a mixed-reality experience designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and Microsoft HoloLens, held a kick-off event for media at the Visitor Complex on Sept. 18. The experience uses real imagery taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover to let users explore the Martian surface.

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NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for Mars 2020 Rover Mission

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The design of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover leverages many successful features of the agency’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, but it adds new science instruments and a sampling system to carry out the new goals for the 2020 mission. Credits: NASA

 

NASA has selected United Launch Services LLC of Centennial, Colorado, to provide launch services for a mission that will address high-priority science goals for the agency’s Journey to Mars. 

Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.

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Test for Damp Ground at Mars Streaks Finds None

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Blue dots on this map indicate sites of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in part of the Valles Marineris canyon network on Mars. RSL are seasonal dark streaks that may be indicators of liquid water. The area mapped here has the highest density of known RSL on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

 

 

Seasonal dark streaks on Mars that have become one of the hottest topics in interplanetary research don’t hold much water, according to the latest findings from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars.

The new results from NASA’s Mars Odyssey mission rely on ground temperature, measured by infrared imaging using the spacecraft’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). They do not contradict last year’s identification of hydrated salt at these flows, which since their 2011 discovery have been regarded as possible markers for the presence of liquid water on modern Mars. However, the temperature measurements now identify an upper limit on how much water is present at these darkened streaks: about as much as in the driest desert sands on Earth.

When water is present in the spaces between particles of soil or grains of sand, it affects how quickly a patch of ground heats up during the day and cools off at night.

“We used a very sensitive technique to quantify the amount of water associated with these features,” said Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. “The results are consistent with no moisture at all and set an upper limit at three percent water.”

The features, called recurring slope lineae or RSL, have been identified at dozens of sites on Mars. A darkening of the ground extends downhill in fingerlike flows during spring or summer, fades away in fall and winter, then repeats the pattern in another year at the same location. The process that causes the streaks to appear is still a puzzle.

“Some type of water-related activity at the uphill end still might be a factor in triggering RSL, but the darkness of the ground is not associated with large amounts of water, either liquid or frozen,” Edwards said. “Totally dry mechanisms for explaining RSL should not be ruled out.”

He and Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, analyzed several years of THEMIS infrared observations of a crater-wall region within the large Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars. Numerous RSL features sit close together in some parts of the study region. Edwards and Piqueux compared nighttime temperatures of patches of ground averaging about 44 percent RSL features, in the area, to temperatures of nearby slopes with no RSL. They found no detectable difference, even during seasons when RSL were actively growing.

The report of these findings by Edwards and Piqueux has been accepted by the peer-reviewed Geophysical Research Letters and is available online.

There is some margin of error in assessing ground temperatures with the multiple THEMIS observations used in this study, enough to leave the possibility that the RSL sites differed undetectably from non-RSL sites by as much as 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 Celsius degree). The researchers used that largest possible difference to calculate the maximum possible amount of water — either liquid or frozen — in the surface material.

How deeply moisture reaches beneath the surface, as well as the amount of water present right at the surface, affects how quickly the surface loses heat. The new study calculates that if RSL have only a wafer-thin layer of water-containing soil, that layer contains no more than about an ounce of water per two pounds of soil (3 grams water per kilogram of soil). That is about the same concentration of water as in the surface material of the Atacama Desert and Antarctic Dry Valleys, the driest places on Earth. If the water-containing layer at RSL is thicker, the amount of water per pound or kilogram of soil would need to be even less, to stay consistent with the temperature measurements.

Research published last year identified hydrated salts in the surface composition of RSL sites, with an increase during the season when streaks are active. Hydrated salts hold water molecules affecting the crystalline structure of the salt.

“Our findings are consistent with the presence of hydrated salts, because you can have hydrated salt without having enough for the water to start filling pore spaces between particles,” Edwards said. “Salts can become hydrated by pulling water vapor from the atmosphere, with no need for an underground source of the water.”

“Through additional data and studies, we are learning more about these puzzling seasonal features — narrowing the range of possible explanations,” said Michael Meyer. “It just shows us that we still have much to learn about Mars and its potential as a habitat for life.”

The new study touches on additional factors that add to understanding of RSL.

— If RSL were seasonal flows of briny water followed by evaporation, annual buildup of crust-forming salt should affect temperature properties. So the lack of a temperature difference between RSL and non-RSL sites is evidence against evaporating brines.

— Lack of a temperature difference is also evidence against RSL being cascades of dry material with different thermal properties than the pre-existing slope material, such as would be the case with annual avalanching of powdery dust that accumulates from dusty air.

Arizona State University, Tempe, provided and operates the THEMIS camera, which records observations in both infrared and visible-light wavelengths. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the Mars Odyssey project for NASA. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter and collaborates with JPL to operate it.

Popular Science: 400-Foot High Tsunami Waves Ravaged Ancient Mars

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Illustration by Alexis Rodriguez


By Mary Beth Griggs
Contributior, Popular Science

Over three billion years ago, Mars had water. A lot more water than it has now.

Oceans of water, in fact. In a study published in Scientific Reports today, researchers found evidence of two large tsunami deposits on Mars, probably caused by large meteorites slamming into the early Martian ocean.

In addition to a massive wave of water, tsunamis carry along huge amounts of debris, some of which can be swept inland and left far beyond the shorelines. In this case, the waves created by the impacts were likely almost 400 feet high, and travelled hundreds of miles inland, carrying debris and scarring the landscape.

The two tsunamis on Mars likely occurred about 3 million years apart, enough time for the Martian climate to cool considerably. During the icy conditions of the second tsunami, large chunks of ice were likely pushed along, carried away from the ocean and left on the dry, cold surface. Researchers hope that eventually, those deposits could be examined for signs of whether the waters of Mars once had life.

To read the rest of this article, please visit Popular Science: 400-Foot High Tsunami Waves Ravaged Ancient Mars

 

 

Site List Narrows For NASA’s Next Mars Landing

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Out of more than 30 sites considered as possible landing targets for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, by November 2008 four of the most intriguing places on Mars rose to the final round of the site-selection process. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

PASADENA, Calif. — Four intriguing places on Mars have risen to the final round as NASA selects a landing site for its next Mars mission, the Mars Science Laboratory.

The agency had a wider range of possible landing sites to choose from than for any previous mission, thanks to the Mars Science Laboratory’s advanced technologies, and the highly capable orbiters helping this mission identify scientifically compelling places to explore.

Mars Science Laboratory project leaders at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., chose the four this month, after seeking input from international Mars experts and from engineers working on the landing system and rover capabilities. 

The sites, alphabetically, are: Eberswalde, where an ancient river deposited a delta in a possible lake; Gale, with a mountain of stacked layers including clays and sulfates; Holden, a crater containing alluvial fans, flood deposits, possible lake beds and clay-rich deposits; and Mawrth, which shows exposed layers containing at least two types of clay. 

“All four of these sites would be great places to use our roving laboratory to study the processes and history of early Martian environments and whether any of these environments were capable of supporting microbial life and its preservation as biosignatures,” said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. He is the project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.

The mission’s capabilities for landing more precisely than ever before and for generating electricity without reliance on sunshine have made landing sites eligible that would not have been acceptable for past Mars missions. During the past two years, multiple observations of dozens of candidate sites by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have augmented data from earlier orbiters for evaluating sites’ scientific attractions and engineering risks.

JPL is assembling and testing the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft for launch in fall 2009. Paring the landing-site list to four finalists allows the team to focus further on evaluating the sites and planning the navigation. The mission plan calls for the rover to spend a full Mars year (23 months) examining the environment with a diverse payload of tools.

After evaluating additional Mars orbiter observations of the four sites, NASA will hold a fourth science workshop about the candidates in the spring and plans to choose a final site next summer. Three previous landing-site science workshops for Mars Science Laboratory, in 2006, 2007 and two months ago, drew participation of more than 100 Mars scientists and presentations about more than 30 sites. The four sites rated highest by participants in the latest workshop were the same ones chosen by mission leaders after a subsequent round of safety evaluations and analysis of terrain for rover driving. One site, Gale, had been a favorite of scientists considering 2004 landing sites for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but was ruled out as too hazardous for the capabilities of those spacecraft.

“Landing on Mars always is a risky balance between science and engineering. The safest sites are flat, but the spectacular geology is generally where there are ups and downs, such as hills and canyons. That’s why we have engineered this spacecraft to make more sites qualify as safe,” said JPL’s Michael Watkins, mission manager for the Mars Science Laboratory. “This will be the first spacecraft that can adjust its course as it descends through the Martian atmosphere, responding to variability in the atmosphere. This ability to land in much smaller areas than previous missions, plus capabilities to land at higher elevations and drive farther, allows us consider more places the scientists want to explore.”

For their Mars landings in 2004, Spirit and Opportunity needed safe target areas about 70 kilometers (about 40 miles) long. Mars Science Laboratory is designed to hit a target area roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter. Also, a new “skycrane” technology to lower the rover on a tether for the final touchdown can accommodate more slope than the airbag method used for Spirit and Opportunity. In addition, a radioisotope power supply, like that used by Mars Viking landers in the 1970s, will enable year-round operation farther from the equator than the solar power systems of more recent missions.

Gale is near the equator, Eberswalde and Holden are farther south, and Mawrth is in the north.

As a clay-bearing site where a river once flowed into a lake, Eberswalde Crater offers a chance to use knowledge that oil industry geologists have accumulated about locations of the most promising parts of a delta to look for any concentrations of carbon chemistry that is crucial to life.

The mountain inside Gale Crater could provide a route for the rover to drive up a 5-kilometer (3-mile) sequence of layers, studying a transition from environments that produced clay deposits near the bottom to later environments that produced sulfate deposits partway up.

Running water once carved gullies and deposited sediments as alluvial fans and catastrophic flood deposits in Holden Crater, a site that may also present the chance to evaluate layers deposited in a lake.  Exploration of key features within this target area would require drives to the edge of a broad valley, and then down into the valley.

Mawrth Valley is an apparent flood channel near the edge of vast Martian highlands. It holds different types of clays in clearly layered context, offering an opportunity for studying the changes in wet conditions that produced or altered the clays.  The clay signatures are stronger than at the other sites, and this is the only one of the four for which the science target is within the landing area, not nearby.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For additional information about the mission, see http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.

 

NASA, UN Announce Final Winner of #whyspacematters Photo Competition

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February 23, 2016
RELEASE 16-021


NOTE: While this is a press release that will also appear on the Press Release page, The editors felt that this might also appeal to the general audience. It talks about both the US Astronaut Scott Kelly who spent one year in space to study the effects of prolonged exposure to the rigors of space, and the announcement of the winner of a year-long photo contest on “Why Space Matters.”


Each month, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will announce the winning photo of the #whyspacematters competition by posting it to his Instagram account @StationCDRKelly. Credits: UNOOSA


As astronaut Scott Kelly’s one-year mission aboard the International Space Station draws to a close, NASA and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) are announcing the final winner of a global photography competition highlighting how the vantage point of space helps us better understand our home planet and provide benefits to humanity. 

NASA and UNOOSA invited the public to submit photos depicting why space matters to us all in our daily lives as a way to highlight the application of space-based science and technologies. In response, hundreds of participants from around the world posted pictures on Instagram using the hashtag #whyspacematters.

Kelly, who is scheduled to depart the space station and return to Earth on March 1, announced winning photos each month by posting them from his Instagram account @StationCDRKelly.

“Of course, I think space matters in a multitude of ways, but it’s been inspiring to see this proof that you don’t have to be an astronaut to recognize that,” Kelly said. “Space technology and research is impacting the lives of people around the world. Over the past year, I’ve been able to play a personal role in some of that research, and by speaking up about why it’s important, everyone who participated has played a part of their own.”

The winning photos for each month, from June 2015 to January, ranged from a striking Earth-bound, long-exposure image of the night sky in December to a view of solar panels on a roof in Mexico in September, to a photo of a female Nigerian firefighter using a NASA-developed breathing apparatus in June.

To view all of the winning photos, and read the associated stories from the #whyspacematters competition, visit: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/contests/whyspacematters/

Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have spent nearly a year in space to improve our understanding of the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges faced by astronauts during long-duration spaceflight, an important step in research into the effects of long-term space habitation as part of NASA’s Journey to Mars

“It was an honor to have Scott Kelly share his experience in space with the United Nations. This campaign helped to promote the use of space science and technologies in such areas as disaster risk reduction, tracking the effects of climate change and in the equality of access to education and telemedicine,” said UNOOSA Director Simonetta Di Pippo.

Scientists worldwide use NASA data to tackle some of the biggest questions about how our planet is changing now and how Earth could change in the future. From rising sea levels to the changing availability of freshwater, NASA enables studies that unravel the complexities of our planet from the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere to its core.

The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that enables us to demonstrate new technologies and make research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. It has been continuously occupied since November 2000 and, since then, has been visited by more than 200 people and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft. The space station remains the springboard to NASA’s next giant leap in exploration, including future missions to an asteroid and Mars.

For more information about the International Space Station and its crews and research, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/station

 

Media Invited to See NASA’s Orion Crew Module for its Journey to Mars

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January 20, 2016
MEDIA ADVISORY M16-005

*** NOTE: Press release are usually published under that page “Media Releases (Information for Journalist).” These press releases are usually meetings or presentation of studies. The public will most of the time have access to view or listen to most of these, but only credentialed media can ask question.

Also, before the meeting documentation may be made available, sometimes weeks before the meeting. If the documents are embargoed, we in the press know that means the information cannot be published before the embargo date and time. We use the time to pre-write our stories and prepare questions, but the embargo must be honored by all.

–  George McGinn, Examining Life (And Things of Interest), Daily Defense News and Cosmology and Space Exploration news websites.


Orion’s pressure vessel was completed Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the spacecraft’s underlying structure on which all of the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems are built and integrated. (Credit: NASA)

 

NASA’s Orion crew module will be available to media at two NASA locations Jan. 26th and in early February, as engineers continue to prepare the spacecraft to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including to an asteroid placed in lunar orbit and on the journey to Mars.

At 10:30 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Jan. 26, the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans will host a media viewing and facility tour of the spacecraft’s recently completed pressure vessel, the underlying structure of the crew module, before it ships to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

To attend the event at Michoud, reporters must contact Chip Howat at 504-257-0478 or carl.j.howat@nasa.gov by 3 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25. International media accreditation for this event is closed.

The Orion pressure vessel provides a sealed environment for astronaut life support in future human-rated crew modules. Technicians at Michoud began welding together the seven large aluminum pieces of Orion’s primary structure in precise detail last September. At Kennedy, Orion will be outfitted with the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems, processed and integrated with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) ahead of their first joint exploration mission, or EM-1.

Michoud also is where the massive core stage of SLS is being manufactured. Reporters will be able to view tooling and newly manufactured hardware for SLS, and hear about mission progress from personnel across NASA.

Individuals available for interviews during the tour include:

  • Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters
  • Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston
  • Scott Wilson, Orion production manager at Kennedy
  • John Honeycutt, SLS program manager at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama
  • Steve Doering, SLS core stage manager at Marshall
  • Mike Bolger, Ground Systems Development and Operations program manager at Kennedy
  • NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio
  • Mike Hawes, Orion program manager for Lockheed Martin
  • Jim Bray, crew module director for Lockheed Martin 

Orion will depart Michoud on or about Feb. 1 and travel to Kennedy aboard NASA’s Super Guppy airplane. Additional details for Orion’s arrival at Kennedy, including media accreditation, are forthcoming.

For more information about Orion, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/orion

-end- 

 

NASA Releases Press Release Looking for Applications for Future Mars Mission

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IMG_3927Story written by George McGinn
Cosmology and Space Exploration News

Want to become an astronaut to visit Mars?

Today, NASA put out a press release with information on how to apply to become an astronaut for the future manned flight to Mars.

Normally these just go into the page for Media Releases. But this is a good time to tell you that I have created a new page called:

below is the beginning of the press release. The link after it takes you to our new Media page.

While many options such as asking questions and getting access to their teleconference systems, with most press releases, if a meeting or a panel is conviened, NASA will allow the public to view it live either on its website or on NASA TV.

Each press release has all the information you need to watch and listen to the questions the press ask and the respones they get.

The link to the new page is: Media Releases (Information For Journalists)

This page is also available and lists below it with “–” showing the releases available. Click on the 3 lines in the upper right corner to see all the pages we have and to access all the press releases we get.

Here is the first two paragraph of the press release asking for applications to anyone who thinks they can become an astronaut. Good luck to anyone applying.
“In anticipation of returning human spaceflight launches to American soil, and in preparation for the agency’s journey to Mars, NASA announced it will soon begin accepting applications for the next class of astronaut candidates. With more human spacecraft in development in the United States today than at any other time in history, future astronauts will launch once again from the Space Coast of Florida on American-made commercial spacecraft, and carry out deep-space exploration missions that will advance a future human mission to Mars.

The agency will accept applications from Dec. 14 through mid-February and expects to announce candidates selected in mid-2017. Applications for consideration as a NASA Astronaut will be accepted at…”

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Inspects Unusual Bedrock (High-Silica ‘Lamoose’ Rock)

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A rock fragment dubbed “Lamoose” is shown in this picture taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Like other nearby rocks in a portion of the “Marias Pass” area of Mt. Sharp, Mars, it has unusually high concentrations of silica. ( Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Fast Facts:

  • Rover examines geological contact zone near ‘Marias Pass’
  • Silica-rich rocks identified nearby with laser-firing instrument
  • Test of rover’s drill prepares for next use on Mars rock

Approaching the third anniversary of its landing on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found a target unlike anything it has studied before — bedrock with surprisingly high levels of silica. Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz.

This area lies just downhill from a geological contact zone the rover has been studying near “Marias Pass” on lower Mount Sharp.

In fact, the Curiosity team decided to back up the rover 46 meters (151 feet) from the geological contact zone to investigate the high-silica target dubbed “Elk.” The decision was made after they analyzed data from two instruments, the laser-firing Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), which showed higher amounts of silicon and hydrogen, respectively. High levels of silica in the rock could indicate ideal conditions for preserving ancient organic material, if present, so the science team wants to take a closer look.

“One never knows what to expect on Mars, but the Elk target was interesting enough to go back and investigate,” said Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. ChemCam is coming up on its 1,000th target, having already fired its laser more than 260,000 times since Curiosity landed on Mars Aug. 6, 2012, Universal Time (evening of Aug. 5, Pacific Time).

In other news, an engineering test on the rover’s sample-collecting drill on July 18 is aiding analysis of intermittent short circuits in the drill’s percussion mechanism, in preparation for using the drill in the area where the rover has been working for the past two months. The latest test did not result in any short circuits, so the team plans to continue with more tests, performed on the science targets themselves.

Before Curiosity began further investigating the high-silica area, it was busy scrutinizing the geological contact zone near Marias Pass, where a pale mudstone meets darker sandstone.

 

A rock outcrop dubbed “Missoula,” near Marias Pass on Mars, is seen in this image mosaic taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA’s Curiosity rover. Pale mudstone (bottom of outcrop) meets coarser sandstone (top) in this geological contact zone, which has piqued the interest of Mars scientists. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

 

“We found an outcrop named Missoula where the two rock types came together, but it was quite small and close to the ground. We used the robotic arm to capture a dog’s-eye view with the MAHLI camera, getting our nose right in there,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. MAHLI is short for Mars Hand Lens Imager.

The rover had reached this area after a steep climbed a 20-foot (6-meter) hill. Near the top of the climb, the ChemCam instrument fired its laser at the target Elk, and took a spectral reading of its composition.

“ChemCam acts like eyes and ears of the rover for nearby objects,” said Wiens.

The rover had moved on before analyzing the Elk data, so the rover performed a U-turn to get more data. Upon its return, the rover was able to study a similar target, “Lamoose,” up close with the MAHLI camera and the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS).

Curiosity has been working on Mars since early August 2012. It reached the base of Mount Sharp last year after fruitfully investigating outcrops closer to its landing site and then trekking to the mountain. The main mission now is to look at successively higher layers of Mount Sharp.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory developed ChemCam in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by the French national space agency. Russia’s space agency provided Curiosity’s DAN instrument. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about Curiosity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

You can also follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity


When NASA launches its next mission on the journey to Mars – a stationary lander in 2016 – the flight will include two CubeSats. This will be the first time CubeSats have flown in deep space.  If this flyby demonstration is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.

The twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO).  CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.

 

The full-scale mock-up of NASA’s MarCO CubeSat held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration, is dwarfed by the one-half-scale model of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter behind her.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. Larger CubeSats are multiples of that unit. MarCO’s design is a six-unit CubeSat – about the size of a briefcase — with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters).

MarCO will launch in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander. Insight is NASA’s first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. MarCO will fly by Mars while InSight is landing, in September 2016.

“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “MarCO will fly independently to Mars.”

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations on Sept. 28, 2016, the lander will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead. MRO will forward EDL information to Earth using a radio frequency in the X band, but cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another. Confirmation of a successful landing could be received by the orbiter more than an hour before it’s relayed to Earth.

MarCO’s radio is about softball-size and provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.

The two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. After release from the launch vehicle, MarCO’s first challenges are to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels. The high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves the way a parabolic dish antenna does. MarCO will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft, with its own course adjustments on the way.

Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, it could allow for a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown.

By verifying CubeSats are a viable technology for interplanetary missions, and feasible on a short development timeline, this technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system.

JPL manages MarCO, InSight and MRO for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Technology suppliers for MarCO include: Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado, for the attitude-control system; VACCO Industries of South El Monte, California, for the propulsion system; AstroDev of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for electronics; MMA Design LLC, also of Boulder, for solar arrays; and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., a Terran Orbital Company in San Luis Obispo, California, for the CubeSat dispenser system. 

For information about MarCO, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco

For information about InSight, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/insight

Learn more about NASA’s journey to Mars at: http://www.nasa.gov/content/journey-to-mars-overview