A Dusty Martian Opportunity

Mars is a planet wide desert with underground and polar cap water, but it’s general arid environment and occasional wind give rise to dusty weather events such as tornado-like dust devils and local dust storms.  Every so often, one of these little dust storms expands and becomes a planet wide phenomena, and in early June this is exactly what happened. So what does it mean for our rovers and orbiters? Global dust storms are a recurring phenomenon on Mars, and happen regularly about the planet regardless of season.  Every 3-4 Martian years (6-8 Earth years) one of these smaller storms...

12 Years of Martian Opportunity

This week marks the 12 year anniversary of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, part of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.  Only expected to last 90 days, Opportunity is still working.  Not only functional, it’s still returning good data about Mars. It’s definitely taken a beating, and it has to be careful.  Being powered by solar panels and not a thermonuclear generator like it’s younger cousin Curiosity means it has to be careful to stay in the sunlight.  Dust on the panels certainly reduces their efficiency, but Opportunity has had some help from Martian winds to keep the dust from...

Starship Fuel for the Future

For the first time in 30 years, the United States has the capability to produce fuel for deep space missions.  Plutonium-238 is an isotope that produces thermal energy through radioactive decay.  This energy can be converted into electricity and used to power spacecraft systems for decades of flight.  Systems using this isotope include the Viking landers, the Voyager spacecraft, and more recent missions like the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) and New Horizons. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, run by the US Department of Energy, has produced 50 grams of the isotope, amounting to the size of a golf...

Christmas on Mars

Christmas on Mars is like most other days on Mars: Dry, cold, and dusty.  However, as the Curiosity rover works its way across the ancient Martian surface, it sees changes in the terrain that are very interesting to investigate.  It’s at 1200 sols (Martian days) of roving around the planet as of Monday, and it continues to make its way to the primary target, Mount Sharp.  a Christmas photo shows how far the rover still has to go, but proves that it still has it’s sights set on the lonely mountain. The rover has travelled far since it’s landing, and...

New Views of The Dark Martian Dunes

Not long ago, the Curiosity rover started taking pictures of a fascinating region near mount Sharp that was soon named the Bagnold Dunes.  Dark, sandy, and full of interesting features, the dunes are along the road that Curiosity has to travel before reaching the base of mount Sharp and beginning it’s ascent.  Study of the dunes has revealed major differences from dunes on Earth, and they have Astronomers and Geologists alike asking some interesting questions. The more I see photos of Mars, the more I realize that it’s a lot like Earth.  It has such diverse features and interesting landscapes,...

All the Mars Rovers – And Some Scientists

How do the Mars rovers compare in size and features? Here’s a great photo putting it all into perspective. Included are Sojourner, Spirit/Opportunity, and Curiosity, with a couple of testing officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  These are not the rovers that were sent to Mars, but are the secondary ones built for testing here on Earth.  They cost a lot of money to build too, so NASA keeps them nice and safe.

Curiosity’s Next Step

Inhabited entirely by robots, Mars is the enigmatic planet that is under intense exploration by humanity.  The curiosity rover has been making it’s way closer to Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater, intending to slowly climb the mountain, sampling rocks from different eras in Mars’ history along the way.  One of the last regions to cross before beginning its ascent is the region known as the Bagnold dunes, strange dark features similar to sand dunes on Earth.  Photos from Curiosity show the beauty and detail in the dark features. The dark dunes have very interesting ripple features, similar to those...

A Panorama of Mars that feels Earth-like

Occasionally it’s strange to see photos from the Curiosity Rover on Mars.  Some of them feel distinctly like home.  I can almost imagine a person walking by on the soft sand, through the pathway of rocks, and over the horizon, like a traveller navigating the desert.  The latest panorama of Mars gives me that feeling in spades. And yet, this rusty world has too thin an atmosphere to allow a human to breathe.  It has no water to drink, and intense radiation from the Sun that prevents life from blanketing its surface.  It is human, and yet alien.  No homo...

Happy Third Anniversary to Curiosity on Mars

With all the news of the past year in the Astronomy world, Rosetta on 67P, Dawn on Ceres, New Horizons on Pluto, our old friend the Curiosity rover hasn’t had time to watch the news. Curiosity has been working hard, ‘rocking out’ (pun intended) on the red planet. Tomorrow, August 6th, marks its third anniversary since touching down on Mars and beginning science operations that would forever change our understanding of our next-door neighbor. To mark the occasion, the Mars Science Laboratory team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has released an anniversary video. For its third anniversary, Curiosity has found...

Curiosity Mars Rover is Back in Action!

After feeling an electrical surge in the drilling instrument last month, the Curiosity rover has once again picked up and continued its journey toward mount Sharp in the Gale Crater. On Wednesday, the rover finished transporting recently drilled material from it’s robotic arm to instruments on the rover’s body, before driving 33 feet on Thursday.  The short circuit occurred on February 28th, and since then the mission team has been running tests to ensure everything was okay before resuming operations. The short circuit was caused by the percussive function of the rock drill on the rover’s robotic arm, and as the...