Archive for the ‘Opportunity’ category

Meteorite Ahead!

September 21, 2010

There has been a flurry of emails going around among the MER team about a certain rock ahead of the Opportunity rover that looks like it may be yet another meteorite.  It certainly doesn’t look much like the local meridiani rocks, which are the light-toned patches in the photo above. Meteorites are interesting because they provide information about the weathering environment on mars. We know that Mars is all rusty, but iron meteorites are nice and fresh when they fall, so by studying how rusted they are we can learn about the martian atmosphere.

Another thing that strikes me in the photo above is how close Endeavor’s rim looks! I’ve been a bad martian and haven’t looked at the photos from Opportunity for a while, so it’s great to see those distant hills looking not-so-distant. Of course, they’re still a long way off, they’re just really big. It’s like driving toward a mountain range here on earth. You can see your destination long before you get there, and then it seems to taunt you as you creep closer and closer.

For more information about the meteorite sighting, check the NASA press release.

Be a Martian!

November 17, 2009

Fact #1: As a Mars scientist, I am incredibly spoiled. There are so many missions to Mars right now sending back so much data, that even if they all went silent tomorrow, it would be decades before we managed to look at all the data and figure out what it’s telling us.

Fact #2: There are lots of people out there (I’m looking at you, loyal readers!) who would love to be able to actively participate in exploring Mars. I mean, have you seen the stuff that the folks at UnmannedSpaceflight have managed to put together? They do more with the data from Mars than a lot of scientists!

So, given those two facts, you can see why I think the new “Be a Martian” collaboration between NASA and Microsoft is a great idea. Check out this excerpt from the press release:

Drawing on observations from NASA’s Mars missions, the “Be a Martian” Web site will enable the public to participate as citizen scientists to improve Martian maps, take part in research tasks, and assist Mars science teams studying data about the Red Planet.

“We’re at a point in history where everyone can be an explorer,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With so much data coming back from Mars missions that are accessible by all, exploring Mars has become a shared human endeavor. People worldwide can expand the specialized efforts of a few hundred Mars mission team members and make authentic contributions of their own.”

How cool is that? It’s a really brilliant idea, and I hope it goes well. A similar project was pioneered by galactic astronomers who had way too many pictures of galaxies to deal with, so they opened up the database to the public in the form of GalaxyZoo. It was a tremendous success, with thousands of people helping to classify millions of galaxies.

I just created my account and played around a bit, and it looks like a very user-friendly introduction to Mars science. You can contribute in two main ways: aligning images to contribute to a global map, and also counting craters. Both of these tasks can sort of be done by computers, but humans will always be better.

There’s more to the Be a Martian site than just work though, there are also lots of goodies like videos and Mars wallpapers, and great information about Mars. There is even a “movie theater” where you can watch the first few episodes of a series of videos called “The Martians”, that focus on people from all over the country who are involved with Mars, ranging from members of the rover teams to enthusiastic amateurs to actors putting on a play about Mars! There are more episodes on the way, and I encourage you to keep watching… you might see someone you recognize. ;)

Bottom line, it looks like a great site, and a great way to get involved in Mars exploration and learn about everyone’s favorite Red Planet and the people who are fascinated by it. What are you waiting for? Head on over and sign up! I’ll see you on Mars!


Watching out for Dust Storms

April 15, 2009

NASA just sent out this press release discussing the various ways that we watch out for dust storms that might be dangerous to the rovers. I have actually used data from the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) that they mention in the release, but I used it for the exact opposite task! I wrote programs that search through the images taken by that camera (there are a lot of them, it gets global coverage every day!) over a certain timeframe and choose the least dusty ones. This is useful for removing the effect of the atmosphere and tracking changes on the surface: for example, if I run my program before and after the huge dust storm in 2007, you can see the wind streaks in Gusev crater changing.

Anyway, here’s the NASA press release. You may also be interested in Emily’s post about recent dust activity on Mars.

PASADENA, Calif. — Heading into a period of the Martian year prone to major dust storms, the
team operating NASA’s twin Mars rovers is taking advantage of eye-in-the-sky weather reports.

On April 21, Mars will be at the closest point to the sun in the planet’s 23-month, elliptical orbit.
One month later, the planet’s equinox will mark the start of summer in Mars’ southern
hemisphere. This atmospheric-warming combination makes the coming weeks the most likely
time of the Martian year for dust storms severe enough to minimize activities of the rovers.

“Since the rovers are solar powered, the dust in the atmosphere is extremely important to us,” said
Bill Nelson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., chief of the engineering team
for Spirit and Opportunity.

Unexplained computer reboots by Spirit in the past week are not related to dust’s effects on the
rover’s power supply, but the dust-storm season remains a concern. Spirit received commands
Tuesday to transmit more engineering data in coming days to aid in diagnosis of the reboots.

After months of relatively clear air, increased haze in March reduced Spirit’s daily energy supply
by about 20 percent and Opportunity’s by about 30 percent. Widespread haze resulted from a
regional storm that made skies far south of the rovers very dusty. Conditions at the rovers’ sites
remained much milder than the worst they have endured. In July 2007, nearly one Martian year
ago, airborne dust blocked more than 99 percent of the direct sunlight at each rover’s site.

The rovers point cameras toward the sun to check the clarity of the atmosphere virtually every
day. These measurements let the planning team estimate how much energy the rovers will have
available on the following day. Observations of changes in the Martian atmosphere by NASA’s
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars in 2006, and NASA’s Mars Odyssey, which
reached Mars in 2001, are available to supplement the rover’s own skywatch.

The Mars Color Imager camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sees the entire planet every day
at resolution comparable to weather satellites around Earth.

“We can identify where dust is rising into the atmosphere and where it is moving from day to
day,” said Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, principal investigator for
Mars Color Imager. “Our historical baseline of observing Martian weather, including data from
the Mars Global Surveyor mission from 1998 to 2007, helps us know what to expect. Weather on
Mars is more repetitive from year to year than weather on Earth. Global dust events do not occur
every Mars year, but if they do occur, they are at this time of year.”

Two other instruments — the Thermal Emission Imaging System on Mars Odyssey and the Mars
Climate Sounder on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — monitor changes in airborne dust or dust-
related temperatures in Mars’ upper atmosphere. Orbiters also aid surface missions with radio
relays, imaging to aid drive plans, and studies of possible future landing sites.

When orbital observations indicate a dust-raising storm is approaching a rover, the rover team can
take steps to conserve energy. For example, the team can reduce the length of time the rover will
be active or can shorten or delete some communication events.

In recent weeks, frequent weather reports from Bruce Cantor of Malin’s Mars Color Imager team
let the rover team know that the March increase in haziness was not the front edge of a bad
storm. “Bruce’s weather reports have let us be more aggressive about using the rovers,” said Mark
Lemmon, a rover-team atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University, College Station. “There
have been fewer false alarms. Earlier in the mission, we backed off a lot on operations whenever
we saw a small increase in dust. Now, we have enough information to know whether there’s
really a significant dust storm headed our way.”

At other times, the weather reports prompt quick precautionary actions. On Saturday, Nov. 8,
2008, the rover team received word from Cantor of a dust storm nearing Spirit. The team deleted
a communication session that Sunday and sent a minimal-activity set of commands that Monday.
Without those responses, Spirit would likely have depleted its batteries to a dangerous level.

Winds that can lift dust into the air can also blow dust off the rovers’ solar panels. The five-year-
old rover missions, originally planned to last for three months, would have ended long ago if
beneficial winds didn’t occasionally remove some of the dust that accumulates on the panels. A
cleaning event in early April aided Opportunity’s power output, and Spirit got two minor
cleanings in February, but the last major cleaning for Spirit was nearly a full Martian year ago.

Nelson said, “We’re all hoping we’ll get another good cleaning.”

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars
Exploration Rovers, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA’s Science
Mission Directorate, Washington. More information about the rovers is at .  Dust reports from the Thermal Emission Imaging System,
operated by Arizona State University, Tempe, are at . Weather
reports from the Mars Color Imager team are at .

New Google Mars

February 2, 2009

Google Earth’s latest edition was just released and guess what? It has a Mars setting! There was a way to overlay Mars data on the Earth globe in previous versions, but now that’s no longer necessary: just click a button and you’re on Mars. You can choose from a variety of global maps including topography, Viking images, Day and nighttime infrared, and visible color. It also has footprints for high resolution cameras like HiRISE, CTX, MOC, CRISM, and HRSC, with links to the full-resolution images. And most exciting, it has 3D topography! Now you can fly around in Valles Marineris or check out the view from Olympus mons.

The view from the edge of the Olympus Mons caldera in Google Mars.

The view from the edge of the Olympus Mons caldera in Google Mars.

Olympus Mons dominates the horizon in this Google Mars view.

Olympus Mons dominates the horizon in this Google Mars view.

Another way-cool feature is the ability to zoom into panoramas taken by rovers and landers, as shown here for Opportunity.

The Opportunity rover's traverse. Each camera icon is a panorama that you can zoom into.

The Opportunity rover's traverse. Each camera icon is a panorama that you can zoom into.

Part of the Rub al-Khali panorama taken by the opportunity rover.

Part of the Rub al-Khali panorama taken by the opportunity rover.

And finally, you can load selected Context Camera images right onto the globe, to take a high-res look at areas of interest, such as the Olympia Fossae troughs shown here. I don’t know what’ you’re waiting for: go download the program and try this out for yourself!

CTX image of the Olympia Fossae troughs.

CTX image of the Olympia Fossae troughs.

Early Birthday Present from Opportunity

January 8, 2009

The Opportunity rover will be celebrating its 5th birthday on Mars later this month, but as an early treat a shiny new panorama was just released. This panorama was taken in late November while the sun was between Mars and the Earth, cutting off communications. It shows the beautiful layered bedrock and undulating ripples that Opportunity is studying on its way to the giant crater Endeavor.

Click the images below for full-res versions. The top is approximate true color, the bottom is a false color composite that brings out a lot of the details. (Note: if you get a “broken” image icon and an error, it’s probably because the image is too large for your browser to display. In that case, download the file by right clicking and selecting “Save link as…” and then open the picture on your computer.)


Mars Art Galleries!

November 10, 2008

Apparently I am not the only person who has had the idea of posting “artistic” images of Mars! In the past week I’ve come across two sites with collections of Mars Art images. So in lieu of posting my own image this week, I’ll point you to these sites who had the idea before me!

First is a site by Jim Plaxco called simply the Mars Art Gallery. It has lots of images, both unaltered and false-colored. He tends to manipulate the images a bit much for my tastes, but some of the results are pretty cool. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the site had been updated recently. Here are a few samples:

Dunes in Proctor Crater

A view of the south polar residual cap “swiss cheese terrain” in a strange color scheme.

The second site is a very nice NASA site that I can’t believe I had never seen before! It is a treasure trove of beautiful mars images in both greyscale and false color form orbiters and the rovers. Here are a couple of examples, but you really should go check out the whole gallery. I’ve got my work cut out for me in later Mars Art posts to beat this site’s gallery!

Granule ripples at Meridiani, as seen by the Opportunity rover.

A false color view of the Meridiani region a few hundred kilometers north of the Opportunity landing site. Red indicates warm rocks, while blue indicates cooler sand or dust.

Opportunity on the Road Again

September 22, 2008

The Opportunity rover is out of Victoria crater and is on the road again. The destination? A huge 22km (13.7 mile) diameter crater, dubbed “Endeavor”, about 12 km to the southeast.

Opportunity was designed to live for at least 90 martian days (sols) and drive about 800 m. Today is sol 1658 and Opportunity has so far driven about 12 km (11,797.91 meters, to be precise). It’s not certain that we would make it to the large crater, and a lot of people are doubtful. But then, they would have been doubtful if you told them the rovers were both going to last more than 1600 sols, so who knows!

For more information on this, check the JPL press release.

Potential MSL Site: South Meridiani

September 16, 2008

The south Meridiani landing site is a newcomer to the bunch. It was added earlier this summer as a replacement for the north meridiani site. The south Meridiani site is about 100 km due south of the Opportunity rover landing site and about 100 km due east of the Miyamoto site. What makes the south Meridiani site interesting is that, just south of the landing ellipse, you transition from Meridiani plains material to ancient, water-eroded hills containing phyllosilicates.

The site has good context, in that we would land on the same sort of material that Opportunity is studying. However, the context for the phyllosilicates in the hills is bsically zero. We don’t know where they came from or how they got there.

For diversity of mineralogy, the rocks in the ellipse are probably sulfate-bearing just like the ones Opportunity sees, and are also rich in hematite (probably more blueberries). South of the ellipse, the clays in the hills are pretty diverse, with different chemistries.

Habitability? Well, we are pretty sure the meridiani rocks were once soaked in groundwater, but that water may have been a very salty and acidic brine. We don’t really know about how the phyllosilicates got there, but if they were marine or lake sediments, that would be great for habitability. However, they could also be crater ejects, which is somewhat less good.

As far as preservation goes, both sulfates and phyllosilicates are good at preserving organics under some conditions, so you would have two different, but good chances to see preserved biomarkers.

The mission at south Meridiani would be three phases. Phase 1 would be landing on the meridiani plains and using the new tools on MSL to better understand the same general rocks that Opportunity has been studying. MSL would land in a place that is in lower layers than Opportunity, so would fill in some of the earlier story. Phase two would be driving south to the contact between the meridiani plains unit and the ancient clay-bearing hills. And phase three would be exploring the hills.

The discussion phase once again brough up some tough and important questions about the site. Someone asked whether, when we cross the boundary between the plains and the hills, we are seeing the transition between a sulfate-forming environment and a clay-forming environment, or are we just seeing “before and after” and missing that transition. Someone pointed out that even if there are “missing layers” due to some period of erosion or non-deposition, that still contains information, because the surface would be weathered and altered before the new rocks were laid on top.

Someone else pointed out that this is a perfect example of an interesting mineralogy site, but with no context. We don’t know the whole “source to sink: story of the phyllosilicates. It was compared with all of the interesting rocks that Spirit has seen in the Columbia Hills: all very cool, but hard to piece together into a story.

Another very important question was whether the clay-bearing rocks had any distinctive appearance. Because MSL will probably not be able to identify them from very far away. (at best, ChemCam, the laser, might be able to… that’s part of my future research, so we’ll see) There wasn’t a good answer to this, though the phyllosilicates are seen in somewhat diagnositc “fractured” rocks.

The bottom line is that this site would be interesting because we would learn more about Meridiani, and would be able to cross a transition and explore very old clay-bearing rocks. However, the context for those clays is pretty weak, and we might end up being totally confused due to that lack of context. This site does have the advantage that it is incredibly safe. Meridiani planum is FLAT. I don’t think it’s the best science site, but it is an acceptable science site, and it may end up surviving or being brought back later on because it is so easy to land on.

Potential MSL Site: Miyamoto Crater

September 16, 2008

Miyamoto crater is an ancient crater about 150 km southwest of where the Opportunity rover is right now. It probably formed in the earliest stage of Mars history, and was then subject to lots of erosion by water, followed by being partially or completely buried by the same material that make up the Meridiani plains. Then, erosion exposed it again.

The potential landing site has some interesting mineralogy, particularly evidence for phyllosilicate (clay) minerals. We were told that there are possible salt deposits west of the crater, but they are outside the crater rim, and I thought it was a little aritificial to include those as part of the site’s compositional diversity, since they are 40 kilometers away, we probably cant get to them, and we’re not even sure that they are there.

As far as geomorphology, it is likely that the site was once part of a regional channel system, and there are a lot of “inverted” channels on the floor of the crater. An inverted channel is a river bed that became harder than its surroundings (this can happen for a variety or reasons), so when erosion happened, the riverbed lasted longer and ended up as a ridge rather than a trough. On the east edge of the site is the boundary of the layered Meridiani plains material, and it would be interesting to drive the rover from the clay-bearing landing location across the transition to the sulfate-bearing Meridiani stuff.

It was argued that this site would be good for preservation of organics mostly because it has phyllosilicates, but also because the inverted channels may have trapped organics in the cement that made the channel hold together.

The discussion of this site brought up a lot of interesting points, and although it was civil, there were a lot of tough questions asked, which is a good thing. I hope all of the sites get grilled to the same extent. There was some question of whether the inverted channel was really formed by water, or if it was if it could have been filled later, for example by lava taking advantage of the pre-existing trough. It was claimed that the inverted channels branch, but I’ve never seen them do that. Someone also pointed out that the fact that there are channels on top of the clay-bearing rocks implies that after the clays formed, they were flushed with water over and over. That’s bad for preserving organics, as we heard in the morning. Ideally you would want a consistently wet environment, which then became dry and stayed that way.

Finally, one of the accepted experts in geomorphology in the room got up and pointed out (somewhat confrontationally) to everyone that he had seen lava flows in this crater years ago, and that there was also no evidence of the regional flowing water that had been claimed!

Personally, I don’t think this is the site to go to with MSL. There is not enough known about it, and there are other sites that have much better examples of everything that this one has. I am doubtful that it will survive the process.

Mars Rovers Twitter!

August 31, 2008

Following the lead of their younger, hipper cousin Phoenix, the Rovers now have their own Twitter page. Check it often to get the latest rover news!