Archive for August, 2008
Scientists get to have the coolest toys of all. Remember how you used to put a small camera in front of your remote control car so you can do some investigating and monitoring? Well, the Mars exploration rovers are like that, only with way better features. The rovers pack not only cameras but scientific tools as well, plus, they’re located in Mars.
The rovers were sent to Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long term robotic exploration of Mars, whose main mission is to look for signs indicating that Mars had abundant water supply and it harbored life some time before.
The rovers were sent to Mars on June 10 and July 7, 2003 and landed on Mars on January 3 and January 24, 2004 PST.
The rovers were named Spirit and Opportunity, they landed on the opposite sides of Mars. Spirit landed at the Gusev Crater, scientists suspect that this was a former lake, while Opportunity landed at the Meridiani Planum, where hematite is found.
Hematite is a mineral deposit that suggests previous water activity in Mars.
Panoramic Camera (PanCam) – Serves as the eyes of the rovers. It determines the structure of Mars’ terrain as well as mineralogy and texture.
Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-Tes) – Located at the bottom of the rover. The Mini-Tes is used to identify rocks that are good candidates for further examination. It is also used to determine how the rocks formed and study the Martian atmosphere.
Mossbauer Spectrometer (MB) – Located on the arm of the rover and can actually be placed directly on a sample to be studied. It used to study rocks and soil with iron in them.
Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) – Determines the abundance of elements present in Martian rocks and soil.
Magnets – Used for collecting magnetic dust particles which will then be examined by the Mossbauer spectrometer and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer.
Microscopic Imager (MI) - Used for close up images of Martian rocks and soil.
Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) – Acts like a sweeper or hammer that removes particles on rocks to expose better quality materials that are worth examining.
Upon reaching Mars, the rovers are expected to travel 40 meters to 1 kilometer per day, which was exceeded by the rovers.
With the tools that Spirit and Opportunity has, they are like human geologists examining a site. It has arms that can put equipment directly on a rock or soil of interest, it has a magnifying lens, and if the rock is dirty or it wants to examine the inside of the rock, the Rat Abrasion Tool comes in Handy.
The rovers were launched using a Delta II 7925 launch vehicle. And, the same with other missions, the launch was a very suspenseful moment. We’ve had missions that failed during the launch phase so it’s very critical.
But the most suspenseful part of all is EDL phase or Entry, Descent and Landing. the purpose of the EDL is to make sure that the rovers arrive in Mars safely to be able to perform their task. There is a great risk that the mission could end at this phase. Here is a depiction of how the EDL goes.
As of today, the rovers still continue to investigate and roam around Mars. They’ve actually exceeded what was expected of them, much to the delight of the scientists who enjoying playing geologists. The rovers will eventually die out when it’s no longer able to recharge its batteries. But right now, they’re still on a roll!
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a highly sophisticated spacecraft whose main purpose is to explore Mars from orbit. It has specialized cameras that feeds high resolution images of Mars to our scientists. Another purpose of the orbiter is to map out landing sites for future rovers, the MRO was the one used to map out the landing site of Phoenix, it also helps scientists understand the weather changes in Mars.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also packs scientific equipments used to analyze the landforms, minerals, ice and stratigraphy (study of rock layers and layering) of Mars.
This $720 million dollar spacecraft was launched on August 12, 2005 and reached Mars’s orbit on March 10, 2006. The MRO is the 5th spacecraft to be operating on Mars’s orbit. The others were the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey. The two rovers Spirit and Opportunity also came before the MRO.
- Look for evidence that water was once present in Mars and that it existed long enough to support life.
- Map out the Martian landscape with its sophisticated cameras and help in choosing landing sites for the rovers.
- Study the Martian climate, weather and geology.
- Look for the remains of the lost Mars Polar Lander and Beagle 2
- HiRise (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera – The largest and most sophisticated camera ever brought to orbit. Its main purpose is to provide high resolution images that will help scientists study the surface structure of Mars. The HiRise will provide great views of the Martian channels and gullies as well their layerings.
- CTX (Context Imager) Camera – The MRO’s wide angle camera. Its resolution may not be as great as the HiRise but it can take pictures of the Martian surface that spans 30 kilometers across. The CTX will be working together with the HiRise and CRISM. Scientists believe that they are unbeatable tools that will further our study of the Martian surface and environment.
- CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometers for Mars) – Will be used to answer our “Water” questions. When, where, in what form, how much, and for how long did water flow on the surface of Mars. The CRISM will be used to trace minerals that formed in the presence of water.
- MARCI (Mars Color Imager) – The weather man of the MRO. It collects about 84 daily images to produce a weather report for Mars. MARCI will observe daily and seasonal changes in the atmosphere. It will also be used to observe the polar caps and dust storms as it happens.
- MCS (Mars Climate Sounder) – Will be used to observe the temperature, humidity, pressure, dust content, and water vapor of Mars. Its a very sophisticated equipment that is used to study how the heat of the sun affects the Martian climate and how the atmosphere changes from day to night and from season to season.
- SHARAD (Shallow Subsurface Radar) – Will look inside the crust of Mars, about 1 kilometer deep, in search for liquid water or ice. Sharad will be using radar waves of 15 – 25 MHz that can resolve layers to a maximum of 1 kilometer. SHARAD will be working closely with Mars Express’s MARSIS, which serves the same purpose only that it does not have a great resolution like the SHARAD but it can reach greater depths.
The same with all space mission, there will be great challenges that needs to be addressed. With MRO, the biggest challenge will be its orbital insertion and aerobraking. This is a technique used so that the probe can actually go in to the orbit of Mars, once in orbit there will still be a gruelling aerobraking procedure that will last for 5 months before scientists can actually perform experiments and observations.
Here is a great video that explains the orbital insertion and earobraking process.
As of now the MRO continues to provide unprecedented data and will be able to function for 5 more years if NASA will still need its services. The mission was set for 2 years but it was extended since the MRO is still able to function perfectly.
When the Phoenix launched into space and landed safely on Mars, it had 2 objectives:
- Study the History of Water in All its Phases.
- Search for Evidence of Habitable Zone and Assess the Biological Potential of the Ice-Soil Boundary.
On July 31, 2008 NASA confirmed that after a few failed attempts, water ice was accidentally found on a sample of soil collected by the robotic arm.
William Boynton, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA said: “We’ve seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted.”
Tests are now being conducted in order to see if Mars ever supported life.
Mission Chief Peter Smith said “We’re looking to understand the history of the ice, by trying to figure out if this ice has ever melted, and through melting has created a liquid environment that modifies soil”
“We’re just getting the data back. Through this we also hope to resolve questions; is this a habitable zone on Mars, meaning that we have periodic liquid water, materials that are the basic ingredients for life forms?” he added.
And because of this recent discovery, the mission was extended until Sept 30. That’s 90 days more than the original end date. Scientists wants to be able to fully utilize the Phoenix and sample more soil and water to fully identify its composition.
This discovery is another breakthrough for the human kind. NASA is getting close to determining if life ever existed on Mars and if the planet is habitable. The question is, if in case NASA is able to prove that Mars is capable of supporting life. WHAT’S NEXT?
The Phoenix mission is led by Smith at the University of Arizona with project management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and development partnership at Lockheed Martin in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.
Image credits: NASA/JPL