Tag: Mars

Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!

By Phil Plait | October 24, 2012 7:00 am

Hey, remember that one ton nuclear rover we sent to Mars? Yeah, that. On October 20, it aimed its megaWatt laser at the sand on Mars and blasted it 30 times in rapid succession, carving out a hole about 3 mm across. NASA kindly has provided a before-and-after animation of the damage inflicted on the Red Planet:

Cool, eh? [Click to coherentlightenate.]

Curiosity’s laser is designed not as a weapon against a hapless Marvin, but instead to do actual science. It very rapidly heats the rock (or sand or whatever) to the point where it vaporizes. Material heated like that glows, and in fact glows at very specific colors. By identifying those colors, scientists can determine precisely what the material is composed of. I gave the details in an earlier post when Curiosity zapped its first rock. You should read it, because spectroscopy is cool, and I spent many years doing it.

This sand was chosen to get lasered because it’s made of fine grains that are blown by the wind. Some Martian sand is bigger, some smaller, but it’s all pretty much formed from eroded rocks. But different grains may have different compositions, and be blown around differently. The only way to know is to find out. So Curiosity will be blasting various things as it roves around Gale crater, its home for the next two years.

Curiosity’s real name is Mars Science Laboratory, and it’s useful to keep that in mind. It’s not just some golf cart tooling around the planet; it’s a fully functional science lab, with cameras, spectroscopes, sampling devices, and more. Everything it does is so we can learn more about Mars. What’s the the history of the planet? Why is its geology the way it is? What’s the deal with it used to having water? Where’d it all go?

I think these are questions worth exploring, even if it means blasting tiny holes in the planet to find out.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGN/CNRS. Tip o’ the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to Keri Bean, including the idea for the title.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, laser, Mars

Standing on Mars

By Phil Plait | October 17, 2012 7:00 am

What would it look like to stand on Mars? Probably like this:

[I had to shrink this image considerably to fit the width of my blog; click to properly enaresenate.]

Space enthusiast Denny Bauer created this spectacular panorama of the Martian landscape using images from the Curiosity rover; he arduously stitched raw images together in Photoshop. The original shots were taken on Sol 64 (October 10, 2012; a "sol" is one Mars day and is slightly longer than an Earth day) using Curiosity’s MASTCAM.

The view is wonderful: you can see small rocks in the foreground, all kinds of geology as you let your eye move upwards, and then finally the horizon and the central mountains of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s home, looming in the distance. It almost looks like a dusty summer day in northern California… except it’s the cold, distant, almost airless yet still dust-stormy surface of another planet.

Not only that, but Denny made an even bigger, high-resolution image made of 65 subimages which I have no hope of showing you here. You can take a look at it at that link, or you can go to the 100+ megapixel pan-and-scan version where you can surf around the surface of Mars. It’s tremendous.

Looking at this image I was thinking of what it would be like to stand there – properly outfitted in an insulated pressure suit, of course. And then I saw this 3D anaglyph picture Denny put together and really felt like I was standing on the Red Planet:

If you have red/cyan glasses, click that to get a bigger view and soak it in. He did a fantastic job of matching up the images (from Sol 60 using NAVCAM shots), and there’s no trace of the usual color edges you see in such images. It really is like you’re standing there!

Image credit: Denny Bauer, used with permission.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Animated transit of a Martian moon

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2012 9:00 am

Back in September I posted an image taken from the Curiosity rover showing Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, crossing the face of the Sun.

That was pretty cool. But this is cooler: video of Phobos transiting the face of the Sun seen from the rover Opportunity on September 20, 2012!

Lest it be overshadowed (HAHAHAHA! Get it?) by Curiosity, remember Opportunity is still going strong after more than eight years on the surface of the Red Planet. These shots from the elder rover are really awesome; Phobos is not even close to being a sphere and you can see its potatoey lumpiness in the animation.

Phobos is about 27 km (17 miles) across its long axis, which is small for a moon. It looks big because it orbits Mars so close in; it’s only 6000 km above the surface. It was actually a bit farther away from Opportunity when these images were taken, making it look smaller than it could be.

In fact, given its size and distance, Phobos has a maximum size in the sky of about a quarter degree, or half the size of our full Moon. As seen from Earth, the Sun and the Moon are about the same size in the sky. But Mars is farther from the Sun, so the Sun looks smaller, about 1/3 of a degree. So even at best Phobos can’t completely block the Sun.

But… Phobos isn’t in a stable orbit. Tides from Mars are dropping it down closer to the planet, making it appear bigger. In a few million years it’ll drop low enough to create total eclipses as seen from the surface of Mars. They won’t last long, since the moon is zipping along pretty rapidly in its orbit. Still though, I have to admit to a bit of delight: creationists like to claim the Earth is special, and we’re the only planet that has the right conditions for total solar eclipses. That’s not even really true right now, and it certainly won’t be once Phobos dips down a bit more.

Of course, once Phobos gets too close to Mars a few million years later it’ll crash into the surface, making the sweatiest apocalyptic scenarios dreamed up by humans look like a warm summer’s breeze by comparison. Nature! It has a way of making our fevered imaginations look like pretty small potatoes.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ. Tip o’ the rocket crane to Mars Curiosity on Twitter.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Wheels on Mars

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 7:00 am

Speaking of amazing pictures from Mars, over the weekend Emily Lakdawalla tweeted about a shot from the Curiosity rover that is simply too too cool:

I love the perspective on this! [Click to hotwheelsenate – and you really should to see just how awesome this picture is.]

It was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on October 6, 2012. MAHLI is a color camera that’s mounted on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm. It provides detailed (1600 x 1200 pixel) color images, and can take close-ups to show microscopic detail of Martian rock samples.

But it can also take spectacular shots of the rover itself. You can see details on the rover wheels, including some of the dings they’ve gotten as they roll over rocks. It also gives you a sense of the size of the rover: it’s as big as a car, and those wheels in the picture are 50 cm (18 inches) in diameter! That’s about the same size as the wheels on my own car.

… and then, while thinking about all this, I remember: this is on Mars. That’s another world, a planet tens of millions of kilometers away, a nine-month trip even by rocket! And Curiosity will be there for two full Earth years, returning vast amounts of incredible data about its surroundings.

I literally get a chill down my back when I think about that. It’s so easy to get mired down worrying about the present and the future, but, quite literally, pictures like this give me hope for humanity. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars

Curiosity got shaved?

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 3:08 pm

Yesterday, the Mars rover Curiosity was using its scoop for the first time to grab a sample of Martian regolith (the crumbled sand, rock and dust covering the planet) when scientists back here on Earth spotted something funny looking. It was an object roughly a centimeter long that appeared shiny, in contrast to the rust-colored dust-covered pebbles and rocks around it.

Using the ChemCam, they took this close-up picture of the object:

I added the arrows. My first thought was that it looked like a piece of shredded plastic, and it may very well be something like that. Not from any Martian litterbugs, though! It’s probably something from the rover itself; it was spotted just after the scoop had dumped the regolith sample into a shaker which vibrated the material to help separate and analyze it. It seems likely whatever this thing is may have come off then.

No matter what it is, it’s stopped Curiosity’s mission progress until it can be figured out. If it’s something that got shaved off the rover itself that might be kindof important. Also, if something like that got caught in the sampling scoop, or someplace else, it could do anything from mess up the observations to damage the rover itself (if it wasn’t the result of some kind of damage in the first place). That strikes me as pretty unlikely, but better safe than sorry when you’re dealing with a $2.5 billion chem lab on a planet a couple of hundred million kilometers away.

It may very well be something benign, but it’s certainly cause for concern, and the folks at JPL are looking into it. Stay tuned for more.

You can also read more about this at Universe Today and USA Today.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover

One small tread for Curiosity, one giant leap for roverkind

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2012 7:03 am

I’m posting this just because I can: a closeup of the tread track left by the Mars Curiosity rover’s wheel in the sand:

That image was taken by the left MASTCAM on Sol 57, the 57th Mars day after the rover landed – October 3, 2012 to you and me, stuck as we are here on Earth.

If this picture looks familiar, if it tickles some part of your brain as it did mine, then it’s probably because it bears a remarkable similarity to the bootprint left on the Moon by Buzz Aldrin. That iconic image will forever represent the moment humanity’s foot first set upon an alien world.

Perhaps currently there is no one iconic picture from Mars that has earned its place in history’s archive. But that day may yet come when we see a picture very similar to Buzz’s… and the dust compressed by a human boot will be red, not grey.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Buzz Aldrin, Curiosity, Mars

Q&BA: How do we know some meteorites come from Mars?

By Phil Plait | October 2, 2012 10:34 am

This Q&BA video’s a bit longer than usual, but what the heck. It’s a fun topic!

First: every now again when I have time I do an interactive live video chat on Google+ where people can ask me questions about space and astronomy. I call it Q&BA, and it’s always fun to hear what questions are on people’s minds.

In this episode of Q&BA, I was asked about Mars meteorites: how do they get to Earth? I talk about their transport mechanism, as well as how they get blasted of the surface of Mars, and how we know they come from the Red Planet at all. It’s a pretty common question, and a pretty cool little slice of science.

[Note: I was having software issues when I recorded this on a Google+ Hangout in January 2012, and the aspect ratio is a bit wonky.]

So there you go. I’ve seen a few Mars meteorites, and they’re pretty nifty. One of these days I’ll have to see about getting one to add to my collection of iron and stony meteorites, too. It’s be nice to have a chunk of actual planet that’s not Earth sitting on my display shelf.

I have an archive of Q&BA links and videos. Take a look and see if there are other ones that tickle your imagination.


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A penetrating, double-ringed crater on Mars

By Phil Plait | September 27, 2012 6:55 am

Mars is weird. Right? I mean, it’s a whole other planet. So you expect it to be weird.

But then I see pictures like this one from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, and I am reminded just how weird it is:

[Click to chicxulubenate.]

Most craters you see are pretty simple: something impacts the ground at high speed, BOOM!, and you get a crater like a dish tossed into soft sand. But this one has two rings, one inside the other. That can happen with huge impacts producing craters hundreds of kilometers across, but this one is small, only 230 meters from side to side – an American football stadium would just fit inside this crater.

The most likely explanation for the double ring is that the Martian landscape here is layered. There’s rock and sand on the surface, but underneath that is a layer of ice. The big rim is from the displaced rock, and the inner, smaller ring is from the impactor plowing through the ice. Each layer has a different strength – rock is harder than ice – so it’s as if two craters were formed, one inside the other. Radar observations of Mars from orbit have indicated there’s ice under the surface in this region, so that fits.

Similar double-ringed craters have been seen on Mars – though the structure and history is by no means well understood! – and some have been found on the Earth’s Moon as well. Those tend to be big, as I mentioned, though they don’t have to be.

By the way, the image above is color enhanced to show details. The blue may be from carbon dioxide frost, which can be seen in similar color-enhanced HiRISE images. The ripples in the center are sand dunes, sculpted into parallel waves by the ceaseless Martian wind.

Craters this small on Earth are extremely unlikely to form; the impactor would be maybe 20 meters or so across, and objects that size tend to break up when they ram through our thick atmosphere at high speed. Mars has much thinner air, so rocks that size can hit intact. Studying craters on Mars is a chance to see what these hypervelocity impacts are like under very different conditions, which helps us understand them. The physics of extremely high-speed collisions is hard to study experimentally – accelerating large objects to that kind of speed is both difficult and more than slightly dangerous – so it’s nice to have a lab like Mars where we can observe these effects.

Tip o’ the lens cap to HiRISE on Twitter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.


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A solar eclipse… FROM MARS!

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2012 12:34 pm

OK, this is simply too cool.

The Mars Curiosity rover has already returned thousands of images taken of the Red Planet’s landscape. But on September 13, 2012, it was commanded not to look around, but to look up, at the Sun. Why? Because Mars’s tiny moon Phobos passed directly in front of the Sun, partially eclipsing it!

Sweeeeet. I blew the original image up by a factor of two for clarity.

Technically, this is called a transit – when a much smaller body passes in front of a larger one. Usually, there’s some science that can come from this; the timing of the transit gives a better orbit for the moon (since the rover’s location on the surface is precisely known), and so on. In this case, though, we study Phobos with other orbiting spacecraft, so I’d think its orbit and position are extremely well determined.

It may very well be that this shot was taken just because it’s cool. I actually kinda hope so.

It’s not the first time a Phobos transit has been seen; in fact it’s been done several times. Here’s a video of one seen by the rover Opportunity in November 2010:

Wikipedia has more info. I’ll note that as of right now, the image above is the only one I’ve seen listed on the Curiosity raw images page (at decent resolution, that is; there are lots of tiny thumbnails, and bigger, cleaner versions should show up soon). The image was taken by the MASTCAM, which has a filter on it so it can observe the Sun. It does that for various reasons, including being able to observe how much the Martian atmosphere is absorbing sunlight.

Phobos orbits Mars pretty close in, just about 6000 km (3600 miles) above the surface of Mars – compare that to the 400,000 km distance from the Earth to the Moon! Phobos is so close that it transits the Sun pretty much every day for some location on Mars, making this something of a less-than-rare event. It’ll only be a year before it happens again at Curiosity’s location.

Still. It’s an eclipse, seen from Mars, taken by a nuclear powered one-ton mobile chem lab that we put there. I think that qualifies as pretty damn cool.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Tip o’ the heat shield to… MarsCuriosity on Twitter!


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Curiosity's self-portrait

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2012 6:49 am

I’m on travel in the UK right now – I’m filming a part for a documentary which I’ll talk more about in a later post – but I want to make sure you get a chance to see this really quite fun self-portrait the Mars Curiosity rover took over the weekend:

[Click to narcissusenate.]

I love how it almost looks like the rover is surprised to see itself.

The picture was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera mounted on the end of the robot arm. It’s designed to look up close at specimens of rocks or whatever else the rover happens to see as it rolls across Mars. It has a transparent dust cover on it, which is why the image is a bit fuzzy. It’s covered in Mars dust!

But engineers commanded the dust cover to flip open, and then it took this picture looking straight down (again, click to embiggen). Those may just look like rocks, but they’re rocks on Mars! That alone makes them awesome. But in fact pictures like this will tell scientists back home volumes about the geology of Mars, and the history of its surface in this region.

Even just looking at how the rocks are laid out can be telling; water flowing over a rocky area redistributes rocks in certain patterns, and that can be seen right away in pictures. A lot of science can be gleaned just from a shot like this. But the rover can also drill into this surface, scoop up samples to test, or zap them with its laser to see what they’re made of. All in all, this is the little rover that could… which is actually a big rover that does.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


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Gallery – Curiosity’s triumphant first week on Mars

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, MAHLI, Mars
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