Curiosity: Update 8 – Methane-less Mars

Shooting Lasers from MSL’s TLS instrument

Mars has lost at least half its atmosphere since the planet’s inception, Curiosity confirms. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Other than shielding life from harmful UV radiation, atmosphere also controls the fluctuations in climate. Because Mars’ atmosphere contains more heavier varieties of carbon dioxide than lighter ones, the ratio suggest the planet has sadly lost much of its atmosphere. Mars’ thin atmosphere has nearly untraceable amounts of methane, only a few parts of methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere. Microbes like bacteria emit methane. In fact, 95% of methane on Earth is produced by biological processes. Though Curiosity failed to find traces of methane in Gale Crater, Mars may yet host methane elsewhere.

Curiosity used its SAM instruments (Sample Analysis at Mars) and TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer). In the near future, SAM will analyze its first solid sample to search for organic compounds in rocks.

In addition, air samples from Curiosity match ones from trapped air bubbles in meteorites found on Earth. Ergo, those meteorites definitely originated from Mars. 1 billion years ago, a large asteroid collided into Mars and split into fragments.

References

 “NASA Rover Finds Clues to Changes in Mars’ Atmosphere.” JPL Caltech. JPL, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1388&gt;.

Vergano, Dan. “NASA’s Curiosity rover confirms Mars lost atmosphere.” USA Today. USA Today, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/sciencefair/2012/11/02/curiosity-rover-mars-methane/1678033/&gt;.

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Curiosity: Update 7 – Fingerprinting Martian Materials

X-Ray View of Martian Soil

The latest of Curiosity’s analyses show that the Martian minerals is similar to “weathered basaltic salts of volcanic origin in Hawaii.”  Curiosity’s CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument refines and identifies minerals in X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars. X-ray diffraction records hows minerals’ internal structures’ crystals react with X-rays. Identifying minerals in rocks and soil is crucial in assessing past environmental conditions. Each mineral has evidence of its unique formation. These minerals have similar chemical compositions but different structures and properties. The samples taken at “Rocknest” were consistent with scientists’ initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater. Ancient rocks suggest flowing water, while minerals in younger soil suggest limited interaction with water.

References

“NASA Rover’s First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals First X-ray View of Martian Soil” JPL Caltech. JPL, 30 Oct 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012.

The “Zombie” Planet Rises

The Zombie Planet

World War Z? Certainly looks like it. A planet though to be buried has come back alive… undead, some might say. Coincidentally, the analysis of Hubble Space Telescope’s observations came  right before Halloween. The massive alien zombie planet, called the Fomalhaut b (the name even sounds creepy, if you ask me), orbits the star Fomalhaut, which is 25 light years from the constellation Piscis Austrinus. These recent discoveries, however, contradict conclusions in November 2008 that indicated Fomalhaut b as a giant dust cloud. Fomalhaut b, three times smaller than Jupiter, was the first planet directly imaged in visible light. The planet seems to be inside a vast debris ring. Because the scientists did not discover any brightness variations in the 2004 and 2006 Hubble observations, they concluded that Fomalhaut b must be a massive planet. Watch the Halloween-themed video below on the Zombie Planet!

References

Space.com. “Massive ‘zombie’ alien planet rises from the dead.” NBCNews.com. NBCNews.com, 28 2012. Web. 28 Oct 2012.

Orionid Meteor Shower This Weekend

The Orionids

This weekend, from Saturday night into Sunday morning (10/21-10/22), you may observe the annual Orionid meteor showers streaking across the sky. Dozens of meteors will scorch the sky every hour.(Of course, the sky must be clear and dark, which, unfortunately, is not for me.) Fortunately, the moon is only in its crescent phase, so its light does not interfere with observing the meteor shower. The Orionid meteor shower happens every year in late October when Earth cross through debris left by Halley’s comet. Halley’s comet last passed through our solar system in 1986, and will not come back until 2061. When Halley’s comet neared the Sun, the heat melted the comet to form gas and dust. Though the comet leaves the solar system, that gas and debris continues to orbit the Sun. Most of the particles that form meteors are only the size of a few grains of sand, but comets have high kinetic energy as they hit Earth’s atmosphere— over 50,000 miles per hour! As the grains, or debris meteoroids, contact Earth’s atmosphere, they ionize molecules in the atmosphere, forming a bright trail across the sky known as a meteor or shooting star. Small meteoroids burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. A meteoroid must be bigger than the size of your fist to survive and hit Earth’s surface. Meteorites are usually found in deserts or Antarctica, where their black coloration stick out easily against the ground. Most meteorites land in the ocean, so no harm done there! In fact, 800 meteorites heavier than 100 grams strike the Earth every day; during meteor showers the frequency is higher.

Orionids Crossing Betelgeuse

Blazin’ Facts

  • Why “Orionid”? The meteors seem to intersect at Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation (but it’s just an optical illusion).
  • The Orionids historically have only produced 20 meteors at its peak, but in the last decade, scientists have observed more than 60 meteors per hour!
  • Meteors travel in space; meteoroids fall though the atmosphere; meteorites strike the surface
  • Did you know Halley never saw Halley’s comet? Halley suggested that the comet spotted in 1682 was the same one in 1531 and 1607. Halley’s observations led to the conclusion that comets orbit the sun. In 1705, he predicted the comet would appear in 1758, but died before he actually saw the comet.
  • Aside from Orionids, the other annual meteor shower is the Eta Aquarids that peaks early May.

References

Pereira, Pablo. “Meteor Shower Created by Halley’s Comet Peaks Tonight.” FOX News. FOX News, 20 Oct 2012. Web. 21 Oct 2012.

Curiosity: Update 3 – H2O Traces on Mars

Ancient Martian Stream, Bedrock

On September 27, 2012, the rover Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) snapped and sent back images of Martian bedrock possibly once home to a fast-moving stream. Curiosity founded rounded pebbles, probably due to erosion by water. The rocks ranging in size from sand grains to golf balls could not have been carried into the Gale Crater by wind, but carried water for a 20 to 25 miles and smoothed out. At one point in the past lasting thousands to millions of years, Mars may have been overflowing with liquid water, but present-day Mars is a barren desert with nothing but remnants of rock carved by water. Curiosity made this remarkable discovery when driving to Glenelg, the point where three types of terrain meet. Finding water is only the first step to discovering a once-habitable environment for microbial life. However, the dried-up stream didn’t preserve organic carbon. Carbon is necessary for life, so Curiosity will head to the foothills of Mount Sharp to find organic materials. Instead of “following the water,” scientists will now “follow the carbon.”

References

” Curiosity finds signs of ancient stream on Mars.” FOX News. Fox News, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

Kaufman, Mark. “Curiosity rover’s Mars landing site was once covered with fast-moving water, NASA says.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

Curiosity: Update 2 – Images and Voices

Mount Sharp, Gale Crater, Mars

On August 27, 2012, the Mars Rover Curiosity beamed back images of Gale Crater’s 3-mile high Mount Sharp, whose layered terrain may reveal further details of Mars’ geological history. Curiosity will eventually travel to Mount Sharp to analyze its rocks by collecting samples. Curiosity also broadcasted a voice recording of NASA administrator Charles Bodin congratulating the Mars Rover team on the successful August 5 landing. In the recording, Bodin said: “This is an extraordinary achievement. Landing a rover on Mars is not easy. Others have tried; only America has fully succeeded.” Mars’ Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM), which passed tests, is in working order and will digest and analyze rocks. In addition, Curiosity will drive to depressions on Mars’ surface where the spacecraft’s landing engines left their mark. These holes will allow Curiosity to image Mars’ interior without drilling. In the next few days, Curiosity will head over 1,300 feet to its first drilling target, Glenelg.

Will.i.am

On August 28, 2012, Curiosity transmitted to Earth (JPL in La Cañada Flintridge) artist will.i.am’s new song titled “Reach for the Stars.” The first music to be broadcasted from another planet, will.i.am’s song traveled 700 million miles to Earth. Will.i.am is an advocator of science and math education. NASA had broadcasted the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” on the group’s 40th anniversary in 2008.

Mars Science Laboratory/ Curiosity sure is gaining ground in Mars research. What will it discover? What mysteries will Curiosity uncover? Was Mars once habitable for microorganisms? Perhaps only time will tell.

References

” Curiosity rover beams new will.i.am song from Mars.” FOX News. Fox News, 28 Aug 2012. Web. 28 Aug 2012.

Khan, Amina. “Curiosity rover broadcasts message from Mars.” LA Times. LA Times, 27 Aug 2012. Web. 28 Aug 2012.