Curiosity Catches Two Eclipses

The cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover usually look down at the rocks on Mars, divining clues in the minerals of what the planet was like billions of years ago.

Sometimes though, the rover also looks up, and in March it spotted two eclipses (eclipsi?).

Eclipses on Mars are not as total as those on Earth where the moon completely blots out the sun. The two moons of Mars are tiny. Phobos is 7 miles wide while Deimos is even tinier, just 1.5 miles in diameter. They only partially block the sun when they pass in front of it.

The camera on Curiosity’s mast is equipped with solar filters that allow it to look directly at the sun and photograph eclipses. On March 17, Curiosity observed Demios eclipsing the sun. Nine days later, it also spotted Phobos passing in front.

The observations by Curiosity, and by earlier NASA Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, enable more precise pinpointing of the moons’ orbits, which are jostled around by the gravity of Mars, Jupiter, and even each other.

Although Phobos and Deimos are small, the details of their formation are of considerable scientific interest. Japan’s space agency plans to send a spacecraft to the two moons within the next decade. The Mars Moon Exploration probe, or MMX, will collect samples and return them to Earth for study. A panel of scientific experts recently approved the sample-return phase of the mission.

MOAR Possible Signs Of Ancient Microbial Life On Mars

This starting to get out of hand.

Weeks after Curiosity detected spikes of methane in the Martian atmosphere, possible evidence of biological activity, a prominent geo-biologist says she sees possible signs of past life in photos of the Martian landscape taken by the rover.

Nora Noffke, an associate professor at Old Dominion University, looked at the structures seen in rocks on Mars and compared them to geological structures on Earth that are formed by microbes living in communities called microbial mats.

The structures belong to a group of microbial structures that form by the interaction of benthic (living on the ground) microbes with sediment dynamics (erosion) in clastic deposits such as sand.

In other words, if such structures do exist on Mars, that suggests the planet may have once harbored microbial life. The microbes would have existed on Mars less than 3.7 billion years ago, according to Noffke.

In the abstract to a paper describing her research, Noffke detailed the similarities found between the structures on Earth and Mars:

“The microbially induced sedimentary-like structures (MISS) identified in Curiosity rover mission images do not have a random distribution. Rather, they were found to be arranged in spatial associations and temporal successions that indicate they changed over time. On Earth, if such MISS occurred with this type of spatial association and temporal succession, they would be interpreted as having recorded the growth of a microbially dominated ecosystem that thrived in pools that later dried completely.”

 

New Clues for Life on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover detected a strange burst of methane gas in the atmosphere on Mars, along with other organic chemicals in rocks on the planet’s surface. These findings are raising new questions about the planet’s habitability today as well as in the past.

Using its onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory, the rover “sniffed” more than a dozen samples of the Martian atmosphere over a 20-month period. Grotzinger and his team found that methane levels shot up tenfold to an average of seven parts per billion over two months in late 2013 and early 2014, according to NASA.

The researchers aren’t sure what caused the burst, but they’ve offered two potential explanations: an interaction between water and rocks called serpentization, or methane-belching microbes. Anaerobic bacteria produce around 95 percent of the methane on Earth.

Curiosity found other organic (carbon-containing) molecules in powder collected from drilling into an ancient rock called Cumberland.

The researchers say this is the first definitive evidence of organics found on the surface of Mars. While the presence of organics doesn’t prove that life existed on ancient Mars, it suggests the planet may have had the ingredients required for life.

A paper describing the detection of methane was published online on Dec. 16 in the journal Science.

Curiosity Finds Mars Crater Once Held A Massive Lake

New data from NASA’s Curiosity rover indicate the red planet’s Gale Crater once contained a massive lake and that Mount Sharp, the mountain at the center of the 96-mile-wide crater, formed from the build-up of sediment over tens of millions of years. This suggests that Mars may have been a much wetter than previously thought.

The new finding suggests that large, long-lasting lakes once dotted the Martian landscape, increasing the possibility that the planet was once habitable.

Curiosity collected the new data on its five-mile drive to Mount Sharp, the prime destination on its mission to study Mars’ climate and geography. The rover landed in Gale Crater in August 2012.

In March, scientists discovered that the crater contained beds of sandstone that were tilted south toward Mount Sharp. They believed these rocks were deposited by streams that fed into a larger body of water in the center of the crater.

After reaching Mount Sharp in September, the rover spent two months studying rocks in the Murray formation at the base of the three-mile-high mountain, discovering fine layers of mudstone–which tend to collect at the bottom of lakes.

Peep the video.