July 20, 2009

Meet the strange moons of Mars

Posted: 08:00 AM ET

Famous for its reddish color, Mars has long fascinated astronomers, ordinary sky gazers and science-fiction writers.

But its strange, tiny moons also deserve plenty of attention, especially since one of them has been suggested as a way for humans to get to the planet itself.

“To reach Mars, we should use comets, asteroids and Mars’s moon Phobos as intermediate destinations. No giant leaps this time. More like a hop, skip and a jump,” Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, wrote recently in an article in Popular Mechanics. Read more about the moon vs. Mars debate

Phobos is one of two Martian moons, with Deimos keeping it company in space.

Just 13 miles across, Phobos orbits so close to Mars that it may be shattered by the Red Planet’s gravitational tidal forces in about 100 million years, according to NASA.

You can see its battered, pockmarked surface in the photo above, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last year. The Stickney Crater, which takes up almost half its diameter, is on the lower right.

Some astronomy Web sites call Phobos potato-shaped and that’s a good way to describe it!

Think Phobos is small? Deimos is even tinier, at about 7.5 miles in diameter. If you were to stand on the surface of Mars, it would look light a bright star, NASA says.

And here’s a bit of mythology to add to your astronomy knowledge. You may know that Mars was named after the Roman god of war. So in keeping with the tone, Phobos (“Fear”) and Deimos (“Terror”) were named after the horses that pulled the chariot of Ares, the Greek god of war and the counterpart to Mars.

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Filed under: Astronomy • Mars • NASA • Space

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February 2, 2009

Shouldn't it be called Google Mars?

Posted: 06:34 PM ET

It's apparently no longer enough for Google to map almost every corner of the Earth. Now the Internet's 800-pound gorilla is turning its attention to the universe.

The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photo: Getty Images

NASA and Google announced Monday the release of a new Mars mode in Google Earth that brings to everyone's desktop a high-res, 3D view of the Red Planet.

According to a NASA news release, the mode enables users "to fly virtually through enormous canyons and scale huge mountains on Mars that are much larger than any found on Earth." Users can explore the planet through the eyes of Mars rovers and see satellite imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other probes.

Google's Mars mode also allows users to zoom in and out, as with Google Earth, and add their own 3D content to the Mars map to share with the world.

The announcement stems from a 2006 agreement between NASA and Google. It came in conjunction with Monday's unveiling of Google Earth 5.0, which allows users to explore Mars in the same way that previous versions of the software offered 3D images of our own planet.

Wow! Impressive. Google's Saturn mode is probably just around the corner.

–Brandon Griggs,

Filed under: Google Earth • Mars

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September 22, 2008

A new Endeavour for Opportunity

Posted: 05:17 PM ET

The Mars rover Opportunity has a new destination – it's turning its wheels southeast and heading for a massive crater called "Endeavour."

The small crater in the upper left corner is Victoria. Opportunity is located nearby. The rover will be heading southeast toward the massive Endeavour Crater. This image was taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey Spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

Opportunity departed Victoria Crater late last month after spending about two years rolling around the rim and studying rock formations just inside.

Endeavour is nearly 14 miles wide and 1000 feet deep, many times larger than Victoria, and features a far thicker stack of exposed layered rocks than those studied to date. Opportunity will have to traverse about seven miles across the Martian plain to reach it, doubling the total distance the rover has put on its odometer since landing back in 2004.

Mission managers admit the trip is going to be a long haul, and the aging rover may never get there.   But if it does, the scientific pay-off, not to mention the pictures, should be spectacular.

-Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Tech

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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September 8, 2008

White Nights

Posted: 12:57 PM ET

Check out this cool picture from the Phoenix Mars Lander of sunrise in the Martian Arctic.

Sunrise on Mars, August 25, 2008. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

Scientists picked a landing location on the Arctic plains because data from orbiting Odyssey spacecraft indicated lots of water ice in the area, mostly in the form of permafrost.  The researchers figured that would be a good place to look for organic chemicals in the dirt and ice. Up until now, Phoenix, which landed May 25,  has been going about its business in the "land of the midnight sun" located deep inside the Martian Arctic Circle.

But now there is a hint of autumn in the air.  On August 21, the 86th day after Phoenix landed, the sun set for the first time this season - rising again about half an hour later.  Now the days will get shorter and the nights longer until the sun finally sets for the season later this fall.

NASA has extended the Phoenix Lander's mission through September, and will almost certainly do so again.  Eventually, the cold and dark of winter will set in, ice sheets will advance, and Phoenix will die a frigid death - probably some time in November.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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August 28, 2008

Martian 'energizer bunnies' keep going and going

Posted: 03:54 PM ET

After spending nearly a year exploring the inside of the massive Victoria Crater, the Mars rover Opportunity is on to the next task.

Cape Verde outcropping inside the Victoria Crater. Source: NASA

I've followed the journeys of the twin rovers since the beginning (they touched down on Mars about three weeks apart back in January 2004). I know I shouldn't pick favorites, but I've always been partial to Opportunity...something about those layered rocks in the Eagle Crater landing site really drew my eye. And of course, Opportunity was the rover that found hard evidence that a salty sea once lapped the shores of Meridiani Planum.

But back on September 11, 2007, when Opportunity began a long drive down a slippery slope into Victoria Crater, I thought it might starting what would turn out to be a one-way trip. Mission operators back here on Earth were so careful with the drive down, stopping after short distances and backing up to assess traction on the path. And the crater was half a mile wide and over 200 feet deep, with what looked to me like a soft floor – complete with sand dunes!

I should have known the science team wouldn't take any foolish chances...

Here's what they did: they drove part way down the slope and identified a 20 foot tall cliff on the crater rim called "Cape Verde." They backed the rover off several yards and took their time gathering high resolution images of the layered rock face. Analysis suggests the rocks were deposited by wind and altered over time by groundwater.

And with that, Opportunity headed for the exit. Turns out those treacherous-looking sand dunes at the bottom of the crater are of little scientific interest, and, in the words of principal investigator Steve Squyres, probably a "permanent rover trap."

Next up: the rover will study loose, fist-sized rocks called "cobbles" that are littering the plains around the craters that have been Opportunity's main focus up to now. The cobbles were likely formed when asteroids or comets hit Mars to form those craters, throwing up rocks and debris.

The rover is showing some signs of age. A "shoulder joint" in its robotic arm has a degraded motor, so the engineers have stopped stowing the arm, even when the rover is driving. By keeping it deployed all the time, they hope to keep it at least partially functional even if that motor eventually fails completely. And Opportunity's left front wheel is showing signs of distress. It could fail in a manner similar to Spirit's right front wheel, which locked up back in 2006.

What's up with Spirit anyway? Over on the other side of Mars, that rover has been parked for the winter in a relatively sunny spot called "Home Plate" in the Columbia Hills. Even with the broken wheel, Spirit can still move around as long as the terrain is not too rugged. When Spring arrives in a few months, mission scientists plan to explore some bright, silica-rich soil nearby that could have been formed by hot water.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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June 20, 2008

Phoenix straight up – on the rocks

Posted: 11:33 AM ET

Scientists who focus their time on the Red Planet cheerfully call themselves "Martians".  Well, it turns out these "Martians" know their turf well – and  have hit some pay dirt in the Arctic region of the Fourth Rock from the Sun. Mars Odyssey spotted the telltale signs of water ice beneath the surface from orbit a few years ago. It was that finding that helped the Martians choose a landing site for Phoenix.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/SSV

And from the moment they touched down, they saw the tantalizing signs that the ice was there – just a few inches beneath the rusty regolith. The dozen pulsed rocket thrusters cleared off a spot that was clearly white. Could it be ice? No way to dig right beneath Phoenix – but the once the arm and shovel got to work making some shallow trenches, it didn't take long to find that white subsurface once again.

But was it the cool find Principal Investigator Peter Smith and his team at the University of Arizona had hoped for? Or was it something else?

But then something telling happened. Some dice-sized white crumbs disappeared from one of the trenches over the course of a few days. What could or would disappear like that?

You guessed it. Water ice. It doesn't melt there (way too cold for that), but it does sublimate (go straight from solid to gas) in the wispy atmosphere of Mars.

So now the team just has to grab some of those "dice" before they sublimate – and toss them into the oven on Phoenix' deck – and see what is inside. Could there be some organic material frozen inside? If so, that would be a big piece of evidence that there was (or maybe even is) life on Mars. I guess it all comes down to a roll of the "dice".

– Miles O'Brien/CNN Space Correspondent

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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June 13, 2008

Phoenix soils itself

Posted: 05:48 PM ET

Scientists running the Phoenix Mars Lander mission are starting to sift through new data being sent back to earth from soil samples the craft has scooped from the Martian surface. At a briefing today, mission managers said they're getting twice the amount of data as they expected.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/SSV

They're especially excited by the "bright material" exposed on the Martian surface as the Phoenix scooped up soil.

The image at right shows the material in two trenches dug by the scoop (the trench on the left is dubbed "Dodo" and the one on the right is "Goldilocks"). The material appears to be ice, but some scientists say it could be a salt layer. Over the next few days, they'll start scraping off samples of the "bright material "and placing them in the Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and microscope to determine the answer.

The soil sample scooped from "Goldilocks" was sprinkled into TEGA for analysis. (The sample itself was nicknamed "Baby Bear" - I'm sensing a theme here.) It yielded the first microscopic images of Martian soil sent back by Phoenix. The image below and to the right is the first soil sample studied aboard a Mars lander since the Viking missions of the 1970s, and it's the highest resolution image ever seen of Martian soil. It shows the soil sprinkled on a silicone substrate. Closer examination reveals particles with a green tinge, possibly indicating the mineral olivine.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Mission managers say they'll have more detailed analyses of the soil from TEGA next week.

Diane Hawkins-Cox, senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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May 28, 2008

Comm issues resolved, Phoenix starts flexing its arm

Posted: 03:13 PM ET

Tuesday's communications glitch between Phoenix and the Mars Recon Orbiter is resolved, Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein today reporters at today's press briefing.

”Fisheye” view of Phoenix Mars Lander looking down on itself. Source: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

Engineers designed Phoenix to use the two NASA satellites orbiting Mars as relay stations to send and receive data and commands with mission controllers. That relay link failed Tuesday morning when MRO experienced a radio transmission malfunction just as it was to send Phoenix its do-list for the day. The evening transmission went off without a hitch - but, while they sort out exactly what happened with MRO, project managers are going to use the other orbiter, Mars Odyssey, to do much of the communications heavy-lifting. Both satellites make at least two good passes over Phoenix every day, so the impact on the mission should be minimal.

In the mean time, the team is testing out Phoenix's robotic arm today and tomorrow, and if all goes well they'll start digging operations early next week. Phoenix is designed to dig down into the Martian dirt to scoop up soil and ice. The lander is equipped with a suite of instruments designed to look for organic chemicals frozen in that permafrost layer that may indicate whether or not Mars was once an hospitable place for life to have existed.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Astrobiology • Mars • NASA • Space

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May 27, 2008

The Mars Phoenix money shot

Posted: 04:29 PM ET

NASA just finished a briefing on the Phoenix Mars Lander, and released what I consider the money shot of the mission so far - the bright blue lander against a Martian reddish landscape, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Apparently other folks thought the same thing - applause broke out in the briefing room when that photo was displayed.


At the briefing, Fuk Li of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Phoenix is healthy, but that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is having a bit of a communication problem. But he says the problem will not endanger the goals of the mission.

NASA also released photos taken by Phoenix of its robotic arm, and the neighborhood it landed in. That photo shows a white dot on the horizon, believed to be the lander's parachute. You can see those photos, and more, here.

Diane Hawkins-Cox, senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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May 26, 2008

MRO shoots Phoenix under the silk

Posted: 02:08 PM ET

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of Phoenix plummeting to the Martian surface with its parachute deployed.

"This is an engineer's delight," says Project Manager Barry Goldstein.

Very cool shot.

- Correspondent Miles O'Brien, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Mars • NASA • Space

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