Mars’ 2020 Rover, Goals and Instruments Announced by NASA

The Mars 2020 Rover, artists drawing of where each of the seven instruments will be located.  Image Credit: NASA

The Mars 2020 Rover, artists drawing of where each of the seven instruments will be located.
Image Credit: NASA

A panel of scientists assembled today at NASA headquarters to announce, via NASA Television, the seven carefully selected instruments that are to be included on the 2020 Rover to Mars. The panel included:

  • John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate
  • Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Directorate
  • Michael Meyer, lead scientist, Mars Exploration Program
  • Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist

There are four main goals for the next Martian endeavor. The devices, which will accompany the rover, have been specifically selected to aid in reaching the mission objectives. These include: making the necessary progress to eventually bring humans to the red planet, identifying and studying a specific region of the planet in detail, to look for biosignatures that indicate past or present life, and to core and cache rock sample for future delivery back to Earth.

As of now NASA is working with over fifty institutions world-wide, planning and implementing the technology needed for our next visit to Mars. Present, NASA has only defined the suite of instruments and objectives for the 2020 Rover. Within the next year (by May 2015) they hope to have the regulations and technicalities hammered out.

Even though the 2020 Rover will be about the same size as Curiosity, scientists are excited about its souped-up technologies. The landing mass of the rover will be less than one metric ton with about 40 kilograms of scientific instruments (as compared to Curiosity’s 74 kilograms worth of gadgets).

NASA headquarters have announced that the landing mechanism will be the same in 2020 as it was for Curiosity. A Sky Crane will be used for safe landing.

Here now are a list of the instruments and how each is will aid in achieving the stated goals set forth by NASA:

MASTCAM-Z will have the most advanced zooming capabilities yet on Mars. It will contain twelve filters that will be able to use binocular vision giving it the ability for multispectral imaging. It will be equipped for rapid terrain modeling, allowing the rover to choose a safe landing spot from further distances than Curiosity could. It will also allow for more precise panoramic and close up photography, making the task easier for selecting a region for detailed study.

SuperCam has been designed to be the next step in laser induced mass spectroscopy. It will be able to identify elements and minerals within rocks with a simple shot of a laser (532 nm wavelength). It will be this device that will allow remote sensing and will hopefully be able to detect organic materials in the search for life on Mars.

MOXIE (The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) is perhaps the most exciting instrument to be included. It is the first step in taking the carbon dioxide abundant in Mars’ atmosphere, breaking it apart, and creating pure oxygen. This is an absolutely necessary technology to master if we ever hope to get humans on Mars. The oxygen could be used to create an artificial atmosphere capable for extended human habitation, as well as to make rocket fuel for voyages between planets.

MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) will provide a detailed description of Mars’ weather. It will be able to measure temperature, humidity and wind speed, atmospheric pressure, and dust analysis. It will be designed to help MOXIE.

RIMFAX (The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration) will provide ground-penetrating radar down to half a kilometer beneath the surface. This will allow for detailed imaging of geological features that scientists may or may not wish to dig down to examine, it will also be useful for identifying underground water sources (if there are any).

PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) is one of two arm-mounted instruments designed to provide fine scaled mineralogical study. It will be used in the search for microbial life. Using X-rays it will be able to deliver the most detailed chemical analysis of Martian rocks to date.

SherLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) is the second of the two arm-mounted devices. Like its counterpart its job is to detect mineral composition. It will use ultra violet lasers to probe rocks for organic life.

Michael Meyer stated in the press conference that each of the instruments involved have been wisely selected to work with each other. Each will offer advancements on technologies already implanted on Curiosity, or they are new tools never yet used on Mars.

The 2020 Rover is the next big leap in understanding Mars. It aims at increasing our knowledge of the two most fundamental human questions; can humans leave Earth and live on another planet, and are we the only form of life within the universe? Great discoveries are sure to come!


Origin of Enceladus’ 101 Geysers Revealed

Jets of liquid water can be seen shooting out of Enceladus' icy surface. They are seen "spewing 200kg of water vapour and ice particles into space each second – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool every few hours" (Cosmos) Credit: NASA/JPL

Jets of liquid water can be seen “spewing 200kg of water vapour and ice particles into space each second – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool every few hours” (Cosmos). Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Using data provided by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft scientists have pinpointed 101 geysers on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s icy moons. Issued in a press release by NASA, July 28th, 2014, the findings are helping scientists understand the geological processes that may allow for liquid water to exist on the moon’s surface.

The first geysers were spotted nearly ten years ago on the moon. Since then scientists have been able to resolve not only where they were being formed, but also how. Early hypothesis’ suggested that pressure built up by the flexing of the small moon’s surface was heating ice into vapor; once an enough tidal friction melted an opening on the surface, a geyser would erupt allowing the pressure to be released.

Using Cassini scientists were able to triangulate the locations of 101 fountains and have found the south pole of the moon to be a breeding ground for the geysers. Tiger stripe fractures run across the terrain of Enceladus in this area. Measurements taken over the last seven years have indicated that the geysers are erupting from hot spots along these striped fractures. This is a great clue for the scientists because it offers a possible origin for the water that spews from these vents.

Scientists have been able to correlate the intensity of the jets to thermal radiation as well as tidal stressors. It was apparent that higher temperatures were associated with the vents, however, it was unknown if increased temperatures were causing the geysers or vice versa. By analyzing high-resolution data gathered by Cassini’s heat-sensing technology in 2010 and 2012, the scientists could say definitively which came first, the chicken or the egg. In this case, it is the geysers that are causing the increased temperatures on the surface of Enceladus. Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini image team said in a report published in the Astronomical Journal, “[The results] told us the geysers are not a near-surface phenomenon, but have much deeper roots.”

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Scientists now believe that the underground sea that resides on the moon is the most plausible source of these watery fountains. “They also found that narrow pathways through the ice shell can remain open from the sea all the way to the surface, if filled with liquid water.” Enceladus’ sea is believed to be nearly 10 kilometers deep, covered by 30-40 kilometers of ice near its south pole. It is still unclear why much of the moon’s water appears to be concentrated in this region. Porco had long suspected that Enceladus was releasing heat from within. Small silica particles have been spotted in the plumes, this combined with the newest evidence of deep channels connecting the moon’s surface with its underground sea gives scientists more hope of possibly finding life here.

In an article published in the journal Nature, in April, 2014, it states, “At the bottom of the Enceladus ocean, the water presumably comes in contact with the moon’s rocky core. “What matters about the new result is they say they have evidence for the ocean contacting rock,” says Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “That’s very important because pure water is not interesting biologically — the water needs to interact with rock in order to put in the stuff that’s useful for life.”

Hydrothermal vents on Earth act as transmitters of heat and chemicals from within the planet’s interior and they have been found to harbor the most extreme forms of life. Only further research will tell if similar underwater outlets are heating Enceladus, and whether or not biological life may be hiding there.

Origins of Mars’ Mysterious Gullies Solved

These two images, taken four years apart, show the martian gully evolving over time. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

These two images, taken four years apart, show the martian gully evolving over time. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

It was nearly 15 years ago when scientists first spotted gullies on Mars. Since then they’ve had the opportunity to make continual observations of these structures using the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter’s high tech equipment. The initial findings led to many questions; primarily, could these gullies be formed by flows of liquid water?

If that were the case, the implications would be truly sensational. Thus far, we have only detected frozen waterwater vapor and a few characteristics that indicate Mars was once a wet world. Discovering liquid water could be game changer for many reasons, but above all, it would put Mars as the solid front runner in the search for  life in the solar system. Needless to say,  a lot of people have their fingers crossed.


To figure out whether or not it was water sculpting the gullies, scientists turned to MRO once again. On board the spacecraft resides the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, otherwise known as HiRISE. The camera has played an important role in distinguishing significant features of Mars’ terrain in resoundingly high definition.

Serina Diniega of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says, “This [technology] allows us to make repeated observation[s] and to examine surface changes over time”. She goes on to include, “Much of the information we have about gully formation, and other active processes, come from the longevity of MRO and other orbiters”(NASA).

Since arriving on the red planet, HiRISE has focused its attention on 356 sites that contain gullies, which on Earth, are trenches carved by the movement of water down a slope. Astoundingly, thirty-eight of the sites indicate change over time. This was a surprising discovery, given that earlier theories had proposed that the odd streaks on Mars’ surface formed thousands of years ago while it was still a vibrant world. In actuality, they observed the gullies transforming, sometimes dramatically, before their eyes. Some showed evidence of additional debris build up at the base of the trenches, others spawned new branches. It was now clear that gullies are still quite active on Mars.

Side-by-side comparisons of photos taken of the same location helped researchers verify when the gully seemed to be flowing most prominently. As it turned out, the activity “coincided with seasonal carbon dioxide frost and temperatures that would not have allowed for liquid water” stated NASA’s press release (announced on July 10th, 2014).

This set of images was taken by HiRISE in 2010 and 2013. A new channel is shown forming on the martian slope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

This set of images was taken by HiRISE in 2010 and 2013. A new channel is shown forming on the martian slope. Click to enlarge. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)


So, if it isn’t liquid water, what’s creating martian trenches? The next obvious contender is frozen carbon dioxide, otherwise knows as dry ice (it comprises approximately 95% of Mars’ atmosphere). We know that carbon dioxide (Co2) freezes at -78.5 ºC (-109.3 ºF) at sea level (one atmospheric pressure); therefore, dry ice is not found naturally on Earth, our surface temperature and atmospheric pressure just aren’t conducive to the freezing of Co2. Conversely, on Mars, the temperatures can drop down to -153 °C (-225 ºF) at the poles during winter. In comparison, during the summer, temperatures at the equator can warm up to 20 °C (70 °F).

Scientists now believe the trenches have been carved into Mars’ surface by seasonal dry ice formations. The sublimation, or phase transfer, of carbon dioxide gas into a solid could create enough lubrication to help move along the flow of the frozen material. As the atmosphere freezes more gas, its mass becomes greater, thus gravity might also aid downward flow.

While this research — recently published online in the journal ICARUS — suggests that liquid water isn’t the catalyst, dry ice is still a pretty exciting consolation. Lead author Colin Dundas (from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center) remains optimistic, saying, “I like that Mars can still surprise us…Martian gullies are fascinating features that allow us to investigate a process we just don’t see on Earth”.


This article was originally published by FQTQ, July 15, 2014. 

Cleaning the Cosmos with Space Harpoons

Infograph by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Infograph by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory


There are over 17,000 individual pieces of human-made space debris, floating without regard, in Earth’s low orbit. These are the discarded remnants of nearly sixty years of space exploration. Space junk consists of anything from spent fuel cells to battery packs. The nearly twenty thousand pieces of trash left in space accounts for items that are large enough to be tracked and cataloged, objects roughly the size of a coffee cup. If scientists account for even smaller debris, bits and pieces 1 cm or larger: flecks of paint, nuts, bolts, screws, etcetera, and the number is expected to exceed 300,000 (NASA).

Image Credit: ESA

Image Credit: ESA

It’s becoming apparent that humans are no better at keeping debris out of space, than we are at keeping rubbish out of the oceans. The difference is trash in the oceans contributes to global pollution, disturbances in ecosystems, and the destruction of species unable to adapt our insatiable thirst for development and technology. The junk we have accumulated in space, on the other hand, has the potential to anchor us to this ever-polluted Earth indefinitely; creating an exponentially growing shield of debris that could make future space travel obsolete.

In addition to possibly halting our route to the universe, space garbage posses danger to any number of beneficial satellites that also inhabit low Earth orbit. Without such machines, much of the technologies we have grown accustom to today would cease to function. We use satellites for tracking weather and making predictions, navigation while driving, for communication, and scientific research. The potential for collisions between space debris and any one of these satellites is a viable concern.

Harpooning System. Image Source: ESA

Harpooning System. Image Source: ESA


This why the European Space Agency has announced they hope to start the cosmic clean up as soon as 2021. The e.DeOrbit mission is part of the ESA’s Clean Space Initiative; it’s main task: to hunt down renegade space debris in key orbiting regions and safely remove it. A variety of suggestions have been made for how to capture the wreckage. Nets and mechanical arms have been popular choices, and may very well aid in tidying up space; however, recent ESA research has shown promising results using harpoon technology.

Preliminary investigations, by Airbus Defense and Space, regarding harpoon technology and other waste removal concepts have already taken place. Paying homage to an ancient hunting technique, scientists hope to shoot out a harpoon attached to a tether, pierce the debris and reel it back in.

A prototype harpoon was projected into representative satellite material to assess its penetration, its strength as the target is pulled close and the generation of additional fragments that might threaten the e.DeOrbit satellite.

Scientists have already assessed a mock-up version of the technology. It was shot into demonstrative space junk to test how well it can puncture the material, whether it was powerful enough to reel it back in, and most importantly, that it doesn’t create more fragments in its wake.

 “As a next step, ESA plans to build and test a prototype ‘breadboard’ version in the hope of adopting the harpoon and its ejection mechanism for the mission.The project will investigate all three stages of harpooning through computer models, analysis and experiments, leading to a full hardware demonstration.”

[Reference: ESA]

It is yet to be seen which means of trash removal will be the most beneficial. It may prove necessary for us to employ a variety of methods dependent on the size of the material in question.

Check out From Quarks to Quasars for more awesome space articles!

NASA Plans to Capture Asteroid In Moon’s Orbit

Photo credit: NASA/AMA

Photo credit: NASA/AMA

As part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), NASA and cooperative scientists have been searching for a suitable asteroid to capture and redirect into the moon’s orbit for continual research. The ARM spacecraft is proposed to launch in 2019. Once set in orbit, the hands-on examination of the asteroid will begin in the 2020s. The mission has two main focuses: to develop the expertise needed for deep space travel to Mars and beyond, as well as providing an opportunity to test technologies that will keep Earth safe from any possible future asteroid impacts.

There are two concepts set for NASA’s ARM operation: “The first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.”

Recently a $4.9 million award has been offered for concept studies that will lead to the ARM’s success. Starting in July, a six-month research period will begin that addresses the issues of the mission. During this time the technologies, mechanics and resources needed for the mission will be perfected.

As of now, only nine asteroids have been identified that meet the criteria for possible mission nominees. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the most recent asteroid candidate has been identified. The telescope’s “warm” mission began in 2009 once its coolant ran out as planned, and since then Spitzer has been used for more long term and targeted observations. In particular this makes asteroid observation easier as infrared detection is the best way to study less luminous objects.

The recognition of the latest contending asteroid, named 2011 MD, for possible capture as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, was published June 19th, 2014 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Lead author of the study, Michael Mommert of Northern Arizona University says, “From its perch up in space, Spitzer can use its heat-sensitive infrared vision to spy asteroids and get better estimates of their sizes.” To be deemed valid, the asteroid must be both the right size and mass, but also the rotation rate must be considered to make its capture feasible.

2011 MD is one of the lucky asteroids that has met all necessary criteria for redirection. It has a diameter of about three to six meters (10-20 feet) with a density similar to water, this suggests that the asteroid is mostly empty space, as solid rock is usually at least three times denser than water. 2011 MD may either be a singular solid rock with a halo of particles surrounding it or a collection of smaller space rocks held in tandem by gravity. Only further observation will conclude indefinitely what its composition is.

The idea of capturing an asteroid and setting it in orbit around the moon is truly exciting! It will be the first time that humans have achieved such a massive cosmic endeavor. Building a stellar environment that fits our research needs almost seems more science fiction that reality; however, if we wish to take humans into deep space it is a necessary leap to make. Not only is the Asteroid Redirect Mission awesome in its concept, it will prove to be incredibly valuable in a scientific standpoint as well. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, says, “Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth, is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in.”


NASA, Spitzer Spies an Odd, Tiny Asteroid

NASA, NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids

This article was originally written for and published by From Quarks to Quasars.