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Mars Rover/Mission Thread: Following Our Curiosity

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But I wonder if the Theory of Relativity had the same implications for the average person, and therefore the larger population as the simple but profound knowledge that 'we are not alone'.

Somehow that seems to have a resonance that perhaps Relativity may not. I think everyone on the planet at one time in their lives will ask, "Are we alone out here?"....but i'm not sure if everyone will ask or think to ask about how measurements of various quantities are relative to the velocities of observers, or how energy is related to mass. ;)

I don't knock the profundity of ToR though....not in the least.

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Like Ratiocinator said....they'll probably just move their goalposts in order to catch that football in their uprights as well.

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Possibly. Although terra-forming a planet in order to live on it, is far beyond out capabilities at this point. We can't even deal with climate change on our own planet yet, so dealing with changing the climate on Mars in order to make it habitable for humans to live on is a long long way out yet. Good question though.

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Well let's say we actually discover intelligent life, not just microbes, that doesn't look like us. I imagine that to be very hard to rationalize biblically. I think it may turn more people away from these beliefs than the Churches can hope to keep with their rationalizations.

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Itway isway easyway utbay hetay actfay hattay ouyay ouldcay elltay Iway asway peakingsay igpay atinpay isway rettypay impressiveway.

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Mars Rocks: NASA Weighs Options For Bringing Martian Samples To Earth

Published: 09/28/2012 06:59 AM EDT on

Over the next few months, NASA will map out a strategy for returning bits of Martian rock and soil to Earth, so scientists can study them for signs of past Red Planet life.

That ambitious goal should drive the space agency's next steps at Mars, according to a report released Tuesday (Sept. 25) by the Mars Program Planning Group. The report also lays out several ways Mars sample-return can be accomplished over the next decade or two, and NASA is reviewing those options now.

The agency may reveal its chosen path in February, after the White House releases its federal budget request for fiscal year 2014, NASA officials said Tuesday. In the meantime, here's a brief rundown of the scenarios they're looking at.

Multiple launches

All the major options proposed by the Mars planning group share three basic components in common: a sampling rover, a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) for blasting the collected rock and soil off the Red Planet surface and a return orbiter, which will snag the samples in space and ferry them to Earth's neighborhood.

In one scenario, these three pieces are all launched separately, with a small "fetch" rover riding along with the MAV. As its name suggests, the fetch rover will carry Red Planet dirt from the sampling rover back to the MAV. [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

This strategy has the advantage of spreading costs and technical challenges across three missions — which could each be at least two years apart, since Mars launch windows come about every 26 months — according to the planning group report.

Another option is to consolidate into two launches. The sampling rover would ride alone, while another liftoff would carry the MAV, fetch rover and return orbiter.

In this case, the orbiter would likely have to be powered by solar electic propulsion (SEP), to cut down on weight. The amount of liquid propellant needed for a traditionally powered spacecraft would be quite heavy.

A single launch

Alternatively, all the pieces needed for Mars sample-return could be lofted in a single shot, the report says.

In this case, the sampling rover would carry an integrated MAV with it, eliminating the need for a fetch rover. Again, the return orbiter would be an SEP craft, which creates thrust by accelerating electrically charged atoms or molecules.

The single-launch option would eliminate some mission complexities, such as coordinating the meetup of samples with the MAV. And it would reduce the project's overall cost by cutting out a launch or two. But this scenario has the highest peak-year costs, the report states.


This artist's concept shows a sample of Martian rocks and soil blasting off the Red Planet's surface, destined for scientists' labs here on Earth.

"They all have their pluses and minuses," Orlando Figueroa, team leader of the Mars Program Planning Group, said of the 1-, 2- and 3-launch options.

"It gives you multiple ways to look at this problem, consistent with budget concerns, consistent with opportunities for collaboration, more technology, et cetera," Figueroa told reporters Tuesday. "And that's what we tried to do — bring all of those options forth to NASA for consideration."

Multiple rovers?

The above options assume that NASA will pick suitable sampling sites using existing data. But the MPPG report also outlines a path that allows for more on-the-ground research, which some scientists may feel is warranted for such an ambitious and expensive project.

"Preservation of biological signatures is rare on Earth, and investigations at multiple sites on Mars dramatically improves the probability of identifying biologically relevant samples," the report states. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

If NASA chooses this course, multiple rovers would be sent to investigate several different sites. Based on the rovers' findings, scientists would eventually select one site for sample return. Mars material would be delivered to Earth via an MAV and return orbiter, as discussed above.

Multiple rovers would incur greater costs, but building identical robots off a production line could help keep the price tag down, the report says.

The human touch

In 2010, President Barack Obama charged NASA with getting astronauts to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s.

The space agency thinks this goal dovetails nicely with its sample-return ambitions, and it sees plenty of room for collaboration between its robotic and human exploration programs in this arena.

For example, astronauts aboard NASA's Orion capsule — which is still under development — might be dispatched to intercept the return orbiter in deep space and bring the Mars samples down to Earth, officials said Tuesday.

This approach would eliminate the need to harden the sample capsule for Earth entry, since it would land aboard Orion. And an astronaut inspection would also help ensure the Mars sample is adequately contained, officials said.

"It is taking advantage of the human architecture, because we anticipate it will be there," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

"And it potentially solves an issue of, when we return samples, somewhere we have to make sure that the samples are completely contained so there's no chance — remote as it may be — that there is something on Mars that could contaminate Earth," he added.

NASA is hoping to launch its first piece of the Mars sample-return architecture in 2018 or 2020, Grunsfeld said. The agency has just $800 million or so to work with until then — too little for a rover, so NASA will likely launch an orbiter if it chooses the 2018 opportunity, Figueroa said.

But just when pristine little pieces of the Red Planet could make their way to Earth — and into scientists' labs — remains very much up in the air.

"As far as time frame — that's all forward work, to figure out," Grunsfeld said.

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Well let's say we actually discover intelligent life, not just microbes, that doesn't look like us. I imagine that to be very hard to rationalize biblically. I think it may turn more people away from these beliefs than the Churches can hope to keep with their rationalizations.

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'Bathurst Inlet' Rock on Curiosity's Sol 54, Context View

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity held its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera about 10.5 inches (27 centimeters) away from the top of a rock called "Bathurst Inlet" for a set of eight images combined into this merged-focus view of the rock. This context image covers an area roughly 6.5 inches by 5 inches (16 centimeters by 12 centimeters). Resolution is about 105 microns per pixel.

MAHLI took the component images for this merged-focus view, plus closer-up images of Bathurst Inlet, during Curiosity's 54th Martian day, or sol (Sept. 30, 2012). The instrument's principal investigator had invited Curiosity's science team to "MAHLI it up!" in the selection of Sol 54 targets for inspection with MAHLI and with the other instrument at the end of Curiosity's arm, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer.

The Bathurst Inlet rock is dark gray and appears to be so fine-grained that MAHLI cannot resolve grains or crystals in it. This means that the grains or crystals, if there are any at all, are smaller than about 80 microns in size. Some windblown sand-sized grains or dust aggregates have accumulated on the surface of the rock but this surface is clean compared to, for example, the pebbly substrate below the rock (upper left and lower right in this context image).

MAHLI can do focus merging onboard. The full-frame versions of the eight separate images that were combined into this view were not even returned to Earth -- just the thumbnail versions. Merging the images onboard reduces the volume of data that needs to be downlinked to Earth.

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NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Prepares to Study Martian Soil


694187main_pia16205-673.jpg NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech › Full image and caption › Latest images › Curiosity gallery › Curiosity videos

694106main_Watkins-2-pia16204-43_226-170.jpg This patch of windblown sand and dust downhill from a cluster of dark rocks is the "Rocknest" site, which has been selected as the likely location for first use of the scoop on the arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

› Full image and caption

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Curiosity rover is in a position on Mars where scientists and engineers can begin preparing the rover to take its first scoop of soil for analysis.

Curiosity is the centerpiece of the two-year Mars Science Laboratory mission. The rover's ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments is central to assessing whether its present location on Mars, called Gale Crater, ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mineral analysis can reveal past environmental conditions. Chemical analysis can check for ingredients necessary for life.

"We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks," said Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission."

The rover's preparatory operations will involve testing its robotic scooping capabilities to collect and process soil samples. Later, it also will use a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks. To begin preparations for a first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels Wednesday to scuff the soil to expose fresh material.

Next, the rover twice will scoop up some soil, shake it thoroughly inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces, then discard the sample. Curiosity will scoop and shake a third measure of soil and place it in an observation tray for inspection by cameras mounted on the rover's mast. A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From a fourth scoopful, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and to the sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which identifies chemical ingredients.

"We're going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it's what we want," said Daniel Limonadi of JPL, lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars."

The rinse-and-discard cycles serve a quality-assurance purpose similar to a common practice in geochemical laboratory analysis on Earth.

"It is standard to run a split of your sample through first and dump it out, to clean out any residue from a previous sample," said JPL's Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team. "We want to be sure the first sample we analyze is unambiguously Martian, so we take these steps to remove any residual material from Earth that might be on the walls of our sample handling system."

Rocknest is the name of the area of soil Curiosity will test and analyze. The rover pulled up to the windblown, sandy and dusty location Oct. 2. The Rocknest patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet (2.5 meters by 5 meters). The area provides plenty of area for scooping several times. Diverse rocks nearby provide targets for investigation with the instruments on Curiosity's mast during the weeks the rover is stationed at Rocknest for this first scooping campaign.

Curiosity's motorized, clamshell-shaped scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide, 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long, and can sample to a depth of about 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters). It is part of the collection and handling Martian rock analysis (CHIMRA) device on a turret of tools at the end of the rover's arm. CHIMRA also includes a series of chambers and labyrinths for sorting, sieving and portioning samples collected by the scoop or by the arm's percussive drill.

Following the work at Rocknest, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards (about 100 meters) eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for use of its drill.


View on the Way to 'Glenelg'

This 360-degree panorama from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the rocky terrain surrounding it as of its 55th Martian day, or sol, of the mission (Oct. 1, 2012). The base of Mount Sharp can be seen at upper left.

› Panoramic view

The sandy area seen to the right is a region called "Rocknest," which is the current candidate for Curiosity's first scooping experiments on Mars.

This image was taken by the rover's Navigation camera.

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Mars Express to Relay First Science Data from Mars Curiosity

ScienceDaily (Oct. 6, 2012) — For 15 minutes, the NASA rover will transmit scientific data up to MEX, which will store it on board for a time. Then, two hours later, MEX will line up again, this time pointing its High Gain antenna toward Earth to downlink the precious information to the European Space Operations Centre (similar in role and function to NASA/JPL), Darmstadt, Germany.


The signal will be received via ESA's 35m deep space station at New Norcia, Australia, and the data will be immediately made available to NASA/JPL for routine processing.

The inter-Agency communication relay service will send, for the first time, actual scientific data from Curiosity via Mars Express; the previous relay services provided to Curiosity have transmitted either so-called 'open-loop' signals (no data decoded but did include useful radio Doppler information) during Entry, Descent, and Landing, or only housekeeping data and other basic telemetry during early surface operations.

"The command stack to order MEX to slew and point its UHF antennas towards Mars Curiosity during the overflight, to switch the MELACOM radio ON/OFF and to later perform the data download are already programmed on board Mars Express. Our spacecraft is ready to go for this weekend," Mars Express Operations Engineer Olivier Reboud said October 5.

Now here's the really interesting bit: of all the data that Curiosity might be sending up for relay via MEX (Mars Curiosity carries 10 science instruments plus a drill), it looks as though we'll be handling at least some images!

According to a note sent by NASA's Jennifer Maxwell, at JPL, October 4, the Mars Express team are expecting to relay:

  • Two images from the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) of the 'RockNest_3' rock acquired on Sol 57 (57 martian days since Curiosity landed, i.e. 3 October)

  • Three images acquired by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) system of the rock named 'Bathurst Inlet'

The RMI provides black-and-white images at 1024X1024 resolution in a very narrow 1.1-degree field of view. This provides images equivalent to a 1500mm lens on a 35mm camera. Wow!

MAHLI comprises a camera mounted on a robotic arm on the Curiosity rover, which is used to acquire microscopic images of rock and soil (a typical MAHLI image resolution is a stunning 21 microns per pixel).

The weekend relay will provide further operational confirmation that Mars Express can serve as a back-up relay platform for NASA's new rover; it has already done so for NASA's other surface missions (Phoenix and the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity) in the past couple of years.

This cross-support underscores the strong cooperation between the two Agencies, who have worked diligently for a number of years to set technical and engineering standards to enable sharing data, information and telecommand links between spacecraft, networks, ground systems and ground stations, which helps reduce risk and boost back-up capabilities in both directions.

In ESA's MEX team, everyone's really looking forward to the first 'science contact' with Curiosity -- which, as mentioned in a previous post by Thomas Ormston, should provide more "proof that the amazing new rover from the United States can talk with our veteran European Mars orbiter!"

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