Since I was a young child Mars held a special fascination for me. It was so close and yet so faraway. I have never doubted that it once had advanced life and still has remnants of that life now. I am a dedicated member of the Mars Society,Norcal Mars Society National Space Society, Planetary Society, And the SETI Institute. I am a supporter of Explore Mars, Inc. I'm a great admirer of Elon Musk and SpaceX. I have a strong feeling that Space X will send a human to Mars first.
Sitting proud on top of a stack of finely layered mudstones, this coarser sandstone outcrop seemed a little out of place.
So, the team commanded the robot to drive up and down for a bit, to look at some other enticing geology in Gale Crater.
But each time Curiosity came back for another peek, the head-scratching continued.
What was Whale Rock, and why was it there?
This week the team released its considered interpretation of the sediments observed in Gale during more than a year's roving by Curiosity.
The report, published in Science magazine, describes how these sediments are likely the remains of streams and rivers that flowed over the crater's rim and across its floor, slowing and branching into deltas that ultimately fed a succession of persistent lakes.
And Whale Rock, it turns out, has something of a starring role in this story.
"It's the rock that gives us confidence that we've got our model right," says Sanjeev Gupta, a senior scientist on the mission.
The intervening months have witnessed the hard graft needed to corral all the evidence into the kind of arguments that will pass muster in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. And those arguments are compelling.
Image copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSSImage captionThe dipping rock strata in Gale align with the direction of water flow - towards the mountain
The coarser gravels that the robot saw out on the crater floor, near its landing point, gave way to progressively smaller-grained rocks as it drove south, closer to Gale's dominating central mountain, Aeolus Mons (Mount Sharp). And these dipping strata ended in a thick collection of finely layered mudstones.
The laminations are what you would expect when plume after plume of sediment pulses into a lake, loses energy and settles out of the standing water to build up the bed.
And Whale? It sits above 10m or so of these exquisite mudstones, somewhat nestled in them, and lens-shaped.
Whale has laminations, too, but its larger grains are those of a sandstone, meaning its deposition environment was more energetic. Its sediments were carried in rippling water.
All that head-scratching has concluded that Whale marks the physical edge of a lake - the interface with the delta that was feeding it.
One interpretation is quite straightforward: it is the delta deposits actually encroaching into the lake, filling little gullies.The second possibility is a bit more involved: it could be where the lake has receded at some point, and the feeding stream from the delta has cut down and eroded a new channel. The stream's own sediments have then rolled into this channel but have later been encased by the finer muds when the lake level has come back up.Either way, you are looking at a rock recording of events that occurred, perhaps over just a few hours and days, more than three billion years ago on another planet.
Image copyrightNASA/MOLAImage captionGale Crater sits on the "dichotomy" - the divide between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands
"So, one explanation for Whale is a static model, and the other is a dynamic time model," explains Prof Gupta, from Imperial College London.
"The latter may be right, and that would be really exciting because it is telling us something about the water budget changing. But the important thing is that we are seeing the interface between the rivers and the lakes.
"Whale is a marker for us that they existed at the same time, and that really gives us confidence in particular that we are seeing ancient lake deposits."
Curiosity's big drive to Mount Sharp saw it climb up through 75m of sediments.
What we know of deposition rates in water environments on Earth suggests this stratigraphy took anywhere from 10,000 right up to 10 million years to accumulate.
And if even higher sediments at Mount Sharp (these have not been directly investigated by Curiosity but look the same from satellite imagery) are taken into account, this deposition time becomes even longer.
Image copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSSImage captionHigher still: Curiosity is still only in the lower reaches of Mount Sharp
And here is the "whale of a problem" (excuse the pun) that Mars scientists now find themselves grappling.
All the climate models of early Mars have failed to simulate conditions in which liquid water could run and pool on the surface long enough to produce the stratigraphy seen in Gale. The air was too rarefied; it was simply too cold.
But the mudstones and sandstones seen by Curiosity disagree. On their evidence, it is not even as if the ancient lakes were ephemeral. The rover sees no examples of the types of sediments that are associated with dried-out lakebeds, or even the kinds of glacial deposits that might suggest the water was frozen for long periods.
One tantalising consequence of all this is the possibility that the planet may once have featured a large body of water somewhere on its surface. This could have produced the atmospheric humidity, the rains and snows, needed to drive the features seen in Gale.
For decades, researchers have wondered if the flat, northern lowlands could have held an ocean during Mars' early history. The latest Curiosity results are re-igniting interest in this idea, says John Grotzinger, the lead author on this week's paper and the former project scientist on Curiosity.
"The simplest explanation is that there probably was a body of water out there that was creating an environment at the dichotomy (the boundary between Mars' northern lowlands and southern highlands), and at Gale Crater it supplied water moisture to the northern rim that flowed into the crater basin," the Caltech professor speculated.
"Either all of these geological observations, which seem to be adding up in the same direction, are incorrect (and we always have to be open to that possibility); or we're simply missing something. Perhaps, we don't have the greenhouse gas inventory and climate conditions for early Mars correct yet.
NASA Assembling Orion Crew Module in Preparation for Exploration Mission 1
Lockheed Martin engineers at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans perform the first weld on the Orion spacecraft pressure vessel for Exploration Mission-1. (Image Courtesy Radislav Sinyak, AP)
In Greek mythology, Orion was a giant Boeotian hunter in pursuit of the Pleiades who was slain by Artemis and placed in the sky as a constellation. While the origin of the Orion spacecraft might have something to do with mythology, the real work of creating a space-worthy vehicle depends completely on science.
One of the threads running through NASA’s programs, post-Space Shuttle, is to shorten manufacturing schedules and simplify technical requirements in order to reduce costs, improve safety, and increase the frequency of launches.
Preliminary Work on First Test Flight of the SLS
Lockheed Martin engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans recently completed a critical step in the assembly of the primary structure and underlying components of the Orion spacecraft for the third time. Hopefully, the third time is the charm. The process began with fusing the first two of seven large aluminum pieces that are part of the Orion crew module and which pressurize the compartment. According to NASA officials, brand new programs often run into unanticipated hurdles that must be overcome; these hurdles may push back the date of currently scheduled launches.
Orion has many complex parts including heat shields, igniters, thrusters, rockets, data communications modules, undocking components, a human habitat, thermal shields, and much more, all of which must be carefully integrated in order for successful missions to ensue.
The Orion spacecraft will be propelled into space by NASA’s 77-ton (70-metric ton) lift capacity Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Orion’s upper stage, or the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, will provide propulsion needed to fly beyond the moon before the spacecraft returns to earth.
Certifying the Design & Safety of Orion & SLS
According to NASA’s Bill Hill, “every day, teams around the country are moving at full speed to get ready for Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) when we’ll flight test Orion and SLS together,” for the first time.
NASA has spent close to $5 billion on the Orion program with an eventual price tag of nearly $7 billion. Orion’s first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion will take place in 2018 while the first human flight is expected in 2023.
Mars Society Loses Long-Time Board Member Declan O’Donnell
The Mars Society is saddened to announce the passing late last week of long-time board member and close friend Declan O’Donnell. An active member of the organization’s board of directors and steering committee, Mr. O’Donnell was a respected trial lawyer in the Denver metropolitan area with a national constituency in the areas of tax and securities litigation.
Mr. O’Donnell maintained a growing practice base in space law, having authored over 50 publications on space law and policy, many with the AIAA, IISL and IAF conventions.
In addition, he served as president of the World Space Bar Association, publisher of the Space Governance Journal and founder and president of the United Societies in Space. His primary goal was to cause a consensus to develop on the legal structure and international character of a space colonization model.
“Declan was my good friend for many years,” said Mars Society president Dr. Robert Zubrin. “He was a true fighter for the future, and a great human being. He will be remembered, and he will be missed.”
A special service will be held in Mr. O’Donnell’s memory at Emmaus Anglican Church (995 N. Ridge Road, Castle Rock, CO) on Friday, October 23rd at 2:00 pm.
NASA may believe that it'll be the first to land humans on Mars, but don't tell that to Las Vegas betting houses. Popular Mechanics has asked Docsports' Raphael Esparza to set odds for the first organization to put people on Mars, and he believes that SpaceX stands a much better chance of reaching the Red Planet (5 to 1) than anyone else, including NASA (80 to 1). To put it bluntly, SpaceX has the money and the motivation that others don't -- NASA would be the favorite, but its budget cuts are holding it back.
With that in mind, you might not want to make a wager just yet. Esparza's odds for latecomers like China and Europe (100 to 1 and 300 to 1) are plausible, but he gives the crew at Mars One better odds than NASA (15 to 1) despite serious concerns about both its safety and plans to fund the trip through a reality TV show. Although there is a case to be made for private explorers getting to Mars ahead of government agencies, we wouldn't rule out countries with the political and scientific incentives to pursue a manned Martian expedition.
Geology Award Going to Mars Landing Site Expert at JPL
A prestigious geology award will be presented in early November to a leader in selecting landing sites on Mars: Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The Geological Society of America has named Golombek to receive the 2015 G.K. Gilbert Award during the society's annual meeting Nov. 1 to 4 in Baltimore.
Golombek is the project scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, the landing site scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, and co-chair of NASA's Mars Landing Site Steering Committee. He was project scientist for NASA's Mars Pathfinder Project, which successfully put the first rover on Mars in 1997. He has been a leader in evaluating and selecting sites for every NASA Mars rover mission, for the 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander, and for the upcoming InSight lander and Mars 2020 rover.
The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the solution of fundamental problems of planetary geology. It is named for Grove Karl Gilbert (1843-1918), an influential American geologist who saw the importance of a planetary perspective in solving geologic problems. Gilbert was the only person twice elected president of the Geological Society of America.
"I consider this a recognition for the kind of work JPL does at the intersection of science and engineering," Golombek said. "My work on landing site selection is right at that interface, working with the engineers who design landing systems and the scientists who study the sites."
Golombek is a New Jersey native. He holds an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and masters and a doctorate in geology and geophysics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In addition to assessment of landing sites on Mars before and after the landings, he has studied tectonics and erosion rates on Mars as contributors to the surface morphology and geologic evolution.
For the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, JPL manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project, which operates Opportunity; the Mars Science Laboratory Project, which operates Curiosity; and the InSight and Mars 2020 projects.
For more information about NASA's robotic exploration of Mars, visit: