NASA InSight Lander Arrives on Martian Surface to Learn What Lies Beneath
NASA's InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC).The specks are due to the dust stirred up by the landing. This image was acquired on Nov. 26, 2018, Sol 0 of the InSight mission where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 13:34:21. Each ICC image has a field of view of 124 x 124 degrees. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech
Mars has just received its newest robotic resident. NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander successfully touched down on the Red Planet after an almost seven-month, 300-million-mile (458-million-kilometer) journey from Earth.
InSight’s two-year mission will be to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.
InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California May 5. The lander touched down Monday, Nov. 26, near Mars' equator on the western side of a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia, with a signal affirming a completed landing sequence at approximately noon PST (3 p.m. EST).
"Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “InSight will study the interior of Mars, and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars. This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”
The landing signal was relayed to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, via one of NASA's two small experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the lander to Mars. They are the first CubeSats sent into deep space. After successfully carrying out a number of communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the twin MarCOs were set in position to receive transmissions during InSight's entry, descent and landing.
From Fast to Slow "We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes," said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at JPL. "During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly — and by all indications that is exactly what our spacecraft did."
Confirmation of a successful touchdown is not the end of the challenges of landing on the Red Planet. InSight's surface-operations phase began a minute after touchdown. One of its first tasks is to deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, which will provide power. That process begins 16 minutes after landing and takes another 16 minutes to complete.
The InSight team expects a confirmation later Monday that the spacecraft's solar panels successfully deployed. Verification will come from NASA's Odyssey spacecraft, currently orbiting Mars. That signal is expected to reach InSight's mission control at JPL about five-and-a-half hours after landing.
"We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal," said Hoffman. "With the arrays providing the energy we need to start the cool science operations, we are well on our way to thoroughly investigate what's inside of Mars for the very first time."
InSight will begin to collect science data within the first week after landing, though the teams will focus mainly on preparing to set InSight's instruments on the Martian ground. At least two days after touchdown, the engineering team will begin to deploy InSight's 5.9-foot-long (1.8-meter-long) robotic arm so that it can take images of the landscape.
"Landing was thrilling, but I'm looking forward to the drilling," said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. "When the first images come down, our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments. Within two or three months, the arm will deploy the mission's main science instruments, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instruments."
InSight will operate on the surface for one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days, or sols, until Nov. 24, 2020. The mission objectives of the two small MarCOs which relayed InSight’s telemetry was completed after their Martian flyby.
"That's one giant leap for our intrepid, briefcase-sized robotic explorers," said Joel Krajewski, MarCOproject manager at JPL. "I think CubeSats have a big future beyond Earth's orbit, and the MarCO team is happy to trailblaze the way."
With InSight’s landing at Elysium Planitia, NASA has successfully soft-landed a vehicle on the Red Planet eight times.
"Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars," said JPL director Michael Watkins. "The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft. The success of these two unique missions is a tribute to the hundreds of talented engineers and scientists who put their genius and labor into making this a great day."
JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The MarCO CubeSats were built and managed by JPL. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.
A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES, and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), provided the SEIS instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the HP3 instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain's Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.
By Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer | November 27, 2018
PASADENA, Calif. — NASA's InSight lander has made it to Mars, but it'll be a while before the robot is ready to start its science work.
InSight arrived at its new home yesterday afternoon (Nov. 26), acing a touchdown on an equatorial plane called Elysium Planitia. The lander will begin probing the Red Planet's interior in unprecedented detail — a few months from now. It'll take that long for InSight to deploy and calibrate its two main science instruments, a burrowing heat probe and a suite of super-sensitive seismometers. This gear must be placed on the Martian surface by the lander's robotic arm, and InSight team members want to make sure they get this crucial step — which no other Mars robot has ever done — exactly right.
So, the researchers will spend the next few weeks studying InSight's landing site carefully, deciding on the best deployment area. Then they'll practice deployment using a testbed lander here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages InSight's mission.
This work will include "terraforming" the testbed to resemble InSight's actual environs on the Red Planet, mission instrument operations lead Elizabeth Barrett of JPL said yesterday during a post-landing news conference here.
Barrett likened deployment to a very difficult and high-stakes version of an arcade claw-machine game.
"It makes it a little bit longer — you need to take more pauses, to make sure you actually have the grapple on the payload before you lift it up, and it's actually on the ground before you let it go," Barrett said.
InSight's arm will actually perform three such placements, because it will drop a shield over the seismometer suite to insulate the instrument from wind and temperature swings, which could interfere with data collection and interpretation.
It'll take two to three months to finish the deployments, Barrett said, "and then another couple of months" before InSight's ready to begin its Mars science campaign in earnest. The additional time will be needed for the heat probe to hammer itself up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface, and to calibrate both instruments properly.
When they're up and running, the seismometers will be on the lookout for "marsquakes" caused by internal Martian rumblings and meteorite strikes. The heat probe, meanwhile, will gauge heat flow at different depths. InSight team members will also learn about the Martian core by measuring the slight wobbles in the planet's axial tilt — data they'll gather by precisely tracking InSight's position over time.
Together, these observations will reveal a great deal about Mars' internal structure and composition, which in turn will shed considerable light on how rocky planets in general form and evolve, mission team members have said.
InSight has already beamed home a bit of information, including a dust-speckled photo of its immediate surroundings. And this little taste — the stationary lander's first image from Mars — bodes well for future data collection, Barrett and other team members said: The area appears to be relatively flat and sandy, without lots of big rocks or other impediments to deployment. "We were all certain that that first image would help us determine how difficult a job we would have in placing the instruments," Barrett said. "And I'm very happy that it looks like we'll be able to do it quite easily — we hope."
"InSight" is short for "Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport." The lander's surface mission is scheduled to run for one Mars year, which is nearly two Earth years. It'll probably take the lander about that long to gather enough data to address its main mission goals, team members have said.
Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate) is out now.
The first selfie taken by NASA’s InSight lander on Mars. The 11-image composite, which was released on Dec. 11, 2018, shows the lander's solar panels and deck. Atop the deck are InSight’s science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Moody photo from Mars shows a giant crater loaded with ice
Mark Kaufman December 20, 2018
Flying over the frigid northern reaches of Mars, the orbiting Mars Express satellite captured images of the 50-mile wide Korolev crater filled with ice.
Korolev is an especially alluring sight, not just because it's a well-preserved impact crater but because it's loaded with ice over a mile deep year round.
Launched 15 years ago by the European Space Agency (ESA), Mars Express often focuses on glaciers and ice in the Martian polar regions.
The Korolev crater's ice is resistant to melting during the warmer summer seasons because the massive plain of ice creates a "cold trap," ESA explains. When air travels above the crater, it cools and sinks over the ice, building a sort of cool "shield" over the ice.
The Mars Orbiter looking down upon the Korolev crater. Image: esa
So even as the seasons change, Korolev remains brimming with ice. Most Martian craters, even in cooler regions, don't remain full year-round.
As Mars Express zips over the desert planet, it takes photos of different strips of land, and then transmits the pictures back to Earth.
ESA scientists then combine the images together to build a coherent picture of different Martian landforms, dried-up lakes, and masses of frozen water.
These Korolev images above are composites of five different photos, each taken during a separate orbit across Mars. Korolev is named for a giant in space history: rocket scientist Sergei Korolev.
Korolev headed the Soviet space program and famously beat the Americans into space. The Soviets, under Korolev's leadership, sent both the first human and satellite into space.
"He’s a key figure in space history — though he died much too early," space historian Robert Pearlman said.
Mars Express continues to actively scour the red Martian terrain and transmit truly brilliant extraterrestrial images back to Earth.
NASA’s Opportunity rover casts a long shadow in this self-portrait from July 2004, when the intrepid explorer was only six months into what would become a 15-year mission on Mars. Credit: NASA and JPL-Caltech
Lost Opportunity: After a 15-Year Odyssey, NASA's Trailblazing Mars Rover Approaches Its End NASA’s Opportunity rover casts a long shadow in this self-portrait from July 2004, when the intrepid explorer was only six months into what would become a 15-year mission on Mars. Credit: NASA and JPL-Caltech
Mired in dust on the afternoon of June 10, 2018, NASA’s Opportunity rover received a final command from Earth. Take a photo of the sun, the Deep Space Network sang in code. Send telemetry.
The rover’s cameras could barely see through all the swirling dust, which had been blown aloft by a planet-spanning storm. The sky was darkening, and Opportunity’s batteries, powered by sunlight, were draining. The reply was grim. The last transmitted image showed solar radiation was one fortieth its pre-storm level. Power was low: just 22 watt-hours, down from a normal 300 watt-hours on the solar panels. That’s enough to run a typical food processor for about five minutes.
Minders on Earth prepared to let Opportunity hunker down for the dust storm, the worst such event ever witnessed in the more than four decades robots have been occupying Mars. On June 10 the rover woke up briefly, but its energy was too low to send a message home, and it fell silent. In the following weeks Opportunity would grow cold. Everyone hoped that once the winds died down and the Martian skies cleared, the solar panels could charge enough to rouse the rover and prompt it to call home. This series of images shows simulated views of the darkening sky above Opportunity during a global dust storm in summer 2018. At left, the sun is so bright its glare fills the frame; at right, the light is so obscured by dust the sun can scarcely be seen. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech and TAMU
So Opportunity waited, and everyone who cares about it also waited while Mars calmed down. Finally in September came good news from the other side of the planet; orbiters and the Curiosity rover saw the atmosphere clearing. Yet Opportunity lay silent.
People at NASA began trying to wake it up. By January 22, they had sent 600 recovery commands. These lines of code cannot, by design, be plaintive. But humans can, and many of them started sending messages of their own. The messages were as much to one another as to the rover, and they were largely the same: Wake up, Oppy. Come back.
Oppy did not. Last week NASA officials announced a new set of commands were being beamed to the still-silent rover instructing it—pleading with it, really—to reset its clock and cycle through its radio antennas. But even optimists admit this last-ditch effort has a low probability of success.
Very soon, it seems, the agency will be forced to declare the rover’s mission complete—and the storied Mars Exploration Rover program officially over. Opportunity has endured for 15 years on the Red Planet, 61 times longer than its 90-day warranty. In NASA’s family of interplanetary explorers Opportunity will be survived by its rover descendant, Curiosity, as well as its cousin the InSight lander. It has been preceded in death by its closest kin—its twin, Spirit.
As they grappled with the growing certainty the rover had met its end, several of the mission’s scientists and engineers were philosophical, even celebratory in their measured optimism. But their sadness is palpable. “You can always look back and say, ‘This is a rover that way outlived her expectations and accomplished a lot.’ But that doesn’t make the grief go away,” says Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist at the Space Science Institute. “It’s odd to think about grief being associated with a machine. But it’s a part of our lives. We worry about it; we think about its power, its usage of energy, like a care-and-feeding kind of thing. It’s not just a piece of machinery. It obviously is that, but also something that’s connected to everybody. We’ve gone through 15 years of living our lives, with operating the rover on Mars being the one constant thing in that,” he notes.
COMING OF AGE
Spirit and Opportunity, also known by their formal title as Mars Exploration Rovers A and B, are well equipped robot geologists. They each are outfitted with a five-foot-tall, camera-topped neck called a mast, along with rock-grinding tools, scoops and multiple spectrometers to suss out minerals and rock compositions. They were designed to last three months—and NASA sent two partly because the agency wanted to hedge its bets in case one didn’t make it. “No one, on the engineering team or the science team, had the foggiest idea that Opportunity would still be operating after 15 years. It’s just a well-made American vehicle,” says Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal investigator and a planetary scientist at Washington University in Saint Louis. Together, they totally changed everything we know about the planet most like Earth.
Opportunity landed on Mars January 25, 2004, in a small depression called Eagle Crater, just 20 days after Spirit landed on the other side of the planet. Abigail Fraeman was 15, obsessed with astronomy and Star Trek, and was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that night after winning a contest sponsored by the Planetary Society.
The first paannamic color image beamed back by Opportunity, shortly after its landing in Eagle Crater. Credit: NASA, JPL and Cornell University
“It was awesome. When it sent back pictures from Eagle Crater, it was totally different from any pictures of Mars we had seen. There were these smooth, dark sands that were just totally alien,” she says. “The scientists started saying, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s bedrock, I see cross-bedding,’ and they were so excited. I was like, ‘wait a minute, you can do this as a job? You can see that, and look at those pictures and understand the significance of what it means?’”
Today Fraeman is the rover’s deputy project scientist, and until June she spent her days working with engineers and scientists to design the rover’s activities. After her night at JPL she went on to study planetary geology in college and attended graduate school at Washington University, where she studied with Arvidson. Many Mars geologists earned their doctorates under his tutelage; his office in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department serves as an Opportunity hub as well as the home of the Planetary Data System, which archives and distributes every piece of information U.S. robots have gathered from other rocky worlds. Washington University is Opportunity’s spiritual home, in a sense, along with mission control at JPL and the rover research office at Cornell University.
When Fraeman took the job at JPL, the former lab director, Charles Elachi, encouraged her to draw a chart comparing her life with Opportunity’s. She marked milestones like “high school graduation” or “earn PhD” along rover milestones like “rover finds gypsum” and “rover reaches marathon distance.” She still has the chart. “You just see this rover there all along, and it really gives a sense of just how long this thing has been going,” she says. “The rover set the course of my life, literally.”
DUST DEVILS, BLUEBERRIES AND WORLD-FAMOUS ROCKS
Opportunity and Spirit were tasked with finding evidence of ancient water on Mars—and they did, in torrents. They found weird rock formations shaped by flowing water. They found clay formations that could have been hospitable for microbes long ago. Opportunity studied more than 100 individual craters, and drove more than a marathon’s distance across the surface of the fourth planet. Together, the twin rovers brought Mars to life in a way no other explorers had before.
A year into the mission, the rovers’ solar panels had slowly accumulated dust—Martian regolith is powdery, fine stuff like flour—and their sun-collecting capacity had slowly diminished. One day, Spirit’s were suddenly clean. Engineers were perplexed, and scrutinized selfies from the rover to figure out what happened, Lemmon recalls. Looking downslope from its perch high on a ridge, Opportunity caught this view of a Martian dust devil twisting through the valley below in March 2016. Similar dust devils had given Opportunity’s sister rover, Spirit, a new lease on life when they cleared its solar panels of accumulated debris. Credit: NASA and JPL-Caltech
“It happened overnight. You could see the trails behind the mast, a wind tail behind it where the dust had blown. Then we started seeing dust devils in the images,” he says. “We put together a series of still pictures with the navigation cameras, and produced dozens and dozens of these dust devil movies. Those were so cool, because they made Mars dynamic. All of a sudden, we can look at Mars and see things happening. It wasn’t just a planet with rocks on it.”
Through Opportunity, even the rocks took on lives of their own. Opportunity found odd wind-carved “aeolian” rocks, iron-rich spheres nicknamed “blueberries,” even meteorites. Lead rover driver Heather Justice, whose 16th birthday was the day Opportunity landed, found one of the most famous rocks of all.
After training for many months, Justice was cleared for her first solo drive January 4, 2014. Her job was to tell Opportunity to turn around, move a little to one side and situate its arm over some bedrock the team wanted to drill. A couple days later Opportunity sent some images so the engineers could verify it was on the right spot. “We’re looking at the picture, there’s the bedrock, and then one of the scientists says, ‘Hey, there’s something that wasn’t there before.’ They were like, ‘Hey, did something break off the rover?’” Justice recalls. “I’m starting to panic. Don’t tell me I broke something on my first drive!”
A plump, rounded white object had appeared in the image. It resembled a jelly doughnut. The team frantically directed Opportunity to take selfies so they could determine whether any hardware was missing, but all was fine. The internet was not fine, however. Headlines around the world speculated the object was a message, an alien life-form, a message from an alien life-form, and other unlikely scenarios. Actor William Shatner of Star Trek fame joked on Twitter NASA should address “Martian rock throwers.” A private citizen filed a lawsuit alleging the rock was a fungal spore, and tried to compel the space agency to investigate. A view of Martian “blueberries” recorded in April 2004 using the microscopic imager on Opportunity’s robotic arm. Thought to have formed in liquid water, these small, spherical mineral deposits are further evidence for Mars’ warmer, wetter past. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Cornell University and the U.S. Geological Survey
Ultimately, the team determined Opportunity had driven over a rock, flipping it and scraping some dirt from its surface to expose white beneath. “It’s a really interesting balancing act for all of us to figure out how we can get the most interesting science, without doing too much or endangering the rover,” Justice says. “There is no one there to watch it and stop it if something goes wrong.”
Justice notes most team members are fond of the rover, but they are fonder of one another, and the human bonds their thinking metal box represents. “It’s really exciting for us to come together, with all our expertise, and go explore another planet. The thought of losing that…” she trailed off. “It’s not just losing hardware, but the thought of losing our connection to Mars.”
THE LONG GOOD-BYE
On September 14, 2018, or Opportunity sol 5,204—that’s 5,204 Martian days, which are slightly longer than Earth days—I sat with Arvidson in his office as he worked on a scientific paper rounding up some of the rover’s findings at its final resting place, near the rim of Endeavour Crater. Arvidson and other scientists were debating the nature of a deltalike feature they nicknamed Perseverance Valley, “because we never thought we’d get there.” It might be wind-carved or it might be the work of water. The robot geologist had been trying to find out.
Arvidson says he is focused on the rover’s legacy, and described his feelings as philosophical. He is soft-spoken and deliberate, a consummate scientist. But even he talked about Opportunity in anthropomorphic terms, explaining how without enough power, “she goes back to sleep,” and comparing its exploits with the travels of a favorite adventurous cousin. Weekly phone meetings between the scientists and engineering team at JPL kept everyone updated, but were also an excuse to stay connected to one another, like extended family hovering over a sick loved one.
Arvidson had been here before. He has worked on every Mars mission since Viking 1, the first lander to send a photo from the surface of another planet, and watched many a robot come and go, most recently Spirit, Opportunity’s twin.
Spirit lasted until March 2010, when it got stuck in a soft sand bed due in part to two broken wheels. It could not turn its solar panels toward the sun, which was slowly sinking on the winter horizon, and NASA declared the mission over in May 2011. During that 14-month wait, Mike Siebert, a former mission manager, would occasionally drive to JPL in the middle of the night, sometimes between 2 A.M. and 6 A.M., hoping to hear a signal. “My thought was, every time you did it, this could be the shift. You get one tone back from that spacecraft, and suddenly you are in full high gear,” he recalls.
He continued working on Opportunity until June 2017, when he left JPL for a new job in Boulder, Colo. Seibert and his wife were married five days after his final shift. They wanted to hold the wedding on a summer Saturday, so they picked June 10: Spirit’s launch date. “It will hurt to lose Opportunity, no matter what. But it’s the most successful surface mission ever—period,” he says. “When contact was lost, it was killing me to not be there trying to figure out, how do we restore contact? The most I can do, if I happen to be in Pasadena, is to buy some beer for my friends.” In September 2018, after the skies over Opportunity had cleared, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the rover sitting silently on the surface far below. The rover is visible as a small, light-colored object at the center of the white box. Credit: NASA
Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the principal investigator and godfather of the mission, says Spirit’s demise was noble, and believes the same is true for Opportunity. “I have always felt there were only two hoannable ways for this mission to end. Either we wear the thing out or Mars just reaches out and kills it—and there’s nothing we can do,” he says. He could not say how he would feel at Opportunity’s wake but predicted the mood would be both celebratory and somber. “We’ll see. I mean, I’ve got 30 years of my life invested in this,” he says. “At every step, the emotions have surprised me. This sounds really weird but at the launch it was kind of hard to say good-bye. You pour your heart and soul into these things, and strap it to a rocket and fling it out into space—then it’s as gone as it is ever going to get. So it was hard to let go. I wasn’t expecting that.”
When I leave for lunch on sol 5,204, Arvidson walks me down the hall and we stop at a scale model of the rover, parked near the entrance of Washington University’s Rudolph Hall. I’ve seen it before, but each time I visit it seems bigger than I remember. Its solar panels, spread lotus-like toward the sun, are as wide as a couch. Its mast reaches eye level. Its arm, with its three flexible joints, is longer than my own.
I stare at the mast’s eyelike cameras, one of the features that gives the rovers an open, petlike countenance. I imagine it parked on another rocky world 200 million kilometers from here. Its solar panels are caked in rust-colored flour. Its joints have grown creaky, its tools degraded, its protruding antenna scoured by flying sand. It is looking down a slope, en route to a channel where water maybe flowed eons ago, in a place people nicknamed Perseverance Valley. The orange sky is tinged with dust, but it is clearing. The view is sublime.
The longest-lived robot ever sent from Earth to the surface of another planet, Opportunity snapped pictures of a strange landscape and revealed surprising glimpses into the distant past of Mars for over 14 years. But on Wednesday, NASA announced that the rover is dead.
“It is therefore that I am standing here with a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission is complete,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science.
For the scientists, that ends a mission of unexpected endurance. The rover was designed to last only three months. Opportunity provided scientists a close-up view of Mars that they had never seen: finely layered rocks that preserved ripples of flowing water several billion years ago, a prerequisite for life.
The steady stream of photographs and data from Opportunity — as well as its twin, Spirit, which survived until 2010 — also brought Mars closer to people on Earth. Because the rovers continued so much longer than expected, NASA has now had a continuous robotic presence on Mars for much of this century.
That streak seems likely to continue for many more years. A larger, more capable rover, Curiosity, arrived in 2012, and NASA is planning to launch another in 2020.
“Rovers and their observations resonate with people,” said Raymond E. Arvidson, a professor of planetary geology at Washington University in St. Louis and the deputy principal investigator for the mission. “It’s as if you were walking on the surface. It has that kind of perspective, and it’s not a particularly alien landscape.”
On Tuesday night, NASA made one last call to Opportunity, which was silenced last summer by a giant dust storm. There was no answer.
“It was an incredibly somber moment,” said Tanya Harrison, a member of the mission’s science team who was present in Pasadena, Calif., at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the final attempt to reach the rover. “Just waiting for the inevitable, basically.”
The rover has been quiet since June. During the dust storm, Opportunity’s solar panels could not generate enough power to keep the spacecraft awake.
NASA had hoped that once the skies cleared, the rover would revive to continue its work.
Last fall, the space agency announced it would spend just a month trying to reconnect with Opportunity.
“There were some that were willing to give up quite quickly, but there was a huge backlash,” Dr. Harrison said. “We didn’t feel like the rover was being given a fair chance.”
NASA relented, but as time passed, it became more likely that the mission was finally over.
Perhaps the solar panels are encrusted in a thick layer of dust, or some crucial electronic component broke down in the extremes of Martian weather.
The windy season, when gusts have periodically cleaned the solar panels, has now ended, further reducing the chances of a revival.
NASA's Mars rover Opportunity reveals its shadow, seen on July 26, 2004, and snapped by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera. At the time, Opportunity was moving farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's Opportunity Rover has died on Mars. The little solar-paneled robot apparently ran out of battery power during the Red Planet's awesome 2018 dust storm, and after one last attempt to contact it, NASA concluded yesterday (Feb. 13) that the far-off explorer is no more.
Which raises the question: What's going to happen to its body?
Many human artifacts wouldn't last very long beyond our protective biosphere. As Live Science reported previously, solar radiation has likely shredded the Tesla Roadster Elon Musk launched into space last year.
But Tesla Roadsters have lots of organic fibers and plastics in their bodies. Mars rovers are made of tougher stuff. [Voyager to Mars Rover: NASA's 10 Greatest Innovations]
Jeff Moersch, a professor of planetary science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a member of the Opportunity team, cautioned that he's not an expert in the rover's engineering. But he said that Opportunity does have some plastic bits that might eventually break down under the glare of the sun — its insulation, for example.
"But, by and large, I think it'll look pretty much as we left it," when and if astronauts ever do come across its resting place, Moersch told Live Science. It'll probably be pretty dusty, though, he added.
That's assuming that astronauts do make it to Mars in the relatively near future — the next century or two, for example.
Over much longer periods, Moersch said, dust will settle on the rover. Opportunity functioned as long as it did because regular Martian winds tended to routinely blow dust off its body. But over longer periods, it's a bit of an open question whether the dust or the wind will win out.
"I doubt it will end up buried in a mound, though," he added.
What about millions of years in the future? On Earth, anything old and dead and sitting in one place on the surface tends to eventually end up underground. But that's thanks to the effects of water and plate tectonics, Moersch said — factors that aren't present in the same way on Mars.
"Over the very long-term, you're going to get impacts that knock up ejecta [airborne Mars dirt] from where they hit, and that ejecta will very gradually resurface [on] the planet and bury things that were on the surface," he said.
If Opportunity were to be left on Mars, aliens who landed there millions and millions of years from now would find the rover somewhere in the rock record — much like how paleontologists find dinosaur fossils here on Earth.
But NASA is hoping to send humans to Mars one day. And there are dreams of establishing some sort of human settlement there. Steve Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and head of the Opportunity science mission, made clear during NASA's press conference announcing the rover's death that the agency has no plans to bring the rover back to Earth. (Why would we spend the money bringing material back from Mars when we already know exactly what it's made of? he asked.)
That said, Moersch added, when humans do settle Mars, it's not unreasonable to imagine they might make some effort to recover and preserve Opportunity. Perhaps it could end up in museum, or the region explored by the rover might end up as a national park.
Of course, if humans never get there, Opportunity might not make it into the fossil record at all. It's at least plausible that, given millions of years, a meteor could strike it directly and smash it to bits.
Pareidolia: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.
Mars: a red planet covered in pareidolia.
The Opportunity Mars rover may be dead, but the phenomena it helped propagate is alive and well and continuing to cause odd news stories about creatures, humanoids and strange out-of-place objects on the surface of the fourth rock from the Sun. The latest can be seen in a photograph making the usual romp across the paranormal and weird news side of the Internet showing what appears to be a piece of metal with a perfectly round hole cut into it lying on the surface of Mars as if it: a) fell off of an alien spaceship; b) was left by humans who secretly visited the planet; c) is part of an abandoned alien city slowly rising up as the soil is blown away. Or it could be a rock.
The photo was the star of a video uploaded this week on the WhatsUpInTheSky37 YouTube channel, which attributes it to a “Shamus” who apparently found it at a really cool site called Gigapan for SOL 2013 which shows paannamic views of the Martian surface that can be moved and zoomed. All of that could be more impressive than the object itself, which indeed looks like a triangular piece of metal with a perfect circle cut out that skeptics know from looking at other pareidolia-fied photos from Mars and the Moon could very well be a rock whose image is distorted by shadows and angles.
Or it could be something else.
On the “piece of a human Martian probe” side, commenters point out that it could be debris from the lander that brought Curiosity to Mars or it could have fallen to the surface from another successful or failed Mars mission. Adding a little imagination, it could be a piece of a spaceship or vehicle or other equipment from a secret mission – you know, the NASA missions to land humans on Mars that no one can talk about. There are no tire tracks or footprints around the piece, but those could easily have been blown away by the strong Martian winds, although they somehow didn’t cover up or pile sand against the object, which seems to be resting unobstructed on the Martian ground.
Going full pareidolia-plus-enhanced-imagination, commenters speculate it could be from an alien spacecraft – assuming their spacecraft crash or fall apart like ours do, even after successfully navigating accident-free for light years. Again, that paannamic view from Gigapan shows no other objects in the immediate area. Yes, that’s the case with many fossils found on Earth, but those are tissue that can deteriorate, decay and disintegrate … this is allegedly a piece of metal that survived a trip of light years.
Or a rock.
In the end, unless a rover with an arm, a robot with an arm or a human astronaut with an arm can pick up the object, inspect it closely or bring it back to Earth, we’re unarmed to do more than just speculate what this thing might be. For now, the needle on the meter is very close to ‘rock’.
“Georgians were the first winemakers on Earth and now we hope to pioneer viticulture on the planet next door.”
It’s often said that real progress in a new technology isn’t made until someone starts using it for sex or getting high. That seems to be the case in the quest to be ready to grow plants on Mars as soon as humans first step onto the red soil. Yes, I know, some of you believe humans are already there – but do they have booze? A group of researchers in the country of Georgia, which prides itself on being the birthplace of wine-making, is planting the seeds to become the first to grow grapes and make wine on another planet. And yes, they’re planning for more than just reds.
“In the distant future, Martian colonists will be able to grow plants directly in Martian soil.”
The IX Millennium project (named for the 8,000 years Georgia has been making wine) was founded in January 2019 by Nikoloz Doborjginidze to lead the way to wine on Mars. The Independent reports this week that in just three short months, astrobiologist Marika Tarasashvili, has developed a composting bacteria that will turn Martian dirt into fertile Earth-like soil. Working in a lab in Tbilisi, she’s using bacteria collected from “extreme ecosystems” (no, not gas station restrooms, but that’s a good backup plan) like hot sulphurous springs and breeding it to ingest Mars and excrete earth.
“But first we need to create a model of completely controlled sustainable Martian greenhouses.”
Tusia Garibashvili is the founder of Space Farms company, which is now building a vertical farming laboratory with tightly controlled temperature, atmosphere and radiation conditions that will simulate the Martian environment … on the inside. On the outside will be a luxury hotel in Tbilisi that will house the laboratory — who says scientists have to live like lab rats?
Meanwhile, a second part of IX Millennium is working at the Business and Technology University testing various Georgian grape varieties in a simulated Martian environment. So far they’ve determined that pale-skinned Rkatsiteli grapes — an ancient and versatile white wine variety that dates back to 3000 BCE – grows best under harsh Mars-like ultra-violet rays.
Is the faux Rkatsiteli wine any good? The researchers at IX Millennium aren’t ready to answer that and are planning to test many more barrels of Martian whites and reds until the first Mars mission is ready … so they have plenty of time. Of course, they also have a noble cause to use as a front for all of that wine-tasting, according to Business and Technology University Dean Nino Enukidze.
“Martian dreams aside, our experiments are providing information that is vital as humanity confronts a multitude of environmental challenges. We will be able to identify and breed food crops resistant to the problems caused by global climate change.”
That’s right … the solution to climate change could come from drinking Martian wine made from Georgian grapes.
As Matt Damon might say, it beats growing potatoes
casper: Skywalker just fixed it. You know what that means. It's doomed.
Apr 29, 2018 19:36:53 GMT -6
skywalker: Very funny, ghost boy
Jun 3, 2018 14:58:58 GMT -6
lois: Casper he should come fix mine. Mine is doomed
Jun 26, 2018 21:54:27 GMT -6
spotless38: Iam back after a long break . What a couple of years I had . After what had happened I lost my brother and had to bury him and then I had caught that type A flue and I was a very sick puppy I also needed blood for the loss of it .
Jul 7, 2018 13:30:41 GMT -6
lois: Very Happy to see you Ron. Missed you. Glad you are doing better now. Sorry for your lost. I did not know your brother had passed. hugs lois
Jul 10, 2018 0:52:45 GMT -6
paulette: Ron - hope you've hit a quiet spot. Sorry for your loss.
Aug 3, 2018 10:49:30 GMT -6
lois: I picked up my phone a few days ago and I looked at the name of the caller. Boy was I surprise. It has been a couple of years. So good to hear your voice Ron. Hope you make it a habit again. love and hugs .
Aug 15, 2018 23:21:38 GMT -6
leia77: Spotless, I am glad that you are feeling better and welcome back! I too am back from a long time away...
Aug 31, 2018 2:08:32 GMT -6
jcurio: I am much relieved to see that you have been on here, Spotless! I hope that things are going much better for you now
Sept 19, 2018 16:46:42 GMT -6
jcurio: And Lois, And Lorelei!
Sept 19, 2018 16:47:07 GMT -6
casper: And Meeeeeee!!
Oct 16, 2018 18:41:31 GMT -6
lois: Sorry guys I cannot see the print. On is tiny hand computer
Oct 21, 2018 20:42:09 GMT -6
lois: Casper your page stops at page five in 2016
Nov 15, 2018 23:54:01 GMT -6
lois: How did your Halloween night go this year?
Nov 15, 2018 23:54:58 GMT -6
skywalker: He posted on the Halloween thread this year.
Nov 25, 2018 18:33:36 GMT -6
lois: Oh ok Sky I will check it out. Thanks.
Dec 21, 2018 21:45:31 GMT -6
lois: What topic was it under.
Dec 21, 2018 21:51:07 GMT -6