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Is Mars Alive? Curiosity Uncovers Organics and Methane in Gale Crater

Mosaic of Curiosity made with its turret-mounted MAHLI imager. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/J. Major)

Mosaic of Curiosity made from images acquired with its turret-mounted MAHLI camera. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/J. Major)

While it’s not quite the “smoking gun” for evidence of life on Mars, the recent announcement of a detection of spiking methane levels by NASA’s Curiosity rover has certainly caught everyone’s attention – especially since the activity of microbes is one possible source for the presence of the compound, which has already been detected by spacecraft in orbit around Mars.

“This temporary increase in methane – sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, a member of the Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

Still, biological in origin or not, these findings are yet another milestone for the MSL mission.

“We have had a major discovery. We have found organics on Mars.”
–  John Grotzinger, Curiosity lead scientist

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Curiosity Claims the Biggest Meteorite Ever Found on Mars

A 6.5-foot-wide (2-meter) iron meteorite found by Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

A 6.5-foot-wide (2-meter) iron meteorite found by Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

If you’re a heavy metal fan then you’ll love this: this shiny, lumpy rock spotted by NASA’s Curiosity rover is made mostly of iron — and came from outer space! Dubbed “Lebanon” it’s a stony iron meteorite, similar to ones found in years past by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but is considerably larger than any of the ones they came across. In fact, at 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide, Lebanon is the biggest meteorite ever discovered on Mars!

Read more in my article on Universe Today here.

Happy First Year on Mars, Curiosity!

A "selfie" of Curiosity made from images acquired with its MAHLI instrument in April and May (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A “selfie” of Curiosity made from images acquired with its MAHLI instrument in April and May (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS). Click here for a full-res version

Sol 669 is here (well, there… on Mars that is…) and that marks the one full year anniversary of Curiosity’s mission exploring Gale Crater! Wait, you say, didn’t Curiosity land on Mars in August of 2012? Shouldn’t we still be approaching the TWO-year anniversary of the MSL mission? Well, yes, here on Earth, but on Mars a year is 1.8808 Earth-years long — that’s 686.9 Earth days to a single Martian year! So from landing day August 5 (August 6 UTC) 2012, 686.9 days Earth days (i.e., one Martian year) later is June 24, 2014 (which it is at the time of this writing, UTC) and thus:

Happy Mars Anniversary, Curiosity!

(Whew!)

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Mercury Is Spotted For The First Time – From Mars!

The planet Mercury (circled) was seen for the first time from Mars by Curiosity on June 3, 2014

The planet Mercury (circled) was seen for the first time from Mars by Curiosity on June 3, 2014

NASA’s Curiosity rover may be busy exploring the rugged and rocky interior of Gale Crater but it does get a chance to skygaze on occasion. And while looking at the Sun on June 3, 2014 (mission Sol 649) the rover’s Mastcam spotted another member of our Solar System: tiny Mercury, flitting across the Sun’s face.

Silhouetted against the bright disk of the Sun, Mercury barely appears as a hazy blur in the filtered Mastcam image above. But it was moving relatively quickly during the transit and passed the darker smudges of two Earth-sized sunspots over the course of several hours. It was the first time Mercury has ever been imaged from Mars, and also the first time we’ve observed a planet transiting our Sun from another world besides our own.

Read the rest of my article (and watch a cool animation of the transit) on Universe Today here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M

Curiosity Smiles For The Camera In Her Newest Selfie

Mosaic of MAHLI images acquired on April 27-28, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major.

Mosaic of MAHLI images acquired on April 27-28, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Jason Major.

What were you doing on Sunday night? Whatever it was (and by the way I do hope it was watching Cosmos) about the same time, 59.5 million miles away, NASA’s Curiosity rover was taking her picture on Mars inside Gale Crater! Here’s Curiosity’s latest “selfie,” a mosaic I assembled from about a dozen images acquired with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on April 27-28, 2014 (Sol 613). Along with Curiosity’s “grinning” face there on the left you can see the 3.5-mile-high Mount Sharp (aka Aeolis Mons) rising in the background.

Doesn’t she look adorable (if a bit dusty)?

Putting this together wasn’t an exact science, so there are plenty of discrepancies where the separate images line up. But that’s okay — the overall effect came out pretty nicely and I’m happy with it. It still a robot on another planet, after all! And until there’s people walking around on Mars, I can’t think of anything cooler than that.

This image was recently featured on Universe TodayNBC News, and now on The Weather Channel. And as always, you can find the newest images from the MSL mission here.

Curiosity Gets the Big Scoop on Martian Water

Trenches dug by Curiosity in a region called "Rocknest" in October 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Trenches dug by Curiosity in a region called “Rocknest” in October 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Making a big splash (pun intended) in the space news world today is the report that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has found traces of water in samples of Martian soil!  The samples were scooped from an area nicknamed “Rocknest” in October 2012 and analyzed with the SAM instrument suite (read more on that here.)

Now it’s not a lot of water, definitely not a cupful or even remotely resembling what we’d call damp, but it is water — about 2% of the soil particles’ mass contains water molecules, and it’s estimated that this is indicative of the surface material across the entire planet. Obviously the implications of this are huge! (Think: resources for future explorers, for one!)

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Curiosity will check out these bright outcrops on her way to Mount Sharp

Color-adjusted image of the terrain in front of Curiosity as of Sept. 7, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Color-adjusted image of the terrain in front of Curiosity as of Sept. 7, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

An outcrop visible as light-toned streaks in the lower center of this image has been chosen as a place for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity to study for a few days in September 2013. The pause for observations at this area, called “Waypoint 1,” is the first during the rover’s trek of many months from the “Glenelg” area where it worked for the first half of 2013 to an entry point to the lower layers of Mount Sharp aka Aeolis Mons, the towering central peak of Gale Crater.

The pale outcrop is informally named “Darwin.”

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