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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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NASA’s Opportunity rover shows us what a comet looks like from Mars

10-second exposure from Opportunity's Pancam showing comet Siding Spring upon approach (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell U./ Arizona State U.)

10-second exposure from Opportunity’s Pancam showing comet Siding Spring upon approach (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell U./ Arizona State U.)

It may not look like much but it’s actually quite a lot: that bright smudge is Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) as it approached Mars to make its historic and much-anticipated close pass on Sunday, Oct. 19! The mountain-sized comet shot past Mars at an estimated distance of 88,000 miles traveling about 35 miles a second… that’s 20 times faster than a bullet fired from a 9mm handgun.

While the comet didn’t put on a big show in our sky here on Earth (although some photographers did capture it quite nicely in telescopes) the rovers on Mars and spacecraft in Martian orbit were keeping their electronic eyes on it… and NASA’s Opportunity rover, now nearly 11 years on Mars, was the first to send back a confirmed image!

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Nobody Makes a Picture of Mars Quite Like MOM

Image from India's Mars Orbiter Mission's Mars Colour Camera (Credit: ISRO)

Image from India’s Mars Orbiter Mission’s Mars Color Camera (Credit: ISRO)

If you’re loving this fantastic image of the Red Planet as much as I am, then be sure to give thanks to MOM!

Don’t call home just yet though; this is a view from India’s Mars Orbiter Mission – MOM for short – which successfully entered orbit around Mars on September 24 after a ten-month journey to meet up with our neighboring planet.

(Of course if you want to call your own mom I’m sure she’d love to hear your voice.)

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Opportunity Breaks the Record for Extraterrestrial Roving

A simulated view of Opportunity on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A simulated view of Opportunity on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Well it’s official: after over a decade of roving on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover has surpassed the off-world driving record previously and proudly held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover since 1973*! As of July 27, 2014, the tenacious solar-powered Opportunity racked 25.01 miles (40.25 kilometers) on its odometer as it traveled along the southern rim of Endeavour crater.

Not too shabby for a robot that was only originally intended to operate for 3 months!

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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

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