If you count at least slightly over two years old as “brand new” then yes, this one is certainly that!
Seen above in an image taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 19, 2013, a 100-foot-wide (30-meter) crater is surrounded by bright rays of ejected material and blown-clear surface. Since HiRISE calibrates color to surface textures, the less-dusty cleared surface at the crater site appears blue. (See a true-color calibrated scan here.)
By narrowing down when this particular spot was last seen to be crater-free, scientists have determined that the impact event that caused this occurred between July 2010 and May 2012.
Ejected material from this cratering event was thrown outward over 9 miles (15 km). It’s estimated that impacts producing craters at least 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) in diameter occur on Mars at a rate of over 200 per year.
What a year for space exploration! With 2013 coming to a close I thought I would look back on some of the biggest news in space that I’ve featured here on Lights in the Dark. Rather than a “top ten” list, as is common with these year-end reviews, I’m going to do more of a month-by-month (hence the 12) to help recollect some of the amazing stories and sights that 2013 has brought us. And with some of the big headliners we’ve seen this year it’s easy to lose sight of the smaller (but no less fascinating) discoveries — so I’ll be sure to include some of those too. After all, when it comes to learning about the Universe there’s no “little” news!
Ready? Let’s go!
Mars wasn’t always the cold, dry world that it is today — billions of years ago it likely looked a lot more like Earth, with seas and rivers of liquid water on its surface and a thick atmosphere with air and clouds. But something happened over the course of Mars’ history to transform it from a warm, wet world to a cold, desiccated desert planet, and while there are many viable suggestions as to what process is responsible, no verdict has yet been delivered.
This video, just released by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shows what Mars might have looked like four billion years ago. As the camera tracks back the clouds gradually disappear, the lakes and rivers turn to rubble-strewn plains and the skies change from blue to pale orange. As we rise above the dust clouds that roll across the planet, we see the first evidence of modern times: NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, flying high overhead to investigate the mystery of a lost Mars.
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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!)
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.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — that seems to be the idea behind the designs for NASA’s next Mars mission, which will put yet another rover on the Red Planet in 2020. Drawing on the developments from previous rovers — Spirit, Opportunity, and especially Curiosity — the next robotic explorer will feature a similar construction but with a brand-new suite of science instruments dedicated to hunting for evidence of past biology within Mars’ rocks… and potentially even select some of those samples to be returned back to Earth.
“It’s a whole planet up there with a complicated history… that history is a story that’s stored in the rocks and our job is to figure out that story, and what that story of that planet tells us about this planet.”
– Jim Bell, Science Definition Team Member, ASU
Well, here you go. Don’t say I never gave you nothin’.
Actually this is a NASA-produced image made of 850 frames taken by Curiosity’s MastCam, showing the view from the rover as of late October/early November 2012. Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) rises in the distance, and the mountainous rim of Gale Crater can be seen along the horizon. Click the image (or the previous link text) to see a pan-and-zoom 360-degree view.
And the total number of pixels? 1.3 billion. (But who’s counting?)